One 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.
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.
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:
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.
In my role as a clinical psychologist I often think about the people I serve as having a life made up of many chapters. When I meet with them, I listen for how the chapters that have already been written have affected them, and I think about how our work together will be a chapter, too, and how what we do together will in some small way contribute to the many chapters that are yet to be written.
My own life has had many chapters, and one of those professional chapters is coming to a close, just as a new chapter is about to be written.
It was announced earlier this week that I’ve accepted a new position at Wheaton College. This transition will take place in July of 2019. Here is a write up about it. We are excited about this next chapter, but it is also hard to leave a community we have grown to love over the past 20 years. We have time to prepare for this transition and are grateful for that.
I anticipate that while this is a new vocational assignment, I will continue to research in LGBTQ+ studies. That has been and will likely continue to be my main area of integration scholarship.
Along those lines, I have two books scheduled for release in 2019. One is on how clinicians can work in therapy when clients report a conflict between their sexuality and faith. The other book is titled Costly Obedience, and it is a research-informed look at the experiences of celibate gay Christians. I’m currently working on a book tentatively titled, Emerging Gender Identities, scheduled for publication in 2020.
This past weekend I had the chance to take in the movie Boy Erased with some of the students from my research team. It wasn’t quite what I expected. To be honest, I’m not entirely sure what I was expecting, but it was an engaging movie–sad in many ways and potentially triggering for people who have experienced religious trauma. I also thought it could lead to better discussions about faith and sexuality if we can find a way to press into the challenges we face in entering into difficult dialogues.
The movie is based on a true story, but I suppose I may have expected an ‘over-the-top’ portrayal of Christianity, a caricature that would be unrecognizable to me, as so often happens in movies that attempt to portray the Christian faith. A caricature can be readily dismissed.
But that didn’t happen. I’ve seen many clients over 20 years of practice who have had really difficult experiences with fundamentalist church settings and associated ministries. Some have been blamed for their same-sex sexuality; they were told it was “willful disobedience” to have the attractions they have had since puberty. Others have been told they don’t have enough faith or haven’t put in enough effort to truly change. So while people may disagree about how representative the experiences in the movie are of different families, churches and ministries they know, I don’t think there is any doubt that what was portrayed reflects some people’s experiences with those who represent Christ, as heartbreaking as that is.
Here are a few things that came to mind as I watched the movie. Think of these as related to FAQs Christians often have about same-sex sexuality and faith:
- Just as straight people find themselves attracted to the opposite sex, a percentage of people will find themselves attracted to the same sex; they do not choose to have same-sex attractions. When Christian leaders or others discuss having same-sex attractions as “willful disobedience,” we are already so off course in our care that we are likely to do great harm to someone navigating this terrain.
- It is unusual for same-sex sexuality to go away through ministry interventions. I was co-principal investigator on a 7-year longitudinal study of attempted change through such ministries. I don’t think any of the ministries we approached practiced what was portrayed in the movie; rather, the participants in our study indicated that the ministries generally provided small group discussion, Bible study, prayer, corporate worship, and so on. In any case, while many people did report diminished same-sex behavior and the decision to dis-identify with a gay identity, fewer experienced diminished same-sex attractions, and categorical change from gay to straight was even less likely.
- On a related point, a person can take practical steps to foster their relationship with God and grow in Christlikeness and not report a corresponding change in their sexual orientation. These two things should not be treated as though there is a necessary relationship between them.
- There is potential for great harm from those who are in spiritual authority as they wield that authority with a person who is vulnerable and navigating same-sex sexuality and faith. Those in authority ought to glean an important lesson in walking with greater humility and gentleness as they shepherd people in their spiritual journey.
- Parents count on spiritual leaders to provide them guidance. All the more reason to guide with humility about what we know and don’t know about same-sex sexuality.
- Also, the parent-child relationship is one of the best predictors of a loved one’s well-being over time. It is important to foster that relationship if at all possible. One way to help with that (among many) is to be precise when we discuss what is volitional.
- In the research we have been conducting on a data set of 200 Christian parents whose loved one came out to them as gay or transgender, we have found that many parents do not change their belief about whether same-sex behavior is morally permissible (although some question that belief and still others do change their belief), but they are struggling with how to love their child and also be faithful to what they believe Scripture teaches. Greater sensitivity to the challenges they face would be another take-away.
- A friend of mine who runs a ministry for Christian parents whose child has come out once said, “When a loved one comes out of the closet, the parents go into the closet.” It would be helpful to remove the shame associated with navigating same-sex sexuality and faith, for the loved one and for the parents.
- Parents can also become polarized when they face such stressors. One parent can become a caricature of positive emotions (e.g., love, protection) for their loved one, while the other can become a caricature of negative emotions (e.g., confusion, anger). It has been helpful for both parents to feel, express, and work through a range of emotions so that they do not experience a restricted range of emotions that limits how they relate to their loved one.
What I think was missing as I left the movie was a path forward for Christians who have reached the conclusion that same-sex behavior is morally impermissible. It’s unclear what their options are, and it’s unclear how the movie would move them toward a place of resolution. There was a zero/sum quality about the ending that left the viewer, I think, wanting more of a discussion about different pathways. I think that left some people reacting against the movie and missing some of the better parts of it, some of the lessons that can be gleaned from it.
I recently had the opportunity to provide staff training at a church that wants to engage the topics of sexual and gender identity in a way that is faithful to Scripture and holds a high view of LGBTQ+/same-sex attracted persons.
Let me say a word about the different formats. We began our time together by having me provide leadership training, which was made available to elders, youth ministry staff, adult volunteers, and so on. It is essential that as a church considers how to best engage with a controversial topic, that they have their leaders poised to learn and to lead.
Then I provided a public talk in a more intimate setting. They call this the Underground Sessions, which have been done for awhile now and have covered topics meant to challenge and stretch attendees regardless of their position on the subject matter. This may have been the most moving experience for me, as it was more of a TED-like talk with no PowerPoint or other aids–with the exception of a “walk-up video” which is an interesting idea. I don’t know about walk-up videos, but I do like the idea of a more relaxed setting and time to share a little from the heart. So I spoke here for like 18-20 minutes and then we had Q&A for 40 min and took a break and then took questions from the audience for another 40 min or so.
Then they had me in the pulpit to preach! This is not me “living my best life,” as the kids these days say, but I don’t mind giving it a try from time to time. I always have a more appreciation for pastors who preach week in and week out. It’s so humbling and not at all the same as developing a class lecture.
In any case, I wanted to point out how much I appreciate when churches take these kinds of steps to help their congregation thing more deeply about difficult topics. I know many LGBTQ+/same-sex attracted Christians who would be extremely grateful to know that a church is taking these practical steps to love them better.
The most poignant moment for me: One young man came up to me after one of the talks and asked about what gay Christians bring to the church. He was referencing a comment I made about the gifts I’ve seen among friends of mine who are gay. I shared some of the findings from our forthcoming book, Costly Obedience, in which we discuss some of the unique experiences of celibate gay Christians and how those unique experiences can potentially lead to qualities that may ultimately enhance the Body of Christ. He said he was in tears listening to the idea that he might bring something of value to the church, that by stewarding his same-sex sexuality he might not only derive a personal Christian history of God’s provision in his life, but he too could have something of great value to offer other Christians.