Phil Johnson recently began stirring the pot on the non-neutrality of same-sex attraction (SSA). You can read it here and here. It’s the sort of cantankerous monologue you’d expect from a hard-line fundamentalist like Phil. But he’s finally provoked me enough to get me writing. So that’s something.
First, let’s clarify that this isn’t about the conference that got Phil so wound up. I have no comment to make about that conference since I know almost nothing about it and it’s not the point. The point is that Phil has taken it as an opportunity to address what he sees as the “underlying theory.” And I think he’s right. The legitimacy of SSA is the underlying issue.
It seems Phil has only recently come to realise that this is the mainstream evangelical position. I suspect this is evidence that if you look down on a group loud enough long enough forcefully enough, you can avoid having to face the reality of their struggles and issues for longer than others can.
But it is the mainstream evangelical position. And it should be. And at a time when we need to be defending this position from the other direction (the pressure to accept homosexual activity as normal and acceptable to God), we are, unfortunately, having to apologise to the SSA community for the oppression coming from the Christian community. And make no mistake, this is oppression. It is the thinking and approach that have led to emotional and physical damage for many in the SSA community, and is still doing so in many parts of the world. God hates this oppression. And Christ will not tolerate its propagation in his name. The day of reckoning will come.
Finally, before we get down to it, I want to address Christians, especially young people, who live with SSA. I know that this discussion itself could easily crush you and suck the very hope from you. Please know that not everyone is like Phil. There are tens of thousands of churches around the globe that will love you and help you. The message will be tough… you get to give up everything to get the greatest treasure in the world: Jesus Christ. But if you don’t, and you choose to engage in homosexual activity, we will still stand up for your rights and your dignity and we will still love you and protect you.
What is the core issue?
Here’s how Phil puts the core issue:
It’s the notion that homosexual orientation is morally neutral. The claim being made is that gay desires are not really sinful unless they are acted upon. So a person can fully self-identify as lesbian, bi-sexual, gay, transsexual, gender-fluid, or otherwise “queer” and be a church member in good standing—as long as he, she, xe, (or whatever) remains celibate.
So this is what Phil thinks the position is, and he disagrees with it.
Let me make two points about this statement:
First, this is not about identification as a “gay Christian” or not. That is another issue which does of course rest on this one, but does not necessarily follow from it. If the mainstream view is correct, that doesn’t mean a gay person should or will identify as a “gay Christian.” Nor do I encourage that under normal circumstances. Our primary identity as a Christian is not about our sexuality, but our standing in Jesus Christ. Being “gay” or not is a peripheral matter and should not form our primary identity. But again, that’s not the point here.
Second, this is not about gender issues. Phil demonstrates ignorance common among Christians when he lumps gender identity issues in with SSA issues. It’s embarrassing to watch and it destroys any vestige of credibility Christians might have with the SSA community.
So that’s out of the way. Now I want to point out that there are three elements in Phil’s first two statements:
Let me give simple operational definitions to these three in order to give a degree of clarity.
Orientation is the direction of sexual attraction. So God made sex. And it was a good creation. And most human beings have sexual attractions. Orientation is about the direction of those attractions. The two most common directions are heterosexual and homosexual, although a realistic view of the issue recognises that sexual orientation is far more complex than this simplistic overview.
Desire is easily confused with orientation or attraction, but it differs from both. Orientation implies merely direction, not actual desire. And attraction implies that the orientation has met an object which is in line with the orientation. But desire is active. It is what you do with attraction. This is the most common way in which lust is used in modern English as well as in Scripture. It is not passive. It is active. To keep the distinction between orientation and desire clear, I will refer to them as desire-as-attraction (orientation) and desire-as-lust (desire).
Action is acting on the desire-as-lust. So Jesus’ statements about sinning in the heart occur at the desire-as-lust level. But action is the level at which we choose to act out those desires in fornication, adultery, etc.
A person with SSA is by definition involved in the first level. This is not sin. But engagement beyond that is both avoidable and sin.
Where Phil gets it wrong
First, Phil engages in lazy fundamentalist rhetoric when he says:
Lots of my Twitter followers [were] expressing shock and surprise that I would hold an opinion so egregiously out of step with postmodern political correctness.
The problem, Phil, is not that you are out of step with postmodern political correctness. The problem is that you’re out of step with God and his word. Seriously, can you name a place where it’s politically correct to say that same-sex activity is sin? Not in the Western world. So why would you act like it is political correctness that motivates this position? It’s the worst kind of obfuscation. Shame on you.
Second, Phil misuses Scripture to back his point. He says:
Scripture is chock full of statements emphatically condemning evil desires—from the Tenth Commandment (Exodus 20:17) to Jesus’ words about mental and visual lust in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:27-29). What, after all, is lust but raw, sinful desire?
We’ve already addressed Jesus’ words in Matthew 5. But Exodus 20? Does Phil really want us to believe that merely finding our neighbour’s car attractive is the same as coveting it? It’s an absurd notion. Clearly there is a world of difference between desire-as-attraction and desire-as-lust/covetousness.
Then Phil says:
Scripture says inordinate affections are sinful and commands us to mortify them (Colossians 3:5). I didn’t make that up.
The snark is just there so he can keep his fundamentalist credentials looking sharp. But the passage is, of course, worth addressing. The passage addresses a list of sins to be put off. One of them is “evil desire.”
Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry.
Phil uses the KJV translation “inordinate affection,” but seems to think that this is what was later translated as “evil desire.” In fact, he’s confused this statement with the one that preceded it. “Inordinate affections” in the KJV corresponds to “passions” in the ESV. So that’s just a mistake on his part it seems.
The KJV translation for “evil desires” was “evil concupiscence.” And while it’s a fascinating study as to why the word concupiscence was used in the early translations and what it meant to the Roman Catholic or ex-RCC mind, we need to move forward.
There are two primary ways to interpret the phrase “evil desires.” First, “evil desires” could be addressing the desires themselves and saying that some desires are inherently evil and must be put to death. Second, “evil desires” could be an idiomatic way of saying “desires for evil things.” If it is the first, then it is not parallel to all the other points in the list. And we are commanded to do something that is humanly impossible to do. No person can create or destroy a desire-as-attraction at will. This must be a supernatural work. The second approach is much more natural and fits the context better.
And you’ll find that the context in both Romans 1:26 and 1 Thessalonians 4:5 speak of desire-as-lust, not desire-as-attraction. So no, Scripture does not support Phil’s position. More on that in a moment.
Third, Phil’s position can’t stand theologically. We could say that his soteriology is over-realised. Because what Phil means when he repudiates the notion of desire-as-attraction as legitimate is not merely that we cease to indulge this aspect of our sinful nature, but rather that we cease to have this aspect of our sinful nature. It is glorification of this part of our being; a demand we make on no other part of man’s being at this stage of the soteriological process.
Fourth, Phil conflates lust and attraction. He says:
It’s the notion that homosexual orientation is morally neutral. The claim being made is that gay desires are not really sinful unless they are acted upon.
This equating of desire-as-orientation/attraction and desire-as-lust is the structure on which his whole argument stands or falls. And as I said on twitter and Phil cited in his second post, “If… attraction and lust aren’t the same thing… [then] your proposition collapses entirely.” There is a world of difference between desire-as-attraction and desire-as-lust.
He goes on to say:
To explain the idea of lust in the sense Scripture uses the word, it is any desire or affinity for something that God has forbidden. …you cannot define lust without the idea of attraction.
He’s right that you cannot define lust without the idea of attraction. James (1:14-15) points this out. But you can define attraction without the idea of lust. James points this out as well. Sin (desire-as-lust) comes when we are lured (temptation) by our desires (desire-as-attraction). The point is explicit. Sin follows the process of temptation based on attraction. Neither the temptation nor the attraction is the sin. The sin is!
Fifth, Phil crosses categories. He says:
To desire what God forbids is a sin, full stop.
So let’s demonstrate what these crossed categories lead to in real life. 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.
What are the crossed categories that got Phil into this mess? He’s crossed the broader category with the specific application of it. So the broad category is sex. God made sex. Sex is a wonderful gift from God. And the teenage boy who begins to realise that is not sinning. Even when he is attracted to people with whom sex, either in the mind as lust or outside the mind, would be sin under these circumstances. The sin comes not when he is attracted to a girl. That is merely desire-as-attraction. The sin comes when he acts on that attraction either in the mind (desire-as-lust) or outwardly (action).
And I’ll grant, no debate, that SSA are disordered attractions. They are as much a result of the curse as earthquakes and dental cavities. But they are not sin unless and until they are indulged as lust or as sexual activity.
The reason Phil’s thinking is so dangerous is that many use Christianity to mask good old-fashioned ignorance and prejudice. Which leads to open oppression. In the name of God.
We Christians are handling the homosexuality thing very poorly and comments like those Phil put forward have a disproportionate damaging effect on one of the smallest minorities there is: Christians with SSA. Think about it. Contempt and condemnation from Christians, quite often, for being SSA. And equal contempt and condemnation, quite often, from the LGBTQI community for standing against indulgence of SSA.
We’ve got to do better. Obedience to Christ demands it.
Grace to you.