Some critical words for the Left on Gay Reparative Therapy (ii)


Update II: I posted some important final words on these posts.

Yesterday I began giving some of my thoughts on Exodus International‘s recent repudiation of gay “Conversion Therapy” that was supposed to have “cured” gays of their homosexuality. I began by talking about my experience reading the primary text on this type of therapy in college, and then I criticized some of the common thinking of those on the more conservative side of the spectrum when it comes to this topic, especially how Evangelicals have reacted to Exodus International’s President, Alan Chambers. I also wrote some further thoughts responding to some questions about “homosexuals ‘persisting’ in their ‘sin'” (Update: I clarified some thoughts on that post).

But today, I’ve got some words for the Left…

In the coverage of Exodus International’s decision, I keep running across some weird mischaracterizations of Christian ideas regarding homosexuality (notice I said “Christian” and not simply “Evangelical”).

First, in the New York Times piece I referenced yesterday, you find this gem: “The notion that homosexuality is not inborn but a choice was seized on by conservative Christian groups who oppose legal protections for gay men and lesbians and same-sex marriage.” What on earth are they talking about? There is absolutely no connection between the “choice-ness” of homosexuality and the usual fundamentalist beliefs about gay marriage (and whatever these “legal protections” are that they’re referring to–domestic partnership benefits, perhaps?).

I’ve never heard even the craziest fundamentalist say that they don’t believe in gay marriage simply because they think homosexuality is a choice. It’s because they think it is “unnatural” and/or a “sin”. We “choose” to do a million things every day that are not sins. Just because you can choose something does not mean it’s a sin–even in the mind of a fundie. Believe me, you can convince most every fundamentalist that homosexuality is not a choice, and they will still hold to their original position on gay marriage.

Secondly (and relatedly), the Left has their own version of “homosexual choice” dogma, and they equally suppress any idea that goes against that. Contra both sides (which is my favorite sort of thing), most recently, studies have shown that sexuality is much more fluid than we originally thought, with many people drifting to different poles before settling into their sexuality. Our experience of this is certainly not that of willful change or choice, nor is that what is psychologically happening, but more research is showing that it’s not as “fixed” as many on the Left want to proclaim (once again, that’s not to say it can be changed or prevented from eventually settling in a particular place).

Also, concerning the therapy itself. As someone pursuing counseling licensure and wanting to have his own practice focusing on relationship, marital, and sexual issues, I want to tell you three things. First, the therapist has a responsibility to address whatever the client feels is causing them distress, and not to impose their own belief system on them.

So, if a client comes in, feeling distress in their marriage because of the recurrence of latent homosexual desires, it is the therapist’s ethical responsibility to help that client learn to cope with those feelings and diminish their effects rather than try and get him to embrace them if he doesn’t want to. Doing this, they are not being bigots, intolerant, or discriminatory. They are fulfilling their professional and ethical duty. (But they’re also not supposed to extend magical, unproven “cures” to them either–don’t misunderstand me.)

Second, study after study on the efficacy of therapeutic techniques has proven one thing: by and large no therapy is inherently more effective than any other. Rather, it’s whatever therapy the client most believes is most helpful that will work best for them. As crazy as I believe psychoanalysis is, someone who truly buys into it will get much relief and help from it, while those who are suspicious and dubious of it will not. And so, we should allow the client to pursue whatever therapy to whatever ends (within ethical reason) they believe will help them the most.

What this means practically is that while some States and municipalities are beginning to ban Conversion Therapy (and at least mostly justifiably so), I don’t know that this should extend to banning the use of other forms of proven, legitimate therapy to deal with homosexuality–if that’s what the client wants. Christian talk therapy, psychoanalysis, behavioral therapy, psychiatry, group therapy, etc. should continue to be allowed in order to “deal” with whatever level of distress the client believes they are receiving from feelings of homosexuality.

Thirdly, it wasn’t until Freud that “sexuality” became more-or-less equivalent to “identity” (“we are who we do”). People throughout history have done homosexual behaviors, but no one ever identified themselves as “homosexual” or “heterosexual” any more than people identified at a basic level as “chocolate lovers” or “vanilla lovers”–they were just “sexual”.

I still don’t know that the dust has settled from this utterly unique and unprecedented socio-historical development. The cultural kool-aid is still perhaps a bit too widespread to consider any real change in how we look at this practically and substantively right now beyond any mere rhetoric (like this very paragraph). And either way, ultimately, we need to work within the categories we’ve been given as a culture–and this is where we find ourselves. (Although, the fact that being a follower of Christ is meant to be more deeply encompassing to our identity than even our sexuality is a fountain rich in resources for us to work through some of this.)

Moving on, I have one other major pet-peeve about this whole homosexuality discussion from the Left.

Yes, yes, Evangelicals lean way too heavily on “proof-texts” to offer theological talking-points for their ideas. Yes, yes, they point out the few references to homosexuality in the entire Bible and use those four verses to club people over the head. Yes, yes, I know that gives the impression that if you could just show how their interpretation of these texts are wrong (or at least “merely” culturally-based), then suddenly you’d be proven right. But that’s not the case, and please stop caricaturing Christians like that.

I’m going to say something that hopefully gives us all some pause: Even if you took out every single reference to homosexuality in the Bible, there would still be a clear theological basis for a sexual ethic based around heterosexual marital sexual monogamy.

But, there wouldn’t necessarily be a clear basis for some sexual “ethic” of “anti-homosexuality”. In other words, the historic belief of the Christian Church has not been built primarily on a negative (“homosexuality=bad!”), but rather it’s been based on a radical positive (“heterosexual marital sex=very, very good!”). I know that’s been the (justified) characterization of Christians in this discussion–that this is all about stamping out some aberrant behavior that old sexually-repressed white guys have found gross. But the belief that homosexual behavior is not the fullest of God’s intended design for human sexuality has been around a lot longer than naive fundamentalist proof-texting.

The idea is based in a general biblical theology of gender, image, and the bringing together and unifying of that which is fundamentally different and mysterious to the other. It’s not about a few verses in Leviticus or Romans. It’s bigger than that.

And lastly, I’m exhausted with Christians that fancy themselves “progressive” that support gay marriage and the like because they don’t feel like they should bring their “religion” into politics or the civil sphere.

I spent way too long holding that same idea–that there’s this fundamental distinction between the sacred and the secular. But, if the Resurrection happened, then it has implications for every facet of human existence, and it’s light and weight should be brought to bear upon every issue. In short, you cannot be a thoughtful Christian and refuse to at least try to think “Christianly” and “theologically” about each and every issue, political or otherwise.

Not let me be clear, this is not to say that the Evangelicals Fundamentalists are doing this rightly. I think in many cases they are declaring what are simply their own cultural preferences and biases, and attaching the name of God to them and calling it “thoughtful Christian reflection”. Indeed, I think there are far superior theological and Christian reasons to support doing away with Conversion Therapy, and even supporting gay marriage in our society. (Maybe I’ll go into them someday.)

Where I stand

Let me close out by putting my cards on the table, just so there’s no confusion (and, if you read all these posts, and this one, you deserve something for the road): I believe Reparative, or “Conversion”, therapy is not a legitimate therapy, and should be abandoned by those practitioners and patients that deal in these issues. On a more general cultural and theological level, I fully support the rights of homosexuals to marry and have full legal protections under the law. But, I also believe in the absolute freedom of churches to not have to go against their consciences in light of this–whether that be in the area of offering up their sacred spaces, offering their ministers to conduct services, or clearly communicating their beliefs about where they stand on these issues.

And, as it stands now, I’m with Exodus International when it comes to homosexuality in general. Sexual orientation is not a matter of choice and is much more done to you rather than you doing it. But, I still believe that the only two clearly God-ordained expressions/ethics of sexuality in the world are celibacy and heterosexual monogamous marriage (yes, celibacy is an expression of sexuality, not simply a lack thereof).

And don’t read more into that statement than I intend. All I’m saying is that the only sexual “ethics” clearly offered to us by God have been those two things. I do not think we’ve been given a third sexual “ethic” of “anti-homosexuality”. Like I said, the church’s sexual calling is a statement of a positive, not a negative (some may feel that one necessitates the other–I humbly disagree).

Long-story-short, the church’s primary biblically-revealed task when it comes to its corporate sexual life, talk, and behavior should be marked by cultivating healthy heterosexual marriages and communities embracing celibate individuals, more than about cultivating antagonism against alternative sexual expressions. Hopefully that makes sense (admittedly, this particular articulation only came to me right now as I was writing this, so I’m still working out. Be gracious).

But, I’ll be honest. Something in me wonders if there can’t be new Christian “ethics” revealed through God’s continuing work in history, even today. There’s not a blatant “anti-polygamy” ethic in the Bible, and yet, as time has gone on, the Church has taken that on as it’s own (same with anti-slavery). There was no clear biblical “war” ethic, but Augustine–for better or worse (here’s looking at you, Mennonites)–developed a “Just War” ethic. There’s not a stated biblical ethic of Christian diversity of opinion on secondary doctrinal matters, but then Martin Luther changed all that and now, for the most part, freedom and diversity of practice and secondary doctrine is mostly considered a good thing. Heck, there was no straight-forward Trinity doctrine in Christianity until after a cultural situation forced deep reflection. So on and so forth.

Could we perhaps be reaching an era of a developing a Christian ethic of homosexual expression in the Church? I’m not there yet, and can’t say I ever will be, but I can’t say the possibility is entirely unprecedented.

I have found myself recently running across thoughtful gay Christians (and no, I do not think that is an oxy-moron) that write about their celebration of every part of the Christian sexual ethic, except they believe in the full inclusion of homosexuals into it. In other words, they believe that sex is reserved for committed, loving marriages between two people, but regardless of their sexual orientation.

I find their hearts somewhat convincing, but not their arguments. This leaves me in a weird spot. One part of me wonders if I’m just trying to find any reason to agree with them (even if I don’t intellectually), but then the other part of me wonders if I’m just trying to find any reason to disagree with them (by setting up some impossible standard of intellectual articulation they have to meet before I’d even consider their perspective). I don’t know. I’m still wrestling with it, but this is where I stand right now. I love them as my brothers and sisters, and I appreciate the conversation. I hope you have as well. And thanks for reading all of this. And thanks to Exodus International for getting this all started.

One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?”

“The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.
–Mark 12:28-32

[art credit: Oldrich Kulhanek]

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16 thoughts on “Some critical words for the Left on Gay Reparative Therapy (ii)

  1. phenomenal post, paul. will be sending folks your way, and sharing my own thoughts on this soon. thanks for having a clear, balanced and transparent voice in the midst of this conversation where so many others are simply shouting past one another. it’s refreshing.

  2. Just stumbled upon this and really enjoyed reading your thoughts. Thank you for writing it, you have given me much food for thought. :)

  3. Hi Paul.
    Just struggling with definitions. What is Conversion/Reparative Therapy? It would seem that the ministry of Living Waters uses what might be called reparative therapy, but, taking homosexuality as an example, in my experience they do not expect people to be 100% free of their attractions/attitudes etc, etc, (though they hope and pray for continued growth), they acknowledge that homosexuality – in fact all sexual and relational brokenness – has a range of factors and areas to it, and though they present particular areas in general teaching they allow God to convict people about whatever area of the general teaching is relevant to them, they discourage those involved in Living Waters groups to provide individual counsel and instead encourage people to see counsellors/pschologists, and so on. Oh, and it’s all voluntary. At least, this is the case in my experience in Australia.

    All of that seems to me to address the concerns mentioned here and elsewhere, and yet I’m pretty sure Living Waters would say it uses reparative therapy.

    What am I missing here?

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  5. Really appreciate your articulation. I’m someone who has experienced significant change in my sexual orientation through the work of Christ, assisted by an Exodus affiliate ministry, and have been frustrated by the lack of understanding in the public sector and the profession of psychology of what is possible. I’ve found some churches to be very helpful, and some that have given up assisting people like myself quite depressing. But I’m very hopeful that thoughtful posts like yours will help people think about things in a new way. (And I don’t agree with everything you’ve posted, but I don’t have to in order to appreciate what you’ve written…thanks.)

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  8. So basically you agree with me. Civil unions in government – regardless of gender. Give marriage back to the church.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts on the issues; you reflect my own thoughts as well.

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  10. Thanks Paul. Good thoughts as usual. I especially appreciated your bringing Freud into the mix. You’re completely right about him swaying the culture into centering identity on sex. That way of thinking has almost completely taken over American culture, and it’s utterly ridiculous. Human nature, therefore human identity, is so much more complex than one human desire. Sex, as a metaphor for human nature, has more than run the course of its usefulness, it’s run amok.

    Anyway, I’m with Andrew as it concerns civil unions and government, on one hand, as distinct from marriage and church, on the other. I’d love to hear some of your well-stewed reflections on that issue if you were to have the time.

    Peace brother.

  11. as a young man raised in a very fundamental and conservative community, I’ve spent the last 8-10 years torn between to poles. on the one hand is everything I was taught about the abomination of homosexuality and how God hates it, and gays go to hell. On the other were my intense attractions to other men. What developed was a very confused, ashamed, self-loathing 22 year old who has loved God passionately, but feels intense guilt over his attractions and desires.

    I’m not even sure how I feel about the Exodus release. A part of me resents it, cause I want to believe I can change forever.
    But I’ve never truly bought into that, and have come to some kind of terms with a life long struggle, under grace.

    I found your post very insightful and intelligent.

    I’m still on the train that I grew up on that I can’t be in an intentionally sinful place, and be pleasing God, but I know that is the light I’ve personally come to see. I don’t know what living in grace looks like for someone in a committed homosexual relationship. I know I could never be in that place and feel like it was right, but I’ve learned that my ideas about how God works are often vastly different from reality. I’m also comfortable with saying that since He is such a relational being, that the terms that define each relationship He has with each of us are very relative and specific to each one. Our salvation is defined by His sacrifice, and nothing more. His grace abounds. The Gospel is a much more inclusive message than those of us raised in religion (even those of us living in the shame of falling woefully short of its standards) would like to believe, and at beginning of eternity when we all gather there, I believe the religious fundamentalists that I grew up with will be shocked to see who worships beside them.

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