Ron Belgau has written a provocative essay here at Public Discourse naming us as “unreasonable critics” of the upcoming conference Revoice and of the Spiritual Friendship project. We—like others who have opposed this movement—have been accused of misrepresenting his views. To the contrary, we believe that we have an honest theological difference, one that shows that different theological commitments will necessarily produce different theological applications.
In this essay we underline something that has gotten lost in recent discussions: the theological foundations of the current dispute.
Protestant vs. Catholic
The fundamental difference between Belgau’s perspective and ours has less to do with sexuality than it does with the fact that he is a Roman Catholic and we are Reformed Protestants. Our theological foundations are vastly different. Thus, our understanding of human sexuality, sin, personhood, and the suffering that results from original sin is vastly different as well. This is nowhere clearer than in our different understandings of concupiscence. Our differences here ultimately boil down to a different understanding of scripture.
The Reformed Tradition differs from Roman Catholicism in its understanding of Augustine’s doctrine of concupiscence. Concupiscence is simply the Latin translation of the Greek New Testament’s terms for desire (epithumia, epithumeō). Augustine understands this desire to be the key pre-behavioral component of our sin. Such desire consists of the fallen inclinations that we all continually experience before ever actually choosing to sin. In a sermon on Romans 7, Augustine describes it this way:
[The apostle Paul] gives the name of sin, you see, to that from which all sins spring, namely to the lust [concupiscence] of the flesh.
The key point here is that Augustine identifies the desire to sin as sin. Likewise, in a sermon that Augustine preached in A.D. 419 on Romans 7:15-25, he writes,
This lust [desire/concupiscence] is not, you see—and this is a point you really must listen to above all else: you see, this lust is not some kind of alien nature. . . . It’s our debility, it’s our vice. It won’t be detached from us and exist somewhere else, but it will be cured and not exist anywhere at all [in the resurrection].
Augustine understood unchosen longing for anything outside of God’s will to be itself sinful, and his influence over subsequent Christian reflection on this point cannot be overestimated. Although Augustine sometimes refrained from calling concupiscence sin, his mature reflection on Scripture reveals that he did, indeed, label it as such. Herman Bavinck points out that Augustine once said that “sin is so much a voluntary evil that it is not sin at all unless it is voluntary.” But later in his Retractions, Augustine reversed himself on this point when the Pelagians tried to argue that sin cannot consist in anything but an act of the will.
The Roman Catholic tradition, however, departs from Augustine on this point and reflects the view that concupiscence is not itself sin, and that only conscious acts of the will can truly be deemed to be sinful. This explains why the Catechism of the Catholic Church calls homosexual sexual activity sinful but stops short of calling homosexual desire sinful and instead labels the desire as “objectively disordered”—because not properly ordered to the good of marriage—but not in itself sinful.
The Reformed tradition differs sharply from Roman Catholicism on this point and reflects the Augustinian view that both evil desire and evil deeds must be regarded as thoroughly sinful. For example, The Heidelberg Catechism, Question 10, addressing Adam’s federal headship and the imputation of his sin to all humanity, asks this: “Will God suffer such disobedience and apostasy to go unpunished?” It answers:
By no means (Psalm 5:5); but He is terribly displeased with our inborn as well as actual sins (Romans 1:18; Deut. 27:15; Hebrews 9:27), and will punish them in just judgment in time and eternity, as He has declared: Cursed is every one that continues not in all things which are written in the book of the law, to do them (Deut. 27:26; Gal. 3:10).
It matters not whether the desire for evil is involuntary or voluntary. The standard of rightness for a desire is God’s law, not the chosenness of the desire.
Perhaps the classic expression of this comes from John Calvin, who also acknowledges his explicit appropriation of Augustine on the point in 3.3.10 of his Institutes:
We hold that there is always sin in the saints, until they are freed from their mortal frame, because depraved concupiscence resides in their flesh, and is at variance with rectitude. Augustine himself does not always refrain from using the name of sin, as when he says, “Paul gives the name of sin to that carnal concupiscence from which all sins arise. This in regard to the saints loses its dominion in this world, and is destroyed in heaven.” In these words he admits that believers, in so far as they are liable to carnal concupiscence, are chargeable with sin.
The proper understanding of Augustine is still a point of contention between Protestants and Catholics. We do not wish to resolve that debate here. We simply make the point that the Reformed appropriation of Augustine’s doctrine of concupiscence differs from that of Roman Catholics, and it has been that way for half a millennium.
The theological roots of our differences with Belgau run deep. We Reformed Protestants believe that original sin, actual sin, and indwelling sin all condemn us. We know that for some of us, same-sex desire is Adam’s thumbprint on our lives. We do not believe that baptism removes original sin. Nor do we believe that redemption in Christ makes all effects of our sinful nature disappear. Redemption gives us ransom and Christ’s power and compassion to fight against our sinful nature, but until the final consummation we groan, struggling against indwelling sin and longing to be clothed with our dwelling from heaven (2 Cor. 5:2).
The gay Christian movement limits the extent of the fall. The dangers of this error must not be underestimated. As Joel Beeke put it,
Limiting the extent of the fall by exempting some aspect of man’s being from its effects opens the way for fallen man to be his own savior. If his intellect is not darkened, then he can find salvation by the use of reason and improve himself through education. If his will is not enslaved, then man has the final say in his salvation, quite apart from God’s will. If man’s body does not bear the marks of the fall, then defects, deformities, disease, aging, and death are natural and normal for our race, not evils to be opposed and overcome or enemies Christ died to defeat. Let us ask God to show us ever more profoundly the tragic results of our fall, that we might understand ever more profoundly the amazing wonders of the gospel.
Our division is the difference between a Reformed Protestant anthropology and a Roman Catholic one, and we remain convinced that the former is the one most faithful to scripture.
Spiritual Friendship vs. Scripture
The current debate about gay Christianity traces back to a centuries-old dispute between Protestants and Catholics about the doctrine of man and the doctrine of sin. Roman Catholics do not regard involuntary desire for sin (i.e., “concupiscence”) to be sinful. Reformed Protestants do.
The desire to have sex with others of our own sex is a temptation to sin which is a result of the fall, but it is not, in itself, sinful.
I believe that gay sex is sinful, and that the desire for gay sex, though not itself sinful, is a temptation…
When Belgau argues that same-sex desire is not sinful, he is being a good Roman Catholic. But he is also articulating a viewpoint that is at odds with the Reformed tradition and, more importantly, with scripture.
The Bible teaches that our desires—all of them, voluntary or involuntary—are morally implicated. Desire is teleological, and its moral character is determined by its object. If someone desires a good thing, then the desire itself is good (e.g., 1 Tim. 3:1; Matt. 13:17). If someone desires an evil thing, then the desire itself is evil, quite apart from whether or not the desire is voluntary (e.g., 1 Cor. 10:6). This holds for all human desire, including but not exclusively sexual desire.
Where does the Bible teach this? This teaching is throughout scripture, but perhaps the best place to start is with the tenth commandment:
You must not desire your neighbor's house; you must not desire your neighbor's wife or his male servant or his female servant or his ox or his donkey or anything that belongs to your neighbor. (Exod. 20:17, our translation)
Note that the English renderings “covet” and “lust” are but two ways of describing illicit desire. In both Hebrew and Greek, the underlying terms mean desire, which can be either good desire or evil desire depending on the object of the desire. See here for a fuller explanation.
In the other commandments, many actions (conscious acts of the will) are forbidden. In the tenth commandment, however, God forbids even desiring those prohibited actions. For example, the seventh commandment prohibits adultery, and the tenth commandment prohibits the desire for adultery (“you must not desire your neighbor’s wife”). There is no stipulation about whether the desire is voluntary or involuntary. All such desire is prohibited.
Jesus was not innovating when he said that looking at a woman to desire her sexually was tantamount to adultery (Matthew 5:27-28). As the master teacher, he was simply highlighting the connection that already existed between the seventh and tenth commandments. He was teaching us that desire for sin is itself sinful.
Repentance vs. Sublimation
Because of this truth there are enormous pastoral implications for people who experience same-sex sexual desires. We must recognize same-sex sexual desire as one of the many possible ways Adam’s thumbprint shapes our feelings. If we do not drive a fresh nail daily into this aspect of original sin, sinful desire will eventually give birth to sinful deed (James 1:14-15). It is urgent to recognize the need for quick—and daily—repentance and mortification of these and other vestiges of original sin. Our mortification and repentance give glory to God, and they help us grow in both holiness and union with Christ. True Christian repentance never leaves you in a state of shame; rather, it opens you to the love of Christ.
Even so consider yourselves to be dead to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus. Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body that you should obey its desires. (Rom. 6:11-12)
Beloved, I urge you as aliens and strangers to abstain from fleshly desires, which wage war against the soul. (1 Pet. 2:11)
As obedient children, do not be conformed to desires which were yours formerly in your ignorance. (1 Pet. 1:14)
God knows that sin produces suffering—first and most deeply for our Savior, and secondarily for ourselves. But in God’s economy, the order matters greatly. Our sin produces our suffering. Our original sin, for which we are held accountable, comes first. But this clear, pastoral implication is not clear in Belgau’s writings nor in the writings of his colleagues at Spiritual Friendship. In their writings, same-sex sexual desire appears not as sinful but as a vocation of suffering that God uses to produce good spiritual fruit. Wesley Hill says it this way:
Being gay colors everything about me, even though I am celibate . . . Being gay is, for me, as much a sensibility as anything else: a heightened sensitivity to and passion for same-sex beauty that helps determine the kind of conversations I have, which people I’m drawn to spend time with, what novels and poems and films I enjoy, the particular visual art I appreciate, and also, I think, the kind of friendships I pursue and try to strengthen. I don’t imagine I would have invested half as much effort in loving my male friends, and making sacrifices of time, energy, and even money on their behalf, if I weren’t gay. My sexuality, my basic erotic orientation to the world, is inescapably intertwined with how I go about finding and keeping friends.
Notice that Hill describes his homosexual “erotic orientation to the world” not as something to be repented of and mortified but as the foundation for forming “spiritual friendships.” This is so much the case that he says if he weren’t gay, he wouldn’t be able to form such friendships. Again, this is not mortification of sin and repentance unto life. It is something else altogether.
Hill’s words on this point are relevant because Belgau claims that that we have misread Hill and that Hill actually says that same-sex desire must be mortified. We do not deny that such qualifications can be found in Hill’s writings, but it is precisely on this point that Hill is inconsistent in spite of his qualifications, as the quotation above illustrates. We believe that such inconsistencies can be found not only in Hill’s writings but also in the writings of other authors associated with Revoice and Spiritual Friendship.
This confusion stems from the fact that Hill, Belgau, and others believe same-sex desire to be comprised of both eros and philos. Their aim is to repent of the eros part of their same-sex desire while embracing and cultivating the philos part. But again, much of what they describe as philos looks more like eros (as Steven Wedgeworth has recently shown). So they end up embracing—and claiming that Christ is embracing—what Christ indeed died for. Christ did not make an ally of the sin for which He was crucified. And we must steer clear of any ideology that makes us the unwitting ally of unmortified sin.
Belgau accuses us of being Freudian, which is simply inaccurate. Eve Tushnet and Nate Collins (the founder of Revoice) have both argued that same-sex attraction calls for sublimation—a Freudian notion that requires not repentance but redirection of same-sex erotic love. Collins writes,
Christians should outline their own theological account of sublimation, or something like it, so they can understand how libido can be redirected in productive ways that are faithful to the call to pursue holiness.
Someone is introducing Freudian concepts into this conversation, but it is not us. In fact, we have argued that Freud’s influence poisons this conversation and ought to be rejected. Sublimation directs strugglers away from the Biblical invitations of mortification and repentance—Christian graces that lead to God’s honor and our blessing and growth in union with Christ.
A Fruitful Opportunity
This controversy is a fruitful opportunity for all of us to consider what the Bible teaches about image-bearing, sin, sexuality, grace, and redemption. It is a flashpoint in a much larger conflict. Will Reformed Protestants recognize that our biblical anthropology is worth preserving in the face of Roman Catholic error? Will we be able to minister with love and compassion to those struggling with same-sex desires? We want the gospel to flourish in the lives of the strugglers. We want every follower of Christ to learn how to hate our sin without hating ourselves. We rest in Christ’s compassion for the repentant struggler. That compassion is our greatest encouragement to fight the sin that remains within us all.
Denny Burk is the President of the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood and is a Professor of Biblical Studies at Boyce College at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. He is the author of Transforming Homosexuality (P&R, 2015) and What Is the Meaning of Sex (Crossway, 2013). He blogs regularly on theology, politics, and culture at DennyBurk.com.
Rosaria Butterfield, Ph.D., former tenured professor of English at Syracuse University, is the author of The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert (Crown and Covenant, 2012), Openness Unhindered: Further Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert on Sexual Identity and Union with Christ (Crown and Covenant, 2015), and The Gospel Comes with a House Key: Practicing Radically Ordinary Hospitality in our Post Christian World (Crossway, 2018). Rosaria is married to Kent Butterfield, pastor of First Reformed Presbyterian Church of Durham (Durham, NC), and together they homeschool two of their four children.