On the Expectation of Change

A recent World magazine article centers on the hiring of Julie Rodgers at Wheaton College. Julie is a self-described celibate gay Christian who works as an associated in the chaplain’s office at the college. I consider Julie a friend, and I am an alumni of Wheaton (’98) and I have served as an adjunct professor there for the past decade. I also blog occasionally at Spiritual Friendship which is mentioned in the article.

julie_rodgers_1356836454_69I was surprised to see my research cited in the article about the hiring of Julie. The way the argument was set up was to express concern for Wheaton as the flagship evangelical college hiring a staff member who is known to be gay and who actually uses the word “gay” as an adjective to describe herself to others. Julie had spent about 10 years in Exodus International attempting to change her sexual orientation, and I have spoken with Julie on several occasions about this. She is gracious and positive about her own personal experience with the Exodus member ministries she participated in. However, speaking graciously about involvement in a ministry and declaring that it made her straight are two different things. She, like many other people who have attempted to change, did not experience a dramatic shift in her attractions as a result of ministry.

In my view, the article would serve the Body of Christ better if it were about this reality.

I am co-author of the study cited in the World magazine article about Julie and Wheaton. That study was published in book form in 2007 and then again as a peer-reviewed journal article in 2011, after six years of attempted change. If I were to summarize my view of the findings, I would put it this way: While on average people reported a modest shift along a continuum of attraction, most people did not experience as much of a shift as they would have liked, particularly as people entering ministry envision change as a 180-degree shift from gay to straight.

The author of the World magazine piece frames the study as being about “showing that changing sexual orientation is possible.” A more accurate way to think about the study is this: “Is it ever possible that sexual orientation can change?” This is important because it leaves open the question of what causes the change. The original study was launched at a time when the broader cultural consensus seemed to be that sexual orientation is an immutable characteristic. That is, that sexual orientation is unchanging. Period. We asked whether it is ever possible to witness change in sexual orientation over time and whether such experiences were intrinsically harmful. We documented average changes along a continuum. Averages that suggested that for some those shifts were more significant; for others, not significant (or no change).

The study was an outcome study. That is, we were studying whether changes in orientation occurred; we were not studying the process of change. We do not even know if it was involvement in the Christian ministry that contributed to the changes that were documented. It is possible that the changes that were documented were the result of natural fluidity or some other variable that we did not account for. There was certainly (for some) changes in identity and behavior, as we discussed in the journal article about the study.

Why is this important? It is important because the evangelical Christian community has an opportunity to think carefully about pastoral care which is intimately connected to the message it sends to people who are navigating sexual identity concerns in their lives. We can affirm a God who can bring about the miraculous while also being gracious to those who do not experience the miraculous. We do this all the time when we pray for people for any number of concerns that are brought to us. But in this one area–homosexuality–there seems to be an added expectation that the person receive experience significant shifts in the direction of their sexual attraction or assume a posture of ongoing attempts to alter patterns of attraction even when such efforts have not produced the shift the person has sought.

I once wrote about a man in his forties who came to see me in therapy. He had been to a Christian ministry for the past three years to try to change his attractions. After the first year going through a popular 30-week curriculum, he shared with the ministry leader that he still experienced same-sex attraction. The leader encouraged him to go back through the curriculum for a second year. He did. At the end of that year, he approached the ministry leader with the concern that while he had grown in his relationship with Christ and sincerely appreciated the fellowship with others, he was still experiencing same-sex attractions as strong as ever; what should he do? He was advised to go back through the curriculum for a third time. It was only after the end of the third year that he came to see me to discuss other options. We discussed how he thought about his same-sex sexuality and various postures he could take in light of his personal moral convictions. We discussed an ongoing posture of attempting to change; we discussed living with an enduring condition; we discussed a “thorn in the flesh” that he has asked to be removed many more times that Paul could have imagined. These different conceptualizations were difficult for this particular man. He had been led to believe that it was a personal, spiritual failure to come to terms with his same-sex attractions as something that would not go away–as something he would not experience a shift around. Such a belief drove him to depression and shame.

Yet he is not alone. Many people do not experience a dramatic shift in their experiences of same-sex attraction despite years of ministry involvement. This man spoke to me about three years. Julie in her speaking references 10 years. The question for the church is: What kind of pastoral care will the church provide in cases in which there is an enduring experience of same-sex attraction? A related question for pastoral care is to reflect on what is the nature of sexual attraction? Is it just a desire for genital sexual intimacy or is it broader than that? How we reflect on these questions will inform our care for one another. Although space will not permit an adequate exploration of that question, we need to at least ask: Is it a moral failure of the person to come to terms with an enduring condition? Although the issues are not the same, it was not in the case with Paul; I don’t believe it was a failure in the case of the man I discussed. I also don’t believe it is a failure on the part of Julie. In fact, I believe these are more likely outcomes than the testimonies of dramatic change. I don’t want to discourage a person from attempting such change, but I also want to be careful not to convey to that person that there worth before God is wrapped up in their capacity to experience sexual attraction to the opposite sex. I know countless men and women who are no more Christlike by virtue of their attraction to the opposite sex.

Also, how ought a person describe him or herself? Same-sex attracted? Gay? Struggler? Sexual minority? Overcomer? There are about as many names as there are opinions on the matter. I find there is a point of diminishing returns for me as someone who is not navigating this terrain to act as though I have the final word on how another brother or sister in Christ ought to use language. This is an internal discussion among followers of Christ who are talking to one another about the benefits and drawbacks of various words or phrases. One observation: younger people–Christians and nonChristians alike–are using gay as simply an adjective to describe their sexual orientation.

The church may benefit from finding  a way to hold onto different ministry approaches. Some will place greater emphasis on a more complete and dramatic shift in patterns of attraction. Most people will not experience this. Others will turn to changes in identity and behavior and language will be important here, as certain words may be experienced as indicative of identity. Still others will pursue celibacy as a way to live faithfully before God; different language may match up with their ways of naming their experience. We have to find a way to extend one another grace. To suggest that all people who experience same-sex attraction have to achieve dramatic shifts as a testimony to the power of God will be unnecessarily divisive, a poor model of pastoral care, and a sure way of driving people out of the church altogether.

Note: This is cross-posted with SF.

5 Comments

  1. Hi Dr. Yarhouse.

    By now I’m sure our profound disagreement about the sanctity of gay relationships is well understood. The inherent harm in traditionalist theology makes it, in my view, patently immoral (as David Gushee recently described it: the teaching of contempt).

    But I’m intrigued by a certain position you’ve assumed here. You seem to be saying that, in the traditionalist view, failure to change one’s homosexual orientation is not a moral failure. That strikes me as logically and theologically problematic.

    In the sermon on the mount, Jesus tells us that it’s not just our actions that he cares about, but also our interior life that leads to those actions (e.g., anger is like murder). If gay sex is sinful (which I obviously don’t believe), then sexual attraction to the same sex is necessarily sinful too.

    To be envious is a sinful posture even if it doesn’t lead to actions born of envy. To be covetous is a sinful posture even if it doesn’t lead to theft. To desire control others is a sinful posture even if it does not lead to manipulation. And so on. These are not “thorns of the flesh”. They may not be volitional impulses; even so, they are not morally neutral.

    And so if follows that if gay sex is sinful, then sexual attraction to the same gender is a sinful part of one’s interior life that must be fought against and repented of just like envy, covetousness, or a desire to control others.

    If, on the other hand, homosexual orientation is morally neutral, then there must be a way that same-sex attraction can be sactified (i.e., covenantal partnership).

    “Gay is bad” cannot also mean “gay is not bad”.

    This relatively new notion that gay sex is sinful but homosexual orientation isn’t seems to be a pastoral attempt at making the theology less cruel or destructive in light of our understanding of the relatively fixed nature of orientation (and perhaps it’s a way to ease the consciences of those who don’t wish to see gay people as inherently contemptable). But this line of belief completely destroys the underpinnings of any theological prohibition on all gay sex.

    With all of that said, I have two questions: Have I understood your position correctly? If so, how do you make an argument for homosexual orientation being morally neutral?

    • Thanks for your comment, David. I don’t think it is a personal moral failure for someone to not experience change of orientation. I think we can participate in the fall but not be morally culpable for aspects of that experience; rather, we are responsible for how we live in light of that reality (our fallen state). This has been an interesting discussion among gay Christians, including many who are celibate and have not been able to experience change. Some would agree with what I’m saying; others would not. I’d like to create space for more discussion about this, as it has important consequences for pastoral care. Thanks again for stopping by.

  2. Hi David,

    I am intrigued by what seems to be your assumption that attraction and desire are synonyms. If they are not then your position/objections are significantly weakened. Am I misunderstanding you? If not, how is it that you see them as synonymous?

    Unlike your example of envy or coveting, attractions are not the result of a cognitive or interpretive process. Envy is stoked by a belief system that I am getting a raw deal or that I deserve what someone else already has. Attraction is complex, non-behavioral process that draws us towards something and that process is not intrinsically sinful no matter the content of the attraction. What I do with my attractions are a very different matter than the attraction itself.

    Envy, on the other hand, is a behavior as it is rooted in a thought process that can be eliminated or changed. Attractions are not that malleable as they are not the result of cognitive processes.

    If attraction is different than desire than it is a fallacy, and probably harmful, to suggest that attractions “must be fought against and repented of just like envy, covetousness, or a desire to control others.”

    Sincerely,
    Tim

  3. Honestly, Dr. Yarhouse, I wish you had cared to be more nuanced back when your study came out.

    I’ll be honest about how I felt/feel if you’ll permit:

    1. I felt that you failed to challenge evangelicals with respect to their knowledge and understanding with respect to gays and lesbians. Or even the nature of sexuality in general.

    2. I felt that you knew your study was being misused to bolster the widespread misconception that “thousands have changed” and did little to stop this.

    That is all they took your study to mean, and I felt that you never discouraged this type of thinking.
    In the context of what change ministries were offering at the time, I they needed to hear that what they were offering was a lie. Your own research showed this.
    I think you failed to call them to honesty, rather letting them weasel by with ambiguity.

    Dr. Throckmorton was far more visible in this regard.

    (For some reason, SF, which I enjoy reading, has restricted comments very recently. I thank you for being gracious and allowing comments in general.
    As someone who grew up in a very conservative environment, anonymity is very valuable and interaction is very precious. No other support exists for people like me. None.
    I hope they reconsider. Not everyone lives in safe, wealthy, white America.)

    • I can appreciate your perspective, Andy. I don’t think I’ll be able to sway your opinion by telling you of my attempts to contact organizations that have misused my research, but I will say I have taken those steps since the very beginning. I agree that Dr. Throckmorton has been more visible and may have reached a different conclusion than I have about the study. My efforts have more typically involved addressing the reporter or organization or institution directly, and I suspect the nuances of the study have been lost on many people on both “sides” of the cultural wars.

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