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A film review of
Directed by Kristine Stolakis
Whoever Said You Can “Pray the Gay Away”?
If you want to neutralize a person or group, you’ll need two things: public opinion and legal aid. First comes public opinion. Convince the masses that someone is lethal, and you’re well on your way to shutting your enemy down. Don’t just say he’s stupid or weird, because no one gets excited about that. But dangerous? Now you’re talking. If people can be convinced that someone’s beliefs, actions, or teachings are injurious to innocent victims (and thereby to public welfare), then the public will hardly object when you vilify that someone. Nor will they disapprove when you limit, then eventually remove, that person’s rights.
Which leads to legal aid. Laws against organizations or individuals are hard to pass without the approval of the masses, as Abraham Lincoln famously noted: “In this and like communities, public sentiment is everything. With public sentiment, nothing can fail; without it nothing can succeed. Consequently he who moulds public sentiment, goes deeper than he who enacts statutes or pronounces decisions. He makes statutes and decisions possible or impossible to be executed.”1 Thereby your goal to silence and shackle your target morphs from agenda to code. By then it matters little whether or not your complaint is valid — if good citizens believe it is, then laws will follow, however unjust or unfounded they may be.
Nothing persuades good citizens like good stories, and nothing plants a good story into public consciousness like the medium of film. Judgement at Nuremburg (1961) encouraged international loathing for the architects of the Holocaust. Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967) enhanced a generation’s embarrassment over racism. The Burning Bed (1984) forced a widespread examination of spousal abuse. Stories persuade, and movies are among their most potent vehicles.
Enter Pray Away, a Netflix original movie released in August 2021. In documentary style it highlights the journeys of four former ministry leaders with Exodus International, all of whom now claim they were lying when they told the public they had been “delivered” from homosexuality.2 The film applies the label of “conversion therapy” to any form of counseling or ministry effort to help people overcome homosexuality, and its director Kristine Stolakis makes no bones about her movie’s goal to ban such ministries: “It’s really a present issue and that is something we want audiences to be very clear about because we really want to start a national and international dialogue in the culture about the need to end this. I hope by documenting that in this film we then have the tools to dismantle the movement.”3
Each person interviewed in the film shares Stolakis’s sentiment, claiming that no one can really go from gay to straight, and that our traditional understanding of homosexuality as sin is a harmful doctrine that needs to be revised. (In fairness, one former transgender who ministers to LGBTQ people from the traditional biblical position is also featured in the film, and allowed to freely state his position and tell his story.) Three questions are thereby raised in Pray Away:
- Is anyone really promising you can just “pray the gay away”?
- Is it damaging to say homosexuality is a sin that can be repented of?
- What’s the end goal for those who want to ban “conversion therapy”?
Did Anyone Really Say That? It should first be noted that no one ministering to people with same-sex attractions is on record as claiming to do “conversion therapy” or that you can “pray the gay away.” Search the Internet for any person or organization identifying their work as “conversion therapy” or promising sweeping, immediate changes of sexual desires, and you’ll search in vain. Both terms are straw men erected to discredit any form of counsel or support for people who experience homosexual feelings, recognize the biblical position on homosexuality, and thereby want guidance and ministry from a biblical perspective.4
Most ministries in this field, in fact, have been careful not to raise unrealistic expectations about changes in sexual desires, opting to prepare people to deal with temptations rather than expect temptations to vanish. As long ago as 1990, when I was interviewed by the Los Angeles Times as one such ministry leader, I plainly stated that no one had ever left my office claiming complete relief from all homosexual desire.5
That said, a valid point indirectly made by this movie is the need for caution when choosing words and phrases about healing and deliverance. All believers are guaranteed freedom from the power of sin (“For sin shall not have dominion over you” [Rom. 6:14]) and are promised the ability to refuse to allow the impulses of the old nature to rule us (“Reckon yourselves to be dead indeed to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus our Lord” [Rom. 6:11]).6
We are also guaranteed, however, an ongoing struggle between the flesh and the spirit (“For the flesh lusts against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; and these are contrary to one another, so that you do not do the things that you wish” [Gal. 5:17]) and also warned against kidding ourselves into thinking we are, or ever will be, sinless (“If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us” [1 John 1:8]).
Therefore, to say we are free from sin requires a clear explanation of what freedom entails (i.e., the ability to resist sinful tendencies even when they are present) while recognizing that God can either completely relieve us from a particular sinful tendency (though other sinful tendencies will inevitably remain) or He may give us grace to resist that tendency. Each person’s story of repentance and results will vary, a fact we should acknowledge and respect when explaining a biblical concept of sanctification. Balance is called for, recognizing that both the denial of the power of God to change us and the denial of the reality of temptation constitute the error Jesus criticized when He observed, “You are mistaken, not knowing the Scriptures, nor the power of God” (Matt. 22:29).
Ministering without Doing Harm. The next crucial question to address is whether it is damaging to say homosexuality is a sin that can be repented of. The Great Commission requires that we not only preach the gospel, but that we also make disciples (Matt. 28:19–20). We cannot make disciples without teaching women and men what God requires of them as believers, and how to meet those requirements. That, in turn, requires recognition of the authority of Scripture and its application in all areas of life (2 Tim. 3:16–17) — family and sexual relations included (1 Thess. 4:3–4). What Scripture calls sin must be called nothing less; what Scripture calls good and holy must be aspired to.
Thereby, it is not only possible to encourage same-sex attracted people not to yield to those attractions without doing them harm; it is, in fact, impossible not to harm them by telling them anything less. On this point, it seems the openly lesbian and gay people featured in Pray Away make valid points about the wrong way of ministering to same-sex attracted people, without making a valid case against the ministry itself. Some of them reported feeling shamed by their churches or their Christian peers, as if their past involvement in homosexuality made them oddities, or their ongoing homosexual temptations made them second-class Christians. This cannot help but be damaging, heaping needless and un-biblical guilt onto believers in need of encouragement and reassurance.
They also claimed to have been misled by false promises of complete deliverance, a charge that may or not be accurate, but which should be considered nonetheless. When I repented of homosexuality back in 1984, I had no expectation of change in desire, though I knew a change of behavior would be required, completely and immediately. To this day, I’m grateful that no one told me I also should expect to be temptation free as I sought to live obediently. Had I been promised such a thing, I’d have assumed that each temptation I resisted was an indictment of me, indicating my lack of faith or sincerity. That, in turn, would have constituted a burden laid on me that God had nothing to do with. Changes did come, thankfully, but in their own time and with the understanding that I, like all believers, could always choose to return to Egypt but would prefer a permanent dwelling in Canaan.
Another criticism made by participants in the film had to do with wrong priorities or goals. Some claimed that Exodus International, for example, touted a change of gender expression as a way to achieve healing. Men experiencing homosexual attractions, therefore, were encouraged to be more stereotypically “masculine” by learning to play ball and dress more “butch.” Women were encouraged to wear makeup and adopt more feminine traits.
As someone who was in leadership with Exodus, I can argue that these criticisms are over-statements and generalizations, but they aren’t without warrant. To this day, some believe that male homosexuality is cured by embracing cultural masculinity, and that female homosexuality is resolved by more “girliness.” Such approaches are not only a bit silly, they can also cause emotional harm to those who don’t have traditional mannerisms or interests. While the Bible calls people to repent of sexual sin, it hardly calls them also to embrace gender stereotypes, a truth that ministry approaches should adhere to.
Some of the movie’s interviewees report being encouraged to marry, marriage having been touted as some kind of cure for homosexual passions. To what extent they really were pressured is not verifiable, and to no extent can they justify abandoning their spouses just because their homosexual feelings remained intact despite marriage. But I should note the danger of holding up marriage as either the cure for same-sex attraction, or as the goal for the same-sex attracted. Nothing in Scripture indicates that finding a wife or husband will relieve an individual from unwanted temptations, as most honest Christian husbands and wives will admit. So while we may long for the proverbial “happy ending” of a wedding to punctuate the testimony of a former homosexual, we should retain a distinction between our longing and God’s plan. Let a ministry approach be one that encourages obedience and fulfillment of calling, without taking it upon ourselves to pre-determine what that calling may be.
Yet none of this negates the validity of ministry to same-sex attracted people. If we are aligning ourselves with a person’s goal to live in obedience to God’s will as revealed in Scripture, providing such a person with Bible-based guidelines, community, support, empathy, and exhortation, we are doing no harm. We are doing great harm, in fact, if we allow the fear of doing ministry improperly to inhibit us from doing ministry at all.
The End Goal. Finally, what is the end goal of the movie Pray Away and other critiques? In writing about the film Pray Away, gay activist Brandan Robertson said he felt awakened to the need not only to ban so-called “conversion therapy” but also to ban the very teaching that homosexuality is a sin. In his blog post “Burning Bridges,” he asserts: “If we’re going to end conversion therapy, we must end the prevalence of non-affirming theology. One gives birth to the other. We must do this through exposing the lies, educating the masses, and holding religious leaders accountable for the harm that they perpetuate. Boldly. Publicly. Uncompromisingly.”7
And there it is. Just as the movie’s director hopes her work will help abolish ministry to homosexual people, so the logical end of such a goal is to ban the teaching that homosexuality itself is a sin. You cannot do one without doing the other, because so long as the church teaches that homosexuality falls short of God’s will — thereby classifying it as a sin — the church must also teach that homosexuality, like all other sins, can be repented of, and that freedom from it is available in Christ (1 Cor. 6:9–10).
For all of its claims to object to the harmful practice of “conversion therapy,” the LGBTQ social/political movement has the more ambitious goal of ending any public condemnation of homosexuality itself, including (and especially) such condemnation from the pulpit. On this point we should remember the apostle Paul’s closing remarks in his farewell address to the elders at Ephesus. Remembering his years of service to them, he recalled, “Therefore, I testify to you this day that I am innocent of the blood of all men. For I have not shunned to declare to you the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:26–27).
Clearly, Paul considered the “whole counsel of God” to be something we ignore at the peril of the people we minister to, and our own as well. We are, by clear implication, bloody-handed if we give people something less than the truth when we serve them. To tell someone struggling with homosexuality that the thing itself is less than sin, that freedom from the power of that sin is less than available, and that they should settle for anything less than God’s perfect will for their lives is to serve them error and make ourselves guilty and accountable for the end results of our spiritual malpractice.
Pray Away offers compelling stories but erroneous conclusions. The people featured in it are guilty of gross error in assuming that the mishandling of ministry to homosexuals justifies their decision to embrace homosexuality itself. We, too, are in danger of gross error if we assume that their accusations against the full counsel of God could ever warrant a refusal on our part to give it. On this point, Paul’s admonition to the Ephesian leaders should be considered a mandate for all forms of ministry: “Take heed to yourselves and to all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood” (Acts 20:28). —Joe Dallas
Joe Dallas is an author and pastoral counselor who has ministered to people dealing with sexual issues for more than 30 years. His latest book is Christians in a Cancel Culture: Speaking with Truth and Grace in a Hostile World (Harvest House, 2021).
- The Complete Lincoln-Douglas Debates of 1858, ed. Paul M. Angle (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991), 128.
- Having served for three years as chair of the Exodus International Board of Directors, I’ve written an overview of the history and closing of Exodus International. See Joe Dallas, “Homosexuality and Modern Ministry: Examining Old Approaches and Assessing New Ones — Part One: A History of Missions and Missteps,” Christian Research Journal December 10, 2018, https://www.equip.org/article/homosexuality-and-modern-ministry-examining-old-approaches-and-assessing-new-ones-part-one-a-history-of-missions-and-missteps/.
- Carly Mayberry, “Director Behind Netflix’s Conversion Therapy Doc ‘Pray Away’ Defends Film from Christian Criticism,” Newsweek, August 20, 2021, https://www.newsweek.com/director-behind-netflixs-conversion-therapy-doc-pray-away-defends-film-christian-criticism-1620366.
- For a fuller explanation of the controversy over “conversion therapy,” see Joe Dallas “What’s the Problem with Conversion Therapy?” Christian Research Journal, Vol. 42, No. 01 (2019), https://www.equip.org/article/whats-the-problem-with-conversion-therapy/.
- Susan Christian, “The Last Temptation: A Controversial Form of Counseling Promoted by Fundamentalist Christians, Called ‘Reparative’ Therapy, Has Led Some People to Reject a Gay Lifestyle and Try to Embrace Heterosexuality,” Los Angeles Times, April 5, 1990, https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-1990-04-05-li-1108-story.html.
- All Scripture quotations are from the NKJV.
- Brandan Robertson, “Burning Bridges,” August 3, 2021, https://www.brandanrobertson.com/blog/burning-bridges?fbclid=IwAR3oNB2egjo1D6IwV_sch6NXOK0ZC8OZESa-dOM4_8ht3Ckwg3WLh_zohIw.