Gay men and women who desire to be faithful to Scripture and thus choose a life of celibacy have chosen a difficult path and have much to teach the church. Psychologist Mark Yarhouse led a study of these men and women and some fascinating conclusions emerged from this study. Join Sean and Scott as they interview Dr. Yarhouse, on his new book, Costly Obedience: What We Can Learn from the Celibate Gay Christian Community.
More About Our Guest
Dr. Mark Yarhouse is the Dr. Arthur P. Rech and Mrs. Jean May Rech Chair in Psychology and oversees the Sexual & Gender Identity Institute at Wheaton College. He is chair of the task force on LGBT+ issues for Division 36 (Psychology of Religion and Spirituality) of the American Psychological Association. He is the author of numerous books on LGBT issues and Christian faith.
Scott Rae: Welcome to the podcast Think Biblically, conversations on faith and culture. I'm your host, Scott Rae, Dean of Faculty and Professor of Christian Ethics at Talbot School of Theology here at Biola University.
Sean McDowell: And I'm your cohost Sean McDowell, Professor of Apologetics at Talbot school of Theology, Biola University.
Scott Rae: We're here with our special guest today, Dr. Mark Yarhouse, who holds an endowed chair in psychology at Wheaton College, served for several years in an endowed chair at Regent University. He also has the Center for Sexuality and Gender at Wheaton, speaks and writes widely in areas related to sexuality and gender identity and Mark and his colleague... And Mark, I'm going to let you pronounce the name of your colleague so I don't butcher her name.
Mark Yarhouse: Yes, it's Dr. Ola Zuporzits.
Scott Rae: Their new book is based on a study of the gay Christian community entitled Costly Obedience and advertised as the most comprehensive study to date of this particular community. Mark, we're so glad you've written this book and engaged in this study, and I'm really anxious to hear about some of the findings that you've written about. Some of the findings that the study has made manifest.
So thanks so much for being with us. We look forward to this conversation.
Mark Yarhouse: Yeah. Thank you for just inviting me and giving me a chance to talk a little bit about, I think, what's a really important topic and a challenging one in the church today.
Scott Rae: So maybe we'll start with this. How would you describe the change in the way the church has addressed LGBT men and women in the last, say the last 30, 40 years?
Mark Yarhouse: Yeah, so I think the change, I think one of the greatest shifts, has probably been around the ex gay storyline. So the idea of people moving from gay to straight, that was a much more prominent narrative for a long time, I think, in evangelical circles. And it began to diminish several years ago with a number of different factors. Culturally, of course you have the rise of the mainstream LGBTQ community, and you have people within Christian ministries who didn't experience as much of the change that they had hoped for, that they thought was possible.
And that's not to say that others didn't report different experiences than that, but there were more people saying that they didn't experience that or that they said that they did, and didn't really. And you also had... So there would be gay individuals, there would be ex gay individuals and there would be ex, ex gay individuals saying that, what I said back then wasn't sustained. Or it wasn't what I thought it was. And you also had, then, a group of people who never really went down that path, but because they were more conservative Christians, they went down a path of celibacy and they also didn't feel like the change narrative, the ex gay narrative was a good fit for them because of the assumptions, sort of within that narrative, about how people become homosexual and what it means to change and some of those debates that were going on.
So there were many different voices, I think, that perhaps led to a diminished ex gay narrative. And then you have, in a sense, a rise of voices that are saying, "We're celibate, we're also gay and we're also people of faith." And so that's really, this book is kind of their story in some ways.
Sean McDowell: One of the things that I appreciate about Costly Obedience is that it's not just reflection and experience, while that has its place. It's based upon a study. Can you tell us about the nature of the study and maybe some of the 30,000 foot view, big findings that emerged from it?
Mark Yarhouse: Yes. The book Costly Obedience actually has several studies woven throughout it, but the major study is a study of 300 celibate gay Christians who shared their experiences with us. And that group can be broken down into people who are celibate from all relationships and they don't anticipate entering into a relationship. They see themselves, maybe what I thought of as what celibacy is. And then there was a group of people who were celibate but they said they were open to a relationship with someone of the opposite sex. So that was kind of an interesting thing I hadn't thought about.
And then there was a group of people who were in a mixed orientation marriage, by which, I mean, if the one person's orientation is gay or homosexual, the other person in the marriage, their orientation is heterosexual. And so they saw themselves as celibate because they were refraining from same-sex behavior and relationships, but they were in a relationship with a person of the opposite sex.
So we decided, at that moment, as researchers, we would listen to the people who were completing the survey and what they were telling us celibacy meant to them, even though I had my own understanding of what that was going into the study. And so we reported data on all of their experiences, broke it down. You asked, what are some of the major findings? I should say too, that the other studies that are kind of in this book would be a study where we did more interviews with a smaller number of celibate gay Christians. We also did interviews with a group of friends who function as family to celibate gay Christians. Some of them actually live together or live in close proximity to each other. We thought that was kind of a fascinating angle of entry into the conversation.
And then we had another study that was of seminary graduates from Protestant, mostly evangelical seminaries, where we were asking them about their experiences with people who are gay as well. So biggest, biggest surprise to me had to be the mental health issues because the prevailing view is that people who walk out a path of celibacy must be deeply depressed, deeply anxious, just in a really difficult position. And that's kind of how I thought about it. That's kind of many of the people that I know who were walking this out, will talk about some of the unique challenges that they face. And so we reported the data and we found that people, in a sense, weren't as bad off as we thought they were on normed measures of distress and anxiety and depression. Many of them were doing as good as other people in the norm sample.
Now that doesn't mean don't take away at all from people who are struggling, but that was a surprise. We also had an interesting measure of attachment and attachment sort of the way that a young child attaches to the primary caregivers around them. And then as an adult, they have relationships that might activate a way of sort of relating to people around them. It's called an adult attachment style that can get activated. And this group of folks, their highest percentage was in a kind of preoccupied attachment style, which means they really want relationships, but they're anxious about losing them, which makes sense if somebody is walking out a life of celibacy and they're not in a marriage relationship, and they're wondering about what that life's going to look like, how their emotional needs and needs for intimacy will be met, they cannot afford to be cavalier about friendships and relationships. So it's going to occupy a bit of bandwidth for them, and they're going to be more anxious about the possibility of losing them.
Now, I don't want to make too much of that. The very next highest percentage was a secure attachment style where they also are invested and care about relationships. And they're low on anxiety about that. But I would say those were probably two of the most interesting findings that we had that I think could help the church respond in ways that are loving and supportive of these brothers and sisters in Christ.
Sean McDowell: Mark, I want to make sure you can really unpack this finding because it surprised me too. I've been in so many conversations with affirming and non affirming positions on this. And like you say, the prevailing assumption is that an exposure to non affirming theology itself is what causes sexual minorities to suffer mental health. And what you found is that that's just not where the evidence points. So can you really highlight why that's so important and maybe kind of the bigger dynamic that's going on with that claim?
Mark Yarhouse: Yeah. I think the prevailing view that to live out a life that's of celibacy, a life that's consistent with a biblical sexual ethic, that somehow that theological position is, there's almost an indictment against it, based on the prevailing view that people are going to be severely depressed. And they're going to be anxious and they're going to be having a number of mental health concerns. And we don't want to draw all of our conclusions from just this one line of research that we've done, but there just hasn't been robust research on celibacy.
Most of the research that's been done have been done in the past with people by vocation who are vocationally priests in the Roman Catholic Church. There just hasn't been the kind of current, past the ex gay narrative, what this looks like for people, and love to see this research replicated by other research teams and dialogue with other people who have different findings.
Now, I will say that the group that seemed even healthier or even less depressed or stressed, seemed to be the group that was in a mixed orientation relationship. And I don't say that to say that that's the path for everybody. There's many celibate gay Christians who would say that that's not a path that is one for them. But across the board, people were doing better than we expected with differences somewhat by those different groups that I described. But they weren't great differences that you would say, "Well, one is the obvious path for people." I think people just really have to discern, how does it look in my life to be faithful to God in being a good steward of my sexuality and trusting God is a good father whose plan for sexuality is better than my own plan. I mean, those are really individual decisions.
Now, I want to tie that back too, though, that a lot of these folks, while they discern God's provision for them in this way, they are intentional about relationships. And so maybe that's another piece of this is that many seem to enter into relationships where friendships, because they're highly valued, function more like family to them. And so they're very intentional about leaning into these relationships and you would think the church could be an ideal community to respond to emotional needs and needs for intimacy. And I would find, I would say, that that's not been my experience in researching and talking to celebrate gay Christians. That's often an area of great, great challenge for them. They have to seek this out in many other places, in many cases.
Scott Rae: Yeah, Mark, that leads me to my question I wanted to raise here because it seems to me that could be one of the things that contribute to mental health issues would be the point that you make that gay Christians are caught in this tenuous position where they're not really comfortable in the gay community because of their faith and not really comfortable in the church because of their sexuality. Can you spell out that tension a little bit more fully and how gay Christians deal with being in that tenuous position?
Mark Yarhouse: Yeah. So even just the conversation, the language around this has really, I think, we ended up kind of speaking past one another sometimes. But for some churches, for some leaders and for some Christians, just having same sex attraction is sin. And so when people say things like that or relate out of that position, then the question is, do you think that the person who experiences same sex attraction, is that the result of a fallen world in which we live? Or do you say that that's a choice the person made that's volitional? The person is sinning, by virtue, of just existing in the world with these attractions in a way that they need to repent.
I think that just, that right there, sets a very difficult conversation. I've not met anybody who chose to experience same sex attractions. And then so I remember, I think of a person who came to see me for a consultation, a young, gay Christian man who's about 18, 17, heading off to college. And he thought, he seemed to think at one point that I thought he had chosen to have these attractions and I stopped the interview. And I said, "Look, I don't know what's going on here, but I don't think you chose to experience these attractions from everything you shared with me in your history. You found yourself with these attractions when you went through puberty, just as people with heterosexual attractions find themselves with these attractions when they go through puberty." And he said, "Oh, well, you've got to tell my parents because they think I chose this to make their lives unbearable." And I said, "Well, of course. Of course I'll talk to your parents."
But gently, you do have choices to make, choices to make about behavior and choices to make about sort of where you go with the attractions that you have. And he said, "Oh, Dr. Yarhouse, don't tell my parents that." And there was this sense that if he didn't choose this, then for him, his life kind of unfolds in a way. And he doesn't really have to give this much more thought. But if he did choose it, then he knows that that's not true. And if the churches teaches that, he's just going to reject the Christian community out of hand.
Sean McDowell: Mark, I'm curious, as you reached out to find some of these celibate gay Christians to interview them, were they eager to talk, to let their stories be heard? Were they hard to find and reluctant to speak because they felt burned or misunderstood? What response did you get as a whole, if you can even give me a response like that?
Mark Yarhouse: They were generous with their time. I mean, one of the main study was a survey. So it didn't require... It could be anonymous, which I think helped a lot. We worked with an organization called Spiritual Friendship, which is run by Ron Begal and Leslie Hill. And they're well known people, both in Catholic and Protestant circles, Protestant evangelical circles, who have sort of lived this out in a very public way. And they've convened a group of contributors to their website that write about their experiences. Often thinking deeply either theologically and philosophically about these issues. And I think for that reach, it was really helpful to get a lot of people.
And then we were really pleasantly surprised by the people who would be willing to also be interviewed by us and maybe drill a little bit deeper into the questions we were asking. And then for friends to take their time and talk with us about how they became family to celibate gay Christians and what that meant for them. And just some of the ways in which their lives have been enhanced. And some of the ways that you used to think of any family, there's challenges in being family to one another. So those were very generous from everybody involved, really.
Scott Rae: Mark, let's move a little bit to the life of the church in particular. What are some of the ways in which gay Christians can contribute to the life of the church? Maybe some of the unique ways in which they can contribute?
Mark Yarhouse: Yeah. So I think one thing that stands out right away is that they, and we asked them this. So we didn't want to just look back at it from the standpoint of the Ivory Tower and say, "Here's our thoughts." We wanted to ask them, what do you think? And we came up with a number of themes, but one would be the ways in which they just embody teaching on suffering and grace and what it means to walk out a very difficult path. Think of our broader culture, it's sexually saturated with messages of self-actualization through sexuality, sexual identity, sexual behavior, and for a group of people to live a kind of counter narrative when the prevailing view is so hyper-sexualized. And then in the context of the broader cultural discussion, you have this LGBTQ mainstream community that is really ascended to a place of great prominence in the broader culture.
And I think a message that they could be family to this group of people and that they could be well cared for here. Then you have this group of people who say, "No, as much as we can appreciate that, we're going to live a counter cultural direction." And it's one where there's a risk of greater isolation, both in the culture because they don't fit as well with the mainstream LGBTQ community, but also in the church because they're not living out an ex gay narrative. They're not reporting the kind of maybe healing or experience that many evangelicals might expect for them. And so there's that peace and God's grace in their life.
I think there's also, in that sense, an outward witness to the contemporary culture. They can say things to the mainstream LGBTQ community that I could never say. They're going to have relationships and bridges built in ways, even though they stand out because of their celibacy and their Christian commitments, they have some inroads to witness and be missional that I think is valuable.
I think they can be a source of critique to the church. I don't think most people, from a global perspective, look to Christians in the West as the best examples of sort of the mature Christian who has sort of been through, forged in the fires of what it looks like to live a mature Christian faith around persecution and things like that. And so you have this group of people who, I think, can many ways model a mature Christian faith. At least I've learned a great deal from the Christians I've known who've kind of walked this costly obedience out because they say no to something every day, to say yes to something else. Whereas, many heterosexual Christians can sort of get a pass on the things that they struggle with. And this group is a group of people who don't get a pass.
I think they also humanize the issue because this could easily be an Ivory Tower topic. It could just be kind of a theological debate, but it wouldn't have the sort of pastoral relevance unless you actually know people. And here they are saying, "Here's our story." I think this group of people is more attuned to people on the margins anyway, because they have felt like they're on the margins. And so I think when they're in the body of Christ they strengthen the body of Christ because they help us be more attuned to people who might feel a bit marginalized, even within the body of Christ.
So those are just a few things that they shared with us. They said, "Here are some things that we actually bring to the body of Christ that could get overlooked in this discussion."
Sean McDowell: That's really helpful to just, I think some people look at this as like a thorn in the side of the church and you're saying, "No, no, no, there's a blessing here if we will open up our eyes and look at this through a more biblical lens." So my question is there's this larger cultural gay script, and then there's kind of a Christian script for those with same sex attraction. And part of your book is saying the church needs to do better. Here's some ways we can do better. So in your experience with celibate gay Christians, why do they choose the narrative of the church when, like you said, every day, there's sacrifice that others don't have to make, do you see trends that they just say, you know what, here's why I'm committed to this?
Mark Yarhouse: Yeah, I think for many of them, or some grew up in the church and felt believe that the teachings of the church were true and they felt convicted by the spirit to live the life that they're pursuing. I think for other people, for many people, they actually wrestled with different other scripts. So we often study what are called milestone events, like first awareness of your attractions. First time you disclose this to someone else. First time you talked about yourself as being gay or thought that your attractions meant that you were gay. First time you were sort of publicly known by others to be gay, to all these different kinds of milestone events in a person's life who navigates this terrain. But there were some unique milestones to this group of people that we didn't see in some of our other research because they were celibate gay Christians, is that they wrestled with what's sometimes called, sometimes it's called Side X or the view that you should pursue an ex gay change of orientation.
They wrestled, many of them, wrestled with that. What does that mean for me? Should I do that? Is that possible for me? And some of them have tried that and didn't experience the kind of change that they were led to believe was to be expected. Another milestone is that they considered Side A, which is more of a position that says you can be a Christian and gay and same-sex behavior can be morally permissible in the right kind of relationship and so on and so forth. So they had to wrestle, not just with the question of do I change in the ex gay narrative, they had to wrestle with the question of being gay affirming in the way that the mainstream means that. And then they landed on what is called sometimes Side B or the view that same sex, sexual attractions don't change, but I'm going to live a life of faithfulness to God in the area of my sexuality, which would take the form of either celibacy or a mixed orientation relationship.
And so those were interesting pieces too, of just kind of wrestling with those different pathways and different suggestions for what's the best way to flourish. And the theological wrestling was very real. The practical needs for having needs for intimacy met was very real. I think what some people would say is that you can live without sex, but you can't live without intimacy. And I think each person had to kind of wrestle with those questions, both theologically and then very practically. What does that look like for me?
Scott Rae: Mark, you also mentioned that one of the particular things that gay Christians bring to the church is this sense of encouragement for the church to apply a consistent sexual ethic. Can you spell out a little bit more what you mean by that? And maybe specifically, where do gay Christians see a double standard in the church when it comes to sexuality?
Mark Yarhouse: Yeah, I think you see this fair amount when there'll be in maybe leadership roles or membership in a church or on a worship team or something like that, that if somebody is gay, they might be asked to step down from a kind of stage presence or something like that. But you'll have heterosexuals who will engage in sexual behavior that goes against the church's teachings. And sometimes a church might either turn a blind eye or kind of say things like, "Well, boys will be boys." Or have a brief hiatus, but then restore them. I don't think this group feels that that happens in a consistent way in terms of church, either discipline or just even informal conversations with people about expectations for those roles.
I think many times these are folks who don't even feel they can be honest about this part of their life. So even the language we're using about being a celibate gay Christian, they couldn't even refer to themselves that way and be in certain roles. And they might be asked to step down and we had cases of that reported to us, some of which is reported in the book. And I think that feels very inconsistent to this group. And I think they're very wary of the church around those types of things.
Sean McDowell: What does the church need to do to have a more biblical and holistic just theology and practice of singleness?
Mark Yarhouse: Yeah, I think this is a key angle of entry into ministry and pastoral care. I often think of gay individuals in the church as a subset of your singles ministry. And I'm not taking anything away from people who enter into mixed orientation marriages, but if people go the path of sort of maybe classic celibacy here, where you are single and you refrain from sexual relationships and that's sustained and however imperfectly you sort of live that out throughout your life. You're essentially a single person in the body of Christ. And most people that I talk to who are single, and including celibate gay Christians who are single, would say to me that they feel that singles ministries are not often meeting their needs. And they find singles ministries are often ministries to get single people married. And they're not single ministries to really cast a vision for a life of significance in the body of Christ in a meaningful and robust way that just helps people serve the church, be a gift to the church, be a part of the larger community, serve the broader community around the church.
There's just not a sense in which... There's a sense to where being single is kind of a second class citizen in the body of Christ. And most of our programming in many of our churches goes towards couples, goes towards children's, goes towards families. And I'm supportive of couples and families and children. I want those ministries to be available, but I want just as much to be available to single people and to not send the message to them that they have to marry and have a family to sort of rise to the level of significance, to the top tier of the body of Christ. I think that just sends a very misleading message. It's not biblical. And it seems like you can value both. Valuing one doesn't have to be at the expense of the other. And so you don't have to take sides there. You can just have a number of really healthy, thriving ministries and encourage people just exactly where they are.
Scott Rae: Mark, this is so helpful and very insightful stuff. So I guess one final question for you, what advice would you have for churches who desire to be more welcoming to gay Christians? And then, maybe the flip side of that, what might you to say to churches who don't particularly desire to be more welcoming? Because those are out there too.
Mark Yarhouse: Yeah. I think the churches that desire to be more welcoming, we talk about being intentional in another resource that I wrote for Christian institutions. We talked about being intentionally relational, intentionally formational, and intentionally secure. And what I mean briefly by that is people's experiences in Christian institutions, including churches, is going to be relationally mediated, meaning actual relationships will make or break a person's experience in the local church. So we have to attend to the relationship piece with people, and churches obviously need to be formational. They need to help people grow in their walk with Christ and lean into that relationship and be involved in discipleship, not discipleship to make them straight, discipleship to deepen their walk with Christ. That's the angle of entry that I'd encourage churches to do.
And I know many heterosexual people who are no more Christ like by virtue of their heterosexuality. So making that the target is misguided. And then lastly there is to be intentionally secure. And what I mean by security is for people to grow spiritually they have to be in emotionally and spiritually safe communities. And so when we teach about sexuality, we need to teach in ways that are doctrinally correct, but also emotionally connecting to the congregation, to the community, that you're talking to. And when you start to think there are gay people in my congregation, there's people navigating this terrain, there's people making really difficult decisions about how they're going to live their life in light of their sexuality, in light of their faith commitments. You've got to bring those people to your mind so that you teach differently. You teach in a more emotionally engaged way that feels safer for the people hearing what you have to say from scripture.
So those are three things that we do for churches that want to do this better. Churches that don't really want to invest in this community, I mean, I'd encourage them to ask about why that is. I don't think there's any community that's off limits to the grace of God, that God's heart is for all people to know his son and to be restored into a relationship with him through Christ. I would probably do a deep dive on the question of same-sex sexuality and how you think about that theologically and what the implications are for ministry and pastoral care. If you're really saying the person in front of you in your office talking with you or at the pew in your church is sinning by virtue of having these attractions, that's a tough starting point for ministry and pastoral care because their experiences, they didn't choose to have these attractions. They find themselves with it. And if you began there and sort of could theologically work that out and really pray about what that could look like in the life of someone with maybe more of an enduring reality and during same sex sexuality, how would you minister differently?
We do a great job in many of our churches working with people with enduring conditions. Usually we think of them as physical and medical, but we struggle when we get into this area of sexuality. Would that change if we knew those people well? If we related to them at a face to face relational level? And we knew that they didn't choose this, they're trying to figure this out. They're looking for support in navigating this terrain. I think that might be worth praying about for those churches as well.
Scott Rae: Well, Mark, thank you. I mean, that's really sound advice for churches in dealing with this really difficult terrain. And I want to commend you and your colleague, let me get it right, Ola Zuporzits, did I get that right?
Mark Yarhouse: Yes, I think so.
Scott Rae: So their book together, Costly Obedience, what we can learn from the celibate gay Christian community, it's really worth reading. It's a very enlightening study, provides just some really helpful things for the life of the church. And Mark, you and your colleague Ola have done just a great service with this book. And I hope many of our listeners get their hands on it and have the chance to digest it. So we're very grateful for you coming on with us today. And we hope the book gets a very wide readership because it's a really terrific contribution.
Mark Yarhouse: Yeah. Let me just say thank you, Scott and Sean. Thank you so much for just giving me the opportunity to talk a little bit about it. It's a community that's close to my heart and will continue to pray for the churches. Church tries to find ways to be a support and a resource to all within the body of Christ.
Scott Rae: 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. That's by biola.edu/thinkbiblically. If you enjoyed today's conversation, please give us a rating on your podcast app and feel free to share it with a friend. Thanks so much for listening and remember, think biblically about everything.