February 19, 2010

Sexual Reorientation Therapy: An Orthodox Perspective

By Clark Carlton

This article evaluates the phenomenon of sexual reorientation therapy from the standpoint of Orthodox Christian theology. It is argued that homosexual desire is the product of the fall of mankind and cannot be considered “normal.” At the same time, however, reorientation therapies, whether secular or Christian, are inherently reductionistic and fail to address the underlying spiritual pathologies involved in homosexual desire (or any other deep-seated passion). The purpose of therapeia in the Orthodox Church is the psycho-somatic transfiguration of the whole person into the image of Christ, not merely the cessation of homosexual activity or the “reidentification” of one's “lifestyle.”


We are, so social conservatives tell us, in the midst of a “culture war,” and there is no public issue that sends more rhetorical lead flying than homosexuality. The year 2004 is a long way from the 1950s, with Ward and June Cleaver leading a traditional “nuclear family.” Much to the chagrin of Pat Buchanan and Cal Thomas, things that were once spoken of in hushed tones—if at all—are now public issues. Homosexuals are no longer willing to hide their identity and what is to them a basic fact of their lives; and social conservatives, both Christian and secular, can no longer pretend that homosexuals do not exist at every level of society. Americans have entered the twenty-first century pondering questions that would have been unimaginable to Ward and June: Should homosexuals be allowed to marry? Should they be allowed to serve openly in the armed forces, or even in the Boy Scouts? Should civil rights legislation be expanded to include “sexual orientation”? Or—and this is potentially the most explosive question of all—should homosexuals be offered the opportunity to change their orientation, to go “straight”?

Inasmuch as most of these questions are public policy issues that are to be decided either by the body politic or the courts, the historic position of the Christian Church on homosexuality is of little consequence for the general public. Regardless of the Church's view of the morality of homosexual acts, in a constitutional democracy such as ours, persons who identify themselves as homosexuals1 cannot be denied the basic civil rights guaranteed to all citizens. The question of reorientation therapy,2 however, is not only one that comes within the Church's purview; it is one that demands a response from the Church. This issue involves the determination of “normality” and the role of “therapy” in our modern culture.

I know of no one who suggests that homosexuals be forced into therapy against their will. All the literature that I have read explicitly states that desire for change is the crucial element in the success of reorientation therapy—so the question of the ethics of such therapy must turn on the propriety of the enterprise in and of itself. The dominant position of the secular therapeutic community is that such therapy is unethical because 1) it does not work, and 2) it may actually harm the patient. There is more to this approach, however. In its position statement on the issue, the American Psychiatric Association (APA) stated:

"Therefore, the American Psychiatric Association opposes any psychiatric treatment, such as “reparative” or “conversion” therapy which is based upon the assumption that homosexuality per se is a mental disorder or based upon thea priori assumption that the patient should change his/her homosexual orientation."3

A priori assumptions work both ways, however. This rejection of “conversion” therapy is clearly based on the a priori assumption that change is not possible, that homosexual orientation is in some sense “normal” for some people. In contrast to this presupposition, the position of the Orthodox Church in regard to homosexual activity is that homoerotic desire is the result of the fall of man and that homosexual activity is a sin.

Thus, Orthodoxy approaches the question from a position that is diametrically opposed to that of the secular therapeutic community. One might expect, therefore, a positive evaluation of reorientation therapies from an Orthodox perspective. This, however, is not the case. While the Orthodox would certainly agree with advocates of such therapy that homosexual desire is not natural and is curable—to deny this would be tantamount to denying the power of God—the nature of reorientation therapies is in many respects at variance with the Orthodox understanding of therapy. In short, in spite of whatever religious motivations and trappings that may be added to popular reorientation therapies, they remain fundamentally secular enterprises. From an Orthodox perspective, this, in and of itself, is enough to guarantee that genuine healing does not take place. In what follows I shall endeavor to explain this.


To understand the Orthodox Christian approach to the question of homosexuality, we must turn to the first chapter of Romans. To be sure, there are many passages in the Scriptures in which homosexual activity of one sort or another is condemned; yet these passages fall short of providing a sound theological basis for addressing the issue. For one thing, there is no biblical word for “homosexual,” and the words translated as “homosexual” in some modern translations are problematic and open to varying interpretations. In the Old Testament (OT), homosexual acts are clearly and unambiguously condemned as “an abomination.” However, lots of things are condemned in the OT as an abomination, including falsifying weights and measures and (heterosexual) adultery. One cannot help but feel some sympathy with homosexuals who argue that the Christian use of the OT is highly selective. At any rate, no real theological reason is given in these passages; that homosexual acts are a sin is simply presented as a fact.

In Romans 1, however, St. Paul provides precisely a theological analysis of the phenomenon of homosexuality. Indeed, it would not be an overstatement to say that the two thousand year history of the Christian proscription against homosexual acts stands or falls with Romans 1. Of course, this chapter is not about homosexuality per se; it is about the fall of man. Whatever else one may wish to say about the subject, if one is to approach it from within a genuinely Christian standpoint, homosexuality must be placed within the context of the fall of man and its aftermath.

"For the invisible things of Him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse: Because that, when they knew God, they glorified Him not as God, neither were thankful; but became vain in their imaginations, and their foolish heart was darkened. Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools, And changed the glory of the uncorruptible God into an image made like to corruptible man, and to birds, and fourfooted beasts, and creeping things. Wherefore God also gave them up to uncleanness through the lusts of their own hearts, to dishonour their own bodies between themselves: Who changed the truth of God into a lie, and worshipped and served the creature more than the Creator, who is blessed for ever. Amen. For this cause God gave them up unto vile affections: for even their women did change the natural use into that which is against nature: And likewise also the men, leaving the natural use of the woman, burned in their lust one toward another; men with men working that which is unseemly, and receiving in themselves that recompence of their error which was meet." (Romans 1:20-27)

This passage is most often interpreted from the standpoint of natural law theory. Homosexuality, according to this approach, is sinful because it is unnatural. Interestingly, contemporary homosexual apologists have turned this argument on its head. What St. Paul is condemning here, so the new theory goes, is someone who is naturally heterosexual performing homosexual acts. To the person who has a genuine homosexual orientation, however, homosexual desire and acts are perfectly natural. Therefore what St. Paul is condemning is not homosexuality per se, but those who act contrary to their own sexual nature.

Admittedly, this new twist on Romans 1 shows imagination. Indeed, were this passage really about natural law, this new interpretation would have to be given some credence. However, St. Paul's point in this chapter is not about natural law, but about the nature of the fall of man. From an Orthodox interpretation of this passage, three things become clear: First, homosexual desire is a result of the fall. Second, in a very real sense, homosexual desire is an image or icon of the fall itself. Third, homosexual desire is a passion, which can only be overcome through genuinely Christian—that is to say churchly—therapy.

Throughout both testaments the disexuality of human nature is presented typologically. That is, the difference between male and female is presented as a type of man's relationship with God. The male—the husband—is the type of God or Christ, while the female—the wife—is the type of humanity, Israel, or the Church. In Ephesians, St. Paul describes Christian marriage and then says that it is a great mystery, but he goes on to say that he is talking of the mystery of Christ and the Church. In Romans 1, St. Paul presents homosexual desire as the type of the fall itself; it is the type of creation's attempt at self-deification.4 Thus, homosexual desire is not only a product of the fall, the desire for “another of the same kind” instead of “another of a different kind” is an image of the very nature of the fall.5


It is often argued that the writers of the Scriptures and the Fathers of the Church considered homosexual acts to be simply a choice, much in the same way that one chooses whether or not to cheat on one's spouse. While there is a good deal of truth to this—certainly neither St. Paul nor St. John Chrysostom knew anything of “homosexuality” as it is conceived in modern terms—we should not be too quick to dismiss the biblical and patristic injunctions against homosexuality as simply being the fruits of an unenlightened age. In Romans 1, St. Paul refers explicitly to homosexual desire, not merely homosexual acts. The point is that homosexuality is a lust; that is, a perversion of man's natural sexual energies. In other words, it is a passion.

For the most part, the Church Fathers adopted a three-part division of the soul common among Greek philosophers. In Book IV of The Republic, Plato speaks of the soul as divided into the rational, appetitive, and excitable parts.6 In the normally functioning soul, the rational aspect seeks the good and leads man toward it. Reason keeps the appetite under control, with the aid of the excitable power. For example, a married man notices a beautiful woman and feels the pangs of lust. He immediately reproaches—gets angry—with himself and reminds himself that he is married and that adultery would jeopardize his marriage. Thus rebuked, he fends off the lustful thoughts, and justice is established within his soul.

In a diseased or unjust soul, however, the appetites overrule reason and man lives not for the sake of the good, but for the sake of the gratification of desires. To use a modern example, consider someone who is addicted to cigarettes. The person surely knows by now that smoking is bad for the body. It has been clinically connected with emphysema, heart disease and cancer. The smoker knows smoking is bad, but continues to do it because he or she is in the control of the desire for nicotine. The appetites have charge of the person's life. When the appetite cannot be satiated—think of a smoker forced to endure an eight-hour smoke-free flight—he or she becomes irritable. Instead of siding with the reasoning aspect of the soul, the excitable faculty is employed by the appetites. This is why smokers, alcoholics, and drug addicts are willing to go to extraordinary means to satisfy their craving. The same aspect of the soul that gives courage to the hero in battle gives energy and determination to the soul enslaved to the appetites.

The Fathers generally adopted this Platonic schema, but went much further than Plato in elucidating how the soul works—developing a true psyche-ology. The passions, according to Orthodox tradition, are natural faculties and energies of the soul and body that have been corrupted, deformed, and diverted from their original—natural—purpose. This means that for the Orthodox, the healing of the passions involves not the eradication of the passions but their transformation—their transfiguration.7

Just as there are physical energies and faculties and spiritual energies and faculties in man, so there are passions of both the body and soul. Furthermore, the Fathers speak of both voluntary and involuntary passions. In other words, there are some passions that are so ingrained within us they are beyond our conscious decision-making power. This is a very important point for our present discussion.

Homosexual desire must be classed among the involuntary passions. It is commonplace among conservative Christians to treat homosexuality as if it were simply a matter of choice. Yet anyone who actually knows homosexual persons, and certainly anyone who has counseled them, knows this is not the case. One does not wake up one morning and suddenly “decide” to be attracted to persons of the same gender. However, to say that homosexual desire is an involuntary passion is in no way to diminish the fact that it is a passion—a corruption of man's natural sexual energies.

It is widely accepted in scientific circles that there may be a biological (genetic) predisposition in some people toward alcoholism or obesity. This does not change the fact, however, that drunkenness and gluttony are passions. Even if a genetic basis could be found for homosexuality, one could not then argue that homosexual desire is “normal” any more than one could argue that being an alcoholic or seriously obese is “normal.”

While the Orthodox Church has never accepted the idea of original sin prevalent in Western Christianity,8 Orthodoxy certainly realizes that we are born into a fallen world—a world that does not function as it was originally intended. Although we often speak of “fallen nature,” this term needs further refinement. According to St. Maximus the Confessor, it is not the principle (logos) of nature that is fallen, but rather nature's mode (tropos) of existence.9 God's creation is entirely good and remains so even after the fall of mankind. There is no place for the Calvinistic doctrine of total depravity in Orthodox theology. It is the way nature now operates that is affected by the fall.

The tragedy of man's predicament—and this has direct bearing on the topic of homosexual desire—is that we are so used to this fallen manner of existence that we take it for granted. The natural man, or the “fleshly man” as St. Paul would have it, considers his fallen mode of existence to be normal. Thus what we consider to be “natural” is from a biblical perspective unnatural or sub-natural, and what we consider to be “supernatural” is, in fact, the natural or normative state of existence. The homosexual feels that his desires are natural because that is all he has ever known, and no amount of “natural law theory” will convince him otherwise.

It is significant that there is no biblical word for “homosexual.” Indeed, there is no such word in either Latin or Greek; it is of modern origin. From this bit of linguistic archeology, we are able to draw a theological conclusion: for the writers of the Scriptures and for the Church Fathers, there is no “ontology” to homosexuality. This view is normative for the Christian Church. To be sure, there are persons who have a homoerotic orientation; this orientation may be exclusive and it may very well have some basis in genetics. But, from a genuinely biblical perspective, there is no such thing as “a homosexual.” For a man to describe himself as “gay” (or a woman as a “lesbian”) is to grant ontology to his desires and define himself according to his passions.

This self-identification is, of course, at the heart of the contemporary gay movement. This is precisely the one point where the Christian Church cannot deviate from Her historical stand without changing Her entire theology. For the Church to accept someone as “gay” would be to accept the fallen state of man as the natural state. The gay anthem, “I am what I am,” from the musical La Cage aux Folles, is instructive here. What a person is is a matter of biology and genetics; it is an objectification of human life based on the givenness of (fallen) nature. Who a person is—and this is what concerns the Orthodox theologian—is the product of man's freedom; it is the subjective realization of what it means to have been created in the image of God.

Like the inhabitants of Plato's cave, however, we are unaware of our true nature. We take the shadows for reality and define ourselves according to our passions. It is only when we encounter someone who is free of the passions, someone who lives life according to true nature, that we begin to realize our true situation. This realization, however, is at first traumatic. We refuse to believe it.10 A person truly free of the passions seems to us to be inhuman, a creature from another world. The world could not deal with Christ—the first authentically human person—and it has not dealt much better with His Saints. Yet, Saints there are, even today. The Saints are those who have been healed of the passions and who live life according to nature—what we mistakenly consider supernatural existence. They are living revelations of God, living revelations of what human life is supposed to be.


According to the Greek bishop Hierotheos Vlachos, the Orthodox Church is a spiritual hospital, and its purpose is the healing of the human soul.11 Orthodoxy is a therapeutic science designed to heal the passions and lead man to his natural state in communion with God. The Orthodox Church honors the Saints because they are the living proof (martyrs—witnesses) that the therapy works, that it is possible for man to be healed.

Given this Orthodox insistence that Christianity is first and foremost a therapeutic science, one might reasonably expect a positive evaluation of Christian reorientation therapies. Sadly, however, this is not the case. While there are obvious parallels, the similarities between the Orthodox notion of therapy and that which is practiced within the Protestant world are superficial. To understand this, we must first take a closer look at the Orthodox understanding of therapy and cure and then examine current reorientation therapies in light of the Orthodox standard.

To understand the Orthodox notion of therapy, one must understand that for the Orthodox, sin is not God's problem, but man's. This may seem axiomatic, but in reality it is not. Since at least the time of Anselm's Cur deus homo, Western Christianity has been saddled with the notion that man's sin somehow affects God—it insults His infinite honor and calls forth His wrath. Such anthropomorphic notions are unacceptable to Orthodox theology, however, because they violate the first principle of theology, namely that there is no analogy of being between God and man. God is impassible and unchangeable. He has no pride to wound. Sin, therefore, does not affect God's ability to relate to man (as if God were an upper caste Hindu prevented from coming into contact with an Untouchable); it affects man's ability to relate to God.

In the Scriptures we are told that no one has ever seen God and lived and that God is a consuming fire, yet we are also told that the pure in heart shall see God, that Christians are called to become partakers of the divine nature. The difference is not that God hates sinners and loves the righteous (He loves both without differentiation), but that the sinner is prevented by his sin from experiencing God as light and life. For him, God's presence is fire and judgement. The Saint, on the other hand, is cleansed of his passions and, therefore, open to God's love. For him, God's presence is light and life. Metropolitan Hierotheos describes what the Orthodox mean by the cure of the soul:

"We are not struggling simply to become good people, adjusted to society. The aim of therapeutic treatment is not to make people sociable and to be an anthropocentric exercise, but it is to guide them to communion with God, and for this vision of God not to be a fire that will consume them but a light which will illuminate them." (1994, p. 270)12

One must understand that the passions are not merely bad habits, and the cure of the soul is not merely a matter of behavior modification. The passions are a spiritual pathology. They are deviations and malfunctions of man's most basic bodily and spiritual faculties. They are so ingrained within us that they appear quite natural. Furthermore, the passions are related to one another in very complex ways. To give but one example, the passion of anger is frequently tied to the passion of lust. For every passion that comes to the surface, manifesting itself in outward behavior, there is probably a complex of related passions at work in the deepest recesses of the soul.

How then are these passions cured and the heart cleansed? A person with cancer would not go to a university or a mall for treatment, but to a hospital, because that is where he or she will find treatment appropriate to the disease. In a hospital there are doctors who have knowledge of the disease and, through experience, have learned the best way to treat it. The hospital also contains the facilities and medicines needed to treat the disease.

According to Metropolitan Hierotheos, the Church is a spiritual hospital. The doctors are the spiritual fathers and mothers (usually, but not exclusively, monks and nuns). Their qualification is not an academic degree, but their experience of having undergone spiritual treatment themselves. They are at varying degrees along the way toward the cure of the soul, and they are able to direct others because of their own experience. The medicines and facilities of the hospital are the Holy Mysteries (sacraments). In Baptism, man is regenerated, is “born from above.” In the Holy Eucharist, man receives, according to the phrase of St. Ignatius of Antioch (1999, p. 151), the “medicine of immortality.” Confession and penance are the spiritual equivalent of surgery. It is in confession that the hidden tumors of the soul are laid bare for treatment. In addition to all of these, the physician will prescribe various therapies, much in the same way that a cardiologist will prescribe cardiac rehabilitation therapy. These therapies are the Church's ascetic disciplines: prayer, fasting, vigil, and obedience.

From the above, it is evident that the cure of the soul requires both the grace of God and the cooperation of the one seeking the cure. As the author of the Makarian Homilies puts it, “We do not reach the final stage of spiritual maturity through divine power and grace alone, without ourselves making every effort; but neither on the other hand do we attain the final measure of freedom and purity as a result of our own diligence and strength alone, apart from any divine assistance.”13 To return to the medical analogy, what good would it do for a doctor to prescribe expensive drugs to a bad cardiac patient, if the patient insists on smoking, continues to eat food with high levels of salt and cholesterol, and refuses to exercise?

I cannot stress enough the importance of ascetical effort. When confronted by obstinate demons whom the Apostles were not able to exercise, Christ exclaimed that such demons can be expelled only through prayer and fasting (cf. Mark 9:29). Of course, it is not beyond the power of God to simply remove passions or inordinate desires from us, but almost two thousand years of Christian history teaches that this is not the usual modus operandi. Indeed the ascetical Fathers repeatedly say that there is great virtue in the struggle itself.

Furthermore, simply refraining from outward sin is insufficient. In the context of homosexual desire, refraining from committing physical homosexual acts may not be terribly difficult for many homosexuals, but this is not the same thing as healing. For the Orthodox, the purpose of all spiritual effort is true God-likeness, not mere moral improvement. Indeed the passions of the soul are more insidious and dangerous than those of the body. Even if one has been able to manage one's bodily passions, that does not necessarily mean one has conquered all passions. Nor, indeed, does ascetical effort guarantee sanctification if there is no accompanying union with God. Ilias the Presbyter (1986, p. 55) writes:

"Bodily passions are like wild animals, while passions of the soul are like birds. The man engaged in ascetic practice can keep the animals out of the noetic vineyard; but unless he enters into a state of spiritual contemplation, he cannot keep the birds away, however much he strives to guard himself inwardly. The man engaged in ascetic practice cannot rise above ethical propriety, unless he goes beyond the natural law—as Abraham went forth from his own land—and beyond his own limited state of development—as Abraham left his kinsmen (cf. Gen. 12:1). In this way, as a mark of God's approval, he will be liberated from the all-embracing hold of pleasure; for it is this veil of pleasure, wrapped around us from our birth, that prevents us from receiving complete freedom."

The goal of Orthodox therapy, therefore, is dispassion, which opens the soul to the possibility of communion with God. As Bishop Hierotheos is at great pains to point out, however, this is not the same as the stoic concept of dispassion. The goal here is not an insensate state of apathy, but rather the redirection of man's natural energies (Hierotheos, 1994, p. 296). To put it another way, the goal is transformation rather than eradication. Bishop Hierotheos goes on to state that there are different levels of dispassion:

"St. Maximus sets out four degrees of dispassion. The first type of dispassion is observed in beginners and is “complete abstention from the actual committing of sin.” In this stage the man does not commit the acts outwardly. The second dispassion, which occurs in the virtuous, is the complete rejection in the mind of all assent to evil thoughts. The third dispassion, which is complete quiescence of passionate desire, is found in the deified, and the fourth is the complete purging even of passion-free images, in those who are perfect. It seems from this passage that according to the degree of a man's purity, the corresponding dispassion is manifested." (1994, pp. 299-300)

There is no way to adequately explain Orthodox ascetical theology in a few paragraphs. Allow me to conclude this section, however, with a brief summary that will at least provide some background for the critique of reorientation therapy that follows. (1) The goal of human life is union with God. This is conceived not in terms of moral imitation, but of genuine God-likeness (theosis, in Greek): to become by grace what God is by nature. (2) Sin is the barrier between God and man not because it offends God, but because it cripples man's ability to relate to God. (3) With the fall of man, sin becomes ingrained in man like a second nature. Sin is not merely the result of bad choices, but is rooted in the passions, which are the malfunctioning of man's natural capacities. (4) Salvation is not access to a cosmic theme park (the popular view of heaven), but union with God. Salvation presupposes, therefore, the healing of man's passions and the restoration of his natural faculties. (5) Salvation is, therefore, a process of healing—a therapeutic process. (6) In keeping with the original goal of creation (1, above), this therapeutic process has as its goal not moral improvement, but the total transformation of the passions and, ultimately, the transcendence of man's natural capacities.


With this background let us consider why modern reorientation therapy fails to “measure up,” as it were, to the Orthodox standard of therapy. There are two separate, albeit related, aspects of reorientation therapy that demand our attention. First of all, there is the psychological explanation that lies behind most versions of this therapy. This explanation seems to be shared by both secular and religiously oriented therapists. Second, there are specifically Christian programs that combine such therapy with prayer and support. I shall address each of these aspects in turn.

Not all reorientation therapists agree on the ultimate causes of homosexuality.14 However, it is safe to say that the predominant theory is that homosexuality is a developmental disorder regarding gender identity. For whatever reasons—and therapists who hold this view acknowledge that each case is different—the homosexual fails to identify properly with the same-sex parent, prompting a crisis of his or her own gender identity.15 This may or may not be accompanied by an overbearing relationship with the opposite-sex parent.16 This failure to identify with the same-sex parent occurs in very early childhood.

There are two problems with this theory. The first problem has to do with the determination of causality. As in many cases of concomitant variation, it is not immediately evident which is the cause and which is the effect. Even assuming that the majority of homosexuals have not properly gender identified with the same-sex parent, this may well be the effect of a prior disposition, rather than the cause of later homosexual desire.17 If this were the case, then gender identification therapy would be treating a symptom rather than the underlying cause.

The second problem is the sufficiency of this profile in explaining the origins of homosexuality. Quite simply, not all homosexuals fit the pattern. The stereotype of an effeminate man with an overbearing mother is just that, a stereotype. Furthermore, there are heterosexuals who fit the pattern to a tee. Part of the problem here is that therapists only work with a minute minority of homosexuals, namely those who are unhappy and come to the therapists for treatment. It may well be that a high percentage of those who come for treatment fit the profile, but that does not mean that all or even a high percentage of the homosexual population as a whole fits the pattern.

If I may be permitted to address the problem as a logician for a moment, I would put it this way: Let y stand for the occasion in question; in this case, homosexual orientation. Let A, B, C, D, E, and F stand for subjects, where half of the subjects are homosexual and half are not. Thus, we have Ay, By, Cy, D, E, and F. If we say that x is the determinative factor for occasion y in any given subject, then we should see this pattern: Ayx, Byx, Cyx, and D, E, F. However, the reality is more like this: Ayx, Byx, Cy, D, E, Fx. If this is indeed the case, what conclusions can be drawn? First of all the presence of factor x in a subject that does not exhibit occasiony tells us that whatever the relationship between xand y, x cannot be considered a sufficient cause for y. In other words, the instance of a heterosexual who fails to properly gender identify with the same-sex parent—and surely there are many—negates the possibility that failure to gender identify is the sole cause of homosexuality.18 In the same way, the absence of factor x in subjects with occasion y negates the possibility that x is a necessary cause for y. Thus, the failure to gender identify can be considered neither a necessary nor sufficient cause of homosexuality.

This does not mean that the failure to gender identify is not a possible cause (among many). From what I have read and observed, I would argue that homosexual orientation is a multifaceted phenomenon with perhaps a multitude of possible causes, some psychological and some, perhaps, genetic or biochemical. This is perfectly in keeping with the Orthodox view that the passions are a complicated complex of factors. The problem with reorientation therapy, however, is that it operates with the assumption that a gender-identity deficiency is the primary, if not the only, cause. Reorientation therapy is, therefore, reductionistic.

If Orthodox Christian theology is true, that is, if God has indeed created man in His image, and if, as St. Paul says, the union of man and woman in marriage is somehow related to the mystery of the union of Christ with His Bride, the Church, then homosexual desire must be as much of a spiritual condition as a psychological or physical condition. Thus, to treat homosexuality as merely a psychological developmental disorder is to ignore what may very well be the most important aspect of the issue. The case is somewhat analogous to the modern attitude toward demonic possession. As far as secular—and a great many Christian—therapists are concerned, “possession” is nothing more than some sort of psychotic episode or disorder. That one might actually be possessed by demons is never even considered. Now I am not suggesting that homosexuality is caused by demons, merely trying to point out that gender identity theory, whatever limited merits it may have, is at root a secular and reductionistic explanation for a phenomenon that is to a large degree spiritual and complex.

This brings us to specifically Christian therapeutic programs, such as those promoted by Exodus International. Although Exodus refers homosexuals to a variety of different ministries, there does seem to be a general acceptance of the gender-identity theory. This is evidenced most convincingly by the fact that Exodus and many of its partner ministries insist on the importance of non-sexual, same-sex relationships as a key factor in the healing process. However, these Christian therapies at least recognize the spiritual dimension of the problem.

Perhaps it is because of this realization that Christian reorientation theories are generally less bold in their claims of success than their secular counterparts. While all affirm that healing is possible, it is not so clear that all believe that homosexuals can be converted into fully functional heterosexuals without any remaining homoerotic desires. An Exodus FAQ puts it this way:

"What's your “success rate” in changing gays into straights?

"What you are really asking is whether there is realistic hope for change for men and women who do not want their sexual orientation to be homosexual. And the answer to that is yes!" (www.exodusnorthamerica.org)19

Further on in the same FAQ, it is stated: “Studies suggesting change rates in the range of 30-50% are not unusual, although 'success rates' vary considerably and the measurement of change is problematic.” On the face of it, there should be little problem in measuring success: one is either completely free of same-sex desire or one is not. But things are not that clear-cut and Christian reorientation advocates seem to realize this.20

The fact of the matter is that the number of people who claim to have lost all same-sex desire is very small—certainly less than 30%-50% of those who have undergone therapy. For the secular reorientation therapists, the primary goal seems to be functional heterosexuality, with a corresponding decrease in homosexual desire. This decrease, however, need not be complete for most theorists to claim “success.” Religion-based therapy programs, however, seem to focus more on behavior modification (avoiding sinful acts) and identity (disavowing the “gay” self-image). Indeed, when groups such as Exodus offer deliverance from homosexuality, it appears that they really mean deliverance from the “homosexual lifestyle.” This is not, however, the same thing as deliverance from a true homoerotic orientation.

I would argue that the closest analogy to Christian reorientation therapies would be Alcoholics Anonymous. The alcoholic is not said to be completely “cured,” but is helped to stay “on the wagon” and put his life back in order. Similarly, Christian programs provide the wherewithal for a person to leave the “homosexual lifestyle” and find a new identity as a Christian within a loving community that will reinforce positive behavior and inhibit negative behavior (sin).

No Orthodox Christian would deny that homosexual acts are sinful or that the “homosexual lifestyle” is self-destructive. Furthermore, the question of identity is of paramount importance: a Christian may certainly have homosexual desires, but a Christian cannot identify himself as “gay” and remain Christian. Thus, an Orthodox Christian would be hard pressed to find anything necessarily wrong with such an approach. Certainly it is better to abstain from sin than commit it. However, this is a far cry from dispassion, which is the goal of Orthodox therapy.

My problem with reorientation therapies, whether secular or Christian, is not that they are incapable of producing some change, but that this change is less than the healing of the passions. Where secular therapy is concerned, simply replacing homosexual lust with heterosexual lust is but a shallow victory. Christian therapy, on the other hand, seems much less concerned with producing functioning heterosexuals than with healing emotional wounds and providing the person struggling with homosexuality the support needed to “re-identify” himself as a Christian and to avoid the commission of homosexual acts (in thought as well as deed). To this end, Christian therapy is much to be preferred over secular therapy. Yet, at the risk of beating a dead horse, this is not the same as dispassion and union with God.

Why are the Orthodox so insistent on this point? The answer lies in the Orthodox understanding of salvation outlined above. Sin is not a legal barrier between man and God; it is a disease that renders man incapable of receiving God's love as light and life. The Orthodox do not assume, as do many Evangelical Protestants, that because one had initiated a “relationship with Christ” one is definitively and irrevocably “saved.” On the contrary, salvation is viewed as a process. The transfiguration of the passions is a necessary element of this process. Thus, ethics, for the Orthodox, is a matter of salvation.

The Orthodox Church fully agrees with St. Cyprian's famous statement that there is no salvation outside the Church. This is a confession that the Church—and the Church alone—possesses the therapeutic science necessary to heal man of his passions. Admittedly, this is not a very “ecumenical” sentiment, but it is the belief of the Orthodox Church. When, therefore, an Orthodox Christian is asked to evaluate sexual reorientation therapies from an ethical perspective, he is bound to do so against the backdrop of his own Orthodox understanding of sin and salvation.

There is nothing inherently wrong with either the secular or the Christian reorientation therapies. Surely it is ethical to offer those struggling with homosexual desire the opportunity to find healing. Thus, all of these therapies are fine as far as they go; it is just that from the standpoint of eternity, they do not go very far.


1 For reasons that shall become apparent, I am reluctant to use the term “homosexual.” At this point in the discussion, suffice it to say that the more correct term would be “person(s) with a homosexual orientation.” As this phrase is exceedingly cumbersome, however, I am yielding to the modern convention of using the term “homosexual.” My use of “homosexual” as a substantive, however, should not be construed to imply any “ontology” of sexual orientation.

2 Alternate terms are “reparative” and “conversion” therapy.

3 The statement was prepared by the APA Committee on Gay, Lesbian and Bisexual Issues and is dated September 11, 1998. The statement was unanimously adopted by the APA's Board of Trustees during its meeting of December 11/12, 1998.

4 Notice that St. Paul mentions women turning away from the natural desire for men before speaking of male homosexual desire. This is the only place I know of where the writers of Scripture mention lesbianism. This makes perfect sense in this context, however, for in the Pauline typology it is creation—the female—that has turned from its natural desire for God—the male. Paul mentions male homosexual desire almost as an afterthought. This is not to suggest that male homosexuality is less sinful or somehow less of an image of the fall—no doubt St. Paul wanted to avoid that interpretation—but it does explain why St. Paul mentions lesbianism here.

5 There is an inherent narcissism in homosexual desire, but is this not also an image of the fallen state of humanity—human nature obsessed with itself?

6 Plato (1968, 435a-445e). For a detailed discussion of the patristic appropriation of this schema see Staniloae (2002, pp. 96-108).

7 Some Fathers treat the passions as an inherent evil to be eradicated. I would argue, however, that this is a minority viewpoint. See Bishop Kallistos Ware's definition of “passion” in The Philokalia, Vol. 1, pp. 363-364. Boston: Faber and Faber, 1988.

8 Cf. Romanides (2002, esp. pp. 17-39).

9 Cf. Maximus the Confessor, Opscula Theologica et Polemica 20 (PG 91, 236C-D). “Pure and simply human, our will is not in any way impeccable, because of its inclination which is produced sometimes in one sense, sometimes in another. This inclination does not change the nature, but it detours the movement, or to speak in a manner more correctly, it changes the mode. It is clear in fact that the one who does many things contrary to reason never transforms his rational nature into irrational.”

10 In Book VII of The Republic (515c-e), Plato states that the man suddenly released from his fetters and turned toward the reality of life outside the cave would not, at first, believe his eyes.

11 In this section, I have drawn heavily from the writings of Metropolitan Hierotheos. I particularly recommend The Illness and Cure of the Soul in the Orthodox Tradition (1993) and Orthodox Psychotherapy: The Science of the Fathers (1994).

12 Cf. this passage from the Makarian homilies: “What is the will of God that St. Paul urges and invites each of us to attain? It is total cleansing from sin, freedom from the shameful passions, and the acquisition of the highest virtue. In other words, it is the purification and sanctification of the heart that comes about through fully experienced and conscious participation in the perfect and divine Spirit.” (St. Makarios of Egypt, 1986, p. 285).

13 St. Makarios of Egypt (1986, p. 285).

14 Some therapists are agnostic on the subject, tailoring their therapy to the desire of the patient. If the patient is unhappy as a homosexual and wants to change, the therapist will act accordingly. This is done without any prejudice as to the normality of homosexuality.

15 One of the chief proponents of this theory is an Orthodox Christian, Dr. Elizabeth Moberly. Cf. Moberly 1982 & 1983.

16 The overbearing mother and the “momma's boy” is a common stereotype. However, the point of the gender identity theory is that it is not the relationship with the opposite-sex parent that is determinative, but the failure to identify with the same-sex parent.

17 Andrew Sullivan (1995, p.10) makes this point. This is perhaps the most cogently presented argument for the rights of homosexuals.

18 Lest I be accused of sleight of hand here, while a sufficient cause need not be the sole cause, the sole cause must be the sufficient cause.

19 I am normally loath to reference internet sites in formal papers. I am making an exception in this case because this material is not scholarly material available from a library. Those who wish to view Exodus materials may do so at www.exodusnorthamerica.org

20 This same ambiguity as to what constitutes success is to be found in Orthodox writers as well. Fr. John Breck (1998, pp. 116-117) lauds organizations such as Exodus as “invaluable” and affirms the possibility of true change, yet in the very next paragraph he writes, “It is clear, however, that the homosexual condition is often irreversible: the orientation is permanent.”


1. Breck, Fr. John (1998) The sacred gift of life: Orthodox Christianity and bioethics SVS Press , Crestwood, NY
2. (1999) Epistle to the Ephesians. The Apostolic Fathers: Greek texts and English translations Baker Books , Grand Rapids
3. (1986) Gnomic Anthology IV. The Philokalia 3 , Faber and Faber , Boston
4. (1986) Spiritual Perfection. The Philokalia Faber and Faber , Boston
5. (1857) Opscula Theologica et Polemica; Patrologia Graeca 91 , pp. 9-285.
6. Moberly, E. (1982) Psychogenesis: The early development of gender identity Kegan Paul , London
7. Moberly, E. (1983) Homosexuality: A new Christian ethic James Clarke , Cambridge
8. Plato (1968) The Republic of Plato Basic Books
9. Romanides, J. (2002) The Ancestral Sin Zephyr , G. S. Gabriel, Ridgewood, NJ
10. Staniloae, D. (2002) Orthodox Spirituality St. Tikhon's Seminary Press , South Canaan, PA
11. Sullivan, A. (1995) Virtually normal: An argument about homosexuality Vintage, New York
12. Vlachos, Hierotheos. (1993) The illness and cure of the soul in the Orthodox tradition Birth of the Theotokos Monastery , Levadia, Greece
13. Vlachos, Hierotheos. (1994) Orthodox psychotherapy: The science of the Fathers Birth of the Theotokos Monastery , Levadia, Greece

Christian Bioethics, Volume 10, Issue 2 & 3 January 2004 , pages 137 - 153.