Is The ESV “Side B”? The Problematic Influence of the Notion that Homosexual Orientation Is a Legitimate Category of Identity

Andy Wilson

In recent years, a controversy has emerged in evangelical and Reformed circles over the manner in which some of those who belong to these traditions are dealing with the issue of homosexuality. These Christians contend that a homosexual orientation is something that is fixed, innate, and given by God, and that same-sex attraction (SSA) is not sinful in and of itself but is a result of the fall akin to a physical disability. In their view, those who experience SSA are not morally culpable for being sexually attracted to members of their own sex but are simply responding to beauty as they were created to respond to it. This position has come to be known by the designations “Spiritual Friendship” and “Side B.” It is distinguished from the much more liberal stance advocated by what is known as “Side A,” which says that homosexual practice is morally acceptable for professing Christians. Proponents of Side B are not willing to go that far, as they maintain that homosexual behavior is prohibited by God. Nevertheless, they insist upon seeing homosexual orientation as a legitimate category of identity, and they encourage those who experience SSA to express their orientation without engaging in homosexual intercourse. As Wesley Hill, an advocate for Side B, explains,

In my experience, at least, being gay colors everything about me, even though I am celibate. It’s less a separable piece of my experience, like a shelf in my office, which is indistinguishable from the other shelves, and more like a proverbial drop of ink in a glass of water.”[1]

Hill adds, “My question, at root, is how I can steward and sanctify my homosexual orientation in such a way that it can be a doorway to blessing and grace.”[2] It certainly resonates with the prevailing thinking in our culture to embrace homosexual orientation as a classification of personhood. In this way, proponents of Side B display one of the key traits of contemporary evangelicalism: the tendency to look for ways to affirm things that are culturally popular while downplaying aspects of Christian teaching that are culturally offensive.

It is not surprising that the Bible translation of choice for many evangelicals, the English Standard Version (ESV), shows signs of being influenced by the idea that homosexual orientation is a legitimate category of identity. This is evident in the ESV’s handling of two New Testament passages that deal with the subject of homosexuality: 1 Corinthians 6:9 and 1 Timothy 1:10. In 1 Corinthians 6:9–11, Paul reminds the Christians in Corinth of their calling to live holy lives, saying,

9 Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, 10 nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. 11 And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.

In verse 9, the ESV translates two Greek terms μαλακοὶ (malakoi) and ἀρσενοκοῖται (arsenokoitai) with the single phrase “men who practice homosexuality,” explaining in a footnote that “The two Greek terms translated by this phrase refer to the passive and active partners in consensual homosexual acts.” Other major English versions translate these two terms as: “effeminate” and “abusers of themselves with mankind” (KJV); “sexual perverts” (RSV); “effeminate” and “homosexuals” (NASB); “men who have sex with men” (NIV). The first term, μαλακοὶ (malakoi), occurs with some frequency in ancient Greek literature and has a broad range of meaning. In his comprehensive volume on the Bible’s teaching on homosexuality, Robert Gagnon argues convincingly that in 1 Corinthians 6:9 μαλακοὶ (malakoi) “should be understood as the passive partners in homosexual intercourse, the most egregious case of which are those who also intentionally engage in a process of feminization to erase further their masculine appearance and manner.”[3]

As for ἀρσενοκοίταις (arsenokoitais), this term appears again in 1 Timothy 1:10 in a list in which Paul is summarizing the sins that are condemned by the Decalogue. As in 1 Corinthians 6:9, the ESV translates ἀρσενοκοίταις (arsenokoitais) in 1 Timothy 1:10 as “men who practice homosexuality.” Other major English versions translate it as: “them that defile themselves with mankind” (KJV); “sodomites” (RSV); “homosexuals” (NASB); “those practicing homosexuality” (NIV). There are no known occurrences of ἀρσενοκοίταις (arsenokoitais) prior to Paul, so it is likely that he coined this word himself. It is a compound of ἄρσην (arsēn; “man”) and κοίτη (koitē; “bed”), which are used in conjunction with each other in the condemnations of homosexuality in Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 (LXX). The background, etymology, and immediate context for Paul’s uses of ἀρσενοκοίταις (arsenokoitais) in 1 Corinthians 6:9 and 1 Timothy 1:10 indicate that he uses it broadly to refer to men who have sexual intercourse with other men.

The particular issue under consideration is the ESV’s decision to give further specificity in its translation of these terms by employing the verb “practice.” Is this warranted? In the Greek text, neither passage contains a verb that could be translated as “practice.” Both passages consist of lists of nouns (or adjectives used as substantives). It is true that most of the terms in these lists describe people who engage in certain sinful practices or behaviors, but the ESV does not render the other words in the lists with phrases like “those who practice idolatry,” “those who practice sexual immorality,” “those who practice thievery,” etc. Why then does it do so with homosexuality? Why not simply say “homosexuals”? After all, this is the term that is used in our culture to describe people who practice homosexuality. More importantly, Paul explicitly condemns homosexual desire alongside homosexual activity in Romans 1, and Scripture consistently teaches that all inclinations towards sin are themselves sinful and are to be dealt with as such. (see Matt. 15:18–20; 18:8–9; Rom. 13:13–14; Gal. 5:16–17; Col. 3:5; James 1:14–15) These are the key factors that should be taken into account when translating biblical terms (one of which Paul probably coined) that describe homosexuality. But the ESV translates these terms in a manner that leaves room for the notion that the Bible does not condemn embracing a homosexual identity but only condemns committing homosexual acts. Perhaps this is not what the translators intended to convey.  At the very least, they appear to have been influenced by the fact that our culture conceives of homosexuality not only in terms of sexual activity but also in terms of sexual orientation. The American Psychological Association defines sexual orientation as:

An enduring pattern of emotional, romantic and/or sexual attractions to men, women or both sexes. Sexual orientation also refers to a person’s sense of identity based on those attractions, related behaviors and membership in a community of others who share those attractions.[4]

The assumption that homosexual orientation is a legitimate category of identity is something that must be tested against the teaching of Scripture. When it is, it is found to conflict with the Bible’s doctrine of sin, as is shown in the paragraphs below. The embrace of homosexual orientation as a classification of personhood stands as an example of how, in the words of David Wells, “We reject reality as [God] has defined it” and “redefine our world and ourselves in order to accommodate our rebellion.”[5]

When a passage of Scripture uses terms that describe people who engage in sinful behaviors, these terms should not be translated or interpreted in a manner that intentionally excludes the inward dispositions and thoughts that give birth to these sinful behaviors. This should be clear in light of Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount, where he says that a person can be guilty of murder or adultery without actually putting these sins into practice (see Matt. 5:21–22, 27–28). Any inclination towards sin is a violation of the law. This remains the case even when different variables intersect with each other and contribute to sinful predispositions. From the standpoint of Scripture, human sexuality is not merely a matter of biology and psychology but is first and foremost a matter of morality. The only sense in which there is such a thing as an adulterer, fornicator, or homosexual is in an ethical sense. Any inclination toward these sins is sinful, even if they are not put into practice. The fact that the Bible condemns both homosexual desire and homosexual activity means that it also condemns locating one’s identity in a supposed homosexual orientation.

Some Side B proponents claim that support for the notion of a morally neutral homosexual orientation is found in Matthew 19:12, where Jesus says, “there are eunuchs who have been so from birth.” The problem with this argument is that it equates a congenital defect, which is of a physical nature, with a disordered desire, which is of an ethical nature. Moreover, the claim that those who experience SSA are simply “born that way” is scientifically unfounded. A recent study of over 500,000 people found that it is impossible to predict same-sex behavior on the basis of genetic factors.[6] While there are a number of variables that can contribute to SSA, the bottom line for Christians is that the Scriptures consistently deal with homosexual desire and activity as a matter of ethical perversion.

It is true that salvation is offered to homosexuals every bit as much as it is offered to other sinners. But salvation is offered to homosexuals on the same terms that it is offered to other sinners: on the terms of faith and repentance. And as the Westminster Shorter Catechism explains, “Repentance unto life is a saving grace, whereby a sinner, out of a true sense of his sin, and apprehension of the mercy of God in Christ, doth, with grief and hatred of his sin, turn from it unto God, with full purpose of, and endeavor after, new obedience” (WSC 87). To locate one’s identity in a specific sin is to fail to turn from it to God in true repentance.

When Christians discuss homosexuality, the focus is often upon whether a homosexual orientation can be changed. To frame the issue in this manner is to beg the question. It is to assume that sexual orientation is a biblical category when it is not. The real issue is whether a person will let go of unbiblical ways of thinking and submit to God’s Word so that he or she can be transformed by the renewing of his or her mind. The specific ways in which this transformation takes place will vary from believer to believer, and will never be without struggle. As with other sins, sexual sin can become deeply ingrained through habits of thought and behavior. This is not only true with regard to homosexuality. Those who have engaged in pornography use, sexual fantasizing, and masturbation often find that those sins cling so closely that the struggle against them seems unceasing. Nevertheless, every Christian is called, in reliance upon the promises of the gospel and the power of the indwelling Holy Spirit, to persevere in putting sinful patterns of thought and behavior to death and to live to God. Some of those who come to Christ out of a homosexual background will live to God in heterosexual marriages. Others will live to God as singles. The common denominator is that both groups can testify that they are no longer what they once were. They were washed, they were sanctified, they were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God. Of course, like all Christians, they still have to struggle against temptation. But even when temptation arises from inside themselves, it does not define who they are. Their identity is now in Christ. Temptation is evidence of the unwelcome presence of indwelling sin in “this body of death,” in which we groan as we await the consummation of our redemption (see Rom. 7:15–8:25). The way to respond to this is not to try to excuse our sin, but to let God’s law expose it so that we may be continually driven out of ourselves to Christ.[7]

The ESV’s popularity is well-deserved. Its “essentially literal” translation philosophy has produced a Bible in contemporary English that is highly readable and largely reflective of the wording of the original text. That being said, no Bible translation is beyond criticism. As this article has shown, the ESV’s rendering of the terms μαλακοὶ (malakoi) and ἀρσενοκοῖται (arsenokoitai) has the potential to reinforce an idea that conflicts with the teaching of Scripture. Given our culture’s widespread acceptance of the unbiblical notion that homosexual orientation is a category of identity, it would be far better to render these words in a manner similar to the NASB, which translates μαλακοὶ (malakoi) as “effeminate” and ἀρσενοκοῖται (arsenokoitai) as “homosexuals.” This more clearly conveys that the Bible not only declares homosexual practice to be a violation of God’s law, but also calls people to repent of homosexual desires and the false notion of homosexual identity. The church must not be ashamed of saying this. In the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “Nothing can be more cruel than the tenderness that consigns another to his sin. Nothing can be more compassionate than the severe rebuke that calls a brother back from the path of sin.”[8] Sin is not something that can be stewarded and turned into “a doorway to blessing.” Sin is something that must be daily put to death. This is why homosexuals are not helped when Christians try to minister to them by telling them that it is good for them to identify as homosexuals. As R. C. Sproul once explained,

The problem is that so many have bought the myth that they are intrinsically homosexuals. . . . What we must do in order to help them is begin with this fundamental thesis: Biologically, essentially, and intrinsically, there is no such thing as a homosexual. Let me say that again. Biologically, essentially, and intrinsically, there is no such thing as a homosexual.[9]


[1] Wesley Hill, Spiritual Friendship: Finding Love in the Church as a Celibate Gay Christian (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2015), 80.

[2] Hill, 78.

[3] Robert A. J. Gagnon, The Bible and Homosexual Practice: Texts and Hermeneutics (Nashville: Abingdon, 2001), 312.

[4] “Answers to Your Questions: For a Better Understanding of Sexual Orientation & Homosexuality,” American Psychological Association, https://www.apa.org/topics/lgbt/orientation.pdf, accessed October 7, 2019.

[5] David F. Wells, The Courage to Be Protestant: Reformation Faith in Today’s World, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2017), 70.

[6] “Massive Study Finds No Single Genetic Cause of Same-Sex Sexual Behavior,” Sara Reardon, Scientific American, August 29, 2019, https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/massive-study-finds-no-single-genetic-cause-of-same-sex-sexual-behavior/, accessed September 24, 2019.

[7] This theme is developed at length in The Marrow of The Marrow of Modern Divinity: A Simplification of Edward Fisher’s Seventeenth-Century Classic, edited and revised by Andy Wilson, (Independently published, 2018).

[8] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, (New York: Harper and Row, 1954), 107.

[9] “Homosexuality,” R. C. Sproul, Ligonier Ministries, https://www.ligonier.org/learn/series/homosexuality/homosexuality/, accessed October 7, 2019.

Andy Wilson is an OPC minister and the pastor of Grace Presbyterian Church (OPC) in Laconia, New Hampshire. Ordained Servant Online, March 2020.

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