A wave of “conversion therapy bans” is sweeping across Canada’s municipal, provincial, and federal governments. Indeed, the federal government had made this a priority issue, urging the Minister of Justice “to amend the Criminal Code to ban the practice of conversion therapy and take other steps required with the provinces and territories to end conversion therapy in Canada.”
Given how seriously the government is taking this issue, we, too, ought to be concerned.
Traditionally, “conversion therapy” (sometimes known as “aversion therapy”) referred to various psychological or medical practices which are now widely denounced. These treatments, which included medication, electric shock, and even lobotomies, were intended to change a person’s sexual orientation, sometimes against his or her will. Many of these efforts were unsuccessful and instead brought physical and emotional pain.
It is not surprising, then, that conversion therapy has come under increasing criticism. It is appropriate to condemn coercive practices that involved such extreme or bizarre methods, since they violated basic human dignity.
Today, however, the label of conversion therapy has significantly broadened. It is now being misapplied to individuals who voluntarily seek counselling, particularly in a biblical context. Therapy for young people with gender dysphoria is also being condemned as “conversion therapy” if youth are counselled to affirm their bodies rather than “transitioning” from one gender to another.
As a result of this expansive meaning (and a lack of appropriate clarification or exemptions), the legislative bans on conversion therapy which are being drafted across the country may have troubling implications for churches and religious charities.
Going forward, there are many questions that remain open, which the government will have to address. They include the following:
- Will religious communities be criminalized for responding to LGBTQ people of faith who ask for help in reconciling their faith with their sexual attractions, expression, and identity? Exactly where is the line between acceptable and unacceptable speech that allows religious communities and individuals to speak without fear of reprisal?
- Will LGBTQ individuals be criminalized for sharing their faith-based experiences in ways that influence others? What about those who create organizations that provide services or religious practices to help others live according to their faith – will they be criminalized and have their organizations forcibly shut down?
- What about individuals over the age of 18 who desire to have body-affirming or biblically-based counselling – will that be criminalized, or will there be any exemptions?
- What is the role of parental authority and supervision of their children? Will parents who have their child’s best interests at heart be granted the latitude to ensure their child suffering from gender dysphoria is given the proper treatment based on sound therapeutic practice?
Indeed, Canadian society appears to be at a pivotal moment. Soon, Canada may decide whether or not it remains acceptable for religious communities to advocate a biblical understanding of sexuality that honours either celibacy or marriage between one man and one woman for life. We may well see prayer, Bible studies, or sermons labelled as “conversion therapy,” depending upon the wording of the legislation, and how the courts deal with claims of religious freedom under the Canadian Charter.
Facing such intense scrutiny – with the possibility of legal challenges, loss of charitable status, or even criminal charges – will require a humble forbearance. Compassionate appreciation for the suffering of others will enable us to empathize with the current outrage – but it does not remove from us our obligations to the Christian faith. We are to continue sharing our message of love even when we are hated for doing so. Society sees our preaching on gender and sexuality as “foolishness” (1 Corinthians 1:18), but we persevere (1 Peter 1:6–7) knowing that even in the midst of trial, God’s ultimate purposes are revealed for His benefit.
What, then, can Christian churches and charities do? I suggest the following:
- Ensure that all teachings on sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression are anchored in Scripture and framed in positive language that is affirming of the God-given dignity inherent in all individuals.
- Establish a communication policy that prepares your organization to address media calls with confidence and a Christlike attitude of grace.
- Ensure you know the difference between harmful conversion therapy techniques of the past and the biblical counselling of Christian ministries today.
- Maintain contact with other Christian groups who hold the same beliefs and practices as you do: be united in obedience to 1 Corinthians 1:10.
- Be prepared to support organizations like CCCC with financial aid to ensure we are resourced to maintain effective representation at the courts, legislatures, and with the various public policymakers on this issue.
Finally, whatever lies ahead, we do not lose hope, knowing we can trust in
the Lord’s sovereignty and faithfulness (Romans 8:28).
 Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada Mandate Letter from PMO to Mr. Lametti (13 December 2019), online: pm.gc.ca/en/mandate-letters/minister-justice-and-attorney-general-canada-mandate-letter.