Alan Chambers

He shut down Exodus International and then apologized for the ex-gay ministry he ran. Why?

“Change is possible!”

That was Exodus International’s slogan, an unapologetic answer to the dicey “are people born gay?” question. Often described as the largest “ex-gay” ministry in the U.S., Exodus worked with Christians who dealt with same-sex attraction for 37 years. That all changed in June, when Exodus International’s president Alan Chambers stunned the world by apologizing for his ministry and shutting its doors for good.

Chambers sat down with RELEVANT Podcast castmember Eddie Kaufholz (who happens to also be a pastor) to discuss that apology, tell his stories and give his vision for the future.

EK: You first got involved at Exodus when you were 19. What was your background before that?

AC: I grew up in a Southern Baptist church. Looking back, I think I only knew part of the truth about who Jesus is. I knew Jesus, but not the full truth that in the midst of everything, before the creation of the world, God knew every single thing that was going to happen in my life, and He wasn’t up in heaven wringing his hands, wondering what He was going to do.

But at 19 years old, I was wringing my hands, wondering what I was going to do and thinking that’s who God was—that He didn’t have a perfect plan unless I followed His perfect will. And so for me, I was a devastated, afraid, lonely kid who was desperate for someone to give me some hope.

The first thing I woke up thinking in the morning and the last thing I went to bed thinking was, “I’m gay. I didn’t ask for this. I didn’t choose it. I don’t want it. God hates this. Therefore, God might hate me, and I have to get rid of it by morning.” And that was my entire day, every day, for years and years. And I think the overwhelming part of that and what really caused me so much anxiety was that I grew up in the Church and this was how the Church treated homosexuality.

EK: What do you believe brought you to a point at that age where there was already same-sex attraction?

AC: I don’t know. I look at it now as an adult and I think we are complex beings. We are a myriad of things. Everything goes in to make up who we are. I absolutely believe there are genetic and biological components to every part of who we are. And to say we have a genetic predisposition to feel or act certain ways, whether it’s sexual or otherwise, I think it’s too simple. But I do think there are genetic and biological influences that go into that perfect storm to make up every part of who we are.

EK: How did you first hear about Exodus?

AC: I heard about Exodus through an evangelist who used to do these youth events. He gave this alter call where it was unmistakable God was calling me. He said, “There’s a gay kid sitting in the audience tonight … come forward and talk to me.” And I thought, “I’m totally doing this one.”

I went forward, tapped him on the shoulder and said, for the first time in my life, “I’m the gay kid.” And he responded in a way that astounded me. He said, “Great.” He smiled, his face lit up and he shared hope with me that night. And through a series of events, I found out about Exodus.

EK: Do you remember what he said to you?

AC: He said “I have three words for you,” and for me, as the gay kid growing up in church, my first thought was, The first two words are “God hates”—because that’s how we live in the Church. The world knows we are Christians by what we’re against. And I wondered, is it “God hates sin?” Is it “God hates homosexuality?” Is it “God hates homosexuals?” Or is it “God hates me?” Because I had heard all of those things. But he said something completely different. He said, “God loves you.” He didn’t need to say anything else.

“I felt like if I was going to die preaching a message, it was going to be the message of grace, not the message of ‘change is possible.’”

I think that’s where my journey began. And those are the words that have caused me to keep moving forward all these years, even in the midst of great trials, even in the midst of my life in the gay community and all of those things. Certainly, where I live my life today, the three words I feel are the most important to me and the three words I find most important to share with anyone are, “God loves you.” That will change everything.EK: Talk about how your view has changed since you first came to Exodus. Where do you stand now?

AC: I don’t see anything in Scripture other than God’s very clear word about sexual expression and creative intent for human sexuality. I believe it is one man and one woman for one lifetime.

And yet, I also believe there are all sorts of points of view out there on this. Something else that has become very clear to me in my study of God’s Word is that once someone has a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, nothing can take that away. Our relationship in Christ, our place in the Kingdom, is secure.

So what that says is not that whatever we do is OK, not that behavior doesn’t matter, but that if our entire relationship with God is based on our behavior, then it’s sinking sand. If your relationship with God is centered around how good you are or what good you can do, then you’re never going to be good enough. You’re never going to be clean enough. You’re never going to be secure enough. Those things are shaky. God is not shaky.

Therefore, I can love the gay Christian. I can accept the gay Christian. It may be different than what I believe about how someone should live their life, but that’s not for me to tell them. If they want to know my opinion, I believe it’s important for me to share it. But they can’t live their life based on how I live mine. They don’t have to. It is about a relationship with Jesus Christ.

EK: It must have taken a while for this worldview to take shape. What part did Exodus play in this?

AC: Especially in the last eight years, I’ve really been trying to unpack and dive into this understanding of the finished work of Christ on the cross. The understanding of grace has so captured me, so transformed me, so freed me from the fear I have walked in—even as a believer who felt secure in my relationship with Christ—that I have had to talk about it. And yet, I would jump back and toe the politically correct Christian line, partly because I didn’t know how to express all that was going on within me.

When I really fully grasped this truth I’m speaking about today and became very secure and bold in it, I was unwilling to jump back in line. I couldn’t pretend I don’t believe what I believe. I felt like if I was going to die preaching a message, it was going to be the message of grace, not the message of “change is possible.” Not the message of “look at my life and how wonderful it is,” because I’m looking around going, “Not everybody’s life looks like mine. And yet, they have an opportunity to know Jesus.” I’m not going to risk people running away from the Church, never to return. And I’m not going to risk people running from Jesus to leave their faith or be miserable or kill themselves for the message we were sharing that they were confused about.

Watch the full interview at

EK: It seems like, generally, the message of Exodus was, “you can change; you are not right as you are.” For you that seemed to work, but why does it not work for other people?AC: Mine is not the unique story within Exodus. It is one of a number of amazing stories where something did change, where marriage was possible, not just something we chose to appease or pacify or as a second option, but as the main option that is the best part of my earthly life.

I think it didn’t work for a lot of people because the message we ran with was really not the main message of the Gospel, the main message of who God is and what He wants for all of us. It became, really, a counterfeit message of the Church, but it was the thing we found the most support in from the Church. The support andaffirmation and encouragement we got from the Church was, “Change is possible. You run with that message and we will support you.” It’s neat and tidy, so we ran with it.

It’s not to say it wasn’t true in our lives, but the reason it didn’t work is because we promoted my story as the story. We promoted marriage and heterosexuality and wholeness and change ambiguously as the message of Exodus and the message of Jesus for gay people. And the reason it didn’t work is because that’s not the message of Jesus for gay people. The message of Jesus for gay people is the same as the message for straight people and anybody else. And that is, “I can have a relationship with anyone.” Jesus died for all of us or He died for none of us, and you don’t give your heart to Jesus thinking it’s going to be all better.

EK: I see you leaning into this message, but it started with an apology. What, exactly, are you apologizing for?

AC: When it comes to sexual expression with members of the same sex or the opposite sex, I cannot apologize for what we believe about that. And yet, how we have wielded that sword has caused damage. There were people who were hurt by our message, by techniques, by people who did unspeakable things in the name of Jesus and in the name of leaders and authority figures. We had to say we’re sorry specifically. We’re sorry you experienced this. We’re sorry this caused you shame. We’re sorry this hurt you. We’re sorry that in the name of Jesus, in our desire to do good, we didn’t do good in your situation.

EK: So you’re apologizing for some of the methods and techniques Exodus used to move a point.

AC: Yeah, and even broader than that. I think it’s beyond Exodus. It’s us as believers.

We’re sorry for how we have treated you as Christians with regards to this. When your feelings didn’t change, that we made you feel less than. That we made you feel like you should feel something we could never promise you would feel. That we doubted your relationship with Jesus. That we made you doubt your relationship with Jesus.

I mean, there are an infinite number of things that I felt like we had to say we’re sorry for. And this hopefully will provide an example for the Church. I hope pastors will stand up on their pulpit and say, “We’re sorry. God loves you as much as He loves me. He wants a relationship with you as much as He wants a relationship with me.” And I hope that will change everything.

EK: Why is this an issue in society? If homosexuality just sits on the plane of sin with all other sin, why is this such a big deal?

AC: I think we are all image-bearers. Whether we know [God] or not, we were created to be image-bearers. We can’t look at any human being walking down the street, whether they’re gay, straight, black, white, Muslim, Hindu, Christian, atheist, whatever and not see some part of the image of God.

“We need to redefine, not marriage, but rethink how we engage with culture on this issue.”

And I think the whole issue of marriage and sexuality is an expression of who God is because it is an expression of male-female. It is an expression of complementarity. And for me, the way I live my life and the way I interpret scripture and creative intent is the only way we can fully experience and express His image sexually is through bringing together the complement—and that is man and woman.I think we should talk about those things. I don’t think we should debate them in angry divisive ways that rip humanity apart in the ways we have. It’s a conversation we need to have in a very different way than we have had it before. Nothing will divide us more than taking a little bit of truth and then adding fear to it. And we have responded and reacted and lived in the Christian Church for its entire history motivated most by fear. I think this is such a big deal because we have escalated it to a point where we believe everything is going to be lost over this one issue.

So for us in the Church, we have to stop this culture war. We have to stop waging war for the sake of an institution called marriage that we have abused far worse than anyone else. And we need to redefine, not marriage, but rethink how we engage with culture on this issue. It doesn’t mean we change what we believe—obviously, I haven’t. But I’m unwilling to fight. I’m unwilling to grab my sword and use it against people.

So, why close Exodus? Why start something new? Because I have a hope that we can do something better. I have a hope that we can sit down across the table with gay and lesbian people, with any people, and say, “Okay, this is what I believe, and I’m really passionate about what I believe. And I realize I’m only responsible for me, but I want to hear your story. I want to find out where we have something in common.”

EK: So you’re saying the Church needs to reframe the conversation about homosexuality?

AC: We have led with “this is what we’re against.” We have led with “this is a sin.” And we have not led with “Jesus loves you. Period. Everyone can have a relationship with Him. We all fall short. You’re absolutely welcome here.” I think we have this conversation with tears. I think we have this conversation with great caution and care. It’s not about capitulating to the world or denying the truth of God’s Word. But are there faithful people out there who love Jesus, serve him as much as we do and live very differently from us who we need to talk through these things with? I would say yes.

I find the space I have walked into far more contentious than the one I left behind. But I also don’t believe people live on polarized ends of the spectrum. I think the silent majority live in the middle. I’m standing here in this very weird place and not alone. I think I’m standing with a whole lot of other people, most of whom don’t have a microphone or a camera following them, who are saying, “I want to have that conversation.”

I have gotten some hate mail from both sides, but I feel like Santa Claus in the enormous amount of snail mail, email, Facebook messages, text messages, you name it that are coming in. Thousands and thousands of people are saying, “I may not agree with you completely, but it’s about time we had this conversation, and we’re with you.” People from every single faith, sexuality, country, perspective and political affiliation imaginable. It feels overwhelming, but I feel like people want to have the conversation, so I’m going to keep having it very imperfectly, and we’re going to figure this out together in a way that honors Christ.

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