Homosexuality and the Christian

This book excites me. This book excites me because in it Mark has written three chapters that should help to transform the current debate around homosexuality in Evangelical circles and change it for the better.

At first glance Mark’s new book is just more of the same – another book by another Evangelical about human sexuality. Mark Yarhouse has form in this area, including collaborating with Stanton Jones on the (ongoing) Ex-gay longitudinal study. This book however is not about proving a point but rather about helping to shift understanding in the Evangelical community about homosexuality and the church’s response.

It is in chapters two, three and four that Yarhouse sets out his position and challenges previously assumed truths amongst conservatives. Chapter two examines how gay identity in the modern western world is constructed primarily by a narrative that assumes that the emotions and attractions one experiences are valid. This leads the individual, after coming to terms with his sexuality, to integrate it into the core of his sense of self. Crucially an aspect of this is self-actualisation, where the emotions that have been integrated into the sense of self are validated by their physical expression.

Yarhouse then suggests an alternative Christian narrative which sees homosexual attraction along with other unwanted emotions to be viewed as aspects of the Fall. In this narrative the Christian identifies conditions, emotions and desires which would not be present were he to be perfect and untainted by the Fall. These fallen aspects (including homosexuality) are viewed as real but not prescriptive – they do not determine identity. The ground of being for a Christian is not his emotions but Christ, so Christ becomes the core of identity and the fallen parts are carried alongside that, recognised but not validated.

This perspective then shapes the next two chapters and does so in a manner that challenges many conservative assumptions. Yarhouse likens homosexuality to disability (eg blindness or genetic conditions) in terms of it being an aspect of the Fall. If we don’t tell a blind person that he needs to be able to see, why do we insist that those who have homosexual attractions should try to become straight? In chapter three Yarhouse explores the various theories for causation of homosexuality (or homosexualities as Yarhouse points out, for same-sex attraction takes a number of forms and is very likely caused by a number of different variant things in different people). The conclusion of this chapter, after a reasonable grappling with the latest research which suggests a complicated mix of nature and nurture, is “so what”. So what if homosexuality is genetic – that would not validate it as a good thing. Certainly the evidence that it is only an emotional relational issue and has no roots in biology is very small, which should make us mildly cautious of attempts to “fix it”. Equally though there are a number of other conditions that are biological that are not automatically moral, things that we would want to alter.

And this leads us to chapter four, examining sexual orientation change. In some senses this chapter is the real ground-breaking territory, as Yarhouse brings us some of the results of his ongoing study in this area. The crucial fact that emerges is that those who went through various programmes “successfully” did not necessarily see a great switch from gay to straight (though they did see some movement along that spectrum). What was significant though was that many of the participants established a much deeper and more profound relationship with God, and this, rather than the orientation change per se, was the key to them being able to move forward. In this sense sexual orientation is not the crucial issue for Christians – rather it is sexual identity.

Of course, this is hugely challenging to the Church.

The other group of Christians we studied seemed to begin and end with their religious beliefs and values about homosexuality. They did not experience homosexuality as who they really were; many thought of it as an expression of the fall, much like some people are susceptible to diabetes or cancer or depression or anxiety or alcoholism. In framing the issue this way they reject the discovery metaphor.

What was really important to this group was living in God’s will. For them, same-sex behaviour did not reflect God’s intention for sexual expression. So forming a gay identity around attractions that led to homosexual behaviour would not be good.

But the church can be an obstacle if it pushes a simplistic expectation of change, by which I mean the expectation of a complete and categorical switch from homosexuality to heterosexuality as though it were the direct result of putting forth enough effort or having sufficient faith.

It seems that what Yarhouse is proposing is that if support groups continue their work in helping those with same-sex attraction who don’t want to establish a gay identity, there must be less of an emphasis on prescribing a particular path to freedom involving orientation change and more of a focus on what it means to die to self and rise in Christ. Orientation change *may* occur but it should never be the focus of intent. Rather, every Christian should be concerned with how to live with the fallen aspects of the self in the light of the unrealised eschatology today’s church currently inhabits. In very many senses course like “Living Waters” and traditional spiritual exercises such as the Ignatian tradition already in part provide such tools, and material such as the Neil Anderson based Freedom in Christ course cover this ground as well.

Mark Yarhouse’s book is a challenge. It is a challenge to the liberal dogma so pervasive in our society that assumes that what one feels is almost always valid to be expressed. It is a challenge to some in the Church who see orientation change as a valid and necessary goal for those who do not want to establish a gay identity. It is a challenge for us to be humble when approaching issues around homosexuality, its causation and the likelihood of change. It is a challenge for us to be charitable to those who experience same-sex attraction, to express clearly that the success or otherwise of orientation change is never a qualifier of the depth of a person’s relationship with Christ.

The last words are Mark Yarhouse’s

When each of us [pursues a life in Christ], we begin to taste some of our future, some of what we are all moving toward as followers of Christ. Our purpose is to praise God, to savor God, to glorify God; that is the believer’s essential orientation and identity.

16 Comments on “Homosexuality and the Christian

  1. Excellent review! I’ll have to check out the book sometime. It sounds like it takes a good approach.

    On a slightly off-topic note, have you read _Washed and Waiting_ by Wesley Hill? I recently read it and thought it was great, and I’d be interested to hear your thoughts. It’s a pretty short book.

      • Sure. Wesley is a self-described “celibate gay Christian” who finds himself only attracted to other guys and isn’t sure that will change this side of eternity, but believes homosexual practice is outside of God’s design for human sexuality. Although he uses the term “gay” to describe himself, he is clear from the beginning that he is simply describing the state of his attractions, not a core part of his identity, so I think it’s reasonably in line with a post-gay view of things.

        The book is about his testimony and how he deals with the relevant issues in his day-to-day life, particularly the issues of loneliness and shame. He describes the importance of viewing his struggles in light of the Gospel and what that looks like for him.

        Wesley is actually studying in Durham, England right now.

  2. Awesome review Peter. I totally agree with Yarnhouse’s conclusion. I will have to add this book to my collection and resources that I give out to others.


  3. Thanks for this review, it’s encouraging to hear that such thoughtful things are being written by the evangelical community – and is especially exciting when the thoughts are the type which can in some way amount to a “paradigm change” in how we tend to view sexuality.

    Speaking of paradigms –
    Do Christians interact with Foucault and his thoughts regarding the “repressive hypothesis?” His first volume of the History of Sexuality is largely about this hypothesis, beginning with the very challenging – and sweeping – chapter ‘We “Other Victorians.”‘ It has been perhaps a decade since I’ve read it, so my summary here may be less than ideal. He reveals how we tend to think of ourselves as having a type of prudish, hypocritically repressed sexuality, with the need to discuss and express this sexuality as a kind of way of purging ourselves of such hypocrisy and repression. Though compared with the facts of our society, it really seems that we are ritually re-enacting this kind of purging process in a desperate need to prove to ourselves that we are somehow sexually “pure” and “correct,” and very much unlike our Victorian ancestors. Of course, this is merely a repetion of the same pattern, and proves us to be just as “Victorian” as those attitudes which we seem so keen on correcting.

    And we tend to remain so caught up in it. Even when the internet is full of provocative imagery leading only a few clicks away to hardcore pornography, and from there to such things as rape pornography or incest pornography – as well as the human traficking that goes along with the sex entertainment business – or entertainment magazine stories about affairs between mother and child, sister and brother, and rape fantasies – yet we still come across people complaining about “increasing prudishness” in society or expressions of sexuality as being “increasingly stigmatized” etc. etc., seeming to prove a continual need to purge these “demons” of “prudishness” (and of course, in doing so, making a place for more graphic forms of various paraphilias, thereby stimulating the actual paraphilias themselves).

    I remember not being particularly impressed with Foucault’s “answer” to this predicament, however I felt that with his diagnosis, he’d put his finger on a profound sore-spot in modern discourse and practice concerning sexuality.

    Obviously, Christians have some problems with “the postmoderns” in general, and would have enough problems with Foucault in particular. Nonetheless I wonder why I have not read more of this typically modern sexual conundrum, in either Christian or secular sources? Perhaps we are so fatally fixated upon the self-stimulation of renouncing prudishness that the very calling of it into question becomes a kind of taboo? That it has become such an ingrained part of the bourgeois order that it is our odd predilection itself, and not sex, which has become unspeakable?

    Again, rather lengthy (especially for a question).

    • I tend to see Foucalt as one of those people who you read to help discern what the problem with something is but who you would never trust with coming up with a solution!

  4. It seems also to me that helping dispel this myth and thus diffuse the mystique around “repressed sexuality” would also go a great length to, e.g., helping the phenomenon of gay teen bullying and suicide. When sex is propelled into a constant theme of discussion with a central place in so many types of discourse, it is only natural that youngsters are curious about one another’s sexuality, and likely to make judgments about one another upon perceptions of their sexuality. Teens are also likely to perceive themselves in terms of what they expect others to think of their sexuality, with this seeming to be one of the most important aspects of “who they are.”

    A healthier, less sexually preoccupied society would not encourage youngsters to judge themselves so much about their sexual desirability, or about what they sexually desire.

    If Foucault is correct (in his diagnosis, not in his prescription), one of the only ways of efficiently helping society break this vicious circle is to point out the utter hypocrisy involved in postulated “sexual repression.” That we are, in general, not sexually repressed except for our fears of repression; that we merely need discover that we don’t need to liberate ourselves with sexual discourse and sexual media or thoughts about “sexiness” – and that any regulation of sex-centered commerce shouldn’t be seen so much as “censorship” but rather at helping those still repressed by the repressive theory, and likely to be subjects of economic exploitation – a class of vulnerable persons who can use environmental protection, in a similar way to how we try to prevent those vulnerable to the temptation of racism by maintaining an environment free of racist and prejudicial remarks. Then persons would no longer feel they need to “stay in the closet” in fear of rejection of their sexuality because, without our societal sex obsession, their sexuality would not be a matter of public discussion and scrutiny; and life would be more bearable amongst persons in society who hold to differing sexual ethics, such as the ethics in same-gender sex acts.

    The more teens are inundated with sex talk, sex education, etc. etc., the problem of “closeted” gay teens is likely to get worse, rather than better – one can’t escape from the fact that engaging in same-gender sex acts is a matter of choice (and not like skin color), and no amount of sensitivity training will prevent the kids likely to bully from making judgments about the “biological plumbing” involved, given that these are kids and more likely to engage in such thoughts. Frankly, I would think sex education and sensitivity training would make things, in many cases, worse, since it causes kids to dwell on things which, without being thematized, are not such an issue.

  5. Peter

    Thanks for this excellent review. It looks like its a major contribution to evangelical approaches to homosexuality. It also looks like it has the guts to challenge the modern and post-modern paradign that sexuality is core to our identity. I hope it becomes available in South Africa soon (we seem to lag the UK by anything from 4 weeks to a year – its difficult to predict!)

  6. Adding my thanks Peter – not having even seen the book I am trusting that this is a good review :) From what you say there’s good things in it even if you disagree with the author that homosexuality is “an aspect of the Fall”. For instance, it’s good to hear a “so what” spoken to the causation / nature / nurture question. It’s equally good to hear “Certainly the evidence that it is only an emotional relational issue and has no roots in biology is very small, which should make us mildly cautious of attempts to “fix it”” – though I might be tempted to cut out the ‘mildly’ :)

    Would be interested to know more about how Yarhouse handles this analogy: “Yarhouse likens homosexuality to disability (eg blindness or genetic conditions) in terms of it being an aspect of the Fall”. Does he limit the comparison to “being an aspect of the Fall” only? It’s just that it strikes me that the comparison with disability is very limited – there’s not much to link the two. Blindness seems an odd analogue at first sight (sorry) given that someone born blind lacks something – but what would a gay person be said to lack? One probably couldn’t straightforwardly answer, ‘attraction to the opposite sex’….. Or again: maybe it’s true that we don’t tell a blind person s/he needs to be able to see, but whether we do or not, we (try to) make all sorts of devices, gadgets and training available to make the world accessible to the blind person. What would the parallel be here with being gay? Won’t go on too much more – but the analogy with disability would have to be used carefully I’d have thought.

    Also, does Dr Yarhouse engage with the psychological associations, the World Health Organisation, etc, who no longer consider homosexuality a pathology, and the reasons why they don’t?

    Well, enough for now… do you know how other conservative Christians have received the book yet, by the way?

    in friendship, Blair

    • Hi Blair,

      I think the direct analogy to helping blind people live in a sighted world would be to help equip gay people to live in a straight world. Given that conversion therapy might not be the right approach, Yarhouse and Throckmorton’s work on Sexual Identity might be the way to go.

      As to Yarhouse engaging with the APA, he presented the latest round of his ex-gay longitudinal study at this year’s conference. You might remember that I blogged about it.

      • Hello Peter,

        thanks for that – though one comment would be, in the case of the blind person it could be said that we modify the world to make it accessible to him/her; whereas with the gay person the implication is that the person would be changed to make them fit the world. Or is that uncharitable? From the (admittedly little) I’ve seen and read about it there doesn’t seem much objectionable about sexual identity therapy as Throckmorton uses the term.

        I had forgotten about Dr Yarhouse’s presentation at the APA – but did that discussion engage the second point i raised about homosexuality being a pathology, or not? Also is it fair to say that the ex-gay longitudinal study, doesn’t have enough participants to be statistically significant? If that’s so I’m not trying to imply it should be dismissed – I accept it’s about the best study of its ilk.

        in friendship, Blair

        • To answer..

          i) Yes, I do think that’s a bit uncharitable. Yarhouse isn’t advocating “changing” gay people – he’s advocating helping them live in a world where they do not function the same as the majority. In that sense the blindness analogy is good.
          ii) I don’t think Yarhouse raised the idea that homosexuality is a pathology, but then most of us don’t think it is.
          iii) In terms of numbers surveryed and followed it compares highly favourably to most studies in this area.

          • Hi again Peter,

            responding to your answers…

            i) point accepted – I was being uncharitable when I’ve all too often accused others of doing the same.
            ii) OK, but if you don’t think homosexuality is a pathology, how would you characterise it, and how would that link up with the post-gay thing? Seems to me there could be a risk of incoherence for your position if you don’t take it that being gay is at least some kind of disorder.
            iii) being picky that’s not quite what I asked…

            in friendship, Blair

            • i) np
              ii) I’m a priest, not a psychologist. I’m quite happy to describe it as an aspect of the Fall and leave it there
              iii) Sorry – yes, it easily has enough (unlike many other studies by psychologists)

            • Hi Blair,

              I used the language of “represent” because the Church of England is part of the State apparatus in a number of ways. Prayers in Parliament are overseen by an Anglican minister, important marriages (royal) and funerals (state) are undertaken “officially” by the Church of England. We even have the right to legally marry people off our own backs, unlike other denominations.

  7. I am afraid, having (to borrow from Plass) read more than my fair share of Christian penny-dreadfuls, I do tend to turn my nose up any ANY books on homosexuality. However, I am pleasantly surprised by this, though I can see weaknesses in the ‘disability’ model – tho’ I can also see a ray of hope. The vastly disproportionate attention this subject seems to engender in Evangelical circles is something this book appears to be challenging (tho’ how much homosexuality really occupies the minds of Evangelicals is a matter of debate – certainly it is not an issue discussed in any of my research interviews on faith based welfare, which is contrary to what I expected).

    Orthodoxy (small and large ‘O’) would suggest the goal of Christian life is the use of space and time to realise one’s new identity (or original?) identity in Christ – kairos/chronos etc. In this sense, one doesn’t need to make too much fuss about sexuality – or no more fuss than one’s anger, or desire, or relationship with one’s neighbour.

    What I find difficult to accept is the notion of the construction of the ‘gay-identity’. One of the side-effect of eschewing 20 odd years of Christian celibacy and having a committed and monogamous relationship with a same-sex partner is just how ‘straight’ I have become. At one time the majority of people who met me would presume I was gay. Now it comes a shock to people ‘Oh I never would have guessed…’. So perhaps there is something else going on.

    You noted “[The book] is a challenge to the liberal dogma so pervasive in our society that assumes that what one feels is almost always valid to be expressed.” I wonder if this is correct, Peter? Most of us don’t consider what we feel is necessarily something to be expressed. There is a danger here in presuming homosexuality is a licence to behave differently – many people with same-sex attraction chose not to express it. Just as many people wanting to hit the person next to them on the tube over the head with their Evening Standard, don’t do it. In many ways we live in a far more regulated society than we did even twenty years ago and I think the ‘liberal dogma’ is more an urban myth than a tangible reality.

    Will I read this book? I doubt it, but that is more because of work pressure (thesis to research & write and syllabus books to read for the module I’m teaching at present) than a desire not to do so. Yet I am forever struck with the awkward fact that I (probably more than most – as an Evangelical and then an Anglican monk) did much to make use of kairos/chromos and ended up a mess. I prayed about this and saw my partner as an answer to that prayer. Now, as so many people keep telling me (some Evangelical friends – one even lectured you at Wycliffe!) I am a much happier and together person. Is this God’s plan for me? I believe it is – but that is my concern; if a Christian chooses celibacy or even attempts ‘change’ that is their affair. I don’t think there is a correct answer here.

    Whatever, a good post.


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