By Phillip Cary

Denny Burk and Rosaria Butterfield have identified theological grounds for their criticism of the upcoming Revoice conference and the Spiritual Friendship movement, which aim to use samesex desires for good purposes. Burk and Butterfield describe this as a project of sublimating rather than mortifying sinful desires, owing more to Freud than to St. Paul, and they challenge the gay and lesbian Christians in the movement to repent of their desires rather than to try using them for good. It may be, however, that the Augustinian roots of this criticism count more in favor of the Spiritual Friendship movement than against it.

The theological ground of Burk and Butterfield’s criticism is a distinctively Protestant (both Lutheran and Reformed) understanding of an Augustinian theme: the concupiscence or evil desire that belongs to us in our fallen state of original sin. The question in the 16th century was whether this desire, as it remains even in the hearts of good Christians, is in itself sin or merely a tendency toward sin, a kind of tinder which is set alight when we consent to our evil desires and our will embraces sin. The medieval tradition took the latter view, which remains Catholic teaching to this day: the evil desire is not itself sin until we consent to it. Protestant theologians took the former view, in which the concupiscence that remains in us is not inert tinder but, in Calvin’s words, “a glowing furnace continually emitting flame and sparks” (Institutes 4:15.11).

I wonder if Burk and Butterfield actually see what they are getting into when they take this view. In their brief article, at any rate, I do not think they have quite taken the measure of the depth of this Augustinian theme, even in its more moderate, Catholic form. For whether you take the Catholic or Protestant view of it, the common ground is Augustine’s doctrine of the concupiscence that remains in us, which has implications that nearly all modern Christians have done much to forget. Invoking the name of Augustine regularly gets us into deeper waters than we’re ready for.

To begin with a minor historical correction: Burk and Butterfield align Augustine with the Protestant view, but this is a mistake. Augustine explicitly teaches that in the baptized, “concupiscence itself is not sin any longer, whenever they do not consent to it” (On Marriage and Concupiscence 1:23.26). In this passage Augustine accounts for Paul’s talk in the letter to Romans about the sin (singular) that is in us. He explains: “By a certain manner of speech it is called sin, because it arose from sin and, when it has the upper hand, produces sin.” His conclusion is that “As arising from sin it is, I say, called sin, although in the regenerate [i.e. the baptized] it is not actually sin.” This is a point Augustine makes repeatedly in his writings against the Pelagians (e.g., Against Two Letters of the Pelagians 1:14.27).

“Concupiscence,” it is important to know, is a broad term for any kind of disordered desire. When Paul quotes the 10th Commandment (“thou shalt not covet”) to illustrate the sin at work in his life, the Greek is ouk epithumeseis, which comes out in Latin, Augustine’s language, as non concupisces, using the verb for concupiscence. The term means any greedy, covetous, excessive or inordinate desire. Sex isn’t even the half of it–but it is certainly part of the story.

Calvin explicitly recognizes that his insistence on concupiscence being in itself sin differs from Augustine’s teaching (Institutes 3:3.10), but doesn’t think the difference amounts to much. He claims an Augustinian pedigree for his teaching that “all human desires are evil” (Institutes 3:3.12) because they are all disordered and vitiated by the original sin that infects human nature, with the result that “nothing pure or sincere can come forth from a corrupt and polluted nature” (ibid.).

“All human desires are evil”!  That gets us into the deep Augustinian waters, especially when applied to sex. Augustine is notorious for teaching that the sexual activity of all the offspring of Adam and Eve is inevitably sinful (City of God 14:18, On Original Sin 37:42, Against Two Letters of the Pelagians 1:17.35), good in its natural aim and yet the outgrowth of a corrupted human nature from which stems nothing pure or free from shame. The procreative sexuality of married men and women includes desire for the right object, but it is always excessive or self-seeking or disordered in some way. Hence in Augustine’s teaching every sexual act, even of married Christians, is sin in need of forgiveness, precisely because it involves consenting to our inevitably concupiscent sexual desires rather than mortifying them.

In that regard, the spiritual friendship movement is better off than Christian marriage. With its roots in monastic celibacy (its foundational text authored by the abbot Aelred of Rievaulx), it allows for a flat “no” to be said to sexual desire, understood in the straightforward, non-Freudian sense: the desire for sexual activity. This is mortification, as the Augustinian tradition has always understood Paul’s term: not that the concupiscent desire is simply eliminated–which will not happen in this life–but that it is not consented to, in act, in will, or in fantasy.

Of course forming friendships with the kind of people you also might have sexual desires for does have its dangers, and requires a whole set of carefully-observed moral disciplines designed to prevent consent being given to concupiscent desires. But the dangers faced by the spiritual friendship movement, as it aims to engage in what a Freudian would call “sublimation,” do not seem to be so different from the dangers faced by heterosexuals forming friendships with people of the opposite sex. There is a long tradition of suspicion of such friendships, which continues more strongly today in Orthodox Judaism and Islam than in Christianity. Similar suspicions are perhaps one reason why co-ed universities, mixing teachers and students of the opposite sex, are of such recent vintage.

Yet for those of us who approve of co-ed universities, as well as those who think men and women need to learn how to be friends, the dangers appear worth the risk. It seems to me on similar grounds that the dangers of the spiritual friendship movement ought to be judged worth the risk. The fact that the risk is of consent to desires for unnatural sexual acts does not seem to make it so drastically different from the risk of consent to consupiscent desires for natural sexual acts.

Nor is there any need to be afraid of the Freudian word “sublimation,” so long as we are clear that it involves using the term “desire” in a different sense than the Augustinian tradition does: as if the desire for friendship could be described as being in some sense “the same desire” as the desire for sex. Augustine wouldn’t talk that way, because he differentiate desires by their differing objects (to desire  X is not the same desire as to desire Y). But if all “sublimation” means is that the energy of eros is diverted into what, in Augustinian terms, is a different desire–a desire for friendship rather than for sex–then there is no reason not to avail ourselves of this handy term. Precisely the fact that it is the dangerous power of eros that is sublimated and diverted in this way gives us all the more reason to insist on the disciplines that guard our friendships from the wrong desires.

Recognizing the depth of these Augustinian waters and the dangers we all share should help us see that we are all in the same boat, prone to concupiscent desires which we may or may not call sin, but which in any case we must do our best to refuse our consent, to mortify and–if we accept the Protestant view–to repent of. Augustine should help us recognize that outside the garden of Eden there is no innocent sexuality, not even for good Christians in heterosexual marriages. But there is friendship, and none of us can do without it. We need to help each other in the work of mortifying our concupiscent desires–a work to which all of us together are called. This I think is reason enough to support the spiritual friendship movement.

Phillip Cary teaches philosophy at Eastern University, where he is also Scholar-in-Residence at the Templeton Honors College.

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  1. As a Christian, i think St. Augustine was carrying a lot of sexual baggage. His excess in indulging his sexual desires without restraint colored his view of sex.

    It is like the alcoholic that thinks all drinking is wrong since he himself cannot control his drinking.

    I actually disagree that sexual desire is sinful or wrong. I think anything that we desire in excess is sin, but i don’t think normal sexual desires are wrong or sinful whether it be married or not

    After all God created the desire to be strong otherwise we would not procreate. It has to be enticing and pleasurable otherwise we would not engage in it.

    I think it is high time that we abandon the notion that sexual desire is disordered or sinful, this is medieval superstition in my view. Sexual drive is driven by hormones (which are not evil).

    It is really too bad St Augustine has such influence even today with his view on sex. I feel he has done a lot of damage to Christians view of sexuality.

    He creates false guilt in people for having normal sexual desires.

    I will not comment on same-sex desires ( i really have no opinion on those for now)


    1. What is an “excess” of sexual (or any other kind of) desire? How is it measured?


      1. i was meaning that he was probably in bondage to it. So i think he OVERCORRECTED by saying that sex is sinful even in marriage.

        I think he went too far and made sex into something dirty and sinful, and i think colored the view of sex that to this day still has a hold on many christians and the church.

        It really is a shame, i don’t think the church would be so anti-sex if it wasn’t for his influence.


    2. Amen! God told Adam and Eve to be fruitful and multiply! Every Child Born is a Godly act of obedience. God saw fit to send Jesus through by all outward appearance sinful circumstances. Mary a teenager, unwed, pregnant divorce was discussed in Joseph’s heart.Our Lord and Savior born into a humble loving environment. His earthly parents demonstrated a supernatural faith and grace that actually is in our DNA that gives us the capacity to courageously listen and Obey God while the world around you is fearfully calling them sinners.


  2. […] Mere Orthodoxy: Augustine, Concupiscence, and Friendship […]


  3. […] Mere Orthodoxy: Augustine, Concupiscence, and Friendship […]


  4. I agree that Burk’s and Butterfield’s treatment of concupiscence is problematic. It’s not clear to me that it’s even consistent with historic Calvinism. Yes, one can extract a few quotes from Calvin that, taken out of context, make it sound like he’s on board with Burk and Butterfield. But there are plenty of other writings of Calvin and other Reformers that suggest that they held views quite similar to what Belgau proposes.

    In reading Burk’s book, it also struck me that he tends to find disorder in all kinds of places where there’s little evidence of disorder. Burk, like many evangelicals, adopts a kind of neo-Freudian take on desire, such that any desire that’s not directed to supporting the familialist notion of the “nuclear family” is viewed as disordered.

    In following this debate, the elephant in the room seems to revolve around whether evangelicalism can ever successfully disabuse itself of the idolatrous “family values” theology that has infected much of its thinking on these matters. In many ways, Burk’s thinking on these matters amounts to little more than the sociological notion of familialism with a few biblical proof texts slapped on the outside.


    1. i agree, i think this notion that if our desires are not directed at having a ” nuclear family” it is disordered, i think that is a very black and white thinking without taking into account people having different personalities, temperements, etc. it is not a one size fits all.

      My husband and I chose not to have children, we have been happily married for 21 years, yet some would say it is disordered to want the companionship of marriage but not procreate.

      Like you said not everyone wants to get married and have a family.


  5. I think all this talk surrounding the Revoice conference has made me take a step a back and rethink my ideas about sexuality.

    One issue I have with this article is when the author talks about how most people think it’s ok, and probably good, for hetero males and females to have friendships and that the risks are worth it. I don’t think it is sound to compare this type of friendship with the concept of spiritual friendship. I don’t think the majority of Christians in the church would encourage spiritual friendships between hetero men and women. This is in fact often discouraged because of its dangers. The author says the risks of spiritual friendships should be judged on similar grounds as regular friendships but I disagree. They are not similar. Maybe the lines should be drawn differently for those with homeosexual tendencies, but I would certainly not encourage my heterosexual children to form deep spiritual bonds with the opposite sex.


  6. “In that regard, the spiritual friendship movement is better off than Christian marriage.”

    The way this sentence is formulated, indeed the whole article, seems to be in agreement with Augustine’s belief that all sex, even in marriage, is sinful. I’m sorry, but it is perfectly alright to say that Augustine was dead wrong. In fact, he was really screwed up about sex. This is why the Spiritual Friendship movement is really screwed up. Because they are calling themselves “Augustinians.”

    But I will go further. The Spiritual Friendship movement is hiding behind Augustine. They are using his twisted view of sexual morality to try to gain the moral upper hand over straight married Christians. Nate Collins thinks that celibate gay Christians can be a “prophetic voice” against the “idolatry of the nuclear family.” Only moral chauvinism could explain the audacity of this statement. And it is true that moral sanctimony is one of the best psychological defenses against feelings of guilt.

    Another defense is the idea that celibacy is a form of moral heroism. Celibacy and the denial of their sexual desires is “costly obedience” and morally heroic. The problem is, I don’t think celibacy was ever meant to be heroic. Of course, obedience to God’s will in everything is laudable. But celibacy is supposed to be either a transitional state for pre-married people or the permanent state for those who have a single minded focus on serving God at the exclusion of all else. Biblically speaking, Paul was pretty clear about getting married if you burn.

    I don’t think it was ever God’s will for burning people to remain celibate for the rest of their lives. But that’s the dilemma. If you think your homosexuality is immutable even under the limitless power of the Holy Spirit, then your choice is to become a burning celibate or a sexually satisfied sodomite.

    Or you could do a Nate Collins third option of getting married to a woman and then calling it a “mixed-orientation” marriage, which is such a bizarre concept I am still trying to wrap my head around it. That could be a whole article itself, entitled “How I convinced my wife to be okay with me lusting after men while simultaneously considering her sexually repulsive”.


  7. Peter Nicholas July 7, 2022 at 5:45 am

    Thanks so much for this excellent blog/article Phillip.

    Looking at the Institutes it seems Calvin is very close to Augustine’s view in the important regard that he doesn’t think Christians have a charge of guilt against them for their ongoing ‘sinful’ desires.

    “Sin, however, though it ceases to reign, ceases not to dwell in them. Accordingly, though we say that the old man is crucified, and the law of sin is abolished in the children of God (Rom. 6:6), the remains of sin survive, not to have dominion, but to humble them under a consciousness of their infirmity. We admit that these remains, just as if they had no existence, are not imputed, but we, at the same time, contend that it is owing to the mercy of God that the saints are not charged with the guilt which would otherwise make them sinners before God.” (3.3.11)

    He does, however, want to encourage a deep heart level repentance – which is where he goes in application. I’d need to read over Augustine in greater depth but that seems to me to be very close to Augustine’s conclusion (both on how deep repentance goes, but also on whether Christians should feel ongoing guilt for desires which are ‘of sin’).


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