A couple of disclaimers to start:
- I don’t have a dog in the Reparative Therapy fight. I’m not nearly well-read enough on this topic to know where I fall on the broader issue. My comments here should not be read as an endorsement of one side or the other.
- I have great respect for Heath Lambert and ACBC. In fact, this may be the only point of doctrine on which I disagree with Lambert and company. I have a personal connection to Heath, because I attended the same church as him (Kenwood Baptist) and attended his (very helpful) Sunday School class. I even had brief conversations with him after class about this topic, so I’m not flying blind.
Before I jump into criticism, I’d like to point out this paragraph, from his essay What’s Wrong With Reparative Therapy?
The new cultural consensus is that homosexuality is unchangeable. Practitioners of RT, however, have much anecdotal and empirical evidence of many men and women who formerly adopted a homosexual identification, but do not any longer. In the current environment many insist that we must listen to the many homosexual men and women who failed in their attempts to change. RT reminds us that many succeed in their attempts to change. Perhaps, we can all agree that it is important to listen to their stories too.
While Reparative Therapy can be a contentious topic, I rejoice that we all agree on the most important truth: homosexuals can change. Homosexual desires are not an immutable part of a person’s identity. The Lord can and does restore and renew not only our actions but also our desires.
With that said, I’d like to address a few paragraphs in particular from two of his essays on the ACBC site. I’ll quote full paragraphs to give the maximum amount of context. This first quote comes from the same essay, What’s Wrong With Reparative Therapy?
The goal of RT is heterosexuality. Reparative therapists ultimately desire their clients to embrace a heterosexual lifestyle. They believe this is a natural consequence of the therapy. “As shame is slowly diminished in therapy and the same-sex attracted man grows in self-awareness and self-assertion, he should gradually begin to find within himself a natural heterosexual response” (324).
RT has a more complex and nuanced understanding about the development of heterosexual desires than they are often credited with. They do not argue that “ex-gays” never battle same-sex temptation, nor do they argue that men who formerly identified as homosexuals must experience the same “rush” during heterosexual sex as they do during the homosexual variety. Still, the pursuit of RT is heterosexuality.
This goal is not one that biblical counselors can embrace. The Bible never declares that heterosexuality is the goal of a full and contented life. I can say it more strongly. The Bible never says that heterosexuality, in general terms, is a good thing. Sex that the Bible praises is the kind that happens in heterosexual marriage—that is sex in a marriage between one man and one woman. The Bible, however, never commands or commends heterosexual desires in general terms.
A biblical goal for persons struggling with same-sex attraction is something much more glorious than mere heterosexuality. The biblical goal is to honor Jesus Christ with sexual purity (1 Thess 4:3-8). A faithful Christian could pursue this goal by turning from homosexuality in either of two ways. They could mortify their sinful desires and behavior in a lifestyle of honorable, chaste, Christian celibacy (Matt 19:10-12; 1 Cor 7:25-40). They could also mortify their sinful desires and behavior in the context of a loving Christian marriage.
A Christian could pursue the glory of Christ in either of these legitimately biblical contexts. The Holy Spirit will not give his grace to pursue goals not prescribed in Scripture, however. We should, therefore, expect efforts at change, which pursue generic heterosexuality to be met with frustration or failure.
Painting a similar picture is a second quote, from Lambert’s essay Oil and Water: The Impossible Relationship between Evangelicalism and Reparative Therapy
Reparative therapists clearly see the value of heterosexual normativity. They argue that “Normality is that which functions according to its design.”13 Statements like this one make a powerful argument for heterosexual behavior grounded in the physical design of male and female bodies. Homosexual activity goes against the obvious design of our physical bodies. It is against nature and dishonors the human body (Rom 1:24, 26-27).
Reparative therapists are correct to see that homosexuality is against nature, but then they take this biblical teaching and move farther than the Bible allows. As demonstrated above, reparative therapists argue that people who struggle with homosexuality must demonstrate the fullness of the change process by pursuing the goal of heterosexual relationships. This argument goes beyond what Scripture argues.
The biblical position on sexuality is that sexual relationships are to take place between one man and one woman in the context of marriage which lasts for a lifetime. Spouses are called to have sexual desire for their opposite sex spouse, and are to reject any sexual desire or activity for anyone else (Prov 5:18-19; 1 Cor 7:1-5). The Bible never commands individuals to cultivate sexual desire for the opposite sex in general. In fact, the Bible condemns as sinful lust any sexual desire that is not directed toward one’s partner in marriage (Matt 5:27-30).
What this all means is that, contrary to the teaching of reparative therapists, heterosexual desire is not a virtue in and of itself. The biblical teaching is much more sophisticated, calling for purity and chastity, rather than the cultivation of general heterosexual desire. People who struggle with homosexuality change by pursuing the goal of chastity, which means fighting to eradicate any sexual desire outside of marriage, and fighting to cultivate exclusive sexual desire for one’s spouse within marriage.
With Lambert’s arguments fully stated, a few points:
1. It’s obviously true that, in the strictest sense, heterosexuality isn’t purity/chastity. Heterosexuality, on its own, is not sufficient for biblical faithfulness. This is true, but it is also simplistic. In the same way, flour is not bread, but good luck making bread if you don’t have any flour.
So it is with sexual desires. We cannot be content with mere heterosexuality, but we also cannot go on without it. At the risk of being graphic, it’s a simple reality that the act of marriage cannot be performed in the absence of sexual desires. And if the act of marriage is not performed, there is no marriage. There’s a reason the church has always viewed sexual intercourse as the consummation of marriage.
For a Christian who practices RT, heterosexuality is a stepping stone on the path to purity. We must go beyond it, but it is rank foolishness to think that we don’t even have to go that far. Once we understand this, we must recognize that Lambert cannot attack RT for going too far; he can only say that Reparative Therapy does not go far enough. Lambert can point out that heterosexuality cannot and must not be the ultimate goal of therapy (as any Christian practitioner of RT would agree), but he must concede that heterosexuality should be a proximate goal. Even if Reparative Therapists err by not going far enough (which Lambert has not even attempted to demonstrate), his direct attack on heterosexuality as a goal of therapy is wrongheaded. A helpful critique would say “you are going in the right direction, but you stop too soon. Go further up and further in.” Lambert has not given such a critique.
2. Lambert is obviously correct when he asserts that Christians are commanded to cultivate sexual desires for their husband or wife. What he leaves out is what conditions must be in place for a marriage to happen in the first place. Would Lambert advise a prospective bride to marry if her husband has absolutely no sexual interest in her? (That’s not a loaded question; I’d really like to know). Does Lambert encourage same-sex attracted clients to get married as soon as possible, so that sexual desires can be cultivated legitimately? If marriage ought to precede heterosexuality, why not say so? If Lambert is merely saying that RT is pursuing these goals in the wrong order, why declare war on Reparative Therapy?
Lambert would surely respond by saying that sexual desire for one’s own husband or wife is not the same as heterosexuality. This is obviously true, but it also doesn’t prove as much as Lambert seems to think. The fact is that “heterosexuality,” in the context of Christian Reparative Therapists, is always limited to finding a wife or husband, getting married, and staying faithful to them. Lambert surely knows this, which is why it’s so puzzling that he thinks this is a point worth making. How is the purity/heterosexuality distinction not a mere issue of semantics? If you understand that heterosexuality is a stepping stone to purity in the Christian RT model, why argue as if heterosexuality is the ultimate (not proximate) goal? If a practitioner of RT is advocating heterosexual promiscuity or pornography, then that practitioner is not a Christian reparative therapist. If Lambert only wants to attack Reparative Therapists who are not Christians, why not say so? Further, if the real problem with Reparative Therapy is promiscuity or pornography, why are we talking about heterosexuality at all?
3. Lambert may respond to my second point by saying that some Christians are doing perfectly good and perfectly biblical counseling under the banner of RT, but the RT name carries bad connotations that we ought to avoid associating ourselves with. If this is his position, I’m open to that argument. If a Christian wanted to try to do good Christian things, I would insist that they not do those things under the banner of the Ku Klux Klan or using Swastika symbology. It’s obviously true that some words and some symbols cannot be redeemed. If Dr. Lambert truly believes that the Christian Counseling community needs to have some hard conversations about our terminology/semantics, that’s an argument worth hearing. I believe in the power and importance of words. But, again, Lambert hasn’t made that argument.
4. Finally, I’d like to address this section of Lambert’s article:
A faithful Christian could pursue this goal by turning from homosexuality in either of two ways. They could mortify their sinful desires and behavior in a lifestyle of honorable, chaste, Christian celibacy (Matt 19:10-12; 1 Cor 7:25-40). They could also mortify their sinful desires and behavior in the context of a loving Christian marriage.
It’s obviously true that, as Jesus said, “There are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven.” However, this point is almost entirely irrelevant in the context of counseling. Eunuchs do not need counseling for same-sex attraction because sexual attraction largely isn’t an issue for them. Once someone is in your office for counseling, we’re already dealing with someone who “burns with passion” in the words of I Corinthians 7. In that case, the Scriptures are clear: they are to marry.
“But if they do not have self-control, let them marry; for it is better to marry than to burn with passion.”
There are Christians who have self-control, and do not need to marry, but those Christians don’t show up for counseling (and if one of them does, we can just tell them that they’re fine and send them home). Lambert seems determined to reject RT based on Christian Eunuchs, but seems unaware of the fact that Eunuchs do not receive RT because they don’t need it.
It’s possible that Lambert is also seeking to ensure that Christians who practice RT are leaving room for the possibility that the change process (as it relates to desires) may take years. In extreme cases, it may take many years. If Lambert only wants to caution Reparative Therapists away from delusions of grandeur, that is a true and worthy admonition. It’s certainly true that sanctification can be a very long process, especially when sinful habits are deeply ingrained. However, this is another point that Lambert fails to make.
Conclusion: Lambert’s criticisms, as stated in these two articles, fail to draw any blood. Worse, the wrongheaded attack on heterosexuality as a goal of counseling is pastorally dangerous. Not only does it leave room for those who wish to maintain homosexuality as part of their identity (while still claiming to be Christians), but it seems to cast doubt on the goal of changing sexual desires at all.
As I said above, I respect Heath Lambert and think he is a godly man who earnestly desires the best for the church. However, his arguments, as published in these two essays, fall far short of proving that RT is unacceptable for Christian counseling.
It may be true that Reparative Therapy is so riddled with secular ideas that it cannot be salvaged. I don’t know, and I’ll leave that question to those more studied than I. However, Lambert in these articles betrays a striking pattern of criticizing the weakest possible version of his opponent’s views. If Reparative Therapy is hopelessly corrupted by secular ideas, Lambert should find the strongest, most sympathetic version of RT, and then demonstrate that it still fails the standards of Scripture. He has not done that. In fact, he has done the opposite. As mentioned above, Lambert either makes a pointless distinction between heterosexuality and purity, or he implies that Christian Reparative Therapists are guilty of promoting promiscuity or pornography. Elsewhere in the essays, he mentions a particular Reparative Therapist’s practice of exposing clients to pornography. If Lambert intended to take on the strongest Christian proponents of RT, he certainly would not have chosen such a wicked man as the representative of the opposing view. Surely Lambert doesn’t see pornography as an inseparable part of RT, so we can only wonder why that was included at all.
Eunuchs don’t come in for counseling about uncontrolled same-sex desires. Heterosexuality (followed by marriage) is the godly, pure, chaste path to repentance and sanctification. In a world awash in sexual confusion, unclear terminology is a severe disservice to those who need truth the most.