Folks are gathering in St. Louis this weekend for a new conference for gay and same-sex attracted Christians intent on obeying the historic Christian understanding of sex and marriage. But it has not been without controversy from both sides of the aisle. Current debate from conservatives around the Revoice conference has centered on the morality not of homosexual acts but of homosexual temptation and orientation. Is homosexual temptation itself sinful even if you hold to and obey a historic Christian understanding of sex and marriage between a man and a woman? And what does it mean to be gay if not that you are sexually attracted to your own biological sex?
Debaters I’ve read all agree on putting off homosexual sexual practice. But do the “put off” instructions in Scripture apply to temptations as well as acts? Can you put off temptation to sin? And what do you put on in place of homosexual temptation if God does not replace homosexual attraction with heterosexual attraction?
If nothing else, the debate has shown that the words—temptation, attraction, desire, and love—are defined and used differently even among folks seemingly on the same “side.” But the Bible itself particularly uses the words temptation and love in different ways, so this wrestling over meaning of terms is not surprising.
The debate online often gets into categories hard for the average person in the pew to follow. One shouldn’t have to have a M.Div. to either give or receive truth from Scripture on this topic. Having walked with several close friends through this issue—some holding on to the historic understanding of sex and marriage, others abandoning it, and none having a masters level understanding of theology—I have a vested interest in seeing this handled well in local congregations, among non seminary trained believers that make up the majority of our local churches. I have witnessed many stumbling blocks in the form of careless words and dehumanizing mischaracterizations put in front of Christians who experience same-sex attraction as they struggle to find their place in God’s kingdom. We need to make sure that any weights that come from our words are the weights associated with the true cost of obedience to Scripture, not additional weights we have added because we don’t think Scripture goes far enough in its prohibitions. With that in mind, I hope to offer here some helpful Scriptural parameters for thinking through a topic that has serious implications for many dear brothers and sisters in the faith.
Setting the Parameters
Scripture teaches us much about temptation and persevering against sin. When we survey Scripture on the topic, we have necessary parameters for the discussion, but we aren’t left with the systematic clarity that some would like. It’s important then, as we give testimony of how God has helped us individually persevere against heterosexual or homosexual temptation to sin (or any other sin), not to allow our personal experience to add a dogmatism to things Scripture doesn’t explicitly say. Just because God worked in a particular person a particular way doesn’t mean He will work identically in the next person experiencing similar temptation. Unless Scripture explicitly says He will.
The first Scriptural parameter is that we are required to love the soul struggling to persevere in a historic Christian understanding of prohibitions on any sin, including homosexual practice. Loving our neighbors as ourselves means in part thinking through what would encourage us to persevere in faith and obedience to Scripture in a temptation whose persistence in our lives becomes a trial of faith. That is the commanded starting point Christ taught in the gospels, on which all further laws and instructions in Scripture hang (Matt. 22:36-40).
The second parameter is that we know from Scripture that there exists a category of believers that are gifted toward celibacy (Matt. 19:12). What is the positive element of Christian human flourishing for a single not attracted to the opposite sex? Does this category and their purposes in the church give insight for human flourishing for those who experience ongoing attraction to their same sex rather than the opposite sex?
The third parameter comes from Hebrews.
For since he himself has suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are tempted. Heb 2:18 CSB
For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who has been tempted in every way as we are, yet without sin. Heb. 4:15 CSB
We can gather several things from Hebrews 2 and 4. First, there is an element of suffering that comes with temptation. Second, Jesus was tempted in every way as we are. Third, Jesus therefore is able to help (succor in the KJV) those who are tempted. He is able to sympathize with our weakness and nourish us when we are tempted. The language of these passages in Hebrews reminds us of Parameter 1—our command to love those struggling to persevere in the faith in light of ongoing homosexual attraction. Jesus loves and nourishes us. We too, in His image, must love and encourage others in obedience.
A Complicating Factor
The fourth parameter seems a contradiction to the third. It comes from James 1.
13 No one undergoing a trial should say, “I am being tempted by God,” since God is not tempted by evil, and he himself doesn’t tempt anyone. 14 But each person is tempted when he is drawn away and enticed by his own evil desire. 15 Then after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin, and when sin is fully grown, it gives birth to death.
With this seeming contradiction, we might be tempted to throw the book of James into the river as it is reported that Martin Luther once did. But it is better that we use the paradox between Hebrews and James on temptation to give us necessary boundaries for understanding the whole counsel of God on this issue.
This seeming contradiction between Hebrews and James concerning temptation reminds me of a scientific conundrum I have referenced on this blog before, the seeming contradiction between Newtonian physics and Quantum physics. Most of us (even artists, poets, and theologians who don’t think they are) are familiar with Newtonian physics. It centers on the concept of gravity. An apple fell on Sir Isaac Newton’s head in the late 1600’s, causing him to develop his account of gravity. Large objects (like our earth) pull smaller objects toward them (like an apple being pulled back to the earth or the moon being held in orbit by the gravitational pull of the earth), and the foundation of Newtonian physics was laid. Much in our world fits Newtonian physics, and it has become a great tool for understanding the universe.
From the moon circling the earth to humans walking along the ground, it seems that our universe is fundamentally held together by gravity. I was even taught in high school in the 1980’s that electrons orbited around neutrons in atoms similar to the planets around the sun. The idea was that the neutron held the electrons in orbit through the gravitational pull of the neutron.
The problem is that scientists have discovered that electrons and neutrons don’t actually work like that. In fact, you can’t even measure how an electron travels in an atom. All of our world does not, in fact, obey Newtonian physics, particularly at the micro level. So we have a universe that follows one principle while the tiny parts that make up that universe defy it.
Albert Einstein and others after him sought for a Unified Field Theory, something that explained how the universe worked on a macro and micro level. How could the big parts of the Universe work together in a way that the small parts making them up defied? There has to be a bigger principle at work, one that explains both.
Do you see where I’m going here? The fact that there seems a discrepancy between Hebrews and James on temptation doesn’t mean that there actually is. And we have to hold the two together in faith until we understand how to fully reconcile them.
Holding It All Together
Jesus was tempted in all points as we are and nourishes us when we are tempted so that we can endure and persevere in the faith. But we can’t blame our temptations on God. And there is temptation that starts with evil desires, for example lust, that progresses to sin and death. We must guard ourselves from that progression. We must put it off.
Ephesians 4 teaches us that when we put off sin, there is a corresponding action to put on. This speaks into questions raised around Revoice. What do believers putting off homosexual practice put on in its place?
20 But that is not how you came to know Christ, 21 assuming you heard about him and were taught by him, as the truth is in Jesus, 22 to take off your former way of life, the old self that is corrupted by deceitful desires, 23 to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, 24 and to put on the new self, the one created according to God’s likeness in righteousness and purity of the truth.
25 Therefore, putting away lying, speak the truth, each one to his neighbor, because we are members of one another. 26 Be angry and do not sin. Don’t let the sun go down on your anger, 27 and don’t give the devil an opportunity. 28 Let the thief no longer steal. Instead, he is to do honest work with his own hands, so that he has something to share with anyone in need. 29 No foul language should come from your mouth, but only what is good for building up someone in need, so that it gives grace to those who hear.
Put off and put on go together. We put off lying, and we put on speaking the truth. We put off stealing, and we put on honest work that we share with others. We put off foul language and put on language that instead builds up those around us.
What do we put on in place of homosexual practice and lust? Do we put off homosexual sex and put on heterosexual marriage? Are Ruth and Boaz the goal? That has certainly been a blessed progression for some. Like an alcoholic miraculously healed from a desire to drink, such folks give amazing testimonies of transformation. But they can also be uniquely frustrating to those who have not experienced such a miracle concerning temptation, those still struggling daily to obey.
Others who have put off homosexual practice and lust have not experienced a miraculous change of attraction. They have “put to death” the sin of homosexual practice, but the question of what to put on in its place is worth considering. Can we “put off” homosexual lust and practice and “put on” same-sex Christian friendship? That has been the progression for others. Jonathan, knit to the soul of David, becomes an example (1 Samuel 18:1). Or the disciple Jesus loved resting on Jesus’s bosom (John 12:23). When believers putting off same sex lust and practice and put on non-sexual love for their brother or sister in its place, they become a countercultural example of what deep, loyal, affectionate Christian friendship was always supposed to be.
Maybe it’s not so complicated after all.