Thoughts on the “Slippery Slope”

imagesOne of the concerns I often hear about a celibacy (or side b) position and conferences like Revoice is that the position itself can be a “slippery slope” toward a doctrinal shift that commends same-sex sexual behavior as morally permissible (or side a).

What is interesting about this concern is that it presupposes that there is a position that adequately “protects” a person from the possibility that their view of what is morally permissible might change.

When I started my career twenty years ago an ex-gay (or side x) ministry model was much more prominent and had a larger share of the ministry space in the evangelical Christian community. That has changed.

There were many factors that led to a diminished ex-gay narrative. Although I am unable to go into too many details here (we discuss some of the reasons in the book Costly Obedience, if you are interested), some of those factors had to do with those who had been ex-gay sharing that their own experience was that the ministry model did not appear to deliver on what was promised: namely, for some individuals (or many or most, depending on who weighs in on this), their same-sex sexuality remained a part of their lives in ways that could not be reconciled with assumptions surrounding that it means to be ex-gay (or, more pointedly, could not be reconciled with the claim that they were straight).

Some individuals came to identify as ex-ex-gay. Again, without going into specific stories, a quick search with your “Google machine” should provide a few examples. Some individuals previously identified as gay. They later held a prominent place in ministry circles as ex-gay. But, in the cases I am thinking of, that was not a position they could occupy indefinitely. As they came to acknowledge their enduring same-sex attractions, some would self-identify as ex-ex-gay. In some cases, their sexual ethic shifted to a “side a” position to reflect a change in their views. For some individuals, perhaps their enduring same-sex sexuality contributed to a cognitive dissonance that was resolved not with a change in underlying patterns of attraction but with a change in their beliefs about what was morally permissible. It is hard to know how frequently a person went from ex-gay to ex-ex-gay, but we know that it has happened.

Let’s get back to the slippery slope. It’s unclear to me that pursuing celibacy is any more of a slippery slope than pursuing heterosexuality. That is, it may not be a slippery slope at all. Do we really know that the pursuit of celibacy puts a person at greater risk of changing their view away from what conservatives would describe as a traditional Christian sexual ethic? Many people who were ex-gay at one time are now affirming. If the concern from conservatives is that celibacy and the use of the vernacular to describe one’s sexual orientation (i.e., gay) is a slippery slope, there doesn’t seem to be an account for how the alternative path has also been a place from which people have launched into an affirming position.

The “slippery slope” accusation locates the discussion topographically, as though one path was located alongside a sheer cliff, as though one position was closer to falling off the edge of that cliff than the other. The reality is the people have “fallen off” that place from many different positions. It is unclear that one is closer to a downward slope, and it ignores the reality of ex-ex-gays and at least one of the reasons why the ex-gay narrative has diminished in recent years.

Now from a research standpoint, I am certainly open to the idea that one ministry position increases the likelihood of a specific outcome. But we’d have to study the experiences of those who have changed their doctrinal position. We’d want a large, representative sample of sexual minority individuals who would share the journey from where they were to where they are to see if what they moved away from was more of an ex-gay (or side x) position or more of a celibacy (or side b) position. We’d also want to take into consideration the cultural shifts that have taken place and may be reflected in ministry prominence today. (Even more ideal, we’d want to study people’s experiences going into these different ministries rather than asking them what it was like retrospectively.) Short of that, it is unclear that those who are celibate should concede that their position is a greater risk than any other position in terms of shifting views on sexual ethics.

Since I don’t think that issue will be settled anytime soon, what are thoughtful Christians to do? Rather than denounce groups of people and their attempts to live faithfully before God, it may be more helpful to look at what these two ministry paths have in common. And maybe you’d think they don’t have much in common given the current conflict over preferred models of ministry and risk to the church. However, what they share in common are some of the ongoing challenges of a desire for support and encouragement, a sense of identity and community, a place to discuss their faith journey and sexuality and the intersection of the two, a place to grapple with important questions surrounding sexual ethics and intimacy, a positive vision for a future where they could thrive, ways in which their own gifts and talents can benefit the Body of Christ, ways in which their faithful witness can be a source of encouragement to others, and so on.

The accusation of a slippery slope will only push further from the church those who are trying to live out a traditional Christian sexual ethic. It may just fray the rope they are desperately trying to hold on to.

Reflections on Revoice 2019

This summer was my first time at Revoice. I streamed the sessions in 2018 and, like so many, witnessed the controversies surrounding the conference via social media. In 2019, I was able to attend in person. Unfortunately, I arrived late and had to leave a little early, but I did get to sit through a couple of workshops, participate in corporate worship, and deliver a plenary address.

What was it like? It was church in many respects. The larger sessions were steeped in worship songs, listening to personal stories or testimonies, and listening to a brief address. The quality of worship was reflected in the energy in the room- the heart-felt, love of and straining for God that can come from being authentic in community. It was sincere. The worship selections were curated by a talented director for this event. The entire event was emotionally moving. It was powerful.

I was struck by the patience and graciousness of the leadership and attendees of Revoice. As a group, they don’t want to be antagonistic to people who have been antagonist to them. They turn the other cheek. There are exceptions, I’m sure, but the prevailing view is one of creating an atmosphere that is mutually encouraging, gracious, and edifying.

Did I have any concerns? Sure. I had concerns. I had concerns that many young people have to leave this life-line of a conference and go back into truly difficult social and religious contexts where they often feel misunderstood and marginalized. Misunderstood by the mainstream LGBTQ+ community for their convictions and marginalized by the church for coming to terms with their enduring same-sex sexuality.

What did I talk about? I said “thank you.” I thanked the people in the room for living a costly obedience (however imperfectly) that has challenged me in my walk with God. I thanked them for how the decision to say “no” to something every day to say “yes” to something else developed in them a Christian character that matters, a personal Christian history of God’s faithfulness they can look back on as a source of encouragement that can strengthen their faith, and how these qualities could actually strengthen the church today just as it had strengthened my faith through the years.

What else did I do? I showed findings on the milestone events in identity formation from a new book about 300 celibate gay Christians and reflected on a couple of findings in particular: that the time between age of awareness of ones same-sex sexuality and age of first disclosure of this reality is about 7 years. Let that sink in. Seven years. This is a formula for shame. We contribute to that reality and then – take a moment to try to see this from their perspective – have the gall to tell those who finally share this journey with us that we want them to use terminology that works better for us than for them. I think that’s how many experience it.

I also noted that on measures of psychological distress and well-being, our sample was doing better than might be expected given the complex relationship they have with the mainstream LGBTQ+ community and the local (and online) Christian community.

That’s what I talked about. And when I say “talked about,” I mostly shared quotes from the people who took the time to share their lives with me. “Talking” was mostly “listening” and then just finding a way to relay their stories.

This was not an audience that is a “problem to be fixed”; they are a people to love and learn from and learn with. Their unique strengths forged in the uniqueness of their own experience could actually strengthen the church. Imagine churches that had better models of deep and abiding relationships, authenticity in sharing one’s journey, questions, and struggles, sensitivity to those on the margins, and who could actually humanize the issue- so its less an “issue” and more actual people that others know, love, and trust. What church have you been in that couldn’t grow in some of these areas? So we ought not reach down to them; we ought to reach across to them. My experience is that they will reach back.

Understanding Transgender Identities

If you are interested in the topic of transgender experiences, you might want to pre-order a forthcoming book. The resource is titled, Understanding Transgender Identities: Four Views. Here is the description from the publisher: Cover Understanding TG Identities

This book offers a full-scale dialogue on transgender identities from across the Christian theological spectrum. It brings together contributors with expertise and platforms in the study of transgender identities to articulate and defend differing perspectives on this contested topic. After an introductory chapter surveys key historical moments and current issues, four views are presented by Owen Strachan, Mark A. Yarhouse and Julia Sadusky, Megan K. DeFranza, and Justin Sabia-Tanis. The authors respond to one another’s views in a respectful manner, modeling thoughtful dialogue around a controversial theological issue. The book helps readers understand the spectrum of views among Christians and enables Christian communities to establish a context where conversations can safely be held.

The book is scheduled for release November 5. You can pre-order today.