One aspect glossed over in recent media reports about Liverpool Frontline Church and its ex-gay ministry is its roots in an American ministry, LIFE. Here’s how I summarized the issue back in July, for The Guardian‘s Comment is free:
But let’s be clear that concern over the Life connection is not a simple matter of guilt by association. Joanne Highley, a woman who teaches that homosexual orientation is a sin that can be cured by a combination of psychological therapy and prayer, personally visited Frontline multiple times to help establish an ex-gay ministry based explicitly on her teachings and methods.
Oklahoma-born Joanne Highley founded LIFE in New York City with her husband (now deceased), Ron Highley. She continues to run the ministry from her Manhattan offices — and Liverpool Frontline Church continues its ongoing association with LIFE NYC and Joanne Highley, the preacher and teacher who helped them found their own version of LIFE in the UK.
Highley describes herself as a former lesbian who was delivered from her homosexuality through, among other things, having demons cast out of her. Here’s a clip of Highley sharing her own testimony of deliverance, as shown in the 2008 documentary Chasing the Devil: Inside the Ex-Gay Movement:
In all its complaints about how the media has misrepresented its ex-gay ministry, Frontline has yet to address the question why it chose to align so closely with Highley, an obvious extremist. Frontline has failed to explain why it continues to foster such an association. Why, if the church, as it claims, is lovingly supporting gays and lesbians in a way that simply reflects the same traditional beliefs held by millions of orthodox Christians, has it decided to throw in its lot with Highley — and why is it saying nothing about that deeply troubling connection?
Highley and Demons
Watch Joanne Highley as she describes some of her beliefs about homosexuality and Satan:
Here’s what she said:
Why wouldn’t it be reasonable that if people crawl around on the floor of bars and have homosexual sex, that they would pick up demonic power? … We definitely cleanse and bind demonic powers out of females’ uterus cavities, out of genitals and, of course, out of anal canals and out of intestines, out of throats and mouths if there’s been ungodly deposit of semen in those areas. We cleanse with the blood of Jesus and we cast out the demonic powers of lust, lasciviousness, of all sorts of filth, and cleanse the person and cast out demonic powers. That’s the way we do it.
In an email to me earlier this year, having told me how livid she was that her statements had ended up on film, Highley duly confirmed it was exactly what she believed. She added that a woman who “chooses to have an abortion … will be filled with the spirit of death in her uterus.”
She also writes:
Have someone pray over you to break the demonic oppression that keeps you from getting in touch with your emotions and which seems to make resisting [homosexual] sin impossible. As you renounce the homosexual sin that you are practising as evil, the other person can command the demons to leave you so that you can choose a godly response to temptation.
Highley on Homosexuality and Gay Relationships: Perversion, Addiction, Dependency, No Love Involved
Much of the recent media storm centred on Liverpool Frontline Church’s “Homosexuality Fact Sheet” and its unflattering portrayal of gay men and women. It said, for example, that homosexual relationships
are characterised by emotional dependency. An all consuming, unhealthy attachment is made with the other person. The relationship is not based on love but on finding security in another person.
LIFE’s American founder is hardly much more positive about gay orientation and same-sex relationships. For Highley, homosexuality is often a rebellious reaction to abuse:
These feelings against authority inevitably led to the same feelings in regard to the Ultimate Authority, God, who became like it was with the earthly authority, never seen as loving, merciful or forgiving, so a hopeless and angry state of rebellion ensued. It is in this state that they practice homosexuality because it, too, seems like a way to get back, to stand against and resist the abusive parent or authority.
Bizarrely, Highley is actually glad when homosexuality becomes “bitter and destructive,” as it forces gays to try to change:
All of this rebellious activity may feel good for a time but, thank God, it turns bitter and destructive as the demonic forces gain more and more ground in a person’s life.
She describes homosexuality as perverse:
It was refreshing to see in my dictionary which was published in 1967, one meaning of perversion which read: “any of various means of attaining sexual gratification that are widely regarded as being abnormal, especially when practiced habitually and in preference to normal heterosexual intercourse.” Very politically incorrect, but right on the mark with God.
For Highley, there is no love in a gay relationship. She goes so far as to describe a same-sex relationship as sexual abuse:
There is no love in homosexuality. It is sexual abuse because it goes against the spiritual concept of God’s design for sexuality and conspires to hold the person in deception, thinking this is the way he or she was created.
Gay relationships and friendships are worthless:
Homosexuality is not friendship, but an addictive, dependent relationship based on neediness, deception, and unreality. To try to build a friendship without total separation and cleansing of these ungodly aspects is to deceive oneself. … Since homosexuality has nothing good in it, there is nothing to be gained and much to be lost by trying to maintain relationships that were so twisted and unreal that same-sex attractions and unions seemed healthy. Many even believed the lie that homosexuality was the answer and the Bible was the problem!
Being gay is a sexual addiction, she says. (This is a common theme throughout her writings.) Friendships you made with other gay men and women while you were gay are simply of no value, amounting to “idolatry.” The only solution is “total separation” from gay friends and former partners.
Highley: Homosexual Orientation Is Sinful, Can Change
It’s clear in Highley’s writings that being gay in itself is sinful. It’s an addictive disorder, as a pastor essentially confirmed when I first spoke to Frontline about LIFE in 2006 (“inherently disordered” and “a disordering of desires” were phrases he used). Highley is adamant that the desires themselves — what most people would call the orientation — are sinful and must be changed.
While most mainstream Christians, including even those who have traditional views against homosexuality, believe that the orientation remains even if a gay person chooses to be celibate, Highley believes such a view is a compromise. “Total freedom” is both possible and necessary:
Among Christian ministries that are working to help people who are ensnared in the addiction of homosexuality, there has developed a wide divergence of teaching in regard to being set free completely. By completely, we mean a person can be set free from the activity and the evil desires of this sin. Then that person would be without any homosexual manifestations and totally in touch with his or her created design of heterosexuality. This is the will of God and it is entirely possible.
Some people would argue that this is not possible because we will always sin as long as we are in the flesh. But we would present another view of this question. We believe homosexuality is more than sin–it is also a dysfunction of a person’s sexuality. Every person is created heterosexual–that is who we are in truth. In homosexuality there is deception and unreality about sexuality and the created design of God which is heterosexual has been covered by internalized emotions and ungodly reactions to pain. Those emotions and ungodly reactions will come off as the person works to see what they are, renounce them and have them prayed off by a godly counselor or friend. So, we agree we will always sin as long as we are in this flesh, but it does not have to be addictive, idolatrous, deceptive and unreal levels of evil desires that stand against God’s truth. We can be totally free of homosexuality and its confusion, torment and death.
Why Would Anyone Associate with Such an Extremist?
Frontline has peddled a much softer line to the media and the general public. Asked by The Guardian what its views were on homosexuality, Senior Pastor Nic Harding said it was a fringe issue and declined to eleborate. In my own emails with the church’s PR officer, Frontline denied it taught some of the more extreme teachings I highlighted.
So why have any association with LIFE at all? Joanne Highley says the homosexual orientation in and of itself is sinful. She says gays can and should change. She describes same-sex relationships as idolatrous, perverse, dependent, addictive and without love. Homosexuality comes with “confusion, torment and death.” She rejoices when being gay leads to “bitterness and destruction.” She boldly claims it can be cured by a combination of prayer, counselling, deliverance from demons and obedience to God.
Liverpool Frontline Church heard of her ministry and invited her to visit multiple times to help them establish a ministry of their own, under the LIFE name. Why?
LIFE Ministry: Public and Private
Joanne Highley said something very revealing to me by email. When she was filmed talking about exorcism, she believed the videos would only be seen by Frank Worthen, the founder of Exodus flagship ministry Love in Action. “We did not even try to look like we would if we were being filmed for public display,” she wrote. “I would not have spoken as I did if I had known that this libelous video would be shown every year for 25 years!”
She then confirmed that she still believes and teaches exactly what she said on camera two decades ago.
Why the disconnect between what she teaches in private and what she is prepared to say publicly? And how much of that reluctance to publicly own its beliefs and practices is reflected in Frontline Church’s response to criticisms, which has done nothing to address its clear and formative relationship to such an extremely homophobic organization?