Exodus International is Right on Gay Reparative Therapy (i)


Update III: I wrote some final thoughts on these posts.

Update II: The second part of this post is up.

Update: I wrote some brief thoughts on a frequent reply I’ve received to this post: “what about gays that are wilfully and persistently disobedient in their sin?” Check it out.

Why on earth am I writing such lose-lose posts as these? I have no idea. Well, here we go.

Last week, Exodus International, one of the biggest and most-well-known Evangelical ministries to homosexuals, came out against what’s called “Reparative Therapy” or “Conversion Therapy”. The New York Times had a big write-up on it (as well as NPR) and an interview with Alan Chambers, the President of Exodus International. And now the whole news cycle is all a-flutter over this. Right when I think the story is dead, I see another headline about “rifts” forming in the Evangelical community and such.

Reading these articles has made me so frustrated with both the Right and the Left in their treatment of this discussion. There’s so much to say, I apologize for the lack of flow or organization that follows.

There are some really important things that seem to be getting lost in this discussion–on both sides.

I have a particular connection to this. In college, I (unlike most of the people writing about this, I assume) actually read the primary text concerning Gay Reparative Therapy (my roommates thought I was so weird). It’s called Reparative Therapy of Male Homosexuality by Joseph Nicolosi. I still have my copy (see picture above–see how happy I am to still have it?).

I was a Psychology major, a conservative Christian, and at a very large, urban, secular institution with many gay and lesbian students. I was President of my campus ministry and was really struggling with how best to love my (literal) neighbor. So, I read the book. I don’t know why I did, exactly, but it was weird experience nonetheless.

If I remember correctly, I think by that time I had gotten past the idea that people “chose” to be gay. At the time, I thought that it was a genetic “pre-disposition” that could make it easier for some people to “fall into it” should the right environmental, emotional, and psychological factors come into play. But nevertheless, people weren’t born “homosexual” any more than people were born “alcoholics” or “adulterers”. Sure, they had drives influenced by genetics, but it was ultimately up to them to curb them.

Anyway, reading the book was a weird experience. Even then, as I read it, I was shocked at the weird reaction that unfolded within me. The theory behind the therapy–that male homosexuality was formed by a distortion of masculinity due to a failure of the man’s father–made “sense”. It had all the loose ends tied and–as a self-enclosed system–it “worked”. And yet, there was this part of me that didn’t fully buy in. Something seemed missing. It’s only now, looking back, that I realize what it was:

Real-life.

It was a therapy built entirely around anecdotes and individuals’ subjective short-term responses. As long as you stayed within that self-enclosed system, it all worked and made “sense”. The second you emerged from that system, though, and went to live your life, it seems the “system” started to unravel, leaving people more messed up than if they had never undergone the therapy in the first place.

And so, in my humble opinion, Exodus International is right to dis-avow this therapy and move as far away from it as possible. And churches should be supporting this. But that’s not all.

First, let’s yell at the Right:

Chambers is getting lots of flack for saying (per the NYT article), “those who persist in homosexual behavior could still be saved by Christ and go to heaven”. This is apparently a huge hang-up to many, many evangelicals. They (and the Left, surprisingly) are skipping over what I feel is the far more challenging thing he says, “I believe that any sexual expression outside of heterosexual, monogamous marriage is sinful according to the Bible”.

Evangelicals just had someone praised by The New York Times and most every major news outlet, who openly calls homosexual behavior a sin. He says this, and the Right is demonizing this man? Churches are pulling out of supporting his ministry? Not because he doesn’t think it’s a sin, but because he feels that those that persist in that sin (in the same way that many of those same Conservatives persist in gluttony, pride, avarice, lust, and the like) can still go to heaven?

I’ve got to tell you, I’ve become used to Evangelical craziness, but this is a new one. I understand it’s built off of a whole interpretive idea about the word “abomination” that is used to describe homosexuality a couple of times in the Bible, but really? In Romans 1, homosexuality is exalted right there next to–catch this–disobedience to one’s parents. There’s a not a consistent “extra special”-ness to homosexuality in the Bible. This is a terrible hermeneutic to use against an entire people group.

And I promise I’m not “soft” on doctrine. Nor does it seem Chambers is. He’s saying that in the same way most heterosexuals are never going to lose their biological drive to have sex with more than one person in their lifetime, nor are homosexuals going to lose their natural drive–no matter how much of whatever kind of “therapy” they get. He’s not saying it’s not “sin” or that people should be encouraged to give into it, just that it’s not something that can be so clearly “healed” and that Christ is strong enough to save those people.

It just goes to show, once again, how Evangelical Dogma is essentially (and practically) no different than Catholicism. This all sounds like a Protestant version of “mortal” vs. “venial” sins (similarly, whereas in Catholicism church leaders can only be single, it seems in Evangelicalism, they can only be married; and, salvation comes by way of the faith-ful works of sacraments in Catholicism, but in Evangelicalism, it’s by faith-ful recitation of a “Sinner’s Prayer” and “confessing the Lord Jesus” with your lips. I could go on, but that’s enough).

To Evangelicals, it seems that Homosexuality is (at least functionally, even if not precisely theologically) a “mortal” sin that steals one’s salvation (or rather, in the Protestant formulation that they think resolves the issue, but doesn’t–”proves they never had it”), until they repent and are absolved by the opinion of a holier-than-thou human member of the church (i.e. a “priest” from the “priesthood of believers”).

And the ultimate irony is this: Chambers is actually being the more conservative, more challenging, more counter-cultural, and ultimately, more offensive to our cultural sensibilities than the Fundamentalists are!

He is proclaiming the message that more and more homosexual believers seem to be coming to: the drives themselves are not sinful, but their exercise goes against God’s design for the world, and so, while no easy fix can be offered to “cure” those drives, grace and self-control must be sought to remain celibate to the glory of God–like so many believers before us have. That will get the Left mad more than abusing the Bible to find weird interpretations that elevate homosexuality to be a worse sin–interpretations that are ultimately easily written off.

In the end, Chambers and Exodus International are simply trying to offer the most realistic hope they can to homosexual Christians seeking help.

Tomorrow I will seek to make those on the “Left” mad at me and call me names. Tune in then.

P.S. I want to apologize for my extensive use of the cultural shorthand “Right” and “Left”. I hate the terminology, but it seemed better than any other alternatives at this moment. I know it’s simplistic and only perpetuates division in our society. Please just be gracious and let it go. Hopefully, you get what I mean.

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25 thoughts on “Exodus International is Right on Gay Reparative Therapy (i)

  1. You show a wonderful sense of understanding of a topic with no easy answers, Paul. Thanks for bringing a caring tone to a very devisive subject.

  2. Respectfully, I have so many questions you didn’t answer here:

    1 – What is the “realistic” help that should be offered to those struggling with homosexual temptation?

    2 – Are you saying that someone can be saved that willfully persists in known sin? Or just that someone who still struggled with a sin they desire to be free from can be saved?

    3 – Are you suggesting that no form of “reparative” therapy can be helpful? That God cannot take away desire for a certain sin? Please clarify…

    • 1 & 3 will be touched on in tomorrow’s post.

      As for 3? Whit, you know that life is much more complicated than those simplistic categories. Being in counseling myself, and being a counselor, this whole “willful disobedience” thing is much grayer than that. What do you do with pastors that are irresponsible in their preaching and “pastoring”, but even in light of SO many other believers telling them they are wrong, disobedient, harmful, and sinfully relating to their people, they “wilfully persist” in that? What about all of us christians that “willfully persist” in driving even 5 mph above the speed limit? What about the person on the church that never stops gossiping, even in spite of sitting in sermon after sermon on the topic? Or all the southern and midwestern christians that “wilfully persist” in they gluttony? Why don’t we lose sleep over those? Because out culture more-or-less across those forms of “willful disobedient”. Could it be the obsession with “willful persistence in sin” is much more culturally influenced than biblically so?

      The problem isn’t “willful disobedience”, it’s the church’s selectivity in what they’ll emphasize (see post above). How do we choose what we choose to condemn more strongly? What gives us the right to? Why do we seem so free and and gleeful in doing so?

      That’s not to say that we should don that grace may abound, our that Christianity lays absolutely no claim on the behaviors of the believer. But it does say that that question is WAY too simplistic by itself and doesn’t account for the real experiences of real people.

  3. Massive bear-hug over this and a couple of high-fives: “The problem isn’t “willful disobedience”, it’s the church’s selectivity in what they’ll emphasize (see post above). How do we choose what we choose to condemn more strongly? What gives us the right to? Why do we seem so free and and gleeful in doing so?”

    When I hear guys (or ladies) gripe about the (insert stereotypical name here), I look at them and ask them how their divorce is coming along in spite of God saying he hates it or if they really enjoyed that last porn bender. The looks are priceless.

  4. Good post Paul. I am digesting it and will read it a few time to fully gleam everything you are writing about. A lot of what you talk about is what I personally believe. For many ministries/Churches/Professional Counselors, much has been written regarding homosexuality and the complex theories. I have read many of these books. Primarily to effectively help me in ministering to those whose are conflicted in their sexuality (those struggling with same sex attraction). It has also been highly beneficial for my own journey of understanding of my sexuality and my own struggle with same sex attraction. I haven’t read this book, though I have seen in many times. I have read countless books and concur that homosexuality is so complex, there is no easy answer, and one size doesn’t fit everyone who is same sex attracted…but what I have found is that God allowed this in my life…so that I would come to know the Trinity in a way that has profoundly changed my life forever. To this, I am grateful and I would not change a thing…because my faith is far richer than I could ever imagine because of this struggle.

  5. Good stuff- I also like to point out that homosexuality is right up there with disobedience to parents in Romans 1. If you’d be interested, I could point you to a couple of sermons/lectures in which I’ve heard Tim Keller give very gracious, nuanced, and wise counsel on these topics. Unfortunately he hasn’t written any short articles about it (or I just haven’t found them). Looking forward to tomorrow’s post.

  6. Very thoughtful. You may want to define the word evangelical. Its an extremely loaded word and you run the risk of offending certin groups of people whom we as Christ’s body want as our allies.

    I think that saying what chambers says he believes still has the same ultimate damaging affect on the psyche of a gay person, don’t you? It’s a little more gentle but ultimately he’s saying your committing a sin. You are wrong. He might not be saying your going to hell but he’s saying youre being disobedient. And this isnt gluttony. This often is one person investing their whole life into another person in deep love. Committed love. “if you did what was biblically right, youd break up with your partner of 50 years, sell the house, call it quits…..” Anyway, just playing devils advocate.

    Also, I’d like you to think about something. It’s easy to spiritualize, and psychologize these topics, but think about biology for a second. This may make things even grayer. It may do the opposite. But consider hermaphrodites. Those who are genetically one sex, but phenotypicically the other sex. Where do you even go with that conversation?

  7. I can’t say I know what he’d say in a given specific situation as that. But I think the first step in addressing this stuff is acknowledging that it’s a lot more complicated than we sometimes make it and has real people behind it. You’ve very helpfully reminded us of that–thank you.

    “Evangelical”, at this point, I feel, has become a cultural shorthand that most people at least have a general sense of what I’m talking about. Do you think that’s incorrect? Even though I fully acknowledge that there are evangelicals that completely disagree with much of what they’re saying, it simply means (in my opinion) that they’re disagreeing with the general, culturally-understood majority opinion of Evangelicalism. But generally, I would be referring to the socio-religious movement that began as a reaction to higher criticism in the late 1800s, grew under revivalism in the early 1900s, and codified in response to liberalism in the first half of the 20th century (I think I’ve got that history right, if I recall correctly. Forgive me if that sketch is a little off).

    As far as hermaphrodites and such are concerned, a couple of years ago I wrote a series of posts exploring this topic. You can find that here: http://bit.ly/P1NKdo

    Thanks again for commenting.

  8. Really appreciate this story. As a man who has homosexual desires that I choose not to act on, it allows me to speak to others who are just like me, offering no condemnation to them as they grow in their Christian faith.

  9. It’s very human like to point the finger at that gay and lesbian sinners an proclaim “they are worse sinners then we are.” This is what happened with the Pharisees in Luke chapter 13 who were pointing the finger at the Galileans. Jesus told them “If you don’t repent, you will die.” I feel like this is his message towards those within the church who are bigoted towards gays and lesbians. Of course they want to point the finger and proclaim “their worse sinners than we are.” Why because they don’t have the proper ethical standards and their sin is the worst of all. However ones in the church must realize that if they point the finger at the LGBT community for not having high ethical standards, the LGBT will point the same finger back and say “you think you have high ethical standards, what about divorce, pornography, and adultery?” After all these issues are in the church in epidemic proportions. My prayer mainly is the bigotry and prejudice that is eating at the soul of the church would be eradicated, and that all parts of the Body of Christ will begin to display the love, grace, and kindness to this people group who are truly, desperately in need of it.

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  14. With all due respect Paul, my take on this is that what you’ve done is assumed your experience of Reparative Therapy, which evidently was not very effective, is the same experience for everyone. This is the same kind of thinking, in my opinion, that Exodus frequently uses. If you use your own experience as the standard effect of RT, then what about all the many people like me who have experienced the most marvelous authentic change? I know many men who have experienced this change and in varying degrees. All of them report a lessening or dissipation of Shame for having homosexual feelings and a shamed, “victim” mindset, a decrease in depression and anxiety, a life-affirming rise in male self-esteem that they can feel in their bodies, minds and hearts, AND a spontaneous lessening or dissipation of their homosexual feelings. Some have even developed real attractions for women. As a former speaker at Exodus conferences, all of the above experiences are what Exodus has simply not made themselves aware of for many years. Additionally, the “100% cure” line has always come from Exodus ministries, never Reparative Therapists or NARTH for that matter. In fact, for many years we’ve made efforts to explain what real change really means. I find it extraordinary that Exodus has projected or assumed that we espouse a “cure.”

  15. “The theory behind the therapy–that male homosexuality was formed by a distortion of masculinity due to a failure of the man’s father–made “sense”. It had all the loose ends tied and–as a self-enclosed system–it “worked”. And yet, there was this part of me that didn’t fully buy in. Something seemed missing. It’s only now, looking back, that I realize what it was:

    “Real-life.

    “It was a therapy built entirely around anecdotes and individuals’ subjective short-term responses. As long as you stayed within that self-enclosed system, it all worked and made “sense”. The second you emerged from that system, though, and went to live your life, it seems the “system” started to unravel, leaving people more messed up than if they had never undergone the therapy in the first place.”

    You said it’s subjective, but your own conclusion is subjective. My understanding from hearing directly from a number of people who have undergone the treatment desirous of change have not come out of it “more messed up than if they had never undergone the therapy in the first place.” Also, Dr. Nicolosi has made clear that the treatment is not for everyone. It’s for motivated clients who are not being coerced or the like. Those who begin perhaps disinterestedly or half-heartedly may very well leave more confused. That does not necessarily demonstrate that the treatment, per se, is bad. It happens to work for those for whom it is intended. Also, with an education in psychology, you should remember that often people feel worse before better. If someone mistakenly stops at a low point, that doesn’t constitute reason for rejecting the therapy as inherently wrong.

    As for your theological arguments, have your read Dr. Gagnon on the subject? http://www.robgagnon.net/articles/homosexAlanChambersAtlanticInterview.pdf

    Read the whole thing. I did. I’m not Pauline, but I can’t argue against Dr. Gagnon’s points for the Pauline Christians. The vast majority of what he wrote works for me anyway. Much of what he wrote is the same as what I’ve written elsewhere.

    Also, do you really believe that males have never gone from exclusively interested in sex with females to exclusively interested in males and then back again? What about for other behaviors and attractions, such as for porn or any other addiction?

    On one hand, you’re claiming homosexuality is not a special case; but on the other hand, you’re making out exactly as if it is. What’s up with that? That doesn’t make sense to me. I think it’s worse than some things and not as bad as others depending upon the overall situation all other things being equal. I wouldn’t argue that mass genocide of the innocent is a lesser sin than one act of male homosexual buggery; but that’s a particular context, and we really are to watch out for the lesser commandments right along with the Greatest, which speaks directly to your claim that homosex is not a greater sin than any other (if that is your claim above – it appears so to me, but maybe you just haven’t clarified enough yet).

    As for adultery and the like, members of the Church are not to continue in it but rather repent and to do it no more. What it appears you are saying is that the same is not the case for homosexuals. What’s the Church to do with a serial adulterer but subject that one to Jesus’s progressive discipline and finally treat him as a heathen? I don’t have a problem with that. Do you? If so, why? Where was Jesus wrong on it?

    “…the drives themselves are not sinful, but their exercise goes against God’s design for the world, and so, while no easy fix can be offered to “cure” those drives, grace and self-control must be sought to remain celibate to the glory of God–like so many believers before us have.” Is that your view? What do you do with Jesus saying that the man that looks at the woman with sexual lust in his heart has already committed adultery with her within? I don’t buy your idea that homosexuality itself isn’t evil, whether acted out or not. It’s better not, but it is still not good to even have in one’s heart or mind.

    Also, why are you so sure God can’t or won’t or doesn’t heal people of same-sex desires? I don’t believe you. Lastly, what makes you think Dr. Nicolosi isn’t operating under God? I don’t find Reparative Therapy to be inconsistent with such healing. I rather look upon it as a blessing for those for whom it has clearly worked and continues to work.

    To all those who want to discuss genetics as an excuse of some sort, I would ask whether they are certain that none of the miracle healing by Jesus was of genetic diseases. I don’t say that by way of lacking compassion but rather strongly to state that genetics does not automatically render a thing good and not an error to be overcome.

    Also to everyone, is Alan Chambers saying that continually and even openly practicing homosexuals are not finally to be treated as heathens rather than celebrated, as the Episcopalians and some others are now doing – celebrating them as their Bishops and “married” to each other in their church buildings and by their priests, etc.? Has anyone asked him if practicing homosexuals who refuse to stop after undergoing Jesus’s progressive discipline are to be treated as heathens and not members of the body of Christ?

    This comment is cross-posted on my blog: http://www.realliberalchristianchurch.org/2012/07/18/my-reply-to-exodus-international-is-right-on-gay-reparative-therapy-i.html

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