some brief thoughts on “willful persistence in sin” & homosexuality

Update III: I posted some final thoughts on these posts.

Update II: In some commenting I did on facebook, I feel I communicated myself more clearly on a couple of issues than I did on this post. So, below, you’ll find those clearer comments, edited for your consideration.

Update: The second and final part of these posts is up.

In response to my post earlier today on Exodus International’s decision to move away from “conversion therapy” of homosexuals, in which I criticized many more conservative reactions (don’t worry, you progressives will get your due tomorrow, haha). A couple of comments, messages, and such have asked me about that classic Evangelical formulation that homosexuals that “persist in their sin” or “walk in deliberate willful disobedience” cannot be “saved”.  (This idea is based on some parts of 1 John, but that application of those verses has too many interpretive issues to go into here, as I type on my phone. Suffice it to say, though, that it’s a bad application and doesn’t naturally flow from the text).

Anyway, back to the question.

Life is much more complicated than those simplistic categories of “willful”, “deliberate”, and “persistent” (and “sin”, frankly). Being in counseling myself, and being a counselor, this whole “willful disobedience” thing is much grayer than that articulation implies.

What do you do with pastors that are irresponsible in their preaching and “pastoring”, and even in light of SO many other believers telling them they are wrong, disobedient, harmful, and sinfully relating to their people, they “wilfully persist” in that? What about all of us Christians that “willfully persist” in driving even 5 mph above the speed limit? What about the person in the church that never stops gossiping, even in spite of sitting in sermon after sermon on the topic? Or all the southern and midwestern christians that “wilfully persist” in their gluttony?

Many people continue in these things for most all of their lives with little or no burden to their consciences–even when confronted. So does this mean these people are excluded from the scandalously forgiving and gracious presence of our God? I don’t believe most people would think so.

So why don’t we lose sleep over those? Because our culture more-or-less accepts those forms of “willful disobedience”. Could it be that the obsession with homosexual “willful persistence” in what evangelicals call “sin” is much more culturally influenced than biblically so?

I’m not saying there may not be legitimate answers as to why one would stress one over the other. There are certainly degrees of seriousness to things in the Bible (although I’d add that bad leadership of God’s people is stressed more often than aberrant sexual behavior). I’m simply saying that no Evangelical leader has put forward a hermeneutic that when applied consistently would reasonably yield the words, attitudes, and behaviors we see coming from them today. There may yet be one, but it’s not the motivation of most conservatives today, it seems.

The problem isn’t “willful disobedience”, it’s Evangelicalism’s selectivity in what they’ll emphasize (see previous post). How do they choose what they choose to condemn more strongly? What gives then the right to? Why do they seem so free and and gleeful in doing so?

That’s not to say that we should sin that grace may abound, or that Christianity lays absolutely no claim on the behaviors of the believer. But it does say that that question is WAY too simplistic by itself and doesn’t account for the real experiences of real people.

I hope that’s helpful.

[Here are the new comments.]

Maybe I should have said this earlier when dealing with this specifically (and I was trying to hint at it when I said that this issue isn’t as simplistic as we sometimes make it), but I think I can say it more plainly: this proverbial “homosexual person that knows what they’re doing is sin and continues in it” is a mythical creature. I’ve never met that person, nor have I heard anyone ever saying they have. Human beings simply don’t work that way. And so to keep waving that straw man around really does nothing to move the conversation forward.

Christians with same-sex-attraction usually fall into one of two groups: they either experience the attraction and feel shame over it and struggle with it (and I assume many Evangelicals would say that that is the right response), or they’ve come to a conclusion about Scripture that makes them genuinely feel free of the shame and free to embrace those feelings within a Christian context.

They justify this a couple of ways. They tend point out that there are many laws of the Levitical “Holiness Code” (which is the most explicit condemnation of homosexuality in the Bible, where their death is commanded) that we don’t follow today. They’ll point out that Romans 1 (where homosexual sex and lesbianism is talked of as an effect of sin entering the world) might actually be talking about a specific practice of specific cults in the area at the time of writing and the “they” Paul is referring to is a specific group that engaged in these things, and not all humanity. They also talk about the different translational issues surrounding the words usually translated as “homosexual”. So on and so forth.

Do I agree with their interpretations? No. But, it offers them (and lots of other Christians) enough plausible deniability that they don’t walk around with some “deep knowledge” that they’re “sinning” and then “willfully rebel against that”.

I hope Evangelicals acknowledge that Scripture is a bit more complicated than how they’ve usually laid this out. They often say “well, the Bible clearly says [insert verse here]. If it’s that simple, though, why do many of these same Evnagelicals shave their beards (a biblical law that’s only seven verses away from the Leviticus homosexuality verse), and why are they not writing facebook posts about the rebellious women in their churches that don’t cover their heads?

Why? Because they have come to certain interpretations of those Scriptural texts that make them feel like those things are not binding on them or others today. Gay Christians do the exact same “re-interpreting” to conclude these things aren’t binding on then. There are other Christian denominations that would brand these Evangelicals as super-liberal and soft on doctrine and sin for not confronting beard-shaving and female head-covering. Would they be right to say these Evangelicals are “persisting” in their sin? Would they be right to consign these Evangelicals to Hell because of their continual refusal to see these verses the way they do?

As I said in one of the posts, at this time, I don’t think homosexual behavior is a valid outward expression of Christian sexuality, but Christians can’t rely on an inconsistent “plain reading” of random verses to justify this while ignoring other “plain” verses (like I just tried to point out above). As long as they do this, no part of the church’s sexual ethic is upheld and flourished.

We need to talk about bigger, more complicated and nuanced ideas to show the primacy of celibacy and heterosexual marriage as the Christian sexual ethic. It’s not so simple as “this verse says such-and-such, so now let’s go take back this country!”

This is why I argued that Alan Chambers, President of Exodus International (which started this whole discussion), was the biggest ally in this endeavor. As Ross Douthat has quite convincingly pointed out, the Church needs its distinctive doctrines to not only serve the world well, but actually grow and flourish. And, as I tried to say, our distinctive Christian doctrine (that Chambers is upholding) is not the negative of “homosexuality is an abomination”, but rather the radical positive of celebrating heterosexual marriage and communal celibacy.

And Chambers is absolutely upholding what makes us distinctive in this culture. Hating gays does not. Loving them does. Accommodating our doctrine to make our distinctives more palatable does not. Radically celebrating and creating a safe, healthy, and joyous space for both marriage and celibacy does.

If all this is true, in the end it means we can’t be so militaristic about how we disagree with everyone else while ignoring all the things in us and the church that are far more clear, consistent, and frequently-mentioned-in-Scripture.


7 thoughts on “some brief thoughts on “willful persistence in sin” & homosexuality

  1. Paul,

    I agree that “willful” sin is more black and white than most evangelicals admit, but you’re being disingenuous (or forgetful) in suggesting that this principle comes from 1 or 2 scriptural texts. It’s plastered all over the New Testament and the teachings of Jesus. Nevertheless, my comment had to do with people who are involved in a particular sin, have been confronted with the reality that it does not conform to God’s standards (and they register some level of intellectual agreement with that idea), and respond by saying “F*** it, I don’t care.” Anyone that’s read the New Testament would have to be concerned about that person’s realtionship with God. I’m not singling out homosexuals here, I would apply this idea to heterosexual sin, or any other sin for that matter.


  2. I like your post, you hit on some great points such as the selectivity of a lot if not most churches these days. It’s a shame that so many people live with so much hate and anger towards one group (gays). I grew up in the Catholic church and have chosen to leave due to all the mixed messages and hateful teachings. I think that too much emphasis is placed if homosexual sin and not enough on personal responsibility. Ok my rant is over thanks for the great topic


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  4. Of course, the selective application argument has a simple rebuttal: Two wrongs (or a 1,000) don’t make a right. I agree with you that “willful” and “persistent disobedience” is used of homosexuals in a way that is inconsistent and hypocritical. I just wonder if that means we should be less concerned about people who practice gay sex, or more concerned about those who practice “willful” and “persistent disobedience” in other areas? To me, the most important move is the move to God’s grace which is present in your argument but not fully developed (no criticism here, I know the nature of blog posts – you may cover this in other posts). The bigger scandal, and one that is discussed in David Fitch’s work The End of Evangelicalism, is how the reformation formula “saved by grace, through faith, and not of works” has become an ideological master-signifier (if you will) without any real content in praxis. This is where gay Christians push the theological envelope in a more faithful and conservative direction. The truth is most believe in “saved by grace” but judge by works thereafter. Without the judged by works part there is no effective control from leadership and the “in group” vs. “out-group” dynamic begins to break down. So there is one sin of collusion going on, which you mention. We’ll be heavy handed on a sin we don’t commit and gracious about the ones we do. But at a deeper level, the whole thing is manipulative and used to towards the end of group cohesion, fundraising, pastoral support, and so on. The grace tent is too big! The implications of the reality of gay Christians scares a lot of people because it threatens to expose the thin grace and thick legalism that actually exists within Evangelicalism (especially in the reformed/neo-reformed camps).


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