Archived Sections, Commentary

Dr. Merton Strommen's reply to Bishops Chilstrom and Erdahl

Editor’s note: In June Metro Lutheran published a story about a new book in which Dr. Merton Strommen put forth a point of view concerning how human sexual orientation is determined. Last month the paper published a story featuring a new book by retired ELCA bishops Herbert Chilstrom and Lowell Erdahl, in which they take issue with Strommen’s views. This month Strommen offers his response to the July story and the views set forth by the two bishops.
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Before giving their interview responses to Michael Sherer in the July issue of Metro Lutheran, I wish my two friends, Herbert Chilstrom and Lowell Erdahl, had read (or given evidence of having read) my book, The Church and Homosexuality: Searching for a middle ground. I say this because that short (90 page) publication, a serious attempt of mine to search for a middle ground on the issue of homosexuality, provides documentation which apparently they have not seen.
The book is the outcome of my personal odyssey to discover what can be learned regarding the highly complex subject of homosexuality. It was motivated by a concern for homosexuals, few of whom have wanted or welcomed their orientation. We as a church have not made a serious attempt to understand this phenomenon in ways that would enable us to introduce remedial measures.
As a research psychologist, I spent three years trying to learn all I could regarding this subject. What I have written has been reviewed by over 65 people who represent all sides of the subject. None of my previous books have been critiqued by as many professionals as this one. I have welcomed the critiques, because my interest and prayer has been to discover what is true about the subject.
What I found has led me to be deeply troubled over the way leaders in our church are adopting three assumptions that simply are not true: (1) homosexuals are born that way; (2) their orientation cannot be changed; and (3) it represents a creation of God that is equal to heterosexuality. Let me address these assumptions as they were reflected in the interview.
1. Assumption One. Chilstrom in his interview says what I hear repeated often, that substantial studies establish that “sexual orientation is determined primarily by prenatal, genetic factors.” I deal with this subject in my book (pages 26-28), where I indicate that behavioral geneticists find no evidence for this widely-held belief. Two men, Bryne and Parsons (1998), reviewed 135 research studies to see if they could substantiate a biological theory of homosexuality. They found no convincing evidence for this belief.
An important voice for the biological point of view has been John Money, professor of medical psychology at Johns Hopkins University and Hospital. Based on his clinical observations he has written 62 articles and books on sex. However, he admits that there is no evidence that prenatal hormonalization alone, independent of postnatal history, preordains a homosexual orientation. He admits that his biological position is no more than a theory.
Two scientists made this issue their special study, conscious of the fact that there is a predisposing genetic factor. Their conclusion? They estimate that genetics account for 10% of the factors which contribute to a person becoming homsosexual (see page 28).
However, Chilstrom may have found a number of studies which I have not seen. So, I ask him to let me know of these studies which have been overlooked by the scientific community. A few studies he may refer to — ones given wide media attention several years ago — failed to establish their initial findings when replicated.
In the interview, Chilstrom says, “Strommen attributes homosexual orientation to dysfunctional families.” I do not. Here again, I wish he had read my book. There I indicate that the origin of homosexuality is neither biological nor exclusively psychological, but is the result of an as-yet-difficult-to-quantify mixture of many things — a combination of genetic factors, intrauterine influences, postnatal environment (e.g., parental, sibling, and cultural behavior), and reinforced choices occurring at critical phases in a person’s development.
The parental factor is only one of several elements that contribute to the development of a homosexual orientation. However, I do quote a number of major studies establishing that parental behavior is a factor of substantial numbers of homosexuals. But, I add this warning to my conclusion: these studies are based on homosexuals that are dissatisfied with their orientation. I pointedly say, “There are homosexuals who report warm, healthy relationships with both parents. In their case, parental relationships [are] not a contributing factor.”
2. Assumption Two. Both former bishops, according to the interview, believe that the efforts to help homosexuals dissatisfied with their orientation (the group currently being helped to “change”) are misguided and abusive. What is the basis for this conclusion? Both are only voicing a commonly expressed belief which is not true for the thousands of homosexuals who have been involved in therapy under trained and responsible psychotherapists. Granted, one can always find instances of misguided and abusive approaches in every type of psychotherapy.
Warren Throckmorton, past president of the American Mental Health Association, did a comprehensive review of published research in 83 scientific journals regarding the effectiveness and appropriateness of therapeutic efforts to change sexual orientation. He reviewed all the published research dealing with outcomes of such therapy. His conclusion? “Efforts to assist homosexually-oriented individuals who wish to modify their patterns of sexual arousal have been effective. They can be conducted in an ethical manner and should be available to those clients requesting such assistance” (see page 54).
Chilstrom and Erdahl confidently aver that “those who are strongly same-sex in orientation do not experience significant long-term change.”
Five leading psychiatrists protested that point of view when it was endorsed by the American Psychi-atric Association. They called this position false, misleading, and misguided. The men who signed the letter of protest have counseled hundreds of homosexuals and have seen significant long-term change in their clients. I talked with a psychotherapist who identified 690 men whose change in sexual orientation had averaged 6.7 years at the time of his study. I identified in my book several other major studies showing that long-term change can occur (see pages 52-61).
I trust that our former bishops have seen the newspaper and magazine accounts of the study by psychiatrist Robert Spitzer. In 1973 he was chairman of the committee that removed homosexuality from the ranks of mental illness. In May of this year, Spitzer reported to the national conference of the American Psychiatric Association that sexual reorientation had been successful for the 200 people he had interviewed.
What puzzles me is that both Chilstrom and Erdahl say that they have been persuaded by the research. What research? I would like to learn what these studies are, because it has been my sincere effort to discover what can be learned from research. It is my field of work.
3. Assumption Three. Both former bishops are ready to reinterpret Scripture to identify a homosexual orientation as something God has created and blessed. In doing so, they join the ranks of revisionists. For them it is very clear that the “homosexual orientation, as it is understood today, is not referred to anywhere in the Bible.”
Many theologians will disagree with them. The German Lutheran Church, for instance, known for its theologians and respected scholars, does not agree with them. Its Position Paper on homosexuality clearly identifies statements in 1 Corinthians 6:9 and 1 Timothy 1:10 as referring to “homosexual offenders.” With respect to Romans 1:26ff, these theologians interpret the passage to indicate that homosexuality is “a form of behavior which Paul considers a fundamental distortion of the relationship to God.” The position paper concludes by saying “no biblical statements exist which place homosexuality in a positive relationship to the will of God.”
Wolfhart Pannenberg, a highly-regarded professor of systematic theology at the University of Munich, makes a strong statement regarding those in the church who “allow [themselves] to be pushed to regard homosexual activity as no longer a departure from the biblical norm and to recognize homosexual partnerships as an equivalent to marriage.” He says, “The church that takes this step ceases to be an evangelical church in the tradition of the Lutheran Reformation” (pages 76-77).
My two friends, who seem to feel that a homosexual orientation is more complex than I have seemed to allow, need to establish a firmer basis for why they accept these three assumptions as true. If they push the church to believe them, then they are introducing schism in the church.
I believe there is a middle ground between condemnation and adopting assumptions for which there is no scientific or biblical basis. It is this: We should welcome, love and use the considerable gifts of homosexuals who identify with Jesus Christ while providing help for those, especially adolescent males, who want to be heterosexual in their orientation. This is a live possibility. Homosexuality is not a fixed orientation but one that is developmental.