same-sex attraction

Is a ‘Propensity’ for Same-Sex Attraction Sinful?

16 May 2024

11.9 MINS

I love Moore Theological College and am deeply thankful to God for the witness of the Sydney Anglican Church. It is a denomination that has been a faithful witness to Christ and the reformed faith in an age of widespread theological compromise and error. Like many others, I have been richly blessed by the academic rigour of the theological training I received at Moore College, and I will be grateful for it forever.

I also have a deep respect for the Sydney Anglican bishops and their leadership over the Anglican Church and their widespread influence in many other churches as well. Nevertheless, I am concerned that a report by the Sydney Diocesan Doctrine Commission (SDDC) on “The Doctrine of Concupiscence and its Relevance to the Experience of Same-Sex Attraction” is not as helpful as it could be in giving people guidance on this issue.

While it is a brave theologian or pastor who wades into the deep waters of modern sexuality, I do have some concerns with the way in which some of these issues have been treated in the SDDC report. Let me begin with what I think we can agree upon in the report and then hone in on what I think is its underlying weakness.

  1. The report models a compassionate tone which is both pastoral as well as theologically rigorous. What’s more, it also shows care in handling Scripture as well as how this should be applied in practice. [1.2]
  2. The report has a good explanation and defence of the historic doctrine of concupiscence. [3.7]
  3. The report ably defends the historic Anglican doctrine of concupiscence against the Roman Catholic alternative. [4.1]
  4. The report also gives a good presentation of the Gospel and its effect on our lives. [5.5-6]
  5. Finally, the report makes many helpful insights in applying the doctrine of concupiscence to the experience of people who are wrestling with same-sex attraction. [6.3-4]

All of which is to say, there is much in this report which is to be commended and from which all reformed evangelicals can benefit. However, there is one significant area of concern in the report that has the potential to mislead and create theological and pastoral problems.

The Underlying Weakness

The main point of contention which I have with the commission’s report comes when it addresses the issue of temptation and a person’s “propensity” to sin, which in and of itself is not sinful. I’ll quote the relevant sections first and then make a detailed response. The commission states that:

6.5.         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). While our temptations (unlike his) often arise from our own fallenness, actual sin only occurs when we fail to resist temptation and allow ourselves to be enticed by our own desires (Jas 1:14-15). Therefore, while we are right to lament our fallen condition, we are not called to repent of temptation but to resist it. Repentance becomes necessary when we yield to temptation.

6.6.         For this reason, the commonly asked question – Is same-sex sexual attraction sinful? – requires a careful response. The desire for same-sex sexual intimacy is an inclination toward evil, has of itself the nature of sin, and is deserving of God’s wrath (Art. IX). As a result, the Christian person who experiences such desire ought to wish ‘nothing less than the nonexistence of these very desires’ and ‘to assert [their] freedom against it.’[1] However, the propensity to be sexually attracted to someone of the same-sex is not in and of itself actual sin. For such a propensity to become a sinful act, it would need to be expressed in actuality, either through lustful intent (Matt 5:28) or sexual activity. [2]

7.3.         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.

The key to the commission’s finding is its introduction of the novel category of there being a ‘propensity’ to sin, which it claims is not itself sinful. While still holding to the orthodox doctrine of concupiscence (disordered desires) as well as the sinfulness of same-sex behaviour, they introduce a vague and ill-defined third category which they label as ‘propensity’. [3]

The way they do this in section 6.5 is by appealing to the temptation of Jesus (Heb. 2:18, 4:15). They argue that Jesus was ‘tempted’ but that didn’t mean he sinned. And in the same way, Christians can experience a “propensity” to same-sex temptation which is not a part of concupiscence.

However, the parallel with Jesus is not a valid one since the Messiah, Jesus, who was both fully God and fully man, didn’t have a fallen, sinful nature. As Rev. Dr John McClean writes:

Jesus did not sin. He is “without sin” (Heb. 4:15 cf 7:26” and “he committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth” (1 Pet. 2:22 cf Jn 8:462 Cor. 5:211 Jn 3:5). He did not have fallen human nature (what Paul calls ‘flesh’).

“He was free from inherent sin. Nowhere in the structures of his being was there any sin. Satan had no foothold in him. There was no lust. There was no affinity with sin. There was no proclivity to sin. There was no possibility of temptation from within. In no respect was he fallen and in no respect was his nature corrupt”. [4]

Likewise, Denny Burke also concludes:

‘We err if we project our own sinful response to temptation onto Jesus. We often respond to temptation with a desire for evil. And our giving in to temptation can snowball into temptations arising from our own lusts. But Jesus never responded to temptation like that. Is temptation the same thing as sin? No, not necessarily. But let us not think that our frequent attraction to evil ever had a parallel in Jesus’ heart. It did not.’[5]

Lamenting and Seeking Liberation from What?

On the one hand, the commission’s report states that those who experience a “propensity to be sexually attracted to members of their own sex are not… [guilty of] perpetuating sin in their lives.” However, this propensity is something which is to “be lamented and from which we seek to be liberated.”

The problem, however, is whether one can ‘lament’ over or ‘seek to be liberated’ from something that is not in and of itself a sin. To ‘lament’ is to express disapproval, remorse as well as guilt. And to ‘seek to be liberated’ from something is to acknowledge that one is currently enslaved to it by sin. [6] As the seventeenth-century theologian, Francis Turretin explains:

The very first motions of concupiscence do not cease to be sins, although they are neither wholly voluntary nor in our power… although these motions may not be in our power, yet because they were such in the beginning and ought to be in accordance with the duty of man, they do not cease to be sins. [7]

The obvious conclusion is that a ‘propensity’ to sin is really just another word for concupiscence. That is, it is the presence of a disordered desire, which is a manifestation of our sinful natures. As Denny Burke explains:

‘… the tenth commandment prohibits not merely intentional desire for adultery, but all desire for adultery without respect for the voluntary/involuntary nature of the desire. Considering the fact that the Mosaic Law requires sacrifices for unintentional sins, it is not difficult to see that the chosenness of a desire does not ultimately determine its sinfulness. The sinfulness of a desire is determined solely by its conformity or lack of conformity to the law of God.’ [8]

To give an example, if one were to say that they had a propensity for paedophilia, or incest, or bestiality, or adultery, surely that is the expression of something which should not only be lamented but also repented from? As the LORD Himself says in the book of Isaiah:

‘Seek the LORD while He may be found;
Call on Him while He is near.
Let the wicked forsake his way
And the evil man his thoughts.
Let him turn to the LORD,
and He will have mercy on him,
and to our God, for He will freely pardon.
For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
Neither are your ways my ways,’
Declares the LORD.’
Isaiah 55:6-8

Similarly, the apostle Paul writes in Romans 7:

So I find this law at work: When I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members. What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God – through Jesus Christ our Lord! (Romans 7:21-25a)

Nowhere in Scripture do we find the commission’s distinction between concupiscence and a propensity to sin. They are one and the same thing. Note how Mark Jones and Rosaria Butterfield explain the doctrine of concupiscence:

‘We can understand sin as voluntary by a distinction between the will considered narrowly (strictly) or broadly (generally). Narrowly speaking, it refers to that which is done by a movement of the will. Broadly speaking, however, it refers to anything that effects the will or depends upon it. All sin is voluntary if we speak broadly.

But, narrowly, not all sin is necessarily voluntary. That does not mean that a certain sin could bypass the will. The act of the will may lead to actual sins, but sin may occur prior to the acting of the will. Unclean thoughts, for example, may not lead to acts but to say they are not sin goes against the consistent teaching of the Reformed tradition, and indeed of all Protestants.’ [9]

In short, the highly nuanced distinction between sinful desires and a propensity to those desires is not a valid one. The commission is trying to introduce a theological and pastoral concession where none exists. For as soon as there is a propensity to sin, therein is the evidence of concupiscence, that is, a sinful desire which itself should be ‘lamented’ and which we should also seek to be ‘liberated’ from.

The Relationship Between Sexual Orientation and Propensity

What the commission’s report seems to be doing is conflating sexual orientation with ‘propensity’. Significantly, the question of, ‘What is sexual orientation?’ was strangely not addressed in the commission’s report. The reason why this omission is important is because it implicitly informs so much modern thinking on the topic both in theory as well as in practice. That is, that sexual propensities and desires are innate and, therefore, cannot be resisted or changed. But as Rosaria Butterfield, a converted lesbian and influential Christian author, helpfully explains:

‘Homosexual orientation is a man-made theory about anthropology, or what it means to be human. It comes from atheistic worldviews that coalesced in the nineteenth century in Europe. Homosexual orientation is not a biblical concept, nor can it be manipulated in the service of Christian living.

Sigmund Freud and Charles Darwin (1809-1882) both contributed to the general idea of sexual orientation, the idea that human beings oriented-aimed, directed, pitched-by sexual desires, understood as an internal, organic drive over which we have no control…

The actual phrase “sexual orientation” became the twentieth-century articulation that who you are is determined by the objects of your sexual desire. Under the worldview of homosexual orientation, homosexuality is a morally neutral and separate category of personhood, rendering the homosexual a victim of a world that just doesn’t understand sexual variance.’ [10]

Significantly, sexual orientation is not a concept which is found in the Bible, and it should be subsequently rejected. What’s more, it only has a very recent use in the history of ideas.[11] For most of human history, “homosexual” referred to an act which someone performed, rather than a category to which someone belonged. As Nancy Pearcey explains:

When was the meaning of the term changed? In the nineteenth century, as Christian moral influence waned, medical science took over the definition of sexuality. The moral terms right and wrong were changed to the supposedly objective scientific terms healthy and deviant.

Under this new “medico-sexual regime,” says Foucault, what had been a “habitual sin” now became a “singular nature.” [12] What had been a “temporary aberration” now became “a species”. Science cast hetero- and homosexuality as divergent psychological types, innate and unchanging. [13]

The ramifications of the above insight are significant. As Pearcey goes on to explain:

But today science is changing once again. Recent studies have found that sexual desire is more fluid than most people had thought. Lisa Diamond, who identifies as a lesbian, is a researcher with the American Psychological Association and discovered (to her own great surprise) that sexual feelings are not fixed. They can be influenced by environment, culture, and context.

People with exclusive, unchanging same-sex eroticism are actually the exception, not the norm. The Supreme Court’s Obergefell ruling, which declared sexuality to be “immutable,” is already out of date. Diamond states bluntly, “We know it’s not true… Queers have to stop saying: ‘Please help us, we were born this way and we can’t change’ as an argument for legal standing.” [14]

An important question to answer at this point is, “Is a propensity or sexual orientation to sin itself sinful?” Because, as Denny Burk asks, “If a person cannot control whether they have same-sex attraction, how can that attraction be considered sinful?” [15] Burk unambiguously explains though, that it is. As Burk states, “But this is not how the Bible speaks of sin and judgment. There are all manner of predispositions that we are born with and that we experience as unchosen realities.” [16] As Herman Bavinck explains:

“Though it is true that the voluntary element in this restricted sense is not always a constituent in the concept of sin, the sins of the human state and involuntary sins still do not totally occur apart from the will. There is not only an antecedent but also a concomitant, a consequent, and an approving will. Later, to a greater or lesser degree, the will approves of the sinfulness of our nature and takes delight in it. …

It can be said that at the most fundamental level all sin is voluntary. There is nobody or nothing that compels the sinner to serve sin. Sin is enthroned not outside the sinner but in the sinner and guides the sinner’s thinking and desiring in its own direction. It is the sinner’s sin insofar as the sinner has made it his or her own by means of his or her various faculties and powers.” [17]

The Biblical Teaching on Repentance

Crucial to this entire topic is the nature of repentance. This is something that is integral to any preaching of the Gospel (Mk. 1:15; Lk. 24:27) and is itself “an evangelical grace” (WCF 15:1). That is, turning from sinful actions as desires is something that is empowered by God’s Holy Spirit (Zech. 12:10; Acts 11:18).

If one considers the inclinations of same-sex attracted people as only being a ‘propensity’ to sin and not sinful in and of themselves, then they will not be exhorted to repent of them. A faithful presentation of the Gospel will also challenge a person’s inner thoughts and desires, as well as their outward behaviour and acts. And, as such, we must address both.

The commission often leads the way in modelling how these matters should be addressed. On this occasion though, more work needs to be done. For the message of the Gospel is so powerful that it grants to believers new hearts, with new thoughts, behaviours and desires (Jer. 31:33; Ezek. 36:25-27).


[1] Augustine, On Marriage and Concupiscence, 1:30; Oliver O’Donovan, “Chastity,” The Furrow 36, no. 12 (1985), 731.

[2] Emphasis added.

[3] For an excellent analysis of this issue see Matthew P. W. Roberts, Pride: Identity and the Worship of Self (Christian Focus, 2023).

[4] D. Macleod, The Person of Christ (Leicester: IVP, 1998), 222. John McClean concludes, ‘There are two great difference between Christ’s temptations and ours. First, our temptations arise, in part, from our own distorted desires; to the extent that they were enticement to sin, his came from without. Second, Christ resisted temptation entirely and utterly, continually dedicating himself to his Father’s will. He alone knows the full pain and cost of resisting temptation. Thank God, he did that for us.’

[5] Denny Burk, ‘Is Homosexual Orientation Sinful?’ Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 58.1 (2015), 107.

[6] As the apostle Paul writes: ‘For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God.’ Romans 8:20-21

[7] Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology 9.2.5.

[8] Burk, ‘Is Homosexual Orientation Sinful?’ 100. Emphasis his.

[9] Mark Jones and Rosaria Butterfield, Knowing Sin: Seeing a Neglected Doctrine Through the Eyes of the Puritans(Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers, 2022), 45. Jones and Butterfield go on to quote, Francis Turretin, who explains that the “very first motions of concupiscence do not cease to be sins, although they are neither wholly voluntary nor in our power” (Rom. 7:7).

[10] Rosaria Butterfield, Five Lies of Our Anti-Christian Age (Crossway, 2023), 65-66.

[11] Burk, ‘Is Homosexual Orientation Sinful?’. “… neither homosexuality nor heterosexuality are fixed identity markers. Rather, they are socially constructed terms, and people’s sexual proclivities are in actuality more variable than we have been led to believe. It is ironic that just as many evangelicals are coming to embrace the notice of sexual orientation, many queer theorists are moving away from it as a fixed identity marker.” 113. Burk also references Hanne Blank, Straight: The Surprisingly Short History of Heterosexuality (Boston: Beacon, 2012), 4; Jonathan Ned Katz, The Invention of Homosexuality (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995), 18.

[12] Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality, vol 1 (Random House, 1976), 42-43; Jenell Williams Paris, The End of Sexuality (IVP, 2011). Quoted in Nancy R. Pearcey, Love Thy Body (Baker, 2018),166.

[13] Pearcey, Love Thy Body,166.

[14] Pearcey, Love Thy Body,167; Lisa Diamond, Sexual Fluidity (Harvard University Press, 2008).

[15] Burk, ‘Is Homosexual Orientation Sinful?’ 108.

[16] Burk, 108-109.

[17] Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, 144. Quoted in Burk, 109 footnote 34. Burk also references Richards Hays who says, “… it cannot be maintained that a homosexual orientation is morally neutral because it is involuntary.” Richard B. Hays, The Moral Vision of the NT: Community, Cross, New Creation: A Contemporary Introduction to Ethics (New York: HarperOne, 1996), 390.


Image courtesy of Anna Shvets.

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One Comment

  1. IAN Moncrieff 16 May 2024 at 10:24 am - Reply

    Well thought out and presented article. I concur.
    Thanks Mark.

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