Thanks to Michelle Bachmann and her family business that offers Christian counseling which includes “therapy” to reorient gay people, the debate over homosexuality and dubious claims of alleged change ministries have resurfaced once again. The media highlights ex-gay treatments, theories and ministries that say people can change their sexual orientation, while spokespeople for the ex-gay cause go on television to spout their misinformation and talking points designed to legitimize their position and convince the public that the treatments and theories are beneficial.
As a former leader of a so-called ex-gay ministry, I have had the opportunity to know literally hundreds of “ex-gays” personally. Though these people were among the most dedicated Christians I have ever met, they are now almost all “ex-ex-gays.” I witnessed firsthand the despair that resulted for these sincere believers as they tried the ex-gay approach and took part in these ministries and/or treatments. The long-term consequences were pretty depressing. For a great many, results were nearly disastrous. It also proved spiritually catastrophic as scores of these people gave up their faith altogether. Despite claims to the contrary, God’s concern is not to change the sexual orientation of gay and lesbian people — to bring them in line with social norms — but to help them become secure in Him, assured of His love and acceptance and set apart to follow Him faithfully and responsibly.
I also became increasingly aware of how fearful these ministries were to honestly assess the fruit of their work and admit their staggering level of failure. They did not dare risk expressing their own disappointment for fear of losing the meager financial support that came from their churches and other contributors. As Jeremy Marks — the former leader of an Exodus-based ex-gay ministry, but now one who provides realistic support for Christian gay people seeking to reconcile their faith and sexuality — has rightly pointed out: “If these people had been running a business that depended for its survival on the quality and reliability of their product, they would have become bankrupt years ago. If they had been offering a medical solution for some sickness or disease and had produced as disastrous a long-term effect on their patients as these ministries have, they would have been sued out of existence.”
Seeing the damage these reparative therapy and change ministries were causing people was disheartening. I could see how this was producing a deep sense of depression and huge inner conflict. People were trying to get their heads around the notion that: “I’m not supposed to call myself gay even though I feel that I am, because it’s not right to call myself that, so I’ve got to call myself something else in order to fall in line with what the church teaches and what I believe God wants of me.”
But what this does is create a kind of schizophrenia in people. Further, it would only work as long as they were within a support environment that enforced this notion. But as soon as they stepped out of that environment, they realized that nothing had changed at all and immediately defaulted back to the same struggle they had before. The long-term damage has been incalculable and countless former ex-gays have come forward to testify about the damage that the futile quest for “healing” through these groups has caused them. In contrast, many of us saw that the only people who were doing well over the long term were those who came to terms with being gay and sought after a same-sex monogamous partnership.
Tony Campolo, a noted evangelical, has interviewed significant numbers of ex-gay people who claim to be reoriented. He has made a custom of asking them these two questions. The first: Do you ever have sexual fantasies? Now, of course, everybody has sexual fantasies. The second: When you fantasize, do you fantasize homosexually or heterosexually? He always gets the same answer. We fantasize homosexually. He wonders then how can they say they’re no longer in a homosexual orientation.
The striking contrast between accounts of Jesus’ healing ministry in the New Testament, and what was seen in these ministries also became troubling. Jesus’ works of healing were never challenged on the basis that perhaps they had not taken place. On the contrary, the blind did see, the lame did walk and the dead were raised. Not even Jesus’ worst enemies suggested otherwise. Instead, his enemies were incensed by the fact that Jesus’ healing ministry was so obviously effective, because it shamed them, brought to light their own lack of compassion and undermined their authority.
Both the American Psychiatric and American Psychological Associations regularly issue warnings concerning the harm incurred in reorientation procedures, whether religious or clinical. What these procedures do is actually increase the socially-imposed self-loathing of gay people. If you pray with gay Christians, you will see God perform any number of miracles. These often include the expunging of self-loathing, of bitterness toward family and wider society, and relief from previously chaotic or harmful patterns of sexual behavior. You will not, however, see God reorient these seekers to heterosexuality in either their arousal or their fantasy patterns. That may eventually prompt you to understand that God does not consider their homosexual orientation a disorder.
Is there a parallel in history that might help us to put the current debate over homosexuality into perspective? I think there is. Those Christians who use the Bible to justify their opposition to homosexuality and homosexual relationships are very much like another movement that took place within the Church and society a few generations ago.
The Temperance movement of the 19th and early 20th century sought to end the sale and use of alcoholic beverages. Use of alcohol was seen as the root cause of the ills of 19th century society. Similarly, among some Christians, homosexuality is blamed for many of society’s ills today.
The rationale behind the attempted and for a time successful criminalization of something as morally gray as the use of alcohol is the same as is employed by those who are at war against homosexuality today. The leaders of the Temperance movement exaggerated the evils of alcohol and took the few Bible passages that refer to drunkenness and alcohol abuse and applied them to all use of alcohol.
Those Christians who use the Bible to support their antigay doctrine have done the same thing. They have taken the bad behavior of some gay people and the Bible passages that condemn male-on-male rape and male-on-male pagan temple prostitution and applied them to all cases of same-sex contact. Furthermore, they have taken the dubious claims of the reparative therapy proponents and ex-gay ministries and made them the acid test for all true believers just as complete abstinence from alcohol became, and still is in some circles, the test of “true” Christians.
While the antigay forces have not achieved universal criminalization of same-sex relationships as the Temperance movement outlawed alcohol, they have done something just as troubling. They have divided churches and Christians against one another. In Galatians 5:20, people who divide themselves into warring factions are warned that, “Those who do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God.” According to the Apostle Paul, factionalism is just as much a “work of the flesh” as is sexual immorality, which he defines as pagan idolatry or cultic prostitution. Christians who draw lines and shoot at each other from their individual bunkers are playing a serious game of which God does not approve.