4 Considerations for Christians wanting to engage in political activism

The below article was originally written for 9Marks Journal (Autumn 2020). In light of the events transpiring in Washington DC and the disturbing images of ‘Christians’ using Jesus’ name and even raising a large wooden cross outside the Capitol Hill building, I wonder if people may find this of some help for traversing the pitfalls of religion and politics.


I should point out at the start that I am reflecting and writing as an Australian who is pastoring a Church in Melbourne. That is to say, my context is different to that of Manhattan, Memphis, and Miami. Accordingly, some of my comments may need recalibration or will look a little different in another cultural setting. Whether our location is the Great Southland or some other part of the globe, one thing is certain, conversation about religion and politics is thwarted with pitfalls and precipices. While recognising the potential dangers, I do believe there is a place for Christian activism in the political sphere.

I want to offer 4 theological and pastoral suggestions in considering why and how Christians can be political activists. 

1. Be clear who you are serving: Jesus is Lord of all

“In his name the nations will put their hope.” (Matt 12:21)

Jesus is Lord both over creation and over the Church, “All things were made by him and for him”. There is no domain over which he does not rule and which we are not held accountable. Is there a blade of grass or family home or hall of power where the Lordship of Christ has no jurisdiction?

“He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all nations and peoples of every language worshipped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed.” (Daniel 7:14)

Authoritarian secularism is on the rise in Australia, especially in my State of Victoria. Aussies have traditionally had a laissez faire relationship with churches, respecting their role and voice in the public square, even it they often chose to ignore it. This has been effectively dismantled over the past decade. Where churches were once politely acknowledged in society, Christianity is now considered by many as a danger that needs to be silenced, or at the very least, controlled. There exist few constitutional and legal protections for religious institutions in Australia. Somewhat ironic, accompanying this growing social mood to push religion out of the public square is a growing agenda to increase Governmental control over religious freedoms, even to influence what religious organisations may and may not teach on controversial issues, including marriage and human sexuality. 

Should Christians listen to these calls and abandon the public square and remove themselves from the world of politics? I certainly understand why many Christian feel like withdrawing, and there are fair arguments for doing so. However, I want to contend that if Jesus is Lord over all and if God’s ways remain good and if Governments are put in place by God for the wellbeing of society,  Christians (at least some) should remain active in politics and societal engagement.

2. Be clear about the domain into which you are speaking: the distinction between church and state

Jesus is Lord of all but not everything is church and the kingdom of God. On the one hand, we want to avoid the hardline secularist division of public and private religion, and we also need to avoid conflating church with State and civil society with God’s Kingdom. Too often I have seen Christians fuse Christianity with nationalism and the Christian message with a brand of politics; the results of this can be catastrophic.

The distinction however is not absolute. For example, Churches are commanded by God to pray for the Government (1 Timothy 2:1-2). Churches practising public prayers for Government serves as a powerful testimony to the broader society. The imperative isn’t conditioned by our political preferences or by the decisions made in our favour. It’s good to remind ourselves that Paul was writing at a time where there were no democratic societies and where there was little toleration of Christians, and yet he says to the church in Ephesus, pray.

Scripture also calls us to submit to and obey governing authorities, not because we necessarily agree with their policies but because God has put them in place and also as a matter of conscience (Romans 13:1-6). It is also the case that on one occasion the Apostle Paul used his rights as a Roman citizen to appeal to the Emperor. In other words, there is a relationship between church and state, but they are nonetheless two separate domains with different purposes and aims.

For this reason, the church mustn’t give the impression that they belong to or represent or campaign for any given political party. The Church belongs to the Lord Jesus Christ, not to the Liberal or Labour Party (Australia’s two major political parties). A Christian may choose to join a political party, but a church should not. The pulpit shouldn’t be used to influence peoples’ vote or to unduly bind the conscience. When a church does this, we confuse both Christians and non Christians alike about our message and what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ. Instead of providing an alternative to our increasingly polarised world and being the one place where true unity can be found and expressed, churches can end up adding to the problem and reinforcing misconceptions about Christianity. Trying to squeeze Jesus under any socio-political umbrella is wrong; maybe he would prefer to stand out in the rain!

For example, at Mentone Baptist, we never hand out political material, and we are disinclined to promote petitions and marches. However, we understand that individual Christians may choose to be involved in politics or to engage in social issues. While each member of the church supports and joins in the church’s mission, it is also the case that believers have God given opportunities to serve Christ in other ways that are outside the church: among these is involvement in political activity. 

3. What’s your message? Understanding the distinction between gospel and common grace

As an Australian citizen, I share the same set of rights and responsibilities as other Australians. I have the opportunity to voice concerns about social policy and moral issues. However, not everything is the Gospel and not every political cause is directly related to the mission of the church.

I would counsel Christians who are interested in engaging in the public square to understand what the Gospel is and isn’t, and what should be defined as God’s common grace to society. I appreciate that this task isn’t always straightforward. Defining the issue theologically is a help when it comes assessing zeal, time, and effort. It provides the necessary framework for understanding political concerns and to weighing up its importance. Is this an issue of righteousness or of conscience or is it a disputable matter?

4. Know the reason for engaging in political activism: it’s about loving your neighbour

For the Christian, political activism ought to be about loving your neighbour. Just as a doctor treats the sick and a school teacher educates children, politics should be about serving the common good of the community. Of all people, Christians have reason to speak on behalf of the vulnerable, to advocate for the weak and to address injustices that are faced in our society. God has revealed his righteousness and his grace to us in the Lord Jesus. As he has loved us, so we now love others with his love. We are eager to see other people doing well, especially their eternal salvation but also their everyday needs and dignity and worth.

When Christians choose to become involved in politics, do so but without sinning and being self serving, without conflating church and state, confusing Gospel with common grace, and avoid hamstringing the consciences of others.

How do I know if my political advocacy is unwise and even ungodly?

Here are 5 warning signs:

  1. I spend more time signing petitions than I do praying.
  2. I only ever criticise one side of politics.
  3. People have the impression that belonging to my church means aligning with a certain political party.
  4. I am more passionate about politics than I am about my local church and their mission.
  5. I am putting my hope for society in political elections or leaders or platforms, rather than in the Gospel of Christ.

Melbourne 2020: the year that undid our hubris

The Victorian Government gave the infamous hotel quarantine program the code name, Operation Soteria. In light of the disastrous outcomes from the program, ‘goddess of rescue’ is hardly a suitable name. Eris seems far more appropriate. 

Melbourne is slowly emerging from the worst disaster in her 185 year history. The past nine months have revealed Melbourne’s heart and the diagnosis is not altogether positive. Good has been uncovered and also much that should concern anyone who knows that a malfunctioning heart is likely to cause future grief. 

The Covid 19 pandemic in Victoria has thus far resulted in over 20,000 cases and 781 deaths. In terms of global statistics, these numbers are relatively small, but of course, in June the State was approaching almost zero cases, following a small first wave. Something like 90% of all Victoria’s COVID-19 cases and almost all the deaths occurred in the second wave. Since July 100,000s of Victorians have lost their jobs, 1000s of businesses may never reopen, the economy is bleeding a $1 billion every week. The impact on individual lives can scarcely be measured. The pandemic has compounded mental health issues, children’s education impacted, churches closed.

The pandemic has revealed our human nature in ways that we may find uncomfortable. Once the second wave has left our shores, I imagine millions of Melbournians wanting to move on and to leave behind 2020 as we would an awful nightmare. Relief is a powerful medicine, albeit a placebo. Yet, 2020 has exposed realities about our societal health that we would do well to carefully and humble examine.

1. Self Preservation or Self Sacrifice?

The pandemic began with hoards of people rushing to supermarkets and emptying shelves of essential goods. The situation deteriorated to the point that supermarkets set aside the first hour of each day for our senior citizens so that they would not go without because of the surge of people fighting over toilet paper and grabbing the final bag of rice or pasta.

We became a state of dobbers. In May alone, Victorian police received 80,000 calls from Victorians who were reporting on their fellow citizens for allegedly breaking restrictions in one way or another. I am not excusing those who foolishly think they can live in disregard for the law. Yes, there were cases of people being ignorant of the rules, but more often this exposed a selfish impulse. However, the fact we have accumulated 100,000s of complaints over the course, and that the Government urged us to betray our neighbours, is quite telling. 

In the meantime, many other Victorians worked tirelessly to fight the virus and keep people alive. Working long hours and putting themselves at risk to care for the sick and for those who are most vulnerable. 

There is a telling disparity between those who preference self-preservation and those who choose self-sacrifice.

2. Fear or Love?

Whether we like it or not, the base motivator that has been used to control behaviour during the pandemic is fear. Government press conferences and public commentary were primed with scaring people into submission. 

Let it said, it is foolish to think COVID-19 is not a serious and deadly disease. It is no Spanish flu or Bubonic Plague, but the virus is nonetheless highly contagious and is life threatening for the elderly and people with preexisting medical conditions. Without diminishing these facts, it has been interesting to watch the narrative used to force compliance. There is little talk about loving our neighbour, instead, many threats have been made and cataclysmic proclamations given to funnel the population into ‘doing the right thing’. 

Fear can be a useful tool. We should not discount it altogether. Even the Bible speaks of fear as being the correct response to particular scenarios. However, what does this prevalent public narrative say about our society? What kind of city are we living in and raising our children in where the threat of punishment rather than compassion has become the normal modus operandi?

3. Suspicion or Trust?

This leads to a third observation, who do we trust. On the one hand, reactions to the Government’s position on COVID-19 soon fell into political partisanship, and conspiracy theorists didn’t let this opportunity slide either. Yet overall, Victorians followed the rules. This may be a sign that we trust the Government or that we’re afraid(I suspect the truth is a mix of both). 

The speed at which Victorians gave up basics freedoms was interesting to watch. The willingness in which we have filed away the State’s Human Rights Charter probably speaks to a combination of self-sacrifice and fear. Once upon a time, we would look at the world’s most authoritarian regimes, perplexed at how people give up freedoms to the State. A question for Victorians is, for what other reasons are we prepared to accept rigid limitations on personal liberty? Are there other scenarios in which we would lay down our freedoms to associate, work, play, and live? While Australia was built on certain myths, these are more fiction than fact, and among them is our belief in independence and self making. 

This is an uncomfortable truth, Victoria’s COVID-19 response was built on the premise of trust, but rather that of suspicion. The Government anticipated that people won’t follow the best medical advice and that people won’t follow reasonable measures. Their suspicions had warrant. 

Suspicion can be a powerful delusion and for others, it is a source for angry repose. In some circumstances, it can also serve as a wise friend. Unfortunately, our suspicious minds have led to an ‘all or nothing’ dichotomy. This absolutism has controlled much of the rhetoric causing needless divisions in the community and had the effect of pushing aside reasonable and respected voices from the medical fraternity and from the Melbourne world of law, business, and economics.

The Victorian people deserve to know the truth of what happened in Melbourne hotels, and yet it seems increasingly likely that we will remain in the dark. 

A few have fallen on their sword while also being stabbed in the back. Apologies have been offered, blame shifted, and still no one seems to be at fault. It is quite extraordinary that in the case of the worst disaster in our State’s history no one is taking responsibility. How can the State expect its people to behave with integrity when its leaders play blame games in order to save their own political skin? 

This has been a difficult year for everyone. For those who have lost loved ones, the pain is excruciating. For those who face financial ruin, the road ahead is long and uncertain. If anything, 2020 is a rehearsal for times that are yet ahead, and challenges that will shake our city to the very foundations. 

We need a better rescue plan

“Operation Soteria” proved to be an ironic and even sardonic name. 

To be fair, what COVID-19 reveals about Melbourne did not begin with the pandemic, rather it shone a light on our preexisting condition. To build relationships on trust, to do right out of love, and to self sacrifice: these are noble virtues and they are far too rare and absent in our city.

During the inquiry into the hotel quarantine, the Bible was held aloft, and yet sadly its message is all too often ignored. Instead of making promises on the Bible perhaps we should open its pages, then read and follow what it says. On the sacred page is a story of the original and best, Operation Soteria. It’s not another Greek myth or Melbourne fiction, but the account of the Son of God whose trust triumphed over worldly suspicion, whose love conquers all fear, and who laid down his life for the sake of his enemies. 

Melbourne has long turned its gaze away from the person of Jesus Christ. As we seek to recover surely it’s time to revisit him and to discover the One who truly rescues. As our city has faced the pandemic our foundations have been proven frail. I suspect that as Summer arrives and in our desperation for normalcy we’ll try to forget the year that has been. I understand the sentiment, but there are harder and deeper lessons to learn, ones which require us to look beyond even health and economic issues and into the very soul of our city. 

The prophet Isaiah wrote of the coming Christ,

“A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse;

    from his roots a Branch will bear fruit.

The Spirit of the Lord will rest on him—

    the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding,

    the Spirit of counsel and of might,

    the Spirit of the knowledge and fear of the Lord—

and he will delight in the fear of the Lord.

He will not judge by what he sees with his eyes,

    or decide by what he hears with his ears;

but with righteousness he will judge the needy,

    with justice he will give decisions for the poor of the earth.

 He will strike the earth with the rod of his mouth;

    with the breath of his lips he will slay the wicked.

Righteousness will be his belt

    and faithfulness the sash around his waist.”

(Isaiah 9:1-5)


This article is a revised version of a post from September

Government Commissioner Confirms Church Leaders Concerns

A spokesperson for the Victorian Government has made a series of admissions that confirm the concerns religious leaders are expressing over the Change or Suppression (Conversion) Practices Prohibition Bill 2020.

Eternity newspaper sent questions to the office of the Commissioner for LGBTIQ+ Communities, within Victoria’s Department of Premier and Cabinet. Commissioner, Ro Allen, has responded.

The article was published on the Eternity website two days ago (Dec 17th). Within the hour the Government contacted Eternity and asked for the article to be taken down. This request is quite astonishing and one can imagine media outlets expressing concern over a Government asking media to delete an already published article, especially where the Government representative freely gave written comments on the record. There are a couple of significant changes between the two versions of the interview.

Before I offer comment on Ro Allen’s answers, it is worthwhile reiterating how wide societal concerns over over the Bill.

There is broad and growing concern over the Bill

The LGB alliance have expressed grave concerns with the Bill.

Feminists are speaking against the Bill. University of Melbourne’s Feminist Philosopher, Holly Lawford-Smith, has said,

”The Keira Bell verdict [UK High Court landmark case- see below] establishes that children are unlikely to be competent to consent to puberty blockers, which establishes that an ‘affirmation-only’ approach is the wrong approach where it is likely to involve medicalisation. Yet Victoria is heading in the opposite direction, with a new bill about to criminalise any individual who fails to ‘affirm’ or support a child’s claim about her gender identity.”

Men and women who have detransitioned are voicing grave concerns about how this bill will harm not help Victorians who are wrestling with their gender identity.

Legal experts believe the Bill poses needless and extraordinary infringements on religious freedoms. As one example (among many that can be mentioned),

“In the most aggressive action ever taken by an Australian government to attack freedom of religion, the Labor Government in Victoria proposes to make it a criminal offence, punishable by several years’ imprisonment, for a person to pray with another person about issues they are having concerning their sexual orientation or gender identity. It will not be a defence that the person actually wanted prayer.”

Barney Zwartz wrote earlier in the week that ,

“Most Victorian churches are concerned about the conversion bill”.

The Bill itself clearly denotes that the prohibitions are not limited to the few and awful practices that were once engaged in by a small number of religious groups. The Bill includes a ban on ‘prayer’. The Explanatory memorandum states that conversation with a faith leader can be considered conversion practice and therefore subject to prosecution. 

The Premier and the now Former Attorney General have each made their case. They oppose not only those rare and dreadful conversion practices, but they are pitching to remove the beliefs from Victoria.

“Cruel and bigoted practices that seek to change or suppress a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity will soon be stamped out across Victoria, thanks to new laws introduced to Parliament today.       

The Bill denounces such practices as deceptive and harmful, reinforces that the ideology behind these practices is flawed and wrong.”

Attorney-General Jill Hennssey said,

“We’re sending a clear message: no one is ‘broken’ because of their sexuality or gender identity,” 

“These views won’t be tolerated in Victoria and neither will these abhorrent practices.”

 La Trobe University’s Dr Timothy W. Jones wrote a report for the Government on the topic. Despite claiming churches have nothing to fear about the Bill he then proceeded to tell churches  change their beliefs and instead do what LGBT activists tell them to do. In his report he refers to “insidious development”. By this he is speaking of Christians who hold to the Bible’s teaching on marriage and sexuality (the very teaching that forms the foundations for our society). 

All those comments should be suffice to convince people that the Government is not limiting its intent to outlawing extreme practices. They are consciously legislating against religious Victorians who hold legitimate practices, even those doctrines that are as ancient and good for society as the Christian Bible. 

Photo by Ric Rodrigues on Pexels.com

Now to offer comment in response to the interview with the Victorian Commissioner.

The question of sermons

Are there any limits on what can be prosecuted? Yes, but these lines are often blurry and as both Jill Hennessy and Ro Allen admit, these boundaries may well expand over time to include even more religious practices.

For example, the one activity the Government is clear on is the sermon. Under the current provisions contained in this Bill preaching a sermon will not be prohibited. However, Jill Hennessy told the Parliament that the Government may later reconsider this activity, “such conduct may be considered as part of the Legislative Assembly’s ongoing inquiry into anti-vilification protections.”

The issue of sermons doesn’t go away.

Eternity asked,

“Will the educational role of the Commission act to discourage the general teaching that the Bible says homosexual sex is wrong?

This statement was made in the original interview

“The proposed law is quite clear in countering any teaching that says that homosexual sex is wrong, so this may well be part of their education”

In other words, a sermon may not lead to charges and 10 years imprisonment, but a sermon may be reported and the preacher compelled to attend a reeducation camp. Victorians should appreciate the authoritarian and Caesar like approach this Government has told religious freedom. If a Christians upholds the Christian view of sexuality and persuades others of this view, you may be forced to attend the Andrews school of ethics and be told that Christianity is bigotry and that queer theory is right. What makes Allen’s admission even more startling are the changes made in the new Government approved version of the interview.

The response becomes,

“If general prayer in c) is reported to the Commission, the Commission would not be required or empowered to do anything as this is not a change or suppression practice. The Commission would decline to consider the report.

There will be a 12-month period before the law starts, in order to allow important implementation work to be completed. The Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission will lead this and consult widely with Victorians.”

Which version of the answer expresses the Government’s position? The former is a clear threat to Churches, while the latter communicates, ‘we’re not going to tell you what will happen should you preach, teach, or counsel in line with your church’s doctrine. Wait and see!’

There is a further significant revision made in Allen’s answer. Eternity referred to stories of individuals who allege harm at the hands of churches who prayed for them and whose churches disproved of non heterosexual marriage. “These activities may or may not have been targeted at the individual person in each case.” The question was then asked,

“Will there be experiences regarded as harmful by LGBTQ persons not covered by the bill?”

In the original interview Allen answered by saying,

“Under the current law, such practices are not covered. This law will be reviewed in two years. If the advice coming to the government is that these practices do indeed cause harm in the same way, then the government may have to revisit the law.”

In the new version of the interview, Allen takes a step back, offering a response that is more vague.

“This is unclear and may be determined when such a case is raised. If, for example, a religious leader was providing lessons to LGBTIQ people to “pray the gay away”,  it could possibly be captured under this law as inducing a person to try and change their sexual identity or gender identity.”

While the revised answer sounds less threatening, the point remain: this unnecessary law is likely to grow fatter with time. This is a further indication that the current Government has not finished its strategy to, “stamp out across Victoria” any view of sexuality and gender that does not fully embrace (and without questioning it), the current expression of queer theory. 

Allen also reinforces the Bill’s own statement about how the list of prohibited activities are only ‘examples’. It is not an exhaustive list at all.

“These religious practices given as examples are among those known to cause the most harm to people. Other religious practices that will be covered by the law will be any religious practice that is directed at an individual person to try to change or suppress their sexual orientation or gender identity.

As the Explanatory Memorandum goes on to say, the bill “is intended to capture a broad range of conduct, including informal practices, such as conversations with a community leader that encourage change or suppression of sexual orientation or gender identity, and more formal practices, such as behaviour change programs and residential camps.’”

 

Targeting ministry to individuals rather than groups

The Government’s Commissioner notes the Government’s aim is to distinguish between what takes place in a general setting and what occurs with individuals. Sermons are ok (for now) because they are teachings addressed to a group of people. He explains, 

“Some sermons may express beliefs that seem contrary to the aim of this bill, which affirms that people of faith have the right to express their views, but not to force them upon other people. The law becomes triggered when it is aimed at changing or suppressing an individual.”

It is reasonable to ask in response to this comment, for how long will a Government permit ‘sermons’ given that they supposedly “express beliefs that seem contrary to the aim of this bill”?

For now, the issue for churches relates to ministry that focuses on individuals. This includes praying with people, and exhorting people to live in accord with Biblical ethics.

Rev Dr John Dickson said on Eternity’s Facebook page, 

“advising an LGBT person to be celibate for life (because traditional marriage isn’t an option) seems to be described here as an outlawed practice.”

He is correct.

Personal prayer and conversation forms a regular part of clergy ministry. It is also not uncommon for a lay believer to meet with another person for prayer and bible study. These are normal activities. However, should the topic of sex and gender arise, the government may charge individuals with encouraging abstinence and moral godliness. Refraining from sex outside of heterosexual marriage has been normative for the entire history of the church.

The Government is forcing religious Victorians into an impossible position: do we remain faithful to our convictions and continue to love people by sharing our faith, or do we submit to these scandalous demands of a Government? 

Here is a further important scenario that may fall foul of this law. Christians churches require potential members to affirm the doctrinal convictions of the church. For example, Churches regularly require members to refrain from sexual activity outside marriage between a man and a woman. Members who sin in this way (to use the Bible’s own language) are usually asked to repent and discipline can take place (which may include being asked to refrain from taking Communion or even being removed from membership).  Given that these normal practices relate to individual persons, will the church’s actions be prohibited under this Bill?

The Government has chosen to attack churches rather than work with them

Premier Daniel Andrews last week directed an attack against church in leaders during a speech in the Parliament. 

“Some faith leaders have been critical of these provisions, critical of a law to ban the worst form of bigoted quackery imaginable.

“This is not kindness and love, or the protection of the vulnerable and persecuted. This is not something to be proud of. This is not what I pray for.”

His words are unfortunate. The Premier has dismissed the legitimate concerns that are being expressed and which Allen has now validated. Instead, Mr Andrews implied that teaching and praying for the Christian view of human sexuality is the “worst form of bigoted quakery imaginable?” But surely the Premier was only referring to those awful practices such as aversion therapy? But no faith leader is supporting such a thing. They are they are calling on the Government to amend a Bill so we may continue to practice of faith without the undue intrusion of the State. Allen’s words have given further substance to these concerns.

There are members of the Government who are privately expressing concerns about the Bill’s overreach. I trust they will find their voice and speak with the new Attorney General.

I also understand how some members of the community are praising the Government’s Bill, and that some are already demanding that it be extended to include a greater range of religious activities.  Are not the beliefs that have carried and formed and blessed our societies for 2000 years no longer welcome?

It remains a disappointment that the Government didn’t follow the example of Queensland and write a Bill that focuses on the few, rare, and genuine harmful practices that once existed. Religious leaders could have partnered with the Government to make this Bill work. Instead, the Premier labels us bigots and quacks.

I appreciate how fellow Christians have approached this Bill with grace and gentleness, assuming the Government’s good intentions. Grace and gentleness should exude from us, but there is nothing virtuous about gullibility. Playing nice sometimes slides into naïveté. The Government’s spokesperson has reaffirmed concerns that many have raised over the past month.

Since the times of the Caesars Christians have prayed for Governments, honoured them, and submitted to their authority.  We will continue to do so. There is however a line that Christians will not cross, and this State Government is drawing that line thick in the black ink of law. It is bullying people of faith into either submission or having a criminal record with a stint at a reeducation camp. Does this sound like healthy pluralism? Does this bode well for a free and democratic society? Does this continue centuries of strong partnership between Church and State?

Presbyterians, Roman Catholics, Orthodox are among the many groups who are voicing legitimate concerns over this Bill. It is time for others to join. At the end of the day these voices may not persuade the Parliament to fix this Bill, but at least we can say that in this day of trouble we stood with Christ, with our churches and for our people.  One day we can look back and know that didn’t throw our congregations to the lions, we instead chose to remain with them. 


A correction. The original Eternity article spelled the Commissioner’s surname as Allan. They have informed me that they were incorrect and it is Allen. I have subsequently changed the spelling.

Dr Jones’ words confirm not assuage church concerns

The Age has run another opinion piece about the Victorian Government’s  Change or Suppression (Conversion) Practices Prohibition Bill 2020. This op-ed is designed to counter concerns being articulated by a growing number of religious leaders and legal experts.

The article is written by La Trobe University’s Dr Timothy W. Jones. Dr Jones was the lead author of Preventing Harm, Promoting Justice (2018). Far from The Age op-ed coming from a place of impartiality, Dr Jones’ is heavily invested in the success of the Bill. His paper was used extensively by the Andrews Government for framing its position and the Bill that has subsequently been written.

Dr Jones insists that churches have nothing to fear about the Bill. Given the significance of his claims, it is important to consider them.

 Firstly he suggests,

“These fears are quickly assuaged by a plain reading of the bill and the statement of compatibility with the Charter of Human Rights.”

The statement of compatibility is at best tenuous and weak. Associate Professor of Law, Neil Foster, explains

“Given the potential for a serious impact on the life of religious groups, then, does the Bill contain any protection for genuine religious freedom? Not a single word is said in the Bill about this. The only passing reference which would provide a slight comfort to religious groups would be that s 3(1)(b) tells us that one of the purposes of the Bill is “to further promote and protect the rights set out in the Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities”. The EM, then, decides to spell out what is hidden here by alleging that the rights to be promoted by the Bill include:

the right to freedom of thought, conscience, religion and belief (section 14 of the Charter) 

EM, page 3.

But how precisely the right to religion and belief is protected by a Bill that seems designed to marginalise and ignore deeply held religious convictions about sexual behaviour and how these can be taught in religious communities, is not explained.”

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

It is important to note that while Dr Jones suggests that concerns about the Bill are invalid, he then offers these two arguments:  

1. there already exists limits to religious freedom, therefore there is no harm in legislating further restrictions.

“Placing limits on religious practices, as proposed in this bill, is not new. Both Australian law and international human rights law provide guidance on when it is appropriate to place limitations on religious practices.”

The question is, is it appropriate for the Victorian Government to gag ‘conversations’ with faith leaders about sex and gender? Is it appropriate for a Government to legislate against prayer? Is it appropriate for the Attorney General to explain in the Parliament that sermons “may be considered as part of the Legislative Assembly’s ongoing inquiry into anti-vilification protections.”

 2. Churches need to change and form their views according to the testimonies of LGBT Victorians.

“People of faith can be confident to welcome the bill. Take it as an opportunity to listen to survivors and to get better equipped to provide your LGBTQ+ members with true spiritual care.”

Of course, it is important to listen to others. I am continually learning from and interested in the stories of others. Where Churches have made mistakes or genuinely done what is wrong, we ought to admit and repent. Dr Jones is saying much more. He is informing people of faith that ‘true spiritual care’ doesn’t stem from our sacred books, but from listening to and taking the advice of those who support the current views on sex and gender. 

In what amounts to an ad hominem attack on religious leaders, Dr Jones alleges, “Rather than stoking unfounded fears, religious and opinion leaders should read the extensive work that has gone into the development and scrutiny of this world-leading legislation.”

Well, I have read his publication and have responded to it at length on other occasions. Preventing Harm, Promoting Justice is quite revealing. Far from assuaging the concerns expressed by religious leaders, this report confirms these concerns. Of course, this report is not the Bill but it nonetheless reveals the attitudes and framing of the Bill.

Given the importance of the Bill, which includes up to 10 years imprisonment for offenders, one would hope that the research that Government is relying upon is thorough and wide. When one reads Dr Jones’ report, we find the stories of 15 individuals. Surely 15 individuals is an inadequate pool size from which to draw substantive conclusions. More importantly, the research appears to be guilty of sampling bias. The recruitment process was limited to a narrow range of networks, which inevitably biased the sampling group that would be chosen.

“Participants were recruited through social media, LGBTI media reportage of the project, and through various LGBTI, queer and ex-gay survivor networks. Participants were selected, using theoretical sampling, to be broadly representative of religious and LGBT demographics in Australia, and were screened for their psychological capacity to undertake an in-depth life interview about potentially traumatic personal histories.”

Significantly, no persons from Muslim, Hindu, or irreligious backgrounds were interviewed, and only persons who were negatively impacted are included in the report. While the 15 participants are Australians, it is not known how many were recipients of conversion practices in Victoria, which I would have thought is important for the given context. This is not to argue against those 15 people who shared their story, people for whom I wish the very best, but it is important for the public to be made aware of what lays behind the Government’s legislation.

The credibility of the research is further weakened by the fact that the project steering committee consisted of representatives from LGBT lobby groups and progressive religious groups. To my knowledge, not one of the advisors represents a faith group that holds to the traditional understanding of sexuality and marriage. Why is that so? Why ignore the views of the overwhelming majority of Churches? Why were no positives stories published and used in the research? There are countless testimonies to share of people who have found great help and support in churches that hold to the classical understanding of marriage and sexuality. 

Preventing Harm, Promoting Justice makes clear that the authors are not only viewing those few dreadful practices that were once used by a few marginal religious groups, they are targeting mainstream Christian Churches who teach, believe, and practice a classical view of human sexuality. For example,

“A similarly insidious development in conservative religious communities is the ‘welcoming but not affirming’ pastoral posture. Churches holding this stance maintain that LGBT status and behaviour is disordered and sinful, but keep this position muted in the hope of converting LGBT people to their version of Christianity.58 This ‘welcoming but not affirming’ posture equates to a more sophisticated version of the old evangelical adage, ‘love the sinner, hate the sin’. LGBT conversion therapy is not prominently promoted. However, LGBT people worshipping in communities that present cisgendered heterosexual marriage as the only valid form of gender and sexual expression are positioned to repress and reject their LGBT characteristics and to seek reorientation.”

By “insidious development” they refer to the view held by Christians since the time of Jesus, and that is normative in Christian Churches across the world today and in Victoria. They continue,

“In a religious landscape where there are many prominent religious voices hostile to LGBT people, churches holding a ‘welcoming but not affirming’ stance may appear attractive. They avoid overtly homophobic and transphobic rhetoric and welcome LGBT people. Community membership, however, is conditional on remaining closeted or a commitment to living chaste and celibate lives.”

In other words, Dr Jones takes issue with any faith community that holds to Jesus’ teaching about marriage and sexual relationship. Even encouraging the Biblical position on self-control is deemed wrong and inappropriate.

Under the heading of, “RELIGIOUS CONVERSION THERAPY IN AUSTRALIA TODAY”, the HRLC report refers to new forms of conversion practice, which include promoting self-control and abstinence.

“Instead, they are beginning to promote activities designed to help same-sex attracted people live chaste and celibate lives, in accordance with the sexual ethics of their religious traditions.”

As one academic in the field of gender studies has said to me in private, according to the above assertion, “self control is conversion therapy”.

Dr Jones’ words of ‘comfort’ in The Age are demonstrably undermined by his own words in Preventing Harm, Promoting Justice. His role in assisting the Victorian Government reveals how he and his coauthors do want churches to abandon their Biblical views and to instead endorse current gender theory. Granted, some of these Christians practices are not prohibited in the Bill, but others are. I am not referring to the few archaic and dreadful practices that once existed in marginal groups, I am speaking of pastoral conversation and prayer. 

This entire episode is so unfortunate. The overwhelming majority of religious leaders affirm protecting people from nonconsensual practices and dreadful things such as aversion therapy. No one supports such things. Instead, the Government is acting well beyond what is reasonable or right. Christian Churches trust that the Victorian Parliament will redress the extraordinary overreaches contained in this Bill and send it to committee for important revision.


This breaking interview organised by Eternity News with the office of the Commissioner for LGBTIQ+ Communities, within Victoria’s Department of Premier and Cabinet, confirms the validity of the issues raised by myself and others (including what I explain above) – https://www.eternitynews.com.au/australia/victorias-conversion-practices-bill-detailed-answers-from-the-government/

Victoria’s Revised Inclusive Language Guide unable to define terms

“To know and not to know, to be conscious of complete truthfulness while telling carefully constructed lies, to hold simultaneously two opinions which cancelled out, knowing them to contradictory and believing in both of them, to use logic against logic, to repudiate morality while laying claim to it, to believe that democracy was impossible and that the Party was the guardian of democracy, to forget whatever it was necessary to forget, then draw it back into memory again at the moment when it was needed, and then promptly to forget it again: and above all, to apply the same process to the process itself. That was the ultimate subtlety: consciously to induce unconsciousness, and then, once again, to become unconscious of the act of hypnosis you had just performed. Even to understand the word ‘doublethink’ involved the use of doublethink.” (George Orwell, 1984)

It was only a few years ago that everyone knew what a man was and what a woman was. Addressing a woman with female pronouns and speaking to men with male pronouns was commonsense, polite, and normal. In Victoria today, this is no longer the case.

The Victorian Government has recently revised its LGBTIQ+ Inclusive Language Guide for public servants.

Gendered titles such as Mister or Miss should be avoided. Referring to husband or wife has been deemed inappropriate. Such language has been deemed exclusivist.

According to the story in the Herald Sun

some judges are refusing to use “gendered” titles like “mister”, instead referring to people before them in court as “citizen” or “plaintiff”.

We know ‘Citizen’ worked really well for the French Revolution, so why not here in Victoria!?

There is nothing more welcoming and personal than to address people by impersonal pronouns. I’m sure we would appreciate a Government worker make introductions by asking, are you a woman or a man or…?

The guide to Victorian queer theory contradicts itself in two glaring ways.

First of all, the guide acknowledges that most men use “he” and most women use “she”. The fact is, almost all men use “he” and almost all women use “she”, but according to the guide there is no “normal”. If 99%, 98%, or 95% cannot be considered a norm, I don’t know what can. One notes how politicians frequently use numbers to establish a mandate and to define moral norms. Isn’t that what happened with the same sex marriage plebiscite in 2017, where 61.6% of respondents supported a change of definition? 

Secondly,  “A report on the strategy said an appendix of “Language & Terms” had been removed because “wording and understanding in this space changes incredibly quickly, and the appendix would soon have been out of date”.

In other words, the Guide that instructs 300,000 employees how to address people cannot even define its own terms because the meaning of words is constantly changing. Doesn’t that communicate a rather obvious issue with their approach? 

How insulting to men and women that you can no longer address them as such. Isn’t rather demeaning to ignore the fact that a woman is a woman? Imagine the approaching the desk at the public swimming pool and you ask for the changing room. The employee responds by asking, ‘how do you identify?’

Let’s assume that at least some of the persons involved in writing this Guide are trying their best to look out for people and to avoid injury and insult. Good intentions is not the definition of what is good or right. Daniel Andrews and his legion of bureaucrats are not saving humanity, they are tearing human identity and dignity asunder. 

What happens with single sex schools? What happens to women’s sport? What about prisons? What happens with gender quotas? Where individuals decide that they don’t identify as male or female but as one of growing list of alternative genders, how do they fit into all of the above contexts? 

The absurdity of this Guide means we can no longer trust our eyes and the facts we see. No longer can we depend on common sense. Biology is to be ignored (which as you can imagine creates all kinds of problems), instead public servants are told to assume that each person’s self identification is authentic and accurate. 

Ultimately gender and sex become meaningless categories, which of course is the end game in Queer theory. Names are an infringement on personal freedom, which ultimately leaves parents with zero permission to name their own children, let alone presuming what their child’s sex and gender is. Does our baby have a penis? Apparently such realities are irrelevant. What is their name? We have to wait until they are old enough to decide their gender preference and then they can choose their own name.

This Guide to language is of course a one way street. The Government’s latest move is the Change or Suppression (Conversion) Practices Prohibition Bill 2020

If a child is wrestling with their gender identity, this Government is preparing to imprison mum and dad if they don’t consent to filling their child with hormone replacement therapy. These children can taken away from their family and brought the child into the loving care of the State who will gladly abuse the physical body in aid of this unyielding new ideology. 

A Church leader who explores the Christian view of sexuality with an individual can be charged and jailed for 10 years. Should a pastor or priest dare pray in accord with say 1 Corinthians 6, they can also face a prison term or a fine of $200,000.

All this would be hilarious if it were not so serious. This new cultural imperialism will not lead to clarity, it produces mountains of confusion. This is not dignity building, it is demoralising as we create a generation of young Victorians who are taught not to trust their own biology or even their parents. Eventually, we will be left with a society where we can no longer identify anyone or know anything to be truly true. The further my State of Victoria entertains this project, the more we harm ourselves. We are losing our grip on what it means to be human as we exchanged the soul for acceptance at the table of identity politics. Perhaps, the advise given to judges is correct, all we will be left with is a label, “Citizen”. 

Students of history understand that when cultures abandon moral goods, the trajectory can persist for extended periods. The road that our society is making didn’t start last week. It’s a project that is now many decades old, and while the final kilometres of this road are yet to be made, the direction should concern all of us. 

These ages of experimentation are detrimental to the lives of the people who find themselves living through it, which is what makes them so dangerous. This current negation of man and woman effects real people in real time. However, reality cannot be subdued forever. 

When the cultural influencers of Jesus’ day argued over marriage and tried to subvert the ‘normalcy’ of the Scriptures, Jesus responded, 

“Haven’t you read…that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female”.

Eventually we will return to the paradigm of Genesis 1. For now, in Victoria, we need to be prepare for a long and windy road trip. We pray that God brings us back sooner than later.

None of this is to ignore people in our community for whom heterosexuality or binary gender identity are things that don’t sit easily with them (or not at all). These individuals should be shown compassion and treated with respect. Indeed, I would argue that the good news of Jesus Christ offers greater hope and life and freedom than the constantly changing deluge that is queer theory. Remember the encounter of the Samaritan woman with Jesus. The outsider who had transgressed the norms of marriage was welcomed and loved by Jesus, not because of her background but on account of Christ’s own character. Jesus did not approve of her past, he extended to her a future,

“a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth.” (John 4:23-24)

Clarifying comments about The Age article

For those who have read the article in Sunday’s The Age, “Gay conversion legislation puts Andrews on a collision course with churches”.

The headline is fair. It did not need to be this way, but the current Victorian Government has a poor track record when it comes to dialoguing with faith communities. 

Journalist Farrah Tomazin has done a reasonable job trying to squeeze into one article many important factors. I thank her for her courtesy and pleasant conversation. Let it be said, Farrah Tomazin achieved more in that single phone call than the Government has probably done in attempting to understand how Christian churches function and what they in fact believe.

Nonetheless, it is important to reiterate these points that I have long maintained and which have been overlooked by The Age or insufficiently emphasised. Hopefully this encourages more conversation, not less.

  1. Christians oppose conversion practices, in terms of those archaic and awful therapies that a few religious groups once adopted. These include aversion therapy and shock therapy. Such practices were never mainstream and never supported by most Christians.
  2. If the Government had chosen to work with churches rather than against them, a successful Bill might have been accomplished.
  3. I noted yesterday that sermons do not fall under the umbrella of this legislation. However this is far from clear from the Bill itself. Clarification was required in a speech given by Attorney General Jill Hennessy.
  4. On preaching, Hennessy has not excluded the possibility of controlling Christian sermons in the future: “such conduct may be considered as part of the Legislative Assembly’s ongoing inquiry into anti-vilification protections.”
  5. The article failed to interview people who find support and care within Christians Churches (or other faith communities), and who find prayer and conversation of enormous value as they wrestle with their identity. This is not unusual for it forms the fabric of Christian Gospelling over 2,000 years.
  6. The article overlooks last week’s landmark ruling in the UK High Court where a 23 year old successfully demonstrate that the new trend in treating teenagers with gender confusion with hormones and other invasive practices is wrong and dangerous. The current Victorian Government enforces that medical professionals proceed down this path of conversion. The Bill threatens families who do not fully endorse this conversion.
  7. The aim of Christian teaching is not to alter an individual’s sexual orientation. Jesus was clear that sexual activity is reserved for the marriage covenant between a man and a woman. Christians accept Jesus’ purposes as good and want to live in accord with them. The proposed Act prohibits both prayer and conversation where this Bible ethic is encouraged.
  8. It is incorrect and somewhat amusing for someone to describe me and churches like my own as “the religious right”. This is far from accurate. Over the years, I have been called left and right, conservative and progressive. Let’s be clear, the position I hold is neither right or left. These views are in step with classical Christianity, believed and practiced by 100s of millions of people around the globe and that has its teaching and centre firmly grounded in Jesus Christ.
  9. I will say this again, for a Government to define ‘prayer’ and ‘conversation’ as harmful is ridiculous, extraordinary, and reaches far beyond their jurisdiction. One can only ask the question, why have they chosen this extreme and unnecessary approach?

Added Information on the Conversion Practices Bill

New information has come to light since I wrote ‘A Day of Reckoning: Victorian Government pushes to ban Christian practices with threat of 10 years in prison’. Unfortunately, none of it alleviates initial concerns with the Victorian Government’s Change or Suppression (Conversion) Practices Prohibition Bill 2020

First, let me reiterate the astounding step this Victorian Government is taking: a Bill before the Parliament will ban praying.

It is not a prohibition on all prayer but prayers with people that include a Christian view of humanity sexuality.

Also, this extraordinary measure: while it is understandable and agreeable that a Bill might seek to ban non consensual activity, this Bill forbids consensual prayers and conversations in which the Bible’s sexual ethic is explained and encouraged.

The explanatory memorandum states,

“These examples are illustrative only and do not narrow the definition in subclause (1) which is intended to capture a broad range of conduct, including, informal practices, such as conversations with a community leader that encourage change or suppression of sexual orientation or gender identity”.

As I noted last week, there are details in the Bill which are ambiguous. Either this serves to deliberately discourage a breadth of Christian (and religious) engagement with sexual ethics or the Bill has been poorly written. I will let others decide which is the case. For example, does preaching or leading a group Bible study fall foul of this Bill?

Associate Professor Neil Foster has written a second response to this Bill, in which he offer some clarity. He refers to the Attorney General’s speech before the Parliament. Unfortunately, rather than her explanation assuaging concerns, she indicates there may be further prohibitions on religious freedom to come, including on preaching. He explains, 

“While I appreciate that activities such as preaching are not explicitly prohibited, I note the Attorney General’s statement, “….” the conduct must be directed at an individual. This ensures that conduct generally directed— such as sermons expressing a general statement of belief—is not captured. However, such conduct may be considered as part of the Legislative Assembly’s ongoing inquiry into anti-vilification protections.”

In other words, while preaching a sermon is not currently included in the parameters of this bill, the Attorney General is foreshadowing a time when sermons will come under scrutiny.

The Bible urges followers of Jesus Christ to refrain from sexual relationships outside marriage between a man and a woman. This is described in positive and good ways. It is not suppression, it is liberating. Depending on how ‘suppression’ is used, these normal conversations that take place religious communities may well become anathema. Certainly, the Bill may have the effect of creating fear and pressuring Christians leaders into failing their duty to faithfully explain and encourage the Christian faith.

In other words conversations that include the affirmation of normal and deeply held Christian beliefs and encouragement for Christians to live by these teachings, amounts to illegal activity with a possible prison term of 10 years.

For a Bill to name prayer as illegal under an Act of Parliament is astonishing and it is unwarranted. For a Government to make illegal conversations with a faith leader is extraordinary and significant overreach. When the Victorian Attorney General indicates that “sermons expressing a general statement of belief” may in the future be considered in framing new ant-vilification protections we have entered very dangerous territory. This is the kind of authoritarianism that we find in those oppressive countries. This Bill is Victoria’s Sinicization.

The Government’s one way street to conversion fails to do justice to the complexity of issues. It has assumed a narrow posture toward sex and gender, which neither medical experts or religious communities accept as true. Indeed, neither do many LGBT people accept the Government’s hostile stance.

It is important to note that it is not only religious groups who are concerned at the Change or Suppression (Conversion) Practices Prohibition Bill 2020 . The Government won’t inform the public, but the fact is, there are people identifying as LGBT who are against this Bill.

The LGB Alliance has expressed significant reservations about the Bill. 

One transgender woman has spoken with me and expressed concerns about the Government’s politicisation and popularisation of the issue.

Men and women who have detransitioned are speaking up and making the point that this Bill will prevent people from seeking out and finding both professional help and pastoral care that they require.

The problem with this Bill is that it is neither based on best science nor on essential democratic principles of freedom of conscience, belief, and practice. Rather depends on the narrow and belligerent worldview that is propagated by vociferous ivory tower scholastics with their minions in popular culture and activists groups.

This week saw the landmark High Court ruling in the United Kingdom. 23 year old Ms Bell won her case against Tavistock and Portman NHS Trust, for its dangerous treatment of children who have gender dysphoria.

Ms Bell was prescribed puberty blockers at age 16. As an adult Ms Bell has sued Tavistock, alleging that young people do not have sufficient awareness to make an informed decision to undergo invasive treatments that will have long term effects on their physical and mental state. Three judges ruled in her favour

Notice the clear language quote by the The Times

“under-18s in gender clinics need “far better mental health services to help them to reconcile themselves to their (sex) — not life-changing physical interventions that might alleviate short-term distress at the price of long-term trauma”.

This same view, should it be found in a doctors clinic or in pastoral visitation here in Victoria, could see charges laid followed by a 10 year term of imprisonment. For what? For failing to subscribe to the Government’s narrow and one way street of conversion, rather than offering sensible, caring, patient care toward those in our community who are struggling with their identity. 

The UK ruling is relevant to this conversation because it demonstrates a growing awareness of and concern for those who are treating gender issues according to dogmatic and myopic views. 

Members of Parliament and the Victorian public should note this Bill is a disaster not only for religious groups but also for LGBT Victorians who don’t wish coercion down the ideological path which the current Government is directing. Doctors and psychologists are increasingly concerned about this one way street and the road blocks this Government is laying down will prevents real and necessary conversation and care to be offered.

Far from protecting people this bill will have the unfortunate consequence of threatening many Victorians with legal proceedings to they continue to believe and practice a Christian worldview, it will pressure faith leaders from exercising their pastoral responsibilities, and it will prevent many people in our community who are wrestling with their identity and are looking to faith communities for wisdom and prayer and support.

Where the Government could have made allies with faith communities in Victoria, they have unnecessarily targeted them and pushed them away. They are sadly driving this Bill over other Victorians who deserve love and care, not this coercive piece of legislation. One prays that commonsense will prevail and that the Government will return this Bill to the drawing room and start again. 

A Day of Reckoning: Victorian Government pushes to ban Christian practices with threat of 10 years in prison

The day has come in Victoria where Christians and Churches need to decide whether to obey God or the Government. Such a decision should never be forced onto believers but the current Victorian Government insists that it must be so.

There are times when we use hyperbole and exaggerate the significance of words or decisions, but I do not think this is one of those occasions.

The Change or Suppression (Conversion) Practices Prohibition Bill 2020 has been tabled in the Victorian Parliament. This is the most significant threat to religious freedom in Victoria in living memory. The current Government has been slowly removing religious freedoms for a number of years, but nothing quite like this.

Anyone found engaging in ‘change or suppression practices’ may face 10 years imprisonment.

Premier Daniel Andrews

“Cruel and bigoted practices that seek to change or suppress a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity will soon be stamped out across Victoria, thanks to new laws introduced to Parliament today.       

The Change or Suppression (Conversion) Practices Prohibition Bill 2020 will put in place new measures to protect Victorians from the serious damage and trauma caused by conversion practices.

The Bill denounces such practices as deceptive and harmful, reinforces that the ideology behind these practices is flawed and wrong.

The laws empower the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission (VEOHRC) to consider and respond to reports of change or suppression practices from any person, as well as launch investigations where there is evidence of serious or systemic change or suppression practices.”

The Change or Suppression (Conversion) Practices Prohibition Bill may have wide-reaching ramifications for thousands of religious groups in Victoria, for 100,000s of Victorians, and for the entire State as it turns its back on religious freedom in favour for State-controlled religion. 

Now that the Bill is available to read, what does it mean for Christians and for churches?

The Bill is long and complex. There are important details that need to be addressed which I or others will do so later on. I want to comment here on some of the larger issues.

I want to begin by stressing that if the Government’s intention is to protect vulnerable people from extreme practices that were once employed by a few and marginal religious groups, there is a warrant for conversation.

When the Guardian reported, 

“Religious groups have sought to distance themselves from the older practices of electro-shock treatment, aversion therapy or other extreme methods, while arguing that religious counselling encouraging people to change their sexuality or gender identity should not be banned if a person consented to the treatment.”

I must respond and say, not true. We are not distancing ourselves from these older practices because almost no church ever engaged in them. Until a few years ago I didn’t know that such practices once occurred in a few religious groups. Despite the efforts of the Government and various advocacy groups, this is not and was never widespread among Christians in Victoria. In addition, I note the government has carefully avoided telling the public that this the so-called ‘conversion therapy’ originated not with Christian churches but within secular psychology. Decades ago, some well-meaning people unfortunately adopted the ideas and practices from psychology and added a spiritual twist. 

If the Government is concerned with banning shock therapy and particular counselling methods, pretty much all Christians would find agreement. For those people who have undergone those kinds of experiences, I pray that they will find healing and come to know the God of all comfort. However, these narrow and debunked practices are not the parameters of this Bill, nor the goal of this Bill. Both the Premier and the Attorney General have made it clear,

Premier Daniel Andrews referred to conversion practice as,

 “This bigoted quackery”, 

and 

“The Bill denounces such practices as deceptive and harmful, reinforces that the ideology behind these practices is flawed and wrong.”

Attorney-General Jill Hennssey said,

“We’re sending a clear message: no one is ‘broken’ because of their sexuality or gender identity,” 

“These views won’t be tolerated in Victoria and neither will these abhorrent practices.”

Let us take note, it is not only the alleged activity that Daniel Andrews and Jill Hennessy want to be eradicated from Victoria, it is “these views”. In other words, to think or have ‘these views’ is something that the Victorian Government wants rooted out.

In other words,  the Government is not only targeting those rare, few and extreme practices (that frankly don’t happen anymore), the government is aiming its intention at the beliefs and the thoughts of 100,000s of Victorians. Is it the role of government to police our minds and to decide what theology can and cannot be believed? Since when did God give them jurisdiction over the conscience?

Churches are left with little protection

The Bill contains no explicit protection of the rights of religious people to believe and teach their views. At one point it refers to the Charter of Human Rights but it fails to offer any specific protection to religious people and religious organisations. With a note of irony that can’t be missed, the Bill’s explanatory memo references to “freedom of thought, conscience, religion and belief”, in the context of constructing an entire Bill aimed at taking those freedoms away.

The Government’s position is of course hypocritical and disingenuous. For example, while they argue sexual orientation is fixed and that persuading anyone of an alternative is morally wrong, the Bill offers protections for those who are in the business of transitioning people into a gender other than their birth sex. In another law that the Government pushed through a year ago, on one’s birth certificate you are free to legally change the gender on your birth certificate every 12 months. When it comes to children who are wrestling with gender dysphoria, they are now encouraged and urged to no longer identify with their biological sex but to assume a new gender identity. The government have acted in this manner despite an increasing consensus in the medical fraternity that this kind of counselling and medical intervention is fraught with danger and is unlikely to resolve the issues facing these children.

What is considered ‘conversion or suppression practice?

In terms of the particulars of this Bill. it is important to understand how terms are defined, in particular, what constitutes ‘conversion or suppression practice’.

5 Meaning of change or suppression practice 

(1) In this Act, a change or suppression practice means a practice or conduct directed towards a person, whether with or without the person’s consent—

(a) on the basis of the person’s sexual orientation or gender identity; and

(b) for the purpose of—

(i) changing or suppressing the sexual orientation or gender identity of the person; or

(ii) inducing the person to change or suppress their sexual orientation or gender identity.

(3) For the purposes of subsection (1), a practice includes, but is not limited to the following—

(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.

Take note of the following details:

  1. The Bill will ban consensual practices. If a person invites a pastor or person to pray for them in relation to their sexual orientation or gender identity, the pastor or person can be charged according to the Act.
  2. Section 5.3 provides examples of what constitutes ‘practices’.  Prayer is banned. For example, if a person asks for prayer that they would live a godly life and refrain from sexual activity that they believe is inconsistent with follow Jesus Christ, the person praying can be charge according to this Act. 
  3. Section 5.3 specifies that practice is not limited to the examples that are provided. 

Where does this leave preaching and teaching the Bible’s sexual ethic? What of the sermon, the Bible study group, and seminars? 

To be clear, Christianity does not teach that a persons gender or sexual orientation will change. Christianity does however teach and urge Christians to live sexually godly lives which include only having sexual relations within the marriage covenant between a man and a woman. The Bible contains many exhortations for believers to not engage in sexual activity outside marriage. Will these formal and informal conversations be permitted under this Bill? At the stage, that is far from certain.

For teaching abstinence or offering pastoral counselling in line with the Bible’s vision of sexuality, and praying with fellow believers that they will be godly in their sexuality, does this fall foul of the Bill?  

This ambiguity needs to be clarified in the Bill. If teaching and sermons and study groups are not subject to this Bill, then it needs to be made explicit so that religious organisations are afforded due protection.

As it stands, there are details that this Bill does not answer and deliberately (or least it seems a conscious decision) leaves open. What if a church runs a seminar on marriage or raising children and we explore the bibles teaching on sexuality?

Where the Bill is silent, we may turn to the Bill’s explanatory memorandum and to the HCC and HRLC reports which the Government used extensively for shaping their position. 

The explanatory note states,

“These examples are illustrative only and do not narrow the definition in subclause (1) which is intended to capture a broad range of conduct, including, informal practices, such as conversations with a community leader that encourage change or suppression of sexual orientation or gender identity, and more formal practices, such as behaviour change programs and residential camps.”

In other words, a conversation is deemed an offence. A chat where a Christian encourages another Christian to follow a Christian ethic could become unlawful.

The Explanatory memo doesn’t hold as much legal weight as the Bill itself. However, I am reliably informed that a Court may refer to the explanatory note.

The Health Complaints Commissioner’s Report for the Government, adds this information,

“Conversion therapy/practices reinforced homosexuality as a form of ‘brokenness’”

And

“Church teachings that homosexuality is sinful;”

Notice the attention given to Church teachings (as opposed to other religions who also identify homosexual practices as sinful). In other words, classical Christian teaching about sexuality is deemed to be harmful. According to the HCC, an exposition of Romans ch.1 or 1 Corinthians ch.6 would fall under the umbrella of harm. If a Church organises a marriage enrichment day where the Bible’s presentation of marriage is affirmed, this event could fall foul of harm. From weddings to Sunday sermons, from Bible study groups to counselling sessions, in contexts where sex outside of heterosexual marriage is spoken of as sinful or broken, the Health Complaints Commissioner identifies all of the above as harmful and therefore the State can justify limiting religious freedom.

The other report which the Government has underscored is from the Human Rights Law Centre.

Under  conversion practice they include,

“pastoral care which includes (or claims to include) ‘counselling’, ‘healing’, claims about ‘curing’, ‘changing’ or ‘repairing’ a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity, or claims about improving a person’s mental or physical health, would likely still be classified as a health service, and the above regulations would apply.”

Indeed, the definition is so expansive that it may include sermons, Bible Studies, marriage courses, counselling, and prayer.

The HRLC report also included new forms’ of conversion practice, among them is self-control and abstinence.

“Instead, they are beginning to promote activities designed to help same-sex attracted people live chaste and celibate lives, in accordance with the sexual ethics of their religious traditions.”

The HRLC and HCC reports are not part of the Bill, but they do form background and reveal the sorts of practices that are being views. The Government has a responsibility to clarify where the HRLC and HCC understandings of ‘practices’ can or will influence interpretation of the Act.

Concluding Remarks for now

Once again, we can all agree that there used to be unhelpful and damaging practices done to fellow Victorians. We oppose them and pray that those individuals who have been harm, may find peace and healing. The Government’s Bill, as it stands, goes well beyond those archaic and now debunked practices. This is an attack on normal and deeply held beliefs and practices among Christians all over the world.

I am less shocked by the Government’s narrative as I am saddened. Pumping children with hormones and cutting off breasts and penises is not harmful, but Christianity is harmful. Praying for Christians to be godly about sex is harmful. Teaching the Bible’s vision for human sexuality and relationships could be defined as harmful. 

Without important revisions and corrections, this Bill will make vulnerable 100,000s of Victorian Christians who are persuaded by the Bible’s vision for human sexuality.  For Christians, this is never about forcing our views on anyone. It is about casting a better vision for the world and human life, and about persuading and loving others as Christ has loved us.

If the Government doesn’t intend to prosecute Christians or Churches for praying or teaching or practicing a Christian view of sexuality, then it is incumbent upon them to clarify their goals and to correct this Bill.

I trust that the Victorian Parliament will see commonsense and introduce significant revisions to this anti-religion Bill. 

To Churches, faith groups, and denominations, I encourage you to write to your local members of Parliament and express your concerns winsomely and clearly.


LGB Group opposes the Bill

https://www.theaustralian.com.au/nation/conversion-therapy-ban-may-backfire-lgb-group/news-story/f065829f62254bfdbdaac91961b9ab20

Associate Prof. Neil Foster begins to unpack the legal issues with the Bill – https://lawandreligionaustralia.blog/2020/11/26/victorian-conversion-practices-prohibition-introduced/?fbclid=IwAR1FXurFqxt6SFJojCi5BvSFK_agfYbp8Zn18UyY0E8qa4vcuG2QJ4l8ouA

This legal analysis exposes deep problems with the legislation, including how it works against children and families. No wonder LGB groups and some transgender people are appalled by the proposed Bill – https://freedomforfaith.org.au/library/labor-government-in-victoria-makes-prayer-a-criminal-offence?fbclid=IwAR378h-hypTQLwfVRM0KAoY-WRnhdQ22L2xUaJLgtXldSWSolZlBypYP8pw

Clarifying repentance, forgiveness, and baptism

Forgiveness and repentance are stunning and central concepts to Christianity.  To not only consider but to experience Divine forgiveness and to live a life of repentance is truly wonderful, life giving and life filling.

Jason Goroncy of Whitley College has written a short article for the Baptist Union of Victoria on the nature of forgiveness and repentance. He offers a few helpful insights. For instance, he recognising how repentance is hard. He is a great line about confession, “confession is neither a transaction nor a negotiation in order to secure forgiveness. Moreover, it is ‘the after-the-last gasp of a corpse that finally can afford to admit it’s dead and accept resurrection”.

Unfortunately, the article is also filled with a series of strange and problematic arguments which may leave readers confused about what Baptists believe and what the relationship is between repentance and forgiveness.

First of all, why is a baptist minister promoting (on a baptist website) infant baptism? 

“This is one reason why infant baptism, not something all Baptists always appreciate or welcome, can be such a powerful witness to the Gospel. It makes public the claim that no amount of sincerity, grovelling, or religious acrobatics can achieve forgiveness. Rather, forgiveness comes before we ask for it, before we are aware of its need before we take our first breath.” 

As I was reading this paragraph a baptist pastor called me. He too was stunned by this out of place argument. The analogy may well find a home in Anglican or Presbyterians circles but it is certainly not Baptist. Don’t misunderstand, I love my Anglican and Presy brothers and sisters, but baptism is one of the key distinctives that set us apart. 

There is a reason why Baptists don’t “appreciate or welcome” infant baptism; it’s because we do not believe infant baptism as taught or practiced in the New Testament. Also, Baptists don’t accept that infant baptism is a “powerful witness to the Gospel” because we’re unconvinced that infant baptism is congruent with Scripture. Baptists do however gladly affirm and acknowledge how believers baptism holds a theological connection with God’s grace, as it does with repentance and faith. Baptism symbolises our response to God’s grace. It marks our receiving of God’s gift of salvation through faith in Christ. 

At Pentecost the crowds listened to Peter preach the Gospel. We read, 

“When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?”Peter replied, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. “

As the Baptist Union of Victoria’s Doctrinal Basis states,

“Baptism being the immersion of believers upon the profession of their faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, and a symbol of the fellowship of the regenerate in His death, burial and resurrection;”

I don’t know what Jason’s personal convictions are about baptism. It would be odd for an ordained baptist minister to hold to infant baptism.

It is also a little unclear whether Jason is in fact advocating infant baptism here or not. At one level that point is moot, for the issue is that a Baptist theologian believes infant baptism is a valid theological explanation for the grace of God. That in itself cuts against the grain of what Baptists believe. I confess that I also find it weird to read this kind of theologising in a Baptist context. As someone said to me last night, should we be expecting the next article to advocate for bishops?

There is another statement that sits uncomfortably. Jason claims, “confession is something like waking up to what is already most true about us – that we are loved beyond measure – and about God – that God will not be God without us!” 

I agree with the first and second parts of the sentence. But the third? God refuses to be God without us? Can God not be God without us? Is Jason suggesting that God needs us or that God is somehow lacking without us and without our repentance? What does he mean? I understand how theologians love to write in obscure and impenetrable ways, but sometimes this leaves readers (even intelligent readers) with a conclusion that may not be intended, despite how it reads. I certainly hope Jason isn’t suggesting a needy God.

There is another and broader theological issue that I wish to raise about Jason’s Goroncy’s piece. He repeatedly suggests that forgiveness comes before confession and repentance. Indeed, this is his main thesis.

“The parable [of the Prodigal Son] also suggests that as far as Jesus is concerned, real confession is both subsequent to and made possible by forgiveness. Only the forgiven can confess their sins.”

“forgiveness comes before we ask for it, before we are aware of its need before we take our first breath. It comes like a grieving father breaking all protocols – exposing his bare legs and running out to embrace a traumatised child at the edge of life’s horizon where life has become no life. It is pure gift. It is unthinkable. It is.”

I want to say a big ‘Amen’ to the suggestion that God’s forgiveness is a gift; I couldn’t agree more. If Jason’s primary concern is to guard against human performance and to emphasize God’s grace, that is a worthwhile venture. Indeed, it is not the perfection of our repentance which saves. Only Christ can redeem us, and His atoning death on the cross is sufficient for this task. However, to achieve this emphasis Jason has made a misstep. He seems to conflate forgiveness with grace. Of course the former is an expression of the latter, but the two are not identical. In making this categorical error, Jason argues that Divine forgiveness precedes repentance. 

In the example of the parable of the Prodigal Son, Jason suggests that forgiveness is the action the Father takes as he awaits his son’s return. In my view, that is reading too much into the parable. We are told, “while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him” (v.20). This is certainly a picture of God’s grace. It is an exquisite illustration of the Father’s grace toward us. It is compassion that compels the father to take initiative toward his loved and yet undeserving son. In Darrell Bock’s 2 volume commentary on Luke’s Gospel, he summarises verse 20 in two words, “compassion reigns”. But to mount an argument from this scene that forgiveness is given prior to repentance is asking more of the text than we are given. 

This means we need to rely on other parts of the Bible. As we do, we discover that Divine forgiveness does not precede confession and repentance. Rather, grace precedes our confession and repentance (as in the prodigal son parable), and forgiveness follows our confession and contrition. 

Of particular note, following the Prodigal Son Parable, only two chapters later, Jesus say this, 

“If your brother or sister sins against you, rebuke them; and if they repent, forgive them. Even if they sin against you seven times in a day and seven times come back to you saying ‘I repent,’ you must forgive them.” (Luke 17:3-4). (Bold indicates my emphasis)

Forgiveness is conditional upon confession and repentance.

1 John 1:9 explains,

“If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.”

Psalm 32:5,

“Then I acknowledged my sin to you and did not cover up my iniquity. I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the Lord.” And you forgave the guilt of my sin.”

Again, assuming that Jason’s purpose is to stress God’s grace a priori, we can say that it is not the size of or emotional intensity of repentance that leads to forgiveness. We are nonetheless told in Scripture that forgiveness comes to those who confess their sins and turn from them.  In no way does this make repentance into performance, repentance is the acknowledgement of personal guilt before a holy God, the dependence upon the work of Christ for forgiveness, and the transformed life that follows.

Is there any sense in which God forgives prior to our repentance? Yes, but only in a very particular sense and only to those who are in Christ. To those who are called by God to be in Christ and on account of Christ, God forgives all our sins, including our yet to be committed sins.

Stephen Wellum explains, 

“from God’s viewpoint there is no problem with saying that when he declares us just, he forgives our future sins—as well as our past and present sins—since our future lies before him as an open book. Yet from our point of view, it’s best to think of our justification as the forgiveness of all our past and present sins, and as the judicial ground for the forgiveness of future sins.”

…There is absolutely no contradiction between justification by grace through faith and our need for ongoing forgiveness of sin. We ask God to forgive us not to be re-justified but to walk before him in confidence that Christ has paid it all, and we are debtors to grace alone. Justification occurs once for all time, yet confessing sin and receiving forgiveness is ongoing until we are glorified and sin no more.”

Pubs, Churches, and Government Rules

The strict and prolonged lockdown in Victoria has tested the most resilient among us. As the State slowly opens up we should not be surprised if we find ourselves affirming some decisions and disagreeing with others. Where discrepancies appear and they are irreconcilable, it is incumbent on the Government to explain and to justify their rationale.

The example I want to talk about here concerns churches. On September 28th Eternity newspaper approached me for comment on Victoria’s roadmap to recovery. I said, 

“The Premier’s announcement on Sunday was encouraging because it means 130,000 people are returning to work and primary aged children returning to school…While I appreciate this, most of Melbourne’s restrictions remain in place. In my view, the Government’s roadmap is treating churches fairly at the moment, although we are still a couple of months away from being allowed to gather in any sizeable number.”

Unfortunately, this is no longer the case. As of today (October 19), in regional Victoria pubs and restaurants can now have 40 patrons indoors and 70 patrons seated outdoors. Churches, however, can only have 20 people gathered outside and no church of any size is permitted indoors. At the moment all churches in Melbourne are closed and so we are watching with interest the roadmap in regional Victoria. The disparity between churches and pubs is unfortunate. I trust this is nothing more than an oversight which will be quickly resolved, rather than the beginning of a longer term trend.

At yesterday’s press conference the Premier made a comment about why greater numbers of people are allowed in pubs than in homes. The reason given is,  restaurants and cafes are a regulated industry. But what of churches? I trust the implication isn’t that churches cannot be trusted to organise and regulate safe COVID-19 practices.

On the Neil Mitchell show this morning on 3AW, Victoria’s new Health Minister, Martin Foley, claimed that the reason for the differences between pubs and churches is that international and local evidence points to church communities being unsafe.  

Where is the evidence? What international scientific research is Mr Foley referring to? 

In July the New York Times in July made a similar statement and it was quickly proven incorrect.

On July 8 The New York Times published an article claiming that churches were Covid-19 super spreaders. The headline read, “Churches Were Eager to Reopen. Now They Are a Major Source of Coronavirus Cases.”

The article alleged, 

“Weeks after President Trump demanded that America’s shuttered houses of worship be allowed to reopen, new outbreaks of the coronavirus are surging through churches across the country where services have resumed.”

The problem with the NYT article is that the maths didn’t add up. Even the evidence mentioned in the piece contradicted the main thesis. The article cites several churches where multiple cases of COVID-19 were found, and it also disclosed the total number of COVID-19 cases linked with churches: 650. At the time, the United States had 3 million confirmed cases. The total number of cases connected with churches across the entire nation represent 0.0002% of all cases in the country.  Writing for Christianity Today, Ed Stetzer noted that a tiny number of churches had not done the right thing, but the overwhelming majority were conducting church according to strict Covid-19 plans.

“Churches have been remarkable partners in the fight again the coronavirus, with the vast majority closing their gatherings all around the country. Yes, there have been a few outliers, but their paucity demonstrates the cooperation of churches with officials throughout this pandemic.

Churches have overwhelmingly been partners with health authorities and have carefully taken each small step.”

I know many pastors and churches around the world and interstate. As they reopen they are taking Government policies seriously and acting responsibly and pastorally toward the people under their care. It is part of what we do in loving our neighbours. 

Throughout the pandemic Church leaders have spoken regularly and consistently about obeying Government directives, and about ensuring churches have responsible plans in place for a return to public gatherings. We continue to pray for our Prime Minister and our Premier and all who lead in Government and in health agencies. Churches are not asking for special treatment, but it is not too much to request that churches be permitted to open up with parity to restaurants and pubs and other analogous organisations and events.

Governments play an important role in society, but they do not give meaning to people. Governments provide structures and protections for its citizens, but offering the message that nourishes the soul, brings forgiveness to transgressors, and eternal life is beyond their job description. Churches are essential for Victorian communities. In a year where millions of Victorians have struggled and where many have lost everything, we need a message of hope. We need good news of hope that surpasses the material and temporal, and a hope that is more secure and certain than what we had once relied upon. It is possible that churches have never before been so important for this State and the future wellbeing of the people.

The Bible offers a message of living hope, not only to churches but even for those who have considered themselves disinterested in things spiritual. By definition, it is a breathtaking announcement for people who have lost hope,

“Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade” (1 Peter 1:3-4).

People are not disembodied beings. We are physical creatures who require physical presence and social interaction. We are also more than flesh and blood. We are mental and spiritual beings, who depend on more than food and sleep for life. It was Jesus who famously said in the Sermon on the Mount, “Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes?”

Churches provide one of the few remaining places where people can meet and share the joys and sorrows of life, and where supportive relationships are created. Zoom and social media are a blessing but they are no substitute for real and personal meeting. Indeed, church by definition is the physical gathering of Christians, meeting to worship God and to encourage one another. 

I trust the Victorian Government will correct this unnecessary discrepancy between pubs and churches, and avoid similar and further disparities in coming months.