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.

Understanding Transgender Identities

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: Cover Understanding TG Identities

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.

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 Gender Identity Trends

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Gender identity is a trending topic today. There is actually a phrase for it: “trans trending.” But it is being discussed by many people in many circles, including Christian circles, where the focus is on identifying the best and most faithful response.

As I write about in my book, Understanding Gender Dysphoria: Navigating Transgender Issues in a Changing Culture, I do see Gender Dysphoria and the broader transgender discussion as quite complex. The complexity requires a thoughtful, naunced response from the Christian community.

A quick primer: Transgender is an umbrella term for the many ways people express gender identity when they have gender identity that is does not align with their biological sex as male or female. Some people who identify as transgender also experience distress over this lack of alignment between their identity and their biological sex. When that occurs, mental health professionals have called the distress “gender dysphoria.”

I am concerned that “transgender” as an umbrella term is becoming home to many other identity questions that naturally arise in adolescence and are being explored by younger teens, some of who request serious medical interventions. This is in part why we see a growing number of emerging gender identities (e.g., agender, bigender, genderfluid, gender creative).

In my book, I introduce the reader to three frameworks that function as “lenses” through which people “see” the research in this area, the broader topic, and the people who are navigating gender identity concerns. The three frameworks are integrity, disability, and diversity.

Let me review these three frameworks briefly.

The integrity lens emphasizes the importance of a biblical foundation for norms of sex and gender and sets a standard for the Christian who seeks to be faithful to what God has revealed in Scripture. It says that there are real, God-given differences between males and females that were intended by God from creation (Gen 1, 2). These differences lay the foundation for morally permissible sexual behavior. When a male and female come together in the context of a marriage covenant, sexual behavior is morally permissible. Outside of that foundation and covenant, sexual behavior is morally impermissible. This lens is concerned that the integrity of male/female distinctions is forfeited if a person were to adopt a cross-gender identity or pursue medical interventions, such as hormonal treatment or sex reassignment surgery.

The second lens through which people see this topic is called the disability lens. When people experience a lack of fit between gender identity and biological sex, it is thought of as an unfortunate departure from what typically happens—not everything is lining up properly—but is not considered a moral issue by people who think this way. They argue that transgender concerns should be addressed with compassion. Christians might be drawn to aspects of the disability lens because of the reality of the fall (Gen 3) which has resulted in all sorts of consequences for human life. A biblical Christian drawing from the disability lens would likely see “trans trending” as a misguided search for identity. But they would also still likely want to respond with compassion to the distress people with these concerns face, especially when people struggle with life-threatening dysphoria. Different strategies might be seen as permissible and might include more invasive steps, since a person could see it as a way of coping with something after the Fall that was not as it ought to be, as opposed to seeing it as a rejection of male/female sexual difference.

The third lens is the diversity lens. This is the lens that is captivating the culture today. Those who see through the diversity lens see differences in gender identity as signaling a group of people (transgender persons) who should be embraced and celebrated. To be transgender is to be part of the larger lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community. Adherents of the diversity lens help people adopt and celebrate a cross-gender identity (for example, a biological male who experiences himself as a woman) and would not be concerned with the morality of more invasive medical procedures, as they may see these as appropriate steps to accomplish greater self-realization. Diversity advocates may also see “trans trending” as an improvement over traditional views of male and female that they believe are hurtful to transgender persons.

In my role as a psychologist, I try to understand these different experiences of gender identity and the different lenses people may be drawn to, and find ways to work with clients who seek my help. This is not unlike how I would with other clients whose experiences and decisions may be similar or different from aspects of my own personal Christian beliefs.

But where does the Christian begin in ministry or pastoral care? There is a tendency among some Christians to see the three frameworks as competing in such a way that they have to choose one over the other, or that drawing on some of the frameworks or learning from some of the other frameworks means diluting the one they view as primary. I do see the three frameworks as each providing important insights, so let me unpack this a little further.

Integrating the three lenses has potential great value in ministry, and I think there are elements of all three that can be understood as biblical. The theological foundations that come from the integrity lens are a critical starting point. It addresses what is morally permissible sexual behavior, but it also reminds us of the significance of male/female differences. This gives Christians pause when they see the broader culture encouraging individuals to move towards strategies for managing dysphoria that manipulate the body in some way. Since gender identity concerns can vary in intensity, a number of people with these concerns will be open to a discussing how to cope with and respond to gender identity conflicts in light of one’s biological sex. For many (most?) people that is apparently what happens.

Can Christians who uphold the integrity lens find anything of value in the disability or diversity lenses, even if not prepared to adopt every application of them? While we have to be careful here to avoid sacrificing biblical authority in this effort, I think we can. I would say that, for example, from the disability lens, we can appreciate the compassion that is present. We can appreciate being reminded of the reality of Gen 3, which has clear implications throughout Scripture and thus important to apply, so that a Christian perspective is characterized by compassion and empathy as people explore ways to cope with more intense gender dysphoria when it is present, and as young people find themselves drawn to emerging gender identities about which Christians may voice concern.

Is there anything to be gained from the diversity lens? This is by far the most challenging lens for me as a Christian, since it is often applied by others in such a way that it dismisses male/female sexual difference as merely oppressive and negligible. However, what the diversity lens does is create a sense of identity and community for those who suffer from gender dysphoria and for those who are part of the “trans trending” group. While I disagree with the answers typically offered within the diversity lens, I have to admit that it is the only lens really attempting to specifically meet the longing for identity and community for those with gender dysphoria or are otherwise under the transgender umbrella.

Jesus says in Him we will have life and life to the full, and that means each person ought to find freedom and a capacity to be celebrated in a community where they have a sense of identity by living out Christian faith. Christianity can and has offered people renewed identity and purpose and meaning in life. Proponents of the diversity lens didn’t come up with that; they cast a different vision for what that can be, and they advertise it boldly.

A Christian ministry that wants to be effective will have to address identity and community from a distinctively Christian and biblical perspective. It will have to do this in a way that is emotionally and spiritually compelling to compete with the siren call available to people with transgender concerns arising from the diversity lens. Ministry could do this by communicating that life in Christ can offer identity, community, and purpose in the midst of complex experiences, including experiences of great distress and unwanted suffering. This requires taking into consideration the whole of Scripture, and the myriad of people who, despite their unique experiences and histories, are pursued by Christ to be made anew in His image.

 

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!