(Ex-)Ex-Gay Activist Alan Chambers On His Prop 8 Epiphany and the Downfall of Christianity and Evangelicalism

Alan Chambers has, at once, both frustrated and elated the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community.

As the head of Exodus, a fabled “ex-gay ministry” that promised to turn gay people straight, Chambers represented the ugly face of an anti-gay brand of Evangelical Christianity that taught lesbians and gays that they could “pray away the gay.” But, in 2012, Chambers appeared during a session at the Gay Christian Network’s annual conference and said that “99.9 percent of the people I know have not changed their sexual orientation” through their involvement with organizations such as Exodus.

My Exodus: From Fear to Grace
Alan Chambers
Zondervan, Sept. 29, 2015

The admission was a bombshell that eventually led Chambers to close Exodus and offer several high profile apologies to the LGBT community. One of those apologies, as Chambers documents in his new book, My Exodus: From Fear to Grace, came about a year later on a television show hosted by Lisa Ling.

In the show, Chambers apologized to a group of gays and lesbians who felt they had been spiritually and psychologically harmed by Exodus and other “ex-gay” organizations. By June, Exodus would be closed.

Chambers and his wife Leslie, who pens a couple of chapters in the book, refrain from any more apologies, instead writing a book “to just tell our story.”

Alan and Leslie talked recently with RD’s Candace Chellew-Hodge about their journey and what they see for themselves in the future.

All answers are Alan Chambers unless noted otherwise. –eds

Your new book has received some stinging criticism from within the LGBT activist community, especially from Kathy Baldock, who criticized it for being just your story without any further apologies or insight into how harmful Exodus has been to the LGBT community.

One of the things we thought about putting in there was a whole chapter on the apology and reiterating that, but our wise editor said they felt like we’d already done that. The apology is already out there. I went back and forth and there are a couple of chapters that didn’t make it in. One was called “Reconciliation” which really was focused on me and my reconciling all parts of me into this one person that now exists. I understand the criticism because I think if were to add one thing in there that isn’t, it would be that.

That’s also something we’ve talked a lot about in interviews and we have apologized and continue to. When we sit down with people and are interviewed, we’re not afraid to talk about that.

What I missed from the book was more self-reflection on some of the very real damage that ex-gay ministries such as Exodus inflicted on the LGBT community. You talk in the book about not being able to tell “success stories” from Exodus’ work with those who “struggle” with same-sex attraction, but it seems to me there would be no struggle if the church didn’t tell LGBT people that they were an abomination to God.

I look at Exodus and I think the success of it was that it was the only thing for Christians at the time. For me, well into the 90s and even into the early part of 2000, there weren’t reconciling movements. There wasn’t a Gay Christian Network or Matthew Vines’ Reformation Project. Those things weren’t available then.

The parts of Exodus that I was most involved in was simply a place that showed up. Yes, they had an opinion about theology and sin which was overplayed, for sure. But, it was the only place where someone who had this reality could go and share that. MCC was not a place that I knew of in those days [and I didn’t even know] if there was one in Orlando back then. So for me, as a 19-year-old kid, Exodus was the safe place. When I walked in, they didn’t beat me over the head with a Bible, they were a bunch of people who said, We get it. You’re welcome here and you can struggle along with the rest of us.

The negative, or detriment, of Exodus is the same as the church, which is plugged into the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and is constantly pointing out what’s good and who’s good and who’s bad and what you should and shouldn’t do. It was constantly pointing to cleaning your mess up and living better and doing better. It was this constant treadmill of works and legalism that the majority of the church has been focused on forever, but certainly in the last 500 years since the Reformation.

At Exodus, we took our cue from the broader church and ran with what we had been taught. So Exodus wasn’t so different, in the end, than the church I grew up in. They were nice and we were proclaiming God loves you and anyone can have a relationship with Jesus, but you’ll do better if you clean up your mess and renounce this and live this way to be more acceptable. That’s the downfall of Christianity and Evangelicalism, in my opinion.

Do you believe homosexuality is a sin?

I think, as Christians, sin is irrelevant. I look at what Jesus did on the cross. He came to fulfill the law. He took care of sin. He ended it forever. Is there sin involved in homosexuality? Sure. Is there sin involved in heterosexuality? Sure. I think the damage is done when we live in a place where we’re pointing out what is and is not sin. Leslie and I don’t want to live there anymore. That’s not a place where life is found. We’re not to be in the seat of judgment for anyone, not ourselves and not other people. What we long to do is to love our neighbor, our friends, LGBT people, straight people, you name it, without pointing out things that aren’t ours to point out.

Have you been to any same-sex marriages?

Not yet, but we’re waiting on our invitation. There was a guy who worked for a PCUSA session here in central Florida [who told] us about a marriage coming up at a church near us and said he could get us an invitation. I thought it was weird. We’d go if we were invited, but how strange to be this token couple coming to this wedding where we don’t know anyone.

We have plenty of gay and lesbian friends and family who, I am just waiting on them to invite [us] not only to attend, but perform it.

What I hear you saying then is that your message now is more about grace than about sin.

Yes. I think we have exhausted the conversation on sin. We have 40,000-plus denominations because of the rules we’ve set up in the church. Should we wear robes? Should women be allowed in the pulpit? Do we affirm or welcome LGBT people? How do we take the sacraments? Do we believe in this version of the Bible? Enough! Can we connect as God’s creation and worship him whether we’re of the same political affiliation or social agenda or you name it. What Leslie and I found is that yes, absolutely we can do that. We have found it to be life-giving when we’re focused on the main thing and not some of the little things we may [or may] not completely agree on.

A group of Christian therapists gathered recently at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. While they publicly renounced reparative therapy, they’re still preaching that “God’s best” for gays and lesbians is celibacy and some still believe that God can change sexual orientation over time. What’s your response?

It’s kind of a doublespeak. They want to be against what is publicly recognized as the most damaging sort of thing out there. But, they talk out of the other side of their mouth and support this. I think some of them are confused, but I think, for the most part, whether you’re for or against reparative therapy, they’re saying the same thing. They’re saying that to be acceptable to God you should do this. While they may not promote counseling sessions aimed at orientation change, they may endorse a prayer time that’s meant to accomplish the same thing. I’m not sure there’s a difference.

The end result is the same in that we are causing people to feel ashamed of something they can’t control. We’re causing them to feel shame because they haven’t changed something that’s unchangeable and that is orientation. Regardless of how someone decides to steward their orientation, whether they want to opt for celibacy, monogamy or you name it, that’s up to an individual. It’s not up to someone to say, “You are going to be more acceptable,” because we can’t say that to someone else.

So often, we take the Bible and we galvanize around our interpretation of scripture. We make theology God and not Jesus. We say, “This is how you should interpret it and how you should live.” That’s one of the most damaging things we can do as believers is to impose our interpretation of scripture on another person. I believe God gave us scripture as something that is freeing. We no longer need a high priest to interpret it for us. We can do that ourselves because Jesus is our high priest.

What they’re pushing is still a fear-based theology.

I was in a private meeting about a year and a half ago with a prominent Southern Baptist leader and I told him there’s so much animosity in this conversation. They were lamenting the anger they felt from LGBT people. I told them, “Well, here’s the thing. You have a group of passionate people coming at you because we in the church have largely created that type of reaction. We have mistreated people, marginalized people, we’ve preached at people and treated LGBT people like they’re not on the same level as us—if we even believe they are Christians. No wonder there’s bitterness and animosity in this situation coming back at you. We’ve created it.”

I reminded him that gay marriage never killed anyone and he responded with all the fire he could muster, “Well, it’s sending people to hell.” I thought, that’s not even biblical. There’s no place in the Bible that says gay marriage sends you to hell. It is fear-based. I lived there. I completely get it.

I find that very atheist. We don’t trust that God is God and will be God in every situation, even in the situations we don’t understand.

In one chapter, you both write about your sex life. What I found most effective about that chapter is that, in the end, you realized that intimacy was far more important than sex. Gay and lesbian people, as a community, are seen as sexual beings and not human beings who are capable of intimacy.

It’s your emphasis on intimacy that makes this the most humanizing part of the book, and I think it would have been a big step in reconciliation if you could have made the point that this is exactly what gay and lesbian people seek as well: recognition that we are humans capable of intimacy and not just sexuality. So often, we’re asked to justify our relationships beyond sex. Did you feel like you had to do that, too, by including this chapter?

Leslie Chambers: We didn’t feel like we had to include it. We chose to include it because it’s a question we’ve been asked. It was an attempt to just be honest, and we hoped that if we told that part of our story, people could read the other things we wrote knowing that we weren’t afraid to be honest and share even those things that seem so personal. It wasn’t an effort to justify our relationship. I don’t feel we need to do that.

While other parts of the book aren’t as forthcoming it’s not because we’re afraid to tell the truth, but because those things are still formulating. We’re still in the process of our feet landing firmly on the ground. Maybe that just makes us human.

Alan, you supported Proposition 8 in California, but you say in the book that, in the end, the victory of Prop 8 made you a proponent of marriage equality. How so?

[We were] sitting there that night as all politically interested people were, watching the results come in, and on the left side of the screen are the gays in the ballroom and on the right were all of these people who I knew. Some of these people are financial supporters of Exodus. When they announced that Prop 8 had passed I watched this group of people on the right begin to celebrate like it was 1999. My immediate thought was, “What an inappropriate and insensitive response.”

Then I looked at the left side of the screen and there were parents, LGBT people, couples, children, all sorts of people in this ballroom and it was silent. Faces were in hands and some people immediately dropped to the floor, hugging and crying. I remember looking at a particular family where there were two women and two kids and they were crying. I don’t know if the kids knew what was happening but they were crying because their parents were crying. I thought, “I don’t know exactly how I feel but I don’t feel like these people who are celebrating. I feel more devastated. Because how could you not weep with people who are weeping?”

Another thought that came very quickly was, “Well, what have I done? I’m causing these people to weep.”

It was a strange feeling. Not something I could shake, get rid of or feel better about. I remember going to the office the next day and saying to our staff, “We’re not doing politics anymore.”

People would say we picked a hell of a time to get out of politics after doing what I did, but I was thankful that I watched that night and that God moved my heart, not to celebrate, but to weep with people who were weeping. He began to change my heart and my staff. It was amazing how quickly my staff said, “You’re right, we can’t be involved in this.” That was a huge turning point. We wanted to get out of that fight and the finger pointing.

What would you say today to young LGBT people who are struggling. They believe what the church teaches them, that they are sinful or disordered. What’s your advice to them?

The best thing we can teach people is what we know about God. The truth is, God is full of grace. The truth is God is good. The truth is, he is not angry. The truth is, you have the freedom to be who you want to be because he created you with that freedom. He created you with the freedom to choose who you are going to become and the life that you are going to live. Our responsibility as Christians is to love God and love people and that’s it. I find that to be good news.

So often, in the church, we live in what we think is the good news, which really is, in essence, just simply advice. Depending on how you view the Bible or what your theology teaches you, we’re constantly giving advice and we have made Christianity to be a religion focused on the advice based on our interpretation. You’ve got all those denominations out there with different interpretations and who are dispensing their good advice. That’s not good news. Good news is, Jesus came to give us life so we would have it abundantly. He came so that we wouldn’t have to work, but could just be, that we could love him and love people and enjoy this creation that he’s given us. That’s good news. The rest of it is just advice.

What does your future hold?

We have open hands. It’s uncomfortable not knowing what’s next but we feel like there’s nothing tying us anywhere and we have this ability to move on. We want there to be something next but we want it to be on purpose. Whether we get to do something related to activism for a living or if that’s just in our spare time, we’ll see.

Do you want to be more of an LGBT ally or have a ministry that helps the community?

We’ve thought about starting a church where everyone is welcome, where everyone can serve, where there are no qualification and we can do this and love Jesus in a way that’s compelling to other people. That might be next, who knows? I’m a dreamer and a visionary and we’d love to be a part of being allies and friends that would be life-giving to people.