[Edited: Saturday, July 13, 2013]
The following is the first in a three-part series that will cover the recent developments at Exodus International. The second part will explore the possible reasons for shutting Exodus down. The third will look at the potential impact that the new organization formed by the leadership of Exodus will have in our culture today. This series is also cross-posted at the Aligned Grace Resources blog.
The oldest and largest ministry in North America dedicated to providing support to Christians affected by same-sex attraction rocked the country last week when its President, Alan Chambers, announced that he and the Board of Directors of Exodus International had unanimously decided to close up shop and cease operations. The announcement was immediately followed by an official apology both to the gay community in general, and to a growing number of ex-ex-gays – or “ex-gay survivors,” as they sometimes call themselves.
Reactions have varied widely across the religious and political spectrum. Among conservatives, Chambers and Exodus have been accused of capitulating to cultural pressure to normalize homosexuality; and they are, in a sense, guilty as charged: in a fallen world, same-sex attraction is, unfortunately, “normal” for those who experience it. Likewise, liberals have criticized them for not going far enough, and completely recanting their traditional beliefs about the sinfulness of all homosexual behavior.
Some helpful background
The organization known today as Exodus International was founded 37 years ago, in 1976. Keep in mind that at this time, consensual gay sex between adults was against the law in almost 40 states, and earned penalties as stiff as 10 years in prison. Events like the Stonewall Riots and the UpStairs Lounge massacre (where 32 gay people were burned alive in a New Orleans bar) were clear reminders of the dangers associated with the gay lifestyle. People within churches who experienced same-sex attraction felt as though there was nobody they could turn to for help, and so the small support groups that Exodus-affiliated ministries provided gave many of these individuals their first taste of gospel community.
In 2013, just over 37 years after the founding of Exodus, the world is quite a different place. In many communities, being gay is pace. Today, the coolest kids at school are the ones with gay parents. As Christians, we have the sacred privilege of viewing these changes as the mixed bag of both tragedy and opportunity. Although we grieve the advance of evil in creation, we do not grieve as those whose job it is to save the world from moral collapse. Furthermore, it’s good that hateful people aren’t setting fire to gay bars when they know that individuals created in the image of God are trapped inside.
The Reparative Therapy movement
But not all of these developments have helped Christians reconcile their faith and sexuality. Perhaps the most damaging of these developments came in the form of the Reparative Therapy movement. As a form of conversion therapy, ‘reparative therapy’ tried to provide a narrative framework within which men and women could make sense of the development of their same-sex attractions. Based on the writings of Elizabeth Moberly and Joseph Nicolosi, reparative therapy is rooted in the premise that a homosexual orientation is essentially a state of arrested psychosexual development, which itself was the result of deficient relational dynamics within the individual’s immediate family.
To be sure, the reparative therapy framework is based on extra-biblical observations, which makes it just as fallible as any other purely human attempt to make sense of the world. Yet despite this fallibility, it nonetheless makes use of some helpful truths (small “t”) that highlight the particular facets of gospel healing that are uniquely meaningful to people who struggle with same-sex attraction.
So what went wrong? To answer that question, I think it would be helpful to take a step back and ask yourself the following questions:
“When I think about my masculinity (or femininity), do I assume that it has something to do with being attracted to individuals of the opposite gender?”
“What would it be like to struggle daily with intense same-sex attractions, surrounded by people who often seem to act as though their heterosexual orientation were an essential aspect of their gender identity?”
“If I were someone with a fractured gender identity, who struggled daily with intense same-sex attractions, what would be the deepest cry of my heart?”
If your answer to the last question sounded something like, “My heart’s deepest cry would be to become straight, like everybody else gets to be,” then you’re on the right track.
Quite simply, the wisdom that informed many of Moberly’s and Nicolosi’s theories became hijacked by a “therapeutic” desire to provide results. Instead of simply helping people “make peace” with their sexuality in God-honoring and obedient ways, many of the most popular reparative therapists instead made the same-sex attractions themselves the focus of therapy. Their goal was to help people with same-sex attraction “fit in” more easily, both within church life, as well as within the rest of society. The unstated assumption was that these individuals could not “fit in” as long as they continued to experience significant same-sex attractions.
Unfortunately, the disappointing reality is that the sexual orientation of most people with same-sex attractions seems to be relatively fixed. There are certainly exceptions, but the majority of people who have a homosexual orientation will likely continue to experience some form of same-sex attractions until the day they die. The intensity of the attractions can, and often does, fluctuate, but the actual orientation itself rarely changes direction entirely.
The sad reality, however, is that many churches often address the topic of homosexuality solely from the perspective of the sinfulness of homosexual behavior, and rarely in ways that bring more clarity to the nature of the attractions themselves. Even today, it’s not uncommon to hear sermons on Romans 1 that suggest that the presence of a homosexual orientation itself is evidence of God’s unique displeasure towards the individual who is it. We have made very little effort to explore how the usual language of sin and temptation fits with the experience of people who experience same-sex attraction. Obviously homosexual behavior is always sinful, but are the attractions themselves sin? Or are they merely temptations? If so, must they always be ‘temptations,’ or are they ever permitted just to “be,” existing simply as signposts evoking the emptiness and futility of sin, while pointing to the possibility of a better, more perfect reality that transcends the fallenness of this world?
The Exodus apology, revisited
So, what about the Exodus apology? If we’re honest with ourselves, it’s hard to deny the possibility that individuals have been hurt by the unintentional emphasis on orientation change that often characterized Exodus and some of its member ministries. Individuals on both sides will no doubt continue to criticize facets of the apology statement, and that is fine. The nature of healthy dialogue allows for this give and take. My hope is simply to point out that during the past 37 years, Christians have primarily sought help from Exodus in their attempt to navigate the waters of holiness in a North American church subculture that has rarely attempted to understand them. Exodus International certainly represented a much safer place than the vast majority of churches for Christians to be transparent about their experience of same-sex attraction. But it nonetheless did so within the context of a triumphalist church subculture that often preferred “finished product” Christians to “in-process” Christians.
I’m going to conclude with a few things to keep in mind when reading the apology.
- The apology was, by definition, directed towards the gay and ex-ex-gay community, not the Church. Many Christian leaders have criticized the apology for being insufficiently clear about what is not being apologized for. To these, I would simply suggest that we take notice of one simple fact: many people on the receiving end of the apology have perceived no such lack of clarity. They understand that Chambers (and Exodus) are not changing their beliefs about sexuality. They are simply grateful that Chambers courageously expended such enormous effort (their words) to acknowledge the pain and confusion many of them experienced because of the atmosphere of unrealistic expectations that pervaded many of the ministry activities of Exodus and Exodus-affiliated ministries throughout the past four decades.
- It would perhaps be helpful to suggest that Chambers does not seem to be apologizing for the scandal and offense that the gospel itself presents to unbelieving humankind. It’s hard to imagine how he could have appropriately qualified the apology along these lines without seriously decreasing the likelihood that it would be perceived as sincere.
- The apology does not repudiate all change that people have experienced as a result of participating in the activities of Exodus-affiliated ministries. Indeed, that would amount to a repudiation of the gospel itself, and the Spirit-empowered life that New Covenant believers in Christ now lead!
- Exodus-affiliated ministries, and other independent ministries not formally associated with Exodus International, that exist today continue to represent enormous reservoirs of godly wisdom and decades of valuable experience in coming alongside individuals who struggle with same-sex attraction. Organizations like Living Hope (Arlington, TX), The Grace Place (Milwaukee, WI), The Sight Ministry (Nashville, TN) Regeneration Ministries (Baltimore, PA), and Hope for Wholeness (Spartanburg, SC, which is also a new network of ministries) are just a few of the many excellent local ministries that remain in operation in the wake of the closure of Exodus International. It may be more difficult to find them without the benefit of the Exodus referral network, but the search will likely be worth the effort.