Moving On: Mortification and the Gay Christian

Last week Jake Meador urged the PCA and the broader confessionally Reformed, Protestant world to move on from the human sexuality debates. He says,

[T]he best thing that could happen right now is if reformed protestants in the US treated those [the PCA’s and ACNA Bishops’] reports as consensus documents that are broadly representative of where we are on these matters. There’s no reason that pastors in the PCA, OPC, EPC, ECO, ARP, REC, and ACNA can’t begin using these two statements in their ministry as a way of helping church members and visitors understand where they basically stand on these matters. Collectively, those seven communions number over a million weekly attendees. Given the disastrous ways evangelicals have often discussed matters of sexuality in the past, it would be an enormous win if a critical mass of our reformed congregations began to use these two statements more regularly.

I think Jake’s impulse is right, but there are still several legitimate barriers to doing that. There is not unanimity, and sometimes there is silence, on the pastoral question of whether someone should repent of an LGBT/SSA orientation. I have written extensively on this subject, but my argument is that orientation and desire/affection are distinct (something many Side B proponents also argue), that LGBT/SSA orientation may be sin, but may also describe an externally inflicted propensity, that mortification of sin and the flesh is the best pastoral category in addressing this subject, and that Westminsterian confessionalism bears this out.

The PCA’s report equates desire and orientation (pg. 25, 30; I engaged with this here), which is not the way the concept is employed by Side B advocates. The statement from the ACNA’s College of Bishops recommends not using the language of orientation, seems to equate orientation and desire, and does not provide guidance on the question of repentance of orientation. Of the other denominations Jake mentions, the ARP’s report equates orientation with thoughts and actions, with my own EPC having both a position paper on human sexuality which does not address the subject, as well as an extended letter providing pastoral guidance on it. The latter was intentionally designed to sidestep the question of the necessity of repentance of LGBT/SSA orientation, while simultaneously equating orientation and desire and dividing desire from attitude and affections:

The thrust of the Christian concern is not with one’s sexual orientation, but rather with one’s sexual beliefs, attitudes, thoughts, and actions as they reveal one’s attitude toward God…We believe that an individual should not condemn himself or herself because of his or her sexual attractions or orientations; rather he or she should concern himself or herself with one’s affections, beliefs, attitudes, and deeds.

The two confessional denominations that have done any kind of detail work on this question are the Christian Reformed Church and the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America, and they come down on different sides. The Christian Reformed Church is voting this summer on a report on the subject (my review here), and that report reaffirms their position from 1973 that,

‘We must distinguish between the person who is homosexual in [their] sexual orientation and the person who engages in explicit sexual acts with persons of the same sex.’ It also noted that ‘homosexuality is not the result of any conscious choice or decision on the part of the person.’ In other words, there is no sin in being attracted to the same sex. We only sin if we act on our sexual attractions.”

Attraction and orientation are equated, but both separated from activity. The CRC errs in not dealing with the issue of concupiscence and the need to address indwelling sin. This failure leads to a flattening of desire and orientation that offers neither affirmation nor correction. The RPCNA, on the other hand, has a 2011 report entitled, “Contemporary Perspectives on Sexual Orientation: A Theological and Pastoral Analysis”. Out of all the reports and statements, it is the only one that addresses the distinction between affections, desires, and orientations (pg. 93-99). They distinguish desire from orientation by theologically defining LGBT/SSA orientation as a propensity towards sin (pg. 94), and ground that definition in WCF 6.2 throughout. The discussion of orientation to left/right handedness and alcoholism as contrasting examples are helpful, and overlap with some of my critiques of Wes Hill comparing his gay identity to Down syndrome.

Where I think the RPCNA report fails is in its discussion of repentance. The citation of Jonathan Edwards on the affections (pg. 97) is helpful, but his equating sinful inclinations to constitutive sins does not address the Westminsterian category of the estate of misery. Yes, sinful inclinations (propensities, orientations) should be resisted, but that is not necessarily the same as repenting. The RPCNA does well in reminding pastors that people need to repent of unchosen and subconscious sins, bringing them to the cross, but here the same mistake is made as in the other reports: propensity to temptation is treated as propensity to sin, and so there is flattening out of proper Christian responses. It’s worth noting that the PCA’s report in its resources cites both the EPC’s pastoral letter and this RPCNA report.

I’m reviewing this all to clarify where there is remaining differences within and between these Reformed Protestant churches. There can be no moving on if some churches are disciplining as unrepentant those whom other churches are celebrating. I want to suggest a framework for how to approach these divides pastorally through several propositions

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. Encouraging or fostering an orientation to sinful sexual activity is itself sinful.

2) Sinful desire is both the result of original, indwelling sin, and is itself sin. Sinful desire must be hated, denied, and lamented.

3) Orientation towards sexual sin, including sinful desire, is a result of sin, and may be properly sin itself. The sinful condition of misery in which humanity finds itself is manifested in propensity towards sin springing up from within the person, as well as a tendency towards frailty with temptation being inflicted upon the person from the brokenness of the world around them.

4) Orientation to sinful temptation does not necessarily entail indulging the sin. Being oriented towards a sinful temptation means that a besetting, regular propensity towards sinful desire is afflicting a person. A gay or homosexual orientation is an orientation to a sinful sexual desire. It is not an increased affinity or appreciation for the same sex, but a tendency towards temptation to sinful sexual activity.

5) Orientation towards sexual sin is a post-lapsarian wound borne by the sinner. It is not necessarily sin itself. Sinners must repent of sin, including sinful desires, whether conscious or unconscious. Sinners must also mortify orientations to sin. Mortification is the active resistance of sin and temptation. It is reliance on the grace of God to crucify the body of weakness (Romans 8:13, Galatians 5:24), which tends towards sin. Orientations to sexual sin must be mortified as part of Christian duty. Failure to mortify orientations to sin is sin itself, and should be repented.

6) Since orientation to sexual sin is a wound of the fall, it will be healed in glory. Since it is a wound that tends its bearer towards sin, it is distinct from other post-lapsarian thorns in the flesh (e.g. Down syndrome) and therefore is neither good nor to be celebrated or encouraged.

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. Healing from orientation to sexual 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 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 rather than the mortification of it, and is not acceptable for the Christian.

9) Those who identify as having a LGBT/SSA orientation are not called to repent of that orientation, but to mortify it. The impulse (temptation) to sin needs to be killed, not repented. Inordinately ordered affections need to be rightly ordered, not repented. Failure to mortify sinful impulses, sinful affections, is sin and needs repentance. Acquiescing to sinful impulses and affections is sin, and demands repentance. Mortification precludes the celebration of any orientation towards sin.

10) All Christians are called to deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow Jesus. Those who are oriented to sinful sexual desires 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 in leading into sin. 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.