The Dispute Between Al Mohler and the Wider Evangelical Community: A Disagreement About Original Sin
Recently Dr. Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Seminary in Louisville, KY, has been attacked by members of the evangelical community for compromising on the issue of homosexuality. This is surprising since Dr. Mohler was one of the conservative leaders in the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) that lead the SBC back to its biblical and historical roots. What could have caused these accusations?
Dr. Mohler recently said that there may be some biological factors that contribute to homosexuality. This was seen as treason by many in the evangelical community who see homosexuality as a choice without any biological basis. Some members of the evangelical community see this as the only legitimate alternative to those in the gay rights movement who say there is nothing wrong with homosexuality since those that have homosexual desires and or who engage in homosexual acts are born that way. Many evangelicals therefore saw Dr. Mohler as supporting the gay rights agenda despite that fact that he said he still believed homosexuality was sinful. How are we to make sense of this conundrum?
The key to understanding these disagreements is the doctrine of original sin. According to the Scriptures, we are conceived in sin in our mother’s womb (Psalm 51:5). We are not born as innocents with blank slates, but our very natures are twisted from the beginning of our existence. This understanding of original sin does not mean we are not affected by our environment. This fallen world can certainly corrupt our natures even more, but the world works on natures that already had a bent toward sin from conception. The doctrine of original sin has been the teaching of mainstream Christianity from the beginning. In no way does this take away our moral responsibility to do what is right. We were created as moral beings, and thus the responsibility to live moral lives remains. But as part of the consequence of our rebellion against God, our natures are bent toward sin.
American Evangelicalism has been strongly affected by Enlightenment philosophy and the American Revolution. At the time of the American Revolution, themes of liberty and freedom were dominant. We were rebelling against enslavement to tyranny. This seemed to be inconsistent with the mainstream teaching of the church that says we are born slaves to sin. Some American Evangelicals leaders thus began to adapt Christianity to make it more friendly to the cultural climate of late 18th and early 19th century America. One of the doctrines they chose to eliminate, weaken or down play was the doctrine of original sin. They said, “We are not born in sin. We are born free. As we have the power to choose our president in America, we have the power to choose God and what is good. We are not slaves.” This conforms to the teachings of some Enlightenment philosophers of the 18th and 19th century who said humans are born completely innocent, a completely blank slate. It is the environment alone that corrupts humanity.
Applying this perspective to the issue of homosexuality, this strain of Evangelicalism says, “No one is born predisposed to anything. We are all born free of any sinful inclinations. Without this freedom, we would not be responsible for our actions. Therefore homosexuality cannot have any biological basis if we are to consider it sinful.”
Dr. Mohler’s remarks reveal that he has gone back to the pre-American Revolution version of evangelical Christianity. With King David he can say, “I am evil, born in sin.” This is reflected in the New Testament’s description of the sinful nature of man. Literally it is called “the flesh.” This does not mean our physical nature is bad in and of itself. When God created us body and soul he pronounced us good. But when we rebelled against God, sin affected all of who we are including our bodies so that sin can now be said to be arising out of our flesh. It arises right out of our DNA.
Mohler understands our natures are twisted and bent from the start. He is acknowledging that in some people this may result in a propensity toward homosexuality while in others this propensity to sin may be exhibited through adultery, greed, gluttony or any number of other sins. This in no way excuses any one for any sin that he or she may be inclined towards. We are responsible to do what is right regardless of our inclinations.
The scientific evidence concerning homosexuality seems to suggest that at least in some cases (probably in about 3 % of the population) there is a biological inclination involved, though the exact mechanism is still not known*. Should this theory be confirmed, it does not in any way change the Christian moral position if we have a correct understanding of original sin. What follows are my reflections on why this doctrine gives us the intellectual and pastoral resources to deal with homosexuality with grace and with truth.
(*Contrary to popular belief, it has not been demonstrated that there is a genetic cause of homosexuality. This has led some scientists to explore whether prenatal conditions in the womb may affect sexual orientation. The current scientific consensus is that probably both these elements (genetics/prenatal conditions) are factors, though again, the exact mechanism has not been determined.)
Practical Implications of an Original Sin Approach to Homosexuality
Biology Can’t Determine Right and Wrong. Those in the gay rights camp say if they can prove homosexuality has some biological basis, then that proves it should be supported as morally good. The truth is that everything that humans have ever believed to be wrong will be found to have some biological basis. For instance, it is widely accepted that some people have a biological propensity to alcohol addiction. This does not mean alcoholism should be supported as a healthy activity. There is growing scientific evidence that some who are prone to violence have some genetic or other biological predisposition toward violence. Some inmates are already using this concept to aid in their defence in appeals courts. For instance, a rapist in Virginia argued he could not be held responsible for his crime because he was born with a predisposition to rape. If we say that the existence of biological predispositions by definition determines what is moral, then everything will be moral (violence and rape included) because every aspect of human behaviour can in some sense be traced back to biology. Biology therefore is not a reliable guide about what is right and what is wrong for humanity. It is necessary for there to be a standard beyond and outside of biology to determine which biological predispositions are good and which ones are bad.
Is It Creation or Fall? One of the arguments that gay rights activist use is that “God made me this way and God doesn’t make mistakes.” This idea makes the mistake of assuming that the current state of the world is exactly as God created it without error or flaw. It assumes we currently live in the best of all possible worlds so that all current realities reflect the perfection of God. This completely ignores the reality of the Fall, humanity’s rebellion against God and the curse that fell on creation as a result. The truth is that this is a broken and fallen world. Thus in anything we encounter in this world we must ask, is this part of God’s original creation or is this a manifestation of the Fall. Just because something exists currently does not mean it was part of God’s original intention for his creation. In evaluating human sexuality, the Bible’s answer is that while sex practiced within monogamous heterosexual marriage is a good and God ordained part of creation, homosexuality is a result of the Fall, and is a failure to follow God’s original creation design.
Saying “No” to Yourself: Psychological Repression or Emotional Maturity? Modern society’s general attitude is “If it feels good, do it. Those that tell you any expression of sexuality apart from monogamous heterosexual relations is wrong are moral prudes who are just trying to ruin your life. You must be true to yourself no matter what. Don’t repress your desires. Indulge them or you will be psychologically damaged and unfulfilled.” It is true that sometimes traditional societal mores have been too restrictive. One case in point is the many roles/jobs that women or African Americans were once denied in our culture when Scripture itself made no such prohibitions. Yes, we must make sure we have not imposed restrictive rules on people where God himself has left them free.
But the currently dominant societal norm is to assume that any desire or urge that one has must be fulfilled. Let’s take a radical example that nevertheless shows why this position will not work. Sociopaths enjoy using and often harming others. It is part of who they are. They are just being true to themselves. This illustrates that just because a human has an urge to do something, that doesn’t mean its right. On a lesser scale we all at times have to say “no” to ourselves in order to do the right thing. For instance, if somebody says something hurtful about us, we may have the urge to retaliate with violence. The mature thing to do is to say “no” to ourselves and to resolve the issue in a more constructive way. Another example would be that just because a man desires to have sex with a woman, that doesn’t give him the right to impose that desire on her if she says “No.” In that instance, the man must say “no” to his own desires. (Of course, sex should be practiced within marriage alone, but rape is wrong inside or outside marriage.) The point is that just because we have a desire or inclination, it doesn’t mean it is right for us to act on it. In reality, being a mature human being means at times saying “no” to our desires. Just because someone has homosexual desires doesn’t make its practice right. We need a moral guide outside of our desires that tell us which desires are good and which are wrong.
Is It Nature, Nurture or Choice? Gay rights groups tend to say homosexuality is all nature: all homosexuals are born that way. Evangelical groups tend to say its all choice, perhaps with some dysfunctional environmental factors thrown in. The scientific evidence shows homosexuality is a very complex phenomenon that defiles simplistic categories. Some people are probably born with a homosexual predisposition. For others it is a learned behaviour that certain social/psychological environments encourage. And for some, it’s a mixture of both.
For instance, studies of Identical twins separated at birth find where one of the twins is homosexual there is a 50 % change the other twin will also be homosexual. This shows two things. 1) It points to there being something biological involved in homosexuality for a 50 % match rate is far above what one would expect in a random sample of the population. But 2) it also shows there are factors other than biology involved in becoming homosexual in that half of the twins sampled became heterosexual. In addition, other studies show that 8 % of children raised by homosexuals become homosexual. Since the natural rate of occurrence of homosexuality in the population is 3 %, this shows that 5 % of the children of homosexuals learn the behaviour from being raised in that environment, not from biological determinism.
Every individual is different. For some homosexuality is more biological and for some it is more environmental. But in every case, there is always choice involved, and we are responsible for our moral choices, regardless of our genetics or environment.
Can the Person Experiencing Homosexual Desires Change? I have heard anecdotes of persons with same sex attraction who have become Christians and have become well adjusted heterosexuals. I also have heard anecdotes of others who can never seem to shake the feelings they have for members of the same gender despite counselling and the practice of spiritual disciplines. I believe both sets of stories are true, perhaps depending on whether the homosexuality was more environmentally or biologically based. We do believe in God’s power to change lives as is evidenced by the first group. We also believe Christians still struggle with sin until we are glorified in heaven which is reflected in second group. For the first group psychological and spiritual counselling may result in substantial transformation now. Those in the second group are called to a life of singleness and chastity for the sake of the kingdom and the church should rally to them in love, support and acceptance as they seek to be faithful to Jesus in the circumstances they find themselves in. I realize some persons may find themselves on a continuum between the two groups I have outlined above. Again, the church must exercise the greatest gentleness and care for each individual as they seek to live for Jesus in the situation they found themselves in, whether that involves marriage or singleness.
Let me add that if there is some biological basis for some cases of homosexuality and the mechanism is discovered, it may be that some type of medical treatment will be developed that will help those who want to overcome those predispositions. I am not saying that this therapy should be forced on anyone, but it should be made available to any who desire it.
Homosexuality and Chastity. As was noted above, some who are born again Christians may still experience same sex attraction. It may be their calling to live a life of singleness and chastity. Some have said that calling people to life long chastity is cruel, but this reflects the worship of sex that has been adopted by modern society. While human sexuality is a good gift from God, its practice is not necessary to the essence of our humanity as Paul and Jesus both teach some are called to singleness and that in heaven, there will be no marriage. Those that are not able to engage in sex because of biological or moral reasons are still fully human. This world is not perfect and all of us have difficult situations we have to live with. It is our calling to face these difficulties with dignity and courage, maintaining our humanity in the midst of suffering. For those with innate homosexual desires, maintaining chastity is their calling though it be difficult, remembering other people have their own life challenges to deal with.
The Christian’s Attitude toward Homosexuality.
First, the Christian will believe and teach that homosexuality does not fit God’s design for human sexuality, even if this puts us at odds with the emerging cultural viewpoint (I Corinthians 6:9, Romans 1:26-27, 1 Timothy 1:8-11). It looks like there will be persecution of and discrimination against Christians for maintaining this viewpoint. It will start with Christians not being hired for certain positions and being fired from others if their views on homosexuality become known. I already know of some Christians living in fear of losing their jobs should their views be revealed. There will be immense social pressure to conform. If it comes to this, we must not compromise our faith. Instead we must rejoice that we have been able to share in the sufferings of Christ. We must continue to teach that homosexuality does not fit God’s design for humanity and this will affect social positions that we take.
Secondly, persons experiencing same sex attraction are human beings made in the image of God, sinful and broken like the rest of us, but still image bearers of God. Christians should therefore seek to safeguard their worth in the eyes of God. As an example of this second point, violence against homosexuals should be condemned as sinful and unlawful, as an assault on one bearing the image of God. There are some subcultures in America that promote violence against homosexuals. All Christians should say this is evil and should stand with homosexuals to protect them from such actions, even laying down our bodies to do so if that be necessary.
I think the Bible is clear on these two principles. How do we apply and balance these two competing principles considering all the issues we are facing today on the legal and legislative front? I think Christians need to think and pray about these issues, discussing them within the community of faith and then come to the best decision that they can as individuals based on the above principles I have outlined. The Church should not get involved in politics, but must continue to preach the truth and grace of the gospel. Individual Christians will apply this as their conscience leads them.
Finally, Christians should approach homosexuals with the knowledge that we too are sinners saved by grace, and that we too are slaves to sin who still struggle with our own sinful predispositions. We should therefore approach persons with same sex attraction along with any other person who has a different sin tendency than our own, with an attitude of gentleness and kindness, without any hint of self righteousness and judgment, for the same mercy of God that has been extended to us is being extended to them. Christians should actively love homosexuals, being the best friends they have ever had. This is the power of the gospel which will draw them to Jesus. Those churches that make it their mission to single out homosexuals for condemnation do not reflect the glory of God. Truly biblical churches will reach out to all people, with all sin tendencies and struggles, with the wonderful hope of the gospel. Persons with homosexual inclinations who seek to practice chastity for the sake of Christ should be accepted as full members of the church with all the love and support that is due a follower of Christ. This involvement includes being considered for the offices of pastor, elder and deacon. They may fail at times as all Christians do, but can be restored through God’s relentless grace. This is the hope that every Christian lives by as we all fail daily in thought, word and deed.