A number of months ago, David Strain wrote an open letter to “Thomas,” a fictional seminary student struggling with same-sex attraction. I appreciated the tone of his letter. It was a welcome contrast to Phil Johnson’s handling of the topic to which I offered a somewhat salty—but no less intellectually and biblically rigorous—response.
Hope for Thomas
My goal here is to address David’s error in order to give people like Thomas some hope. Not the pseudo-hope that Thomas is just-like-me-only-completely-different or the well-intentioned hope that Thomas needs to be repenting for his mere existence just like I’m repenting for my sin. Wait. Before you walk away writing that off as some cheap shots, be Thomas for a minute. Read that letter and imagine the existential despair of being told by your spiritual leader that you are sinning because you find people of the opposite sex attractive.
“Wait, Jason. You said opposite sex. Aren’t you asking me to imagine being same sex attracted?” No. I’m asking you to imagine being told you’re sinning because you find the opposite gender attractive. Not for lusting after him or her. Not for undressing him or her in your mind. Not for indulging in sinful actions with him or her. No. Just for finding them attractive.
If you’ve imagined that, you understand what sexual orientation is. It’s attraction. Not lust in the heart. Not action in the body. Just mere attraction. That is what David told Thomas to repent of. And he can’t. Any more than you can reasonably repent of being attracted to people of the opposite gender.
I’ve found that in the two years since I addressed Phil Johnson’s arguments, there has been one passage that seems to have helped some people to really grasp the key issue in orientation. I’ll quote it here.
A pubescent teen boy sees a teen girl and is sexually attracted to her. Is he sinning? According to Phil he is. He is sexually attracted to this girl when God has forbidden sex with her because he’s not married to her. So he’s sinning. Full stop. Which is absurd. What he’s feeling is utterly normal and natural. He’s noticing that he finds women attractive. [source]
Phil, and thousands of church leaders around the world, shame Thomas for this orientation. Indeed, Phil and many others tell Thomas he is an unbeliever for it; damned to hell. David, in his letter to Thomas, is much more sensitive and gracious toward Thomas, but his answer still boils down to saying that Thomas is in sin (differently—more so—than David is) and will be until he dies, even though Thomas faithfully guards his heart from indulging in lust and guards his body from engaging in sexual immorality.
Is David’s view Reformed orthodoxy?
Ok, so all of that is important. But David offered quite a serious theological argument for his view. What about that?
Well, when David addresses the Roman Catholic doctrine of sin and contrasts it with the Reformed view of sin, he gives the impression that this issue has been long-since settled by the Church. That the great reformers put their minds to this question and drew a general consensus on the right answer. That you can choose the Roman Catholic conclusion or the Reformed one. And that this is decisive for the topic of same-sex attraction. Here’s some of what he said.
What has been fascinating to me to watch is how far many Protestant Christians in the evangelical tradition, while avoiding much that is confused in the Roman Catholic teaching on this point, nevertheless join them in affirming that the orientation of the heart towards sin (concupiscence) is not sin. Sin, for many contemporary evangelicals, is only culpable when it is assented to by the will. To put it crudely, sin is only sin when we do it.
I think he’s wrong. Dangerously and destructively wrong. By dangerously and destructively, I mean that I think Christians have died because of this error. And many have left the church mentally, emotionally, spiritually, and sometimes even physically crushed because the god they were offered had no place for them, no matter how repentant or obedient they were.
Again, I know David said the exact opposite. But that’s no help to Thomas who is trying to practice the advice of repenting for who he is. And wondering why he and David are so substantially different if they’re the same.
Alright, so let’s get down to it. Concupiscence, in the debate David Strain references, is not what David says it is. It is not about the orientation/direction of our sinful desires in relation to a particular sin; rather, it is about the inclination of our hearts to sin at all. The inclination to sin itself is what we mean when we talk about concupiscence. Just to nail this down, consider The Catechism of the Council of Trent (the same Council David cites). This catechism defines concupiscence as “an innate predisposition to sin” (Question XLII). Not a predisposition to a particular sin, or to a particular form of that sin. No, “an innate predisposition to sin.”
So concupiscence is not about what kind of sin we will be inclined to commit, but rather whether we are inclined to sin at all. Roman Catholics distinguish this inclination from sin itself and argue that the inclination itself (concupiscence) is not sin. The reformers argued that the inclination itself was sin; that we are not just born neutral. Rather, the reformers argued that we are born spiritually dead, already inclined to sin and because of that, sinners. The Roman Catholic position is often referred to as semi-pelagianism. The Reformed position is expressed in the doctrine of total depravity.
So when David argues that concupiscence is sin, he’s right. But he hasn’t even argued that same-sex attraction—same-sex orientation—is sin much less proved it. What he’s done is assume it is sin. Here’s the moment when he did it. He said…
Beyond all doubt, this means that the desire for intercourse with persons of the same sex is not according to the plan and design of God. It is disordered. On this, Thomas, I know we both agree. But is it sinful?
At a glance, it looks like he’s carefully set up the discussion to objectively consider the question he finishes with. In fact, he’s already stacked the deck, unintentionally I hope, by changing the definition of sexual orientation. In the paragraphs leading up to this point, sexual orientation was defined as “an enduring pattern of… sexual attractions.” Now, suddenly, sexual orientation is redefined as “the desire for intercourse.”
Is that a small distinction? The answer is that it is the primary distinction that matters in this discussion. Or to put it another way, until you see that distinction clearly, you have no idea what you’re discussing and can only do harm to vulnerable people like Thomas and the tens of thousands of other same-sex attracted Christians out there.
The crucial distinction
I’m going to labour this point. I’m going to do so because over and over again I speak to people who claim to understand the distinctions between sexual lust in the heart and sexual attraction, but then conflate them in the conclusions they draw about this topic. Or, to put it another way, because most Christians do not get this distinction and are doing damage because of it.
So here’s the distinction we must get. Sexual orientation is about the direction of the desires; not the desires themselves. Sexual orientation is about what we find attractive; not what we do with the attractions (either mentally or physically). Sexual orientation is about what proclivities we would have in sin if we did sin; not about our proclivity to sin itself.
Sexual orientation is not the inclination to sin; it is the way we would sin if we sinned. Sexual orientation is not the desire for sex; it is the direction in which the desire for sex would go if we desired sex. Sexual orientation is not sexual lust; it is the object of the sexual lust if we were to sexually lust.
Sexual orientation does not involve sexual desire. Or lust. Or even attraction strictly speaking. It is the direction each of these would go if we were to have sexual desire. Or lust. Or attraction.
Every person, barring the asexual person, has a sexual orientation. A heterosexual man is not sinning by having a heterosexual orientation. Before that orientation could produce sin, he would have to be actually attracted to a woman. Then he would have to desire her. Then he would have to indulge that desire in the heart.
Those who imagine that Jesus’ words in Matthew 5:27ff about adultery in the heart were condemning orientation or attraction or even desire per se are taking his words out of their natural meaning in context. Jesus’ words refer, not to mere orientation, attraction, or desire, but to doing in the heart what one would do in the body in physical adultery. In other words, not just desire, but indulgence of that desire in the heart. Jesus’ teaching was that to do in the heart what would be sin in the body is the same sin in the heart. When we use this as a proof text to say sexual desire is sin, we argue the absurd and completely miss Jesus’ point.
Reformed orthodoxy does not address orientation
So, yes, the Reformed doctrine of sin holds that man is born in sin and is not neutral, but is inclined to sin from birth. But to argue that every person is born a sinner and inclined to sin says nothing whatsoever about what kind of sin a particular person will be tempted to. Some people will find themselves seriously attracted to money. And that is not sin. But indulged in the heart might lead to the sin of covetousness, greed, idolatry, etc. Or indulged in the body might lead to the sin of theft, workaholism, etc.
But the orientation (the direction) of the inclination to sin might be vastly different for another person. Another person might find money utterly unattractive; might see it as a mere means to an end. Such a person’s orientation might be relational, or sexual, or status-related, or any number of other things they might be attracted to. And in none of those cases could we accurately call the attraction—the orientation—sin. It is merely the direction in which they will be tempted to sin if and when they are tempted to sin. And even then, temptation is not sin. Indulgence is.
So the notion that there is a historic, Reformed position on same-sex attraction rooted in the theology of concupiscence and original sin, as David argues, is simply not true. This is an issue the Church has not substantially addressed historically and the reason, I suspect, is that we’ve been too busy proclaiming blanket condemnation and congratulating ourselves on not being like them. This is a matter for serious reflection in the Church and for personal and corporate repentance.
So back to David’s advice to Thomas:
I can say that this troubling experience of un-chosen desires is simply part of our fallen-ness and our sin. I too struggle with all sorts of un-chosen and unwanted impulses to sin. The orientation of my heart inclines to all sorts of wickedness too, though mine is different to theirs. But the remedy for us both is the same. I must repent, not only of what I want, and do, and say, but of who and what I am. I must turn to Christ, die to myself, and find mercy and grace to live in new obedience in Him alone. There is nothing trite or simplistic about that. Doing so will always be hard and slow and lifelong. But this is still the path of godliness.
Thomas, you might well ask if this approach means that a same-sex attracted Christian like you can never be free of guilt of [sic. or?] shame? Is it really my counsel to you that you must always be [sic.] confessing and repenting? Is there no space to rest, no peace, no place simply to be? To this I’d say that indeed we must always [sic.] be confessing and repenting. Together confession and repentance are the lifelong posture of the believing heart, and not merely the work of a moment. We must always be turning from sin and self to the Saviour. We must always be grieving for sin and mourning for the ways our hearts run after idols. But this is not a counsel of despair, but of hope. A life of repentance is a life of rest. A life of confession is a life being conformed to the image of Christ.
There is so much in these two paragraphs that is alarming and oppressive. I’ll only take the time to focus on one.
There is a legitimate place for the concept of repentance as an ongoing way of life in Christian theology. It involves the admission that we are sinners and are often sinning and that we must be in the habit of admitting our sinfulness and sins to God and others; of walking in the humble frame of mind that results from such an admission in an ongoing way. This is legitimate.
David Strain’s version of perpetual repentance is not legitimate. And has no place in Christian theology. It is a confession, not of actual sins. Nor of our inclination toward sin. Rather, it is a confession of the direction in which we are inclined to sin when we are inclined to sin. It is a repentance for, as I put it earlier, merely existing. Or as he put it, daring “simply to be.” And this is not biblical. Or godly. Or an acceptable way to treat other human beings. Rather, it is negation of the person and oppression in the name of God; a perversion of Christian theology to lay a perpetual and immovable burden on the same-sex attracted. It is intolerable to God and must become intolerable to all who dare name him.
True hope is not found in a changed sexual orientation in this life. True hope is not found in a perpetual repentance that smells more of self-loathing than godly repentance. True hope is not found in indulging in the things we’re attracted to sinfully, either in the heart or in the body. True hope is found in a God who accepts us, not because we are free of the curse—either our sin or the non-sinful results of the curse such as thorns and death—but because we are in his son, Jesus Christ!
Thomas, you are dear to God. Even with your broken, disordered sexual orientation. And if you’ve turned from your sin to the rescuer of sinners, Jesus Christ, you are now free to walk in newness of life! You are free to obey God’s commands about your sexual expression without hating yourself or living as a second-class Christian. You are accepted in Jesus Christ! And empowered in your battle against sin and temptation by his Holy Spirit.
Would to God you were truly accepted by his Church. The sin is the Church’s; not yours.
Grace to you.