Is Same-Sex Attraction Inherently Sinful? Exploring Some Key Biblical Texts

Andrew Bunt
Articles 7 mins

Among Christians who hold to the historic Christian sexual ethic, there is one question that is still hotly debated: is same-sex attraction inherently sinful? That is, is the experience of same-sex attraction something for which we are morally culpable? It’s a complex question, not least because ‘same-sex attraction’ is often not clearly defined and there are many things that can fall within the scope of the term.

Here at Living Out, we’ve discussed this topic in an episode of our podcast series ‘Questions No One Wants to Answer’. In that episode we explored why the question is so important and how we might give a responsible, nuanced answer. You can listen to our discussion here.

One of the ways we can further consider this question is to take a look at the biblical passages that are sometimes claimed as support for the view that same-sex attraction is inherently sinful. When we do, we find that these passages have sometimes been squashed into a specific theological system in order to support an existing conclusion rather than allowed to speak on their own terms. We also find that they have been applied to all elements of the experience of same-sex attraction when in reality they only fit some parts of that experience. It’s therefore important that we look carefully and honestly at these texts to establish what they mean and how they might be relevant to discussions of this topic.

Let’s look together at the three most relevant biblical passages.

Matthew 5:27-28

Matthew 5:27-28 are often key in the arguments of those who say that same-sex attraction is sinful.1 The claim sometimes made is that in these words Jesus declares all sexual desire for someone who is not your spouse to be sinful because desire for or to do something sinful is itself sin. Therefore, we must repent of all experiences of sexual desire that occur outside of a heterosexual marriage relationship.

However, a close look at these verses shows that this perspective overlooks three key details which together suggest Jesus was targeting deliberate, active lusting, not the involuntary experience of sexual desire.

First, this view overlooks the fact that Jesus places the focus on the looking not the desiring. Jesus’ description of the hypothetical figure is as ‘one who looks’ not ‘one who desires’.2 He seems to be thinking of a person who takes a deliberate action – choosing to look at someone ­– not someone having an involuntary experience of desire.

Second, this view overlooks the purpose that Jesus assigns to the looking: ‘to lust after her’ (KJV).3 Again, this is highlighting a deliberate, chosen action and not a reference to all experiences of sexual desire outside of marriage. As New Testament scholar Ulrich Luz states, ‘At issue is intentional looking with the purpose of violating someone else’s marriage.’4

He says nothing about seeking change of involuntary desires, but calls us to think about how we can be radical in the choices we make in response to those desires.

Third, supporters of this view overlook Jesus’s own words about how to deal with the sin being discussed. Those stating that same-sex attraction is sinful often call for individuals to repent of and seek change in their desires, but Jesus doesn’t do this. The response he calls for is to be radical about dealing with the things that allow one or provoke one to look with the intention of lusting (body parts, in Jesus’s examples). He says nothing about seeking change of involuntary desires, but calls us to think about how we can be radical in the choices we make in response to those desires.

These three details show us that Jesus is not condemning an involuntary human response of sexual desire, but a deliberate choice to look with our eyes in order to lust. Jesus calls us to be radical about not indulging lust – whether opposite-sex or same-sex – but doesn’t indicate that we should seek a change in our instinctive desires or that we incur guilt for these desires. This shows us that active same-sex lust is sinful, just as active opposite-sex lust is sinful, but not that the totality of the experience of same-sex attraction is sinful.

Romans 1:26-27

In Romans 1:18-32, Paul is explaining his statement that God’s wrath is being revealed against ungodliness and unrighteousness (v.18). In verses 26-27 he turns to consider same-sex sexuality. His use of the phrases ‘dishonourable passions’ (v.26) and ‘consumed with passion for one another’ (v.27) have led some to conclude that Paul believed same-sex sexual desire to be something for which one incurs guilt before God.

However, a close look at the text of Romans 1 seems to show that Paul’s concern was with same-sex lust and sexual activity, not instinctive desire.

It’s helpful to start with verses 24-25. Here Paul speaks more generally about sexuality before introducing the specific example of same-sex sexuality. Here we find the language of desire: ‘God gave them up in the lusts [or: desires] of their hearts to impurity’ (v.24). One thing we can observe straightaway is that whatever Paul goes on to say about same-sex sexuality he here says about sexuality in general. This means that any standard from this passage that gets applied to those of us who experience same-sex attraction needs also to be equally applied to those who are opposite-sex attracted.

Another important observation is that Paul doesn’t discuss these desires separately from the actions that flow from them. He says that people are given over to impurity in their desires and then further describes this as being given up ‘to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves’ (v.24b).5 This suggests that Paul is not thinking of involuntary sexual desire which is not expressed in action but active lusting which almost inevitably flows into action.

As Paul turns to consider same-sex sexuality, we see the same focus on action. The ‘dishonorable passions’ of v.26 are explained in the following phrase: ‘For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature.’6 Likewise, when he discusses male same-sex sexuality in the following verse (v.27), he first says that ‘men gave up natural relations with women’, clearly speaking of action.7 He then roots this in their being ‘consumed with passion for one another’, using language that is unique in the New Testament but is clearly a reference to the burning passion of lust, not involuntary sexual desire.8 And this, once again, is seen as inseparable to action, being expanded in what follows: ‘men committing shameless acts with men’.

All sexual lust is sinful, but there is no basis here to say that all elements of same-sex attraction are sinful.

Two important points emerge as we look closely at Romans 1. The first is that Paul doesn’t see a separation between desire and action in these verses. He is speaking here of desires that are being expressed and enacted in action. The second is that the desire of which he speaks is clearly an active lusting – which he sees inevitably flowing in action – and not an involuntary experience of sexual desire.

We find then that Paul’s teaching in Romans 1 matches Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 5. Deliberate, active lusting, whether same-sex or opposite-sex, is sinful. But there is no reason to think that the involuntary experience of sexual desire is sinful. All sexual lust is sinful, but there is no basis here to say that all elements of same-sex attraction are sinful.

James 1:14-15

In these verses James is explaining that temptation does not find its source in God but in our own desires:

‘Each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death’ (James 1:14-15).

Some claim that these verses show that the desires which tempt us to sin are themselves sinful. Burk and Lambert have argued for this understanding, based on the claim that desire for that which is sinful is itself inherently sinful.

‘[I]t is a desire that is directed toward evil. Thus the desire itself is sinful. When such illicit desire conceives, it inevitably gives birth to sin because it is sin.’9

This perspective relies on the prior assumption that all desire for something sinful incurs guilt before God. This is a view that Burk and Lambert develop from Matthew 5:27-28, but as we have already seen, that is a misreading of those verses. The only way to read James’ words as implying moral culpability for the desires that tempt us is to apply a theological system that is external to the text and not grounded in biblical teaching.

When seeking to read James 1:14-15 on their own terms, it can easily be seen how desire and sin are differentiated. James states explicitly that desire can be a source of temptation, but that it is not until desire causes us to take further steps (when it ‘conceives and gives birth’) that it gives rise to sin. James 1:14-15 say the exact opposite of what is sometimes claimed: desire and sin and two different things. The former can lead to the latter, but presumably it can also not.

New Testament scholar Douglas Moo makes this point well when commenting on these verses:

‘James implies that temptation, in and of itself, is not sinful. Only when desire “conceives”—is allowed to produce offspring—does sin come into being. The point is an important one, for some extremely sensitive Christians may feel that the fact of their continuing to experience temptation demonstrates that they are out of fellowship with the Lord. To be sure, as one develops more and more of a Christian “mind,” the frequency and power of temptation should grow less. But temptation will be part of our experience, as it was the experience of the Lord himself (Heb. 2:18), throughout our time on earth. Christian maturity is not indicated by the infrequency of temptation but by the infrequency of succumbing to temptation.’10

James 1 does not say that the desires which can tempt us into behaviour that is sinful are themselves sin for which we are morally culpable. In fact, James would seem to be saying exactly the opposite: we will all experience desires which tempt us to stray from God’s way, but it is our responsibility to respond rightly to these desires such that we don’t allow them to lead us – whether in thought or action – into a deliberate response which would be morally culpable sin.

Misunderstandings from misreadings

There is more that needs to be said and explored to offer a full answer to the question ‘Is same-sex attraction sinful?’, but examining these biblical texts is an important step to take. When we look at the three key Scriptures used to construct a case that same-sex attraction is sinful, we find that each one has been misread leading to misunderstandings.

James helps us by showing that the desires that tempt us to step into sin are not themselves sin.

We also find some helpful principles that should contribute to an answer to this key question. Both Jesus and Paul make it clear that a deliberate choice to lust, often combined with a choice to look, is sinful, whether opposite-sex or same-sex. This is a challenge that we should all receive and seek to heed. James helps us by showing that the desires that tempt us to step into sin are not themselves sin. He states what Jesus and Paul imply: involuntary desires, even those that might seek to draw us into sin, are not themselves sin. We need to handle these desires well, responding to them rightly such that they don’t grow into sin, but they are not sin for which we need to repent or seek forgiveness.

Those who experience same-sex attraction – or any other pattern of ongoing temptation – therefore need not live with a constant sense of guilt and failure. Rather, we can take hold of who we are in Christ and seek the Spirit’s help to remain steadfast in trial, knowing that if we do, we will receive the crown of life (James 1:12).

  1. See, for example, Burk and Lambert, Transforming Homosexuality (P&R Publishing, 2015), pp.44-48.
  2. This is even clearer in the original Greek which has Jesus using a participle to describe the individual, literally ‘a looking-one’. It is true that the verb used (blepō) can refer to ‘looking’ – suggesting a deliberate action – or ‘seeing’ – which could be non-deliberate. However, in Matthew 5:28, the former is most likely given the prepositional phrase that follows (so BDAG, s.v. ‘βλέπω’).
  3. The Greek construction – the preposition pros and an articular infinitive – could denote either purpose (‘with the purpose of lusting’) or result (‘with the result that he lusts’). Examples elsewhere in Matthew (e.g. Matthew 6:1; 23:5; 26:12; 13:30) show that Matthew uses the construction to express purpose. See Ulrich Luz, Matthew 1-7: A Commentary on Matthew 1-7 (Fortress Press, 2007), p.244.
  4. Luz, Matthew 1-7, p.244.
  5. This is if we take this phrase (an articular infinitive) as epexegetic, that is, providing a fuller explanation (following, for example, Douglas Moo, The Epistle to the Romans (Eerdmans, 1996), p.112). Even if we read the construction as indicating the result of the desires (as does, for example, C.E.B. Cranfield, The Epistle to the Romans, vol. 1 (T&T Clark, 1975), p.122), Paul still makes no separation between desire and action. These are desires which are expressed in action.
  6. The word ‘for’ (‘gar’) is used here, as often, to introduce an explanation of what has just been said (so Cranfield, Romans, p.125; Moo, Romans, p.144 n.113).
  7. The language Paul uses could be said to place particular emphasis on the fact that this is about action. The word translated ‘relations’ in both vv.26 and 27 is ‘chrēsis’, the base meaning of which is ‘use’, but which was a recognised euphemism for sexual activity. Paul is referring to activity in which one made ‘use’ of the body. This is action, not desire.
  8. Preston Sprinkle explains the phrase ‘burned with passion’ as referring to ‘same-sex lust … passions that accompany and drive sexual arousal’. People To Be Loved (Zondervan, 2015), p.145.
  9. Burk and Lambert, Homosexuality, p.52.
  10. Douglas Moo, The Letter of James (Eerdmans, 2000), p.76. Oddly, Burk and Lambert quote from Moo’s commentary on James to claim that he supports their perspective (Transforming Homosexuality, p.52).