What is the church doing well in the LGBTQ conversation? Where can we improve? In this podcast, Sean McDowell and Scott Rae interview Dr. Mark Yarhouse about these questions and more. They ask Dr. Yarhouse some of the toughest questions surrounding this issue, and he responds with wisdom and insight. As a trained psychologist, Dr. Yarhouse brings a uniquely balanced and research-based approach to this issue.

More About Our Guest

Mark Yarhouse

Dr. Mark Yarhouse is the Rosemarie S. Hughes Endowed Chair and Professor of Psychology at Regent University, where he is the executive director of the Institute for the Study of Sexual Identity. Mark is the author or co-author of several books, including Understanding Sexual Identity: A Resource for Youth Ministry and Understanding Gender Dysphoria: Navigating Transgender Issues in a Changing Culture.

Episode Transcript

Sean McDowell:Welcome to the podcast, “Think Biblically: Conversations on Faith and Culture.” I'm your host, Sean McDowell, professor of apologetics at Talbot Theological Seminary, Biola University.

Scott Rae: I'm your co-host, Dr. Scott Rae, professor of Christian ethics and dean of the faculty, also at Talbot School of Theology at Biola University.

Sean McDowell: We have with us today a special guest, Dr. Mark Yarhouse. I've been following issues of sexuality and culture today, and Dr. Yarhouse has had one of the most important voices as a clinical psychologist, but also theologically, and just bringing a balanced perspective to the church. We really appreciate the work that you do.

He recently wrote the book, Understanding Gender Dysphoria, and a number of others for youth ministry, for pastors in the church, approaching the LGBTQ issues with accuracy, but also with grace and kindness. So, thanks for your work, but thanks for coming on.

Mark Yarhouse: No, my pleasure. Glad to be here.

Sean McDowell: Dr. Yarhouse, what motivated you to address LGBTQ issues, considering all the different avenues you could have gone, professionally?

Mark Yarhouse: It wasn't an area that I thought I would study. I was a graduate student at Wheaton College, and I was asked to be a research assistant for Stanton Jones. And Stan, this was one of three areas that he was doing research in, so I worked with him in collaboration as a research assistant. He became the provost at Wheaton, and that really limited his ability to take on writing and speaking and research projects unless his research assistant could do it with him or for him. So, I ended up picking up quite a bit in this area over the next several years.

And then I graduated, and then, I guess the question for me was, what do I do with all this training I’ve received? And not to over-spiritualize it, but I sort of held it in my hand loosely. I prayed about it. I looked around. I didn't really see Christians in psychology who were doing this work, and the Christians outside of psychology didn't really seem to understand the research so I just felt like I would put some things out there.

Doors seemed to open, more doors open, there were more opportunities, and so, today, I care deeply about it. But at the time, I think that a little bit more of kind of dispassionate approach to it really helped serve me in some of the dialogues I was having early on.

Sean McDowell: Well, we're grateful for your voice. You've been in this conversation for some time. How would you assess how the church is doing, and how have you seen the conversation change in the time that you've been involved in it?

Mark Yarhouse: I think the church has struggled with how to respond. I think there has, at times, been more of an adversarial tone. Some of that, I think if you feel like you're being attacked, you defend yourself in kind. I don't think that's a particularly Christian response, but I think we struggle with the best way to respond.

I do see some churches trying to use more relational approaches, not changing their doctrine, their teaching in this area around sexuality, but how do we do this in a diverse and pluralistic culture, in relationship? How do we model for younger people how to respect the image of God in other people, but also speak things that we believe to be true?

I think there are some elements of that that's improving. I'm encouraged by that. But other times, it's been much more adversarial and conflictual, and I think that's, in many ways, hurt our witness.

Scott Rae: Mark, you spent a lot of time in the psychological guild within the American Psychological Association, other professional organizations that are not specifically religiously-grounded or oriented. How has your work, particularly on the connection between faith and sexuality, received in those settings?

Mark Yarhouse: It depends a little bit on what you're producing in terms of research.

For example, when I did, with Stan, a seven-year longitudinal study on whether people could change orientation, that research was not well-received. I think it was experienced as deeply offensive, almost like asking a group of African Americans about skin bleaching, and then, sort of justifying it as sort of religiously valuable contribution to scholarship.

I understand why it was deeply offensive for people, but from our point of view, we were just asking the question, as Christians, is it possible? Do people experience this? We weren't doing the change ministries. We weren't doing the change therapy. We're just measuring, is it possible for people to experience this change?

Now, other studies that I do, like I'm doing studies right now of sexual minorities at Christian college campuses — those studies are really cited and regarded. People see that and see, "Okay, I'm glad that somebody within that community is interviewing and asking about our people." They may not always trust me as a Christian doing that, but they recognize the data can bring valuable insights that might even improve campus culture for some of our students.

Scott Rae: Now, you've mentioned in some of your writings, too, the language we use to describe various aspects of sexuality here are really important. I think the area of language and terminology is one that we often get confused. For example, you use the term "sexual minority." Some people might not understand that quite accurately. So tell me what you mean by that term, and I got several more I want to ask you [crosstalk 00:05:29].

Mark Yarhouse: Well, "sexual minority" is just a simple phrase that's used in psychology to describe a group of people that are in the numeric minority, so they're in the minority by virtue of their same-sex attractions. The reason we use that, instead of always like gay or lesbian, is because those are identity labels, and not everybody who experiences same-sex attraction adopts an identity label, so you have to have a term for them. What are they? So we sometimes refer to them as "sexual minority." I'm not using it in a political identity way. I'm just using it in a numeric minority way.

Scott Rae: Let me ask you about some of these other terms that I think we commonly use. We talk about "sexual attraction," "sexual orientation," "sexual identity." Are those different things, and if so, how do they differ?

Mark Yarhouse: I tend to treat them as different. I kind of make a three-tier distinction between attraction, orientation and identity. This just comes out of research as well.

If you survey thousands of adults, you will get a percentage of them that would say, "I'm attracted to the same sex, either from time to time, or fairly stable, and if it's fairly stable over time, I might describe it as my orientation." Then, you would be talking about a sexual orientation, sort of an enduring attraction to the other sex that's strong and persistent over time. We call it an orientation. Other people, they would adopt an identity and say, "This is who I am as a person," and they would describe themselves as gay, lesbian, bisexual, something like that.

Now, it's a little more complicated today because language has changed. Even in the time I've been doing this work is that for many young people today, like at age 14, they wouldn't say, "I have a homosexual orientation." That language has fallen out of the vernacular. So if I asked a 14-year-old about her sexual orientation, she might just say, "I'm lesbian," or "I'm gay," and "gay" has shifted in its meaning. Whereas it used to be much more of an identity, now it's also an identity and a description of orientation, so that confuses things sometimes.

Scott Rae: Then, just one follow-up on the use of the term, "gay," I know there's been some discussion in Christian circles about the wisdom and advisability of using the term "gay" to describe a same-sex-attracted person who is a follower of Jesus. What are your thoughts on using that term to describe someone's sexual orientation?

Mark Yarhouse: It's really helped to listen to why people use it and why some people don't use it. So rather than the rest of us deciding that for them, I think it's been useful for me to listen. Why would a person who uses the word use the word, and then, why do some people who could use the word choose not to use the word? And give them a little more latitude, rather than us telling them.

There's a lot of reasons why people who identify as gay use the word "gay." It's in the vernacular, so it's the common language. They don't themselves want to reduce themselves to their same-sex attraction, so to describe themselves as same-sex-attracted feels truncated to them.

For some of them, same-sex-attracted is a kind of code word for an ex-gay narrative. It was part of large ministries that were trying to make gay people straight, so when you use that language, you're sort of playing your hand. Then, people in the mainstream LGBTQ community hear that, and they say, "Okay, I know what you're about," and they don't want to communicate that.

Others, I know, would say, "I see the LGBTQ community as a mission field, and so, if I used the word 'gay,' I have a relationship with them. And if I'm walking around saying, 'I'm same-sex-attracted, just guess how that mission field kind of dries up for me right there.'" So there's a lot if you listen to them.

Other people are trying to figure this out and for them, they say, "You know what, I choose not to use that language for reasons that are my own, but I choose to use different phrases and different ways of thinking of my identity," so I respect them as well.

I think the church is at its best when it's a little more nuanced, gives a little more latitude there, listens before it speaks on those things, and then, tries to foster an atmosphere where that person can sort of work that out faithfully before God.

Sean McDowell: I really appreciate your willingness to listen first, rather than lead with judgments. My father has often said to me, he goes, "Son, it's more important to understand than to be understood," and I think you model that.

Let me get your thoughts on probably one of the most common claims that I'll hear from revisionist scholars. I know you know what this means, but for our listeners, meaning that those who would reject the historic Christian teaching that God designed sex in the context of marriage for one man, one woman, lifelong relationship.

One of the most common claims is made from people who reject that is that the historic Christian teaching itself is harmful to gay people, and so, if we want to be loving, we actually have to change our theology. What would your thoughts, as a psychologist, be on that?

Mark Yarhouse: Well, it's a really tough question to answer empirically. How would you even conduct a study that demonstrates that an ideological position or theological position produces harm? You'd have to really think about a pretty creative design to get at that, so I think it's more of an ideological claim that sounds quite compelling.

Now, when we do studies, we study Christians. I've studied Christians at Christian college campuses, I've studied Christians who committed themselves to celibacy, and we used measures, respected measures of psychological distress and psychological well-being and things like that. We do see this. It's a complicated set of findings where it's not traumatic the way I think sometimes people present it, but it's also not easy the way sometimes people would say, "Well, you just pick up your cross and you follow Christ and everything else will be fine."

It's challenging. It's a challenge at the cross-hairs of the cultural wars around sex and gender. It's a difficult thing, but you'd be hard-pressed to say that the doctrinal position creates the distress.

I think it really ends up being goodness of fit. I know many people that it's their conviction, and they're trying to live it out, and they're doing well on various measures that I'm talking about. So, if it's intrinsically harmful, then it should be showing up as harmful across the board for people, and it's not showing up in the way that some proponents would suggest.

Sean McDowell: I've been in a lot of conversations about theology and sexuality and it sure seems to me, and I'm wondering what you think, that so many people who embrace this revisionist theology are led by inexperience, by hurt, by feeling that they don't belong, and then, find the theology that meets that experience. Is that too simplistic? Is that fair? Is there something to that?

Mark Yarhouse: Well, I think that can be a pathway. I think there's probably multiple pathways. I think what you've described could be one.

I think there's just a longing for intimacy. If you think of Erik Erikson's developmental stages and you go through adolescence and you're looking to sort of form identity and a stable sense of identity and self, the very next stage is a stage of intimacy. So you leave college or university, you see people pairing off, and you say to yourself, "What's my future going to look like in terms of meeting my need for intimacy?"

I think it's a very compelling point of your life to say, "I'm going to find that with somebody, and if my attraction is towards the same sex, what precludes me from having that with somebody else?" I think that can be a very compelling ... And then, you have a range of theologies out there that can almost serve as like a buffet of things that you could select from. Why not be drawn to one that really resonates with your deepest longings for intimacy?

These harken back to some really deep theological questions, but once you open the door to a lot of different interpretive options, why not align them with your impulses? It's a very compelling direction to go. It's not classically Christian, right? C. S. Lewis in The Abolition of Man said, "Why should we listen to our instincts? Our instincts say different things." It's like listening to people. People say different things. You need something outside of yourself that's a source of authority to learn how to align your instincts. That's what Christians historically have done.

Scott Rae: Mark, I think it's pretty common in the circles that Sean and I run, and in Christian circles, to distinguish between sexual attraction and sexual behavior. I think it's fairly common, I think, that this [inaudible 00:13:51] what the Bible has the most to say about is not the attraction, but the behavior. Is that a valid distinction in your view?

Mark Yarhouse: That's the best direction I go. When I read Paul saying, "Such were some of you," and he describes different types of people's experiences, I kind of read that as Paul saying, "Some of you used to engage in a pattern of behavior that characterized you as a person over time. But some of you stopped doing that. You stopped being characterized that way." I think he's thinking more behaviorally. That's hard to read back into Paul and what exactly he meant, so I understand there can be some latitude in how we approach that.

But I don't look at somebody who meets with me who experiences same-sex attraction with the expectation that the attraction has changed. I think Christians are at their best when they say, "How do we as a faith community respond when there's an enduring reality in our lives like that?" Because most of us struggle with something that's enduring, and the question is, "Is God limited to one way in which that's responded to? Like, if it goes away, it's healed. Or is God able to meet us with enduring reality and be just miraculously present and bring out Christ's likeness in the midst of enduring reality?" To me, that's a testimony that's much more common in this area.

Scott Rae: You've talked with a lot of students over the last, what, five, seven years or so. How often would you say is the sexual attraction a matter of choice?

Mark Yarhouse: I really haven't talked with a student where it was a matter of choice. I think that's a great correction the church could make, is that sometimes the church responds to people, like, "Why did you choose this?" like it's willful disobedience to have the attraction.

Outside of one or two documented cases of radical feminists choosing to be with someone of the same sex as a political statement, people don't choose to have same-sex attractions. They find themselves with the same-sex attractions, just as straight people find themselves attracted to the opposite sex when they go through puberty.

So I think that's an easy one for us to just set that aside. Are we really effectively ministering to people when we ask questions like that? No, the person found themselves with these attractions. Now, do the hard work of ministry. How are you going to minister to this person?

Scott Rae: So, as a result, we would suggest that what the Bible is focused on is the behavior itself, and you've said in a number of your writings that, in your view, the biblical teaching for the gay believer who wants to faithfully follow Jesus is a life of celibacy.

Now, some in the LGBT community will say that's a really harsh prescription to have to choke down. What would you say in response to that, particularly given that it would seem that sex and sexualities were built into the human constitution?

Mark Yarhouse: I do. I think one strategy is to diminish sexuality and treat it like it's not important. I think that's the wrong maneuver. I think sexuality is important, but we have to realize we're a sexually-saturated culture where we view sexuality as only general sexual activity, and so, what you do with your sexuality in terms of relationships that way.

I think our sexuality is meant to signal a deep longing for completion in the other. It's kind of like when you fast. You refrain from food to remind yourself the only thing that truly sustains me is the bread of heaven. When I am in tune with my own sexual impulses, I'm reminding myself that the only way I'm ultimately complete is when I, as part of the body of Christ, am connected to a bride-groom relationship to Christ.

That's the analogy that we're supposed to draw on, so our sexuality is really important. So important we shouldn't reduce it to general sexual activity, which is invaluable, too, but it's not all of our sexuality. In fact, when we do that, that's actually a fairly reductionistic view of our sexual impulses.

Sean McDowell: There's a pastor in the UK by the name of Ed Shaw and he's same-sex-attracted, he’s celibate, and he wrote a book called Same-Sex Attraction in the Church, and he says the church just has a plausibility problem, that at its core, historic Christian teaching seems so unreasonable, so unloving and just implausible, so people don't even consider it as being true. What would it look like to make Christianity be plausible so this generation of millennials and Gen-Zers would entertain what Scripture teaches?

Mark Yarhouse: I remember my pastor one time saying that, like, we'll applaud people in our church who bring fresh water to tribes in Africa and things like that, but the culture around us will celebrate that, too. But the culture, when you live a Christian sexual ethic, the culture does not know how to celebrate that, it does not know what that means. It's the most countercultural thing you could do in terms of living around your neighbors is how you live a chaste life, going back to a more robust view of chastity as a single or married person.

I think when you refrain from sexual behavior as a chaste person, it is remarkably countercultural, and we will have many, many more single, heterosexual countercultural people in the church living that message out there than we will ever have gay people just by base rates and percentages. So, in a sense, a person who is gay is a subset of people who are single in the church who are saying, "How will I live a countercultural life?"

The question is, is the church prepared to support them? In other words, if we always put our programming and interest and the highest focus on married couples and families, we do a disservice to single people, of which gay people are a subset. So you've got to make being single a viable way of being in the body of Christ. Not a second-tier, second-class citizen. A top-tier, first-class citizen where we value you as a person. You have great gifts and abilities that you bring to the body of Christ. A subset of you are also gay. You also bring great gifts and talents into the body of Christ.

But if we don't do that, if we continue to make marriage and family the pinnacle of Christian existence and everybody else is second and third class, then we've made our own problem, right? We've made it almost impossible for people to live out this biblical ethic.

Scott Rae: Ironically, too, because in the last few years, for the first time, the number of households headed by single adults was over the 50 percent mark in the United States, so this is not a small subset of population. This is a huge majority of our population that we're looking at.

Can we switch gears just briefly and ask a little bit about some of the work you've done in the gender dysphoria and transgender issues?

Mark Yarhouse: Okay.

Scott Rae: How does the transgender issue differ from the issues around sexual attraction?

Mark Yarhouse: It is different, and I'm glad you asked it just to start there. Because when you talk about gender identity, it's your experience of yourself as a man or a woman, and when that experience does not align with your biological sex as male or female, and that's distressing to you, we call it gender dysphoria. So if euphoria is a positive emotional state, dysphoria is a negative emotional state.

Now, for some people that's not distressing, but for some people it is really, deeply distressing. It can rise to the level where it's a diagnosable disorder, gender dysphoria as a mental health concern, and then, you try to respond to that mental health concern like you do other mental health concerns.

Scott Rae: Let's say that we have a high school or college student in our high school or college ministry in our local church and they come to you with an issue they're dealing with, transgender, that sense of gender dysphoria. What in general, I know it's hard to give really general advice without hearing the specifics of their story, but are there certain options for them that you would say are within biblical parameters that we ought to be advising?

Mark Yarhouse: This is tricky because transgender itself is an umbrella term for many experiences or ways people express their gender identity. So when someone says, "I'm transgender," I don't yet know quite what we're talking about, and so, I invite them to just unpack a little bit about what that means for them.

I am a little bit concerned about a trend towards transgender. It's actually called transtrending and true gender dysphoria. They're different things and so, it would be really hard [crosstalk 00:22:50] local church to even know what we're talking about with the next teenager that comes to talk to us.

But the reason you listen is I don't know if this has been longstanding. Because gender dysphoria, historically, has been early onset since ages like two and four, when people are aware of their gender identity as a "I'm a boy," or "I'm a girl." If gender dysphoria is present, it's usually present at a young age, and they'll have been navigating this for many years, and now, they're in my high school youth group, okay, so there might have been a history there.

We are seeing in recent years, just in the last couple of years, late-onset cases and what's called rapid-onset cases where someone comes in asking for chest reconstruction surgery at 15. They have no history of gender atypicality, they have no history of gender dysphoria, but they're saying they're gender dysphoric in the last four months or six months, and so that is really alarming. Many mental health professionals aren't sure what to make of that, so that gets into a lot of complicated issues that, okay, now the church has to figure out what we're going to do with that.

Okay, let's not have a knee-jerk reaction. Let's think together about what to do with this. Is there a way to respond to cultural trends and gender ideological commitments that need to be critiqued and evaluated and be pastorally sensitive to people who suffer from true mental health concerns? It's not going to be all-or-nothing. The church could do it that way, could just say, "We're going to reject it all," and to be biblically faithful. I'm not sure that's the answer.

I think the answer is to have more nuance, one-on-one shepherding and pastoral care, working with families, hearing the story, understanding it. Then you ask what's the biblically faithful person do? You know what most people do? Most people don't adopt the cross-gender identity. Most people don't use cross-sex hormones. Most people do not pursue the one of many surgeries. It's either too expensive. They're worried about the side effects. It's lifelong hormonal treatment. There's a lot of reasons why people don't do that.

But they find rather than I go to the mountain top and I have this outcome, they plateau somewhere. They plateau somewhere along the journey. They use coping strategies to manage this in some way, whether it's through the clothing that they wear, a name that they call themselves, whether they wear makeup or something like that. I think the church would do well to listen to the strategies people are using. They usually use trial and error.

I think also it would require moving away a bit from a healing emphasis to people to more, again, enduring reality of dysphoric conditions.

Then, the church, particularly the Catholic Church, has resources where we have looked at looking at our own suffering and the challenges that we face and aligning them with the passion of Christ in ways that are meaningful for a Christian understanding of pain and suffering.

I think those are untapped resources for the church, for people struggling with these issues. I'd like to see more work done there, while we also critique gender ideology and we do sensitive pastoral care. It's going to be complicated. Are we prepared for that? I hope so.

Sean McDowell: Dr. Yarhouse, thanks for coming on, but more importantly, as I said at the beginning, thanks for your voice of compassion, careful thinking, but also commitment to thinking biblically, so thanks for what you do.

This has been an episode of the podcast, “Think Biblically: Conversations on Faith and Culture.” To learn more about us and today's guest, Dr. Mark Yarhouse, and to find more episodes, go to biola.edu/thinkbiblically. If you enjoyed today's conversation, give us a rating on your podcast app and share it with a friend. Thanks for listening and, remember, think biblically about everything.