This article first appeared in the Christian Research Journal, volume 42, number 1 (2019). For further information or to subscribe to the Christian Research Journal please click here.
“Ban Conversion Therapy” is the current rallying cry of the gay rights movement. Across the country, LGBTQ activists and their allies call for the criminalization of counseling geared to helping people turn from homosexual behavior (a form of counsel often labeled “Conversion Therapy”), and most of that counseling is provided by Christian counselors, pastors, or ministry leaders.
Conversion Therapy remains poorly defined, subject to reinterpretations according to the whims of whoever criticizes it. The actual work done by counselors in this field hardly matches the definition Conversion Therapy, yet the term, ominous and loaded with emotional baggage, helps disparage the persons to whom it is attached.
The problem with Conversion Therapy, then, is the way it is presented — sometimes inaccurately; sometimes dishonestly — and the way it is practiced. Like other forms of counseling, some of its practitioners have errored seriously, but that hardly calls for an end to the practice itself.
Ultimately, the outcome of efforts to ban Conversion Therapy will have enormous ramifications for freedom of religion and the church’s ability to continue preaching and teaching the full counsel of God. For this reason, believers should closely watch, and act on, efforts to criminalize Conversion Therapy.
In the 2015 Obergefell v. Hodges Supreme Court decision, granting legal protection to same-sex marriage, the US Supreme Court offered this reassurance to those concerned about the decision’s impact on religious liberty: “Finally, it must be emphasized that religions, and those who adhere to religious doctrines, may continue to advocate with utmost, sincere conviction that, by divine precepts, same-sex marriage should not be condoned. The First Amendment ensures that religious organizations and persons are given proper protection as they seek to teach the principles that are so fulfilling and so central to their lives and faiths, and to their own deep aspirations to continue the family structure they have long revered.”1
Within months, the financial and professional losses suffered by Christian bakers, florists, photographers, and others seeking to “advocate with utmost sincere conviction” would make the Court’s wording seem ironic, and nowhere does that irony show itself more brazenly than in the current conflict between LGBTQ advocates and conservative Christians over Conversion Therapy.
Actress Ashley Judd likened Conversion Therapy to a Nazi gas chamber.2 Fourteen states (as of this writing) prohibit it being offered to minors.3 The California Assembly voted to classify it as consumer fraud.4 Hollywood condemned it with the movie Boy, Erased, starring Russell Crowe and Nicole Kidman, chronicling the unhappy recollections of a gay man who attended Conversion Therapy sessions.5 And the Washington Post editorialized that the existence of Conversion Therapy anywhere keeps all LGBTQ people from being fully equal members of society.6
With contention over Conversion Therapy reaching fever pitch, Christians need clarification on what it is and how it aligns or conflicts with biblical standards. So a reasonable answer to the question “What’s the problem with Conversion Therapy?” might be “The problem is the way it’s presented and the way it’s practiced.”
THE PROBLEM WITH CONVERSION THERAPY IS THE WAY IT’S PRESENTED
Sometimes the term Conversion Therapy is presented inaccurately; sometimes it’s presented dishonestly.
It’s presented inaccurately by getting applied to anyone counseling or ministering to people who are attracted to the same sex, conflicted over those attractions, and seeking biblical guidance. Thus mental health professionals, ministry leaders, pastoral counselors, and Christian life-coaches nationwide are being labelled Conversion Therapists7 though none of them identify themselves that way.
In fact, an internet search finds no one operating as a Conversion Therapist, nor anyone advertising Conversion Therapy as a service. Certainly a number of websites can be found condemning the practice, but “Conversion Therapy” remains a tag imposed on, not chosen by, the people accused of practicing it.
It’s an unfair imposition. According to the American Psychological Association, Conversion Therapy is “counseling or psychotherapy aimed at eliminating or suppressing homosexuality,”8 whereas the American Psychiatric Association calls it treatment “based upon the assumption that homosexuality per se is a mental disorder or based upon the a priori assumption that a patient should change his/her sexual homosexual orientation.”9
By these definitions, the term Conversion Therapist is, in most cases, presented inaccurately, a point the websites of ministries and counselors bearing the label can make for themselves. For example:
Homosexuals Anonymous: “Our goal is not heterosexuality. Our goal is holiness!”10
Stephen Black of First Stone Ministries: “Freedom is not the absence of struggle but the ability, by God’s grace, to rise above life challenges to walk in truth and righteousness; never again to be defined by a fallen identity.”11
Restored Hope Network: “Same-gender desires fluctuate but tend to decrease while many experience an increase, to varying degrees, of sexual desire for the other gender.”12
Noticeably absent from these statements are assertions that homosexuality is a mental illness, or that change of sexual orientation is required or guaranteed.
This brings up the difference between the clinical and ministerial approaches to helping people with unwanted same-sex attractions. Both approaches have their place, and both are seriously misrepresented in these discussions.
The clinical approach, taken by licensed mental health professionals, views homosexual feelings as symptoms of underlying emotional problems. It seeks to uncover the problems, resolve early conflicts, enhance relational capacities, and identify, then pursue, other goals the client may have.
The closest thing to a clinical definition of Conversion Therapy, coming from someone alleged to practice it, comes from the late Dr. Joseph Nicolosi. His term Reparative Therapy (often used interchangeably with the term Conversion Therapy) is, by its trademarked definition: “Mental health therapy services, namely, voluntary psychotherapy for individuals seeking to explore underlying psychodynamic factors which may have led to the development of unwanted same-sex attractions, in which treatment interventions are directed toward resolution of underlying gender-related traumas reported by the client using evidence-based treatment interventions.”13 Again, nothing in this definition, authored by an individual widely regarded as America’s premiere Reparative Therapist, calls homosexuality a mental illness, or encourages suppression of same-sex desires.
The ministerial approach, usually taken by pastoral counselors or leaders of parachurch ministries, emphasizes discipleship, and places homosexual struggles in the broader context of the flesh-versus-spirit struggles experienced by all believers. It may or may not include emphasis on resolving early conflicts, and focuses on biblical concepts of managing temptations, walking in holiness, accountability, and sanctification.
Neither approach comports well with the Conversion Therapy label, but the label sticks, imposed on and repeated by parties hostile to any counseling that’s not gay affirming, producing the desired stigma. Like its cousins fundamentalist and religious Right, Conversion Therapy is negative in tone and promiscuously applied, a straw man erected to dismiss and disparage anyone believing homosexuality is a sin that can, like other sins, be overcome.
At other times, Conversion Therapy is presented with outright dishonesty via accounts of abuse that are horrific, widely accepted, and untrue. In 2013, for example, the New Jersey Senate Health, Human Services, and Senior Citizens Committee held hearings on a proposed Conversion Therapy ban. Testifying for the ban, Brielle Goldani claimed that as a teenager she was forced to attend a Conversion Therapy camp in Ohio called “True Directions.”14 There, she recounted, Goldani endured shock treatment, forced masturbation, and involuntary IV injections inducing vomiting.
Shockingly, the New Jersey Committee accepted her testimony without requiring documentation, without demanding the names of the camp operators, and without taking immediate action to insure the facility was shut down and the operators brought to justice.
But therapist Christopher Doyle wasn’t so easily persuaded, so he investigated her claims, with alarming results. The Ohio Secretary of State and Attorney General confirmed that no such camp ever existed, no other person has ever filed a complaint against it, and the only solid thing Goldani’s testimony could be linked to was a 1999 film about conversion camps titled But I’m a Cheerleader.15
No surprise there, because the notion of electroshock therapy being performed in a church or parachurch environment stretches all credulity. But that didn’t stop the California Judiciary Committee from accepting, again at face value, similar testimony from another self-identified survivor of Conversion Therapy.
As the committee discussed a sweeping Conversion Therapy ban in California, Sam Brinton described being forced as a child into therapy by his Christian parents, the treatment including electric shocks and applications of ice and heat.16 In other venues, he has testified his therapist forced him to view porn with needles inserted into his fingers.17
Unlike Goldani, Brinton is a public figure, serving with prominent LGBT organizations such as the Trevor Project and the National Center for Lesbian Rights. He speaks regularly around the country, recounting his Conversion Therapy history. But it’s a history subject to revision. At times, he claims he was ten years old during his therapy; other times, he claims to have been in his early twenties. He remembers with great clarity the details of his torture but cannot remember the name of the doctor who tortured him, the place where he was tortured, nor the organization behind the torture. Nor, it seems, does he have any interest in getting such information from his parents, who allegedly hired and paid the doctor, and should be able to provide the information needed to bring him to justice.18
Even more disturbing is the naiveté and the negligence of the California Judiciary Committee who, like their New Jersey counterpart, should have demanded the information necessary to prosecute the abuser, as should the New York Times19 and Psychology Today magazine,20 both of which have published Brinton’s story but obviously never fact-checked it. Had they done so, they surely would have either located Brinton’s tormentor, or recognized that his story was simply untrue.
Lying for sociopolitical gain is hardly a new tactic. Back in 1977, when the US National Gay Task Force was invited for an unprecedented meeting with then-President Carter’s representatives, it was on the strength of the “We Are Everywhere” campaign that was, in turn, based on the notion that 10 percent of the population was homosexual.
That figure’s been soundly disputed since then but, as gay activist Bruce Voeller who attended that famous White House meeting admitted decades later, it was politically expedient to repeat a falsehood for the sake of the cause: “The concept that 10% of the population is gay has become a generally accepted ‘fact’…As with so many pieces of knowledge (and myths), repeated telling made it so.”21 Like the 10 percent myth did decades ago, the specter of the electroshocking, porn-showing Conversion Therapy sadist may yet further the cause. Repeated telling will make it so.
THE PROBLEM WITH CONVERSION THERAPY IS THE WAY IT’S PRACTICED
Not all complaints about Conversion Therapy, however, should be dismissed. Any time counseling or ministry is conducted improperly, complaints should be expressed and heard. Progay advocates are wrong to vilify all ministry to repentant homosexuals, and Christians are wrong if we vilify all criticism of such ministry.
Two areas of concern lend themselves to legitimate criticism: the way this work has sometimes been practiced, and the way the practice has sometimes been prioritized.
Regarding the way it’s sometimes been practiced, if someone consults a Christian counselor or ministry about his/ her homosexual desires or behavior, some questions should be asked and answered immediately:
Some points also should be clarified immediately:
Most valid complaints of this kind of work have touched on one or more of these items. People have reported being promised a transformation of sexual feelings that never happened. Others say they were “boxed into” their counselor’s theories, even though their own experience didn’t match them. (Example: a counselor who believes homosexuality is brought on by bad parenting, then insists his client has “parent issues” even though the client plainly says he doesn’t.) Some recall bizarre or inappropriate techniques, such as massages, exorcisms, extended hugging, or screaming at empty chairs. Still others assert they were coerced into counseling by parents or family members (a coercion their counselor aligned himself with) or that their counselor was unclear about his credentials, experience, approach to counseling, or what results his services could produce.
If such things occurred, no one can argue their seriousness, nor the legitimacy of complaints raised over them.
Of course, accused counselors are at a disadvantage. Unless their sessions were recorded, it’s impossible to disprove assertions about what they did or said. So in fairness, it should be remembered that the best way to verify what a counselor does is by the written and recorded materials the counselor has produced, by signed agreements between counselor and counselee, or by video/audio recordings of the counseling sessions.
Still, when wrong has been done, the body governing the counselor’s work should determine disciplinary action. But should the wrongdoing of some tarnish the work of the rest?
If so, then the entire mental health system should shut down now, because countless numbers of licensed therapists, psychologists, and psychiatrists have engaged in sex with their patients, resorted to bizarre techniques, defrauded or deceived clients, and made false promises.
Likewise, the way conditions were treated has at times been wrong, even though treatment was an appropriate action. Depression and schizophrenia have, in times past, been treated with electroshock or ice baths or the wrong types or dosages of medication. The problem was not the fact these patients were treated but rather the way they were treated.
So it is with homosexuality. When a Christian experiences same-sex yearnings, and cannot yield to them in good conscience, he deserves treatment. Whether or not the American Psychiatric Association classifies homosexuality as a disorder (it doesn’t) is irrelevant to the believer who takes guidance from the Bible, not the APA.
He wants to know how to keep his behavior in conformity to God’s will, how to preserve his marriage, how to break off ties he should never have formed, how to kick the porn habit, what his potential may be for heterosexual response, how to manage temptations, how to reduce shame over his feelings, and how to integrate into the church community — among other things. Is someone with these concerns not as worthy of professional or ministerial assistance as anyone else?
Yet while defending the rights of all people to seek professional mental health services that are compatible with their beliefs, we should avoid the error of overprioritizing the Reparative Therapy and/or clinical approach as the primary way of dealing with the homosexual struggle. Too often, when pastors have been presented with a parishioner wrestling with this, his kneejerk response has been to shuttle him off to a parachurch ministry or Reparative Therapist.
Certainly, such a move is often in the parishioner’s best interest, and many people have found tremendous help from professional counseling or parachurch groups. But frequently, pastors feeling ill-equipped to even address the issue have abdicated when they should have shepherded.
Indeed, professional or parachurch care (valuable as it is) should be viewed as a supplement to robust, integrated church life, rather than the main meal. Good vitamins and protein powders help, but they should never be used in place of a sound diet. Likewise, the believer’s sound diet of daily Bible study, prayer, regular church fellowship, accountability, and shepherding from their pastor can be supplemented by — yet never replaced by — counseling or parachurch work.
This concern over priorities seems to have led Southern Baptist leader Dr. Russell Moore to note, “There were utopian ideas about reparative therapy that frankly weren’t unique to evangelicalism. That was something that came along in the 1970s and 1980s about the power of psychotherapy to do all sorts of things that we have a more nuanced views about now.”22 While retaining a faithful view of Scripture and sexuality, Moore rightfully distinguishes between the basics of Christian living and the useful, but always supplemental, nature of parachurch care.
Yet whatever holes we poke in the practices or priorities of some, we’re still left with the value of counseling and ministry intact. Coming alongside someone who believes homosexuality is a sin is a far cry from imposing that belief on someone who’s gay and satisfied. Telling someone they should live in harmony with their Christian conscience does no harm; indeed, that’s a prerequisite for spiritual integrity. So whatever damage done by Christians counseling same-sex attracted people lies more in the wrongful way it was practiced than in the thing itself.
Decades ago, the apologist Josh McDowell wrote the classic Evidence That Demands a Verdict. Today, it seems we have just the opposite — A Verdict that Demands Evidence. Counseling and ministry services to repentant homosexuals have been found guilty with neither a fair trial nor sufficient evidence, igniting legal action against something that is often misrepresented, sometimes denounced, yet still found helpful by many. Even the American Psychological Association, openly pro-gay in its positions, recognizes this when it comments on people complaining that Conversion Therapy damaged them: “To date, there are no scientifically rigorous outcome studies to determine either the actual efficacy or harm of ‘reparative’ treatments. There is sparse scientific data about selection criteria, risks versus benefits of the treatment, and long-term outcomes of ‘reparative’ therapies. The literature consists of anecdotal reports of individuals who have claimed to change, people who claim that attempts to change were harmful to them, and others who claimed to have changed and then later recanted those claims”23 (emphasis added).
Bad laws set bad precedents, and on this point, all Christians should be alerted. The latest rallying cry of the LGBTQ movement is the banning of all Conversion Therapy nationwide, and the cry is being heard.
Yet only the most naïve can think this censorship will stop with counselors. If America decides it is damaging to counsel people to turn from homosexuality and be transformed, then it will soon decide that preaching that people should turn from homosexuality is also damaging and should be banned. What began as an attempt to reform the culture to a pro-gay view has evolved into a commitment to reaching into the Christian population and demanding that it, like its surrounding culture, reform its views on marriage and family.
It remains to be seen whether the church will show the courage to stand when standing is costly, and the grace to love those who coerce us, when grace is demanded.
Joe Dallas is the program director of Genesis Counseling in Tustin, California, a Christian counseling service to men dealing with sexual addiction, homosexuality, and other sexual/relational problems. He is a member of the American Association of Christian Counselors and is the author of several books on human sexuality, including Speaking of Homosexuality (Baker Books, 2016).
“Jesus doesn’t encounter Matthew and John — or you and me — and ask, ‘What do you know?’ He doesn’t even ask, ‘What do you believe?’ He asks, ‘What do you want?’ This is the most incisive, piercing question Jesus can ask of us precisely because we are what we want.” —from You Are What You Love, by James K.A. Smith