Holy Sexuality and the Gospel: Sex, Desire, and Relationships Shaped by God’s Grand Story by Christopher Yuan (Multnomah Press, 2018)
Iunderstand why Yuan’s work is popular. First, he’s a nice guy (yes, we’ve met), and is a great speaker with a compelling story, the kind that Christians love to hear—the classic bad boy, really bad boy, to preacher story. It’s also titillates us and makes us feel good listening to theology that agrees with what we’ve been told about the dark and evil located outside of us, in the stuff we would never do.
Because it is likely that the majority of potential readers of “Holy Sexuality” will be pastors, youth leaders, families, and friends of LGBTQ people (both Christian and not), it is for you that I wrote this review. I’m a straight evangelical Christian, mother of two adult straight children, faithful follower of Jesus, active in my evangelical church, author of a book on the history of the cultural and religious discrimination against LGBTQ community, and speaker on the topic.
With this review, I hope to push readers beyond what might be comfortable. Often we aren’t interested in digging around in difficult topics until an issue becomes personal in some way. Only then you may see what is glaringly obvious to ever increasing numbers of us Christians—that there are millions of LGBTQ single and married Christians faithfully following and serving God. And books like “Holy Sexuality,” ignores them, and does great injustice and harm to them.
I hope you’ll also begin to wonder why conservative leaders continually create a turn stile of methods, nuanced language, and shifting theology to “deal” with homosexuality.
Since his last book, Yuan has significantly ramped up his negative messaging about homosexuality. His words carry weight and go a distance (he speaks publicly several hundred times each year). The impact from this book will be elevated levels of damage on LGBTQ people and their families, a continuation of misinformation about sexual orientation, and driving of people (not just LGBTQ people, but those who support their full inclusion in churches) from Christian churches.
In “Holy Sexuality,” Yuan creates freshly nuanced language and reshaped questionable theology. His ideas might indeed seem “holy.” So, let me lay them out a bit more clearly.
Yuan’s truth about sexuality is God’s truth and therefore, Yuan’s implementation of these beliefs about sexuality is good theology. (p 4,5)
I need to step back here a bit to lay some historical groundwork.
Christian theology about sexuality in general, and with respect to gay people in particular is quite a new concept. Christians had widely avoided discussing sexuality at all until the 1970s. And there was certainly no theology about homosexuality coming from the conservative church during that time.
Further, did you realize the first usage of the word “homosexual” in the Bible was in the Revised Standard Version in 1946 where it appeared in 1 Cor. 6: 9-10? Before the RSV was published, throughout history that Corinthians text had been interpreted and understood as a situation in which a socially more powerful and/or older man imposed exploitative, abusive penetrative sex on a boy, or on a subservient person.
During the RSV translation process of Corinthians in the 1930s and early 1940s, the team decided to join two Greek words—malakoi and arsenokoitai—into one word “homosexual” for ease in understanding. The team had been tasked to update the language of the popular King James, the ASV, and the ESV to more modern English. For the most part, until then, the two Greek words had been a variation on “effeminate” (one who takes the sexual penetrated role of a woman) and “sodomite” (one who penetrates another person, typically with excessive lust and with no intent to procreate). Even in the 1930s, the word “homosexual” carried a different meaning and implication than it does today. Then, homosexuality was wrongly considered a mental illness; not a moral issue, but a pathological one.
It’s even more obvious that the word homosexual as we understand it today (one who is emotionally, romantically, and sexually attracted to the same sex) is a poor conjoining and translation of two words that throughout history had referred to exploitative sex.
The placement of the word “homosexual” in Corinthians went relatively unnoticed for the next 30 years. Historical denominational journals, pastoral counseling magazines, and Christian books reflect this. There was simply no discussion taking place that connected morality and sin to homosexuality using 1 Corinthians. (This is all part of the historical work I am now doing.)
Then in the 1971 The Living Bible paraphrase, the words “homosexual/homosexuality” were introduced in six more places in the Bible for the first time (Leviticus twice, Deuteronomy, 1 Kings, Romans (inferred) and 1 Timothy). Surprising, isn’t it? Still, there was no theology created around homosexuality. The Christian church was not in the fix-the-gays business. The translation notes on this Bible indicate the translations, just as had happened in the RSV, were cultural decisions, not theological ones.
About the same time, in 1973, medical experts lifted the designation of mental illness off homosexuality. They had never had the science or studies to support the pathological designation. The history of understanding the progression of human sexuality from 1870 till 1970 is fascinating! For another time . . .
Sadly, in the late 1970s, a landscape created primarily by the Moral Majority and conservative politics developed in America that made it politically advantageous for conservatives and financially advantageous for TV evangelists at the time to blame moral decline in the country and church on a few select topics: abortion (did you know the SBC supported abortion in the early 1970s? Pretty surprising, right?), drugs, and “the gays.”
Still, historical documents show that absolutely no “gay theology” had yet been constructed.
By the end of the 1970s, however, the first Christian groups began to slowly appear with a mission to “fix” the gays and make them straight by employing reparative therapy, and even suggesting that gay people enter into heterosexual marriages. Even though the word “homosexual” was placed in the RSV and the TLB with no theological considerations, and little medical understanding, still, it was conveniently there.
Previously discarded theories as to why some people were gay were recycled, re-tooled slightly, and wrapped in Christianese. Voila! A new Christian industry was born and along with it, a slowly emerging theology informing Christians about “what God clearly says about homosexuality.”
Over the next generation, Christian ministries tried to make gay people straight by: encouraging them to find the root of the problem in their relationship to their smother-mother or distance father, repenting for an imagined outright rebellion against God, memorizing and employing key verses on temptation, avoiding contact with other gay people, modifying their behaviors to be more masculine for gay men and more feminine for lesbians, and even marrying opposite sex partners as a sign of faith that God would change their attraction with this step of obedience.
All that foolishness didn’t work and tragically caused massive amounts of shame, depression, substance abuse issue, promiscuity, suicide, and broken families and marriages for LGBTQ people.
So, now what’s next if we can’t make gay people straight and stop them from being gay?
Here was an opportune pivot point for the conservative church. But, rather than doing the hard, more time-consuming and coffer-reducing work, they honed in on the next iteration of a more refined theology. This is the most common currently, and it focuses on imposed celibacy for LGBTQ people.
Even in this celibacy-for-gay camp, there is a variety of beliefs around how LGBTQ people are “allowed” to identify. If they identify as a “gay Christian,” they are frequently accused of not placing their “identity in Christ” and “giving into” a gay identity, which inherently does not allow God to change you. If you identify as “same-sex attracted” then you are admitting to temptation, by not placing your sexual orientation higher than relationship with God, and you are open to the possibility of God giving you desire for a heterosexual marriage.
And, still, identification as a same-sex attracted celibate Christian does not seem restrictive enough personally for Christopher Yuan, so he has created another level of more nuanced language and has reshaped theology. And no, I do not have a degree in psychology, but I have hundreds of friends who have gone the Christian reparative therapy route. I have multiple dozens of friends who have been leaders, authors, therapists, and speakers in the ex-gay/celibacy movements.
The theology and rules set that Yuan has had a part in creating, teaching, and living by are no longer working for him. He admits that he is still sexually tempted (p. 126) and writes: “As a policy, I never travel alone, and I’m blessed my mother has committed to travel with me wherever I go as my prayer warrior and someone to hold me accountable when I am on the road.” (p. 73) He also comments: “One of the things lacking today is a robust theological discussion on sexual orientation.” (p. 67)
What? The 40 or so books on the topic I have personally read and reviewed with at least an equal number above that which I have read are not enough?
Maybe it is not enough, because they don’t work. Even when you are Christopher Yuan. Each iteration of you-can-be-gay-and-Christian theology doesn’t work, so . . . he is changing it up again.
Yuan builds his new theology with a few foundational beliefs:
“One cannot properly understand human sexuality unless it is rooted in “theological anthropology”(p. 12); the God image we are born with is distorted because of The Fall (p. 15); and, we must believe in the fall of Adam and Eve leading to the doctrine of original sin or we reject the work of Christ on the cross (p.26)… all concluding: “When it comes to sexuality, the place to start must always be the image of God and the doctrine of sin. No Christian should ever challenge these fundamental principles.” (p. 33)
To be a “real” Christian, it seems, we are forced to choose between two alternatives — either choose faith and literal reading of the Bible in intellectual exile, or be intellectually curious and honest and abandon your faith. I choose the middle ground. Incorporating Scripture and science does not diminish my respect for and submission to God’s authority. I can both value the creation story as a different style and intention in writing than say, the New Testament letters and gospels.
I don’t use the Bible as a science book, or as a template dictating the limited heteronormative binary of human sexuality, and still, I am a Christian, one who refuses to abuse Scripture and use unsubstantiated interpretations created by others to marginalize groups of people that are not like me.
So when Yuan constructs yet another new variation of “robust theological discussion on sexual orientation,” I strongly object.
As with prior conservative variations, in creating his new modification, Yuan ignores what medical and psychological professionals universally agree upon—that homosexuality is a natural variation of human sexuality. For Yuan, “same-sex sexual practice or any struggle with sin such as resisting same-sex sexual desire has only one root cause: original sin.” Adding, “To claim the primary root of homosexuality is anything but original sin is to deny orthodoxy.” (p. 37) Again, I don’t imagine I am going to fall off into a heretical abyss if I side with medical experts on this one.
Yuan vehemently rejects the connection between his theology and harm suffered by LGBTQ people stating there is no empirical evidence. (p. 152) Not only is there statistical evidence, it is highly disturbing that Yuan needs to see numbers to “prove” the damage caused by his strain of theology. Evidence that shows LGBTQ kids who are rejected by their families are 8.4 times more likely to attempt suicide than LGBTQ kids who are supported by their family. Reading one Brene Brown book on shame should be enough to rethink this destructive theology.
Setting studies aside, Yuan could simply invest time in listening and learning directly from LGBTQ Christians and their families. That could be emotionally risky though for a man who has build his own high walls of protection. Yuan controls the questions asked of him in public settings. (For a particularly raw view into this and other dynamics going on in Yuan’s life, consider watching “Yuan Speaks at Yale Part 2” on YouTube starting at the 5:30 mark.) HERE is the link which is NOT linked in the Amazon review
With homosexuality rooted in original sin, what’s a gay Christian to do? As indicated, above, in the past, it was suggested that they submit to some form of therapy to become ex-gay, or maybe remain celibate for life. And here another switch-up—no, says Yuan, those are not viable options. (p. 39) Wait, what about all those other books by conservative Christians who say this is the most acceptable option? What happened to that and what God clearly told them?
“I believe both these paths (the ex-gays and celibate gays) fall short in the same way, by elevating sexual orientation as a redeemable category.” (p. 39) “With same-sex attractions, the problem is sin, and the gospel is the answer.” (p. 40) “The terms heterosexual and homosexual originate from a secular anthropology that elevates sexual desires as a legitimate way to categorize humanity.” (p. 46) “Using a term that confuses our true identity is unwise, and embracing such a broad category that includes sinful behavior should be roundly rejected.” (p. 47)
I found the following sentences to be quite stunning: “Segregating ourselves into straight Christians and gay Christians gives the false impression that were fundamentally different at the core of our being. We need more unity not less, and this segregation by orientation is in essence a form of affective apartheid.” (p. 72) Affective apartheid?
Did you catch all that? If being gay is sin, and calling oneself gay is sin, and even sexual orientation terms for heterosexual and homosexual are secular, and inherently elevate sexual sin, what solution does Yuan suggest to rise above all this linguistic gymnastics?
Glad you asked, “what other options do we have, you may ask other than heterosexuality and homosexuality? What we need is a completely new paradigm to represent God’s sexual ethic. Holy sexuality.” (p. 47) This term has been tossed around for about a decade usually in this form: what is the opposite of homosexuality? Not heterosexuality, but holisexuality.
Yuan wants to jettison the sexual orientation terms, all of them, in the church: “We pigeonholed ourselves into the wrong framework for biblical sexual expression: heterosexuality, bisexuality, or homosexuality. It’s time to break free from this paradigm and embrace God’s vision for sexuality. Holy sexuality consists of two paths: chastity in singleness and faithfulness in marriage.” (p. 47)
What follows is an odd discourse on the elevation and idolization of marriage in the U.S. addressing the Obergefell v Hodges same-sex marriage decision.. “Not only did it (the decision) redefine marriage, but is also legally ratified the falsity that marriage is the pinnacle of love.”(p. 77) Yuan then adds, “I respectfully, but resolutely, disagree. Marriage may be an expression of love, but it’s not the highest ideal of love. God is. Let me further elucidate how Justice Kennedy’s assertions are found lacking when measured against biblical truth. Marriage may be an expression of fidelity, but it’s not the highest ideal of fidelity. God is.” (p. 77) Yuan in contrast to the SCOTUS, states “marriage is not a basic human or civil right.” (p. 92)
Now, what should the church do with all these celibates who struggle with loneliness? I’ve read this solution several times in many other gay celibate books, and each time I find it overly altruistic. Yuan suggests that Christian families should include single people of the church in their own families in order to create a family for them. Yuan then asks “Will you commit to making this a reality for the sake of me and all Christian singles? (p. 137) As I mentioned, quite altruistic, and where is the biblical model for couples taking in the church celibate? My goodness, many of us struggle to love the stranger and the immigrant well, and that is in the Bible.
I know there are bisexual people who have attractions along the spectrum from straight to gay. Some people with some level of same-sex attraction can successfully marry heterosexually. Yuan takes the possibilities a bit further: “Many assume that lifelong celibacy is the only option for believers with same-sex attraction. While we shouldn’t promote biblical marriage as the ultimate prize as ex-gay ministries have done in the past, we also shouldn’t discount the possibility that God can do the impossible. Mandating lifelong celibacy for those with same-sex attraction on the false premise that physical marriage is impossible for them does not permit God to be God, the only one who determines the future.” (p. 116)
Yuan does engage pro-gay theology, and in particular Matthew Vines, founder of The Reformation Project. In the spirit of transparency, I have known Matthew since 2013, before the formation of TRP. I’ve been on the board of the organization for 6 years, and am now the chair of the board. Matthew is one of my closest friends. So, when Yuan writes about him and makes assumptions as to his character and beliefs, it is quite easy for me to see through it.
Yuan writes: “To conclude that bad fruit refers to suicide, attempted suicide, or even suicidal ideation requires a biblical interpreter to abandon basic exegetical principles. Furthermore, for Vines, hardship and distress are utterly incompatible with his idea of Christian life. Matthew’s irresponsible methodology is essentially a dance with deception.” (p. 149) Adding, “Matthew Vines simply represents a new iteration of the health, wealth, and prosperity movement,” (p. 150) and “Vines’ interpretation leaves no room for suffering and cross bearing in the life of the believer. (p. 149) None of what Yuan writes is an accurate reflection of what Matthew has publicly expressed, or how he lives his life. Yuan has embellished and distorted Matthew’s stances.
Matthew writes in “God and the Gay Christian”: “Much of our culture does promote the idea that our greatest fulfilment is to be found in sex and marriage. To the extent that Christians accept that view, we risk idolizing romantic love and losing sight of our first love, Christ. It is true, too, that God does not promise us easy lives. We are called to deny ourselves, to take up our crosses, and to follow Jesus.”
Yuan concludes, “If a leader blatantly takes Scripture out of context like this, twisting the Bible to say what it doesn’t say, everything else he teaches should be suspect.” (p. 155) On this Yuan and I agree. When a leader twists Scripture, takes it out of context and lies, he/she is not to be trusted. I do not trust Christopher Yuan.
On p 33, Yuan quotes a Chinese proverb: “A millimeter discrepancy leads to a thousand mile loss. If the point of departure is a bit off from the start, the deviation in the end can be overwhelmingly large.”
The theology in “Holy Sexuality” is off, by a thousand miles. While Yuan wants increasingly “robust” sexual orientation theology, I think we need to go back to the point of departure and reexamine the wrong assumptions. We need to listen to both the experts on sexual orientation and to LGBTQ Christians themselves. It is abundantly clear that all the fix-the-gays variations have not and are not working and do create damage.
Yet, Yuan builds the walls tighter unto himself to control a natural part of him, and the conservative church applauds him, puts him on hundreds of stages, and peddles his theology as “God’s truth.”
Take your eyes off the stage. Look at the ones to the sides. They are really the greater story. Despite all the barriers built against them, and the damage done to them, many of them have been there loving, serving, and worshipping God. They are the LGBTQ Christian community—single, dating, married, celibate—and they are speaking. Listen to them.