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An Extended Review of

The Church and Homosexuality: Searching for a Middle Ground (1st edition)

Dr. Merton Strommen

(2001, Kirk House Publishers, Minneapolis, MN)


Review by Tim Fisher, 2002      (Send email to:








Chapter-by-Chapter Analysis of The Church and Homosexuality


What Causes Homosexuality?                                                                                            

     Father-Son Estrangement: A Chicken-or-the-Egg Argument

     The Political Convenience of Multiple Factors


Should Homosexuality Be Considered Normal

     APA No More Political than Other Groups

     The Inadequacies of an Inexact Science


Is Homosexuality a Healthy Lifestyle?

     Strommen Finds Promiscuous Men to Be Promiscuous                                                 

     Paul Cameron’s Phony Statistics                                                                                   


Can Homosexual Orientation Be Changed?

     Case for Reparative Therapy Based on Bad Science                                                     

     Misguided Faith in Self-Reports                                                                                    

     Reports of Harm Due to Reparative Therapy                                                                 


What Does the Bible Say?

     What Did Martin Luther Really Mean by “Literal Meaning”?                                          


Should the Church Adopt the Gay Agenda?

     NARTH Offers No Middle Ground                                                                              


Final Words: Beyond the Science




Works Cited                                                                                                                            


An Extended Review of

The Church and Homosexuality: Searching for a Middle Ground(1st edition)

Dr. Merton Strommen

(2001, Kirk House Publishers, Minneapolis, MN)


Review by Tim Fisher


Introduction   (back to Contents)


One of the jacket blurbs for Merton P. Strommen’s The Church and Homosexuality: Searching for a Middle Ground reads: “Strommen, bringing together research, voices concerns that are rarely heard in conversations on sexual orientation.” Even a relatively casual reading of the popular literature proves this statement false. In reality, The Church and Homosexuality offers very little that’s new, a fact especially apparent to anyone querying the internet on this topic. Websites presenting information similar to Dr. Strommen’s (sometimes very similar) abound. Print books and articles akin to Dr. Strommen’s, although less numerous, are nevertheless readily available. At a mere 96 thinly-written pages, The Church and Homosexuality provides neither a thorough nor a fresh explication of its particular point of view. Instead, it summarizes an argument typical of a certain segment of the church, which endorses a supposedly “literal” reading of scriptural passages purportedly dealing with homosexual behavior (such behavior is condemned) and which—oddly, given its particular interpretive approach—relies heavily on the social sciences for its argumentative weight.

Because the book offers such a handy synopsis of the popular, traditionalist argument—and I say “popular” to distinguish it from the more rigorous, academic work of other traditionalist writers such as Jones and Yarhouse and (most recently) Robert Gagnon—and because such popular arguments are what often inform the attitudes and opinions of many churchgoers, I have taken the trouble to respond to its contents in some detail. Along with much of the popular literature on this topic (both traditionalist and reformist[1]), Strommen’s approach has relatively little to do with theology. Instead, most of the book is devoted to the scientific (largely the social scientific) determination of causes of homosexuality, the “normality” of homosexuality, its physical and mental health effects, its susceptibility to change, and the overreaching scientific claims of the so-called “militant gay agenda.”

Some readers will find Dr. Strommen’s thesis—an argument against the full participation of gays and lesbians in the life of the church, relying heavily on the social sciences—to be at odds with the church’s role in the world. Many will ask, Isn’t the church grounded in the gospel rather than science? Of what use, then, is the scientific research? How can it possibly be called on to help the church discern how it should respond to homosexual people? Of what use is The Church and Homosexuality? Strommen seems to sense this tension, without resolving it, when he affirms the view of a position paper assembled by the Evangelical Church in Germany, which states, “Even the majority view of the phenomenon of homosexuality in the human science today cannot be considered to have any normative significance for a theological assessment” (p. 76).  Still, it seems instructive to review Dr. Strommen’s work on its own terms.



Chapter-By-Chapter Analysis of The Church And Homosexuality    (back to Contents)


Dr. Strommen seriously mishandles the social science research on homosexuality in a number of ways. In fact, his book is characterized by such missteps. What follows is a discussion of some of the instances of poor research, organized by the book’s own chapter titles. The instances are of several types. In his book, Dr. Strommen

1)   Fails to recognize and report important limitations of research sampling.

2)   Cites research which, in its particulars, does not support his thesis. That is, the research he cites does not prove what he says it proves.

3)   Fails to account for numerous valid research studies which seriously challenge his thesis. 

4)   Fails to recognize serious flaws in research methodologies, flaws which have been amply discussed in major research journals.

5)   Fails to adequately recognize the crucial distinction between, and complicated interaction of, homosexual orientation and behavior.



What Causes Homosexuality?    (back to Contents)


Father-Son Estrangement: A Chicken-or-the-Egg Argument      (back to Contents)


Dr. Strommen cites Fisher and Greenberg (1996) as support for the idea that having a distant, negative father is a factor in causing a son’s homosexual orientation (pp. 29–30). Yet in fact Fisher and Greenberg’s study asserts nothing of the kind. When reporting on Fisher and Greenberg’s findings, what Strommen fails to mention is the following conclusion of the authors:

The consistent picture of father distance and negativity associated with homosexuality in both males and females keeps pressing for explanation. (p.278)

In other words, the authors assign no conclusion to their data in regards to what causes  homosexuality.

It may be instructive to discuss Fisher and Greenberg’s book in a little more detail, in order to better demonstrate how Strommen has misused its data. The title of the Fisher/Greenberg book is Freud Scientifically Reappraised: Testing the Theories and Therapy, and the book does what the title says: it evaluates Freud’s theories. In our case, the book evaluates the various elements of Oedipal theory as they apply to the formation of homosexual orientation. The authors nowhere attempt to prove or disprove a “parental influence” of the sort Strommen seems to be looking for in the causation of homosexual orientation. Rather, their purpose is far more limited: they evaluate research data in light of Freud’s Oedipal theory. Although the authors indeed speculate about the role of fathers in “sex-typing” their children, they offer it merely as speculation; they present it as nothing like proof. The authors do not address the question, “What causes homosexuality?” but rather the question, “Was Freud’s Oedipal theory of homosexual formation correct?” Their answer to this second question is “no.”

The research in the area of parental causation of homosexual formation, including the work of Fisher and Greenberg, seems not to have surmounted a basic logical problem of the chicken-and-egg variety. Which comes first, the negative father or the homosexual son? For all of its comprehensiveness, Fisher and Greenberg’s analysis does not address this basic question. D. Michael Quinn writes the following concerning the pattern of homosexual men reporting distant, negative fathers:

Such a pattern is unsurprising in a culture that has negative judgments about homosexuality. Since both heterosexual and homosexual American males [as well as homosexual women, according to Fisher and Greenberg] report unsatisfactory relationships with their fathers, the higher incidence of strain between homosexual sons and their fathers is more likely a result of the sons’ “homosexual tendencies” rather than the cause. (Quinn 1996)

Again, what Fisher and Greenberg do demonstrate is a correlation between distant father/homosexual son. The demonstration of causation is left for others to investigate. Correlation does not imply causation, yet persons without scientific training often attribute causative relationships to things that are correlated. It is important for readers to be given a chance to properly grasp the concepts. A failure to understand the difference between correlation and causation is the difference between saying “most homosexuals are right-handed” and “right-handedness causes homosexuality.”

What Dr. Strommen needs to tell his reader here is that, given what is known, it is just as likely that homosexual sons cause distant fathers. Such an admission would significantly change the tenor of his chapter called  “What Causes Homosexuality?” and it would bring the reader far closer to the truth about what current science can tell us. If Dr. Strommen’s aim is to help a lay  audience understand the complex subject of sexuality, if his aim is to present to readers what science does (and does not) suggest, if his aim is to provide as close to a true (and reliable, and valid) word about our homosexual brothers and sisters as he can, then why does he avoid any explicit discussion of the chicken-or-the-egg character of the “parental factor”?

It’s important to note, as Strommen does not, that some researchers who have studied people who are not currently in therapy have failed to find evidence of the distant father/homosexual son pattern. Carl S. Keener and Douglas E. Swartzendruber report the following in regards to  Marmor’s 1998 research: 


Marmor concluded that “[o]ver fifty variables in maternal, paternal and sibling family patterns have been found in male homosexuals—loving mothers, hostile mothers, loving fathers, hostile fathers, idealized fathers; sibling rivalries; intact homes; broken homes, absent mothers, absent fathers, etc.” [. . . .] Furthermore, careful studies of non-patient heterosexuals with non-patient homosexuals have shown “…no consistent relationship between the nature of the family constellation and subsequent sexual orientation.

(Keener and Swartzendruber)



The Political Convenience of Multiple Factors     (back to Contents)


Strommen’s claims that the “best answer” for what causes homosexuality is given by Jeffrey Satinover, who writes:

Like all behavioral and mental states, homosexuality is multifactorial. It is neither biological nor exclusively psychological, but results from an as-yet-difficult-to-quantify mixture of genetic factors, intrauterine influences, postnatal environment (e.g. parental, sibling, and cultural behavior) and a complex series of repeatedly reinforced choices occurring at critical phases in development. (Satinover, as quoted in Strommen, p. 25)

As an example of the multifactorial nature of homosexuality, Strommen points out (in a Counterpoint article published in the August 2001 Metro Lutheran) that although a strained Father-Son relationship is often a causal factor in a son’s homosexuality, “there are homosexuals who report warm, healthy relationships with both parents. In their case, parental relationships are not a contributing factor.”

Indeed, homosexuality may have a multi-factorial cause. Yet it needs to be pointed out how politically convenient the “multiple factors” approach is when stigmatizing (intentionally or unintentionally) the behaviors and relationships of a whole category of people. Here we see how “causes of homosexuality” can be found under every bed and in the obscurity of every shadow. Scientifically speaking, this approach is far too loose and prone to misuse and misinterpretation. 

Here is Joseph Nicolosi, president of the National Association of Research and Therapy for Homosexuals (NARTH) on the multiple-factor idea:

Homosexuality is almost certainly due to multiple factors and cannot be reduced solely to a faulty father-son relationship. Fathers of homosexual sons are usually also fathers of heterosexual sons—so the personality of the father is clearly not the sole cause of homosexuality. Other factors I have seen in the development of homosexuality include a hostile, feared older brother; a mother who is a very warm and attractive personality and proves more appealing to the boy than an emotionally removed father; a mother who is actively disdainful of masculinity; childhood seduction by another male; peer labeling of the boy due to poor athletic ability or timidity; in recent years, cultural factors encouraging a confused and uncertain youngster into an embracing gay community; and in the boy himself, a particularly sensitive, relatively fragile, often passive disposition.

Because many, if not all, of the above claims of causation have not been adequately proven (there are serious problems in almost all of Nicolosi’s and Strommen’s reported etiological research, problems with sampling, with methodology, and with the correlation/causation fallacy), this “multifactorial” argument of homosexual etiology ends up sounding, in their mouths, perilously close to the way astrology works. If one posits a model for what “Jimmy” will be like in the future which contains enough vaguely defined and essentially un-proven “factors,” then it becomes almost a forgone conclusion that someone looking to discover the cause of Jimmy’s unhappiness will be able to find it among these factors. 




Should Homosexuality Be Considered Normal?         (back to Contents)


APA No More Political than Other Groups     (back to Contents)

In Chapter three of his book, Strommen would have us believe that the 1973 American Psychological Association’s removal of homosexuality from the list of officially recognized psychiatric and psychological illnesses is purely the result of politics. He would have us believe that a barely begun, gay/lesbian social justice movement was able to direct the opinions of many thousands of professional researchers, counselors, and clinicians, and hold them in its thrall for almost thirty years. In spite of what Strommen may think, it is a widely recognized fact that the modern gay movement got its start only four years before the APA announced the change. To argue that this movement had gained in that short time the kind of political power which itself could change so many informed minds is ludicrous.

Lee Beckstead[2], a researcher at the University of Utah, who is by no means a “militant gay activist” (to use Strommen’s manipulative terminology), writes:

I’m quite familiar with [some] therapists’ claims that they are being bullied by gay advocates. The decision to remove homosexuality as a disorder was based on changing social attitudes (yes), but primarily it was because researchers began to study homosexuals from a non-pathological [non-diseased, or “normal”] point of view. . . . Rather than beginning with a conclusion and working only to support that conclusion and no other, as NARTH does today, researchers began to study nonclinical homosexuals. [That is, homosexuals not seeking therapy.] The theories that homosexuality per se is pathological and is created by dysfunctional family relationships have failed to be supported when using empirical methods (Bayer, 1987; Gonsiorek, 1991).

Evelyn Hooker (1957, 1958) was the first to investigate homosexuality by comparing nonpatient homosexuals with nonpatient heterosexuals. Before Hooker, researchers investigating homosexuality, such as Bieber et al, used clinical samples of lesbian, gay, and bisexual individuals to support their hypotheses. Hooker concluded, however, that in general homosexuals are indistinguishable from heterosexuals in terms of pathology. Well-designed studies since the 1950s (e.g., Bene, 1965; Reiss, 1980; Saghir & Robbins, 1973; Thompson, McCandless, & Strickland, 1971) have added further data that asked for a revision of the diagnostic status of homosexuality. Siegelman (1974), for example, noted that no difference was found regarding father-son relationships between homosexuals and heterosexuals when these groups were represented by individuals who scored lower on neuroticism.

The discrepancy between the claims made by the vast majority of psychological and psychiatric professionals and those made by Strommen isn’t caused by politics alone nor by politics primarily. By no means. As with all things, even with scientific things, and especially with social-scientific things, our sense of what is right and what is wrong, both about moral questions and facts, informs the direction in which we point our microscopes. This is what politics is about. We should not want it any other way. If we look merely at the politics surrounding the issue of homosexuality, we find political maneuvering among the religious right as well as among the secular liberal left—and among every group in between. If there is any brand of politics promoted, there are several. Charles Silverstein writes,

Some critics, appalled by the removal of homosexuality from the list of mental disorders, have argued that a vote of hands (referring to the committee vote [by the APA when deciding to remove homosexuality from the list of illnesses]) is not science. They forget that it was another vote of hands that placed homosexuality on the list in the first place. (Silverstein 1991)


The Inadequacies of an Inexact Science   (back to Contents)


In this section of Chapter 3, Strommen reminds us that science is often inexact but we should not discount it because of this. He goes on to write,

[I]f one is able to assemble many studies on a given subject—even though they are admittedly imprecise—and discover that they all point to the same conclusion, one can accept the findings as being based on fairly solid evidence. For this reason whoever uses research information must favor the findings of many studies . . . .  (p. 38)

This concept of what constitutes sound research seems reasonable enough, as far as it goes. But Strommen does not acknowledge another, equally important concept: the significance of the preponderance of the evidence—that is, our conclusions should be informed by what is indicated by the majority of the research. On the topic of whether or not homosexuality should be considered “normal,” the quantity of the evidence very much leans toward the conclusion that homosexuality is not a disease, is not a pathology, is not a neurosis. The preponderance of the evidence speaks loudly against Strommen’s thesis. (See Beckstead quote above.)

Here’s a list of professional organizations who believe that the preponderance of the evidence draws us away from Strommen’s claims: the American Academy of Pediatrics, American Counseling Association, American Federation of Teachers, American Medical Association, American Psychiatric Association, American Psychological Association, The Interfaith Alliance, National Association of School Psychologists, National Association of Social Workers, National Association of Secondary School Principals, and National Education Association, the Surgeon General of the United States.

The above is a partial list. The list of those who agree with Strommen is much, much shorter, both in length and in scientific stature.



Is Homosexuality a Healthy Lifestyle?        (back to Contents)


Strommen Finds Promiscuous Gay Men to Be Promiscuous   (back to Contents)


Strommen seriously mishandles the research in regard to the relative health of what he calls “the homosexual lifestyle.” This chapter of The Church and Homosexuality is particularly incoherent. Strommen cites several studies demonstrating that promiscuity exists among gay men: Bell and Weinberg (1978), M. Pollak (1985), Martin Dannecker (1991), McWhirter and Mattison (1985). Indeed, these examples establish the fact that promiscuous gay men exist in the world. But why should anyone think otherwise? Does anyone think otherwise? What is the point of demonstrating this fact? Everyone knows that some gay men are promiscuous, just as everyone knows that some straight men are promiscuous. Simply proving that promiscuous gay men exist cannot possibly be the real focus of Chapter 4, unless the chapter is merely tautological, proving the point that “promiscuous gays are promiscuous.” (And not only that, they’re gay!).

But the basic logic of this chapter is not tautological. What this chapter seems be trying to prove is that, as Strommen writes, “there is a strong tendency within the homosexual community toward promiscuity and very high-risk behavior. . .” (p. 47, emphasis mine). The problem with Strommen’s argument is that such a tendency is not at all proven by the four studies he cites. Let’s look at these citations one by one. (I will speak very little about the Dannecker study, since it is apparently available only in German, and I don’t read German).


Bell and Weinberg (1978)

This study hardly proves a tendency towards gay promiscuity. As Bell and Weinberg frankly admit, their study made no effort to find a sample representative of homosexuals in general. Their intent was to study a particular subgroup of homosexuals—namely, gays involved in the sexually permissive sub-culture of San Francisco during the 1970s (a culture coming into its heyday before the AIDS crisis). Any connection to gays living outside this sub-culture was merely, and admittedly, speculative. They write, “San Francisco’s sexual permissiveness foreshadows what could well happen elsewhere in the country.”[3] While the statistics were indeed alarming for this subgroup at that time, they provide us with little useful statistical information about the sexual behavior of gay men in general today. All it tells us is that some gay men are—or, in this case, were—highly promiscuous. In reference to this study, Jeramy Townsley writes,

Without [a] control group, we cannot generalize their sample to the population at large, because we do not know that their population represents national norms since we have no heterosexual control group.[4]  It is possible that the heterosexual statistics [might have been] equally high, and could have shown that the data does not represent promiscuity specifically among gays, but [rather] of the sexually active single person in San Francisco in the 1970's.

[Another] problem . . . is that . . . the homosexual samples were taken from the following places: singles bars (22%), gay baths (9%), public places (=guys hanging out in parks to find sex partners; 6%), private bars (=sex clubs; 5%), personal contacts (people that the bar people, public place people, bath house people, etc, knew personally and referred; 23%), public advertising + organizations + mailing lists (29%).

Obviously, if researchers look in places that are likely to be frequented by highly promiscuous gay men, no one should be surprised if what they find is a lot of promiscuity. This study is not generalizable to the population of all gay men today.


Michael Pollak

Although Strommen makes no mention of the fact, Pollak’s research is actually based, in significant part, on Bell and Weinberg’s data. Pollak himself provides no data of his own. Pollak also bases the essay on other data, which are rather similar to Bell and Weinberg’s, that were gathered for a study by Martin Dannecker (a different Dannecker study than the 1991 study mentioned above). Once again, it’s very difficult for me to say much about Dannecker’s work, being that it is in German. But what I do know is that, according to Pollak, the data were gathered by Dannecker in a way similar to Bell and Weinberg’s method—that is, using the “snowball” method, where “a limited number of homosexual acquaintances are asked to pass on questionnaires to their friends, asking them to pass on to theirs, and so on” (p. 59).

Of course, this method, while useful and convenient in many ways, does not produce a proper control group nor a properly representative sample. Therefore, Pollak’s statistics—both the statistics he re-presented from Belland Weinberg, and those he obtained from Dannecker—are not generalizable. This is not to say that the study provides no valuable information about the lives of the people it examined. It’s merely to say that we cannot apply it in any statistical significant way to all gay men today.


McWhirter and Mattison (1984)

Again, seeking to demonstrate the bad health of the so-called homosexual lifestyle, Strommen cites one of the “most careful studies” that has looked at same-sex relationships—a 1984 book called The Male Couple: How Relationships Develop by D. McWhirter and A. Mattison. Strommen reports, correctly, that out of the 156 male couples studied, “only seven had been able to maintain sexual fidelity.” But had Strommen’s own apprehension of this study been even half as careful as the study itself, he would have noted McWhirter and Mattison’s strong caution against using their research to paint a picture of the gay community at large. The authors write,

We always have been very careful to explain that the very nature of our research sample [gays living in San Diego during the sexual revolution of the 1970s] . . . prevents the findings from being applicable and generalizable to the entire gay male community.
(p. ix, McWhirter and Mattison, 1984)

Of course, this doesn’t mean their research is useless in helping us understand the dynamics of gay relationships. Far from it. But it does mean that it is scientifically unsound to apply the study’s statistics to the population in general.

Indeed, a more recent study has generated statistics looking much different than the ones Strommen presents. Researchers Bryant and Demian report that 63 percent of study participants (gay, male) reported being involved in monogamous relationships; 78 percent reported a frequency in extra-relationship sex of zero. Of course, this study is as vulnerable to “self-report” biases as any other—yet it invites us to ask why Strommen avoids all mention of this research in his book. Similarly, Strommen neglects the significant work of L. Peplau (1993), who, as Beckstead writes, “debunked the myths of relationship instability and suggested that [homosexual] individuals want enduring relationships, can achieve them, and that those relationships can be happy and functional.”

Strommen follows his four citations, which he says establish the existence of homosexual promiscuity, with a bold-headed section entitled “Are Heterosexuals as Promiscuous?” We must therefore ask—are heterosexuals as promiscuous as who? As promiscuous gays? As gays in general? If the former is the case, then in essence Strommen is asking, “Are heterosexuals in general as promiscuous as promiscuous homosexuals?” Of course they are not. Neither are gays in general as promiscuous as promiscuous straights.

Again, unless Strommen’s logic here is tautological, one can conclude only that Strommen intends for the reader to apply the statistics reported in Chapter 4 to the population of homosexuals in general so that we might compare them to statistics relating to heterosexuals in general.

To answer the question, “Are Heterosexuals as Promiscuous,”  Strommen moves directly to a study undertaken by the National Opinion Research Center (Laumann, et al) which finds a low level of promiscuity among heterosexuals. Indeed, this study does seem to be “a comprehensive and methodologically sound survey of America’s practices and beliefs,” as Strommen writes. It seems an obvious mistake for Strommen to compare the portion of the Laumann study that looks at heterosexuals (providing data generalizable to the general population of heterosexuals) with Bell and Weinberg, Pollak, Dannecker, and McWhirter and Mattison (studies of homosexuals reporting statistics not generalizable). But what is truly puzzling is that Strommen should overlook the findings of the Laumann study as they apply to gays in general. Let’s look at what Laumann conclude about their statistics. Here are some quotes (emphasis added):

There is a clear overall pattern in this [study]. In all cases, when we dichotomize our sample, the group of people with same-gender partners (or who define themselves as homosexual or bisexual) have higher average numbers of partners than the rest of the sexually active people in the sample. In many, if not most, of the cases for the men, these differences are not statistically significant.  (314)

The higher mean numbers of partners for respondents reporting same-gender sex corresponds to a stereotype of male homosexuals that is widespread in our society. . . . While some evidence in our data supports this general tendency, the differences do not appear very large in view of the higher variability in our measures that results from the small sample size of homosexually active men. (316)

It seems that the Laumann, et al study, as far as it goes, actually supports the idea that gay men are not much more promiscuous than straight men, and strongly argues against Strommen’s point. Although the Laumann authors admit that the sampling size of identified “active homosexuals” (my term) is relatively small, they believe their “data, limited in some respects though they may be, represent the most varied and comprehensive measures of different aspects of homosexuality to be collected on a representative sample of U.S. adults” (p. 320). So here we have a study of sexual behavior, both heterosexual and homosexual, that seems to be one of the best done to date, and yet Strommen  ignores its findings as they apply to the very thing he is exploring.



Paul Cameron’s Phony Statistics    (back to Contents)


I should say at the outset that Dr. Strommen has, in private correspondence with me, admitted that his use of Paul Cameron’s research—which claims that homosexuality causes premature death—was badly chosen. He promised me he would be deleting this material from any later edition of The Church and Homosexuality. Fair enough. Yet frankly, the fact that Dr. Strommen ever found Cameron’s research to be valid is puzzling, given that the criticism of Cameron’s work is uncommonly widespread, easily accessible, and well-substantiated. This research should never have passed even the basic “smell test” that should be applied to all research reports before publishing them with one’s approval. And even though I had previously pointed out to Dr. Strommen (in detail) the problems with Cameron’s research, he nevertheless read his Cameron section verbatim, in public, a month later.

Concerning Paul Cameron’s research claiming that homosexuality causes premature death, Strommen writes:

Little is said publicly about how a gay lifestyle affects the heath and longevity of homosexuals, yet it must be regarded as a serious issue. Evidence to this is found in an analysis made of the deaths of seven thousand homosexuals and heterosexuals using obituary notices in a large number of gay and a smaller number of non-gay newspapers. The researches, Cameron, Playfair, and Wellum (1993) found that the gay life span, even apart from AIDS and living with a long-term partner, is shorter than that of married men by more than three decades. (p. 44)

Cameron’s is the sort of really, really bad research that people like former Education Secretary William Bennett trumpeted as evidence of the un-healthiness of being gay. Paul Cameron’s research has been widely and profoundly discredited. Here is but one example of the criticism, from Walter Olson (writing in the online magazine Slate), in an article called William Bennett, Gays, and the Truth: Mr. Virtue Dabbles in Phony Statistics”:

What do vital-statistics buffs think of this technique? Nick Eberstadt at the American Enterprise Institute sums up the reactions of several of his fellow demographers: “The method as you describe it is just ridiculous.” But you don’t have to be a trained statistician to spot the fallacy at its heart, which is, to quote Centers for Disease Control and Prevention statistician John Karon, that “you’re only getting the ages of those who die.” Gay men of the same generation destined to live to old age, even if more numerous, won’t turn up in the sample.

Other critics rattle off further objections. The deaths reported in these papers, mostly AIDS deaths, will tend to represent the community defined by such papers or directly known to their editors. It will include relatively more subjects who live in town and are overtly gay and relatively few who blend into the suburbs and seldom set foot in bars. It will over-represent those whose passing strikes others as newsworthy and under-represent those who end their days in retired obscurity in some sunny clime.

. . . . Moreover, the [obituaries] also recorded lots of violent and accidental deaths. From this Cameron and company concluded not that newsworthy deaths tend to get into newspapers, but that gays must experience shockingly high rates of violent death. With a perfectly straight face they report, for example, that lesbians are at least 300 times more likely to die in car crashes than females of similar ages in general.  [emphasis added]

A little more background on this Paul Cameron is instructive. According to Mark Pietrzyk, writing in the News Telegraph (March 10, 1995),

Cameron has . . . argued that the extermination of homosexuals should also be  considered a "viable option." At the 1985 Conservative Political Action Conference, Cameron announced to the attendees, "Unless we get medically lucky, in three or four years, one of the options discussed will be the extermination of homosexuals." According to an interview with former Surgeon General C. Everett Koop, Cameron was recommending the extermination option as early as 1983.



Can a Homosexual Orientation Be Changed?       (back to Contents)


Case for Reparative Therapy Based on Bad Science     (back to Contents)


Another of the issues Strommen fails to assess adequately is a treatment called (variously) reparative therapy, conversion therapy, ex-gay ministry, or re-orientation therapy. This therapy purports to change a person’s sexual behavior and/or orientation from homosexual to heterosexual. In his book, and in his recent Counterpoint article published in the August Metro Lutheran, Strommen calls special attention to a paper written by Warren Throckmorton called “Attempts to Modify Sexual Orientation: A Review of Outcome Literature and Ethical Issues.” Throckmorton argues for the proven efficacy of conversion therapies. What Strommen neglects to account for in any substantive way is why the great majority of the scientific community contradicts Throckmorton’s conclusions. It does so for good reasons. Many researchers, such as Charles Silverstein, John Gonsiorek, Gerald Davison, Jack Dresher, and Douglas Haldeman have thoroughly discredited the methodologies of those studies (Throckmorton’s review included) claiming to prove successful “shifts” from a homosexual orientation to a heterosexual orientation. As Haldeman writes,

The [conversion therapy] studies all rely on clients’ self-reported outcomes or on therapists’ post-treatment evaluations. As a result, all conversion therapy studies are biased in favor of “cures” because clients of conversion therapy are likely to believe that homosexuality is an undesirable trait to admit and may feel pressure to tell their therapist that the treatment has been successful. [Haldeman 1999]

Self-reports dealing with sexual behavior stigmatized by large portions of society, have been shown to be notoriously unreliable. (More on “reliability” below.)

A second big problem with the works cited by both Strommen and Throckmorton is their muddling of the important distinction between, and interaction of, homosexual orientation and behavior. (“Orientation,” in overly-simplistic, layman’s terms, might be likened to “desire,” and “behavior” generally refers to having sex.) For instance, both Strommen and Throckmorton happily cite the work of L. Birk, a therapist whom they say has logged one of the best records of “helping homosexually-oriented people reduce or overcome their homosexual tendencies” (Strommen, p. 54). Yet here is what Birk himself has to say about those who have accomplished “solid heterosexual shifts”:

Most, if not all, people who have been homosexual continue to have some homosexual feelings, fantasies, and interests. More often than not, they also have occasional, or more than occasional, homosexual outlets, even while being “happily married.” (Birk, 1980)

Such confusion between orientation and behavior is endemic to the conversion therapy literature, including that of Strommen. As Haldeman notes, “with almost all . . . conversion studies, successful outcome was defined as capacity for heterosexual intercourse.” Such outcomes are far from achieving the “orientation reversal” claimed by the studies cited by Throckmorton. Indeed, gay men have been marrying and having sex with straight women for hundreds of years, a situation which has caused no end to their gayness nor to personal heartache and family tragedy.

            Below is an extended quote from Beckstead about the methodological flaws found in reparative therapy—and specifically, the problems with the 83 studies reviewed by Throckmorton (emphasis added):

[T]those conducting investigations into the efficacy of sexual reorientation must take into consideration the limited data that can be derived from surveys based on self-reports. Taken at face value, the reports in my study by participants who identified as heterosexual and successful would indicate that they were no longer homosexual. As already stated, this claim is too simplistic and may be misleading. These particular participants would also more than likely report becoming heterosexual on surveys that ask similar questions regarding outcome change (such as studies mentioned by Throckmorton). Therefore, questionnaires that do not explore the meanings of participants’ definitions of sexual orientation and reports of change may not only be meaningless due to oversimplification but also dangerous and misleading if they perpetuate an ideology that gays, lesbians, and bisexuals can and should be heterosexual if only they were motivated enough. Individuals who are seeking a “cure” for themselves, family members, or friends may be susceptible to the imprecise messages of so-called ex-gays and conversion therapists and continue to hope and seek out treatment for same-sex attractions.  Methodological limitations are prevalent in all the studies mentioned in Throckmorton’s article. Haldeman (1991, 1994) wrote extensively about the limitations of these studies to “prove” anything.

Examples of limitations include (a) participants are obtained from advertisements in Christian fundamentalist newsletters, which means this was not a random sample and therefore capitalizes on response bias; (b) most are still in therapy, which means that they were investing time and money in an intervention that they hoped would be successful; (c) many are married at the time, which may indicate that they were highly motivated to report “positive” results and may have had heterosexual attractions to begin with;(d) these studies are not longitudinal and outcomes may be only temporary; (e) studies are usually based on an entirely clinical sample and outcomes based on subjective therapist impression; (f) no external validation is used, such as psychophysiological measurements; (g) most studies dismiss fantasy as an indicator of sexual orientation; and (h) no control groups.

These are poorly designed studies and cannot be used to prove that sexual orientation can be changed.


Misguided Faith in Self-Reports     (back to Contents)

Let’s take a closer look at how Strommen uses the results of an admittedly inexact science.

Strommen places great faith in the reliability of information collected via client self-reports. In the October (2001) issue of the Metro Lutheran, he writes (in response to an earlier Metro Lutheran letter of my own),

Fisher is convinced by Haldeman’s argument that self-reported outcomes of studies involving reparative therapy are invalid because, [as Haldeman writes] “clients of conversion therapy are likely to believe that homosexuality is an undesirable trait to admit and may feel pressure to tell their therapist that the treatment has been successful.” That, of course, is an assumption.


Strommen goes on to describe successful research of his own, having nothing to do with sexuality, which was conducted using self-report methodologies. Strommen misses the point. It is certainly true that self-report can sometimes be a useful, reliable, and valid method when collecting client data about some (perhaps most) topics. The problem comes when self-reports are the main, or only, method of collecting data about a socially unacceptable, stigmatized behavior. As Tozer and McClanahan (1999) write,

The validity of self-reports is suspect in the absence of other corroboration, especially in studies wherein participants are highly motivated to report change.

It’s clear there is ample reason to “assume” that self reports concerning stigmatized sexual behavior are not in themselves reliable or valid. Again, a quote from Beckstead regarding empirical research on self-reports and sexuality:

Specific studies that [negatively] assessed self-reports of sexual reorientation changes in homosexuality with objective psychophysiological data, such as from a phallometric assessment[5] or reports from spouses, include Conrad & Wincze (1976) and Freund (1960,  1977). . . . [S]ex offenders are assessed today using phallometric and self-report assessments, and their self-reports are significantly inconsistent with their phallometric assessment (i.e. Kuban et al., 1999). Intuitively, this makes sense because nobody wants to be known socially or internally as a sex offenders. Homosexuals within religious communities are considered sex offenders and must hide their attractions or homosexual arousal response. It's not necessarily that they are intent on lying, but they need to believe (as well their social system) that they are cured.

Beckstead also notes research from Gonsiorek, Sell, and Weinrich (1995) who also report empirical research demonstrating the unreliability of self-reports.[6]

            Even NARTH complains of the problems inherent with self-reports. (Tellingly, NARTH only questions the validity of self-reports when doing so supports their anti-homosexual agenda: i.e. NARTH says men will lie about how many sexual partners they’ve had, but somehow, inexplicably, NARTH would have us believe that gay men consistently tell the truth to their reparative therapists.) NARTH (under corporate authorship) writes:

In 1987, Saltzman and associates … found that self reporting of information on sexual behavior was not as reliable as demographic information, and that the social desirability of the answers appears to effect recall. (Saltzman 1987) Other researchers have suggested that the reliability of sexual behavior information decreases as the frequency of behaviors increases. . . . . (Martin 1984)

Psychologist Dr. Walt Odets believes self reports of sexual behavior may not be accurate:

… .We know from considerable psychological experience with the anonymous self-reporting of severely stigmatized behaviors, that they are underreported by as much as 30 to 50 percent, regardless of how information is collected. . . .  (Odets 1995, p.185)


More specifically, let’s look at Strommen’s claims about the reliability of Throckmorton’s list of studies. (In the jargon of scientific research, “reliability” means “repeatability” or “consistency.” A result that occurs over and over again is said to be represent a relatively high degree of reliability. Note that reliability is not the same as validity. Validity refers to an accurate measurement of the concept you are trying to demonstrate. A study can provide reliable results—results that are repeated—but not necessarily valid ones.) [7]

 In the December, 2001 issue of the Metro Lutheran, Dr. Strommen explained that even though the Throckmorton’s list of studies used methods resulting in relatively low statistical reliability, the fact that there are many (i.e. 83) studies that come to similar conclusions indicates that we may increase our estimate of reliability when evaluating the 83 studies overall. Here is how he explains this statistical point about reliability, in his own words:

In a survey questionnaire to which people respond, you will usually find that single items measure low in reliability (e.g. r= .40). For that reason we (in the past) seldom used data from single items to arrive at conclusions. Rather, we first used cluster and factor analysis of all the items in the questionnaire to identify clusters of items. A cluster may involve 8 or so items where each item focuses on the same dimension. Using the items in a cluster, we can establish a scale and a standardized score. As we add each item of low reliability to form the scale, we increase the scale’s overall reliability. Once we have added 8 items of relatively low reliability to our scale, we may have increased the reliability of this measure to well over r = .80. Information now gained using this scale of high reliability is now worth considering.

If we want greater precision we can add additional items (assuming there are more items in the cluster). At Search Institute, when measuring evidences of faith, we developed a scale of 38 items. The reliability for this scale was r = .85 or higher.

I see what is done to enhance a scale score as analogous to how we can use these case studies by therapists. Like items low in reliability, these studies which all point to the same conclusion, provide reasonable information to arrive at a first stage in one’s investigation as to whether or not change for some is possible.

When one has 83 case studies that all point to the same conclusion, one has something analogous to establishing [relatively high] reliability in a questionnaire scale score.

            Of course, this account uses hypothetical numbers and a hypothetical application of factor analysis. Nobody has actually grouped into “clusters” the various items of measurement of the 83 studies held up by Throckmorton. Nobody has actually done the work of devising adequate criteria by which a measure from one of Throckmorton’s studies might be correlated with a measure from another. Nobody has done the work of devising means by which proper therapist/observer consistency might be established. Nobody has done the work of figuring out how studies that feature entirely different measures can be seen to examine what is supposedly the same construct. 

            Strommen’s discussion provides a useful analogy to explain a concept which in itself is perfectly valid: many studies pointing in a the same direction can indeed increase our confidence in the research. But here’s the catch—it’s not clear all that these studies do point in the same direction. Although Strommen claims that the 83 studies look at the construct of “change in sexual orientation” (p. 54), a more careful perusal of the research reveals there to be no such “constructural” agreement across the studies. “Change in sexual orientation” is not by any means the term used by all of the studies. Overall, the studies use a variety of other terms, including: “heterosexual shift,” “change to solid heterosexual functioning,” “decrease in homosexual tendencies.” These differences are not merely differences in terminology; they are differences in what is being measured. Looking across the 83 studies, one sees many different measures used—and one doesn’t need to know a lot about statistics to realize that it is the correlation between two or more observations of the same measure which is used to estimate reliability. I’ve noted the following distinct measures:

A) Acknowledged homosexual behavior (whether or not men decrease the amount of sex they have with other men)


B) Acknowledged heterosexual behavior (whether or not men increase the amount of sex they have with women)


C) Homosexual attraction (whether men feel decreased attraction to other men, whether there is a decrease in the number of fantasies they have about other men)


D) Heterosexual attraction (whether men feel increased attraction to women, whether there is an increase in the number of fantasies they have about women)


E) Positive marital functioning (whether men are able to remain “happily” married to women)


F) Non-specific personal well-being (whether participants finish therapy feeling generally better about themselves and their lives)


            None of these measures in itself necessarily points toward a change in homosexual orientation. As discussed above, the presence of so many different measures suggests a muddled understanding of sexual orientation. Even measure c above is suspect, since a decrease in attraction to men may simply be a decrease in sexual attraction generally, rather than a orientation shift. Given all of these differences in what is being measured, it seems unlikely that a factor analysis of the sort described by Strommen is feasible. Even if it is feasible, it certainly hasn’t been done yet, and so any claim for an adequate estimate of reliability are merely hypothetical.

Dr. John Emerson, professor of statistics at Middlebury College, cautions that when attempting any meta-analysis it is crucial to confirm that the studies in question are protected from observer bias and undue pressure for participants to perform in a particular way. He writes,

Even if [many] studies reach substantially the same conclusion, they could be invalid if they all suffer from biases in assessment outcomes by observers who are not blinded to the treatments or by subjects who hope very much to “gain” or “improve” in their sexual orientation as a result of therapy. Human sexuality is an extremely complex subject. It seems terribly important that we have a clear definition of a common outcome measure before we start combining lots of studies with varying endpoints.

            Estimates of reliability by themselves tell us little. Consider this analogy:  if you wish to measure the temperature, and you use an inaccurate thermometer, it doesn’t matter how many times you measure the temperature, you will still have inaccurate (invalid) results. Sure, if you use the same, bad thermometer 83 times over and over, you are likely to get consistent (reliable)  temperature readings. Yet even after applying the fanciest factor analysis known to mankind, your readings will still be consistently wrong. 

            Or, maybe this analogy is better: If you try to use a compass to determine which way is north, and if you don’t factor out from the environment all other strong magnetic fields (i.e. you are using the compass while sitting in a large, metal automobile) the compass will always point toward that other magnetic field, not necessarily toward north—no  matter how many times you conduct the experiment. In this analogy, there is nothing wrong with the measuring device. It provides perfectly valid results. The problem is that there is another factor that is unaccounted for. Let’s apply this analogy, then, to the conversion therapy research. If the measuring device is the self-report (typically, an instrument of relatively low reliability), and if the unaccounted factor is extreme social and religious pressure to lie about sex to the therapist and to oneself, then it’s clear that suitably high levels of estimated reliability are going to be very hard to come by.


Reports of Harm Due to Reparative Therapy    (back to Contents)


While there is no sound empirical evidence that reparative therapy can effectively change a person from homosexual to heterosexual (Haldeman 1994, Beckstead 2000 [8]), there is yet anecdotal evidence that such therapy can do harm. This was especially true when reparative therapists used such methods as shock treatment and aversive drug treatment (to induce vomiting). Although these particularly barbaric treatments have fallen into disuse—partly because their practitioners started to receive an uncomfortable amount of negative attention in the media—there remain reports of harm from those who have undertaken religious and secular talk therapies. Haldeman writes,

Such individuals often experience continued depression over their homosexuality, compounded with a sense of shame over having failed at conversion therapy. . . .Some former conversion therapy clients report extraordinary difficulties with interpersonal interactions, and particularly sexual intimacy, with same-sex partners. (1999)

Furthermore, reparative therapists often overlook the harm caused by reparative therapy to persons other than the one undergoing treatment. An important goal of reparative therapy often is to involve the client with other people, both socially (with same-sex friends) and romantically/sexually (with opposite-sex partners). In fact, such involvement—i.e. getting married and having children—is often seen as proof of successful treatment (Haldeman 1999). Many of these marriages end in disaster, with the presumably “ex-gay” individuals unable to sustain the deception of both their spouses and themselves.

In defense of his position, Strommen writes,

The accusation of this therapy being “dangerous,” however, can apply to any form of psychotherapy. Anecdotal accounts are always available of how various therapies have been conducted in unethical and unprofessional ways, but I have yet to see a study in the professional journals that identifies reparative therapy as having been harmful when conducted by a trained and sensitive professional.” (p. 51)

Strommen’s argument again misses the point. The point, according to the APA and just about every other professional organization other than NARTH, is that homosexual orientation is not a mental illness. Therefore, given that society places an enormous burden of stigma on homosexual individuals, there are no ethical grounds for a counselor to practice therapies (i.e. most reparative therapies) which assume from the beginning that homosexual orientation is pathological. In other words, the APA’s stance is, “If it ain’t broke, it’s unethical to try to fix it.” The APA’s quarrel with the reparative therapists is thus not one of relative quality (“good, professional therapy” vs. “bad, unprofessional”) but rather one of kind (i.e. currently there is no known, ethical way to practice “reparative” therapy per se). To align oneself with the APA’s position in this matter is not, as Strommen has claimed elsewhere[9], to advocate for the “eliminat[ion] of the right of people to be given reorientation therapy.” Instead, it is to advocate for the withholding of professional approval of a therapy which has shown itself to proceed from scientifically flawed assumptions. Significantly, the APA has not banned the practice of reparative therapy among its members, but has instead refuted the therapy’s claims to an adequate scientific credibility.



What Does the Bible Say?      (back to Contents)


What Did Martin Luther Mean by “Literal Meaning”    (back to Contents)


Strommen begins this chapter by quoting the most-cited passages from the bible that are said to condemn homosexual behavior. These have often been referred to as the “clobber” passages. They are Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13, 1 Corinthians 6:9-11, 1 Timothy 1:10-11, and Romans 1:18-27.

            Reminding the reader that “in the traditional approach these passages were understood according to their literal meaning” and that this is “a method of interpretation commended by Martin Luther,” Strommen goes on to provide two quotes from Luther supporting the idea of the goodness of literal interpretation, a method which emphasizes, in Luther’s words, “the literal, ordinary, natural sense” (see Strommen, pp. 68–69).  

But what Strommen fails to do is provide the reader with the proper context for these two quotes. Because of this failure, the reader is apt to misunderstand Luther’s subtler, less Zwinglistic intention for the literal method. First, I’d like to present the quotes in greater breadth. I will follow them with my comments. The text that Strommen uses in his book are shown in bold. I have added italics as my own emphasis. The translation differs slightly from the one Strommen uses. The first passage is from Luther’s Babylonian Captivity of the Church:

No violence is to be done to the words of God, whether by man or angel. But they are to be retained in their simplest meaning wherever possible, and to be understood in their grammatical and literal sense unless the context plainly forbids, lest we give our adversaries occasion to make a mockery of all the Scriptures. Thus Origen was repudiated, in ancient times, because he despised the grammatical sense and turned the trees, and all things else written concerning Paradise, into allegories. For it might be concluded from this that God did not create trees. Even so here, when the Evangelists plainly write that Christ took bread and broke it, and the book of Acts and Paul, in their turn, call it bread, we have to think of real bread and real wine, just as we do of a real cup. For even they do not maintain that the cup is transubstantiated. But since it is not necessary to assume a transubstantiation wrought by Divine power, it is to be regarded as a figment of the human mind, for it rests neither on Scripture nor on reason, as we shall see.

Therefore it is an absurd and unheard-of juggling with words, to understand “bread” to mean “the form, or accidents of bread,” and “wine” to mean “the form, or accidents of wine.” Why do they not also understand all other things to mean their forms, or accidents? Even if this might be done with all other things, it would yet not be right thus to emasculate the words of God and arbitrarily to empty them of their meaning.

Here is the second quote, from Answer to the Superchristian, Superspiritual, and Superlearned Book of Goat Esmer.

The Holy Spirit is the simplest writer and advisor in heaven and on earth. That is why his words could have no more than the one simplest meaning which we call the written one, or the literal meaning of the tongue. But [written] words and [spoken] language cease to have meaning when the things which have a simple meaning through interpretation by a simple word are given further meanings and thus become different things [through a different interpretation] so that one thing thinks on the meaning of another. . . . .

The fact that a painted picture signifies a living man without any words or writing should not cause you to say that the little word “picture” has two meanings, a literal one, signifying the picture, and a spiritual one, signifying the living man. Likewise, even though the things described in Scripture mean something further, Scripture should not therefore have a twofold meaning. Instead, it should retain the one meaning to which the words refer. Beyond that we should give idle spirits permission to hunt and seek the manifold interpretations of the things indicated besides the words. But they should beware of losing themselves in the hunt . . . . It is much more certain and safe to stay with the words and the simple meaning . . . . 

[Yet] “literal meaning” is not a good term. . . . Those who call it “grammatical, historical meaning” do better.

From these extended quotes, it is clear that Luther is here concerned with rescuing the meaning of Scripture from the manipulations of those who wanted to turn all passages of scripture into complex allegories. Some allegorists claimed, for instance, that every Old Testament reference to Israel is in reality a reference to the church in Germany. Some argued that the four rivers of Genesis 2 (the Pishon, Havilah, Tigris, and Euphrates) represented the four parts of the human: body, soul, spirit, and mind. Some even argued that Christ is himself an allegory, and should not really be regarded as a man.

By using the Luther quotes without sufficient context, Strommen implies that if we are to take the stand that Luther took, we will ignore the contemporary “revisionists,” those biblical scholars who are, as Strommen contends, “retranslating the scriptural passages that deal with homosexuality” and “reinterpreting” them. In this regard, he happily quotes the president of Princeton Theological Seminary, Thomas W. Gillespies:

I happen to be trained in New Testament studies in the Greek language and I can tell you that all revisionist attempts are bogus. The text says what it means. The Leviticus texts mean what they say. The Romans text means what it says. The Apostle Paul sees [homosexuality] among males and females  . . . as one sign (not the only one) among many of the brokenness of God’s good creation to which the Gospel is addresses as the Power of God unto salvation. (as quoted by Strommen, p. 73)

This, though it comes from a man with a PhD next to his name, is anti-intellectual poppycock. Anyone who is reasonably current with the scholarly research knows that much, if not most, of the revisionists’ work is not about changing scripture but rather about the struggle to re-discover scripture’s grammatical and historical contexts. Although the revisionists may well be wrong in their conclusions, their attempts—i.e., their method, their approach—cannot honestly be called bogus unless one means to imply Luther’s attempts, and that of others whom we could just as easily label “revisionists,” were bogus as well. The scholars ask the question, “What did the text mean to the people to whom it was addressed?” This is Luther’s approach exactly. This is what he means by “literal sense”—or, as Luther himself corrects, this is what he means by “grammatical, historical meaning.” In “How Christians Should Regard Moses,” Luther writes,

It is not enough simply to look and see whether this is God’s word, whether God has said it; rather we must look and see to whom it has been spoken, whether it fits us. That makes all the difference between night and day. . .

Strommen blithely re-prints translations that use the word “sodomite” even though this word, in its reference to the story of the biblical city of Sodom, did not exist at the time of the “Sodomite” texts’ writing. As Strommen alludes, but then conveniently drops from his discussion, the Greek terms malakoi and arsenokoitai (which have been variously translated as “male prostitutes,” “sodomites,” “sexual perverts,” “boy prostitutes,” “effeminate,” “self indulgent,” “sissies,” etc . . .) have been in great dispute lately. This is not so much because so-called pro-homosexual readers of the bible want to arbitrarily re-write the dictionaries, but rather because they sense the words’ historical ambiguity. Scholars did not invent the ambiguity. Translation is far from an exact science. All translation, no matter who has done it and no matter how old it is, bears the mark of the translator. (Luther went to great lengths to teach himself biblical Greek and Hebrew so that he could see through the mud of medieval scholasticism.) What the revisionists are discovering are the signs of human personality, which include social, ethical, and historical assumptions and presumptions, in the translations of certain texts—especially those texts dealing with sexual behavior. All acts of reading are in essence translation.

Later (p. 76), Strommen accuses the revisionists of creating schism in the church. This is a serious charge. It should be pointed out, however, that there are always two parties to any quarrel: those who suggest change, and those who oppose it. Merton Strommen himself represents one of those parties. It’s puzzling that this point is lost on him, especially since his chapter on “What Does the Bible Say?” is, understandably, extremely limited in scope. Strommen does not come close to adequately substantiating his claims about what the passages relating to homosexual behavior supposedly should mean to us. His attempts here seem especially meager, given the formidable complexity and variety of the biblical scholarship. Apparently he assumes that by finding a few quotes from people who think the way he does, then his interpretations of the bible must be the correct ones, and all other interpretations are un-biblical. Many, many learned theologians, from all communions—even from the LDS (Mormon) church—beg to differ.

Nobody in the church—certainly not the revisionists that Strommen obliquely refers to—is claiming that we can say whatever we want and call it scripture. Of course not. But we do need to recognize that sometimes there arise prophets in the church who are called to speak a new, and better, word. This is what happened, for instance, during the nineteenth century fight about the scriptures pertaining to slavery in the bible. Nowadays we “realize” that the slavery scriptures weren’t “wrong” in themselves, but rather the old ways of interpreting those passages needed to be changed—at least among Christians in some circles. To paraphrase Peter Gomes, it wasn’t the bible that changed—we changed. I proclaim this truth without arguing that the interpretive principles used to re-interpret slavery are the same ones we can use today to re-interpret homosexuality. (I recognize there are significant differences.) Although the churches recognize their “error” now, it took some uncommonly brave individuals and groups to tell the truth back then, risking charges of schism, and changing the way people read those passages.




Should the Church Adopt the Gay Agenda?     (back to Contents)


NARTH Offers No Middle Ground       (back to Contents)

Here Strommen holds up Joseph Nicolosi’s National Association of Research and Therapy for Homosexuals (NARTH) as a model for what the church’s response to homosexuality should look like. It is astounding to me that Strommen can praise this organization, especially since the majority of the psychological and psychiatric community has condemned NARTH for its dubious therapies and research. Because NARTH is of such low standing in the scientific community, most of its research—what little it has done—has been essentially self-published.

Here’s just a small sampling of what other researchers have said. Doug Haldeman writes (1994):

[Nicolosi’s] foundation for his theoretical approach . . . cites numerous studies that suggest that gay men have greater frequencies of disrupted bonds with their fathers, as well as a hot of psychological concerns, such as assertion problems. These observations are used to justify a pathological [illness] assessment of homosexuality. The error in such reasoning is that the conclusion has preceded the data. There may be cause to examine the potentially harmful impact of a detached father and his effect o the individual’s self-concept or capacity for intimacy, but why should a detached father be selected as the key player in causing homosexuality, unless an a priori decision about the pathological nature of homosexuality has been made and unless he is being investigated as the cause? This perspective is not consistent with available data, nor does it explain the missions of heterosexual men who come from backgrounds similar to those of gay men, or for that matter, those gay men with strong father-son relationships. Nicolosi does not support his hypothesis or his treatment methods with any empirical data. [emphases added]

An organization called New Direction for Life Ministries (which does support some reparative therapies) reviewed NARTH’s 1998 survey, listing several serious shortcomings:

[The survey’s questionnaire] provided no definition of sexual orientation. Some respondents may not have correctly understood the term, and thus may have answered incorrectly.

Independent or external verification of the answers given is not possible. The individuals who received copies of the questionnaire simply filled them in themselves and returned them anonymously by mail.

The anonymous nature of such surveys makes subsequent follow-up impossible.

Many terms were left undefined, including sexual orientation, self-acceptance, self-understanding, etc. [This is an astounding failure, given the nature of this type of research.]

No follow-up related questions. While this kind of questionnaire precludes direct follow-up, questions could have been asked about the length and permanence of change. For example, “How many months/years since your last homosexual encounter?” and “When did you first become attracted to the opposite sex?”

According to Newsweek (August 17, 1998), when asked why he hasn’t undertaken any follow-up assessment of his survey’s subjects, Nicolosi responded, “I don’t have time.”

Jack Drescher (1999) has identified the type of therapy practiced by NARTH as “authoritarian.” He writes,

Authoritarian therapists, regardless of ideology, inevitably ally themselves with a compliant false self. Whatever a therapists’ good intentions, they can foster an environment in which clients are compelled to hide the feelings and wishes that are unacceptable to the therapists. When therapists themselves have an interest in determining the fate of a client’s sexual identity, they reinforce dissociative, rather than integrative tendencies.

Based on NARTH’s own identity statement—“a non-profit, educational organization dedicated to affirming a complementary, male-female model of gender and sexuality”—there is no question that NARTH has the determinative interest Drescher describes above. Also apparent from this statement is that NARTH begins with a conclusion and works only to support that conclusion and no other. This is hardly a scientific mission. It is sadly misleading for this institution to include the word “research” in its name.

            It is telling to hear Nicolosi talk about how he comes to form his theories about homosexual men having bad relationships with their fathers. Apparently, for Nicolosi, even a client’s self-report is not necessarily to be considered accurate, especially when it runs counter to Nicolosi’s own hypothesis. The following is a transcript from a Focus on the Family conference on youth and homosexuality, showcasing Nicolosi’s glaringly unscientific biases:

Whenever I give a presentation, there’s one man . . . who says, “Dr. Nicolosi, I think you’re wrong. I had a great relationship with my father.” . . . When I have a man who says I have a great relationships with my father . . . how do I explain that? I’ll say to him, tell me about the relationship with [your] father. He says, “Well it was great.” Well what did you do?  “well it was great.” There’s a shallowness. 

When I ask a heterosexual about his relationship with his father it’s “We did this together, we did that together, my father was this and that, he had sense of humor.” There’s a richness when I hear the heterosexual talk about his positive relationship with his father. When a gay man  . . . says he had a great relationship with his father . . . when you listen closely it’s a shallow relationship. It really wasn’t a relationship. There’s no overt hostility but there was no emotional connection. (reported by Heineman)

Similarly, in his writings, Nicolosi reveals himself as one who views homosexuals through the lens of crude stereotype. In his book Reparative Therapy of Male Homosexuality, Nicolosi writes:

Two men can never take in each other, in the full and open way. Not only is there a natural anatomical unsuitability, but an inherent psychological insufficiency as well. ... Gay couplings are characteristically brief and very volatile, with much fighting, arguing, making-up again and continual disappointments. ... Research ... reveals that [homosexual relationships] almost never possess the mature elements of quiet consistency, trust, mutual dependency, and sexual fidelity characteristic of highly functioning heterosexual marriages. (Nicolosi 1991)

These claims are perfectly stupid. No therapist who takes the social scientific research seriously would make such claims. (See again Lee Beckstead’s above.)

Furthermore, according to Newsweek (August 17, 1998), NARTH has treated clients as young as three years old. If this report is true, it amounts to a charge of seriously unethical practice on the part of NARTH. Indeed, charges of unethical behavior are not new to NARTH. NARTH’s past president, Charles Socarides (whom Strommen cites as a “leading psychiatrist”), was expelled from the America Psychoanalytic Association for lying to a Colorado court of law about the APA’s official position regarding homosexuality.



Final Words: Beyond the Science    (back to Contents)


It’s clear Dr. Merton Strommen and the bulk of the scientific community disagree with one another—especially concerning “conversion therapy,” which attempts to change a person’s sexual orientation from homosexual to heterosexual. Of course the church is not a scientific body, and so it seems necessary and good to move our discussion away from a merely scientific argument, where one side pits its favored researcher against that of the other, and instead discuss the issue in a context in which the church is more directly and distinctly active.

One of the ways in which the church has been especially active is in consigning a severe stigma upon its non-heterosexual members. For hundreds of years, the church has taken part—sometimes intentionally, sometimes unintentionally—in the creation and support of an at-once religious and social setting that judges gays and lesbians to be unhealthy, abnormal, undesirable, and un-Godly, even when many are involved in loving, monogamous relationships. Justly or unjustly, the church perpetuates the stigma. In The Church and Homosexuality, Dr. Strommen makes many of the same points about homosexual people that the stigma has supported since its beginning.

Of course the church, Dr. Strommen included, has never condoned all of the effects of the stigma it has helped shape, nor should it be held responsible for all of them. Yet when we, the church, discuss any aspect of the issue of homosexuality, scientific or otherwise, we must never allow ourselves to forget the full severity of the stigma’s consequences in the church and in the world. When we have seen public humiliation spread across the backs of faithful non-heterosexual ministers, leaving their careers and their personalities in ruins; when we have heard the word abomination uttered by perfectly sweet, gray-haired ladies in the church sewing circle; when we have seen a man’s extraordinary passion and talent for music—which is God’s glory—applauded and salaried, but his passion for another human being, his unique talent for loving one particular person like no other, yet is taxed and levied against him, so much so he feels more prostitute than priest; when we have watched our home churches enjoin self-appointed authorities who draw charts and graphs attesting that because a few are shown to be promiscuous or disloyal, all gay and lesbian members are suspected of these same “tendencies”; when we have seen how the words of the very scripture many have devoted their lives to studying and preaching are used to picket the faithful in their homes and in their home sanctuaries; when we have observed these things and more, how can we faithfully argue that the research about “conversion” therapy—the therapy which Dr. Strommen supports as a “middle ground,” promulgated as it is on the presumption that homosexuality is pathological and erroneous—how can we argue that this research is not contaminated by our false witness against both our neighbors and ourselves? When one is told one’s homosexual desires are sick, that they are “against creation,” who wouldn’t say he wants to be healed? Or, more to the point, who shouldn’t tell his therapist he has been released from depravity? The social sciences have yet to even come close to finding a way to factor out the effects of an unjust stigma when evaluating the self-reports of those who enter into counseling.

When we participate in such injustice, as we all have done, the truth is not in us. Any injustice done to our neighbor is injustice done to God. While we may disagree about whether or not homosexual behavior in itself wrongs God, one thing, at least, is clear from Romans 1: injustice against God leads to our inability to distinguish good from evil, to distinguish virtue from vice, and truth from falsehood. As St. Paul writes, “For though they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their senseless minds were darkened” (Romans 1:21). In such a stigmatized environment as surrounds the issue of the church and homosexuality—the mark of which is present in the self-report of even the most earnest participant in conversion therapy—in such injustice, neither the calculators of scientific validity nor the victims of stigma should be relied upon to offer a true word; no accurate measurement, no proper discernment, is yet available. Our minds are darkened.

How should we, the church, go about our work so that light shines on this contentious issue and on our minds? Where do we look for a true word?

Perhaps one place to turn is right back to Romans, the very bible text wherein we learn of how our minds are made senseless, darkened by injustice; the very text used most often to clobber gay people today; the very text which may someday lead the church to wisdom. The idea that both the darkness and light of our spiritual lives are found in this text seems in keeping with the conundrum Paul describes in his theology of justification by faith. To paraphrase Paul’s difficult, dialectical argument, the conundrum is this: we desire to be in a right relationship with God, and so we desire to follow his commandments. Yet, because of the presence of sin, we invariably strive to win God’s favor, to earn his saving grace. By striving to do this—which because of our weakness (sin) we cannot avoid—we dishonor God. We do not give God his due, which is glory and gratitude for the grace only God can bestow. It angers God when we act as if we can save ourselves. Paul writes: “But sin, finding opportunity in the command, wrought in me all kinds of covetousness. . . . . .The very commandment which promised life proved to be death to me.” (Romans 7:8, 10)

The crux of the matter in Romans, as Paul describes it, is that in our desire to be justified in the eyes of God, we stubbornly desire after things which can never satisfy. “For I do not do the good I want,” he writes, “but the evil I do not want is what I do” (7:19). We may desire to follow the commandments of God, but, because of sin, we yet find ourselves chasing that desire, never fulfilling it.

We the church have struggled in a very Pauline way when we have come to the task of ordering the life of the church. We have desired to keep ourselves right in the eyes of God in a myriad of ways, one of which is to exile so-called practicing homosexuals from the full life of the church, banning them from ordination and withholding from them the blessings enjoyed by couples in marriage. It is of course right for the church to discern what are reasonable standards of behavior, character, and academic preparation and to expect these in various ways of its ordained and un-ordained members. Nevertheless, in the church today we do the same dishonor to God told of in Romans. We see such dishonoring when we regulate certain human behaviors and claim our grounds, and our motivation, to be that God (we suppose) says the behaviors are wrong.

Now please don’t misunderstand. Certainly it is right to preach the law, as best we understand it. But the law can only be good because we know that, as Paul writes, “any . . . commandment [is] summed up in [the] sentence, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law” (Romans 13:9-10). 

So I implore the church to teach law by proclaiming love, not by striving to earn the grace of God in fulfilling commandments. Just as with heterosexuality, there is no evidence that homosexual behavior in itself wrongs any neighbor. Those who disagree always come back to the argument that, as supposedly evidenced by scriptural commandment, God is somehow wronged because God’s law is not followed. But such an argument takes us straight back into Paul’s spiritual conundrum—doing what we think is right because we wish to fulfill what we think are God’s commandments—and in so doing we grievously wrong our homosexual neighbors. One honors God when one trusts grace to God; one does injustice  when one tries to ply God with our all too often puny notions of the good.


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Endnotes      (back to Contents)

[1] Although no terminology is entirely appropriate, it seems reasonable to roughly divide the literature into two categories. The “traditionalists” argue against the full participation of gays and lesbians in the life of the church—that is, against a life which might include ordained ministry and the blessings of same-sex unions. The “reformers” do what their label implies—they call for what they consider to be a necessary reform of the church’s stance, thus arguing that church bodies should be allowed ordain ministers involved in monogamous, committed same-sex relationships; and that these relationships should be recognized as valid by the church. Articulate voices speak from both groups.


[2] Lee Beckstead’s research has not yet been published. With his permission, I am using portions of his doctoral dissertation, as well as portions of his personal correspondence with me. See the Works Cited list for further bibliographical information concerning Beckstead’s work.


[3] Bell and Weinberg, p. 28. As quoted in Michael Pollack, p. 59.

[4] Nor, for that matter, does the study include a homosexual control group.


[5] A phallometer (also called a plethysmyograph) is a device that is connected to the penis. When properly used, it provides researchers with an accurate measurement of sexual arousal. See concluding paragraph of note #2 below.


[6] Beckstead writes,

Assessing sexual orientation through self-reports seems to be reliable only in populations that have no need to misreport due to demand characteristics (Gonsiorek & Weinrich, 1995). Besides being trivially simple to fake, self-reports have been known to involve questionable reliability and self-presentational biases because of the necessity for research participants to manage self-impressions (Leary, 1994; Schlenker & Weigold, 1992). Social and cognitive-dissonance needs seem to require some participants to report positive results; that is, not answering that they had positively changed would indicate a failure on the part of participants. This is not to say that participants are intentionally lying to distort result findings, only that it may be necessary for their self-concepts to believe that they have been successful. In addition, individuals who seek out conversion treatments tend to be positively accepted within ex-gay ministries and are provided with causal theories that fit their needs to reject a gay identity (e.g., identifying them as heterosexuals with homosexual problems caused by gender  inferiority issues). As they reported, converted participants became converted to this ideology and method of self-identification.

Furthermore, these participants indicated that their agendas were to publicize a successful treatment outcome and promote the therapy programs that provided them with relief and the answers that they had wanted to hear. Other examples of how participants' subjective experiences, biases, and agendas may have impacted result findings were described earlier in this chapter. In sum, studies using only self-reports to assess sexual orientation may be limited to assessing sexual identity, not necessarily sexual arousal.   

. . .

Freund (1977) noted that more direct confirmation is desirable to indicate a change in a client's underlying erotic preferences. Thus psycho-physiological data from sexual arousal assessments are needed to corroborate self-report findings and understand what type of change is possible in sexual reorientation. Despite Thockmorton's (2000) doubts, phallometry is a valid and reliable measurement that distinguishes erotic arousal patterns in men, especially because men can suppress responses in phallometric assessments but not produce false ones (Freund, 1977; Kuban et al.,1999). The participants' self-reports that "change was possible" seemed consistent with Freund's (1960) finding that descriptions of clients' sexual reorientation successes tended to be imprecise and deny certain facts.  

[7] Here’s a quick brush-up lesson on statistics from William Trochim. He writes: “We often think of reliability and validity as separate ideas but, in fact, they're related to each other. . . . Think of the center of the target [below] as the concept that you are trying to measure. Imagine that for each person you are measuring, you are taking a shot at the target. If you measure the concept perfectly for a person, you are hitting the center of the target. If you don't, you are missing the center. The more you are off for that person, the further you are from the center.



The figure above shows four possible situations. In the first one, you are hitting the target consistently, but you are missing the center of the target. That is, you are consistently and systematically measuring the wrong value for all respondents. This measure is reliable, but not valid (that is, it's consistent but wrong). The second, shows hits that are randomly spread across the target. You seldom hit the center of the target but, on average, you are getting the right answer for the group (but not very well for individuals). In this case, you get a valid group estimate, but you are inconsistent. Here, you can clearly see that reliability is directly related to the variability of your measure. The third scenario shows a case where your hits are spread across the target and you are consistently missing the center. Your measure in this case is neither reliable nor valid. Finally, [in the fourth target] you consistently hit the center of the target. Your measure is both reliable and valid.”


[8] Beckstead reports both negative and positive effects of reparative therapy. Notably, the positive effects of reparative therapy seem to have come about in spite of the therapy itself. For some clients, reparative therapy apparently becomes a sort of foil, something which teaches the client about himself because he comes to learn about his own values and assumptions—not as they are reflected in the counselor but reflected against the counselor. In essence, these clients discovered the invalid assumptions they held about themselves by being confronted with the invalid assumptions of the therapist. 


[9]See the December, 2001 issue of the Metro Lutheran (Twin Cities).




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Beckstead, A. L. (in press). Cures versus choices: Agendas in sexual reorientation therapy. Journal of Gay and Lesbian Psychotherapy. Used by permission.


Beckstead, A. L., and Morrow, S. L. (2000). “Gay is not me: Seeking congruence through sexual reorientation therapy.” Unpublished manuscript.   Used by permission.


Bell, A. and Weinberg, M., 1978. Homosexualities: A Study of Diversity among Men and Women. New York: Simon and Schuster.


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