Archived Sections, Commentary

Point/counterpoint with Dr. Merton Strommen

The ongoing conversation about sexual orientation

A Conversation With Merton Strommen
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In the June 2001 issue of Metro Lutheran a feature article outlined the contents of a new book by Dr. Merton Strommen, “The Church and Homosexuality: Searching for a Middle Ground.” In following months considerable correspondence has been published in the print edition of Metro Lutheran, challenges to Strommen’s position and responses from Strommen.
In the February print edition three new written responses were published in condensed form, along with condensed versions of Dr. Strommen’s response to each. Following are the unedited versions of all three letters, and unedited responses from Strommen to each.
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I was appalled to read Dr. Merton Strommen’s article Critiquing the Critiques” in the December issue of Metro Lutheran.
His assertion that eight unreliable research studies have as much validity as one reliable study flies in the face of everything I ever learned about scientific research. If we are to believe this, it has far-reaching consequences for our society.
I can easily find eight unreliable studies indicating that black people are inferior to whites. Also, it is easy to find eight unreliable studies (most of them not from Nazi Germany) indicating that Jews are inferior. But if we are to believe Dr. Strommen, then there must be some truth to them.
I guess it proves C.S. Lewis’ sarcastic quip in Pilgrim’s Regress: “Science, my dear young friend, establishes itself by acumulative process. That is, if you make the same guess often enough, it ceases to be a guess and becomes a scientific fact.”
I’m sorry. I can’t buy it. If your results are runreliable eight times, it’s time to go back and re-evaluate your assumptions. In Dr. Strommen’s case the unspoken assumption is in what he thinks he is measuring. He assumes that a cluster analysis of the studies he cites measures the existence of “homosexual reorientation conversion.”
In fact, all that his analysis measures is the psychiatric community’s belief in such a conversion. The “chill” on such research shows that [this] belief is no longer held.
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Elizabeth Kellogg completely misunderstood my article. I urge her to re read it.
First of all, I did not say that “eight unreliable research studies have the same validity as one reliable study.” Horrors!
Rather, I give an illustration of how eight items (not research studies) can form a measure with high reliability, even though the individual items are relatively low in reliability. This is a very commonly-known fact in scientific research.
Also, I do not use the word “unreliable” in describing the large number of studies that have been published over the years, to report that change has occurred for some. Rather, I refer to the fact that they reflect various levels of reliability. I illustrate this by listing seven levels of reliability and the reasons why one kind of study might be regarded as more reliable than another. Reliability is a continuum where it is rare for a study to achieve 100% reliability.
As I indicated in my article, there are over 100 (not eight) articles that have been published in scientific journals to report success in bringing about change in some of the clients. Throckmorton singles out 83 of these professional articles and finds that they all come to the same conclusion. Therapeutic efforts to change sexual orientation have been effective and appropriate in bringing about change for a significant percentage of clients. My argument is that one cannot reasonablyignore the testimony of this large numberby trying to fault the methodology of the studies.
The “chill” to which I make reference is not due to the fact that this belief is no longer held but [to the fact that] research funds have dried up for this topic. For studies carried out using independent funds, it is difficult to get the results published. The mental health professions do not want to publish any reports that contradict their position. I both document and lament this fact in my book.
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I dutifully and respectfully read Merton Strommen’s December Metro Lutheran article in an honest attempt to understand his contention that gays are “cured” of their homosexual orientation. Strommen tells us that faultymethodology does not disprove his findings. He further states that adding up a series of low-reliability items results in “a measure of relatively high reliability. (R=.85)”
Not being a statistician, I was totally confused.But in his last paragraph, I began to understand the situation. The three concluding paragraphs deal with Strommen’s theory that young males may be influenced by the social environment to “become” homosexuals. In conclusion, he writes, “According to Genesis, almost all the males in Sodom were given to homosexuality.”
Actually, Strommen unserstates his case: all men of Sodom, to the very last man (Genesis 19:4) were bent on assaulting the two strangers. When we are told that all, or nearly all, persons in a group exhibit a certain trait, our common sense tells us that we are dealing with a tale which, though not literally true, has a point to make.
Genesis 19 deals not with homosexuality (the concept of a homosexual orientation was unknown in biblical times) but with same-sex gang-rape. It deals with the violation of hospitality rules toward strangers. It was common in biblical times, as it is today, in prisons, for males to humiliate newcomers by forcing themselves sexually on them. For the Sodomites, treating other males as if they were women was the ultimate insult.
So what, then, was the biblical sin of”sodomy”? For the First Isaiah,Sodom’s sin was a lack of social justice (Isaiah 1:10, 17). For Ezekiel, it was a failure to aid the poor (Ezekiel 16:49). For Jesus, it was inhospitality (Matthew 10:14-15). And the author of the seldom-rad letter of Jude had a novel interpretation of the sin of the Sodomite males: they were guilty of attempting sexual relations with extra-terrestrial beings (verses 6-7), an act that incurred divine displeasure in Genesis 6:1-4.
It would thus be a profound error to regard Genesis 19 as a cautionary tale about “homosexuality.”
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It is not my theory that social environment is a contributing factor to the development of homosexuality. Rather, it is a well-documented fact for which there is considerable evidence. That is why I am concerned about how adolescent boys are helped when struggling with the issue of homosexuality.
By the way, I never use the word “cured” when referring to changes that are effected through therapeutic efforts.
I chose to use the word “almost” writing about the men of Sodom in order to exclude Lot, who was one of the few righteous men in the village. The men who surrounded his house would be included in the “all.”
I am satisfied that we are talking about homosexual practices when we refer to what themen of Sodom wished to do with the angels. Their attempted same-sex gang rape represents only one of the many sins that caused the Lord to say, “The outcry against Sodom and Gomorah is great and their sin is very grave.” Hence it is understandable that such a morally corrupt people would be cited in Scripture for a number of sins: their ill treatment of the poor, their lack of social justice, their sexual immorality and perversion. Their attempted rape was simply an extreme example of inhospitality to strangers visiting their village.
I fail to see the “profound error.” I only referred to Sodom as another example of a city where a large percentage of the men were involved in homosexual practices. I drew attention to cities such as Athens, Rome, and Sparta, where half or more of the men were involved in homosexual practices, to indicate the likely effect of social environment. It stretches the imagination to believe that most of these men were inclined to homosexual practices because they were born that way.
John Boswell, who wrote a definitive study of homosexuality during the first fourteen centuries, found evidence that at Athens “a majority (if not almost the whole) of the adult male population was involved in homosexual relationships and feelings” (page 54). I doubt that the people of God would want their city ever to be characterized in this way.
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In regard to how the church should respond to its gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender members, 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. As the Metro Lutheran is not a scientific journal, it therefore might be of better use to readers 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 issues 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 his book, 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 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.” In such a stigmatized environment as surrounds the issue of the church and the homosexual—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.
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? Certainly, the fact that Dr. Strommen’s position represents a minority scientific opinion has nothing in itself to do with whether or not he is right; nor does my own position in itself gain or lose credibility for my lack of a doctorate. In this regard, Dr. Strommen’s complaint against those of us who would speak while “having no graduate training in research” has me confused. I am puzzled by this response because I had counted it a teaching of a particularly Lutheran stripe, a teaching that finds special prominence in my home congregation’s memories of the Lutheran Free Church, that we as believers retain the freedom and ability to discern what is a proper and true response to God’s word, whether that response finds its agency in the church or in the world.
In other words, I’ve always felt the truth should be judged by the content of one’s statements, not by the color of one’s resume. This seems especially true today, as the church faces the enormously contentious issue of homosexuality, where often it seems one can find some expert somewhere holding just about any position you might like. The fact that Dr. Strommen should seem to forget this characteristic of the debate is especially confusing, given that neither Dr. Strommen’s doctorate nor the great bulk of his career is in sex research. Nor does he have extensive training in the history of ancient Greek and Roman sexual practices. Many historians of the ancient cultures have discussed the ways in which such practices and their underlying attitudes were radically different from what we recognize today as our “sexuality”—and this applies to both hetero- and homosexual sexuality. Even with the biblical material, Dr. Strommen’s statements are not unquestionable. For instance, one of the few points biblical scholars generally do agree about these days is that the men of Sodom were guilty of male rape, which is a violent act of war and subjugation, not of eros. The Genesis passage Dr. Strommen refers to has nothing to do with “homosexuality” in any modern sense of the term. To equate such practices to the lives of our gay and lesbian brethren today—to do so in order to ask the question, “Is this what we as a church want for our country?” without qualification or historical elaboration—engages our fear rather than our thoughtful inquiry. Our minds are darkened.
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Tim Fisher overlooks the reason why my response involved anevaluation of research mothods. It was his assertion that the research and information I shared was “flawed information.”
The larger question to which he now turns centers ultimately in the teaching of the church regarding homosexual practices. The position which the church has been teaching for centuries is that homosexual practices are wrong in God’s eyes. This position is firmly identified in Robert Gagnon’s recent book, “The Bible and Homosexual Practices,” 2001.
Gagnon’s book draws high praise from 15 internationally recognized biblical scholars in America and Europe. They characterize the book as presenting themost erudite and thorough analysis of biblical texts available today on the issue of homosexual practicees. Here are some of Gagnon’s conclusions:
EarlyJudaism was unanimous in its rejection of homosexual conduct. The same was true for Jewish authors who wrote during the centuries before and after the birth of Jesus. The Apostle Paul identifies same-sex intercourse and unrestrained passion for such practices as sin. [Thus far Gagnon.]
Unfortunately, this biblical position is clouded by people who condemn and cruelly treat those who practice homosexuality. The actions and words of these people justify Fisher’s use of the term “stigma,” which means a “mark of disgracae or infamy.” I decry this condemnation and ill treatment of homosexuals in my book, for I view it as foreign to God’s command to love others.
Fisher, however, goes beyond the fact of condemnation to include anyone who presents an opposing view to the issue of homosexuality. Doing so, in his mind, only increases the “full severity of the stigma’s consequences in the church and the world.” Hence [according to his argument], we should stop presenting what we consider valid information in our search for truth.
That, of course, is one solution to the problem. But consider the implications of going in this direction — a direction now being advocated by some of our Lutheran leaders. Compare “Solution One” to an alternate “Solution Two,” which takes God’s Word seriously.
Solution One
Adopt the stance that Scripture has been wronglytranslated or that its verses regarding homosexuality do not applyto today’s situation. Ignore the fact that God, who is love, does not tolerate certain behaviors, ones God identifies as sin. Assume the position that love always requires tolerance.
Having adopted this stance, present a compelling argument as to why this centuries-old teaching of the church should be abrogated. Retranslate the most troublesome Bible passages so that people who view the Bible as God’s divine revelation are not puzzled when homosexuality is presented as part of God’s divine creation.
Recognizing that the ordination of non-celibate homosexuals and the blessing ofsame-sex marriages will not eliminate the stigma assoiated with homosexuality, focus on the education of children. Include lessons in theSunday school cuarriculum that present homosexuality as part of God’s creation. (Note: such additions to curriculum are mandatory today in the public schools of Boston and Seattle.)
Because heterosexual marriages and families will continue to be viewed as superior, expect requests that articles be included in the churchpress whichlaud the success offamilies headed by same-sex parents. Advocates will argue that millions of children are being raised in such families and their experiences should be given equal visibility within the church. Pressure todo wo will come from the national organization known as Family Pride.
Should homosexuals saythey are dissatisfied with their life style and wish to change, the churchwill be under obligation to tell them that God has created themthis way and they should take pride in their sexual orientation. The church will not be allowed to encourage reorientation because it might give the impression that homosexuality is something that needs to be corrected.
During confirmation, one can expect that boys will be told theyhave the option of adopting either a homosexual or heterosexual way of life. Those inclined toward a homosexual orientation will be encouraged to meet in a separate club such as those now established inmany public highschools. Several years ago a national youth committee of the ELCA announcaed a pre-convention youth gathering of gays, bisexuals, and lesbians. It was cancelled due to heavy protest.
Solution One will encourage the creation of a new culture within the church and establish a changed attitude toward the authority of Scripture.
Solution Two
Assume that the Bible reflects an inherent wisdom with respectto homosexuality — a wisdom which, if ignored, will bring more suffering over the long run.
Assume thatGod’s prohibition presents a boundary given out of love to advance the welfare of bothindividuals and society. Assume thatGod’s Word is still the onlybasis for determining what God wills for our happiness in this life.
Oppose the condemnation ofhomosexuals as something conatrary to the spirit of the Gospel. Become Christ-like in relating to those caught in this unwelcomed orientation. Befriend and work for the true interests of the homosexual while withholding approval of homosexual behavior.
View homosexual practices as a disorder that can be changed, at least for some. Demonstrate compassion as a church by taking the time to discover what is the best method ofreorientation and thenmaking this therapy available for those who wish to change.
Help fund methodologicallysound research in an effort to determine more accurately which factors contribute to the development of a homosexual orientation and what can be done to mitigate its effects.
Solution Two honors the teaching of Scripture while taking an aggressively positive, compassionate approach toward helping those who struggle with this orientation.
The Issue of Reorientation
Fisher believes there are “few” homosexuals who are promiscuous; that those who say they have left homosexual practices are misguided or mistaken; that homosexual practices today arenot the same aswhat the Bible condemns; that reorientation therapy is wrong. To believe otherwise, according to him, is to perpetuate an injustice to homosexuals.
His mistaken beliefs illustrate hos people in the church, out of concern for homosexuals, will ignore a reasonable interpretation of extant research and allow social norms, rather than Scripture, determine the position of the church.
Do we remember when the top executives for seven major tobacco companies swore under oath at a congressional hearing that they were convincaed that smoking is not addictive or harmful? They took this position even though the medical profession was insisting that people were dying from smoking their cigarettes.
In one sense they were right. There was no scientific proof that a causal connection has been established between smoking and cancer. What they chose to ignore, however, were the widely-reported outcomes of the medical profession which gave credence to the correlational data.
I see this incident as analogous to people insisting that a homosexual cannot change his or her orientation. Granted, there is no absolute proof as I mentioned in my previous article. But over 100 studies that do not classify as hard science all point in the direction that change is possible for many.
There are thousands of ex-gays who have left their homosexual practices. Of the 855 who responded to a questionnaire by Byrd and Potts, fully one third reported having gained a complete heterosexual orientation. Robert Spitzer, a psychiatry professor at Columbia University, interviewed 200 ex-gays whose change was five years ormore. He found that two-thirds of them ahd arrived at what he called good heterosexual functioning. He found also that those he interviewed were markedly or extremely depressed before, but rarely depressed after, therapy.
As one dedicated to the task of identifying reality in matters of behavior, beliefs, and values, I am persuaded by the evidence to favor Solution Two. I am not able to see a compelling reason for reversing the church’s concensus on this issue.
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