“Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it. What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?” — Jesus, Matthew 10:24-26
The state of California is considering passing a law (Bill 2943) that makes the controversial practice of ‘conversion therapy’ or ‘reparative therapy’ illegal.
“This bill would include, as an unlawful practice prohibited under the Consumer Legal Remedies Act, advertising, offering to engage in, or engaging in sexual orientation change efforts with an individual.”
It’s worth pointing out that there’s a limited scope to this Bill, that it is specifically about consumer rights, not about the right of an individual to pursue treatment in private and without cost (it’s a law about the marketplace, not a law governing how people approach the bedroom). It’s not a law banning prayer, or private conversations where there’s an ‘equal standing’, but about transactions, and particularly in settings where there’s a power-dynamic (eg patient-doctor). The Bill ‘declares’:
“Contemporary science recognizes that being lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender is part of the natural spectrum of human identity and is not a disease, disorder, or illness.”
It quotes an American Psychiatric Association finding that:
“In the last four decades, ‘reparative’ therapists have not produced any rigorous scientific research to substantiate their claims of cure. Until there is such research available, [the American Psychiatric Association] recommends that ethical practitioners refrain from attempts to change individuals’ sexual orientation, keeping in mind the medical dictum to first, do no harm.”
Which is curious; because it’s hard to see how such research might become available given this recommendation, if such therapy were possibly effective. But it also makes significant assumptions about the framework for assessing harm, and whether or not such ‘therapy’ should only be pursued on the basis that it will produce certain results, rather than simply being something an individual might freely pursue to live a life of their choosing (with the caveat that how reparative therapy for same sex attraction has been used by Christians with a particular view about the moral status of same sex attraction).
The question of whether reparative therapy is effective or damaging was the subject of a longitudinal study by Christian psychologists, Dr Mark Yarhouse and Stanton Jones. This study included non-therapy approaches (the sort you might offer as a free course, not just the sort you pay for) concluded:
“In conclusion, the findings of this study would appear to contradict the commonly expressed view of the mental health establishment that sexual orientation is not changeable and that the attempt to change is highly likely to produce harm for those who make such an attempt.”
The Yarhouse-Jones study did find that ‘orientation change’ from predominantly homo- to predominantly hetero- attraction was possible in some case (23%) and a reduction in homosexual attraction with an outcome of “a reduction in homosexual attraction and behavioral chastity” occurred for a further 30% of people involved in the study. The sample size for this study was small, and there are other studies more targetted at particular therapy practices, which may end up causing more harm (especially if unsuccessful).
That humans are able to change aspects of our identity, even if natural, seems to align with findings around how our brains work, and a whole heap of other clinical psychological practice.
There are much bigger issues on the table here for Christians — two in fact. Bigger even than the freedom to practice our faith under law (though that’s a biggy).
First is whether an orientation change from same sex to opposite sex attraction is necessary for Christians (rather than desirable) — if 47% of cases in the longitudinal study remained same sex attracted, what does our theology say to their experience and their capacity to live in the world as followers of Jesus?
Does loving Jesus require a change in ‘sexual orientation as it occurs across a ‘natural spectrum’?
It doesn’t; but it does require a decision to love Jesus more than we love sex (and other ‘things of this world’) because we are, by nature disordered people who love things God made in the place of the God who made them (what the Bible says is at the heart of sin).
Some form of therapy to realign natural desires might, however, be useful to a Christian who doesn’t want to experience same sex attraction. It might be that they freely choose to investigate the possibility that sexuality occurs on a spectrum and involves factors that aren’t simply innate (even if attraction isn’t ‘chosen’), and so an individual might seek to change those desires and that orientation, and to take that option off the table, if it might work, just because sexual orientation is ‘natural’, seems cruel. We intervene to treat all sorts of natural things that are part of our identity. It’s perhaps more cruel to co-opt a person’s will and force them through such therapy, especially if the change in orientation isn’t necessary for somebody to faithfully love Jesus.
Second is whether part of our issue, as Christians, is that we’ve limited our approach to ‘therapeutic’ practices following conversion to the belief that Jesus is Lord to a particular area — sexuality — for a particular orientation — homosexual, where instead we should be providing mechanisms for ‘reparation’ or ‘conversion’ for the entire ‘natural spectrum of human identity’… whether that’s heterosexual orientation or, for example, our incredibly natural greed and selfishness (the ‘selfish gene’, anybody). We might also need some conversion therapy for our wallets and our self-image. That is; people working with us to change fundamental ‘natural’ things about ourselves and our identities as we seek a particular unnatural outcome.
Part of the issue here is that we seem to have limited ‘conversion’ to an intellectual assent to some sort of belief in every area but the sexuality of our same sex attracted neighbours. Nobody talks about any sort of professional ‘conversion therapy’ for Christian people addicted to overseas travel, or career, for those who are lovers of money, not God (or money as God). An opposition to ‘conversion therapy’ — the idea that we might need to change and sacrifice happiness — comes as much out of this view of God as out of a view that God is irrelevant.
There’s a popular description of western spirituality as ‘moral therapeutic deism’ — where God steps back from the world and our lives (deism) but wants us to be good and moral people who chase happiness, and good people end up in heaven. There’s a ‘therapy’ at the heart of this because such a wishy-washy set of beliefs about God is inherently comforting and therapeutic. The problem is, of course, the total absence of ‘Christ‘ Jesus from Christianity.
We have as western Christians, bought into a picture of evangelism and the Christian life that equates to ‘tick a box’ decisionism, unless you happen to be a member of the LGBTIQ+ community. A huge percentage of Aussies ‘tick the box’ at census time, calling themselves ‘Christian’, and lots of our evangelistic efforts focus on helping people ‘make a decision’ and then leave out the question of ‘making a disciple’ — the hard work of discipline and formation… unless the person making the decision happens to be same sex attracted; then we want them to ‘discipline their bodies’ in order to change their orientation to the world.
It’s hypocrisy; costly hypocrisy as a result of cheap grace. The German churchman who fought against Hitler and the rise of his political vision, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, defined ‘cheap grace’ as:
“…The preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline. Communion without confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ.” — Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship
The idea that ‘conversion therapy’ — a deliberate, habitual, reordering of our desires to conform to God’s design, drawing on insights into how people change — is something that we should limit to same sex attracted Christians and their sexuality, not a thing for all Christians to pursue, is a version of ‘cheap grace’… so to is the idea that we’re not all called to ‘die to self’ when it comes to our sexuality (and every other area of our life).
We seem to ask the average Aussie to tick a box, believe that Jesus died for them, and then largely live an unchanged life when it comes to their time, money, and vocation — we ask them to change nothing about their sexuality except to limit to one person in marriage; saying nothing about the way we in our ‘natural spectrum’ are geared up to turn other people, even our spouse, into objects of our self-fulfilment. Sexual immorality isn’t limited to same sex attraction; every person is called to ‘conversion’ and needs to be repaired by God’s spirit; working through our habits and practices — perhaps even with help (therapy).
Maybe we’d have less issues explaining ‘conversion therapy’ if it was a widespread practice in the pursuit of being like Jesus, living with him as king of every area; if we say ‘sanctification’ as having our naturally ‘disordered’ image — broken by sin — repaired so that we bear the image of Jesus. If we applied this to our use of our credit card, and the darkness of our hearts in all areas of life, not just to sex.
Grace is, of course, free. Life is a gift offered freely by Jesus, not earned… but the call to discipleship is a call to conversion, and the idea that this conversion shouldn’t involve thinking about how people are changed and formed by practices or ‘therapy’ that changes our hearts, and our ‘orientation’ to the world and its pleasures — is naive.
As Bonhoeffer said:
“The cross is laid on every Christian. The first Christ-suffering which every man must experience is the call to abandon the attachments of this world. It is that dying of the old man which is the result of his encounter with Christ. As we embark upon discipleship we surrender ourselves to Christ in union with his death—we give over our lives to death. Thus it begins; the cross is not the terrible end to an otherwise god-fearing and happy life, but it meets us at the beginning of our communion with Christ. When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” — Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship.
It’s no good for anybody to pretend this process will happen without deliberate intervention in community; the New Testament, especially the letters, are attempts by a writer to convert and repair the actions of those who have taken up the call to discipleship. It’s costly; it’s intense; it requires a deliberate re-ordering of our practices in order to re-order our loves (including how we approach our sexuality). It’s a call to obey God’s word and submit our lives to him, with our love for Jesus at the centre of all our other loves. That’s true for all Christians.
The goal of ‘conversion therapy’ is not heterosexuality or ‘turning straight’; such a goal would suggest we straight people don’t need any intervention or help. The goal of the conversion therapy we all need — the repair we all need — is not ‘straightness’, but Jesus, a life moved from our natural state of ‘disorder’ to being ‘conformed into the image of the son’ (not our natural state or identity).
We all need conversion therapy — the idea that a government might call the possibility of being transformed into the image of Christ ‘fraud’ is laughable, but maybe it’s time we ask if we’re the joke?