At the request of a friend, I recently went on a search for a good, solid Christian refutation of ex-gay theology/psychology. You know, one that breaks down exactly what is taught by the remaining, fledgling ex-gay ministries, and uses pure biblical exposition to demonstrate their errancy. And a little while into my search, when I wasn’t finding that ace-in-the-hole article to forward to my friend, a thought occurred to me. While various ex-gay ministries do use a lot of biblical language, so much of what they teach isn’t theology as much as it is psychology. And the bible doesn’t really deal with psychology directly, as the practice hadn’t been invented yet when the biblical authors were doing their inspired thing. And so I began to consider that perhaps I had sort of set out on an impossible task. I was trying to use the bible (or find someone who has) to disprove a particular developmental theory in psychology. I may as well have been trying to negate some educational or economic theory by using Genesis or Romans.
So that explains the absence (to my knowledge) of a singular, bible passage-saturated resource that debunks the ex-gay movement. That, of course, is not to say that there aren’t plenty of good resources out there that fall back on biblical principals to one degree or another, that should give one pause if contemplating participation in or endorsement of an ex-gay program. But when dealing with so much extra-biblical material (note that extra-biblical doesn’t necessarily imply unbiblical.), one has to rely more on the evidence at hand. What have been the overwhelming results of the ex-gay era?
That’s a tough one, because so much of what we have to go on are people’s stories – stories of healing and victory, as well as stories of deep psychological and spiritual damage. And well, you know, that whole “the plural of anecdote is not data” thing. But when actual studies are cited to bolster the claims of ex-gay ministries, close examination reveals just how unscientific they are, and that they much more closely resemble a collection of anecdotes, even highly questionable ones at that. On the other hand, while people’s accounts of shame and depression which they attribute to the influence of ex-gay teaching should be taken very seriously, considered carefully, and should indeed carry a lot of weight in this conversation, they aren’t, at the end of the day, hard evidence that the ex-gay thing was/is just a big flop.
But here’s the thing: the burden of proof in this situation is not on those who are skeptical or critical of orientation change and developmental theories of causation. It’s on those who promote them and make positive claims about their effectiveness in achieving a particular desired outcome. And if they cannot provide adequate proof, and there are reported adverse effects, and in fact, the only information to come out of all this that can truly be called data is that a significant number of participants in this whole ex-gay experiment did not experience the expected outcome, at what point do we deem it irresponsible to continue on with this stuff?
I know that question may seem largely irrelevant or outdated for some. The ex-gay movement, after years of crumbling, finally imploded several years back, and the remnants of it, various ministries with only a shadow of the resources and influence of their former parent-organization, Exodus, have largely been relegated to the fringes. But here in Shanghai, among the international churches, there has existed a sort of vacuum. In a country where even the secular culture isn’t very comfortable with open discussions on sexuality, the church – even the international church – has largely been silent. I think there’s been this unspoken understanding among most church leaders that “homosexuality is sinful,” but not a working out of what that actually means. And so, into that vacuum, sexual healing ministries have entered in an attempt to meet a need. (If Marvin Gaye isn’t singing into your ear right now, what kind of a person are you?) This development is why the ex-gay thing is so relevant to me right now. I’ve been able to comfortably take for granted for some time now that we all just sort of know better than treating the ex-gay narrative any differently than we treat the idea that if a frog pees on you, you’ll get warts, or that blood-letting should be a legitimate medical practice. But now that I’m faced with the reality that ex-gay developmental theories and all the ambiguous language and unhealthy introspection that go along with them are poised to be the primary approach to homosexuality for the church in Shanghai (maybe that’s a tad melodramatic, but whatever), I am forced to actually deal with the content of ex-gay teaching. And I’ll be honest, it makes me feel a little sick.
I tried to explain the nauseous feeling to my friend who requested that elusive exegetical resource against ex-gay teaching. I’ve found it best summed up by the anonymous blogger Disputed Mutability (whose site has been dormant since 2010, I’m sad to report). In a reflection after attending a Love Won Out conference, she writes:
“…I found myself haunted in the days following the conference by stirred-up memories of the years when I was deeply involved in exgay stuff. See, in the past several years, I haven’t really done any of that. I hadn’t really heard any of those messages of brokenness and childhood roots and healing and change for a very long time–sure I occasionally read a smidgen of something online, but that’s way different from being bombarded with a day’s worth of lectures. After the conference it all came painfully flooding back…how I agonized about this stuff, how I blamed myself and everyone in my family, how pathetic and small and less-than I felt relative to “healthy heterosexuals,” how tired and hopeless I felt after pursuing change (albeit somewhat half-assedly at times) didn’t really get me anywhere, how I obsessed about my “healing” and ignored discipleship and Christian growth, how stupid and voiceless I felt relative to the “successful” “healed” exgay superstars whose testimonies always seemed to get held up as What Is Supposed to Happen–if I disagreed with them, it was only my “brokenness” talking, and I would come to know better someday if I opened my heart to Jesus and let Him really transform me. That old mindset came drifting back into my head and it made me even more nauseous than has been usual for me as of late.”
I was never “deeply involved in exgay stuff” like DM was. In fact, I was never really involved with it at all. But with no other competing narrative out there in the early years of my wrestling with issues of faith and sexuality, I couldn’t avoid its influence. I remember vaguely feeling some of those things. And early on in my big faith crisis that I wrote about a few times on a dormant blog of my own, I started to give the ex-gay thing another chance, and I read Andy Comisky’s Pursuing Sexual Wholeness, frequented the Desert Streams blog, and got in touch with some of the leaders and participants of a Living Waters group here in Shanghai, though I never attended. Additionally, a counselor gave my wife a book authored by Comisky’s wife which proceeded to dictate a narrative of emotional and mental health issues for any and all women who would actually choose to marry a
gay man “who struggles with same sex attraction”. (It’s at this point I get a little pissy, because I think about the negative effects it was having on my wife, who was already going through a pretty hellacious time in her life as it was.) And in that brief time, I remember feeling exactly the things that Disputed Mutability describes in the above excerpt.
I’m comforted to know that others have a similar reaction – others who were heavily involved in it, yet have found more “healing” and “wholeness” than ever once they ditched the whole ex-gay thing. And more importantly, that they did that without abandoning their convictions about God’s design for sex and marriage. I think of God’s providence in all of this, and I can’t help feeling an overwhelming since of gratitude. I’m thankful that I am living in this time, that I experienced the things I did when and where I did, that when the conflict that I felt between my faith and sexuality was becoming the most toxic and the most explosive it had ever been, it was after the ex-gay movement had largely run its course, and there were these burgeoning new approaches and people who had survived the trenches of it all and had come to a better understanding, and had in fact, paved the way for a new era of writers and thinkers championing a healthier way forward for gay people who want to follow Christ. And I’m certainly thankful that, even though it makes me a little uneasy, he has chosen now, after there are voices out there to offer perspective, and to keep me from descending into a murky place of doubt and confusion, to let me be confronted more strongly with ex-gay teaching and be forced to devote intellectual and emotional energy to examining it.
So I don’t have at my disposal the decisive Christian argument against ex-gay teaching, which would be super convenient. But, as God has a way of doing for His people, He has sufficiently provided me with what I need. And that is enough.