Leading theologians from the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) are making news this week for again speaking out against ex-gay therapy, also known as reparative or conversion therapy. But what these theologians have been saying at the annual Association of Certified Biblical Counselors (ACBC) conference about how to respond to LGBT people belies the supposed progress of rejecting these harmful, ineffective treatments.
On Monday, Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (SBTS), told reporters that homosexuality cannot be turned off like a switch. “In the case of many people struggling with this particular sin,” he said, “we do not believe that some kind of superficial answer whereby they can turn a switch from being attracted to persons of the same sex to being attracted to persons of the opposite sex.”
But then he added, “By God’s grace, that might happen over time as a sign of God’s work within the life of that individual. But … for many, many people struggling with these patterns of sin, it will be a lifelong battle.”
In other words, for Southern Baptists — the largest Protestant body in the United States — the theology hasn’t changed. Homosexuality is still a sin, and gay people are still expected to renounce their sexuality, even if they spend their whole life “struggling” in that “battle.” The result, a celibate ex-gay life, if not a man-woman marriage, is the same. They’re just skipping the therapy step. Transgender people are expected to find the same kind of change through faith.
Mohler’s position isn’t new; he made the same rejection of reparative therapy at a conference on homosexuality last year hosted by the SBC’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC). And at this year’s ACBC conference, like last year’s ERLC conference, the rest of the messaging contradicts this progress by promoting “change” and highlighting “change” narratives.
Even without therapy, all of the talk is about “change.”
In a promotional video for this week’s conference, Dr. Heath Lambert, executive director of ACBC, describes gay people — always referred to as people who are “struggling” — as being trapped behind a locked door. “These people desperately want to change, but they find themselves unable to change after years of effort and numerous attempts.” Acknowledging the conflicting messages presented by society, Lambert says, “They need help getting through the locked door to change.” ACBC, he boasts, “is committed to providing a place to go for help when everybody else says that change is impossible.”
This message that “change” is possible was particularly evident in Tuesday’s keynote address by Stuart W. Scott, associate professor of biblical counseling at SBTS. Describing the Bible as a “command,” not an “invitation,” Scott spoke in generalities about all of the ways Christians can change to suggest that changing homosexuality is no different. “To say a person is a gay Christian is an affront to the Gospel,” he explained, “or a Christian alcoholic or a proud Christian.”
At one point, Scott suggested, “You don’t break habits, you replace them.” On several occasions, he referred to “coming out of a past of same-sex attraction,” and he ended his keynote by showing an interview with a woman who apparently did just that. She used to be a lesbian — which led her parents to sever their relationship with her — but later she “left the gay lifestyle” and everyone got along again.
Also on hand to speak at ACBC was Rosaria Butterfield, who tells her own story about leaving her lesbianism behind. She never explains exactly how finding Jesus actually changed her sexuality, but her story included relationships with men before she came out as a lesbian, and she never acknowledges the possibility she could have been bi all along. Butterfield’s narrative, which she shared at the ERLC conference last year as well, reinforces the notion that change is possible, with or without therapy.
When Southern Baptist leaders first started promoting this new messaging at last year’s ERLC conference, it was couched in messaging that families should not reject their gay children. This commitment to keeping vulnerable LGBT youth off the street is admirable, but these theologians continue to struggle in providing any alternative. They still believe homosexuality should be rejected and condemned, but their prescription is just more Biblical devotion, and they don’t really address how to respond when these young people refuse to subscribe to such abuse.
Rejecting transgender people’s identities is not “negotiable.”
A day-long ACBC preconference held Monday on transgender issues demonstrated just how harmful their beliefs still are. Like some of the messaging shared at last year’s ERLC conference, Southern Baptist leaders still reject “transgenderism” as a disorder that can be fixed through faith in Christ — similarly always referring to trans people as “struggling” and “distressed.” Denny Burk, the SBC’s chief opponent of trans equality, claimed “the grace of Jesus is sufficient” to address gender identity conflict. Trans people should “reshape their thinking to conform to the word of God,” he said during his keynote Monday.
Addressing a question about if a child insists on embracing their transgender identity, James Hamilton, a professor of biblical theology at SBTS, answered that parents have no responsibility for continuing to support them. It’s the transgender child, he insisted, who severed the relationship with their family. Mohler similarly suggested that it’s polite to respect the name and gender transgender strangers may use when introducing themselves, but that doesn’t mean parents should respect the name and gender their own children assert. “No,” he asserted, there is never a justifiable reason to affirm transgender kids’ “confusion.” These things aren’t “negotiable,” he said.
Owen Strachan, a professor at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, spoke at length about the importance of imposing gender norms on children. “We need to steer them, we need to coach them,” he explained. He also reinforced conservative fears that transgender people are somehow dangerous to others. Noting that some states have protections against discrimination on the basis of gender identity, including in schools, he opined, “My little girl can be in a restroom and a transitioning child can go in there with her.” He didn’t say what would happen then, but his insinuation was that his daughter would somehow be at risk.
Condemning conversion therapies doesn’t change the fact that Southern Baptists are still teaching that LGBT youth should be condemned and rejected unless they change. The only difference is that they now expect that change to come through “Biblical counseling” instead of psychological therapy. As a recent study found, family acceptance is the biggest factor for determining positive outcomes for LGBT youth.