Is Homosexual Practice No Worse Than Any Other Sin?

Scripture shows (1) sins do differ in significance to God and (2) God regards homosexual practice as a particularly severe sexual sin.

However, the idea that, if the church had just delivered the message on homosexual practice as sin with more love and more balance, there wouldn’t be any expression of anger and bitterness from the gay-rights community is preposterous. Jesus was a loving guy and yet he was crucified for speaking the truth. Sin hates any restraint of its power and those under the controlling influence of same-sex attractions are no different. In addition, expressions of outrage and efforts at intimidation are an integral part of the homosexualist strategy for coercing societal approval of homosexual practice.

 

In my work on the Bible and homosexual practice I often encounter the argument that (1) no sin is any worse than any other sin; therefore (2) homosexual practice is no worse than any other sin.* Usually the comparison is then made with sins for which accommodations are often made by Christians (like gluttony or remarriage after divorce), rather than with sins for which no accommodation is made (like incest or murder), as a way of either shutting up Christian opposition to homosexual practice altogether or contending that self-affirming participants in homosexual practice will still “go to heaven.” Even many evangelicals who neither support homosexual practice nor extend a pass from God’s judgment to those who persist unrepentantly in it subscribe to these two views.

Sometimes these claims are buttressed by an analogy, such as when Alan Chambers, former head of Exodus International, declared at the opening night General Session of the 2012 Exodus International Conference: “Jesus didn’t hang on the cross a little longer for people who … have been involved with same-sex attraction or who have been gay or lesbian.” It comes across as a nice sound bite and can be helpful for those who think that homosexual practice is too bad to be forgiven by God. But it doesn’t establish the claim that there is no “hierarchy of sin.” The length of time that Jesus hung on the cross is irrelevant. It is the fact of Jesus’ death that counts for atonement. Nor is anyone arguing that Jesus’ death cannot cover big sins. It covers big and little sins for those who repent and believe in the gospel.

Put simply, Christ’s universal coverage of sin through his death on the cross does not mean that all sins are equal in all respects but only that all sins are equal in one respect: They are all covered. If they were not, no one would enter the kingdom, for God is so holy that any sin would disqualify a person from entry if moral merit were the basis for acceptance. By way of analogy, one may have health coverage for all injuries great and small and pay the same amount for the coverage regardless of the injury; but that doesn’t mean that all injuries are of equal severity. As we shall see, there is a mountain of evidence from Scripture (in addition to reason and experience) that shows (1) sins do differ in significance to God and (2) God regards homosexual practice as a particularly severe sexual sin.

Why an Egalitarian View of Sin?

Why, then, do so many insist on an ‘egalitarian view of sin’? There may be several reasons working together.

First, many Christians are overeager to do whatever they can to soften criticisms from homosexualist advocates. The latter, many of whom are very good at being outraged at anything that disagrees with their agenda, go bonkers when they hear homosexual practice described as a severe sin.

Second, some are pushing an egalitarian view of sin at least in part out of pastoral concerns, so as not to turn off homosexual inquirers with a message that they might find hard to accept. The flipside of this is that they may want a theological basis for criticizing any sense of self-superiority or uncharitable spirit coming from the church. Some believe that the church is responsible for creating an angry and bitter “gay-rights” community by giving a pass to Christians involved in heterosexual sins while using the Bible to beat up on persons who engage in homosexual behavior.

There is some truth in this view. However, the idea that, if the church had just delivered the message on homosexual practice as sin with more love and more balance, there wouldn’t be any expression of anger and bitterness from the gay-rights community is preposterous. Jesus was a loving guy and yet he was crucified for speaking the truth. Sin hates any restraint of its power and those under the controlling influence of same-sex attractions are no different. In addition, expressions of outrage and efforts at intimidation are an integral part of the homosexualist strategy for coercing societal approval of homosexual practice.

Christians should take care that in their rush to appease homosexualist advocates they don’t end up denying Scripture itself, which does characterize homosexual practice in very negative terms, not as the only sin to be sure but nonetheless as a grave offense. One wonders whether Christians who denounce other Christians for saying that homosexual practice is a severe sin deep down think that the Apostle Paul is a bigot for giving special attention to homosexual practice in Romans 1:18-32 as a particularly self-degrading, shameful, and unnatural practice that is in part its own “payback” for those who engage in it.

While I have some sympathy for a pastoral motivation to stress more the element of universal sin to inquirers who might otherwise have anti-Christian prejudices activated, I cannot accept a blatant falsification of the Bible in claiming that the church, in viewing some sins (like homosexual practice) as worse than other sins, has created a tremendously damaging view that the Bible itself does not substantiate. I shall show below that both the general view that some sin is more heinous to God than others and the specific view that homosexual practice is a particularly severe sexual offense in God’s eyes (in seriousness somewhere between adult-consensual incest and bestiality) are well documented from Scripture. Parenthetically, if people are really serious about the view that no one sin is worse than any other, they shouldn’t be upset by the comparison to consensual incest (since by their own reasoning incest is no worse than any other sin).

What a Hierarchical View of Sins Ought and Ought Not Do

Let it be understood what the biblical view of some sin as worse than others does not entitle anyone to do:

  1. Deny one’s own sinfulness apart from God and need for Christ’s atonement.
  2. Excuse one’s own sin.
  3. Treat others in a hateful manner or wish for them that they not come to repentance (in the manner of Jonah’s initial view toward the Ninevites).
  4. View anyone as immoral or spiritually inferior simply for the mere experience of urges to do what God strongly forbids.

On points 1 and 2, Paul believed both (1) that some sin is worse than others (idolatry and sexual immorality were major concerns, for example; and within the category of sexual immorality, he had particular revulsion for homosexual practice, then (adult) incest, then adultery and sex with prostitutes; Rom 1:24-27; 1 Cor 5; 6:9, 15-17; 1 Thess 4:6); and (2) that “all have sinned and fall short of in God’s glory” and can only be made right by God’s grace through Christ’s redeeming work (Rom 3:23-25). The two points are not in opposition or even in tension. The fact that all sin is equal in one respect—any one sin can disqualify one from the kingdom of God if one doesn’t receive Christ—does not infer that all sin is equal in all respects—some sins provoke God to bring judgment upon his people more than others.

With respect to the third point, recognizing the special severity of homosexual practice should in no way lessen the pastoral love and care shown to persons acting out of same-sex attractions. On the contrary: The greater the severity of sin, the greater the outreach of love. This is the lesson that we learn from Jesus’ outreach to tax collectors and sexual sinners. There is a tendency in the church, on both sides of the theological aisle, to correlate severity of offense with lack of love. So the liberal argues that in order to love someone we have to reduce the severity of the offense that the offender engages in or eliminate the offense altogether. The conservative sometimes maintains the severity of the offense at the cost of exercising love to the offender. Jesus (and Paul) taught us to uphold love and an intensified sexual ethic at the same time. He didn’t have to lower the gravity of the offense of exploitative tax collectors in order to love them. Rather, because their offense was so grave (i.e., putting others at risk of starvation by collecting more in taxation than they were assigned to collect and profiting thereby), he devoted a greater proportion of his ministry outreach to them. The inverse relationship between the severity of the offense and the outreach of love (the greater the offense, the lesser the loving outreach; the greater the loving outreach, the lesser the offense) is pure paganism that we must drop from the church altogether.

Regarding the fourth point, no one is at fault merely for experiencing urges that one does not ask to experience and does not seek to cultivate. For example, the fact that someone experiences same-sex attractions at all is not something for which one is morally culpable and does not in any way justify a designation of the person as morally depraved. Same-sex erotic desires, like any desires to do what God expressly forbids, are sinful desires (i.e., they are desires to sin), which is why the one experiencing the desires should not yield to them either in one’s conscious thought-life or in one’s behavior. Feelings of jealousy, covetousness, greed, pride, or sexual arousal for an illicit union are all sinful desires; but one isn’t culpable for them unless one willingly entertains them in one’s mind or acts on them in one’s behavior.

Here is what the biblical view of different severity of sins does entitle one to do:

  1. Use it to gauge the extent of another’s movement away from God’s grace and thus the level of intervention needed.
  2. Deny that societal or ecclesiastical accommodations to some sins (like divorce and remarriage after divorce) justify accommodations to greater sins (adultery, incest, homosexual practice, pedophilia, bestiality). People can logically move only from greater to lesser offenses, not lesser to greater offenses.

God has given us all a sense of right and wrong with our consciences. We rightly have a sense that some actions are more evil than others and codify that sense in our laws, however imperfectly. Granted, even our consciences have been affected by the corrupting influence of sin, and nowhere more so than when we excuse our own sin. Moreover, our relative ordering of sins can be skewed by our own sinful desires. However, the principle that some sins are more heinous than others, not just in their effects on humans but also in the estimation of God, is God-given. If we didn’t have that sense within our moral compass, society would be far more perverse than it already is.

Logic, Experience, and the Great Christian Traditions

Surely all reasonable persons are bound to acknowledge that for a woman’s husband to tell her a “white lie” about spending $50 rather than $25 on a new watch is not as bad as if he had committed adultery against her with five other people. Surely reasonable people must admit that in God’s eyes (and not just ours or the victim’s) it is worse for a parent to rape a child than for a parent to scold a child a little more than is necessary for an offense.

Nobody actually lives in the belief that all sins are equally severe on a moral plane. Indeed, often it is those who argue in connection with homosexual practice that all sin is equal that get particularly upset if one compares homosexual unions to (adult) incest, bestiality, or pedophilia. They do so precisely because they regard incest, bestiality, and pedophilia as “really bad” and don’t want homosexual behavior to be associated with them. Such a reaction, however, is already a concession to the obvious principle that some sins are worse than others. Not a day goes by that people don’t regularly assess some actions as greater wrongs than others. In my household if my youngest child goes to bed but sneaks in a little flashlight to do so reading or drawing beyond any reasonable bedtime and against her parents’ wishes, she has done wrong but in a relatively light way as compared to, say, hitting her sibling.

Not only is the belief that all sins are equal to God in all respects manifestly absurd to human logic and experience, but also the great Christian traditions are agreed that some sin is worse than others. This is recognized even within the Reformed tradition, which emphasizes (rightly) universal human depravity (note: I am an ordained elder of the Presbyterian Church USA). For example, the Presbyterian Larger Catechism of the Westminster Confession of Faith [Question 150] (1647) states: “All transgressions of the law of God are not equally heinous; but some sins in themselves, and by reason of several aggravations, are more heinous in the sight of God than others” (7.260, my emphasis; elaboration in 7.261; cf. the Shorter Catechism 7.083 [Question 83] ).

Not only is this a Protestant view, it is also a Catholic view (note the difference between venial and mortal sins, as well as differentiations of gravity within the category of mortal sins) and an Orthodox view. I invite anyone to cite for me a creedal formulation from a major Christian denomination that contends that all sin is equally bad in God’s estimation. (Maybe there is; but I am unaware of such.) For a contemporary evangelical perspective, see J. I. Packer’s Christianity Today article, “All Sins Are Not Equal” (2005).

Now I will grant that citing the consensus view of the major Christian traditions does not prove that some sins are indeed more heinous to God than others. My point is simply that the view on that subject espoused in this article stands within the historic mainstream of Christian faith.

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