With more states endorsing gay marriage, and Exodus, the major ex-gay ministry re-thinking ex-gay therapy, this topic is on evangelicals’ minds. One of the best books I’ve read on the topic was a book by Tanya Erzen, an atheist, reporting on her one year of being embedded in a men’s ex-gay ministry outside of San Francisco.
Having been a part of ex-gay ministries, I was fascinated by her history and analysis. Although there were a few points I disagreed with her about, I found her analysis mostly spot on.
She said that the gay men who arrived for their one year residential program found great relief in being able to say out loud to their new church community that they were homosexually oriented, and working on becoming heterosexual. It was as relieving and hopeful to them as “coming out” is to a gay person who has been pretending they are not gay.
She outlined the psychological underpinnings of the program: Nicolosi’s and Moberly’s theory that the men had not bonded with their fathers at birth, felt rejected at a foundational level, and needed re-fathering. She said the program offered acceptance of homosexual feelings as symptomatic of the loss and need for father-bonding, and the program offered a close family feeling.
But ultimately Erzen said that of the 12 or so men that joined the program that year, only two to four maintained a somewhat heterosexual life after leaving the program.
She said the ex-gay ministries feel used by the larger evangelical church: that the evangelical church needs the ex-gay ministries to prove that gays can switch to straight and therefore the church can legitimately reject homosexuals from serving as ministers or holding office, and can refuse gay marriage ceremonies. But the church doesn’t really want to embrace the theology that ex-gay ministries bring with them: that people slowly heal, that homosexual feelings are part of a long list of temptations that we all have as we sit in the pews at church. The ex-gay men’s ministries kept saying, “we need heterosexual men to be friends and mentors to these ex-gay men.” And the larger evangelical church kept saying, “Yuck! Not us!” Erzen’s observation was that the larger evangelical church wanted to remain phobic both to gays and ex-gays.
The ex-gay ministries needed the larger evangelical church, and the larger evangelical church needed the ex-gay ministries, but their mutual communication was distant and disjointed.
Many evangelicals remain locked into a defensive position about homosexuality, valiantly making sure their state does not slide into the camp of being pro-gay marriage. And so we have the endless stereotype of the shrill evangelical church lady pronouncing anathema upon the evil society that welcomes gays. This is the stereotype that most young evangelicals are fleeing.
An Assembly of God pastor (in his 60s) pointed out to me last week that the apostle Paul said our job is not to purify the world (or else we would have to leave the world), our job is to purify the congregation.
And why are evangelicals so upset about gays? A generation ago the church was upset about sex before marriage. Two generations ago the church was upset about divorce and remarriage.
My question: Does the church have a realistic way to support young people to be celibate until marriage? Does the church have a realistic way to support couples who are struggling such that they don’t get divorced? The answer in my mind is “No!” We are still expecting young people to go to college until 22 years old, then establish a career path and then get married at 25, all as virgins. Not realistic. Statistics indicate that only one per cent of the population is virgin at 25 years old, and those that are virgins are not the mentally healthy ones, able to withstand stress.
Church membership in today’s evangelical churches is a haphazard affair, that lasts about three years (according to a local pastor) before the member moves on to another better church; not the kind of relationship that engenders strong mentoring relationships that can mitigate divorce. Evangelical churches are not constructed in such a way that they can have any major impact on a person’s daily life, especially not a person’s sex life.
I was counseling a couple this past week who had an older couple from their Pentecostal church come into their home and mentor them for a day. They felt so accepted (not judged) that their marriage immediately improved. They felt like they were walking on air. This happens about once every 15 years in my counseling experience.
Does the church realistically support young people to be celibate until age 25? No, and I believe this accounts for 80% of young people leaving the church. Does the church realistically support couples so that they don’t divorce? No, and I believe this accounts for 10% of membership loss in evangelical churches. With 25% of evangelical pastors currently having an affair with a church member, how can they support couples considering divorce? It is hypocritical for the evangelical church to tell the state to deny marriage rights to gays, while ignoring their own heterosexual members’ behavior that the church believes is sinful.
Does the church support ex-gays? No, and they need to re-examine their theology such that they come up with something that reflects more of Christ in their attitudes toward gay people.
My conclusion: The evangelical church needs to focus on supporting and mentoring their members and stop making judgmental statements on the six o’clock news.