Homosexual Desire Is Also Sin

In 1973, in “Report 42,” a committee of the Christian Reformed Church wrote: “An important distinction that must be made is the difference between homosexuality as a condition of personal identity and homosexualism as explicit homosexual behavior.” On the basis of this distinction, the Christian Reformed Church adopted as a point of doctrine and morals, that homosexual desire is not sinful but homosexual practice is. This distinction, novel in the history of Reformed theology, has become irreformable doctrine which successive synods have affirmed. The report consistently describes homosexual desire as “disorder,” which it is but there is more to be said. The report says, “from the perspective of Scripture and the general conclusion of modern research, homosexuality is a disordered condition and a handicap comparable to other abnormal physical and psychological conditions.” The report regards the behavior as “unnatural” but does not apply that category to the desire: “It is an exchange of the natural use of sex for the unnatural. Homosexualism is the penalty for man’s apostacy [sic] from the true worship of God resulting in the depravity of those who engage in it.” In a bizarre passage, the report argues that, for the homosexual, given his orientation, same-sex attraction is “natural” and heterosexual attraction is “unnatural.”

Report 42 is relevant because recently some students set up a table at Calvin University, in Grand Rapids. Calvin is the denominational school of the CRC. This table, with the sign “LGBTQ is sin” provoked a protest that was covered by a local television station. One student called the sign and accompanying Bible verses “hate speech.” Another said that the students at the table had “gone too far.” The school has not said if the students who set up the table are facing discipline. The president of Calvin University  affirmed “sexual intimacy is a gift from God to be celebrated between a man and a woman.” He also affirmed the image of God in LGBTQ students and expressed the school’s wish for LGBTQ students to know that they are loved. In the wake of this event Jamie Smith, a well-known Calvin professor, posted a tweet to the same effect: “At @Calvin_Uni, ALL students are welcomed, affirmed, and loved. To our LGBTQ students always, but today especially: #YouAreLoved.” The administration released a statement invoking Report 42.

A Brief History Of The CRC

Before we dive into the issues, a little historical perspective will be useful. The Christian Reformed Church in North America (CRC) was founded in 1857. It was composed of immigrants from the Netherlands, who came to the USA for religious and economic reasons. They were very conservative theologically and culturally. Dutch was the dominant language in the CRC until the 1930s. Synod minutes were not published completely in English until the 1930s and there was a heated debate in the 1920s as to whether it was wise for the CRC to speak English, lest the people become American evangelicals. When they first arrived, the folk who would form the CRC attended Reformed Church in America congregations but became dissatisfied when they discerned that the RCA was too American. RCA families sent their children to the public schools. They had members and elders who belonged to the Masonic Lodge and they sang hymns instead of the Psalms. Indeed, the CRC sang only Psalms until the early 1930s. When the split happened, the CRC was a small, determined band of confessionally Reformed Dutchmen located mainly in western Michigan. They adhered fiercely to the Belgic Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism, and the Canons of Dort. They were a paragon of Reformed theology, piety, and practice. They still affirm the “Three Forms of Unity,” as they are known in the Dutch Reformed world, but things have changed in the CRC and at Calvin rather dramatically since then.

In the 1970s, 80s, and 90s, the CRC took a trajectory toward the mainline denominations (e.g., The Episcopal Church USA, the Presbyterian Church USA, the Evangelical Lutheran Church, the United Church of Christ, the United Methodist Church) and toward its older brother, the RCA. First they began to ordain female deacons (1979), then female elders and ministers (1995). The official position today says: “All congregations in the Christian Reformed Church in North America may allow women to serve in the office of minister, elder, deacon, or commissioned pastor.” I serve as a minister in the United Reformed Churches in North America, a federation of churches that was initially composed of congregations that withdrew from the CRC over 1) the authority of Scripture in the theology, piety, and practice of the church; 2) Synod’s decision in 1995 to open the offices of ruling elder and  minister to females in contradiction of the plain teaching of Holy Scripture (e.g., 1 Timothy 2:12).

Report 42: A Turning Point

One of the several turning points in the trajectory of the CRC was Report  42. The conclusions of the report are familiar to those who know the Revoice movement and its allies. It concluded that a homosexual orientation may be immutable and one of the ways in which the New Testament differs from the Old Testament is that the New Testament makes a place for celibate (i.e., non-practicing) homosexuals: “In Christ the unmarried, the heterosexual and homosexual are offered an alternative to the married state in the companionship provided by the redeemed community.”  They further explained, “From the viewpoint of the New Testament the inability of the homosexual to enter into a marriage relationship does not bar him from meaningful living in Christ, and the opportunity to be accepted as a person any less than that accorded the unmarried heterosexual…Within this fellowship of love the homosexual who has also been justified and sanctified by Christ (I Corinthians 6:11) must be accepted in his homosexuality, so that in the congregation he does not need to wear a mask and conduct himself like a hypocrite, living in constant fear of discovery and exposure.” The report did affirm that a homosexual may seek “healing” for his disorder: “Of course, the first responsibility for the homosexual is to exhaust the possibility of sexual reorientation through all available means.”

Further,

This means that the homosexual who is a Christian will not adopt the interpretation of sexual inversion that the “gay activists” now give it, when they commend and celebrate homosexuality as a desirable condition and glorify the lifestyle of homosexual behavior. Instead, the homosexual must make use of the means of grace, the pastoral care of the church, and the therapy available to him from scientific sources.

The report appeals to the parallel of alcoholism. Just as the alcoholic is always an alcoholic in orientation (the CRC more or less adopted the AA approach to substance abuse) but it rejects what we now call gay marriage:

Because Scripture does not allow exceptions to moral demands for reasons of personal relief and satisfaction it would appear that no exception to the law of chastity may be made in the case of homosexuals who “marry,” even though we can sympathize with the desire of some of them to effect such a partnership on account of the fulfillment such an arrangement might bring. Such a homosexual life partnership arrangement, by way of exception, appears no more justifiable than the liaison of a married man with a mistress when he can have no conjugal relationships with an invalid wife.

The report concludes that a homosexual orientation and desire is not sinful per se but “disordered.” Christians with a homosexual orientation are to be accepted fully as members of the church. The practice of homosexuality is to be condemned.

Paul, The Heidelberg Catechism, And Its Primary Author

From a traditional Reformed perspective, however, Report 42 has some serious flaws and omissions. First, the report seems unaware of the historic Christian (and Reformed) distinction between nature and grace and that both homosexual orientation (desire) and practice have always been regarded as unnatural and sinful. Though the report refers to Romans 1:26–27 it does not grapple with its intent or implications:

For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error (ESV).

Paul is describing the consequences of the fall. The first of these is that God “gave up” (παρέδωκεν) unbelievers to “dishonorable passions” (πάθη ἀτιμίας). The first category that Paul invokes is a disordered desire. This clause alone would seem to be prima facie evidence against the report’s distinction, which seemed to be driven more by 1960s science than Scripture and historic Reformed theology. The traditional Christian way to speak about such disordered desires is concupiscence. According to Report 42, the act of homosexuality is sin but the desire is not. Yet, traditionally Christians (including the Reformed tradition) have regarded concupiscence itself as sin and the mother of sin. Indeed, it is striking how infrequently the word sin appears in Report 42. The word repent occurs twice and the words repentance and penitent occurs not at all. It is hard to imagine a report on homosexuality from 1857 or even 1927 that spoke as Report 42 does.

In v. 27 Paul again invokes the category of “desire” (ὀρέξει) as part of his indictment of homosexuality. It is true that it is “inflamed” (ἐξεκαύθησαν) but are we really to think that, for Paul, desire to have same-sex relations is morally neutral or good and becomes sinful only when “inflamed”? That seems like special pleading.

We need not look far to justify the claim that same-sex desire itself (per se) is sinful. Heidelberg Catechism 109 says:

109. Does God forbid nothing more in this commandment than adultery and such gross sins?

Since both our holy body and soul are temples of this Holy Spirit, it is His will that we keep both pure and holy. Therefore, He forbids all unchaste actions, gestures, words, thoughts, desires, and whatever may entice thereto.

The German text of the catechism has “Lust, the sense of which can run the gamut from joy to sinful sexual desire, which is what it denotes in English. The qualifier is “unchaste” (unkeuschen) and again, we must ask, did the authors of the catechism intend us to think that same-sex desire could be chaste? One need not read very far in the literature of the period to know that the answer to this question is a resounding no. The Latin text of the catechism, which was authorized by the Synod of Dort (1619), helps us to know the original understanding of this language. It has “cupiditates foedas” or “unclean desires.” Foedus, the adjective, is quite strong. It signals, “disgusting,” “filthy.” Beza’s Latin New Testament, which first appeared in 1559 and was used widely after the publication of the catechism, helps us here as he used “foedis affectibus” in 1:26. For Beza, the affections themselves are not merely “disordered” but morally repugnant. In other words, neither Beza (a major influence on the catechism) nor the catechism sequesters desire from action the way Report 42 did. We know this because Ursinus, the principal author and commentator on the catechism, tells us so: “Where the cause is condemned, there the effect is also condemned; and where the effect is condemned, there the cause is condemned.”

The cause to which Ursinus referred was desire. As was typical of the pre-modern Christian world Ursinus did not mention homosexuality explicitly but tacitly when he wrote, “The lusts of which the apostle Paul speaks in the first chapter of his Epistle to the Romans, are of this class, as the confounding of sexes.” Such desires, he wrote, should be punished by the civil magistrate. Those who have come of age in the era of Obergefell may need to be reminded that homosexuality was a crime almost everywhere until very recently. We are in the midst of a radical sexual revolution.

The second category to which Paul appeals is nature (φυσικὴν). According to Paul, both homosexual desire and behavior are contrary to the nature of things. Nature is a well-established category in Reformed theology and ethics. One is not surprised to see American evangelicals ignoring this category since they have long been influenced by the Anabaptist view that grace obliterates nature. It is surprising to see how little influence the category of nature has on Report 42. Why might that be? The CRC was strongly influenced by neo-Kuyperianism, which, in its own ways (it is a varied movement), has sometimes unintentionally agreed with the Anabaptist view of nature and grace (grace obliterates nature). Many of the neo-Kuyperians simply do not think of nature as a category. This is partly why they speak of “redeeming” secular activities (e.g., softball) because, in their view, grace must not only transform sinful humans (amen) but it must transform nature itself.1

Conclusions

The young people protesting the historic Christian position on homosexuality as unloving likely have no idea what Paul says. After all, the university has an approved LGBTQ campus group. How can same-sex attraction or even transgender identity be wrong if the campus approves of it? The students probably have no idea that Paul wrote of Christians who were once homosexuals, “such were some of you” (1 Cor 6:11). They almost certainly do not know that Report 42, for all its many weaknesses, even counseled the sort of (“conversion”) therapy now widely condemned by pagans and “progressive” Christians, which, some states have attempted to make illegal. Their professors, on the other hand, and the administrators of the university do know, or at least they should.

There should be no question among Christians whether homosexuals are image bearers. Without qualification they are. There should be no question among Christians whether homosexuals should be loved:Unqualifiedly yes. Nevertheless, there is genuine doubt  whether we may do as Report 42 attempted to do: affirm homosexual orientation and desire but condemn homosexual acts. This distinction seems untenable. That hardy band of students at the table, who dared to challenge the status quo (imagine that, students at a university challenging other students to think critically about what they have been taught?), should be commended for hanging on to the biblical, confessional, and historic Christian sexual ethic.

Resources

NOTES

1. Leonard Verduin, who published a volume advocating various Anabaptist positions, was the campus pastor at Calvin from 1941–1962. It was something of a mystery to me how Verduin lived comfortably in the CRC world as a pastor and chaplain when his sympathies were with the Anabaptists on so many points but perhaps my theory about the neo-Kuyperian view of nature and grace helps to explain the phenomenon?

2. Ursinus’ Commentary, Willard trans. p. 590.

    Post authored by:

  • R. Scott Clark
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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

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16 comments

  1. In the wake of this event Jamie Smith, a well-known Calvin professor, posted a tweet to the same effect: “At @Calvin_Uni, ALL students are welcomed, affirmed, and loved. To our LGBTQ students always, but today especially: #YouAreLoved.”

    Why are there so many traitors in the Christian church? Has Smith read Romans 1-2?

  2. Perhaps Hoeksema and Danhof had a clairvoyance in the 1920’s which far superseded their immediate concerns of the day—relative to the CRC—

  3. Anything that is sinful is sin. So to call homosexual desire a sin, not just homosexual acts sin, is tautological. The desire to sin is sin. We’re often confused because we think that temptation is a desire to sin. And since Jesus was tempted, if temptation is a desire to sin, then if desire to sin is sin, then Jesus sinned. Therefore, this shows that temptation is not the same as a desire to sin, otherwise Jesus would have sinned, if He was tempted. But He was tempted, and didn’t sin, or desire to sin.

  4. Thank you for your post, Dr. Clark. As you know, I’m the reporter who originally found out and reported on the “coming out” speech of the CRC’s first openly gay minister way back in the early 1990s. He joined the United Church of Christ long ago when the CRC declared that his ministerial standing would lapse because he had not received a call to a place of ministry, thereby avoiding the issue of his actual views, which changed over the years. Back then, I think the CRC did a terrible job of avoiding the issue. Rev. Lucas deserved a fair evaluation of his views, not to have the discussion avoided on technical grounds so the CRC could avoid a fight its leaders clearly did not want to have. I told Rev. Lucas back then that I believed he was being treated as unfairly as the conservatives, and for many of the same reasons — the denomination wanted to sideline anyone who “rocked the boat” rather than dealing directly with their concerns.

    Up until the early 1990s, when conservatives warned that this was coming, they were often attacked as alarmists and bearers of false witness — up until an actual gay minister publicly declared himself as such, forcing the CRC to deal with the issue. Today, what is happening at Calvin College goes far beyond what almost all of the defenders of that gay minister were saying thirty years ago. Refusal to address the issue directly back in the early 1990s had consequences.

    Speaking as someone who was baptized in the UCC, and at that time had only recently left my liberal Congregational church in a different denomination that was almost as bad as the UCC, I was saying way back in the 1980s and 1990s that this is where the CRC was going. I am sorry to be proved right.

    A minor correction — the denominational name is United CHURCH of Christ, not “United Churches of Christ.” The UCC deliberately chose to use the singular form of the word, at least in part to indicate its departure from historic Congregational practice where the plural form was standard in the names of most of the UCC’s predecessor bodies, except for the E&R, in which the singular term “church” was used, i.e., the “Evangelical and Reformed Church.” The Congregational leaders of the General Council of Congregational Christian Churches who pushed for the merger with the E&R did so in significant measure because they objected to congregational church government, regarding it as a bad thing. Remember that this was in the context of the 1950s when centralization was considered to be more efficient, and also when the ecumenical movement was strong, and regarded strong centralized denominations as being a good thing. The modern UCC has retained many vestiges of its historic congregational polity, among them being local ownership of church property, but that happened less out of principle and more because local churches refused to give up local control, while permitting the denominational bureaucracy to centralize itself and to establish denominational control over ministerial standing. Local UCC churches can pretty much do what they want, including leaving the denomination, but apart from that, the denomination has a level of centralization that is quite foreign to its pre-1950s history.

  5. Dr. Clark:

    I agree with everything above. My concern is that we also establish forms of heterosexual desire as unnatural and necessarily sinful. Because the Bible establishes “the two shall become one” as the natural norm, isn’t the desire to have a heterosexual erotic relationship with anyone to whom you are not married unnatural? Evaluating anyone as a sexual partner, admiring him or her for the potential of providing current or future erotic pleasure, outside of the confines of God’s law, is also unnatural in the sense of not conforming to God’s original creation and law. Or is there a usage of natural which means in opposition to God’s published law but normal in the regime of sin and death?

    What I am worried about is essentially calling the SI Swimsuit issue natural but soft gay porn unnatural. I understand that homoeroticism provides no reproductive outcome and the activity is often damaging to the body, but again I don’t see how this legitimates any hetero-eroticism outside of marriage.

    • Hi Shane,

      This is one reason why it’s important and useful to distinguish nature and grace. Some things are against nature and are also sinful and some things are just against nature. Since humans are not born with wings we have to respect the laws of physics. When we jump from an airplane we need a parachute or a wing of some kind to avoid plunging to our deaths. In other words, nature is. There is a divinely established order to the world in which we live. There are laws to which we must adhere penalties to be paid when we transgress them.

      When two person of the same sex, to put it gently (more gently than Paul puts it in 1 Cor 6, where he is remarkably pointed), treat each other as though one of them were of the opposite sex, they are sinning (violating God’s moral law) and violating God’s natural law. They are acting contrary to the nature of things. When two humans of opposite sexes couple they are not transgressing nature but they are transgressing the moral law. In other words, as a matter of nature (and specially biology) mammals of the opposite sex, to which class we belong, are designed to couple. Mammals of the same sex are not.

      It is true that, in the historic Christian understanding of the moral and natural law, they are essentially the same, insofar as the natural law reveals the moral law but, in some respects, they can be distinguished. Paul speaks of the στοιχεια in Gal 4:3, 9, and in Col 2:8, where I think this sense is the clearest. The best way to understand Paul’s language here is something like “natural law.” It’s not Greek philosophy about which he’s worried but a kind of natural law, under which people are being put for salvation.

      In other words, heterosexual desires and acts, when they are contrary to the moral law, are sin. All homosexual desires and sins are contrary to God’s moral law but they have the additional quality of being not only contrary to God’s moral law but also contrary to biology, which is essentially what I think Paul means by φυσικὴν in Rom 1:26.

      Here some essays where I work on this:

      It Was Not So From The Beginning: What Nature And Grace Teach Us About SSA

      All Sins Are Not Alike: Porneia, Chastity, And Wisdom

      On Jesus, Assumptions, Temptation, And Speculation

  6. Dr. Clarke–Thank you for your thoughtful response and developing these resources.

    I agree with you that all homosexual eroticism is unnatural, and the information in the linked articles. Yet I think it would be helpful for those who struggle with SSA to hear that those of us who struggle heterosexual attraction outside of marriage that we too have unnatural desire. And for us heteros to think of our “common” sins as unnatural. I don’t think we can say that Solomon’s 700 wives and 300 concubines or flipping through SI can be termed natural on biological grounds.

    Thus, responding to an isolated moment of heterosexual attraction outside of marriage is biologically natural. (The bird flying over Augustine’s head.) Watching a couple pretend to or actually fornicating for entertainment or excitement, self-gratification with a opposite sex object of desire, and so forth is unnatural. (The bird making a nest in our hair.) It might not be as unnatural or disordered from God’s physical design in original compulsion, but at some point even heterosexual sin must pass into unnatural categories. Or am I missing something?

    • Shane,

      I think we disagree.

      Sin is sin and some sin is contrary to nature in a way that other sins are not.

      E.g., Jesus says that Moses allowed polygamy because the hardness of their hearts (Matt 19:8) and goes on to correct polygamy by appealing to the creational pattern. Clearly polygamy does not accord with the creational pattern and yet it cannot be said to be unnatural in the same sense that homosexual desire and acts are unnatural. To use the same word to describe heterosexual sin and homosexual sin is an unhelpful equivocation.

      Biology matters. This is why it’s important not to allow grace (e.g., redemption and eschatology) to wipe out nature.

      We should confess to our friends afflicted with SSA that heterosexual sin is sin but it’s not helpful to give them the impression that all sins are alike. They aren’t, as I’ve tried to show in the resources I provided. Paul himself distinguishes sexual sins from other sins.

  7. Thank you, Scott, for this excellent article. As you know I am a faculty member at Calvin and ordained in the OPC. Your historical and theological analysis here is exactly right.

    There are faithful faculty on Calvin’s campus. Please pray for the students and for those seeking to be faithful to Christ and his word, as well as the confessions to which we have subscribed, that we would be wise as serpents and gentle as doves.

    This article went out in the student newspaper in September ’20. It was my hope to draw a line in the sand and also invite student interaction. https://calvinchimes.org/2020/09/21/letter-to-the-editor-an-open-invitation-to-discuss-traditional-views-of-marriage/

    • David,

      Thank you for this and for your gracious and thoughtful response in the pages of the Chimes. We will pray for you and for the Calvin community as you seek to minister to students and others.

  8. Thanks for addressing the issue. When you say that homosexual desire is sin, are you saying that if a homosexual is genuinely saved then he or she will no longer have any same sex attraction or desire? If that is what you are saying, then must any sinner stop being a sinner in order to be considered genuinely saved? If you are not saying what I suggest in my first question, then what are you saying in terms of their ongoing sexuality? I look forward to your response.
    Thanks

    • Hi Dennis,

      I’m not a perfectionist. I’m Augustinian and Reformed. I subscribe the Heidelberg Catechism, the Belgic Confession, and the Canons of Dort. I hold the traditional Augustinian and Reformed understanding of Romans 7, i.e., that Paul spoke there as a Christian about his ongoing struggle with sin.

      We should affirm that same-sex attraction is contrary to nature, that homosexual desire is sin, and that some Christians will continue to struggle with these sins perhaps for the rest of their lives on this earth.

      I’m with the Marrow Men and specifically with the Auchterader Creed: “It is not sound or orthodox to teach that we must forsake sin in order to our coming to Christ, and instating us in Covenant with God.”

      Here is a little background on that controversy.

      I’m just asking that we reckon homosexual desire (and illegitimate heterosexual desire) as sin and deal with it as we deal with other types of sin per Heidelberg Catechism 88-90. Call sin what it is. Repent of it daily and seek to put it to death and to be made alive in the new man (mortification and vivification).

      Just as I am not a pefectionist nor do I think that persisting sin should be made our identity. Our identity is that we are outwardly identified with Christ in baptism and, by grace alone, through faith alone, inwardly, Spiritually united to Christ and we should seek to think of ourselves thus and seek to live accordingly by the grace of God.

  9. Thanks, Scott, for the clarification. If I understand you correctly, that’s where I am. The use of words like desire or attraction or orientation can be interpreted differently. It’s helpful to have them spelled out.

    I take it that the Auchterader Creed is speaking of forsaking sin in any complete or absolute sense. The problem is that sometimes preachers sound like that’s what God expects. Of course, we must be repentant. We must begin to repent and desire to forsake sin. Can anyone truly and safely say more than that about where they are?

    • Dennis,

      The Auchterader Creed was formed by the Marrow Men, in the 18th century, to assert that we need not become sanctified before becoming justified. According to the Belgic Confession (art. 24), we are being progressively sanctified because we are justified. The majority in the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, however, had come to agree with Richard Baxter et al, that we are justified because we are sanctified. In short, Baxter et al. had given up the Reformation doctrine of justification sola gratia, sola fide in favor of moralism.

      Yes, too many preachers do give the impression that we must give be sanctified in order to be justified. The gospel, however, is good news for sinners: Christ died for the ungodly. Christ justifies the ungodly and he graciously sanctifies those whom he has already justified.

      This is why the doors of the church are open to all kinds of sinners, heterosexual and homosexual like. Let us all acknowledge our sins and our need for the Savior. Let us all turn to Christ and put our trust in him alone and seek to live in union with him and with our fellow redeemed sinners in the church.

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