Homosexuality is undoubtedly one of the most controversial issues that the modern church faces, and contention exists on several planes for the twenty-first century Christian. Theologically, an increasing number of believers are questioning the stance that the church has historically taken, namely that homosexual behaviour is outside the bounds of what God intended for human sexuality. Socially, there is increasing pressure on believers to reject that stance, while practically, many Christians are uncertain how to respond to friends and family who reveal same-sex attractions. Mark Yarhouse’s Homosexuality and the Christian: A Guide for Parents, Pastors, and Friends, sets out to address a number of questions regarding homosexuality, drawing upon the author’s experience as a psychologist, counsellor, and Christian to offer a wealth of wisdom.
The primary purposes of the book are, firstly, to honestly answer difficult questions regarding homosexuality, and, secondly, to stimulate conversation among Christians and suggest new ways of thinking, with the intent of better supporting same-sex attracted Christians. The book is predominantly targeted at Christians who either experience same-sex attraction, or are unsure of how to support others who do. However, a non-believer seeking to better understand the traditional Christian perspective on homosexuality would certainly benefit by reading and reflecting on the content.
It’s important to note that Yarhouse’s suggested changes in thinking don’t constitute an alternative morality that stands in opposition to biblical sexuality. Rather, what he suggests is a shift of emphasis from questions of causation and orientation-change to those of sexual and religious identity. Much of what Yarhouse suggests is based on his exposition of sexual identity, which I’ll unpack in the paragraphs below.
Homosexuality and the Christian is divided into three parts. Part One: The Big Picture, addresses questions such as “What does God think about homosexuality?”, “What causes homosexuality?” and “Is it possible to change sexual orientation?”. To answer such questions, Yarhouse draws from scripture, church tradition, and science and reason. Summarising and critiquing a number of major academic studies, he distils an immense quantity of information in such a way that it is easy to understand, even for those with no familiarity with the topic. He then brings together the threads of those studies to draw modest, reasonable conclusions.
In Part One Yarhouse also underlines the role and significance of sexual identity. Sexual identity, he writes, is how an individual labels themselves regarding their sexual preferences. A number of factors contribute to the shaping of a person’s sexual identity, including one’s sexual attractions and the beliefs and values that one holds regarding sexual attractions and behaviours. What he suggests is that, rather than focussing on the causes of sexuality and whether sexual orientation can change, Christians should consider the role that sexual identity plays in a person’s experience of same-sex attraction. Instead of crafting their identity around their sexual attractions, we should encourage believers to found their identity in Christ. This principle holds not just for Christians who experience same-sex attraction, but Christians in general.
Part Two: Honest Answers to Questions Facing Families, offers practical advice to families in which a member has revealed same-sex attraction. Yarhouse deals specifically with situations when a teen, adult child, and spouse announce same-sex attractions or orientations. His tone is gentle and compassionate throughout, and he emphasises the reality and significance of these situations by sharing stories of families and individuals he has counselled. Those stories underscore the fact that real people are dealing with these issues, and they should be treated with dignity, respect, and kindness, regardless of what conclusions they ultimately reach.
Part Three: Questions for the Church, challenges the church to adjust its thinking and to treat same-sex attracted individuals with respect and compassion. Yarhouse contends that this can be accomplished while also remaining faithful to the traditional view of sexuality. He also makes suggestions as to how the church can better respond to people who struggle with same-sex attraction over a long period of time. Part Three had the most impact on my own thinking; in particular, chapter eight, titled “Whose People Are We Talking About?”.
In chapter eight, Yarhouse speaks of how the Church, for the most part, does not treat believers who experience same-sex attraction as our people. He writes:
I don’t think Christians who are sexual minorities feel like they are part of “us”… [that is,] part of the Christian community. They often play the same tape over and over in their heads: they don’t belong; they aren’t good enough; people would reject them if they knew what was really going on… Few churches reach out to the Christian who is a sexual minority. (p. 158)
As a solution, he suggests that we emphasise that their first and primary obligation is to God, just like every other believer. This ties in with his emphasis on identity, and how we should form our identity around Christ:
What the Christian community can offer the Christian sexual minority is a vision for what it means to be Christlike. That vision places the Christian sexual minority squarely in the middle of the Christian community. They become us. We are all supposed to be working toward… Christlikeness. (p. 165)
When we think of Christian sexual minorities in this way, we include them in a process that all Christians, regardless of sexuality and attractions, are a part of. By making the focus Christ-likeness, rather than a change of orientation, abstinence, or whatever else it might be, we can recognise that all Christians are aiming for the same goal.
In conclusion, Homosexuality and the Christian is a book well worth reading, both for Christians and non-believers who wish to better understand homosexuality and the appropriate Christian response. If you recall, Yarhouse’s purpose in the book is twofold, firstly to answer difficult questions that many people have about homosexuality, and, secondly, to stimulate conversation among Christians and suggest new ways of thinking. The book fulfils both purposes, all while treating the topic with sensitivity and candour. Those who are searching for a theological tome that delves into exegesis and analysis of scripture will need to look elsewhere. But, for those who simply want candid answers, practical advice, and stimulus for thought with straightforward practical application, look no further than this book.