Sam Williams

A Christian Psychology of and Response to Homosexuality, Part 2

July 1, 2014

A Christian Psychology of and Response to Homosexuality--Part 2

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Sam Williams

A Christian Psychology of and Response to Homosexuality--Part 2

BCC Staff Note: You’re reading the second of a four-part BCC Grace & Truth blog mini-series by Dr. Sam Williams on A Christian Psychology of and Response to Homosexuality. You can read Part One here. You can watch a video presentation of this material here. You can read the entire series in PDF format here.

Author Note: In this four-part blog series, the term “Christian psychology” is being used to convey a biblically-developed Christian worldview, perspective, and way of thinking about the soul and the spiritual dynamics of homosexuality. The term “Christian psychology” is not being used as a technical term for a model or approach to counseling.

Defining What We Are Talking About

At the end of Part One, I noted that effective ministry, according to David Powlison, requires of us a triple exegesis: of Scripture, of people, and of this beautiful and crazy world in which we live. The movement from Scripture to real lives in this world requires careful and clear-eyed understanding of all three. In Part Two, let’s start with defining what we are talking about, with a few descriptions and definitions.

Mark Yarhouse helpfully differentiates same-sex attraction, homosexual orientation, and a gay identity.

(1) Same-sex attraction is an intentionally descriptive term describing the direction of a person’s sexual desire. SSA can vary in strength and also in durability or longevity. It can be weak or moderate or strong, and it can be temporary or enduring. The term “SSA” is merely descriptive and says nothing about how a person feels about his or her sexual attraction, or what they intend to do or actually do with their sexual desires, nor does it say anything about their identity – who they are or how they label themselves.

Approximately 6% of men and 4.5% of women report experiencing at least some degree of same sex attraction (Laumann, Gagnon, Michael, and Michaels, 1994).

(2) Same-Sex Orientation (SSO) is the term I prefer to use since the term homosexual often connotes an identity. What it means is that some people experience SSA in such a manner that it is predominant compared to opposite-sex attraction, and such that it is strong and durable and persistent.  Like the term, SSA, SSO is a merely descriptive phrase.

Approximately 2% of men and 1% of women report a same-sex or homosexual orientation, wherein their primary and predominant sexual attraction is to the same sex. [1]

It is possible for a person to be sexually attracted to both sexes, to varying degrees, and that person might identify themselves as “bisexual.” It is also possible, although less frequent, for a person’s experience of same-sex attraction to be limited to a specific person, and for them to be otherwise heterosexual.

(3) Gay or lesbian identity: Some persons choose to adopt a homosexual identity, taking as a key feature of their identity their same-sex sexual orientation, and usually along with that accepting same-sex erotic behavior as a morally neutral or morally good sexual alternative.

The percentage of adults who identify as being gay or lesbian is estimated to be 1.7%, approximately 4 million persons. An additional 1.8% of our population was estimated to view themselves as bisexual (Gary Gates, Press release April 7, 2011, Williams Institute).

What is crucial to recognize here is that these three categories are not coterminous. They do not or at least should not be collapsed into one another. While it may be the case that a person experiences SSA or even is completely SSO, a gay or homosexual identity is not an experience and it is not inherent. Identity is a decision based upon one’s perspective on their sexual desires and their acceptability; in other words, the adoption of a gay identity is a value-based choice rather than a given fact of experience or of psychology or biology.

With respect to identities, they don’t happen to us, they come from us: “I” am the central organizer and active agent in forming my identity. Even though most of us are not aware of choosing our identities, they are our construction built out of the raw materials of who we are, our life experiences, especially key relationships, and all of this construed or interpreted in light of some prevailing narrative or worldview or philosophy of life.

So, our identity is a personal construction project composed of many conscious and subconscious choices which accumulate gradually over time. Of particular importance are the attributions that we make about ourselves and that others apply to us, which function like scripts for how we manage our lives.  To a significant extent these identity scripts are provided by the various social authorities within our culture: parents, peers, religion, “science,” “psychology.”

The Development of Sexual Identity

Now, with respect to the development of sexual identity, some parts of that are biogenetically hard-wired and other parts are shaped by key relationships within particular cultures with particular values and views about the way things are supposed to be. And of course, at the center of all this is the active, responding, choosing person, made in the image and likeness of God but also fallen biologically and psychologically or spiritually, and embedded in a fallen world.

So, identity is personal and it is contextual; it is innate, but also it is formed in the context of a web of relationships, not unlike the way children develop language—with brains and tongues pre-designed to speak, but this innate capacity to communicate is formed by family, friends, and culture.

Most psychologists recognize that identity is as much a construction as it is an expression of one’s essence, and that personal values, beliefs, and religious commitments are “grist for the mill” producing the identity that one constructs. Among developmental psychologists, there are two camps which emphasize different elements in identity development, essentialists (nature) and social constructivists (nurture).

The modern language of sexual identity, “homosexual, bisexual, gay, lesbian,” is a good example of this mutual interaction between person and culture. Although homosexuality has been practiced for millennia, “gay” as an identity is an historical artifact, belonging only to contemporary western culture: it is a personal and social interpretation and not an incorrigible fact.

“Although homosexual behavior has been practiced in other cultures throughout history, we are the first culture in which people refer to themselves this way. There was never a language for it, and there has never been community support for this kind of identification or labeling. Until recently there was not even a way to say it” (Yarhouse, 2010).[2]

Sorting these matters out on a personal level is a process; a person who experiences SSA is confronted with a unique dilemma: what does this mean about me, that I am attracted to the same sex? People attracted to the same sex go through a process that could be summarized in two stages.

  • Identity Crisis: this is a painful knot of emotion – shame, guilt, anxiety, depression – with lots of confusion and many questions. If you’ve never listened to a person in this phase, do so, or at least read about it.  This will help you understand the challenge of finding hope when something so fundamental to your person and to your gender is upside down and you can’t just flip a switch and set it right. (see Washed and Waiting by Wesley Hill or Andy Comiskey’s various books)

But people don’t stay in crisis mode forever; eventually they come to some type of resolution.

  • Identity Attribution: a synthesis and consolidation of same-sex attractions.  Eventually, people come to conclusions about themselves and their sexual experiences based on some sort of interpretive paradigm, or script that is available to them in their world, and with respect or disrespect for the moral script that God has placed within every human heart.

These identity attributions occur much earlier these days, around 15 years of age; versus at 20 years in 1970 (Savin-Williams & Cohen, 2004). Another interesting recent phenomenon is that some young persons are choosing to avoid the adoption of any label at all regarding their sexual identity.

2 Prevailing Narratives

In contemporary western culture, there are two prevailing narratives or scripts, ways to respond to and integrate SSO. The first is to adopt a gay or homosexual identity. This is based on a Gay Explanatory Framework (GEF) (Yarhouse & Tan, 2004): the self is defined by sexual desire; sexual attraction defines who I am, categorically, just like an “alcoholic” defines who he is by his desire for alcohol.

This identity formula is very much at home in a culture of expressive individualism, which prizes self-expression above all else (see R. Bellah’s Habits of the Heart, 1996). The GEF relies upon metaphors like “discovery” or “coming out” to describe identity attribution. The GEF reaches beyond personal experience into the academy, developing its own personality and developmental theories which include an ideal or “healthy” socialization process, and which has unfortunately been adopted in the public square and public schools in most of western culture.

Usually the Gay Explanatory Framework is characterized by simplistic explanations of cause, especially biological reductionism – i.e., “Since I am not aware of making a conscious decision to feel this way, I must have been born this way. This is obviously biological.” According to this script, personal fulfillment depends upon sexual self-actualization, the embracing and expression of one’s sexual desires, with some sort of “coming out” ritual whereby the person is initiated  into a new lifestyle in which same-sex sexual and romantic relationships are deemed either neutral or good, and even sometimes superior.[3]

While most people struggling with SSA or SSO in our culture believe the Gay Explanatory Framework is the only plausible option, there is another option, one that does seem increasingly strange, even abnormal to modern and post-modern people.  The second identity option is to understand SSA or SSO by means of a Christian Explanatory Framework, taking Creation, Fall, Redemption, and Final Restoration as the definitive narrative for explaining same-sexual desires. This framework is honest about the experience of SSA or SSO but views it as unnatural and disordered, inconsistent with God’s will for sexuality.

The key issue, for anybody, and particularly for Christians, is which of our desires and affections we choose to be defined by. A Christian with SSA will, like the rest of us, emphasize their identity in Christ and in the body of Christ, and view same-sexual desires as a product of the Fall, just one of many forms of sexual deviation and temptation that can be overcome by God’s grace. They will grieve over their SSA, and some will repent of it depending upon how they understand its origin and how they understand sin and guilt and repentance. A Christian Explanatory Framework comprehends the reconstruction of our identities upon adoption into the family of God: “Now, God is my Father, Christ is my brother, I am a son/daughter of the Lord. ‘I’ (in the deepest sense of that little word) belong to Him. He redefines and redirects every part of my being.”

The Rest of the Story

In Part Three, we look at the origin of SSA and SSO. What causes it? Where does it come from?

Join the Conversation

How would you frame and word your biblical description of the development of sexual identity?

What questions do you have about what you have read in Part Two?

[1] These figures rise in urban centers; in other words, those with a homosexual orientation are more concentrated in cities.

[2] Coincidentally, this is often a part of the gay critique of the biblical passages on homosexuality; they are correct when they claim that these categories and terms did not exist in the ancient biblical languages. Instead, more descriptive terms that described what that person does, or terms like natural and unnatural were the verbal categories relied upon to discuss these matters (Hays, 1996).

[3] It is this incorporation of homosexuality into the center of that person’s identity that makes even the most sensitive and winsome conversation so difficult with a person who identifies themselves as “gay.” If “gay” is who you are, then even the kindest challenge or disagreement is perceived at least as a personal rejection, and at worst as hateful or “violent.” Since this is the accepted normative narrative in most of the First World, any other view seems to be just so much nonsense. David Wells captures this dislocation well in his definition of worldliness as “that system of values, in any given age, which has at its center our fallen human perspective, which displaces God and his truth from the world, and which makes sin look normal and righteousness seem strange. It thus gives great plausibility to what is morally wrong, and for that reason makes what is wrong seem normal” (Losing our Virtue, 1999, p.4).

  • freemanintexas

    Do not give any of your children
    to be sacrificed to Molech,
    for you must not profane
    the name of your God.
    I am the Lord.

    (Human sacrifice… A moral choice.)

    Do not lie with a man
    as one lies with a woman;
    that is detestable.

    (Same sex – sex… A moral choice.)

    Do not have sexual relations
    with an animal
    and defile yourself with it.

    A woman must not present
    herself to an animal
    to have sexual relations with it;
    that is a perversion.
    Leviticus 18:21-23

    (Sex with animals… A moral choice.)

    Cursed is the one who trusts in man,
    who draws strength from mere flesh
    and whose heart turns away from the Lord.
    Jeremiah 17:5

    Or do you not know that the unrighteous
    will not inherit the kingdom of God?
    Do not be deceived;
    neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers,
    nor effeminate, nor homosexuals, nor thieves,
    nor the covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers,
    nor swindlers, will inherit the kingdom of God.
    1 Corinthians 6:9-10

    Marriage is to be held in honor among all,
    and the marriage bed is to be undefiled;
    for fornicators and adulterers God will judge.
    Hebrews 13:4

    (One man and one woman for life.)

    The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven
    against all the godlessness and wickedness of men
    who suppress the truth by their wickedness,
    since what may be known about God is plain to them,
    because God has made it plain to them.

    For since the creation of the world God’s
    invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—
    have been clearly seen, being understood
    from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.

    For although they knew God,
    they neither glorified Him as God nor gave thanks to Him,
    but their thinking became futile
    and their foolish hearts were darkened.

    Although they claimed to be wise,
    they became fools and exchanged the glory
    of the immortal God for images made to look like
    mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles.

    Therefore God gave them over
    in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity
    for the degrading of their bodies with one another.
    They exchanged the truth of God for a lie,
    and worshiped and served created things
    rather than the Creator—who is forever praised. Amen.

    Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts.
    Even their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural ones.

    In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations
    with women and were inflamed with lust for one another.
    Men committed indecent acts with other men,
    and received in themselves the due penalty for their perversion.

    Furthermore, since they did not think it worthwhile
    to retain the knowledge of God,
    He gave them over to a depraved mind,
    to do what ought not to be done.

    They have become filled with every kind of wickedness,
    evil, greed and depravity.
    They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice.
    They are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant
    and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil;
    they disobey their parents; they are senseless, faithless,
    heartless, ruthless.
    Although they know God’s righteous decree
    that those who do such things deserve death,
    they not only continue to do these very things
    but also approve of those who practice them.
    Romans 1:18-32

    Exactly what part of the command of God: DO NOT;
    do you NOT understand ???

  • amother

    .. thank you so much for this gentle article. This is so hard a s a mother … watching … I would welcome artcles or supplementary material focusing on women – I felt this was (naturally because of the author) more form a male perspective. I found great freedom in the articulation of not labelling guys in life … though I could not say that was a factor for my daughter …