Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Gay vs. Ex-Gay Christians 1: Defending Christianity

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.


Anonymous said...

I guess you liked this idea so much that you posted it twice. :)

"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."

Given the large number of denominations (and even greater variability of individual churches/parishes/congregations), what is wrong with choosing a community that fits you well?

In fact, the only time I can see where it makes sense to choose a community that espouses values/morals/beliefs that don't match yours is that you've decided that your values/morals/beliefs are wrong, and you want to change.

Further, given the "reformed and always reforming" concept and the concept that "men [sic] of good faith may differ", why is it wrong to try to change the denomination that you belong to?

I will admit, having one set of views and then JOINING a denomination that doesn't fit with the intention of changing it seems counterproductive at best and deliberately disruptive at worst. My concern about being able to push for change is mainly for those folks who are born into the denomination and then find that they don't agree with the denomination's beliefs (or worse - that the denomination actively rejects them).

[I accidently deleted Mark's comment while deleting the duplicate posting.]

Gruntled said...

I see nothing wrong with choosing a denomination you agree with. I think the perennial discontents in my own denomination should do the same. My point was that the people in the group, and the support they give, matter more than the theology beyond a couple of crucial points.

[Sorry about the double posting earlier: Blogger went haywire this morning.]

KLG said...

Wouldn't you say that as a general rule, most people join or remain in a church because of the beliefs and behaviors of the local church, not the denominational theology? It seems that once you go beyond the district level, the denominations and their various flavors of dogma become about as relevant to our daily life as the Congress and it's yearly debates - sometimes some issue gets a lot of press like the issue of the ordination of homosexuals, the national and state conference makes its decision, and then the local church decides how it is going to respond one way or the other(sometimes even leaving the larger denomination), and the folks who disagree pick up their marbles and go play somewhere else.

Gruntled said...

Yes, I am sure that for most people most of the time, the customary beliefs and practices of their congregation are what is really relevant in their corporate religious life. However, what goes on in the denomination as a whole does shape the congregation in the long run. Moreover, most congregations have a few cadres who do deal with the larger denomination -- the pastor, if no one else.

Anonymous said...

The question of changing one's denomination is one I discussed with a colleague yesterday. It seems to me that our denominations suffer such divisions and distrust partly because of the ways in which we seek or oppose change.

As a practical matter (not one declared by God from on high), denominations and theological traditions have historic ways of doing things, and of discussing things. For instance, Methodists have used that quadrilateral of scripture and tradition, reason and experience, to seek God's will. Presbyterians have used the hierarchy of scripture, then tradition, then reason, then experience.

In a day of greater movement across denominational lines, the ways in which we discuss such things gets confused. It becomes very difficult to understand one another when, for instance, one Presbyterian speaks of personal experience and another Presbyterian thinks, "that's irrelevant."

As a practical matter, I don't see anyone making much progress without understanding our various presuppositions. Sadly, I don't have much confidence in our making much progress, given such differing presuppositions.

Gruntled said...

I have always admired the lawyerly mind of John Calvin. He had a burning heart, but an orderly head. Thus, the Presbyterian Church has built into its DNA "start with the text." Even if we get lots of heart-religion converts (like me, an ex-Quaker), any half-serious attempt to follow the rules of our church takes us to clear texts first. I think more than half of the confusion in the church now comes from the fact that we have had two or three generations of top leadership which has serious reservations about our texts.