How Do We Think Biblically About Conversion Therapy?
Hi, my name is Alasdair Groves. I am the host of Where Life and Scripture Meet, a podcast of CCEF. Our reason for existing at CCEF is to restore Christ to counseling and counseling to the church. Today, I want to talk about something called conversion therapy. I want to talk about conversion therapy because of a couple things, or actually three really. Number one, it’s been in the news of late. Number two, it’s potentially confusing. And number three, I think it raises three important challenges for biblical counselors and for the church.
So let’s start with that first part. It’s been in the news. Some of you may have heard about West Lafayette, Indiana. There’s a church that those in the biblical counseling world know well, Faith Church in Lafayette. And in that time, they tried to pass an ordinance that was actually going to ban conversion therapy for minors. Penalty was up to a $1,000 a day fine, even for unlicensed counselors, which would hit a lot of us in the biblical counseling world. It was picked up by Al Mohler on The Briefing and TGC’s blog and World Magazine and ACBC Podcast. So you may well have stumbled across this, but it’s certainly not a new issue or a new concern.
Let’s move to point number two. Conversion therapy is potentially confusing. It raises an immediate question: What is conversion therapy? Well, my own story might be an easy way to sort of walk us into that. I first heard of conversion therapy, or what some called reparative therapy, back in the ’90s, and it was connected to this group called Exodus International. I didn’t really know much about it. It sort of made sense to me though, what I heard. They were saying, as far as I could tell, that this was a ministry and idea all dedicated to helping people not be gay anymore, and that made sense to me as a Christian. Like, “Okay. Yeah, I can see where that would be helpful. People who are gay, go get some kind of therapy, and then that leads them to not be gay anymore.”
Now, I got into biblical counseling and biblical counseling training, and that perspective began to be challenged. And the first challenge was this: this focus on shifting away from an attraction to one body type toward another body type. Or to put it a little more bluntly, if you have successfully changed from lusting after the bodies of other men if you’re a man, or other women if you’re a woman, and now you lust after bodies of the opposite gender or the opposite sex, what exactly have you gained? Let me put it another way: What is a Christian’s goal when faced with a sexual temptation? Well, the goal is to be faithful. The goal is to resist temptation. The goal is to say no to the urges in us that lead us away from the Lord in any kind of struggle, with any kind of lust, sexual or otherwise. So fundamentally, we’re interested in godliness and self-control and saying no to temptation in any form it takes. We’re actually not interested in trying to shift from one area of temptation, one kind of struggle, to another. And most of all, if you really want to get down to the core of it, we’re about saying yes to Jesus in pursuing righteousness and bearing fruit and serving in love everywhere we can—not about being defined by our struggles or our temptations.
So bottom line, as biblical counselors, as those committed to Scripture really setting the agenda for care for people in our congregations and our lives, for our own souls, we disagree with conversion therapy. We think it’s got the wrong goal. If the fundamental goal there is to pursue a change of temptation type, that’s not actually anything that we are interested in. Again, Exodus International was well intended, and I’m sure many people who went desperately to it were there saying, “Help me biblically. I want to be free of this struggle. I didn’t choose it. I don’t want it. It’s tearing me apart, and I want to be attracted to someone with the opposite sex. I want to be married. I want to live a life that presses into these things I see Scripture holding out as good.” And that is so good, but the reality is, at the end of the day, our goal is not to choose a certain specific set of struggles. It’s whatever struggle faces us, whether that struggle changes over time or whether it remains constant over time, our goal is to live walking with Christ, knowing His comfort, knowing His presence, finding His help in our time of need, no matter what struggle we are confronting in any particular season of our lives.
Now, as sort of a brief parenthetical notation here. Not only would we disagree at the goal level, but the ex-gay ministries, things like Exodus International, found over time is actually just doesn’t work. It does not bring lasting change or a cure or a reorientation. So it had a sub-biblical goal and often sub-biblical methods, and there was all kinds of crazy stuff that went on and people were put through really, really unimaginably painful things in an effort, again, to “cure” them of these desires. It just had devastating impact in so many cases. And to their credit, Exodus International shut down I believe in 2012 and apologized for the damage they’d done, and saw that this effort simply to change from one kind of desire to another was not actually something you could do by just throwing enough counter-stimuli at people, and so on and so forth.
So having said that about what conversion therapy at least was, I think there’s three important challenges that the evolution of conversion therapy raises for biblical counselors. What I said a moment ago is that conversion therapy, as I came to understand it in the ’90s, which was sort of the heyday of conversion therapy, was about ministry to those struggling with homosexuality. Well, transgenderism, transgender struggles, gender dysphoria, I think it may actually have always been part of the understood definition, but that was definitely in the background in the ’80s and ’90s when conversion therapy was at its height, but that has come much more to the fore. Culturally, a lot more people talking about that, struggling with that. That’s in the public eye in a way it just didn’t used to be. So conversion therapy today, if you go on the APA, American Psychological Association, website or anything like that, you’ll find it being defined not just about sexual attraction and sexual orientation, but about gender identity. And in particular, not just about identity or orientation, but about expression. Are you expressing this identity? The current definition of conversion therapy would be anyone who’s trying to help someone change at an orientation level or even an expression level, and I’ll come back to that in a moment.
So the first challenge this whole situation presents to us as biblical counselors. It reminds us that these struggles are real and they are incredibly hard for those who are struggling, both struggling with gender identity, gender dysphoria, same-sex attraction. I mean, just phase one here, if you are in the church or thinking about the church or trying to move toward the church or have been in the church all your life, it is such a difficult and in almost every case shameful thing to talk about; to even admit that you are struggling here or to find someone you could process with is extremely difficult. It’s hard enough for people to talk about struggles with lust with the opposite sex, or pornography. Those things are shameful and embarrassing and difficult in church to talk about to other people. How much more so these struggles that are just weighing down, and in many cases crushingly confusing and difficult?
I think another piece of things that maybe doesn’t get appreciated as much as it needs to be for those who don’t struggle with gender dysphoria, with same-sex attraction, would be just how constant the struggle is. For those with same-sex attraction, yes, there are moments of temptation and embarrassment. Do I struggle in a way that’s more open? How are people going to respond to me? But even then, just the sense of do people really know me? What’s it like to walk around in church with a struggle that most people don’t know you’re struggling with and to feel like, “What would you actually think of me if you knew?” Again, that goes far beyond sexual struggles, but it’s extremely, pressingly difficult for people.
And then for people who have been able to speak and who have confessed, or who have shared experience they have with others, and then had even a good response, there’s still always this question of, do I know where I stand with the people around me? That’s incredibly difficult. And this is true with same sex attraction, but probably even more so if you’re dealing with any kind of transgender type struggle, just a sense of, I don’t feel comfortable in my own body. My own body, my constant experience of living in a world in which I have a body. I’m body and soul together. It doesn’t feel right. There’s this internal endless sense of “off” and discomfort and clash. The very core experience I have as someone who is conscious and walking around in God’s world is one of, “This doesn’t feel right.” It feels off. There’s just a weight to that struggle that if you’ve not struggled there, it’s going to always be impossible to fully imagine and understand and appreciate. But as much as you can, you want to be able to say, “Wow.” I want to have a category for just a depth of compassion for the hardness of what that is and for how little others are going to understand around you even when they’re trying, which of course in many cases people aren’t. Now, this is not a podcast on ministry to those struggling with same-sex attraction or transgender, but in the show notes we’ll link to a podcast we did on transgender a while back and some other resources on same-sex attraction.
Two quick points I have to make before we’re moving on. Number one, we don’t believe as Christians, as biblical counselors, as those trying to follow Scripture, we don’t believe that embracing same-sex attraction or transgender as an identity is a good thing. Our identity is to be children of Christ, not a certain sexuality. And that actually goes for if you would describe yourself as heterosexual or words like cisgender or whatever. We don’t want our gender and our sexuality to be the core things that define us. And in fact, anyone of any belief defining themselves that way is a fairly recent phenomenon. Even a secular theorist will recognize that, as well. So our identity is not to be in these things. We don’t want to lean into them. Our hope, our way forward as Christians and those seeking to come together in the community of faith before the Lord, is to battle and to follow the path of faith, to struggle in the right direction, to resist feelings that say, “Oh, this is right, and this is natural. Just go with it.” And instead to say, “Lord, help me follow you despite the fact that I’m feeling something that’s trying to pull me away from your path.” Just like all of us need to pray that in many areas. We all feel things that feel true in the moment or feel true to us in general, but they’re pulling us away from a path of faithful obedience and walking with the Lord. Same-sex attraction and transgender are things we don’t want to encourage people to pursue. We want to pursue them to help them to resist these things that are not actually good for them.
So the second thing I’m going to say is the church should be a place of incredible welcome. We want it to be a place of warmth and invitation, where someone who has gone through reassignment surgery or is considering it, or is dealing with same-sex attraction, or anything in the LGBTQ+ arena, that they would find hospitality, a community that wants to know them and enjoy them and help them wrestle with all kinds of sins and temptations and struggles and hardships and sufferings. That we would be looking to invite them into friendship and help them wrestle well. That we would be looking to invite them into friendship, that they would help us wrestle well and faithfully across the board. Because in many ways, our struggles are all the same. We all know what it is to want something we shouldn’t have, to feel like something would be good for us when it is in fact not. That’s not unique to transgender or same-sex attraction.
And on the flip side, these are individuals with their own stories. These are people whose particular struggles are ones that you may not be able to really deeply relate to. It may be a learning process of even beginning to imagine what it is like for another person. Again, that’s true well beyond sexual struggles or gender struggles. We want to be people who are endlessly curious: “What is it like for you? How are you growing in the Lord? Where are the struggles of this world, pinch points, for you?”
And I’m happy to say this is already happening in many places and many churches. I know lots of stories of churches doing this well, and of people finding safety and love and welcome and friendship. Sadly, that probably is not the majority experience, but it’s not absent. That is real. The church is not utterly failing in this, and I’m deeply, deeply grateful for every case where that has been true, and I pray it will become more and more true.
Okay. So the first challenge: these things are real and they are hard. Second challenge: as counselors, we’re being lumped in with conversion therapy. We’re being called conversion therapists against our will. That’s frustrating. That’s hard. We’ve always disagreed with conversion therapy, but now we’re being told that we’re doing conversion therapy, no matter what we say. There’s sort of a sad irony here that our self-identification as people who don’t practice conversion therapy is being denied and overruled.
In the old days, it was easy to say, “Hey, we’re not conversion therapists,” because we were trying to help people resist same-sex attraction as a temptation and not act out of it, but we weren’t trying to cure their orientation. Now, however, because even trying to help someone resist at the level of action or expression of gender identity or a sexual orientation, that is now being defined as conversion therapy in a very front and center, robust, rich kind of way.
So to do anything other than help people embrace, affirm, encourage a gender transition or a life of whatever your sexual orientation is, all those things are being called conversion therapy. And increasingly, there are going to be bans and laws and such placed against these things, and those of us who don’t go along with that or who run afoul of that will face increasing consequences. This is the likely case going forward. This is going to hit home for biblical counselors, especially with legislation like I was mentioning earlier in West Lafayette that is explicitly targeting unlicensed counselors even in this situation.
And that leads us to the third challenge, which is one that might actually be the greatest challenge of all to us as counselors, which is that the definition of counseling and of counselor is expanding, too. Again, thinking back a couple of decades, to be a counselor in the eyes of the law usually meant either that you had to call yourself a counselor or a professional counselor, licensed counselor, or a certain kind of therapist. If you used certain titles, you were then liable to certain laws. But if you didn’t call yourself that, then it didn’t. Those laws would not apply to you. That was one way of the law understanding who counselors were. The other way typically would’ve been, are you charging money for what you’re doing? Are people paying you for this service? Well, in that case, you’re a counselor. But the definition has become increasingly more sweeping and is now often—again, at least at face value, it’s basically anybody who’s trying to help anyone else change.
I ran into this first over a decade ago with some of the New Hampshire licensure laws where I was looking to set up practice and realized I was unable to. I remember telling people at the time, I was like, “Wow. I read the law. They basically said that for biblical friendships, you need to have a state license granted to you before you can do it, because the language gets so sweeping.” The West Lafayette ordinance that again, thankfully was withdrawn, here was the language that was being proposed. Here is was what a counselor was. Anyone who was using “Techniques used to help individuals learn how to solve problems and make decisions related to personal growth, vocational, family, and other interpersonal concerns.”
Now, depending how exactly you might define the word techniques, that’s a decent if sort of generic description of all of discipleship, right? That ought to be a description of what every Christian is doing in every significant relationship in their life. We should all be interested in helping each other solve problems and make decisions related to personal growth and to our vocation and our family and relationships of every kind, right? That is what Jesus calls us to do. Make disciples, help people to grow in love and wisdom as they live in this world.
Now, obviously that’s not what the state is… that’s not what they mean. A law like that is not intended to say, “We are going to regulate every friendship over coffee, of every two people in any church who are trying to help each other grow.” And we can have sympathy for the state who’s trying to say, “Look, we’re trying to make sure that good medicine is being practiced under our jurisdiction. We don’t want bad doctors and bad medicine and quacks and frauds. We want to make sure we know what’s going on, and that it’s been vetted and approved, and there’s a structure,” right? Again, we can have sympathy for the intent here, but the drift into trying to regulate anyone helping anyone else change in their lives in an intentional systematic way is pretty concerning.
So with that look at the history and some of the challenges and some of the confusions around this, you know what? It would be reasonable if you felt a certain anxiety. Sadly, that would be an accurate response. This is concerning, and it should be. But that’s nothing new, is it? The church has always faced challenges and pressures and resistance and consequences, even at times from our culture, and our Lord has seen us through.
So if you feel concerned and nervous as a counselor, let that even just be a reminder to you to pray for the church, to pray for us as we seek to be a faithful witness and a light and a place of safety and comfort and refuge in the face of challenges and hurdles. And when you feel any anxiety as a biblical counselor or as a church member and discipler, let that also be a reminder to you that the hurdles faced by those struggling with same-sex attraction, those struggling with gender dysphoria, as they try to come into the church and participate in the life of the church, their struggles are ten times anything that we will ever face, no matter what law we might end up feeling we had to violate or stand we had to take. So let’s pray for them. Let’s pray for them to experience welcome in the Lord’s goodness, knowing that the Lord is good. He will walk all of us through this, and He can and will use even these things to strengthen us as individuals and as His body and as His beloved bride.
Let me just pray for us. Oh, Lord. Help us as those who would counsel to be full of courage and full of humble compassion, and full of hope that You will give us the opportunity to love well, and that we can bless others, particularly those who are struggling with a sense that they don’t belong in their body in this way, that they are drawn to those of the same sex. Lord, help those who are struggling, those who are listening to this right now and who may have felt this incredibly stirring them up and perhaps raising hurtful memories, perhaps being deeply discouraging to them. Lord, I just pray wherever their emotions are at this moment, will You give them rest, comfort for their souls, help to walk in a way toward You over the long haul as they seek to honor You and be faithful. And lastly, Lord, thank You so much that You love Your bride, that You care for Your church, that You have our good in mind and You will not let us go, and You will bring us to Your side perfectly and forever. Help us just hope in that and step into it one little bit at a time, we pray. Amen.