Looming Debate Over SSA
These days, it seems that almost every week social media uncovers another eruption along the Presbyterian Church in America's (PCA) volcanic fault line between social accommodation/compassion and biblical obedience. This week, a conference promoting strategies to address same sex attraction (SSA) has raised heads and provoked comment. This particular event seems to be a laudable attempt to balance the tension: while calling for a compassionate acceptance of SSA Christians it also makes clear statements in support of biblical marriage and takes a position against homosexual behavior that most people in our society would consider fundamentalist. Conservatives should therefore refrain from drawing the worst possible implications from what seems to be a thoughtful and responsible attempt to address this major cultural touchstone.
While avoiding hysterical division, we can at the same time note that a major question mark hangs over the normalization of SSA as a Christian category. It seems that there is a growing consensus in the PCA that we can and must distinguish between one's sexual orientation and sinful desires. The alternative would seem to be that we tell men and women struggling with homosexuality that what they consider a part of who they are is sinful and (as some would have it) subject them to tortuous rehabilitation techniques that probably include electric shock. The bridge, therefore, between compassion and biblical fidelity is to embrace "gay in Christ" as a normal and wholesome category and then help our LGBTQ brothers and sisters live celibately with these desires.
One problem with this love-motivated strategy is that it collapses under the weight of Scripture. The biblical argument in favor of SSA acceptance goes like this: we always distinguish between desire and temptation. A heterosexual may sinlessly experience an attraction to a member of the opposite sex without giving in to lust. The same must therefore be the case for a homosexual. The orientation is not necessarily sinful, while the desire represents a temptation to be avoided. The key issue is behavior: does the person (heterosexual or homosexual) give in to temptation and commit the sin?
A first criticism of this approach will note that it fails to apply the Bible's vastly different approach to homosexuality versus heterosexuality, only one of which can ever be sinless. But the major problem is that the Bible does not distinguish between orientation and desire, while instead categorizing desire as temptation. Biblically, temptation is the outward circumstance that prompts desire into sin. But desire for sin itself is an expression of our sinful nature. Bible-believing churches take this approach to virtually every sin other than homosexuality (it is often pointed out that we would never take the pro-SSA approach to racism, for instance). A biblically accurate approach to homosexuality must therefore be congruent with our understanding of sin in general.
One key text is James 1:14-15: "each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death." Notice that James does not equate desire and temptation but distinguishes them. Desire is the inward disposition toward a given sin. As James sees it, the key issue is not temptation but desire: until desire is sanctified by the grace of Christ, temptation is going to produce sinful behavior. Epithumia, the Greek word translated as "desire" identifies an inward impulse and almost always has a sinful connotation (see Rom. 7:7-8, Gal. 5:17, Col. 3:5, and 1 Thess. 4:5). Therefore, to isolate orientation from sinful desire in simply contrary to Scripture.
Theologically, the key term is concupiscence, which comes to us from Roman Catholic theology. The Latin Vulgate translated epithumia with concupiscentia, viewing it as a pre-sin orientation or disposition. The Protestant Reformation found no biblical support for a sinless orientation to sin and equated concupiscence with original sin. So, as is usually the case, we are not left to ourselves to sort out the question of SSA. Both biblically and in Reformed theology, orientation and desire cannot be separated; together, they must be cleansed by Christ and mortified by the Christian. (For valuable articles on the topic of concupiscence, see R. Scott Clark and Derek Thomas). Herman Bavinck pointed out that the rooting of sin in the will, apart from the fallen nature, is the impulse of rationalism, not the Bible. He noted that under secular humanism, "the basic idea was always that sin is not rooted in a nature and is not a disposition or a state, but always an act of the will."1 As for any idea that God approvingly endorses any orientation to sin, Bavinck responded as follows:
"Not only does Scripture testify against this view, but the moral consciousness of all humans rises up in protest against it. Sin may be whatever it is, but one thing is certain: God is the Righteous and Holy One who prohibits it in his law, witnesses against it in the human conscience, and visits it with punishments and judgments."2
This leads to the second problem with the loving attempt to embrace SSA but deny homosexual behavior: it collides with reality. If the desire for sin is unmortified (Col. 3:5), then it will produce sinful behavior when presented with temptation. Here is the quandary well-meaning pro-SSA churches are going to have to face: can you really embrace the desire as unsinful and persist in condemning the behavior as sinful? For some churches today, the answer is No. Indeed, this is the testimony of those PCA churches who have left our denomination for LGBT-affirmning communions. They argue that it is unloving to consign people who for no fault of their own are same sex attraction to a life of sexless loneliness and they can no longer bring themselves to refuse church membership (and, with it, leadership) on this basis. Yet the biblical and practical reality is that desire and behavior cannot be separated. This is why Solomon urged us never to rest comfortably with corruptions in the heart, but urged: "Keep your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life" (Prov. 4:23).
So what is the alternative? Must we choose between biblical fidelity and Christ-like compassion? The answer is No - a thousand times, No! For refusing this alternative, we should appreciate PCA churches who seek to minister to the homosexual community while still upholding biblical marriage and sexual behavior. Their problem is that affirming SSA as a Christian category - "gay in Christ" - is both biblically inaccurate and humanly unrealistic. What else, then? The what else for the homosexual question turns out to be the same as for every other sin. I know of no one who would affirm an orientation toward idol-worship, blasphemy, violence, laziness, stealing, lying, or covetousness (I'm perusing the Ten Commandments, you will observe). So why would we take a more positive position towards homosexual desire than any other sinful desire, especially when the Bible speaks with particular stridence when it comes to sexual sins against the created order? The answer is that for the love of God and man we should not.
Can we not affirm the person who struggles with homosexual desires? We absolutely can, just as we can affirm all persons who struggle with sin tendencies (and that is all persons!). But normalizing the desire is no help to anyone. We call them to repent of the desire, including the prayerful pursuit of biblical norms and the wise avoidance of tempting circumstances. We recognize that while God will bless this pursuit in his own timing, he is certain to do so (if not sooner, then in heaven). Then we love them with insight and compassionate action, requiring nothing more than faith in Christ, while acknowledging that repentance from sin is integrally joined to that faith for every Christian.
In short, true compassion will not be achieved in the affirmation of desires that the Bible forbids. True compassion embraces the biblical bridge between biblical compassion and truth, and does so by holding out a holy identity in union with Christ and in the experience of his cleansing grace. We find this very approach in the apostle Paul:
Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God (1 Cor. 6:9-11).