Some years ago, Heath Lambert posted an article called, "What's wrong with Reparative Therapy?" This was my response at the time (1, 2, 3). (Note: He may have edited his article slightly - I don't have time to check it out, but feel free to alert me to anything that is no longer accurate).
A MISUNDERSTOOD PROCESS.
In this last section of his blog post, Heath Lambert says that RT has an approach to working with homosexual people that is not worthy of Christian ministry.
Well, let's see...
Lambert explains that RT seeks to "re-parent" the person with unwanted homosexual desires, allowing that person to respond appropriately to the shaming and relational wounds from their family of origin. When people are afforded that opportunity through therapy, "[c]hange is the supposed result."
What is wrong with that approach according to Lambert? Well, he says:
The most significant problem that homosexuals have is, like everyone else, their own sinfulness. God’s remedy for sin is not therapeutic attunement, but repentant faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.
I've come across this same argument from David Powlison. Sin is the reason for every problem. But while Lambert correctly says that there is more to homosexuality than familial brokenness, I'm afraid he's fallen into a far too simplistic understanding of sin.
How does sin manifest itself?
I am all for critiques of RT, but I really think that if Lambert wants to criticise RT, he needs to utilise a better explanation of sin than he has here. As it stands, Lambert runs the risk of communicating the same error that others accuse RT of teaching, i.e., that you become a Christian, repent and believe and you're home and hosed.
I don't believe that Lambert has that simplistic a view of sin, but it would seem that he is not recognising the breadth of sin's manifestation.
Let me repeat what I've said before: Homosexuality is a sin, but it is not Sin. In other words, homosexuality is not original sin, but the fruit of that original sin. And all the relational breaks and shame that RT says lead up to homosexuality include people being sinned against, and those sinned against responding in a sinful manner. Probably the most basic sin that can be identified through RT's model is the sin of looking to other people and things instead of God in the midst of pain, and responding with unforgiveness, hate and rejection.
It is that sin (not so-called in secular contexts, but definitely in Christian contexts) that RT speaks to. Is it the only correct analysis of homosexual sin? No, but it is one that has helped many a person caught in the midst of unwanted homosexual desires.
What is repentance?
One of the necessary requirements for success in change in sexual orientation, or so I have read and heard from others struggling with homosexual sin, is that the person must want change for themselves. Then, I would suggest, as areas of sin are uncovered, a turning away from that sin is necessary to continue to make progress.
Is this not a truth that we have all found in our own lives? We say we don't want to do wrong, but we continue to do it. Often, it is not until we are prepared to recognise that we don't really hate and reject sin as much as we say we do, and then set about repenting more fully, that we repent deeply enough to be set free.
Now, it is true that from a secular stand-point this attitude is not called repentance, but is that not what it is?
The need for "repentant faith" in Christ.
I am fully on board with Lambert in asserting that Christ must be who Christians repent toward and have faith in. Christians who minister must point to Christ or, despite the good they may do, all that will happen is that one sin will take place of another.
That is why ministries such as Living Waters, who use a number of insights from RT, point exclusively to the cross as the place where idolatry must be repented of, unforgiveness laid down, bitterness forsaken and hate crucified. Jesus is the one who is presented as the answer.
Which is why I can't understand the out-and-out rejection Lambert champions for RT on the basis that there is no understanding of sin, no call for repentance and no faith in Christ. In a secular context, sins will merely be moved around, but in a Christian context, sin is mortified, prayers are made, and - extremely importantly - the Spirit gives life.
Is there perfection in Living Water's model? No. I myself have some criticisms of Living Waters' material as I have encountered it, but it is more in terms of presentation than content. However, there is much that is worth considering and commending, and I'm afraid Lambert has missed that in his critique of RT as a whole.
What about Re-parenting?
But what about the idea of therapeutic re-parenting? Doesn't that sound a little odd?
This is where I think there is too little in Lambert's critique. Re-parenting is a human attempt at doing what the Spirit of God does in a Christian's life - at least, as that person is able to receive it. The Spirit of God works in a Christian to cry out "Abba, Father" (see Romans 8:14-17), providing the love and affirmation that even the best human parents can only minutely manage. It is not repentance and faith, but a result of repentance and faith, and...note this...fellow Christians are understood to take part in parenting in the faith.
Do I need Scripture references for this? Let me just outline four:
1. Luke 18:29-30 indicates that no one leaving relationships and goods for the Kingdom of God will find many times more in this age, and parents are included in that list.
2. In 1 Timothy 1:2, 2 Timothy 1:2 and Titus 1:4, Paul refers to Timothy and Titus as his true sons in the faith.
3. 1 Timothy 3:4-5 links a man's ability to care for his household (specifically including his fathering) to his ability to care for the Church.
4. The passage in 1 John 2:12-14 speaks of "Fathers". Fathers of who? Fathers in the faith, presumably toward other Christians.
Now, these references may not be enough for some, but however poorly the Church achieves this, most Christians understand that the Bible teaches that the Church is a family, that they are to care for widows and orphans, that they are to love one another with brotherly love. Why would a person who has suffered through parental neglect not be ministered to by men and women who provide love and teaching that was not given as the person grew up?
What is most confusing, perhaps, is that Lambert actually says this at the beginning of his article:
Parental Relationships are Important: RT emphasizes the importance of early childhood relationships. The relationships that kids have with their moms and dads are of crucial importance. This is a claim that grows right out of the teachings of the Bible (Deut 6:4-9; Eph 6:1-4).
Positive Relationships are Crucial in the Change Process: In RT the role of the therapist is crucial. The therapist must be a reliable, same-sex, role model who will not pursue their client sexually. Additionally, the therapist must be a loving and encouraging figure with wisdom to help their struggling client work through painful and complicated emotional experiences. The emphasis on wise and loving relationships is one that springs immediately from the biblical worldview. In Scripture, we are not called to work out issues independently but in the context of caring relationships with those who are spiritual (Gal 6:1-2).
Christians should have very serious concerns about RT, but that does not mean it is all bad. In fact, at least as far as these four elements are concerned we can be thankful for the true insights of RT.
So, re-parenting is good, but it’s not?
Once again, then, Lambert's critique has missed the mark. His protests that there is no recognition that sin is the problem, and no repentance or faith involved in RT, and his assertion that people don't need "therapeutic re-parenting", ignores that those very concepts can be found in the New Testament have been recognised and successfully applied through other Christian ministries to the glory of God and healing of many people.
Heath Lambert clearly wants to see people saved and growing in Christ. He explicitly states that he sees homosexuality as a sin and something that can change within a person. I assume that his own "Biblical Counselling" has helped many people and I pray that it continues to do so. Indeed, his own story is a wonderful testament to the saving and healing grace of God in Jesus.
When it comes to Reparative Therapy, however, Lambert's three points against its use ring hollow:
- Lambert argues that RT has misunderstood the problem of homosexuality, but he's holding RT to a standard that no other therapy has met.
- Lambert argues that RT has misunderstood the goal ("the pursuit") of working with people with unwanted same-sex desires as being moving a person toward heterosexuality. But Lambert pits the overarching goal of sanctification against the acceptable and godly goal of gendered sanctification (which includes heterosexuality).
- Lambert argues that RT has misunderstood the process needed to minister to people struggling with homosexuality, saying there is no sin, repentance and faith in RT. Interestingly, Lambert does not comment on the Christian ministries that operate using similar insights to RT and that manage to find and incorporate the concepts of sin, repentance and faith in their Christ-centred material for the healing of Christians and to the glory of God.
Let me reiterate, I think there is a valuable place for a critique of RT and the Christian ministries that use similar insights - not so we can reject them, but so everyone can learn and grow together. Such critiques, however, need to show a far better understanding of what is being critiqued, and an ability to biblically evaluate concepts and categories that are expressed in language quite different from one's own.
To return to the previous parts of this critique, click here (Part 1, Part 2).