Let’s talk about Conversion Therapy

Several weeks ago a bill was introduced in the Canadian legislature to ban conversion therapy, that is therapy and treatment that seek to change a person from gay or trans to straight or cis. In our own nation, to date, there are 20 states that ban such therapy and a handful of cities and local government entities that do so. This movement to ban conversion treatment is likely to grow and receive more and more backing. As it does so, it is likely that the reaction of pastors will be similar to what I have seen in the past, a protest of such legislation as “an attempt to silence the Christian Church”

Before we make such protests, I think it is important that pastors really understand the real issues involved.

Real quickly, I want to give a quick answer to the question “does conversion therapy, in fact, even work?” Well, it depends greatly on what you mean by conversion.

As Dr Mark Yarhouse, one of the few to do a study on the success of conversion treatment, states, It is very rare for a person to do a full change from being attracted to their own sex and become attracted to the opposite. And of the few who do, the majority are women.

I have never looked at the stats regarding helping gender dysphoric individual adjust to their birth sex. But from the individuals I have known, it’s not great.  For information on the experience of a transgender Christian I would recommend  a wev site by a former LCMS pastor,  Greg Eilers.

So one of the big problems with any form of “conversion therapy” is that it does not, actually accomplish what it advertises, a change from gay to straight. So we have a problem right off the bat with simple honesty.

A much higher percentage of people do experience a reduction in the intensity of their attractions to their own sex. But many of the methods to accomplish such a reduction are quite harmful in themselves.

For instance, in the 50s and 60s castration and lobotomization were used to cure not only “homosexuals” but a variety of “mental illnesses.” Obviously such physical mutilation would cause a reduction in sexual desire and behavior – but the price is far too high.

The 70s saw a rise in behavioral modification and aversion therapy techniques. In behavioral modification, the client is encouraged to reward himself for sexual thoughts toward those of the opposite sex and punish himself when he feels sexual desires for those of his own sex. Aversion therapy was an escalation of the second half of that, the client experienced electric shocks or nausea inducing medicication while watching same sex pornography to induce aversion to same sex desires. Not only could these methods become physically abusive in themselves but, while they often did produce a reduction in the strength of sexual attractions, they also frequently left the client afraid and unable to form and maintain relationships of any kind, such as friendship. Often client would be left to live a very lonely life of quiet desperation and isolation.

Starting in the early 80s reparative therapy really took off in the last part of that decade when it was adopted by Exodus, an “exgay” umbrella organization of ministries and support groups. Repartive therapists start with the belief that same sex attractions have their roots in an incomplete attachment to the parent or peers of the same sex early in a child’s life so that when the child hits puberty the sexual desires are redirected from those of the opposite sex to those of the child’s own sex in an attempt by the child’s subconscious to “repair” the incomplete earlier stages of attachment. According to this method, by helping the client properly attach to others of the same sex and to work through hurts in the parent/child relationship the sexual desires would once again properly realign themselves toward the opposite sex. It probably was the most mild of the techniques and did actually have some underlying benefit as LGBT people do often have difficulty with personal non-sexual relationships. On the other hand, aside from the fact it did not in fact change people’s orientation, a tremendous amount of harm could be done if a therapist insisted on looking so hard for damage in the parent/child relationship that they actually created such damage and destroyed family bonds. Further, the good that it does in dealing with actual friction in familial relationship or helping a person learn to form close, non-sexual relationships with others of the their own sex is done just as effectively by standard therapy and by alternatives that are not outlawed by such legislation.   (For one great form of alternative therapy you might look into Sexual Identity Therapy developed by Yarhouse and Throckmorton.  On that same link you can find some great resources about the Church and the gay Christians.)

But the greatest damage inherent in all of the conversion therapy methods in not in the specific method that is used but is found in an underlying foundational belief our culture, including the church, has assimilated more from Freud* and early psychological philosophy than from the Bible.

To fully understand the danger of conversion therapy we have to go back nearly 150 years to the last few decades of the 19th century. One of my Seminary professors pointed out that cultural values and movements originate in ideas in philosophy and then work their way through literature and music followed by the physical arts and, lastly are adopted by the Church. As a consequence, the Church is usually at least 2, if not more, philosophical movements behind the culture. And this is precisely what has happened with conversion therapy. In defending conversion therapy the Church is not upholding a biblical approach but rather defending a Freudian worldview of a hundred years ago.

Philosophy asks the questions, “How do we know what we know?’ Who are we? What makes us what we are? How do we know what is truth? How do we know good or bad, right or wrong, or what is beautiful? When it comes to issues of sexuality the Bible focuses on belief and behavior. But the philosophical fathers of psychology placed the locus of identity on motivation and desire. What a person did became less important than why they did it. In the area of sexuality, “homosexual” (which was defined by the direction of a persons sexual attractions) replaced “sodomy” (which had been defined by action)

Young people who would not have fit the definition of “Sodomite” because they were determined to avoid and overcome temptation toward same sex intercourse were now identified as “homosexual.” Further, psychology was not interested in the Christian concept of sin where all are condemned because we do not live up to the image in which God made us. Psychology, instead, was interested in contrasting the “perverted” with the “normal.” The homosexual was considered a pervert, not because he, in common with all sinners, did not accurately reflect the image of Christ but because he was not like other people. This designation of “perverted” was intensified by the invention of “heterosexual” to denote that which was normal. Suddenly, a rather large number of behaviors and attitudes that Christians would have considered “sinful” were redefined as normal and a healthy part of human development simply because they represented an attraction to the opposite sex. Pornography, sexual fantasies, masturbation and temptation toward large numbers of the opposite sex began to be seen as “normal” if not exactly moral.

To make matters worse, as the focus on motivation and desire as primary factors of identification worked its way into main stream culture the concept of “falling in love” took on a new and powerful dimension as part of human sexuality and relationships. To fall in love became the primary, if not only, motivator toward marriage and family. It became the justification for a host of problematic behavior: for marrying an unsuitable person in spite of familial warnings, for divorce and remarriages, for promiscuity and sex before marriage. Movies, songs and literature all began to be dominated by the theme of “falling in love.” Even old stories that warned of the dangers of erotic love became, instead, romantic tales of the glory of love. Romeo and Juliet was not a love story – it was written as a tragedy. In fairy tales the poor young lady lived happily ever after because she married a rich and powerful prince, not because she married the love of her life. But all such things began to be re-interpreted by Hollywood, Hallmark and Harlequin. Finding romantic love grew for many, if not most, into the primary, if not only, way of finding happiness and fulfillment in life.

For the kid who found himself attracted to other boys at age 11 or 12 during the last 120 years the impact was devastating. Firstly, he found himself identified by feelings and desires he did not want but over which he had little control instead his faith or his choices. Secondly, he found himself labeled a pervert no matter how faithfully he remained obedient to scripture or attempted to live a chaste and moral life. And thirdly, he was locked out of the primary way the world offered happiness – romantic love and marriage. Even if he married a woman his marriage would be mocked as a sham and he might even be called “abusive” to his wife for involving her in a false marriage. (On more than one occasion I have heard Christian leaders say exactly that)

This is the first source of damage from conversion therapy, that conversion therapy is based on, accepts and, because it is often practiced by Christians, even sanctifies the lies of late 19th and early 20th century psychology. It is based on the theories of Freud and his disciples rather than Christ and His Word. It is corrupt at its very core. It offers nothing healthy and only promises (falsely) to exchange one set of temptations for another.

More than that, however, it demands a huge sacrifice on the part of the victim/client in the fruitless pursuit of change in orientation. It is expensive and time consuming and literally eats a huge proportion of energy and potential that could be used far more profitably or far healthier pursuits. It offers false hope at extreme expense. I am actually surprised it has taken so long to outlaw such practices. If this were a physical drug that offered so little at such expense it would have been shut down long ago. And it is the shame of the Church that we have not taken the leadership in doing so.

Finally, as with any fake faith healing scam, when it does not bear fruit, the victim/client is blamed and told “you did not want to change enough – you did not believe strongly enough – you did not work hard enough – you did not pray enough.” So in the end the client is worse off than when he began. Now, not only is he a pervert but he is a failed child of God who, if he were more obedient and less sinful, would surely have been granted “healing” from his perversion. He still has the same attractions he had before. But now he has also failed God and has been given the impression that, at best, he is simply a disappointment to the God he loves.

Now I am in no way attempting to say that those who oppose conversion therapy are acting out of moral or altruistic motives. Nor am I claiming that the vast majority of those who practice and support conversion therapy are consciously attempting to defraud anyone. On the contrary, people often do the right thing for the wrong reason. A corrupt politician may, in fact, support a good piece of legislation out of a desire for the approval of the public, his peers or for personal gain. It may very well be that some, if not most, who push for bills outlawing conversion therapy are acting out of a desire to silence those who oppose the acceptance and approval of gay marriage. That does not make a bill protecting consumers from a fraudulent practice wrong. By the same token, the vast majority of those who practice conversion therapy are very sincere individuals who honestly believe in the validity of what they do. But it is this very sincerity that increases the damage. A person who peddles a false cure for the sake of money will stop when they have what they want and when the cost of continuing becomes too high. But a person who honestly believes that what they are doing is for the good of the client or consumer will continue to push their product or narrative in the face of evidence that it is not succeeding and even when it may be doing great harm, believing the eventual good will outweigh the present damage.

This was very much what was going on in Exodus in the last years before it closed. You could almost see the struggle as many of the leaders realized that reparative therapy had changed very few, including themselves, and yet they were reluctant to let it go. I was there two conferences before it closed down and it was almost painful to watch. In the end they had to face the fact that conversion therapy does not work and they could not continue. As one leader of Exodus said when it closed, “it is time for the Church to take over the task.” And there are many things the church can and should have been doing for a long time now. Here are three of them:

1: We need to see a return to the Gospel. In the Lutheran Church, especially the LCMS, we have a strong emphasis on the distinction between Law and Gospel. Most protestant churches have a similar distinction. Those of the Lutheran and Reformed backgrounds will generally use the same terms of Law and Gospel. Others may use such terms as “justice” and “grace.” Whatever the terms used, the teaching is usually clear that one can not be saved by obeying the Law but can only be saved by the work of Christ on the cross.

Sadly, however, the Gospel is quickly disappearing, at least from Modern American Christianity.

In the liberal factions of the Lutheran, Reformed and Evangelical churches the Gospel has disappeared because the Law had disappeared. You can’t actually have Gospel, the forgiveness of sin, without the Law which reveals and illuminates that sin. Oddly enough, I have found that while the Law of Scripture has disappeared from such churches, there is a new social law that is far more rigid, far more demanding and far more strongly enforced than any Law from the Bible. It is almost unforgivable among some leaders of the liberal churches to oppose abortion or gay marriage or to support the inerrancy and truth of Scripture. If I had not chosen against gay sex based on the Bible, it is likely I would have done so anyway out of revulsion for the behavior of many liberal pro-gay pastors I have heard speak.

But the Gospel is also disappearing from the conservative churches as well – primarily through neglect and, frankly, laziness. I believe it was President Harrison of the LCMS who said “the Gospel assumed is the Gospel denied.” And he is right. When I was in seminary, one of my fellow classmates made a comment in homiletics that “if we preach the Law strongly enough then all we should need to say about the Gospel is ‘you are forgiven.’ The relief produced from forgiveness should make the Gospel powerful on its own.” I thought at the time that was a stupid thing to say. While the Gospel is lost when the Law is not adequately preached, you can not make the Gospel stronger by increasing the condemnation of the Law. Yet that is precisely what I see happening in Reformed and Lutheran circles today. More and more I see sermons that spend the vast majority of the time on the condemnation of the Law and then barely a paragraph in illuminating the good news of forgiveness and God’s love. Further, when the Gospel is offered, it is assumed the listener knows what terms like “forgiveness” “love” and “mercy” mean. They are left to stand on their own without adequate explanation, illustration or definition. Further, the Gospel is far too often turned into a second application of the Law; having preached the condemnation of the Law, the pastor presents the Gospel as “but the good news is that God forgives us dirty, rotten sinners.” The emphasis this becoming on our dirty, rotten sin more than on God’s grace.

I can’t help thinking of a man I know whose father was abusive and who was bullied at school almost daily. And even though teachers were aware of the bullying, they never stepped in to stop it. For him mercy meant “maybe tonight daddy won’t hurt me” or “maybe today I can find a way home from school without getting beat up.” There was literally no safe space for him. Probably the place he felt the safest was in church because churches in the 70s very seldom discussed homosexuality. That changed in the early 80s, however, and church became a place where he felt more ashamed than anywhere else because there was a great deal of vitriol and very little love expressed for gay people. He is in the gay community today because that is the only place he ever felt anyone ever wanted him. How is he supposed to understand words like “mercy” or “love” or “forgiveness” if pastors don’t actually spend some time explaining what those things are supposed to mean or supposed to look like? Outside of other LGBT people he has never had anyone who loved him or had mercy on him. Assuming people know the Gospel or know what it is supposed to be like is a deadly assumption for people like him.

Unfortunately, though most gay people do not have the extreme experiences he did, the majority of us can relate. We were not abused physically. But we heard Christian leaders complain about “those homosexuals” and realized they would be ashamed of us if they knew our sexual attractions. We heard pastors and mentors at Church talk about gays and sometimes “fags” and knew where we stood there. We were disappointments to God and our fellow believers. We learned mercy and forgiveness meant keeping quiet, pretending we experienced a temptation we did not (attraction to the opposite sex because the church is highly focused on marriage) and staying on the periphery of the community of believers. So when we hear things like “forgiveness” and “restoration” what comes to our mind may often be a sense of isolation, loneliness and shame.

For this reason, rather than letting Gospel words stand on their own or, worse, using them to emphasize sin, pastors need to be proactive and thorough in discussion the Gospel, in explaining what such concepts should be like instead of letting experience define them, in really drawing out the Biblical ideals of mercy, forgiveness, salvation and love. It is long past time for lazy preaching to end and for pastors to do a little sweating when preparing their sermons and Bible studies to make sure they have really drawn out every drop of what the Gospel means and is from the text.

Secondly, and in a related way, the Church has to be ready to show love and fellowship to same sex attracted individuals within her walls. As I said earlier, one of the more popular forms of conversion therapy is reparative therapy which focuses on strengthening same sex, non-sexual friendships and relationships. This, of course, seldom actually produced a conversion from homosexuality to heterosexuality. But, because same sex attracted Christians often are afraid of and have few, if any, close friendships and relationships, it does meet an actually need. And, because isolation, loneliness and shame do increase sexual temptation, I believe it does, in fact, help reduce sexual temptation to form a variety of healthy relationships. This is something the Church could really do but does not at this point in time. It is kind of surrealistic that when I speak to pastors who know of a same sex attracted individual in their congregation, the pastor generally believes he and his congregation is doing a fine job of ministering to them. But when I talk to these same sex attracted members they will often say they still feel like outsiders and that their pastor hasn’t really done much to make them feel part of the church family. In many cases this seems to be because the pastor simply did not take the time to really listen or, more commonly in the last 5 years or so, said “your identity should be in Christ, not your sexuality” which signaled, quite strongly, to the member that the pastor did not want to hear any more about their or their experiences. And so conversation was simply cut off.

Somehow this has to change. Somehow the Church has to learn to be a family to those who choose to forgo earthly families of their own for the sake of Christ. But I don’t think that will happen because right now the focus of the Church is almost entirely on whining about bakers being discriminated against for not making cake for gay weddings or on defending a bogus form of therapy that lies and promises to change one’s orientation. And in this politically charged atmosphere where Christians are being told over and over again that we need to “stand up for Jesus and oppose that LGBT agenda” those of us who are attracted to our own sex will always be the enemy to some degree even when we do all we can to be faithful to the God who died for the Church.

Thirdly, we have to work to overcome the assumptions and foundational beliefs of the last 150 years. We have to end the ecclesiastical context in which experiencing one kind of temptation is seen as perverted while experience another is seen as healthy, normal and sanctified. This is going to take a lot of conversation with those who experience same sex attraction and those who experience gender dysphoria because in many ways the manner is which such biases are expressed are very subtle. For instance, if a youth leader talks about sexuality and tells the boys in his youth group with a tone of camaraderie “we have all had to struggle with the temptation to imagine girls naked or to sneak a peak at a pair of breasts..” but then changes his voice and body language when speaking of “homosexuality” he has sent a very clear message to any gay kid in his group that such a kid is the outsider, different and not part of the rest of the group and the rest of the Church. Or if a junior high teacher scolds a kid in her class for teasing a more effeminate classmate with the word gay by saying “hey, we don’t call each other names here! Shame on you!” she may very well have sent a shy kid the message that what he is (gay) is a bad word and a shame. She may well have done more damage to the same sex attracted kid than the bullies were doing in the first place. Undoing the false narrative of homosexual and heterosexual and restoring the biblical standard is going to take a lot of work. But it is far more profitable than spending energy supporting a bad therapy based on a Freudian framework.

I doubt I could convince Lutheran pastors to support legislation banning conversion therapy, as much as I would like to. But I do hope that Lutheran pastors will at least do some work to understand what is dangerous about conversion therapy so they may speak about such legislation from a position of knowledge and biblical wisdom rather than just having a knee-jerk reaction that “if the LGBT movement supports this legislation it must be wrong.”


*footnote:  By the way, Freud himself did not necessarily have a negative view of homosexuality, believing it to simply be one of many options for sexual development.  He  used the word “inversion” to describe it rather than resorting to the word “perversion.”  When I talk about conversion therapy having a Freudian view, I am speaking more of the locus of the self identity being on motivations and sexual development/fulfillment.  However, Freud’s own view of homosexuality was, by and large, not accepted by many of those who followed after him in the field of psychoanalysis and who most decidedly had a view of homosexuality as a perversion or disease to be treated and cured.