By Alan Bean
Alan Chambers became an evangelical superstar by telling people what they wanted to hear. White evangelicals can’t maintain the moral high ground in the great American debate over sexual orientation unless people make a conscious choice to be gay or straight. If that’s true, folks in the LGBT community can go straight if they want to. Homosexuality, in this view, is a chosen “lifestyle” that can be sloughed off at will. Alan Chambers claimed to be a gay man who had been prayed straight. If it happened to him, it could logically happen to anyone. Exodus International, the ministry he founded, was dedicated to doing precisely that.
White evangelicals celebrated Chambers’ work because it saved them from a moral impasse. Conservative Christians (and until recently liberal Christians as well) have taught that homosexual behavior is a sin and that it is God’s nature to hate sin. Westboro Baptist Church’s “God hates fags” battle cry was a tad crude for most evangelicals, but deep down they agreed with the sentiment. Their theology left them no choice.
But what if homosexuals don’t choose their orientation? What if they come of age sexually desiring members of their own sex? Wouldn’t that mean that sexual orientation, gay or straight, expresses the creative will of God? And if that’s the case, how can God condemn a condition for which he (and/or she) is ultimately responsible?
There are just two ways of resolving this conundrum. Either God doesn’t consider homosexual behavior to be inherently sinful after all, or God makes everybody straight and some people, for some perverse reason, choose to defy the creative intentions of the Almighty.
Evangelicals opted for the second solution.
This didn’t create too many problems in a day when homosexuality was considered too shameful for public discussion. Since western culture disapproved of homosexuality it only seemed natural that God would concur–we can’t be more moral than the Creator, after all. Even though the Bible has remarkably little to say about sexual orientation (and, so far as we know, Jesus uttered nary a syllable on the subject) a few texts in Leviticus and the letters of Paul the Apostle have been used to prove that God is just as intolerant of homosexuality as we are–maybe more so.
This line of argument never jibed with the facts, but so long as open public discussion of human sexuality was considered verboten the facts didn’t matter. But objective study of human sexuality has gradually demolished the theory that sexual orientation is chosen. True, some people appear to be sexually ambidextrous (Alan Chambers may fit into this category–see the article below); but none of us can alter the fundamental shape of our sexual desires.
In recent decades, biblical scholars have examined the biblical teaching on sexuality more objectively. As a result, there is no longer any scholarly consensus on what the Good Book does and doesn’t say on the subject. But one assertion can be made with confidence: the God who burns with hatred for the LGBT community cannot be reconciled with the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. You can believe in one God or the other; but you can’t believe in both.
Just this week, Alan Chambers, the founder and President of Exodus International, admitted to the world that 99.9% of the human population can’t change their sexual orientation and that thirty years of trying to do the undoable have created immense human pain.
Where does this leave evangelical Christians?
It leaves us with the grace of God; which is exactly where we need to be. God doesn’t hate people for who they are. In fact, God doesn’t “hate” vices like anger, sadism, exploitation, cruelty, faithlessness, and lying. God doesn’t hate! It ain’t in his nature. God loves sinners just as much as saints; in fact, it could be argued that God has a particular affection for broken people (see, for instance, Jesus’ parable of “the ninety-and-nine” in Luke 15:4)).
This doesn’t make God a radical relativist. Most of the old vices and virtues that Christians have embraced from the beginning remain in full effect. But God loves us all, forgives us all, and welcomes us all to the kingdom banquet regardless of all the things we cannot change about ourselves (gender, race, religion or sexual orientation). In fact, God loves us in spite of all the not-okay things we could change, if we weren’t so messed up. God is love. God is grace.
We can be glad that Alan Chambers finally admitted the obvious and had the guts to close down a “ministry” that, however well-intentioned, has damaged countless lives.
Now we’ll see how American evangelicals respond to the news.
Exodus International will close after 37 years. Its leader, who last year renounced the idea that homosexuality could be ‘cured,’ apologizes for the ‘shame’ and ‘trauma’ the group had inflicted.
While Exodus claimed to have purged thousands of people of sexual urges that tormented them, its leaders recently began expressing doubts about the mission. Last year, its president, Alan Chambers, renounced the idea that homosexuality could be “cured.”
This week, the organization abruptly announced it was closing down. Chambers offered a dramatic, public mea culpa, refuting decades of Exodus’ teaching and apologizing for the “shame” and “trauma” the group had inflicted.
FOR THE RECORD:
Exodus International: In the June 21 Section A, an article about the closing of Exodus International, a ministry in the “gay cure” movement, mistakenly attributed a quote, “In more and more communities, churches are grappling with homosexuality in more open terms. These are the cultural realities around us.” The words should have been attributed to Russell Moore, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, not Ross Murray, director of news and faith initiatives at gay rights group GLAAD. Also, the headline indicated that Exodus International was based in Anaheim; the group was founded in Anaheim but later moved to Florida.
The demise of the gay cure movement underscores the growing acceptance of homosexuality in society, even in the evangelical Christian community. Polls show increasing support for gay marriage, and leading conservatives, including Dick Cheney and Rob Portman, have expressed support for gay rights. A May Gallup poll showed that 59% of American adults said gay and lesbian relationships are morally acceptable, up 19 percentage points since 2001.
“Evangelicals are not immune to this,” said Randall Balmer, chairman of the religion department at Dartmouth College. “They get swept along with the cultural currents as well.”
Chambers’ statement won praise from gay-rights groups, who long criticized his views. But some were quick to point out that Exodus had been losing influence among evangelicals in recent years as gay conversion became increasingly out of the mainstream.
“I think there’s a tendency to see Exodus folding as a parable of Christian capitulation and ethic,” said Russell Moore, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention. “That is not what’s happening. Instead what you have is an organization that has some confusion about its mission and purpose…. What is not happening here, is an evangelical revision of a biblical sexual ethic.”
Chambers discussed his change of heart in an interview with the Los Angeles Times on Thursday as well as in a lengthy statement and speech to a religious convention in Irvine.
“We need to change the way we do things,” he said.
Chambers said that gays had been wrongly made to feel rejected by God, and that Christians should accept them even if they believe homosexuality — like pride and gluttony — is a sin.
“I am sorry that some of you spent years working through the shame and guilt you felt when your attractions didn’t change,” Chambers wrote in a statement on his website. “I am sorry that I … failed to share publicly that the gay and lesbian people I know were every bit as capable of being amazing parents as the straight people that I know. I am sorry that I have communicated that you and your families are less than me and mine.”
Chambers, who is married to a woman and has two adopted children, told The Times he is still attracted to men and comfortably lives with that tension, but that others may be unable to do so. He said that 99% of people who went through gay-conversion therapy did not lose their same-sex desires.
Chambers’ apology was welcomed by gay rights activists, who called it a “big surprise.”
“I think it is demonstrative of the major shift that we as a society have gone through in terms of our understanding of who gay and lesbian people are and how they live,” said Ross Murray, director of news and faith initiatives at gay rights group GLAAD.
“At one time, it was pretty mainstream to have those thoughts and feelings about gay and lesbian people. Over time, Exodus and people who have promoted change programs have been more and more marginal or fringe.
“In more and more communities, churches are grappling with homosexuality in more open terms. These are the cultural realities around us.”
Chambers first made his apology Wednesday night at Exodus’ annual conference in Irvine and in advance of a show that aired Thursday night with journalist Lisa Ling in which he is confronted by “ex-gay survivors.”
“It was excruciating,” he said. “They told their true stories in a way that I will never forget. They told stories of abuse and pain, missed opportunities, awful words that were spoken to them. Stories of abuse and pain from the church and even from Exodus.”
Linda and Rob Robertson came from Redmond, Wash., to speak at the conference. Strict evangelicals with four children, they shared their own torment with the Bible’s teachings and their son, Ryan, who came out to them when he was 12.
She said she and her husband forced him to choose between God and being a gay man, and for the next six years he tried everything possible. He went to reparative therapy with Exodus, but nothing worked.
At 18, with no answers, he became addicted to drugs, his mother said.
“We didn’t intentionally, but we taught Ryan to hate himself,” Linda Robertson said.
Although they later tried to form a more accepting relationship, he ultimately died of a drug overdose in 2009.
Since then, the Robertsons have become advocates for gay and lesbian young adults who feel shut out by the church.
“We have to stop warring,” Rob Robertson said. “We’ve got to stop fighting.”
Times staff writers Joseph Serna and Paul Pringle contributed to this report.