January 30, 2009
Recently, I wrote an article for Crosswalk regarding three misconceptions about homosexuality. The response on Crosswalk and other websites where the article was posted was voluminous and intense. On the plus side, some readers were relieved to see these misconceptions addressed, but on the down side, others attacked my orthodoxy and competence. Given this response and the admittedly brief treatment of each of the misconceptions, I plan additional articles which will elucidate each point. Although this deeper examination may raise additional questions, I hope to address some issues provoked by the initial article on misconceptions in ministry.
The first misconception I identified was “all gay people are attracted to the same sex because they did not bond with their parents or were sexually abused.” Some readers questioned whether anyone actually holds such an exclusive position. I have been active in writing about and researching sexual orientation and identity formation for over 10 years and my impression is that many, if not most, Christian ministries hold to the view that same-sex attraction stems from a failure of bonding with the same-sex parent. At a Focus on the Family Love Won Out conference in 2007, founder and past-president of the National Association for the Research and Therapy of Homosexuality, the leading group of professionals associated with the bonding-failure theory, was asked by CNN reporter Gary Tuchman, “So you’re categorically saying that if a father and son have a normal relationship, that child will not be gay.” Dr. Nicolosi replied succinctly, “Yes.” Other ministries such as Exodus International often suggest that there may be other causes but present the bonding-failure view as the usual pathway to homosexuality.
I labeled this theory as a misconception because there are gay people who grew up living in clearly loving homes and were quite bonded with their parents, both same- and opposite-sex. Although some same-sex attracted people experienced difficult relationships with their parents, so do many people who have never been attracted to the same sex. In some cases, the difficult relationship began after the same-sex attraction became apparent. In any event, the negative family relationships experienced by some same-sex attracted people do not validate the bonding-failure theory for those gays and lesbians who had warm, happy connections.
Furthermore, the scientific research regarding homosexuality allows no confidence in one particular set of family dynamics of constellations as creating homosexuals. A recent study from Andrew Francis of Emory University found that boys in fatherless homes were no more likely to report same-sex activity than boys where fathers were in the home. Surely, if the lack of a bond with father was crucial, then this study would have found more homosexual behavior among fatherless boys. Another recent study compared adults who were abused and neglected as children with those who were not and found no differences in the likelihood of homosexual relationships. In that same study, sexual abuse was associated with a somewhat increased probability of adult homosexuality for men but not for women. Even for the men, many sexually abused boys did not grow up to be homosexual; all homosexuals were not abused. For some people, sexual abuse may have real ramifications for their adult sexual behavior, however one may experience same-sex attraction even if one was not sexually abused. Based on current research, it seems more likely that different factors operate differently for different people to form the direction of sexual attractions.
Some hold to the early childhood origins idea because they sincerely hope there are no innate or pre-natal causes for homosexuality. However, Christian orthodoxy is not dependent on a particular theory of homosexual causation. Last year, Al Mohler, President of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, stirred controversy when he wrote that evangelicals should be prepared to acknowledge biological factors in sexual orientation. Mohler said,
"Christians must be very careful not to claim that science can never prove a biological basis for sexual orientation. We can and must insist that no scientific finding can change the basic sinfulness of all homosexual behavior. The general trend of the research points to at least some biological factors behind sexual attraction, gender identity, and sexual orientation. This does not alter God's moral verdict on homosexual sin (or heterosexual sin, for that matter), but it does hold some promise that a deeper knowledge of homosexuality and its cause will allow for more effective ministries to those who struggle with this particular pattern of temptation."
Mohler calls for Christians to be careful researchers and consumers of the science on sexual orientation. In my view, many Christians hold to family dynamics theories because they believe their Christianity requires it. Dr. Mohler correctly calls Evangelicals to expand their thinking regarding biological factors and sexual behavior. This is apropos for heterosexuality as well given that some recent research has reported a link between a genetic aberration and lower levels of relationship commitment among straight males. It is conceivable that research will find genetic markers associated with promiscuity which might appear to excuse unfaithfulness. However, these findings will not change the historic Christian standard of fidelity in marriage.
Although some same-sex attracted people believe the failure-to-bond theory provides a good framework to help them understand their situation, others find a painful dead-end. Listen to how one family described their experience with the failure-to-bond theory:
"As parents of a same-sex-attracted son, there was no mountain too high for us to connect our son and our family to the “best help” for our issues. We found a counselor for him, and then joined him in many sessions and spent a good deal of time examining our parent – child relationships; classifying them as “close” or “distant” and figuring out why. With our broken hearts on the table each week, we looked for the magic thread, the exact moment we disabled our son’s sexuality so as to examine it, repent of it, be forgiven and put this nightmare away. Our counselor finally admitted that we were “unique” and that our son was “unique,” not fitting into the usual (how does the term “usual” apply to sexually fallen humans?) categories and that he basically did not know what else to say to help to untangle these conflicts for our son. We went on to read many books, we attended a famous conference 1000’s of miles away from our home, only to meet one of the most famous authors whose flippant response to us upon introducing ourselves to him was “Yes – I can see it, the mother who did all the research and coordination to get here, the dad who has no idea why he is here and the son who is miserable being here.” The three of us were after words of life, not words of sarcasm.
"I can accurately say now that navel-gazing your potential contribution to a child’s same-sex attraction is nothing short of anguish. Our son would tell you that his father and mother did not contribute to his same-sex attraction. We actually wish some days that it were that easy to put into an equation like “Dad ignored you for some formative years, mom made up for it, you identify with mom not dad – therein lies the reason!” Alas, this is not true in our family. We never ignored our children, our family has been busy bearing one another up, and our son takes responsibility for his same-sex attraction. If we were responsible, we would have accepted the blame gladly. Instead, now, we find ourselves relying on the truths of Scripture such as Romans 8 and II Corinthians 1:3-4. My husband and I come from a promiscuous past, we were products of the sexual revolution and legalized abortion. We are the right parents for this son of ours because we know restoration of sexual brokenness through a relationship with the living Lord Jesus. That is the relationship we pray that our son examines and gazes upon. In the meantime, we adore him and he us and we celebrate God’s goodness and sovereignty."
I do not believe this family is rare. No family is perfect of course but there is little evidence that enduring sexual preferences are set due to subtle dynamics of family life. Much of anguish and hostility expressed by same-sex attracted sons and daughters and their parents derive from a failure of well-meaning helpers to recognize the complexity of human sexuality and each individual. Ministry in this arena could start with a familiar dictum from health care – first, do no harm.
Warren Throckmorton, PhD is Associate Professor of Psychology and Fellow for Psychology and Public Policy in the Center for Vision and Values at Grove City College. He blogs at Crosswalk.com.