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Alan Chambers: Making Peace With The End of Exodus
Last week, Exodus International—a 37-year-old organization committed to "dealing with faith and homosexuality"—
announced it was shutting down.
Citing the closure as a unanimous decision by the board, Exodus issued a statement saying they will be launching a new ministry focused on gender and sexuality. The announcement to shutter Exodus came on the heels of an
issued by president Alan Chambers and coincided with a program on The Oprah Network,
"God & Gays,"
hosted by Lisa Ling, which featured Chambers among others.
Chambers took some time this weekend to talk with Q Ideas about the decision to shut down Exodus, what's next and how he's attempting to navigate some very tricky cultural and religious waters.
So, how are you doing? I imagine this has been a really exhausting several days.
It has been exhausting, it's been really hard. It's hard to do what we're doing and not be misunderstood by pretty much everybody. Trying to live in that tension and space—doing the right thing and knowing what we believe—and praying people who love us know what we believe.
What has been the response from both sides—from your supporters and detractors? What is the common refrain you've been hearing?
Well, everybody and their brother has commented on this. And we've received everything from tremendous support to tremendous rejection. But we've had some tremendous conversations with people on both sides. What I find is, the majority of people don't live on the polarized ends of the spectrum; they live somewhere in the middle. So far more often than not—and we've received probably tens of thousands of [responses] at this point—the majority of people have really been encouraging. I love getting that from both sides, but I love especially when the community of the Church gets it and they respond in a way where they say: "I know what your heart is, and we want to join you. Thanks for the example." Because that means we've really done what we've set out to do, which was to change the tone and the tenor of the Church. To be a people of peace, to promote the good news.
I know I'm asking you to paint in broad strokes right now, but what has the response been from the extreme sides?
The far extremes of the Church have said what they've been saying to me for the last 18 months, which is: This is heretical, you've caved in on biblical truths, you stand for nothing. And there are people who say, "You have lost your salvation, you don't know Jesus, and what you're doing is leading people straight to hell." They are the minority, even though they're very vocal. And then there are people on the extreme [other] side who have said very awful things, expletives, and “we’ll never forgive you. You've got blood on your hands. You're guilty of killing innocent people all over the world.” But, again, I find both extremes the minority.
Well, they might represent a minority, but those extremes do so often get the platform and the attention—those are the tweets that get retweeted; those are the blogs that get shared. And, while the extremes are not where most people live, it is what most people often hear. So how do you navigate that? How are you going to try and stay in the middle when you're being bombarded by the extremes?
Well, you know, I've lived there a majority of my life. There has never been a time when everybody loved what I did, or everybody appreciated my story. I've lived in the margins basically my whole life. So it's difficult, but it's something I'm used to. My story is such that I did fall in love with my wife. I am not a gay man. It doesn't mean I'm a straight man. I hate those labels that mean, really, very little to me. I am a follower of Christ and I am a true husband. I'm a faithful husband and a faithful father. That is my story and that is what I believe. I have a biblical belief about sexual expression. And yet, my offer is, we don't need to have this conversation about what we believe, or defend what we believe, because that's really only relevant to me. I want to respect you, I want to have a friendship with you, I want to be in conversation with you, I want to love who you love, and I want you to love who I love. I think that's possible, especially when you build relationships with people. A lot of people call it wishy-washy. But I [want] to be a peace-maker. We can have a conversation about these things but I don't want to wage a war.
Why now? Why shut down Exodus now, why put a formal apology out there right now?
Everyone was telling our story for us. The Church was telling our story for us. The culture was telling our story for us. The gay community was telling our story for us. And everyone was believing those stories. Exodus has become a lightning rod in our culture. It's become a lightning rod in the Church. Even people who agree with us in our biblical beliefs about sexual expression have said, "We don't want to partner with you; Exodus is a liability." So many of my friends in the Christian world have said, "You really need to consider closing this down and doing something else." There are people who go into convulsions when they hear the name Exodus. And we realized we could never do enough good, or point to all the good that had been done, without seriously still hurting people who didn't experience the good that we had. And so we realized, there is no other alternative than to shut this down. It's an act of contrition, it's an act of peace.
To shut down Exodus at the same time as you issue an apology letter seems as if you're saying, "This wasn't good. This was a failure." Is that what you're saying?
I'll be very honest, one of the things I've woken up in the middle of the night panicking about is that people who have been helped will hear me say something I don't believe. I'm thankful for Exodus. I'm thankful for the people who I've known over the decades I've been here. I'm thankful for stories from parents who have found Exodus to be a lifeline to them as they’ve tried to navigate loving their children unconditionally while holding to their truth they believe so strongly in. And for the people who have found healing and freedom from years of things that were traumatic, and the marriages that were saved, and the children who have been born from people who have been a part of Exodus. I am not at all saying it was all bad. What I'm saying is, there has been trauma, and we are sorry for that. And to say I'm sorry cannot come with any qualifications. "Hey, I'm sorry for your story, but we've done good,” doesn't work. It just has to be, "What happened to you was wrong, and I'm so sorry. I'm so sorry for the message you received, or even the message you interpreted. Either way—and there have been both—I'm sorry you've experienced that trauma and it hurt you. That will haunt me and I'm sorry." And we can be truly sorry and not make excuses. And yet, I don't know that I would be here today had it not been for Exodus. It literally saved my life. So I can't apologize for that. It's a hard conversation to have, because both sides want me to completely agree with them and only say it one way, and I can't.
You said earlier people are accusing you of being wishy-washy. What your describing is a difficult place to stand—to call people to be aware of the grey areas.
I think Christianity is really far more grey than it is black and white. I think we can look at Jesus. Jesus was called grey. I look back at Jesus, and I look at Paul. And I look at other people who are doing amazing work, and I think it's not wishy-washy. We don't live on the polarized extremes of life. We live in the grey. We live in the tension. What I believe isn't grey. There is an absolute truth I live by. I believe Jesus is the only way. But I believe Jesus died for all of us or he died for none of us. The good news of the gospel is for everyone. That's not wishy-washy. But it can seem wishy-washy. For me to say, "The Gospel is for the gay person." Whether the gay person chooses the life I live or not, the Gospel is still for them. Jesus and His relationship is irrevocable. That's powerful. There is a lot in our culture that we think is black and white, and it really isn't; it's grey. It is tense to live there. It's excruciating sometimes, to live there. But if you ask me what I believe about certain things, there will be a black and white answer. And yet, even with the black and white answer, that only serves me. Like the issue of sexual expression: I have a black and white answer on that, I believe what the Bible says. And yet, who am I to tell someone that's how they should live their life, or how they have to live their life, or that they can't be in relationship with Jesus the way I am because of that? I mean, we all have a reality in our life that someone is going to disagree with and we are all passionate about so many issues. But the essential is that Jesus is the only way—outside of that, there's room for conversation.
You said you want to be a peacemaker—what does that mean for this particular conversation?
When we look at Jesus, that's who He was. He was a healer, and He healed communities, and He healed relationships, and He was the example of peace. There are far too many people who want to be generals in the war, and there are far too few peacemakers But that is the only way we're going to make any difference in this world: if we work together across the divide, sit down at a table together, have a meal together and decide we're going to work together for something far greater than us. I'll give the rest of my life to do that. It's astounding.
Parents have been our inspiration in this, because they have been the ones living in the kind of tension I'm now encouraging all of society to live in, all of the Church to live in. Here they are, loving their kids unconditionally (which they should), loving their kids no matter what, building relationships with their kids' gay partners and their kids' gay friends, and yet holding to their own values and beliefs, but never letting that be something that divides their relationships or hinders their relationships. And I think we can have those conversations in a caring and a respectful way, but I think that's what our culture needs to learn to do.
Sometimes just saying “We need to have a better conversation” feels so unsatisfactory. Is that really enough?
You know, I don't think it is unsatisfactory. I think it's extremely difficult, given the kind of religion that we have grown up in. I don't think it's indicative of true Christianity to behave in many of the ways we've behaved. I think it's so engrained in us, and steeped in us that we have to “Hate the sin and love the sinner.” But you know what? Hate your own sin. Hate the things you can help. Why don't you just love the person who is next to you?
In Oklahoma where tornadoes tore up communities, I don't think neighbors are walking around going, "Are you gay or straight? Are you Republican or Democrat?" No! They're just saying, "We are in need, please help us." And the neighbor is saying, "Of course I'll help you; You're my neighbor." That's what this looks like. It's not just idealistic. It's necessary. What do you do when a gay friend invites you to their commitment ceremony or wedding? Well, I think what you don't do is pretend you didn't get the invitation. I can't tell someone what they should do. I know what my wife and I would do. It's different than what we would have done 10 years ago, maybe, but today we would go. Now, we wouldn't go if we couldn't smile, and show we love them. But we can go even though that's not a choice we would make for ourselves. And it's hard, and it's tense, and I realize it feels like compromise, but I don't think it is. It's peace. You don't have to change what you believe in order to be in a relationship with someone and to love them wholeheartedly.
It's hard, and it's messy, and the Church doesn't do messy well. We like to shoot our wounded and when people have had affairs, or done drugs or whatever, we'd rather them leave the Church. If their story isn't going to fit into a nice, neat and tidy silver box, with a beautiful bow on top, then we'd rather not hear the story or be a part of it. We've got to get past that. Because if we look deep into our own lives, none of our stories are clean. They're all very, very messy.
So, what's next? Exodus is shutting down, something new will happen. What is the message of what's next?
We want to promote common good around this issue and the ways we've been divided before, and seek a culture of peace. We want to reduce fear. We want to promote human flourishing. We want to see the culture flourish, and for people to flourish in relationship. So as we close Exodus, and do that well, we're going to be promoting this new organization, and writing, and gathering together people who want to partner with us, and financial partners, and friend partners, and people who want to have the conversation with us. I think it will be very important in less than a years' time to get one of these conversations out in the public mainstream where we're sitting down at a conference and modeling what we're talking about.
Twelve years ago I said I hoped someday we’d shut down Exodus because the Church was doing its job. Today, we want to shut down Exodus so the Church can do its job. The whole world has gone stark-raving mad over this one ministry, and this one issue, and it's too much for one organization to own, and it's too much for one man or one group of leaders to own. It's time for the Church at large to own it. It's not too big an issue for the Church to deal with. For years Exodus has been this resource for the Church—and I'm glad we have, because it saved my life. But we've also been the scapegoat. We've been the people and organization the Church sent people to because they didn't want the mess in their office. It's time for the church to realize, this is your issue. This is something you need to own and deal with, these people need you. So we're all too glad to give it back to the churches, where it should have been in the first place.
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