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.

Coming Attractions

IMG_6212Academics measure time in semesters. As the summer comes to a close and we anticipate the start of the fall semester, I wanted to provide an update on two writing projects. These are “coming attractions,” if you will. A few weeks ago I hit “send” on two book-length manuscripts. One was going to Zondervan and the other to Templeton Press. (By the way, this may be the first time I worked on two larger projects at the same time. I try to do one book at a time and write-up articles or develop presentations rather than try to work on another project of that size. But poor planning on my part and an unexpected invitation led to these projects being on my plate at the same time.) Let me tell you about both.

The manuscript that went to Zondervan has the working title of Costly Obedience. It is a book-length treatment of several studies we have been conducting on the experiences of celibate gay Christians. While several studies provide valuable information throughout the book, the central study is of 300 celibate gay Christians who provided information on their psychological well-being, their experience in churches, their sexual identity development, and religiosity. If I do say so myself, it is a fascinating look at the lives and experiences of Christians who are navigating sexual identity and faith and who wish to abide by a traditional Christian sexual ethic. We include the voices of celibate gay Christians in the form of a smaller qualitative study in which we pull quotes on their experiences, and you read about them all throughout the manuscript. Also, I asked several friends and acquaintances of mine if they would share their personal experiences or recommendations for the church, and their voices are also interspersed throughout.

The other manuscript–the one that went to Templeton Press–has the working title of Sexual Identity and Faith. It is a book for clinicians about how to provide therapy to people of faith who are navigating the difficult terrain of sexual and religious identity conflicts. In other words, for some sexual minorities of faith, their same-sex sexuality and their Christian commitments collide in a way that is very difficult for them. When they enter professional therapy, they have historically been offered two broad options: one is to change their sexual orientation; the other is gay affirmative therapy. For about 20 years I and others have been providing therapy that is a “third way” model that tries to be client-centered and identity-focused. It is not a change therapy; rather, it has to do with helping clients achieve congruence so that they can live their lives and form an identity in keeping with their beliefs and values. In 2006, Warren Throckmorton and I wrote a framework for providing such therapy called the Sexual Identity Therapy Framework.

In any case, the book is fairly comprehensive, as it covers advanced informed consent, assessment, and approaches I take in therapy from a more narrative and cognitive-behavioral perspective. So it has to do with the stories that have been told about people, the stories that are currently being told, and the chapters that the person in therapy is writing and will be writing in the years to come–a story about who they are in light of their same-sex sexuality and Christian faith.

Publishing is like farming. You plant a seed (or hit “send”) and find that the harvest is months away. You can look for both of these resources in the summer of 2019.

On the Nashville Statement

READ-The-Nashville-Statement-on-LGBTQ-amp-Transgender-AcceptanceSocial media has been on fire in response to the Nashville Statement. As you’ve undoubtedly read by now, folks are lining up to either sign the statement or denounce it. I suspect that the hardening of these lines was the point for some of the authors of the statement. But rather than go that route, let’s take a step back for a moment.

I’ve written about my understanding of a traditional Christian sexual ethic in many places. No need to reiterate. So in terms of what you might call the underlying theology, I (along with many other conservative Christians) may agree with aspects of the Nashville Statement insofar as it attempts to reflect such an ethic.

However, the Nashville Statement does not simply reflect what we might call a traditional sexual ethic. It attempts to address several areas beyond the question of whether same-sex behavior is morally permissible or morally impermissible. Most notably, it takes on the question of language or the use of specific sexual identity labels. The use of various sexual identity labels, such as gay, lesbian, and bisexual, is actually a developmental process that has been fascinating to study, particularly among Christians who are sorting out sexual identity concerns. While the use of specific language (e.g., “gay”) has been a concern to a few outspoken conservatives, it has not been a litmus test for orthodoxy that carried the moral significance of behavior, where there is greater biblical clarity. In that way the Nashville Statement will be experienced by some as unnecessarily antagonistic toward some of the very people whose commitment to a biblical sexual ethic means they are living out costly obedience.

The language piece also fails to appreciate how younger people talk about their sexual orientation and ways in which “homosexuality” and “a homosexual orientation” has fallen out of the vernacular. Put differently, the word “gay” to the average 14-year-old is not synonymous with promiscuity the way it may have been for some of the authors of the Nashville Statement; rather, it is the way a teenager might reference his or her sexual orientation, which is important for youth ministers, for instance, to understand. Now I am not suggesting that there is never a pastoral concern about language; there may be, and I’ve discussed that topic at some length. But there isn’t always a pastoral concern about language, and there is a need to nuance this discussion for effective ministry and pastoral care.

Along these lines, I believe it was Andy Crouch who discussed the difference between postures and gestures. Postures are more fixed ways of positioning yourself in relation to a topic. Gestures are the many ways you express yourself in a specific ministry setting. He recommends Christians avoid rigid postures that limit their gestures. On the question of language, the Nashville Statement reflects a fairly rigid posture that, in places, is unnecessarily antagonistic toward other conservatives, particularly those who identity as celibate gay Christians.

Then there is “transgenderism.” It should be noted that “transgender” is an umbrella term for the many ways people experience, express, or live out a gender identity that is different than that of a person whose gender identity aligns with his or her biological sex. This is a complicated topic. There isn’t even consensus on who fits under the transgender umbrella, which is part of the problem when the word is used in such declarations. It can include people who report great distress, such as those who meet criteria for gender dysphoria, but to some the word transgender also captures those who cross-dress, drag queens and kings, transsexuals, those with intersex conditions, various non-binary gender identities, and so on. The diversity here is remarkable.

When I wrote Understanding Gender Dysphoria, which was published in 2015, I noted that transgender presentations were a wave that was going to crest on evangelicals and that the church was not prepared for it. I noted that we needed to think deeply and well about gender identity and to engage with some humility what we know and do not know from the best of science, as well as learn from mistakes made in how evangelicals engaged the topic of sexual identity and especially how evangelicals treated the actual people who were navigating sexual identity and faith. I was suggesting we could learn from that experience and make some adjustments as we encounter the topic of gender identity.

I’m afraid the Nashville Statement, perhaps out of a desire to establish the parameters for orthodoxy on gender identity concerns, gets ahead of evangelicals because it doesn’t reflect the careful, nuanced reflection needed to guide Christians toward critical engagement of gender theory, while also aiding in the development of more flexible postures needed in pastoral care.

The statement evangelicals need today is one that guides the church toward a flexible posture, grounded in Scripture, that allows for a range of gestures based on the needs associated with ministry and cultural engagement.

Forthcoming Book: Listening to Sexual Minorities

Listening to Sexual Minorities Cover smThere are not many days that are as fulfilling to a writer as the day you send your book manuscript to your editor. Today I was able to send in the “completed” manuscript for Listening to Sexual Minorities: A Study of Faith and Sexual Identity on Christian College Campuses. I place quotation marks around “completed” because, inevitably, there are minor edits to be made after it is gone over with a fine-toothed comb by the editor, but it is off my desk for the time-being, and that is why I celebrate today.

What can the reader expect with this book? This is both an academic book and an accessible book. Let me unpack that apparent contradiction. This is a more academic book insofar as the primary focus is explaining a longitudinal study of the experiences of sexual minorities at Christian college campuses. We go over what we found in terms of the salience of their Christian faith, their experience of the campus climate, their response to campus policies, their psychological health and emotional well-being, recommendations they would make to administrators, advice they would give to incoming sexual minorities, and so much more. To do that, we had to show the data and explain it, so in that sense, it will read as more academic.

At the same time, we have many breakout boxes to explain the material and “take away” summary points at the end of each chapter. We draw on interviews we conducted with students, and we share their experiences in their own words. In that sense, it is accessible.

This is also a co-authored book. Janet Dean (Asbury University), Stephen Stratton (Asbury Seminary), and Michael Lastoria (Houghton College) collaborated with me on the longitudinal study these past three years and were instrumental in moving the material from a research study to a book-length manuscript.

The schedule for the release of the book is March/April of 2018. I’ll keep you posted!

How Nouwen Responded to Criticism of His Celibacy

henri-nouwen2I was recently sent a talk by a popular Christian speaker in which the speaker shared the following critique of gay Christianity, bringing a strong charge against Wesley Hill and others from Spiritual Friendship, who are attempting to live chaste lives as celibate gay Christians. Here is an excerpt:

I shudder to think about how much more rigorous, painful, dangerous, and difficult my conversion would have been had it taken place in 2016… Why? Well, if my conversion to Christ had taken place in 2016 and not 2009, likely I might have been told that I was a gay Christian….

I likely would have been told I was just a gay Christian and there are two tracks in life for a gay Christian like me. I can have “Side A” with Matthew vines, Justin Lee and the Gay Christian Network – embracing a revisionist biblical understanding  that Scripture is neither inerrant, inspired, nor trustworthy and affirms the goodness of gay sexual relationships. Or, hey, I could go “Side B” with Wesley Hill and the Spiritual Friendship gang, where I would learn that my sexual desires for women were sanctifiable and redeemable making me a better friend to one and all. But for the the sake of Christian tradition I should not act on them….

I think that sexual strugglers need gay Christianity and all of its attending, liberal sellouts, including the “Side B” version, like fish need bicycles…

While some people see a difference between acting on unholy desires and simply cherishing them in your heart, our Lord would say otherwise….

The difference that factions of gay Christianity, the differences between Matthew Vines and Wesley Hill take place on a razor’s edge…

When the speaker mentions “Side A” and “Side B” gay Christians, she is referencing language used by the Gay Christian Network (that originated with Bridges Across the Divide) in which a decision was made to move away from “pro-gay” and “anti-gay” terminology that would demonstrate a preference based on language (think about how “pro-choice” language shapes perceptions in the abortion debate). Rather, they landed on “Side A” (that some same-sex sexual relationships can be morally permissible) and “Side B” (same-sex relationships are morally impermissible).

In any case, when I first watched this segment, I wasn’t sure how to digest it. I occasionally blog at Spiritual Friendship and count it a blessing to call many of the people who do blog there my friends.

Also, I am currently working on a writing project on the experiences of celibate gay Christians titled, Costly Obedience. I know from research with this population (and from personal conversations with friends) that, for some celibate gay Christians, there has been a history of attempts to change, of many hours in prayer or involvement in ministries asking God to remove the “thorn in the flesh,” as it were.

I do not know the speaker personally, and this is not a full critique of her argument. There is much that could be written in response, and I would prefer to dialogue with her out of a relationship at some point down the road. I also know other people who have a similar testimony of what God has done in their lives that mirrors in some ways what I have read about her. Nothing here is meant to detract from her testimony.

However, I am concerned that she may be doing something I’ve seen others do when they have taken how God worked in their lives and developed a standard by which they measure what should be expected from others (and what pastors should allow or support in their pastoral care). Such an exhortation can come from a good place. It can be well meaning. Developing a standard based upon one’s own personal journey of healing, however, can overlook the efforts made by others and the different ways in which God works in a person’s life.

I should not have to say this, but I am obviously not defending revisionist theology associated with a “Side A” perspective on Scripture. I am simply saying that many gay Christians (those designated as “Side B” in her talk) who are pursuing a life of chastity are doing so with quite a history of attempted healing. Suggesting to them that more is needed is perhaps not the appropriate response. Chiding pastors who make room for Christians who are pursuing celibacy is perhaps not the best step forward.

A few days after I watched that clip, I was  reading the new book, Love, Henri: Letters on the Spiritual Life. In one letter, Henri Nouwen writes to a woman who was critical of Nouwen for not “taking the correct approach to healing himself” (p. 188).

…Your statement that my vision of God is askew, that the emotional imagery of my heart is also askew and I simply need to become available for healing, feels really quite distant and makes me feel somewhat condemned. It simply sounded like: “You know there must be other healing available for you; why don’t you get your act together and accept the healing that is there for you.” If you had any idea of what I have been struggling with over the past eight months and how I have been trying to really enter into the furnace of God’s love and give up everything else in order to really let God heal me, you probably never would have written these words. (p. 188-189)

Nouwen did not use the language of “gay Christian” or “celibate gay Christian,” but I was struck by how living a celibate life can come under attack by others who want more for a person. They want more of a testimony of healing, and they place the responsibility for the lack of healing on the gay individual. It was strangely comforting and disconcerting that Henri Nouwen faced a similar charge.

I was also struck by Nouwen’s charity toward the woman who made the charge. He tried to foster in her some cognitive complexity:

…I know that you don’t want to hurt me and that you do care for me. So I hope that you also can be patient and trust that God will do his work when His time comes. It quite easily might take another ten or twenty years until the deepest wounds in me are healed. It might even be that God wants to teach me how to live with them as a way to participate in the suffering of Jesus. I really don’t know, but, healing or no healing, I trust that God is greater than my heart and that He desires to show me His love. (p. 189)

Perhaps the church is at its best when it recognizes the different ways in which God responds to the cries of His people. Perhaps the church is at its best when it recognizes that God is sovereign and is working out His purposes in the lives of the those who, often out of a place of great anguish, are bringing their requests to Him.

NAE Webinar on Pastoral Care for LGBT+ Persons and Their Families

A short while ago the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) asked me to record a webinar titled “Pastoral Care of LGBT+ Persons and Their Families.” That webinar is now available at their web site here for a modest fee. Here is the description:

While the national debate surrounding bathroom policies for transgender persons continues, evangelicals consider how to best engage the topic and more generally how to care for the LGBT persons and their families in their midst.

In this one-hour webinar, psychologist Mark Yarhouse, author of “Understanding Gender Dysphoria” and founder of the Institute for the Study of Sexual Identity at Regent University, shares tools for compassionate and biblically faithful ministry to LGBT persons and their families.