The research findings of Wheaton College psychologists Stanton L. Jones and Mark A. Yarhouse deserve our attention because they are scheduled to be two of the keynote speakers at the conference on “Marriage, Homosexuality and the Church” convening October 15 – 17 at Andrews University.
Jones will present the Opening Address on Thursday evening. Its title is “Recent Studies on Innateness and Change in Relation to Homosexuality.” Yarhouse will present the Main Address on Friday Afternoon. Its title is “The Pastoral Application of a Three-Tier Distinction Among Same-Sex Attraction, a Homosexual Orientation and Gay Identity.” We can expect their presentations to influence the tone and shape the agenda of the conference.
Using their words, let us begin with a list of things they say that their research does not establish. This list appears in the concluding chapter of their book Ex-gays? A Longitudinal Study of Religiously Mediated Change in Sexual Orientation (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2007):
“First, we found that some respondents experienced significant meaningful change of sexual orientation in this sample, but we did not find that everyone (or anyone) can change.”
“Second, while we found that part of our research population experienced success to the degree that it might be called (as we have here) ‘conversion,’ we have insufficient evidence to conclude that these changes are categorical, resulting in uncomplicated, dichotomous and unequivocal reversal of sexual orientation from utterly homosexual to utterly heterosexual.”
“Third, these findings do not refute the anecdotal reports of specific individuals that they could not change.”
“Fourth, the change results documented in this study are the results of a set of diverse, religiously based intervention programs, and hence these findings do not speak directly to the issue of the effectiveness of professionally based psychotherapy interventions what are commonly called reparative or conversion therapies.”
“Fifth, the fact that we documented positive outcomes from religiously mediated interventions does not constitute evidence of divine intervention in the lives of these individuals.”
“Sixth, we cannot validate that the significant changes experienced by the Exodus successes in this study are permanent or utterly pervasive.”
“Seventh, we cannot shed light on the provocative and important question of which methods employed by the Exodus groups were the effective element producing change.”
“Eighth, we did not find evidence to conclude which subject variables predict success or failure, and so we cannot say that those with certain characteristics are more (or less) likely to change.”
“Ninth, despite our findings that on average participants experienced no harm from the attempt to change, we cannot conclude that specific individuals are not harmed by an attempt to change.”
What, then, did their research—a methodologically sophisticated study over time of the experiences of many homosexuals who participated in the religious reparative programs associated with Exodus resulting in this 400 page book-- accomplish? According to Jones and Yarhouse, their research established two important things: (1) that changes in homosexual orientations are “not impossible” and (2) that on average individuals are not harmed by attempting to change in reparative therapies.
My way of putting it is to say that they discovered that in some religiously based reparative therapies some homosexuals experience some changes in their orientations for some uncertain lengths of time. As we have seen from their nine disavowals, they explicitly deny that their studies establish that all who participate in such therapies experience complete and permanent change.
Their findings are so circumspect that some might wonder why Jones and Yarhouse found it necessary to engage in so much serious research in order to establish them. Their answer is that their extensive research was mandatory because only a study of its scope and depth could falsify or verify the claim of many psychologists that changes in homosexual orientations are “impossible” and that attempts to experience these changes are “harmful.” For those who assume as I do that all of us are changing all of the time, these results are not surprising.
Jones and Yarhouse conclude this book with two recommendations. One of these is that these issues deserve more study and this is certainly the case. The other is that homosexual men and women cannot exercise mentally free and informed consent to any kind of therapy—reparative or non-reparative—unless they have the relevant information and this includes the now established facts that changes in homosexual orientation are “not impossible” and that on average such attempts are not harmful.
Fair enough; however, the duty of full disclosure is an ethical blade that cuts both ways. Just as many secular therapists should be less negative in what they say about reparative therapies, many religious ones should be less positive. Although they fall short in opposite ways, failures to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth about reparative therapies are too frequent in both groups
Jones and Yarhouse use the analogy of running a four minute mile. On the one hand, it is a mistake to say that this is impossible for human beings because we know that some have done it. On the other hand, that some people have run this fast does not mean that all of us can.
If Jones and Yarhouse mean that experiencing even the smallest changes in homosexual orientations is about as likely as running a four minute mile, their conclusions are devastating for religious reparative therapies. But I don’t understand them to be saying this, only that in the case of homosexuality there is some unspecified difference between what is possible for some and what is probable for many.
This suggests to me that it is possible to misuse the findings of Jones and Yarhouse in at least three hurtful ways. One of these is to downplay play their report that significant changes in homosexual orientation are of uncertain probability and predictability. A second is not to make it clear on the basis of their research that changes in homosexual orientation are almost never complete and that they can be impermanent. A third is to imply or state that the reason some homosexuals experience some changes in their orientations and others don’t is that those who do have more or better faith in God.
I think it impossible to sound an alarm too loudly regarding the third possible misuse of their research findings. It is altogether too easy to chant “With God all things are possible” in the face of intense frustration, perplexity and sorrow. This statement is true if it is properly clarified in light of everything else Scripture says. Otherwise it is false and hurtful. Like it or not, the overwhelming majority of homosexual men and women receive the same answer to their prayers that Paul did regarding the “thorn” in his side that God never removed: “My grace is sufficient for thee.”
Endlessly trying wholly to escape their homosexual orientations is not their task; learning how to live responsibly and joyfully as first class sons and daughters of God is. I find nothing in the research of Jones and Yarhouse that suggests otherwise.