In contemporary discussions of homosexuality, it is commonplace to distinguish homosexual orientation from homosexual behavior. Usually, the distinction goes something like this: Orientation refers to one’s inner disposition while behavior addresses one’s moral choices. John and Paul Feinberg state it this way:
Homosexuality as a sexual orientation means that a person has a strong and abiding preference for members of the same sex and desires to act on that sexual preference… Homosexual behavior refers to specific sex acts between members of the same sex.
Some Christian ethicists take this observation a step further and argue that we must make a moral distinction between orientation and behavior. On this view, homosexual behavior is a choice and thus morally blameworthy. Homosexual orientation is not a choice and thus not morally blameworthy. This point of view has become routine even among some who identify themselves as evangelical. A couple examples to illustrate the point. Dennis Hollinger writes:
I would suggest that orientation is not the primary ethical issue. From a theological perspective, it is a result of the fallenness of our world… But orientation is not usually a result of a person’s willful, sinful choice. Hence, the ethical judgment on homosexuality is not about orientation or homoerotic impulses.
Likewise, Joe Dallas and Nancy Heche write:
If a person’s primary sexual attractions are toward the same sex, the person’s orientation is homosexual… If a person’s sexual attractions are toward both sexes, the person’s orientation is bisexual… The Bible does not condemn homosexual or bisexual orientation as a deliberate sin, but any deliberate expression of homosexuality, through actions, sexual fantasy, or lust, is biblically prohibited.
I do not dispute that there is a legitimate distinction to be made between orientation and behavior. I do question, however, whether the Bible supports the notion that only homosexual behavior is sinful while homosexual orientation is not. Evangelicals would generally agree with Hollinger that homosexual orientation in some way stems from the Fall. But in what way? Does homosexual orientation comprise a natural evil only? Or is it also a moral evil? Is it something that primarily requires healing (like cancer), or is it something that requires vigilant repentance (like pride)? How we answer these questions has enormous pastoral implications for those brothers and sisters who experience same-sex attraction. What follows is my attempt to answer these questions biblically and to suggest some pastoral implications.
Does the Bible address sexual orientation?
It is sometimes claimed that sexual orientation is a modern concept that would have been completely foreign to the writers of scripture. But is that really true? It depends entirely on how one defines the term “orientation.” The American Psychological Association defines sexual orientation in this way: “Sexual orientation refers to an enduring pattern of emotional, romantic and/or sexual attractions to men, women or both sexes.” Notice that orientation involves a person’s enduring sexual attractions and that sexual attraction is a virtual synonym for sexual desire. Thus sexual orientation is one’s persistent pattern of sexual desire/attraction toward either or both sexes.
If that is the definition, then the term “orientation” does not somehow take us to a category that the Bible doesn’t address. The Bible says that our sexual desires/attractions have a moral component and that we are held accountable for them. Jesus’ remarks on the nature of heterosexual desire are a case in point:
Mathew 5:27-28 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery’; but I say to you, that everyone who looks on a woman to lust for her has committed adultery with her already in his heart.”
The word that Jesus uses for “lust” is the exact same term used in the tenth commandment’s prohibition on coveting: “You shall not desire/covet your neighbor’s wife” (Ex. 20:17; Deut. 5:21 LXX). Thus both Jesus and the tenth commandment censure not merely adulterous behavior but also the desire that precedes the behavior. The locus of such desire is the “heart.” As Jesus confirms elsewhere, adultery and every other kind of sexual immorality proceed from the heart (Mark 7:21).
The married man who experiences an adulterous lust for another woman is a man who experiences unwholesome attractions. His attraction may indeed be spontaneous and uninvited. It may indeed reflect his sexual orientation to be attracted to the opposite sex. But that married man may not appeal to his heterosexual “orientation” to absolve him of having feelings that he ought not feel. Jesus says such feelings are adultery within the heart. Likewise, a man who experiences a sexual attraction to another man may be experiencing feelings that are spontaneous and uninvited. His attraction may well reflect what he perceives to be his natural “orientation.” But that does not absolve him of having sexual feelings he ought not feel. The Bible judges such attractions as sinful lust—as coveting someone sexually. Thus the scripture does in fact speak to one’s enduring pattern of sexual attractions.
Is there a difference between desire and lust?
Sometimes it is claimed that we must make a moral distinction between mere desire and active lust—the former being morally neutral and the latter being sinful. But this is not a particularly biblical distinction. The word Jesus uses for lust in Matthew 5:28 (epithumeō) is used elsewhere in neutral and even positive ways. For example, Jesus says that “many prophets and righteous men desired (epithumeō) to see what you see, and did not see it” (Matthew 13:17). The word clearly means “desire,” and in this case the desire is a good thing. Whether the desire is good (as in Matt. 13:17) or evil (as in Matt. 5:28) depends entirely on what it is a person desires. That is why the same Greek term is rendered “desire” in some texts and “lust” in others. If you desire something good, then the desire itself is good. If you desire something evil, then the desire itself is evil. Same-sex attraction is clearly a desire that God forbids. How then can we possibly treat a persistent and enduring desire for the same-sex as morally neutral? Biblically, we cannot.
The apostle Paul also addresses the propriety of same-sex desires in Romans 1:26-27. To be sure, Paul says that homosexual behavior is sinful:
Romans 1:26-27 “Women exchanged the natural function for that which is unnatural, and in the same way also the men abandoned the natural function of the woman… men with men committing indecent acts.”
But he also says that the desires themselves are equally morally blameworthy and stand as evidence of God’s wrath against sin: “For this reason God gave them over to degrading passions… and [they] burned in their desire toward one another” (Rom 1:26-27). Sexual desire that fixates on the same-sex is sinful, and that is why God’s judgment rightly falls on both desires and actions. Again, the issue is not merely sexual behavior but also one’s enduring pattern of sexual attraction.
Answering an Objection
A common objection to the foregoing goes like this: “If a person cannot control whether they have same-sex attraction, how can that attraction be considered sinful?” This objection bases moral accountability upon whether one has the ability to choose his proclivities. But this is not how the Bible speaks of sin and judgment. There are all manner of predispositions that we are born with that the Bible nevertheless characterizes 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 morally accountable for? As we mentioned above, Jesus says that all such sins proceed from the heart and that we are therefore morally accountable for them (Mark 7:21). And this assessment is in no way mitigated by the fact that we come by it naturally or were born that way. As Richard Hays writes,
The Bible’s sober anthropology rejects the apparently commonsense assumption that only freely chosen acts are morally culpable. Quite the reverse: the very nature of sin is that it is not freely chosen. That is what it means to live “in the flesh” in a fallen creation. We are in bondage to sin but still accountable to God’s righteous judgment of our actions. In light of this theological anthropology, it cannot be maintained that a homosexual orientation is morally neutral because it is involuntary.
My conclusion is that if sexual orientation is one’s enduring pattern of sexual attraction, then the Bible teaches both same-sex behavior and same-sex orientation to be sinful. If this is true, there are numerous pastoral implications. I will mention just two:
1. This truth ought to inform how brothers and sisters in Christ wage war against same-sex attraction. Sin is not merely what we do. It is also who we are. As so many of our confessions have it, we are sinners by nature and by choice. All of us are born with an orientation toward sin in all its varieties. Homosexual orientation 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, homosexual orientation is the root, and homosexual behavior is the fruit. The Spirit of God aims to transform both (Rom. 8:13).
If same-sex attraction were morally benign, there would be no reason to repent of it. But the Bible never treats sexual attraction to the same sex as a morally neutral state. Jesus says all sexual immorality is fundamentally a matter of the heart. Thus it will not do simply to avoid same sex behavior. The ordinary means of grace must be aimed at the heart as well. Prayer, the preaching of the word, and the fellowship of the saints must all be aimed at the Holy Spirit’s renewal of the inner man (2 Cor. 4:16). It is to be a spiritual transformation that puts to death the deeds of the body by a daily renewal of the mind (Rom. 8:13; 12:2). As John Owen has famously said, “Be killing sin or it will be killing you.”
This is not to say that Christians who experience same-sex attraction will necessarily be freed from those desires completely in this life. Many such Christians report partial or complete changes in their orientation after conversion—sometimes all at once, but more often over a period of months and years. But those cases are not the norm. There are a great many who also report ongoing struggles with same-sex attraction. But that does not lessen the responsibility for them to fight those desires as long as they persist, no matter how natural those desires may feel.
Wesley Hill is a Christian who experiences persistent same-sex attraction, and he describes his struggle in such terms. He writes,
For me and other gay people, even when we’re not willfully cultivating desire, we know that when attraction does come… it will be attraction to someone of the same sex. And in those moments, it feels as though there is no desire that isn’t lust, no attraction that isn’t illicit… Every attraction I experience, before I ever get to intentional, willful, indulgent desire, seems bent, broken, misshapen.
Wesley goes on to describe his experience as a daily struggle against indwelling sin. His sexual orientation, therefore, is an occasion for vigilant repentance and renewal through the Holy Spirit:
My homosexuality, my exclusive attraction to other men, my grief over it and my repentance, my halting effort to live fittingly in the grace of Christ and the power of the Spirit—gradually I am learning not to view all of these things as confirmations of my rank corruption and hypocrisy. I am instead, slowly but surely, learning to view that journey—of struggle, failure, repentance, restoration, renewal in joy, and persevering, agonized obedience—as what it looks like for the Holy Spirit to be transforming me on the basis of Christ’s cross and his Easter morning triumph over death.
The Bible teaches that the Holy Spirit can bring about this kind of transformation in anyone—even if such progress is not experienced by everyone in precisely the same measure. As the apostle Paul writes, “Thanks be to God that though you were slaves of sin, you became obedient from the heart to that form of teaching to which you were committed” (Rom 6:17).
2. This truth ought to strengthen our love and compassion for brothers and sisters who experience same-sex attraction. For many of them, same sex attraction is something they have experienced for as long as they can remember. There is no obvious pathology for their attractions. The attractions are what they are even though they may be quite unwelcome. It is naïve to think that these people are all outside of the church. No, they are among us. They are us. They have been baptized, have been attending the Lord’s Table with us, and have been fighting the good fight in what is sometimes a very lonely struggle. They believe what the Bible says about their sexuality, but their struggle is nevertheless difficult.
Is your church the kind of place that would be safe for these dear brothers and sisters to come forward to find friendship and community? Does your church have its arms wide open to them to come alongside them, to receive them, and to strengthen them? Jesus said that the world would know us by our love for one another (John 13:35). One of the ways that we show love for one another is by bearing one another’s burdens (Gal. 6:2). Can you bear this burden with your brothers and sisters who are in this fight? Is your church ready to offer help and encouragement to these saints for whom Christ died? If not, then something is deeply amiss. For Jesus has loved us to the uttermost, and he calls us to do the same (John 13:34).
 John S. Feinberg and Paul D. Feinberg, Ethics for a Brave New World, 2nd ed. (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2010), 364.
 Dennis P. Hollinger, The Meaning of Sex: Christian Ethics and the Moral Life (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2009), 173.
 Joe Dallas, “Terms, Definitions, and Concepts,” in The Complete Christian Guide to Understanding Homosexuality: A Biblical and Compassionate Response to Same-Sex Attraction, ed. Joe Dallas and Nancy Heche (Eugene, OR: Harvest House, 2010), 98-99.
 E.g., John Boswell, Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality: Gay People in Western Europe from the Beginning of the Christian Era to the Fourteenth Century (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980), 109, 117.
 “Answers to Your Questions: For a Better Understanding of Sexual Orientation and Homosexuality,” American Psychological Association, 2008, http://www.apa.org/helpcenter/sexual-orientation.aspx.
 In this essay, I will treat sexual attraction as a synonym for sexual desire. I believe this is justified by common usage of these terms in the literature. For example, Hollinger says that persons with homosexual orientation experience “ongoing affectional and sexual feelings toward persons of the same sex” (Hollinger, The Meaning of Sex, 172). Likewise, Grenz describes homosexual orientation as “the situation in which erotic feelings are nearly exclusively triggered by persons of one’s own sex” (Stanley J. Grenz, Sexual Ethics: An Evangelical Perspective [Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 1997], 225). See also Jenell Williams Paris’ book in which orientation, attraction, and desire are all three used as virtual synonyms (Jenell Williams Paris, The End of Sexual Identity: Why Sex Is Too Important to Define Who We Are [Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2011], 99).
 BDAG confirms that the preponderance of this term’s use in the New Testament mean’s simply “desire,” not “lust.” See BDAG, s.v. “ἐπιθυμέω” 1: “to have a strong desire to do or secure someth., desire, long for.”
 Richard B. Hays, The Moral Vision of the New Testament: Community, Cross, New Creation, A Contemporary Introduction to New Testament Ethics (New York: HarperOne, 1996), 390.
 Feinberg and Feinberg, Ethics for a Brave New World, 385: “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.” So also James B. DeYoung, Homosexuality: Contemporary Claims Examined in Light of the Bible and Other Ancient Literature and Law (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2000), 293-94: “Homosexual orientation was known in the generations in which Scripture was written. Paul gives no indication that it does not fall under the general condemnations of homosexuality in Romans 1, 1 Corinthians, and 1 Timothy.”
 E.g., The New Hampshire Baptist Confession, III: “All mankind are now sinners, not by constraint, but choice; being by nature utterly void of that holiness required by the law of God, positively inclined to evil.”
 John Owen, “Of the Mortification of Sin in Believers,” in Temptation and Sin, The Works of John Owen 6 (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1967), 9.
 Mark A. Yarhouse, Homosexuality and the Christian: A Guide for Parents, Pastors, and Friends (Minneapolis, MN: Bethany House, 2010), 93-95.
 Wesley Hill, Washed and Waiting: Reflections on Christian Faithfulness and Homosexuality (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010), 136-37.
 Wesley Hill, Washed and Waiting: Reflections on Christian Faithfulness and Homosexuality (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010), 145.
Denny Burk is an Associate Professor of Biblical Studies and Ethics at Boyce College, the undergraduate arm of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. He also serves as an Associate Pastor at Kenwood Baptist Church, which is in Louisville as well. He also writes a daily commentary on theology, politics, and culture at DennyBurk.com. He is also the author of What Is the Meaning of Sex? (Crossway, 2013).