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.

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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  • http://randythomas.co/ Randy Thomas

    Thanks for your great post Peter. I am a little brain dead tonight but plan on blogging your response tomorrow.

  • debbiethurman

    I, too, appreciate what you have said here, Peter. Thank you for making this effort.

    • debbiethurman

      I do find this part problematic, Peter: “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.” I find that to be a minefield, so perhaps you could further explain it. Am I to believe as a Christian that it is OK for me to refuse to surrender a part or parts of my life to Christ? I can’t buy that. Of course we are going to continue to sin in our humanness, but Paul makes it quite clear in Romans that grace is not a covering for continued sin. That would make it cheap grace. Sanctification is not a panacea. We have personal responsibility as we traverse that road. We are to grow through our sinful tendencies and sin less.

      So much of what Alan has said needed saying, but what is needed most is a clear example and explanation of hope through Christ, as Thom says. That covers all of us, including our sexuality. And once more, for the record, I live as part of the proverbial .1 percent, so that hope is very real for me. I am not alone. And if we are going to wrap ourselves in cotton wool over the male vs. female psyche, then we’re going down the wrong trail. The one-flesh concept of marriage resolves all of that.

      I appreciate what you have shared here, as I said. But we are living in a perilous age where deception is rampant. We can ill afford not to be as clear as possible. Lives depend on it. It’s hard work. Let’s keep at it.

      • http://www.peter-ould.net Peter Ould

        HI Debbie,

        I think my point is this – it’s certainly not OK to refuse to surrender (sinful) parts of my life to Christ, but at the same time we recognise that very many people do so, at least for periods in their discipleship. We certainly don’t look at their lives and say, “Well since they haven’t surrendered this aspect to God they aren’t saved”. So why the difference with other sins?

        Of course the objection to this is where Scripture clearly teaches that some sins are indicative of people who won’t inherit the Kingdom of God (1 Cor 6:9-11 for example). However, we know that there’s a difference between falling into sin despite trying to resist temptation, and willfully continually sinning despite knowing such sin to be offensive to God. Of course, some have deluded themselves (or been deluded by others) that such actions are not sin.

        Finally I want to turn to the infamous quote from Alan Chambers the night he was on the panel at GCN. His two specific quotes are:

        “Some of us choose very different lives than others. But whatever we choose, it doesn’t remove our relationship with God”

        and

        “My personal belief is that … while behavior matters, those things don’t interrupt someone’s relationship with Christ.”

        Now, there are two interpretations to these statements. The first is that Alan is being completely non-judgemental on homosexual activity. This interpretation says that Alan is arguing that gay activity has no bearing on the consideration of whether someone is or isn’t a Christian.
        The second interpretation is more subtle. It rests in looking at exactly what Alan said and parsing the word’s carefully. He says that homosexual activity “while behavior matters, those things don’t interrupt someone’s relationship with Christ”. But that is NOT the same thing as saying that it doesn’t impair our spiritual life or growth in discipleship with God. What is DOES say is that the relationship that does exist, whether it is one of salvation or a “non-relationship” relationship cannot be altered by a particular sinful action – the key is to understand what is meant by “relationship” at this point. Is it the relationship that already exists? If this is the case then one of the elect cannot have that damaged by their sin.

        So for me the issue is this – Alan is being asked a question about the spiritual state of a believer who sins. He answers this from a Calvinistic perspective and in doing so he assumes, rightly or wrongly, that the people who are the object of the question ARE already Christians. In doing so he avoids the issue as to whether someone who claims to be a Christian is actually a Christian (which is the critique that others have made of him, that he should have emphasised this latter point.

        Now, it would have been interesting if he was asked something on the lines of “Do you believe that everyone who is gay and claims to be a Christian IS actually a Christian”? But he wasn’t, so we can’t surmise what his answer to THAT question would be from this exchange.

        • debbiethurman

          I’d like to chat a bit more with you tomorrow, when I have more time, Peter. Thanks.

        • debbiethurman

          OK, I’m available now and would like to add my additional
          thoughts, if you don’t mind.

          The first two paragraphs of your comment above, Peter, are
          central points. We cannot presume to know whether a person who falls into
          behavioral sexual sin, i.e., taking lustful thoughts or temptations to the
          acting-out level, especially with another person (not via
          “impersonal” porn, etc.), is saved or unsaved. There may be certain
          fruit for us to examine, but only God knows the heart’s motives. Likewise with other
          sins that may carry harmful penalties for our physical, emotional and spiritual
          health or may impact another person in that way. Behaviors/sins we can conceal
          “in the dark” may be known to few but God. They also may eat away at
          a person. The choice ultimately, then, is whether or not one will acquiesce (be
          given over) for the long haul or fight and seek another kind of relief through
          repenting and drawing nearer to God.

          I think trying to parse Alan’s two statements about sinful
          behavior (that’s what we agree that homosexual sex is) not “interrupting” one’s
          relationship with God is just quibbling over semantics — interrupting vs.
          impairing. Really, what’s the difference? The point is you and I both know that
          our behaviors (and the thoughts that may give birth to them) do matter to God.
          I submit the Sermon on the Mount and many New Testament epistles. We can, in
          effect, turn down the dimmer switch in our walk with Him if we choose to go
          gradually into the darkness and farther away from God. And sinful sexual activity
          tends to spiral downward, doesn’t it? It matters little whether or not we
          believe we are in a “committed relationship” or we’re serial bed-hoppers. All
          sex outside the male-female marriage bed is proscribed by God. How does Alan
          square his clarity on that with his murkiness on those unspecified “behaviors”?

          Now, let’s go back now to Alan’s January appearance at the
          GCN conference, where he was speaking before a room full of Side As and Side
          Bs. What he said could easily have been interpreted one way by the one group
          (believing Christian gays should be able to marry or at least shack up like
          heteros do) and quite another by the other (the celibates wrestling with
          temptation). Could Alan not have known that? That’s what made it so risky for
          him. You just can’t speak in such mushy terms (“Some of us choose very
          different lives than others”) and expect to be clearly understood in that
          arena. And the proof of that is all this continued brouhaha. Perhaps it has
          needed to happen in order to flush out the murkiness. It forces Alan sooner or
          later to have to explain himself in clear, concise terms or suffer more slings
          and arrows. He’s greatly upped the ante with his recent major media interviews.
          And his appearance on MSNBC’s “Hardball” the other day did not accomplish that
          needed clarity for me. He got closer, but not quite there. So folks like you
          (and now me) are left wondering how we can explain Alan for/to Alan, or if we
          even should. And who knows who is getting it right? Does Alan know what Alan
          believes? Fair question.

          Now, what I just said may sound rather harsh. I hasten to
          add that I consider Alan a friend whom I love as a brother in Christ. This
          maelstrom has grown beyond solving through private conversations. The more we
          care for/about someone, the closer we come to being “Jesus with skin on” for
          them in this sense: “Those whom I love I reprove” (Rev. 3:19). I see that is so
          hard for Christians to do for one another as I look around the Church today.
          It’s uncomfortable, unpopular and risky. It’s far easier to place our own
          self-esteem above a fellow Christian’s spiritual health. To share the burdens
          of one another along the road of sanctification — to mutually disciple one
          another — is hard work. One day I may pick my friend up while the next he may
          have to do the same for me. That may include a loving rebuke when needed. We
          walk side by side, but also with Jesus bearing one end of the yoke for us. And
          in that is the hope we so desperately need to move beyond a life riddled with
          temptations that seek to drag us to the gates of hell. Jesus walks with us,
          intercedes for us before the Father moment by moment (John 17), and shows us
          through the lives of others and through our own lives that he is powerful
          enough to handle Satan and heal us of ALL our afflictions. We are guaranteed
          “trouble” but also a world that Christ has already overcome (John 16:33)!
          Regardless of whether one throws reparative or some other reorientation therapy
          in with the ministering side of it, we do not have the right to even appear to
          be taking hope out of the equation for any struggler. As I see it, it takes an
          outright rejection of Christ and his power in our lives (oh yeah, that’s an
          interruption) to acquiesce completely to a sinful habit. And GCN’s Side As are
          doing that, are they not? So where, then, do they fall on the scale of “Christian”?
          Shouldn’t we all be wondering? It doesn’t matter if we are all right in the
          main. Spiritual measles — to use another Chambers’ (Oswald) description — is
          still sickness.

          What has people so exercised right now is that all the great
          and wonderful things Alan has said — God bless him for those — are offset by
          the few egregiously unclear comments that, if misinterpreted (or God help us,
          correctly interpreted) can wreak havoc on the hearers’ lives. I’m sorry, but I
          have to say that plainly.

          I have largely withdrawn from these discussions/debates as
          God has called me in another direction, but this one has compelled me to come
          back for a brief moment. I deem it that important.

          Let me end this by pointing out what ought to be obvious —
          that no other group of people living harmfully sinful lives, save homosexuals,
          is actively promoting their respective sin for others in a grand way, and has
          achieved unprecedented acceptance within every major pillar of society. I
          presume most Christians get that sin is sin is sin, but that inconvenient fact
          places this one on the skyline in a unique way. And all the mental gymnastics
          and parsing one chooses to do will not diminish that fact. This brave, new
          world we are creating has some serious ramifications.

  • Pingback: An Exodus from Exodus? Peter Ould Chimes In | RandyThomas.Co()

  • http://thom-signsofastruggle.blogspot.com/ Thom Hunter

    I think what is most unfortunate in all the hub-bub and confusion over who said what and meant what and what it all does or doesn’t mean are the men and women who are confused about their sexuality and come, more than anything, looking for a little clarification about where they are and where they might one day hope to be. In recent days, the liberal media has wrapped sincere quotes with biased interpretation and commentary and it is, overall, unseemly and distracting from the real issue: freedom through Christ. In this day and age, with the absence of moral barriers, if we are not following Christ, we cannot achieve wholeness, sexual or otherwise.

  • Philip Cole

    Well done, Peter, on an article that I think finds exactly the right balance between the power of the deep truths of orthodox Christianity about sexuality and of sensitive pastoral ministry and healing in a fallen world. Many conservative Christians, evangelical and charismatic, have to face the hard truth that they have elevated homosexuality into some kind of super-sin above other sins such as racism and economic exploitation in which they are often complicit. At some point I want to write an article (and possibly a book!) called ‘Power, Money and Sex’, a deliberate reversal of the title of a well-known Christian book, arguing that, while all three strongholds lead us to sin, the most powerful areas where the devil works are in the first two of the three. Babylon and Mammon have always been the greatest source of temptation to humankind!

    • http://www.peter-ould.net Peter Ould

      Thanks Philip,

      It’s not that I don’t think there are still lots of good questions to be asked (and I’ll be blogging on those later), it’s just that I want to start that process from a position of generosity and goodwill.

  • http://twitter.com/AlanMChambers Alan Chambers

    Excellent analysis, Peter. Thanks for helping me understand me better. :-)

    • http://www.peter-ould.net Peter Ould

      I’m rather hoping you already understand yourself better than I understand you!

      Is the way I’m representing you correct, especially on the issue of RT and whether ministries that advocate RT should still be part of Exodus?
      Fancy doing an audio interview?

  • http://www.facebook.com/samuel.j.wilson1 Samuel Joseph Wilson

    There are some grey areas in christianity (i.e. eschatology, women in ministry). However, this is really not one that we can mince words on in the church. Sanctification is a gradual process in the life of the believer but you cannot parse language the way Alan Chambers and Exodus are parsing language and expect that you are going to be able to maintain the relationships that you once had. Ethical and internal morals are for each follower of Jesus to work out with “fear and trembling.” I will say this if Alan or anyone at Exodus with their philosophies leads a younger brother astray based on the lack of strength in their stand on the issue the “millstone” analogy comes to mind. I applaud Andy Comiskey and his staff at Desert Stream for standing on the truth they always have since the beginning of their ministry. I guess it will all be sorted out in the end.

    • http://www.peter-ould.net Peter Ould

      Thanks for commenting Samuel. I’m going to be blogging on Andy’s letter tomorrow.

  • http://www.facebook.com/samuel.j.wilson1 Samuel Joseph Wilson

    I look forward to it!

  • Jerry Munro

    I appreciate all the dialogue but my understanding is that Alan is not the Global president. Exodus International is not the Global ministry umbrella of Exodus. Exodus Global Alliance is. So I don’t understand how Alan can speak on their behalf. Exodus International only represents North America.
    Jerry Munro

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