How to Pastor When Sanctification Becomes Illegal
Where I live and pastor some aspects of sanctification are now illegal.
A recent decision in my home state of Victoria—in Australia—seeks to overturn this work of God’s grace. The Victorian Parliament has adopted the Change or Suppression (Conversion) Practices Prohibition Bill 2020.
Amongst other things, the Conversion and Suppression Practices Bill criminalizes any prayers or conversations in which one person aims to persuade another that pursuing certain sexual activity is not the best course of action. It’s not only illegal to pray or speak with an individual about changing their sexual orientation or gender identity—unless, of course, this change means embracing an LGBTIQ lifestyle—the law states that suppression is also illegal. “Suppression” includes prayers for celibacy, and any advice that communicates sexual faithfulness to one’s spouse is a matter of holiness.
These new laws target ministry to individuals (i.e. pastoral counseling); they do not target groups (i.e. a sermon in church). However, the Victorian Government has already indicated that they are prepared to expand the list of prohibitions to include sermons in the future.
Under these new laws, an anonymous complaint can lead to a person or organization being investigated and brought before a civil tribunal (VCAT). The tribunal has powers; for example, it can have a person committed to a reeducation program. When someone alleges injury as a result from prayer or conversation, criminal charges can be brought about. This may result in a prison term of up to 10 years and a fine of $200,000.
On the surface, this Act is aimed at protecting Victorians from practices that are considered harmful to those who do not identify as heterosexual or who believe they are living in the wrong body. It’s sadly the case that some religious organizations have acted foolishly and wrongly toward such people; no one is pretending otherwise. And yet, the Victorian government would have the public believe that such mistreatment is widespread and endemic to Christianity. And yet, the Government’s investigation into the matter revealed only a handful of “conversion practice” stories. To be sure, these few accounts are awful. Where wrong has been perpetrated, repentance must follow. But this Parliamentary Act is no fair-handed solution. It’s blowing up a building in order to catch a rat.
WHAT DO CHRISTIANS DO?
What are we Australian Christians to do?
On one level, of course, we’re called by God to submit to governing authorities, to pray for them, and to obey them. We should continue to do so. But what happens when a government oversteps its jurisdiction and demands greater allegiance than we owe to Christ?
Churches and religious organizations need to prepare their people to understand the many implications of these new laws. Pastors, principals, and parents should educate their congregations, employees, and families so that all may discern how to live faithfully in this new environment.
Of course, non-Christians expressed concern over this bill, too. The Australian Medical Association and the The National Association of Practising Psychiatrists spoke against it. Leading legal experts voiced concerns. Even feminist and LGBT groups raised significant concerns about how this bill will harm vulnerable Victorians. And yet the government shrugged off all these concerns.
Throughout the debate, both media and politicians alike ignored any plausible counter-narratives. They ignored the scores of people that churches have actually helped. They ignored the fact that the vast majority of children who struggle with gender dysphoria no longer do so once they reach adulthood. They’ve ignored those who have said their sexual orientation did change. In every case, counter-examples were dismissed as nonsensical impossibilities.
I mention the breadth of the coalition concerned by the bill because it highlights the authoritarian nature of today’s dominant socio-political movements. Listening has been replaced with insults. Facts are called fiction.
As a pastor, I’ve wanted to encourage my people as we enter this seemingly new world. Here are two encouragements I’ve found from 1 Peter. I pray that they might also encourage you and your church.
1. Christian, this world is not your home.
Peter writes that we are exiles on earth and citizens of heaven. We are awaiting our true home.
I love being an Aussie and living in Melbourne. My church is full of Christians who happily serve their fellow Victorians and desire good for them.
And yet, we need to learn the lesson that so many believers have understood in other parts of the world. We should hold less tightly to the things on earth and more rightly to Christ and his church. This will directs our affection and shape our hope.
2. Christian, choose faithfulness and keep doing good.
While we may be thrown outside the corridors of society and threatened with a Victorian–style Thanos gauntlet, Peter reminds Christians that those who trust in Christ will never be put to shame.
That’s why Peter can say: “Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.” (1 Peter 2:12)
A few verses later, he directs our attention to Jesus: “When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly” (2:23).
Let us not give up faithfully doing good. Should we stop loving others because of unjust laws? No!
A WORD TO PASTORS
Finally, a brief word to pastors: You need to set an example for your congregation in all this. Peter teaches us this, too. Here’s what he writes about shepherds like us:
Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, watching over them—not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not pursuing dishonest gain, but eager to serve; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock. And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that will never fade away. (1 Peter 5:1–4)
If pastors aren’t leading by example, then how can we expect our churches to keep trusting and following Christ? This is no occasion for public grandstanding; it’s a time for faithful perseverance.
I’ve listened to numerous people who are fearful of the future. Some are same-sex attracted but they want to follow Jesus. They’re feeling the needless burden of a state pressuring them to abandon the solace they’ve found in Christian community and in Christ. This is terrible situation for them. I pray churches will stand alongside them all.
Pastors, when things like this happen, people will be alarmed. And rightly so! Your job is to show them what faithful perseverance looks like.
It’s true: I now live and pastor in a State where, before long, genuine conversion to Christ—and the life of holiness that ensures—may be deemed illegal. According to this Act, discipleship, counseling, membership, and discipline may eventually come under scrutiny.
But for the Christian, our sanctification is secured—even when it’s illegal. After all, it’s more than just our behavior. It’s a status that all Christians have in Christ. It’s safe and secure from all alarms.
What’s next? Lots of prayer. I’m praying that God will use this time to refine our hearts and reform our churches. I’m praying that Victorians both Christian and non-Christian will be protected from harm. I’m praying that despite these unjust laws, the good news of Jesus Christ will continue to be heard and embraced like never before.