I. What are we talking about?
What is a ministry? In some countries, one might call a governmental department a ‘ministry’, like the ministry of defense. What is a minister? One might retort, somebody who works in the ministry. But really, what is it one signs up for when one goes into ministry?
Minister is Latin, and means ‘servant’ in ecclesiastical use (that is, Latin of the late ancient Roman, early Medieval church usage), and it comes from the verb ministro, to attend, wait upon, serve, or to furnish, supply, provide, or to execute or carry out. A ministrator or minister in classical Latin (before the ecclesiastical usage) was an attendant, servant, helper, assistant (and sometimes, agent or accomplice).
What is a ministry? If we wish to remain true to the genesis of the term, then it seems it would be some sort of work done by ministers, by servants or attendants in their endeavor to execute certain activities that aim to provide some needed or desired outcome. And there is good reason to remain somewhat true to this Latinate foundation, for it seems to be heavily influential on the reasoning behind both the establishment and the naming of certain institutions as ministries.
I’m mostly interested, for the purposes of this posting, in so-called Christian ministries.
Following my definitional pattern, it would seem that such a thing would be an institution or practice established to be carried out by servants or attendants in their endeavor to execute certain activities that aim to provide an outcome needed or desired for the purpose of drawing people closer to God as revealed in Christ.
So far, so good. Put less technically, we can say that Christian ministries are supposed to be about drawing people closer to God, and are supposed to (or at least their being called ‘ministries’ lead one to believe that they are supposed to) be undertaken by servants of God.
I’ve heard all the right words used by ministers for many years. They call themselves servants. But what is a servant? What are characteristics necessary to, or at least sufficient for, being a servant?
Since this terminology so overused by the Church originates in ancient Hebrew and classical Latin / Greek culture, it might do us well to take the notion of ‘servant’ as it was certainly intended to be used by the likes of Jesus, Paul, and the prophets.
Jesus said that none should be great in the kingdom of God unless s/he were servant of all. Paul called himself a bondservant of Christ. Christ washing the disciples’ feet was a dramatic acting out of exactly how literally he meant us to be servants—for only these would touch the filth of another’s grimy toe jam. What then, is this servant of which Paul and Jesus speak, saying we should be?
A (good) servant, as I understand ancient cultures, would be characterized as
having no rights beyond that which the master explicitly states
having no identity beyond that of the master (the servant is seen as an appendage, or extension, of the master’s work)
having no purpose beyond that which the master dictates
expressing no desire (whether had or not) to do anything other than that which the master decrees be done
seeking to find the most effective way to carry out the master’s work
A bondservant is one who is not only a good servant, but is explicitly utterly devoted to the master. Often, one would be pressed into service for a limited period of time (think of our American history of indentured servants). Well, the bond servant is one whose service is up, yet who chooses to bind herself to the master, as a servant, for the remainder of her life. She would have her ear pierced, and she’d be marked as a bondservant, a willing and therefore highly trusted slave of the master.
II. So does the name still stick?
Jesus said that he came so that we might have life. Jesus said that he came to declare that the kingdom of heaven was here. He came to show us how to live as true citizens of the kingdom, in peace (Jn.14:27, 16:33; Rom. 12:8; I Cor. 7:5). And he came to show us that to be great in this kingdom, we must be servants, indeed, bondservants of God by serving each other (Mt. 20:26). It seems legitimate, then, to measure the adequacy of any so-called Christian ministry by the standard of how well it furthers the aims of Christ.
If a so-called Christian ministry does not further abundant life (as illustrated by e.g., I Pet. 1:2; Jude 2), the peace that transcends understanding (Php. 4:7), or the love of God (practically all of I John, but esp. chps 3-4), then it is no Christian ministry, but a pack of wolves in sheep’s clothing. If a so-called Christian ministry weighs people down with shame and guilt instead of offering love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self control (Gal. 5:22-23); if a so-called ministry obsesses over sinfulness instead of emphasizing and rejoicing in whatever is true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent, or praiseworthy (Phil. 4:8), then it is no Christian ministry. If a so-called Christian ministry does not serve in love (Gal. 5:16), then it is no Christian ministry.
How many ministries focus on not the kingdom of heaven that is now, but on how awful we all are, and how we must “get right or get left”? How many ministries focus on changing us into something that might be acceptable before God? How many ministries focus not on grace (because Lord knows, we might abuse it!) but on what is presumed by those in said ministries to be ‘sin’ or ‘wickedness’?
I narrowed down to those that call theirs Christian ministries in §1. Now I narrow to my true focus: “ex gay” ministries.
Applying the characteristics of servants to a Christian ministry, we get something like this:
The ‘ministers’ are individuals who identify completely with the purposes of Christ, never suggesting their own agenda, but always working towards finding the most effective means for furthering the kingdom of God and the liberty, peace, and love that characterize it.
The ‘ministry’ is designed to only further the kingdom of God, and will never become an aim in and of itself, will never outlast its usefulness, or persist in any ‘vision’ other than that which furthers the kingdom of God as expressed by Christ.
If these two characteristics (roughly stated, but the idea behind them is, I hope, clear) are not met by any so-called Christian ministry, then it just isn’t what it calls itself. You cannot serve two masters, Jesus said. If any ministry aims to serve the pet purposes of certain individuals, no matter how closely they might seem to parallel the passion of Christ (say, by using fine-sounding language), then that ministry cannot be serving the purposes of Christ. Get but a percentage of a degree off course, follow that track, and you will find yourself far wide of the mark.
III. You will know them by their fruits.
The so-called “ex gay” ministry is defined by its aim to “free” people from the sinfulness of homosexuality in order for these people to be true Christians. They claim that homosexuality is a barrier to faith, to freedom, to peace, to joy, to love. If such is truly the case, then a ministry of this sort would be a very useful thing, indeed, in furthering the kingdom of God.
Now there are two ways to understand homosexuality, as the “ex gay” ministry sees it. First, there is the orientation, and second, there is the activity. When such ministries are being sloppy (and they tend to often be sloppy, unfortunately), they will say that the orientation is sinful, but their goal will be to eradicate the activity. But then this leaves us with, by their own lights, a horrific problem. If the orientation bars one from the fullness of the kingdom, and if only the activity is removed, then the ministry has done nothing towards the fulfillment of the purposes of Christ.
Indeed, “ex gays” are counselled to battle against their orientation for the rest of their lives, and to abstain from anything that falls into the category of homosexual activity. Unfortunately again, no ministry has found the means of eradicating gay dreams, gay attractions, or gay thoughts. But these are all clearly homosexual activities, so even were one to be generous and say that the only barrier to the kingdom is the activity, no “ex gay” ministry has found a way to remove this and thereby aid one in participating in the fullness of the kingdom.
So the first problem here is one of simple ‘bait and switch,’ if you will. The ministry claims to be for the removal of that which blocks one from God, yet it either removes something entirely different than that which it claims is the cause of the barrier or cannot actually remove that which is the supposed barrier.
Of course, all of this is problematic if in fact either the orientation or the activity is a barrier to God.
Now it is true that some homosexual activity clearly barricades one from the kingdom of God. If one becomes, say, a sex addict or a child molester, then clearly one’s activity serves as a barrier to love. Lust is always such a barrier, for it is based on selfishness rather than generosity. But this, then, has nothing to do with being gay over being straight—there’s nothing intrinsic to the gay orientation that entails sex addiction or child molestation, and indeed, the majority of listed offenders are heterosexual. If this is the case (and the police records show that it is), then there isn’t any need for any “ex gay” ministry here, but for something that treats a problem that strikes straights and gays alike.
But then is it the case that the orientation truly is a barrier to the kingdom of God? There are a couple ways to consider this: theoretically and anecdotally. The tendency of the “ex gay” ministry is to use the latter approach. So, for example (I proceed anecdotally!), The Davies & Rentzel volume (1993) is packed with stories of people who lived overtly gay lives, then chose to leave this all behind in their quest for spiritual health. Go to any “ex gay” website, and it will be packed with ‘success’ stories, following after the highly popular self-help template.
I will never (God willing) be one to deny another’s story. I was not there, so I cannot say that x didn’t happen to somebody. What I will do, however, is question the accuracy of the interpretation of the event. Why x happened, or what x means are simply too fuzzy for one to have certainty about. Indeed, especially when one is looking to purposes or meanings, such change as the interpreter changes throughout her life. And as we grow in wisdom and depth we find often that our earlier interpretations were limited, perhaps even outright false. For this reason, I will always leave open the meaning of the occurrence of some event, especially transformative events.
Note what I do not intend here. I do not intend to remove one’s interpretation of experiences in one’s life. Rather, what I do intend to emphasize here is that we need to keep our interpretations always open for revision. What I believed to be the meaning of something that happened to me when I was ten might very well, indeed probably will, be revised to a more nuanced meaning to me when I am thirty-five. Indeed, this modification of signs and the interpretation of events is a crucial part of the writing of the Gospels, the writers of which looked back on events experienced by the Hebrew nation with a new hermeneutic directed towards Jesus as the Christ.
When “ex gay” ministries offer anecdotal evidence yet argue for a theoretical conclusion, they break one of the cardinal rules of argumentation. Saying that some sixteen people (number chosen randomly) are ‘success’ stories does not give adequate evidence that all people will thrive under the work of this ministry. I teach my students the fallacy of hasty generalization thus: suppose you see the advertisement that “three out of five dentists surveyed recommend XYZ brand toothpaste.” Now you might think that toothpaste is probably better than the other brand because dentists would know. But what if one of these two things came to light? 1) the dentists were known to be bad at their jobs or didn’t actually test XYZ toothpaste, or 2) only five dentists were actually surveyed. In the first case, you’d have a reason to doubt the sweeping conclusion the advertiser wants you to make (that XYZ is the best possible toothpaste because experts say so); in the second case, you’d have a different reason to doubt this sweeping conclusion, since the sample size is so ridiculously small. The point here is that we want real experts and these in significant number. A statistical generalization is only legitimate if we find out the evidence is strong, say in this case, that some 13,000 dentists were surveyed, of varying backgrounds and locales.
The problem with “ex gay” ministries is first that they are not headed by people who are authorities in psychology or the science of human nature. We go to experts in cardiology when we have our heart checked; does it not seem exceedingly odd that we go to somebody who knows little more than we do about our spiritual / psychological health? Another problem is that their offered ‘success stories’ are so very few when compared with the thousands of us who were not so very successful. Like fad diets that push themselves by showing the three or four cases that (in small print are “not typical results”) feed the longing for easy results, “ex gay” testimonies really only tell their own stories, interpreted according to their own perspective of spiritual health.
A much more serious problem, consistent with the first two sections of this entry, has to do with ministry. Who determines the goals of a ministry is key here. Since Jesus never mentioned homosexuality, it clearly cannot have been him. Though I will not here get into the clobber passages (I recommend you read this, or this, or really study this and watch this, before you object to what I am about to state; I will not respond to nor respect knee-jerk reactions from people unwilling to discern emotion from truth), the Bible also never mentions homosexuality, at least not ever in the original Hebrew or Greek, that is, not what we in the 20th and 21st Centuries call homosexuality.
Now if this is the case (and it is, do your research!), then what exactly is the “ex gay” ministry aiming for? And who set the aims? If not Christ, then it cannot be truly Christian. Is it our society and our societal discomfort with those who are distinct from us that sets the goal? But then, if this is the case, and I suspect it is, the ministry is not aimed at all for the furtherance of the kingdom of God, but for some notion of a utopic human “kingdom” wherein God is carefully transformed into our image, not vice versa. That is, if God in Christian scripture says nothing of homosexuality, let alone of transforming gays to straights, then any ministry aimed for this cannot be based on furthering God’s kingdom as pointed to by Christ. So it must be aimed at furthering something else, even if talked about in deceptively “churchy” language. And this is alarming.
To generalize a bit, and to soften my conclusion, it seems abundantly clear that any ministry that is not carefully founded on the teachings of Christ and directed towards the kingdom of God as Jesus defined it cannot be a Christian ministry. And that means that any ministry that gets off track, focusing on the latest trend in upping church attendance numbers or in making people more like each other so we can feel more comfortable around them, instead of on the truth of God’s unmerited love for all of us and how to become lovers of each other as we love God, cannot but be a ministry designed by people for the purposes of serving our own interests. And like Jesus said, you cannot serve two masters.