Sexual Healing: Evangelicals Update Their Message to Gays

At the world's largest ministry for homosexual Christians, there's no more talk of "curing" same-sex attraction.

The Atlantic/June 20, 2012

Thirty years ago, Alan Chambers was a Christ-loving 10-year-old with a terrible secret. He knew he was attracted to other boys. He also knew that the Bible called homosexuality an "abomination." After nearly a decade of hiding his feelings (and his love of shopping and decorating) from family and pastors, he discovered a ministry called Exodus International. Today, Chambers is the president of Exodus and the author of the book Leaving Homosexuality. He oversees more than 260 ministries, spearheads large annual conferences, and is married to a woman.

Christians who consider themselves "ex-gays" have become a source of ridicule in popular culture. Although the evangelical leader Ted Haggard isn't affiliated with Exodus, it didn't help the cause when he was outed by a male prostitute he'd been frequenting for years -- and then deemed by his pastors, after just three weeks of therapy, to be "completely heterosexual." For many, though, these stories represent something deadly serious. The American Psychological Association warns that homosexuality is not a disorder, and that trying to "cure" it can lead to "intimacy avoidance, sexual dysfunction, depression, and suicidality."

Founding Exodus leader Michael Bussee says he witnessed those harrowing outcomes firsthand. Bussee, who left the group in 1979 and now lives an openly gay life, recalls watching his Exodus clients descend into despair, mutilating their own bodies or driving their cars into trees. "By calling ourselves ex-gay," Bussee says now, "we were lying to ourselves and hurting people."

But Bussee has cautious praise for Chambers. "Alan himself is personally more progressive than any Exodus leader has ever been," he says. Under Chambers's guidance, for instance, Exodus canceled its sponsorship of the 2010 "Day of Truth" -- an event that asks high schoolers to wear t-shirts promoting "the biblical truth for sexuality." Gay teenager Tyler Clementi had just committed suicide, and Chambers told CNN that "all the recent attention to bullying helped us realize that we need to equip kids to live out biblical tolerance and grace."

More recently, Chambers publicly rejected reparative therapy -- a school of counseling that aims to make gay people straight. At the Gay Christian Network Conference in January of this year, Chambers told the audience that "99.9 percent of [Exodus participants] have not experienced a change in their orientation." Around the same time, he pulled all reparative therapy books from the Exodus bookstore. His actions irked a number of therapists, including one marriage counselor, improbably named David Pickup, who argued that Exodus had "failed to understand and effectively deal with the actual root causes of homosexuality."

The question is whether Chambers's changes will filter down through the rest of his organization. One of Exodus's policy statements promises that the group will "stand with the LGBT community both in spirit, and when necessary, legally and physically, when violence rears its head in Uganda, Jamaica, or anywhere else in the world." It's no coincidence that those particular countries are mentioned. Just last month, Exodus board member Dennis Jernigan traveled to Jamaica, where homosexuality is a crime, and urged the country not to change its laws. In 2009, another board member gave a speech in Uganda that inspired a Christian campaign to make homosexuality punishable by death.

"Alan has said there will be proofs and amends," Bussee told me. "We're still watching and waiting for those." (On Friday, the day after we spoke, Exodus sent out a press release distancing itself from Jernigan's statements and announcing his resignation from the board.)

Chambers is candid about his own evolving views and the suffering inflicted by the church. But he remains firm in his conviction that the Bible prohibits homosexuality, and that followers of Christ can learn to resist temptation -- even if their same-sex attractions never go away. I spoke to him on the phone as he prepared for the 37th annual Exodus conference in St. Paul, Minnesota, next week.

What drew you to Exodus? Tell me a bit about your story.

I grew up in a Christian family, in a very traditional Southern Baptist church in a conservative area. When I was nine or ten years old, I realized I was struggling with same-sex attraction - which really was an answer to a lot of questions I had even before that. Why do I feel this way? Why do I act this way?

Once I had a name for my struggles, I realized very quickly that the church was not great at addressing them. I had no clue what do other than bloody my knees every night praying that God would cure me. I wanted Him to understand how deeply sorry I was for whatever I might have done to deserve the kind of wrath I felt would be leveled against me if my pastors were correct.

That's all I ever knew until I found out about the ministry of Exodus. That's when I realized there were a lot of other people like me. They weren't red-faced and shouting. They were compassionate, kind, and understanding. After all, our ministries are made up of people who have been personally impacted by same-sex interaction. How could we be angry and arrogant toward people who are just like us?

Can you clarify the goal of Exodus? You've said that you're not trying to make gay people straight.

No, not at all. We're here to support people who are in conflict at the place where their attractions meet their faith. The majority of the people we serve are single and remain single. Forty percent are already married and are struggling with same-sex attractions in the context of that heterosexual relationship.

Either way, by no means does being part of Exodus mean we don't still struggle or feel tempted. It's a very real part of the lives we lead. Our goal isn't to snap our fingers and pretend those struggles don't exist. But we have a conviction that same-sex sexual expression is incompatible with a healthy Christian sexual ethic. It's not that we don't have attractions. It's just that we have a priority higher than our sexual orientation.

How did you end up married to a woman yourself?

It wasn't an overnight transformation. It came about differently than it might have if I'd never had same-sex attractions. It wasn't like I was looking across the room and saw a hot girl and had to get her number. It started as an amazing friendship with a woman who walked into my Bible study. It was just really cool to get to know her. And as I got to know her better, I wanted to get to know her even more. Eventually, I realized that I wanted to be the only one able to get to know her in that way.

When I look at it now, I think about how sex and sexuality so often hijack real intimacy. What I found with my wife was an intimate connection that grew in every healthy way. So I'm really thankful for the path I've been down. It is a crucial and beloved part of my story, and it makes me who I am. I love it, and my wife loves it. My kids are only 6 and 7, but they know the basics and love it, too.

Wasn't your wife worried that you'd always be attracted to men deep down?

Before she met me, she'd seen me on TV. So she knew my story. She'd also grown up as a competitive swimmer and had known men who were gay-identified -- men who, because of their Christian beliefs, had chosen the path I'd chosen. So when we met, there wasn't a whole lot of explaining I had to do.

She also understood that my issues weren't bigger than her issues. I called her Snow White for years, because she was the quintessential Christian girl -- she didn't drink, smoke, or have sex. But she told me that wasn't really fair. She'd had her own struggles, and she asked me why God would look at her struggles any differently than mine. So I really lucked out.

She's also lucky in that it's my nature to be very, very honest. I don't have any other option. So we have no mixed understandings. I am who I am; I struggle with what I struggle with. I chose this marriage not under pressure or duress, but because I want to spend the rest of my life with her.

It sounds like marrying a woman worked out for you. But there are plenty of gay Christians who would say that they're enjoying that same kind of closeness in a same-sex marriage -- and that Jesus doesn't love them any less for it.

Of course Jesus loves them! Jesus's love for us isn't in question, regardless of whether we completely accept him and hang on His every word. God loves us no matter what. It's really the fault of the church that we have, as Christians, ever caused people to doubt the fact that Christ loves all of us the same. That's something we absolutely have to correct.

When it comes to someone who is a believer, we all still struggle. We're all still human. Some of us choose very different lives than others. But whatever we choose, it doesn't remove our relationship with God. That's not possible. It's not who God is.

Does that mean a person living a gay lifestyle won't go to hell, as long as he or she accepts Jesus Christ as personal savior?

My personal belief is that everyone has the opportunity to know Christ, and that while behavior matters, those things don't interrupt someone's relationship with Christ. But that's a touchy issue in the conservative group I run with. And there are definitely differing opinions on it. I don't think you could even look at any one denomination and find that everyone believes exactly the same thing.

On the other hand, I do believe there is a right and wrong. I believe there is clarity on the issue of all sexuality in the Bible -- on every aspect of it.

Where in the Bible do you find that clarity?

I believe the Bible is very, very clear about God's creative intent related to sexuality. Anything outside a monogamous, heterosexual marriage is very clearly stated as sinful in the Bible. Though there's no place in the Bible that says this sin is worse than any other. We're guilty in the church of creating a hierarchy of sin, and that's done tremendous damage.

The Bible forbids all sorts of things that Christians still do -- for instance, eating shellfish or lighting a fire on the Sabbath. Why is this one prohibition still taken so literally?

We believe the Bible is completely relevant to our lives today. But as Christians, we live in a New Testament reality. A lot of what you find in the Old Testament crosses over into the New Testament. But as far as keeping kosher and those types of things, they're really limited to Old Testament living and not relevant to us as Christians after the birth of Jesus.

How do you figure out which parts carry over and which parts don't?

Sexual ethics do carry over. There are numerous places in the New Testament where we find an understanding of creative intent with regard to sexuality and marriage. You see it in Romans 1, in Corinthians 6:9 and 10. You see it in Jude 1:7, in Titus, and other places. In Matthew 19, you see Jesus reiterating what was shared in Genesis about marriage being between a man and a woman. That's where we would derive our biblical understanding of this issue.

There seems to be some dispute about what these passages actually mean. Some of them have pretty cryptic contexts, and all of them were translated from another language.

There are certainly Christians who do not adhere to these things. There is room for discussion, for sure. What I find as a believer is that once we accept Jesus as our savior, we begin a lifelong process of coming to understand what he is. We're becoming like him, being formed into his image. We're renewing our mind, getting a new heart. All of these other issues are important for sure, but they're not the primary issue.

As someone who knows what it's like to be a confused gay teenager, how do you react when parents bring their own kids to Exodus in the hopes that you can make them straight?

That's absolutely not what we're trying to do. In the past, we've been aligned with organizations that believe feelings can completely change, temptations can completely go away. We now believe that's an unrealistic and unhealthy expectation that can cause a lot of damage.

That's been part of the evolution for us at Exodus, to say, "Yes, there have been times in the past when people did come to us expecting they would be fixed, cured, healed." In fact, many of those words or realities aren't things we agree with now. But sometimes not being clear enough leaves people assuming that that is what you do believe.

So what do you tell a gay teenager who doesn't want to stop being gay?

That's something that's very, very important for us to discuss. In fact, we encountered it today. There's a dad who found out about Exodus. He has a teenage son who has identified as gay and has no desire to do anything except embrace and pursue it. Yet he's a high school student living under his dad's roof. His dad said, "I want you to correspond with the people in Exodus." So the kid wrote to us and said, "I'm only emailing because my dad asked me to. I want to honor my parents. But I don't have any desire to choose what you've chosen."

On the one hand, we were glad to correspond and answer any questions he might have had. And we wanted to support his desire to honor his parents. But when a staff member forwarded me this email, I said, "Honestly, if the kid doesn't really want to talk or correspond, we can't do that. We'd be glad to talk to his parents and help them figure out how they can have a healthy, productive relationship in the midst of their differences. Beyond that, we're not going to coerce or hold hostage a kid who doesn't want the kind of help we offer."

What kind of help would you extend to his parents?

People come to us looking for support for a son or daughter. They find that the help we provide is for them. Their comment at the end of day is, "Thank you for giving me permission to love my gay or lesbian child." We're glad we gave them permission.

In the church sometimes, the message is that you need to help your child see the error of his ways. As a parent myself, I know my job is to help my kids grow up to be who I believe God has created them to be. But as their dad, I have to realize they may not choose everything I've chosen. How can we continue to love our kids in the midst of small and large disagreements? We want people to know they can have an amazing relationship with their kids no matter what choices they make regarding their sexuality.

What is the ideal outcome at Exodus if the goal isn't for everyone to end up in a marriage like yours?

I think it's varied. I love my story and wouldn't change it for anything. But I also knew I had a lot to offer the world when I was unmarried and celibate. The main thing is that you can't try to live someone else's life.

The majority of people we serve are single and will remain single. Some of them are struggling within the context of an existing heterosexual marriage. Either way, we want to provide a transparent, safe space to just be able to ask questions. And part of our goal is to impact the way the church addresses this issue. Hopefully the church will look at us and say, "This is the way we need to be."

Do any of the people who come to Exodus ask you whether it's better to be in a committed, monogamous gay relationship than to live a promiscuous life?

I can disagree with all sorts of issues related to sexuality, but I'd say that for heterosexuals, it's better to be in a monogamous relationship but not married than to live a promiscuous life. I'd say the same for homosexuality.

Regardless of what I believe about sex outside of marriage, monogamy is always better than promiscuity. There's more to it than that, of course -- if someone were to ask my advice, it wouldn't all boil down to saying it's okay to be monogamous and not married. At the same time, if it's just a matter of those two choices, the better choice is monogamy.

Are you in touch at all with Michael Bussee, the former Exodus leader who left the group in 1979 and is now living an openly gay life?

Michael Bussee is a friend of mine. We talk, we email, we correspond. I think there are certainly valid points he makes. One of the things he had said repeatedly in conversations we've had is that it seems like Exodus is getting back to the objective they started it for -- to be a service of people of faith who wanted to live differently. There's not all of this secrecy and veiled misunderstanding anymore. That's an encouragement to me. At end of day, we want to give people the right understanding of what our motivation is.

There seems to be a change in attitude among many young Christians. For instance, Carrie Underwood, who is famous for her song "Jesus Take the Wheel," recently expressed her support for gay marriage. How are you addressing that change?

Of course we find ourselves addressing that. And for me to be red-faced and angry at Carrie Underwood would get us nowhere. We must understand where she's coming from. I'll be understanding of someone regardless of where they fall on issues like gay marriage. But I also want to send a message to young people who share my beliefs, but are afraid to voice them for fear of seeming homophobic or bigoted.

I want people to know that they don't have to abandon their beliefs just because they don't want to be like the historical church, don't have to completely abandon beliefs. You can just be more Christlike -- love your neighbor as you love yourself, even if disagree on this or some other issue. I have relatives who have no desire to know Christ, relatives who have had abortions, and relatives who are so religious you couldn't even imagine. But I can still be in relationships with all of these people and hope they extend me the same courtesy.

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