Across Canada, in various provinces and municipalities and now in Parliament, laws have been proposed (and most have passed), outlawing “conversion therapy.” Christians should be concerned. As ARPA Canada explains in its policy report on conversion therapy, the devil is in the details: how one defines conversion therapy determines how good or bad such a ban would be.
Bill C-6’s Definition of Conversion Therapy
On October 1, 2020, the federal government introduced legislation to criminalize “conversion therapy” in Canada. Bill C-6 defines conversion therapy as any “practice, treatment or service designed to change a person’s sexual orientation to heterosexual or gender identity to cisgender, or to repress or reduce non-heterosexual attraction or sexual behaviour.” This definition is broad and, if unamended, will do harm to the mission of the church.
It is difficult to describe the scope of this proposed criminal ban with precision because the terms “practice, treatment, or service” are not defined. It seems plain, however, that it would apply beyond services provided by regulated health professionals or licensed counsellors (other parts of the Criminal Code speak of medical practitioners and medical treatment, but not Bill C-6). What we would likely see is a progressive implementation of the ban with police and prosecutors choosing the clearest cases early on. These precedents then would be used to pursue less obvious cases.
Let me apply the definition directly to the work of the church. This bill would make it a criminal offence to help – through conversation and prayer – a person struggling with their sexual orientation (e.g. a same-sex attracted Christian) or sexual thoughts or behaviour (e.g. watching gay pornography) or gender identity (e.g. believe they are a man trapped inside a female body) to bring their thoughts, words, and deeds into conformity with the Word of God.
But because of the one-way nature of this definition, a pastor or counsellor would be free to encourage a man to explore same-sex desires or experiment with same-sex behaviour. Similarly, encouraging a teen girl to love and appreciate and care for the female body that God designed and paired with her soul would be a criminal act. But the opposite (encouraging or experimenting with change from cisgender to genderqueer, nonbinary, transgender, etc.) at any age is permitted.
Without amendment, Bill C-6 will deny to some members of the LGBTQ+ community the broad range of choices for spiritual counselling that are freely available to other Canadians. In a sadly ironic twist, Bill C-6’s sloppy definition discriminates against the very people it purports to help.
How Bill C-6 Bans Conversion Therapy
Most of the legislation focuses on how conversion therapy would be restricted including prohibiting profiting from or advertising for conversion therapy. While adults can still consent to conversion therapy, the legislation prohibits engaging in any form of conversion therapy on a child. The bill would also give the police the same powers to seize and censor advertisements for “conversion therapy” that they have in relation to child pornography.
The penalties for these offences include a maximum sentence of five years in prison and/or a hefty fine. And, in the Criminal Code, an “offence” means not only doing the deed but also aiding someone to commit the act or attempting it. This means that if a church’s board of elders decided to proceed with biblical counselling around sexuality, all members are potentially criminally liable, even if only the pastor or a hired professional is doing the counselling for the church.
How Bill C-6 impacts pastoral ministry: Competing Beliefs
Bill C-6 states in its preamble: “conversion therapy … is based on and propagates myths and stereotypes about sexual orientation and gender identity, including the myth that a person’s sexual orientation and gender identity can and ought to be changed.” This language exposes the underlying conflict. On one hand, this bill seeks to suppress particular beliefs (i.e. “myths”) and on the other, it protects and promotes other beliefs (i.e. secular humanist and gnostic beliefs) around anthropology, sexuality, and identity. (I’ve written elsewhere of whether this ban amounts to a religious conversion ban.)
Let us be clear about what we as Christians believe. We affirm the inherent dignity and worth of each individual. Every person is a unique creation made in the image of God. Because of this belief, we love all individuals and want them fully and equally protected in law. Yet, we recognize that same-sex sexual desires and conduct, like any sexual desires or conduct that do not conform to God’s norms, require repentance. We also know that human dignity does not depend on which sinful impulses we give in to (or not) or repent of (or not). And we recognize that many people can change and have changed their “gender identity” or “sexual orientation,” sometimes more than once.
For example, many people – Christian or not – have regretted adopting a “transgender” identity and have “de-transitioned” in order to live in accordance with their biological sex. If Parliament is going to listen to the voices of those who have transitioned, they need to also hear from those who have de-transitioned. And if Parliament will not hear these voices, the church must. Out of love and concern for the members of our flock who are struggling with who they are or where they belong, we cannot abandon them to the dominant and destructive ideas of this age.
If Bill C-6 passes unamended, aspects of the church’s ministry (to youth in particular) in an age of sexual confusion would be criminalized. Church leaders and professional counsellors could face fines and prison time should they continue with biblically faithful counselling. Through all this, the gospel witness would be marginalized, preventing more from hearing and experiencing the joy and freedom found in Christ Jesus. Banning advertising or defining businesses to include churches in the context of conversion therapy bans are examples of the civil government limiting the reach of the gospel to people within the LGBTQ+ community. “How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching?” (Romans 10:14).
How the church can move forward
But we do not lose heart. God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and love and self-control. The power of the gospel is to save. The faithful church will not let bad laws stop her from doing the work of mercy and compassion that God has called her to. Pastors and elders (and denominations) should carefully address the subject of identity, sexual ethics, conversion, and belonging, preferably in writing.
The 2020 PCA Report on Human Sexuality is a good place to start. Be clear about what you are called to do regardless of what the law on conversion therapy might be. This will help your church leadership remain faithful in times of high pressure, will help guide your flock to understand these issues biblically, and could help explain your position to a civil government that is ignorant of what the practices of the church really are.
It is helpful for the Church to remember the approach we take to conversion. Nancy Pearcey says it well:
As we work through controversial moral issues, it is crucial to bear in mind the main goal. It is not, first of all, to persuade people to change their behaviour. It is to tear down barriers to becoming Christian. No matter who we are addressing, or what moral issue the person is struggling with, their first need is to hear the gospel and experience the love of God. (Love Thy Body, p. 260)
When we start with that and pray and trust the Spirit to do his work, we should be confident that God will convert those whom he wills, no matter what Caesar plans to prohibit.