Reparative therapy is a counseling approach developed by secular psychologists to help people turn away from their struggles with homosexuality. It is a therapy that evangelicals must consider for at least two reasons. First, few issues today have occupied a place in our cultural consciousness as large as homosexuality. The decision of the United States Supreme Court in Obergefell v. Hodges in the summer of 2015 represented a massive revolution in our public morality. For nearly 15 years before the decision a number of developments and trends were signaling that the moral judgment of Americans was changing regarding that issue: individual states were passing laws legalizing homosexual marriage, federal laws defining marriage as the union of one man and one woman were struck down, and an incumbent president of the United States won reelection after publicly declaring his support for gay marriage. The verdict of Obergefell in legalizing same-sex marriage in all 50 states was not out of the blue, but did represent the capstone of a monumental series of changes. Now the moral framework of our society is exactly the opposite of what it was less than a generation ago. In my childhood homosexuality was nearly universally understood to be wrong, its practice meeting with cultural opprobrium. Now in my children’s elementary years, homosexuality is met with nearly universal acceptance, and opprobrium comes to anyone who would dare question the morality of the lifestyle.
The problem with this is that the attitudes of our culture about homosexuality cannot change the sinfulness of it. God’s verdict is the only one that matters throughout eternity, and his remains the same. Because God has remained consistent in his moral judgment about homosexuality all of the consequences for that sin still remain even though unbelievers will try to suppress the truth in unrighteousness (Rom 1:18). This means the cultural embrace of this sin cannot change the pain that homosexuals will experience as a consequence of their sin. No popular acceptance of homosexuality will alter the fact that many will experience the painful consequences of their sin, will desire help, and will want to change.
That leads to the second reason that this issue is important for evangelicals to consider. Christians will reach out for help to change, and for many that will mean trying to connect with a therapist specializing in reparative therapy. The problem here is that the fortunes of reparative therapy have declined as our cultural values about homosexuality have shifted. Whereas reparative therapy once claimed a modicum of interest and respect, it is now decried by secularists as immoral. Laws have been passed against its practice in states like California and New Jersey. These states will not be the last to take that action.
I think many people equate the biblical approach to helping homosexuals with reparative therapy. Many assume that all efforts to help homosexuals change are equivalent. Such an assumption is in error. In our day there are two secular approaches to understanding homosexuality. The first and most popular is the view that advances complete cultural acceptance of homosexuality. The second is the view of reparative therapy, which believes homosexuality to be problematic and seeks change through secular therapeutic techniques. The Bible offers a third approach to homosexuality, which is different than each of these secular approaches.
My goal in this article is to argue that reparative therapy is not a legitimate option for evangelical Christians to use in their engagement with homosexuals. Evangelicals will agree with reparative therapists in their negative moral judgment about homosexuality, and will also agree that change is possible for people struggling with this sin. Agreement on these issues however, will not lead evangelicals to using the secular counseling tactics used by reparative therapists.
Before we can understand why evangelicals cannot defend reparative therapy we need to be sure we understand what we are talking about. To begin, therefore, I want to define our terms.
If my goal is to show that reparative therapy is not an option for evangelicals, then we need to understand what an evangelical is as well as what reparative therapy is. I shall take each one in turn.
It is notoriously difficult work to define what an evangelical is. Scholars have found it to be very challenging to nail down one definition that makes everyone happy. I do not believe I can provide the definitive description in one article about reparative therapy, so I will just point to one helpful description. Many believe that the understanding of an evangelical provided by David Bebbington is a helpful description.
This is how he described an evangelical,
There are the four qualities that have been the special marks of Evangelical religion: conversionism, the belief that lives need to be changed; activism, the expression of the gospel in effort; biblicism a particular regard for the Bible; and what may be called crucicentrism, a stress on the sacrifice of Christ on the cross. Together they form a quadrilateral of priorities that is the basis of evangelicalism.1
Bebbington’s emphasis that evangelicals are committed to conversion (Matt 28:16-20), to the Bible (2 Tim 3:16-17), to an active faith (James 2:14-25), and to the centrality of Christ (Col 1:15-20) certainly ring true as biblical emphases that should inform the lives of every person committed to Christ. For the purposes of this article his so-called quadrilateral will be our point of reference for what constitutes an evangelical Christian. When I say that reparative therapy should not be a considered an option for evangelicals, Bebbington’s quadrilateral constitutes my particular idea of what it means to be one.
Next we shall spend some time discerning what reparative therapy is. Reparative therapy is a secular approach to counseling care. The key intellectual leader for this therapy is Joseph Nicolosi. He is the co-founder and former president of the National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality (NARTH), the national organization that seeks to advance reparative therapy. Three key realities explain his theory known as reparative therapy.
First, reparative therapy seeks to explain the origins of homosexuality as being grounded in a relational break between parents and their children. 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 psychological damage to their male gender development. 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.”2
Second, reparative therapists have an understanding of how to help homosexuals change, which involves a reparative relationship with a therapist. Nicolosi writes,
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 malattunement and gains greater self-compassion.3
Nicolosi is saying that the process of reparative therapy 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. Nicolosi has referred to counseling as the opportunity to give what parents did not.4
Finally, the goal of reparative therapy is the presence of heterosexual desires on the part of the once-homosexual man. Nicolosi says,
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.5
Reparative therapists do not believe a person has truly changed unless and until he experiences heterosexual attractions. Such attractions are the “natural” response to therapy.
Now that we have something of an understanding about what reparative therapy is I want to enter into an analysis of whether this therapy is an acceptable approach for evangelical Christians to use in helping homosexuals change.
As I stated at the beginning of this essay reparative therapy is not a legitimate evangelical approach to counseling homosexuals. In what follows I want to evaluate reparative therapy and show why I believe this argument to be correct. Before I get to that point, however, I need to make an honest admission. Some Christians have tried to argue that there is a way to use reparative therapy as the basis for a counseling approach while removing the unbiblcal elements of the therapy and adding biblical truth as a supplement. Some very good scholars like Robert Gagnon have suggested that my criticisms of the Christian use of reparative therapy do not take into account the way many Christians have tweaked the theory to make it more biblical.6 There is more to say about the mixing of secular therapies with biblical truth than I can now address. For now, I will simply make two brief comments. First, I have argued at length in other places that it is unbiblical and unnecessary to mix secular counseling therapies with biblical truth.7 Second, when Christians undertake this effort they create a third reality that is distinct from either biblical interventions or the secular therapy with which they began. When Christians do this with reparative therapy, for example, they have created a new therapy. My task here is to evaluate reparative therapy as it has been advocated by the authors of the theory, not to evaluate they way various Christians have tried to rehabilitate it into something biblical. For now, I we will turn our attention to reparative therapy as it actually exists, not as some Christians wish it to exist.
Reparative therapy has fallen on hard times. Sometimes it seems that the only thing more upsetting to homosexual activists than calling their behavior sinful is saying that the behavior is changeable. Advocates who vocalize support for the homosexual lifestyle oppose any kind of contention that homosexuals can change. This opposition has led those advocates to try and make reparative therapy unavailable through legal and social pressure. As observed above, several states have taken action to make reparative therapy illegal for therapists licensed by the state who would counsel minors. The list of states where such regulations are enforced by the state are bound to grow.
I am arguing in this essay that reparative therapy is an unbiblical approach to care that evangelicals should not use when helping people who struggle with homosexuality. As much as I believe that reparative therapy cuts against the biblical grain I can see no reason why people in a free society should not be able to choose this option. Reparative therapists have expressed alarm that the government would seek to restrict the practice of a therapy that has some empirical evidence of effectiveness as I will show below. They have argued that there is no good reason why a free society should restrict this practice when many people seek this kind of help for their struggle with homosexuality. Reparative therapists have gone out of their way to argue that they do not force their therapy on anyone, but only make it available to those who desire to change. They make this argument on the basis of the freedom of client choice. Evangelicals share the concerns of reparative therapists about the actions of the state to restrict the practice. If Caesar can restrict the conversations of reparative therapists then he can restrict the conversations of evangelicals as well. And yet evangelicals have a greater concern than the freedom of client choice.
The four-fold elements of evangelicalism, which we saw above to be biblical indicators that should inform Christian conviction will require Christians to be committed to more than the freedom of clients to choose their own therapy. Our commitment to the Word of God, to the centrality of Christ, to an activist faith, and to evangelization will require us to insist on matters that reparative therapists must let slide. Reparative therapists can afford to say to homosexuals that they can choose therapy if they like, but do not need to change unless they desire. Evangelicals cannot do this. We must point out that the Bible calls this behavior a grievous sin, and that everyone who struggles against it must call upon the name of Jesus Christ for salvation from their sin. The evangelical commitment to the Word and to Christ, therefore, provides more urgency than the commitments of reparative therapists to mere freedom.
Of course Christians are not despots. We do not call people to repent at gunpoint. Nobody is forced to listen a message they do not want to hear. Christian people enforce no requirements that homosexuals engage in behaviors they dislike. Evangelicals know that we cannot force unbelievers to embrace our teachings. Even Jesus let the rich young ruler walk away (Matt 19:16-30). Unbelievers have a right to refuse our message, but evangelicals have no right to refuse to offer it. So evangelicals cannot agree with reparative therapists that the option to change is one among many. We must say with Paul, “Him we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ” (Col 1:28).
Reparative therapists are morally honest about the consequences of homosexuality. In a culture where it is difficult to be honest about the dangers of homosexuality, reparative therapists often tell the truth. They are some of the only people reporting that the rates of depression, self-injury, suicide, addiction, and disease are all much higher in the homosexual community than the heterosexual community. Homosexual activists try to place responsibility for these problems at the feet of those who express concern about homosexual practices like religious conservatives and reparative therapists. But these deadly statistics are in place even for homosexuals living in accepting environments. It is homosexuality that is dangerous, not an honest discussion of its dangers.8
I’m thankful for this honesty on the part of my friends committed to reparative therapy. Our culture is lost in a fog of moral relativism and has lost the ability to be honest. And yet this commendable honesty is not enough for evangelicals. As Christians committed to Scripture we know that homosexuality creates consequences that are not only temporal, but also eternal. Homosexuals have a much worse fate than a mental illness diagnosis or even the risk of bringing harm to themselves. They face death and hell (Rom 2:5). This reality will mean that evangelicals cannot afford merely to be concerned about the earthy lives of homosexuals. We are concerned about their eternal destiny. Our commitment to the Bible will stir in us a passionate call to repentant faith in Christ to avoid this fate that awaits every single person who does not trust Jesus.
One of the most persistent claims of advocates for the gay lifestyle is that homosexual desires and behaviors are a fixed and immutable reality. They claim that efforts at change always fail.9 The problem with this assertion is that it is not supported by the facts. Reparative therapists have effectively shown that change is possible for those who desire it. In one study by Nicolosi, Byrd, and Potts of 882 persons in “sexual reorientation therapy” only 13% reported no change away from homosexual desire.10 In another study conducted by Stan Jones and Mark Yarhouse they found stunning evidence for change. They report,
The general picture that emerges from our analyses of these data is that, on average, this population has experienced significant change away from homosexual orientation and toward heterosexual orientation . . . The most surprising single finding, and one that is replicated over several different measures, is that the population most likely on average to manifest significant change is the “Truly Gay” population . . . Common sense and dominant clinical professional opinion would clearly predict that these would be the research subjects least likely to report fundamental change, and yet consistently it was this group that reported the greatest degree of change.11
As believers in Jesus Christ we should be thankful for strong, empirical support for the claim that homosexuals can change. It provides helpful evidence to contradict the nearly-universal belief, which exists in the popular culture.
And yet, as evangelicals we must go further. As thankful as we are for research indicating the possibility for change, for Christians this information is insufficient to justify our efforts at change. Evangelicals believe that homosexuals can change, not primarily because of empirical evidence, but because our commitment to the Bible demands that we believe it.
One passage of Scripture that is routinely cited in this regard is 1 Corinthians 6:9-11. This text lists homosexuality, among other sins, as the kinds of things that once characterized the lives of people, but no longer characterize the lives of Christians because they have been washed, sanctified, and justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, and by the Spirit of God. Empirical evidence, while interesting and often useful, is not the authority for Christians. Empirical evidence shows imperfectly what is the case, and cannot possibly show what should be the case. We need the teaching of Scripture to provide the ballast of truth in the midst of conflicting claims about the ability of homosexuals to change. Because evangelicals stand on Scripture we have more confidence than anyone who merely reads research. As Christians we believe the Bible teaches, not only, that homosexuals can change, but by the grace of Jesus they will change.
We saw earlier that reparative therapists place a great deal of importance on the developments of early childhood in understanding the problem of homosexuality. In their view homosexuality grows out of critical breaks in the important relationship between children and their parents. Christians are thankful for an emphasis on the importance of parental roles for biblical reasons.
The Bible indicates the importance of parenting in childhood development. Scripture points out that parents play a crucial role during this phase of life (Deut 6:4-9). The Apostle Paul singles out fathers by addressing them as particularly important in the moral and spiritual formation of their children (Eph 6:1-4). Tedd Tripp refers to this category of biblical teaching on parenting as shaping influences and shows how important it is.12
Unfortunately, reparative therapists exaggerate the importance of parents in childhood development. The Bible is clear that the influence of parents is critical, but is equally clear that this influence is not determinative. Human beings are not set on an irreversible trajectory dictated by the role their parents played in their life before they were adolescents. Such a fatalistic understanding fails to account for other biblical realities of even greater significance than parental involvement.
One of those biblical realities is sin. Sin warps everything it touches and dramatically impacts every human being. This reality means that even children with incredible parents will go their own way in rebellion in spite of incredibly positive examples. This reality also means that people will engage in homosexuality primarily because they are sinners, and not because of any outside influence, no matter how important. The Bible understands that the sinful behavior of people can be powerfully impacted by outside sources of temptation, but always lays the blame for sin in the heart of the sinner (Jas 1:14-15).
Another biblical reality of greater significance than parental involvement is grace. The Bible teaches that where sin increases, grace abounds all the more (Rom 5:20). Grace means that there is power from Christ to be holy in spite of tempting influences and sinful proclivities. Grace means that even the most broken homes are not inextricably determined to lead to more brokenness and sin.
These biblical realities of sin and grace provide a better rational for homosexuality than any secular reparative therapist ever can. It alone explains why some men with distant and difficult relationships with their fathers pursue godly marriage with a woman, and why other men with wonderful fathers still embrace godless sex. Reparative therapists have a glancing appreciation of the biblical importance on parenting, but miss the more profound biblical teaching about the sin of man, and the grace of God.
Reparative therapists clearly see the value of heterosexual normativity. They argue that “Normality is that which functions according to its design.”13 Statements like this one make a powerful argument for heterosexual behavior grounded in the physical design of male and female bodies. Homosexual activity goes against the obvious design of our physical bodies. It is against nature and dishonors the human body (Rom 1:24, 26-27).
Reparative therapists are correct to see that homosexuality is against nature, but then they take this biblical teaching and move farther than the Bible allows. As demonstrated above, reparative therapists argue that people who struggle with homosexuality must demonstrate the fullness of the change process by pursuing the goal of heterosexual relationships. This argument goes beyond what Scripture argues.
The biblical position on sexuality is that sexual relationships are to take place between one man and one woman in the context of marriage which lasts for a lifetime. Spouses are called to have sexual desire for their opposite sex spouse, and are to reject any sexual desire or activity for anyone else (Prov 5:18-19; 1 Cor 7:1-5). The Bible never commands individuals to cultivate sexual desire for the opposite sex in general. In fact, the Bible condemns as sinful lust any sexual desire that is not directed toward one’s partner in marriage (Matt 5:27-30).
What this all means is that, contrary to the teaching of reparative therapists, heterosexual desire is not a virtue in and of itself. The biblical teaching is much more sophisticated, calling for purity and chastity, rather than the cultivation of general heterosexual desire. People who struggle with homosexuality change by pursuing the goal of chastity, which means fighting to eradicate any sexual desire outside of marriage, and fighting to cultivate exclusive sexual desire for one’s spouse within marriage.
Reparative therapy is not an approach to counseling that avoids practical strategies leading to change being content only to talk about problems. It is not mere commiseration, but has has a strong therapeutic process in place. Reparative therapy is a form of directive therapy. That means there is a teaching element to it. Evangelicals should be grateful for this element because of our commitment to the teaching ministry of the Word (1 Tim 1:3).
Reparative therapy is also relational. Relationships are crucial to their therapeutic process. Nicolosi discusses each of these elements of teaching and relationship in his book Healing Homosexuality,
Reparative therapy requires a more involved therapist—a “benevolent provocateur” who departs from the tradition of uninvolved, opaque analyst to become a salient male presence. The therapist must balance active challenge with warm encouragement to follow the father-son, mentor-pupil model. This is an essential principle of reparative therapy.”14
This reality is also encouraging to evangelicals who submit to a Bible that tells us that change happens best as we live life together (Heb 3:7-19).
Reparative therapists have another element of their therapeutic process that evangelicals can embrace. Reparative therapy pursues a process of change where people are encouraged, not only to avoid harmful behaviors like the practice of homosexuality, but to engage in constructive behaviors. Nicolosi says, “Reparative therapy is initiatory in nature. It requires not just a passive musing over insights into the self, but an active initiation of new behaviors.” This is a very practical approach to care that is reminiscent of the biblical commands to put off sinful behavior and put on righteous activities (Rom 6:12-14, Eph 4:17-32; Col 3:5-17).
Evangelicals are grateful for each of these elements of the therapeutic process in reparative therapy, but we need to be clear why we are grateful for them. We are grateful for them because they are biblical processes. Whether the issue is the value of teaching, the importance of relationship, or the necessity of replacing sinful behaviors with righteous ones, each of strategies existed in the mind of God before any secular therapist in the 1900s “developed” them. Reparative therapists happened upon strategies that are biblical strategies. We know the strategies are helpful because God’s Word confirms they are. As evangelicals we should be thankful for the common grace of God that would lead unbelievers to the kinds of effective strategies that God reveals authoritatively in his Word. We should also acknowledge that reparative therapy needs to be more biblical.
Once you realize that the effective elements of reparative therapy are the instances when the therapists were unwittingly biblical it drives you away from that therapy to the Scriptures which authoritatively declares what will help people struggling with homosexuality. The Bible reveals many other teachings about helping homosexuals, which are not included in reparative therapy. The Bible also rules out many therapeutic approaches advocated by reparative therapy. Evangelicals refuse to be choosey about the parts of the Bible they embrace, and the parts they reject. This commitment to biblical authority requires them reject many approaches that reparative therapists use.
One significant intervention that evangelicals must reject is the use of pornography by reparative therapists. A lecture by Nicolosi entitled Gay Pornography as a Therapeutic Tool, is described in the following terms,
Reparative Therapists have recently developed a therapeutic technique utilizing gay pornographic images to expose deeper emotional needs beneath mere sexual arousal. While many clients have been told that their homosexuality is a defense against emotional needs, this technique offers “experiential knowing” resulting from personal experience. The result is a diminishment of pornographic appeal and movement toward resolving deeper conflicts.15
In a talk that Nicolosi gave at Exodus International he said, “Now this is interesting. If you have a pornographic image when you go home. Get your best porn picture—this is an experiment . . . and look at the picture and it loses the power.”16 This is a practice that evangelicals simply cannot condone.
Another practice that evangelicals must reject is the use of nudity in counseling. CNN reported in 2012 about a lawsuit against reparative therapy ministry called Jews Offering New Alternatives for Healing (JONAH). CNN describes the horrifying practices,
The conversion therapy techniques included having them strip naked in group sessions, cuddling and intimate holding of others of the same-sex, violently beating an effigy of their mothers with a tennis racket, visiting bath houses ‘in order to be nude with father figures,’ and being subjected to ridicule as ‘faggots’ and ‘homos’ in mock locker room scenarios.17
The defendents, Rich Wyler, Alan Downing, Jeff Bennion, and Jeremy Schwab admitted to this behavior during court depositions. The defendants refer to this as body work. Nicolosi comments on this process, “Through this process the client experiences reparation of parental malattunement and gains greater self-compassion.”18
Practices like this are clear violations of the biblical call to purity and must be rejected by evangelical Christians who believe that all acts of sexual immorality are sinful, not just homosexuality.
Each of these examples are interventions that reparative therapists use that the Bible explicitly rules out. Even more more important than the nudity and pornography that many reparative therapists include is the crucial reality they exclude. Reparative therapists exclude Jesus. The Bible teaches that it is Jesus, and the power he makes available through his gospel that is the crucial reality in allowing homosexuals to change (2 Pet 1:3-4). It is Jesus’ power to change that works in the Word and through the biblical processes so that sin is defeated in the life of the believer. At the end of the day all evangelicals must believe that no change is possible that ultimately honors God without him.
As the cultural attitude about homosexuality has changed, I have talked with Christians who believe my criticisms of reparative therapy have been improper. One influential man accused me of giving aid and comfort to the enemy in my opposition to reparative therapy. This good man was concerned that I was unhelpfully breaking ranks with reparative therapists who are on the same side as I am.
I have written this essay to try and argue that reparative therapy is something very different than a biblical approach to change. While there may be some superficial similarities, a probing examination shows that reparative therapy is nearly as secular as the current cultural embrace of homosexuality, but with different commitments. As Christians we cannot afford this. If we are to be the salt and light that we are called to be then we must be devoted to the Bible, to an activist faith, to conversion, and to Jesus Christ. Each of these commitments will place us at ultimate odds with reparative therapy. Evangelicals can do much better than reparative therapy. God’s Word gives us a more profound understanding of the homosexuality and how to help than any secular approach to the topic, even when that secular approach is called reparative therapy.
Heath Lambert is the Executive Director of ACBC and the Associate Pastor at First Baptist Church Jacksonville, FL. He is married to his wonderful wife Lauren with their three children Carson, Chloe, and Connor.