Let me preface this post by offering a couple caveats that will frame all that follows. First, any and all sin can be forgiven through Jesus' death on the cross. There is no sin that is "too big" to be covered by the blood of Christ. This includes all manner of sexual sin, yes, even homosexual desire and practice, pedophilia, bestiality, etc. Forgiveness does not negate all the temporal, earthly consequences of sin (indeed, some sexual sins should be crimes), but there is no question about the width and depth of God's saving mercy. Second, God's forgiving mercies can never be separated from the power of his transforming grace at work in our lives. If we trust God for forgiveness in Christ, we will also experience his life-changing Spirit reorienting our lives so that we more and more mature into those who obey God's law from the heart. In the current debate among Reformed Christians over Revoice and same-sex attraction, these truths must be the bedrock of the discussion. While I do not think those who advocate the theology of Revoice should serve as ordained pastors, and while I would argue that those who identify with their sin (the "gay Christian" movement) are in serious error, I wish them no ill will. I believe Greg Johnson should be defrocked from the office of pastor in the PCA because he has set an example that should not be imitated and thus is not above reproach and because he is spreading confusion on matters that should be taught clearly, and thus especially injuring those most vulnerable to fall into similar errors. But I also believe those who struggle with same-sex attraction should be loved and cared for by the church. One way we can do that is by speaking the truth to people who are being swayed by the culture's sexual confusion. That's what I seek to do here.
There is a difference between dealing with individuals who engage in sexual sin, or struggle with same-sex attraction, and dealing with a political and/or ecclesiastical movement that seeks to legitimize certain behaviors in the culture and transform various institutions. Individuals, whatever their worldview or lifestyle, should be treated with love and respect because they are image bearers. Movements that are contrary to God's Word should be critiqued and rejected.
But my larger point in this post is a bit different. I am concerned with ways many ostensibly evangelical and Reformed churches are pandering to the wider culture. Why is it that so many churches are letting the world shape the way they view sins today? What can we learn from the way so many churches are addressing sexual sin, particularly homosexuality, compared to say, how those same churches address racism? Why is that so many in the church are advocating that the church "whisper" about and go easy on the very sins the world is celebrating, while simultaneously singling out the sins the world most viciously condemns in order to "shout" about them? Isn't this a clear case of the church letting the world set the agenda and determine its talking points? Is this not a clear case of the church being influenced by the world more than the Word?
Props to those in the PCA who worked to get Overture 23 passed, blocking the ordination of those who identify as “gay Christians.” Obviously, the battle over sexual integrity is not over in the PCA, but this was a step in the right direction.
Tim Keller has recently been tweeting that same-sex sexual attraction should not disqualify a man from office because this sin is no worse than any other sinful sexual desire. In other words, same-sex attraction is not worse than heterosexual lust; natural lust is no worse than unnatural lust. But Keller is simply wrong. Some sins are worse than others. Some sinful desires are worse than others. Sodomy is worse than adultery which is worse than fornication which is worse than lustful thoughts about the opposite sex. The desire to commit sodomy is worse than the desire to commit adultery. If one looks at Scripture as a whole (including things like penalties for crimes and sins in the Torah), it is not all that hard to establish a scale of sexual perversion. Some sins provoke greater judgment from God than others. Some sins are more aggravated than others. Some sins are crimes. Some sins require church discipline/excommunication. Would Keller argue that the sexual fantasies of a man who is sexually attracted to children are no more problematic or dangerous than any form of heterosexual lust? I hope not -- but he has argued himself into that kind of corner.
While heterosexual lust is certainly sinful, same-sex attraction is a more aggravated sin because it is further removed from and more contrary to God’s design. Sexual desire for the opposite sex is, in itself, a natural good, built into us by God’s creational design. Heterosexual lust is the perversion of this natural good. Like all creational goods, sexual desire for the opposite sex can be perverted by selfishness and pride. Gods wants heterosexual desire to be directed towards a spouse. By contrast, homosexual lust is unnatural in its essence, and unnatural desires are always and only evil. While there is an appropriate channel for heterosexual desire (marriage), there is no lawful channel for homosexual desire to run in; it cannot be redirected in a proper way, so it can only be mortified. This is why in Romans 1, homosexual lust is identified as a “vile passion” and comes at the tail end of a process of moral degradation. Social approval of homosexual desire and practice correlates with the final downfall of a civilization. Widespread homosexual desire and practice in a culture is a sign that idolatry in that society has run its course to its logical, suicidal end.
Romans 1:18-32 is really a commentary on Genesis 3 and the aftershocks of the fall as sin grows to maturity in the history of humanity. Adam and Eve were the first to suppress God’s plainly revealed truth. They knew God but did not honor him as God or give him thanks, but instead became futile in their thinking and their foolish hearts were darkened. They claimed to be made wise by the forbidden fruit, but instead became fools, exchanging the glory of God for service to the serpent. Instead of worshipping and serving in the Creator, who is blessed evermore, they exchanged God’s truth for the serpent’s lie and thus worshipped and served the creature. What was the consequence of the fall for the human race? For this reason, Paul says, God gave them, over. God punished sin with sin, giving men what they wanted even though it would lead them down a path to self-destruction. Because they committed various lesser sins, God gave them over to greater sins — and ultimately gave them over to same-sex lusts. As the sinfulness Adam unleashed in the world worked its way through the human race across generations, it became more and more consistent in its rebellion against God’s created order until finally Adam and Eve’s descendants turned against God’s design for humanity in the most rebellious ways possible. Having dishonored God with their bodies, they dishonored their own bodies with sexual perversion, as God gave them over to vile passions. Their idolatry turned into sodomy. They exchanged natural relations with the opposite sex for unnatural relations with the same sex. Men committed shameful acts with other men and received in themselves the due penalty for their perversion.
All that to say: It is obvious from Romans 1 that homosexuality cannot be treated as just one more garden variety sin. Yes, all sin, even the smallest, deserves God’s wrath and curse. But some sins are more aggravated, more “matured” forms of rebellion against God’s order. When the seeds of idolatry come to full bloom, we see it manifested in homosexual desire, culture, and behavior.
Robert Gagnon has made a very compelling case from the Scriptures
for the unique severity of the sin of homosexuality:
Both the highly pejorative description and the extended attention that the apostle Paul gives to homosexual practice in Rom 1:24-27 indicates that Paul regarded homosexual practice as an especially serious infraction of God’s will. As a complement to idolatry on the vertical vector of divine-human relations, Paul chose the offense of homosexual practice as his lead-off example on the horizontal vector of inter-human relations to illustrate human perversity in suppressing the obvious truth about God’s will for our lives perceptible in creation or nature. It makes little sense to argue that Paul took extra space in Rom 1:24-27 to talk about how homosexual practice is “dishonorable” or “degrading,” “contrary to nature,” an “indecency” or “shameful/ obscene behavior,” and a fit “payback” for their straying from God in order to show that homosexual practice was no worse than any other sin. Paul obviously gave idolatry and homosexual practice more airtime because they were two classic, not-uncommon examples of great human depravity that could only occur after humans had first blinded themselves to the truth around them. In the case of homosexual practice, humans would have to suppress the self-evident sexual complementarity of male and female (anatomically, physiologically, psychologically) before engaging in intercourse with members of the same sex.
Jesus’ appeal to Gen 1:27 (“male and female he made them”) and Gen 2:24 (“for this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his woman/wife and the two will become one flesh”) in his remarks on divorce-and-remarriage in Mark 10:6-9 and Matt 19:4-6 show how important a male-female prerequisite for marriage was to Jesus. Jesus argued that the “twoness” of the sexes ordained by God at creation was the foundation for limiting the number of persons in a sexual bond to two, whether concurrently (as against polygamy) or serially (as against repetitive divorce and remarriage). If Jesus regarded a male-female prerequisite as foundational for extrapolating other sexual ethics principles (i.e. marital monogamy and indissolubility), wouldn’t a direct violation of the foundation (homosexual practice) be more severe than a violation of principles built on that foundation (polygamy, adultery, remarriage-after-divorce)?
The argument that Jesus must have regarded divorce and remarriage-after-divorce as the more serious issues (i.e. because he explicitly criticizes them) misses the point that Jesus didn’t have to argue against homosexual practice in first-century Judaism because the very thought of engaging in such behavior was ‘unthinkable’ for Jews (we have no evidence of Jews advocating such behavior, let alone engaging in it, within centuries of the life of Jesus). Jesus was setting out to close the remaining loopholes in Judaism’s sexual ethics (another was adultery-of-the-heart), not to recapitulate more severe prohibitions already universally accepted by Jews. For example, the fact that Jesus said nothing about incest is an indication that he accepted the strong strictures against it in Levitical law. It is not an indication that he regarded remarriage-after-divorce as an equally serious or more serious offense.
Apart from ruling out sex between humans and animals, the male-female requirement for sexual relations is the only sexual requirement held absolutely for the people of God fromcreation to Christ. The first human differentiation at creation is the differentiation between male and female. In Gen 2:21-24 the creation of woman is depicted as the extraction of a “rib” or (better) “side” from the human so that man and woman are parts of a single integrated whole. Woman is depicted as man’s sexual “counterpart” or “complement” (Heb. negdo). A male-female prerequisite is thus grounded in the earliest act of creation. Compare the situation with incest prohibitions: Most such prohibitions cannot be implemented until after the human family spreads out and becomes numerous. In addition, while we see a limited allowance of polygyny in the OT (multiple wives for men, though never polyandry, multiple husbands for women), subsequently revoked by Jesus, and some limited allowance in earliest Israel of what will later be termed incest in Levitical law (e.g., Abraham’s marriage to his half-sister Sarah; Jacob’s marriage to two sisters while both were alive), there is never any allowance whatsoever for homosexual practice in the history of Israel. Virtually every single law, narrative, poetry, proverb, moral exhortation, and metaphor dealing with sexual matters in the Old Testament presupposes a male-female prerequisite. The only exceptions are periods of apostasy in ancient Israel (e.g., the existence of homosexual cult prostitutes, which narrators still label an abomination).
Why are there no positive exceptions? The reason is evident: A male-female prerequisite belongs to an inviolate foundation supremely sacred to God. Homosexual practice is a direct violation of that foundation. Polygyny is a violation of the monogamy principle that is only secondarily extrapolated from a male-female prerequisite. Incest is a violation of a requirement of embodied otherness that is only secondarily extrapolated from the foundational analogy of sexual otherness established at creation. Consequently, homosexual practice is worse than incest and polyamory because (1) it is a direct attack on a sexual paradigm instituted at the very beginning of creation, whereas incest and polyamory prohibitions develop later only secondarily from a male-female paradigm; and (2) homosexual practice, unlike incest and polyamory, is never practiced by positive characters in Old Testament narrative or sanctioned by Israelite law.
Leviticus 20 lists homosexual practice among a first tier of sexual offenses (adultery, the worst forms of incest, and bestiality; 20:10-16) that are worse than a second tier of sexual offenses (20:17-21). In Leviticus 18, although in the concluding summary (Lev 18.26-27, 29-30) all the sexual offenses in Lev 18 are collectively labeled “abominations,” “abhorrent” or “detestable acts” (to’evoth), only man-male intercourse in 18:22 (and 20:13) is specifically tagged with the singular to’evah. Outside the Holiness Code in Lev 17-24 the term is normally used for various severe moral offenses (not merely acts of ritual uncleanness), including occasionally homosexual practice (Deut 23:18; 1 Kgs 14:24; Ezek 16:50; 18:12; probably also Ezek 33:26)...
The historic position of the church over the centuries is that the Bible understands homosexual practice as an extreme sexual offense. For example, among the Church Fathers Cyprian (200-258) called it “an indignity even to see.” John Chrysostom (344-407) referred to it as “monstrous insanity,” “clear proof of the ultimate degree of corruption,” and “lusts after monstrous things.” Theodoret of Cyr (393-457) called it “extreme ungodliness.” John Calvin, no slouch when it came to emphasizing universal depravity, nonetheless labeled homosexual practice “the fearful crime of unnatural lust,” worse than “bestial desires since [it reverses] the whole order of nature,” “vicious corruption,” “monstrous deeds,” and “this abominable act”....
If I encountered a brother in the Lord going a bit overboard with money or material things; or beginning to have loose boundaries in interactions with persons that might be of sexual interest or beginning to have more struggles with sexual desire in his thought life; or complaining a bit much, I wouldn’t likely conclude that there was something seriously wrong with that brother’s spiritual life. But if I found out that this self-professed brother in the faith had become a bank robber or was using a Ponzi scheme to bilk people out of their life savings; or was involved in an adulterous affair or sleeping with his mother or having sex with persons of the same sex, I would be more than a little concerned about the person’s relationship with Christ. Why? The bigger the sins, the greater the indication that the person is not living a Spirit-led life that necessarily and naturally flows out of genuine faith. Is there any Christian who doesn’t (rightly) think this way?
Recognizing there are greater and lesser sins does not provide an excuse for the lesser sins and it does not give those who have only committed lesser sins a reason for looking down on those who have committed the greater sins. That kind of arrogant Phariseeism actually becomes a greater sin in its own right (cf. Luke 7, 18). Those who see the reality of their own sin will always be compassionate towards other sinners, no matter how great their sin. Every faithful Christian knows, "But for the grace of God..." The fact that there is a biblical hierarchy of sins in no way minimizes the heinousness of all sin before God and gives no grounds for self-righteousness. But recognizing the hierarchy of sins is crucial if we are to act with wisdom, especially if we are in positions of leadership as parents, pastors, and magistrates.
Keller recently tweeted:
To PCA GA: WLC 139 puts “sodomy, all unnatural lusts; all unclean imaginations, thoughts...affections” in a single list all violating the 7th command. No gradations. To argue some sinful sexual desires are disqualifying for office but others are not, you can’t use the confession.
This is not a faithful interpretation of the Westminster Larger Catechism in its historical context. When the Westminster Standards were composed, sodomy was a capital crime. No one would have been allowed to identify as a “same-sex attracted Christian,” much less a “same-sex attracted pastor.” They would not have even been able to comprehend those categories. WLC 139 may not intend to list a gradation or hierarchy of sins, but the Westminster divines certainly believed some sins are worse than others, as indicated elsewhere in the catechism. Of course, adultery was also a capital crime at that time. But all one has to do is read a bit of Puritan commentary on Romans 1:18ff to see that they viewed homosexuality as the final end product of a process of rebellion. The Puritans consistently ranked sexual sins, with bestiality and sodomy as the worst because of the degree of unnaturalness involved.
But Keller is really not consistent with his own moral equivalency view of sin anyway. While he seeks to level sexual sins, he seeks to elevate other sins. This is all part of his strategy to punch hard against the political and cultural right while cozying up to the political and cultural left. Thus, Keller points out that whites in America committed many sins against blacks in generations past — race-based slavery, Jim Crow laws, and so on. Keller and those in his circle have spent several years calling on whites to confess and repent of the sins of their ancestors, including making economic reparations. But given Keller’s moral calculus, racism is no worse than any other sin. Where do the Bible or the Westminster Standards teach that racism is a more aggravated sin than other sins? Why should our ancestors’ racism be singled out for repentance and restitution? Our ancestors were committing a million other sins, so why focus on this one? And further, the blacks they were mistreating were also sinners — and presumably those sins were equally heinous to those of their white oppressors. What duties do present day blacks have to make amends for the sins of their ancestors? Why should their sins be minimized? Of course, the whole idea of repenting for the sins of our ancestors should be called into question, as Neil Shenvi has done
Keller’s program of trying to equalize the sin of same-sex sexual desire (and ultimately homosexual practice) with other sexual sins is part of a progressive campaign that has been going on in conservative denominations for quite some time. It goes far beyond the PCA. For example, Southern Baptist leader J. D Grear has preached
Here’s a question: do you think of deceit and boasting as equally depraved? How about greed? Do you think of greed as equally depraved as homosexuality? How about a rebellious attitude against your parents? Do you see that as equally depraved? Paul would...We ought to whisper about what the Bible whispers about, and we ought to shout about what the Bible shouts about. And the Bible appears more to whisper when it comes to sexual sin compared to it shouts about materialism and religious pride.
But Grear, like Keller, is just pandering to the left, trying to appease progressives who want to the church to minimize the sin of sodomy. According to some sources, the Southern Baptist Convention has a sex abuse crisis on its hands. If Grear’s preaching is indicative of what is going on in SBC churches, it may be part if the problem. If the Bible only whispers about sexual sin, then why is sexual abuse any worse a sin than, say coveting my next door neighbor’s new Mercedes?
Here’s the bottom line: We should always be suspicious when pastors choose to berate the same sins as the wider culture, even as they downplay the very sins the culture celebrates. If your church is hard on the sin of racism but soft on the sin of same-sex attraction, then your church is pandering. It is reflecting the culture more than Christ, it is mirroring the world more than the Word. It is whispering where the culture whispers and shouting where the culture shouts -- which means culture rather than Scripture is the functioning authority. We have to be faithful to Scripture. All sins — including the sins of racism/partiality, heterosexual lust, pride, materialism, and same-sex attraction — deserve death and hell. There is no exception. Even the smallest sin is worthy of nothing but damnation. But at the same time, we must remember that not all sins are equal. Saying this does not make excuses for those who commit “lesser” sins. That misunderstands both the gospel and biblical ethics. But it is necessary to understand this truth if we are going to act and preach with wisdom. We must not let the world dictate to us which sins are greater and lesser. We must learn this truth from God alone.