conversion therapy

Why Conversion Therapy is not a ‘unicorn’ or a ‘wacky pseudo-psychological practice’; but might involve a coercive culture we need to change

Eternity News published a piece from James Macpherson today that’s the latest in a string of articles from white blokes, typically in positions of leadership or influence in the Institutional Church, waxing lyrical about the state of affairs facing Christians in Victoria; specifically the circumstances facing (typically blokes who are) leaders in church communities in Victoria who may transgress the new Change and Suppression (Conversion) Therapy bill in Victoria.

I’ve lost count of how many people disclaim their objections to this Bill by pointing out that they — like everybody else — don’t believe in aversion therapy or electric shock therapy — the archaic forms of clinical practice employed by therapists when homosexuality was considered a psychological disorder, in the professional field of psychology and psycho therapy (the manual of psychological disorders the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) of the American Psychiatric Association only removed homosexuality from its list of diagnoses in 1973). So here, for example, are a couple of these disclaimers from prominent blokes with institutional influence, starting with the piece from Eternity (which also ran, in an expanded, and more terrible form, at The Spectator; it’s a culture war piece more at home on Caldron Pool):

“We were told that the Change or Suppression (Conversion) Practices Prohibition Bill, passed by the Victorian government last month, was to stop archaic practices such as electric shock therapy being used on gay people. The legislation has deliberately sought out voices that insist conversion therapy is not simply some wacky pseudo-psychological practice that has fallen by the wayside, but standard church practice and teaching.”

Or…

“The Bill is so hopelessly sourced, and – despite its claims to be targeting what is ostensibly a unicorn, – namely pseudo-spiritual conversion therapy techniques that are rare and indeed extinct – is intended to fire a shot across the bows of churches that take a traditional and orthodox line when it comes to sexuality matters.”

Or…

“For example, it wasn’t that long ago that aversion therapies were taught at a university here in Melbourne and practiced by doctors. Second, contrary to rhetoric offered by the Government and activist groups, conversion practices (ie aversion therapy) were always rare and unusual in religious settings. These are groups who blindly followed what was considered mainstream science at the time. However, instead of  limiting legislation to banning an archaic practice that everyone agrees is wrong, the Parliament has outlawed praying and even talking with another person about sexuality and gender.”

Or…

“There is nobody who supports or condones the sort of coercive “gay conversion” practices which might have occurred in the context of psychological treatment and some faith communities in the middle of last century.  Such practices are abhorrent.”

Lyle Shelton and Martyn Iles both provide caveats in their public objections to the Bill along these lines too; it’s the almost essential disclaimer because everyone agrees that zapping away the gay is beyond the pale; they just aren’t sure if we should be able to ‘pray away the gay’… But the idea that the Bill is targetting something abhorrent, and slipping in a bunch of ‘normal’ Christian practices (that aren’t harmful at all) is a common objection to the Bill. There’s a sort of widespread incredulity that the government would go after much more nebulous church practices beyond these overtly harmful practices; and there’s often a commitment to small government driving these objections (a suggestion that this is an illegitimate use of power). Whether that small government objection is right or wrong is an interesting question, it’s one I personally have sympathy for — except, that I think we welcome government intervention in areas where we genuinely believe harm is happening, so this objection actually sits on a fundamental belief that run of the mill Christian culture and practices aren’t harmful for Gay people; which is to say, these voices don’t believe the stories behind the Bill, that produced the broad brush approach.

I wrote a piece for Eternity with my student Minister Matthew Ventura (you can read his thoughts about life as a celibate gay Christian at singledout.blog), where we suggested believing the stories of harm would be a great first step for us Christians. In the course of writing this piece, we spoke to a few other friends, including another celibate gay Christian, Tom Pugh, who has been involved in ministry with a conservative evangelical organisation (you can read Tom’s excellent insights at Transparent).

Tom made a point that became a paragraph in our piece, saying:

“There’s something about the theological system and ministerial structure/practice that seems to produce what you might call spiritual codependancy. When taken as a whole, the preaching and practice of a church can, to a certain kind of person, function in a way that is effectively coercive.”

This insight — and Tom is not alone in expressing this view — is, I think, part of the picture that more conservative ‘small government’ Christian figures with institutional influence are missing; and there’s a couple of analogies I’d like to draw in order to plead with my brethren (and it is, so far as I can tell, exclusively blokes who keep making this point); because I think it’s a point that is a product of privilege (both institutional, and from the individual experience of being a cisgendered, heterosexual, bloke).

I wrote recently about an article by Michael Emerson on racism that made the point that white people tend to think individualistically about race, while people of colour tend to think collectively, and further, that: “Whites tend to view racism as intended individual acts of overt prejudice and discrimination,” while “most people of colour define racism quite differently. Racism is, at a minimum, prejudice plus power, and that power comes not from being a prejudiced individual, but from being part of a group that controls the nation’s systems.” This disparity in thinking, I think, is actually a right/left distinction as well as an individual/collective cultural distinction — the ability to think about systems and the power (sometimes oppressive, harmful, or coercive) that systems wield. This maps on to the objections about conversion therapy legislation that broaden the definition from overt acts of conversion therapy to attempts to tackle the harm caused by coercive systems. You could frame it as ‘conservative Christians tend to view conversion therapy as intended individual acts of overt violence and harm,’ while the government (and those reporting stories to them) ‘define conversion therapy quite differently. Conversion therapy is, at a minimum, prejudice plus power…” you see what I’m doing there… it’s the same dynamic. Arguably it also works with feminism and other stuff that forms the whole ‘critical theory’ approach to ‘whiteness’ and ‘wokeness’ and intersectionality; that is, when you’re the beneficiary of an institution or status quo, when you’re ‘the norm,’ you can be blind to the dynamics that don’t directly effect you, but perpetuate your position in that system. Like, you know, the Pope and the church establishment when Luther started trying to bring systemic reform.

There’s no coincidence that this particular objection about the prescriptive definition of conversion therapy being broadened to something nebulous comes from typically right-thinking men who experience institutional influence (also, to be fair, those perhaps most at risk of transgressing the legislation). It comes with a particular understanding of the world; one that may or may not be objectively true; but is, I’d suggest subjectively likely that they will hold that position based on the privileged position they typically occupy in the institutional church. I’m aware that this sort of claim can be quite triggering to conservative blokes, in conservative institutions, who think individually not just systemically, because my default is to be those things.

And here’s the questions I’d put to those mounting this argument against the legislation (whether or not the legislation is good is an entirely different question), and one that I have covered previously.

a) Are you in favour of government intervention in church practices around both systemic issues and particular practices on child safety, especially after the Royal Commission?

b) Do you think steps being taken by governments to legislate against ‘coercive control’ in the context of Domestic Violence are good and necessary?

The reason I think these questions are worth pondering is that I think there’s a direct line between both these questions and Conversion Therapy legislation.

The research supporting the Bill in Victoria involved hearing real stories — it didn’t have the scope, or the national reach, that the Royal Commission had, but the stories of those who had been harmed by practices beyond just ‘archaic unicorn’ therapies were believed; and, even those people still in our church communities, committed to celibacy, would say there is a system or culture at work in the church that is harmful; and that often involves the sort of things that enlightened conservative individuals don’t themselves practice (or that their church communities don’t practice), but do defend (like Margaret Court’s ‘tin ear,’ or Israel Folau’s tweets, or practices that are cultural, rather than individual, around the view of homosexuality or the treatment of LGBTIQA+ people in our communities; I had, for example, an older Christian tell me this week that the country started falling apart when homosexual practice became legal); there’re a bunch of other things our Eternity article points to to fill this out some more.

If these practices do cause harm the legislation might be a clumsy, blunt, overreach, but at least it is trying to tackle something — like child safety — we should’ve been dealing with ourselves. I recognise that there is a push to attack any reasonably orthodox teaching that suggests homosexuality is, like many forms of heterosexuality, impacted by the fall and so both sinful and ‘broken’ (I also note that my own denomination, here in Queensland, believed ‘brokenness’ was too soft when it came to finding language to articulate this, and that those of us who use it had ceded too much).

The research around ‘coercive control’ and family violence demonstrates that abuse is not limited to particular incidents of physical assault, or even of verbal abuse, but that the relationships that can culminate in extreme violence — even murder — involve harmful dynamics that aren’t presently ‘illegal’ or even just ‘particular actions’ but do follow a recognisable pattern. Jessica Hill’s See What You Made Me Do is, I think, required reading on Domestic and Family Violence. I think Hill’s work profoundly and cogently makes the case for some government intervention on coercive control, as nebulous as it is. Even if it’s not currently dealing with acts of physical violence that are currently illegal; this is, in part, because I think trauma is real harm; and that it impacts the body and psyche as profoundly and deeply as physical violence (see, for example, The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel Van Der Kolk).  Hill makes some observations about the dynamics of abusive, coercive, relationships that might also be true of coercive systems, she identifies ‘three primary elements’ at the heart of coercive control: “dependency, debility, and dread.” Now, note that my friend, without making these links, describe Christian culture — particularly life in conservative institutional Christianity — as creating “a spiritual codependency.”

Gay, or Same Sex Attracted, people growing up in Christian communities where the sort of ‘culture’ we typically hear minimised, or marginalised as ‘not what good churches do’ describe developing cognitive dissonance as a survival technique; the sort produced by the dread of being exposed as something other than the Christian norm — or, that if one was outed, this might include being outered — excluded from family or church family life. That dread, in itself, can become coercive and forms the ‘system’ behind conversations that might seem like harmless ‘pastoral’ offers of prayer or support.

The scientist Hill draws on, Albert Biderman, observed the ‘coercive control’ practiced by North Korean soldiers who had imprisoned US Prisoners of War, and suggested their practices included “eight techniques: isolation, monopolisation of perception, induced debility or exhaustion, cultivation of anxiety and despair, alternation of punishment and reward, demonstrations of omnipotence, degradation, and the enforcement of trivial demands.”

Now, churches don’t practice all of these when it comes to LGBTIQA+ people in our communities, or families, but some of these line up with real stories from real people, both in the Victorian research behind the Bill, and in stories I hear from my celibate gay Christian friends. In the context of domestic violence, coercive control can include policing things like language and dress, enforcing ‘cultural’ or community standards around language; limiting who people can or can’t see and speak to, controlling how time is spent, and seeking to modify behaviours that someone (the coercive controller) is uncomfortable with. Hill reports that the parallel between coercive control in POW camps and in DV situations has been observed since the 1970s; and in the earliest research making the link “survivors insisted that [physical violence] was not the worst part of the abuse,” the coercive control was more damaging. This might be, by analogy, the case with same sex attracted people in our communities — it may be that the most harm is experienced not in ‘aversion or shock therapy’ (violence), but in the system or culture that leaves them traumatised and having to navigate a culture filled with trauma reminders (or triggers) that compound the damage, and the sense of shame (the opposite of a sense of belonging).

This friend I spoke to, Tom, said the cognitive dissonance he experienced growing up in a church community produced “anxiety and depersonalisation” for him; depersonalisation being a ‘trauma based coping mechanism’. Tom was keen to reiterate that he doesn’t believe the culture he grew up in was operating maliciously, he observes that LGBTIQA+ individuals who grow up in church communities, especially as the broader community becomes more welcoming, can experience trauma, mental health challenges, and a sense of shame that come from navigating a culture or system that coercively ‘suppresses’ or ‘converts’ more of their personhood and experience than is necessary in order for them to faithfully uphold orthodox teachings on sexuality, and belong in traditional church communities.

Now, my point is not to say that standard church practices are a form of coercive control, and thus necessarily abusive — but that the stories shared by LGBTIQA+ people who have been harmed by church environments and practices aren’t being dishonest, and nor are governments, simply because the ‘unicorns’ of aversion or electric shock therapy are no longer practiced. Standard church practices might actually be harmful, and might not be necessary, so it might be legitimate for governments to expand their interest and care beyond ‘violent’ intervention or actions, into systemic and cultural practices; especially post-Royal Commission. Until we grapple with this — especially when we’re talking to left-leaning governments who think in ‘woke’ ways about intersectionality, privilege, and systems — we’re talking past those making the laws.

If our practices are causing actual harm, and we could do better — it’s on us to make the distinction between child safety regulations and conversion therapy regulations; and at the moment just saying ‘but we’re not zapping someone’ isn’t actually engaging in the conversation on its terms; or recognising that harm can come from more than just ‘particular’ actions, but can come from coercive or controlling systems and cultures that dehumanise and dominate.

Maybe we could try not treating LGBTIQA+ people and their allies like the enemy (or, doing what Jesus said to do to our enemies)

Victoria passed its Change or Suppression (Conversion) Practices Prohibition Bill yesterday and the online reaction is predictably polarising.

I’ve written about why I think this was a bad Bill, but also why Christian opposition to the Bill was misguided and doomed to fail previously. I don’t have skin in the game on this fight (though Queensland has its own laws), but, my parents are moving to Melbourne in coming weeks to take up a job with a significant Melbourne Presbyterian Church, so I’m not exactly a disinterested observer either.

This morning the usual culture war champions Martyn Iles and Lyle Shelton have come out swinging against ‘Dictator Dan,’ Lyle is busy proclaiming this the death of liberal democracy (he’s also doing his best to disparage his home suburb of West End, in Brisbane, every time he opens a video blog), while young Martyn, when he’s not mansplaining vaccines, or defending Craig Kelly and Israel Folau, is also devoting significant attention to the Bill.

It’s been great that everyone who has spoken out against the Bill — including Lyle — have spoken explicitly against Conversion TherapyTM, the particularly coercive attempts to pressure same sex attracted people into orientation change. But almost every statement I’ve read has followed the condemnation of Conversion Therapy with a disclaimer that this is a unicorn, or phantom, or non existent problem, in order to pivot to smashing the Bill’s overreach.

I also appreciate David Bennett’s reaction to the Bill. David is a ‘Side B’ Christian (same sex attracted and committed to celibacy, read my review of his book A War of Loves here — that could well be a banned book now). He says, in a pretty powerful critique, that this is an attempt from the Victorian Government to ‘colonise queer Christian bodies.’

Look. This is complex. Christians are anxious — and despite the consistent disclaimer that we should be ‘not anxious’ even while reacting against this Bill, the reaction itself is a picture of an anxious response that the disclaimer isn’t overcoming. More than being non-anxious — we should be loving to our neighbours (including our political leaders), perhaps especially to those in our community it now seems needed an act of parliament to be protected from us (while we kept asking to keep being able to do things that apparently harmed them).

But here are three suggestions for a way forward for Christians — whether you’re in Victoria, or in a state yet to legislate in this area.

Show the LGBTIQA+ people in church communities you don’t want to eradicate or ‘colonise’ them

I mentioned David Bennett’s contribution to the discussion around this Bill above — of all the Side B Christians I know, he’s the first I’ve seen publicly respond to this Bill; and he, like others I know, has also given significant energy to carving out space for Side B Christians in theologically conservative churches. There’s a variety of possible positions for same sex attracted, or gay, Christians, and the labels Side B, Side A, and Ex-Gay are prominent options (there’s also a ‘Side Y’). Side A are the people who believe committed gay relationships are within God’s design for sex and marriage, Side B are those who don’t look to ‘change’ or ‘suppress’ their orientation, but redirect their lives and love to Jesus (typically they would be ‘celibate gay Christians’ or Christians in mixed orientation marriages), ex-Gay Christians are those who no longer ‘identify’ as same sex attracted, possibly having experienced therapeutic intervention.

In my observation, being a Side B Christian in conservative Christian institutions (and families) is pretty fraught. You get smashed from all sides:

  • from Side A, because you have decided their conclusions are erroneous and sinful, and they fear you are suppressing something that you require for a flourishing life, even in the church,
  • from Side ex, and lots of heterosexual church leaders because you are not fully ‘mortifying’ your sin and ‘changing your identity’ (and there’s plenty of policing about what label you can or can’t use, and what you should and shouldn’t do — both institutionally, and within families),
  • from the world, because you’re not pursuing the expression of your authentic self based on your natural desires, you are suppressing something, and that is perceived as being harmful.

At the same time this Bill was being debated, church denominations like mine were writing documents that made Side B Christians in our community feel more marginalised; this is common around the world as major conservative evangelical denominations — of the kind most at risk from something like Victoria’s Bill — were busy also policing the identity-marking language used by celibate gay Christians — one denomination said such people shouldn’t call themselves  a ‘Same sex attracted Christian,’ or ‘a ‘gay Christian’ but rather ‘a Christian who experiences same sex attraction’ — this sort of thing, then, gets used in family and church contexts to further marginalise these brothers and sisters; often looking (and feeling) a lot like they are being asked to ‘convert’ or ‘suppress’ something about themselves; and often in ways that are damaging and harmful. Every time I write about things like this I end up with more stories from people.

When we say ‘conversion therapy is a unicorn’ we have to be sensitive to the way our ongoing posture, as an institutional church, is causing harm — there are brothers and sisters so committed to Jesus and his bride, the church, that they remain in our communities despite this harm (and all human relationships involve a modicum of harm). But there are many others who have experienced this sort of policing of their person, our own internal identity politicking, who have left the church feeling harmed or traumatised.

I’m not sure that church experiences alone are ever the entire picture of trauma or harm experienced by gay people — suicidality in LGBTIQA+ communities is also disproportionately large in more liberal and supportive countries than Australia — but we have to own that we do not have a good record, or reputation, for loving LGBTIQA+ people in church communities, let alone those outside the church.

The theological posturing behind our identity politics on this feels a lot like assuming a modernist framework, and one built around renaissance-slash-reformation liberalism, and its emphasis on ‘the individual’ and ‘identity’ — and I’m not sure these are coherent theological categories to use to solve complex questions. This cuts both ways, because I’m not sure ‘gay identity’ is a coherent anthropological category in a totalising way — I’m probably more inclined to see descriptors as experiential rather than ‘ontological’ or to pursue a ‘narrative ontology,’ and one that accommodates the givenness of our bodies, and relationships, as genuine realities, over some sort of personal desire based neo-gnostic thing anyway. But we’re way underdone in our theology around personhood and desire — and until we’re not pumping out Margaret Courts and Israel Folaus without clear differentiation between their positions and ‘orthodox Christianity,’ and indeed, so long as we keep saying these sorts of marginal figures are orthodox simply because we agree with them on orthopraxy (or more literally, how people should use their genitals), we won’t get anywhere good (I mean, Folau doesn’t even embrace the Trinity).

The thing is, it’s our Side B Christians — like David Bennett — who are having to do not just the emotional, but the intellectual, labour on these questions; and rather than colonising them and insisting they align their experiences as closely as possible to ours, maybe we should be listening to them… I don’t just say this as a cheap ‘virtue signal’ thing either — the work of writers like Wesley Hill (and others at Spiritual Friendship), Nate Collins and people in the Revoice team, or Ed Shaw and others at Living Out — is way ahead of heterosexual Christian thought leadership on sexuality, the body, and identity — even as people in each of those groups have theological disagreements. These guys are the ‘desert fathers’ of the modern world; experientially disconnected from the mainstream idolatry of sex and individualism, and so in a position to critique the way the church has been swept up in idolatrous systems.

Show your LGBTIQA+ neighbours you understand the pain caused by Christians (and Christendom) as they celebrate this legal change

There are people in the Australian community genuinely rejoicing today and feeling like a victory has been won — not just the cynical culture warriors who’ve used this as a wedge issue to advance a progressive agenda and score social capital points without tackling deep, complex, structural issues (this is pretty low hanging fruit in a culture war). There are those who have pastored Side A Christians whose experiences of conservative churches have been deeply traumatic, those who’ve seen lives lost to suicide where bad Christian practices have been part of the story, those who are not Christian who see this as part of the ongoing march towards justice for their community-of-identity. In our collective grief and anger it would be easy to marginalise or dismiss that joy — rather than learning from it and asking where we should have reformed our behaviour both in the church, and outside it.

The same political actors who drove the Christian contribution to the culture war on Same Sex Marriage have not learned, and, as they double down not only are we continuing to set fire to our social capital (if we had any left after the plebiscite, or royal commission), they continue to perpetuate the reputation that Christians are homophobes who can’t live civilly in community with people who disagree with them. Fighting against this Bill, with whatever nuance we can muster, against the backdrop of rejecting the extension of participation in a civil institution to people who wanted it broadened to include them, and against harming vulnerable minors in our institutional care, looks a whole lot like Christians insisting on our rights to keep harming minors in our care, especially LGBTIQA+ minors. It was a deck way stacked against us, and the more we speak, the worse we look — we can’t say ‘we don’t like conversion therapy’ and ‘but it’s a unicorn’ while saying ‘let us keep doing what we’re doing’ if the perception is that we do bad things to people. We’d be better off investing in rebuilding our social capital — especially with the LGBTIQA+ community.

We should be signing up for ally training in our workplaces, advocating for improvements in mental health and wellbeing for LGBTIQA+ people, gently engaging with the complexity of the umbrella where the Trans political ideology finds itself at odds with LGB experience (and feminism), listening carefully and responding with love and concern both to individuals and, where possible, pushing for legitimate structural/systemic reform for the good of our neighbours. Pastoral theologian Mark Yarhouse, who is widely published on issues around sexuality and gender and writes from his own perspective as someone holding a traditional Christian sexual ethic, but also as someone who has conducted secular research in this field, co-authored a book in 2020 titled Emerging Gender Identities: Understanding the Diverse Experiences of Today’s Youth. A friend shared this quote from the book on Facebook:

“If theologically conservative Christians were as committed as politically active LGBTQ+ are to developing and upholding policies that protect all people, including vulnerable transgender people, in matters like bathroom access and workplace violence, perhaps our current polarisation could be attentuated, even if we still experience disagreements about human anthropology and the like.”

Perhaps indeed. It’d be nice to give it a try at least — the old ‘love your neighbour as yourself’ or ‘treat others as you would have them treat you’ (not ‘as they treat you’) — you know — what Jesus calls his followers to do. Personally, I’d like my neighbours to respect and allow my ability to gather in community with those I belong to, to freely practice my beliefs, and, inasmuch as possible, to be able to have the government recognise and allow me to practice my sexuality in a committed and safe relationship framework (while recognising that the government has a role in stopping me using my freedoms to hurt others).

Perhaps loving relationships across culture war divides, built on reciprocity and genuine seeking the interest of others is the best defence against Christian teaching meeting the legal threshold for action under this Bill. Harm.

Maybe Christians could do this with people who’ve got other experiences/identities shaping their approach to participation in community — like LGBTIQA+ individuals, but perhaps Christians in Victoria could do this, as well, by, you know, joining the Labor Party. Do some branch stacking of our own — and actually turn up to meetings and participate in political life.

Don’t fight the culture war

The absolute hottest of hot takes on this legislation ignores (or minimises) the face value rationale given for its introduction. LGBTIQA+ rights are definitely a hallmark progressive agenda item — partly because of critical theory, and intersectionality, and the left’s commitment to undoing structural inequality and its connection to patriarchy. But this is complicated — it’s the same ‘intersectionality’ that presents pressing issues for this bill; LGB groups and feminists have issues with trans ideology. Something has to give on that front, which means the ideological basis for this legislation as a piece of virtue signalling is weak — but — there’s also the genuine face value reason given, and that reason is possibly sufficient grounds for a progressive government to act in the interest of its polis. LGBTIQA+ individuals are statistically speaking, more vulnerable — and we don’t know all the factors leading to that vulnerability, but some of those factors are environmental/cultural — and some of that comes from Christendom and its moral frame (the sort of frame that saw homosexuality criminalised), and some of that comes from church practices (the type that has parents ostracising gay kids, with the support of their church community). We didn’t — and don’t seem willing — to get our own house in order on this issue. Maybe the Government actually is genuinely acting because of Christian bigotry, genuine harm, and a legitimate research paper into Christian culture and practices being a contributor. Maybe it’s evidence based — with a dash of ideology thrown in — and maybe it’s the ideology that led to overreach (noting that the Queensland government has already banned conversion therapy in clinical/professional settings and didn’t reach quite so far into the hard left’s bag of tricks).

The hottest of hot takes is that this Bill represents a government that is out to get Christians. That it is the thin end of a wedge — and next they’ll send out right-think manuals for churches, and then they’ll come for our sermons. Ultimately we’ll have to chop Romans 1 out of the Bible.

Let’s assume the premise of this hot take for a moment; that the concept of ‘conversion therapy’ is a phantom — or unicorn — that churches are beautiful and harmless communities committed to the flourishing of gay individuals in our families, and in the broader community, perhaps, then, this really is an attempt by the Victorian Government to eradicate us religious people who are beyond the pale… a crushing blow in the culture war… Perhaps this is the next stop on a ‘slippery slope’ or ‘cultural marxism’s long march through our institutions’ we keep being told about (rather than the ongoing pendulum swing towards leveling the legal/cultural playing field that once treated homosexual sex as illegal, and where there’s still work to go for that community in securing the freedoms it believes it needs to live a flourishing life).

Let’s assume the premise that the other side is fighting a culture war, hell-bent on our destruction; if that’s truly the case, we should respond in a heaven-bent way. The same person who said “blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God,” and “Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Said:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you. “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven.” — Matthew 5:38-45

Our anxious temptation in the hottest of hot takes is to feel the heat and fight fire with fire. To lobby. To write letters (that in the context sound like we’re asking to keep harming people).

We should, as our Lord says, turn the other cheek. If the government is behaving badly, and there are those who would use this law to bring action against Christians we have a guidebook, and a guide: our crucified King. The answer to others playing a culture war against the church is not for us to play the culture war right back; it’s for us to be peacemakers who are ambassadors for Christ and ministers of reconciliation because we have been reconciled to God and are now part of his kingdom.

I’m often called naive for minimising the threat of the secular left (where, mostly, I just want to point out the similar threat posed by the secular right). I’m often asked, when I say, ‘don’t fight the culture war’ accused of pushing some sort of quietism, or asked whether I think that will work (whether ‘working’ is changing hearts, or minds, or legislation, or just ‘stopping them hitting us’). To be honest, I don’t assess the rightness of political action based on the results it might produce — but rather, on what it cultivates in me (and would cultivate in others). I do think that, over time, virtuous political action presented in a compelling way can bring positive change (think Wilberforce and slavery, or pretty much the historic impact of Christianity on the western world), but I don’t think it’s a short term silver bullet — and — frankly, I don’t think Christians are meant to pick actions that ‘win’ political fights or produce particular results — I think we’re meant to ‘do good,’ and that this ultimately is about following the example of Jesus, who, remember, was crucified by the state. I think the point of ‘martyrdom’ (that is, actions that testify to a bigger truth) is vindication by God, ultimately, because we have been faithful witnesses to his kingdom.

The good news is that if we respond to those who are seeking to do evil to us (again, still assuming there’s a nefarious agenda at play here, not the charitable surface level read of the motivations of the Victorian government, and those who voted for and advocated for this Bill)… if we respond to their evil with love, that exposes their evil for what it is, as Paul puts it in Romans 12:20-21: “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”

Why not try this?

It’s the same school of thinking that, when they were coming for our bakers, said ‘if someone wants to sue you for not making them a cake, bake them a wedding cake and give it to them for free’… We could be surprisingly loving in the face of hostility, rather than defensive and reactive. We could do things that rebuild some social capital, rather than setting it on fire as a beacon to our own self-righteousness. We could be a community of people who have a reputation not for harming LGBTIQA+ people, but pursuing their flourishing, even as we disagree on their theological convictions, in the hope that our love for them might be a plausible picture of the better humanity we find in Jesus and his kingdom.

We could be so loving and nurturing LGBTIQA+ people in our communities that not only are they plausible advocates for the goodness of the Gospel — even at personal cost of sex — not only are those individuals clearly still able to flourish (and not be harmed), but we — the church — become a plausible community for our LGBTIQA+ neighbours to enter while exploring the truth-claims of the Gospel. We can’t do that while also publicly doing things that look committed to their harm instead.

This Bill has enormous capacity for overreach — if, as it is tested in real life, and that is demonstrably the case, there will be opportunities for legislation to be changed and challenged. What this Bill aims to do, though, is undo the damage the church has (and does) do to vulnerable people in our community because we can’t get our posture and message right on sexuality and the call of Jesus for all people who join his kingdom.

On first converting the church (some thoughts on the Conversion Therapy legislation)

A few people have asked my thoughts about Victoria’s Conversion Therapy bill, including how I could imagine a church operating in Melbourne under the conditions the Bill seems to present to those who are theologically conservative on issues of sexuality and gender expression/identification. Conversion Therapy has already been banned in Queensland, though the Act that was brought through parliament before our recent election is narrower in its scope than the Victorian proposal.

I have concerns about the Victorian legislation (I have bigger concerns about the church), but they’re not exactly the sort of concerns I’ve been reading my blogging brethren in theologically (and politically) conservative circles expressing.

My concerns are slightly more obtuse and to do with how a secular government operating with the default assumptions that religious truths and practices have no substantial legal standing can then turn around and legislate about religious truths and practices.

It seems to me that this is a weird blurring of church and state that elevates belonging to a church community, and participating in its beliefs and practices, to something non-voluntary. I’m happy to grant that the legislation is particularly aimed at protecting vulnerable children whose presence in church institutions is often not voluntary, but part of belonging to a family who attend a church, and can see analogies between the sorts of conversion therapy targeted by this bill, and the behaviours of church institutions that led to the Royal Commission into Institutional Abuse, but I’m concerned that the bill is not limited simply to protecting children from those who would intervene in the development of their sexual or gender identity, but also seems to prevent adults from voluntarily accessing any services that might fall under the Bill’s definition, whether those services are theologically necessary or not. This, to me, is a curious thing for a government to be pursuing.

I’m also not convinced that any intervention in the psycho-sexual development of a child, or young adult is good or necessary; I’ve heard arguments that for a trans-identifying child that to go through puberty and develop biological features that are not in accordance with their preferred identity is traumatic, but technological intervention to guide development seems to me to be its own ‘conversion therapy’ featuring a vulnerable child, and there certainly seem to be a number of post-intervention individuals wishing they’d acted (or been encouraged to act) more slowly, taking less extreme measures. I recognise, obviously, the privileged position I write from here as someone comfortable in my own skin, whose physical, biological, sex lines up with my gender, who is not neuro-divergent, and who is reasonably secure in my sense of self within the communities I’ve belonged to…

This, also, isn’t to say that children shouldn’t have some human agency, just that most of us as adults recognise that our growth and development and ability to act with wisdom, or even to delay gratification, is something that comes not just with experience but with the maturity of our brains and emotions. Sometimes our job as adults is to say ‘not yet’ or ‘wait’ and to help people ground their sense of self in something other than their sexuality, or gender, and to model delaying gratification and bearing up under tension and examine our desires, and our environment, rather than grasping hold of every technological solution (whether chemical or surgical) offered to us with the promise it will ease our discomfort. I suspect there might be a bunch of cultural and environmental changes that might take some of the pressure off young people navigating their development, and some of that might even look like challenging the idea of identity itself, or the hyper-sexualised environment we make our kids grow up in, along side a culture built on the absolute need to know who you are and act authentically, and to do so by exercising one’s agency through immediate consumer choice and performance.

The Victorian Government’s landing page for the Change or Suppression (Conversion) Practices Prohibition Bill 2020 describes the circumstances that gave rise to the Bill as targeting practices that have caused serious damage and trauma. Then boldly states “it aims to ensure that Victorians are able to live their lives authentically with pride, and makes it clear an individual’s sexual orientation and gender identity are not “broken” and do not need to be “fixed.”

The Bill itself says its intent is:

(a)  to denounce and give statutory recognition to the serious harm caused by change or suppression practices; and

(b)  to affirm that a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity is not broken and in need of fixing; and

(c)  to affirm that no sexual orientation or gender identity constitutes a disorder, disease, illness, deficiency or shortcoming; and

(d)  to affirm that change or suppression practices are deceptive and harmful both to the person subject to the change or suppression practices and to the community as a whole.

Now. This is an interesting exercise in public theology from a secular state. And certainly, within the assumed truth and neutrality of a materialist account of personhood — where we are living our best lives when we authentically and pridefully live in such a way that our true self is performed and recognised — an “individual’s sexual orientation and gender identity” are not broken, and don’t need to be fixed (so long as we’re talking about those sexual orientations within the LGBTIQA+ umbrella, or heterosexuality, built on desire for sexual activity between consenting adults). I’m also not convinced that sexual orientation/desires never change (both because fluidity does seem to be a thing in some people’s stories, and because neuroplasticity is a thing), just as I’m not convinced that orientation change is a good or necessary goal for a Christian.

It’s interesting, then, that the Bill, having defined a ‘conversion or suppression’ practice goes on to allow therapeutic support for those seeking to transition their gender (presumably from alignment with biological sex to gender identity, rather than back to biological sex from gender identity). It’s also, I think, problematic that the Bill targets such practices even, explicitly, with an individual’s consent.

I have concerns about the anthropology underlying this bill, the idea that to put a religious conviction above a sexual or gender orientation is ‘suppressing’ one’s true self is an interesting conviction for a secular government to adopt, and elevates the ‘psyche’ above both bodily and spiritual realities (in fact it essentially denies Spiritual realities while targeting spiritual practices as though they are only psychological or physical/material practices). This means I have concerns about its “theology” — this is a Bill that enters into the realm of theologising, coming to particular conclusions not just about the nature of people (and whether there’s a spiritual dimension to our humanity or ‘identity), but about the world itself — because if the material world isn’t all there is, then living in a way that denies spiritual realities, suppressing those or refusing to be changed by them, is also harmful. The government has taken a theological position here, even if not in those terms.

This Bill is not, at that point, “secular” (religion neutral) legislation that enables the sort of pluralism a multi-cultural, multi-faith civic society requires, but “materialist” (and arguably, it’s not materialist, but gnostic, because of the weight it puts on immaterial psychological realities like ‘identity’ over material realities like our bodies and their constituent physical elements). The government may well be right; the material world might be all that exists. We might live in a closed universe with no God, and no spiritual ‘norms’ that we should be seeking to conform to in pursuit of human flourishing. But it’s a bold step for a government to take to push this agenda with a certain amount of certainty when a plurality of beliefs about reality are held in the community it seeks to hold together in a ‘public’ or in a ‘civil’ society. It’s the sort of step that religious groups are tempted to take when they hold the reigns of power; to push for a theocracy, rather than a secular democracy, even if it is a bold step motivated by a genuine desire to protect members of the community from injury or harm.

That said, I have greater concerns about this legislation than ‘what the government is doing’ — my concerns are about the church and our capacity to speak well into this debate, and to conduct ourselves with members of this vulnerable community in the sorts of relationships this legislation is seeking to limit, and particularly in our ability to minimise harm and trauma for those on the margins of our communities.

We’ve got no social capital on this issue. It’s easy to draw a line between conversion therapy practices, the suicide rates in the LGBT community, and both the Royal Commission and the church’s stance on Same Sex Marriage. Whether or not that line bears up under different types of scrutiny, and whether one can infer causation from coincidence or correlation, it certainly bears up in the experience of those lobbying for the law changes whose experiences have often been shaped through first hand experience both of life in Christian communities, and of caring for other members of the LGBT community whose lives have been impacted by church communities. Some of the bits of the ‘line’ one can draw between these socio-cultural phenomena include toxic church leadership and damaging ‘authority’ disparities in Christian relationships where vulnerable people are coerced either by individuals or a culture; and yet, in seeking to eradicate the toxic forms of Christianity in the mix here, there’s a risk it will also target healthy forms of Christianity with a robust understanding of human sinfulness and the need for transformation into Christlikeness for all people, as all of us have our sinful and broken desires (including sexual desires) reordered in and through our relationship with Jesus and the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives. As an aside, it’s become trendy in my neck of Christianity to pile on ‘brokenness’ as some sort of woke/liberal/progressive concession to ‘worldly concerns’ — if there’s one way to point out what’s wrong with that trend, it’s to show that ‘brokenness’ is mentioned by the government, while ‘sinfulness’ isn’t…

The Bill is targeting something broader than just ‘therapy’ in a clinical or professional setting — it’s not just after the horrific practices of electroshock or aversion therapies — but any activity aimed at ‘changing’ or ‘suppressing’ a person’s sexual or gender identity (and again, this is why ‘identity’ is a dangerous concept for us to fully buy into to begin with). It is deliberately broad in its scope, so that the behaviours targeted “include, but are not limited to:

(a)  providing a psychiatry or psychotherapy consultation, treatment or therapy, or any other similar consultation, treatment or therapy;

(b)  carrying out a religious practice, including but not limited to, a prayer based practice, a deliverance practice or an exorcism;

(c)  giving a person a referral for the purposes of a change or suppression practice being directed towards the person.

The Bill also requires, for an action to be taken under the proposed law, that the practice caused injury to the person involve; whether there is the possibility for non-injurious practices like prayer or pastoral support is an open question that the Bill does not seem to resolve.

The thing is, so much of our underlying culture in our communities, whether in behaviours encompassed by this very broad definition or not, is already injurious to LGBTIQA+ individuals seeking to reconcile their faith with their experience of the world.

And here’s where making the distinction between ‘Conversion Therapy TM’ and standard conservative Christian teaching, and the experience of being an excluded minority within Christian communities whose ‘identity’ is targeted for eradication is blurrier than we might think; because, in my observation very few churches are practicing or encouraging anything like ‘Conversion Therapy TM,’ but the experience of Same Sex Attracted Christians in our communities — even those who are ‘Side B’ (committed to a traditional Christian sexual ethic, and so mixed orientation marriage or celibacy) — is one that is often described as ‘traumatic,’ and these brothers and sisters who could and should be the voices we elevate in response to bad, overreaching, legislation are so marginalised within our own communities that it’s possible their sympathies are (rightly) directed to those LGBT people who no longer feel safe or loved by the church (and who, indeed, feel the opposite of safe and loved).

To quote Jordan Peterson, before seeking to change the world — or tackle this legislation — maybe we need to tidy our own room up first.

When we respond to legislation like this saying ‘these practices don’t happen’ — with our own dictionary definition of Conversion Therapy in our pockets to back up our assertion — this is typically expressed by people like me, straighties with institutional power, and no experience navigating life in our institutions as somebody on the margins (particularly those margined because of sexuality or gender divergence). A collection of ‘survivors’ from theologically conservative church communities teamed up with Amnesty International to lobby for this legislation.

There’s a petition on Amnesty’s site that spells out what these survivors are asking for, which is where the broadening of the definition of ‘Conversion Therapy’ — beyond our dictionaries, and the archaic behaviours of electric shock, or aversion therapy — is coming from. Here’s what the petition asks for:

We, the undersigned, call on you to protect people from being harmed by LGBTQA+ conversion practices. Successful conversion practices legislation must:

  • Strongly affirm that LGBTQA+ people are not ‘broken’ or ‘disordered’
  • Ban practices in both formal (medical/psychology/counselling) and informal (including pastoral care and religious) settings, whether paid or unpaid
  • Protect adults, children, and people with impaired agency, including prohibition of the removal of children from a jurisdiction for the purpose of conversion practices
  • Target the false, misleading, and pseudoscientific fraudulent claims that drive conversion practices
  • Focus on practitioners’ intent to facilitate change or suppression of a person’s orientation, gender identity or gender expression on the basis of pseudoscientific claims  

The list is longer than this, but these seem like the key bits of data. Amnesty also produced this comic, that was being shared as separate graphics on Facebook over the weekend.

We can deny ‘conversion therapy’ is happening until the cows come home; but the real experiences not just of those who’ve left our communities, but those who’ve stayed in them but on the margins, are speaking volumes. And there are only a few bits in those graphics that I’d say feel like good and necessary forms of support for LGBTIQA+ people looking to pursue faithful union with Jesus in a theologically conservative setting.

We’re very keen, through our social media platforms (see, for example, Martyn Iles’ post about this graphic) to hold up those same sex attracted Christians whose more fluid orientations or experiences have produced ‘orientation change.’ So, for another example, we’ll champion a popular ex-Lesbian author who writes books and blogs for some major outlets, but we’re not so keen to champion the perspectives of those whose orientations seem stubbornly persistent. We are uncomfortable making space for those who aren’t (and don’t need to) hope for their orientation to be ‘changed’ or ‘suppressed,’ but instead are seeking to ‘re-order’ their loves, and lives, and approach to their bodies, sexuality, and even an understanding of what it means to be a person around the love, or worship, of Jesus (especially if they choose to ‘identify’ as a ‘celibate gay Christian’).

I reckon, if you asked around, plenty of LGBT Christians in conservative Christian communities would resonate with the experiences described in that graphic above; plenty of them are actually supportive of this legislation while maintaining a conservative theological position (including the belief, for example, that it will be the work of the Spirit, in concert with the preaching of the word, not therapeutic intervention, that will convict someone about what faith in Jesus calls them to, and the sort of behaviour that obedience to Jesus requires).

If you ask around you might find that these brothers and sisters feel marginalised and misunderstood by the church, and that when the church and its Cis- male spokespeople so bombastically attack the government for trying to protect hurt and traumatised members of the LGBT community they’re left torn between two sides; the church they love, that keeps hurting them, and their fellow humans whose experiences they can relate to and understand.

This stuff matters.

And it matters when conservative denominations like my own are framing our theological commitments to a traditional sexual ethic, and shaping our public, and pastoral, engagements on issues around sexuality and gender.

My observation is that the more we feel like the outside world is hostile to us on this front, the more our faithful LGBTIQA+ brothers and sisters in our churches, who share our theological commitments, are feeling caught in the crossfire of a culture war. That was recently brought home to me as I spoke to some Side B Christian friends, including my brother in law, an ordained minister in our denomination, after our denomination revisited its public expression of our theological convictions in a way that left them feeling excluded, both from the conversation and the expression of our shared convictions. This process left these friends not only less likely to speak up, but further hurt and marginalised by life within the institutional church, and so, more empathetic with those left in our wake.

And the catch is, the harder the world pushes against our sexual ethic for being harmful to LGBTIQA+ people, the more we actually need the experience for those brothers and sisters in the church to be one of safety, and love — of being understood and supported in their transformation, not towards heterosexuality, or even gender-conformity to our particular norms, but towards godliness (which will then reshape their humanity and personhood, as it does ours).

We need positive stories from people who haven’t been ‘supressed,’ but instead have found fulness and flourishing in giving their lives, and sexuality, to Jesus, and who have then found love, and support, and understanding in Christian communities. But at the same time that we need these stories, our ‘soft’ conversion therapy practices and barrier erecting, and marginalisation of these brothers and sisters means they are unlikely to speak up in our defence. This feels like when we poured a bunch of social capital (and actual capital) into stopping our same sex attracted neighbours calling their relationships marriage (an expression of a fundamentally religious conviction), and then when we lost, we turned around and asked for our religious freedom to be protected. We live by the sword, we die by the sword.

We’ve still got a long way to go on this. We’re accidentally eradicating those LGBTIQA+ individuals in our midst, trying to hang on to Jesus and live obediently to what they believe he calls them (and us) to, while fighting to clear our name over trying to eradicate the homosexuality in those who’ve left our communities wounded.

Check out this stunning Twitter thread from Grant Hartley, a Side B Christian, yesterday on the way institutions like ours want to have our theological clarity and public statements cake, often involving debates about how such Christians can and should express themselves to exist in our communities on our terms, while then wanting such Christians to carry the weight of pastoral care for vulnerable LGBTIQA+ youth.

Had we been doing the work of ‘cleaning our own room’ first, we might have voices other than heterosexual cis-gendered males with institutional power speaking on this issue, where heterosexual cis-gendered males with institutional power have been precisely the problem in eradicating our social capital in the first place. We might even not have the problem of people being harmed and traumatised by the church, but rather, committed to the goodness of submitting one’s sexual desires to the desire for eternal oneness with Jesus, as his bride, the church.

Until we do the sort of internal reckoning and reform — experiencing the sort of ‘conversion’ — that is required for us to be properly caring for LGBTIQA+ adults voluntarily participating in our communities, and supportively point them to Jesus, and transformation coming through union with him, through loving him above all other loves, we have almost no credibility when it comes to our claims to be caring well for vulnerable youth in our communities, and governments in this secular age is going to keep trying to intervene on their behalf.

Why we might all need conversion therapy

“Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it. What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?” — Jesus, Matthew 10:24-26

The state of California is considering passing a law (Bill 2943) that makes the controversial practice of ‘conversion therapy’ or ‘reparative therapy’ illegal.

This bill would include, as an unlawful practice prohibited under the Consumer Legal Remedies Act, advertising, offering to engage in, or engaging in sexual orientation change efforts with an individual.”

It’s worth pointing out that there’s a limited scope to this Bill, that it is specifically about consumer rights, not about the right of an individual to pursue treatment in private and without cost (it’s a law about the marketplace, not a law governing how people approach the bedroom). It’s not a law banning prayer, or private conversations where there’s an ‘equal standing’, but about transactions, and particularly in settings where there’s a power-dynamic (eg patient-doctor). The Bill ‘declares’:

“Contemporary science recognizes that being lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender is part of the natural spectrum of human identity and is not a disease, disorder, or illness.”

It quotes an American Psychiatric Association finding that:

“In the last four decades, ‘reparative’ therapists have not produced any rigorous scientific research to substantiate their claims of cure. Until there is such research available, [the American Psychiatric Association] recommends that ethical practitioners refrain from attempts to change individuals’ sexual orientation, keeping in mind the medical dictum to first, do no harm.”

Which is curious; because it’s hard to see how such research might become available given this recommendation, if such therapy were possibly effective. But it also makes significant assumptions about the framework for assessing harm, and whether or not such ‘therapy’ should only be pursued on the basis that it will produce certain results, rather than simply being something an individual might freely pursue to live a life of their choosing (with the caveat that how reparative therapy for same sex attraction has been used by Christians with a particular view about the moral status of same sex attraction).

The question of whether reparative therapy is effective or damaging was the subject of a longitudinal study by Christian psychologists, Dr Mark Yarhouse and Stanton Jones. This study included non-therapy approaches (the sort you might offer as a free course, not just the sort you pay for) concluded:

“In conclusion, the findings of this study would appear to contradict the commonly expressed view of the mental health establishment that sexual orientation is not changeable and that the attempt to change is highly likely to produce harm for those who make such an attempt.”

The Yarhouse-Jones study did find that ‘orientation change’ from predominantly homo- to predominantly hetero- attraction was possible in some case (23%) and a reduction in homosexual attraction with an outcome of “a reduction in homosexual attraction and behavioral chastity” occurred for a further 30% of people involved in the study. The sample size for this study was small, and there are other studies more targetted at particular therapy practices, which may end up causing more harm (especially if unsuccessful).

That humans are able to change aspects of our identity, even if natural, seems to align with findings around how our brains work, and a whole heap of other clinical psychological practice.

There are much bigger issues on the table here for Christians — two in fact.  Bigger even than the freedom to practice our faith under law (though that’s a biggy).

First is whether an orientation change from same sex to opposite sex attraction is necessary for Christians (rather than desirable) — if 47% of cases in the longitudinal study remained same sex attracted, what does our theology say to their experience and their capacity to live in the world as followers of Jesus?

Does loving Jesus require a change in ‘sexual orientation as it occurs across a ‘natural spectrum’?

It doesn’t; but it does require a decision to love Jesus more than we love sex (and other ‘things of this world’) because we are, by nature disordered people who love things God made in the place of the God who made them (what the Bible says is at the heart of sin).

Some form of therapy to realign natural desires might, however, be useful to a Christian who doesn’t want to experience same sex attraction. It might be that they freely choose to investigate the possibility that sexuality occurs on a spectrum and involves factors that aren’t simply innate (even if attraction isn’t ‘chosen’), and so an individual might seek to change those desires and that orientation, and to take that option off the table, if it might work, just because sexual orientation is ‘natural’, seems cruel. We intervene to treat all sorts of natural things that are part of our identity. It’s perhaps more cruel to co-opt a person’s will and force them through such therapy, especially if the change in orientation isn’t necessary for somebody to faithfully love Jesus.

Second is whether part of our issue, as Christians, is that we’ve limited our approach to ‘therapeutic’ practices following conversion to the belief that Jesus is Lord to a particular area — sexuality — for a particular orientation — homosexual, where instead we should be providing mechanisms for ‘reparation’ or ‘conversion’ for the entire ‘natural spectrum of human identity’… whether that’s heterosexual orientation or, for example, our incredibly natural greed and selfishness (the ‘selfish gene’, anybody). We might also need some conversion therapy for our wallets and our self-image. That is; people working with us to change fundamental ‘natural’ things about ourselves  and our identities as we seek a particular unnatural outcome.

Part of the issue here is that we seem to have limited ‘conversion’ to an intellectual assent to some sort of belief in every area but the sexuality of our same sex attracted neighbours. Nobody talks about any sort of professional ‘conversion therapy’ for Christian people addicted to overseas travel, or career, for those who are lovers of money, not God (or money as God). An opposition to ‘conversion therapy’ — the idea that we might need to change and sacrifice happiness — comes as much out of this view of God as out of a view that God is irrelevant.

There’s a popular description of western spirituality as ‘moral therapeutic deism’ — where God steps back from the world and our lives (deism) but wants us to be good and moral people who chase happiness, and good people end up in heaven. There’s a ‘therapy’ at the heart of this because such a wishy-washy set of beliefs about God is inherently comforting and therapeutic. The problem is, of course, the total absence of ‘Christ‘ Jesus from Christianity.

We have as western Christians, bought into a picture of evangelism and the Christian life that equates to ‘tick a box’ decisionism, unless you happen to be a member of the LGBTIQ+ community. A huge percentage of Aussies ‘tick the box’ at census time, calling themselves ‘Christian’, and lots of our evangelistic efforts focus on helping people ‘make a decision’ and then leave out the question of ‘making a disciple’ — the hard work of discipline and formation… unless the person making the decision happens to be same sex attracted; then we want them to ‘discipline their bodies’ in order to change their orientation to the world.

It’s hypocrisy; costly hypocrisy as a result of cheap grace. The German churchman who fought against Hitler and the rise of his political vision, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, defined ‘cheap grace’ as:

“…The preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline. Communion without confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ.” — Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship

The idea that ‘conversion therapy’ — a deliberate, habitual, reordering of our desires to conform to God’s design, drawing on insights into how people change — is something that we should limit to same sex attracted Christians and their sexuality, not a thing for all Christians to pursue, is a version of ‘cheap grace’… so to is the idea that we’re not all called to ‘die to self’ when it comes to our sexuality (and every other area of our life).

We seem to ask the average Aussie to tick a box, believe that Jesus died for them, and then largely live an unchanged life when it comes to their time, money, and vocation — we ask them to change nothing about their sexuality except to limit to one person in marriage; saying nothing about the way we in our ‘natural spectrum’ are geared up to turn other people, even our spouse, into objects of our self-fulfilment. Sexual immorality isn’t limited to same sex attraction; every person is called to ‘conversion’ and needs to be repaired by God’s spirit; working through our habits and practices — perhaps even with help (therapy).

Maybe we’d have less issues explaining ‘conversion therapy’ if it was a widespread practice in the pursuit of being like Jesus, living with him as king of every area; if we say ‘sanctification’ as having our naturally ‘disordered’ image — broken by sin — repaired so that we bear the image of Jesus. If we applied this to our use of our credit card, and the darkness of our hearts in all areas of life, not just to sex.

Grace is, of course, free. Life is a gift offered freely by Jesus, not earned… but the call to discipleship is a call to conversion, and the idea that this conversion shouldn’t involve thinking about how people are changed and formed by practices or ‘therapy’ that changes our hearts, and our ‘orientation’ to the world and its pleasures — is naive.

As Bonhoeffer said:

“The cross is laid on every Christian. The first Christ-suffering which every man must experience is the call to abandon the attachments of this world. It is that dying of the old man which is the result of his encounter with Christ. As we embark upon discipleship we surrender ourselves to Christ in union with his death—we give over our  lives to death. Thus it begins; the cross is not the terrible end to an otherwise god-fearing and happy life, but it meets us at the beginning of our communion with Christ. When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” — Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship.

It’s no good for anybody to pretend this process will happen without deliberate intervention in community; the New Testament, especially the letters, are attempts by a writer to convert and repair the actions of those who have taken up the call to discipleship. It’s costly; it’s intense; it requires a deliberate re-ordering of our practices in order to re-order our loves (including how we approach our sexuality). It’s a call to obey God’s word and submit our lives to him, with our love for Jesus at the centre of all our other loves. That’s true for all Christians.

The goal of ‘conversion therapy’ is not heterosexuality or ‘turning straight’; such a goal would suggest we straight people don’t need any intervention or help. The goal of the conversion therapy we all need — the repair we all need — is not ‘straightness’, but Jesus, a life moved from our natural state of ‘disorder’ to being ‘conformed into the image of the son’ (not our natural state or identity).

We all need conversion therapy — the idea that a government might call the possibility of being transformed into the image of Christ ‘fraud’ is laughable, but maybe it’s time we ask if we’re the joke?

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