Very few people who are engaged in conversations about sexuality and faith are unaware of the history of the Exodus International. The organization was an interdenominational non-profit that facilitated a network of groups and other organizations which worked to "help" people change their sexual orientation to heterosexuality (or, at least, to limit their "homosexual desires"). While founded nearly 40 years ago, the umbrella organization closed it's doors in the summer of 2013 under the leadership of Alan Chambers.
At that time, Chambers apologized for the damage Exodus had done to so many people. While maintaining that much good had been done in the organization, he admitted that they had also brought a great deal of suffering. Affirming that he still held "to a biblical view that the original intent for sexuality was designed for heterosexual marriage", he called for an end to the culture wars that characterized engagement on these issues. While many applauded the closure of Exodus and acknowledged Chambers apology, for many others it was not enough. Further, as many expressions of the network continued to offer forms of "therapy" that they believed could "convert" people to heterosexuality, it was realized that this victory was only one small step in a much longer journey.
Last month, Alan Chambers wrote a new a book, with his wife Leslie, about their own journey, entitled, "My Exodus: From Fear to Grace" (Zondervan, September 29, 2015). While I have not yet read the book (though a complimentary copy is being sent to me), I reached out to Alan and Leslie, which resulted in the interviews with each of them below. I have also provide some helpful reviews and feedback from others I trust deeply at the end of the article.
Jamie Arpin-Ricci: Why was it important for you write this book? Who do you hope will most benefit from reading it?
Alan Chambers: Admittedly, the book was important for me and for my family. Writing and reading and editing my own thoughts uncovered lingering belief systems, crystalized new themes, and honestly was quite cathartic. My editor, Nicci Jordan Hubert, pushed buttons I didn't know existed. For years, as a Christian I believed the best of God was his desire and ability to change our behavior. Today I see the best of God is the astounding way he loves us. This book is all about that love. I hope all kinds of people benefit. I hope it brings a measure of comfort to some who have been hurt or marginalized. I hope those who feel far from God will realize nothing can separate us from him. I hope it inspires people looking for ways to love better. And for those who pass out condemnation, I hope they see the peace repentance brings. I hope people will be encouraged and treat others with kindness.
JAR: When it comes to questions & theology of sexuality, Christians (especially those who are employed as pastors, leaders, etc.) often fear admitting or even exploring different understandings for fear of being rejected or fired. What fears or uncertainties kept you from addressing these issues as you are now doing it? And what would you say to critics who say you are now simply trying to "cash in" that history?
AC: Fear of rejection was my earliest fear- I worried I'd be rejected by my family, by my community, by my church, by THE Church. And I was afraid God would reject me. No one wants to endure the loss of status and comfort or to be on the receiving end of ridicule. The freedom to move about came as I realized that being rejected by God was impossible due to his loving nature. The reality of human rejection is still present, but I no longer fear it. I've faced it - head on - and it didn't kill me.
As for cashing in, it's not been about money for me. Not during my time at Exodus and not now. It's about sharing the truth of our story. If it was all about the cash, there are plenty of things I'd say that I'm not saying now and plenty of things I've said that I'd omit.
JAR: In questions of sexuality, there is often the assumption of "two sides" - those for and those against. How can the church more accurately and responsibly engage these questions? Can and should both "sides" do so together? If so, how?
AC: The "for and against" mentality goes way back - all the way to the Garden of Eden and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. It was the one place God didn't want us to go but we did. He knew something about that fruit. He knew it brought separation and death. He wanted us to choose life. If all we do is fight for it or against it - whatever it may be - we lose and the good news of the gospel is hindered.
I believe it's time to abandon our compulsive declarations, to throw away the picket signs that pronounce that you are evil and I am good. Reading all you can, studying, praying, and deciding for yourself what you believe is beneficial. At the same time, let's purpose to invest in a diversity of people - to invite them to sit with us at the dinner table or in our pews on Sunday morning. Safety, peace, and rest are palpable in these types of settings. Both sides can come together and I believe the Church should be working hardest to make this a reality. Also, I hope those on the two opposing sides of this debate will realize there are so many people somewhere in the middle of this continuum who need to be welcomed into the conversation, as well.
JAR: When people hear your story, many feel uncertain, nervous, even cautious. Both "sides" want to know what has changed? How do you answer those concerns? What has changed?
AC: I realize I disappoint people who are seeking a definitive declaration of "for or against". I am sorry. That won't change in the foreseeable future.
Honestly, I have changed so I don't mind people treating me with caution. It's honest, but I do hope to dispel residual fear and to build trust. The greatest change in me has been in the area of anxiety and fear. I've come to fully own and embrace the beauty of life and the messiness of not having all the answers. I like my story. I don't know it all and won't know it all, but peace and rest are mine. I walked away from the office of "expert" two years ago. That doesn't mean I have stopped forming opinions, but I have stopped sharing some them--especially if they involve division and distracting people from how good God is. I've decided to take a stand "for" God and "for" people. Period. That's messy and uncomfortable and full of tension, but it is now my homebase.
JAR: What's next for you professionally?
AC: One thing that Leslie and I are certain of is that we have completely open hands when it comes to our future work. I think we have more story to tell, more to offer in public conversations, and certainly an unquenchable desire to talk about our very good God and his love for all people, but I'm not sure what the future holds. Whatever I do, be it more speaking and writing or a store-clerk at Williams-Sonoma or in some pastoral care capacity, I will be doing my part to fulfill the great command to love God and love people.
In addition to talking to Alan, I wanted to ask Leslie some questions as well. I was pleased that she agreed to participate as well:
JAR: Leslie, it is not uncommon for the heterosexual spouse in a mixed orientation marriage to be the subject of many assumptions, criticisms and blame. Do you experience this? How do you choose to respond?
Leslie Chambers: As Alan's wife, I've experienced many things. With people, I've encountered everything from pity to hatred, from jealousy and strife to wonder and gratefulness. My response is to ponder deeply where the assumptions are based, who my critics are, and whether the blame is mine to face. If the assumptions are incorrect, I try to gently correct them. I remember my critics are just as human as I am. If the blame is legitimate, I turn towards it, offer my repentance - my changing of heart and mind - and endeavor to do better.
JAR: You have written about how Alan is primarily oriented to you, resisting the pressure to label him gay. While you in no way deny his sexual orientation, why is this important to you? And how has it helped in your relationship?
LC: Truth is, I haven't received pressure to label him gay. He's the one receiving the pressure. Years ago, he was pressed to wear straight. He's resisted both. I responded to his past critics by asking them - if I as his wife, didn't demand him to declare himself straight, why was it important to them? More recently, I've listened as Alan granted interviews where his not embracing a gay label was troubling to the interviewer. A few of those folks talked with me as well. Not one asked me to call him gay. I thought it was funny. I wondered if they didn't ask because they knew the answer and it wasn't the one they were looking for. To me, Alan is not gay. Our marriage isn't based on mixed orientations. It is based on mutual love and respect and attractions. As far as our sex life go, the only labels we wear are, "I am yours and you are mine".
I realize the need to name and categorize is an ancient human condition. It's helpful and there is a legitimate frustration when confronted with non-compliance. Creating new sub-groups or backing up to former, more inclusive groups are our only options. LGBTQ has been and is important as marginalized people stand firm and declare their value. I will not deny them that. And at the same time, I believe there is value in treating people simply as fellow human beings.
JAR: When people ask you "What has changed?" with respect to how you view and respond to same-sex attraction from a Christian perspective, how do you respond?
LC: From my Christian perspective, what has changed most is my understanding of God and of people. God's love is big - immeasurable. And he loves people - regardless of who they are sexually attracted to. Being overcome by God's love, I've found a freedom to love without restriction and I'm so grateful.
JAR: What advice and encouragement would give women who find themselves on a similar journey as yours?
LC: If the journey you are referring to is one in which I am a woman loved by her husband, my advice is to enjoy it. Treasure it. Foster it. Nurture it. Revel in it.
If you are specifically referring to the woman happily married to a man with the gay orientation bit, my advice is not so different. Enjoy him. Treasure him. Foster and nurture him. Revel in him. He is yours and you are his.
For those considering marrying a man with same-sex attractions, my advice includes caution. Be sure you are his first choice. Given the freedom to choose anything and anyone, would he choose you? If not, get out. You are not going to change him.
Lastly, for those unhappily married to a man whose gay orientation is interfering with your relationship, my advice is to proceed with caution and seek counsel. I don't know enough of your situation to speak into it. If reconciliation is possible, pursue it. If not, separation and divorce may be better than secrets and shame.
JAR: Thank you both.
In truth, when I finished the interview I found myself encouraged and frustrated in equal measures. Without question I appreciated the honesty and humanity of both Alan and Leslie. Around these hot topics, it is far too easy for us to attack them as disembodied representatives of an hurtful ideology. However, they are clearly more than that- two people who genuinely love each other and God, and are seeking to do their best in being faithful to both. And they do so sincerely, if imperfectly, like the rest of us.
On the other hand, while I understand their unwillingness to take positions on certain topics, given the very public positions that they have taken in the past, and the consequences that others have suffered as a result of those positions (and continue to suffer even today), I cannot help but wonder if such an apparent neutrality does not still exact a greater cost from others than from the Chambers themselves. Further, their desire to be trusted, while understandable, is necessarily linked with how trustworthy they actually are. And while their posture has clearly changed, the uncertainty about what they now believe means their trustworthiness is equally uncertain.
In the end, while there are things they are clearly (and honestly) choosing not to share publicly, I am left with the deep impression that there remains a great deal of uncertainty in their own hearts and minds- and perhaps even no small amount of denial, a lingering blindness to the reality of the circumstances that refuse to fit into the neat and tidy identities they have chosen to articulate and live out.
Again, having not read the book, it is important that you not rely on this interview alone. To that end, I want to point you towards two other people who I deeply respect who have read and reviewed the book:
First, Wendy Gritter, Executive Director of New Direction Ministries of Canada and author of "Generous Spaciousness: Responding to Gay Christians in the Church", writes this very personal review, as a friend of the Chambers: My Exodus: A Review
Second, Eliel Cruz, a speaker and writer on religion, (bi)sexuality, media, and culture, takes a stronger critique on what he finds missing from the book both in his review- The New Book From Ex-Ex-Gay Alan Chambers Is Missing Something - and in his interview with Chambers- Alan Chambers: 'Same-sex relationships can be holy'
Despite the seemingly endless supply of suffering and struggle people have and continue to endure around sexual identity, especially in the church, I am also hopeful. While "My Exodus" will not make everyone happy- and with good reason- I deeply hope that for many it will move them, even if only partly, towards a future of greater grace, inclusion, forgiveness and love.