When Christians think of conversion, we generally think of a religious conversion experience or “the dying of the old nature and the coming to life of the new” (Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 88). However, conversion therapy refers to a very different kind of conversion.
Conversion therapy is any attempt to change someone’s sexual orientation or gender identity. An example of conversion therapy would be trying to make a gay person heterosexual. People generally seek conversion therapy when they have an undesired sexual orientation or are confused about their gender identity. They are struggling with something that they do not want, and they are looking for guidance.
Today, this therapy is intended to uncover or understand the root causes of gender confusion, to help people cope with their gender dysphoria, or to assist people in managing their undesired same-sex attraction.
Why are we talking about conversion therapy?
This topic has been recently broached at the provincial and municipal level in Ontario, Manitoba, Nova Scotia, Alberta and British Columbia. Most of these jurisdictions prohibit – or propose to prohibit – healthcare professionals, “persons of trust or authority,” or for-profit businesses from providing conversion therapy to minors under the age of nineteen. Supporters of such bans claim that conversion therapy is always harmful, and tantamount to the persecution of sexual minorities and gender non-conforming individuals.
Conversion therapy also arose as a federal election issue in Canada. The Liberal party promised in their election platform to amend the Criminal Code to ban conversion therapy. The NDP has also committed to banning conversion therapy. Both commitments build upon a 2019 Senate bill that proposed Criminal Code amendments to restrict conversion therapy. While the Conservative party has not released any official position on conversion therapy, party leader Andrew Scheer expressed opposition only to coercive or involuntary conversion therapy.
A biblical view of gender and sexuality
A biblical perspective on conversion therapy requires a biblical understanding of the underlying nature of gender and sexuality. Throughout Scripture, but particularly in the story of creation, God outlines His plan for humanity. He created humanity to be male and female (Genesis 1:27) and gave specific roles to men and women based on their biology (Genesis 3:16-19). He also created marriage and intimacy to be between one man and one woman (Genesis 2:24). Taken altogether, the Bible teaches that our biological sex should determine our sexuality and gender.
Scripture also affirms the importance of our physical bodies in connection with our souls. Our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit (I Cor. 6:19). The ultimate recognition of the importance of our physical bodies was the incarnation of Christ, His bodily resurrection, and His physical ascension into heaven.
The secular view of gender and sexuality
The secular world, however, denies all these realities. Biological sex is not considered immutable, but as something assigned at birth by doctors. Gender roles are seen as oppressive and should be thrown out the window. Virtually any sexual behavior is acceptable between consenting adults.
While Scripture affirms the importance of our physical bodies, the secular world prioritizes our self-perception and downplays or even disregards our bodies. This is why our modern culture accepts same-sex marriage and transgenderism. Both phenomena elevate our subjective self-identity above our objective bodies.
Conversion therapy: a case study of these two worldviews
These two differing viewpoints affect our responses to conversion therapy. Many people struggle with an unwanted sexual orientation or gender dysphoria and seek some form of help to manage these tensions. Bans on conversion therapy prohibit health care practitioners, counselors or parents from affirming that a child’s objective biological body should be the basis for their subjective gender identity and sexual orientation.
On the other hand, conversion therapy bans do not ban “gender-confirming” treatments that attempt to change a child’s objective body to align with their subjective identities. These treatments include the regular injection of cross-sex hormones or an irreversible sex-change operation.
In other words, conversion therapy bans may prohibit simple conversations about a biblical view of sexuality and gender between a parent and a child or a pastor and his congregant, but it gives a green light for children and adolescents to make irreversible decisions about their body. Most hormonal or surgical attempts to convert a child’s sex will leave the child infertile by adulthood, to name just one of the many irreversible effects.
It borders on the unbelievable that this legislation banning conversion therapy aims to forbid the “conversion” of someone’s subjective sexual orientation or gender identity through counseling but allows the “conversion” of someone’s objective biological sex through surgery and medication. The latter is the truly harmful practice that should be banned.
Another major flaw of conversion therapy bans is that they lump together beneficial counseling with harmful conversion therapy.
Harmful forms of conversion therapy – electric shock therapy, medication, even lobotomies in some cases – were practiced in the mid-1900s to try to “cure” same-sex attraction. These coercive and aversive forms of conversion therapy have rightly been rejected by medical practitioners.
The modern approach to helping people with an undesired sexual attraction or gender dysphoria is body-affirming counseling. Body-affirming counseling includes religious, behavioral, and psychological counseling that emphasizes that sexual orientation and gender identity are normatively linked to biological sex. This counseling is voluntary and uses words and reason, not invasive procedures, to help a struggling person.
This body-affirming counseling is worlds apart from the outdated forms of conversion therapy mentioned earlier. But, most legislative definitions of conversion therapy encompass both the older, harmful forms of conversion therapy as well as the modern, beneficial forms of counseling.
Such bans on conversion therapy may prohibit parents from reinforcing to their gender-confused daughter that she is, in fact, a girl. It may also prevent pastors and elders from guiding and assisting a member of their congregation in managing an undesired same-sex attraction. The effect, if not the goal, of such conversion therapy bans is to normalize homosexuality and transgenderism and prevent anyone from questioning these subjective identities.
What can we do?
Talk to your representatives at all levels of government – municipal, provincial, and federal – and talk to your fellow neighbors. Explain to them the biblical truth about gender and sexuality and tell them that body-affirming counseling should never be prohibited by general bans on conversion therapy. This counseling is indispensable for persons suffering from gender dysphoria or an unwanted same-sex attraction. Rather, attempts to convert someone’s biological sex should be recognized as the truly harmful forms of conversion therapy that need to be abandoned.
We must also show great patience and love to those within our own communities who are struggling with their sense of gender or their sexual attractions. This confusion contributes to all manners of social and mental challenges for young people. As peers, parents, and pastors, we must gently outline and exemplify the biblical truth around gender and sexuality while affirming our love for these young people.
In all circumstances, we need to continue to speak for a biblical view of sexuality, a view which values and honors God’s good design and seeks the good of our neighbors.
Levi Minderhoud is the BC Manager of ARPA Canada. You can read ARPA Canada’s Policy Report on Conversion Therapy here.