3 May 2005

Dear Executive Members

I’m writing to see if there is some way I may be of help to the Assemblies of God in Australia, which will eventually assist those members and families facing difficulties and even alienation because of the sexual orientation issue.

I never imagined I would be writing to you after all these years. In fact, I didn’t expect to be alive. After leaving the church, my relationship with God and my family, I planned to commit suicide before the age of 50 as I saw no hope in my life. I considered myself to be such a failure there was nothing to live for. Through a series of miraculous circumstances, God has been the centre of my life again since 1998……..something I thought impossible. That’s quite a long story which I’d be happy to share with you any time. There was a time when I considered all of you to be friends and I trust that, as Christian men, you will relate to me with Christ’s love and forgiveness.

Today I feel extremely blessed to have walked this path, one I would never have chosen, but maybe in the wisdom of God, the one set out for me. God’s call to serve Him is once again profoundly strong and I am currently honouring that in an informal way. If asked what was the most important thing I’ve learnt in my 54 years on earth, it’s that God loves me as I am. My sexual orientation is not an issue to Him, only that I live my life according to His will and purpose.

You will sense, from the tone of this letter, that there is no aggression, bitterness or resentment but rather genuine concern to find a way forward and ensure we don’t keep repeating the mistakes of the past. I’m writing with a request. My unique situation means many people have told me their stories, and it’s important I bring to your attention these concerns. Over 500 emails, letters and phone calls show the consequences of our long held, uninformed and dated beliefs about sexual orientation. Although 500 may seem a small number, it is significant, considering the percentage of Pentecostal Christians who are same-sex-attracted. The emails continue to come with different stories but, in essence, contain similar themes.

The common themes are:

1. Suicides. This would have to be the most horrific result of our church’s current understanding of homosexuality. I know only too well the dark place that one can find oneself due to the conflict with your sexual orientation and your relationship with God. Too many have taken their lives because they were told God would never accept them they way they were and were unable to become heterosexual. I know of one AOG church in Melbourne where three young men (aged 18, 23 and 26) suicided in the space of two years. I’m under the impression that even some pastors have lost their sons this way. One life lost is one too many.

A few weeks ago, I received an email from a student in a Pentecostal bible college that you would all know well. He tells of his passion to serve God and the mental torment he is going through because he is same-sex-attracted. He has been considering suicide. I’ve tried to meet up with him and talk about how he might resolve his situation, but he is too scared at this stage. I email him regularly to check if he is okay and see if he’s comfortable about talking. He has sworn me to secrecy, as he is very afraid of what might happen. I have to honour that confidentiality, but it would be a terrible thing if he takes his own life.

I think it’s tragic that people kill themselves when I know that it’s possible to live a rewarding, fulfilling life of purpose as a gay man.

2. Parents rejecting their gay children. There are very few Christian parents who know how to respond when their child is either exposed as gay or they pluck up the courage to tell the truth. Parents often feel a sense of shame and insist that the child must change, quoting scripture and sending them off for counseling or other therapies. Some kids have just left their homes knowing from the comments of their Christian parents or in the church that they will never be accepted and are destined for hell.

Recently I’ve read a book called ‘Prayers for Bobby’ where a Christian mother tells her story, based on her son’s extensive diary chronicling the highs and lows of his four-year struggle with being gay and trying to live a Christian life. At the age of 20 he back-flipped off a freeway overpass, timing his leap so his body would be struck and killed by an oncoming truck. For four years before his death, his mother encouraged him to “cure” his homosexuality through prayer, constantly quoting scriptures and telling him that God didn’t what him to be that way. Today Mrs Griffith has a very different view and has dedicated her life to helping other parents so they will not lose their children as she did.

3. Men and women marrying to solve the ‘problem’ of same-sex-attraction
. Many of the stories received tell of them marrying with the belief that this action will and must change their attraction to the same sex. Whilst these marriages may last for years, eventually and most frequently in mid-life when all the unresolved issues must be dealt with, everything simply falls apart. One email from a man in Perth has just experienced this at 62, after 27 years of marriage. This leaves the partner and children with a terrible sense of betrayal that takes years to work through and resolve. Very few people would be aware or understand the issues that Helen, Rebekah and Hannah and I have had to work through as well as our wider circle of family and friends. Recently, in the foyer at Hillsong, I overheard a young man announcing his engagement to his friends. This young man displayed some key indicators that suggested he was probably gay – another tragedy in the making. My heart went out to him and the fiancé, knowing that the marriage is doomed to failure as a result of this attempt to become ‘normal’.

4. Deep emotional trauma. The emails are, at times, heart wrenching as people speak of their traumatic experience when churches, pastors and other individuals have handled the disclosure unwisely. Sadly, many of these people still live with a very deep resentment towards the church and God. Something that would not be happening if there was love, grace, and understanding. Philip Yancey speaks so beautifully about this in his book ‘What’s So Amazing About Grace’. These people could still be vital members of our congregations and have a relationship with God.

Another tragic result of this emotional trauma is that people are often left with feelings of self-hatred and low self-worth, which frequently leads to self-destructive behaviour. Some have shared with me that their initial reaction when leaving or being rejected by their churches was the contributing factor to them being HIV+ today.

5. Inadequate counselling. It appears that most pastors are inadequately equipped to counsel members of their congregations with same-sex-attraction. The worst case I’ve been told about involved a pastor suggesting, after his months of counselling had failed, that the guy try sex with a prostitute. Almost unbelievable I know, but true just the same, and demonstrates just how ill-equipped some of our leaders are to deal with this issue. Many people are given an endless number of strategies to deal with their temptation, but find themselves living in constant failure when those strategies don’t work. Others are simply told to pray about it and ask God to change them. When the answers don’t come, he/she is left with the constant feeling that I mustn’t have enough faith or God has failed me. In my case, there probably was not one day I didn’t pray and ask God to help and change me. Every time I sought help from pastors, I can honestly say, not once was the situation handled in an intelligent manner.

6. The damage and failure of exgay ministries. The exgay ministries and Christian counsellors don’t keep records of their success rate even though claims have been made of a 95% success rate while others say its 10%.

Exodus International has been operating now for three decades and even though there have been people who claim to now be heterosexual, history tells us this is not true. People sometimes change their behaviours but not their orientation. Sixteen years of marriage didn’t change me. Recently when Ron Brookman, who heads up the exgay ministry ‘Living Waters’, and I were interviewed together, he freely stated that he got sexually aroused just reading my book. He may be married, but he is not free from his homosexual orientation, even though he claims that Jesus can do that. The promotion of this false hope leads people to years of unnecessary mental torture, interminable confusion and struggle.

Another email tells me of one person’s three suicide attempts, whilst in the Living Waters program, when his failed attempts to change kept him in depression. There is no scientific evidence that says sexual orientation can be changed permanently and that is, in fact, damaging to try and change it (see below).

American Psychological Association – http://www.apa.org/pubinfo/answers.html,
American Psychiatric Association – http://www.psych.org/pnews/99-01-15/therapy.html. Dr. Robert Spitzer, professor of psychiatry at Columbia University, in 2001, reported on a study he had made and indicated that reparative therapy had as a failure rate on the order of 99.98%. http://www.religioustolerance.org/hom_spit.htm

Attempts to suppress, deny or reject ones true sexual identity are potentially harmful and often lead to mental health issues, addictions and/or deviant behaviour. This has become evident in some recent scandals involving ministers within our movement. It is my firm belief and experience that this would no longer happen if individuals are given proper counselling about accepting their sexual orientation and how to live that in the light of God’s Word.

The suffering, trauma and even deaths talked about above are the direct result of the churches stand against homosexuality. I hope that you see these as important concerns for individual pastors and also for you as leaders of the denomination. These people were/are members of your flocks.

Reaching the Gay Community

I’ve been in the gay community for 13 years and quickly discovered that all my beliefs and preconceptions were untrue. Popular misconceptions such as gay relationships not lasting, homosexuals being more promiscuous than heterosexuals and gays and lesbians being sick and perverted are simply not true. I live, work and play with these people and I’m proud to call them my friends because of the lives they live and the kind of people they are. I love them dearly for their continuing support when it has to be honestly admitted that my closest Christian friends ceased having any contact with me in my greatest time of need. Something I’ve never been able to understand in the light of the teachings of Jesus.

If it wasn’t for Helen’s constant reminder to my daughters ‘no matter what’s happened, he is still your father’ and the unconditional love of my girls, we would be estranged today. This practical demonstration of God’s love is an example for others.

The individuals within the gay community need God just as any human being walking this planet. Unfortunately the gay community has often not seen God’s love because the majority of Christians have alienated themselves from them. Having already negatively judged gays and lesbians, it’s difficult for Christians to reach out as love and judgement cannot exist in the heart at the same time. It’s hard for gays and lesbians to see the love and grace of God when they are condemned at the first meeting, in the media or from the pulpit.

For years, we’ve quoted the words ‘love the sinner hate the sin’ but the gay community has rarely seen this love because the church focuses on hating the sin and blocking every attempt gays and lesbians make to gain the same rights enjoyed by heterosexuals. Possibly, there is coming a day when the church will have to ask forgiveness for their attitude towards and even hatred sometimes, of gays and lesbians. Before they can be reached there must be a change of attitude. I encourage you to foster that.

The general impression is that the gay community is being targeted by our churches. I don’t believe this is true, is it? Regrettably there is never any discussion. It’s like a boxing match with each camp in the corner, the bell rings and we both come out to exchange blows. It would be more constructive for us to sit down at the table and dialogue. If we are going to reach these people with God’s love, it’s essential that an informed approach be taken and turn this situation around. It would be wonderful for the media and the general public to see the church with their arms open and saying ‘Come’, instead of you are evil and we don’t want you.

Just last week there was a three page article titled ‘Scary as Hell’ in DNA, one of the major gay publications on the Assemblies of God, Hillsong churches and Family First (with a full page picture of Brian and Bobby). This article reflected the current view of Christians as the enemy. I will be writing a response to this magazine endeavouring to give a little more balance to the story. Unfortunately the media is a double-edged sword for us all, often only telling half the story, choosing a sensational angle and reinforcing stereotypes. For the church, they focus on the money and the power and for the gay community the sex. Coverage of the annual Mardi Gras parade, for example, continues to focus on the flamboyant, sometimes excessive minority, something which upsets and horrifies many gays and lesbians who work tirelessly serving the community in wholesome ways behind the scenes.

Over the years, I’ve come across many in our community who have a strong and living faith. The survival of that faith is a miracle itself and a testimony to the power and grace of God. They don’t want to belong to a gay church and often find it difficult to fit into the Metropolitan Community Church’s formal and liturgical worship. They live in no-man’s-land. I know of many who would return to the Pentecostal fold as I have, if there was some indication they were welcome to do so.

For many of us, we feel a little like the blind man that Jesus healed in John 9:1-41. The Pharisees wanted to discredit the miracle that had occurred and took the strong stand of expelling him from the synagogue. We know that somehow we have found peace with God, but leaders of churches exclude us from God’s house based on their belief that is it impossible to be same-sex-attracted and be a Christian. Considering that many of us have experienced rejection from our families, friends, work colleagues and organisations, what a wonderful thing it would be if the church demonstrated God’s love and acceptance by reaching out its arms and welcoming us home.

I ask you to sincerely search your own hearts. Do you genuinely love these people? Jesus does. If the answer is yes, then I have to ask what are we doing to reach them? There is so much that churches and individual Christians could do to demonstrate God’s love in a practical way. When seeking to renew contact with friends from my time in the ministry, I’ve been the one to take the initiatives, make the contact and follow up as no one has really come to me or made me feel welcome. It’s a constant struggle, but I persevere because I know God loves me immensely and I refuse to allow others to think less of me than what I am. I can tell you honestly that in all my life, I have never known such peace with God or assurance of salvation.

A Way Forward

One of the first things that can be done would be to remove the Position Statement on Homosexuality and Lesbianism from AOG website.

Although this is a long discussion, I’ll give you some brief reasons why this needs to be removed.

1. ‘Homosexuality is referred to directly and specifically in the scriptures. The Old Testament also explicitly prohibited homosexuality’

This is not true. Currently there are several interpretations of those famous 6 verses. In the light of the historical and cultural contexts of the day we can only guess that what is talked about has to do with abusive or exploitive relationships or the sexual practices used to worship foreign gods. What is known as same-sex-attraction and love today is not mentioned.

2. ‘The scripture also condemns Sodom for its homosexual practices’

Not really. Once again there are several interpretations. If you search yourself through all the references to Sodom you’ll see that the city was judged for many things eg pride, not meeting the needs of the poor but never for homosexuality. Even Jesus’ reference to it seems to be a reference to their being inhospitable. Luke 10:8-12. This is very difficult for us to understand in the 21st century but very real in the early biblical culture.

3. ‘Paul also lists homosexuality as a sin’

Unfortunately the translators in the middle of the 20th century have done us a great disservice by translating obscure Greek words more in the light of the popular thinking of their time and inserted the word homosexual instead of being true to the original language. The word didn’t actually appear in the bible till 1946.

4. ‘Homosexuality is a chosen behaviour’

I think I can safely say that I know more gays and lesbians than the person who wrote this statement and I can tell you that not one of them chose it and they find this statement extremely offensive. It’s totally illogical to think that a person would willingly choose to be rejected their family, hated, discriminated against, ridiculed or physically harmed etc etc etc

There is already a shift in some people’s thinking within our churches. Mostly with those, who through closer contact with gays and lesbians have found that their preconceived notions were unfounded. We have to admit that the bible has been used in the past to promote beliefs we now know were wrong. One of those was the role of women in the church. When I joined the AOG not one woman was ordained. Today is a different story. There can be added to that list many other things such as dancing in and out of the church, going to the movies, behaviour on the Sabbath, dress codes and rock music to name a few. All these beliefs had a biblical basis for Pentecostal Christians and any erring from the way which was once considered sin. Not any more. Each of us, having spent many years in the AOG movement, would freely admit that we got it wrong. It is challenging, but nevertheless important for us to consider if our stand on same-sex-attraction is another one of these situations.

Considering that since the early 70’s the Psychiatric and Psychological Associations have believed that same-sex-attraction is not an illness or dysfunctional, it’s probably time for us in the church to have some informed and intelligent dialogue about the issue. Continuing to treat people any other way is outdated and more importantly, not in harmony with the values aspired to on the ‘Love of People’ page on the Assemblies of God in Australia website. Removing the page ‘A Statement on Homosexuality and Lesbianism’ would be a demonstration that we seek to treat the gay community with the dignity and respect they deserve.

There is a lot more that needs to be addressed and understood, and that will take time. We are all aware of the controversy around this issue, but ignoring it won’t make it go away. It would be terrible to think that we just continue to repeat the mistakes of the past and damage other people’s lives here in this life and also for eternity.

As an ex ordained minister of the AOG and current member of Hillsong Waterloo, I’m committed to working with you in any way to bring Jesus Christ’s love, healing and reconciliation to all people, especially my tribe. ‘You are all sons of God through faith in Jesus Christ, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourself with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female for you are all one in Christ Jesus’ Galatians 3:28.

I’m happy to answer any questions you may ask me. I look forward to receiving your response to my requests.

Yours sincerely

Anthony Venn-Brown