Mark Yarhouse & Olya Zaporozhets, Costly Obedience: What We Can Learn from the Celibate Gay Christian Community (Zondervan, 2019)
What is it like to live as someone who is a Christian, is same-sex attracted, and chooses, out of faithfulness to Jesus, not to pursue a gay relationship? That’s the key question explored in Costly Obedience. Yarhouse and Zaporozhets, both psychologists based at American universities, draw on a quantitative study of 300 individuals in this situation – referred to as celibate gay Christians in the book – in addition to a number of other studies, and interviews with 13 celibate gay Christians, to provide insights and reflections on this particular experience of following Jesus.
Using the study data and interviews, the authors explore a range of topics including the impact of church cultures on celibate gay Christians and their life experiences and milestones, along with key questions such as causation, identity labels, and the morality of same-sex attraction.
One of the most interesting sections explores the emotional wellbeing of celibate gay Christians and contains some encouraging findings. Summarising these findings in their conclusion, the authors state: ‘[O]n measures of depression, anxiety, and stress, as well as well-being, our sample is doing better than expected. Most were in the normal range for depression, anxiety, and stress and on another measure of distress, most again scored in the normal range. On a measure of well-being, most of our sample score high on overall life satisfaction’ (p.218). This is encouraging evidence that celibacy can be a fulfilling way of living as a follower of Jesus, a fact many of us have experienced to be true in our own lives.
In addition to reporting the findings of various studies, Yarhouse and Zaporozhets also offer some reflections on the results and some suggestions for how Christians and churches might respond. There is some good advice here about the importance of spiritual family, sharing stories, and intentionality, as well as how to help people to experience the goodness of singleness. The authors also offer a chapter on how celibate gay Christians might be able to strengthen the Church. This positive approach is a great corrective to some takes on the subject which consider only the difficulties of living as a same-sex attracted Christian.
As the work of two psychologists sharing the results of quantitative studies, some chapters can be quite dry for those who don’t enjoy figures. Though occasional personal perspectives from interviewees are included, some readers will prefer a book which is more focussed on stories and personal testimony. This also isn’t a book to go to for a careful consideration of debates over the morality of same-sex desire or identity labels. While Yarhouse and Zaporozhets do talk about these topics, and give a fairly good indication of their position, they are aiming to help people understand the conversation and to encourage continued and better dialogue rather than attempting to offer any clear answers.
One potential weakness of the book is a failure to discuss the methodology of the studies used. Being a popular level work, it is understandable that this wouldn’t be discussed in detail, but it could perhaps have been covered in the end notes. In particular, it seems that the studies referred to aren’t weighted to the wider population and therefore, strictly speaking, they can’t tell us anything more than what is true of those surveyed. The figures cannot be said with any certainty to reflect the situation of all celibate gay Christians. To their credit, the authors don’t make any inflated claims for their results and they do consistently talk about what the results reveal to be true of their sample, but they could perhaps have helped their readers by being clear on the potential limitations of their methodology.
Yarhouse and Zaporozhet’s aim is clearly to work towards a better experience of church for celibate gay Christians and to encourage better dialogue on the areas of disagreement among conservative Christians on specific issues within the broader topic of same-sex attraction among followers of Jesus. This is an admirable aim and I think Costly Obedience is a good contribution to this ongoing work.