The Biblical Case for Reparative Therapy

I come at this issue not as a psychologist, but as someone who can claim some level of biblical scholarship and has a teaching ministry, and as a straight man who has experienced God's grace.  So my concern in this article is the church context, not the counselor's office detached from it.

Back in the day, I lived in Paris, France for over a year, helping out churches, going to school, touring, and sight-seeing.  For a brief time I was even a kind of substitute pastor of a small church in the twelfth arrondissement before I left for home.  Sometimes a small group of us would go out on the streets, sharing our faith in bad neighborhoods.

One Friday or Saturday evening, near the Moulin Rouge, I saw someone emerge out of the shadows.  He or she had longish platinum hair, heavy makeup, a leopard-skin top, tight black leather pants, and black high heels.  Yes, he or she had breast features (of sorts).  As she or he approached me, I shared the simple gospel.  He said with a husky voice, in English, with a German or Scandinavian accent, "How can I change?  Look at me!"  I assured him that God could do it.  We chatted a little longer.  He looked pensive and walked away.

Since then, I sometimes think about him.  I hope my words had some influence on his life.  But we don't need to let this extreme case be our guide.

Recently, I saw a crawler go across the screen on a news broadcast that mentioned "pray away the gay."  From the context, the words had an incredulous tone ("Does that still go on, in this day and age?").  The made-up saying gives the impression that it offers a quick, easy, and shallow solution.  Even the extra-clever rhyme and meter has a slightly mocking attitude behind it.

California just passed a law banning reparative therapy of homosexuality for anyone under 18.  Gov. Brown, at the signing ceremony, called such therapy "quackery."

Then I read reports about segments of the church that are much more accepting of the gay lifestyle.  I know from personal observation that aggressive gay and lesbian recruitment goes on among students at Christian colleges.

There seems to be a campaign, coordinated or not, to push this lifestyle onto the church.  And if you don't accept it as they say you should, you're...what?  A troglodyte?  A fundamentalist stone-thrower?  Unloving?  A quack?

I'm all in favor of love and grace and acceptance, but do we allow "cheap grace" (Bonhoeffer's expression) that sits there, inert, and doesn't transform us?  If the gospel doesn't do that, what good is it?  Yes, all sinners, straight or otherwise, need to be accepted in our churches, but grace does not leave them where they are.  Grace is everyone's reparative therapy.

To understand the gospel of grace, we need to look at the spiritual side of Christianity: pneumatology (doctrine of the Spirit).  When we preach and practice it, it includes these elements: transformation of the heart and subsequent improved moral behavior.  The foundation of this doctrine comes from Scripture and then develops along historical lines, keeping a remarkable consistency, broadly speaking.  None of these passages deals with counseling as such, but they can have a bearing on our lives -- even our sex lives.

We begin with the "founder" of our religion.  Jesus said we must be born again, an experience that is the work of the Spirit:

5 Jesus answered, "I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit. 6 Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. 7 You should not be surprised at my saying, 'You must be born again.' 8 The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit." (John 3:5-8)

This experience with the Spirit is powerful and transformational.  It can lead to dramatic changes in a person's life, whether gradual or instantaneous.

You've heard of the saying "Our body's a temple"?  It comes from one of Paul's epistles:

18 Flee from sexual immorality. All other sins a man commits are outside his body, but he who sins sexually sins against his own body. 19 Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? (1 Corinthians 6:18-19)

It's the Spirit's indwelling presence that makes the body sacred, not working out at the gym or eating right (though those do no harm).

Simply said: "Walk in the Spirit, and you will not fulfill the lust of the flesh" (Galatians 5:16, NKJV).  The flesh in that context is our sinful nature.  And "pray in the Spirit on all occasions" (Ephesians 6:18).  So is there such a thing as "pray away the gay"?  Let's go deeper and say, "Pray and walk away from sin."  Everyone, straight or otherwise, needs to do that.

Finally, with an exact relevance to our topic, Paul writes that some in the Corinthian church had practiced homosexuality:

9 Those who indulge in sexual sin ... or commit adultery, or are male prostitutes, or practice homosexuality 10 ... none of these will inherit the Kingdom of God. 11 Some of you were once like that. But you were cleansed; you were made holy; you were made right with God by calling on the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God. (1 Corinthians 6:9-11, NLT)

The important point in those three verses is that some of these specific Corinthians used to be part of the gay community ("some of you were once like that").  But they became new creations (2 Corinthians 5:17).  They were no longer gay, or at least they no longer practiced homosexuality.  That male prostitute near the Moulin Rouge could have trusted in the reality behind this passage.

We now turn to an historical perspective.

Augustine by his own admission indulged in debauched and promiscuous sexual activity before his conversion.  Now he was a changed man.  But how?  He prays:

Is it, then, uncertain that all men wish to be happy, since those who do not wish to find their joy in thee--which is alone the happy life--do not actually desire the happy life? Or, is it rather that all desire this, but because "the flesh lusts against the spirit and the spirit against the flesh," so that they "prevent you from doing what you would," [Galatians 5:17] you fall to doing what you are able to do and are content with that. For you do not want to do what you cannot do urgently enough to make you able to do it. (Confessions, Book 10.23.33)

So he says all humans may or may not want ultimate happiness, but whatever their desire, joy must be found in God, whose Spirit wages war on our flesh (sinful nature).  Change comes from admitting you're wrong, being open to change, and a sense of urgency.  Only the Spirit changed Augustine.

Thomas Aquinas says things more academically:

The grace of the Holy Spirit is like an inner disposition instilled into us inclining us to right behavior, and so it makes us freely do what accords with grace and avoid what runs counter to it (Summa, II.9.108, Law and Grace).

He goes on to say that sensual pleasures, among other things, are what run counter to what accords with grace.

In explaining the Lord's Prayer, Martin Luther comes to the clause, "Thy kingdom come."  How is this done?  He answers: "When the Heavenly Father gives us his Holy Spirit so that by his grace we may believe his holy Word and live a godly life" (Small Catechism).  The Spirit is given so we can live a godly life.

John Calvin interprets the above passage in John's Gospel (you must be born again by the Spirit) and John the Baptist's proclamation that Jesus will baptize with fire and the Spirit (Matthew 3:11):

Therefore, as to baptise with the Holy Spirit, and with fire, is to confer the Holy Spirit, who, in regeneration, has the office and nature of fire, so to be born again of water, and of the Spirit, is nothing else than to receive that power of the Spirit, which has the same effect on the soul that water has on the body. (Institutes IV.xvi.25)

In modern times, theologian Wayne Grudem says:

Therefore, it is appropriate to understand filling with the Holy Spirit not as a one-time event but as an event that can occur over and over again in a Christian life. It may involve a momentary empowering for a specific ministry ... but it may also refer to a long-term characteristic of a person's life. (Systematic Theology, Zondervan, 1994, 782, emphasis original)

All of the biblical and historical passages add up to this one main thing: change is possible for anyone, according to our pneumatology, a necessary doctrine that we cannot dispense with.  The Spirit delivers grace to our hearts.  The simple gospel of grace has transformative effects.  Christianity is not only an intellectual religion -- though it has plenty of intellectuals behind it.  Each of the theologians and apostles and Corinthian ex-gays had spiritual experiences with God's grace.  It transformed them.

It is now clear why some (not all) on the religious left fight so hard against the Bible's reliability and its central message by chipping away at its edges or by setting it aside as outdated.  It confronts all of us where we are.  It tells us that homosexual behavior and other sexual sins are wrong, no matter how cleverly the Book is reinterpreted (misinterpreted) to say what it does not say.  No amount of postmodern twists and turns can alter its clarity.

So, can people change from gay to straight, or is grace inert?  Thousands have changed.  Just ask Andrew Comiskey, who founded Desert Streams Ministries, and visit the sites Voices of Change, Path Info, and NARTH.

Sometimes, however, the counseling doesn't seem to work, for whatever reason.  Then the news media wield those cases like a weapon against the therapy.  It denies basic human nature, we're told.

In reply, the whole point of the gospel of grace is that it transforms our sinful human nature, so yes, there is a denial of that side of our nature.  Those thousands of lives are living proof of change, though their solution was not quick or easy or shallow.  I for one refuse to abandon them to PC pressure and an incredulous, mocking attitude of critics.  We must not tell these ex-gays that their change isn't real, when it is.  And we need to fight back against unjust laws that directly or indirectly ban our Biblical beliefs and practices.

But have we in the church forgotten who we are?  If so, we need to relearn it and take a stand, without hesitation.  "For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes" (Romans 1:16).

But in our stand for the gospel, we must always remember that we're in need of perpetual, transforming grace.  Judgmentalism doesn't work.  We must always show love and grace to all, straight or gay, because we share the same sinful humanity.  We welcome everyone into our churches and watch grace daily transform them and us.

The Spirit and grace are everyone's reparative therapy.