Heterosexuality and Homosexuality
Note: This article is part of a series on terminology related to homosexuality.
“Heterosexuality” and “homosexuality” are familiar terms, with apparently simple meanings. However, they often carry unbiblical implications, so Christians should avoid using these terms, or at least use them carefully, to ensure that we speak truthfully, clearly, and consistently.
To see what I mean, consider the root word “sexuality.” This word can refer to at least three distinct, yet closely related, things:
- Actual sexual practices, or patterns of such.
- Qualities related to sexual practices, such as identity, desire, lifestyle, fashion, and manners.
- People who engage in these practices or adopt these related qualities.
These shades of meaning are present in the more specific terms “homosexuality” and “heterosexuality.”
“Homosexuality” refers to practices, qualities, or people characterized by sexual desire for someone of the same sex. It describes a type of sexual behavior, as well as qualities related to such behaviors and people who engage in them. The advantage of using this term is that it is more objective than the euphemism “gay,” and more specific than terms like “LGBTQ+.”
Still, we must be careful to distinguish between homosexual practices, related qualities, and homosexual people. When these three are conflated, misleading or confusing statements may ensue. For example, Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 describe homosexual practices as abominations, not homosexual people.
On first glance, the meaning of “heterosexuality” is obvious: it is the opposite of “homosexuality.” It refers to practices, related qualities, or people marked by a desire for the opposite sex.
“Heterosexual” and its less formal synonym “straight” can be useful to describe patterns of sexual desire and behavior approved by God. We have all been designed for sexual union with someone of the opposite sex, and not with anyone of the same sex.
Two problems are worth noting, though. These are reasons to refrain from using the term, or at least to exercise care when doing so. First, the term “heterosexuality” can smuggle in the idea that desire for the opposite sex is just one of several options. But this is not true: God designed men for sexual union with women, and vice versa, and no other options exist. Humans are either men capable of sexual union with women, or women capable of sexual union with men. Really, we only need the words “male” and “female” to describe the patterns of sexual desire and behavior that befit the created structures of our human bodies. What the sexual revolution calls “heterosexuality” is what God calls manhood and womanhood.
Second, using “heterosexuality” as an alternative to “homosexuality” can give the impression that heterosexual practices and desires are all approved by God. But this would be a false impression. God does not call homosexuals to become heterosexuals, but to become holy.
Some have boiled this point down to the slogan, “heterosexuality is not holiness.” To evaluate this slogan, we must determine the meaning of “heterosexuality.” If it means “any sexual practice or desire that is not homosexual,” then of course it could not be equated with holiness, for there are many ways to commit sexual sin besides engaging in homosexual practices or desires. On the other hand, if “heterosexuality” is taken to mean “acting in accord with one’s biological sex,” then we must affirm that this is an important aspect of holiness, though certainly not the whole.
When someone repents of homosexual sin, we might truthfully say that he is “leaving homosexuality for heterosexuality,” but we will likely be misunderstood. Many would take us to mean that he has adopted a new “gender identity” or “sexual orientation,” or that we think all heterosexual desires and actions are good. To avoid all this unbiblical baggage, we could simply describe this repentance as forsaking practices and desires that contradict a person’s biological sex, and pursuing practices and desires that express the created design of their bodies.
Of course, progress may be slow and incomplete on this side of heaven. As the Heidelberg Catechism memorably puts it, “in this life” we may “have only a small beginning of this obedience.” But however small our beginning, repentant sinners will indeed “begin to live not only according to some but to all the commandments of God.”
Calvin Goligher is the pastor of First OPC in Sunnyvale, California. He and his wife Joanne have four young children.
"Courageous Christian Sexuality" by William Boekestein
The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self by Carl Trueman
"Identifying Our Identity" by Jared Nelson
Revoiced Spirituality by Jonathan Master
Biblical Personhood & Gender Confusion, with Derek Thomas, Richard Phillips, and Rosaria Butterfield.