Conversion Therapy: A Biblical Response

The Queen’s Speech to Parliament in May 2021 announced plans to bring forward legislation to ban “conversion therapy”. Though there are many practices evangelical Christians should rightly reject as abhorrent, there is also a real threat to ordinary gospel ministry.

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In this audio clip, John was speaking to Paul Hammond on UCB's Friday Round Up on 19 March 2021.

Back in early 2019, the Ozanne Foundation published the results of its “Faith and Sexuality Survey 2018” which sought to identify the harm caused by so-called “gay conversion therapy,” which claims to enable people to change their sexual orientation. The report is part of the ongoing campaign by the Ozanne Foundation to outlaw such practices, and more broadly to encourage evangelical churches to accept people who are gay and wish to practice their sexuality.

The report revealed some appalling practices that ought to be repudiated and rejected by all evangelical Christians. It is shocking and wicked that 22 people reported that they had undergone “forced sexual activity with someone of the opposite gender” as a means of seeking to change their sexual orientation from homosexual to heterosexual. It beggars belief that anyone who reads their Bible would consider this legitimate. A higher number were encouraged to engage in “voluntary sexual activity with someone of the opposite sex” and many tried “deliverance ministry” including exorcism.

‘Conversion Therapy’ can be abusive

These appalling practices cannot be condoned and cannot be justified as any part of truly evangelical pastoral practice. They ultimately flow from a totally wrong understanding of sin and the gospel and reflect the ways in which many who claim the name evangelical have in practice abandoned true biblical faith and practice. It is utterly wrong to hold that homosexual desires, or indeed any sinful desires, are a result of “demon possession”, and there is nothing in the Bible to support this idea. Exorcism is therefore entirely inappropriate. Sadly, large sections of the charismatic movement were captured by false teaching on demonology in the 1980s, reflected in the novels of Frank Peretti, and taught that Christians were afflicted by “demons” of lust, drunkenness, temper etc.

The idea that homosexual orientations can be “cured” by consensual or forced sex, psychotherapy, hormone treatment or electroconvulsive therapy again follows from the capitulation of the church to the culture, and the replacement of biblical ministry with secular psychology. These therapies, formerly advocated for homosexual desire by the secular medical profession itself, owe nothing to Biblical Christianity. Once again whole swathes of evangelicalism in the past adopted secular counselling and therapeutic techniques as if they were Christian. They ought to be rejected.

However, the Ozanne Foundation wants to go further than outlawing these obviously abusive methods which owe nothing to Biblical Christianity and to ban any means of helping people to change their sexual orientation. By far the most common form taken to attempt to change sexual orientation revealed in the survey was “private prayer” or some kind of “prayer with others.” By conflating prayer with abusive practices, the Ozanne Foundation wants to eliminate all attempts that the church may make to help people overcome sexual desires that they find unwelcome, and from which they wish to be freed. It is potentially an attack on both personal freedom and ordinary Biblical pastoral practice.

If we are to respond to the claims of the Ozanne Foundation, and their desire to characterise normal pastoral practice as abuse when applied to those struggling with same-sex attraction, we need to have a clear biblical understanding both of homosexuality, and of what the Bible says in regard to the battle against temptation and sin.

I am personally unhappy with any language that speaks of “conversion therapy” as I do not believe that the Bible holds out any promise that specific individuals will be freed from the battle against same-sex temptation in this life. Some Christians will face a life-long battle against homosexual sexual temptation. Other Christians will face a life-long battle against heterosexual sexual temptation, and indeed other temptations. We must avoid putting same-sex attraction, or sexual temptations more broadly, into a special category.

Identity not defined by temptations

It seems to me to be a fundamental mistake to equate people’s essential identity with the temptations that they experience. We are not our temptations. As far as I am aware there is no scientific consensus or proof as to the origin of homosexual desires, and whether they are rooted in biology, social conditioning or personal choice.

The LGBT community have adopted different understandings of the nature of homosexuality to suit their political and cultural agenda, sometimes arguing that it is a result of genes and at other times arguing that it is a matter of personal choice. The very concept of a “sexual orientation” is therefore a social construct, utilised to define personal identity in terms of sexual feelings without any basis in ontology. Christians ought to be deeply suspicious of this move. The Bible does not utilise the concept of “sexual orientation” and does not conceptualise people as “gay” because they experience same-sex sexual desires. The focus is on people who commit homosexual actions.

Why do some Christians experience homosexual temptation?

There is no doubt that a significant minority of human beings experience same-sex attraction to some degree, or at some points in their life. The rise of pan-sexuality has revealed that there is no sharp binary divide between people who experience exclusively homosexual or heterosexual attraction. Some people clearly undergo a change in their “sexual orientation” as they experience a change in their predominant desires over the course of their life. Some people clearly experience exclusively same-sex attraction.

The Bible explains this as being the result of living in a fallen world under the judgement of God. Romans 1 describes how humanity rejected God and refused to worship him as he rightly deserves, with the result that God gave humanity over to the ruling power of sin. Men and women experienced, and were mastered by, sinful desires, including sinful sexual desires. Paul identified the “unnatural lusts” of same-sex attraction as one of these desires (Romans 1:26-27), but the context of the passage makes clear that this is only a specific example of the way that mankind has been subjected to the ruling power of sin - he lists a wide range of other sinful desires that afflict humanity, from heterosexual sexual impurity (Romans 1:24) right down to gossiping to harm other people’s reputation (Romans 1:29).

Romans 1 does not say that individuals who experience same-sex attraction are experiencing these desires as divine punishment for their specific sins. Rather they experience a specific manifestation of the more general way in which God has subjected the whole of humanity to sin. To be a human being is to be afflicted by sinful temptations because we are fallen people, it is just that our personal experience of temptation varies.

Temptation is not the same as sin

It is also vital to a biblical understanding to grasp that sin and temptation are not the same and that individuals are not guilty before God merely because they experience temptation. Temptation only becomes sin when it is carried into action in our minds or bodies, as James makes clear in his letter (James 1:15). A Christian who experiences temptation is not required to repent of being tempted. The proper response to temptation is resistance. Jesus himself was tempted in every way as we are and yet was perfectly sinless because he resisted temptation perfectly and completely (Hebrews 4:15).

It follows from this that the very idea of “conversion therapy” is flawed because the Bible does not know of the category of a gay identity from which one can be converted. Rather the Bible recognises the reality of homosexual temptations, which might lead to homosexual actions (whether in the mind or the body). The question is not whether Christians can be “converted” but the degree to which converted Christians can be set free to resist temptations.

Can same-sex attracted Christians resist temptation?

The book of Romans begins by asserting the human condition under sin and then declares the glorious good news that those who put their faith and trust in Jesus can be set free from the ruling power of sin in their lives. Jesus has died in our place to bear the wrath of God in our place so that we can be declared righteous in his eyes (Romans 3:21-26).

However, justification, glorious as it is, is not the whole of the story. By faith, we are united with Christ in his death and resurrection, so that we are free to live a new life (Romans 6:4). We have been set free from the ruling power of sin and are enabled to resist and reject the sinful desires we experience by the power of the indwelling Holy Spirit (Romans 6:11-14). Paul describes this as mortification, and what mortification does is to prevent the sinful desires (which are the temptations we experience) from being carried into bodily action (Romans 7:4-6; 8:1-17).

It is vitally important to understand that we are not promised that we will be set free from temptation altogether, whether that temptation consists of homosexual, heterosexual, or other sinful desires. Even though we have been united to Christ, on this side of the grave we remain in our fallen human bodies, which give rise to sinful desires.

There is a battle between our fallen flesh, and the desires it produces, and the new life of the indwelling Spirit, who gives us new desires to love and obey God in all holiness (cf Galatians 5:13-26). The essence of the Christian life is to fight the battle between these competing desires, which will last until we die and are liberated forever from our fallen flesh. When we are raised it will be with a glorious resurrection body that experiences no temptations at all.

In thinking about the Christian life, Christians have characteristically fallen into one of two equal and opposite dangers:

  • The belief that sin remains so powerful in our lives that even after conversion we cannot resist the desires of the flesh and will continue to fall into sin.
  • The belief that after conversion we can be so set free from sin that we no longer experience temptation at all.

The truth is rather different. We continue to experience temptation because we are still living in our fallen bodies that are part of this current age under the judgement of God. However, we also belong to the age to come and are empowered to resist these fleshly desires by the indwelling Spirit. The Christian life is a fierce and constant battle against temptation, but it is not a futile gesture akin to “Custer’s Last Stand” – courageous, noble, but destined to end in defeat.

To what degree does the Bible promise deliverance from temptation and sin?

When these biblical principles are understood the very concept of “conversion therapy” is seen to be a chimaera, and ought to be rejected by all evangelicals. It is a category mistake.

The Bible does not promise that those who experience same-sex temptations will be delivered from them when they put their faith and trust in Christ. In God’s mercy, some people who experience same-sex attraction may find that this temptation is much reduced (or even removed altogether) when they trust in Christ and live by the Spirit, but this is never promised, and empirical evidence would suggest that it is rarely the case.

In any event, if they are freed from experiencing same-sex temptations there will be other temptations that take their place as the front line of the spiritual battle against the flesh. More ordinarily, those who experience same-sex attraction will continue to be tempted in this way. In some cases, the strength of the temptation may even become stronger, and the battle fiercer, as the flesh responds to any attempts at mortification.

The gospel does not offer conversion from a homosexual sexual orientation, because such a thing does not exist. What it does offer is the freedom to resist sexual temptation, whether heterosexual or homosexual, so that we use our bodies in holiness for righteousness, rather than to indulge the flesh (or “sinful nature”). The gospel, experienced as mortification by the power of the Spirit, promises victory over temptation.

This is exactly what the Christians in Corinth experienced. Prior to their conversion to Christ, they had engaged in homosexual acts, but now they had ceased to do. They had previously been “adulterers” and “men who had sex with men”, but no longer. When Paul says “that is what some of you were” (1 Corinthians 6:10), he is not saying that those who had engaged in homosexual acts underwent a conversion of their “sexual orientation” from homosexual to heterosexual, any more than that those who had been adulterers underwent some change of their sexual orientation. In both cases, he means that they no longer acted in these sinful ways because they resisted temptation.

Prayer is vital to fighting temptation

In this spiritual battle against temptation, whether heterosexual or homosexual, prayer is vital, whether personal or with other believers. Prayer is the way that Jesus fought his battle against temptation in the wilderness and the Garden of Gethsemane, and he urged his disciples to “watch and pray so that you do not fall into temptation” (Matthew 26:45).

The Ozanne Foundation is wrong to try to outlaw private prayer and prayer with other believers which helps those struggling with same-sex attraction to resist temptation. This is the essence of the Christian life.

Rather than being a “conversion therapy”, the gospel message of prayer and mortification in the power of the Spirit will enable believers struggling with same-sex attraction to resist carrying their temptations into mental lust or physical action.

For some, they will be able to enter into heterosexual marriages despite also battling same-sex attraction. For others, it will mean living a life of faithful celibacy and sexual abstinence. Many Christians, whether homosexual or heterosexual, will have to live a life of celibacy, for example, the numerous Christian women for who there is no available male believer to marry.

These are the true heroes of the Christian faith, living the victorious Christian life. They battle against temptation and keep themselves from sin. The gospel is not for them a “conversion therapy” but it is the power to live a godly life, looking ahead to the hope of the new creation when we will finally be freed forever.

The gospel is good news for all struggling with temptation

The Ozanne Foundation has rightly exposed appalling pastoral practices that ought to be rejected because they are utterly unbiblical. However, at the same time it rejects the truly biblical teaching that the gospel is able to free people from having to live to indulge their sinful temptations.

We need to develop truly biblical, compassionate, and honest pastoral care for those who are struggling with same-sex attraction. We must not promise the false hope that they will be delivered from these temptations altogether. Rather we must assure them that in the gospel, because of all they have in Christ, they can fight the battle to resist temptation with the confidence of victory. We need to help and encourage them to mortify the desires of their flesh and celebrate the freedom that this brings.

This is great news for those who, in a fallen world, must battle against same-sex attraction. But more than that, it is good news for all Christians. Even though our specific temptations may be different, we are all at the front line of a vicious battle against our fallen flesh and the desires it produces. It is only our culture that has begun to treat same-sex attraction as a unique and different category. We need to reject such sin “exceptionalism” and rejoice that, whatever our personal temptations, Christ is the one who has set us free to resist them.

As Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 10:13:

"No temptation has overtaken you except what is common to mankind. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can endure it."

The promised "way out" is not deliverance from the temptation, but the power to overcome it and endure in faithful obedience. Such resistance/endurance is the very essence of the Christian life for every Christian.

This article was first published on john-stevens.com.

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