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A different kind of Courage

Slovak version Slovak version

The life story of Jeremy Marks

What do I want to say to readers of LGCM Magazine?

The ministry of "Courage", founded in 1988, has been known over the years as an "ex-gay" ministry, by association with organisations such as Exodus International. However, through a process of gradual and costly re-development over recent years, Courage has changed its approach. Richard Kirker has kindly invited me to explain what this means. In essence, let me be clear that today we are not in the business of trying to "change" gays to straight! On the contrary, we recognise our homosexual orientation with dignity and wish to follow Christ - seeking the optimum moral expression of same-sex love that edifies one another and honours God. We are also available to help gay and lesbian people who are married and have family responsibilities - to work out an honourable way forward that takes into account the needs of their spouses and children too. We also have a duty to inform the Church of our experience, to foster a greater understanding and acceptance of gay people.

For those who know nothing of Courage and find this introduction strange, let me first describe our origins. Many of the folk involved with the Courage ministry come from an evangelical Christian background, holding a strong belief in the Bible as the foundation for Christian living. We desire to be uncompromising in following Christ and set apart from the world, resisting the flesh and the devil! Our number one aim for Courage members is to be faithful disciples of Christ and to live holy lives in accordance with Scripture.

Regarding homosexuality, all the bible verses that seem to touch on the subject come across as unequivocally negative. Consequently there was no negotiation: certainly there was no rationale for accepting gay relationships, or for that matter any kind of sexual relationships outside a lifelong commitment to marriage between a man and a woman. For the gay or lesbian Christian there was only one view to take - homosexuality is not of God! The practising homosexual has to repent and stop it! For the non-practising or "repentant" gay person, troubled with persistent same-sex attractions, we had been taught that this was caused by some past trauma, hurt or abuse and the need was for healing - the implication being that wholeness was epitomised by becoming heterosexual! The rationale was that if God made us in His image, male & female, then we are all "naturally" heterosexual!

Bizarre though this may sound to the LGCM reader, it has to be said that these views are held by many (by no means all) evangelical Christians with absolute sincerity. For them, the fact that gay people could be forgiven and welcomed as a repentant sinner into church life is seen as a truly enlightened and compassionate approach.

Coming from a gay background myself, though having imbibed an evangelical perspective, I inevitably bought into the assumptions so strongly communicated by other evangelicals. There seemed no other option: "gay" Christians tend to be dismissed as liberals and heretics. Yet at heart I was troubled by the implacable opposition to any same-sex relationship suspected of having a gay element. I knew first hand what it was like to enjoy an intimate friendship with another man. In fact I had found this to be the most healing experience I have ever known, restoring my confidence in God. Because He acknowledged and met my desire for a man's love, my self-confidence - shattered from years of feeling guilty and condemned for being gay - was also restored.

Prior to that relationship I had tried every route of "deliverance" open to me - secular psycho-therapy, Christian counselling, healing prayer, even exorcism - to no avail. Nothing stopped me being gay. But intimate friendship with another man, stopping only at overtly sexual expression (taboo for us in those days) was so affirming that I believed the theories - that same-sex friendship would provide the means to "grow up", to develop confidence in my "God-given masculinity" and be able to marry. While there may have been some truth in this hypothesis, there is a danger in the process - of denying what is for the sake of what might be - an elusive promise for so many.

When I founded the work of Courage, I wanted to provide a safe place for Christians who are gay to "work out their salvation" in a place of unconditional love and acceptance. I believed that any "change" that takes place in our lives is a work of God in response to our faith in Him. However, I was new to Christian ministry and my training with an "ex-gay" ministry in America taught me that my "relationship" had been exceptional in proving so valuable. For many gay people, it was argued, such a strategy could only lead to sin - just like taking a repentant alcoholic to a pub!

Our prime focus was always to be faithful disciples of Christ. As for many Christians, any kind of sexual expression was absolutely taboo, this being "acceptable" only within the strict boundaries of heterosexual marriage. The temptation to explore any kind of erotic expression was to be avoided like the plague!

For years I faithfully pursued all I had been taught in ministry terms. In many ways this was an exciting time. We shared a deep commitment to one another as members of this ministry with a strong commitment to finding God's way forward. But in reviewing our progress over more recent years it has become manifestly obvious that for all the repentance, self-discipline, prayer, teaching and bible study, the deeper needs for intimate companionship were not met and nobody became truly heterosexual. On the contrary, disappointment and frustration led most to conclude they are indeed gay and that this fact needed somehow to be reconciled with their Christian faith. Tragically some have abandoned their faith in the process.

The changes for Courage have been traumatic. I have had to honestly face the issues, learn the lessons of our experience and look for the way forward for evangelical Christians who are also gay. Clearly, to acknowledge and respect the longing gay people have for intimate same-sex relationship is the key, and entirely consistent with my own experience. However, we cannot afford to be simplistic: in a ministry like this we see that many other people's lives are affected. For instance the wives of gay men - who have made and kept their commitment to their husbands - can feel deeply betrayed to learn of their husband's ongoing homosexuality. Their feelings cannot be less important. When children are involved, the situation becomes increasingly complex. And when churches reinforce the message that any expression of a man's homosexuality is some form of wicked rebellion, we all end up in a no-win situation! Only when we all turn back to Christ, recognising that we are all sinners dependent upon His grace to live truly Christian lives, marked by love and understanding.

My own marriage in 1991 (as for many Christian men who are gay and yet marry), came about not because I had changed to become a bona-fide card-carrying heterosexual but because a gay relationship would have been unthinkable for me with my evangelical Christian background. I did not want to spend the rest of my life alone, denied the possibility of intimate companionship. The foundations of my marriage to Bren were friendship, respect and a developing love (a good foundation for any relationship) more than heterosexual desire. Today I believe that marriage vows are important to uphold before God, otherwise a vow is worth nothing. None of us in this life can have everything just as we want it. Any relationship we value requires sacrifice and a willingness to put first the best interests of those to whom we have committed our lives. My wife has her own story to tell: in her growing years she suffered appalling abuse at the hands of domineering, controlling and selfish men. I am not about to add to her suffering by becoming yet another man who betrays her out of his own self-interest. Fortunately for me, I have maintained several close male friendships; these support rather than threaten my marriage. I believe that many straight men would benefit if they took the time and trouble to build close male friendships - according to Jesus' example.

Of course many evangelical Christians support the idea of close same-sex friendship - just as long as no sexual expression is involved! But it is very hard to cross that line to accept that same-sex love may, for some men, include erotic expression of love for one another. We are challenging 2000 years of Christian tradition here not to mention the previous thousands of years when apparently, according to Jewish law, two men who had sex together could be stoned to death for their "detestable" behaviour (Leviticus 20:13).

Here I think some of the pro-gay theologians have done us no favours when they have merely dismissed the biblical texts as culturally bound and irrelevant today. This may help convince people who are ready to be persuaded, but other Christians simply feel that the wool is being pulled over their eyes and harden their opposition! After all, human sin has not changed down the centuries, though it may have become more covert and sophisticated in expression! To me those bible texts remain entirely legitimate provided one simply recognises them as referring to the violation of others through exploitation, abuse, promiscuity and licentiousness - reprehensible for heterosexuals and homosexuals alike. Perhaps the early bible translators were nearer the mark. They did not have the word "homosexual" then. So when they referred to sodomites (with the obvious association of gang rape) and abusers of themselves with mankind, clearly in their minds they interpreted those passages as condemning abuse not same-sex love! If this is so, then we have no argument over these texts. The challenge for us is to distinguish properly between love and lust, tenderness and abuse, commitment and exploitation. We can affirm same-sex love but eschew any form of abuse.

To recognise the validity of same-sex love before God is the lesson we have learned through the ministry of Courage. But to label that love "gay" creates a real stumbling block in many Christian circles because of all the "baggage" that goes long with the term. "Gay" is synonymous in modern society with promiscuity, perversion and a hedonistic lifestyle that is anything but Christian. We could do with a more appropriate word that conveys the dignity of same-sex love without the negative associations.

I have come to the conclusion that we have been quite wrong to dismiss all same sex love as sinful. Now we endeavour to affirm and encourage the men who come for help (it is usually men); to acknowledge their feelings and find positive expression for them in sincere relationships. We have Jesus' own example of same-sex love, with His beloved disciple John. However their relationship was not defined by sexual preference but by self-sacrifice and unconditional love. These values remain at the heart of the ministry of Courage.

Original text by Jeremy Marks

The article was published in the LGCM Magazine “Lesbian and Gay Christians”. Issue 59 Spring 2001, page 18-19.