The conversation around banning and enforcing conversion

While we have been addressing a global pandemic, there is another issue which continues to quietly work behind the scenes. One of the Victorian Government commitments is to introduce legislation to ban conversion practices. They reaffirmed their intention as recently as June 2020 in the Discussion Paper for the Victorian LGBTIQ Strategy

Victoria had a reputation for wanting to be the vanguard for progressive sexual ethics in Australia. In recent weeks both the ACT and Queensland recently pushed through Bills to prohibit conversion practices ahead of Victoria. It is not only the States that are considering the issue.

Last week The Conversation published a piece, Why Australia needs a national ban on conversion therapy, written by Larissa Sandy, Anastasia Powell, and Rebecca Hiscock (all lecture at RMIT). In light of urgency of COVID-19 issues I initially missed the article, but I want to visit it now for a number of important reasons. The piece is calling on the Federal Government to follow the example of the ACT and Queensland, and introduce a national ban on conversion practices. Upon reading, the article is little more than mud throwing and recycling disproven rumours. Unfortunately the narrative is popular and powerful. In today’s world what is true and good has little bearing on socio-political agenda, it’s all about story and spin. For this reason alone the article deserves a response. 

Allow me to make these following observations:

Firstly, the authors repeat the untrue claim that conversion practices are widespread in Australian churches.  They write, 

“There are no studies of the prevalence of conversion therapy in contemporary Australia, but a 2018 Human Rights Law Centre/La Trobe University report pointed to the United Kingdom as a reasonable comparison.

The UK’s 2018 national LGBT survey saw 2% of respondents report having undergone conversion therapy, with a further 5% reporting they had been offered it. People from multicultural and multi-faith backgrounds were up to three times as likely to report being offered it.

As The Age reported in 2018, conversion therapies are commonly encountered in religious settings.

[They are] hidden in evangelical churches and ministries, taking the form of exorcisms, prayer groups or counselling disguised as pastoral care. They’re also present in some religious schools or practised in the private offices of health professionals.

First of all, the authors admit that no studies exist in Australia that indicate how prevalent or rare conversion practices are. That doesn’t prevent the authors from suggesting it is commonplace in Australian Churches. Citing a dubious survey from the UK is hardly sound and quoting the opinion of a journalist is not what I would call sound reasoning.

Take for example, the UK survey. The authors of the survey did not ask the general population about conversion practice but only those who identify as LGBT. Second, the authors admit that they offer no definition of ‘conversion practice’, it’s whatever people think it to be. Third, only 2% of people said that they had undergone some kind of therapy. Fourth, the survey revealed that while half of the 2% received conversion therapy from a faith group, 49% received the undefined therapy from medical professionals, family members and unstated organisations. 

It’s not enough to wrongly suggest that conversion practice is commonplace in churches, in order to build the case of how terrible and horrific conversion practices can be, these authors repeat the words of others, even suggesting that “Even more extreme measures throughout history have included castration, lobotomy and clitoridectomy.”


A person who has no knowledge of Churches would be understandably disturbed by these descriptions, as am I. The problem is, such disgusting things don’t happen in Australian Churches or institutions. Pause for a moment, do you really believe that churches are wanting to engage in chopping off peoples’ penises and breasts in order to cure them of their sexual preferences? Really? If this does occur we already have laws that speak against such abhorrent activity. Certainly there have been in the history of western civilisation some indefensible practices but trying to draw links with Christianity today is grasping at straws. I know that in some Islamic countries, gays and lesbians are treated horrifically but our academics from RMIT are not arguing against what happens in Iran. The examples offered by the RMIT trio are in fact profoundly ironic and sad: The only people in Australia who are today castrating and filling people who hormonal treatments and gender altering surgeries are those believe the current sexual and gender theories.

The reality is, almost no Australian Church practices or has ever endorsed conversion therapies. When I was first interviewed by a journalist on the topic I had no idea what they were talking it. After doing some digging of my own it was obvious that conversion therapy was a marginal and rare occurrence that took place in organisations that had adopted a secular strand of psychology that was practiced in the 20th Century. The authors don’t admit it, but gay conversion practice is something that took place in a psychologist’s room not in a church. The few churches that ever adopted the idea (and put their own religious spin on it), probably had good intentions but they were not in line with Biblical teaching. Did some harmful practices ever happen in religious organisation? Yes. Was it commonplace? No. Is it happening today? Not that I am aware of.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

For these RMIT lecturers to suggest conversion practices are commonplace in Australia today is a gross misrepresentation of the reality. Frankly, it is disappointing to see such claims being published on The Conversation, a journal that often produces great material. Sadly, in the world of sexual ethics, if someone repeats a rumour often enough, it soon becomes an accepted truth.

Second, the description of conversion practices is deliberately broad and vague. 

They suggest,

“Conversion therapy involves practices aimed at changing the sexual orientation, gender identity or expression of lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and gender diverse people.

The goal is achieve an exclusively heterosexual and cisgender identity (in other words, where a person’s gender identity matches that assigned at birth).

In Australia, religious-based conversion therapy is most common, and includes things like counselling for “sexual brokenness”, prayer, scripture reading, fasting, retreats and “spiritual healing” .

This description is similar to those espoused by the ACT and Victorian Governments, which in itself is not a problem, except that they each have a habit of blurring the issues. One of the problems is that conversation surrounding conversion practices is highly polarised and doesn’t permit nuance and the real positions that Christians (and other religions) in fact hold. The descriptions are so broad and general that they are simultaneously useless and dangerous. They are useless in the sense that it lacks the specificity and cogency required for law, and it is dangerous in that it subtly drags into question basic and essential beliefs of Christianity. What should be a conversation about rare and extreme activities, has become an assault on core Christian beliefs and practices.

The authors refer to a report from the Human Rights Law Centre in 2018. This is one of two reports that the Victorian Government have relied upon for their 2019 paper outlining their position for banning conversion practices. The Andrews Government is currently defining conversion practice as:

“(i) any practice or treatment that seeks to change, suppress or eliminate an individual’s sexual orientation or gender identity,

(ii) including efforts to eliminate sexual and/or romantic attractions or feelings toward individuals of the same gender, or efforts to change gender expressions.”

The Government acknowledges that there are narrow and broad definitions available and that they have chosen to accept the a broader definition.  To be clear, the proposed definition is so broad that it includes more than a psychologist’s clinic or a counselling room.

The HRLC report wants included under the umbrella of conversion practice,

“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. Before this is denied, let’s allow the HRLC to speak for itself,

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”. In one foul stroke, significant portions of the Bible would have to be removed.

The examples don’t end there. According to the same report, affirming the historical and biblical definition of marriage is also considered a form of conversion therapy,

“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.”

In other words, the intention is not to prohibit rare and extreme practices, the purpose is to control and change historical beliefs and teaching of Christian churches. I am not yet saying that this is the intention of Governments, but it is a repeated message that is articulated by voices who are agitating to ban conversion practices.

Thirdly, conflating conversion with coercion. I have explained this point on many previous occasions. It is so important (for Christians and non Christian alike) that I want to restate it here.

The aim of Christianity is not to change a person’s sexual orientation or gender. The Bible does however call Christians to sexual purity; this does not mean that a person experiences a change in sexual orientation. The fact is, in becoming Christian many gay and lesbian people will not become heterosexual. When people become Christians, there is however always a change in life. What point is there in becoming a follower of Jesus Christ if nothing changes? In beginning the Christian life, there are newly found desires for sanctification. Let me repeat, this does not imply that people cease to struggle with aspects of their past, including sexual orientation, but it does mean that they now want to be godly in their sexuality. According to the Bible, sanctification includes affirming that sexual practices should remain within the loving, exclusive, mutually consenting, covenant of marriage between a man and a woman. 

Without diminishing any of the above, the fact is, some people do change their sexual orientation and gender identity over time. For example, it is a well documented fact that the majority of children wrestling with gender dysphoria overcome it by adulthood and will happily identify with the gender of their birth. There are adults who find that their sexual orientation changes; Rosaria Butterfield is one high profiled Christian who testifies to her own change. Even the Victorian Government now allow people to alter the stated gender on their birth certificate, once every 12 months.

As a Christian Pastor, I gladly speak against coercive practices, unscientific therapies, and unbiblical ideas. Where these things do occur we can have a national conversation. But when academics, politicians, and social commentators, continue to espouse false claims, broad generalisations and caricatures, and to ignore what churches really teach and practice, what we have is not an honest dialogue but a bullish ideologue.

Most Australians are appropriately focusing on how to live with COVID-19, and addressing important issues of mental health, children’s education, and saving the economy from disaster. These matters all require our attention. To prepare for forthcoming legislation in Victoria, we also need to raise awareness of the arguments surrounding conversion practices. 

Christians don’t believe in forced conversions. We believe in persuading others of a message that is good and attractive. Christianity is by definition a conversion religion. People become Christians as they are convinced by the truthfulness and goodness of Christianity’s message, the Gospel of Jesus of Christ. 

As Christians speak to the issue, take a reminder from the Apostle Paul and speak with grace and gentleness, and always with truthfulness. If a religious group is practicing a genuinely harmful activity, then Christians should be the first to call it out. When we teach the Bible’s portrait of human sexuality do so with clarity and again with grace. Christianity is not a religion for moral purists but for those who are not and who become captivated by the better story offered in Jesus. 

The Conversation article is very poor and it is an unjustified call to create a society where there is forced conversion: where religious groups no longer have freedom to teach in line with their religious convictions but where the State dictates what a Church can and can not teach and practice when it comes to human sexuality. This will of course breed a less tolerant and less free society, and it will only add to the sexual confusion and pain that our society is already experiencing.


The original version of this piece had an error in it. I said La Trobe when the university is in fact RMIT. Apologises.

Do Christians still believe in hell today? A response to Robyn Whitaker

“If you don’t believe in hell, you’ll never heard the love of God.” (Tim Keller)

 

As part of commemorating Easter, the Conversation published two articles by Uniting Church minister and theological college lecturer, Robyn Whitaker. 

Whitaker is (as I suspect many pastors have done in the past few weeks)  offering a contribution to the public debate on hell, which has followed Israel Folau’s recent Instagram comments.

Whitaker provides an interesting and at times informative account of the biblical notions of heaven and hell, but readers are left wondering whether we are meant to believe that these destinations are believable today.

It is difficult to know what Whitaker personally believes about heaven and hell. Her excurses take us through some biblical material and references to ANE religions, but there appears to be a reluctance to share what she herself believes. More problematic is the direction she is leaving for her readers.  It feels like an ethereal rendition of John Lennon’s,

‘Imagine there’s no heaven

It’s easy if you try

No hell below us

Above us only sky’

 

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First of all, where does heaven and hell come from?

Readers are given the impression that heaven and hell don’t originate with God of the Bible, but rather they are evolving compilation of many different faith traditions. Whitaker notes the possible influence of cultures surrounding ancient Israel and Judea. While the Bible at times utilises words and images from surrounding cultures, that does not mean that the biblical concepts depend on or are derived from these religious settings.

The Bible describes heaven and hell as places created by and belonging to God, as much as this universe is made by the same God. Biblical authors may at times borrow language from other places to help readers understand what heaven and hell are about (of much greater influence on the New Testament is a heavy dependence on the Old Testament), but to imply that the Biblical teaching should be traced to another religious milieu is both unnecessary and counters the Scriptures themselves (i.e. Acts 17:16-31).

Whitaker not only suggests the Bible’s teaching about heaven and hell are sourced from other ancient religions, rather than originating with God himself, dotted throughout her presentation are misleading phrases like, “mythic stories”,  which reinforce the view that the Bible is either unreliable or is little more than a superb piece of fiction. The quote by Paula Gooder is telling in this regard,

“it is impossible to state categorically what the Bible as a whole says about heaven… Biblical beliefs about heaven are varied, complex and fluid.”

Two millennia of  Creeds, Catechesis, and doctrinal statements have achieved the very thing that Gooder says is impossible! That does not mean that every aspect of the Bible’s teaching on heaven and hell are captured in any of these statements, but the essence of and a faithful representation of these teachings can be accomplished.

Second, is hell a real place?

Whitaker’s argument leaves readers believing that the answer is a likely, no. While Whitaker is more than willing to accept heaven as an ultimate place (by which she understands heaven to be the healing and transformation of this world), her confidence in a literal hell is lacking, to say the least.

For example, Whitaker makes a big deal of the Bible’s use of metaphors and imagery and does so in a way that explains away any imperative to believe these things are representative of real and concrete places.

Jesus frequently used allegories and analogies in his teaching to convey concrete realities. For example, the mustard seed describing the kingdom of heaven, or the farmer’s seed which represents the word of God. The illustrations are vivid descriptions describing very real things. Similarly, fire and smoke and gnashing of teeth may be rhetorical and symbolic but they are not describing a fiction destination but an eternal place.

Speaking of the book of Revelation Whitaker says,

“It should be noted that these are poetic and highly symbolic apocalyptic texts whose purpose is primarily to persuade people to stay faithful to their God, not to set out a precise agenda for the afterlife.”

Why create the dichotomy? Can’t such texts achieve both? The opening verses of Revelation certainly suggest that the book is presenting an agenda for life both this side of death and on the other side.

“The revelation from Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show his servants what must soon take place. He made it known by sending his angel to his servant John, who testifies to everything he saw—that is, the word of God and the testimony of Jesus Christ. Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear it and take to heart what is written in it, because the time is near.” (Revelation 1:1-4)

In addition, there are plenty of non-poetic and non-apocalyptic texts within Scripture that explain future resurrection to either eternal life or to judgment.

“Just as people are destined to die once, and after that to face judgment” (Hebrews 9:27)

“ If we deliberately keep on sinning after we have received the knowledge of the truth, no sacrifice for sins is left, but only a fearful expectation of judgment and of raging fire that will consume the enemies of God.” (Hebrews 10:26-27)

Whitaker then suggests that the Bible itself implies that hell may not be a literal place. She contends,

“One challenge to the idea of hell as a literal place comes from the Bible itself. Parts of the New Testament record that when Jesus died on the cross he descended into the realm of the dead.”

“These fleeting references were preserved in ancient Christian creeds. Medieval Christians called Jesus’ descent to the dead the “harrowing of hell”. The theology behind it is that even the realm of the dead (hell) and death itself have been transformed by God.”

If I have accurately joined her dots together, Whitaker appears to be making the same error that some Reformed and Medieval theologians made, and that is to conflate the realm of the dead with hell. Death and hell are not the same. As Michael Bird explains in Evangelical Theology: A Biblical and Systematic Introduction,

“The New Testament distinguishes hadēs (waiting place of the dead) from geenna (judgment place for the dead).”

Part of the confusion with Jesus’ descending to the dead (or to hell) lays with a mistranslation of the creed. As Bird explains,

“the Latin creed does not say that Christ descended into hell. This wrong “tradition” is based on a mistranslation of the Latin. The Latin ad inferos found in the creed means “to the grave, the place of the dead” (i.e., hadēs). It does not say ad infernum, meaning “to hell,” the place of punishment after death…A better English translation of the creed, which is used in the Church of England, is this: “He descended to the dead.” In other words, the wrong “tradition” about a descent into hell is really a wrong translation of the Latin perpetuated by the Reformers, who did not differentiate “hell” from “Hades.”

Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection did not close the door on hell or bring about its demolition, rather his atoning sacrifice saved from entering hell those who repent of their sin and put their faith in Him.

And what about this unnecessary yet loaded phrase, “fleeting references”? Again, Whitaker is carefully laying down rhetorical mines to undermine confidence in the Bible. It’s as though she is saying, because the number of references are few, the teaching can’t be all that important or all that reliable.  How many Bible verses are required before we ditch ‘fleeting’ and treat the subject with due seriousness? As it happens, the topic of hell and of a final judgment is pretty commonplace in the New Testament, with it being spoken of in passing commentary and in extended didactic argument and portrayed in lengthy apocalyptic teaching. Lest we forget, Jesus taught about hell more often than any other person in the New Testament.

“If Jesus, the Lord of Love and Author of Grace spoke about hell more often, and in a more vivid, blood-curdling manner than anyone else, it must be a crucial truth.” (Tim Keller)

Third, motivation for talking about hell.

Robyn Whitaker (perhaps as a swipe at Israel Folau), mocks Christians who talk about hell.

“Similarly, some Christians invoke hell to persuade individuals to repent of their sins. Such rhetoric is from a different time and place, when scaring people into faith seemed like a good idea.”

There is some wisdom here, at least in terms of emphases. Becoming a Christian is not primarily about avoiding hell. Preachers who fixate on hell and not on Jesus Christ are in danger of skewing the good news message of Christianity. The Gospel is wonderful and amazing news of reconciliation with the living God through Christ, but it not less than salvation from hell, but more. Keep in mind, it is Jesus who invoked hell as a means of warning people from ungodly living,

“If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell.”(Matthew 5:29)

“Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell”. (Matthew 10:28)

Fourth. What God do we believe in?

In her conclusion, Robyn Whitaker reveals what the conversation is really about. Our views about heaven and hell reveal underlying suppositions about what we believe God is like.

“It begs the question – does hell continue to exist? Many Christians today would say no. Others claim an ongoing belief in a literal place of eternal punishment, which raises a different theological question: what kind of God do you believe in to think God consigns people to eternal torment?”

What we say about heaven and hell reflects what we believe about the Bible and ultimately about God.

What God do we believe in? Do we believe in a God who is telling us the truth in his word or in a God who fibbing or who has changed his mind or is unable to keep his word?

The Bible speaks of God who is love and who is holy. It is because of this love and holiness that hell exists. It is because of this love and holiness, God sent his only Son as a propitiation for our sins, and thus offering forgiveness and eternal wonder instead of his just judgment.

Part of the biblical teaching on hell is to remind and even encourage people that God is just and will bring about righteous judgment. If there is no final judgment, then what are we to suppose to conclude about justice and about God’s character and about hope for those who have suffered injustice?

Is the Bible warning humanity about a judgment that will not come? Is God’s promise of eternal life not eternal? When Jesus promised to return at the eschaton was he telling a whopper? And where is Jesus right now, following his resurrection and ascension? Major aspects of the atonement lose their power and significance, and so does Christ’s resurrection. If we follow Whitaker’s line of thinking we are left with a very different Christianity and a very different God.

What impression do her two articles leave with the reader? We conclude that hell is a minor theme mentioned by a few bible writers who were depending on other ancient religions for the concept, but isn’t something Christians really believe today, except for those few left behind angry medieval preaching type Christians. We are left sensing that both hell and heaven are difficult to pin down, and among Christians, there are diverging views and it is not necessary to that there is such a place known as hell. Is this a helpful conclusion to leave both Christians and unbelievers alike? Is this a recognisable Christian message?

If our speech about heaven and hell leaves people in doubt as to their existence, we have failed to be clear and faithful. If the Lord Jesus taught these topics with clarity and concern, should we not also?

If our speech muddies the Divine promise of a new heavens and new earth and of eternal judgment for the unrepentant, we are misrepresenting God and we are stripping people of hope. 

If our speech denies either the existence of heaven or of hell, then we have failed to be Christian. Christians may wrestle with the biblical material and be confused at times, but to explain away either heaven or hell is to ultimately set ourselves against the teaching of Jesus Christ and against God-given reasons for which he died on the cross and was raised to life.

“Then I saw a great white throne and him who was seated on it. The earth and the heavens fled from his presence, and there was no place for them. 12 And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Another book was opened, which is the book of life. The dead were judged according to what they had done as recorded in the books. 13 The sea gave up the dead that were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them, and each person was judged according to what they had done. 14 Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. The lake of fire is the second death.15 Anyone whose name was not found written in the book of life was thrown into the lake of fire.” (Revelation 20:11-15)

Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth,” for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”

 He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” Then he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.” (Revelation 21:1-5)

 

 

 

 


April 30th – A friend of mine who is familiar with Paula Goode’s writings has sent me a helpful email where she points out that Robyn Whitaker seems to have quoted Goode out of context. Far from undermining the ontological reality of heaven, Goode is simply noting the difficulty facing biblical writers in finding vocabulary and imagery to fully explain the wonder that is heaven.