Those kinds of statements/questions raise a lot of issues that could be discussed, but I want to focus on a truth that exists behind much of the sentiment. I think those who say such things are grasping something important: sexual proclivities and practices are not, relatively speaking, that big of a deal.“Relatively speaking” are key words in that sentence, of course, because “we know that the judgment of God rightly falls on those who practice such things” (Romans 2:2). But “those who practice such things” in that verse refer to more than just LGBTQ people—the previous passage says, “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” (Romans 1:29-31). And even more importantly, all those kinds of sins (including the sexual ones mentioned in 1:24-27) can be traced back in the passage to some heart sins that are at the root of them. Sexual sins and the others listed are just the outward fruit of the inward root, which makes the heart problems even more important, because they can exist even without coming to fruition in action and are actually enough to condemn a person just by themselves.
Take a look at the prior verses in Romans 1 with that in mind, and notice that in my comments about them I will use the word “we” repeatedly, because I have experienced these problems in my own life.
18 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. 19 For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. 20 For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. 21 For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. 22 Claiming to be wise, they became fools, 23 and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.
24 Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, 25 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.
Everything said there is true of heterosexuals as well as homosexuals, and the heart sins are really a much bigger deal than sexual sin, because they lead to it and can separate people from God even if they don’t produce more obvious problems of action…
Unbelief (verses 18-20). It all starts here. God has made his existence and attributes clear through what he has made, but in our sinful nature we suppress the truth that should be obvious to us. Further, we don’t believe what his Word says that his plans for us are for good and not evil (Jeremiah 29:11) and that he will cause all things to work together for our good (Romans 8:28). We don’t really believe that he is able to be sufficient for us in our suffering (2 Corinthians 12:7-10), and we don’t really believe he is able to change us supernaturally—even our orientations and desires (Psalm 19:7-9, 1 Corinthians 6:9-11).
Ungratefulness (verse 21). “They did not honor him as God or give thanks to him.” God is the source of everything good in this world and everything good we have (James 1:17), through the loving sacrificial death of His Son Jesus Christ on our behalf (Galatians 3:13-14). But in our discontent we focus on the things we don’t like about our lives and in our ingratitude we become seemingly incapable of being content with whatever we have or don’t have (Philippians 4:11-13). I say “seemingly” because it’s not God’s fault that we feel this way—it’s because we haven’t practiced thankfulness in our hearts like we should have, and we’ve allowed our desires to become too important (James 1:13-15). And I say “seemingly incapable” because we actually are able to change and become more content and grateful in whatever situation we find ourselves—that goes back to believing what God has promised in the Word (Philippians 4:13, 1 Corinthians 10:13).
Pride (verse 22). “Claiming to be wise” contains a Greek verb with a root meaning of elevating one thing over another—in this case themselves, as the KJV version reflects when it says “Professing themselves to be wise.” Our sinful nature causes us to tend to look to ourselves and our sense of right and wrong, rather than to the One who created us and really knows what’s best. We tend to base our epistemology (how we know the truth) on our experience, observations, and reasoning, but we must realize that God’s thoughts are not our thoughts and his ways are not our ways (Isaiah 55:8). Many times what is true and right will be different, even the opposite, of the way it seems to us. To understand the truth we need to transcend our earthly understanding and ascend to heavenly thinking by relying on Divine revelation from above rather than our own finite, limited capabilities (1 Corinthians 1:18-24, 2 Corinthians 4:18).
Idolatry (verses 23 and 25). As if our unbelief, ungratefulness, and pride were not enough to skew our thinking and incline us toward sin, we also tend to value created things more than the Creator himself. These can include ourselves and our desires, of course, but also other people and the relationships we have or could have with them. “Created things” we place too much value on (or “idolize”) can also include the majority opinions of people in our culture, the goal of happiness, and what seems to work (pragmatism). It’s interesting to think of how ancient people would erect statues and shrines for their gods, bringing sacrifices to them, and then if their crops or armies did well, they would assume it was because they were blessed by the gods. But in fact, even if that happened 10 or 100 times in a row, it didn’t mean that their gods were necessarily real, and if they were they could have been demons who wanted to keep them in spiritual blindness by giving what they want. So just because something seems to make someone miserable doesn’t mean it’s wrong, and just because they feel happy doesn’t mean it’s right, or good for them in the long run.
“Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves” (verse 24). When we give up struggling against those heart sins and we give ourselves over to them, God gives us what we want, because we really don’t want him as much as we want what we want, and then we want him to tell us it’s okay. That’s the really big deal in our spiritual struggles! The dishonoring of our bodies with whatever kind of sexual sin (or any other kind of sin) is secondary in the sense that it is not the main problem that has to be solved. The heart of the problem is the problem of the heart, and when that is problem is fixed the other problems will not be as difficult to fix.
All that is also true of those who are heterosexual themselves but have concluded that LGBTQ behavior and other sins are okay with God and not harmful to people. A few verses later in Romans 1:32 Paul says, "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." And that fruit issue--approving what God does not--also can be traced back to the root issues mentioned earlier in the chapter. So if we are tempted to disagree with the Bible says about right and wrong, we should examine ourselves for those more foundational heart problems I just discussed, and repent of them. That is the answer to the moral devolution described in Romans 1, of course: repentance. Romans 2:4 says that "the kindness of God is meant to lead you to repentance." Because he has given us everything good we have, we should be more than willing to turn away from everything bad that we practice and approve.
Did you notice that I’ve said “we,” “our," and "us" repeatedly throughout this discussion? That’s not just a rhetorical device, because I’ve seen all this happen in my own life. In my past I committed some very harmful sins that were not homosexuality or adultery but clearly disqualified me from continuing as a pastor. Thank God he disciplined me severely and granted me repentance and change by his grace, and one thing I’ve realized since then is that the outward sins I committed were caused by prior and foundational spiritual problems in my heart—primarily ungratefulness and pride. Some serious long-term adversity had left me disillusioned with my life and ministry, and also self-righteous from defending myself so often. I started viewing the pastorate more as a job than a divine calling and I stopped following some basic rules of conduct that would have kept me from sin (thinking that it could never happen to me, because I was “one of the good guys”).
If I had maintained and cultivated gratefulness in my heart like I should have, I never would have lost my zeal for ministry and been so susceptible to the temptation to misuse my time and energies. I would have been so thankful for the privilege of serving God—not to mention my wife and kids and church members—that I would have valued it highly enough to stay far away from anything that could ruin it. I also wouldn’t have let sin anywhere near my heart and life if I hadn’t let the constant need to defend myself trick me into thinking I could do no wrong. Pride is so subtle and powerful (Spurgeon said “When killed, it revives”) that it can take a situation where someone is innocent and unfairly judged or accused, and turn it into a situation where that same person is so full of self-righteousness that they need to be knocked down a few thousand pegs.
I see that second part of my heart problem in the story of Job, where he ironically progresses from a righteous man commended by God and suffering unjustly, to a more self-righteous man in need of a stormy rebuke from God. I plan to explore some implications of that story in an upcoming post, but for now, back to the issue at hand…Is homosexuality (and other sexual sin) a big deal? Yes and no. Yes, in the sense that like anything contrary to God’s will for humanity, it is displeasing to him and harmful to us (whether we think so or not, and whether we can see the harm or not). But no, it shouldn’t be singled out and treated as more significant than other sins, and the primary efforts put forth regarding it should be more focused on the heart issues than the actions that flow from them (Proverbs 4:23, Mark 7:14-23).
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