In my last post, I noted that California has just become the first state in the union to outlaw therapies aimed at altering the sexual orientation of minors. If you read the law, you’ll find that the vast majority of it is taken up with explaining the medical basis for prohibiting these therapies—including some rather negative assessments of reparative therapy in particular. In the opening section of the law and in other writings on this story, I see persistent misunderstandings about what reparative therapy actually is. Consequently, there’s a good bit of confusion about how Christian teaching relates to this particular therapy. Here’s the definition given in Joe Dallas’ and Nancy Heche’s book The Complete Christian Guide To Understanding Homosexuality (Harvest House, 2010), 104-105:
Reparative therapy is a phrase referring to counseling, psychotherapy, or other forms of psychological treatment for homosexuals who are in conflict over their sexuality. It first became prominent with the 1991 publication of Dr. Joseph Nicolosi’s book Reparative Therapy for Male Homosexuality and soon became a common term of reference. It derives from a theory (shared by Dr. Nicolosi with others) that homosexuality represents unmet emotional needs or conflicts that need repairing, in which cases therapy should attempt to repair the damage or deficits the person experiences. It is a controversial term, sometimes used as a pejorative by those who oppose attempts to modify sexual orientation. It is also used in a more neutral or even respectful tone by those who condone it, and practitioners of it often refer to themselves as “reparative therapists.”
“Reparative therapy” should not be used as an umbrella term covering every treatment approach for women and men with unwanted homosexual desires. Other forms of counseling or therapy may be designed to help such people, but without subscribing to all the tenets of reparative therapy. Some counselors, for example, may support their client’s goal to abstain from homosexual behavior, yet they may not believe male homosexuality always springs from deficiencies in father/son relationship, or that gender-identity issues always contribute to homosexuality. Likewise, not everyone who offers treatment for people in distress over their homosexuality should be referred to as a “reparative therapist.” The term is properly used when referencing treatment approaches and practitioners subscribing to the theories and approaches cited above.
So reparative therapy is an approach based on the assumption that homosexuality has a psychological pathology. It’s not an attempt to “pray away the gay,” as some people derisively charge. In fact, the approach has no necessary religious basis at all—though some Christian therapists may follow its tenets.
It’s not the only approach that counselors use to help someone alter their sexual orientation, but it is the one that is cited heavily and denounced as bad science in the new California law. In the words of California Governor Jerry Brown, “This bill bans non-scientific ‘therapies’ that have driven young people to depression and suicide. These practices have no basis in science or medicine and they will now be relegated to the dustbin of quackery.” Nevertheless, the new law outlaws all therapies aimed at changing sexual orientation/behavior, not just reparative therapy.
And this is the real point of concern for Christians. Christians have no moral obligation to subscribe to the specific tenets of reparative therapy, but we do have an obligation to believe that the Christian gospel can save and sanctify sinners. Thus Christians must insist that sexual orientation/behavior is alterable. We believe that not on the basis of any particular study—although there are studies that support the claim—but on the basis of what the Bible teaches. That does not mean that we believe all homosexuals become completely cured of homosexual desires once they become Christian. But it does mean that we have hope in the progressive sanctification of all repentant sinners, including homosexual ones (2 Cor. 3:18). Some Christians may find themselves struggling against homosexual desires for the rest of their lives as Christians. Nevertheless, Christians do believe that God can alter sinful desires and behavior over time, including homosexuals ones (Phil. 2:12-13). To abandon that belief is to abandon Christianity altogether (1 Thes. 4:7-8).
It’s here that Christians are likely to feel the pinch in the coming years. As states like California find a “compelling interest” in protecting minors from Christian teaching about sexuality, there will be tremendous social (and perhaps legal) pressure to abandon any notion of changing sexual orientation. But Christians cannot surrender to this pressure, no matter what the cost may be.