Pastoral care for homosexuality

A protest by proponents of gay marriage in Boston. If ‘sexual orientation’ is a flawed concept, should we be constructing laws or civil rights categories upon it? (REUTERS/Jessica Rinaldi)

Mario Bergner, March 2006

Our most commonly asked question at Redeemed Life Ministries is, ‘How can I help someone who is struggling with homosexuality?’ My first response is to ask a few questions: ‘Is the person struggling a Christian? Has he or she been baptized, regenerated and converted in Jesus Christ?’ If the answer is, ‘No, they are not a Christian’, then the primary need is not to address their homosexuality, but to introduce them to the Great Physician himself, Jesus. The message of the Gospel is not, ‘Jesus loves you and wants to change your homosexuality.’ It is John 3:16, ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.’ If available, I suggest they attend the nearest Alpha course or I evangelize them myself.

If the answer is, ‘Yes, they are a Christian’, then I ask, ‘Do they want to change their homosexuality?’ They may have wanted to change their homosexuality, but searched for help, found none and lost hope. Others may want to change their homosexuality, but have not bothered looking for help because they did not know such help is available. Still others do not want to change their homosexuality and believe they can marry immorality with Christianity.

Factors influencing change from homosexuality

When someone decides they want to change their homosexuality and comes to us for help, we look at various factors that may influence their healing process. First, we try to ascertain the unique construction of their same-sex attractions. There are various forms of homosexuality. It is not a singular condition shared by all people with same-sex attraction. It is better to think about homosexuality in the plural, homosexualities. Therefore, for each person seeking change we try to understand the particulars of their personal struggle. Are they over-identified with the other sex? Are they under-identified with the same sex? Have they been abused?

Second, we take into consideration five aspects of the person’s immediate life situation.

1. Have they crossed the boundary into immoral sexual behaviour? If yes, they need to process past homosexual activity as well as rebuild their moral boundaries through repentance and forgiveness. If no, they will not have the added issue of processing past homosexual experiences and rebuilding moral boundaries.

2.What is their age? For example, if someone comes for help by their early twenties, they seem to progress quicker into heterosexual relating. One reason for this may be that puberty, on an emotional level, seems to extend into the early twenties. Sexual identity formation is more pliable during puberty and is therefore more easily redirected. However, we see people of all ages come free from homosexuality.

3. Do they self-identify as gay? They need to learn to renounce that identity, disengage from the erroneous idea of an ‘orientation’ and see themselves as simply a male or female person with homosexual thoughts, feelings, desires, and sometimes behaviours. At Redeemed Life Ministries we find that in a new environment of freedom and truth it is possible for sexuality to go in a new direction, making falling in love with someone of the opposite sex something that is within reach.

4. Are they part of a supportive local parish? Not everyone in the parish need know of a person’s struggle. But, Christian fellowship and a shared common life are central for anyone seeking healing.

5. Would they benefit from psychiatric or psychological care? Proper diagnosis and treatment of psychological and psychiatric conditions can be a critical factor affecting change from homosexuality and other sexual struggles. Until properly attended to, there may be a discouraging pattern of reverting into the pleasures of sin to avoid the suffering related to these untreated conditions.

There are many factors that affect the course of healing from homosexuality. But ascertaining the unique construction of an individual’s homosexuality and consideration of their immediate life situation is a good place to start. From there, we attend to other spiritual and psychological issues related to the person’s homosexuality.

Pastoral care, science and psychology

Pastoral care for homosexuality can utilize science and psychology. Both scientific research and treatment have provided encouragement for people seeking to change their homosexuality. Recent scientific research shows homosexuality can be changed. In May 2001, at the annual meeting of the American Psychiatric Association, Dr. Robert Spitzer, of Columbia University in New York City, announced the findings of his study of over 200 people who had successfully overcome homosexuality. In an article posted on the website for the National Association for the Research and Treatment of Homosexuality, he is quoted, ‘Like most psychiatrists, I thought that homosexual behaviour could be resisted, but sexual orientation could not be changed. I now believe that’s untrue. Some people can and do change.’[1] Back in 1973, Dr. Spitzer was an instrumental figure in removing homosexuality from the American Psychiatric Association’s diagnostic manual of mental disorders.

Science has been helpful in developing medical treatments for psychiatric conditions that may interlock with homosexuality and other sexual struggles. These conditions may include bipolar disorder, anxiety, major depression and substance abuse. For some, treatment through medication coupled with counselling and pastoral care has provided incredible breakthroughs in the healing process.

But scientific research has been unsuccessful in proving that homosexuality is an innate biological condition. Dr. Jeffery Satinover’s book, Homosexuality and the Politics of Truth (1996), shows how the goal of these studies to find a single biological feature to account for homosexuality, such as the ‘gay gene’, is quickly brought into question by other scientists. Most researchers agree that human sexual behaviour with its many expressions is complex and multiply determined. They stress that a single biological feature cannot determine or cause sexual behaviour of any sort.[2]

Satinover documents that psychotherapists who treat homosexuality report success rates ranging from 47 per cent on the low end to 73 per cent on the high end, ‘where success is defined as considerable to complete change.’ (p.186) Psychological treatments for homosexuality address many of the same issues. They all begin with a central understanding of sexual identity formation within the home environment. Then they address fears and dynamics of relating to members of both sexes.

There are numerous Christian ministries that offer help for those who desire to change their homosexuality. Most of these ministries utilize psychological understandings in helping people come out of homosexuality. Exodus International (www.exodus-international.org) is a coalition of over 100 groups worldwide that minister to people seeking change. Additionally, many Christian pastoral care-givers have written books, developed programmes and offer conferences that benefit men and women overcoming homosexuality. Rev. Andy Comiskey, author of Pursuing Sexual Wholeness (1990) founded Desert Stream Ministries (www.desertstream.org) and developed the Living Waters programme. Leanne Payne, author of The Broken Image (1982, reprinted 1986), founded Pastoral Care Ministries (www.leannepayne.org) and gives week-long conferences on restoring personal wholeness through healing prayer. And I wrote Setting Love In Order (1995), founded Redeemed Life Ministries (www.redeemedlives.org) and developed the Redeemed Lives programme.

Some of my journey out of homosexuality

My own journey out of homosexuality and into heterosexuality included addressing both spiritual dynamics and psychological issues. Spiritually, my healing from homosexuality came as my conversion to Jesus deepened and I learned to repent of my sin. I first met the love of Jesus at age six in the care of Roman Catholic nuns who lived in my neighbourhood. When I met Jesus personally at age 14 through the evangelical preaching of Leighton Ford, I was also experiencing the emergence of homosexual attraction. I searched for help for overcoming homosexuality, but was unsuccessful. By the time I was eighteen, I lost all hope of finding help for healing, went to university and entered into the gay lifestyle in New York City.

In my early twenties, I had several immunity breakdowns and landed in a hospital room in Boston with the possible diagnosis of AIDS looming over my head. While on my hospital bed in fear and despair, I prayed to the Lord Jesus. He appeared to me saying, ‘I want to heal your whole person, not just your sexuality. Choose.’ In response to his initiative, I chose him. I recovered fully from my symptoms and was never diagnosed with AIDS and later tested HIV negative. The turning point in my life came when, a few months later, I repented of homosexuality and received the forgiveness of sins. My spiritual healing from homosexuality continued as I learned to forgive others and resist temptation. I needed to forgive others for how their sins had negatively shaped me. Additionally, I had to learn how to suffer like a Christian in order to resist the temptations to take back homosexual sin.

The Lord used psychological insights to address my lack of affirmation in my identity as a man and fears related to men and women. I came to see how I misperceived manhood in myself. I grew to accept the unique ways God has created me to be a man and masculine. Through healthy friendships with men, I began to accept myself as a man among men. I had to press through my fear of relating to both men and women. The many godly men and women I met in my local church showed me a new model for male and female relationships. Also helpful was the love and acceptance of fellow students, faculty and staff at Trinity Episcopal School For Ministry in Pennsylvania where I studied for the priesthood. Of special help was the prayerful counsel of Leanne Payne and the many Christian leaders who have served on her team.

As I continued growing in the Lord so did my desire for marriage and family. Concurrently, so did my attraction to women. I was abstinent for twelve years before I married. In 1996 I married Nancy and since then we have had five children. Today, my growth into manhood includes growing as a husband and father. Through the Lord’s grace and the loving input of faithful Christians, I have learned of the areas of weakness in my soul that continually require his healing presence. Along with St. Paul, I have had to face a thorn in my flesh. Although he asked the Lord to remove it three times, three times the Lord refused to remove it. Instead the Lord said to St. Paul, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ (2 Corinthians 12:9). I may always be weak and vulnerable in my sexuality. But through his power working in me, I can be obedient.

Teaching, preaching and healing

As Jesus’ disciples we are to effectively minister to all persons including those struggling with homosexuality, through teaching, preaching and healing as attested to in Matthew 9:35, ‘Then Jesus went through all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, and preaching the good news of the kingdom, and healing every disease and sickness.’ Matthew 9:35 is a bridge between the first and second halves of Matthew’s Gospel. The first half is about Jesus teaching, preaching, and healing. The second half is about Jesus’ disciples teaching, preaching and healing.

This three-fold order of teaching, preaching and healing can be applied to homosexuality. We are to teach and practise a moral and pastoral theology that upholds the viability of change from homosexuality leading to abstinence, holy celibacy or possibly marriage. Spiritually, our message needs to state that homosexuality is but one of the many sins Jesus died to redeem us from. Psychologically, our message should include that in the majority of cases homosexuality can be changed. We are to preach the Good News evangelistically leading to regeneration and deeper conversion in Jesus Christ. We are to minister healing and sexual redemption in Christ, not only for homosexuality, but also for all sexual issues through effective pastoral care.

Finally, as Christians we must remember the Lord has successfully helped people overcome homosexuality since the days of the Apostles. In 1 Corinthians 6:9–10 (NIV), St. Paul gives a catalogue list of sins common to the human condition including two forms of homosexual behaviour listed in verse 9, malakoi translated ‘male prostitutes’ and arsenokoitai  translated ‘homosexual offenders’. But, in 1 Corinthians 6:11 these encouraging words are given, ‘And such were some of you, but you were washed, you were justified, you were sanctified in the name of the Lord Jesus, and by the Spirit of our God.’ Notice the use of the past tense, were. St. Paul is clearly stating that some of the Corinthians came free from homosexuality by a three-fold process. First, through being washed (baptismal imagery implying the forgiveness of sins). Second, through being justified (being declared not guilty of our sin before God through the atoning work of Christ). Third, through sanctification (the ongoing gracious work of the Holy Spirit to grow us in holiness). When properly equipped, we too can extend the same process of washing, justification and sanctification to all who desire freedom from homosexuality.

How do we answer our most common question, ‘How can I help someone who is struggling with homosexuality?’ Make sure they are regenerated and converted to Jesus Christ. Urge them to integrate into a supportive local parish. If available, encourage them to participate in the nearest Living Waters or Redeemed Lives programmes. And, should the need arise, lead them to find the help a good psychologist or psychiatrist can provide. Jesus forgives the sin of homosexuality. Psychologists who treat homosexuality tell us most people who want to change their homosexuality can successfully do so. And, with God’s grace, we can all live holy lives.

Living Waters programmes are available in the UK; to learn more visit http://www.living-waters-uk.org/.

This article is based on a presentation Rev. Mario Bergner, Director of Redeemed Life Ministries in Chicago, gave at The Future of Anglicanism conference in Oxford, England in 2002 and a similar talk he gave at a workshop on sexual ethics sponsored by the Jubilee Centre in December 2005. Rev. Bergner emphasizes four points that are critical to our apologetic and pastoral response to homosexuality: (a) it is possible to find substantial freedom from homosexuality; (b) it is, therefore, damaging to speak of sexual ‘orientation’ as if it were a permanently fixed condition or to label a person according to their sexual attractions; (c) it is more appropriate to speak of homosexualities (plural) because the causes and experience of same-sex attraction are so diverse that a single definition is notoriously elusive; (d) the church needs to become a safe, not threatening, place for all people who struggle, including those who struggle with homosexually.

[1] http://narth.com/doc/spitzer2.html

[2] W. Byne and B. Parsons, ‘Human sexual orientation: the biological theories reappraisesd’, Archives of General Psychiatry, 1993, 50:228–259.

 

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Category: News and Reviews

March, 2006

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