When the Ex-Gay Doesn’t Go Away

man sitting in church

My social feeds have been buzzing with discussions on ex-gay or conversion therapy lately. President Obama recently lent his voice to advocate for the ban of all LGBTQ+ conversion therapies for minors, which Alan Chambers, former President of Exodus International, praised and journalist Jonathan Merritt noted received little notice or protest from the Christian Right.

 

Speaking of Merritt, his recent piece does a brilliant job discussing the rise and fall of conversion therapy within Christian culture. The support for ex-gay therapy now remains mostly with fringe groups and seems to receive little credence among those interested in ministering to sexual minorities. Ex-gay therapy looks a lot like the Wizard of Oz behind the curtain. The curtain no longer conceals the secrets, failures, and self-deceit. We see the Wizard for who he is—just a man.

 

Out of the broken dreams and false promises of the ex-gay movement, we discover two increasingly popular narratives in mainstream Christian culture. Writers and speakers like Justin Lee and Matthew Vines discuss how these failed stories point to a need to reframe how we approach scriptural sexual ethics, re-envisioning new possibilities for gays and lesbians in light of what we now know about sexual orientation and its apparent immutability for most sexual minorities. Other writers and speakers like Wesley Hill maintain a traditional sexual ethic while seeking to be realistic about their situation as sexual minorities, often choosing celibacy while promoting friendship, communal living, celibate partnerships, and possibly mixed-orientation marriages.

 

While these two approaches rapidly gain ground within the church, I’m not positive either position could be called the dominant perspective, at least in the evangelical church where I grew up and continue to call home. Ex-gay therapy may be seeing it’s last days in mainstream culture, but the ex-gay movement seems alive and thriving in the subculture of the evangelical church. Rosaria Butterfield is an incredibly popular voice among evangelicals who lack nuance on sexual identity and reduce LGBTQ+ people to their sexual behavior. Butterfield’s conversion story (liberal, feminist, lesbian professor to a conservative home schooling mom and wife of a reformed Presbyterian minister) sets her, and those like her, on a pedestal in the evangelical community. We love Christian testimonies, especially if they remove the ickiness and tension of any residual sin struggles we don’t understand. Butterfield validates the church’s assumptions about homosexuality, and the church readily weaponizes stories like Butterfield’s against anyone who would dare offer a competing narrative. Even major Christian publications like World Magazine seem hesitant to abandon the ex-gay paradigm. World recently featured a story about Wheaton College’s openly gay and celibate employee Julie Rodgers. Most of the discussion featured not celibate voices like Julie’s or those sympathetic to her position, but ex-gay advocates who believed Julie had given up on her spiritual development by accepting a gay identity. Major evangelical organizations like The Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) and popular blogs like The Gospel Coalition seem incredibly hesitant to feature sexual minority voices who openly identify as gay.

 

I recently noticed David Platt, a popular Christian writer and former pastor of one of my home state’s largest churches, sharing a post featuring a piece Denny Burk had written for the ERLC. Burk argues sexual orientation is sinful in and of itself—even if sexual minorities like myself refrain from extramarital sexual intercourse and lust. Sadly, I don’t think this is a marginal perspective in our churches. Many believe God’s original design for sexuality between one man and one woman establishes heterosexuality as the standard for all believers. In my experience, some evangelicals believe by becoming a Christian, a gay person simply shakes off the “gay lifestyle” and everything is dandy from that point. Many more Christians see sanctification as a process of becoming more whole, and thus “straighter,” as one develops a deeper relationship with Christ. Just keep fighting; just keep praying. Don’t give in.

 

As a Christian studying the field of psychology, I’m not all that surprised when Jonathan Merritt reports the Christian Right didn’t rise in outrage over President Obama’s call to end conversion therapy for minors. The evangelical church still harbors suspicions about the Christian counseling and psychological community, questioning the methods and philosophies used to produce healing and provide assistance. Many pastors are partial to Jay Adams’ biblical counseling approach, believing the Bible has all the answers we need to address mental health concerns. So what if therapy can’t cure someone of homosexuality? We already knew that. This is the job of God’s Spirit, not a therapist. Nothing really changes for the average evangelical church and the isolated LGBTQ Christian in need of help.

 

It’s at this point we’ve arrived at the heart of the issue. On one side we have conservative Christians standing with nothing but their scriptural understanding of homosexuality, divorced of any meaningful relationship with transparent sexual minorities—conservative Christians who fail to grasp the reality and nuance of our situation. Then there’s us, the folks who have tried the ex-gay programs, have spent years believing and praying and wanting change to happen, but nothing has changed, other than maybe a deeper faith or a faith that has become brittle, if it hasn’t already shattered into irreparable pieces.

 

Nothing really changes until the church is willing to listen. It won’t come through new laws, bullying, or name-calling. Change comes gradually through relationships and conversations, through tension and discomfort, through gracious and patient hearts. Change happens as we break down our language barriers and examine how sanctification really works. When we dialogue with curious and open hearts, we sometimes discover we need to adjust our assumptions and expectations.

 

The ex-gay movement is not an issue the government can ultimately fix or solve; it’s for us in the church to come together and address. And it’s time we put away the politics and discussed the needs of the sexual minorities in our pews.

 

So let’s talk.

  • DrewTwoFish

    I’m probably repeating myself but I’ll wade in again. For me, pulling the gay thread eventually resulted in the entire unravelling of my faith. I don’t think it has to be that way. I think the elephant in the room is worship of the Bible or treating the Bible as a stand in for God. Let’s face it, if we’re honest with ourselves we will admit that the Bible is a messy book. If Christians can wrench themselves from the God = Bible paradigm I think Christianity might stand a chance.

    When gay relationships benefit the participants and do no harm to anyone else and the only thing getting in the way of this is a few bible passages (that appear to contradict the highest law of love) then the problem appears to be how we approach the Bible.

    • Tom

      The problem of course, with what you are advocating, is that if the Bible no longer is used to define Christianity, then what does? If the Bible is kicked out, and then someone decides that Christianity means wearing orange jumpsuits and singing about trees, who is to say that that is not Christianity?

      • DrewTwoFish

        Why is it all or nothing? All Christians pick and choose whether they admit it or not. I never suggested chucking the whole thing.

        • Tom

          Well I (mistakenly) thought you were advocating an all or nothing approach.

          It’s true that Christians dont follow every line of the Bible. In part this is because there are elements of the Old Testament that were superseded by the New. And it can be because there are elements in the Bible that are thought to be cultural to the people of the time, and not apply to today. But serious Christians dont pick and choose on a whim or because it’s convenient.

          • DrewTwoFish

            You’ve just laid out justifications for picking and choosing. Many assume that gay Christians and those who love them make their decisions about how to handle scripture on a “whim” or because it’s “inconvenient.” Hardly.

          • DrewTwoFish

            …in fact, I find the charge of bowing to convenience and whim offensive. It dismisses heartfelt and often painful struggles.

  • blueshawk

    “We love Christian testimonies, especially if they remove the ickiness and tension of any residual sin struggles we don’t understand.”

    So true, sometimes seems like just having a place to stand matters more than where you stand. The less than decade shift to favoring gay marriage by the majority is about more than deep seated beliefs. Sometimes seems like people in the church are more invested in saying what’s right or wrong about something and it misses the point of things. . . the story of Jesus and those wanting to stone the woman caught in adultery isn’t about adultery after all. I’m hoping for that time when the livingness of faith allows/enables more churchfolk to get past the rigidness of doctrine to dealing with people and loving them where they are. The weakness/blindness of needing to pound book on gays and other non-favored souls is that the harder the pounding the less God is seen. And the ones who are most vocal against things seem to have the least faith/trust that God is able to work out things in someone else’s life.

    The comfort of taking sides usually ends up hollow and inadequate. Once upon a time, truth mattered as a way to bring you to/into God and so often seems like the church seems content to merely judge things. What’s good about walking in the messiness of things is that truth starts to look more like a door than a hammer.

    “Nothing really changes until the church is willing to listen” Get what you’re saying and agree as a start. . . would only add that listening to each other will matter little if the heart/capacity to listen to God isn’t there. Sometimes seems like the need to take positions fixing doctrine is directly proportional to the loss of what’s living in hearing from God. When getting down about things cause the church treats me as something less and only accepts me with my apology to them, helps to remember that Jesus looks at me different than church does so often. Don’t mean to broad brush ‘church’, just seem to only find church to be alive in those individuals/groups in whom you can see Jesus.

  • Hello. That’s a very interesting and insightful post there. I’d just like to ask a question. Do you think Butterfield sets out to validate the church’s assumption on homosexuality?

    I just wondered about your take on this. I decided to read her book and watch two YouTube videos of her testimony before commenting here. It seems to me that her conversion story wasn’t an easy one, even though it is as you have summarized – lesbian professor to homeschooling mom and pastor’s wife. She wrestled with the Bible and with God for quite some time you know. And it also seems to me that she is helping the church gain an insight into a gay person’s psyche. She is a “safe” person for them to have in the pulpit and isn’t her story just as important as yours or mine?

    And yes. Her story might have been used as a weapon but it is a story of how God’s worked nonetheless. I myself felt rather encouraged by it. I mean, being gay and all, I still think sexuality can be pretty fluid and I don’t hold out marriage to a man one day, not that that is my ultimate aim.

    But Denny Burk, I must agree, is lacking nuance in every way. I clicked on the link and was both surprised and disappointed and all that he said. Gosh. How can anybody say the things he does? Unbelievable.

    • Hey Rachel! I really can’t say anything about Butterfield’s beliefs and motives, though I think I’ve heard she’s very respectful to gay Christians. I have complete respect for the way she has chosen to identify herself and live her life. I was more concerned with how the church uses her story as a weapon against gay Christians, perpetuating “change is possible” narratives to put sexual minorities in impossible and detrimental situations.

      • Ah I see. Thank you for your reply Seth.

  • Fantastico

    I enjoy reading your blog. Thanks for your honesty and for echoing my thoughts on so many matters.

    In my experience, some evangelicals believe by becoming a Christian, a gay person simply shakes off the “gay lifestyle” and everything is dandy from that point.

    The “gay lifestyle” is a frustratingly catch-all term. I’m always afraid to ask what exactly it means. Presumably it means avoiding gay sex. Okay, fine. Presumably it means avoiding gay bars, clubs, etc. Okay, I visited a gay bar once in my life, out of curiosity, and left unimpressed. Presumably it means don’t march in Pride parades wearing underwear and a rainbow flag, and preferably don’t attend one at all. Okay, fine. Then things get vaguer. Does the “gay lifestyle” also mean one’s partiality to stereotypically “gay” or not traditionally masculine things? I enjoy the occasional Lady Gaga song. I like cooking. I’m lousy at team sports. How much of the rest of me am I meant to eviscerate without transforming me into someone I am not?

    Many more Christians see sanctification as a process of becoming more whole, and thus “straighter,” as one develops a deeper relationship with Christ. Just keep fighting; just keep praying. Don’t give in.

    I think this homosexuality as “immature” heterosexuality approach hides traces of conversion therapy within. If gayness represents sexual immaturity, then one can feasibly “mature” into straightness. What makes this “gay lifestyle”-to-“straight” paradigm even more perplexing is that it simplistically seeks to replace gay things with straight things, rather than seeking to give sexuality (hetero- and homo-) its proper place. It counsels: don’t think so much about gay things, just think more about straight things. Don’t think so much about this kind of sexual desire, just think more about that kind of sexual desire. At the end of the day, gay or straight, it is still thinking about sex, attraction, desire, etc. And that should not be all we think about, whether we find ourselves falling for the same sex or the opposite sex.

    Unfortunately, churches today are fixated on marriage and sex. It’s all I seem to read and hear! My own denomination, Catholicism, used to have a rich, millennia-old, tradition of celibacy, and abundant praise for the celibate life. I say “used to” because even Catholicism’s unique interest in celibacy has deteriorated in recent decades. Nowadays it tends to present marriage as the only game in town. Celibacy rarely gets a mention, the silence implicitly reducing it to the runner-up award for loners and losers. And then Catholics wonder why priestly vocations are declining and religious orders are shrinking!