Homosexual Orientation, Attraction, Identity, and Practice: A Pastoral Approach

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Homosexual Orientation, Attraction, Identity, and Practice: A Pastoral Approach

Editors’ Note: Please read our introductory article on this topic. Views and opinions expressed by individual authors may not fully reflect the thinking of the Compass editorial team but are presented to facilitate further discussion and understanding within a biblical framework.

This reflection paper was triggered by some incidents whose mentioning would help to clarify the context of this writing. A church member came to my office for some information. While he waited, I was caught off-guard when he queried, “Pastor, have you heard that Andrews University has publicly endorsed homosexuality?”

Instinctively I dismissed his claim. He pressed on the possibility of truth in his assertion, citing that he sourced that information from a video discussion on WhatsApp (a social messaging site). I calmly allayed his fears, confident that my professors at the Seminary would not sacrifice their biblical convictions.[1]

Discussion shelved.

About five days later, a seminary colleague called me with some disappointment, lamenting that Andrews had released a pro-homosexual statement. His main concern was that the document calls for embracing homosexuals into membership and leadership.

In this article I want to share my reflections on the position statement, having gone through it myself in relation to the concerns I heard. The document, voted on October 9, 2015, is titled “An Understanding of the Biblical View on Homosexual Practice and Pastoral Care: Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary Position Paper” (hereafter noted as SPP). It is divided into two parts. Almost all the concerns raised stem from the second part of the statement, which deals with the pastoral care aspect.

The first part deals with a biblical understanding of sexuality. It narrows the scope by concentrating on what the Bible says about homosexuality. In summary, it affirms monogamous marital male-female relations as the creational context for sexual expression. Outside this context, every other form of sexual expression is a violation of God’s purpose for sexuality. The statement recognizes that the spectrum of this violation ranges from heterosexual immoralities to homosexual expressions of sexuality.

Embracing Homosexuals?

The Seminary document states: “All persons, including practicing homosexuals, should be made to feel welcome to attend our churches” (SPP 16).

While this might ring as a note of heresy in the ears of some people, it is not when viewed from a broader context. This was the easiest portion to explain to my friends. Note that the sentence refers to attending church, not becoming a member. If we expand that sentence, as I will illustrate, it resonates with the biblical invitation of all sinners to Christ: “All persons, including practicing homosexuals, prostitutes, liars, adulterers, and fornicators, should be made to feel welcome to attend our churches.”

There is nothing in the paper which suggests that their lifestyles should be endorsed or affirmed. A church where people are made to feel comfortable in their sins is as deadly as a church where sinners are not welcomed to experience the transforming power of the cross.

Distinguishing Homosexual Practice and Orientation

Though the statement does not define “homosexual practice” or “homosexual orientation,” it separates homosexuality into these two categories. Homosexual practice is later identified as homosexual or same-sex intercourse. It is this that the statement acknowledges that Scripture denounces. At the beginning of the paper, it asserts, “Homosexual practice is offensive to God” (SPP 1). Closing the first part, the statement concludes:

  • “First, Scripture teaches a uniform and explicit condemnation of homosexual practice” (SPP 13).
  • “All homosexual activity is against the creation order and against divine law and is, therefore, a sin that needs to be repented of, forgiven, and given up” (SPP 14).

To make the distinction between same-sex intercourse and same-sex orientation clear, the paper states, “It should be emphasized, however, that the biblical materials condemn homosexual practice, but there is no castigation of innate homosexual orientation per se” (SPP 14, bold emphasis mine).

It is pertinent that we pay attention to this assertion, since most of the claims in the pastoral section are based on the truth and validity of this claim.

What we need to do here is to ascertain the shades of meaning of same-sex attraction and see if Scripture castigates (rebukes) it. In other words, does Scripture call for repentance from only same-sex intercourse or both same-sex intercourse and attraction?

Standard Definition of Homosexual Orientation/Attraction

Although the paper does not define homosexual orientation, the following definitions might be helpful here:

  • Wikipedia: “As a sexual orientation, homosexuality is ‘an enduring pattern of emotional, romantic, and/or sexual attractions’ to people of the same sex.”
  • Dictionary.com: Homosexuality—”sexual desire or behavior directed toward a person or persons of one’s own sex.”

It would even be more helpful to look at a standard definition from the American Psychological Association:

Sexual orientation refers to an enduring pattern of emotional, romantic, and/or sexual attractions to men, women, or both sexes. Sexual orientation also refers to a person’s sense of identity based on those attractions, related behaviors, and membership in a community of others who share those attractions.

Taking the APA definition, homosexual orientation involves romantic/sexual attraction, and secondly, homosexual identity is based on those same-sex attractions. So the sexual attraction is what underlies the identity.

Is Scripture Silent on Same-Sex Attraction?

There seem to be some incongruities with regards to this in the statement. While claiming that Scripture does not castigate innate homosexual orientation, it acknowledges that “the apostle Paul specifically denounces homosexual lust and practice in three specific passages: Romans 1:24-27; 1 Corinthians 6:9-11; and 1 Timothy 1:10” (SPP 11). This expands what Scripture condemns by adding homosexual lust to homosexual practice (intercourse), unless it is argued that homosexual practice involves homosexual lust. In any case, we have to deal with homosexual lust.

The Greek word commonly translated as either “lust” or “desire” is teleological and neutral. It is the legitimacy or illegitimacy of the object of the desire or attraction that makes it sinful. Thus the word is translated negatively as “lust” or positively as “desire,” depending on the object.

It may be appropriate to ask if a desire for that which Scripture proscribes could be morally neutral. Jesus’ expansion of the Ten Commandments in Matthew 5:27-28 contains some universal principles that are supported by the rest of Scripture as well: “You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that whoever looks at a woman to lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (NKJV).

Adultery could be defined as sexual intercourse with any person other than your wife or husband. The seventh commandment forbids this. Here Jesus argues that beyond the act of adultery, the desire for a woman who is not your wife is sinful as well. The lust is sinful by itself, apart from the act, because it is misdirected teleologically to that which God forbids. This principle stands throughout Scripture with no exception.

On this ground, Scripture condemns same-sex attraction as well. It is a desire or attraction toward that which Scripture condemns. As Bahnsen perceptively acknowledges:

While heterosexual drives are God-given, promote the cultural mandate, and are fulfilled within marriage, homosexuality is always immoral in any context. Heterosexual desire is evil as lust (outside the marriage commitment), whereas homosexual desire is evil in itself (a perversion). In Romans 1 Paul does not restrict his censure to overt homosexual practices or “unseemly deeds.” His condemnation extends specifically to the homosexuals being “inflamed with desire” for each other. They are censured for having “impure lusts” and “shameful passions.”[2]

Affirming Same-Sex Attraction Identity

I find the statement’s affirmation of same-sex attraction as benign and something that does not need repentance problematic. Even more problematic is the call to affirm homosexuals’ identity as stated in the paper:

Others have pled with God to change them and have submitted to therapy with the goal of change but have not been changed. They have accepted their same-sex attraction as their lifelong reality, and have chosen a life of celibacy. . . . We affirm their identity as persons for whom Christ died (SPP 11, emphasis mine).

Since the paper claims that Scripture does not castigate innate homosexual orientation, it makes sense when it submits that “gay and lesbian members who choose to, and remain abstinent should be given the opportunity to participate in all church activities including leadership positions in the church” (SPP 17). The statement further claims, “They want and need a home in which they can be welcomed and accepted even though their sexual orientation is different” (SPP 18).

As pastors, we are called to show the love and compassion of Christ to all, being mindful of our own sinful tendencies, but this is not to compromise telling the truth as it is revealed in Scripture. Regardless of the pressure from our world to be politically correct, pastors are called to be a bastion of morality by upholding God’s Word faithfully. Commenting on this issue in the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, Denny Burk writes:

In the terms that Jesus teaches us, it is always sinful to desire something that God forbids. And the very experience of the desire becomes an occasion for repentance. And it is pastoral malpractice to tell someone who is feeling a sexual attraction for a person of the same sex that they need not repent. In the moment they feel their sexual desire aroused in such a way—in that moment—they must confess the desire as sinful and turn from it.[3]

Similarly, John and Paul Feinberg render this verdict on sexual orientation:

We stand firmly committed to the position that Scripture teaches that homosexual and lesbian orientation and behavior are contrary to the order for human sexuality God placed in creation. Hence they are sinful.[4]

Involuntary/Innate Homosexual Tendencies

Regarding the etiology of homosexual orientation, the Seminary paper states that it could be acquired or inherited, without going further into details (SPP 3). Further, it claims that “one is not culpable for these involuntary tendencies, but for acting upon them in their imagination or actual practice” (SPP 4). It could be argued that the innateness of a forbidden orientation does not exculpate it from sinfulness. All innate tendencies that are contrary to God’s will are condemned in Scripture. As for involuntary tendencies, Burk’s remark might be insightful:

There are all manner of predispositions that we are born with and that we experience as unchosen realities. Nevertheless, the Bible characterizes such realities as sin: pride, anger, anxiousness, just to name a few. Why would we put same-sex attraction in a different category than those other predispositions that we groan to be delivered from and that we are called to repent of? Jesus says that all such sins proceed from the heart and that we are therefore morally accountable for them (Mark 7:21). (108-9)

Unless we argue for a privileged status for homosexual orientation as an involuntary tendency, we must recognize that it is no different than other predispositions from which there is the need for repentance and deliverance. We must all wrestle with our tendencies, and this is every person’s battle regardless of sexual orientation.

A Different Shade of Meaning

All my arguments have been based on the understanding that there are only two categories: homosexual orientation (attraction) and homosexual practice (intercourse). The tenor of the paper also allows another way of understanding homosexual orientation as involuntary tendencies. As I have shown above, the statement asserts that homosexual practice and homosexual lust are condemned in Scripture, but not homosexual orientation. Elsewhere it argues that “one is not culpable for these involuntary tendencies, but for acting upon them in their imagination or actual practice” (SPP 4). Here too we have involuntary tendencies (homosexual orientation), acting in imagination (homosexual lust), and actual practice (homosexual intercourse).

This is illustrated in the pyramid below:

chart showing homosexual practice, desire, and orientation

The statement agrees with my understanding that the Bible condemns both homosexual practice and lust. What I have submitted is that same-sex attraction is equally condemned as lust since it is a misdirected desire forbidden by Scripture. Therefore, by arguing that Scripture does not condemn homosexual orientation, the statement may be defining homosexual orientation as something different from homosexual lust/desire/attraction. In that case, the paper argues for a third position. If this is a disposition that underlies same-sex attraction, we are not told the nature of this disposition that is different from homosexual lust.

Writing in Homosexuality, A Biblical View, Greg Bahnsen points to this understanding of homosexual orientation:

The secular version of the theory that homosexual orientation lies behind both desire and action asserts that something internal to certain men determines their homosexual attractions and actions. This “something” is labeled “a psychic condition, psychological disposition, physico-sexual orientation, or constitutional predisposition.” (70, emphasis mine)

As to whether such distinctions could be relevant to the biblical directives on homosexuality, I essentially agree with Bahnsen’s remarks:

If the distinction between homosexual orientation and acts is not a distinction between homosexual desires and overt acts, then those who insist upon the distinction must be thinking of some third thing apart from desires and acts — an alleged psychological disposition. However, those who so strenuously insist that this disposition must be distinguished have not distinguished or defined it clearly for us. And until they do, nothing can be made of their claim that it is morally neutral. Moreover, such a third thing apart from homosexual desires and acts is really inconsequential for ethics, in view of the fact that, whatever hidden factors may or may not be operative, Scripture holds the homosexual fully responsible for his desires (“impure lusts”) as well as his overt activities (“unseemly deeds”). (72-3)

Nature of Sexual Temptation

In the arena of sexual temptation, we are playing on the turf of humanity whether heterosexual or homosexual. It is noteworthy that sexual temptations can arise from either within or without. I want to make two observations here. First, a person’s culpability for sexual temptations from without is dependent on his response. As long as temptations without find no vibrating chord in the heart to respond to them, a person stands morally unsullied. That seems to be the experience of Christ in Scripture, who said, “I will no longer talk much with you, for the ruler of this world is coming, and he has nothing in Me” (John 14:30, NKJV).

Second, it seems that the very tendency to go astray (temptation) that arises from within is sinful and must be overcome. Even the position statement recognizes that: “To be sure, the implication of the seventh commandment and tenth commandment is that even the thoughts are to be kept pure, and sexual temptations arising from the fallen nature/orientation are to be resisted—both heterosexual and homosexual” (SPP 14, emphasis mine). This might partially reflect James’ assertion: ”But each one is tempted when he is drawn away by his own desires and enticed. Then, when desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, brings forth death” (James 1:14, 15, NKJV).

Here these impulses are just not neutral dispositions, or else they would not be tempting; they appear in the form of desire and lust waiting to be acted upon or aborted. Such impulses are teleological, though they may not find their full expression in act. The temptation is not a temptation to think or desire, which is already a given; it is a temptation to act or refrain from acting. Thus, temptations from within are sinful on both counts and must be overcome by the grace of God. That why we are admonished in Scripture to “gird up the loins of your mind” (1 Peter 1:13, KJV).

Homosexuality and Sermons

The Seminary paper states: “Most, if not all, have heard sermons that condemn homosexuals as persons, failing to distinguish between homosexual attraction or orientation and the practice of homosexuality” (SPP 15, emphasis mine). I want to further elaborate on this with emphasis on sermons. What have sermons got to do with homosexuals as persons, homosexual orientation, and the practice of homosexuality?

chart showing homosexual practice, desire, and orientationGoing back to my pyramid above, it is clear what is meant by “homosexual act” and “homosexual desires/attraction.” In Matthew 5:27-28, the Bible unequivocally condemns both sinful acts and illicit desires. Granted this, the underlying homosexual orientation is irrelevant to sermons since it is not even clear what is meant by that. Thus the major ethical concern and content of sermons are addressed to the levels of homosexual attraction and acts. Here it is not unbiblical to call whoever experiences homosexual attraction or acts out the desire to repentance. The Bible condemns both.

Some Analogies

The following analogies might illustrate what I mean.

  • “Most, if not all, have heard sermons that condemn homosexuals as persons, failing to distinguish between homosexual attraction or orientation and the practice of homosexuality.”

Contrast that with the following:

  • “Most, if not all, have heard sermons that condemn thieves as persons, failing to distinguish between kleptomaniacal orientation and the practice of stealing.”
  • “Most, if not all, have heard sermons that condemn liars as persons, failing to distinguish between lying inclinations and the practice of lying.”
  • “Most, if not all, have heard sermons that condemn adulterers as persons, failing to distinguish between adulterous orientation and the practice of adultery.”
  • “Most, if not all, have heard sermons that condemn those who commit incest as persons, failing to distinguish between incestuous orientation and the practice of incest.”
  • “Most, if not all, have heard sermons that condemn pedophiles as persons, failing to distinguish between pedophiliac attraction or orientation and the practice of pedophilia.”
  • “Most, if not all, have heard sermons that condemn those who have sex with animals as persons, failing to distinguish between zoolophiliac attraction or orientation and the practice of zoolophilia.”

Observations From the Analogies

Identifying sin only with acts is at best reductionistic in light of Scripture. Thus, trying to dichotomize the above orientations/inclinations and the actual acts, holding one as innocuous/benign and the other as sinful, creates a false dichotomy. As a matter of fact, sermons are not directed toward acts—we seldom see sinful acts. Rather, they are directed toward us as persons, whose orientations are warped by sin. The following quote from Charles Hodge might be helpful:

When a man is convinced of sin, it is not so much for specific acts of transgression that his conscience condemns him, as for the permanent states of his mind; his selfishness, worldliness, and maliciousness; his ingratitude, unbelief, and hardness of heart; his want of right affections, of love to God, of zeal for the Redeemer, and of benevolence towards men. These are not acts. They are not states of mind under control of the will; and yet in the judgment of conscience, which we cannot silence or pervert, they constitute our character and are just ground of condemnation.[5]

The locus classicus (key authoritative passage) is Christ’s elevation of the inner disposition of anger to the level of murder in terms of meriting the same outcome: “You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder, and whoever murders will be in danger of the judgment.’ But I say to you that whoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment” (Matt. 5:21-22, NKJV).

In light of this text, our very lying, adulterous, lustful, kleptomaniacal desires/inclinations are repugnant to the God who searches all hearts, and they must be confessed and repented of.

Ontology of Sin

I wholeheartedly agree with the statement that homosexuals and those fighting homosexual desires should be respected and supported. By denying this I would capitulate my right to be respected, since I am also a sinner struggling with some sinful orientations. However, as a preacher, I also recognize that there is no way to preach about sin without touching a person directly or indirectly.

Sin has no ontological status. It is contingent. And thus as long as we preach about any kind of sin, even abstractly, some embodied souls will be pinched. Are we then to muffle our sermons for convenience’ sake? Not at all. Preach the truth in love as defined by Scripture. Telling ourselves how sinful we are (not only homosexuality is sinful) only heightens our desperate need for a Savior. Mute sin, and our need for a Savior becomes lame and insignificant.

In conclusion, I think that while the position statement stands behind the monument of Scripture as a bulwark against the onslaught against the biblical position on homosexuality, its stance on homosexual orientation as benign does not stand up to scrutiny scripturally and might finally undo the whole structure it seeks to uphold.

Contrary to that stance, I heartily agree with Burk:

All of us are born with an orientation toward sin in all its varieties. The ongoing experience of same-sex sexual attraction is but one manifestation of our common experience of indwelling sin—indeed, of the mind set on the flesh (Rom 7:23; 8:7). For that reason, the Bible teaches us to war against both the root and the fruit of sin. In this case, same-sex attraction is the root, and same-sex sexual behavior is the fruit. The Spirit of God aims to transform both (Rom 8:13). (114)

______

Notes:

[1] I was still at Andrews when a conference on marriage and homosexuality was convened. In the conference, which culminated in the book Homosexuality, Marriage, and the Church (ed. Roy E. Gane, Nicholas P. Miller, and H. Peter Swanson [Berrien Springs, MI: Andrews University Press, 2012]), they stood firm on the biblical conviction on homosexuality as a deviation from biblical sexuality.

[2] Greg L. Bahnsen, Homosexuality, A Biblical View (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1978), 70.

[3] Denny Burk, “Is Homosexual Orientation Sinful?” JETS 58/1 (2015), 108.

[4] Feinberg and Feinberg, Ethics for a Brave New World, 385. Quoted in Burk, 101.

[5] Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1999) 2.107.

 

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Derick Adu serves as youth pastor for the Ghanaian Adventist Church in Columbus, Ohio.