How is Biblical Counseling Different from Conversion Therapy?

The following is a transcript of the Association of Certified Biblical CounselorsTruth In Love podcast entitled, “The Unbiblical Nature of Reparative Therapy” (Episode #348) and is reproduced here with permission.


Dale Johnson: This week on the podcast I am thrilled to have my predecessor, and one who’s very familiar to this particular podcast because he started this podcast during his tenure as the Executive Director of ACBC, Dr. Heath Lambert, who’s now the senior pastor at First Baptist Church of Jacksonville, Florida. You guys are familiar with the works that he has put out, his Theology of Biblical CounselingFinally Free: Fighting for Purity with the Power of GraceThe Biblical Counseling Movement After Adams. He’s currently working on some new resources as well. Heath, I’m so grateful for you. You guys know Lauren, his wife, and he’s the father of three children. I’m so grateful for his work at ACBC. I inherited a wonderful place to work and to lead.

Today, Heath, our task is to talk about this issue of reparative therapy. So, welcome back, I should say, to the podcast and I’m really excited to talk about this topic.

Heath Lambert: Hey, I’m glad to be back. As I always say to you in front of people, to your face, and behind your back, I’m very very grateful for you. I think you’re doing a great job and I’m thankful to be here talking about an important topic.

Dale Johnson: Yeah, this is critical. So, guys, just so that you’re aware of what’s happening, we’ve talked about this on the podcast before, it’s the issue of reparative therapy or what’s known some in some circles as conversion therapy. There is some confusion, Heath, and this is what we need to get on the table. We need to make this very clear. You’ve written about this in the past, but there’s still some confusion about this idea of conversion therapy. So first of all, I want you to talk about what in the world is conversion or reparative therapy? And then we’re going to get into how we think about this relative to biblical counselors. So tell us a little bit about, what are we even talking about in relation to reparative therapy?

Heath Lambert: Yeah, so when we talk about reparative therapy, we are talking about a specific, therapeutic, secular intervention that is meant to help people who struggle with homosexuality, particularly male homosexuals. It is meant to help them resolve their homosexual feelings and to begin to act out in heterosexual ways. It was really pioneered by a guy named Joseph Nicolosi who created the National Association of Research and Therapy of Homosexuality or NARTH. I think it was the co-founder of that, maybe. Nicolosi has died in recent years. I’m not exactly sure when he died. But the therapy that he pioneered, championed through his life was reparative therapy.

The way I boil everything down is, if you can understand three realities about reparative therapy, you’ll understand the basic gist of it. So first of all, they are identifying a problem. That’s the first part. They’re identifying a problem, and the problem as reparative therapy sees it is to explain the origins of homosexuality as being grounded in a relational break between parents and their children, specifically between dads and their boys. So, the way they think of the problem is that there is distance between a dad and a son. The son, feeling distance from his father, develops a relationship of closeness with his mother, begins to identify with his mother instead of, as we would hope, a boy identifying with his dad, and as he grows in closeness with his mother and in distance from his father, Nicolosi’s phrase is, the exotic becomes erotic. So, just as a boy growing close to his dad begins to have erotic feelings for the distant woman and there the exotic becomes erotic, so a boy growing up close to his mom and distant from his dad, the exotic male becomes the erotic. So, boys begin to, according to reparative therapy, envy the masculine bodies and relationships with masculine men that they were denied in their close relationship with their dad. They honestly believe that homosexual activity is a reparative effort to repair the breach between the father-son relationship. So that’s the problem.

Then the second part is the process. Every counseling intervention has a process and for reparative therapists, they seek to repair the damage between the father-son relationship with therapy. This is not what reparative therapists say, but I think listeners will understand what I mean if they say that reparative therapy becomes a sort of therapeutic re-parenting. You enter into a platonic–It’s supposed to be platonic. It’s not always. That’s part of the problem. But you’re supposed to enter into a platonic relationship with your same-sex therapist and as you rediscover those emotions and develop closeness, that breach that existed between you and your father is repaired, and so reparative therapy. The goal of reparative therapy, the purpose of it–So you’ve got problem, process, and purpose.

Dale Johnson: Look at that Baptist alliteration. That was beautiful.

Heath Lambert: I know. The purpose of it is to realize your sexual desires in heterosexuality. So reparative therapists, like Nicolosi and others, are very, very clear that as the therapeutic relationship works itself out, as those tensions are resolved, heterosexual desires will be a natural result of the therapy. And actually, they don’t judge therapy to be successful until those heterosexual desires are in place. So that’s, in a nutshell, reparative therapy.

Dale Johnson: It’s important for our listeners to pay attention to the language that Heath is using to describe this. If you’ve studied any secular psychology, you’ll understand the roots of Freud, Freudian language rooted in oedipal complex, those ideas, even Adlerian therapy as well. So those things are important.

Now, one of the questions that a lot of people have is, how did this gain traction in the evangelical world? Because it really did, in the 1960s and the 1970s, gain a lot of traction. Part of that has to do with the DSM having homosexuality as a disorder and that’s what they’re trying to repair. So, you know, churches–this is why we talk a lot about the importance of the way we label things because when we label homosexuality, for example, as a disorder, we start to look to things like reparative therapy to say, well, it’s fixing what we think the problem is. We’re going to make them heterosexual. Listen, part of the reason that we would say very clearly that we’re against this type of therapy is because of what it produced, the means that sometimes reparative therapy takes. The techniques that they take to accomplish this goal of heterosexuality is quite barbaric at times and is very problematic, and that’s why you see the outcry against it and, in many ways, rightfully so.

So there are miscategorizations all over the place here, but you know, the primary question for us–and we could dive into the history of it at another time–but the primary question for us is, where are we at with reparative therapy as biblical counselors and then how is this different or distinguished from biblical counseling?

Heath Lambert: Yeah, so this is funny. You know, you were talking about how we kind of got in bed together, evangelicals and reparative therapists, because, on the surface of it, it seems like there’s a lot in common. Reparative therapists think that homosexuality is bad. They think it’s bad in a different way than Christians think it’s bad. They think it’s bad in a more maladaptive, it’s not going to help you, kind of thing. Christians think it’s bad because it disobeys the Law of God. And they both believe they can change. The mechanisms of change are very, very different, but Christians were just happy to have a partner, back a couple of decades ago, with some people who were agreeing that this was bad and agreeing that people could change. When you put that together with the relative ignorance of every Christian–no disrespect to anybody who’s listening, but Christians just tend to be ignorant about how to help people with complex problems. So it’s like, hey, there’s this set of resources out here. They agree it’s bad. They want to help. I’ll read that because I don’t know what else I’m doing. People just kind of stumbled into it and were happy to have a partner, but that ignorance notwithstanding, reparative therapy really is at odds with the Bible.

I remember when we were doing the ACBC conference back in 2015 on homosexuality and I had never seen anything like it. There were hundreds of protesters out on the street. There were news helicopters and news trucks. Next thing I knew, because it was on the campus of Southern Seminary, I was being told I had to go do a press conference with Al Mohler and I’m like, what in the world is going on? I walk into this room and the Washington Post is there and New York Times is there, and all of these cameras are there, and I’m going, we’re having a conference about homosexuality being wrong. How is this in the news? I was in USA Today because I was saying homosexuality is wrong. I’m like, okay, something has gone wrong here. I remember, as I was answering questions from the reporters at that news conference, they could not grasp–they were saying that this is reparative therapy and I was saying, no, it’s not. They were saying, yes it is. I said, no, it’s not. And the way I explained it–and at least the reporter from The Washington Post seemed like she got it when I said it this way–we’re talking about three different responses to homosexuality.

One response is the popular secular response that says, homosexuality is okay. Whatever you want to do, do it. That’s fine. Be who you want to be. Then there is the response of reparative therapy that says, hey, homosexuality is abnormal. You’re doing with the human body what it wasn’t designed to do. It’s not going to work out well. People are hurting. They want help. Let’s come up with some strategies that can help them. And then there is the response of the Bible. There is the Christian and Evangelical response. There’s the biblical counseling response, that says homosexuality is a sin against a holy God. It’s not up to your decision whether you would like to do it or not. God says you must not do it. Change is therefore required, and change is possible, but not by therapeutic intervention. Change is possible by a dispensation of grace from the living Christ and we are told in the Bible how we can lay hold of that grace through the sufficient Scriptures that tell us how to change.

Those are two very, very different things. So we would say, the problem is not just that this is maladaptive. We would say, the problem is that this is sin. The process, we would say, involves the crucial intervention of Jesus Christ to change you and involves laying hold of specific Scriptures to put off sin and put on righteousness. We would say the goal is not–and this is where people can also be confused–the goal isn’t heterosexuality. In the Bible, if you have general heterosexual desires, that’s identified as lust. The sexual desire that is good is when you have sexual desire for your opposite-sex spouse in marriage. So what we would say the goal is for Christians is not heterosexuality. We would say the big goal is Christlikeness and righteousness. Underneath that, we would say it is chastity so that you are putting off all sinful desires until you are in marriage and then the only desires that you’re putting on are the desires for your opposite-sex spouse.

Dale Johnson: That’s a huge distinction and one that needs to be made and clarified over and over and over again. And for those of you who are listening, please pay careful attention to how Heath distinguishes those things because what’s happening in the culture at large is the idea of conversion therapy or reparative therapy. Those are the two ways that you’ll hear this language promoted. The definition of it is being expanded beyond what Heath described at the very beginning, as a therapeutic process that was largely utilized in the 1970s, 1980s, 1990s, early 2000’s even, that’s been dismissed by the APA and rightfully so. There were some barbaric practices. But it is not something that is Christian. So we need to distinguish that.

Now, why are we talking about this the last couple of weeks on the podcast? Why did I want Heath to talk about this issue? We’re having an ordinance that has come up in West Lafayette, Indiana, and we talked about that and the language of it, and this is not necessarily foreign to what’s happening in some areas in some statutes in different places, in different states, different municipalities, but there is one distinction here. The larger conversation, which we’ve talked about, is–like Senate Bill 11-72 in California, which talks about limiting for licensed professional counselors, sexual orientation change efforts for those who are minors. If they are licensed, you cannot engage in sexual orientation change efforts. This is against the practice of conversion therapy. It’s understandable. I get that. People are fighting about the constitutionality of it. But they always leave a clause of non-licensed religious providers. That includes us as biblical counselors. We intentionally, convictionally make that decision not to submit to the state. West Lafayette is including, as a part of their ordinance, a statement against those who are non-licensed to engage in any type of sexual orientation change efforts. Heath, this is a big deal. We need to pay attention to what’s going on here.

What do you think is driving some of the contemporary measures to legislate against this issue of reparative therapy, and why are we seeing this definition sort of expand out of its sort of therapeutic cocoon, broader to include people like us who are just trying to give a moral disposition from the Bible?

Heath Lambert: Yeah, so it’s all about coercion and it is all about coercing convictions. Here’s the problem that homosexuals have. It’s the problem that every sinner has. It’s the problem that transgender people have. It’s the problem that adulterers have. It’s the problem that liars have. Your guilt thoughts accuse you. Romans 2. You can’t fight it. You can say there’s no God. You can say you can do what you want, but sooner or later, in your heart of hearts, when you’re lying there in bed at night and it’s dark and quiet, you know. That’s just what the Bible says. So these people’s guilty hearts accuse them.

What we’re seeing is, the sexual revolution is just having its moment right now. We’re just living in a sex moment and I hope we’re on the back end of it, but I really don’t know, but we have been for a while and will be for at least the next little bit in a sex moment. It will pass because you can’t live like this forever. It’s just a question of how bad it gets before it passes. But the reason for the whole thing is, my guilty thoughts accuse me and I have to do everything I can to help myself believe the lie. This, by the way, is the reason for gender reassignment surgery. You can make people call you “he”. You can make people call you by a name you weren’t born with. You can wear clothes of the opposite sex, but when it’s time to take a shower and you see yourself in the mirror, you know the truth, so you’ve got to bury it down deep.

Well, here’s the problem. Christians don’t play ball. So, we have to silence dissent because I need to believe the lie. I don’t like my guilty thoughts accusing me and I think that if I can just shut these people up, it’ll go away. Now, all of that wicked evil desire masquerades under the philosophy of, we want to protect kids. We don’t want to oppress kids. Here’s the thing, you’re fighting what you believe to be coercion with the worst kind of coercion. What I said for years, until we got to this point, is, if the state can coerce therapists about the kinds of conversations they can have when nobody is around and nobody is looking, then they will try to coerce Christians. That’s certainly true. I would appeal–I don’t know who all’s going to listen to this, but one of our arguments needs to be to the people who are pushing this legislation and to the people who are not just reparative therapists who we disagree with, and not just homosexuals who we disagree with. Everybody should be concerned about this display of government power in the private decisions of parents and pastors and young people, and in the private conversations of those people. If they can do it to us today, they will do it to you tomorrow and you will be sorry when there is a new sheriff in town.

Dale Johnson: What I pray happens is that pastors are awakened to some of this to recognize–listen if they’re going after what I talked about in the private ministry of the Word, they’re not going to keep the door shut from what I say in the pulpit at some point, right? So let’s just be aware of what’s going on here. Now, I do want to mention something I think is at least rather critical. This seems like a one-way street, right? So we’re going to talk about sexual orientation change efforts and they want to squelch certain voices. But here we are in the public school system where we’re allowing through sex education, at very young ages, this type of coercion into gender confusion. I mean, this is pretty crazy when we talk about limiting sexual orientation change efforts, but it only goes one way. I think Christians need to be wide awake on situations like this.

Now, here’s the deal. If you and I were just talking about this whole issue of reparative therapy and tons of pastors would be on board and they’re like, man, we see this clearly. This is really great. Yeah, we want to be biblical and we’re not just aiming at heterosexuality, because there’s just as much sin that’s involved there, and we’re not doing these barbaric practices. Yeah, we’re on board with that–Something funny happens when we’re talking about legislation and law. People get really afraid. So now I want you to help our pastors think through this when we’re talking about legal issues. How in the world do we as churches, individual Christians, or pastors, respond? How do pastors respond in leadership? How do churches respond collectively as body? How do we think about responding to these types of issues that are happening?

Heath Lambert: So first of all, I think we have to know when it’s time to perk up. You have to know when it’s time to speak up. And by the way, by the time these kinds of legislations are being proposed, it’s past time to do that. So this is just one of those fundamental strikes at the heart of what Christians are called to do. It strikes right at the heart of what the Bible says. This kind of thing does not stop–as you even pointed out–it doesn’t stop here. It’s going to go further and further. So this is time to speak up.

Then the question is, well, how do I do that? Well, there’s going to be a particular response for each and every different congregation, each and every different minister of the gospel. Some people are going to be influential on social media and be able to write articles. Some people are going to have relationships with people in city government and state government and federal government. Some people are going to have the ability to create petitions and to be able to lobby various and sundry groups. I mean, what you have to do is take stock of, okay, what is it within my power to do? What can I marshal my particular congregation to do? Where can I be influential? Everybody has got to do something.

I’ll even just say, when we had an ordinance similar to this, it’s not the exact same thing, but we had an ordinance similar to this that was passed in Jacksonville about four years ago, I think. The church had spent years fighting it. Honestly, in large part because of the efforts of the congregation I serve and because of other congregations, it was thwarted a couple of times. It did ultimately pass, I hate to admit, but it passed in a much weaker state with a lot more ability for Christians to be able to live with it. It still wasn’t great. I still wish it hadn’t passed, but if it hadn’t been for the intervention of Christians, it would have been a much different thing. So Christians really can make a difference on these kinds of things. They must make a difference.

The last thing I’ll say is, if you do lose on this, what we all have to remember–And I hope we don’t lose. We ought to fight not to lose. We ought to fight to win and we ought to not let up–But if the other side does win, and they’ve had some wins to boast about in the last couple of years, what you’ve got to do is not give up. You’ve got to keep preaching the Bible. You’ve got to keep doing what the Bible says at all cost. If, for example, an ordinance like this in West Lafayette would be passed–Well, if that happened in Jacksonville, our alarm would go off the next day. We’d come in. We’d do ministry of the gospel. We would meet with every teenager that every parent and our church wanted us to meet with, that wanted us to meet with them, and we would talk to them about what the Bible says the same way that we did before. And if that was frowned upon, we’d let them put the cuffs on us, ultimately. So we do need to be willing to suffer, but it’s much better if we can fight and win before that happens.

Dale Johnson: Hear hear, brother. I would say this, even as a corollary for our brothers and sisters who are north of our border in Canada fighting a similar issue that has already passed, we would say exactly that same thing. There’s a time to strategize, right? If we have it within the freedom of our country to pursue legal action if this were to be imposed, we should do that. Absolutely. We strategize to do that, but then there’s also time to stand. That’s exactly what you’re describing.

Sometimes strategy passes and we stand on the foundation of Scripture, and we keep doing morally what God commands and demands of us to do as we preach the good news of the gospel. And here we stand. So, brother, thank you for giving us some clarity on this. I think we need to be thinking about this and ways that we can get involved. We’re going to give you a couple of options in our show notes to be involved as well. Make sure that you join in on this fight. Be an aware believer of what’s going on and let’s fight for those freedoms to preach the gospel freely.

Dale JohnsonDale Johnson
Dale Johnson serves as the Executive Director of the Association of Certified Biblical Counselors. He is also the regular host of ACBC’s Truth in Love podcast.