Gagging on “the yuck factor”: Some thoughts on a recent controversy

Thabiti Anyabwile ruffled feathers last week with an essay arguing that homosexual behavior ought to induce “moral outrage” (a “gag reflex”). Among other things, he argues that our culture has lost its “moral outrage” concerning homosexuality because people have lost sight of what this conversation is all about—perverted sexual behavior. He argues, therefore, that we need to drop expressions like “gay” and “homosexual” and to use explicit terms that are not cloaked in euphemism. He then gives an object lesson on how we ought to speak, giving a brief but explicit description of what gay sexual behavior actually is.

As you can imagine, Thabiti’s post has caused no little controversy among friends and enemies alike. But it was Jonathan Merritt’s critique that really caught my eye—not least because of its strident tone, but also because it doesn’t seem to be coming from a good-faith critic. What follows are some thoughts on Thabiti’s essay and Merritt’s response to it.

1. Defining the “Yuck Factor” – Thabiti did not invent the so-called “yuck factor” as a category for moral judgment. The idea has been around for a long time and has become common fare in the realm of bioethics. Arthur Caplan is credited with having coined the term, but the concept goes by other names as well. In 1997, Leon Kass called it “The Wisdom of Repugnance.” Kass writes,

Repugnance is the emotional expression of deep wisdom, beyond reason’s power fully to articulate it… We intuit and feel, immediately and without argument, the violation of things that we rightfully hold dear. Repugnance… revolts against the excesses of human willfulness, warning us not to transgress what is unspeakably profound (p. 20).

Kass acknowledges that “revulsion is not an argument” and must be open to rational scrutiny. Nevertheless, Kass contends that it is morally unwise to ignore “the widespread repugnancies of humankind to be mere timidity or superstition” (p. 21). In other words, sometimes people feel moral outrage that they cannot justify with rational arguments, but that does not mean that the outrage is misplaced.

Critics like Merritt need to realize that people make moral judgments based on the “yuck factor” all the time. It is not the exclusive domain of Christian moralists. Earlier this week, I watched countless secular commentators deplore Miley Cyrus’ performance at MTV’s video music awards. Their judgment was nearly universally negative, and yet hardly any commentator had a moral vocabulary to justify their outrage. But that didn’t keep them from pontificating against Cryrus’ display. They spoke out of an intuition. They spoke out of the “yuck factor” provoked by her salacious performance.

To be sure, the “yuck factor” alone is an inefficient and insufficient way to sustain a moral argument. Sometimes the “yuck factor” is no more than an expression of carnal self-interest. Even so, if we are indeed created in the image of God, if we indeed have consciences, and if the creation does in fact have a God-defined purpose, then widespread moral repugnance can be an indication of moral wisdom (Rom. 2:15). Thabiti’s post is lamenting the loss of this wisdom, and he wants to find a way to bring it back. This is a tall order for a people whose consciences have been seared (1 Tim. 4:1-2), but it is nevertheless a noble aspiration on Thabiti’s part. A good-faith critic with a Christian worldview would recognize that, but Merritt does not.

2. Cultural naiveté – Merritt says that one of the main reasons people are driven away from Christianity is because of “rhetoric” like Thabiti’s. I have to say that this is a rather shallow analysis of our current cultural moment. And I say this as one who doesn’t agree with the explicit nature of Thabiti’s remarks (see below) or the invocation of the “yuck factor” (which I have communicated personally to Thabiti).

Merritt is sorely mistaken to blame Christians for the mistreatment they experience in the broader culture. How facile to blame Christianity’s decline on an allegation that Christians are mean. If every Christian learned how to communicate our message with just the right words and with perfect pitch, the sexual revolutionaries would still be dead-set against us. He accuses Christians of “playing the victim,” as if Christians are really getting their just desserts for being so mean. He writes,“Christians look like whiney bullies who can’t take what they dish out.” Is he serious?

Is anyone “nicer” than Louie Giglio when it comes to these issues? Nevertheless, Giglio was deemed unfit to participate in the President’s inauguration. What about the photographers in New Mexico, the cake shop owner in Colorado, the baker in Oregon, or the florist in Washington State? Each of these Christians serve gay customers, and yet they didn’t feel that they could participate in gay weddings in good conscience. Nevertheless, gay rights activists made sure that these Christians were penalized by the state. It wasn’t because these Christians were mean that they fell under state-imposed penalties. It was because of their views. The tolerance police have grown increasingly intolerant of a Christian sexual ethic. They now have the upper hand in terms of public opinion, and they are spoiling for a fight.

Jesus warned us that it would come to this (John 15:19-21), and so none of us should be surprised by it. Yet Merritt says that the conflict is just Christians “playing the victim.” He seems to suggest that if Christians were “nicer” all this bad feeling would go away and the sexual revolutionaries would cease their offense. That idea is breathtakingly naïve.

There is a great conflagration coming upon Christians because of their views on sexuality, but apparently Merritt refuses to see it and instead chooses to hector Christians for “playing the victim.” It’s comments like this that make me wonder whose side he’s on.

3. Knowing who your friends are – I have read several critiques of Thabiti’s post in addition to Merritt’s, and some of them are clearly not coming from good-faith interlocutors. It is clear that many of the critics are trying to use Thabiti’s remarks to discredit a biblical view of gender and sexuality. Indeed, some of the critics have already stated elsewhere that they don’t agree with the Bible’s teaching about homosexuality, and it is clear that in general they endeavor to undermine the faith once for all delivered to the saints (Jude 3). They have a particular hatred for the reformed brand of evangelicalism that Thabiti represents–especially for those who continue to hold the biblical line on the morality of gay sexual behavior. We rightly abhor the error of these bad-faith critics, and the faithful would do well to be skeptical of those who are motivated by their hatred of biblical truth.

So my question is this: Why is Merritt lining up with those who have explicitly opposed the Bible’s teaching on sexuality? Even if he disagrees with Thabiti’s rhetoric on this one, doesn’t he have more in common with Thabiti than with those who deny inerrancy, embrace universalism, and eschew biblical morality? Thabiti Anyabwile loves the gospel, loves God’s word, and has given his life to shepherding God’s people. He’s not perfect. None of us are. Nevertheless, he is one of the good guys, but you wouldn’t know it from the way Merritt talks. Why is that?

4. On the propriety of explicit language – With respect to the substance of Thabiti’s article, I think it is unseemly to resort to explicit language to describe homosexual acts. As a practical matter, I don’t think that it will work with the kinds of people who need to be won-over to a biblical view. Such people are more likely to feel moral outrage about explicit language than about what people are doing in private. So from a purely pragmatic point of view, I just don’t think this works. But there’s another more principled reason to reconsider this kind of language.

Would it not be better to allow our language to be shaped by the Bible’s own language in speaking about these things? If scripture is our authority, then we would do well not to be more explicit than the Bible is in confronting these issues. I think the most explicit reference to homosexual acts that we find in the New Testament is Romans 1, which says, “Men abandoned the natural function of the woman and burned in their desire toward one another, men in men committing indecent acts” (Rom. 1:27). Even though the text says, “men in men,” it does not speak explicitly of body parts. Elsewhere when Paul refers to such body parts, he does so euphemistically calling them the “unseemly” members (1 Cor. 12:23). In 1 Thessalonians 4:4, Paul refers to the male sexual organ not explicitly but with euphemism. In text after text, the Bible’s language about sexuality is indirect and discreet. Would it not be better to adopt the Bible’s mode of expression rather than language that many would consider to be coarse and explicit?

5. On the wisdom of invoking the “yuck factor” – I like what Tim Challies has said on this topic. He writes:

I would suggest that as Christians it may be most helpful to keep the “yuck factor” to ourselves. I do not know that we gain anything in our conversations with and about homosexuals by expressing our disgust towards their actions. We can always plead “love the sinner, hate the sin,” but this falls flat when we can barely look in their eyes because of the disgust we feel for what they do. After all, the “yuck factor” is not consistent as a moral argument. We must dig deeper than that.

Tim is saying that even though the “yuck factor” is real, we have to be careful about expressing it. We are sinners, and sometimes our repugnance is misplaced. But there’s also another danger. People often confuse moral repugnance with personal repugnance, and we don’t want to risk communicating the latter to people that we are trying to reach with the gospel. We will eventually be accused of the latter no matter what we do. But we should adopt modes of speech that seek to minimize the confusion. And terms like “yuck factor” and “gag reflex” confuse the issue.

Thabiti repeatedly clarified this in his follow-up post, and yet Merritt insisted on misunderstanding or misrepresenting this distinction. Again, a good-faith critic would have done better.

I believe Thabiti’s ultimate intention in his post was to rouse consciences that have grown dull to biblical morality. In that aim, I stand with him foursquare athwart the spirit of the age that is raging against Christ and his people. I disagree with him on the approach he takes in his post. I nevertheless love and appreciate Thabiti and believe him to be a courageous servant of the gospel. We are united on all the most important things.

So I don’t understand Merritt’s critique. He seems to miss what is most important in the wider conversation, and he also seems to miss what is most important about Thabiti.


  • Chris Ryan

    Wow, pretty detailed points here Denny & a number of them I agree with.

    Sometimes we come across as if there are two armed camps facing off–evangelicals on one side, sexual revolutionaries on the other. The fact is there are many people in between.

    Louie Giglio was demonstrably treated unfairly. It really offended me that he was treated so shabbily. The thing is tho our ability to win “battles” like these in the future, and our ability to win the hearts, minds, and souls of people in the middle are directly correlated with our ability to exemplify Christ’s loving kindness. Dogmatic, strident language makes for great sound bites but almost always turns off people in the middle.

    The Pro Choice movement has learned a lot abt trying to reach people in the middle–people who are secular even–by adopting language abt health, safety, and humanity. If Christians are to carve out space in the broader culture we’ll have to come up with a similar strategy.

  • Don Johnson

    I see Merritt’s comments as the faithful wounds of a friend. If you cannot see them as that, my suggestion is to keep rereading them until you can see it. Anyabwile gave sound bites to the sexual libertines when he did not need to do so. Giving Anyabwile the benefit of the doubt and playing the “He’s an insider.” card does not help him see his mistakes.

  • Jacob Riggs

    Thanks for your words. I respect you, your position, and your willingness to state clearly what I agree with. My intention here is to try to dispel any future hurt from one brother (yourself) to another (Merritt).

    Your blog stated: “There is a great conflagration coming upon Christians because of their views on sexuality, but apparently Merritt refuses to see it and instead chooses to hector Christians for ‘playing the victim.’ It’s comments like this that make me wonder whose side he’s on.”

    Maybe I’m misunderstanding what you’re saying here, but I wonder if this paragraph is helpful. We don’t know that he “refuses to see” the conflagration coming on Christians and it is generally not a great idea to pit someone as an enemy for their comments. I don’t know your intention for writing this. Neither of us know Merritt’s intentions for what he wrote. The benefit of the doubt goes a long way in making responses like this palatable. I’m sure we both want Merritt and others to hear this critique instead of dismissing it simply because it makes them frustrated.

    Thanks for listening to this simple reader.

  • James Bradshaw

    It’s too bad that even holding hands with someone of the same gender generates such hatred and disgust from people, many of whom seem to take no issue with the sport of boxing where two men pummel each other into bloody pulps for entertainment and money.

    But let’s talk about the “ick factor”. Go to a movie where two elderly heterosexuals or two overweight heterosexuals are demonstrating affection. What’s the response? Laughter? Disgust? What’s this supposed to indicate about the morality of either? It demonstrates nothing other than the fact that humans are much more comfortable with public displays of violence than of affection of any kind. How sad.

  • Scott Lencke

    Denny –

    Just a few points I would like to feedback.

    1) I think Thabiti is great. He is a man of which we can all learn from – mainly following his second article and his gracious personal comments to commenters. What a great and humble guy, though not perfect, like us all.

    2) You’ve said you personally communicated with Thabiti. I wondered how the personal interaction with Jonathan has been?

    3) It’s possible some of Jonathan’s statements were a bit too harsh. My blood pressure certainly didn’t rise, though I did cringe as to how this might lead to healthy dialogue with others. But I wasn’t overly upset with Thabiti’s articles, though I, like you & Jonathan, agree that the yuck factor won’t establish much. As many commenters noted, sexual union between a male and female also utilises parts that excrete waste (sorry if that seems too much). So I do believe the point he made failed on 2 levels: offering constructive dialogue and failed in comparing with actual, proper, God-ordained sexual encounters. Still, I love Thabiti.

    4) Comparing Thabiti’s article with the Miley Cyrus episode is not really apples to apples. Miley Cyrus performed in a public arena (though I think some have pointed out that maybe a point was being made). Most homosexual activity is done privately. I know, I know – some of it is not and paraded in the public. And so is heterosexual activity. But everyone saw the Miley Cyrus episode…and subsequently freaked (it was weird). However, most don’t see nor daily hear about what Thabiti put in his article.

    5) Sometimes Mark Driscoll makes some good points. Sometimes he oversteps his bounds with his crass words. It’s ok when people challenge this. Sometimes Jerod Wilson makes some good points. Sometimes he oversteps his bounds. It’s ok when people challenge this. I think in many ways Merritt was ok to challenge this. He said it a bit stronger than I would – I would have left it and have left it. But what I sense is your main argument is this: Thabiti is one of us, he’s a good guy, he’s a strong Christian, we shouldn’t challenge him this way. But this is the nature of posting in the public arena – you open yourself up to lots of criticism. It’s happened to me as a pastor and I had to learn a lot about it. And now Jonathan has to take this on the chin from you as well, since he posted publicly. So, overall, I think Jonathan’s article was good and made some very, very relevant points. Kind of like Miroslav Volf, in his most recent book, asked us to have dialogue and find theological connections with Muslims in our world today, rather than counting them all terrorists and evil and demon-worshipers of Allah. Jonathan sees the immense value in not another article pronouncing the disgusting evil of homosexuals, but to walk into their home, eat a meal together, sip a glass of wine together, talk together, etc (like that guy Jesus did). We’ve simply got to consider in our extremely pluralistic society how best to engage a people that have been burned thousands of times by those naming the name of Christ.

    I think Jonathan Merritt plays a vital role within the evangelical, and SBC, world of today. I believe many ears and eyes will turn the spoken and written words of Jonathan. He will make mistakes, do wrong, maybe even in his own article this week. But you have an extremely valuable asset within the SBC right at your fingertips. Really, the gift of God is that strongly upon his life. Appreciate his thoughts and challenges, as well as continuing to appreciate the great man of God that Thabiti is.


  • Michael Lynch

    I think Thabiti is right in his post in a limited way. More needs to be said as Denny, for example, continues to say on this blog. This is just one of the many angles that we need to restore–our repulsion at sine. And if you read some of his responses in the comments, he admits that this yuck factor is just one part of this whole issue.

    I believe when public schools start teaching the “proper” way to sodomize in sex ed, more people, Christian or otherwise, will once again be repulsed by this perversion. Maybe.

  • Suzanne McCarthy

    I think we need to lift people’s minds out of the private parts. I was appalled to read that Larry Crabb thinks that the shape of a woman’s soul is the same as her anatomy, and the below the waist anatomy, to be specific, the hole that is bored into women. Just yuck! Why doesn’t someone take on Larry Crabb for his language and imagery. Too much of complementarianism is about male moving parts and female receiving parts, and it just gets embarrassing to read. Complementarians need to speak out on this, and clean things up a little, because they are falling behind secular levels of what is and is not appropriate to talk about in public.

    • James Bradshaw

      Kamilla, Do you think your understanding and interpretation of Scripture is completely unrelated to the culture in which you grew up and in which you live in today?

      By this I mean: is the way you view the “truths” of Scripture going to be the same as a woman who lived in Geneva under John Calvin around 1550 or so?

      • Kamilla Ludwig

        Mr. Bradshaw,

        The difference between the force of your question and the urging of Ms. McCarthy is that you seem to be asking whether we can come to Scripture without being tainted by our culture where she contends that we *should* take our cues from culture.

        To answer your question, no. I do not believe I can approach Scripture on my own without being affected by my culture. Neither can you or Ms. McCarthy or Denny. That is why Christ has left us with His Church, guided by the Holy Spirit.

  • Suzanne McCarthy

    I said, ” they are falling behind secular levels of what is and is not appropriate to talk about in public.”

    And Paul indicates that this is also a consideration in terms of caring for our family. “But if any provide not for his own, and specially for those of his own house, he hath denied the faith, and is worse than an infidel.” 1 Tim. 5:8

    And in Romans 2,

    13 For not the hearers of the law are just before God, but the doers of the law shall be justified.

    14 For when the Gentiles, which have not the law, do by nature the things contained in the law, these, having not the law, are a law unto themselves:

    15 Which shew the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness, and their thoughts the mean while accusing or else excusing one another;

    This means that those who do not have the teaching of Christianity do those things which are right because it is written on their conscience.

    So we are told that there are standards of behaviour among non-believers, and we ought not to be worse than an infidel. Instead we should obey this teaching,

    “Let your speech be always with grace, seasoned with salt, that ye may know how ye ought to answer every man.” Col. 4:6

    I am personally very grateful that many have taken Anyabwile on. I would also like to see considerably less talk about how the shape of our anatomy demonstrates how God wants us to take on complementary roles, that is men as movers and agents, and women as invitational receivers. It is simply far worse than anything that any non-Christian man has ever said in front of men in the last 20 years. That is the simple truth. Non-Christian men are a little wary about talking about female anatomy, below the waist and the shape of a woman’s soul. I think there are ethics codes and anti-harassment policies that prevent secular men from talking about these kinds of things. I just don’t know why Christian men and sometimes women feel that talking about our privates, even if it is indirectly is so spiritually appropriate.

    But Larry Crabb was utterly inappropriate in talking about women as being like a box getting a hole bored in it, and men are those with important things to do. He is way off base.

    I do hope that this effort in rebutting Anyabwile will spread to men being more respectful of women’s private parts. I did appreciate that Denny took Crabb on in talking about the trinity, but someone has got to speak up about basic decency towards women.


    You should be someone who could take this on. You could stand up for the dignity of women and their right to privacy in discussing their body parts.

    • Kamilla Ludwig


      Non sequiturs aside, you are remarkably ill-informed about what is acceptable in culture. Look up Eve Ensler and Rachel Held Evans’ manufactured controversy affectionately known as V-gate if you doubt me. I could multiply those examples if needed.

      And yes, I do take this on. I do stand for the dignity of women on a daily basis. I don’t bow to the culture or that strain of progressive Christianity that would like to make women into something they are not. On the dignity of woman, the first book I always turn to after the Bible is Alice Von Hildebrand’s wise little book, “The Privilege of Being a Woman”. I’d be happy to send you a copy if you haven’t had a chance to read it.

      About the right to privacy, I think you misunderstand what it is. No one is forcing women to participate in any discussion or read any books (at least I’ve never heard of such happening). No one’s forcing people to speak about their bodies in ways they find uncomfortable, etc. to speak publicly about our bodies and what they mean is crucial in a culture which lies daily about such things. To do this is to be that salt St. Oaul urges us to be and violates no individual’s privacy.

  • Suzanne McCarthy

    Correction: It is simply far worse than anything that any non-Christian man has ever said in front of ME in the last 20 years.

  • Suzanne McCarthy

    Oh, thank you for reminding me about V-gate! Of course! But she does not recommend that we think of the shape of our anatomy when we interact with men in public, thinking about the fact that they are thinking about the pleasure of being inside our hole and all that. It is just too much.

    I would never have ever looked at a book by Larry Crabb if Denny hadn’t mentioned it recently. I am innocent. It is too much. It sounds like God opens women up with a woodworking tool so men can get inside. I cringed.

    Looking at reviews of Hildebrands book, I think it should be known that she talks about the hiddenness and the mystery of women’s bodies – nothing like Crabb’s book.

    And, of course, women are portrayed in scripture as strong, absolutely. In fact, someone in their review says about her book, “However, in the Bible, unlike some fundamentalists point out, she argues that women are always seen as the stronger sex.” Amen!!

    So why does Mary Kassian say that men are strong and women are weak, and Metaxas also argues that men are stronger than women. This is a common teaching and in some sense true, but not in the sense they mean. Men are not morally stronger and the Bible often portrays women as strong.

    Also Hildebrand says that women are guardians of purity. So let’s act like it!!

  • Kamilla Ludwig


    For someone who wants to protect women’s privacy and expresses concern for what is appropriate in public discourse, you are being remarkably vulgar. Im not a fan of Crabb and I’m not sure why you keep bringing him up if you find it so embarrassing. I’m not sure why you bring up Kassian, either.

    None of this has anything to do with Jonathan Merritt’s little tirade. Personally, I’m glad I don’t have his nerve in my tooth.

  • Suzanne McCarthy

    I think we agree on what is vulgar. And this is why Merritt’s tirade is important. Christians should not be known for their vulgarity.

  • Bill Hickman

    Yes, the “gag reflex” is ***technically*** a correct response to all sin. But we only use the language of disgust when we talk about homosexuality, and we rarely, if ever, use it to describe other sins, even sexual sins. Many Christians reserve a special category of disdain for this one specific kind of improper sexual conduct.

    This context is very important, and it raises a question – why is our gut response to homosexuality so different from our response to virtually every other sin?

    The answer, I fear, is that we’ve spread a layer of technically correct doctrine on top of a cake sinful, gut-level dislike and disgust for gay people. We can try to defend the gag reflex by arguing that it’s just our correct doctrine at work, but our inconsistent actions and speech prove otherwise. If it’s our correctly-formed consciences causing us to gag, why do we only write columns about how homosexuality is gross, disgusting, and revolting? Where is the column about how pre-marital sex is gross? We don’t write them because we don’t actually think that way. Instead, we should hold close to a correct doctrine about sin and root nasty biases out of our hearts at the same time.

  • Suzanne McCarthy

    I think having sex at all within an authority and submission relationship is a serious problem and has a strong yuck factor. But nobody seems to complain about that.

  • Thabiti


    Thank you for a very thoughtful and engaging response to my comments. I appreciate them, and I appreciate you.

    Much love in our Savior!

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