I recently addressed a major national conference on “The Gospel, Homosexuality, and the Future of Marriage” held by the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention. As expected, the conference was one of the most responsible and edifying meetings yet held of Christians concerned about these issues. This is exactly what would be expected of the ERLC and its leadership. The conference was both helpful and historic. I had the honor of delivering the opening keynote address entitled “Aftermath: Ministering in a Post-Marriage Culture.” The full text of my address will be posted here shortly. Subsequent to the conference, it became clear that the vast coverage of the conference in the national press raised some issues that need to be considered further.
One of these issues is sexual orientation. As I explained in my address, I had previously denied the existence of sexual orientation. I, along with many other evangelicals, did so because we did not want to accept the sexual identity structure that so often goes with sexual orientation. I still reject that notion of sexual identity. But I repented of denying the existence of sexual orientation because denying it was deeply confusing to people struggling with same-sex attraction. Biblical Christians properly resist any suggestion that our will can be totally separated from sexual desire, but we really do understand that the will is not a sufficient explanation for a pattern of sexual attraction. Put simply, most people experiencing a same-sex attraction tell of discovering it within themselves at a very early age, certainly within early puberty. As they experience it, a sexual attraction or interest simply “happens,” and they come to know it.
Given the depth of the Bible’s teachings on sin and this fallen world, this should not surprise us. In some sense, each of us finds within ourselves a pattern of desires — sexual and otherwise — we did not ask for, but for which we are then and now fully responsible. When it comes to a same-sex attraction, the orientation is sinful because it is defined by an improper object — someone of the same sex. Of course, those of us whose sexual orientation is directed toward the opposite sex are also sinners, but the sexual orientation is not itself sinful.
With this in mind, the concept of sexual orientation looms as very important, because it helps to identify the effects of the Fall and the depth of sin. Each of us, regardless of our sexual orientation, has a sin orientation that is, at least in part, inexplicable to us (as the Apostle Paul relates concerning his own struggle in Romans chapter 7).
The concept of sexual orientation is not only helpful, it is in some sense essential. Even those who argue against its existence have to describe and affirm something tantamount to it. There is a pattern of sexual interest and attraction that is discovered in early adolescence. It is not something that is, in itself, freely chosen. That does not mean that the individual is not completely responsible before God for how that orientation is then handled.
In our sinfulness, we tend to feed our sinful desires and shape our lives around them. When it comes to sexual orientation, the secular world increasingly says that any orientation is as good as another and is to be celebrated by all. That is directly contrary to the Word of God.
At the same time, our biblically-informed understanding of sexual orientation will chasten us from having any confidence that there is any rescue from same-sex attraction to be found in any secular approach, therapy, or treatment. Christians know that the only remedy for sin is the atonement of Christ and the gift of salvation. The only hopeful answer to sin, in any form, is the Gospel of Christ. Understanding the complexity of sexual orientation and sexual sin should make us all cling to the Gospel every more closely, and to the authority and truthfulness of the Bible ever more faithfully.
Finally, I decided to repost an article I wrote back on July 19, 2011, when some of the same issues arose in the midst of the 2012 presidential election. I do so in the hope of helping us all to think through these urgent issues. Let’s work together to think more faithfully, love more faithfully, and minister more faithfully in the name of Christ.
Each U.S. presidential election cycle brings its own set of unexpected issues, and the 2012 race already offers one topic of controversy that truly sets it apart — a debate over forms of therapy that attempt to change an individual’s sexual orientation.
Known as reparative therapy or sexual orientation conversion therapy, these approaches seek to assist individuals in changing their sexual orientation from homosexual to heterosexual. The cultural and political debate over reparative therapy emerged when a clinic run by Marcus Bachmann, husband of Republican candidate Rep. Michele Bachmann, was accused of offering treatment and counseling intended to change sexual orientation.
Virtually all of the secular professions that deal with sexual orientation are stalwartly opposed to reparative therapy, or to any attempt to change one’s pattern of sexual attraction. Indeed, these groups hold to an inflexible ideology that insists that there is absolutely nothing wrong with homosexuality. These groups include, for example, the American Psychological Association, the American Psychiatric Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and the National Association of Social Workers, among many others.
In 2008, a number of these groups released a statement on sexual orientation and youth that began with the stated premise that “both heterosexuality and homosexuality are normal expressions of human sexuality.” Thus, the groups argue that any attempt to change an individual’s sexual orientation is likely to be harmful. The “Just the Facts Coalition” also included groups such as the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers. A statement adopted in 2000 by the American Psychiatric Association declares that the APA “opposes any psychiatric treatment, such as reparative or conversion therapy which is based upon the assumption that homosexuality per se is a mental disorder or based upon the a priori assumption that the patient should change his/her sexual homosexual orientation.”
This controversy will inevitably demonstrate the basic worldview divide that separates the secular therapeutic community and evangelical Christians. The politicians, the mental health industry, and the media will have their own debate on the matter, but Christians now face the urgent challenge of thinking about these issues in a way that is fully biblical and theological — and thus faithful to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
First, we face the fact that the Bible clearly, repeatedly, consistently, and comprehensively reveals the sinfulness of all homosexual behaviors. This truth is set within the larger context of the Bible’s revelation concerning the Creator’s plan and purpose for human sexuality — a context that is centered in the marital union of a man and a woman as the exclusive arena for human sexual activity. This flies in the face of the contemporary demand for the full normalization of homosexuality. As the joint statement of the “Just the Facts Coalition” declares, “both heterosexuality and homosexuality are normal expressions of human sexuality.”
The normalization of homosexuality simply cannot be accepted by anyone committed to biblical Christianity. The new secular orthodoxy demands that Christians abandon the clear teachings of Scripture, and Christians must understand that the sinfulness of all homosexual behaviors is not only a matter of biblical authority, but also of the Gospel. To deny that sin is sin is to deny our need for the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Christians cannot accept any teaching that minimizes sin, for it is the knowledge of our sin that points us to our need for atonement, salvation, and the forgiveness of that sin through the cross of Jesus Christ.
Second, we must recognize that every human being is a sinner and that every sinner’s pattern of sexual attraction falls short of the glory of God. There is no sinner of physical maturity who will be able to say that he or she has never had a sinful thought related to sex or sexuality. Taking the Bible’s teachings about sin and sexuality with full force, we understand that every sinful human being is in need of redemption, and that includes the redemption of our sexual selves.
Actually, the Bible speaks rather directly to the sinfulness of the homosexual orientation — defined as a pattern of sexual attraction to a person of the same sex. In Romans 1:24-27, Paul writes of “the lusts of their hearts to impurity,” of “dishonorable passions,” of women who “exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature,” and of men who “gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another.” A close look at this passage reveals that Paul identifies the sinful sexual passion as a major concern — not just the behavior.
At this point, the chasm between the biblical and secular worldview looms ever larger. The modern secular consensus is that an individual’s pattern of sexual attraction, whether heterosexual or homosexual, is just a given and is to be considered normal. More than that, the secular view demands that this pattern of sexual orientation be accepted as integral to an individual’s identity. According to the secular consensus, any effort to change an individual’s sexual orientation is essentially wrong and harmful. The contemporary therapeutic worldview is virtually unanimous in this verdict, but nothing could be more directly at odds with the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
The New Testament reveals that a homosexual sexual orientation, whatever its shape or causation, is essentially wrong, contrary to the Creator’s purpose, and deeply sinful. Everyone, whatever his or her sexual orientation, is a sinner in need of redemption. Every sinner who comes by faith to believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and be saved knows the need for the redemption of our bodies — including our sexual selves. But those whose sexual orientation is homosexual face the fact that they also need a fundamental reordering of their sexual attractions. About this, the Bible is clear. At this point, once again, the essential contradiction between the Christian worldview and the modern secular worldview is clear.
Third, Christians understand that sinners are simultaneously completely responsible for their sin and completely unable to redeem themselves from their sin. Sinners may improve themselves morally, but they cannot mitigate to any degree their need for redemption. Indeed, moralism is a false gospel that suggests that we can please God by moral improvement. As Isaiah warns, the only righteousness of which we are capable amounts to “filthy rags.” [Isaiah 64:6] The law reveals what is good for us and what is sinful, but the law is powerless to save us. [Romans 8:3]
The law of God reveals our sin, and our sin reveals our need for a Savior. Paul’s own testimony about the law, his knowledge of his own sin, and the redemption that was his in Christ is clear when he writes to the Romans: “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” [Romans 7:24-25] This is every Christian’s testimony.
Thus, we recognize that, without redemption, there is no eternal hope for the sinner. Even in terms of moral improvement in this earthly life, the non-Christian lacks union with Christ, the indwelling Holy Spirit, and the means of grace that alone can conform the believer to the image of Christ. Thus, for the non-Christian, the most that can be hoped for is a responsible determination to cease practicing an immoral behavior. The Bible holds no hope for the sinner’s ability to change his or her heart.
In other words, a biblical Christian will have no fundamental confidence in any secular therapy’s ability to change a sinner’s fundamental disposition and heart, and this includes every aspect of the sinner’s life, including sexuality.
This is where the Gospel-centeredness of the Christian worldview points us to the cross of Christ and to the sinner’s fundamental need for redemption, not mere moral improvement. The Bible offers no hope for any human ability to change our sinful desires. As the modern secular worldview generally acknowledges, the alcoholic who stops drinking remains an alcoholic. The secular world affirms that this is so. The Bible explains why it is so.
Fourth, the Christian cannot accept any argument that denies what the Bible reveals about the sanctification of believers — including the sanctification of our sexuality. The believer in the Lord Jesus Christ receives the forgiveness of sins, the gift of eternal life, and the righteousness of Christ imputed by faith. But the redeemed Christian is also united with Christ, indwelt by the Holy Spirit, and given means of grace through, for example, the preaching of the Word of God. The Bible reveals that God conforms believers to the image of Christ, doing that work within the human heart that the sinful human himself or herself cannot perform. The Bible reveals that believers are to grow into Christlikeness, knowing that this is a progressive process that will be completed only with our eventual glorification at the end of the age. In this life, we know a process of growing more holy, more sanctified, and more obedient to Christ. In the life to come, we will know perfection as Christ glorifies his Church.
This means that Christians cannot accept any argument that suggests that a fundamental reorientation of the believer’s desires in a way that increasingly pleases God and is increasingly obedient to Christ is impossible. To the contrary, we must argue that this process is exactly what the Christian life is to demonstrate. As Paul writes, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.” [2 Corinthians 5:17]
The Bible is also honest about the struggle to overcome sin and sinful desires. Paul writes about this in Romans 7, but the exhortations of the entire New Testament also make this clear. Christians with same-sex sexual desires must know that these desires are sinful. Thus, faithful Christians who struggle with these desires must know that God both desires and commands that they desire what He wills for them to desire. All Christians struggle with their own pattern of sinful desires, sexual and otherwise. Our responsibility as Christians is to be obedient to Christ, knowing that only He can save us from ourselves.
Christians cannot avoid the debate over reparative therapy, nor can we enter the debate on secular terms. We must bring to this conversation everything we know from God’s Word about our sin and God’s provision for sinners in Christ. We will hold no hope for any sinner’s ability to change his or her own heart, and we will hold little hope for any secular therapy to offer more than marginal improvement in a sinner’s life.
At the same time, we gladly point all sinners to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, knowing that all who call upon the name of the Lord will be saved. [Romans 10:13] We hold full confidence in the power of the Gospel and of the reign of Christ within the life of the believer. We know that something as deeply entrenched as a pattern of sexual attraction is not easily changed, but we know that with Christ all things are possible.
And, even as Christians know that believers among us struggle to bring their sexual desires into obedience to Christ, this is not something true only of those whose desires have been homosexual. It is true of all Christians. We will know that those believers who are struggling to overcome homosexual desires have a special struggle — one that requires the full conviction and support of the body of Christ. We will see the glory of God in the growing obedience of Christ’s redeemed people. And, along with the Apostle Paul and all the redeemed, we will await the glory that is yet to be revealed to us.
Just the Facts About Sexual Orientation and Youth: A Primer for Principals, Educators, and School Personnel, (Just the Facts Coalition/American Psychological Association, 2008). [Full document available here as a PDF file.]