I was reviewing yet another book in the Christian non-LGBTQ affirming niche recently. I’ve now read and reviewed forty-five such books. Beyond the author’s personal story if it is a memoir, they all share a few similar core messages: homosexuality is sexual brokenness. We cannot find the reason for it, but it likely, at its point of origin, resultant from The Fall in Genesis where all evil entered the world. The Bible is clear on God’s stance on marriage and homosexuality. Marriage is only between a man and a woman. Homosexuality is the result of anything from demonic oppression to open rebellion against God, to childhood sexual abuse, or unbalanced parenting, or just human brokenness. Whatever the cause, it is both morally and spiritually inferior to heterosexuality.
Christians are frequently told (and say) that the current restrictions, demands, and expectations placed on those who identify as gay (or same-sex attracted) or transgender have “always been this way” or “this is not me talking, this is clearly what God says in the Bible.” But, has it always been this way, and are the dictates from God?
What I’ve found across the board with these books are similar consistent flaws. The author stands in the present, looks to past, and reads Scripture with today’s eyes and understanding all while skipping over and taking no or little consideration of over two millennia of social, medical, legal, cultural, and even religious advancements. Sadly, they all, and I do mean all, ignore even the more recent progression on how the church itself has approached the subject of homosexuality in just the past seventy years.
So, for those might benefit from understanding how the intersection of religion and sexual orientation has evolved since the 1940s, I offer this short overview.
Do you realize that the word homosexual(s) made its inaugural appearance in the Bible in 1946 Revised Standard Version New Testament (in I Corinthians 6:9-10)? And, further, did you know homosexual(s)/homosexuality was added in five additional places in the Bible as recent as 1971?
That’s likely fairly stunning information to most of you. The passages all referred to sexual acts resulting from excessive behaviors, rape, lust, manipulation, or abuse. There were no categories of heterosexual or homosexual when any section of the Bible was written.
Even as gay people became more obvious within the culture in the early twentieth century, conservative Christians weren’t focused on them at all. Their sights trained on other topics: evolution, alcohol, women, teen sex, Catholics, and communists. They never preached about homosexuality, heck, they never preached about marital sex!
Considering the slow progression of understanding human sexuality, and in particular sexual orientation, even in the 1970s, little was understood about those who were gay. There just had to be something intrinsically wrong with those who did emotional, romantic and sexual attractions differently than heterosexual people. Without any scientific or medical support, homosexuality was considered a mental illness right up until 1973.
Recall that I mentioned the word “homosexual” was first introduced into the Bible in 1946? The translation team for the Revised Standard Version of the Bible combined two Greek words as “homosexual.” (They did the translation work for I Corinthians in the 1930s. I’ve been working with research partner, Ed Oxford, on original archival research.) The translation team was operating under the same understanding as the wider culture—homosexuality was a mental illness.
More than a decade later, the team’s translation decision to use the word “homosexual” was challenged. As a result of the detailed challenge, the head of the team admitted making an error in using the word “homosexual.” He assured the challenger that the team would correct the translation error in the RSV revision. Unfortunately, RSV-r was not published until 1971. By then, the error had stood, almost unnoticed for twenty-five years.
Even with the word “homosexual” plainly appearing in the RSV, there is no record of the usage of I Corinthians or any other biblical passages used in pastoral counseling to “correct” gay people until the mid-to-late 1970s. The standard pastoral advice given gay people (recorded only a few times in the 1940s) was a referral to a therapist or psychiatrist for professional help. After all, homosexuality was a mental illness, not a moral issue.
During the late 1950s and 1960s, there are scant accounts of some more progressive-leaning Protestant and Quaker ministers attempting to find gracious and inclusive ways to engage gay people, but still, they, just as was the wider culture, were viewing homosexuality through a diseased lens, and not as a sin.
We begin to see an almost unnoticeable shift in conservative spaces in the 1960s with the onset of the field of “biblical counseling.” Dr. Clyde Narramore merged psychology and the Bible, and Dr. William Standish Reed merged medicine and the Bible. Homosexuality still deemed a pathology, could be cured like many other body and mental illnesses—through Christian faith, and better yet, Spirit-filled Christianity was the most effective tool. Christianity could “heal” the mental illness of homosexuality.
There was no consideration for partial healing of homosexuality, it was an all-or-nothing proposition. Entering life-long celibacy was not healing or the desired outcome. After all, imposed celibacy (as required of Catholic priests) was an idea straight from the devil (Martin Luther). Mockery and disdain for the Catholic idea of imposed celibacy had been part of the Protestant narrative for over 450 years since the Reformation.
When in 1973 the American Psychological Association corrected their non-science, non-study-based decades-old wrongful designation of homosexuality as a mental illness, one may have hoped people in the religious world would revisit the placement of the word “homosexual” in the Bible as well. The 1971 RSV-r had just been changed from “homosexual” to “sexual perverts.” “Sexual perverts” was not a category of people, it could be any person who used or abused sex or others sexually, certainly not just homosexuals. Tragically, even as the RSV shifted focus in I Corinthians away from gay people exclusively, three more versions of the Bible whose translation work began in the late1950s (NASB, TLB, and NIV) had all used the RSV as their base text. Each one duplicated RSV wrong translation and The Living Bible added homosexual(s)/homosexuality in five more places. This is not that long ago; I was in high school. The stigmatization of gay people waned in medicine and increased in the religion.
The conservative church newly-focused their concerns on the moral decline of America (abortion, women’s move toward equality (yes, really), homosexuality, drug usage, and pornography). Conservative faith leaders then made one of their gravest errors in the past forty years. Wanting more cultural control and influence, they happily entered a very unholy marriage with conservative politics. Moral wedge issues were used to drive previously unengaged voters to the polls. Homosexuality was one of the top wedge issues. Even with the word right there in the Bible, no anti-gay theology had been created.
Christian anti-gay books began popping up at the end of the 1970s. These books were stigma and ideology-based, not theological at all. They were almost exclusively fear-based and warned of the threat and destruction “the homosexual” would bring to marriage, families, the church, and the country. No longer a mental illness, conveniently, homosexuality was now a sin.
By the late 1970s, the first wave of “ex-gays” came along. It may be helpful to put this in perspective, the McDonald’s Happy Meal and the change-the-gays theology are about the same age.
Homosexual Colin Cook, a Seventh Day Adventist, offered hope to others. He claimed he was no longer homosexual. His story was carried in denominational journals. The response was overwhelming. If he could change, so could others. The problem was, he never did change. He opened a practice, he created books and videos, his organization spread to almost every state. The promise of change drove the creation of an ex-gay industry. But, it was all based on Cook’s lies, supported by a wrong translation of Greek words that was multiplied and stood uncorrected for too long. When the SDA cut financial support and ties with Colin Cook over his gross immorality, wildly inappropriate counseling techniques, and lying, he claimed a momentary oops, hit the reset button for himself and moved right on over to the now growing evangelical ex-gay market as the no-longer-gay proof. His change story and counseling promises found new markets to serve. Even Focus on the Family used his services.
So, where is Colin Cook today? I had a long conversation with him a few months ago. Even after following the techniques he created and taught, techniques I can only describe as labyrinthian, at 79, he is still gay. Sadly, he has never admitted nor taken responsibility for his deceptive and complicit actions.
Eventually, Cook “disappeared.” By the early 1990s, again, he was caught in unethical counseling practices, but his false promise of change had already taken root and spread throughout the conservative church. Other ex-gays took the limelight and told their stories of change. This set-up was beneficial to the religious right’s bed partner, the conservative political movement. They didn’t want to extend equal rights to LGBTQ people. A constant supply of no-longer-gays proved that sexual orientation was not permanent, it could be changed. And, because gay people could change, they didn’t need “special rights” (aka, their civil rights).
It had been a decade since medical experts and professional health care organizations had dismissed the notion of homosexuality as pathology along with it imagined “causes.” Then in 1983 non-psychology expert Elizabeth Moberly resurrected the discarded mess and couched it churchy language in her 56-page pamphlet “Homosexuality: A New Christian Ethic”(1983). She had a way, via Christian counseling, to move people from homosexuality to heterosexuality. She had no medical or psychological training, she created theories, came up with methods for change, and did counseling for healing of homosexuality using Christian language.
The now fully-discredited (and deceased) junk science purveyor Dr. Joseph Nicolosi co-opted Moberly’s theories when he saw one of her former clients in his practice. He expanded Moberly’s work without crediting her, she got mad, left the field and Nicolosi pushed his work into the Christian ex-gay world. His writings were used to support much of the work of you-can-change-your-orientation Christian ministries like Exodus and the hundreds of organizations under their umbrella, Love Won Out, and Love in Action. In the 1980s, these organizations promised full change from homosexuality to heterosexuality by tapping into the power of God. They also encouraged gay people to enter into heterosexual marriages or live in life-long celibacy.
What a disaster that was! It should be fairly obvious why it was so disastrous. Not much God going on, but a whole lot of people messing up.
After three decades, most of those groups have shut down. Many former leaders subsequently admitted to their errors, to the lack of change, and frequently, telling their own stories of near-destruction trying to pretend to be what they never were—straight.
It was time for a new version of being gay in the conservative church. The old methods and demands weren’t working. Enter the 2010s. What’s the church to do with LGBTQ people who were wrestling with their faith, coming out, finding community in other LGBTQ Christians, wanting to stay in church, and unable to change orientation?
When something does not work, it’s time for new guidelines, a new language, and refreshed “theology.” It’s all still just surface work. It all still demands that LGBTQ people not be allowed equal status to straight Christians. The opposite of homosexuality was heterosexuality (but that wasn’t happening), so, it became “holy-sexuality.” In flowed numerous books by gay, or same-sex attracted Christians, admitting they could not change their orientation but were indeed Christians. (Hill-Perry, Citlau, Yuan, Butterfield, Bennett, Coles, Cook) They entreated others to join them in God-mandate holy sexuality or life-long celibacy. Oh, how their 1960s forefathers in biblical counseling, who thought they too spoke for God, would have scoffed at them. Imposed celibacy, ala the Catholic clergy? It was a trick of the devil!
Since the 1940s, goal posts, requirements, and dictates kept changing.
But here is the bottom line: a great moral injustice (the conservative Christian approach to changing or rejecting LGBTQ people) was the result of factual errors (mistranslated words, and viewing homosexuality as a mental illness, then a sin).
What do we/you do with and about all this? It’s gotten pretty complicated. Do you ignore it, remain complicit, and carry on?
The majority of conservative religious leaders certainly have ignored, remained complicit and carried on. The authors whose books I have read and reviewed certainly have done the same.
I’ve read all these books. Not many people can claim that. They are all basically the same. The books are full of the easy, thinly-constructed, sloppy, crowd-pleasing work that continues to bolster the gays-must-change narrative.
I would be so impressed if just one of these authors whose books I’ve read did some decent historical work around social changes in the roles of men and women, or investigated the very young history of anti-gay theology, or even peeked into the history of biblical counseling for LGBTQ people and how that has shifted, and get honest about it all. They may not come to the conclusions I have. Fine, at least do some deeper work.
Just a modicum of some academics.
Just a drop of foundational work.
Just one little step outside and challenge the norm.
But, they don’t. They tell their story (no complaint there, we all have one) and rehash the trash.
But they never do the damn work!
It’s exhausting. It’s sloppy. It’s damaging.
LGBTQ people and their families already have one foot out the door of churches, a large group of them will end their relationships with God altogether. Exclusionary, shaming, man-created teachings not only far-reaching eternal consequences, but they also have earthly consequences too. I am continually disturbed by authors (Sean McDowell, Christopher Yuan) who need evidence of studies to prove that such teachings are doing damage to LGBTQ people.
I know many of the non-affirming religious leaders. I know they have the intellectual capacity and skills to do the work. Most people won’t allow their strongly held viewpoints to be challenged. It’s risky. There can be a significant loss. If a person plays at higher levels and they (and their family) make some or most of their income from books and speaking, they’ll no longer be invited to speak if they changed their views. Book sales will plummet. Reputations will suffer. There is a cost of correcting this injustice.
But there is a far bigger cost to allowing it to stand.
Yet still, please Christian leaders and pastors, authors, people in the pews, and mostly those who have LGBTQ people in your lives, invest in participating in one of the most important works of justice in the church today—the deconstruction of anti-gay theology.
This moral injustice can be corrected, and it will be.
The first step, get to know and listen to LGBTQ Christians and their families. They’ve likely been trying to talk with you for years. Listen. Hear them. Read Torn, God and the Gay Christian, Transparently, Transforming, Focusing on My Family, Undivided, Embracing the Journey.
Pastors, if you have questions or know that you need to investigate your beliefs in a safe and private environment, consider attending an off-the-record gathering specifically for pastors of non-affirming churches who want to move the conversation on LGBTQ inclusion forward in their churches—Pastors in Process at The Reformation Project in Seattle, WA, November 7th.
Parents, there is a special event for you too. Are you a Christian parent who has an LGBTQ child and lots of questions? Are you concerned about what the Bible has to say about your child? Are you wrestling with what it means to honor God and continue to love and embrace your child after they’ve come out? If so, you are not alone on this journey—and you are invited to attend a daylong program on Thursday, November 7, for parents just like you. Parents in Process.
Additionally, I’ve done a two-part, five-hour substantial overview posted on YouTube that greatly expands on some points I’ve contained in this review, start there. (It is also linked on the sidebar to this article.)
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