Anthropology (theological) Ethics Hamartiology

Is orientation sinful or can only behavior be deemed sin?

Same sex attraction“Same-sex acts are sinful, but same-sex orientation is not.” I have often read or heard that sentiment, and it began to make sense to me, particularly in cases where the orientation was not brought about by choices made by the individual. A very helpful article by Denny Burk (“Is homosexual orientation sinful?”) has challenged me to reconsider my perspective in this regard. I’ll outline Burk’s perspective here, for your consideration, before I make some concluding observations of my own.

Denny Burk’s Perspective

Denny BurkBurk observes that

Some Christian ethicists . . . argue that we must make a moral distinction between orientation and behavior. On this view, homosexual behavior is a choice and thus morally blameworthy. Homosexual orientation is not a choice and thus not morally blameworthy. This point of view has become routine even among some who identify themselves as evangelical.

Burk does not dispute that “there is a legitimate distinction to be made between orientation and behavior,” but he does question

 . . . whether the Bible supports the notion that only homosexual behavior is sinful while homosexual orientation is not. Evangelicals would generally agree with [Dennis] Hollinger [The Meaning of Sex, p. 173] that homosexual orientation in some way stems from the Fall. But in what way? Does homosexual orientation comprise a natural evil only? Or is it also a moral evil? Is it something that primarily requires healing (like cancer), or is it something that requires vigilant repentance (like pride)? How we answer these questions has enormous pastoral implications for those brothers and sisters who experience same-sex attraction.

How we define “orientation” is important because it enables us to discern what, if anything, the Bible has to say about it. Working from the definition formulated by the American Psychological Association, Burk concludes that orientation

 . . . involves a person’s enduring sexual attractions and that sexual attraction is a virtual synonym for sexual desire. Thus sexual orientation is one’s persistent pattern of sexual desire/attraction toward either or both sexes.

If that is the definition, then the term “orientation” does not somehow take us to a category that the Bible doesn’t address. The Bible says that our sexual desires/attractions have a moral component and that we are held accountable for them. Jesus’ remarks on the nature of heterosexual desire are a case in point:

Mathew 5:27-28 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery’; but I say to you, that everyone who looks on a woman to lust for her has committed adultery with her already in his heart.”

The word that Jesus uses for “lust” is the exact same term used in the tenth commandment’s prohibition on coveting: “You shall not desire/covet your neighbor’s wife” (Ex. 20:17; Deut. 5:21 LXX).  Thus both Jesus and the tenth commandment censure not merely adulterous behavior but also the desire that precedes the behavior. The locus of such desire is the “heart.” As Jesus confirms elsewhere, adultery and every other kind of sexual immorality proceed from the heart (Mark 7:21).

When a married man experiences adulterous lust for a woman,

his attraction may indeed be spontaneous and uninvited. It may indeed reflect his sexual orientation to be attracted to the opposite sex. But that married man may not appeal to his heterosexual “orientation” to absolve him of having feelings that he ought not feel. Jesus says such feelings are adultery within the heart. Likewise, a man who experiences a sexual attraction to another man may be experiencing feelings that are spontaneous and uninvited. His attraction may well reflect what he perceives to be his natural “orientation.” But that does not absolve him of having sexual feelings he ought not feel. The Bible judges such attractions as sinful lust—as coveting someone sexually.

At this point, some might suggest that lust is different from desire, making only the former sinful, but Burk demonstrates the invalidity of that distinction.

The word Jesus uses for lust in Matthew 5:28 (epithume?) is used elsewhere in neutral and even positive ways. For example, Jesus says that “many prophets and righteous men desired (epithume?) to see what you see, and did not see it” (Matthew 13:17). The word clearly means “desire,” and in this case the desire is a good thing. Whether the desire is good (as in Matt. 13:17) or evil (as in Matt. 5:28) depends entirely on what it is a person desires. That is why the same Greek term is rendered “desire” in some texts and “lust” in others. If you desire something good, then the desire itself is good. If you desire something evil, then the desire itself is evil. Same-sex attraction is clearly a desire that God forbids. How then can we possibly treat a persistent and enduring desire for the same-sex as morally neutral? Biblically, we cannot.

In Rom 1:26-27, it is clear that Paul is condemning an activity (behavior), and many of us think that what he condemns is sexual activity between people of the same sex, but Burk observes that Paul also addresses the desire involved in these relationships.

[Paul] also says that the desires themselves are equally morally blameworthy and stand as evidence of God’s wrath against sin: “For this reason God gave them over to degrading passions… and [they] burned in their desire toward one another” (Rom 1:26-27). Sexual desire that fixates on the same-sex is sinful, and that is why God’s judgment rightly falls on both desires and actions. Again, the issue is not merely sexual behavior but also one’s enduring pattern of sexual attraction.

Burk is aware of a common assumption among people who absolve others for their “sexual orientation,” the belief that our ability is the measure of our responsibility.

This objection bases moral accountability upon whether one has the ability to choose his proclivities. But this is not how the Bible speaks of sin and judgment. There are all manner of predispositions that we are born with that the Bible nevertheless characterizes as sin: pride, anger, anxiousness, just to name a few. Why would we put same-sex attraction in a different category than those other predispositions that we groan to be delivered from and that we are morally accountable for? As we mentioned above, Jesus says that all such sins proceed from the heart and that we are therefore morally accountable for them (Mark 7:21). And this assessment is in no way mitigated by the fact that we come by it naturally or were born that way. As Richard Hays writes,

The Bible’s sober anthropology rejects the apparently commonsense assumption that only freely chosen acts are morally culpable. Quite the reverse: the very nature of sin is that it is not freely chosen. That is what it means to live “in the flesh” in a fallen creation. We are in bondage to sin but still accountable to God’s righteous judgment of our actions. In light of this theological anthropology, it cannot be maintained that a homosexual orientation is morally neutral because it is involuntary. [The Moral Vision of the New Testament, p. 390]

Burk concludes with two pastoral implications:

1. This truth ought to inform how brothers and sisters in Christ wage war against same-sex attraction. Sin is not merely what we do. It is also who we are. As so many of our confessions have it, we are sinners by nature and by choice. All of us are born with an orientation toward sin in all its varieties. Homosexual orientation is but one manifestation of our common experience of indwelling sin—indeed of the mind set on the flesh (Rom. 7:23; 8:7).  For that reason, the Bible teaches us to war against both the root and the fruit of sin. In this case, homosexual orientation is the root, and homosexual behavior is the fruit. The Spirit of God aims to transform both (Rom. 8:13).

If same-sex attraction were morally benign, there would be no reason to repent of it. 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. . . . 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).

2. This truth ought to strengthen our love and compassion for brothers and sisters who experience same-sex attraction. For many of them, same sex attraction is something they have experienced for as long as they can remember. There is no obvious pathology for their attractions. The attractions are what they are even though they may be quite unwelcome. It is naïve to think that these people are all outside of the church. No, they are among us. They are us. They have been baptized, have been attending the Lord’s Table with us, and have been fighting the good fight in what is sometimes a very lonely struggle. They believe what the Bible says about their sexuality, but their struggle is nevertheless difficult.

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? Does your church have its 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).

My personal reflections

I found Denny Burk’s article very helpful, which is why I have chosen to paste so much of it into this post. I’m now inclined to think that I have been wrong to absolve people whose sexual inclination, orientation, or desire for others of their own sex was not of their own choosing. I continue to believe, however, that the question of how particular orientations or desires developed is relevant in moral assessment. I believe that Burk is correct to assert that sinful orientations are still sinful even when we did not develop them through personal choices. Here, my way of thinking and speaking about this matter needs to change. But I also believe that ability is a significant factor in our assessment of moral responsibility, though we are frequently not good judges of our own moral “ability.”

My position regarding morality in cases of addiction came to mind as I thought about Burk’s article. I assert that people who have become addicted to harmful or sinful behavior through prior choices must take responsibility for and repent of those choices. In a particular instance, however, if they have become addicted to this behavior, so that they are no longer capable of resisting temptation in regard to these acts, their yielding to that temptation must be assessed less severely than in the case of people for whom the temptation is resistible. On the other hand, this situation places particular responsibility upon the addicted to be vigilant in avoiding situations where such temptations may arise.

A frequent cause of legitimate remorse that should lead to repentance, on the part of people who have developed sinful habits of action, is their recognition that there was a point at which they could have put themselves outside of the situation in which they were tempted and sinned. They are right, therefore, to deem their failure to do that to be a sinful act calling for repentance and the resolution to do better next time by God’s gracious help. Long established habits of thought and speech and action are extremely difficult to break, and new habits of a healthy and righteous kind can not be formed immediately. This side of glory, while we are still unperfected sinners, we all know the daily experience of sin and the need for repentance and appropriation of God’s forgiveness through Christ.

I am impressed by an additional implication of this perspective on sinful desire, namely, the wisdom of not thinking of our identity in terms of a sinful orientation, however unwillingly we may have gotten that inclination. When we do that, we are likely to absolve ourselves in our minds when we act sinfully in that particular way. If people regularly think of themselves as an “angry person” or an “anxious person,” for instance, a defeatist attitude can easily develop, along with a sense that I have to be excused for acting angrily or anxiously because that is “who I am” or “the way I am.” We need to see ourselves as righteous in Christ, in whom we have all the resources we need for daily combating of sinful thoughts, desires, and actions. Since God forbids us to engage in same sex acts, as he forbids us to be sinfully angry or to worry faithlessly, or to lust after someone, regardless of their sex, to speak of our identity in terms of an habitual sinful desire or tendency (e.g., “I am gay”) is a denial of our fundamental identity as new creatures in Christ. Where sinful orientation is involved, we should never speak of it with either approval or resignation. As Burk so clearly says, sin in all its forms, both in root and in fruit, is to be fought in the power of the Spirit, no matter how long we have been struggling against it without success. When our guilt for past failure is covered by the blood of Christ, we get a clean start and can press forward in faith and in diligent use of the means God has given us to grow in grace. We must never lose hope.


By Terrance Tiessen

I am Professor Emeritus of Systematic Theology and Ethics at Providence Theological Seminary, Canada.

3 replies on “Is orientation sinful or can only behavior be deemed sin?”

This is a fascinating perspective. I’m half-convinced.

From what you’ve posted here, however, I don’t think Burk does enough to close the gap between “lust” as popularly understood and “attraction.” He says that there is no gap but appears to present no argument. Is there really no difference between “burning with desire” (and all the attendant sexual thoughts) and finding someone attractive? I’m not convinced.

You raise a good question, Marc. I think that this is a key sentence in Burk’s discussion: “How then can we possibly treat a persistent and enduring desire for the same-sex as morally neutral?”, taken together with this: “Sexual desire that fixates on the same-sex is sinful, and that is why God’s judgment rightly falls on both desires and actions. Again, the issue is not merely sexual behavior but also one’s enduring pattern of sexual attraction.”

I think that he does well to point out that how we translate “epithume,” desire or lust, depends on whether the desire is good or evil. I wonder if the strength or persistence of a sinful desire may also be involved. Qualifying terms like “persistent and enduring,” or the language of an “enduring pattern” of attraction are important.

I’m wondering if the “attraction” you have in mind may be more fleeting and less entrenched as habitual through its being indulged than the attraction that Burk is speaking about. Sin is parasitic, so that sinful desire draws its power from picking up on some inherent goodness in what is desired, but then distorting it in some way. But when we submit to the deception involved in that twisting of the good, so that our desire is itself a twisted desire, and we relish it, giving it room to grow in our affections then we are in trouble.

I may be heading off in a different direction than Burk took but what he said leads me there, I think.

Very important topic, I think. Although “attraction” and “lust” may be on a continuum with no clear dividing line, we probably all recognize that there is a valid distinction. If I see a beautiful woman, there is a difference between thinking, “Wow, she is drop-dead gorgeous,” and thinking, “I would love to get in bed with her.” Ideally I will think, “I hope she has a husband who loves her and appreciates her.”

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