Why have some evangelicals turned against reparative therapy?

The Atlantic tweeted a link to an article this morning with this statement: “Why did Christian conservatives turn against gay conversion therapy?” It turns out that the article is by Jonathan Merritt, and it describes the shrinking fortunes of reparative therapy. As I mentioned last week, President Obama recently came out publicly against reparative therapy, and now Merritt is explaining how its influence has waned even among evangelicals. It’s a fascinating article, and you can read it here.

As you do that, here are a few initial thoughts about Merritt’s piece:

(1) I’m not sure that the article explains why conservative Christians have been turning away from reparative therapy. To be sure, many medical authorities have denounced the practice, and that has moved the needle for some associated with the evangelical movement. But the decisive factor for many of us isn’t a pronouncement by the APA. The decisive factor is the growing understanding that reparative therapy is a secular approach that is not rooted in a biblical understanding of the human condition. Any approach with a superficial understanding of our fallen condition is going to come up short for hurting people. And that is exactly what has happened with reparative therapy. My reasons for opposing reparative therapy are quite different from President Obama’s, and that leads to the next observation.

(2) I’m not sure that the article explains that evangelicals still differ with medical authorities over the possibility of change. While some evangelicals may be turning against reparative therapy, we are not turning against the idea that gay people can change. This is an all-important distinction that must not be lost if readers are to understand where evangelicals are coming from. Secular medical authorities are saying that any attempt at change won’t work and will cause harm. Christians who believe the Bible will never agree with the secular authorities on this point. Why? Because we believe that the grace of God can change anyone—including homosexual people (Titus 2:11-12).

In fact, we believe that every Christian is a work in progress. The Holy Spirit works in every Christian to transform them into the image of Christ (2 Cor. 3:18). It’s a transformation—a genuine change—that occurs gradually over the course of one’s life. To deny that this change can happen in any Christian—including those struggling with same-sex attraction—is to deny something fundamental to our faith. This does not mean that the gospel promises to eliminate all same-sex attraction in this life or to convert someone into a heterosexual. That’s the false promise of reparative therapy. But it does mean that the gospel gives every person—same-sex attracted or otherwise—the resources they need walk in holiness (2 Pet. 1:3). For Christians, the goal of change is holiness not heterosexuality.

So there’s still an enormous worldview clash between secular rejections of reparative therapy and Christian ones. Which leads to my final observation.

(3) It has been said that hard cases make bad law, and I think that the maxim applies here. The failure of reparative therapy should not be used as a pretext to prevent Christians from pursuing the dictates of their faith. Public policies that outlaw all attempts at change are going to force Christian mental health providers to either deny Christian teaching or forfeit licensure. And that is an unfortunate consequence that is already unfolding in states like New Jersey and California and that could be happening in about eighteen other states that are considering similar measures. Read more about that here.

So those are my three observations. Keep them in mind as you read the rest of Jonathan Merritt’s article here.

32 Responses to Why have some evangelicals turned against reparative therapy?

  1. James Stanton April 15, 2015 at 1:37 pm #

    “The failure of reparative therapy should not be used as a pretext to prevent Christians from pursuing the dictates of their faith. Public policies that outlaw all attempts at change are going to force Christian mental health providers to either deny Christian teaching or forfeit licensure.”

    The law would not prevent reparative therapy from being offered to adults, correct? I think what’s interesting here is that the left has adopted a moral argument for banning conversion therapy. As in, it’s immoral and evil to try to “convert” someone who is gay to heterosexual. There’s some parallels here to the pro-life movement in how they are attacking this.

    • James Bradshaw April 15, 2015 at 3:57 pm #

      “The law would not prevent reparative therapy from being offered to adults, correct? ”

      I’d hope not. Personally, I think RT is junk science, but if we ban all types of psychological placebos that people utilize to make themselves feel better, we’d have to get rid of everything from the Psychic Hotline to “healing crystals” to pretty much all of TBN.

      People should be free to choose these things for themselves.

      • James Stanton April 15, 2015 at 4:50 pm #

        I’m inclined to agree that RT is junk science and that people should be allowed to seek that kind of therapy if its something they feel will help them.

      • Karen Butler April 16, 2015 at 9:53 am #

        Free to choose — indeed! — but there needs to be * true* informed consent for such unproven and dangerous treatments. Consumers aren’t aware for example, of the permanent sexual impairment they are risking with treatment with anti-depressants, psychology’s most expensive placebo, according to this new Israeli study …

  2. Ike Lentz April 15, 2015 at 1:42 pm #

    Denny, do you think evangelicals should assume that all gay people can change their orientation? Or do you accept a wide spectrum of homosexuality, where some should strive to change and others who can’t should strive to remain celibate. What do you make of that position?

    • ian Shaw April 15, 2015 at 3:25 pm #

      Ike, people can’t change their orientation. God can change it. God draws people to He can do anything. He may calls those to be celibate, He may change others. The focus should be on Christ and not what we think we can do or what we try to do.

      God can change us, no matter what our afflictions may be. He gives us joy and strength to fight those battles.

      • James Bradshaw April 15, 2015 at 3:54 pm #

        Ian, technically God “can” do anything.

        Alan Chambers, formerly of Exodus, said that he was not aware in all his years of anyone truly going from a predominantly same-sex orientation to a heterosexual one. If God opts not to change the orientation of those who most desire to, why do you suppose there’s any chance of it happening for those who are ambivalent at best?

        Yes, I’m aware there is anecdotal stories of people insisting they’ve “gone straight”. I think these folks need to be followed up with after a number of years. John Paulk, one time a very prominent “ex gay” who worked for Focus On the Family, is now living again as an openly gay man.

        Either way, no one’s insisting that people are incapable of choosing their behavior (although some people will find it more difficult than others due to various degrees of compulsion for any number of behaviors).

  3. Alistair Robertson April 15, 2015 at 4:15 pm #

    I’ve read Heath Lambert’s critique of Reparative Therapy (or Conversion Therapy – are they the same thing?) previously linked to from this blog, and I’m still at a loss to understand the emphatic rejection. Not only do I question some of Lambert’s (and Denny’s) understanding of what Reparative Therapy is, I question the blunt force argument that change comes through repentance and trusting in Christ – so very true, but there’s no explanation as to what that looks like. Without an explanation, these critiques look like an advertisement for celibacy.

    Lastly, I also question where to find Reparative Therapy. Are we talking about therapists alone? Are we talking about ministries like Andrew Comisky’s Desert Streams and the Living Water’s programme? If the latter, then some of the characterisations are wildly inaccurate.

    • Karen Butler April 16, 2015 at 10:49 am #

      Alistair, I have lived in San Francisco for over thirty years, and watched many ministries to those with SSA come and go — I remember Exodus as a startup, and the church I formerly attended sponsored a Living Waters. One would certainly have to go to a brick and mortar church rather than a parachurch to find ministry to those with SSA here — and they would not be with ‘licensed’ counselors. That is a Molech the church must renounce, its slavery to the DSM and its moneystream. I know of counselors who have given up their licensing rather than renounce their biblical principles
      .
      And I personally know many SSA who continue to live faithfully — both as celibate, and also married,with children. Alan Chambers’ statement was very perplexing. It would be like me saying I am not free of anxiety. I live in peace and joy now, compared to my psychotic break sixteen years ago, and there are temptations to depression nearly every day but I take my mind captive to the throne of grace and live totally dependent on the Holy Spirit in my utter weakness.That is God given neuro- plasticity, and that is what therapies to SSA would look like as well.There is no difference.

      What did you mean by this,”If the latter, then some of the characterisations are wildly inaccurate” regarding Desert Streams?

      • Alistair Robertson April 16, 2015 at 4:12 pm #

        Hi Karen,
        I realised when I wrote that last sentence that it may be a little unclear. I was actually referring specifically to Heath Lambert’s article and relating his description of reparative therapy to “Living Waters” as I have experienced it here in Australia. I can’t speak about Desert Streams as a whole, though my understanding is that, since the material used is the same, it would be similar.

        So, the wildly inaccurate characterisations. I’ll give you the most striking example: Heath Lambert’s statement that reparative therapy is secular and does not go the route of repentance and faith in Christ.

        I personally have never been to a programme or even church service that is more cross- and Christ-centered than the Living Waters intensives that I attended. There is certainly teaching that is similar to what Heath outlines about family, but that was not asserted as “one teaching fits all”. Any psychology I picked up was for diagnosis (and that psychology was measured against theological understanding I found afterwards) and the solution was always repentance, prayer, forgiveness, and trusting in God’s Spirit through Christ to help in the specific areas you yourself identified.

        There are things I wish they did differently, especially in their use of terminology, but when it comes to Lambert’s statement above, my experience of Living Waters in Australia was as far as the east is from the west.

        • Karen Butler April 17, 2015 at 10:10 pm #

          Thanks for responding, Alistair. I am in agreement concerning the cross centered nature of the teaching at Desert Streams Ministries. I never went through Living Waters — but have read Comisky’s book and some of the recommended resources — but folks dear to me did, and were greatly blessed. And some of our friends are on staff with Desert Streams — still happily married, I happily note!

          I will toodle on over to your blog to see if you have written more on your thoughts about RT, rather than pepper you here with questions.

          • Alistair Robertson April 17, 2015 at 10:52 pm #

            Karen, there’s not much there. I do hope to have something more up this Monday. Keep in mind, I don’t claim to be an expert, but I have done a fair bit of thinking, reading, and discussing on this and, in all honesty, I suspect there is a bit of tribalism creeping into these discussions and pronouncements.

            • Brian Sanders April 18, 2015 at 12:58 am #

              Karen& Alistair you may be interested in this blog by Heath Lambert, Director of the Assoc. of Certified Biblical Counselors:

              What’s Wrong with Reparative Therapy?
              http://www.biblicalcounseling.com/blog/what-wrong-with-reparative-therapy

            • Brian Sanders April 20, 2015 at 2:42 am #

              Heath Lambert ?@HeathLambert · Apr 18

              “Psychology is profoundly hopeful at first, but disillusioning in the end.” @GarrettHigbee

              • Alistair Robertson April 20, 2015 at 8:35 am #

                Once again, definitions are important. What is psychology? Let us be careful not to allow ill-defined generalisations put up walls of isolation; let us be careful not to allow pride in the Bible deafen us to rebukes from the unregenerate.

  4. Curt Day April 16, 2015 at 1:12 am #

    I believe that most of the reaction against reparative therapy has to do with some of aversive therapy techniques. And from what I’ve heard about them, those techniques should have been banned.

    Yes, we want people to have a biblical view of sex. But the ends don’t justify the means and the distinction we should be making here is between the ends and the means.

    • Alistair Robertson April 16, 2015 at 1:43 am #

      I guess it’s a matter of what you’ve heard: is it accurate? is it essential to “Reparative Therapy”? and so on.

      As far as I know, aversion therapy is not essential to reparative therapy (or even a non-essential part – it’s just not reparative therapy), though the majority of attempts to work with people who have unwanted homosexual are tarred with that brush in various articles on the subject. And to his credit, Heath Lambert does not associate aversive therapy with reparative therapy in his article.

      From what I’ve read and seen, there is overlap between concepts espoused by someone like Rosaria Butterfield and someone like Joseph Nicolosi, though different terminology is employed. This doesn’t seem to be recognised, however.

      • Curt Day April 17, 2015 at 6:47 am #

        Alistair,
        Actually, the aversion techniques have been well documented. Certainly one can’t reduce reparative therapy to its aversion techniques. But it is those techniques that have drawn critical attention and even rejection of the therapy.

        • Lynn B. April 17, 2015 at 6:30 pm #

          Curt, Alistair: I hope you are understanding that biblical counseling that rejects psychology has rejected reparative therapy because the goal is not becoming heterosexual, but living a holy life for the glory of God. It you have not read Dr. Burk’s paper that he posted a few days ago I would encourage you to take a look.

          • Alistair Robertson April 17, 2015 at 10:40 pm #

            Lynn B., I haven’t read that paper, but I will since you have recommended it.

            I’m afraid that your comment about biblical counseling that rejects psychology reads to me to be reactionary. I trust that is not the case, though I fear it is.

            As for defining the goal as not becoming heterosexual but living a holy life for the glory of God, I’m not sure that the two need to be mutually exclusive, do they? Certainly, if a Christian sees no change in their unwanted homosexual desires, that does not at all exclude them from Christ or Christianity, nor does it mean they cannot live holy lives. But I think there is more in the Bible about gender as it pertains to sanctification than is being mined at the moment, and I think that pertains to this whole question.

        • Alistair Robertson April 17, 2015 at 10:46 pm #

          Curt, absolutely. Col 2:20-23 is still as true as it ever was. I just hope we can be more nuanced and intelligent and not reduce reparative therapy to those techniques and reject it on that basis.

  5. Jonathan Bee April 16, 2015 at 1:13 am #

    one post endorses a divorcee’s music
    next post asks gays to change…
    very consistent
    if God can’t change christians from their feminism and christians accept those as christians..
    God cannot change christians who are gay
    The bible has to be consistent
    you cannot just isolate gays from other sin.

    • buddyglass April 16, 2015 at 3:50 pm #

      Based on the information that’s been made public, McCracken was within her rights (biblically speaking) to divorce her husband. Don’t blame it on feminism.

  6. Harry Schaumburg April 16, 2015 at 7:55 am #

    The failure of reparative therapy should not be used as a pretext to prevent Christians youth pastors and parents from pursuing the dictates of their faith in ministering to youth and raising teens.

    • James Stanton April 17, 2015 at 12:40 pm #

      Reparative therapy is only one piece of the treatment available for young people with a homosexual orientation. Seeking to ban it’s provision to minors would not prevent Christian youth pastors and parents from doing their duty and I do not believe that is the intent of the law.

      • Dr. Harry Schaumburg April 17, 2015 at 5:34 pm #

        I agree, it is not the intent of the law. What is the intent of the people behind the law? Reparative therapy is only one piece of the treatment. What is the long range agenda? Eventually, once you outlaw reparative therapy, without research to back it up, any attempt to change homosexual desires, any attempt to see homosexuality as a sin, will be labeled as abusive; harmful. Why did a reform church is in CA change their policy on homosexual behavior? It was seen as harmful policy.

        I don’t do reparative therapy, but in this climate, I’m being advised to get parental permission to counsel a minor about their homosexual sin, and get written consent of an adult who wants my professional help to change his or her sexual behaviors/desires.

  7. Christiane Smith April 16, 2015 at 8:46 am #

    I know only two things:
    I am a sinner, and I am saved by Jesus Christ.

    All the other ‘identities’ and ‘labels’ that are unacceptable AND acceptable to various other Christian denominations have no importance beside those two facts.

    When I forget ‘who I am’, and I look at ‘the others’, I can’t help them.
    When I remember ‘who I am’, that I am a sinner and saved by the blood of Christ, the crucified One, then I have something to give to others.

    It is in that moment when a sinner encounters Christ that he is renewed and also given the strength to announce salvation to others. We are saved in that moment when we acknowledge ourselves to be sinful men unworthy of the Presence of the Saving Lord. If we forget who we are, we lose our power to help others to know Him.

    Have we forgotten who WE are? Have we assumed we no longer have a moment-to-moment need for the Saving Lord in our lives. Have we forgotten that WE are unworthy?
    If we ever forget, we may lose that humility that is essential in one who presents Christ to those who need Him.

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