Q & R: I’m not in your camp … on homosexuality

Here’s the Q:

How are you? In serious gentleness and fairness, let me say at the start, I’m not in your camp. I’m also not going to be venomous in my attacks…
[I am involved] with a ministry to the gays and lesbians; led by a couple of brothers who have found victory in Christ over their own battle with homosexuality. I pray for them regularly. They, indeed, are my heros!
I met one of them the other day and asked “should I quit interceding for you?”. Of course he said “no” and then told me what to pray for. He, with deep shaking tenderness and concern said, “The church is softening its position on homosexuality”. I’ve thought about this deeply and here’s what’s coming to my troubled mind.
Isn’t this the ultimate act of betrayal? A couple of gentle warriors for Christ have come through to victory; and now the very institution that should be backing them up is turning her back on them…..
How can this be? I believe this should make us weep with Jesus and cause us to repent deeply… Troubled and in prayer,

Here’s the R:

First, let me thank you for the tone of your note. Sadly, it’s rare, I think, that folks any one of the many sides in this issue can ask a question or share a story like yours without implying insult and disdain for those “in other camps.” So your gentleness and fairness are already a gift to readers of this blog. Thank you.
I think I should try to do two things in response. First, without delegitimizing your concern in any way, I should try to make it clear that the same compassion you have towards your two brothers motivates many of us to be concerned for the many brothers and sisters in our lives who are gay and have tried all available paths to “victory,” and have concluded that for them, that promise of victory is a false promise that betrays them. In other words, I’m grateful for your compassion, and I’m quite confident that if you knew on a deep level a wider array of gay people, that compassion would force you to be concerned both for those who seem capable of sustained and authentic change (like your two friends) and those who do not.
And then second, I want to validate your concern based on my experience as a pastor and propose a way to be more compassionate to all lgbt people, and not only one segment.
We all come to this issue with many assumptions. Some of those assumptions aren’t even apparent to us. When we surface the assumptions, we can at least discover where our deeper disagreements lie.
Many people share the assumption that their are two (or three) kinds of people: straight and gay (and bisexual). I used to believe this, but my experience as a pastor forced me to change that assumption. Now I believe that inborn human sexuality could be more accurately understood as lying along a continuum.
(This is horribly oversimplified still. And I’m aware that our understanding of sexual identity and orientation is highly contested – not just in religious spheres, but also in the social and biological sciences. I imagine that decades from now, people will look back on all our current understandings as terribly limited and unenlightened. But at the same time, we can only be where we are, doing our best to understand and speak the truth, which is always “the truth as we now see it.” Also, I’m aware that there are a number of studies that provide a range of percentages for where people might like on any continuum of sexual orientation, so the numbers I’m about to propose are obviously only approximations or hunches based on a variety of scientific data. The words “about” and “or so” are important.)
If we picture people lying along a continuum rather than being lumped together in three distinct bins, I think that most of us – say about 80-90% – cluster towards the heterosexual end of the continuum. Then, another 5-10% or so are spread across the middle. Then, another 5-10% or so are clustered closer to the homosexual end.
For many if not most of us in the 80-90%, homosexual attraction rarely or never crosses our mind. We feel ourselves sexually attracted to the opposite sex exclusively, and our affiliations with people of the same sex are consistently non-sexual. For people at the opposite end of the spectrum, the opposite is the case. What we share in common is a deep sense of orientation, and to go against it would feel unnatural, unpleasant, even repulsive. Even if people in these categories could be habituated to tolerate and even derive pleasure from sexual behavior that goes against their orientation, that wouldn’t remove the deeper orientation that they experience as being innate and unchangeable.
Many of those in the middle of the spectrum might be classified as bisexual. Their attractions are not clearly defined in terms of gender; personal attraction is what matters, regardless of gender. (There’s another whole category we might call asexual – who experience little or no clear sexual desire – and they are often ignored or misunderstood in all the polarized debates.)
And then there are people who are naturally among the 90% who have been subjected to sexual and/or emotional abuse of some sort, or who through any number of environmental factors (chemical? parenting? nobody yet knows the mechanisms of such a process, if it exists) feel they have been brought into a state of sexual confusion or disorientation. Some people deny the existence of this category, but in my experience as a pastor, I met people who would say this accurately describes their experience, and I believe them.
My suspicion is that “ex-gay ministries” offer some help in the area of behavior-modification to people in these last two categories – bisexual people and victims of abuse. And perhaps that would describe your two friends. (By the way, people in the strongly homosexual orientation may, at a young age, manifest certain behaviors that molesting adults recognize and steer themselves towards, so just because a gay person experienced abuse as a child doesn’t mean that their orientation was originally heterosexual before the abuse.)
All that’s to say that I think ex-gay ministries, for all their good intentions, do real harm to authentically gay people by making a faulty moral diagnosis of their orientation (which I wrote about under “the authority question” and “the sex question” in A New Kind of Christianity), by raising false hopes about the possibilities of change, and by employing techniques that in the end only intensify their feelings of failure when “victory” either never comes or doesn’t stick. But at the same time, I do not doubt that there are innately heterosexual people whose sexual identity has been damaged, or bisexual people who want to live as heterosexuals, and for them, ex-gay ministries may provide help – even though I think their moral diagnostics (including their way of using the Bible) are faulty. Perhaps one could also add to this group innately gay people who would rather live in lifelong sexual tension than be forced to leave a conservative religious community in whose belonging they find rewards that compensate for their sexual frustration. And perhaps one could also add to this group innately gay people who have married heterosexually and who, for love of spouse and children, feel they have a moral obligation to maintain a heterosexual marriage even though it requires them to go against their natural “hard-wiring,” so to speak.
But I must add an experience I’ve had that would not in any way negate your experience with these two good friends in your ministry, but that deserves to be taken as seriously. I’ve met several people in this category over the years, but let me share one memory … sitting in a fast-food restaurant with a woman whose husband had been an Evangelical pastor for most of their marriage. As she shared her story, I felt as never before the agony of another kind of betrayal no less real than the one your two friends now feel.
Before she met him, her husband knew himself to be gay, and like many good Evangelical Christians, he believed it was sinful and so he struggled against it with all his determination and spiritual fervor. Leaders in his Christian college fellowship counseled him and prayed with him, and helped him achieve what they believed to be “victory” over homosexuality. As a result, a victorious “ex-gay,” he went to seminary to prepare for the pastorate. There he met and married this woman.
The only problem was the victory was only on the level of stopping homosexual behaviors. No matter how he tried to “perform” sexually in their marriage, the wife knew that he wasn’t truly attracted to her as a woman. They had a son, and everything appeared outwardly to be victorious, but inwardly, they were both in deep pain.
I can’t forget her emotion and conviction as she said to me, “Can you imagine what it was like, every day of my marriage for over twenty years, to know that the man I loved was faithful to me in the sense that he didn’t run out and have affairs, but that he found me sexually uninteresting and even, truth be told, repulsive? Believe me, it was horrible beyond words for what it did to me, what it did to him, what it did to our son to grow up in this kind of superficially-functional but deeply-fraudulent marriage.”
Add to this the necessity of keeping up the appearance of a happy Christian pastor’s family … and gradually her husband sank into depression, had to leave the ministry, and eventually, they divorced. As you can imagine, there were tears falling at our table as people ate their fast food around us.
“My life, my potential for a good marriage, was stolen by a religious system that forced my ex-husband, whom I love and respect to this day, and for whom I have nothing but compassion, to deny what he was and pretend he was something he was not. Never forget, as you speak out about this issue, about all the people like me and my son who are unacknowledged casualties of this system.”
Now I should add that I know other stories where marriages like this have worked quite well, including among close friends who I know well enough to know they aren’t just putting up a front. So I can only conclude (I may be wrong, but I’m simply telling you the truth as I now see it) that the men in question were towards the middle of the spectrum to start with, rather than over on the exclusively homosexual side.
So, I wish there were a way for Christian communities to accept and support brothers like the two you work with who wish to reorient sexually, without creating nightmares like the one I learned about that day in the fast-food restaurant. Perhaps the best we can hope for is that some churches and ministries will help people at some points on the continuum, and some will help people at other points on the continuum. It would be nice if each could do so without condemning the others. I don’t think that’s too much to ask.
I want to affirm once more your compassion for the two men you work with. And I hope readers of this blog will also hold them in compassion – and you, as well, as you share their struggle. As I explain in my newest book, Naked Spirituality, the practice of compassion is one of the most important spiritual practices … learning to (as you said) “weep with Jesus” and so feel with God, embracing your two friends, the woman whose story I shared, and everyone wherever they are on this or any continuum, holding them with the tenderness and empathy in which God, who knows every story in intimate detail, holds so profoundly every human being, and every living creature.
So thanks again for sharing your story and your question. I hear it, and I feel it, and I won’t forget it. And I hope you can hear this story as well. May we all keep listening and practicing true compassion, for without compassion there is no true righteousness or holiness.