LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — A prominent Southern Baptist theologian on Monday spoke out against psychological counseling aimed at turning gay people straight, saying homosexuality cannot be turned off like a switch. Instead, he said, the "sin" of being attracted to a person of the same sex can be changed by turning to the Bible's teachings.
The Rev. R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, said so-called conversion or reparative therapy doesn't carry the redemptive power of prayer.
"In the case of many people struggling with this particular sin, 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," Mohler told reporters at the start of a three-day conference on homosexuality and how to offer pastoral care to gays, hosted by the Louisville seminary.
"By God's grace, that might happen over time as a sign of God's work within the life of that individual. But ... for many, many people struggling with these patterns of sin, it will be a lifelong battle," Mohler said.
Ahead of the "Homosexuality: Compassion, Care and Counsel for Struggling People" conference, Mohler also said he was unwavering in the belief that marriage is only between a man and a woman. He said he believes homosexuals can change by accepting biblical teachings.
Several dozen gay-rights advocates denounced the conference by holding a protest next to the seminary. Their protest included a prayer for love, inclusion and respect. Some demonstrators held up signs that said: "Love Needs No Cure."
Not all clergy fell in line behind Mohler.
The Rev. Maurice Blanchard, a Baptist minister, said that even though conference leaders spoke out against reparative therapy, they're promoting similar efforts with a "coming to Christ" message. Blanchard called that "spiritual abuse."
"These folks here are already OK with God," Blanchard said of his fellow protesters. "They don't need fixing. They don't need correcting. They're just as they're supposed to be."
Derek Penwell, another minister who joined the protest, said: "Any movement that takes as its organizing principle the fact that people are somehow defective ... is wrong and it's destructive. And it adds to the kind of abuse that a group of people have faced for too long."
Mohler said the conference comes at a time when evangelicals' bedrock belief that marriage is only between a man and a woman is "decidedly not what is heard in the larger secular culture." Earlier this year, same-sex couples won the right to marry nationwide from a divided U.S. Supreme Court.
Mohler said the conference gives evangelicals a chance to discuss "what this moral revolution will demand of us and how we can respond with the full wisdom of the Christian faith."
Kentucky has found itself at the center of resistance against same-sex marriage. Rowan County clerk Kim Davis went to jail for defying a federal court's orders to issue same-sex marriage licenses.
Mohler said Monday that Christians have sinned against the gay community by "ignoring their presence among us, by remaining silent when we should speak the truth and by reducing a massive human struggle to simplistic explanations."
"Our message is the Gospel for all people, and that means that we call all people ... to be converted to faith in Christ," he said.
Heath Lambert, executive director of the Association of Certified Biblical Counselors, said the conference, expected to draw about 2,000 people, would showcase how "uniquely biblical" counseling can lead to repentance. He said the organization opposes reparative therapy.
"We believe that repentant faith is the means of change," Lambert said.
The conference's goal, he said, is to give counselors "a growing love and care for people who struggle with sexual sin, homosexual sin. We want people to have a growing wisdom about how to come alongside them and walk with them through a process of care."