“You know, Mike, I used to be gay,” I said.
Mike stopped moving his paintbrush as the words fell clumsily from my mouth. He was painting the St. Louis apartment I called home in the summer of 1997 as I began working toward my PhD in historical theology.
He’d asked me about my schooling, and we got to talking about faith. Mike had explained to me how he felt he could never go to church because he was gay.
“I know they say that’s not supposed to happen,” I went on, after dropping the bombshell. “But that’s my story.” Mike stared at me with interest as he set the paint can down, gently balancing his brush on its edge.
Looking back on this encounter, I can see that it had all the trappings of what became known as the ex-gay movement, of which I was once an eager proponent. Most notable is my use of the ex-gay script: “I used to be gay.” The phrase implied that I wasn’t gay anymore. I had a testimony, a story to tell about leaving homosexuality behind.
To be clear, my sexual attractions at that moment were drawn as exclusively to other men as ever. I was still at the top of the Kinsey scale that researchers since the 1940s have used to classify sexual orientation. What made me ex-gay was that I used the ex-gay script. I was trying to convince myself that I was a straight man with a disease—a curable one—called homosexuality. A condition that was being healed.
My terminological maneuver was an integral component of conversion therapy. Alan Medinger, the first executive director of Exodus International, described it as “a change in self-perception in which the individual no longer identifies him- or herself as homosexual.” It was all about identity. The testimony made the man. And, within my ex-gay framework, I wasn’t lying; I was claiming my new reality.
I was an ex-gay.
The emergence of Exodus International in 1976 had set evangelicals on a hopeful path toward curing homosexuality. Founder Frank Worthen explained, “When we started Exodus, the premise was that God could change you from gay to straight.” What followed was a decades-long experiment on hundreds of thousands of human test subjects. The movement collapsed after Exodus president Alan Chambers’s 2012 statement that more than 99 percent of Exodus clients had not experienced a change in their sexual orientation.
Although the paradigm of cure failed, it still walks undead among us, as some within major denominations try to institutionalize its approach. Recent debates among conservative Anglicans and Presbyterians over whether someone can claim a “gay identity” are only the latest round of similar disputes that have echoed in church corridors for years. After all, renouncing a homosexual self-perception was an essential first step in conversion therapy.
One effect of this approach was that it mandated that non-straight believers hide behind a mask, pretending to be anything but gay. It was part of the reparative process.
But this theological innovation was a relatively recent development. Before there was an ex-gay paradigm of cure, there was an older orthodoxy that included a Christian paradigm of caring for believers who aren’t straight.
Evangelical leaders, including John Stott, helped lay a foundation for a pastoral paradigm of care. Stott—the theologian and writer labeled the “Protestant Pope” by the BBC—argued that sexual orientation remains a part of one’s constitution. As Stott wrote in Issues Facing Christians Today back in 1982, “In every discussion about homosexuality we must be rigorous in differentiating between this ‘being’ and ‘doing,’ that is, between a person’s identity and activity, sexual preference and sexual practice, constitution and conduct.”
For Stott, a homosexual orientation was part of the believer’s identity—a fallen part, but one that the gospel doesn’t erase so much as it humbles.
This posture runs even further back than Stott. C. S. Lewis spoke in a 1954 letter to Sheldon Vanauken of a “pious male homosexual” with no apparent contradiction. Lewis’s lifelong best friend Arthur Greeves was gay. Lewis called him his “first friend” and made it clear to him that his sexual orientation never would be an issue in their friendship. They vacationed together. The compilation of letters Lewis sent to Greeves, collected under the title They Stand Together, reaches 592 pages.
“Sexual sins are not the only sins,” Stott wrote in Issues, “nor even necessarily the most sinful; pride and hypocrisy are surely worse.”
Five years earlier, many were shocked by Billy Graham’s similar comments in a news conference, some of which were reported in 1975 in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Graham had been asked whether he would support the ordination of gay men to the Christian ministry. Graham had replied that they “should be considered on individual merit” based on certain qualifications. Specifically, the article mentioned “turning away from their sins, receiving Christ, offering themselves to Christ and the ministry after repentance, and obtaining the proper training for the job.”
Lewis asked, “What should the positive life of the homosexual be?” That’s the question any gay person who comes to faith in Jesus will ask.
Too often the answer we hear is simply “No.”
No sex. No dating. No relationships. Often, no leadership roles.
That leaves people like me hearing that we have, as Eve Tushnet explained in a 2012 piece in The American Conservative, a “vocation of No.”
What is a calling of “Yes”? What is the positive Christian vision the gospel gives for gay people?
When I look at the lives and ministries of Lewis, Schaeffer, Graham, and Stott, what stands out most clearly is that they bring a vision of Jesus: Jesus, in his saving power. Jesus, who washes us and makes us clean. Jesus, who brings us into God’s family. Jesus, who covers shame and forgives sin. Jesus, who calls us by name. Jesus, who sees us all the way down and still wants to be in relationship with us. Jesus, who suffers with and for us. Jesus, who challenges us to live for his kingdom. Jesus, who gives new life with all its joy. Jesus, who is that treasure in a field for which we sold everything. Jesus, who is that treasure that can never be taken from us.
This is Jesus, whose inbreaking kingdom sweeps us up into something he is doing in the cosmos, something larger than ourselves. In Christ, we find ourselves in a larger narrative.
This is not Jesus as a means to an end of heterosexual functioning and comfortable family life. This is God himself as the end for which we were made. With this real God, the locus of hope is found not in this life with heterosexuality, but in the coming age, when we shall stand before our Savior.
Without that relationship with a Savior, there is no point in speaking of a biblical sexual ethic, either to straight or gay people. No gay people are going to embrace such an ethic unless they fall in love with Jesus. A heart smitten by grace is not only willing but also eager to follow the one who died for us.