Exodus International, a longtime leader in the Christian "gay conversion therapy" movement, is closing its doors, having concluded that trying to counsel people out of same-sex attractions doesn’t work and can do grave harm. The group’s president, Alan Chambers, issued a lengthy apology this week at the organization’s final conference.
But the debate within the conservative Christian world over homosexuality is far from over, and it may well get sharper as the politics of gay rights – especially gay marriage – intensifies.
Most of Exodus’s affiliates had already left before Mr. Chambers’s announcement and are expected to keep doing conversion therapy. A new umbrella group is already in place, the Restored Hope Network, which its website says is “dedicated to restoring hope to those broken by sexual and relational sin, especially those impacted by homosexuality.” On Friday and Saturday, the group is having its first annual conference in Oklahoma City.
But some of Exodus’s leaders aren’t going away. They’re planning a new endeavor that they say accepts people as they are – a reflection of changing views, particularly among younger Evangelicals, toward homosexuality and gay rights.
In interviews with the Monitor, two of Exodus’s leaders spoke of their own experiences with same-sex attraction, their abiding religious faith, and how they hope to find common ground in addressing social problems.
“Exodus has been a lightning rod ministry, and it’s been really one side of a debate, a raging debate, on issues related to sexuality,” says Chambers, speaking on the phone from his conference in Irvine, Calif.
“Our desire in the church is to be people of peace and to be known by our ability to be in relationship with and have conversations with all different types of people. And so we want to create opportunities and conferences and spaces where people can come together who have different opinions, and different worldviews, to talk about really complex issues.”
By “church,” he says, he means the “global” Christian church, not any particular denomination. His new, as-yet-unnamed, endeavor will be rooted in a desire to “reduce fear,” he says. The website, still under construction, is ReduceFear.org.
Chambers hopes that people of faith, regardless of sexual orientation, can come together for the common good to combat social ills such as bullying.
"We’ve got to get to a different place in our culture than we are at today, certainly within the church,” he says. “There are gay and lesbian people who are in the church, and there are people who have very different beliefs about that who are in the church.”
But he tries to steer clear of politics and has no position on same-sex marriage, saying it’s a “distraction to the people we minister to.”
Chambers came to Exodus International in 1991 as a 19-year-old college student, and he served as its president for 12 years.
“I think our sexuality is complex, and for me, I do experience same-sex attractions, but most married people I know have some sort of sexual attractions that they put aside,” he says. “They love their spouse and want to be faithful and are called to be faithful.”
Chambers has been married for 16 years, with two children, and has “never been tempted to be unfaithful to my wife,” he says. “We have an amazing Garden of Eden-type relationship.”
On Wednesday, Chambers issued a stunning apology to the gay community for “years of undue suffering and judgment at the hands of the organization and the Church as a whole.” Then, Exodus International announced it was closing its doors, after 37 years as an umbrella organization over ministries that engage in Christian “conversion therapy.” He no longer believes it's possible to change someone’s sexual orientation through therapy and regrets the harm he has seen it do to some people, including drug abuse and suicide.
In 2009, the American Psychological Association condemned the practice of conversion therapy. In January, California became the first state to ban its practice on minors.
Still, many social conservatives and religious faiths believe it is possible to be healed of same-sex attractions.
"The ex-gay movement has nothing to apologize for,” said Peter Sprigg of the Family Research Council in a statement to the Monitor. “The message that 'change is possible' is a modest one. It does not mean that change is easy, nor that change is mandatory. But to apologize for saying 'change is possible' is to deny both human freedom and the transforming power of the gospel of Christ."
Tony Moore, a member of Exodus’s board, says he was helped when he came to the organization 13 years ago as a long-married man with children who had never told anyone about his childhood sexual abuse or continuing same-sex attractions.
“There was this cathartic release from having a group of people I could talk to without worrying whether they would accept me or reject me,” says Mr. Moore, speaking by phone from the Exodus conference in California. Today, he is still more attracted to men than to women, but “I find myself most attracted to my wife.”
Moore, a pastor at a nondenominational Christian church in Greenville, S.C., plans to be involved in Chambers’s new organization.
“Obviously it’s not all worked out yet, but I think the primary thing that we’re looking to do is create a place for conversation between people of all different sides and views – bring them to a common table so that we can break down the animosity between the groups,” he says.
“This issue is so polarizing in and out of the church and in society,” he says. “We want to do what we can to bring all the groups together, because we want people to be aware that there are gay people in their families and churches and neighborhoods and schools, and they deserve the same respect that they give everybody else, instead of seeing them as second-class.”
“We think that Jesus has made a way for all of us to have a relationship with God that doesn’t leave anybody out,” he says.