When sexual orientation doesn't change
Of late, Rev. Al Mohler, President of the Southern Baptist Seminary has been calling evangelicals to speak honestly about homosexuality. He has said that homosexuality cannot be turned on and off and that evangelicals have minimized the reality of same-sex attraction. However, in a July 19 column, Mohler seemed to defend religiously based orientation change efforts as the proper option for a Christian.
Much of what he writes about sin and redemption most evangelicals would agree with, but then he says this about Christians and same-sex desire.
Christians with same-sex sexual desires must know that these desires are sinful. Thus, faithful Christians who struggle with these desires must know that God both desires and commands that they desire what He wills for them to desire. All Christians struggle with their own pattern of sinful desires, sexual and otherwise. Our responsibility as Christians is to be obedient to Christ, knowing that only He can save us from ourselves.
Earlier in the column, Mohler said that “…those whose sexual orientation is homosexual face the fact that they also need a fundamental reordering of their sexual attractions.” Correct me if I am misreading him, but he appears to be arguing that orientation (desire) itself is sinful and a change of attraction is required for believers who are naturally drawn to the same sex.
These statements appear to be at odds with Mohler’s statements that evangelicals have “lied about the nature of homosexuality” and that same-sex attractions is “not something that people can just turn on and turn off.”
I sense a problem.
Last week on my personal blog, I pointed to a study from Mark Yarhouse’s team at Regent University in the Christian journal Edification which reported no change in orientation on average for heterosexually married gay and lesbian people. Yarhouse surveyed people who were same-sex attracted to some degree and asked them to rate the direction and strength of their attractions now and then to recollect the same rating as it would have been before they were married. He also had them describe their sexual behavior at both times. The team found that behavior changed modestly, but measures of same-sex orientation remained the same. With the help of colleague Gary Welton, I am in the middle of analyzing survey results of a larger group of same-sex attracted men in straight marriages. In our group, we found same-sex attraction on average increases over time. Religious affiliation is associated with a smaller increase in same-sex attraction but these changes could not be considered a ”fundamental reordering of their sexual attractions.” There was no increase in opposite sex attraction on average.
At this point, I can’t satisfactorily reconcile what counseling and study participants* are telling us with what Rev. Mohler teaches in this column. Perhaps we are dealing with semantics when it comes to defining what orientation is, or what “a fundamental reordering” looks like. When Rev. Mohler says that God commands that gays desire what He wills them to desire, that sounds a lot like turning desires on and off - in short, choice. I hope he will address this in a future column because I feel sure that the emphasis on orientation in Mohler’s column will be discouraging to gays, lesbians and bisexuals who have entered heterosexual marriage, but remain attracted to the same sex. To me, it sounds like Mohler argues this way: Even though some same-sex attracted people live faithfully in heterosexual marriage, they are still in disfavor in some way differently from heterosexuals.
As I understand the view of most Christian ministries (e.g., Exodus) on this issue, same-sex attraction is not a choice nor is it sinful in itself. How one responds to it is the issue. I suspect this will not be the only column on this matter, but for now I wanted to raise what looks like a conundrum for evangelicals raised by research and Mohler’s column.
*Here I refer to my recent study, Yarhouse’s report and the longitudinal study by Jones and Yarhouse. Even in that study of Exodus participants, reports of a “fundamental reordering of their sexual attractions” were infrequent. Even the small number of people who reported categorical changes reported ongoing SSA. My current study has not yet been published and so the eventual results may be presented differently than I have them here.