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What’s Wrong With Reparative Therapy?

Because of the controversial nature of this therapy it is crucial for Christians to think through it with care.

Nov 16, 2014

Faithfulness in a Faithless Generation

In a day of unprecedented upheaval in terms of sexual ethics the only thing more controversial than asserting that homosexuality is sinful is saying that people struggling with homosexuality can change. Such a statement inspires loud and strong objections from those contending for the church’s acceptance of homosexuality.

Even though it is profoundly controversial to assert that change is possible, that is precisely what the church of Jesus Christ must say. The church cannot only argue that homosexuality is sinful. We must also know how to help people turn away from a life of sexual sin to one of sexual purity.

This is where the biblical counseling movement comes in. We must help Christians know how to do ministry in the lives of same-sex attracted men and women. This means we need to illuminate the biblical strategies that lead to change. It also means we must warn against unbiblical counseling strategies.

I am convinced that one of those unbiblical approaches to change is reparative therapy. Reparative Therapy (RT) is infamous in the current cultural context. It has received scorn in the media, politics, and psychology. However, there are many people, including Christians, have embraced it because of the promise of change it holds out to homosexual men and women.

Because of the controversial nature of the therapy it is crucial for Christians to think through it with care. I want to try and begin that thoughtfulness in this blog by evaluating RT as articulated by Joseph Nicolosi in Shame and Attachment Loss: The Practical Work of Reparative Therapy. Many other articulations and modifications of RT are out there, but Nicolosi is the leading practitioner and Shame and Attachment Loss is his most recent—and most thorough—articulation of the therapy.

I will argue here, that in spite of some positive elements, RT is an unbiblical and ultimately unhelpful approach to change for same-sex attraction.

What is Reparative Therapy?

Reparative therapists believe that male homosexuality is, in the main, a problem that comes about from a break in the parent-child relationship. These breaks create shame on the part of “pre-homosexual boys.” These shamed boys with broken parental relationships experience an undermining in the development of their male gender. As these boys mature they increasingly affiliate with the female gender. Over time, they begin to develop sexual desires for the physical bodies of men who are different than the female bodies with which they have developed familiarity. Thus, “The exotic becomes erotic.” As Nicolosi explains, boys begin to “Envy the masculine bodies of other boys, in a compensatory (reparative) attempt to acquire other male bodies by erotically joining with them” (69).

The goal of RT is to usher willing participants toward a heterosexual identification through nurturing relationships with a therapist. Shameful experiences are repaired by learning ways to discuss the unpleasant emotions with their therapist. RT argues that working through these painful emotions in this way repairs the painful loss of attachment and shame that was experienced in childhood.

Not all Bad

Though RT is ultimately unhelpful, that does not mean there is nothing in it that Christians can affirm. I’ll point out four realities of RT for which Christians should be thankful.

Homosexuality is Harmful

Advocates of RT embrace the view that homosexuality is harmful. This view was, until lately, the prevailing one in the culture. Many today want to hold Christians responsible for the personal agony so many homosexual men and women experience. Reparative therapists use their profound clinical experience to point out that homosexuality is painful all by itself well before anyone says it is wrong.

Homosexuality is Changeable

The new cultural consensus is that homosexuality is unchangeable. Practitioners of RT, however, have much anecdotal and empirical evidence of many men and women who formerly adopted a homosexual identification, but do not any longer. In the current environment many insist that we must listen to the many homosexual men and women who failed in their attempts to change. RT reminds us that many succeed in their attempts to change. Perhaps, we can all agree that it is important to listen to their stories too.

Parental Relationships are Important

RT emphasizes the importance of early childhood relationships. The relationships that kids have with their moms and dads are of crucial importance. This is a claim that grows right out of the teachings of the Bible (Deuteronomy 6:4-9; Ephesians 6:1-4).

Positive Relationships are Crucial in the Change Process

In RT the role of the therapist is crucial. The therapist must be a reliable, same-sex, role model who will not pursue their client sexually. Additionally, the therapist must be a loving and encouraging figure with wisdom to help their struggling client work through painful and complicated emotional experiences. The emphasis on wise and loving relationships is one that springs immediately from the biblical worldview. In Scripture, we are not called to work out issues independently but in the context of caring relationships with those who are spiritual (Galatians 6:1-2).

Christians should have very serious concerns about RT, but that does not mean it is all bad. In fact, at least as far as these four elements are concerned we can be thankful for the true insights of RT.

Why Christians Should Reject Reparative Therapy

In spite of some good things, Christians should understand RT to be an ultimately unsatisfactory approach to helping homosexuals change. This is true because of three crucial misunderstandings in RT.

A Misunderstood Problem

As mentioned above, reparative therapists believe that homosexuality comes from shame growing out of a loss of parental attachment in early childhood. Particularly in the case of male homosexuals, boys experience a shame-inducing break in their parental attachments, which they try to repair through homosexual acting out. It is worth mentioning that many different sources report significant problems in the homes of men who struggle with homosexuality. Nicolosi himself estimates that 80% of his own client population fits this demographic. Other studies indicate smaller, though still significant, percentages. These are simple facts, and there is no use denying them. As true as such observations are, however, we must ask two questions.

First, what about people who do not fit this model? Many homosexual men and women describe intact homes with loving moms and dads. Justin Lee, Matthew Vines, and Wesley Hill are three quick examples of men who are published on this matter. Furthermore, what about the many men and women who come from the kinds of troubled homes like those RT describes who do not struggle with homosexuality? Very personally, my home was a textbook example of the sort of “triadic-narcissistic family” that Nicolosi describes. I do not now, nor have I ever, struggled with homosexual attraction. Any effective model must understand the outliers. Nicolosi admits that not everyone fits his model, but he doesn’t describe how to help those who do not.

A second question exists. What is the logical link between the shameful losses of attachment during childhood and adult homosexual acts? I have read every thing I know to read on RT and I cannot find anyone who can provide a compelling explanation for the link between the kinds of childhood problems that Nicolosi identifies and same-sex fornication. The desire to compensate for a loss of male approval nor the longing to cover shame lead inexorably to homosexual acting out. It cannot. Too many people experience these painful realities without resorting to homosexuality.

That means that the model provided by RT is incomplete. It appears to provide an explanation for homosexuality, but comes up short. It actually does not explain why some struggle with homosexuality, and others do not.

What is missing in the model of RT is a Christian doctrine of sin. Here we arrive at one of the central Christian objections to RT. The secularity of their model is seen as they attempt to explain sinful problems without sin. In spite of the high frequency of male homosexuals coming from troubled homes, such family models will never be determinative. Dark and powerful desires of the human heart must enter the picture in order to provide a compelling rationale for homosexuality. That is to say that we cannot understand homosexual desires or behavior without an understanding of human sin and responsibility.

A Misunderstood Pursuit

The goal of RT is heterosexuality. Reparative therapists ultimately desire their clients to embrace a heterosexual lifestyle. They believe this is a natural consequence of the therapy. “As shame is slowly diminished in therapy and the same-sex attracted man grows in self-awareness and self-assertion, he should gradually begin to find within himself a natural heterosexual response” (324).

RT has a more complex and nuanced understanding about the development of heterosexual desires than they are often credited with. They do not argue that “ex-gays” never battle same-sex temptation, nor do they argue that men who formerly identified as homosexuals must experience the same “rush” during heterosexual sex as they do during the homosexual variety. Still, the pursuit of RT is heterosexuality.

This goal is not one that biblical counselors can embrace. The Bible never declares that heterosexuality is the goal of a full and contented life. I can say it more strongly. The Bible never says that heterosexuality, in general terms, is a good thing. Sex that the Bible praises is the kind that happens in heterosexual marriage—that is sex in a marriage between one man and one woman. The Bible, however, never commands or commends heterosexual desires in general terms.

A biblical goal for persons struggling with same-sex attraction is something much more glorious than mere heterosexuality. Click To Tweet

A biblical goal for persons struggling with same-sex attraction is something much more glorious than mere heterosexuality. The biblical goal is to honor Jesus Christ with sexual purity (1 Thessalonians 4:3-8). A faithful Christian could pursue this goal by turning from homosexuality in either of two ways. They could mortify their sinful desires and behavior in a lifestyle of honorable, chaste, Christian celibacy (Matthew 19:10-12; 1 Corinthians 7:25-40). They could also mortify their sinful desires and behavior in the context of a loving Christian marriage.

A Christian could pursue the glory of Christ in either of these legitimately biblical contexts. The Holy Spirit will not give his grace to pursue goals not prescribed in Scripture, however. We should, therefore, expect efforts at change, which pursue generic heterosexuality to be met with frustration or failure.

A Misunderstood Process

RT believes that male homosexuals try to repair shameful experiences of loss with sexual encounters with other men. Reparative therapists seek to help them turn from homosexuality by repairing this shame through the more constructive work of therapy.

The goal for the client is the “corrective emotional experience,” which is to say, to learn to feel and express intolerable emotions while experiencing the therapist’s attunement. Through this process the client experiences reparation of parental mal-attunement and gains greater self-compassion (150).

Nicolosi is saying that the process of RT involves a kind of therapeutic re-parenting. The same-sex therapist provides the type of acceptance and encouragement that was denied in the parent-child relationship. Through this means the client experiences the relationship he was denied from his parents. Change is the supposed result.

This process is remarkably consistent with the understanding of the problem embraced by RT. If the understanding of the problem traces exclusively back to emotional trauma at the hands of parents from early childhood then repairing this damage through more approving relationships would seem the natural road to change.

Unfortunately, as was noted above, there is far more we must understand about the problems of homosexuals than any familial brokenness they have experienced. The most significant problem that homosexuals have is, like everyone else, their own sinfulness. God’s remedy for sin is not therapeutic attunement, but repentant faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.

Any method of change will fall short if it fails to understand the central importance of repentance in the change process. God has ordained that our sinful desires and behaviors are changed as we humbly name our sin, and plead with God for his grace to turn from sin to Him (Proverbs 28:13).

This is a crucial matter. If the core problem of homosexuality is something other than sin, the solution will be something other than the grace of Jesus Christ. This is an unacceptable concession for Christians. The gospel is truly at stake in this issue.

Any counseling approach that ignores the importance of repentance and the consequent centrality of Jesus Christ, as RT does, is not worthy to be called Christian.

In Conclusion

Christians should not claim RT therapy as the Christian approach to ministry with those struggling with same-sex attraction. Far from it. Instead, even as we give thanks to the Lord for the correct observations it makes, we should reject it as an approach to change that misunderstands the problems homosexuals confront, misunderstands the goals they should pursue, and misunderstands the need to lay hold of God’s grace in Christ through repentant faith.

None of this means that RT should be illegal—as many in our culture desire it to be. Neither does it mean that practitioners of RT, like Joseph Nicolosi, have no successes to report. It means that as Christians we understand more about the problems homosexuals face than any secular reparative therapist ever could. It also means we shouldn’t trade the profound resources of the gospel of Jesus Christ for ones that are less insightful and less effective.