Gay Christians defend their faith against other Christians, who think the Bible condemns homosexuality as a sin. No surprise. But ex-gay Christians also defend their faith against other Christians who think the Bible condemns homosexuality as a worse sin than other sins. Men in both kinds of ministries support one another as they share the work of making a place for themselves in the church.
This is the interesting finding of Michelle Wolkomir, a sociologist at Centenary College, in Be Not Deceived: The Sacred and Sexual Struggles of Gay and Ex-Gay Christian Men. She spent several years as an observer and, where possible, participant in two parallel ministries for gay men, one with the pro-gay Metropolitan Community Church, the other with the ex-gay Exodus International ministry. Wolkomir describes herself as a married non-religious Jewish woman, so it is a real testimony to her skills as an ethnographer that she was accepted and trusted in both groups.
Wolkomir shows how strongly similar the two groups of men are. Likewise, both ministries are strikingly parallel in helping these men bond by re-interpreting their Christian experience. Both the Metropolitan Community Church and Exodus International are conservative Protestant ministries – a point not always appreciated about the MCC even by its secular allies. The men in both groups are trying to be faithful, Bible-believing Christians, while wrestling with homosexual desires. Many in both groups are or were married, and have children. These are not the gay men who reject the Bible and Christianity as oppressive; instead, they are arguing with their fellow conservative Christians about how their homosexual desires should be understood and dealt with.
The gay Christians interpret their homosexual desires as something that God made them with, which they should therefore accept. The ex-gay Christians interpret their homosexual desires as the result of bad experiences – molestation, or unloving fathers, or the like – which they should seek God's help in resisting and healing.
The crucial question for Wolkomir is, why do some of these men choose a gay ministry, and others an ex-gay ministry? Her answer is that they join these ministries for the same reasons they joined the church in the first place. The gay Christians tend to be men who were raised conservative Christians. They are trying to find a way to stay in the church they have always known. The ex-gay Christians tend to be men who were isolated from others, by their homosexuality and for other reasons. They are trying to find a community that will accept them and help them wrestle with their particular sins.
I find this pattern to be parallel to what I have found in studying the Presbyterian Church, which I am sure is true for all mainline churches. Most members in the vast middle of the church are converts. They chose to join because they accept the traditional beliefs of the church, as they sometimes hazily understand them, and are looking to find a community that they want to fit into. The Presbyterians who describe themselves as "extremely liberal," on the other hand, are much more likely to have been raised in the church. They assume that they are Presbyterians almost by definition, and are trying to change the church to be more like them.
For all of these folks, their life in the church is more about what group they want to belong to than it is about their theological beliefs.