For almost 40 years, the conservative Christian community has sought to outsource the “gay problem” to groups outside their church walls. Exodus International was founded in 1976 from a seed group established in 1973. Exodus became the most widely recognized group associated with the training and belief that gay people could become straight with reparative therapy in a Christian environment.
Alan Chambers, the President of Exodus for 12 years, recently met with a group of survivors of the program. That meeting, “God and Gays”, was filmed and produced by Lisa Ling for the Oprah Winfrey Network; it aired June 20th. In the 24 hours before the show, Chamber released a public apology for the damaging work of Exodus and, at the concurrent annual conference, announced the closing of the Exodus International ministry.
None of this surprises me.
When Exodus was formed in the 70’s, little was understood about human sexual orientation or the dangers of reparative therapy, nor did the majority of the American population know a gay or lesbian person.
Forty years later, there is a general cultural understanding that sexual orientation is not chosen nor is it impacted by family dynamics. Rather, all medical and professional organizations recognize that homosexuality is a normal variation of human sexual expression. Regarding the issue of reparative therapy, the American Psychological Association has stated its professional position that reparative therapy is destructive. And finally, 77% of the American population has familial, friendship or working relationships with gay people.
Outside of the conservative Christian church bubble, change in sexual orientation is discounted by the majority. But, inside church walls, in the pew and in the homes of conservative Christians, the myth and hope of “gay to straight” is held as “truth”. The purveyor of that “truth” has largely been Exodus. This is why Exodus’ latest admissions and apologies are of extreme importance.
The conservative church has treated the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community with excessive contempt based considerably on the concept that gay people can and should change their homosexual orientation. After all, this had been the promise of Exodus to the conservative and Evangelical communities for almost four decades.
Clarifying the critical message that people do not change from a homosexual to heterosexual orientation is pivotal to the way in which many Christians view the LGBT community. Believing gay people could be straight validated much of the baggage that was laid on the backs of the LGBT community: gay as a choice, a behavior, a perversion and an abomination.
The message and promise of change has now been publicly debunked along with the failure and destructive nature of past attempts admitted.
It is time to move on and change the faith and sexual orientation conversation in the conservative church world.
Exodus is gone, but the member ministries will still exist and exercise influence. I speak with pastors out of the public light; most are asking one another behind the scenes ‘What are you doing about the gay issue?”
A shift is happening and the conservative church must move out of the shroud of ignorance on this issue and stop the madness of labeling gay people and those that love them as “unchristian” and “heretics”.
We must begin to examine how we got this issue so wrong and work on changing ourselves.
I have been involved in this conversation for almost seven years. There are a few issues that needs to be off the table in a serious and productive conversation about faith and sexual orientation:
- Sexual orientation as changeable
- A homosexual orientation as a mental illness or a perversion
- Sexual orientation as a choice
Of course, there will be faith communities and conservative Christians that will hold a death grip on these falsehoods. They will be left behind in that intentional blindness to facts. As Exodus folds or mutates, whatever the eventual plan is, a group that broke away last fall, the Restored Hope Network (RHN), is creeping in like vultures to the scene of a crash.
I attended the inaugural RHN conference in September 2012. It was an exercise in stepping back into the 1970’s to undo all the knowledge we have culturally, scientifically and psychologically gained about sexual orientation. What Alan Chambers and the Board of Exodus seems to have finally learned, the leaders of RHN are now breathing putrid life into. RHN and the remaining reparative therapy driven religious models will fail. Cultural understanding of homosexuality and personal relationships with gay people are the natural gravity that will bring them down.
Sadly, this “epiphany” of unchangeable orientation has crept slowly into conservative faith communities. Albeit slow, there is a shifting of conservative Christians to a more inclusive and affirming stance.
Productive and respectful conversations and theological study about sexual orientation and faith should and will take place in more honest engagements created by the admissions of Exodus. As more of us are challenged by the clear evidence of the Spirit of God in the lives of LGBT people, we are demanding that our leaders no longer ignore the issue of faith and sexual orientation/gender identity.
For seven years, I have been transparent in my belief that there is no difference in the standing that I have before God when compared to my LGBT brothers and sisters in Christ. We have now entered the critical time for civil, informed and intelligent engagements and education of conservative heterosexual Christians using what we understand both about homosexuality and the Bible.
Stopping short of full equality and inclusion for LGBT Christians is to create an imaginary line in front of God’s Throne. To tell our LGBT fellow Christians they can only go to the line and not over it is to continue in the mistreatment of an entire class of people. Forty years of excessive damage has already occurred; how much more will we ask people to endure in our laziness?
Now it is time for people of faith to humbly challenge ourselves and ask if we might be wrong about another issue — the interpretation of verses wielded as weapons to shame children, reject adults, destroy families and withhold civil rights.
Before 1946, the word “homosexual” did not appear in any version of the Bible. Not one. Until the 1970’s, there was absolutely no common understanding of people who are emotionally, romantically and sexually attracted to the same sex. Using the words that Moses and Paul penned to wage war on LGBT people is a modern contruct of the last 60 years in conservative churches.
It has taken almost 40 years for the conservative church to finally begin to admit that the intentional and destructive rejection and shaming of the LGBT community by expecting orientation change was wrong. Now we must turn our efforts and humility towards asking “What else on this issue might we be wrong?”
Homosexuality is not a choice, but ignorance about it is.
I am involved, as a Board member, in The Reformation Project (TRP), a movement to educate conservative Christians on the Biblical issues of sexual orientation, gender identity and Christianity. In September, fifty Reformers, along with support staff, will gather in Kansas City for a four-day “boot camp”. The intention of TRP is to equip these gifted, connected and motivated people with the tools and training needed to reengage their communities with a more accurate understanding of Scripture.
Revisiting Scripture in context of both relationship and a more clear understanding of sexual orientation is the next progression in the shift away from the Biblical discrimination of LGBT people. The timeline for equality and inclusion in the Christian church, and yes, even the conservative communities, is compressing.
One should not underestimate the significance of Chamber’s recent actions. The admission and apology by Chambers and Exodus will advance the Scriptural conversation faster with the removal of the main objections — sexual orientation as changeable and chosen.
Conservative Christians have asked gay people for 40 years to change, a change that was never possible. It is now time in the conservative church to humbly turn that focus inward.
We are the ones that need the changing. Our attitudes, our exclusionary practices and maybe even the way we view five sections of Scripture.
If a teaching brings fear and destruction rather than love and life, it is not the Gospel.
We may have gotten it wrong. Let us not wait another 40 years to find that out.