gavin Matthews spoke to Christopher Yuan for solas
Solas: Hi Christopher. Let me start by asking how long have you been a theologian, writer and lecturer?
CY: Hi, it’s good to speak to you! Well I’ve been lecturing for about 12 years now, I’ve been an author for 8 years, but I’ve been speaking for about 15 years.
Solas: So, how long have you been a Christian..?
CY: I’ve been a Christian only about 20 years, I didn’t come to faith until I was 29.
Solas: And that was the subject of your first book….?
CY: Correct – my memoir, “Out of a Far Country”
Solas: Where did you first come across Christ, where did you first encounter the Bible’s message. What did you think of it, and how did Christ win you for himself?
CY: Well, I wasn’t raised in a Christian home, I didn’t own a Bible or go to church. But my parents raised me with very traditional Chinese values, strong family values. But I wrestled with my sexuality from a young age. I came across pornography at about 9 years of age, and that was the first time that I realised that I had these attractions but I kept them hidden. Back in 1979, homosexuality was not talked about at all, so I kept those feelings hidden through high school, college even when I was in the Marine Corps, at college.
It was not until I moved to Louisville Kentucky to go start dental school that I “came out of the closet” and after about a year I went home and told my parents. This devastated my Mum and Dad, they weren’t Christians but amazingly God actually used that crisis to bring my mother to faith first, and then a few months later my father as well.
I thought they had lost their minds. I am of the first generation of my family to be born in America to Chinese parents who came to the US to pursue the American dream – and I would say they succeeded in that and yet they were miserable and about to get a divorce – until they became Christians. I went in the opposite direction, I thought “good for you – you’ve saved your marriage” but not for me.
Then, while in dental school, I spent a lot of time in gay clubs. I also started using and selling illicit drugs and was later expelled from dental school. So I moved to Atlanta, Georgia and eventually became a supplier to drug sellers in over a dozen states.
Meanwhile my parents prayed for a miracle. My mother prayed that God would do “whatever it takes” for me to come to surrender my life to Jesus. She prayed and fasted every Monday for seven years, she fasted once for 39 days, and enlisted over a hundred prayer warriors to pray and fast for me. However I remained totally resistant, to the point that once, when my parents came to visit me I kicked them out! As they left, my Dad gave me his Bible, but I immediately threw it in the trash.
The miracle they prayed for started with a bang on my door from twelve drug enforcement officers, a lot of police and two big German Shepherd dogs. So I found myself in jail and I called home. I was dreading making that phone call. My mother’s first words were “Are you OK?” No condemnation, just unconditional love and grace.
In prison, I was diagnosed with HIV, and hit a personal low-point. A few days after that I was walking around the cell block and I passed by a rubbish bin, and what I found on top of the trash was a Gideon’s New Testament! I took it to my cell and began reading it and God began to convict me. The first thing He had to deal with in me was my drug addiction. I would say that within the first few months, God freed me from the bondage of that struggle. God kept dealing with me and my idols – and the biggest one was my sexuality.
I began reading the Bible and I came across these passages that seemed to condemn a core part of who I am – my sexuality. So I went to a prison chaplain and asked him his opinion. Surprisingly he told me the Bible does not condemn homosexuality and even gave me a book. So I took that book, thinking I could find biblical justification for homosexuality. I had that book in one hand and the Bible in the other. And everything inside me wanted to agree with what this book was saying. I look back now and understand it was God’s indwelling Holy Spirit who convicted me that those sources were a clear distortion of God and His word.
So I gave the book back to the chaplain and turned to the Bible alone and I went through every verse, every chapter, every page, of scripture – looking for a justification for homosexuality. I wanted an answer as to what God teaches on this. And I realised that it was really clear. God does not bless monogamous same-sex relationships. Which also meant I was at a turning point, and had to make a decision. I either had to abandon God, abandon His word and live as a gay man in a monogamous same-sex relationship, allowing my attractions to dictate who I was; or abandon pursuing a monogamous same-sex relationship by freeing myself from my sexuality by not allowing my desires to control who I was – and to live as a follower of Christ. My decision was clear and obvious. I followed Jesus.
Solas: You didn’t just talk about being freed from behaviours, you went a stage deeper and talked about being freed from ‘idols’ – tell me why you phrased it like that…?
CY: In my first book, Out of a far Country, I explained that while I was in prison I was dealing with a lot of idols. I am from Chinese culture where Buddhism has many physical idols. Now, I didn’t have any idols that I bowed down to, burnt incense to or whatever. But an idol is really “anything in my life that I can’t live without”. That for me was the drugs, and the party scene, and my sexuality. I realised that I couldn’t live without my sexuality – so that was an idol. It wasn’t just a behaviour pattern – it was who I was.
So in Holy Sexuality and the Gospel, my new book, I begin with personhood. I don’t know of any other sin-struggle where we have conflated behaviour, or even sinful desires with identity. For example, if you have a friend who is a liar, we don’t view that as who he is but what he does. Yet when it comes to sexuality: gay/straight/bi/homo/hetero we have made it who we are.
As Christians we don’t always recognise that when we talk to our gay friends about sinful behaviour, we are misunderstood. I never (as a gay man) heard that what I was doing was sinful, but what I heard was that the Christian was telling me that my entire person from head to toe was reprehensible before God.
So God needed to separate those issues and show me that sexuality is not who you are, but how you are! When I was able to separate that, then God was able to tell me who I was – that I’m created in His image. But our fallen nature is inclined towards sin and that we need Christ’s redemption to know the true image of God which is Christ. So that means our identity needs to be in Christ. When I realised that, it was quite radical.
God called me to full-time ministry while I was in prison. My sentence was miraculously shortened from 6 to 3 years. I got out of prison and went right to Moody Bible Institute, and studied biblical languages, finally earning a doctorate and was able to write my book.
Solas: So in the new book, you try to recapture the vocabulary around sexuality into biblical categories, and away from some of the psychological categories, of the normal discourse in our culture.
CY: Yes! Because even among more evangelical/conservative Christians who hold to biblical sexual ethics that marriage is between a man and woman; there’s still diversity and ambiguity. So, I wanted to do away with some of that ambiguity and be as precise as possible. So for example, the term “gay” today means more than just a person who has enduring patterns of desire towards the same sex, but has come to be conflated with personhood, identity and ontology. I find that a bit problematic because sexuality is not who we are, but how we are.
In an agnostic or atheistic world-view framework, without God to give life purpose meaning and dignity, we have to create value, dignity and purpose for ourselves. So the mid-1800s brought us the Romantic period in which there was an emphasis on emotions. Because if there is no God – then what else is there so we need to be tune with our emotions?
Then there were philosophies like existentialism, in which we have to create our own values by what we do and our experiences in life. But Romanticism and Existentialism lead to futility and emptiness. How can we create our own value? How can we actually base our true essence in what we feel and do? That ultimately leaves a void into which God’s beautiful, wonderful and biblical truth of who He is and who we are as revealed to us through scripture, comes in.
So it was really important to begin my book with identity—but also to give clear categories, that are biblical and razor-sharp clear, especially when we talking to Christians. Obviously when we are talking to non-Christians, biblical categories don’t make any sense. For example, “attraction”. There is a lot of discussion amongst Christians today about whether attractions, particularly same-sex attractions are sinful or not.
I’ve heard both sides and I believe we can move forward by not using a category difficult to define, but using clearer biblical categories correlated to attraction. I have a chapter on “desire” and one on “temptation” in my attempt to bring more clarity to the topic.
As a matter of fact the cover of my book was very intentional. It may not seem very creative (it’s black and white!) but it was very intentional in that we are living in a world of grey today; fifty shades of it right? A world of grey in which all these various forms of shades are celebrated but biblical sexuality is truly just black and white. And I wanted to bring that clarity and not just redefining the definitions and categories, but actually using biblical categories.
Solas: And you bring up something which is not very popular today – to bring up the old language “the mortification of the flesh”. What does that mean theologically, what does it mean for you..? And why that is such a critical thing in the book..?
CY: Yes, yes! I was relying on the Puritans and the theology of John Owen, he wrote a lot about the mortification of the flesh, using Paul’s words that we need to ‘put to death the deeds of the body’. So I broke it down to ‘temptations’ and ‘desires’ and if I could be very specific, same-sex sexual temptations and same-sex sexual desires.
Same-sex sexual temptations, in and of themselves are not sinful (but rooted in our sin nature). Jesus was tempted in every way, yet was without sin, Hebrews says. So temptation is not sin, but giving in to temptation is sin. Then we come to same-sex desires.
I’ve heard people say that same sex desire is not sin, but lust is sin. But, that’s problematic because if you actually look at the way the Bible uses the word “desire” and “lust”, it’s the same Greek word epithumia and it’s the same Hebrew word we’d translate as ‘covet’ or ‘desire’. So I realised that it’s not that desire turns into lust, it’s that wrongly ordered or wrongly intended desires is lust, is sin. So my same-sex desires are sinful; but the temptation isn’t, therefore I needed to realise that my same-sex desires needed to be ”mortified” – or put to death.
However, in my chapter on desire I also talked about romantic desires. In my love of precision of language I divide desire into three categories, sexual, romantic and platonic desires. When we are talking about interpersonal relationships and desires, same-sex sexual desires are sinful and same-sex romantic desires are sinful, but same-sex platonic desires are not.
This is where I would disagree with those who argue that desires for friendship are part of their sexuality. Those who say their goal is a covenanted friendship or spiritual friendship, they have conflated platonic desires with sexuality. I disagree. If we have broadened non-sexual, platonic, non-romantic desires to be part of our sexuality; then sexuality has no more meaning. Everyone would be “bisexual”.
So with that clarity, I realised that my same-sex attractions needed to be mortified. It wasn’t something I could dress up to look good, or sanctify – it was something that I needed to resist. And that is just a helpful way to think. I don’t think it is a bad thing, because sometimes people think “that is so depressing”, but if you read the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says “if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off”. So we don’t try to dress it up, or hide it behind our back or sit on it. Jesus says if your right eye causes you to sin gouge it out. Now that’s going to be painful. Sanctification is difficult and sometimes painful—but worth it!
However some believe same-sex desires are just a disability, like deafness. As in, something that just needs to be tweaked bit, refined a bit or pointed in the right direction, or maybe just healed a little bit, or sanctified and made better, thus some would say, “my gay-ness – aspects of it are bad, but there are other aspects that can be good. Good can come of me being gay.”
However, if we view this as something which is rooted in our sinful nature, (and Paul and Jesus are very clear about this) – then it is something that needs to be ‘put to death’ or ‘mortified’ and cut off. That is much more helpful because when we mortify the flesh, then we can be more fully submitted to the Spirit. That’s what Paul talks about, there is a battle going on between our sin nature (our sarx) with the Spirit. And that’s a real, true, daily battle for the Christian.
Solas: You talk about what the Spirit wants to ‘cut-off’; but you also have a very positive vision of what the Spirit wants to build in the church, the body of Christ into a family…. Tell us about that. And how it must include single people and how the church has been so terrible at that..
CY: Amen – yes!
Here’s what I saw was missing in a lot of the writings in the past when books addressing the issue of sexuality focused on individuals and orientation change. So I wanted to bring a bit of correction. We get it wrong when it comes to singleness because we don’t understand “spiritual family”.
Spiritual family means the body of Christ, the local church. But the local church wasn’t even discussed when it comes to ministering to the same-sex attracted. There were a lot of support groups and different types of therapies and counselling and then today we have an approach with a lot of emphasis on how to help individuals who have that ‘double-whammy’ of not only experiencing same-sex attraction, but also of being single.
But Christians have often not been good at building intimacy outside of marriage or our physical family. We have totally denigrated healthy intimacy among men, and healthy intimacy among women. Because today if you get too close – people will think that you are gay!
Actually there is not a lot the in the Bible about friendship, but it has a lot to say about family. The Biblical story has a narrative arc. The Old Testament emphasises the physical family, but the New develops the idea of spiritual family – what I like to call the eternal family, which is the body of Christ. The New Testament writers talk about “brothers and sisters”, and we’re known by our love. 1Cor13 – that whole “love chapter”, which has almost exclusively read at weddings (and it works there) and yet when we look at the context, Paul was not talking about husbands and wives, but about how brothers and sisters in the Lord are to love each other in the church.
Where I believe that the “ex-gay” organisations which focus on ‘orientation change’, are off (some have closed, and some have adopted very unbiblical views of sexuality) is that they were untethered to the body of Christ, the local church. But on the other end, are “gay celibate Christians” who form mini-communes in the US where a group of “gay celibates” moved in together. Some of those have then abandoned biblical ethics and have “fallen in love”.
We can’t be untethered from the church. The local church is our family, where we are fed every week. Friends don’t come together and preach to each other. And what about the sacraments? There are reasons why we have the Lord’s Supper. If you want a “covenanted relationship”, the Bible provides that in the spiritual family! What greater symbol of the covenant than baptism? Entrance into the covenanted family! The other great symbol of the covenanted family is communion – that continuous reminder that we are covenanted together! There is also headship. God gave us elders and pastors to be our shepherds in true discipleship and mentoring in the church.
Solas: So, having talked a bit about the content of the book, tell me who you wrote it for, who you hope will read it, and how it will impact them..
CY: I wrote this book first for those who have been personally impacted by this topic of sexual identity, or with a loved one. The younger generation especially have a passion to know, ‘how do we better share Christ with our neighbours who are gay’? But since the book came out our ministry has received countless e-mails from people who read the book to help them share Christ with a gay friend, but were surprised that actually it was helpful for them personally too.
I wrote 4 big chapters, 2 on marriage and 2 on singleness. Books often talk about what marriage is, but few books talk about what marriage is not! There were some corrections I wanted to give to conservative Christians who want to uphold the sanctity of marriage. Some overdo it, and I offered a healthy biblical correction to challenge people. Then there are 4 chapters at the end which give us practical action steps on how to minister to Christians who have same-sex attractions, but also share Christ with loved ones in the gay community.
My first book is for the heart – my story. The second one is for the head and then for the hands to think right before we go and do right.
Solas: And what have reactions to the book been like?
CY: Varied – but very positive! I do get a lot of naysayers. However the criticism seems to have changed. We are no longer accused of just being hateful; now we’re accused of being “harmful”, that Christian perspectives are actually hurting people, and killing people. According to those who oppose us, gay young people are committing suicide today, because of our perspective. That’s a pretty serious claim, which I’ve considered. Am I causing harm? That’s the last thing we want to do. The claim is that Evangelicals who believe that same-sex behaviour is sinful, cause stigma which drives suicide rates up. However, what’s quite interesting is if you go to the Netherlands, one of the most gay-affirming countries in the world, there is very little Evangelical Christian presence, and same-sex marriage has been legal for years – and affirmation of gay relationships amongst young people is normal; you would expect suicide rates to be down. But they are not. In fact, gay teen suicide rates are higher than amongst their counterparts.
Solas: So mixed reactions to the book? Some people loving it, some people pushing back against it?
CY: Yeah – some people thinking I’m killing people! I was at a church this last weekend and the entire pastoral staff read my book, Holy Sexuality and the Gospel, and a lot of people are finding it really helpful. That’s what I wanted to see – a helpful resource for the body of Christ.
Solas: Thank you! This has been a fascinating conversation, which will no doubt cause a lot of discussion. Thanks so much for your time. Will you be back in the UK anytime soon?
CY: No plans, at the moment – but I’ll let you know when I am!
Solas: And perhaps Scotland will be on your agenda next time…?
CY: I hope so!
Dr. Christopher Yuan has taught the Bible at Moody Bible Institute for over ten years and his speaking ministry on faith and sexuality has reached five continents. He speaks at conferences, on college campuses, and in churches. He has co-authored with his mother their memoir, Out of a Far Country: A Gay Son’s Journey to God, A Broken Mother’s Search for Hope (100,000 copies sold and now in seven languages). He is also the author of Giving a Voice to the Voiceless. Christopher graduated from Moody Bible Institute in 2005, Wheaton College Graduate School in 2007 with a Master of Arts in Biblical Exegesis and received his doctorate of ministry in 2014 from Bethel Seminary. Dr. Yuan’s newest book is Holy Sexuality and the Gospel: Sex, Desire, and Relationships Shaped by God’s Grand Story