Mark Yarhouse, Professor of Psychology at Regent University, recently gave a lecture at Southeastern Seminary titled “Sexual Identity and the Question of Vocation.” The Bible gives us a framework for understanding sexuality, he said. How then can we minister to people within that framework?
Afterwards, Dr. Sam Williams and Yarhouse held a Q&A. They discussed sexual identity, reparative therapy, transgender issues and how pastors can minister to people with sexual brokenness.
You can watch the Q&A above. Here are a few key highlights:
What’s your take on reparative therapy or ministries that aim to change same change same-sex attraction?
“Historically, I’ve defended people’s rights to pursue such changes. As an adult, I think there’s a question that’s more fundamental of self-determination and autonomy, and I don’t like taking that away from someone who wishes to pursue that. I’m more concerned about that with minors….
“Now, reparative therapy is a subtype of conversion therapy, and it’s a particular model based on a theory of causation and a theory of change.
“I already shared in chapel, we don’t know what causes sexual orientation. So to hold out a theory that says… ‘I do know what caused your homosexuality, and if we do these things, it will be resolved,’ those are two claims that deserve greater empirical support. Do we know the cause? I would say no. So I’m hesitant to start with a theory that says we do.
“Let’s say there are difficult parent-child relationships; I would treat that. [If] there is childhood sexual trauma? I would treat that. What I wouldn’t suggest is that by resolving your relationship with your parents you become straight, [or that] by resolving the negative emotional [results of a] life of abuse you become straight. It’s good to treat those things; I would do that. But I don’t like theories that say, ‘And here’s the outcome you can expect.’
“In fact, I find that people can become hyper-vigilant about their same-sex sexuality, and that becomes the measuring stick against which they value their self-worth, their relationship with God, their Christ-likeness. And because most people don’t experience as much change as they’d hoped for, those expectations could be dashed. And that leaves a person in a very difficult place emotionally and in terms of their relationship with God.”
What about ministries that promise to change sexual orientation?
“We studied people in ministries like that who were trying to change for seven years. People said [such ministries] were inherently harmful. We measured harm; on average, the data did not show it be harmful. If anything, there was a reduction in the number of symptoms [and] the strength of the symptoms a person was presented with. So the idea of being in a prayer group, praying, reading the Word of God, worshiping together — that does not seem to be intrinsically harmful based on the measures we used over many years…
“However, does it help change? I think it helped people change their identity. I think it helped people change their behavior, and that was radical for a lot of people who did experience change. And for some people there was a report on average of meaningful movement on a continuum from same-sex attraction towards opposite-sex attraction.
“But that significant movement along a continuum was average. For some people, there was greater movement. For some people there was no movement. Again, most people would have wanted more movement than they experienced, and that brings us back to how you minister when for most people [same-sex attraction] may be more of an enduring condition or experience.
“As a psychologist, I’m not particularly critical of something outside of my own field. It’s a ministry; I get that. It has its own right to exist and to offer that [support] to people. I don’t discourage people from participating in ministries as adults. I just am careful about how it’s communicated to the public, and what is being promised, and what your worth is being measured against.
“I know many people whose heterosexuality does not make them more Christ-like. So I don’t know that measuring Christ-likeness by heterosexuality is a good idea, and I would focus more on sanctification.”
Churches are at their best when they minister to what’s under the surface.
What do you think of the transgender issues that have recently come up?
“To me, this is a remarkably different experience of gender dysphoria, where someone experiences marked distress at the incongruence between their biological sex and their experience with their gender identity. For the vast majority of people, these things come into alignment. There’s no question. But for a small percent of people, there’s an incongruence, a lack of alignment, that is distressing to that person. That distress can ebb and flow in its magnitude, but it can be remarkably distressing.
“So, people try to manage that dysphoria through very creative solutions. And, long before we had hormonal treatment or surgeries were available, people were managing that across other cultures, in our culture. And I think [those treatments are] the most invasive, or most involved procedures for managing it. Hormones have partially irreversible consequences. With surgery, there are irreversible consequences. Those are the most invasive steps.
“But think of it still conceptually as ‘I’m trying to manage my dysphoria.’ So on a continuum, most people don’t do those things. Most people do lesser invasive things.”
How do you suggest pastors minister to people with gender dysphoria?
“The tip of the iceberg may be gender atypicality — ‘Use this pronoun,’ or, ‘Call me this.’ Many times ministers respond to what’s above the surface of the iceberg.
“What’s under the surface of the iceberg is much more substantive, and that is a need for intimacy, a need to be loved, a need for identity, compassion, spiritual questions (‘Does God love me? Does God like me? Do you want me here?’). A lot of churches, in my view, are at their best when they minister to what’s under the surface, and not overreact to what’s above the waters.”