Reparative Therapy, Southern Baptists & Moving the Goalposts

“When even Al Mohler is embarrassed to talk about ‘reparative therapy’ in straightforward terms everyone understands, it means that cultural standards are evolving toward greater hospitality to our LGBTQ sisters and brothers.”                                                                          – Derek Penwell

Derek Penwell, senior minister of Douglass Boulevard Christian Church in Louisville and a lecturer at the University of Louisville in Religious Studies and Humanities, was among the protesters this week at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, as it hosted a conference on homosexuality and transgenderism.

A group called the Fairness Campaign showed up to protest, alleging that the gathering was promoting gay reparative therapy. SBTS president Dr. Albert Mohler and Heath Lambert, executive director of conference sponsor ACBC (Association of Certified Biblical Counselors), conducted a press conference to say they do not support reparative therapy as a method of bringing about homosexual or transgender change.

“We don’t think the main thing that is needed is merely repair, but rather redemption,” Mohler said. “When it comes to sexuality, we do believe that wholeness and holiness can come, and will come, to the one who faithfully follows Christ.”

He added that Christians have sinned against the LGBT community by “ignoring their presence among us, by remaining silent when we should speak the truth and by reducing a massive human struggle to simplistic explanations.”

Religion News Service also reported that in a Tuesday interview with Mohler, he stated his view on reparative therapy is not new, telling RNS, “I don’t think repair comes any way other than through redemption. I have been consistent through the years in saying reparative therapy is not the way to go.” And yet the story notes:

However, columnist Jonathan Merritt points out that, in 2004, Mohler lamented the American Psychological Association’s condemnation of  reparative therapy and “transformational ministry.” Back then, he called the APA’s push for others to accept science’s findings on sexual orientation a “final insult” to traditionalists.

Lambert also noted that ACBC rejects reparative therapy. “As an organization, we are adamantly opposed to reparative therapy, and we reject that homosexuals must become heterosexuals. We reject that because we are Christians … Repentant faith in Jesus Christ that leads to holiness is the goal for all people.”

Forget for a moment that the Mohler and RNS accounts of Mohler’s history on the issue of reparative therapy diverge. And forget that Lambert’s comments, in particular, are eerily similar to those espoused by former Exodus International head Alan Chambers a few years before he went completely off the rails and started saying God is “cool with” so-called same-sex marriage. Let’s just summarize the statements Mohler and Lambert made: Gay reparative therapy is superficial and “merely repair;” reparative therapy operates on the assumption that you can “convert” someone from being homosexual; because we are Christians, we should reject the idea that homosexuals must become heterosexuals; and the church has sinned against homosexuals by, in part, not paying more attention to their “presence among us.”

There is no doubt that redemption through the atoning death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ is the only means by which anyone can be eternally saved. It’s also true that conversion to and union with Christ will set in motion a lifelong path of sanctification, in which the sinner wrestles against his particular sins as God, through the power of the Holy Spirit, increasingly conforms him to the image of Christ.

But why does embracing the doctrine of sanctification for all repentant sinners who are in Christ mean that reparative therapy must be rejected in toto? Many people who have come out of the homosexual lifestyle have expressed that reparative therapy has helped them deal with some of the very complex personal issues in their lives that contributed to their unwanted same-sex attractions. These include Christians, who certainly also attest to the transforming power of the gospel. Did these Southern Baptist leaders sit down with any of these people for any length of time and hear their personal testimonies? Did they hear any success stories at all?

Also, who exactly is claiming that every single reparative therapy session out there aims to “convert” people from homosexual to heterosexual? For example, Dr. Joseph Nicolosi, one of the founders of the National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality (NARTH), has noted that his approach to reparative therapy is deliberately non-coercive and encompasses four principles: the therapist’s disclosing of his own views; encouragement of the client’s open inquiry; resolving past trauma; and education regarding associated features of homosexuality. He adds that the goal of therapy is not to force anything upon the client, but rather to allow the client to decide what to do with any therapist input on his situation.

This is a far cry from the constant LGBT caricature of reparative therapy as a simplistic – or superficial – matter of “praying away the gay.” In fact, the only way you can come to the conclusion that all reparative therapy is superficial and/or damaging is to accept the activists’ fact-averse premise that all reparative therapy is actually, well, superficial and/or damaging. Hearing the personal testimonies from people who actually have found help through reparative therapy is a good way to destroy that straw man.

It also must be noted that the LGBT lobby, having already worked very hard to pressure four states and the District of Columbia into banning reparative therapy for minors, is gathering momentum for banning it nationwide – an idea backed by President Obama, who called in April for an end to “therapies aimed at ‘repairing’ gay, lesbian and transgender youth,” the New York Times reported. And what comes after the LGBT movement successfully removes the personal autonomy from families whose children genuinely want therapeutic help? The Times notes: “Mr. Obama will not explicitly call for a federal law banning therapists from using such therapies on their patients, but he is open to conversations with lawmakers in both parties.” In other words, expect the next step to be the enactment of a federal law banning reparative therapy, period. So is this really the time for Christian leaders to concede even more territory to a movement that is already bent on total cultural annexation? Regardless of their positions on the therapy itself, why are Mohler and Lambert not discerning the times and instead standing up to fight for the rights of any American to personal autonomy and their own therapy choices, just as a matter of individual liberty and self-determination?

Lambert’s position that Christians should reject the idea that homosexuals must become heterosexuals because we are Christians also is puzzling. I Cor. 6:9-11 states: “Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor homosexuals, nor thieves, nor the covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers, will inherit the kingdom of God. Such were some of you; but you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God.”

Even if one concedes the point that homosexuality can be a complicated issue, would Lambert ever say, “We reject that idolaters must become non-idolaters. We reject that because we are Christians?” How about: “We reject that fornicators must become non-fornicators. We reject that because we are Christians?” Doesn’t really work, does it? Furthermore, the above passage makes it clear that the church in Corinth had all different types of sinners, and yet “such were” they until they were washed, sanctified and justified in the name of Christ and the Spirit. So how can you advocate that the only way to come out of homosexuality is to become a Christian, and yet simultaneously assert that Christians reject the idea that homosexuals must become heterosexuals? How is that even in keeping with I Corinthians 6? If such “were” homosexuals prior to coming to Christ, then what exactly were they when they were no longer homosexuals?

But this is what these Southern Baptist leaders are arguing, you may say: Only a true Christian can leave homosexuality behind or truly overcome same-sex attraction. But is that actually true? Singer Melissa Etheridge was in a lesbian partnership with Julie Cypher for 12 years before Cypher famously left her, claiming she wasn’t gay. As far as we know, Cypher never went through biblical counseling to arrive at that decision. Gyorgy Kozma, who is Jewish, also testified in the recent court case involving JONAH (Jews Offering New Alternatives for Healing) that the group’s scientifically validated therapies did not harm him, but in fact helped him overcome unwanted same-sex attraction and enabled him to eventually get married and have two children. No specifically Christian counseling was employed.

Again to my point: Should Christians effectively help the LGBT movement eradicate all secular help for people with unwanted same-sex attractions, simply because a biblical counselor wasn’t involved? Should we assert that no one can ever leave homosexuality unless he becomes a Christian and, therefore, not want secular people to get help for unwanted same-sex attraction if it’s secular help? I’m not arguing against biblical counseling, mind you, but let’s face it: If and when the activists achieve their goal of banning secular reparative therapy, you know biblical counseling will be their next target. So in the name of liberty and individual freedom, how about we not help them move the goalposts? Let’s work to preserve everyone’s autonomy on this issue. That is in the best interests of Christians on a lot of levels.

And as for the church sinning against the LGBT community for “ignoring their presence,” I must confess I’m not even really sure what that means.

But let’s return to Derek Penwell. As someone who protested the SBTS conference, what did he think of Mohler’s repudiation of reparative therapy? In fact, Penwell explained his thoughts in “An Open Letter to Al Mohler on Taking a Transparently Meaningless Stand on Reparative Therapy” on the Huffington Post. He writes:

You seem to be saying now, in contradistinction to your past position, that there is such a thing as “sexual orientation,” because “the will is not a sufficient explanation for a pattern of sexual attraction,” and that those patterns of sexual attraction are deeply rooted, and therefore unchangeable by secular forms of therapy. (Yay! I’m with you so far.)

However, you also seem to be saying that while those secularists have got it all wrong on sexual orientation and the extent to which it can be altered, the folks who support their friendly neighborhood “Certified Biblical Counselors” can convert LGBTQ people to Jesus, who can then (you hope?) alter their sexual orientation or gender expression. At least that seems to be the import of your quote when you talk about a ‘hopeful answer to sin’. …

So, here’s the hard word: If you’ll excuse me for saying so, that sounds pretty weaselly. I mean, it feels like you’re trying to have it both ways — you get to appear to walk back your now discredited confidence in reparative therapy by qualifying it with the word “secular”– which makes it sound like you’re ready to usher in the twenty-first century (kudos!)– while still clinging to the basic assumption that defective LGBTQ people need to be fixed through conversion to Christianity.

Now this is a conundrum. If you say homosexuals can change, will change or should change their sexuality, you’re in trouble. That’s hateful and bigoted. Even if you say they shouldn’t go through secular reparative therapy, which tries to force change (even if, on the whole, it doesn’t), and you soften it by advocating that homosexuals should come to Christ and then, just maybe, they might want to change, you’re still in trouble. That’s how the take-no-prisoners LGBT movement works, folks. Give them an inch, and they’ll complain you didn’t give them the mile they wanted. You must go all the way with them or not at all.

But perhaps there is some hope, Penwell notes, adding this:

I take your evolution on this issue to be an extraordinarily positive thing. I mean, think about it: when even Al Mohler is embarrassed to talk about “reparative therapy” in straightforward terms everyone understands, it means that cultural standards are evolving toward greater hospitality to our LGBTQ sisters and brothers.

So you may still be quote-unquote “weaselly,” he writes to Dr. Mohler. But at least your cultural standards are evolving.

It certainly seems so.

But exactly how is this a good thing for Christianity?

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