The push to define conversion therapy as everything and anything

If pastors and other Christian ministry workers were left in any doubt as to whether any orthodox teaching on sexuality is being targeted by bans on conversion therapy in Australia, they could look no further than this recent article from the ABC.

As the force of the article shows, the target of governments like Dan Andrews’ in Victoria, is not merely some wacky, virtually non-existent conversion therapist working out of rooms somewhere, but mainstream churches and orthodox teaching from the Bible in any context.

The ABC of course, in keeping with its fine tradition of even handed reporting, gives zero oxygen to any actual pastors or church leaders who have any nuanced perspective on this, and gives its time to only those voices who have been afflicted and affected.

Not that I don’t think there are not cases of simply unhelpful “pray the gay away” or “you all had daddy issues” nonsense floating around. But as the article makes clear, the Victorian government is looking much deeper, and more intrusively than that:

… survivors do not use the term therapy, as what they have endured is not therapeutic.They say the term misrepresents the most common, informal conversion practice of structured conversations with religious leaders.

So what the Victorian Government is asking for, and getting, because that’s what it wants to get, is a picture of church pastoral ministry in which someone who is struggling with SSA asks for prayer or advice or whatever. And it’s the “whatever” that is confusing.

Call me cynical, but the point of such legislation isn’t necessarily to hunt down such churches, because that might be bad press (though goodness knows what the Victorian Government might consider bad press to look like given the hall pass it got from most over its COVID debacle). The point is to ensure that churches self-censor and asphyxiate, over time, any public teaching on sexuality.

I mean, where does one draw the line, especially as you read the article one of the now openly gay interviewees admits he had a warm, friendly relationship with the pastor who was counselling him?

I read some of what that pastor said and did, and I would definitely not go down the track he did (or was reported to have gone done, because the ABC lacks a definite curiosity these days about anything it disagrees with), but what track would be worth going down at all, if the definition of conversion therapy becomes so rubbery?

Even reading this, I am sure some pastors I know feel nervous, given some conversations they may have had with someone who has now come out as gay.

And is preaching Romans 1 and Paul’s equating of homosexuality as an example of rebellion against God a coercive attempt at conversion therapy by shaming or putting the fear of judgement into someone? I am sure those interviewed by the ABC, along with the ABC, and presumably the Victorian Government, would say yes.

In other words, conversion therapy is not restricted to some sort of course or series of interventions, but anything that a church group might say in any context that would give any impression that anything but celebration of same sex attraction and/or practice is adequate.

This is, by no means to say, that most churches bang on about homosexuality all of the time. They clearly don’t. We don’t in our church. When we teach through the Bible we teach through where the text is at, and we provide application across a variety of settings.

But that’s exactly the problem. The topic does come up and so we preach it. Where’s the line? Who defines conversion therapy? It’s a minefield. Conversion therapy is becoming everything and nothing at the same time. Which means any Christian sexual ethic that does not give a hall pass to same sex relationships as being part of God’s good plan for sex, is going to be in the firing line.

Does that sound too over the top? Ten years ago perhaps. And perhaps we’re paying for the lack of wisdom in some clearly wrong teaching around homosexual attraction being a “worse sin” or “deeper brokenness” than any other.

But to even say that it’s an even playing field now, and that sexual sin (of whatever stripe as long as we are not talking illegal) is no worse than stealing or unforgiveness, is to invite trouble.

As I have said before, there’s no such thing as a slippery slope. I’ve always said that political decisions on sexual matters are precipitous, and that the same sex marriage vote in Australia was the fulcrum that shifted the whole conversation.

It’s clearly time for ministry leaders who hold to an orthodox view of sexuality to realise that they are in the firing line. The government and advocacy groups and, sadly, many a revisionist churches, view any rejection of same sex expression as harmless, dangerous, and soon to be illegal.

And when it comes to the loss of a job, then that’s a whole new minefield we have to think through. The article cites a young man who lost his role as a youth pastor when he came out as gay, and it’s a fairly tough read to see what a strain he was under as life changed so drastically.

Now to be clear the Victorian government is taking advice on this matter, but when one of the key stakeholders is presenting submissions that say this:

Informal practices can include counselling in secular or unregulated counselling services, pastoral care or counselling, prayer ministry including deliverance or exorcisms, support groups, conferences, rallies, and online interactive coursework or mentoring programs.

Then you have to ask, what does it not include. What sort of conference and to how many people and on what topic? What do we mean by rallies? What is a support group for? I know of some such groups in churches already and everyone seems fine and friendly and it appears to be a great conversation. Until …

It’s the not knowing that is designed to ensure compliance. Better not poke the government bear on this one.

Neil Foster has a useful article about it on his blog, which expertly covers the intersection between law and religion. You can read it here.

Foster states:

To be clear, extending the law to punish speech in these ways would be a very bad idea. The fact is that, like it or not, the major religious traditions of the world have largely taught for a long time that homosexual activity is not in accordance with God’s will for humanity. A pastor, rabbi, imam, or other religious teacher faithfully presenting the teachings of their religious tradition will occasionally have to mention this fact, and encourage believers to change their behaviour if it is contrary to God’s purposes.

I read that and think “Yep, that’s sane and obvious”. The lobbyists read that and see harmful conversion therapy and are only too happy to say so publicly in submissions to our state governments.

And those state governments? All of the signs so far is that they don’t get religion. Or more to the point they don’t realise that in our current setting, sexual freedom is the religious shibboleth that will brook no rival.

I don’t know what your church is doing, but I would be keeping online sermons on the topic offline for the time being. And I wouldn’t be expecting much support from revisionist churches who have, as one friend of mine observed, clearly enacted a strategy over the past four decades of enacting the Sexual Revolution, only at half pace. Expect that pace to pick up over the next decade.