Dr. Mark Yarhouse defined sexual identity and suggested ways Christians should approach the topic of same-sex attraction in the church on Monday during a Chapel forum in Cullen Auditorium.
Yarhouse, professor of psychology at Regent University in Virginia Beach, Va. and author of Homosexuality and the Christian, said that often, Christians focus so much on orientation and the causes of same-sex attraction. They say same-sex attraction must have an environmental cause instead of a biological one, and say same-sex attraction is something that can be changed. Yarhouse said this puts too much pressure on the Christian who does feel a same-sex attraction to then become heterosexual.
Instead of sexual orientation, Yarhouse said Christians should focus on sexual identity.
“Identity brings to the foreground a discussion of behavior and ways in which behavior shapes an identity over time,” Yarhouse said. “Ultimately, I think identity speaks to what we treasure and of whose kingdom we’re a part.”
Yarhouse describes sexual identity not as being either “gay” or “straight,” but describes three tiers to what Christians have traditionally labeled as simply ‘gay;’ same-sex attraction, a description of the experience of being attracted to the same sex; homosexual orientation, a fairly strong and persistent attraction over time; and gay identity, a label used today to designate people by categories.
Yarhouse presented research he conducted on two different groups of Christians who struggle with same-sex attraction – those who identify themselves as gay and those who did not. Through his research, he distinguished differences and similarities between the two groups and developed ways that people can effectively help those struggling with same-sex attraction.
The church community often either doesn’t talk about homosexuality or only talks about it in negative terms, Yarhouse said, leaving those struggling with same-sex attraction to look for other resources and often, reach out to the gay community. Instead, Yarhouse said the church should be a resource and a safe community for people who are figuring out their sexual identity.
“The challenge for the church is that we haven’t been that community to support and encourage and affirm and create a place for them to say, ‘This has been my experience,'” Yarhouse said. “Too often we ostracize and push out and don’t help support and encourage.”
To become this resource, Yarhouse gave general principles that help those struggling with same-sex attraction, but who did not identified themselves as gay, to live their lives faithfully before God.
Yarhouse said those who do not identify themselves as gay, talk about their same-sex attraction without saying, “This is my identity.” It is part of their experience, but not part of their identity label, Yarhouse said. He also acknowledged that Christians need to avoid the two extremes of dealing with same-sex attraction. Some people have arrogant optimism, the idea that anyone who tries hard enough and has enough faith can be come heterosexual saying he doesn’t think scripture promises that. Also he warned to stay away from cynical pessimism, the idea that nobody has ever had success in moving away from homosexuality. Yarhouse said Christians need to have realistic, biblical hope in same-sex attraction, realizing that they must form an identity around Christ expanding our definition of ‘success’ to include such possibilities as a reduction in intensity, change in behavior or a choice to be celibate.
As Christians we can help become a community that understands these principles by sitting and listening to people, offering support and encouragement and reflecting on identity. Also, we must realize that the statement, “I experience same-sex attraction,” does not always end in a period.
At the end of the forum, Yarhouse left the audience with the idea that people dealing with same-sex attraction are “our people;” followers of Christ.
Steve Rowlands, director of the University Counseling Center said this conversation is important and needs to be talked about, and Yarhouse brings a balanced, Christ-centered perspective to the conversation.
“I love his language of ‘they’re our people,'” Rowlands said. “We tend to divide people. We all bring something we battle or struggle with, and to label is a really dangerous thing.”
Students also appreciated Yarhouse’s message. Lawton Pybus, junior psychology major from Red Oak, said Yarhouse was on track with Pybus’ own thoughts on the subject.
“I liked how he spent the first half talking about his research and how he applied it in terms of his own faith,” Pybus said.