Science, Faith, and Sexual Orientation: Concluding Thoughts

Thank you, Chris, for your gentle and empathic spirit. And thank you for so aptly summarizing the gist of my first essay. You listen well. I now understand why you are so gifted at helping people create healthy relationships!

To clarify, I did not intend to imply that those who seek to honor a traditionalist biblical position on marriage are being hateful or mean-spirited. I simply wanted to note that the faith community’s understanding of a) marriage, and b) biblical wisdom about sexuality has evolved over time, and continues to do so. Perhaps, as the “Reformed and ever-reforming” perspective suggests should happen, the Spirit is continuing to work . . . as some of today’s biblical scholars, supported by psychological science, are leading us to rethink old ideas. Jesus beckoned us to worship God with our minds, which surely means being open—as you have demonstrated yourself to be—to continuing natural and biblical revelations.

Another more minor clarification: You note that I seem “strongly impacted” by the massive shift in public opinion. I am, indeed, concerned that the church’s credibility—and its focus on supporting marriage—has been eroded by its perceived preoccupation with keeping gay people unmarried. But this concern precedes the modern public opinion tsunami, and dates back to a 1993 essay encouraging the church to refocus on the family, and a 1999 essay on “Accepting What Cannot Be Changed.”

You note a valid distinction between “sexual identity” and sexual orientation—a distinction well made by our Regent University psychologist colleague Mark Yarhouse. Someone may feel a same-sex (or other-sex) attraction without embracing a gay (or straight) identity. FYI, I introduced Mark Yarhouse—someone whom I’ve admired for his courage in articulating a minority perspective within mainstream psychology—to Hope College, where he explained this distinction and its significance for some Christians.

Neither of us is surprised that Mark does have his critics, including the gay evangelical therapist-writer Ralph Blair, in responding to his article in Christian Counseling Today:

Yarhouse introduces his “Sexual Identity Therapy (SIT).” Instead of seeking to change homosexual orientation, SIT reframes the person’s identity to bring it into “congruence” with the belief that homosexuality is sinful. “Congruence,” he says, “is achieved when a person is able to identify themselves and live in a way that reflects that identity and is consistent with their principles and values.” So successful “congruence” is identifying with what one’s supposed to believe, not with what one actually feels.

You also note that the “anecdotal evidence of ex-gay ministry leaders recanting past beliefs” is offset by “many good articles in respected journals that elaborate different and valid perspectives.”

You and I surely would agree that “the plural of anecdote is not evidence.” But in this case, the number of ex-gay ministry leaders who have recanted—saying that neither they nor anyone they knew actually had changed (despite their one-time testimonies to the contrary)—is striking. Even more striking is the shutdown of Exodus, the umbrella organization over the various ex-gay ministries, with its leader saying, “I am sorry we promoted sexual orientation change efforts” that led to so much pain, shame, and lost faith.

But what about the careful survey study you mention, by another respected friend of mine, Stanton Jones (Wheaton College provost) along with Mark Yarhouse, published as Ex-Gays? A Longitudinal Study of Religiously Mediated Change in Sexual Orientation. Stan Jones entrusted me with reading the page proofs and to vouch for their integrity as researchers, which I was happy to do. But, as I explained, they really didn’t need anyone to speak for their integrity. Their honesty would never be questioned by anyone scrutinizing their data, which actually showed very few people from all the Exodus ministries willing to be surveyed, and very few of these reporting a 180 degree sexual reorientation.

Ralph Blair had a similar assessment:

The book is based in the claims of Exodus-screened “ex-gay” clients. But during the period of their polling, a quarter of these “ex-gays” dropped out or disappeared. This left 73, of whom 11 are claimed for “conversion”—though the authors admit that one of these has recanted his claim and two others say they still struggle with homoerotic attraction. This brings the “conversions” (variously defined) to 8. Additionally, the “ex-gays” that say they’re committed to chastity are counted as “successful”—though many of these, too, admit to continued same-sex orgasmic fantasies.

Other studies show that people who invest their time, money, and emotions in efforts to change—to stop smoking, to lose weight, to get better grades, to stay out of trouble, to break free of depression—will, when surveyed, often tout the effectiveness of programs that are actually, by objective measures, ineffective. It’s as if there is a need to justify one’s effort and expenditure. That being so, I’m surprised at how very few—virtually nil—participants in Exodus ministries were willing to report a sexual transformation. And knowing that, I perhaps should have been less surprised when Exodus threw in the towel.

To conclude, I offer my thanks to for offering a public platform for this conversation—among people who concur on basic matters of faith, but differ on its implications in today’s world. And thank you, Chris Grace, for your courage and kindness in engaging mutually respectful conversation.


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