An Exodus from Exodus?

Recent weeks have seen some interesting developments at Exodus, the umbrella organisation for groups working with men and women who have unwanted same-sex attraction (USSA). Following Alan Chamber’s appearance at the Gay Christian Network conference where when asked directly an issue about salvation and homosexuality he replied that he expected to see many sexual active homosexuals who were Christians in heaven. Cue heavy discussion of what he actually meant followed by a number of key ministry leaders (including Andy Comiskey of Desert Streams, a pioneer in the ex-gay movement) distancing themselves from his words and even formally withdrawing from Exodus. Now in the past week or so Rob Gagnon has written a long piece examining and critiquing the theological basis for what Alan Chambers has been saying and the whole issue has made its way to the New York Times.

Only a few years ago, Mr. Chambers was featured in advertisements along with his wife, Leslie, saying, “Change is possible.” But now, he said in the interview, “Exodus needs to move beyond that slogan.”

“I believe that any sexual expression outside of heterosexual, monogamous marriage is sinful according to the Bible,” Mr. Chambers emphasized. “But we’ve been asking people with same-sex attractions to overcome something in a way that we don’t ask of anyone else,” he said, noting that Christians with other sins, whether heterosexual lust, pornography, pride or gluttony, do not receive the same blanket condemnations.

So what is going on? Is this simply a case of crossed-wires or are there more fundamental stances being altered? Is this about theological shift or just changes in emphasis?

It’s important when answering such questions to dissect the issues involved. There are a number of different areas at stake here and conflating them only confuses the matter. With that in mind, let’s turn to them one by one.

Biblical Sexual Ethic

Is Exodus abandoning a traditional Biblical sexual ethic? There is no evidence for this whatsoever and indeed Alan Chambers has repeatedly reaffirmed that he believes that sex outside of the marriage of a man and a woman is sinful. Those who might wish that Exodus is going to move on this fundamental area are deluding themselves.

Reparative Therapy

Here the fun begins! Some people are claiming that Exodus is ditching reparative therapy (RT). The truth is rather more subtle. Certainly, Exodus have explicitly distanced themselves from “Touch Therapy” which is the form of RT practised by Richard Cohen and others.

Exodus International is opposed to the therapeutic practice commonly referred to as “holding/touch therapy” as a healing exercise for those with same-sex attraction distress.  Accordingly, Exodus does not endorse  any individual or organization that is known to use that method.

However RT covers a much wider range of approaches then just one methodology. On top of this it’s hard to find a quote online that actually has an explicit rejection of RT. Here for example is the now famous “99%” quote from Alan Chambers from his session at the Gay Christian Network conference.

The majority of people that I have met, and I would say the majority meaning 99.9 percent of them, have not experienced a change in their orientation or have gotten to a place where they could say that they could never be tempted or are not tempted in some way or experience some level of same-sex attraction.

Now, I don’t see that as a rejection of RT. Rather, I see it as trying to clarify what RT can and can’t achieve. If someone who has experienced benefit from RT (including this author) is honest about where they are now with their sexual attractions, they will very rarely tell you that they have reached a point where they never ever have same-sex attraction. This is almost an unachievable end point (though some do reach it by the grace of God).  This is the emphasis that Alan Chambers is trying to make, not that RT doesn’t work (he never says that anywhere) but rather that it is very rare that RT provides a complete success (if “success” is deemed 100% heterosexual attraction.

And so the nuanced emphasis in his opening address to this year’s Exodus Conference. You can listen to it below (it’s almost an hour so be warned) but the key section is from 20 minutes on.

[audio:http://exodusinternational.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/06/Chambers-Made-For-More1.mp3]

Alan argues that we’ve emphasised too much healing ministries. This is I think a valid point, that by placing the emphasis on “healing” we encourage people to solve the issue of same-sex attraction in the ways that we don’t others. Do we think all temptations are to be dealt with by therapy? How should such therapy interact with the growing scientific consensus that homosexuality is a unique blend in each individual of both nature and nurture causation?

I can’t find a single quote anywhere where Alan denounces RT, but what we are seeing increasingly is Exodus saying publicly that RT is not the be-all and end-all of their ministry. The focus of Exodus should be on providing support to men and women who have unwanted same-sex attraction and whilst RT may help some individuals it cannot (and is not – see the results of the J&Y Ex-Gay Study) be the ultimate solution for everyone. To quote Alan, change is possible, but change is not the absence of struggle, it is the freedom in the midst of the struggle to make a different decision.

Perseverance of the Saints

The thrust of Robert Gagnon’s recent polemic against Alan Chambers is that Alan has a faulty view of sanctification. Specifically Gagnon writes,

Taken at face value, Alan’s statement assures self-professed Christians that they could turn to any unrepentant sinful lifestyle (note Alan’s oddly neutral expression: “very different lives”), no matter how egregious (incest, pedophilia, bestiality, serial murdering, rape, gross exploitation of the poor, virulent racism, or any combination thereof) and for any duration of time, and never have to be concerned about the security of their relationship with God. For Alan such behavior, apparently, cannot even raise doubts for others as to the genuineness of the offender’s faith.

Interesting. Gagnon’s argument is that Jesus always challenged sin and that Paul clearly in Romans argues that Christians shouldn’t continue in sin. Is what Alan is doing here a compromise on that issue? Is he saying that he it doesn’t matter what one’s sexual behaviour is?

No, that doesn’t seem to be Alan’s position. In the Conference address that is available above, Alan makes it very clear that he still believes in and teaches a traditional sexual moral. However, Alan seems to be also very clear that Christians continue to sin, that some  struggle with temptation to sin every day and some go to their grave with patterns of behaviour that are far from perfect. It’s the case for every single reader of the piece, right now, that they will most likely have some habitual form of sin that they continually fall into, even if that falling happens rarely.

When Alan was at the GCN Conference panel and, being questioned whether he believed that those Christians who disagreed with him on sexual practice would be in heaven he replied in the affirmative, that didn’t therefore mean that he had either abandoned a traditional sexual ethic or that he believed that everyone in the room who claimed to be a Christian actually was. Rather, he was simply applying the clear Scriptural teaching that the ongoing work of sanctification in the believer means that we are not yet in our day to day lives perfect (though we have the imputed righteousness of Christ which is guaranteed by the Spirit). Yes, there will be men and women in heaven who, though saved, continued to live sinfully at times and may have spent all their years refusing to surrender to God key aspects of their lives. You and I are probably one of those people.

Holiness is hard, it is a struggle and it often brings with it a cost. For some Christians they simply choose not to pay that cost because the price seems to much to bear.

Where are we all going?

One of the most striking things of the past few years has been the way that God has been moving in key people dealing with this area in Conservative Christian circles. For example, at the same time that I was shifting towards using the language of post-gay, across the Atlantic Ocean the same search for a vocabulary to redefine what ministry in this area was all about was being pursued by Alan Chambers, Randy Thomas and others at Exodus. This wasn’t a random event, it was (and is) clearly a work of the Spirit. God has been moving us all along in our thinking and understanding around pastoral care in this field. None of us have abandoned traditional sexual morality, but we do have the benefit of being the heirs of a generation of practitioners of RT and we are able to reflect on that shared experience and discern the next path ahead.

Does that mean that we agree on everything? Not at all. For example, Randy and Alan are influenced by the writings of Clark Whitten who pastors the church they attend in Orlando. I happen to think that key aspects of Clark’s “Already sanctified” teaching are flawed and, for example, I disagree with them on the interpretation of ἁγιαζομένους in Hebrews 10:14 (it’s a present participle in the passive accusative which basically means the correct literal translation is “being sanctified”). Whilst Clark Whitten is correct that this does not mean that the believer is in a constant state of “part-holiness”, the emphasis is that the perfection of the saints is a continual present process, a future guarantee which is displayed day by day. The point of the contrast to the first part of the verse (has perfected – a completed action by God) is that the work of sanctification is the work of God, not of humanity. We are guaranteed in our struggles that the end outcome is perfect holiness.

But disagreements like this do not mean that I believe that Chambers and others teach cheap grace. Far from it. They are signs of a healthy church that is continually trying to discern the truth. Iron sharpens iron. It saddens me that some of the member ministries of Exodus have decided to jump ship so soon. I don’t see Alan Chambers wanting to “expel” them just because they continue to offer RT. Rather, what we are experiencing is a gradual maturity in how Exodus and others deal in this area and after considerable prayer and deliberation Alan Chambers is seeking to make Exodus a pioneer in moving the conservative Christian Church on in this area whilst maintaining a traditional biblical moral.

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