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.