By Eko Ong
Tuesday, May 20, 2014
Book Review: Yarhouse, "Homosexuality and the Christian"
By Eko Ong
Foreword: As a conservative Reformed Christian, my view on homosexuality is quite predictable: the Bible unequivocally teaches that homosexuality is against God's will and there is no indication whatsoever that such a value is culturally-dependent. Yet I also believe that we -the church- fail to minister to those who struggle with same-sex attraction. In the midst of the fierce propaganda from the activists, we may over-react and end up falling into the trap of self-righteousness or judgmentalism - forgetting that Paul also warned that all of us are "without excuse" (Rm 2:1, right after 1:18-32!!). I often listen to a group of Christians discussing this issue as if it were an abstract theological enigma that awaits a simple and definite solution, i.e. a mere "truth" matter. Yet many of us encounter this issue in the context of pastoral or relational setups. It involves real people with real (not abstract) problems/struggles. I once hear someone say in a discussion about this, "Well, we should stick to the "truth" and not let personal feelings get in the way ..." as if biblical truth were only propositional and could be abstracted from people. The dichotomy between truth and love is, in my opinion, unhelpful, and a negative by-product of rationalism of the Enlightenment which still infects the church until today.
Then how should we treat this issue in the context of counseling and relationship with those who struggle with homosexuality? Is sexual "straightness" the only indicator of restoration in Christ for gays? How should the church (meaning all Christians) handle this issue? While this question does not allow an easy answer, I find Yarhouse's book a helpful tool to equip the church. Here is my take on it.
While pro-same-sex campaigns have been fruitful, many conservatives simply rehash the old, yet failed, strategy of preaching the gospel-against-homosexuality. The church should start asking different questions and foster different attitudes. Although solid theology on homosexuality is available, practical questions remain. Scripture teaches that homosexuality should not be characteristic for Christians. While this is propositionally clear, humanity is complex and multi-faceted. Yarhouse’s book was written for these issues.
Yarhouse makes his agenda clear from the start: “move away from … debating the causes of sexual orientation and whether orientation can change” and focus on “the intersection of sexual identity and religious identity.” From the biblical contour of creation, fall, redemption, and consummation while incorporating tradition, reason, and experience, Yarhouse arrives at the conservative stance. Emphasizing that a Christian should find his or her identity in Christ, Yarhouse unpacks the three-tier distinction: same-sex attractions, orientation (persistent), and identity (socio-cultural label). This distinction is helpful not only to avoid hasty identification, but also to identify a marginalized group: those who struggle with same-sex attractions or cannot change their sexual orientation but choose not to embrace a gay identity. Rather than living the “gay script” (where a gay identity and behaviors are prioritized over beliefs), this group embraces the alternative script (where beliefs govern their identity and behaviors). Without dismissing causes and possibility to change sexual orientation, multiple paths are available for those who struggle with same-sex attractions yet seek Christ-likeness. This premise guards against unrealistic expectations that plague churches and drive “sincere strugglers” away.
In scenarios where a family member announces a gay identity to us, Yarhouse applies the three-tier distinction while prioritizing relationship and what lies ahead. Later, he implores the church to avoid a myopic vision of success (heterosexuality as the telos in place of genuine Christ-likeness) and to identify with strugglers as fellow pilgrims. Yarhouse distinguishes “sincere strugglers” from “assertive advocates.” Each group should be ministered differently in humility and charity.
Yarhouse presents himself as an expert who has been tested and refined through numerous counseling sessions. The strength of his approach lies within his identity-based framework that allows a plurality of sub-plots and endpoints for strugglers. Yet there can be only one identity: in Christ. Yarhouse portrays sexual union as a reflection of our covenant with God in Christ. While pleasure and procreation are important, they are not the source of our identity. Hence, associating success with a change of sexual orientation is based on a lopsided definition of sexuality. This leaves no room for sincere strugglers who are willing to live out the alternative script of celibacy in Christ. In fact, this unrealistic expectation fosters hypocrisy as many strugglers are pressured to maintain their non-existent “straight” postures. Their identity in Christ also heightens the role of community as their stronghold, not a prison, in pursuing Christ-likeness. Yarhouse’s framework also encourages strugglers to be descriptive rather than assertive. This has some potential to leave a gay “identity synthesis” unresolved which allows the three-tier distinction to relativize the gay identity claim and strengthen their identity in Christ.
Yarhouse’s strategy of replying with open-ended questions is a good counseling technique as it maintains the conversation and allows the counselor to listen more. But this approach needs to be supplemented with moments of affirmation which, if used timely, may allow the struggler to reassert his or her spiritual condition. This clarification is lacking. In addition, replying only with open-ended questions may end up frustrating the struggler. Overall, maintaining the descriptive style also allows flexibility in maintaining conversation either with questions or affirmations.
This book helps Christians to counsel other Christians who struggle with same-sex attractions. Yarhouse gives us four common scenarios. Yet one seems to be missing (if not, treated marginally). Many strugglers leave the church and their faith primarily due to the insufficiency of the conservative approach and attitude of the church. Since the church equates restoration with “straightness”, sincere strugglers find no place among the saints. How do we minister to them as their hearts are hardening? In addition, a companion book that directly addresses the strugglers is desirable. Here Smith’s and Wright’s paradigms of virtue, disciplines, and liturgical anthropology are applicable for identity formation.
Overall, this book achieves its agenda and is timely since many strugglers abandon the church and Christianity mainly due to the ministerial incompetency and hypocrisy of the church. John Spong once conjectured that Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” was same-sex attractions. While we (I) may dismiss Spong’s less-than-scholarly argument, such is indeed the feeling of many “sincere strugglers.” Sadly many of them have become “assertive advocate” or even “deserters of faith.” But is it possible that those who have this thorn in their flesh hold more “potential to grow tremendously in their spiritual lives”? And perhaps, God’s grace is sufficient for them and his power may be made complete in their weakness. After all, “suffering produces endurance, endurance character, and character hope.” Here Yarhouse’s book may bring some blessing and, perhaps, restoration.
 For instance, Richard B Hays, The Moral Vision of the New Testament: A Contemporary Introduction to New Testament Ethics (San Francisco, CA: Harper San Francisco, 1996), chap. 16.
 James K. A. Smith, Imagining the Kingdom: How Worship Works (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2013); N. T Wright, After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters (New York, NY: HarperOne, 2010).
 John Shelby Spong, Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism: A Bishop Rethinks the Meaning of Scripture (San Francisco, CA: Harper San Francisco, 1992), 116–19.