The Conservative Church’s Response to the Gay Community: A Historical Perspective

This is the first post in a five part series on same-sex relationships. The series is intended to be read in order. Each essay is essential for understanding the full picture. Click here to see all posts.

The countercultural movements of the 1960s instigated significant social changes, including ushering a hidden gay and lesbian community into public view and conversation.[1] Tired of constant police raids on gay establishments, the famous 1969 Stonewall rioters launched a visible fight for dignity and fair treatment. Shortly thereafter, in 1972, the United Church of Christ began ordaining gay and lesbian pastors, the first mainline denomination to do so.[2] This new freedom allowing gay people to openly share their lives was the same freedom that enabled the ex-gay movement to develop. In prior years, sexual minorities stayed in the closet out of fear of persecution.  But now Christians distressed by their sexuality were increasingly risking self-disclosure to seek help. In 1973, the father of the ex-gay movement, Frank Worthen, started a ministry near San Francisco called Love in Action. Worthen had lived as a gay man for 25 years before having a spiritual experience that led him to renounce same-sex relationships and marry a woman (Anita). He founded his ministry to help others who wanted to live congruently with their traditionalist interpretation of the Bible.

In 1975, Worthen discovered other fledgling ex-gay ministries, including one called EXIT (Ex-Gay Intervention Team) that operated out of Melodyland Christian Center. EXIT was founded by two gay men in their 20s, Michael Bussee and Jim Kasper. Worthen collaborated with EXIT to host the first ex-gay conference attended by 65 people (60 men and 5 women).[3] This conference birthed Exodus International, an information and referral organization that eventually grew to more than 200 member ministries world-wide. Exodus thrived until its closure in 2013 when then-president Alan Chambers shocked conservatives and progressives alike by admitting that the majority of ex-gays had not experienced change in their sexual orientation.

Significantly, the early ex-gay movement had little support from churches despite its adherence to a traditional sexual ethic. The stigma around homosexuality was so pronounced that conservative churches did not want anything to do with gay people—even those who wanted help becoming heterosexual. Worthen recalls, “Initially, all our opposition came from the Christian community, rather than the gay community. . . .It will take the church about one hundred years to really understand what we’re doing.”[4] However, the ex-gay movement gained traction in the late 1990s when Focus on the Family started its Love Won Out conference, a platform that paradoxically preached compassion for gay people while promoting strategies to fight gay rights. Focus was one of the first major Christian organizations to collaborate with ex-gay ministries, lending credibility to the movement. Exodus benefited from the alliance, but it came with a price. The Religious Right wanted to use ex-gay testimonies to fight political battles. Gay rights hinged on the assertion that sexual orientation is immutable and akin to race and gender. Thus, early on, the conservative church’s response to gay and lesbian people, including ex-gays, was heavily tied to politics.

Five Stages in the Conservative Church’s Response to Gays and Lesbians

Clearly, the ex-gay movement is closely entwined with the conservative church’s response to gays and lesbians.[5] This will be expanded on further in the following discussion. At the same time, recent years have also given rise to other emerging influences. The historical process can be summarized in five primary stages. These stages represent a chronological trajectory, but all can be found simultaneously across various churches today.

1. “Gay people should stay in the closet.” Prior to the 1970s, few gay or lesbian people were willing to risk telling anyone about their sexual orientation. James White and Jeffrey Niell write nostalgically about this closet: “In the past homosexuals were ashamed to ‘go public.’ Historically, theologians were not required to address this topic as it was commonly understood to be a violation of God’s law.”[6] Many church-goers have found public discussion and theological inquiry of sexuality threatening and uncomfortable, preferring that gay people live in secrecy.

2. “Gay people are perverts and criminals.” After the Stonewall riots in 1969, the church could no longer ignore the reality of gay people. However, sexual minorities were perceived as godless and rebellious individuals who willfully engaged in perverted and criminal behavior. Few conservatives could conceive of gay people as potential Christians deeply devoted to their faith. Many writers portrayed sexual minorities as pedophiles, addicts, mentally disturbed, promiscuous, or even Nazis. Gay people were to be feared as dangerous. For example, Alan Sears and Craig Osten describe orgies that made it unsafe “to go to the forest, where just thirty years ago, families and civic groups were able to innocently enjoy its natural beauty.”[7] They warn their readers not to humanize gay people as “just like my fishing buddy.” Similarly, Michael Pakaluk justifies job discrimination by painting sexual minorities as deficient in character, lacking “the virtue of self-control” and “insight into some basic human goods.”[8] But, the most notorious portrait is promoted by speaker and writer, Scott Lively, who associates gay people with serial killers and Nazis.[9]

Demeaning characterizations have also come from “friendly” sources. Dr. Joseph Nicolosi, a Catholic psychologist who claimed to provide compassionate therapy, compared gay people to Scar in the Lion King, “the brooding resentful brother of the King [who] lives his life on the margins of society and is full of envy and anger. . . .Scar ruptures the link between the generations by killing the Lion King and aligning himself with a scavenger pack of hyenas. Thus, Scar turns the ordered lion kingdom into chaos and ruin. Before all this occurs, however, we hear a brief, light-hearted exchange between the young male cub, Simba, and his uncle Scar. Laughingly, Simba says, ‘Uncle Scar, you’re weird.’ Meaningfully, Scar replies, ‘You have no idea.’”[10]

Not surprisingly such an understanding of gay people has fostered support of criminalization. Pakaluk writes, “Anti-sodomy laws have a valuable function. . . .they constitute a kind of link with the past, a link to society as it was before the sexual revolution, when our insight into matters sexual was clearer.”[11] Notably, imprisonment of gay people was legal in the United States as recently as 2003.[12]

3. “Gay people are hapless victims who need healing.” While the criminal/pervert caricature endured into the early 2000s, a new paradigm simultaneously developed in the 1990s: the gay person as a broken struggler in need of compassion. This change in perception was the result of the ex-gay movement’s impact on the conservative church. For the first time, many church-goers heard stories of devout Christians who experienced same-sex attraction yet desired to follow a traditional sexual ethic. Conservatives had no patience for the gay activist or gay-affirming Christian, but they could relate to the theological convictions of ex-gays. As a result, ex-gays were able to challenge stereotypes that being gay was only a rebellious behavioral choice. Ex-gays persuasively testified that they had never chosen their same-sex attractions. In response, churches became more supportive of efforts to heal or cure same-sex attraction rather than criminalize.

Members of Exodus International believed that change in sexual orientation was possible by submitting one’s life to Christ and addressing childhood wounds. Books like You Don’t Have to Be Gay and Coming Out of Homosexuality: New Freedom for Men and Women offered hope of heterosexuality. In You Don’t Have to Be Gay, Jeff Konrad writes, “Despite what we hear from the media and the world at large, your homosexual orientation can be changed. . . .You will discover that a man of any age really doesn’t have to be gay if he doesn’t want to be.”[13] Konrad and other ex-gays drew heavily from Dr. Elizabeth Moberly’s theories of gender identity confusion and rupture in parent-child relationships. The approach encouraged gay men to embrace their masculinity and lesbians to accept their femininity. In doing so, a man could feel like “one of the guys” and a woman like “one of the ladies” instead of eroticizing the same-sex as “other.”

In 1992, Benjamin Kaufman, M.D., Charles Socarides, M.D., and Dr. Joseph Nicolosi founded National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality (NARTH), which advanced and expanded on Moberly’s theories. NARTH labeled its approach “reparative therapy.” This method aimed to correct a person’s attempts to self-repair gender inferiority and childhood trauma via homosexual relationships. In a well-known refrain advising parents how to prevent homosexuality, Nicolosi said, “We advise fathers, if you don’t hug your sons, some other man will.” Nicolosi has given various success rates for reparative therapy, including approximately 30%. However, NARTH has been hampered by its lack of peer reviewed research to back its claims.

In 1998, Focus on the Family joined hands with ex-gay leaders to create the Love Won Out conference. The event featured testimonies by ex-gays, workshops on the causes and treatment of homosexuality, as well as strategies for fighting the culture war. This led to the politicization of the ex-gay movement which had, until then, focused primarily on pastoral care. Full page ads were placed in prominent newspapers across the country proclaiming change is possible (see picture here). Religious Right organizations began recruiting ex-gays to testify in Washington DC to counter gay rights efforts. Thus, the psychological theory that same-sex attraction is environmentally caused, and therefore, treatable, was no longer championed merely to provide compassionate help, but also to shape legislation. Any research that suggested change is not always or likely possible was (and still is) refuted by the Religious Right. To concede that sexual orientation may be immutable for some people is to lose the political battle.

4. “Gay people are admirable saints called to a celibate life.”

The 2000s brought another significant shift in the conservative church’s response to gays and lesbians: the awareness that sexual orientation change is unlikely for many. Like previous shifts, this was brought about by the stories of gay people, namely young Christians whose testimonies differed from those of classic ex-gays. Ex-gay testimonies frequently cited a history of dysfunctional behavior, including promiscuity and drug abuse. Thus, reports of change in sexual orientation were enmeshed with experiences of healing from destructive habits or wounds of childhood sexual abuse. This phenomenon is captured well in the film Save Me. In contrast, a new generation of gay Christians had benefited from societal openness to talk about and process their feelings at a younger age prior to even having sexual relationships. These young Christians often reported growing up in loving homes and did not have a history of destructive behavior. They remained devoted to God and committed to chastity. The celibate gay Christian movement rejected the ex-gay movement. It challenged the notion that same-sex attractions are always caused by environmental factors and that a person’s sexual orientation will change.[14]

The ex-gay movement itself eventually began to grapple with the lack of sexual orientation change. It took a generation for the results to come in. The movement had been founded on optimism. Surely, a loving, powerful God would readily heal sinful desires and transform the life of any gay person who wanted it. Wasn’t this the promise of the gospel? Significantly, the ex-gay movement was influenced by charismatic theology. The co-founders of Exodus were involved in charismatic churches when they started the organization, and other pillars of the ex-gay movement, such as Andy Comiskey, were also significantly influenced by the charismatic tradition. This theology tends to emphasize the importance of one’s faith to achieve healing. If you believe God can heal you, it will happen. No one has been more long-suffering and optimistic than ex-gays who earnestly waited decades for the expected change in orientation.

But moving into the 2010s, certain prominent leaders began to admit to themselves and others that sexual orientation change only seemed to occur for a very small percentage of people. Two of the highest profile ex-gays who have recanted include John Paulk and John Smid. Paulk and his wife Anne were featured on the cover of Newsweek (1998), wrote books, and worked for Focus on the Family. However, after 20 years of marriage, they divorced in 2013. Anne remains committed to ex-gay philosophy while John is now in a relationship with a man. Likewise, John Smid, long-time director of Love in Action (having taken over for Frank Worthen), divorced his wife in 2011 and married a man in 2014. Smid tells his story in the book Ex’d Out: How I Fired the Shame Committee. The ex-gay movement was also shaken by Exodus president Alan Chambers’ about-face that led to the organization’s demise in 2013 after 40 years of ministry. Chambers had come on board in 2001 and was instrumental in pulling Exodus further into Religious Right politics. However, in 2012, he declared:

The majority of people that I have met, and I would say the majority meaning 99.9% 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.[15]

Chambers now affirms gay marriage, but remains happily married to his wife. Randy Thomas, who worked alongside Chambers at Exodus for 11 years, also changed his views and currently dates men.

Awareness that sexual orientation does not change for the majority of gay people has led many conservative leaders to shift focus from healing to celibacy.[16] Of course, the Catholic church has always supported this approach given its esteem of celibacy. But, Protestants have long championed marriage as the sign of healthy sexuality. Nevertheless, evangelicals now increasingly affirm life-long celibacy as the answer for Christians with same-sex attraction. Celibate gay Christians who lend their voices to this movement include Wesley Hill, Ron Belgau, and Eve Tushnet.[17] The group also includes members in mixed orientation marriages who are transparent about their sexuality such as writers Melinda Selmys and Nathan Collins.[18] This movement has made notable contributions to theologies of friendship and community.

As traditionalists have listened to celibate gay Christians, empathy has increased. Many church leaders acknowledge the heartache that comes with unmarried life and advocate the church’s role in providing supportive community. At the same time, the question of whether life-long celibacy is possible for everyone has not received much attention. Rather, celibate gay Christians are held up as admirable examples of how to live a self-sacrificial life.

5. “Gay people are______________.” Currently, the evangelical church finds itself with a palette of options. For years, the ex-gay movement provided the predominate response to homosexuality. The rise of the celibate gay movement and the demise of Exodus International disrupted this uniformity. Four key groups have emerged from this splinter:

    • Celibate gay Christians tend to be young, ecumenical, and highly educated (albeit still predominately white male as with the ex-gay movement). They are more apt to support biological explanations for causation, rather than environmental ones. Change in sexual orientation is generally not pursued (believed to be hardwired). However, members are open to mixed orientation marriages. The group emphasizes strong friendships and community. The master and doctoral level training of its leaders has led to significant theological contributions. They write at Spiritual Friendship. Notable books include Wesley Hill’s Spiritual Friendship: Finding Love in the Church as a Celibate Gay Christian and Eve Tushnet’s Gay and Catholic: Accepting My Sexuality, Finding Community, Living My Faith.
    • Ex-gays are still around. Even though the movement died with the closing of Exodus International, two small groups developed that have kept this approach on the table. Restored Hope Network (RHN) represents the more conservative and reactionary of the two. It formed in 2012 as a break-off group from Exodus International after Chambers’ views began to shift. Early on the leadership required member ministries to sign a document stating singular loyalty (involvement with any other ex-gay group was prohibited). RHN retains affinity with Religious Right politics. The current president is Anne Paulk. The second group, Hope for Wholeness (HFW), tends to resemble the ex-gay movement prior to its politicization and better represents what Exodus International was like before the late 1990s. Originally an Exodus affiliate ministry, HFW created its own network around the same time as RHN for similar concerns. The current president is McCrae Game. Both organizations emphasize the signature traits of ex-gay philosophy: environmental causation and healing of same-sex attraction.
    • “Gospel Coalition” same-sex attracted evangelicals are difficult to define with one term or phrase. Representatives of this group include Rosaria Butterfield, Sam Allberry, and Christopher Yuan. While not a product of the Gospel Coalition, they all have a close relationship with that organization, as well as with Southern Baptists like Russell Moore. What distinguishes them from ex-gays is their rejection of reparative therapy. While change in sexual orientation is considered possible through the sanctification process, they do not believe change occurs for everyone. Thus, they are more likely to esteem life-long celibacy (both Allberry and Yuan are single and acknowledge continued same-sex attraction). However, they are distinct from celibate gay Christians in their rejection of the term “gay” for self-reference, preferring “same-sex attracted.” Gay identity is viewed as a social construct. They also tend to argue for a spiritual etiology of same-sex attraction (“the fall”) over biological or environmental causation.
    • Gay-affirming evangelicals believe same-sex partnerships can be blessed by God. Prominent leaders in this group include Justin Lee and Matthew Vines. Lee actually started the Gay Christian Network in 2001, but evangelical support for same-sex relationships has only recently picked up steam. In 2013 Vines founded The Reformation Project. Both men have published popular level books: Torn: Rescuing the Gospel from the Gays-vs.-Christians Debate (Lee, 2012) and God and the Gay Christian (Vines, 2014). Gay-affirming evangelicals have gained traction through the support of biblical scholars who are providing new arguments rooted in traditionally accepted hermeneutics (rather than liberal revisionist methods). These scholars include the likes of James Brownson (Bible, Gender, Sexuality: Reframing the Church’s Debate on Same-Sex Relationships, 2013) and Robert Song (Covenant and Calling: Towards a Theology of Same-Sex Relationships, 2014). Significantly, evangelical publisher, Zondervan, recently printed a “two views” book on homosexuality, acknowledging the debate on same-sex relationships is now an in-house argument (Two Views on Homosexuality, the Bible, and the Church, 2016).

Conclusions

The conservative church’s response to gay and lesbian people has undergone significant shifts from the 1970s to the present. These shifts are largely the result of greater awareness of the lives and reality of Christians who are gay. Ex-gay Christians contributed a humanizing influence, raising awareness that a person’s attraction to the same-sex is not simply a matter of choice, rebellion against God, or depravity of character. Similarly, gay Christians themselves began to realize over time that sexual orientation is not as changeable as once believed. As a result, numbers are growing among celibate gay Christians, as well as gay-affirming evangelicals. Adherence to ex-gay perspectives or “Gospel Coalition” positions will probably continue but are less likely to dominate the conversation in coming years. Either way, if historical trends continue, whatever shifts come in the future will likely flow from gay Christians truthfully testifying about their lived reality.

Recommended Reading:

In addition to examining the writings of the four primary splinter groups to better grasp their perspectives (see the links and book references above), I also highly recommend Tanya Erzen’s Straight to Jesus: Sexual and Christian Conversions in the Ex-Gay Movement. This is a well-written and accurate study of the ex-gay movement from the 1970s up to about 2005 by a sociologist.

I also recommend the website LGBTQ Images. Many people have stereotypes in their minds of what LGBT+ people are like as a result of culture war media exposure. This site introduces you to ordinary LGBT+ folk.


[1] I intentionally use gay and lesbian more often in this blog series than LGBT. The Church’s response to transgender people is distinct and the issues in that conversation are different than for gay people. Also, this series focuses particularly on people who do not necessarily experience bisexuality or fluidity in their sexual orientation and, thus, are forced to make life decisions that are a bit different than someone who can still function in a heterosexual relationship.

[2] However, the Metropolitan Community Church, founded by and for LGBT people, was established in 1968.

[3] Tanya Erzen, Straight to Jesus: Sexual and Christian Conversions in the Ex-Gay Movement (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006), 32.

[4] Erzen, Straight to Jesus, 40.

[5] My discussion of the “conservative church” particularly addresses evangelicals. However, there is overlap with other traditions. For example, the ex-gay movement also involved Mormons (Evergreen), Jews (JONAH), and Catholics (Courage, as well as Joseph Nicolosi). One primary distinction is that Catholics tend to be much more affirming of celibacy and the reality that sexual orientation is not likely to change (Nicolosi excepted).

[6] James White and Jeffrey D. Niell, The Same Sex Controversy: Defending and Clarifying the Bible’s Message About Homosexuality (Minneapolis: Bethany House, 2002), 17.

[7] Alan Sears and Craig Osten, The Homosexual Agenda: Exposing the Principal Threat to Religious Freedom Today (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2003), 19.

[8] Michael Pakaluk, “Homosexuality and the Principle of Nondiscrimination,” in Same-Sex Matters: The Challenge of Homosexuality, ed. Christopher Wolfe (Dallas: Spence Publishing, 2000), 76.

[9] Scott Lively writes: “It is not mere coincidence that the emperors of Rome in its horrific final days were homosexual; that Adolf Hitler’s inner circle were mostly homosexual; and that nearly all of the most prolific serial killers in U.S. history were homosexual. It is not mere coincidence that America’s cultural decline parallels the rise of ‘gay rights’” (see “Agents of the Death Agenda,” Life Advocate, May 1996).

[10] Joseph Nicolosi, “The Gay Deception” in Homosexuality and American Public Life, ed. Christopher Wolfe (Dallas: Spence Publishing, 1999), 105.

[11] Michael Pakaluk, “Homosexuality and the Common Good” in Homosexuality and American Public Life, ed. Christopher Wolfe (Dallas: Spence Publishing, 1999), 181

[12] In 2003, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Lawrence v. Texas to strike down anti-sodomy laws in the 14 states that still had them.

[13] Jeff Konrad, You Don’t Have To Be Gay (Newport Beach: Pacific Publishing House, 2000), 9-10. First printing in 1987. Emphasis in the original.

[14] The celibate gay Christian movement also finds seeds in ex-gays who were disillusioned with ex-gay ideology and had been critiquing it from the inside for years (e.g. challenging Alan Chambers to acknowledge lack of sexual orientation change and objecting to his collaboration with Religious Right politics etc). A small dissenting group of ex-gays began privately communicating and brainstorming a new movement around 2008. Shortly thereafter, evangelical Wesley Hill, who had never been involved in the ex-gay movement, discussed the reality of unchanged attractions in his book Washed and Waiting (2010). This was the first evangelical book that frankly discussed lack of sexual orientation change. Some folk from the dissenting group of ex-gays connected with Hill. Eventually, in August 2011, Hill and Ron Belgau started a private blog De Spirituali Amicitia (spiritual friendship). This private community grew substantially, especially with young men in their 20s. A public version of the blog went live in April 2012 as Spiritual Friendship. Significantly, this new movement is characterized by a strong ecumenical relationship between Catholics and evangelicals, as well as by its youthfulness.

[15] http://www.patheos.com/blogs/warrenthrockmorton/2012/01/09/alan-chambers-99-9-have-not-experienced-a-change-in-their-orientation/

[16] I will discuss research on sexual orientation change in a later post focusing on celibacy.

[17] Julie Rodgers, a young ex-gay who switched to the celibate gay movement around 2013 became a prominent voice for the movement as well before changing her views to affirming in 2015.

[18] A strong friend of this movement is Dr. Mark Yarhouse, professor at Regent University who oversees the Institute for the Study of Sexual Identity.

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8 thoughts on “The Conservative Church’s Response to the Gay Community: A Historical Perspective

  1. Thanks for investing your time in this, Karen. One of my high school student did her senior thesis this spring on homosexuality in the black church. I totally could have used this as a resource for her! You’ve done a masterful job at outlining a very complex history and delineating the various views present. I look forward to further installment!

  2. Very informative. I appreciate articulating this into a developing arc. Could you explain more what you mean when you say Matthew Vines and Justin Lee use more traditional hermeneutical methods, as opposed to “liberal revisionist” methods? I realize this essay is about the conservative church response to gay and lesbian people, but this struck me as dismissive of traditions who take the Bible seriously, but see it differently than evangelicals.

  3. Amy, thanks for reading! Also, I would love to see your student’s report if she were open to sharing it. I know my friends of color have sometimes found it more difficult in their church settings which can be more conservative and uncomfortable about discussing sexuality.

    Hi Steve, in terms of hermeneutics, I was especially referring to James Brownson and Robert Song. Matthew Vines is not a biblical scholar, but has given a good popular rendition of some of the scholarship out there. My series is seeking to be sensitive to the sensibilities of an evangelical audience, and so I am using language that would be understood by that demographic. Certainly there are traditions outside of evangelicalism that value a close reading of Scripture. In the conservative evangelical world there are certain rules and expectations about how to interpret the Bible. Anything outside that is deemed “revisionist.” Brownson and Song know the interpretive culture of evangelicalism and take pains to stress their high regard of Scripture–that is what makes them compelling and useful for conversation with those who hold traditionalist views on same-sex relationships. Discussing what those hermeneutical rules and their differences from “revisionist” methods would require a whole other post. Anyway, thanks for reading!

    • Hey Richard, thanks for stopping by. When you say you are “finished with them” do you mean the conservative church or gay people? Would love to hear more if you are open to it.

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