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.