Same Sex Attraction and Mortification
How should churches respond to its members who identify as same-sex attracted, yet are intentionally remaining celibate? Should they be celebrated for their chastity? Taught to repent of these illicit desires? The confessional Reformed world over the past 15 years has with one voice affirmed that sex is reserved for the bounds of marriage, a divine institution which is to be exclusively between men and women. However, there remains disagreement in both theology and pastoral practice in how to address those who claim a same-sex attracted identity while remaining celibate.
For instance, a comparison of reports on human sexuality from North American, WRF member denominations, such as the Christian Reformed Church, the Presbyterian Church in America, Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church, and my own Evangelical Presbyterian Church, shows a range of approaches to the subject. All the reports are compatible with the confessional Reformed tradition, but there are some differences. These differences arise from holding to distinct confessional systems (Three Forms of Unity vs. Westminster Standards), to varying approaches to concupiscence, to asking different questions and therefore providing different answers.
I have previously written for the WRF on the subject of same-sex attraction and Westminsterian confessionalism (here and here). In sum, I argue that in addition to what the various denominational reports conclude that i) same-sex attraction or orientation can be a description of a propensity to temptation rather than a tendency to sinful sexual desire; ii) a propensity to temptation can arise both internally in the individual from the corruption of original sin and be externally inflicted upon them as a result of the estate of misery; and iii) the mortification of sin and the flesh is a more helpful category than repentance for those who are celibate and same-sex oriented.
In the spirit of providing a framework for greater dialogue and partnership across Reformed churches, below are ten theses, derived from these previous articles. My hope is that they would serve as a helpful theological foundation to guide pastoral practice in engaging with Christians who identify as same-sex oriented.
1) Sexual activity outside of marriage is sinful. “Activity” includes encouraging or cultivating erotic desire outside the bounds of God’s design and end for marriage. Since erotic desire for members of the same-sex is sinful, encouraging or fostering an orientation to that desire is itself sinful.
2) Sinful desire is both the result of original, indwelling sin, and is itself sin. Sinful desire must be hated, lamented, and denied by the Christian. This is repentance.
3) An orientation towards sexual temptation and sin, including sinful desire, is a result of the fall into sin. An orientation towards temptation and sin arises both in the heart of a person (original, indwelling sin) and from outside the person as they live in the estate of misery.
4) An orientation to sinful temptation does not necessarily entail indulging the sin. Being oriented towards a sinful temptation means that a person experiences a besetting, regular tendency in being tempted towards sinful desire.
5) Sinners must repent of sin, including sinful desires, whether conscious or unconscious. Sinners must also mortify orientations to temptation and sin. Mortification is the active resistance of sin and temptation in reliance upon the grace of God to crucify the body of weakness (Romans 8:13, Galatians 5:24, Colossians 3:3-5), a body which tends towards sin. Orientations to sexual temptation and sin must be mortified as a part of Christian duty. Failure to mortify orientations to sin and temptation is itself sin and should be repented.
6) Since orientation to sexual temptation and sin is a result of the fall, it will be healed in glory. Since it tends its bearer towards temptation and sin, it is distinct from other sinful miseries which beset people in this life (e.g. Down syndrome) and therefore is neither good nor to be celebrated or encouraged. A LGBT/SSA orientation is an orientation of being tempted to a sinful sexual desire. It is not an increased affinity or appreciation for the same sex, but is definitionally a tendency towards temptation to sinful sexual activity.
7) Sanctification of sin and all misery will be complete in glory. Sanctification from sin will be partially complete in this life. No particular besetting sin or weakness is promised full relief in this life, but progress in sanctification over all indwelling sin in the believer is promised in this life. Therefore, healing from orientation to sexual temptation and sin now is not guaranteed, but it is possible and should be pursued in the course of the mortification of the flesh (1 Thess. 4:3).
8) To identify with an orientation to temptation sin (e.g. gay Christian, same-sex attracted) can mean labeling one’s self in terms of social experience or labeling one’s self spiritually in terms of struggle against temptation. In this regard, though the term should be used with caution to avoid confusion, identifying as a gay Christian is fine. To identify with an orientation to sin as an expression of solidarity (this orientation is good and should be celebrated) or normativity (this is ontologically who I am and is my true, fixed and unalterable self) is to encourage or foster orientation to sin and temptation rather than the mortification of it, and is not acceptable for the Christian.
9) Those who identify as LGBT/SSA in the sense of a besetting temptation to sexual sin need to mortify that orientation. Mortification precludes the celebration of any orientation towards sin. Failure to mortify sinful temptations is sin and needs repentance. Acquiescing to sinful impulses and affections is sin, and demands repentance: Those who identify as LGBT/SSA in the sense of ongoing sexual desire need to repent of that orientation.
10) All Christians are called to deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow Jesus. Those who are oriented to sinful sexual desires and temptations are no different. Repentance is a constant turning from sin to find forgiveness, and the penitent sinner should sin less and less. Holiness in conduct and mind should define the penitent sinner. Mortification is the constant struggle to not only resist temptation, but to kill it. The besetting weakness may endure for some time, without appearance of change or any success. The church should resist prescribing normative timelines, postures, vocabulary, and experiences in the mortification of sin lest additional burdens be heaped upon the cross of Christ.
Rev. Cameron Shaffer is the pastor of Langhorne Presbyterian Church (EPC, USA) and a member of the Board of Directors of the WRF.