Burk: Experience of same-sex attraction ‘occasion for repentance’
Christians experiencing same-sex attraction should repent of those desires, but God can transform a person’s sexual identity, said panelists at the Evangelical Theological Society annual meeting, Nov. 19.
“This is what I would say to guys in my church, is 'If you are in the moment feeling an attraction for a person of the same sex, that's an occasion for repentance,'” said Denny Burk, professor of biblical studies at Boyce College, the undergraduate school of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. “'Well, I didn't choose that.' That's still an occasion for repentance.”
Burk presented a paper titled “Is Same-Sex Orientation Sinful?” and participated in a panel discussion on the issue with fellow lecturers Preston M. Sprinkle, vice president of Boise extension at Eternity Bible College, and Wesley Hill, assistant professor of New Testament at Trinity School for Ministry and self-described celibate gay Christian.
In his paper, Burk assessed three components of same-sex orientation: sexual attraction, romantic attraction, and identity. Burk acknowledged same-sex attraction as a predisposition, but categorized it with sinful predispositions such as pride, anger, and anxiousness. Emotional attraction to the same sex, Burk argued, is sinful so long as it contains “sexual possibility.” The notion of same-sex orientation as a person’s identity is also sinful because “it invites us to embrace fictional identities that go directly against God’s revealed purposes for his creation,” he said.
The terms “homosexual” and “heterosexual” were “ways to describe an identity based on a person's pattern of sexual passions,” Burk added in the panel discussion. “That is not going to be helpful to us or useful to us at the end of the day if we add our endorsements to those identities.”
Burk, however, noted the necessity of using the terminology of sexual orientation, while “scrutinizing it from a biblical perspective” to focus on God’s purpose in creation for sexual desires.
Hill and Sprinkle likewise emphasized the importance of using the terms, even though they are not found in Scripture, for the purpose of recasting that language in a gospel context.
“To say that Christians will simply avoid altogether the language of sexual orientation — gay, lesbian, homosexuality — that would mean in my own experience forfeiting a lot of conversations with people from my own generation who that's just the language they speak,” said Hill, author of the forthcoming book, Spiritual Friendship: Finding Love in the Church as a Celibate Gay Christian.
Sprinkle’s paper, “Sexual Orientation in Paul’s World: It’s Not What You Think,” focused on the absence of understanding sexual orientation as identity in the first century. In the discussion, he affirmed Hill’s statement in line with Paul, who “infuses” Greco-Roman terms with “new meaning or gutted them where they needed to be gutted and transformed them.”
In the panel discussion, the participants clarified the terminology and found themselves in agreement on the sinfulness of experiencing same-sex attraction. Burk distinguished the act of feeling same-sex attraction from the predisposition to sinful desire.
While same-sex attraction cannot be reduced to sexual desire, Burk said, it is the “defining characteristic.” Burk insisted on clarifying that orientation is not feeling sexually attracted “at every moment” but that a person is inclined to have desires in a certain direction.
Same-sex “orientation is not a natural evil to be swept away with tornadoes and earthquakes” as issues of moral indifference. Rather, Burk argued, “it's a moral concern” with which every disciple of Christ must come to terms.
Hill affirmed Burk’s approach to call for repentance when experiencing same-sex desire and added: “I want to be able to say to someone who experiences no shift at all in their unchosen patterns of same-sex attraction, that a life of faithful, Christian holiness is still open to them, every bit as much as if they experienced a dramatic shift in their sexual attraction or their sexual desire.”
Burk added that repenting of illicit sexual desire, whether heterosexual or homosexual, does not mean it will instantly disappear. “Repentance is a way of life,” Burk said. “We’re talking about wrestlings that are deep and visceral” and could go on indefinitely.
Panelists also noted the principles of temptation and sexual desire apply not just to same-sex attraction but to heterosexual lust outside of marriage, providing an opportunity for repentance and growth in Christian discipleship.
“The moral space between a sinful lust and a benign recognition of beauty,” Burk said, is the “apprehension of beauty in which there is no sexual possibility,” just as brothers and sisters in Christ.
“If you're looking at a woman with the purpose of pursuing this illicit lust that's wrong. But I would also say the experience in any degree of that desire is sinful and it's something we should repent of when we become aware of it.”