Netflix recently released a documentary called “Pray Away”. This film chronicles the rise and fall of Exodus International, an evangelical-based therapy group that claimed to be able to change the direction of LGBTQ people.
This type of therapy, commonly referred to as “conversion” or “restorative” therapy, is not limited to the Exodus but is still widely practiced in all currents of Christianity – Protestantism, Roman Catholicism, and Eastern Orthodoxy. It is estimated that over 700,000 LGBTQ people have participated in some form of restorative therapy. It is still legal in 30 states.
The leaders of this movement declared the following premises as the basis of restorative therapy:
- It is the clear and consistent teaching of scripture and church tradition that homosexuality is wrong and a violation of divine law.
- God, with your participation, can save you from this way of life and free you from these desires.
- The church has been placed on earth as a hospital to help you get well. If you participate with us, you can be delivered.
I would like to preface what I’m about to say with this: I do not doubt the sincerity or the motivation of any of these movements or churches. What I am going to question and denounce is the result of their actions and the lack of training of most of their leaders. None of Exodus International’s leaders had any formal training in psychology, therapy, or human sexuality. Neither do most of the clergy.
With that in mind, I would like to examine a few of these premises. The first premise deals with the question of biblical authority and the role that the Scriptures were designed to play. One might ask the question, “Were the apostles and church fathers qualified to speak about subjects such as human sexuality and gender?”
Was St. Paul aware of modern science and neurobiology? Would the scathing reprimands have at least been nuanced and explained differently had he been aware of the medical and psychological knowledge we currently have? Would there have been this universal condemnation if our spiritual ancestors had had access to CT scans of transgender people that show structural differences in the part of the brain that determines gender identity? The church has yet to seriously address these questions about how scientific progress can and should inform our theology.
Second, regarding these premises, it turns out that the Bible does not say much “clearly”. We humans make the Bible say something. What the Bible says is first filtered through our own prejudices, beliefs, gender, trauma, socioeconomic status, class, race, and privilege. This is the lesson of the history of the Church. The church has been divided for 2000 years on questions of Christology, ecclesiology, eschatology, gender roles, soteriology, pneumatology and modes of baptism. There are currently over 40,000 denominations claiming to speak of the “clear and consistent” teaching of Scripture. Objectivity is indeed a myth.
“Regarding these premises, it turns out that the Bible does not ‘clearly’ say much.”
When I spoke to my pastor as a transgender woman, he said he would have to deny the clear teaching of the church for 2000 years to accept me. He said the church couldn’t bless sin. He was right! He absolutely should have denied this teaching. This is why inclusion is so scary.
This is where the danger of fundamentalism lies. Any religion that does not allow itself to be informed and changed by the growth of human progress, knowledge and science is doomed to failure. The simple fact is that we know a lot more about the complex issues of human sexuality and gender than we did 2,000 years ago. To impose on people today the views of a primitive culture is harmful and harmful. It would be considered professional misconduct for a physician to use 2,000 year old medical knowledge to treat patients. Why are we proud to do this in the church and call it “wisdom” and “faithfulness”?
The first theological and pastoral crisis the Church faced in its early days was an inclusion crisis. A group labeled “gentiles” who had been historically excluded because of the “clear and consistent” teaching of the scriptures, was missing in the church. Many were not at all happy about it. This created such controversy that a council was called in Acts 11.
It is interesting to note that Saint Peter did not argue from the Scriptures nor attempt to prove his path to inclusion by text. What happened? Our spiritual ancestors had an experience that contradicted their received tradition. Rather than rejecting the experience, they allowed the experience to help them reframe and reinterpret the scriptures in light of what they had been through. When it was all said and done, they said, “How can we get in the way of God?
“The simple fact is, we know a lot more about the complex issues of human sexuality and gender than we did 2,000 years ago.”
So I ask the church the same question that was asked during this first Apostolic Council: “How can we get on the path to God? How can we continue to harm and exclude those God has included? How can we divert traumatized souls and send them to psychiatric offices to heal from the trauma caused by our own rejection? How long will we call these beautiful unclean people? When will we just learn to love?
Maybe the only thing that really needs to be done away with is harmful and toxic religion.
Jennifer mayeaux is a transgender woman with a Master of Divinity degree from Dallas Theological Seminary. She has served as a pastor and planted churches in the Midwest and South. She is an ardent defender of causes close to her heart. She enjoys helping people reconcile their faith with their sexuality or gender. She lives in Murfreesboro, Tennessee.
‘Pray Away’ and the Harms of the Conversion Therapy Movement | Review by Amber Cantorna
BNG Co-Sponsors Free Webinar: “The Christian Argument Against Conversion Therapy”