Sydney Anglicans: Same-sex ‘propensity’ is not a sin, but is not part of God’s plan


Conservative Christians debate whether experiencing same-sex attraction is sinful. Some, like the Presbyterian Church in America, argue that being same-sex attracted is sinful. Others, while living as celibate singles or married to opposite-sex spouses, simply resist their same-sex attraction without regarding themselves as sinful simply for experiencing it. An example of a celibate gay Christian is David Bennett, author and theologian. Two speakers at the recent Undeceptions conference, Rebecca McLaughlin and Rachel Gilson, are same-sex attracted and married to men. 

The Sydney [Anglican] Diocesan Doctrine Commission was asked to prepare a report on “The doctrine of concupiscence and its relevance to the experience of same-sex attraction.” The Doctrine Commission report is in the papers for this year’s Synod (church parliament) but was first released last year and available online.

If one reads many articles on same-sex attraction and Christianity, or celibate LGBT Christians, the word concupiscence crops up. In the Reformation 21 article, the second linked piece above, it is argued same-sex attraction is part of concupiscence, and so it is sinful. But the Suydney Anglicans take a very nuanced approach.

The doctrine commission defines concupiscence: “The language of concupiscence derives from the Latin concupiscentia (which is a compound of con = ‘with,’ cupi(d) = ‘desiring,’ and escere = ‘the beginning of a process or state’) and bears the general meaning of ‘an ardent, usually sensual, longing.’ So understood, it often had a morally neutral use in classical philosophy. In theological discussion, however, it has come to refer to the human inclination toward sin, which is part of the inheritance of original sin. Concupiscence, then, is that which gives rise to ‘the passions of the flesh’ or ‘the desires of the body and the mind’ (Eph 2:3).”

The report then carefully traces what “the biblical material says about how desire relates to sin, and particularly if desire is sinful (concupiscence).”

It certainly can be. the report cites Jesus’ teaching. “Jesus’ statement in Matthew 5:28, that ‘everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent [pros to epithumēsai] has already committed adultery with her in his heart,’ demonstrates that an internal desire can be sinful even without an external action. Jesus also explains that the evils that come out of a person’s heart are what defile them (Mark 7:17-23). Paul reinforces this teaching in Romans 5–8.”

A highlight in the commission’s analysis is in solving the tension between James and Paul. “The inference from James 1 – that temptation inevitably leads to sin – is in apparent tension with Paul’s point in 1 Corinthians 10, that temptation is not irresistible. However, this tension is resolved by recognising that James’ key point is that God is not the source of any temptation (v 13). Verses 14-15 then give one example of non-divine temptation – the kind of temptation that arises from sinful desires within us. This example does not cover the field of all sources of temptation; for example, the source of temptation may be the devil (cf. Jas 4:7), or external circumstances. James’ key point – that God is not the source of temptation – is not in any way in tension with Paul’s key point, which is that God provides us with the means to resist temptation (cf. Jas 1:12). Furthermore, this reading of James and Paul together which recognises that temptation is not itself sin and can be resisted is also consistent with Hebrews 4:15, which tells us that Jesus was tempted in every way as we are, and yet was without sin.”

Tracing the history of the doctrine of concupiscence, being Anglican, the Doctrine Commission cites the 39 articles, a foundational doctrinal statement for that form of Christianity. “Article IX argues that original sin (and the concupiscence that results from it) has corrupted every aspect of human nature. Concupiscence, therefore, is much more than sexual lust (specifically) or even lust (generally); it is an ‘infection of nature’ that inclines us to evil and refuses to be ‘subject to the law of God.’”

While looking forward to the new heavens and earth when concupiscence will be no more, the report quotes the theologian and philosopher Augustine “our wish ought to be nothing less than the nonexistence of these very desires, even if the accomplishment of such a wish be not possible in the body of this death.”

The report makes it clear that concupiscence does not target gay people. “As we begin to tease out the implications of the preceding sections of this report for the experience of same-sex sexual attraction, we first need to clarify that concupiscence is not to be particularly equated with sexual desire. As a theological term, it refers to the fallen human inclination toward sin. Furthermore, because this inclination is all-pervasive, concupiscence is a reality across the range of our desires. In that sense, the doctrine of concupiscence is a great leveller. No human being, except Jesus, has escaped the corruption of desire (i.e., concupiscence) that is part of the inheritance of original sin.”

“Accordingly, same-sex sexual desire is always sinful, inasmuch as it always expresses an inclination toward that which Scripture identifies as sin – i.e., sexual intimacy with a person of the same sex (Lev 18:22; 20:13; Rom 1:25-27; 1 Cor 6:9-11; 1 Tim 1:9-10; Jude 6-7). However, because many heterosexual desires also express an inclination toward sin (Matt 5:28; 15:19), the doctrine of concupiscence applies to both heterosexual and homosexual sexual desires.”

But the report has a careful distinction to make. “Although same-sex sexual attraction is a result of the Fall and a manifestation of concupiscence (and so has the nature of sin), having a propensity for such attractions should not be equated with the commission of actual sin. Experiencing temptation is not itself sin – for Jesus, as we have seen, was tempted but did not sin (Heb 4:15).”

The report is, therefore, able to conclude that “same-sex sexual desire and same-sex sexual behaviour are contrary to God’s will and contrary to created nature.” Yet, “However, those who have a propensity to be sexually attracted to members of their own sex are not, by mere virtue of this, actively and consistently perpetuating sin in their lives. This propensity is not something that demands repentance but is something to be lamented and from which we seek to be liberated.”

But what of concupiscence? It lives in all of us. “All of our desires, including our heterosexual desires, are affected by the reality of concupiscence,” The Doctrine Commission concludes. “Therefore, no one can claim to be free from sin (Rom 3:10), not in the sexual realm or any other. For this reason, concupiscence, while clearly relevant to same-sex sexual attraction, is not uniquely or especially so. All Christians are called, by the grace of God, to put to death all desires that are contrary to his will and to bring to life the fruits of righteousness. This can only be done by the power of his Spirit who is at work in all believers to conform them to the image of Christ.”