Orientation Change Efforts

Sexual orientation change efforts.  Reparative therapy.  Unwanted same-sex attraction.  These terms are wrought with controversy.  Historically, the response of folks who ascribe to the traditional (or orthodox) Christian sexual ethic (i.e. that sex is to be reserved for heterosexual marriage), has been to attempt to eliminate homosexual desires.  These are called sexual orientation change efforts (SOCE) – attempts to make someone change not only their sexual behaviors, but also their sexual desires, into ‘straight’ ones – oriented towards the opposite sex.  The assumption is that, if God forbids homosexual sexual acts, then one ought to try to eliminate even the temptation for sexual activity with members of the same sex.  There is a question that traditional faith communities are failing to ask, however, which strikes at the foundation of that assumption.  And so, I pose this question for those of you who subscribe to the orthodox Christian sexual ethic to consider and respond to:

What moral or spiritual good is achieved by attempts to eliminate a person’s desire towards homosexual sexual behavior?

No one tries to remove straight people’s desires to jump into bed with each other.  We try to teach them to manage it properly.  Even traditionally minded Christians don’t teach that singles should rid themselves of sexual desire until they marry.  Instead, they teach them to avoid lustful behaviors and thoughts as an unmarried straight person, and to honor God with their expressions of sexuality.  Why are we responding differently to our LGBT brothers and sisters?  From my perspective (a straight celibate Christian), if someone were to argue that I ought to remove my sexual desires because I am single, I would think they’d lost their marbles.  So, I can understand why most in the LGBT community, when told they should ‘change’ their desires, find it to be a worthless pursuit.  Even many gay Christians who embrace celibacy for their expressed intent of maintaining sexual purity still find SOCE’s to be profoundly misdirected.

I had a conversation with a straight, married friend recently who subscribes to a traditional sexual ethic perspective, and the conversation was so good that I wanted to share it with you.  His response to me, after I described to him this nagging question I have regarding the usefulness or necessity of SOCE’s, was the following:

“You make me think – and I am grateful. I don’t recall ever asking the question you posed quite that way, and it makes a lot of sense.”

My friend went on to say how helpful he found the phrase “managing sexual desire” saying,

“I was liberated by a mentor saying once when I was in my teens, ‘we pray diligently, Lord take away my sexual desire, – thank God He doesn’t answer that prayer.’ I think if we start with the assumption that we all have sexual imagination that we cannot fulfill (and perhaps that we all have aspects of our identity of which we are ashamed) we begin with a common basis that acknowledges our disordered loves and need of grace.”

Our sexual appetites always will, at times, depart from purity.  But sexual purity, even within the bounds of the most conservative perspective, is about your behaviors – your intentional engagements in lust and sexual conduct which violates relationship with God and others.  Christians everywhere disagree about what those standards actually are, even for straight single people.  But the fundamental difference is that while calling singles to manage sexual longing with purity, we call LGBT folks to eliminate sexual longing. 

Wolfhart Pannenberg, a premier, retired German Theologian describes the traditional Christian response to homosexuality saying,

“The mere existence of homophile inclinations does not automatically lead to homosexual practice….The reality of homophile inclinations, therefore, need not be denied and must not be condemned. The question, however, is how to handle such inclinations within the human task of responsibly directing our behavior.”

This quote is taken from an article (Should We Support Gay Marriage – NO) in which Pannenberg argues against gay marriage and for celibacy, but nevertheless, the message, even from this conservative theologian is clear – sexual purity is about our behavior, not our proclivity.  Those amongst us who uphold the orthodox Christian standard for sexuality need to, at very least, recognize that sexual purity was never about what reaches to us (our attractions and temptations), but about what we reach to (our engagements and behaviors).

So what do you think?  Ought we to eliminate sexual urges and temptations that dishonor God and others (no matter how you define that – more traditionally or progressively)?  Or ought we instead to emphasize how we behave and engage sexually?  Share your thoughts.  Share your stories.  And be kind.

7 thoughts on “Orientation Change Efforts

  1. A person was never intended by God to be alone. Just because a person is homosexual doesn’t mean that person is doomed to celibacy and lonesomeness for the rest of his or her life.

    Gay folks deserve the same rights before God and men as everyone else. They deserve the chance to have a monogamous, loving, relationship before God with their true love. Whether the person is the same sex or not. What the Christian Community owes the homosexual is the freedom that comes from Jesus. That we are righteous because of HIM. And that, regardless of our sexual orientation, we can establish loving homes that serve Him. A committed relationship, sealed with marriage is God’s best for us all. Our gender, or the gender of our spouse, shouldn’t ever be an issue.

    We do not show the love of Christ if we insist a person never have a fulfilling marriage because he or she cannot have that marriage with the opposite sex.

    Loving Boldly isn’t telling someone they can stay right with God “if they…..” (fill in the blank). And it certainly isn’t loving to tell someone that God will overlook their orientation provided they never act on it. That is skirting the issue entirely.

    None of us can be in right standing with God without Jesus. He paid the price for me. His death MAKES me right with God and I can neither make that better, or mess it up by what I do or not do. I can only believe it.

    • Kari, your feedback is a contrasting mixture of Christian and non-christian angles. You agree with the Bible when you write that “None of us can be in right standing with God without Jesus. He paid the price for me. His death MAKES me right with God”
      But then you disagree with the Bible when you write “I can neither make that better, or mess it up by what I do or not do. I can only believe it.” By this statement you imply that the only thing that matters is belief, and that actions play no part in pleasing God or in receiving salvation. Sure, Christians are saved by faith (Ephesians 2:8). Faith is foundational. But faith without works is dead (James 2:17). Jesus characterised those who make it to heaven as those who do more than just believe (Matthew 25:33-46). It’s scary that Jesus teaches that some of those who do not make it to heaven, thought of themselves as likely to make it (Matthew 7:21-23).

      Your comment that “A committed relationship, sealed with marriage is God’s best for us all. Our gender, or the gender of our spouse, shouldn’t ever be an issue” is very much at odds with Jesus. He taught that Christian marriage is inherently heterosexual (Matthew 19:4,5).

  2. What moral or spiritual good is achieved by attempts to eliminate a person’s desire towards homosexual sexual behavior?

    Nothing good is achieved by these attempts in my experience. Actually it’s quite the opposite. I’ve seen people from these “ex-gay” groups come out in much worse condition emotionally and spiritually. Suicide attempts, falling back into alcoholism (after years of sobiety), deep depression are the results I’ve seen from these attempts. I also know people who have chosen to remain single to honor God. I don’t get it. I know they aren’t totally fulfulled individuals. I once asked someone who had made that decision to remain single if she whas happy. She took a long paluse then said, “I’ve never been asked that question”. Then continued with it isn’t about happiness but about pleasing God. So sad. I love the Lord my God with all my heart, soul, mind, and strength and I am in a loving committed relationship with another woman who also loves the Lord. I in no way believe that relationship dishonors God in any way shape or form. It deeply sadens me to see those from the LGBT community run from a relationship with Christ because they think He wouldn’t love them because of their sexual oreintation.

  3. “What moral or spiritual good is achieved by attempts to eliminate a person’s desire towards homosexual sexual behavior? No one tries to remove straight people’s desires to jump into bed with each other.”

    Despite the failings of SOCE, it cant be said that SOCE have not generally been well intended. Sure if you remove a persons sexual inclinations, irrespective of their orientation, you may remove a propensity for sin. But that oversimplifies the comparison between gay and straight. If you try to remove straight people’s desires to jump into bed with each other, you remove something that the Bible portrays as god-given, and given in part for the purpose of procreation. So long as done within the context of heterosexual marriage, the Bible celebrates loving forms of intimacy. The Bible does not celebrate homosexual forms of sexual intimacy though. And it’s not procreative. So although on a theoretical level it’s easy to see downsides to removing straight people’s sexual inclinations, at the same time it’s hard to see downsides to removing gay people’s sexual inclinations. This is especially true when same-sex people want to have those inclinations removed, believing they would then be more at peace.

    “… purity, even within the bounds of the most conservative perspective, is about your behaviors …” Yes, but behaviours tend to arise from inclinations. If the behaviour is a problem and the inclination is removed, then you have reduced the risk of the behaviour recurring.

    But the big issue with SOCE as I see it, is that contrary to what people tend to perceive as implied in 1 Corinthians 6:11, most do not experience significant change in their orientation, no matter how hard they try.

    • Hi Tom,
      Thanks for reading and sharing your pushback! You point out that SOCE is generally well-intended. I don’t dispute that, however, it does not negate the harm that is oftentimes done as a result, and the profound negligence that some SOCE practitioners (not ALL, but some) have demonstrated. For that, we Christians need to make amends. You said that it’s hard to see the downsides to removing gay people’s sexual inclinations and on that point, I disagree. The downsides are the elevated risks for suicide, further depression, broken relationships, shame, and more if practitioners do not operate responsibly in a professional counseling environment and context. The desires of the client must be considered in such environments, but one of the needs clients have is to understand the potential harms associated with their decisions. Counselors who subscribe to SOCE have not always been faithful to provide such information to their clients and, when they do so, it’s a breach of the ethics which they agree to abide by in their counseling efforts. Please hear me clearly though. I am not saying all practitioners who subscribe to SOCE have done this. I am only saying that many well-intentioned but poorly informed folks have unintentionally gone down this path, and the consequences are enormous. And, clearly, I agree with your last point about change rates being low.

  4. God bless you, Tom and your efforts to get to heaven! Thankfully, in my life, when Jesus said that “it is finished” it was just that! His blood is enough!Faith is rest. I rest in knowing that I have all that Jesus deserves because Jesus got all that I deserve. I don’t serve a God who sweeps sin under the rug, it had to be punished and Jesus took all the punishment so that the final sacrifice was made. Thank You Jesus, I am more and more undone by Your goodness to me….. all the more so because I know that I will NEVER be good enough for it!

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