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Debating—the Moral Issue of Homosexuality

by Merton Strommen, Ph.D.

Document: 2004

During the coming years, people in congregations of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America will be debating whether or not homosexuality is morally and religiously the equal of heterosexuality. The arguments they will hear both pro and con will draw heavily upon theological interpretations of scripture and upon research evidence resulting from scientific studies.

The purpose of this Web site is to supply theological and research information that most people have not seen but should know if they are to arrive at an informed position. To that end, this Web site promotes dialogue which is respectful of differing positions. It is expected that people will differ with what is presented here but that is part of the debate.

Two distinct approaches to a debate are possible. Both are already being used in the Church... One approach is respectful dialogue where those involved not only present their point of view but also listen carefully to the opposing position and its supporting evidence.

The other approach which some have chosen to use, resembles what the research organization, Search Institute, has experienced over a forty year period. People not liking the results of a study, will examine the research report (e.g. procedures used, method of sampling, survey items, methods of analysis, etc) hoping to find something to fault. They assume that if they can discredit some aspect of the study, however minor, they have invalidated the entire study and its findings.

This second approach is already being used by some people within the church. Rather than contesting arguments with which they disagree or presenting evidence that supports an opposing position, they have chosen to use ad hominem statements to attack and discredit their opponent.

In contrast to this approach, we the undersigned, hope to encourage debate that is both respectful of the other’s position and well informed by information found to be true to scripture and objective research.


  • Ray F Kibler III, Chairman
  • Julie Solberg Christensen
  • Merton Strommen
  • George Muedeking
  • George Muenich


Tim Fisher, an advocate for several pro gay researchers, provides an illustration of the second approach having rejected the main conclusions of my book The Church and Homosexuality: Searching for a Middle Ground. Finding what he deems omissions in the first edition of my book, he has judged me incompetent in the area of research and makes public the assertion that what is shared in the book ought not be considered. To make sure that no one is corrupted by the book, Fisher has established a Web site where he goes into great detail in his effort to discredit me the author.

In his Web site and in the letter published in the Lutheran magazine, Fisher presents the following four judgments regarding my research competence.

I. JUDGMENT: The author “does not understand sampling or research methodology”.

Not so. I have designed and conducted national studies over a period of 45 years, studies funded by the National Institute of Health and other organizations, studies which have consistently met the stringent criteria required for its funding. The book, A Study of Generations (of which I am a major author) dedicates five pages, pages 320 –324, to sampling issues. As indicated in the bibliography, one of the sources used in preparation of this work was the Statistical Abstract of the United States from the bureau of Census... A Study of Generations not only describes sampling procedures in detail but also reports on the different research methodologies that were used in the study, As a result of its careful attention to research procedures; the book is recognized as a land mark study and has served as a university textbook regarding research methodology.

II. JUDGMENT: The author “fails to recognize the crucial distinction between, and complicated interaction of, homosexual orientation and behavior”.

Not so. I am well acquainted with the issues that are involved in attempts to assess the orientation of homosexuals. For instance, to clarify these concerns within the Church, I have proposed to Dr James Childs, the appointed leader for the ELCA study on homosexual issues, that a national study of ex-gays be carried out. Such a study would use three different types of items to assess the sexual orientation of respondents: 1) items probing sexual interest (fantasies, daydreams, sexual arousal);2) items identifying extent of sexual contact; and, 3) items asking about the person’s sexual orientation identity.

The prime difficulty in any measurement of this type centers in the fact that there is serious doubt whether sexual orientation is a valid concept or construct. A basic reference that points this out is the definitive article written in 1995 by Gonsiorek, Sell, and Weinrich under the title, “Definition and Measurement of Sexual Orientation”. It argues that “orientation” is a questionable category.

III. JUDGMENT: The Author “fails to account for numerous, valid research studies that seriously challenge his thesis”.

My book, The Church and Homosexuality, first identifies three assumptions which gay activists champion as true, namely, one is born a homosexual, the orientation cannot be changed, and it is healthy and normal. I then present research evidence which shows that there is no empirical support for these assumptions. The 120 references from which my review of research findings are drawn to establish my case, are ones which few people in the church even know exist. Hence, I have written this review of the literature for an audience of church people. It was never intended to be a technical article prepared for a professional journal.

In debate, it is the task of those holding an opposite position to come forth with evidence that contradicts what has been presented. This has not been done. Where are these “numerous, valid studies “which establish the three assumptions of gay activists as true? It is the responsibility of the person holding an opposing position to present this evidence. It is not sufficient simply to discredit the methodology of an opponent’s studies.

IV. JUDGMENT: The author “fails to recognize serious flaws in research methodologies”

That is not true. I am well acquainted with research methodologies and the reasons why certain studies yield results that are high or low in reliability. In original research studies which I have carried out, sophisticated methodologies were used, described, and reported in seven books ( Five Cries of Youth, A Study O Generations, Five Shaping Forces, Ministry in America, Profiles of Church Youth, How Church-Related are Church-Related Colleges, Ten Faces of Ministry). As typifies others, I have reason to believe that research evidence can be viewed as varying on a continuum of reliability.

Tim Fisher discounts upwards to 100 studies that show how one’s orientation to homosexuality can changed. He, and his consultants, views all such research evidence as invalid since they can find something in the research methodology to critique. While it is to be granted that almost all studies in the social sciences may be vulnerable at this point, Fisher is not willing to acknowledge that research evidence comes in varying levels of strength.

Grading the strength of evidence is commonly done in the medical sciences where studies are evaluated and graded not by one researcher but by a team of researchers —such as is done at the Institute for Clinical Systems Improvement. Their scientists evaluate the strength of the evidence on the basis of design type, sample size, and patient population. A research study is assigned one of four grades: Grade I- supported by good evidence; Grade II-supported by fair evidence; Grade III supported by limited evidence; and Grade IV- supported only by opinion. (Greer N, Mosser G,Logan,G, Halaas G-2000)

The Revised Edition of The Church and Homosexuality, identifies the kind of studies which can be given most and least credence. Most of these studies use the much criticized self report- criticized because it is more difficult for many homosexuals to be candid and truthful in what they report about themselves. Nevertheless, what they do report still provides valid evidence even though they under report information about their same sex behaviors. Though these findings rank lower in reliability, they still can be viewed as providing an approximation of what is true.

The Revised Edition of The Church and Homosexuality addresses most of the issues raised by Tim Fisher and supplies the omissions which he uses as his primary evidence for the judgments quoted above. One could wish that his demonstration of erudition could be used for other purposes than to politicize research.

Merton Strommen (Ph.D., University of Minnesota) is the founder and former president of Search Institute.