Homosexuality: A Christian View

The CBN News program titled, Homosexuality: A Christian View, was launched over Easter weekend. You’ll recall that there was a slow roll out of several interviews over the past couple of weeks. Well, the entire program is now available.

What I appreciate about the program is that the producer brought together a Christian theologian, pastor, and psychologist, as well as a parent of a gay man and a celibate gay Christian. So there are elements that address what we know/do not know from Scripture and from research on sexual orientation. There is also the experience of a compassionate pastor who holds in a tension the traditional Christian sexual ethic with a remarkable degree of compassion. I also appreciated hearing the personal stories of a mother of a gay son and the story of a celibate gay Christian. It accomplishes a lot in just 30 minutes.

Sexual Identity & The Question of Vocation

Vocation is an interesting word. It isn’t a word you hear tossed around that much today, outside of religious settings. Even there, the word has fallen out of common usage. If you google it, you get the idea that people have a resolve toward a career or activity of some kind: “a summons or strong inclination to a particular state or course of action; especially: a divine call to the religious life.”

I suppose dissertations could be written on the meaning and place of vocation in the life of the believer. I’m unable to get into all of those nuances, but I am intrigued by the word and its place in the life of the Christian. It certainly seems to entail purpose and meaning in ways that are often overlooked in many cultural discussions and debates about sexuality and sexual behavior.

In any case, I was invited to give a lecture series at Southeastern Baptist Seminary in the fall of last year. A part of that time together was giving a chapel address to the seminary students. I organized the chapel message around a letter that C.S. Lewis wrote to Sheldon and Davy VanAuken that raises the question of vocation.

It’s Not the Lane; It’s the Logic: A Few Thoughts about Joel Osteen’s Recent Interview

There are certain questions that are just going to be asked of Joel Osteen. He has to know these questions are inevitable. It’s kind of like the presidential race: if you are running for president, you know that certain questions are going to be asked, particularly if people have not appreciated past attempts (by you) to answer those questions. It is up to your staff to help prepare you for those questions.

Let me start by saying that I sympathize with Osteen. I know first-hand that the topic of homosexuality is a difficult one to navigate, and all the more for someone in his position. One point I would raise is that he is in the spotlight, and he and his staff know that there are some predictable questions that he will be asked time and time again. He seems to need some help with language.

Now there is a lot here to discuss, and I am not going to dissect his entire response. I don’t enjoy it when it happens to me. But let me highlight the latter half of the interview in which the subject of etiology comes up. Etiology has been used by folks on both “sides” of the cultural debates – as if the the research there would settle the moral debate. In the so-called “Nature versus Nurture” debates, my experience has been that more liberal voices emphasize Nature so they can discuss behavior as a foregone conclusion. In response to that, traditionalists have a knee-jerk reaction against any evidence from biology and claim instead that Nurture is the key to etiology, as though it were the only logical argument for teaching a traditional sexual ethic. Neither argument is based on an accurate reading/interpretation of the existing data, but I’ll save that for another post. I’ll just say this for now: It is likely that both Nature and Nurture contribute to sexual orientation, but we really do not know all of what factors into etiology.

So how could Osteen handle this predictable question about etiology? I was intrigued by the appeal to his “lane”; he is staying in his lane when he does not delve into the research on etiology and change. I probably do something similar when I mark the boundaries of my knowledge of other issues related to homosexuality. I get that. However, instead of emphasizing his “lane” in this instance, he could acknowledge that he and others do not choose to experience the attractions that they have. He (and others) find themselves attracted to people of the same- or opposite-sex (and some people will discuss attractions to both sexes). So I have something like this in mind:

No, I did not choose to experience my attraction to the opposite-sex, and I don’t think most people choose to experience attraction to the same-sex. We feel the attractions that we feel. For some people who experience same-sex attractions those attractions are so strong and persistent that they would describe them as their orientation. They feel oriented (sexually, physically, emotionally) toward the same sex. Most people today tend to then identify themselves as gay – as a way of referencing this attraction or orientation toward the same sex. It is their identity. But others choose not to identify themselves by their attractions, nor do they choose to act on the feelings they have. In other words, this is the volitional part of our discussion. This is where there are choices to be made: What a person does with the attractions he or she has, and how that person forms his or her identity. So the question is not, “Is my orientation a choice?” but, rather, “What choices do I have when it comes to my sexuality, my identity, and my behavior?”

Again, I sympathize with any Christian leader who is trying to handle these types of questions in the national spotlight. I just don’t know how much patience people will have with staying in a “lane” given the nature of the debates today, as well as the relative influence someone like Osteen has given the size of his audience.

But there are ways for a Christian to respond to these kinds of questions – and at the same time to highlight that the question itself (in this case) is based upon several leaps in logic that warrant discussion.

An Interesting Development at Exodus and a Tension for Christian Ministries

On their blog, Exodus International is offering their official position on reparative therapy. This is getting a lot of attention (see here and here). The impetus appears to be the California Bill that was recently passed by the CA senate that would make it illegal to provide reorientation therapy to minors (I commented on that here).

This is what Exodus International is saying about reparative and/or conversion therapy:

Exodus International supports an individual’s right to self-determine as they address their personal struggles related to faith, sexuality and sexual expression.  As an organization, we do not subscribe to therapies that make changing sexual orientation a main focus or goal. Our ministry’s objective is to equip the Church to become the primary place where people of faith seek support, refuge and discipleship as they make the decision to live according to Christian principles.

We believe in a “gospel-centric” view, meaning that all people, regardless of individual life struggles, can experience freedom over the power of sin through a daily relationship with Jesus Christ, a commitment to scripture, and by being a part of a vibrant, transparent and relational community of believers found in the local church.  Exodus is partnered with more than 260 churches and support-based ministries who serve individuals and families experiencing a conflict between their faith and sexuality.

There is a tension here between being a Christian ministry that is “gospel-centric” and the questions that naturally arise when ministering in the area of same-sex sexuality about whether sexual orientation can change (or whether a Christian can receive healing).

I was recently contacted by a parent of a young adult how had adopted a lesbian identity. He asked me about his perception that I did not think people could change sexual orientation – and how that fit with Paul’s letter to the church in Corinth (1 Cor. 6:9-11) in which he indicates “such were some of you” – with reference to homosexual behavior (among other behaviors).

Here is part of what I shared:

When Paul writes “such were some of you,” I don’t read Paul as saying that orientation necessarily changed. Paul may be suggesting something like that, but I don’t think we have enough evidence to say that we know he is saying that. Rather, I think we can assume he is at least suggesting a pattern of behavior that used to characterize the person. … He can say “such were some of you” because — and now I think he is referring to a meaningful change due to their relationship with Christ — they have now ceased that pattern of behavior. I would note that the list also includes the adulterer. An adulterer ceases to be an adulterer when they cease a pattern of behavior (infidelity) that characterized them as a person. They may still find themselves attracted to people outside of their marriage, but they do not lust after or engage in behavior with them in a way that would characterize them as a person. I think we are on better footing to say that this is the kind of change Paul is referring to.

I went on to share a little about my views of sexual orientation change:

As for my view of whether orientation can change, I actually think it can, but my view is not one that is popular with the mainstream gay community or with conservatives in the church. Let me explain: To say that orientation can change, I mean that there may be meaningful shifts (along a continuum) away from same-sex attraction (and in some cases meaningful shifts toward attraction to the opposite sex). Some of this appears to be the result of natural fluidity, which is more so the case among females. But I don’t think that everyone can change or that anyone can change, as though it were just a matter of enough effort or of enough faith. Also, the data we have sees from our own research suggests that categorical change – 180 degrees – from gay to straight is less likely than what I refer to as meaningful shifts along a continuum (from same-sex to opposite-sex attraction).

New Resource on Homosexuality and Sexual Identity

This week I received a copy of my new book, Homosexuality & the Christian: A Guide for Parents, Pastors and Friends. I actually just did an interview on it with a Christian station in the Pittsburgh area. It was a nice way to introduce the book and reflect some on the intended audience, etc.

Back story: I was asked by Bethany House Publishers to write a Christian general audience book on homosexuality – something that would be accessible to the average Christian in the pew.  The book looks at various questions that have been asked by pastors, family members, and friends sorting out the complicated questions surrounding the topic of homosexuality, including a Christian perspective on it, what causes sexual orientation, and whether sexual orientation can change. 

Writing this book also afforded me the opportunity to share why I believe sexual identity is a more helpful approach in couseling and pastoral care than focusing on sexual orientation. I discuss this early in the book (Chapter 2), and my answer to that sets up Parts 2 and 3 of the book that deal with questions facing families (“What if my child or teen announces a gay identity?”; “My adult child announced a gay identity: What now?”; and “What if my spouse announces a gay identity?”). These are really difficult issues, and the emphasis on identity provides a couple of ways to respond that are overlooked when we place too great an emphasis on orientation.

In Part 3 of the book I look at questions for the church today. The first of the two key questions dealt with here are: “Whose people are we talking about?” I think it is imoprtant that when we think of Christians sorting out sexual identity matters we think about them as “our people”; this frame changes how we think about ministry and support. The second key questions is: “What is the church’s response to enduring conditions?” I suggest that an approach that reflects realistic biblical hope will have to find a way to respond to enduring conditions, which is what most people will need.

The book has a couple of nice endorsements on the back cover:

“This is a must-read book for anyone who wants sound guidance and trustworthy information about homosexuality, including its relevance to Christians and the church.”
–Gary R. Collins, Distinguished Professor of Coaching and Leadership, Richmont Graduate University
Homosexuality and the Christian is the best book I have seen for evangelicals who want an accessible book that provides accurate, research-based information.”
–Warren Throckmorton, Associate Professor of Psychology, Grove City College, and Fellow for Psychology and Public Policy at the Center for Vision and Values

New Book Available in September

Word on the street is that my new book on sexual identity/homosexuality will be available September 10th. Here’s what the publisher is saying about it. Also, they’ve just added some nice endorsements to their web site, so I included them below:

Homosexuality is one of the most controversial topics of our day, and we all need clear, biblical answers that are grounded in love and compassion. As a Christian and a leading expert in the field of sexual identity, Mark Yarhouse provides honest, accurate information about hot-button questions like:
•    What causes homosexuality and same-sex attraction?
•    Can attractions or orientation be changed?
•    What is “sexual identity” and why does it matter?
•    What should I do when a friend opens up to me about his or her homosexual attractions?

Always keeping in mind the real, hurting people—Christians and nonbelievers alike—who are struggling with the issue, Dr. Yarhouse provides a balanced and accessible look at today’s research. He also introduces a new way to think about the topic, carefully separating “same-sex attraction” from a “gay identity.” This book provides a much-needed, deeper understanding of homosexuality that will help our churches, our communities, and our families speak the truth in love.

“As a Christian professor and clinical psychologist, Mark Yarhouse, in his book Homosexuality and the Christian, utilizes his unique experiences to provide Christians believing in a traditional sexual ethic with realistic viewpoints of the current debatable topics of sexuality, while simultaneously giving a compassionate framework leading to a more nuanced understanding of the complexity that is faith and sexuality.”

Andrew Marin, President of The Marin Foundation and author of the Love is an Orientation

“This is a must-read book for anyone who wants sound guidance and trustworthy information about homosexuality, including its relevance to Christians and the church.”
–Gary R. Collins, Distinguished Professor of Coaching and Leadership, Richmont Graduate University

Homosexuality and the Christian is the best book I have seen for evangelicals who want an accessible book that provides accurate, research-based information.”
–Warren Throckmorton, Associate Professor of Psychology, Grove City College, and Fellow for Psychology and Public Policy at the Center for Vision and Values

Pre-order your copy today through bethanyhouse.com, bn.com, or amazon.com.

An Update on Andrews U. Conference

I returned this morning from the Andrews University Marriage, Homosexuality and the Church conference. The conference continues on today with what I understand will be more discussions of biblical theology. Live feed and brief commentary (tweets) on the conference is available through The Spectrum.

Andrews conference 2009The conference appeared to be designed for conservatives within the Adventist community to discuss and reflect on the scientific, theological, and legal/public policy issues related to the topic of gay marriage. In light of the conference design and structure, it was not so much a dialogue among people with radically different perspectives. In fact, with the exception of one panel that had one dissenting voice, it seemed to me that the conference provided more of an update and points of discussion for primarily conservatives within the community.

In any case, on Thursday night I was asked to step in for Dr. Stanton Jones who was scheduled to give the opening plenary address. That address dealt with claims of homosexuality being innate and immutable. I reviewed some of the most recent research intended to support the biological hypothesis that is often pointed to in an effort to establish homosexuality as innate. I also discussed recent studies on natural fluidity among females in particular, as well as a study I was involved in that demonstrated average meaningful (although modest) gains in change efforts along a continuum away from homosexuality for some (and toward heterosexuality for some). Both natural fluidity and the data on change attempts challenge claims of immutability.

Yarhouse at AndrewsOn Friday I gave the original paper I had already been asked to deliver. I spoke about the development and synthesis of sexual identity, essentially reviewing data on how people come to identify themselves as gay (or choose not to claim such an identity). I made a three-tier distinction between same-sex attraction, a homosexual orientation, and a gay identity and then discussed the pastoral applications for those who are navigating sexual identity conflicts.

Dr. Robert Gagnon spoke Friday night on the topic of biblical texts and themes associated with homosexual behavior. I’d read Gagnon’s work prior to the conference, and his book The Bible and Homosexual Practice is widely considered the most comprehensive treatment of the subject. I have also found his dialogue (Homosexuality and the Bible: Two Views) on these text with Dan Via to be helpful and more accessible to non academics. GagnonIn any case, Gagnon’s talk on Friday night developed themes that have arisen from revisionist attempts to reinterpret key texts or draw conclusions based upon certain observations (e.g., the claim that Jesus never spoke to the topic of homosexuality). He offered a good, clear presentation of his argument. If anything, he had to cut short what he could have spoken on for a couple of more hours.

Friday evening’s events closed with a panel discussion that allowed for questions and answers from the audience on matters of law/public policy, psychology and counseling and pastoral care, and theology.

I understand that today’s sessions will continue to cover biblical theology and related matters. Again, the conference can be followed on-line through The Spectrum, for those who are interested. Update: David Hamstra (see comment below) also has a collection of concise summaries of each presentation/panel.