This is the first in a 4-part series explaining why Equip uses “gay” and “gay Christian.” In this first post, we’ll describe foundational concepts of desire, temptation, and sin. Then, we’ll use those understandings to define what Equip means when we use the phrase “same-sex attraction.” For a condensed version of this series, check out Pieter’s recent article on the topic in Juicy Ecumenism. (Note: this post does not attempt to explain why Equip holds a historic sexual ethic.)
I am a Christian. I am gay. I believe that God’s best for every Christian, including me, is either a lifetime vocation of abstinent singleness for the sake of doing kingdom work with undivided attention or a lifetime vocation of opposite-sex marriage with an openness to raising children for the sake of the kingdom.
Faithful Christians disagree about the wisest terminology a Christian who is primarily attracted to the same sex and committed to a traditional sexual ethic should use. Over the past five years, concerned Christians have asked intellectually honest questions about my choice of language and the terminology Equip uses. This series will provide a thorough explanation for why Equip uses the word “gay” and the phrase “gay Christian.”
But before we jump into that primary question, we must first establish some more fundamental concepts and definitions.
Healthy desire and sexual temptation
In short, I use the phrase “same-sex attraction” to mean a temptation and a result of original sin. But same-sex attraction is not concupiscence, it is not a sin, and gay Christians are not guilty merely by experiencing temptation. To explain this definition, we must first define attraction, sin, temptation, original sin, and guilt more generally.
Augustine of Hippo’s discussion of desire and Thomas Aquinas’s discussion of passions provide the foundation for our understanding of attraction. Augustine and Aquinas argue that healthy desires/passions are God-given impulses toward good things God created. Healthy sexual attraction is a God-given desire to unite with an opposite-sex spouse in a self-giving way that is open to children. Healthy physical attraction is a God-given capacity to recognize physical beauty. Healthy relational attraction is a God-given desire for platonic friendship with another person.
Nothing exists that God has not created, and everything that God creates is good; therefore, evil has no positive existence in itself, but must always be a privation or perversion of something good. We sin when we choose a lesser good over a greater good or misuse some created good in a self-serving way.
Temptation, then, is an invitation to choose a lesser good over a greater good or misuse a created good in a self-giving way. Sexual attractions become temptation when they are directed toward an improper object (a person with whom one cannot enter into a legitimate sexual union). Physical attractions can become temptation when the beauty of another is selfishly misused as an object of lust. Relational attractions can become temptation when a desire for friendship is sexualized.
Why is this important? If temptation and sin are always misuses or corruptions of something good God created, then our response cannot be just to say no. We must identify the good, God-given desire that is being corrupted and meet that good desire in healthy ways.
Original sin and saying yes to temptation (sin)
Original sin refers to the fallen state of all humanity. Because of Adam’s sin, we have lost our original righteousness and, apart from God’s grace, our choices tend toward sin. On an individual level, original sin is a corruption and imperfection starting at our formation in the womb on a physical and spiritual level, inclining us to volitionally commit sins.
Free will has been weakened by original sin, but not destroyed. We do not have the capacity to choose or live perfectly, but a desire for good and a capacity to make good decisions remains inherent to the bent-but-not-destroyed image of God in each of us. When a person willfully sins, the person has fallen short of God’s standard of perfection and deserves punishment, referred to as guilt. A healthy response to this guilt is a feeling of inner turmoil, often referred to as “feeling guilty.”
However, a person is not guilty and does not need to feel guilty for being tempted. We are not committing actual sin when we are tempted. We are not responsible for our involuntary thoughts. While we need to recognize daily that we are fallen and need a savior, we do not need to confess or repent of specific temptations.
When we say “yes” to a temptation in thought, word, or deed, we have sinned. When we participate in the temptation, when we step toward the temptation in any way, we have crossed the line from temptation to sin. We have done something for which it would be healthy to feel inner turmoil. We have done something that we need to confess and repent of.
Why is this important? The Enemy often cultivates unhealthy shame in the Christian by falsely accusing him of already having sinned after merely experiencing temptation. This shame can then make it easier for the Christian to commit actual sin. Clearly distinguishing temptation from sin allows the Christian to accept culpability for actual sin while rejecting the Enemy’s messages of shame when a Christian has merely experienced (but resisted) temptation.
Sinful and concupiscence
“Sinful” can be used to modify an action to describe an evil deed. When a person performs a sinful action, the individual is guilty of sin. “Sinful” can also be used to modify a temptation or desire connected to a sinful action. When a person experiences a sinful desire or temptation but resists, the individual has not sinned. But when the person capitulates to a sinful desire or temptation, the individual has sinned.
Christians often use “sinful” in ways that are unclear to the hearer. Is the Christian saying something is related to something broken or sin in itself? To avoid this confusion, Equip refrains from using the word “sinful.”
Specifically, when we say yes to a sexual temptation in thought, this is frequently called lust. Lust is a sin. For some, if they have been in the habit of indulging sexual temptations by lusting, moving from temptation to lust may become seemingly automatic such that it is difficult to distinguish between the sexual temptation and the sin of lust.
The Greek word epithumia, most directly translated as “concupiscence,” is used in the Bible generally to refer to healthy desire and more narrowly to refer to lustful desire. In contexts when epithumia describes something illicit, it is consistently contained in a list of actions or contextualized in a way that assumes the individual is actively participating in a temptation (for example, Galatians 5:16-24 and James 1:14-15). Such lustful concupiscence is sin.
Applying these concepts to same-sex attraction
Same-sex attractions, as we define them, are primarily desires for healthy same-sex friendship that have been sexualized. They are a temptation to selfishly objectify the beauty of someone of the same sex, engage in same-sex sexual activity, or lust after someone of the same sex. Same-sex attractions are the result of original sin, an inborn distortion of healthy desires for same-sex friendship.
Clearly identifying the healthy desires that same-sex attraction are a distortion of can provide clarity for the most effective ways to respond to these temptations, because satisfying the true need can temporarily reduce the broken desire. Same-sex attractions are not a perversion of healthy sexual desire to unite with an opposite-sex spouse in a self-giving way that is open to children. Nor are same-sex attractions a sexualization of a pre-fall desire for same-sex romance unique to gay people. Instead, same-sex attractions are healthy desires for same-sex friendship that have been sexualized. In light of this distinction, what healthy desires should the gay Christian seek to fulfill to most faithfully resist same-sex attractions? Ardently pursuing opposite-sex marriage or seeking same-sex romantic companionship are unlikely to provide escape from the temptations of same-sex attraction. Instead, pursuing healthy same-sex friendship will satisfy the healthy desires distorted by same-sex attraction and will most effectively aid the gay Christian in resisting temptation.
Those who experience the temptation of same-sex attractions are not responsible for this brokenness nor do they need to feel inner turmoil or guilt. They are not sinning merely by being tempted with same-sex attraction. They do not need to confess or repent of same-sex attractions. God does not condemn a person to Hell merely for experiencing same-sex attraction.
But when a person says yes to same-sex attractions in thought, word, or deed, they have sinned. When an individual engages in same-sex sexual activity or lusts after a person of the same-sex, they ought to feel inner turmoil and understand that they have done something that they need to confess and repent of.
As same-sex attraction relates to the word “sinful,” if a person engages in same-sex sexual activity or commits same-sex lust, the individual has sinned. These actions are sinful. Additionally, the temptation of same-sex attraction is sinful, in the sense that it is related to a sinful action. But if a person experiences sinful same-sex attractions and yet resists these temptations, the individual is not guilty of sin.
The words “desire,” “lust,” “temptation,” and “attraction” are often used inexactly as they relate to same-sex attractions. Some use the word “desire” interchangeably with “lust.” Others use “desire” to mean both temptation and lust. Because of this confusion, we tend to avoid the word “desire” and more clearly speak about same-sex attractions as temptation and lust as sin.
As same-sex attraction relates to concupiscence, the temptation of same-sex attraction is not concupiscence because it is not yet lust. But when those tempted with same-sex attraction willfully choose to lust after someone of the same sex, that lust is concupiscence. For a majority of Christians who believe free will has been weakened but not destroyed, who believe original sin and concupiscence are related but not identical, this distinction is important.
Why is this important? Some have argued that temptations of same-sex attraction are sin in themselves. Then they argue that in order to faithfully mortify sin, gay Christians must daily seek sexual orientation change and cannot use the word “gay,” because using the word suggests a recognition that attractions will likely endure (a capitulation to temptations that are sins in themselves, in their eyes). However, if merely experiencing same-sex attraction is not a sin, gay Christians are not obligated to seek sexual orientation change or avoid words like “gay.”
Ultimately, we are most frequently asked these questions: “Do I need to feel guilty for experiencing same-sex attraction? Should I feel responsible for my same-sex attractions? Should I feel inner turmoil for my same-sex attractions? Am I sinning merely by being tempted with those attractions? Do I need to confess those temptations specifically or repent of those temptations specifically?”
To all of these questions, the answer is no.
Stay tuned for “Part 2: Identity in Christ” where we will explore what it means for gay people to have their identities in Christ and whether calling oneself gay compromises one’s faith and baptism.