Homosexuality and the Christian: A Guide for Parents, Pastors, and Friends by Mark A. Yarhouse.
Is it true, as Dan Savage says, that people who agree with gay “marriage” and homosexual versions of morality can be good Christians, while we who disagree are necessarily bigots? I could see in a sense how that could be, if sexual preference and/or orientation were as basic to a person’s identity as, say, skin color. But there’s another of being authentic for same-sex attracted persons.
So says Mark Yarhouse’s in his exceptionally clear analysis of attractedness, orientation, and identity, part of his 2010 book, Homosexuality and the Christian: A Guide for Parents, Pastors, and Friends. There is no necessary connection between preference, authenticity, and a “gay” identity.
Answers to Urgent Questions
I’ll come back to that in a moment. First a word about the book as a whole: it’s outstanding. Regrettably, since I’m doing other work in this article, I won’t have time to comment on the part that many will find most helpful: what to do if someone close to you announces that he or she is gay. The author combines compassion with knowledge to provide helpful counsel. Regrettably as well, I won’t have time here to discuss the questions Yarhouse has for the church in the book’s closing section. I expect I will come back to those questions later on, though:they’re multi-faceted, and they’re important.
Either of those two sections would be worth the price of the book. For me, though, his chapters on “The Big Picture” — what we know and don’t know about homosexuality — were the most helpful, and it’s from there that I drew this article’s material.
If We Don’t Know What Causes It, Does That Mean It’s Right?
Yarhouse leads the Institute for the Study of Sexual Identity, a center for research and training based at Regent University in Virginia Beach. Well-versed in the literature, Yarhouse dismantles preconceptions such as homosexuality being determined either by genes or by upbringing. Placing the question in light of Scripture as he does, however, he is able to separate causation from correctness.
Christians therefore with a high view of Scripture will be pleased to know he takes the entire scope of biblical morality seriously. It is not homosexual sex per se that Scripture condemns, it is any violation of the high good of sexual relationships in their proper place, the marriage of a man and a woman.
Attractedness, Orientation, Identity: Not a Necessary Progression
Obviously this is controversial. Yarhouse’s accounts of homosexuals seeking and finding help through counseling are also the stuff of controversy. But this brings me to where he provides the most help for the topic we’ve been working on here: sexuality as identity. Homosexual activists like Dan Savage carry the message that to be attracted to the same sex is to be gay: to own gay-ness as one’s identity, at the core of one’s personality structures. For them, to deny this gay-ness is to be inauthentic. Yarhouse disagrees:
When talking about homosexuality, I think it is helpful to make a three-tier distinction between attractions, orientation, and identity. No, they are not the same thing.
The first tier is same-sex attraction. Using this term is the most descriptive way people can talk about their feelings. This is the part of the equation they can’t control….
The next tier is homosexual orientation. When people talk about having a homosexual orientation, they are essentially saying that they experience a same-sex attraction that is strong enough, durable enough, and persistent enough for them to feel they are oriented toward the same sex…. No one knows how much attraction to the same sex is necessary for a person to feel that their orientation is now homosexual or bisexual…. We do know that some people experience some same-sex attraction but are completely comfortable saying that their sexual orientation is still heterosexual….
The third level, gay identity, is the most prescriptive. It is a sociocultural label that people use to describe themselves, and it is a label that is imbued with meaning in our culture…. Talking about a gay identity is part of a modern, contemporary movement. When people take on this label, they move beyond describing their experience and instead are forming their identity.
I was fascinated reading about these three tiers, and how sexual identity “doesn’t just turn on or off—it emerges through a developmental process,” a process Yarhouse describes in light of current research.
Another Script, Another Way of Being Authentic
And yet he raises questions about “another group missing from this research. What about people who are same-sex attracted but do not embrace a gay identity?” That is, what about those who do not accept the “gay” script for their lives: that same-sex attraction leads inevitably to certain beliefs and behaviors, as proclaimed by contemporary gay activism? Does the church have a viable alternative to present? Yarhouse let the answer to that emerge from those who had discovered such an alternative for themselves.
Many Christians have chosen not to let their attractions determine their identity…. Christians who adopted a gay identity made their beliefs and values line up with their identity and behavior. In other words, identity and behavior came first, and their beliefs and values had to be adjusted to them. On the other hand, the Christians who did not adopt a gay identity made their identity and behavior line up with their beliefs and values. For this group, beliefs and values came first….
The Christians who did not adopt a gay identity indicated that authenticity meant worshiping God on God’s terms. Worshiping God out of a gay identity would not reflect true authenticity to them.
The clear message is that while same-sex attractedness may or may not entail same-sex orientation, it certainly does not require adopting a “gay” identity. There is a viable alternative.
Update 9/13: see comments 3 and 4: That viable alternative is one that places one’s beliefs in Christ and his ways at the center of one’s identity, based on the conviction that they are true to reality. It means being authentic to that core, and choosing to follow Christ’s way, even to the extent of refraining from sexual practices not condoned by Christ.
And with that, we are finally ready to come back to the question I started with here: is it possible that there are Christians who disagree with gay “marriage” and homosexual behavior without being bigots? But this post has gone longer than I expected; long enough for now, in fact, though there is much I have left unsaid. I’ll come back and pick up that question again soon. In the meantime, I highly recommend that you pick up Yarhouse’s book.