On August 28th, I attended an Exodus International ministry equipping event at West Shore Evangelical Free Church in Mechanicsburg, PA. The equipping event was meant to teach religious leaders, educators, counselors, and other figures how to respond to people dealing with "unwanted same-sex attraction." The event comes before Exodus International's next Love Won Out conference, scheduled for the same location on September 22nd.
Approximately eighty people were in attendance, completely filling the seminar room. Along the side of the room was an Exodus book table selling ex-gay literature such as Alan Chambers' Leaving Homosexuality and Christopher Yuan's Out of a Far Country. Christian music videos played on projection screens as I walked into the conference.
The day's schedule featured talks by Exodus executive director Alan Chambers, Exodus executive vice president Jeff Buchanan, and Christian speakers Julie Rodgers and Christopher Yuan. Chambers welcomed attendees to the event, providing some background on Exodus International. Exodus, he said, was founded in October 1976 by 63 men and women, many of whom were experiencing "same-sex attraction" (henceforth abbreviated as SSA). Such people were "products of the sexual revolution," which allowed them to talk about issues of sexuality openly. Chambers claimed that he had been trying to mobilize Exodus and its supporters to reach out to others on the issue of SSA.
After the benediction, Jeff Buchanan delivered a talk entitled "Demystifying the Discipleship Process." He stressed that Exodus allegedly never claimed to have a cure for homosexuality or for "fallen humanity," claiming that Exodus focuses on care for individuals. Buchanan reminded listeners that they were not going to get their charges to overcome SSA, but rather Jesus would. Buchanan said that while someone's sexual orientation can change, such is not the goal of Exodus. Everyone is oriented toward sin, he claimed, and Exodus was not intended to reorient people away from sin. Homosexuality was thus identified as another form of sin that some believers wrestled with. "The opposite of homosexuality is not heterosexuality; it is holiness," he asserted, a refrain I would hear from several speakers throughout the event.
Throughout Buchanan's talk, I was struck by how noncommittal his language was and how vaguely "change" was defined. Only Christ can transform people in every aspect of their lives, he argued, and Exodus was seeking transformation of the whole person. Buchanan emphasized that Exodus doesn't want to communicate probable or guaranteed change, adding that change does not have to be absolute to be authentic.
Buchanan defined Exodus' framework for sexuality in terms of attractions, orientation, behavior, and identity. While same-sex attraction might not be of God's design, feeling such attractions is not a sin in and of itself, he insisted. Rather, acting on SSA is the sin. Having SSA is not the same thing as being gay, he argued.
Identity and labels, he told the audience, are prevalent issues in today's culture, adding to the "confusion" surrounding sexuality. If a young person claims to be gay, Buchanan encouraged listeners to find out if the individual was embracing a gay identity, or merely experiencing SSA. When someone takes on a "gay" label, they allegedly take on a belief system and culture, he warned. In making this assumption, Buchanan seemed to assume that all gays embrace the same culture, attitudes, and practices, which simply isn't true. Identity, Buchanan argued, should reflect one's relationship with God. Thus, identity gets "confused" when we misunderstand Christ and the Gospel. Throughout the talk, Buchanan seemed to suggest that calling oneself gay is a false identity, an idol that people use to define themselves instead of God.
"The first step in the cycle of temptation is the questioning of your identity. Temptation begins with the illusion about the self, a skewed vision of who you are. The enemy wants you to see your current circumstance rather than the Gospel as the eternal statement of who you are. For instance, I don't see myself equal to my gender, therefore I will find a God who will save me. When we don't understand our identity in Christ, when we don't understand who he had made us to be, how he has saved us, a clear understanding of the Gospel, when we lose focus of that ... then that really is the first step to temptation, because what we start looking for is another God to worship. We are created to worship, and we're always going to be turning to something to workship, so whatever it is in our life, whether it's homosexuality, whether it's food, alcohol, whether it's gossip, whatever that may be, it is basically--we're living it up and saying, 'God, I don't trust you to intervene in my circumstance. I don't trust you to identify me.' ... That's what the essence of homosexuality is, it is looking to that to define me, to create that sense of connection to my gender, to create that sense of connection to who I am as a whole and as a person."Buchanan took a dim view of queer theology, criticizing non-homophobic interpretations of Romans 1:24-37 and the progressive Christianity of Jay Bakker, whose position on grace he called "convoluted." He reserved particular disdain for what he called "moralistic therapeutic deism," a theology in which God is not deeply involved in one's journey, and life is about feeling good about oneself and being happy. He listed the symptoms of so-called spiritual immaturity, including being easily offended, full of pride, independent of Christ and the church, undisciplined, "bound in lust," undisciplined, and prone to compromises. Buchanan contrasted these to the vague markers of spiritual maturity, which included obedience, forgiveness, walking in faith, and remembering Christ's words.
Buchanan concluded his talk with reflection on pain, contrasting pain that fosters growth with pain that is entangled in destructive behaviors. He reminded listeners that the Christian path he advocated would bring pain, but might not necessarily eliminate one's SSA. Still, believers need to obey the Gospel without putting conditions upon their relationship with Christ.
"We need to teach a theology of suffering, develop an 'even if' commitment ... One of the greatest breakthroughs I had in my life was when I finally got to the point of saying, 'Jesus, I am going to follow you even if you never take away these same-sex attractions in my life. I'm going to be obedient and I'm going to follow you regardless' ... It was at that point that I laid down my idol of healing, that there was finally room for Christ to come and completely infiltrate my entire life ... Understanding that the cross equals pain, that there is suffering within that ... We can't run away from the pain and the difficulty in the process, but that's why we need community. We need men and women walking alongside us to help us ... walk through that pain and that suffering."Of course there's going to be pain on this path you're advocating, I thought. It's painful to constantly suppress who you are inside. It's painful to be at war with one's sexuality. Because that's what you're really asking of LGBTQ people.
In short, Buchanan's speech at the Exodus equipping event was vague when it came to what "change" entailed, celebrating Christ's power to "change" people but offering no promises of a gay "cure." He came across as disdainful of progressive Christianity and affirmations of LGBTQ identity, criticizing them as "confused" and "convoluted." Homosexuality was presented as antithetical to faith, as a sin to struggle against throughout the Christian journey. I silently wondered how the LGBTQ people in the audience felt about this, and how much suffering this message would cause when the counselors, educators, and pastors in the audience preached it to others.
Stay tuned for part II.