At present, two popular — yet antithetical — positions about sexuality and identity exist within the orthodox Christian community. In their recent book Transforming Homosexuality, authors Denny Burk and Heath Lambert identify these as the traditional and neo-traditional positions.
Both of these positions exclude from acceptable Christian behaviour sexual acts that are outside of scriptural marriage between one man and one woman. Also, both sides should acknowledge that even if they see the other side as wrong, they are Christian brothers aiming to work out a practical and biblical theology to minister to same-sex attracted individuals.
So what is the major difference between these positions? Those in the neo-traditional camp believe that sexual acts performed with the same sex are wrong, but that people who have these attractions should not think of the temptation, in and of itself, as sin. Many of this perspective would accept the modern language of sexual orientation, even going so far as saying one can be a ‘gay Christian’ or ‘a Christian who happens to be gay’.
The orientation then is neutral, or even positive, as Wesley Hill states that those of a gay orientation have a way to ‘harness and guide its energies in the direction of sexually abstinent, yet intimate, friendship… being gay and saying no to gay sex may lead me to be more of a friend to men, not less’.1 One’s sexual orientation, in that case, is to some degree affirmed as a platform for unique and special spiritual fruit.
Growing in popularity
This way of viewing sexuality and Christian living has grown in popularity in the Evangelical world that has sought to engage those who experience sexual attraction to the same sex. One must at the very least be thankful for engagement with same-sex attracted persons.
Many remember a time when the majority position was mere rejection and disgust at those who wanted to learn about Christ but confessed these attractions. Thus, this camp wishes to say: ‘You can be a celibate gay Christian, or be a Christian who happens to be gay and celibate’.
The traditional view has major problems with this view, as will become evident. For those of the traditional understanding, not only is the act to be considered sin, but the desire and internal temptation itself is something to be repented of, not a means of special spiritual fruit.
The neo-traditional approach is thus at odds with the traditional and confessional understandings of the doctrines of original sin, concupiscence, and repentance. For instance, The Westminster Confession of Faith (and its cousins the London Baptist Confession of 1689 and the Congregationalist Savoy Declaration of 1658) in chapter 6.4 and 6.5 states that original sin is ‘original corruption, whereby we are … inclined to all evil, do proceed all actual transgressions …’ and that corruption as well as the act ‘are truly and properly sin’.
This means the desires to sin themselves are properly understood as sin. It is a sin to be tempted to sin, when that phrase is understood to mean an internal temptation of desire towards that which is a violation of God’s law.2
The Westminster, Savoy and London Baptist Confessions did not invent this conception of sin, but we see it both in church history in the Augustinian doctrine of ‘concupiscence’, but also in the text of Scripture itself in the Pauline doctrine of ‘the flesh,’ (Romans 7, Ephesians 2, Galatians 5, etc) in James’ explanation of temptation by way of internal lust (James 1), and Jeremiah’s statement of the depravity of the human heart (Jeremiah 17:9). Finally, our Lord tells us that the sin of adultery is committed not merely by outward act only, but in our heart and with our eyes (Matthew 5:28).
More than mere semantics
This difference in identifying the desires, and not merely the acts, as sin is not mere semantics. It has profound consequences in how we address the person who desires to live the Christian life, who has experienced same-sex attraction. When we are called to repentance, are we called to merely do different things or to desire different things? How you answer that question will determine how you counsel practical application of our battle against sexual sin.
Think of this firstly in how you counsel a man who confesses a common temptation of sex outside marriage with women he works with, socialises with, or sees at church. As a pastor should you counsel a man to harness his sexual energies to be more of a friend to women and have an identity as a lustful Christian? Or ought he be encouraged to mortify, kill, that desire for a sexual mate besides his wife, and affirm his identity in Christ as a hedge against his adulterous desires?
One hopes all Christian pastors and counsellors would attack the lust, and remind the Christian of their identity in Christ, that they are not to be discouraged by their sin, or embrace their lusts for good purposes, but to embrace their placement in Christ as their sole identity even while he struggles with sin.
Identifying our struggles
Certainly, there is a place for identifying what we struggle with. We claim to be simultaneously sinners and saints. But we are saints in status, even while sinners in constitution. To identify solely as Christian, as in Christ, as declared righteous is not to deny sin in our lives, but to be able to fight against it. We fight against our fallen nature with what God has remade us to be.
Can you be a Christian that struggles with same-sex attraction? Yes. In fact, being a Christian means you struggle with sin rather than surrendering to it. Only a living thing struggles; only a born again saint struggles with sin. But we are no longer identified by our sin. Then should you identify as a gay Christian? No. For the same reason you should not identify as a stealing Christian or greedy Christian or lying Christian. Such a label confuses status with composition.
There is a better energy to harness in our sanctification. That energy is the Spirit as he cements our identity in Christ. Should we welcome those that come from the gay and lesbian community? We must do so! It is also our duty to remind all men and women of the liberating truth that if one embraces Christ, he or she is not defined any longer by his or her sexual attractions or temptations.
Such were some of you
Within the list of the condemned in 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 are those who are identified by their sin including the greedy, sexually immoral, drunks and ‘homosexuals’. But the glorious truth of 1 Corinthians 6:11 is Christians have a new identity: ‘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.’ While Christians may still struggle with each of those sins, our identity in Christ trumps each temptation, and we are no longer identified by our sins and temptations, but by Christ.
There is a great practicality in the doctrine of identity in Christ. The Christian struggling with same-sex lust is told: ‘You are not weird, or an outcast, or a special sort of sinner. No, you are just like the rest of us, and struggle just like the rest of us. While one person sits in the pew on your left with active struggles against gossip, the person in front struggles against pornography, the one at the back of you struggles with greed, and the one on the right struggles with pride.
None of them are identified by their sin, but identified in Christ. You can be assured that we are not heterosexual or homosexual Christians, nor divided between lying and prideful Christians, but united as Christians who struggle against sin, and struggle to mortify it together and grow more and more into the likeness of Christ, whose name we carry’.
Sin does not define us
All Christians struggle with sin throughout their lives here; but that sin does not define us. Our lapses with sin do not define us. Christ alone defines us. He shares his title to a believer with no other, excepting the Father and Spirit, whose name we were sealed with in our baptism (Matthew 28:19). This is not semantics.
It is the practical theology of our identity in Christ, our doctrine of sin, and our active repentance. Let us dust off the words of John Owen, applying it to all Christians in our sinful corruption, excepting no group from the task as Christians: ‘Be killing sin, or sin will be killing you’.
Jared Nelson is pastor of New Life Presbyterian Church, Hopewell Township Pennsylvania. This article first appeared on reformation21.org and is republished by kind permission.
1 Wesley Hill, Spiritual Friendship: Finding Love in the Church as a Celibate Gay Christian, (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2015) p.81.
2 Some object here that we can never understand temptation as sin because Jesus was tempted and resisted. But while our Lord was tempted externally, because he was free of the effects of original sin in the fall, Jesus did not have the corruption of a fallen nature, for this confessional idea of internal corruption and temptation to apply to him.