The Enigma of Mark Yarhouse

Update–July, 2023: The judgment I sought to reserve in the article below I find increasingly hard to keep back. I encourage readers to get a more recent take in my Spring review of Dr. Yarhouse’s recent books.

If you have anything to do with counseling in the area of gender, whether your concern is aberration or discomfiture, desire deviance or dysphoria, you have likely heard the name of Mark Yarhouse. If you don’t know him, Dr. Yarhouse is currently a professor of psychology at Wheaton College. He is a conservative Christian who does not believe that it is permissible for Christians to act on same-sex attraction or that it is good to change their bodies.

 

He is also the current chair of the Taskforce on LGBT issues for the American Psychological Association (APA). This committee will provide guidance for psychologists on therapies.

 

Puzzling? A little confusing? Does this raise questions with you? Me too.

 

I have been acquainted with (and indebted to) the work of Dr. Yarhouse for some time. I quoted his writings about ten times in my first book, principally for his 2007 landmark study with Stanton Jones on religiously motivated change in same-sex attracted (SSA) individuals. Those two carried out the study before such work was deemed untoward and therefore unpublishable. I appreciated the rigor and honesty with which Dr. Yarhouse conducted and reported the research. He is a scientist with integrity, both parts no doubt cultivated by his Christianity.

 

Yet Dr. Yarhouse has authored several more recent books on transgenderism which were puzzling. They made me wonder. At a seminar I attended last month, put on by ServingLeaders Ministries, he said, “Everyone knows that I am a conservative. That I believe as a Christian that it is impermissible to act on these desires is obvious from what I’ve written.” Really? I was grateful to hear this because, despite my familiarity with many of his writings, I had no idea that he believed that. Nice to know.

 

So, why is it hard to know what Mark Yarhouse believes, and, more wonder-inducing, how does he survive, in the APA, which appears to the layman to be solidly sold out to the wholesale destruction of God’s gift of gender? Why and how?

 

Three facts can help us answer those questions, and marvel at the enigma which is Mark Yarhouse.

 

First, early on Dr. Yarhouse founded the Sex and Gender Identity Institute, which he moved to Wheaton with him when he landed there. That is, he has made gender problems his research area and counseling focus for a long time. The APA, to their credit, is recognizing an actual track record of experience by appointing him to the LGBT committee.

 

Second, and this was apparent in his recent seminar, Dr. Yarhouse is eminently a peace-maker. He does not have a contentious bone in his body. He humbly admits that there are critics to his model and they could be right. How he became chair of the APA Committee is beyond my paygrade, but it must be something along those lines. That quality has no doubt allowed him to straddle the worlds he does. And straddle he constantly does. To give an example, even though he was speaking to an assuredly Christian audience and he knew it, he still spoke as if he was in a LGBT committee meeting. On the subject of monozygotic twin studies, he simply stated in the seminar that they did not prove causation of SSA. When I questioned him privately about this, I found out that he merely meant by that that the activists are wrong to say that the twin studies prove a genetic origin of SSA. But, I countered, it’s not just that. The numbers are so low, they seem to me to clearly indicate the opposite: that SSA can’t be primarily genetic. “I would agree with that,” he said. Well, then, to this audience, wouldn’t he want to make that kind-of-important point? I don’t think it occurred to him to do so. He is just stuck on the tightrope. His goal is not to bring the Christian answer into counseling. That brings us to the third reason for this enigma.

 

#3-He is trying to make a place for Christians in a hostile environment. In his work to provide guidance on LGBT therapy, he wants Christians to be able to function in the increasingly secular world of counseling and psychology. How does one do that when they share fewer and fewer presuppositions with the industry? Dr. Yarhouse’s answer is a model of counseling whose goal is congruence. That is, he defines therapy to be only  helping people reach comfortable agreement between their actions and what they believe, regardless of what they believe. He calls this Sexual Identity Therapy. The description of that book says it all.

 

If this seems a bit problematic for you as a Christian, maybe even a Christian counselor, you have the rub. There are a host of issues that one could press Dr. Yarhouse on, which I suspect, if one did, he would agree, but doesn’t, in his public position, promote. These are such things as the lack of any evidence that transitioning diminishes suicide, the devastation of puberty blockers, and the huge factor of co-morbidity in trans-cases. Future post topics, for sure. And there are other matters on which you could simply disagree. But the real issue and, in my opinion, failure, of Dr. Yarhouse’s model is in this: A Christian cannot, in any line of work, be consistently non-directive in good conscience.

 

What I mean is this. A Christian cannot surrender moral categories while obeying the command to love his neighbor. Helping any person achieve congruence with his sin, especially when he is paying you, should push a believer beyond the breaking point in what she is doing. She is wronging her client to do so. Take a different example. No counselor, Christian or otherwise, would think of helping a client reach congruence about his conviction that he needs to lie to his spouse and cheat on her behind her back. It’s just that the culture agrees with the Bible on this one…at least for the time being.

 

For many Christian counselors, maybe this tension between being non-directive to maintain influence and the responsibility to affirm the truth about God’s world might be tolerable. I doubt that the Christian counselor in my church, for example, who sat with me at the seminar, will encounter many men who will seek him out to help them reach congruence with their pornography use, or many women who are looking for congruence with their SSA. Because he works in a clearly labeled Christian ministry, perhaps he could work within this model. I would say it still takes us in a wrong direction. And as the culture continues the march toward paganism, operating in such a model will become certainly intolerable for a believer. Or it should.

 

So, while I find his work valuable, ultimately, I believe Dr. Yarhouse’s model to be neither sustainable or justifiable. But, perhaps enigmatically, I am also glad for the good he does where he is.

 

Have thoughts?

11 Comments

  1. Erik Swanson

    Hi Sam,

    Thanks for your thoughtful interaction. I heard Dr. Yarhouse speak at the AACC (American Association of Christian Counselors) in Nashville in Oct 2019. I appreciate all of three of your critiques, and I would just add from my own experience that I would agree with you regarding #3 above, that his view of congruence is very problematic. Ideas have consequences, whether for good or all. At that conference, what I heard him say is that, as a professional, he has a fiduciary relationship to the client. That relationship of trust, of faith, of fidelity, is to help the client develop inner coherence, based upon that client’s worldview. He stated all that, plainly. Therein I could see why I cannot agree with him. Our fiduciary relationship is to the truth, not to people. It is the truth that sets free. People are confused and do what is right in their own eyes. My fiduciary relationship is to tell the truth, in love, so that people can find true freedom. I believe Dr. Yarhouse has gotten confused about whom he is to be faithful to. Therefore, in a church context as an elder, he will state one set of truths. In a secular context as a “professional,” he will not state or apply those same truths. I believe his idea that his fiduciary relationship is to the person, not to the truth, has caused him to be bifurcated in what he teaches. As I know you well know, a Christian’s loyalty is to Jesus, full stop. Yes, we are called to love all people, but yet we must never divorce truth and love. A therapist who accepts a client’s delusions – whatever they are, whether about gender or about any other human subject – and helps that person develop coherence fails to truly help that person. Dr. Yarhouse is showing loyalty to the wrong person, by not challgening the client’s worldview. In short, I agree with and appreciate your perspective, and I know I’m basically repeating your perspective in my own words. What I found so helpful personally in figuring out why I couldn’t agree with some of the things Dr. Yarhouse said was in his statement that his fiduciary relationship was to the person, not to the truthfulness of a belief system.

    1. Eric, this is a helpful analysis, thank you. You could also say it, couldn’t you, like this: that a Christian counselor has a fiduciary responsibility to both? We are responsible to speak the truth (Eph 4:15) AND to the person/client, that is we owe love to him (Rom 13:8).

  2. Sam – thanks for the respectful thoughts on Mark’s positions. I too wrestled (and wrestle) with the same concerns that you identified. Is it loving to help someone move in a direction that is not biblically warranted? I think Mark would say that he is in relationship for the long haul, and it is his goal to be a safe place for clients to have further discussions with him, even if it is post-transition. It would have been interesting to ask him what % of his clients are actually seeking congruence with transitioning (or “gay” affirmation), and what % actually do transition etc.

  3. Hi Sam, really appreciate what you’ve written here. This is a few months after his time with us in Philadelphia, but I’ve wrestled with what he’s written previously and what he said in his ServingLeaders talks. Thank you for your thoughtful piece.

  4. David OConnor

    Personally, I know Dr. Yarhouse. While the model emphasizes non-directiveness, it doesn’t mean that therapists abandon their moral compass. They can still express their beliefs respectfully, engage in open discussions about values, and provide alternative perspectives when appropriate. By maintaining a trusting and empathetic relationship with their clients, Christian therapists can create a safe space for exploring various viewpoints and potential paths forward. However, one must realize there is a tangible and significant difference between a therapist, a counselor, and a Psychologist. Psychologists are not pastors. And should not, as such, impose their faith or values. The claim that a Christian cannot be consistently non-directive in any line of work, including psychology, does not fully acknowledge the role and ethical responsibilities of psychologists. Psychologists are trained professionals who adhere to a code of ethics and are guided by professional standards in their practice. While Christian psychologists may have personal beliefs and values rooted in their faith, their primary role is not that of a pastor or a moralist who imposes their values on clients. Instead, they function as ethicists, adhering to ethical principles that prioritize the well-being and autonomy of their clients.

    The ethical framework that psychologists operate within recognizes the importance of respecting clients’ autonomy, promoting their welfare, and fostering a therapeutic alliance based on trust and collaboration. This means that psychologists, including Christian psychologists, are committed to upholding the fundamental principles of beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice. They are trained to navigate the complexities of individual belief systems and values without imposing their own.

    Being non-directive does not mean being indifferent or neglecting moral considerations. Psychologists are ethically obligated to promote the well-being of their clients, but this does not require them to impose their personal beliefs. Instead, they employ evidence-based interventions and therapeutic techniques to help clients explore their values, make informed decisions, and work towards their own goals. This approach respects clients’ autonomy and allows them to integrate their faith or belief systems into the therapeutic process in a way that is meaningful to them.

    It is crucial to recognize that individuals seeking therapy come from diverse backgrounds and hold a variety of beliefs and values. A non-directive approach allows psychologists to create a safe and non-judgmental space for clients to explore their thoughts, feelings, and experiences, without feeling coerced or judged based on the counselor’s personal beliefs. By providing guidance, support, and a compassionate presence, psychologists can assist clients in their personal growth while respecting their autonomy and individuality.

    The argument that helping individuals achieve congruence with their actions might be enabling sinful behavior fails to consider the complexities of human psychology and the therapeutic process. Therapy is a collaborative effort, and it is not the Therapist’s role to impose their personal values or dictate what clients should believe or do. Instead, it is about providing support, understanding, and facilitating personal growth within the client’s own framework, regardless of “how we would like them to be” as Christian helping professionals.

    Ultimately, Dr. Yarhouse’s model of counseling aims to strike a balance between maintaining one’s Christian convictions and effectively engaging with clients in a diverse and secular society. It offers a way for Christian psychologists, of which there are few, to provide compassionate care while respecting the autonomy and individual journeys of their clients. While it may not be without its challenges and limitations, this approach contributes to the ongoing conversation about how Christians can effectively navigate their roles as mental health professionals in an increasingly pluralistic world.

    1. David, Thanks for the alternate view. I would just point out that a whole lot of values, imposing of beliefs and directiveness are hiding in that “priority of the client’s well-being” and “facilitating personal growth.”

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