Galileo would be proud. Well, sort of.
Albert Mohler, president of The Southern Baptist Seminary, condemned “reparative therapy” that aims to make gay and lesbian people straight on Monday. But he added that homosexual orientation can change through divine intervention:
In the case of many people struggling with this particular sin [of homosexuality], 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…By God's grace, that might happen over time as a sign of God's work within the life of that individual.
Other prominent conservative Christians have also changed their thinking on reparative therapy in recent years, including Alan Chambers, the erstwhile leader of America's largest ex-gay ministry. These hopeful developments demonstrate that conservative Christians are not content to live in the dark ages on important matters such as sexuality, but they are also cautionary tales. Because these leaders once drew unequivocal lines in the sand about issues like reparative therapy and stamped them with a “thus saith the Lord." Their current enlightment on these matters should warn Christians about sounding certain about matters about which Scripture is not clear and on which they are not experts.
Mohler’s comments on Monday mark a clear pivot in his thinking. In 2004, the theologian lamented the American Psychological Association’s condemnation of “’reparative therapy’ and ‘transformational ministry’ intended to lead persons out of the homosexual lifestyle and into heterosexuality.” He called the organization’s push for others to accept science’s findings on sexual orientation as their “final insult” to traditionalists.
In 2005, Mohler decried some mainline Protestant denominations' condemnation of orientation change therapy. He claimed that these Christians were driven by a “psychological worldview that is directly at odds with the worldview of the Bible.”
But Mohler’s mind on the matter began evolving as early as 2011 after Michelle Bachmann’s husband was accused of performing reparative therapy. He wrote, “a biblical Christian will have no fundamental confidence in any secular therapy’s ability to change a sinner’s fundamental disposition and heart, and this includes every aspect of the sinner’s life, including sexuality.”
At the same time, Mohler stated, God “can save us from ourselves” and our “own pattern of sinful desires.” He said homosexuals “need a fundamental reordering of their sexual attractions. About this, the Bible is clear.”
“We hold full confidence in the power of the Gospel and of the reign of Christ within the life of the believer,” Mohler wrote. “We know that something as deeply entrenched as a pattern of sexual attraction is not easily changed, but we know that with Christ all things are possible.”
The seminary president once believed that “sexual orientation” was a cultural construct rather than a reality inherent in all humans. But in 2014, he announced his thinking on this matter had also evolved. At a conference on sexuality hosted by the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, Mohler admitted that he needed to “repent” that he once “felt it quite necessary, in order to make clear the gospel, to deny anything like sexual orientation.”
“Put simply, most people experiencing a same-sex attraction tell of discovering it within themselves at a very early age, certainly within early puberty,” Mohler said in 2014. “As they experience it, a sexual attraction or interest simply ‘happens,’ and they come to know it.”
“One of the things we should not be embarrassed to say is that we are learning,” he stated. “One of the embarrassments that I have to bear is that I have written on some of these issues now for nearly 30 years, and at a couple of points I have to say ‘I got that wrong,’ and we have to go back and correct it, correct it by Scripture.”
The evolution of Albert Mohler calls to mind the now infamous trial of Galileo Galilei by the Roman Catholic Inquisition in 1633. Using a newfangled invention called a “telescope,” Galileo endorsed Nicolaus Copernicus’ heliocentric theory that the earth revolves around the sun. The Catholic Church believed the contrary view that the earth was the center of the universe, a view they believed was endorsed by some biblical writers. The Inquisition deemed Galileo a heretic, placed him under house arrest, and banned heliocentric books and teaching. He was later vindicated by overwhelming scientific consensus.
Evangelicals are, to borrow a cliché, often wrong but rarely in doubt. They speak about scientific, cultural, and sociological matters with a high degree of certainty. They claim that their views are supported by the clear teachings of scripture and are central to the Christian gospel. Their views are not just presented as truth but as God’s truth. Science be damned.
Mohler and others claimed “for nearly 30 years” that the Bible had settled the issue of sexual orientation and reparative. But it turns out, the Christian scriptures are silent on both matters.
We should celebrate the humility and courage it takes for Mohler and others to say “I got that wrong.” And yet, Christian leaders must ask how this situation might help them become more prudent in expressing their opinions going forward. When the Bible speaks clearly, leaders should speak clearly. But when the Bible is unclear—for example, on the reality of sexual orientation or the effectiveness of reparative therapy—leaders should embrace an appropriate level of uncertainty.
The stakes are high. For when Christians invoke the Bible to push forward their cultural and political agendas and then turn out to be wrong, it compromises their credibility on the many other matters they claim to know for certain.