Here are a few preliminary thoughts and questions about the recent announcement that Exodus International, the largest and most influential of the so-called “ex-gay” ministries, will be closing its doors:
1. Like many younger people who are Christian and gay, I have shied away from much of what flies under the banner of Exodus and its affiliates. I was never involved in an Exodus group of any sort, in part because so many of their public statements led me to believe they were addressing themselves to people with rather different histories than mine. When I heard ex-gay accounts of the origins of same-sex attraction—accounts that focused on absentee or distant fathers or failure to bond with same-sex peers in childhood—I realized I was hearing stories that were pretty removed from my experience. I was raised in a very loving two-parent family, and the “father wound” narrative never illumined the possible causes of my homosexuality as it seemed to do for others. And I discerned, however inchoately, however rightly or wrongly, that if I were to join up with an “ex-gay” ministry, I would feel some degree of pressure to conform my narrative to theirs. (The anonymous blogger Disputed Mutability has described that pressure in detail here, and I’d encourage you to read her excellent post along with this one by Melinda Selmys.)
2. In light of that, I was glad to see Alan Chambers acknowledging that Exodus has, in fact, contributed to that pressure—it wasn’t just a matter of people like me mishearing what Exodus was really saying. “I am sorry we promoted sexual orientation change efforts and reparative theories about sexual orientation that stigmatized parents,” Chambers said. This was a true apology, and even though it wasn’t directed at me per se (since I’ve never been a part of an Exodus affiliate), I was still grateful and relieved to read it.
3. Exodus’s shutting down is a highly symbolic event that will, I hope, allow evangelicals (as well as Roman Catholics, but that’s another post for someone else to write) to revisit the merits of the entire “ex-gay” approach. Reparative therapy has never owed much to Christian theology in the first place—its roots lie more in Freud than in the teachings of Jesus or the apostle Paul—so it’s high time that evangelicals became much more familiar with what the Christian tradition itself has to offer those who experience same-sex attraction, namely, a long history of practice and reflection on both celibacy and same-sex friendship. These historic Christian resources haven’t been entirely absent from evangelical discussions, but I think most would agree that they haven’t been prominent.
4. Yet Exodus’s shutting down is just that—largely symbolic. As Peter Ould, who’s been following these kinds of things for a long time now, puts it:
The Exodus Board deciding to shut down Exodus International is in some sense meaningless. Ever since the Board stopped being appointed by the member ministries and instead became self-appointed Exodus stopped being in any sense representative of those ministries it claims to represent. Instead it has increasingly become simply, for better or worse, the Alan Chambers Ministry. No accountability = no responsibility. None of the Exodus Member Ministries are shutting down and they will probably find another grouping to become associated with. Those trumpeting this move as a powerful moment are rather missing the point that most of the ex-gay, post-gay and whatever-gay ministries will continue just as before.
5. It doesn’t seem, at least at this stage, that Alan Chambers’ new, replacement organization for Exodus, which he described to Jeff Chu over at The Atlantic’s Sexes channel, will be much involved in the effort to help gay Christians recover the resources they need from the Christian tradition for healthy practices of celibacy and friendship. That’s not necessarily to say Chambers’ work won’t be worthwhile. But what we still need, and what I most want to be involved in myself, is pastoral ministry to those who say, “I experience ongoing, nearly exclusive same-sex attraction, I don’t expect ‘conversion’ to heterosexuality, I don’t expect to be married, but I want to live within the boundaries of the traditional Christian teaching on marriage and sexuality, and I want to flourish, not just survive. And I need help to do that.” There are a lot of us in that boat. We do need help. And there’s now a gap to be filled with—what, exactly? an organization? a regular conference? ministry houses? intentional communities? parish small groups? something more, at least, than what Exodus often was—to help meet that need.