I believe Exodus announcing its decision to shut down was an absolutely pivotal day in the history of American Christianity.
Because of how quickly our culture’s understanding and perceptions of sexuality have changed in the last forty years or so, much of what we’ve seen at a societal scale has been a series of grand, unplanned experiments. It’s all relatively new to us as a society, so we’re essentially figuring it out as we go. The first out generation is reaching their golden years, so we’re exploring for the first time in our history what it means to support elderly gay and lesbian individuals who have been out for the majority of their lives. There’s a whole generation of people who grew up surrounded by prominent gay and lesbian individuals in the media and in the neighborhood, so we’re exploring for the first time how to respond to someone who says they’re gay at the age of 12, or 10, or 8 or to someone who says their gender doesn’t match their body at age 4. And our churches include people who are voicing personal experiences of same-sex attraction as something unchosen and unexpected, so churches are exploring for the first time what their experiences mean theologically and pastorally.
I’ll try to make a very long story into a short story. Since the ’70s, when the Stonewall riots effectively brought homosexuality out of the nation’s closet, gay and lesbian individuals have occupied a place in society that’s increasingly off the margins, and this has presented a problem for conservative churches. On the one hand, their beliefs about sexuality have been clear, however unclearly they may have presented them: God designed sex as a major part of our existence, and sex is a good thing, and sexual intimacy isn’t good when it doesn’t involve a man and a woman who are married. On the other hand, it’s been impossible for them to deny the existence of individuals whose experience is different from the experiences of the majority, and I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt and say people generally haven’t tried to deny their existence. It was simply a new revelation that required a new response from the church, both theologically and pastorally: What does the experience of people who are homosexually oriented tell us about God and humanity, and how should the church respond to people who are not heterosexual?
Enter Exodus, an organization that somehow generated and/or came to represent the church’s solution to the crisis of the existence of gay people: They didn’t have to be gay. What developed over the next forty years in the Christian world after Stonewall was a hodgepodge of ministries and testimonies and books and sermons related to homosexuality that were genuinely well-intentioned, from what I can tell, but increasingly convoluted and inconsistent. This is where the story gets intensely controversial in terms of who’s to blame, how sorry they should feel, what was communicated, etc., but much of the Christian world received a message from this subculture of ministries that sounded optimistic and groundbreaking: People who are homosexual can, by specific means, become heterosexual. Lay Christians often saw no reason to think much about homosexuality, and the limited availability of information about gay and lesbian people meant many Christians didn’t educate themselves, probably because doing so felt like acquiescing to the conclusions of a secular society whose values felt increasingly distant from Christian values. Instead, they depended on the conclusions of those conservative Christians who seemed to be spending lots of time thinking about homosexuality, and the message they received was that a person who followed the proper procedure (what we usually call “reparative therapy”) could change their orientation from homo- to hetero-. Exodus became an umbrella for these myriad ministries and became the emblem for the concept of orientation change as their infamous slogan, “Change is possible,” took hold of the public consciousness. It’s difficult to measure how effectively the promise of orientation change saturated Christian thinking, but suffice it to say that, even today, it’s not uncommon for those who come out to conservative Christians to hear a standard response: “Oh, I think there’s a group out there that can make you straight.”
(Again, it’s unclear where the blame belongs in all of this, in terms of who promised what and when. When shades of subtlety, especially related to the differences between sexual orientation and sexual activity, did exist, they often didn’t translate; either because laypeople weren’t listening closely or because leaders in the so-called “ex-gay” world spoke with vagueness or outright dishonesty. Even the slogan “Change is possible,” which Exodus dropped a long time ago, was dreadfully ambiguous.)
The idea that complete orientation change was a reasonable expectation for people who pursued it led to other significant conclusions in the life of the church: like, for example, that someone who didn’t experience complete orientation change lacked faith or needed to keep seeking change until it happened; or that the experience of same-sex attraction in itself (regardless of one’s sexual behavior) was sinful, since it was something one had the option to change if they chose to do so; or even that gay and lesbian individuals were somehow pathological, which directly contradicted the APA’s outlook. Unfortunately, all these conclusions were built on a false premise because, to put it simply, most people didn’t experience a complete orientation change. Alan Chambers, the current head of Exodus, made that unmistakably clear when he famously acknowledged in 2012, “The majority of people that I have met, and I would say the majority meaning 99.9% of them have not experienced a change in their orientation or have gotten to a place where they could say that they could never be tempted or are not tempted in some way or experience some level of same-sex attraction.” That admission was the loudest, clearest confirmation of a reality that had slowly been announcing itself over the last few decades through whispered rumors, consistent criticisms from secular psychology, and personal testimonies from prominent former leaders of ex-gay ministries: The vast majority of people did not experience complete orientation change regardless of the means they pursued to attain it. To be sure, many reported and still report major shifts in sexual behavior, and many reported and still report some changes in their attractions toward men and women; but the experience of complete change is exceedingly uncommon to the point that it should be considered an isolated exception to a thoroughly consistent rule.
So, why did I say Exodus shutting down was a historic day for American Christianity? I think it symbolizes the end of the era in which the default Christian response to the existence of gay and lesbian individuals has been orientation change. Exodus (and, of course, countless others) had already ceased to support the practice of reparative therapy, and other smaller ministries will probably long continue to endorse the practice of reparative therapy, so the change certainly didn’t happen overnight. Nevertheless, when the nation’s premier organization that had become associated with the promise of complete orientation change closed its doors, I think it was a catalyst to conclusively eliminate that option as Christians’ default response to gay and lesbian individuals, and I think the doors clanged loudly enough to get people’s attention.
Unfortunately, the story of Exodus hasn’t only taught us not to promise complete orientation change; the unavoidable, painful reality of the last forty years is that the promise of complete orientation change and the conclusions that promise produced (see above) have done incredible, irreversible harm to people, and that’s why so many so-called “ex-gay survivors” hold justifiably strong emotions about Exodus and its affiliated ministries. We can’t ignore their pain or the severity of what has occurred; immense healing needs to occur and will likely take a long time. I don’t know how people will think or talk about sexuality in the distant future, but I think people will look back on these last forty years as a well-intentioned but misguided failure, an first-run catastrophe from which we repented and learned and progressed. By no means am I saying it was worth the damage in order for Christians to learn something about sexuality; what I am saying is that the damage occurred, and Christians had better learn from it. I imagine people will look back on this era of Christian history with the same emotions they feel about other regrettable eras of Christian history.
Where does this leave the conservative church? The crisis that presented itself to the church after Stonewall hasn’t changed: Gay and lesbian people exist, and the kind of relationships they find themselves desiring conflicts with traditional Christian teachings about marriage and sex. What must necessarily change is the church’s response moving into the future: Christians must eradicate from their vocabulary of complete orientation change. It may still take years for that reality to trickle down into the popular Christian consciousness, but the danger and harm of promising complete orientation change is now clear to us. It’s time for Christians to re-examine their theological and pastoral response to gay and lesbian people, always keeping in mind the harm gay and lesbian individuals suffered as a result of trying to change their orientations. I predict this change will lead the church in two primary directions, each of which requires massive transformation. Either one may eventually crowd out the other, and they’re not mutually exclusive. Both have their roots in movements that started long before orientation change proved itself to be an ineffective response:
First, some Christians are affirming and blessing monogamous same-sex relationships. (This is fairly straightforward and doesn’t require much explanation.) Although they admit this breaks from the church’s historical traditions, they see that break as a positive change the Spirit of God has engendered. Orientation change efforts are seen as both useless and harmful, since they attempt to change something about someone that neither can nor needs to change. Needless to say, this will require a major transition in the way many Christians think and behave related to sexual minorities.
Second, some Christians are rediscovering and re-imagining ways in which gay and lesbian individuals can pursue intimacy and sexual expression within the context of traditional Christian sexual ethics. This involves a range of outcomes: mixed-orientation marriage, spiritual friendship, celibacy, and others. These approaches are gaining momentum in various circles, but many churches (especially those in newer denominations that don’t have strong roots outside the context of American Christianity and thus lack certain institutional structures) are unprepared to foster intimacy in any relationship outside of the context of a relationship between two heterosexuals. That’s a large-scale epidemic producing major intimacy and stability problems for everyone, including married heterosexuals, but it’s most obviously and immediately a crisis for those people who aren’t heterosexual. Churches that practice traditional sexual ethics will need to develop an environment of support for gay and lesbian individuals for whom a monogamous same-sex relationship will not be an option. I think a growing percentage of people in our culture (Christian and non-Christian alike) will perceive any theology that doesn’t affirm same-sex relationships as harmful, regardless of what happens with the movement toward legalizing same-sex marriage, and Christians must allow those criticisms to refine their response to gay and lesbian individuals. Gay and lesbian people could serve an important prophetic role against the church’s idolatry of nuclear families.
This entire conversation ultimately centers on a fact and an urgent, unavoidable question. Here’s the fact: There are gay and lesbian people in the world whose orientations are exceedingly unlikely to change. Here’s the urgent, unavoidable question: Do they have a legitimate place in your church? If someone who is gay or lesbian desires a relationship with Jesus in the context of your church and its sexual ethics, it’s dishonest and dangerous to respond, “Oh, I think there’s a group out there that can make you straight.” The old adage rings true here: If the gospel isn’t good news for everyone, then it isn’t good news for anyone. That “everyone” includes sexual minorities, of course, and whether there’s good news for them in your church determines whether there’s good news for anyone in your church. I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say the days in which we’re living are pivotal in the story of American Christianity. The last forty years involved a certain response from many Christians to homosexuality that went badly, sometimes horrendously so, and Christians must not overlook the injury they have perpetrated. The next forty years could but won’t inevitably go better, and better begins when more Christians shift their posture to one of honesty and empathy with the gay and lesbian individuals whose lives intersect with theirs. Do gay and lesbian people have a legitimate place in your church?
(Since I really do believe the end of Exodus is a historic event, I recommend taking time to read what others are saying about it. Here’s a list of some of the most compelling pieces I’ve found: Alan Chambers apologizes for the harm Exodus has done and announces Exodus is shutting down. John Shore offers a sarcastic, scathing criticism of Chambers’ apology. Ex-Gay Watch suggests Exodus leaders need to wait, learn, and grow before launching their new ministry related to homosexuality. Andrew Marin argues apologies are meaningless without action. Jimmy Cornfoot urges church leaders to respond publicly to the news surrounding Exodus for the sake of the LGBT community.)
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