This is the eighth article released in a series entitled, “Tensions: Navigating Current Issues as a Kingdom Citizen.” This article is by Pastor Rickey Primrose.
Same-sex attraction is a topic that churches rarely discuss, but one that we absolutely must begin paying attention to and talking about as believers. Our silence on this issue is often due to a lack of understanding, a fear of saying something wrong or dumb, or simply not thinking it’s a relevant issue needing attention. The reality is that same-sex attraction is a relevant issue. There are brothers and sisters in Christ in many churches who experience same-sex attraction, not to mention people in your own family who may struggle with this experience. Nobody wins when we refuse to address this topic, and I assure you our gospel is strong enough to withstand the weight of this issue.
I want to address three specific questions related to same-sex attraction. The first is more theological in nature, the latter two are more pastoral.
Is experiencing same-sex attraction a sin?
The short answer to this question is ‘no.’ However, in an effort to be a bit more nuanced, consider a few biblical observations.
First, the Bible teaches that homosexual acts are sinful. Homosexual acts are addressed explicitly in Scripture, and they are presented as sinful distortion of God’s will and design for human sexuality. Consider two quick examples:
“For this reason God delivered them over to disgraceful passions. Their women exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural ones. The men in the same way also left natural relations with women and were inflamed in their lust for one another. Men committed shameless acts with men and received in their own persons the appropriate penalty of their error.” (Romans 1:26-27)
“Don’t you know that the unrighteous will not inherit God’s kingdom? Do not be deceived: No sexually immoral people, idolaters, adulterers, or males who have sex with males, no thieves, greedy people, drunkards, verbally abusive people, or swindlers will inherit God’s kingdom.” (1 Corinthians 6:9-10)
To be sure, the Bible has much more to say about God’s intent and design for sex than what is presented in these two passages. Nevertheless, God’s word is clear that homosexual acts are always sinful.
Second, the Bible teaches that the fall affected all of creation, including human passion and desires. When sin entered into the world in Genesis 3, it not only affected our relationship with God but with all of creation. Cancer didn’t exist before the fall; neither did clinical depression or hurricanes for that matter. Paul says in Romans 8:20 that “creation was subjected to futility” as a result of sin. Sin had an effect on the entire created order, which includes human passions and desires.
Why do some people struggle more with anxiety or depression? Why are some more inclined to become addicted to alcohol? Why do some struggle with sexual desires that are outside of God’s design for sex (both heterosexual and homosexual desires)? Of course, these are complex questions with answers that include a number of factors, but once all the layers of the onion are removed, at the center is the biblical truth that sin coming into the world affected all of humanity and the entire human person, including our biology, psyche, and desires.
Finally, the Bible teaches disordered passions and desires are distinct from active sinning. There is an undeniable biblical category for being tempted without sinning. Hebrews 4:15 even says that Jesus was “tempted in every way as we are, yet without sin.” The reality that Jesus Himself experienced temptations prevents us from concluding that experiencing temptation is in itself sin.
Similarly, James 1:14-15 distinguishes between experiencing desires outside of God’s will and sinful actions. So, when someone who struggles with alcoholism is grappling with the desire to get drunk, the struggle with that desire is not sin. Sin occurs only if he or she acts upon the desire.
With all these biblical observations in mind, it would seem that we are on solid biblical grounds when we draw the conclusion that experiencing same-sex attraction is NOT in itself an act of sinning. Therefore, not only can genuine, born-again Christians experience same-sex attraction, there are, in fact, Christians who do in our church − and in most churches. Many of these dear brothers and sisters walk through this experience alone, uncertain whether or not it is safe to share their experience within the church.
What encouragement would you have for Christians who experience same-sex attraction?
Our identity is not what we desire or feel. Our new identity in Christ is something we will retain in God’s kingdom throughout eternity. For example, we will always and forever be adopted children of God in Christ. There are a number of characteristics of our present existence that, as we await our final redemption at the return of Christ, will be changed in glory. This includes the desires and feelings that we have today that are not aligned with God’s design. These are not temptations we will experience in Heaven and therefore cannot be rightly assigned to the place of personal identity. What you desire, or what you are attracted to, does not define who you are. The gospel of Jesus Christ defines who you are.
For that reason, I would discourage Christians who experience same-sex attraction from labeling themselves as a “gay Christian.” For one, this is a vague phrase that may be interpreted in a number of ways that are contrary to what you intend. But even for those who use this phrase simply to mean that they are naturally attracted to members of the same sex, I fear this language reinforces the deception that this specific type of attraction is a part of your personal identity. In the words of one author, “Attraction is real, but too flimsy to build an identity on.” You are a Christian. You are a child of God. You are redeemed. You are seated with Christ in the heavenly places. These gospel truths, not your attractions, define your identity. You are a Christian who happens to experience, in this life, same-sex attraction.
Jesus’s redemption removes all our shame even when temptations of various kinds remain. Those Christians who experience same-sex attraction that I have spoken with (or who are authors I’ve read) consistently share their struggle with feeling ashamed of this experience. It is important to remember that every Christian struggles in different ways. Becoming a child of God does not mean that the temptations of our flesh simply evaporate. To the contrary, the Christian life is a life of waging war against the sinful desires of the flesh, whatever those desires might be. The church is filled with people who are constantly battling with lust, anger, covetousness, gluttony, and a whole host of other temptations. “We also groan within ourselves, eagerly waiting for adoption, the redemption of our bodies” (Romans 8:23).
Just like the death of an animal in Genesis 3 provided a covering for the shame that sin brought to Adam and Eve, Jesus’s death provides a covering for the shame we feel over the corrupting effects sin has had on us. If you are in Christ, God has given you Christ’s perfect righteousness and has poured out the full weight of His wrath against your sin onto Christ (2 Corinthians 5:21). As a result, “there is now no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1). “No condemnation” means NO condemnation. No matter how flawed we feel, Christ sees us as His beautiful bride, without spot or blemish (Ephesians 5:27). He loves us perfectly, meaning He cannot love us less on our worst days and He cannot love us more on our best. His love is perfect and steadfast because it is based upon our inseparable union to His beloved Son. We are royal heirs with Christ, beloved children of God, a holy people for His own possession. There is no shame for those redeemed by Christ’s blood, despite the reality that the residual effects of sin remain.
Do not journey alone. The thought of sharing this particular struggle with brothers and sisters you are close to in the church may feel terrifying—How will they react? Will it ruin our friendship? Will I be shunned? Will rumors be spread? Will I be kicked out of the church? Our spiritual enemy often uses fear as a tool to keep us from actions and environments where spiritual encouragement and nurture are found. God never intended for Christians to walk alone in any aspect of the Christian life. We need our spiritual family, and when we do begin sharing our struggles with our church family we often find there are others who are struggling in the same way but were afraid of saying anything.
How can a church help those experiencing same-sex attraction?
Don’t make assumptions. What types of assumptions am I talking about? For one, don’t assume that this isn’t an issue for people in our church or your Community Group. We need to start by recognizing that same-sex attraction is a reality in the church among both youth and adults. This includes not only people who experience same-sex attraction themselves, but those who have children and family members who do. We must avoid the assumption that this issue is only ‘out there’ in the world.
We also need to avoid assumptions regarding what causes same-sex attraction. It is neither fair nor loving to assume every person affected by this has experienced either sexual abuse or had an absent father in their past that caused them to have these experiences. This may be the case in some instances, but not in all. Neither should we assume that their same-sex attractions are like switches they can choose to turn on or off. We can love our brothers and sisters who experience this by avoiding assumptions and instead listening to their experiences and struggles.
Create a safe space for people to share this and other struggles. Here at MacArthur Blvd, we call this “extending gospel grace.” We want to cultivate a culture within our groups and relationships in the church where people feel they can transparently share their sins, struggles, temptations, and fears without the worry of expulsion or gossip. This doesn’t mean we minimize sin or become satisfied simply to wallow in our struggles. It means we all honestly acknowledge the reality that we are all sinful, broken, weak people who need one another in our pursuit of Christ-likeness.
Tim Keller has said that the church should feel more like a waiting room for a doctor and less like a waiting room for a job interview. In the latter, everyone is trying to look as impressive as they can. In the former, everyone understands that those there are sick and need help. This is a much better depiction of what happens when Christians come together.
A very practical way we can create a safe place for people to share their experience with same-sex attraction is by being careful in how we talk about homosexuality. Unfortunately, Christians still speak about homosexuality in hurtful and pejorative ways. This includes using rude homosexual slurs or describing something you don’t like as being “gay.” Not only is this speech unbecoming of a child of God, it communicates to those who struggle with same-sex attraction that this is not a safe place to share this struggle. We can be honest about sin and God’s design for human sexuality without being rude, insensitive, and hateful.
Be ready to respond with love. If someone opens up to you about their struggle with same-sex attraction, you don’t want to appear like a deer in headlights. Recognize that sharing this experience with you takes incredible courage on their part, and they are sharing that experience with you because they believe you are trustworthy. You can begin by thanking them for trusting you enough to share this part of their life with you and commend them for their courage in opening up. Look them in the eye and assure them of Jesus’s love for them, and remind them of who they are in Christ.
After that, the best thing you can do in that moment is listen, listen, and then listen some more. This is not a time for you to offer a theological discourse on biblical sexuality, nor a time for speculation or an examination of their doctrine. This is a time to listen and allow them to share their burden. Ask questions like, “When did you first know you had these experiences?” “What has this experience been like?” “In what ways have you felt wounded as a result of this?” After listening, pray and seek the Lord for appropriate words of wisdom and compassion.
Praise God for His redemption and the power of the gospel that frees us both from the penalty and power of sin! It is because of the gospel that we can talk openly and transparently about sensitive issues. It is God’s perfect love that drives out all fear (1 John 4:18). Let’s not live by fear, but by the security that is ours in Christ Jesus.