Book Review: Homosexuality – The Use of Scientific Research in the Church’s Moral Debate; By Stanton L. Jones & Mark A. Yarhouse

Letter TThe topic of homosexuality has been discussed from a variety of angles from within the Christian context. Some scholars seek to address the ancient near-Eastern and Greco-Roman contexts in which the Scriptures were written to best understand their injunctions, others attempt to deal directly with and exegete the Biblical texts.

The goal of Stanton Jones and Mark Yarhouse in their book here is to analyze how the most recent scientific research effects the Christian moral debate around homosexuality. To be clear, the book is not written to answer the question of whether homosexual actions are immoral in light of science, the authors begin from the assumption that it is. The goal is rather to show that “while science provides us with many interesting and useful perspectives on sexual orientation and behavior, the best science of this day fails to persuade the thoughtful Christian to change his or her moral stance.”(p.13) The goal is to answer the question of how research on homosexuality should inform the Christian understanding of homosexuality.


The basic issue that Jones and Yarhouse see in the current climate is that “After the stem ‘science says…’ sweeping and inaccurate generalizations are often made. After such generalizations ethical conclusions are often thrown out that are only loosely tied to the supposed scientific facts.” (p29) This book is written both to clarify what the current research actually says and to analyze how those findings are brought to bear on ethical discussions.

This discussion entails research into the prevalence of homosexuality, its etiology, its status as a mental disorder, and the efficacy of change methods. In each section they look at what the science says and then turn to what the ethical implications of that are.

The authors begin by laying out four basic views of the relationship between science and religion. These views are perspectivalism (that science and religion are complementary ways of knowing dealing with alternate vantage points on reality), imperialism (the view that they are competing descriptions of the same reality, one trying to dominate the other), and postmodern relativism (where authorities have been replaced by personal narrative).

Instead of these, the authors advocate fro what they call critical realism. This is the believe that there is a real world out there that can be known, and that our theories and presuppositions color our capacity to know that world. This view puts science and religion in dialogue, each influencing the other, dealing with different but overlapping slices of reality.

Even still, they acknowledge that some source of understanding must be privileged, and for them that source is the Scriptures (especially when they are clear in their position). They therefore offer a basic outline of the Biblical understanding of homosexuality and the basic psychological categories used in the discussion (such as the question essentialism and social constructivism).

On the question of the prevalence of homosexuality, the authors analyze the research and sampling methods of studies into the prevalence of homosexuality. In critiquing the sample-sizes and sample-populations of key studies and find that the commonly touted number of 10% is actually closer to 2-4%. They note further that while this so, the prevalence – or lack thereof – bears no direct relation to whether a given behavior is moral.

On the question of etiology, the authors attack the caricatures that often made in regards to the traditional view of homosexuality as well as false dichotomies between homosexuality being either caused or chosen. These caricatures attempt to create easily-knocked-down straw men such that the Christian case can be easily dismissed; one such example is framing the Christian as claiming homosexuality is a willful perversion, in which case the critic must only show that it is not entirely willful.

In this section the authors look at psychoanalytic, biological and genetic causes, determining the many factors – such as chromosomes – are neither necessary nor sufficient for causing homosexuality. Rather, “The chromosomal markers may signal personality or temperamental traits that make experiences of same-sex attraction more or less interesting to an individual under certain circumstances. It is possible that some people have genetically grounded personality traits that predispose that person towards, but do not ’cause’, homosexuality.”(p83)

On the whole, they find the studies into etiology inconclusive. They propose and interactionist model in which “Each of these unique influences and experiences can provide a ‘push’ in the direction of homosexuality, though no one experience or push ’causes’ a person to be homosexual.”(p86) Morally, the seek to reject false dichotomies between free choice and deterministic causation, and seek to point out that – regardless of etiology of the desire – science has not eliminated responsibility for sexual behavior such that:

“The church’s moral concern is not with what an individual does with his or her experiences of same-sex attraction… Homosexual persons are not subhuman robots whose acts are predetermined. They are moral agents who inherit tendencies from biology and environment, and who share in shaping their character by the responses they make to their life situations. Like all persons, they must ask, ‘This is what I want to do, but is it what I should do?’ The existence of inclinations or predispositions does not erase the need for moral evaluation of those inclinations.”(p90)

Moving on to the topic of pathologies, the authors point out that the Christian position is not tied to homosexuality being a pathology, though they do note the political and skewed research-based reasons why it was removed from the DSM. They point out that “there is no necessary overlap between sinfulness and status as psychopathology.” (p114)

Finally the authors move on to discuss whether or not homosexuality can be changed. The authors note that there is substantial for homosexuals changing their desires to varying degrees, whether through reparative psychodymanic therapies, Christian support groups, etc. Jones and Yarhouse contend that most criticisms of these methods consist of little more than ad hominems and anecdotes-verging-on-solipsism which refuse to engage with the methods, findings, or arguments of the actual research; yet as they note “What counts are not anecdotes but data.” (p.141)

Similarly, critics critique movement from homosexuality to heterosexuality, but support anecdotes of the opposite. The authors thus note:

“The reader of [this] argument is left with the impression that real change can occur as a person moves toward homosexuality but that movement in the other direction is always superficial and ingenuous. The implication is that ‘coming out’ after a period of heterosexuality is a revelation of one’s true sexual identity, while embracing heterosexual behavior after living in the gay lifestyle is a ‘mere’ change of behavior.”(p142)

In regards to ethics, the authors conclude that even with this ambiguity and inconclusive nature of the research, it has no effect on the morality either way; for them, the key is whether a person is able to refrain from sinful behavior, not whether the desires for it can be made to go away.

In the final chapter of the book offer their final thoughts on a Christian sexual ethic. Here they critique especially the tendency in contemporary society to reason backwards from experience to theology, “on the basis of their relatively unreflective analysis of their personal experience or that of those dear to the, they adjust their views of biblical commands and of principles of biblical interpretation, [etc]” (p155).

The Christian sexual ethic presented is given in the fame of creation, fall, redemption, and glorification. They note that the Christian identity is not ultimately based on their sexuality, that the self is defined not on the basis of subjectivity but rather the meanings given by God in his revelation. They seek to show that sexual intercourse has an innate meaning and metaphysic that exists outside our subjective views.


On the whole, this book is a good introduction to and critique of much of the research that has been done in regards to homosexuality. The authors point out many of the flawed methods used in support of those who want to normalize the practice and do well in parsing out the ethical implications of this (often noting how – either way – the Christian position is not affected and the secular critiques can only feign success due to  a false understanding of what the Christian ethic actually is).

The book does have a few minor weaknesses. The authors have a poor understanding of postmodernism, and – having been written in 2000 – is somewhat dated (for instances, they lived in world where gender was still seen as an enduring universal category (p25)). Finally, they operate from a common misunderstanding which sees Christ as having “raised the expectations on us” (p22), when in fact he merely pointed out where the Jews of his time had lowered and/or misunderstood the expectations that had in fact been present all throughout the Old Testament. Finally, the book doesn’t delve into the question of whether desires themselves can be sinful.

The authors do draw a strong distinction between homosexual desires and homosexual actions, however in my opinion they don’t do enough to note the spectrum between having homosexual desire and being a homosexual; this results in the authors inadvertently and unfortunately making homosexuality into an identity rather than a temptation (Kevin DeYoung does a somewhat better job of this in his book).

On the whole, the book is a good read for those wanting a Christian perspective on homosexuality and a critique of many of the ‘scientific’ findings around the topic.

Memorable Quotes:

“The Christian church has never taught that all our desires come from God, has never taught that all our desires are good and has never taught that every desire, even every good desire, ought to be fulfilled.”–18

“Homosexual behavior then was wrong: both because it was contrary to the revealed will of God as expressed in the moral law, and because it was unnatural, in that it could not well serve all of the purposes for which our sexuality was given.”–22

“Morality is not usually conceived as determined by democratic vote in the Christian tradition.”--113


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