Is Same-Sex Attraction Sinful?

A couple weeks ago I gave a paper at the Evangelical Theological Society's Annual meeting. The paper was part of a seminar on sexual orientation and the topic was: "Is Same-Sex Attraction Sinful?" Two other participants also gave papers: Denny Burk and Wesley Hill. Denny concluded that same-sex attraction (not just behavior) is sinful, while Wes Hill argued that it is not. I've included my paper below in its entirety. I know that this will make for a terribly long blog post, but I've had several people ask me for the paper, so I thought that it would be convenient to post it here in its entirety. But first, a couple caveats: 1) The footnotes didn't come through and the Greek font is a bit jumbled, and 2) the first 1/2 of the paper addressed same-sex orientation in the ancient world, so if you're only interested in my response to the question (is SSA sinful?), you can scroll down to the second 1/2 of the paper. I didn't alter anything in my paper; it's posted as is. However, there are a few things I'd probably tweak if I were to give it again.

Introduction One of the most widely assumed claims about same-sex orientation (SSO) is that ancient writers—including Paul—were unaware of such a concept. Most affirming writers, and some non-affirming writers, tak this claim for granted. James Brownson, for instance, says that “[w]riters in the first century, including Paul, did not look at same-sex eroticism with the understanding of sexual orientation that is commonplace today” and that “the notion of sexual orientation was absent.” The upshot for interpreting Romans 1, in Brownson’s work, is that Paul cannot be critiquing something that does not exist; and if Paul did not know of any gay people acting out their fixed sexual orientation within a consensual marriage, then Romans 1 cannot not apply to same-sex marriages today. In short, Paul didn’t know about SSO; therefore, his words can’t apply to people with a fixed SSO.

Now, some non-affirming writers respond by saying, it doesn’t matter (whether or not Paul knew about SSO). I’m going to argue that it’s historically inaccurate and it doesn’t matter; that is, some ancients did have some parallel beliefs (speculations) about biologically shaped same-sex sexual desire. But even if they didn’t, this wouldn’t change the logic of Romans 1.

Ancient Forms of Same-Sex Orientation Greco-Roman writers wrestled with many theories and speculations about the inborn and even fixed nature of same-sex desires; that is, in the narrow sense of desires to engage in same-sex sexual activity.

Aristotle for instance said that some homoerotic desires come from habit, but others spring from nature (Eth., 1148b). Another ancient writer argued that the reason some men desire to be anally penetrated is due to a biological defect whereby semen is excreted into the anus, creating a need for friction (Pseudo-Aristotelian, Problemata, 4.26). [NOT ENDORSING THE MEDICAL VALIDITY HERE!] Again, I’m not equating modern day SSO with a desire to be penetrated. But here, the desire to engage in homosexual sex is inborn and biological. Parmenides, an early 5th century B.C. philosopher whose works significantly influenced Plato, believed that sexually passive men (i.e. men who desired to be penetrated by other men) were “generated in the act of conception” (Soranus, On Chronic Disorders, 4.9.134). The Ephesian Greek physician Soranus—a contemporary of Paul—also believed that homoerotic desires are shaped more by nature rather than nurture, but locates the source of the desire in the mind or spirit (De morbis chronicis, 4.131, 132, 134).

Bernadette Brooten, whose landmark book on female homoeroticism in the ancient world, Love Between Women, has argued convincingly from astrological, medical, and magical texts, that speculations about same-sex orientation were plentiful in the Greco-Roman world. For instance, one astrological text says: “If the Sun and Moon are in masculine signs and Venus is also in a masculine sign in a woman’s chart, women will be born who take on a man’s character and desire intercourse with women like men” (Maternus, Matheseos libri viii, 7.25.1). Another astrological text, Carmen Astrologicum, written around the time Paul was sending his letter to the Roman church, says that if the sun and moon are at a particular location when women are born, they “will be a Lesbian, desirous of women, and if the native is a male, he will be desirous of males” (2.7.6). After looking at many more examples, Brooten concludes: “Contrary to the view that the idea of sexual orientation did not develop until the nineteenth century, the astrological sources demonstrate the existence in the Roman world of the concept of a lifelong erotic orientation.”

And then there’s the famous story in Phaedrus’ Fable, which was written around the time of Paul. Here, the author presents a mythological account about why some people desire sex with the same gender. He says that the god Prometheus got drunk and attached male genitalia to women and women genitalia to men. In other words, some women are trapped in men’s bodies and some men are trapped in women’s bodies (Phdr. 4.16). The account, of course, is mythical and humorous, but nonetheless reflects ancient assumptions that a desire for same sex intercourse is inherent. And while it sounds more like an ancient explanation of why some people are transgender, the leading question in the story is: “what cause created Tribads (viz. women who rub) and soft men (viz. male passive partner),” which in context refers to women who desire sex with women, and men who desire to be penetrated by men.

Now, David Halperin has looked at many of these same texts and argued that it would be wrong to find in them some ancient form of sexual identity. And he’s right. We can’t use these texts to show that homosexuality as a sexual identity existed as such back then. It didn’t. As is widely acknowledged and almost universally agreed upon by scholars of all persuasions, the Greco-Roman world did not have the same category of what we call homosexuality or gay/lesbian as a sexual identity. Ancient writers thought in terms of gender identity and not sexual identity, and gender identity didn’t depend on who you liked to have sex with.

For instance, Joe would be considered manly if he had thick chest hair, didn’t cry on the battlefield, and didn’t wear soft, elegant clothes, even if Joe loved to have sex with Frank. As long as Joe was the active partner in bed, he wouldn’t be considered feminine. Frank, on the other hand, could be married to a woman, have several children, enjoy sex with several women on the side, and still be considered feminine if he played the passive role in his Brokeback Olympus affair with Joe.

This is what I mean when I say that the ancients thought in terms of gender identity (manliness or womanliness) and not sexual identity. And in this sense, the modern category of homosexuality—people who are attracted to other people of the same sex—does not quite fit the Greco-Roman worldview. Halperin is right. And I agree.

However, this doesn’t change the narrow point I’m making. I’m not saying that we should read into the ancient material some modern idea of “homosexuality” as a sexual identity. However, what I am saying is that ancient writers did speculate about inborn same-sex sexual desires. People who had these desires weren’t called “gay;” such an identity didn’t exist back then. But I don’t think this really matters. What matters is that they believed in an ancient form of an inborn and sometimes fixed desire to have sex with people of the same gender.

James Brownson’s assumption that “[w]riters in the first century, including Paul, did not look at same-sex eroticism with the understanding of sexual orientation that is commonplace today” and that “the notion of sexual orientation was absent” is slightly correct but largely incorrect. Yes, first-century writers did not have the same understanding that we do about sexual orientation. Obviously. But they did express some relevant parallels.

Sexual Orientation and Romans 1 What does this mean for Romans 1? Well, not much. Paul’s condemnation of same-sex eroticism in vv. 26-27 is rooted in God’s created order—a point we don’t have time to tease out. In other words, when men have sex with men, and when women have sex with women, it goes against the Creator’s intention for how humans are to relate to each other sexually. Whether such sex is pederastic (man on boy), exploitative, consensual, forced, extra marital, marital, or the byproduct of a fixed sexual orientation established at birth—it goes against the Creator’s intention; it’s “not the way it’s supposed to be.”

But even if we say that Paul might have re-written Romans 1 had he known about sexual orientation, this argument still doesn’t work. We cannot appeal to the absence of such a view (viz. ancient form of SSO) in Paul’s cultural environment and then project it upon Paul as Brownson does, since, as we’ve seen, such a view was not absent in Paul’s cultural environment.

In sum, it doesn’t matter whether Paul knew about SSO, and it’s historically inaccurate to assume he didn’t.

Is Same-Sex Attraction Sinful? But let’s shift gears a bit. What does Romans 1 actually say about sexual orientation (or same-sex attraction; SSA)?

Some people argue that Paul’s reference to “dishonorable passions” (Rom 1:26) and men who were “inflamed with lust for one another” (Rom 1:27) refer to what we call same-sex attraction. “Sexual desire that fixates on the same-sex is sinful, and that is why God’s judgment rightly falls on both desires and actions.” Therefore, both same-sex erotic behavior and same-sex attraction are sinful.

While there is some merit to this argument, I some questions, or “ya buts…;” perhaps, you could call them percolating disagreements.

First, we can quickly dismiss Romans 1:27, since it’s not talking about same-sex attraction but same-sex lust. Paul uses a completely different phrase in 1:27 than in 1:26 (or 1:24) that refers to passions that accompany and drive sexual arousal. But this phrase is a far cry from what people mean by same-sex attraction.

Second, I don’t think it’s accurate to equate what people mean by same-sex attraction to what the Bible says about sexual desire. SSA is a general disposition, regardless of whether someone is acting on, or even thinking about, it.

For instance, when I say that I’m heterosexual that means that I’m attracted to women. It describes my sexual orientation. Whether I’m sleeping or awake, whether I’m studying or when I’m at the beach, I never cease to be heterosexual. I’m attracted to females; that’s my orientation. This doesn’t mean that I’m slobbering around 24/7 wanting to hump every female I see. That would be lust, not attraction. Put differently: My experienced (conscious) desire to have sex with someone is a narrow part of my OSA, but it doesn’t constitute my OSA. And being heterosexual also doesn’t mean that I’m only opposite-sex attracted to my wife. That’s not what OSA means. My opposite-sex attraction certainly includes my wife, but isn’t limited to my wife. I’m opposite-sex attracted to the female species, though I’m in love with and (should only) sexually desire my wife.

Therefore, living in the constant state of opposite sex attraction isn’t sinful, even though it’s only okay for me to act on that attraction with one member of the female species. Likewise, living in the constant state of same-sex attraction doesn’t mean that someone is living in a 24/7 state of morally culpable sin. Again, one doesn’t cease to be SSA when they are sleeping.

So I don’t think that our modern concept of same-sex attraction can be neatly mapped onto the sinful “desires” that the Bible talks about.

Third, it would be wrong to reduce same-sex attraction to a desire to have sex. Same sex attraction refers “an enduring pattern of emotional, romantic, and/or sexual attractions to” someone of the same sex and includes other non-sexual relational bonds such as “affection between partners, shared goals and values, mutual support, and ongoing commitment” (APA). SSA is not just about actively wanting to have sex.

This is a serious confusion of categories that can be quickly solved by actually listening to LGBTQ people. Being gay—or being same-sex attracted—doesn’t mean you walk around wanting to have lots of gay sex any more than being straight means that you walk around wanting to have lots of straight sex. Being same-sex attracted includes a wealth of other quite virtuous emotions and desires toward members of the same sex; it cannot be narrowly and ignorantly reduced to a volcanic hunger for sex. SSA includes a desire for conversational intimacy, same-sex physical touch, emotional bonds, companionship, doing life together, and expressing mutual affection toward members of the same sex. And if all of this sounds “gay” to you, then David and Jonathan really were gay, since I’m alluding to 1-2 Samuel.

My celibate Lesbian Christian friend Julie Rogers, for instance, describes her SSA as

an overall draw toward someone of the same sex, which is usually a desire for a deeper level intimacy with those of the same sex. Just like a heterosexual orientation can’t be reduced to a desire for straight sex, a gay orientation can’t be reduced to a desire for gay sex. This longing for intimacy is usually experienced as a desire for nearness, for partnership, for close friendship, rich conversation, and an overall appreciation of beauty.

Julie also says that

Over the course of the 10,080 minutes that go by in a given week, very few of those minutes (if any at all) are likely comprised of sexual thoughts about other women, and moments when one dwells on those thoughts (lust) are even more rare. In those instances—those rare instances—when one dwells on lustful thoughts, we can all agree that it’s sinful.

Most gay Christians I know say the same thing. SSA is much broader than just a drooling desire for gay sex. SSA includes a virtuous desire to be intimate—in the David and Jonathan, or Jesus and John sense of the phrase—with people of the same sex. I wonder if it’s an athletic, militaristic, MMA, nacho eating, deer hunting, muscular version of (American) Christianity that has stiff armed the very idea of men having intimate and affectionate relationships with men and labeled them as gay. Maybe, just maybe, straight men can learn a good deal from gay Christian men about what it means to be a Christian man, who can say to each other, as David said, “your love to me was extraordinary, surpassing the love of women” (2 Sam 1:26).

Fourth, Romans 1 appears to conflate desire and action. That is, Paul doesn’t seem to view a naked desire apart from a sinful action. (But SSA is something that is not acted upon.) Notice that when Paul mentions the “passions of dishonor” (pa¿qh aÓtimi÷aß) in 1:26 he immediately explains these desire by describing an action: “for (ga»r) even their women exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural ones.” Paul is talking about women having sex with women. And he doesn’t consider the “passions of dishonor” separate from the act. It’s the whole entire event—the act and the desire that fueled the act—that’s condemned as sin.

In fact, it’s likely that the “passions of dishonor” in 1:26 collects both the desire and act from 1:24 and applies it to female homoeroticism in 1:26. Notice the parallel:

desires of their hearts…to dishonor their bodies” (1:24) “passions of dishonor…for (ga»r) their women exchanged…” (1:26)

Inherent in the phrase “passions of dishonor” are both the desire and action from v. 1:24. This means that “passions of dishonor” assumes that one is acting on those desires, which is why Paul continues by talking about a sinful act in vs. 26b (“for [ga»r] even their women exchanged…”).

In 1:24 and in 1:26 (the latter draws upon the former), the desire and the behavior are viewed as one grand act of rebellion.

Paul isn’t talking about some sort of attraction that’s not acted upon. He’s not talking about Julie’s orientation that still exists when she’s asleep at night, or while she’s living life during the 1,000 hours during the week where she’s not thinking about sex yet continues to be sexually orientated to the same sex. That is, Paul doesn’t have in mind a general orientation toward members of the same-sex, the preconscious, un-chosen, un-acted upon orientation of Christ followers. He’s describing a sinful act and includes the desire that led to that act. But he doesn’t condemn some sort of general attraction that’s not acted upon. That’s not what Paul is talking about.

I think this is where James 1:13-14 is helpful: “each person is tempted when they are dragged away by their own desire and enticed. Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death.”

Notice that James distinguishes between a desire, and desire that “gives birth to sin.” A woman may give birth to a child, but the woman herself is not the child. Likewise, in James’ own words, desire may give birth to sin, but this means that desire itself is not sin.

SSA can be a product of the Fall—like blindness—and yet not be a morally culpable sin. And blindness, though part of a disordered creation, contains the positive potential for uniquely seeing the world. And the same is true for SSA Christians, who more often than not recognize more clearly the deep human need for intimate, same-sex relations—something all people need but few people realize; or a stronger realization that the one’s primary familial identity is in the church and not in one’s nuclear family. Celibate gay Christians cling to and celebrate God’s focus on the family, which was reconfigured when Jesus said, “whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.” Gay Christians get this and long for this more than that straight Christians.

God could hijack a person’s SSA and bend it to cultivate a better way of seeing and experiencing the world. Yes—God might just be that sovereign.