Theologically conservative Christians have been collectively left reeling after the Victorian Government passed the Change or Suppression (Conversion) Therapy Bill last week.
The Bill was produced in consultation with survivors of church-based practices, who shared stories such as “My therapist constantly told me God would abandon me for this terrible sin. The pressure led me to attempt to take my life,” and “I went to prayer therapy with a small group … who thought I needed to fix my ‘sexual deviance’ by casting off demons that had been passed down family lines. I internalised my feelings of shame to such a degree that my mental, physical and spiritual health all suffered.”
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What if these stories are blinking lights on the dashboard telling us something is wrong?
Some Christian responses to the Bill reflect genuine anxiety at the Government reaching into church practices, especially the conduct of pastoral care. This creates new risks for ministry workers, perhaps especially for same-sex-attracted workers who pastorally care for other LGBTIQA+ individuals. Pastoral relationships always carry risk — including the risk of harm — and this Bill shifts the risk onto Christian leaders and away from those seeking support.
Some reactions to the Bill have been ‘culture war’ responses that sound like us Christians saying “We want to keep harming people.”
How might we respond differently if we believed stories that shaped the Bill?
What if these stories are blinking lights on the dashboard telling us something is wrong? What would happen if we brought our collective imaginations to the task of changing our culture and practices — without changing our theology?
We could start with the stories shared with the Victorian Government. It’s easy to dismiss those stories, or downplay the numbers of them, and so minimise those individuals and their trauma – or to turn these numbers into ‘objective data.’
What if we committed ourselves not to objectivity, and thus, the objectification of these individuals — but a subjectivity that sees these people as subjects; people made with their own dignity? People who are tellers of their own stories.
To hear more stories would require changing our posture towards LGBTIQA+ people, and a commitment to not cause additional harm. We may need to visit LGBTIQA+ spaces (physical, or digital) as humble guests seeking to listen, connect, and understand the experiences that created the momentum for this Bill.
We could also commit ourselves to listening to people in our church communities; to hearing stories of how our practices may have harmed those who’ve stayed connected. This harm (a broad and subjective construct) may come not just from specific ‘therapeutic’ acts, but from the system, or culture, that leaves people in our communities operating in hyper-vigilant ways in every interaction, driven by fear that they will be exposed, shamed, and excluded from church communities, or their own families.
We might hear about:
- The burden created by church members (or leaders) who speak of LGBTIQA+ orientations as a choice, or phase, who pray for conversion to straightness as necessary.
- The pain caused when other Christians leave communities to avoid fellowship with these individuals.
- Parents who urge their children to suppress their ‘gayness’ in order to maintain relationships in the family.
- People who don’t come out to family, or church communities, until adulthood – or don’t come out at all – from fear they’ll be cut off (People who have been robbed of being known, loved, and supported through their formative years.)
- Ministry workers who fear losing their jobs if their orientation is exposed, or if they use the wrong labels to describe their experiences, or to build bridges for the gospel with LGBTIQA+ people, or others who rule out vocational ministry, because of this fear that is legislated against in secular workplaces.
- How our prioritising of ‘culture war’ politics, especially where we leap to defend the right of people to say harmful things, from otherwise heterodox theological convictions, catches faithful same-sex-attracted Christians in the crossfire. We then demonstrate more solidarity with Trinity-denying Israel Folau, than with faithful LGBTIQA+ people in our communities.
- That when straight (cis-het) church leaders argue about appropriate terminology, or produce huge doctrinal statements focused on the brokenness of those who already feel like ashamed and vulnerable ‘others’ (while not writing similar documents about heterosexual fallenness, or sins like greed), this leaves these individuals feeling singled out as lesser parts of the body, rather than honoured for their faithfulness, or offered a vision of a positive calling.
All these examples are real stories from our experiences and relationships with individuals who might even belong to your church community.
We might hear that the accretive effect of these interpersonal interactions, this culture, means these aren’t simply minor quibbles easily dismissed as areas where ‘work must be done’. Instead, we might hear they have become a system that leaves these Christians disconnected from local church communities, and navigating a ‘double life’, or dealing with mental health issues created by socially reinforced shame, or trauma. Increasingly, this then involves finding support in networks of other LGBTIQA+ Christians, or seeking secular support — perpetuating the sense that the secular world needs to intervene to prevent this harm.
These ‘soft power’ cultural forces might not be conventional ‘conversion therapy’, but they can cause the same coercive harm reported to the Victorian Government. Not just ‘hurt feelings’ or ‘the costly burden of faithful obedience’ but trauma and, worse, they can turn people away from eternal life with Jesus.
Our response as Christians to these stories — and individuals — should not be a ‘culture war,’ but love.
If we believe these stories we might, then, take our cue from secular politicians who are using their institutional power and privilege to actively protect vulnerable people from harm.
For LGBTIQA+ individuals, seeing secular leaders so concerned for their dignity and wellbeing raises questions about why church leaders have been slow to act, or why these worldly leaders model confession, repentance, and love better than Christian leaders?
We can keep saying there’s ‘work to do’ on our theology and practice in this area, but if this Bill doesn’t prompt us to do that reforming work, or to listen and repent, not just for coercive ‘hard power’ therapies, but this culture of ‘conversion and suppression’ — what will?
Whether we believe the stories or not, our response as Christians to them — and the individuals sharing them — should not be a ‘culture war’, but love.
As Jesus says, if our enemy “sues us for our cloak”, we should “give our shirt as well.”
Whether LGBTIQA+ people are our enemies, or our neighbours, to treat them as we would have them treat us should mean to lovingly commit ourselves not to harm, but to their good. Taking a lead from our politicians, we might join their fight, for example, against bullying in schools, workplaces, or churches, rather than positioning ourselves as the enemy.
We like how our friend Paul does this. Paul volunteered to be an ‘Ally Skills’ trainer for his employer, a multi-national company. He ran workshops to help create a more inclusive and supportive workplace for LGBTIQA+ colleagues, because he believes to follow Jesus means to “act not in our own best interests, but in the interest of those who are oppressed”. He noticed that “the language of oppression that Isaiah and others use to describe what Jesus came to eliminate matches the description of what LGBTIQA+ people experience”.
Believing the stories might lead us to love better, and love might conquer our fears, and theirs.
Nathan Campbell is a Presbyterian Minister with City South Presbyterian Church in Brisbane.
Matthew Ventura is a student minister with City South Presbyterian Church, and a ‘Side B’ celibate, gay, Christian. He writes candidly about his experience, and is connected to networks of gay, or same-sex-attracted, Christians, and ministry workers, around the country.
Campbell and Ventura are both committed to a traditional Christian sexual ethic that limits sexual activity to that between a husband and wife, as a picture of the oneness and intimacy between Jesus and his bride, and body, the church.