Stephen H. Black wrote “Freedom Realized: Finding Freedom from Homosexuality & Living a Life Free From Labels” (Redemption Press, 2017) to offer “clear evidence for the truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ and the transformation that is available for broken lives in this day of “hip-hop” gospel relativism.” Black asks “is freedom from homosexuality truly possible?” and promises his book will give “proof and hope.”
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Does he succeed in this mission?
Black begins his book with details about the demise of Exodus International (1976 – 2013), an umbrella organization of several hundred reparative therapy ministries, each promising varying degrees of “healing” from homosexuality. The promises of member ministries to clients ranged from a complete change to heterosexuality to lessened same-sex attractions.
Typically, these types of faith-based ministries mostly eschew the benefit of professional psychological counseling and rely on strict adherence to a prescribed interpretation of a few passages of Scripture referring to same-sex behavior in the Bible for success. Most of these ministries anchor themselves to 1 Corinthians 6: 9-11 which they believe was written to warn early Christian believers that, if they participate in homosexual acts, among other things, they will not go to heaven. Verse 11 is a favorite for the reparative therapy tribe. It states, in part, “such were some of you,” a series of words these ministries tell hopeful-to-be-heterosexuals that they too, just like the early Christians, can walk away from the life of homosexuality they once had.
Before Exodus International folded, leaders of several member ministries, including Black who oversees First Stones Ministries in Oklahoma City, gathered together to establish another umbrella organization, Restored Hope Network (RHN) .
The process of one ministry closing and the other opening is an interesting read. It probably could have been told with a more gracious attitude, but Black is clearly still quite upset and hurt by former Exodus president Alan Chambers and other board members.
I was in attendance at the Gay Christian Network (GCN) Conference where Chambers stated his ministry-shaking assessment that 99.9% of the people who had gone through Exodus programs had not changed orientation. Black calls Chambers’ time at GCN a “juvenile, frolicking appearance” where Chambers “threw every former Exodus ministry under a bus of demonic heresy.” He further adds that the now-deceased former Exodus inaugural member, Frank Worthen, saw Chambers “as a biblically illiterate, immature leader.” So that we don’t miss this point about Chambers, Black repeats it twice in the book.
With the threat of possible rebranding of Exodus, Black recalls, “I (Stephen) felt a dark, demonic force was trying to strangle me into quiet submission.” Several Exodus member-ministry leaders, now members and leaders of RHN, left Exodus and banded together to form their own organization in 2012 despite “the hostile environment of the Obama Administration.”
After the introduction, the book addresses several topics: Black’s testimony, his overview of what homosexuality is and what causes it, how to get free from it, why some people remain “in homosexuality,” objections to “gay Christianity” (his quotation marks), how the church is to respond to homosexuality, the testimonies of sixteen ministry leaders, and finally, the proof that Black has promised — a survey of his ministry clients showing that “at least 72 percent have found lasting freedom from sinful behavior. The evidence is clear that there is real hope for lasting change.” (p. 265)
I have always been respectful of people’s conversion and transformation stories. I will likewise do so with Black’s story. Everyone has a story and they get to own it. Black writes of early exposure to pornography, verbal teasing, abuse, and molestation. Throughout his book and in his testimony, Black quite frequently refers to demons and demonic power.
While those views do not align with my Christian beliefs (I am more willing to take personal responsibility for choices and temptations, and understand the real power of shaming to debilitate lives), Black assigns responsibility and power to demons and demonic forces.
Of his youth he writes, “The demons of hell were condemning me and placing a dark shame into my soul.” (p. 47) After his exposure to witchcraft and “since then, the Lord has shown me how the devil set up demonic control and further perverted my thinking through these experiences. I had given Satan ground in my life. All the voices I had heard were demons.“ (p. 48) Black tried to talk to the family priest about his homosexuality who tacitly affirmed him. He recalls, “The demons of hell had come to destroy my life without my parents ever realizing it. The sins of the forefathers are sins or desires that allow demonic influences to begin to manipulate even a small child.” (p. 49)
Where many, including me, would access professional counseling along with personal prayer and obedience to heal from an abusive past, demon attribution seems a comfortable route for Black. Sadly, frequently this negates the need and missed opportunity for professional mental health care. Actually, Black takes many opportunities throughout the book to demean the entire field of psychology along with advanced levels of learning.
Black engaged in a sexual relationship with a woman in his younger years. This would not be true for many of my strictly gay friends. They would not be able to sexually accomplish this. Black writes, he had a relationship with a “beautiful woman, Melinda, (that) was characterized by just as much sexual sin, lust, and guilt as all my other relationships.” (p 54)
About what Black calls his “night of his deliverance:” “I heard this voice inside my head. It was the Lord, and He said to me, “If you do not accept Me tonight, you will die.” (p. 57) He prayed to receive Jesus that night and over the next few weeks, “I faced multiple demonic attacks.” (p. 58)
I mention several of these points where Black writes of demons and demonic attacks because they tell us a great deal about Black’s style of Christian faith, or his worldview. I too am a Christ-follower, but Black and I seem to move and interact with events in the world quite differently. He appears to be motivated by fear and threats, seeing spiritual attacks frequently. From conversations with people who have been in his ministry, this style and worldview is very much present in how he does his work. It is not universally appealing style within Christianity. I, however, tend toward self-examination, taking the steps necessary to change or address unhealthy situations. Oh, and I hike a lot; on trails is where I can “hear” God. When I have needed counseling help from professionals, I have sought it out. My first thought is not that demons are attacking me.
Of homosexuality and its cause, Black writes many things.
“Homosexuality is a learned, sin behavior. In most cases, the behavior is inflicted by abusive outsiders then chosen as the lie takes root.” (p. 48) “They (gay people) wrongfully claim that being gay is a legitimate human orientation of sexuality.” (intro)
Black’s belief about homosexuality is in direct conflict with every major medical health care professional organization in the U.S. Human sexuality exists along a natural spectrum from homosexuality to heterosexuality. Also, there is absolutely no causal link between molestation and sexual orientation. Whereas children who feel they are outsiders are more likely easy targets for sexual predators, there is no proof as to a link between childhood molestation and sexual orientation.
Black continues, “There is sure hope that one can enjoy freedom from driving homosexual temptation and the pounding desires of same-sex lust, which many call same-sex attraction.” (intro)
Sure, one can hope, but there is no “sure hope” that people change from a homosexual to a heterosexual orientation. It is important to note here, and when considering the results of Black’s study, that sexual orientation is comprised of: self-identity (how one identifies), sexual behavior (which sex(es) you have sexual relationships with), and sexual attraction (who you are romantically, emotionally, and affectionately attracted to; it is innate).
Continuing on the topic of homosexuality, Black writes: “It is important to understand the common causes of homosexuality if we are to compassionately help anyone to recover.” (p. 65) Black lists some of the causes of homosexuality: abuse, porn, molestation, absent father, being raised by same-sex couple, or parents with multiple partners, sins of father, no affection, father wound, and mother wound.
Again, health care professionals do not agree with Black’s assessment of the “causes” of homosexuality. Black’s list does however align with the beliefs of therapists of the late 1930s to the early 1970s. Those theories as to the causes of homosexuality had absolutely no scientific or research basis. They were categorically tossed out in the early 1970s. Unfortunately, these flawed assumptions were resurrected by Christian ministries pushing for reparative therapy. It was junk science then, and it’s junk science now. Sadly and destructively, many now wrap a sin component around having a natural homosexual orientation.
Black writes: “All other orientations (beside heterosexuality) are, at the very least, distorted emotional wounds from psychological (soulish) problems with their accompanying desires. Modern psychology, at its very worst, gives us sexual orientation as a way to legitimize sinful behavior. Under this diabolical plot, the orientation message can culminate the potential for mutilation of the body as we see in gender reassignment surgery.” (p. 135) There is no agreement from professional medical and mental health care professional on any of this.
About gay Christians and those who “return” to homosexuality, Black writes:
“gay Christians” (his quotation marks) are “distorted grace advocates who contort what it means to walk in freedom” (intro) and “allow for these so-called believers in Christ to embrace a mental agreement on the historical facts of Jesus Christ while living unrepentant lives.“ (intro) I know several hundred gay Christians. Labelling them “distorted grace advocates” is stunningly offensive. Thank God they have found a way to walk in freedom amidst the unjust condemnation hurled at them. Additionally, gay people can no sooner repent from being gay than I can from being straight. Sexual orientation just is. It is not a moral, sin issue. [If you are spinning from these comments, consider reading a book I wrote which thoroughly engages sexuality in historical, cultural and religious contexts. LINK]
Black warns: “Do not fall into the modern psychology trap of ‘gay Christian,’ placing label of fallen humanity onto people concerning their sexuality.” (p. 138)
Again, people have a natural sexual orientation along a spectrum from homosexuality to heterosexuality; that is not a choice. On the other hand, as is true with every person, one can chose to be a Christian or not. Gay people who choose to follow Christ are gay Christians.
More on gay Christians: “Both groups, the celibate ‘gay Christian’ and the practicing homosexual who still claim Christian identity, show a profound depth of biblical illiteracy.” (p. 92)
This is a particularly ill-informed statement. LGBTQ Christians are amongst the most Bible literate and knowledgeable people I know. I have found myself having meals with LGBTQ Christian friends where I am in the minority, having not attended a Bible school or seminary.
Of families with LGBTQ children, Black writes: “It is heartbreaking to watch family members become worn down by gay theology, and also lose their faith as they become sources of empowerment to these distortions.” (p. 88) Again, I find quite the opposite to be true. An increasingly large number of parents rediscover a richness in faith when their child comes out. It forces parents to dig into the Scriptures. They glue themselves onto God for answers that may well be in contrast to the traditions of their faith. In that journey, they discover a level of grace and unconditional love they never knew and it alters their Christian walk.
Of the only “acceptable” sexuality, Black writes: “What we call heterosexuality, God calls ‘holy relating’ between one man and one woman in a covenant marriage relationship with the potential to create life in His image through human sexual intercourse.” (p. 135)
Not only is heterosexuality a modern category of human sexuality that God did not specifically identify in the Bible, it is a further presumption to imagine that God calls heterosexuality “holy relating.” Additionally, procreation is not a requirement of marriage.
With assurance Black writes: “Heterosexuality is an innate created biological fact, and therefore, cannot change. This is simple Biology 101. Any biology given to us by modern psychology does not change the truth that we are created human beings, male and female at every level.“ (p. 136)
Black’s “facts” are not biological facts. People have innate sexual attractions, but those attractions are not always heterosexual. While heterosexuality is the norm, it is not normative. Not only are there male and female sexes, there is also intersex. In fact, there are 31 known conditions of intersex persons.
It is inevitable that “the fall” should come up. “Although, some couples cannot produce, this is also a result of the fall as are those who are intersex.” (p. 135) Using “the fall” as an easy catch all for the things we can’t explain or don’t like may be convenient, but sure would like to see a good and bad list in the Bible of “after the fall” items. Children and racial diversity came “after the fall.” Not everything after the fall is problematic or defined.
Some people “leave homosexuality.” These are “sincerely devoted people who leave homosexuality and same-sex lust behind (and) do not look to psychology, higher learning, or gay advocates for the label of ‘gay” or ‘ex-gay,’ or a ‘sexual orientation’.” (p. 86) “Intelligent people point to their education and higher learning as preeminent over the principles and sound promises of God’s Word, which is idolatry.” (intro) Black frequently expresses disdain for both professional counseling and education.
Those who return to homosexuality are those who “embraced false teaching from the hyper-perverse-grace heresy to spirit guides who lure people back to the lie of homosexuality and ‘gay Christianity’.” (p. 85) “Those who embrace this false ideology tend to return to a life of sin. They become mockers.” (p. 87) “They constantly struggle with immoral thoughts and activities.” (p. 87) An increasing number of Christians are embracing affirming theology. We are studying and researching and not being led astray by “spirit guides.” I have already mentioned that I have extensive relationships with LGBTQ Christians. They led Christian lives of ups and downs just like straight Christians, they just happened to be gay.
The First Stone Ministries (FSM) Effectiveness Survey featured at the end of the book appears to be the work Black is most proud of. The work that offers the promised “evidence . . . that there is real hope for lasting change.” (p. 265)
Black accesses 1,200 client files from FSM of people that had been gathered over span of 25 years (1990 – 2015). Initially approximately 500 people were engaged and invited to take the survey. In the end, 185 responded to the survey.
A series of twenty-eight questions were asked and analyzed. The study was not peer reviewed and also appears to not have benefitted from the input of a professional survey maker, one who can ask questions in a more unbiased manner.
I am only going to focus on a few questions and their results.
Since Black claims a success rate of “at least 72 percent (that) have found lasting freedom from sinful behavior,” how he arrived at that number and what he does with it is of particular interest.
Question 15 (166 responses) – How do you self identify? The choices were: same-sex attracted but not homosexual (46%), heterosexual (33%), bisexual (9%) and other (11%).
Same question, but for those with a year or more with FSM (125 responses): same-sex attracted but not homosexual (53%), practicing homosexual (12%), heterosexual (25%) and bisexual (10%).
Perhaps a few things are immediately obvious to the reader. Is there a distinction between “same-sex attracted but not gay” and “bisexual”? What IS same-sex attracted but not gay”? Is there a degree of attraction that is just inside the line of “not gay”? Have people been conditioned, shamed, or swayed away from the label of gay or homosexual in the construction of the question itself? Are you only homosexual if you are “practicing?”
Are respondees just being asked about self-identifier? Are they considering their natural romantic attractions in answering the questions? After all, one can label themselves whatever they choose to label themselves, but there is still a natural attraction. What was the makeup of the group that did answer the survey? How many of the respondees have their livelihoods t tied to ministry work/reparative therapy work?
Filling in a form with no face-to-face, or even phone follow-up will likely not be and accurate reflection of a person’s emotional, romantic and sexual orientation. There are just too many unknowns.
Many of the problems inherent in the FSM study are reminiscent of the famous and fatally flawed Robert Spitzer study of 2001 which reported that people could change their sexual orientation.
Question 19 (166 responses) – If you have same-sex attractions, do you currently consider yourself gay or homosexual? Yes (12%), No ( I have same-sex attractions but I do not consider myself gay or homosexual) 58%, and no answer 30%
Same question to those with a year or more in FSM ministry – Yes, I have same-sex attractions and consider myself gay or homosexual (16%) and no, I have same-sex attractions and do not consider myself gay or homosexual (84%). Whoa! Watch for it. This will be considered a “success.” One can still have same-sex attractions, not call themselves gay and be a successful “freedom from homosexuality” story. Semantics at play.
Question 28 (164 responses) – after leaving First Stones Ministries, were you sexually addicted (4%), experienced some progress (18%), mostly free (34%) or free from sexual addiction (29%), and no response (14%).
Stop right here and re-read the question. Built into the question is an assumption that any non-heterosexual behavior is a sexual addiction. So, if a person still experiences some same-sex attraction, they are, according to this response choice set “mostly free.”
What is “mostly” free? Does using the word “addiction” skew the responses because it becomes more shaming to admit to same-sex attractions when they are addictions? Does “free” mean not participating in same-sex sex, but still being same-sex attracted? There are so many questions about the questions AND the responses.
Same question to those with one or more years at FSM – addicted (5%), some progress (23%), mostly free (40%) and free (33%).
From these key questions, Black combines “mostly free” (40%) and “free” (33%) to arrive at his conclusion that, for those who have spent a year or more in ministry at FSM, 73% of clients have found “freedom from homosexuality.”
Black then extrapolates this 73% to his entire client base of 1200 and imagines 840 clients have found “lasting freedom” from homosexuality by participating in FSM.
There are so many problems with this survey, the questions, the response choices, the conflating of same-sex attracted but not gay or homosexual, expanding the numbers to the entire client base, and other problems a qualified statistician/data analyst is likely already scratching their head over.
What about the almost 1,000 people who did not respond to FSM’s request to participate? You certainly could not use a blanket 73% success rate on such a group.
Amongst friends I know who have attended FSM, that certainly is the case. That wanted nothing more to do with FSM. One former client was more depressed and more suicidal working the program after two years of diligent work. Another friend said, “After 8 years of reparative therapy, 11 years of reparative/conversion groups, 7 Exodus conferences, several Love One Out Conferences and Desert Stream Conferences, trainings, reading dozens of books, prayer sessions, over 100 therapy sessions to save a marriage, and hundreds of hours on my knees hating myself and asking God to take that “curse” away, it did not work. I finally came out and am in a relationship.”
To assume the over 1,000 non-responses are a reflection of the 185 who did respond is foolhardy, and quite ridiculous.
I am quite sure Mr. Black will peddle his over 70% “freedom from homosexuality” “success” rate as viable and true. But readers, you get to decide.
Are Black’s beliefs about sexual orientation in alignment with what you believe about human sexuality? Do you trust his survey methods, findings and assertions? I don’t.
Likely Black would see me, and in fact does see me as a person in need of enlightenment from God, and perhaps even in need of salvation (though I am and have been a Christian for over 30 years).
As does Black, I believe in the power of God. I do not believe people need to be healed from non-heterosexual orientations and I do believe in the benefit of good mental health counseling. Yet, neither prayer nor mental health counseling will change one’s sexual orientation. Professional counseling may be particularly useful however if you have endured years of shaming from Christian ministry groups like FSM who view you as broken if you are anything but heterosexual.
I found “Freedom Realized” to be one of the most shaming books I have read in quite awhile. The demonic focus was alarming, just too much fear-fueled living, not representative of the loving, compassionate view I hold of God.
Stephen Black is likely a man who believes wholeheartedly in his work and ministry, but the evidence is just not there that having a homosexual orientation is broken, in need of fixing, and changeable through faith-based ministries. If Black would allow himself the freedom and humility to engage LGBTQ Christians whom he dismisses, he may find what I know to be true. One can be LGBT or Q and Christian. One can have a flourishing, God-blessed, rich, loving life, marriage and family if you are LGBT or Q and Christian.
Exodus International closed, and rightly so. Likewise, ministries like Restored Hope and First Stones will close in time. And rightly so.