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Exodus International & the evangelical worldview

June 21, 2013

This week Exodus International announced it’s shutting down. For almost 40 years that organization has told people that the gay can be prayed away, that change is possible, that a homo can be made hetero. It was and is a big giant elephant of a lie. It’s destroyed countless lives and drove many gay Christians out of the fold, some permanently.

I want to say I’m glad for the apology, for the [sort of] admission of wrong, for the closing down of an obviously harmful ministry. But I’m also wary of the next step, of what the apology omitted, of how evangelicals will react. I hesitated to write my commentary or opinion because I just don’t know what to think. Not yet. It’s too early.

While I commend Alan Chambers for his courage and candor, I can’t help but wonder if all his cards are truly on the table. I wonder if he’s still holding a few or if he’s bluffing. Only time will tell. And I can’t stop thinking about all the ex-gay survivors, their courage, their candor, and their long long road to wholeness.

All the uproar online over this *big* news got me thinking, and my train of thought went down an unexpected track.

I never had contact with the ex-gay movement, nor did I undergo anything like reparative therapy. But the theory is so pervasive in evangelical circles. The message that change is possible, that gay is a choice, is so engrained in evangelical thinking that it’s become doctrine, and everyone assumes it’s biblically sound and true and non-negotiable.

So for years I believed the message. Gay was wrong. Gay was the result of trauma. Gay was psychological and broken. Not biological. And certainly not designed by God. This *had* to be the message because gay doesn’t fit the Christian worldview. Adam & Eve. Male & female. The gospel of gender according to evangelicals. There’s no possible way to accommodate gay in that worldview. This was my belief for years.

But, slowly, things changed. I saw and experienced that many, many parts of life didn’t fit the evangelical worldview. And I finally reached a place where I couldn’t keep walking in that idealized, sanitized, fairytale Christianity. Life is messy and confusing. It hangs out of the box all over the place.

Here’s the problem: evangelicals like their little box and believe letting it all hang out is what’s wrong with the world. But all that letting it all hang out is what’s human with the world. So what’s the implication here? In their fight keep their worldview intact, evangelicals are essentially fighting against their own humanness.

Evangelicals don’t like being human. Being human is uncomfortable and weak and sinful and a big wet blanket on their refiner’s fire. The whole paradigm of denying self, of taking up our cross, of being obsessed with not sinning? It’s a wholesale rejection of our humanity. [Stay with me, I know it sounds heretical.]

The evangelical worldview is a condemnation, a beat down of everything that makes us human. And it leaves us in a really awkward position. Because following Jesus requires us to be fully out and honest messed up humans who make mistakes, hurt people, sin a lot, and desperately need Jesus. Let me say something else heretical: Jesus doesn’t call us to fight against our own humanness. He calls us to follow him. If God was out to destroy humanness, he wouldn’t have jumped into a skin suit.

Denying our self, taking up our cross, and following Jesus is not an edict to be divided against ourselves, to war against our very flesh and blood, or to somehow surgically remove our skin and become angels. Jesus was fully human, so that has to mean he wants us to be fully human. He ate. He drank. He slept. He felt alone. God became one of us for a reason, and I don’t think it was for us to stop being us. God didn’t enter humanity to eradicate our humanness. But more often than not, that’s what it seems like evangelicals want to do.

I get this weird mixed vibe from evangelicals. I’ve gotten it my whole Christian life. They preach and believe dependence on Christ, but they also preach and believe personal holiness. That term, personal holiness, has always gotten under my skin, because… Gospel message. Every evangelical knows you can’t achieve enough personal holiness to get into heaven. So why do they believe we need to amass it after our ticket has already been punched? If we can be personally holy, we have no use for Jesus. [Galatians 2:21 is how Paul puts it.]

So when evangelicals start talking about personal holiness, I get pissed because it sounds like they’re working Jesus out of his job. I know they say that’s not how they see it, but it’s there. It’s even coded in the language: gaining victory over sin or overcoming sin or being vigilant against sin. They battle. They struggle. They wrestle. They run the race. They work at being disciplined and self-controlled.

To be honest, all of these activities make it hard to rely on Jesus. I know. I’ve tried it, and I’ve seen others burn themselves into dry spiritual seasons doing all of these things. We involve ourselves in all these activities and convince ourselves they are the way to Jesus, but in reality Jesus is pushed aside. He’s only peripherally included, if at all. He’s not central, and we’re not in anything that remotely resembles a relationship. We’re in a checklist. We’re in a worldview. We’re in a belief system.

There’s a disconnect between talking about following Jesus and how evangelicals actively do all these things and call it following Jesus. We pay lip service to him, but we don’t really notice if he’s there or not.

Self-control, discipline, holiness, faithfulness. These are the fruit of the evangelical spirit. Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, and gentleness have somehow dropped off the list.

Evangelicals are Marthas and older sons.

They’re so busy with all the doing and obeying that they miss the whole point; the whole vulnerable, sitting at his feet, desperately needy, relationship with Jesus point.

I know this post has veered far away from its ex-gay start. Like I said, the train went down an unexpected track. But I do believe there’s something important to notice here.

The personal holiness paradigm is just around the corner from moral purity, and moral purity lives next door to pray away the gay. This is all in the same neighborhood. And I think it’s pretty clear that we gay Christians haven’t gotten much love from our neighbors in this ‘hood.

What I’m saying is we can do nothing apart from God. We don’t need more faith. We need more Jesus. We don’t need more discipline. We need more Jesus. Personal holiness is a fairytale. Jesus already made us holy. We don’t need to be vigilant against falling into sin. We need to be vigilant at following Jesus.

There’s a lot I’d change about the evangelical worldview. But this, this is where I’d start. We’re human, and that’s beautiful. The more we understand and embrace and enter into our humanness, the more we can understand and embrace and enter into our relationship with Jesus.

I am a terrible evangelical, but I’m excellent at needing Jesus. I’ve hardly ever felt like the older brother, but I’m a natural at the prodigal. Martha kinda irritates me. I’d much rather be *lazy* with Mary at Jesus’ feet. And there are lots of times I feel like Nicodemus stalking after Jesus in the dark, afraid of what the good evangelicals might think but mostly just wanting to avoid their scolding.

And lately I’m realizing it doesn’t matter what the good evangelicals say or think. I don’t want to be like them. I just want to be with Jesus. I’m Mary and Nicodemus and the prodigal, and I’m in good company in their ‘hood. Mary got a shout out from Jesus. Nicodemus got to pick his brain. And the prodigal got a welcome home bash.

Mark 8:34. Galatians 3:3. Isaiah 29:13. Galatians 5:22. Luke 10:38-42. Luke 15:25-30. John 15:5. John 3:1-15.

  1. Ford1968 permalink

    We need more Jesus!!!! Yes and Amen.

    I grew up in it, but now it’s foreign to me – this “self-loathing is next to Godliness” paradigm. Isn’t it funny how straight, cisgender men are required to loath themselves far less than everyone else?

    And I’ve also come to see “bible as holiness rule book” as a substitute for the discipline of faith. It’s easier and more comforting to follow a list of “dos & don’ts” than it is to do the hard work of discerning God’s will and following into the dark corners of life. I know that’s a gross generalization and I don’t mean to paint all conservative Christians with a “Stepford Wives” brush.

    That’s a lot of words to say that I agree with you and love your vision here. Let’s follow Jesus.

    Thank’s for the encouragement this morning.
    (I’ll spare you my thoughts about Exodus…)

  2. Karin permalink

    I am SO amazingly proud of you my dear cousin! You are such an inspiration. I think you are in a very unique position to help a lot of people. Your intelligence, eloquent writing, knowledge of Christianity and a deep love for Jesus will help others to understand that being gay is NOT a choice and that there is absolutely NOTHING wrong them. Being gay and being a Christian are not mutually exclusive. I love you and I’m so proud of you! Karin

    • hballaman permalink

      Oh Karin,

      Thank you, thank you, thank you! I’m so glad I can share this journey with family as caring & accepting as you.

      Much love to you, my sweet cousin!

  3. Karin permalink

    your part about not being a good evangelical reminds me of a Gandhi quote… “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.” – Mahatma Gandhi. I believe the goal is to emulate Christ, not just say you follow him. I do not call myself a Christian but I live a more Christian life than most Christians I know. I’m accused of being wrong, judged and condemned by Christians. While I love, honor and respect other people’s beliefs, they do not respect mine. I wish it were different, but it is what it is. They are how and who they are. All I can do is plant seeds of understanding, unconditional love and respect.

    • hballaman permalink

      I work with people who insist Gandhi is in hell. I disagree. That is, of course, something we cannot know for sure, but I would be labeled a heretic if I said so. I am becoming more and more fed up with how obsessed evangelicals are with right belief. It trumps everything, including treating others with kindness, which is what Jesus is all about. To me evangelicals are closer to Pharisees than to Jesus, and that makes me terribly sad. They cannot see it. They believe they are standing up for God or morals or something. They don’t realize they’re recycling the role of the oppressive religious leaders that Jesus came to subvert.

  4. Karin permalink

    Very well said! I agree completely. I was hoping I hadn’t offended you because I lumped all Christians together. My goal was just to say that I’m still a good person (as are you!) even if my beliefs don’t fit into another groups mold. I like Jesus, I think he was an amazingly enlightened soul and he gave everything to educate his people about love, forgiveness and acceptance. I find some people need the label to see another as an equal. Most, thank goodness, do not. So now you can be free to surround yourself with people who have more open minds, less judgments, are altruistic in their hopes for you and are not so hypocritical.
    I love you dearly,

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