Is Homosexual Orientation Sinful?
The following is an abridgement of Denny Burk’s essay which was published in the Spring, 2015 issue of the quarterly Journal of the Evangelical Theological
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Excerpted from the 20-page article here: JETS_58-1_95-115_Burk Get the whole issue or subscribe by contacting the ETS at the address above.
The only sex desire that glorifies God is that desire that is ordered to the covenant of marriage. When sexual desire/attraction fixes on any kind of non-marital erotic activity, it falls short of the glory of God and is by definition sinful. Again, this teleological principle applies to the experience of both opposite-sex and same-sex desire. The difference is that opposite-sex desire can have the covenant of marriage as its end or not, but same-sex desire can never have the covenant of marriage as its end (p. 102) . . .
If you view human nature as a tabula rasa and if you reduce sin/sinfulness to one’s behavior—that which one chooses to do—then you are going to assess the morality of same-sex sexual attraction a certain way. If, however, you regard the human condition as fundamentally flawed—that we are sinful not only in our choices but also in our nature—then you are going to approach the matter in a different way. And that difference goes back at least as far as Augustine and Pelagius. And the evangelical tradition—especially in its Reformed expressions—has sided definitively with Augustine.
As Christians, our moral assessment of homosexuality does not depend upon it being chosen. All sinful desire springs spontaneously from our nature, but its unchosenness does not make it any less sinful. To that end, Charles Hodge contends that our pre-behavioral dispositions—which are often unchosen—have a moral character to them. This view of the matter stands squarely in opposition to “Pelagian and Rationalistic Doctrine.” He writes,
We do attribute moral character to principles which precede all voluntary action and which are entirely independent of the power of the will…. We hold ourselves responsible not only for the deliberate acts of the will, that is, for acts of deliberate self-determination, which suppose both knowledge and volition, but also for emotional, impulsive acts, which precede all deliberation; and not only for such impulsive acts, but also for the principles, dispositions, or immanent states of the mind, by which its acts whether impulsive or deliberate, are determined.
When a man is convinced of sin, it is not so much for specific acts of transgression that his conscience condemns him, as for the permanent states of his mind; his selfishness, worldliness, and maliciousness; his ingratitude, unbelief, and hardness of heart; his want of right affections, of love to God, of zeal for the Redeemer, and of benevolence towards men. These are not acts. They are not states of mind under control of the will; and yet in the judgment of conscience, which we cannot silence or pervert, they constitute our character and are just ground of condemnation. (p. 110)
Hodge does not leave it there. He makes a scriptural argument for this view and concludes, “The denial, therefore, that dispositions or principles as distinguished from acts, can have a moral character, subverts some of the most plainly revealed doctrines of the sacred Scriptures.”38 The key doctrine he has in mind is the doctrine of original sin. On this point, Hodge writes,
All Christian churches receive the doctrines of original sin and regeneration in a form which involves not only the principle that dispositions, as distinguished from acts, may have a moral character, but also that such character belongs to them whether they be innate, acquired, or infused. It is, therefore, most unreasonable to assume the ground that a man can be responsible only for his voluntary acts, or for their subjective effects, when our own consciousness, the universal judgment of men, the word of God, and the Church universal, so distinctly assert the contrary.
Hodge’s key point is this. We are sinners by nature and by choice. At the most fundamental level, in fact, our nature produces our choices.40 We inherit a sinful nature from our father Adam so that we are spring-loaded to sin.41 And that is not merely a word for people experiencing same-sex attraction. That is a word for all of us. Same-sex attraction is merely one variety of fallenness. But make no mistake. It is not the only one. We are all fallen and are in this predicament together.
Hodge’s account of sin and of the nature of man is not an outlier. It represents the mainstream of evangelical—and especially Reformed—anthropology.42 It also happens to be the scriptural position. Modern attempts to take same-sex sexual attraction—or even same-sex orientation—out from this biblical framework are doomed to failure. They produce a superficial understanding of sin and the human condition, and they hinder people from perceiving their need for the transformation that Jesus provides. (p. 111) . . .
One might find parallels between the non-sexual bonds of a gay couple and the non-sexual bonds of straight same-sex friends. But even though there are parallels, there is a crucial distinction. The bonds of affection between straight friends do not contain within them sexual possibility.44 The bonds of affection between David and Jonathon or Jesus and John, for example, did not contain sexual possibility. The same is not true of the bonds of affection between gay couples. In fact, those bonds are defined in part by their sexual possibility.45 (p. 112)
What then are we to make of the emotional bonds gay people experience for persons of the same sex? Can those attractions be sanctified?46 Yes, they can. They can be sanctified when they are shorn of the elements that otherwise make them sinful. When sexual possibility and intention are removed through repentance and faith toward God, there can exist the real bonds of holy, God-honoring same-sex friendship. But those bonds can only be cultivated when we recognize that the desire for sinful sex can never be the foundation for holy friendships. Holy friendships are the fruit of chastity in both thought and deed. . . (p. 112).
If same-sex attraction were morally benign, there would be no reason to repent of it. But the Bible never treats sexual attraction to the same sex as a morally neutral state. Jesus says all sexual immorality is fundamentally a matter of the heart. Thus it will not do simply to avoid same sex behavior. The ordinary means of grace must be aimed at the heart as well. Prayer, the preaching of the word, and the fellowship of the saints must all be aimed at the Holy Spirit’s renewal of the inner man (2 Cor 4:16). It is to be a spiritual transformation that puts to death the deeds of the body by a daily renewal of the mind (Rom 8:13; 12:2). The aim of this transformation is not heterosexuality but holiness.55 . . . (p. 114).
Is your church the kind of place that would be safe for these dear brothers and sisters to come forward to find friendship and community? Is your home the kind of place that would be safe for these dear brothers and sisters to come forward to find friendship and community? Do your church and your home have arms wide open to them to come alongside them, to receive them, and to strengthen them? Jesus said that the world would know us by our love for one another (John 13:35). One of the ways that we show love for one another is by bearing one another’s burdens (Gal 6:2). Can you bear this burden with your brothers and sisters who are in this fight? Are you ready to offer help and encouragement to these saints for whom Christ died? If not, then something is deeply amiss. For Jesus has loved us to the uttermost, and he calls us to do the same (John 13:34).