There’s a lot of talk about conversion therapy at the moment, both in the UK and internationally. The topic has now even found its way onto Netflix in a recently released documentary called Pray Away.
Pray Away tells the story of the launch, operation, and eventual closure of Exodus International, the most famous network of ex-gay ministries. It does this through the eyes of the former leaders of Exodus, along with the stories of those who sought help from the organisation while it was operating.
In many ways, the documentary supports the position that we hold here at Living Out: it shows that conversion therapy overpromises, is rooted in a faulty understanding of the causes of same-sex attraction, and often causes harm. The problems the documentary highlights are exactly the reason we do not support efforts to change someone’s sexual orientation.
Throughout the documentary we get to hear from the leaders of Exodus. We hear about why Exodus started, what they thought they were doing, and how they believed people could change. We also see archive footage of many events run by Exodus and associated ministries. And yet in all of this, we almost never hear about Jesus.
There’s much that could be said about what Pray Away reveals about the ex-gay movement, but one thing stood out to me more than any other: the absence of Jesus.
One thing stood out to me more than any other: the absence of Jesus.
What we do hear about a lot is the promise that change in sexual orientation can take place and the idea that same-sex attraction is always rooted in a problematic relationship with one’s parents or in experiences of sexual abuse. And more than anything, we hear the good news of the ex-gay gospel: you can fall in love with someone of the opposite sex, get married, have sex, and have kids. You can be a normal Christian too!
But where is Jesus in all of this? The Christian gospel – the good news – is about Jesus, not about our sex lives. The promise of the gospel is fulness of life through relationship with Jesus and obedience to his design for all areas of our lives. The promise of the gospel is not that we can find fulness of life through a relationship with someone of the opposite sex. The true gospel is good news for everyone – married or single, gay or straight. We don’t need to experience a change in our sexual orientation, and we don’t need to be married or having sex to experience our best life. We need Jesus.
And yet this truth seems to have been missing in the ex-gay movement. And it’s also missing from the documentary. The only options presented are to embrace the ex-gay gospel – as some, they claim, still do – or to reject the Bible’s teaching on sexuality and marriage. The way of Jesus – the true gospel and the life-giving teaching of the Bible – is totally absent.
How sad that for so many years so many people were sold a Jesus-less gospel. It’s no wonder that so many have now rejected Jesus – they never had the chance to meet the real Jesus. Pray Away reminds us of the importance of a careful understanding of the Bible’s teaching about sexuality, and more than anything, it reminds us about the importance of keeping Jesus at the centre. The ex-gay gospel (like the affirming gospel) puts our sexual and relational desires at the centre. It says life is all about being in a relationship and having sex. The true gospel puts Jesus at the centre.
There’s much more than could be said about Pray Away. The most helpful reflection I’ve come across so far is this discussion between Preston Sprinkle and Tony Scarcello on the Theology in the Raw podcast.