After Curing Homosexuality Failed: A Gospel Vision for Gay People
The following is a post from our recent podcast guest, Greg Johnson, PhD. This essay is adapted from his book, "Still Time to Care: What We Can Learn from the Church’s Failed Attempt to Cure Homosexuality" (Zondervan, 2021).
It was Fall of 1997 inside the Doctors' Office Building at Saint Louis University Hospital. My hands trembled as I filled out the medical questionnaire to see a new doctor. I had gotten to the question about my sexual orientation. There were three boxes. Heterosexual. Homosexual. Bisexual.
I struggled with how to answer the question. After staring at the boxes for thirty minutes, I checked the heterosexual box. I was being a good ex-gay. I was claiming my new reality.
But it didn’t sit well with me. Who was I kidding? Had I just lied to my doctor? Did Jesus really want me lying to my doctor? Was that how Jesus would make me straight? Was this faith, or was it deception? Was I living a lie?
I remember how awkward I felt during those years whenever I used the term “ex-gay.” What did gay even mean? And how was I an ex? Did gay speak of a promiscuous lifestyle of gay sex? I was a virgin. Did gay speak to my sexual orientation? Because that had never changed after I began following Jesus. I was still at the top of the Kinsey scale that researchers since the 1940s have used to assess sexual orientation.
Exodus & the Paradigm of Cure
Alan Medinger, the first executive director of Exodus International, the umbrella organization representing hundreds of ministries promising sexual orientation change, described becoming an ex-gay as “a change in self-perception in which the individual no longer identifies him- or herself as homosexual.”
It was all about identity. This was the first step in conversion therapy.
Exodus International was founded in 1976; founder Frank Worthen explained, “When we started Exodus the premise was that God could change you from gay to straight.”
The methods varied. There were deliverance ministries that prayed away the demons. There were fairly normal groups that focused on prayer and accountability, exploring what had caused one's homosexuality in order to cure it. Others dove deep into reparative therapy. Frank Worthen promised a 70 percent success rate early on. By the 1990s, Jeffrey Satinover was still claiming a 50 percent success rate—and up to 100 percent in highly motivated clients.
But the reality was that we were seeing no such thing.
In January 2012, Alan Chambers, the last president of Exodus International, came clean about the numbers. “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.” The following year, Exodus closed. The path to curing homosexuality had failed.
But looking back further, before the ex-gay movement, before the culture war between the gays and the Christians, our spiritual forefathers offered a better paradigm.
An Older Paradigm: Not Cure, But Care
I’ve always wondered whether celibate gay priest Henri Nouwen had his own homosexuality in mind when he spoke of the difference between cure and care. “Often we are not able to cure,” he insisted, “but we are always able to care.”
Care certainly meant being honest about the reality of our fallen sexual orientation. Evangelical Anglican John Stott in 1982 described a homosexual orientation as part of a person's “being,” an aspect of their “identity … [and] constitution.” The fall has bent us all, even bent us all sexually.C. S. Lewis in 1954 could write to Sheldon Vanauken of a “pious male homosexual” with no apparent contradiction. Lewis’s own best friend Arthur Greeves was gay. A pseudonymous 1970 book by InterVarsity Press rumored to have been written by Stott—it was not—described the challenge of being both gay and a committed follower of Jesus. Written by a young gay Anglican who had never acted on his homosexuality, The Returns of Love: Letters of a Christian Homosexual offered a sympathetic introduction to the experience of people few had ever realized were sitting next to them in the pew.
The apologist Francis Schaeffer, in a 1968 letter to a European pastor, lamented the way that churches had marginalized gay members who were living lives of Christian obedience. The pastor had seen six gay people commit suicide. Schaeffer replied, “The homophile tends to be pushed out of human life (and especially orthodox church life) even if he does not practice homosexuality.” Schaeffer added, “This, I believe, is both cruel and wrong.”
A 1980 gathering of Anglican evangelicals convened by Stott made a public confession of their sins against gay people. “We repent of the crippling ‘homophobia’ … which has coloured the attitudes toward homosexual people of all too many of us, and call our fellow Christians to similar repentance.”
Before the ex-gay movement, key evangelical leaders viewed homosexual temptation as not that different from heterosexual temptation. In 1975, Billy Graham was asked if he would support the ordination of “homosexuals.” As reported in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Graham replied that they “should be considered on individual merit … turning away from their sins, receiving Christ, offering themselves to Christ and the ministry after repentance, and obtaining the proper training for the job.” That was the same standard Graham set for straight people.
A Positive Gospel Vision for Gay PeopleC. S. Lewis wrote, “In homosexuality as in every other tribulation, [the works of God] can be made manifest… every disability conceals a vocation, if only we find it, which would ‘turn the necessity to glorious gain.’” He 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.
Certainly a gospel vision involves repenting of homoerotic lust and sins—just like it involves repenting of heteroerotic lusts and sins. For many of us, myself included, it has involved a call to celibacy. But above all, it is a vision of new life in Jesus.
Jesus, who washes us and makes us clean. Jesus, who brings us into God’s family. Jesus, who clothes us in his righteousness. 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. In him, we find our true humanness because we were made for God. This is not Jesus as a means to an end of heterosexual functioning.
All of these Christian leaders held to the historical understanding of the biblical sexual ethic. But they approached gay people from a posture of humility.
Stott—himself celibate and at times subject of speculation about his orientation—explained, “At the heart of the human condition is a deep and natural hunger for mutual love, a search for identity and a longing for completeness. If gay people cannot find these things in the local ‘church family,’ we have no business to go on using that expression.”
A Vision of Double Repentance
Richard Lovelace, professor of church history at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and a conservative Presbyterian churchman, summarized much of this neo-evangelical ethos in a 1978 book on homosexuality.
The book came with hearty endorsements by Christianity Today’s Kenneth Kantzer, by Elisabeth Elliot, by Chuck Colson, and by neo-evangelical founding fathers Harold Ockenga and Carl F. H. Henry. Lovelace’s words in Homosexuality and the Church might seem radical in today’s tribal cultural climate, but in the 1970s, they represented a transatlantic neo-evangelical vision. In words John Stott would later quote, Lovelace laid out the gospel challenge.
“There is another approach to homosexuality which would be healthier both for the church and for gay believers, and which could be a very significant witness to the world. This approach requires a double repentance, a repentance both for the church and for its gay membership. First, it would require professing Christians who are gay to have the courage both to avow [acknowledge] their orientation openly and to obey the Bible’s clear injunction to turn away from the active homosexual life-style. . . .
Second, it would require the church to accept, honor, and nurture nonpracticing gay believers in its membership, and ordain these to positions of leadership for ministry.
The church’s sponsorship of openly avowed but repentant homosexuals in leadership positions would be a profound witness to the world concerning the power of the Gospel to free the church from homophobia and the homosexual from guilt and bondage.”
This was the Christian vision of Lovelace and Henry, Ockenga and Elliot, Kantzer and Colson, Lewis and Graham, Schaeffer and Stott, and a young gay evangelical Anglican who felt too afraid to use his own name, even though he was still a virgin. In this positive gospel vision for gay people and the church, we see a focus not on curing homosexuality but on caring for people. This present age is a time not for cure, but for care.
Only the gospel can open up the humility for a double repentance.
The world is convinced that Christians hate gay people. The next generation is already leaving the faith because they've seen their parents' and grandparents’ adversarial posture toward gay people and find it ugly. They haven’t seen the costly obedience of gay people telling them, “Jesus is worth it!”
You can change that. The world is saying Christians hate gay people. Your children and grandchildren need to see you prove them wrong. The path forward is not a new sexual ethic. It is a new love. A new repentance. Because Jesus loves gay people.
Hear more from Greg Johnson in our recent podcast episode.
Posted by Greg Johnson
Greg Johnson, PhD is Lead Pastor of Memorial Presbyterian Church in St. Louis. This essay is adapted from his recent book Still Time to Care: What We Can Learn from the Church’s Failed Attempt to Cure Homosexuality (Zondervan, 2021).