"Can a person leave homosexuality behind?"
That was the question posed on Monday by Bethel Church, a nondenominational, charismatic church located in Redding, Calif -- asked its follow Counting an estimated 9,000 members, the church espouses fringe beliefs that have proven controversial even in the evangelical movement, with dedicated ministries devoted to Faith Healing and Dead Raising.
Bethel Church also advocates for conversion therapy, the widely discredited practice of attempting to "cure" an LGBTQ+ person's sexual orientation or gender identity. Although the treatment is loosely defined, it can range from everything to "praying the gay away" to shock treatment and water torture. Eighteen states have banned conversion therapy, while the American Medical Association, World Health Organization, and United Nations have all condemned the practice.
Although Bethel Church does not appear to directly offer conversion therapy on its grounds, its Instagram account has been promoting CHANGED, a project of the "freedom from homosexuality" ministry Equipped to Love.
An August 19 post urges the account's 682,000 followers to give themselves over to god's plan -- even if that means not being gay anymore.
"When Jesus enters into our lives, He engages with our deepest feelings and beliefs," it reads. "He knows us better than we know ourselves and wants to lead us into His vision for humanity. Sometimes, that is countercultural. The love of Christ declares, 'I want you! I am for you! And only I satisfy!' His love gently leads us to surrendering all--even what we believe about ourselves--in order to be fully satisfied and full of life."
Although the above language is so vague it could be about anything, the post ends by tagging CHANGED's Instagram account. According to Bethel Church, the organization "wants to invite you to look deeper, to go beyond the cultural labels and expectations, and to find lasting fulfillment."
"To learn more or receive help on your journey, visit www.changedmovement.com #oncegay," it states.
The post is one of at least three similar advertisements on Bethel Church's Instagram account in the past week. Last week, the congregation featured an interview with Equipped to Love Co-Founder Elizabeth Woning in which she discusses leaving behind her identity as a lesbian for a 13-year marriage to a man.
"I believed I was born gay and that God had created me that way," Woning claims."As I further studied Christian doctrine, I no longer believed I was born a lesbian. [...] Today I am happy, joyful, and feminine -- all things I never was while living as a lesbian. I am no longer sexually attracted to women. Rather, I am a strong advocate for their empowerment."
A follow-up video posted on Wednesday features a discussion with Woning and her co-founder, Ken Williams.
The posts immediately began to draw backlash on social media, with critics saying that advocating for a discredited practice linked to elevated rates of suicidal ideation is extremely dangerous. Jamie Lee Finch (@jamieleefinch) claimed Bethel Church's "theologically and scientifically unexamined #oncegay stance is recklessly evil," while Johnny Sibilly (@JohnnySibilly) added that the congregation is "glamorizing conversion therapy."
"This kills people," said Jonah Ven (@jonah_ven).
A recent survey from the Trevor Project showed that exposure to conversion therapy makes LGBTQ+ youth extremely vulnerable to self-harm. In a research study published in June, 42 percent of young people who had been subjected to treatments intended to change their sexual orientation or gender identity say they had contemplated taking their own lives within the past year.
In a statement, Trevor Project added its voice to the chorus calling for Bethel Church to stop promoting CHANGED's services. Senior Fellow for Advocacy and Government Affairs Casey Pick told Out that faith communities "should be a place of love and welcome for all."
"This is not merely a church preaching doctrine among its members," Pick said. "The Trevor Project has seen representatives of the CHANGED program advocating for conversion therapy in statehouses across the country, falsely claiming that regulations prohibiting conversion therapy on minors by licensed professionals would affect their religious freedom, heedless of the harm these practices do to LGBTQ youth every day. It is time for Bethel to stop bearing false witness about conversion therapy."
Mathew Shurka, co-founder of the anti-conversion therapy advocacy group Born Perfect, tells Out that the falsehoods propagated by organizations like CHANGED are why his organization exists: "to ensure that every LGBTQ person knows they are not broken, but perfect just as they are."
"Regardless of whether conversion therapy is promoted by a licensed therapist or a church, it's a brutal lie that causes lasting, often lifelong harm and that drives many LGBTQ people into suicide and depression," he says.
Neither Bethel Church or CHANGED responded to requests for comment on this story. Out also contacted Instagram to ask whether the social media platform planned to remove the posts, and a spokesperson claimed Facebook, which owns Instagram, had reviewed them and determined they do not violate its community guidelines.
"Under our hate speech policy, we do not allow content that attacks people based on their sexual orientation," the representative said. "We allow content expressing opinion, but we draw the line at attacks and will remove such content."
This isn't the first time Bethel Church has been criticized for pushing orientation change efforts, however. When California mulled the passage of a trio of laws in 2018 that would strengthen its ban on conversion therapy -- which was originally signed six years prior -- the congregation called the proposed legislation "troubling" and urged its members to write their lawmakers to oppose the bills.
That stance led to protests against Bethel Church, with demonstrators standing outside the megachurch holding signs that read "LOVE DOESN'T NEED A CURE."
Although lead pastor Kris Vallotton responded to the protests by taking a copy of a sermon criticizing the bills offline, he doubled down on Bethel Church's conversion therapy stance in an op-ed published in the Redding Record Searchlight. He claimed the congregation "holds to the scriptural perspective that same-sex sexual behavior is unhealthful."
"We cannot stand by and allow our message, our hope, and our faith to be silenced," Vallotton said. "Proposed legislation like these assembly bills ultimately seeks to restrict and control many voices, not only ours."
UPDATE: In response to this story, a representative for Bethel Church claims in an email to Out that the congregation does not support conversion therapy.
"God loves all people, LGBTQ+ and straight," says Communications Director Aaron Tesauro. "The message of CHANGED has never been "All Must Change." We share these stories specifically for Christians who are unfulfilled in identifying as LGBTQ+. For those of you who feel fulfilled and happy as you are, we love you!"
"God doesn't force people to change, and people -- including Christians -- shouldn't force others to change, either," he adds. "We stand against any and all forms of shame, manipulation, force, humiliation, or physical harm in so-called 'ministry' or therapy."
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