Exodus International has been getting a fair bit of media attention lately. As part of the major rebranding exercise we predicted in November last year, Exodus President Alan Chambers has gone far and wide with his message that the group, known as the foremost proponent of the idea that homosexuals can change, no longer puts stock in the idea of a “gay cure.”
Last week, The Atlantic interviewed Chambers under the headline “Sexual Healing: Evangelicals Update Their Message to Gays.” Then, earlier this week, an AP story reported that Exodus was backing away from reparative therapy:
The president of the country’s best-known Christian ministry dedicated to helping people repress same-sex attraction through prayer is trying to distance the group from the idea that gay people’s sexual orientation can be permanently changed or “cured.”
That’s a significant shift for Exodus International, the 36-year-old Orlando-based group that boasts 260 member ministries around the U.S. and world. For decades, it has offered to help conflicted Christians rid themselves of unwanted homosexual inclinations through counseling and prayer, infuriating gay rights activists in the process.
Ex-Gay Watch has been reporting these developments since late last year, and it’s clear that there are changes. As early as September 2011, Exodus purged its online bookstore of materials from NARTH, the main organization promoting the “science” of reparative therapy.
In January, Chambers took the unprecedented step of attending a conference of the Gay Christian Network, where he appeared to affirm LGBT Christians as fellow believers, and stated:
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.
More recently, Exodus board member Dennis Jernigan stoked the fires of homophobia in Jamaica, where homosexuality is illegal — but Exodus immediately decried the criminalization of homosexuality, saying said it would “stand with the LGBT community both in spirit, and when necessary, legally and physically, when violence rears it’s head in Uganda, Jamaica or anywhere else in the world.” Jernigan offered his resignation, and Exodus accepted it.
This is a major improvement on how Exodus dealt with an almost identical situation in 2009, when it took 15 months to respond to board member Don Schmierer’s involvement in an anti-gay conference in Uganda. (See the facts about Uganda’s notorious anti-gay bill here.)
There is no doubt that Exodus’s message is changing. It is rebranding, whether for cynical reasons (desperate financial times) or because of a change of heart.
But one thing we have consistently said at Ex-Gay Watch is that we look for actions to support the talk. Exodus has a history of doublespeak, to the point where a handful of statements is not enough. We cannot — and should not — simply take Exodus and Alan Chambers at their word.
Exodus and Gay Christians
Even with the rebranding, we still hear vagueness and doubletalk in what Exodus says about the thorny issue of gay Christians. Are gay Christians “saved”? Are LGBT persons “brothers and sisters in Christ”? Is there such a thing as a gay Christian? Here’s what Chambers told GCN leader Justin Lee in January:
I honestly trust [GCN leader Justin Lee], and I honestly like him, and I honestly believe that he loves Jesus and that we are brothers in Christ and that we will spend eternity together … and because of that, the thing that brought me here first and foremost is: We’re Christians, all of us. We may have diverging viewpoints … but the thing that brings us together, the thing that causes us to even want to have this dialogue, or need to have this dialogue, is the fact that we all love Jesus. We all serve him. We serve the very same God and believe very different things.
Yet in a radio interview the day before, he played directly into his host’s assumptions that there was no such thing as a gay Christian; that gay men and women “don’t know the Lord” and were “still in darkness.”
While he told his gay audience they all loved and served the same God, he later backtracked when confronted by his own anti-gay constituents:
As an adoptive father, my children are irrevocably mine. They may disown me, stop talking to me and sin against me, but that does not change the fact that they are mine and always will be. I believe the same is true of God with His adopted children.
Thus, I believe that people who sin (all of us) can be Christian if they have accepted that free gift of salvation. If someone ever knew Christ, they still do.
He may believe the common evangelical doctrine of eternal security, or “once saved always saved,” but clearly his message to his own crowd was that he wasn’t affirming anyone’s Christian faith or love for Jesus. Chambers has not been honest. (And not for the first time.)
Change Is Possible?
The “99.9%” quote went viral. Here it is again:
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.
It was widely interpreted as “Exodus says gays can’t change.” Yet self-described post-gay Peter Ould said commentators had missed the point:
[Blog Episcopal Cafe] have taken that to mean that Chambers is saying that no-one ever sees a shift in their orientation, but that is not what Chambers actually means. Rather he is saying that most of the people who attend an Exodus affiliate programme do not come out “100% straight”. That however is not the same as saying that nobody ever sees any change in their sexual attractions and identity.
Alan Chambers didn’t disagree — on the contrary, he commented to praise Ould’s post and thank him for the encouragement. Chambers later confirmed this interpretation in his own reflection on the GCN conference:
I have met a lot of people who have experienced SSA and yet only know one or two women who say that they no longer experience any SSA whatsoever. I cannot speak for others who say that temptation or attraction don’t equal orientation.
There’s an obvious disconnect between how the statements have been interpreted publicly and how Chambers has interpreted them for himself and his audience. By limiting the 99.9% figure to complete change, he grants Exodus a lot of wiggle room on exactly how gays can change. The bottom line is that while most people outside Exodus’s constituency view orientation as a basic, unalterable fact, Chambers does not really acknowledge orientation. There is no “being gay.” There are just “same-sex attractions,” which can be changed and moved around, just rarely totally eliminated.
Exodus must acknowledge that, when different assumptions are in play, what Exodus’s adherents hear and what the rest of the world hears are not the same. Chambers knows this, but he has yet to acknowledge it and start speaking plainly. On the contrary, Exodus has long exploited this divide, and its rhetoric has always been, and continues to be in some ways, vague.
We are seeing signs of change, but words are never enough. With Exodus, an organization for whom words have been its greatest weapon, we expect more than words — we look forward to seeing those words proved consistently with firm actions, and that is an outcome only time will deliver.