by John McLarty
Recently I saw part of an interview with a psychiatrist who was discussing Christian “reparative therapy” for homosexuals. Reparative therapy is an attempt to change people's sexual orientation from homosexual to heterosexual using various spiritual and psychological resources. The interviewer asked the psychiatrist how effective reparative therapy was. How many homosexuals get “fixed.” The psychiatrist said, “About four percent.” It's a measure of effectiveness fairly broadly reported by Christian and non-Christian investigators.
Christian tradition strongly favors heterosexual orientation. So it is natural for Christians to latch onto the promises of change held out by reparative therapy. We want people fixed. But given the abysmal success rate, is it righteous to urge people to engage in a process that is highly likely to fail? What is our responsibility to people who have employed every imaginable resource for change and found those resources insufficient? Is right to condemn them? How do we help deal with the despair their (predictable) failure is bound to induce? What responsibility do we bear for the domestic wreckage that results when homosexuals marry thinking they are “fixed” only to discover later, it ain't so.
Hope is valuable, but deliberately offering false hope is immoral. Telling people they can and must change when, in fact, that change is out of reach for 95 percent of people who attempt it is cruel. Maybe it would be more in harmony with God if we quit insisting people be something they cannot be.
Which gets me to thinking about the abysmal success rate of “reparative therapy” for Adventists. Revivalists and week-of-prayer speakers urge Adventists to change. We must “perfectly reproduce” Christ's character. We need to “finish the work.” We need to pray and read our Bibles more. We need to eat healthier food and smaller quantities. We need to be more generous, more self-controlled, more orthodox. Unfortunately, it appears the Adventist success rate for change is about the same as homosexuals. Just like reparative therapies for homosexuals, the Adventist change ministry draws on the classic spiritual resources of Bible and prayer and community, disciplining the mind and the work of the Holy Spirit. Still we fail 95 percent of the time, and have been failing for a very long time.
In 1893 Ellen White wrote, "It is a solemn statement that I make to the church, that not one in twenty whose names are registered upon the church books are prepared to close their earthly history, and would be as verily without God and without hope in the world as the common sinner" (GCDB, February 4, 1893 par. 9). To paraphrase: The church's success rate was less than five percent.
Perhaps one might argue this was late in the development of the church–by 1893 James White had been dead for 12 years. Surely things were better when the church was younger, purer, closer to its pioneer roots. Maybe. In 1867, EGW wrote, "Names are registered upon the church-books upon earth, but not in the book of life. I saw that there is not one in twenty of the youth who knows what experimental religion is. They serve themselves, and yet profess to be servants of Christ; but unless the spell which is upon them be broken, they will soon realize that the portion of the transgressor is theirs" (1T504, repeated in MYP 384). To put it in contemporary English: in 1867 the Adventist effort to transform youth was successful in less than five percent of the cases. Our failure rate was 95 percent!
Arguing that we need to get serious about seeking the Holy Spirit or engaging in various practices, disciplines, and programs advocated by revivialists appears to me to be blind or cruel. Blind if we don't realize that Adventists have been seriously pursuing holiness for over a hundred and fifty years. Cruel, if knowing the failure rate, we continue to urge people to throw themselves wholeheartedly into a doomed endeavor.
Given our history of failure despite endless revivals and weeks-of-prayer, maybe it's time to quit insisting that people meet impossible standards. Maybe it's time to begin loving each other the way we are. Let's honor the five percent who can achieve the change. Let's love the 95 percent of us who can't. And by “love” I don't mean tolerate. I mean regard with affection and admiration. I mean welcome with open arms and open heart.
It is vital that we advocate ideals that are so lofty they remain out of reach. They give us something to reach for. But standards, the minimum acceptable levels of performance, must be well within the reach of at least 80 percent of our members.
It is time to quit beating our people with impossible standards. It's time to unabashedly embrace as fully worthy and honorable members, people who perform at the 80th percentile or maybe only at the 60 th or 45th percentile. We do not lower our idea ls to the performance level of our people, but our standards must be realistic. Our standards must be in touch with what people can accomplish with aid of the resources God has placed in his church.
To push it a bit further. If we see the church as God's creation, it seems unbelievable that God would design a system with a 95 percent failure rate. If we argue that the failure is not in God's planning but in the human implementation, we are back to the same problem. God has placed salvation in the care of a system that is so susceptible that it can be deranged by predictable human variation. If that is true, what was God thinking?
I think better of God than that. I don't think he looks at his church as a 95 percent failure. I believe he regards the ordinary people of God with affection. He is not wringing his hands in agitated frustration because hardly any one is getting it right. God is pleased with his people. Does he have plans for growth, for change in good directions? Sure. But these plans for growth and change do not drive him to the endless condemnation of ordinary people that is common among Adventists and other Christians. Rather when God looks at his people he sees his future companions, the company that will spend eternity with him on the throne.
God is going to enjoy this future with ordinary Adventists, the people who show up in church week after week to teach kids, sing, listen to sermons, fraternize. God is happy to see them. They're good enough for him.