By Eric L. Johnson, director of the Society for Christian Psychology
Underlying our culture’s current debate about gay marriage is the deeper issue of how we as a pluralistic culture ought to define psychological well-being. Though homosexuality was considered psychopathological for centuries in the West, in 1980, as is well known, the American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality as a disorder in the 3rd edition of its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, and all major mental health associations have similarly concluded that homosexuality should be normalized. Many influences contributed to this change, but one of the most important is the normative power of expressive individualism, the belief in the inherent right of individuals to fulfill the desires they wish and become the persons they wish, so long as others are not harmed. Consequently, many contemporary intellectuals believe that societies should not forbid pleasure-seeking activities among mutually consenting adults. On the contrary, it seems to many to be mean-spirited and even cruel to stand in the way of those who wish to enjoy such activities. Let\’s call this the post/modern position.
Such a position, it is commonly believed, has been bolstered by research that indicates same-sex attraction (SSA) may be based on genetic factors and other biological processes, and therefore many have concluded that sexual orientation differences are just like race and gender differences. If there are biological factors in homosexuality, it is believed, those with SSAs have no control over them, and therefore they ought not to be discouraged from acting upon them. This has seemed to be further confirmed by the widely recognized difficulty that persons with homosexual desires have with changing them. As a result, many have concluded that homosexuality must be regarded as permissible and considered a kind of normal.
The post/modern position makes a great deal of sense to its proponents, and leads them to oppose vigorously the historic position of Judeo-Christian theism that SSA is a disorder. Nonetheless, it has some serious inconsistencies. For one thing, many desires and actions that are universally recognized as disordered are also influenced by genetic factors and other biological processes, including alcoholism, obsessive-compulsive behavior, schizophrenia, depression, anxiety, severe personality disorders, violent behavior, and pedophilia. Western societies understand that such psychological conditions, regardless of their biological influences, are deficiencies, so they encourage people who experience them to seek help and, in some cases, they even intervene by arrest and enforced treatment, e.g., when violence or pedophilia is practiced. Moreover, there are many psychological disorders that are also known to be highly resistant to treatment, for example personality disorders, schizophrenia, and pedophilia. Yet most psychiatrists in our culture would agree that these conditions constitute serious psychological deficiencies. So the possibility of genetic and other biological influences and resistance to treatment cannot be used as arguments for the normalcy or legitimacy of homosexuality.
But let’s consider pedophilia a bit more closely, which most Westerners continue to regard as morally reprehensible, because its expression requires the involvement of those who are incapable of mature consent to such behavior. However, its basis in physiological conditions is also being documented (see http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2007/11/071128092109.htm), which, if true, would also help to explain its notorious resistance to treatment. Nonetheless, our culture rightly judges pedophilia to be a psychological as well as a moral disorder. On what grounds? Because of the recognition that the expression of such desires is hurtful to the young, irrespective of whether there are biological conditions that contribute to pedophilia. So in this case at least, the mere presence of possible biological factors and resistance to treatment are not considered adequate reasons to conclude that pedophilic desires are therefore legitimate and normal. This is good. But it seems inconsistent for some in our culture to celebrate homosexuality, yet treat those with pedophilia as moral lepers, when the biological predicament of both may be very similar.
But there remains a greater inconsistency in the contemporary position that SSA is normal. Most of its proponents hold to an evolutionary account of human origins. Yet if any model would lead to the conclusion that SSA is disordered and deficient, one would think that evolutionary theory would. Evolutionary criteria for normalcy and disorder would seem to be based on that which promotes reproductive success and the proliferation of one’s genes. Consequently, from an evolutionary standpoint, at the very least, heterosexuality would seem to be the normative ideal and homosexuality would seem to be problematic, to say the least. This would seem to be a fairly serious, largely unacknowledged incoherence at the base of the post/modern attempt to normalize and sanction SSA, due to the conflicting values of expressive individualism and evolutionary theory. Here the Judeo-Christian tradition and evolutionary theory would seem to concur.
How could the proponents of the post/modern position become more consistent? By simply acknowledging that SSA is a disorder. The norms of expressive individualism would prevent viewing SSA as a moral disorder, so its proponents would still continue to support people with SSA expressing their sexuality as they wish. But this at least would be more consistent with their evolutionary assumptions.
However, because of the Bible’s teaching and natural law, Christians believe that homosexuality is also a moral problem, in spite of any biological influences, and are free to do so, because they reject the assumption that morality and the biological are mutually exclusive, for that assumption has no logical basis. All disorders, including moral, are in part biological. We are, after all, embodied; everything has a biological side to it, and a Christian holism is easily able to accommodate such complexity.
At the same time, we Christians have our own contradictions. We often convey a “holier-than-thou” attitude towards others, even though we believe that we are all sinners, and we have so far done an abysmal job of explaining how Christian love of the stranger, the disenfranchised, and the moral leper is compatible with affirming the Bible’s teachings on immorality. Our contradictions are due to many factors, but perhaps the most perverse is the unconscious appeal of focusing on the sins of others, rather than our own. A second, less condemning factor is simply the cognitive complexity of holding high moral standards like those in the Bible while simultaneously loving people who live immorally (the position of God). The first contradiction—due to self-deception and pride—may very well be more reprehensible in the eyes of God than homosexuality is (consider how strongly Jesus reproached the Pharisees!), and it too requires repentance and forgiveness in the cross of Jesus Christ. The second contradiction—due to the limited capacities of our reason—is more simply resolved by trust in the harmonious heart of our loving and holy Creator and Redeemer God.
Yet if any model of humanity would lead to a compassionate stance towards those with same-sex attraction, as well as pedophilia, one would think Christianity would. It teaches that none of us is normal—none of us are the way we are supposed to be. We are all disordered and deficient, for we are all moral lepers. Yet the Bible makes clear that God is especially concerned for the rejected, broken, and sinful (Mt 5:3; Mk 2:15-17; 1Co 1:26-28); the Son of God was himself crucified and forsaken for our abnormality of sin (Is 53). And He came to heal us of our diseases and wants us to work through our difficulties by means of the soul-healing intervention of his life, death, and resurrection (though a growing appropriation of this healing usually takes time). Gay people deserve our respect and love, even if we Christians must interpret SSA as a moral and a biological problem. Let us as a Christian psychological community repent of our sins and believe in this God and his gospel of holiness and love, as we work with those seeking to overcome their psychopathology, whatever it is, in the name of Christ.