Here is an excerpt from my new book, Understanding Sexual Identity: A Resource for Youth Ministry. The book can be pre-ordered here and will be available from Zondervan in October.
Several years ago I came across a phrase that has helped me in my professional role as a psychologist who studies sexual identity issues from a Christian worldview. The phrase is “convicted civility.” It comes from Richard Mouw, President of Fuller Theological Seminary. I recently spoke at Fuller and had the opportunity to talk with Mouw at length. He credited Martin Marty for the phrase. Its origin was tied to the observation that we have far too many Christians who are strong on convictions but do not represent Christ in a way that is respectful of others. At the same time, we have Christians who are so concerned not to offend anyone that it is hard to know what they hold convictions about. So the phrase “convicted civility” reflects a balance between holding convictions as a Christian and communicating those convictions with civility.
Given the controversial topic of sexual identity, I’ve adopted “convicted civility” as my professional brand. This has helped me make decisions about speaking engagements, consultation opportunities, writing projects, bridge-building, working with others to meet superordinate goals, and so on.
For example, a few years ago I was presenting data from a seven-year longitudinal study that considered whether sexual orientation could change through involvement in a Christian ministry. This is not a question that is of interest to the mainstream field of psychology; and it is a question that is offensive to ask within the mainstream of the LGBT community. But for some conventionally religious people, such as conservative Christians, it is a relevant question. So I was co-principal investigator of a study that examined the question of change and also of harm. It was published in book form in 2007 and as a peer-reviewed journal article in 2011 (Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy).
When I was asked to present the findings at a colloquium at Regent several years ago, a local person who identified himself as an activist, put out a call for others in the LGBT community to join him in staring down this “son of a [gun]” in protest of the study. The stage was being set for a rather heated encounter.
What does someone who is committed to “convicted civility” as a brand do in these moments?
I called him.
We spoke by phone a couple of days before the event, and I invited him to be my guest. (He was coming anyway, so extending an invitation did not seem too risky.) We shook hands and met before the presentation, and I met several of the other protesters. The filled the first couple of rows and indeed did stare at us as my co-presenter and I went through the data and implications for those in attendance.
We spoke again immediately after the presentation and actually several times after that. I’ve also met with others who came that day. Those exchanges led to an invitation to speak in Norfolk to a gathering of LGBT individuals on the topic. In the intervening weeks, I remember having coffee with one of the other protesters. He said, “You are nothing like what I expected. From what I had heard about you, I expected to see horns growing out of your head, and I thought you might have steam coming out of your nostrils.” He smiled. No steam here.
This exchange, and many others like it, is the fruit of convicted civility. If we agreed on everything, we would have nothing to talk about. We would likely try to find another common enemy. But in disagreeing on some topics, we can still communicate about the nature of that disagreement. That is only achieved by treating one another with respect, by being civil in our exchanges.
I am not particularly invested in the question of whether sexual orientation can change through Christian ministries. In my own clinical practice, I do not provide reorientation therapy; rather, I help people explore their sexual identity so that they can live a life that is consistent with their beliefs and values. Also, most of my research is centered on how sexual identity develops and how people navigate the conflict they sometimes feel between their same-sex sexuality and their religious faith. By far, most of my research is on the experiences of sexual minorities who are navigating that terrain.
However, I am committed to identifying and researching topics of importance to the Christian community. We need psychologists who will ask the questions that are of concern to the Body of Christ. We cannot expect the broader, secular field of psychology to ask those same questions or have those same interests. Further, we need to ask those questions using the methods and procedures used by our peers in the mainstream of psychology. We have to allow good research to help us translate Christian considerations into meaningful points of dialogue with those in the mainstream of psychology and also the broader culture.
My point is this: How we discuss Christian considerations will be just as important as having those distinctively Christian questions and convictions. “Convicted civility” is one brand that might help us do just that.
Adapted from Understanding Sexual Identity: A Resource for Youth Ministry. Pre-order your copy today!