Anyone who has read (or watched the recent film adaptations of) Garrad Conley’s Boy Erased or Emily M Danforth’s The Miseducation of Cameron Post has been exposed to some of the methods of what has become popularly known as ‘reparative therapy’. For years these efforts at ‘gay cure’ were tragically the instinctive response of many US Christians 1 to the news that their child, or another young (or not so young) person in their church, might be gay. Successful treatment (or repair) of what were believed to be the underlying causes of their same-sex attractions would, they were promised, leave them able to pursue a ‘normal’ heterosexual future: with the opposite-sex partner and children that are so often the passport needed to fully integrate into many churches.
Does Living Out support such ‘gay cure’, 'conversion therapy' or ‘reparative therapy’? Unambiguously: no! If you want some evidence have a look around our site where it is made clear that none of us are claiming to have experienced any ‘gay cure’ (same-sex attraction continues to be part of all our stories) and that no-one here is recommending, or providing, any therapy or counselling with that goal in mind. Instead, much of what we share and write is deliberately seeking to undermine Christian sub-cultures that have heavily invested in particular theories around the causes of same-sex attraction and to show that truly Christ-like churches are places where the only passport for full-inclusion is repentance and faith – not a certain sexual orientation or marital status (our church audit is just one way we’re encouraging this).
Truly Christ-like churches are places where the only passport for full-inclusion is repentance and faith – not a certain sexual orientation or marital status.
For extra clarity’s sake, we’ve written this article to spell out our opposition to talk of ‘gay cure’ and any remaining ‘reparative therapy’ ministries. But as we do this, we’re also wanting to protect the right of anyone like us to continue to get the support, advice and counselling we might need from other people as we continue to experience same-sex attraction (and a whole host of other things too).
So why is Living Out so opposed to ‘gay cure’ and ‘reparative therapy’? Well, let’s take Jesus’ advice and judge the tree by its fruit (Luke 6:43-45). Let’s examine the effects of the promise of a ‘cure’ if a certain course of treatment was followed properly – what do the stories and the science record?
The huge damage done
Personal account after account chronicle the huge and lasting damage done to vulnerable people by both the promise of ‘healing’ and the methods employed to try and achieve this. Christians should be reading or watching the stories of those who were forced into these ‘treatments’ so that we feel the horrific impact this had on young people who were often traumatically referred by those who loved them the most. Some people’s relationships with their sexualities, gender, bodies, parents, partners, families, friends, have never recovered from the intrusive questioning and inappropriate behaviour encouraged by those who led the programmes (often inaccurately claiming that they themselves had been ‘healed’ by such methods). When one hears of teenagers being sent away with heterosexual porn as part of these efforts, Jesus’ stark warning in Matthew 18:6 should come to mind: ‘If anyone causes one of these little ones – those who believe in me – to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung round their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.’ Jesus doesn’t tolerate his people damaging the vulnerable in these ways: we shouldn’t either.
And huge damage was done even when the methods used weren’t that extreme and ungodly: often the greatest harm was caused by the false promise of a complete and permanent change in your sexual orientation. There is little scientific evidence that this degree of change is possible by human effort despite the reality that a minority (especially women) do seem to naturally experience some fluidity 2 and that some people have talked of a lessening in the intensity of their same sex attractions. 3 In a 2014 position paper on sexual orientation, the UK’s Royal College of Psychiatrists provided this helpful assessment:
It is not the case that sexual orientation is immutable or might not vary to some extent in a person’s life. Nevertheless, sexual orientation for most people seems to be set around a point that is largely heterosexual or homosexual. 4
These two sentences contain the sort of well-balanced and researched realities that you want a teenager to hear when they first experience same-sex attraction – not a false promise that they can (with some ministry’s help) completely change their sexual orientation, if only they really want to.
That this promise is a lie has tragically been proved time and time again by some of the very people who most publicly made it. The 2013 closure of the US ministry Exodus International followed the much-reported admission by its leader that:
The majority of people that I have met, and I would say the majority meaning 99.9% of them have not experienced a change in their orientation or have gotten to a place where they could say that they could never be tempted or are not tempted in some way or experience some level of same-sex attraction. 5
Living Out (which was only founded in 2013) has never focussed on changing people’s sexual orientation. Instead we have sought to undermine a key presumption that has so often fueled a damaging emphasis on orientation change: that godliness is heterosexuality.
Godliness is not heterosexuality
God’s word does not deal in modern categories of sexual orientation: condemning one, absolving another. Instead, the God who reveals himself in its pages simply limits his gift of sex to the publicly recognised, lifelong union of a man and a woman (Genesis 2:24) and highlights the need for all to keep to this protective standard in both actions and attitudes (Matthew 5:28). Obedience to these commands is one of the ways in which we are urged to love God and our neighbour, in response to all of the forgiving love he’s already shown us, and for our own good.
But, of course, all Christians have damaged ourselves and others by our failure to live out these commands – in both reality, and our fantasies. What seems to matter to God is this painful fact, not the gender of the subject of our affections at any given time: all sex (real or imagined) outside his invention of marriage is equally condemned in Scripture. This helps me if I’m ever tempted to think that it would be better for me to lust over a woman than a man, or that I would have more sin to confess if I’d had sex with a man I can’t be married to, rather than with a woman I’m not married to. Godliness is not heterosexuality: when it comes to sexual ethics, it is keeping God’s good gift of sex for opposite-sex marriage, something that we should all be seeking to do.
Godliness is not heterosexuality: when it comes to sexual ethics, it is keeping God’s good gift of sex for marriage, something that we should all be seeking to do.
And, of course, true godliness is always more than just sexual ethics. It involves acting justly, loving mercy and walking humbly with God in every area of our lives (Micah 6:8). In the past, there has been a great danger of heterosexual self-righteousness amongst Christians – looking down on their homosexual sisters and brothers whilst failing to see the equally damaging patterns of other sinful actions and attitudes in their own lives.
There has also been a lack of appreciation of how God often uses life-long struggles with sin in one area of a believer’s life to bring about godliness in many others. In his autobiography The Sacred Journey American writer and pastor Frederick Buechner poses the good question: ‘What about sin itself as a means of grace?’ 6 So often the beautiful godliness we benefit from in a friend’s life is the product of a painful battle within and this should not be an unusual idea for those who’ve read of the personal struggles that Paul records throughout 2 Corinthians. Many of those involved in Living Out testify to the good God has done in and through us because of our experience of same-sex attraction. Godliness is not heterosexuality – in fact, we would say that we are perhaps more godly due to our homosexuality than anything else. 7
By now it should be crystal clear that Living Out does not support any ‘gay cure’ or run or recommend any ‘reparative therapy’. But whilst we make that clear, we do also want to seek to protect the right of anyone to access pastoral care and counselling from those who hold to the traditional Christian belief that sex is for marriage between a man and a woman. Some of the efforts to ban ‘reparative therapy’ are in danger of creating a culture of fear for the pastor who is asked to pray for the church member struggling with unwanted sexual feelings, or could make it impossible for that church member to access any counselling that will be supportive of their efforts to live out Christian sexual ethics (and change previous patterns of behaviour). Good pastoral care and counselling does not impose views on people – that was a major failing of the ‘reparative therapy’ movement – but it would be cruelly ironic if attempts to ban that sort behaviour have the same effect on same-sex attracted Christians today who want help from pastors or professionals with their sexuality (or anything else). We are encouraged that the Royal College of Psychiatrists recognises the need to protect this right:
It is also the case that for people who are unhappy about their sexual orientation – whether heterosexual, homosexual or bisexual – there may be grounds for exploring therapeutic options to help them live more comfortably with it, reduce their distress and reach a greater degree of acceptance of their sexual orientation. 8
Many of us have benefitted from such help, others have never sought it, but we want to make sure all people can access the support they need from those who either share their beliefs or, at least, will not seek to impose their own.
- Similar efforts were made in other parts of the world – usually with strong links to particular US organisations.
- See J. Michael Bailey et al., 'Sexual Orientation, Controversy, and Science', Psychological Science in the Public Interest. Accessed 24 December 2019.
- See Andrew Goddard & Glynn Harrison, Unwanted Same-Sex Attraction: Issues of Pastoral and Counselling Support (Christian Medical Fellowship, 2011).
- See 'Royal College of Psychiatrists' Statement on Sexual Orientation', Royal College of Psychiatrists. Accessed 24 December 2019.
- Warren Throckmorton, 'Alan Chambers: 99.9% Have Not Experienced a Change in Their Orientation', Warren Throckmorton. Accessed 23 December 2019.
- Frederick Buechner, The Sacred Journey (BroadStreet, 2015), p.3.
- I explore this idea at greater length in a chapter of my book The Plausibility Problem, published in the US as Same-sex Attraction and the Church (both IVP, 2015).
- See 'Royal College of Psychiatrists' Statement on Sexual Orientation'. Accessed 24 December 2019.