Pastor J. D. Greear currently serves as President of the Southern Baptist Convention. Greear recently wrote a blog post on his personal site titled, “Three Ways We Go Wrong When Discussing Homosexuality.” This CRVoices post is the fourth in a five-part series carefully examining Greear’s claims in his blog post.
Greear’s post is well-intentioned and certainly not completely wrong. We should rejoice that he takes a stand in clearly proclaiming, along with the word of God, that homosexuality is sin. However, Greear’s post is also unhelpful with regard to some points of theology on the topic of homosexuality. Given the significance of biblical fidelity and compassionate ministry when it comes to the topic of homosexuality, these unhelpful aspects of Greear’s post are worth addressing.
In this fourth of five posts in this series, we carefully consider Greear’s second claim, “We’re wrong if we think same-sex behavior is a fundamentally different type of sin.”
Greear is not clear as to what he means by a “fundamentally different type of sin.” In what way can a sin be “fundamentally different”?
Sins Are the Same
According to Scripture, all sin is fundamentally the same in the sense of making us guilty of breaking God’s law.
If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing well. But if you show partiality, you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become guilty of all of it. For he who said, “Do not commit adultery,” also said, “Do not murder.” If you do not commit adultery but do murder, you have become a transgressor of the law. (James 2:8-11)
According to Scripture, all sin is fundamentally the same in the sense of being forgivable through God’s grace (with the exception of the ‘unpardonable’ sin).
Therefore I tell you, every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven people, but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven. And whoever speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come. (Matthew 12:31-32)
So, if anyone thinks “same-sex behavior” (homosexuality is probably the better term to use here) “is a fundamentally different type of sin,” in the sense that it does not make us guilty of breaking God’s law, or in the sense that it is unforgivable, Greear is right that such a person is wrong.
Sins Are Different
However, according to Scripture, some sins are different in terms of the degree of their offense.
We know this, because Jesus teaches us about greater sin.
So Pilate said to him, “You will not speak to me? Do you not know that I have authority to release you and authority to crucify you?” Jesus answered him, “You would have no authority over me at all unless it had been given you from above. Therefore he who delivered me over to you has the greater sin.” (John 19:10-11)
We know this, because Jesus teaches us about greater and lesser commandments.
But when the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together. And one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.” (Matthew 22:34-40)
We know this, because Jesus teaches us about greater and lesser judgments.
Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the mighty works done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. But I tell you, it will be more bearable on the day of judgment for Tyre and Sidon than for you. (Matthew 11:21-22; see also Luke 12:46-48 and 2 Peter 2:20-21)
So, if anyone thinks homosexuality “is a fundamentally different type of sin,” in the sense that it does not make us guilty of breaking God’s law, or in the sense that it is unforgivable, Greear is right that such a person is wrong. But what if someone thinks homosexuality is a different type of sin in terms of the degree of the offense, in the sense that it is a moral failure with regard to a greater commandment, or because it merits greater judgment?
We should agree with Greear that homosexuality makes us guilty before God’s law, just like any other sin. And, we should agree with Greear that homosexuality can be forgiven, just like any other sin. Does it follow that homosexuality is the same as any other sin in terms of the degree of the offense or judgment the sin merits? Does it follow that homosexuality is not a categorically different type of sin (more on this in a moment)? These questions cannot be answered in terms of legal guilt or forgiveness, because in that sense, all sin is the same, according to Scripture. But Scripture also teaches that sins differ from one another in other ways.
Homosexuality Is Not “One Corruption Among Many”
President Greear begins his post as follows, “In Romans 1, Paul lists same-sex behavior as one corruption among many.” However, Greear is mistaken. Paul does not list homosexuality as “one corruption among many,” but as an illustration of what happens in the exchanging of the truth about God for a lie.
Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen. 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. And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done. (Romans 1:24-28)
Greear is simply mistaken. The focus of this part of the passage is on the worship of the creature rather than the Creator, and the unnatural sin of homosexuality. No other corruptions are mentioned here.
Greear continues, “We may not think of deceit, boasting, greed, or a rebellious attitude toward parents as equally depraved as same-sex behavior. But if you look at Paul’s list, they are.” Greear is mistaken here too.
Let’s look at Paul’s list.
They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness. They are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. Though they know God’s righteous decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them. (Romans 1:29-32)
Paul does not list homosexuality among the other sins he mentions. Moreover, Paul does not indicate that these sins are “equally depraved.” But even if homosexuality were included in Paul’s list of other sins in Romans 1, which it is not, and even if Paul were making an argument as to the equal depravity of sins, which is not in the text, would the proper conclusion be to assume that homosexuality is not really that bad as compared to other sins, or that the other sins Paul lists are every bit as bad as homosexuality?
How Homosexuality Differs from Other Sins
Returning to the Romans 1:26-27 passage cited earlier by Greear, we read, “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.” Unlike the other sins later listed separately in the passage, the sin of homosexuality is deemed fundamentally unnatural in terms of creation, and a sin God gives people over to in judgment for the great exchange of worshiping the creature rather than the Creator. Likewise in Jude 1:7, Sodom and Gomorrah, whom Greear earlier described as guilty of the sin of homosexuality, are said to have pursued “unnatural desire.” We also know from 1 Corinthians 6:18 that “Every other sin a person commits is outside the body, but the sexually immoral person sins against his own body.” Homosexuality, as a sin, is categorically different from the other sins listed by Paul in Scripture. The reason Christians sometimes spend what might seem like an inordinate amount of time or effort on the sin of homosexuality is that the sin of homosexuality is set apart from other sins in Scripture as an unnatural abomination before God that he in turn gives people over to in an act of judgment, and this sin of homosexuality is one that our society is currently attempting to normalize through popular culture and the news headlines every day. These are hard words to hear, and yet they are taught in the very passages Greear cites and quotes from in his post.
Greear goes on to write, “In another one of his letters, Paul even talks about the pride that comes from religion and an obsession to be better than others as an example of this kind of idolatry, where we prioritize our desires over the Creator’s design (Galatians 4:8–9). Is that equally depraved in our book? It should be.” He continues, “In fact, if we’re trying to pin down the most egregious sins in Scripture, there are quite a few other candidates that merit consideration.” Greear is attempting to point out hypocrisy on the part of those who believe homosexuality is a more egregious sin in Scripture. He is also shifting from the topic of homosexuality to the topic of other sins, like materialism and pride, through what is known as whataboutism. Greear writes, “Consider, for instance, materialism and pride. Scripture is crystal clear in its condemnation of these two sins, both of which are enormous issues for the American church today. Are we just as clear?” We could consider materialism and pride, of course, but Greear’s post is about how we go wrong when discussing homosexuality. Why have we suddenly shifted to how we go wrong when discussing materialism and pride?
Scripture is certainly, “crystal clear in its condemnation of these two sins.” But Scripture is also crystal clear in its condemnation of homosexuality. Greear has already said as much. His introduction of materialism and pride as “candidates that merit consideration” as “the most egregious sins in Scripture” seems to distract from the overall point he is attempting to make. If the “crystal clear” condemnation of materialism and pride puts them in the running for being some of the most egregious sins in Scripture, the crystal clear condemnation of homosexuality puts it in that running as well. Greear has actually proven the opposite of what he is apparently trying to say.
The topic of homosexuality is prevalent in society, and hence demands a response of sorts from the Church. Society speaks to the topic, the Bible speaks to the topic, the Church speaks to the topic, and Greear speaks to the topic, so nothing short of special pleading would preclude us from speaking to the topic. Are materialism and pride “enormous issues for the American church today”? Of course. So is homosexuality. Support for same-sex marriage is growing rapidly in the United States. Following the Supreme Court decision to legalize same-sex marriage, a majority of white evangelicals between the ages of 18 and 29, “approve of legalizing same-sex marriages.” How can we say we are faithfully ministering to people who are confused about the sinfulness of homosexuality or engaging in homosexual practices when we want to shift the focus to other sins whenever the topic of homosexuality is brought up?
Pastorally speaking, a number of reasons for addressing homosexuality in particular are immediately apparent. Sexual sins, such as sexual abuse, homosexuality, and faulty conceptions of sexual identity run rampant in society, such that the sexual revolution and religious liberty are pitted squarely against one another in the public square. The pressure is on for Christians to waffle on their biblical beliefs about the sin of homosexuality, an “abomination” in God’s sight, according to the text in Leviticus Greear cites earlier in his piece. We must not merely engage in ‘Amen Preaching,’ grandstanding about sins we would never see ourselves committing. Neither should we virtue signal in accord with cultural cues. People who are members of our churches and fight against the temptation of homosexual desire need to be told the truth about the sinfulness of their sexual sin, pointed to the hope found in the gospel of Jesus Christ, and provided with the loving encouragement of a church family. Those who visit our churches while identifying as homosexual and are looking for hope are not helped by a lack of emphasis on the sinfulness of their sin. If we are to provide godly wisdom and biblical counsel while preaching to the sins in the room, we simply cannot afford to overlook the person who engages in sexual sin, anymore than we would want to overlook anyone else.
Hope for the Sexual Sinner
Greear appears to set Jesus against the condemnatory tone of the Old Testament and apostle Paul on homosexuality. He writes, “When Jesus met with those in sexual sin, he graciously invited them back to him. But when he met those who were religiously proud, his words were blistering in their confrontation.” In truth, the words of Jesus are “blistering” regarding those who are guilty of sexual sin and those who are religiously proud. For example, consider what Jesus says to his seventy-two disciples in Luke 10:10-12.
But whenever you enter a town and they do not receive you, go into its streets and say, “Even the dust of your town that clings to our feet we wipe off against you. Nevertheless know this, that the kingdom of God has come near.” I tell you, it will be more bearable on that day for Sodom than for that town.
The worst judgment Jesus could think of to describe the judgment of those who refuse to receive his disciples is the judgment brought against a city for the sin of homosexuality.
Recall also when Jesus meets a woman at the well in John 4:16-18.
Jesus said to her, “Go, call your husband, and come here.” The woman answered him, “I have no husband.” Jesus said to her, “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband;’ for you have had five husbands, and the one you now have is not your husband. What you have said is true.”
Far from de-emphasizing, ignoring, or overlooking the woman’s sexual sins, Jesus calls her out on them.
Jesus does not hold back in his harshness toward sexual sin in Matthew 5:27-30 either.
You have heard that it was said, “You shall not commit adultery.” But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell.
Jesus speaks the same way the Old Testament and the apostle Paul speak about sexual sins. His words carry the same condemnatory tone. And, behind all the blistering critiques of the religious leaders of his day – Greear is right about those – is also the gracious invitation of God to turn from sin and trust in him. Remember the woes with which Jesus wallops the scribes, Pharisees, and hypocrites in Matthew 23? Behind these condemnatory words is the gracious heart of God in the cry of Jesus Christ in verse 37.
O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!
Jesus treats sexual sins and religious pride as fundamentally the same, calling out and condemning these sins, while offering the hope of forgiveness through him.
Greear is careful to state, “My point is not to say same-sex behavior is not sinful.”
Greear explains, “My point is that we often present it differently than the Bible does, as a sort of uber-sin in a categorically different realm.” If Greear’s point is about people, and how they present same-sex behavior differently than the Bible does, then he has not provided any reason at all to accept his point. Greear hasn’t argued regarding people at all. We do not really know who the “we” is in his statement here. We are not given any examples of people who do what he is claiming people often do. For all we know, Greear’s point that “we often present it differently than the Bible does” is false, because he has not provided any evidence or reasoning to accept that it is true.
Instead, Greear argues for a different point than the one he explicitly states above. The point Greear is actually attempting to demonstrate in his post is that homosexuality is not a fundamentally different sin from other sins in Scripture. And in making that point, he is partially right, and partially wrong, as explained above.
Greear moves to conclude his point.
The worst sin—the core sin, the sin behind all the other sins—is something of which we are all guilty.
We only grasp the gospel when we understand, as Paul did, that we are the worst sinner we know (1 Timothy 1:15), and that if Jesus came to die for us, there is no one that he would not die for.
When we realize that, we’ll cease being a Pharisaic teacher of the law and we’ll become a gospel witness. We’ll start loving our neighbors as people made in the image of God and feeling compassion for them in their weakness. We will see in the face of every sinner a reflection of the corruption that afflicts our own hearts, the fruit of the rebellion we have participated in.
Of course, none of what Greear states here is inconsistent with the case from Scripture provided above. While homosexuality is not a fundamentally different type of sin in the sense of legal guilt or forgiveness, it is a different type of sin in terms of its being against the natural order of creation, though our society seeks to convince us the opposite is the case. Understanding the nature of our sin does not make us Pharisees, it makes us realize how great is the sin for which we are forgiven through the blood of Jesus Christ.