Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Should the government ban conversion therapy?

I'm a pastor and people who know me are aware that I care deeply about matters pertaining to religious liberty and church-state separation. I'm pretty sensitive to possible government intrusions into matters of faith. In this regard, something in the news earlier this week caught my attention.

Conversion therapy involves attempting to transform homosexual desires into heterosexual desires. On Monday, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie signed into law a bill banning licensed therapists from practicing conversion therapy with teenagers. A similar measure was passed in California last year but implementation is currently held up in federal court. Massachusetts and New York have introduced similar bans in their state legislatures this year. 
Many experts believe conversion therapy is not only ineffective but harmful. I don't have nearly enough knowledge about the process to know whether or not this is true, but let's say it is true. In that case, here's my question: Is conversion therapy so harmful as to warrant government intrusion into what is for many a matter of religious faith?

Many, if not most, of those who practice conversion therapy and who seek conversion therapy do so as a function of their faith. Many homosexuals embrace that part of their identity without question. Others, often because of their religious beliefs, experience great distress concerning same-sex attraction and they seek help sometimes through conversion therapy. So conversion therapy is very much an act of faith for some. That being the case, the practice would need be considered extremely harmful in order to merit a government ban.

The state laws in question are limited in that they involve only minors and only licensed therapists. Therefore, religious groups using this process may continue to do so with minors as long as they are not utilizing licensed professionals. Yet including this limitation may still be problematic in relationship to government intrusion into matters of faith. If a minor, due to his or her religious beliefs, is in acute distress over same sex attraction, should that minor be barred by the government from seeking the help of a licensed therapist who might use some degree of conversion therapy as a step on a longer journey of healing?    

Again, the main question for me is whether conversion therapy is so ineffective and damaging that it deserves a government ban on what is for many an act of faith? If a teenager expresses extreme anguish over same sex attraction, should government intervention prohibit a pastor from even considering a referral of this young person to a licensed professional who might attempt conversion therapy? Should a teenager be barred by the government from taking this avenue of exploring his or her sexual identity, no matter where that process ultimately leads?

I don't have the answers to such questions, but I think the questions need to be discussed. It could be that conversion therapy for minors is so ineffective and dangerous that it deserves a government ban. But it is also possible that a door is being opened to a level of government intrusion into matters of faith that should be left closed. 

Friday, August 2, 2013

That door needs to be opened

Pope Francis made headlines earlier this week because of what he said about gay priests, which is understandable. What is receiving, so far, comparatively less attention is a statement he  made about women. I have written previously of my appreciation for some of the steps Pope Francis has taken but I confess that his words about the ordination of females disturbs me. 

To be sure, Francis said essentially that there would be no church without women and he acknowledged that the Roman Catholic Church lacked a "deep theology of women." But he went on to say, "On the ordination of women, the church has spoken and said no, John Paul II, in a definitive formulation, said that door is closed."

Maybe that's all he could say given what John Paul II wrote in an apostolic letter of 1994. Nonetheless, it is a disappointing statement. After all, Pope Francis also said this recently: "I want a mess ... I want trouble in dioceses!" He has stated his intent to shake things up (certainly a Christ-like thing to do) and he has been doing this in numerous surprising and wonderful ways.

So why not mention the tension between the position of John Paul II and that of the Vatican's Pontifical Biblical Commission of 1976 that concluded that the church could ordain females to the priesthood without violating Christ's original intentions? That would shake things up. But I suppose challenging the doctrine of papal infallibility would make too big of a mess for now.

In disagreeing with Pope Francis I mean no disrespect. I simply cannot allow the injustice of closing the door on the ordination of females to pass without remark whether it is proclaimed by the leader of the Roman Catholic Church or evangelical leaders. The door to the ordination of women needs to be opened. Thankfully that door is open in many Christian groups, including the congregation that I serve.

In my own faith tradition, the Bible is supposed to be our guide for faith and practice. The weight of the scriptural evidence supports the ordination of females.  A detailed examination of the biblical evidence in this regard would produce far more text than most folks would want to read in a single blog entry. So I'll just briefly list a little biblical evidence in support of opening the door to ordaining women:

  • There is no outright prohibition of ordaining females in the Bible.
  • Women are depicted as carrying out the primary ministerial function of declaring the word of God (i.e. preaching) in the scriptures. 
  • Females hold ministerial positions on the pages of the Bible. (Junia [a female] is listed as an apostle in Romans 16:7.  Deborah was the spiritual and political leader and a preacher of Israel in Judges 4-5).
  • All of the gift passages of the New Testament are literally gender inclusive, including Ephesians 4:11-12 that says Christ gave some to be apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers.
  • The New Testament declares principles that tear down gender walls, most notably the one found in Galatians 3:27:28: "As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus" (NRSV, emphasis mine).

I could go on, but I'll stop there for now. I'm aware that others make a biblical case against the ordination of women and I have responses to their arguments and they have responses to mine. 

But here's an important point to me. Those who decide to close a door between a whole class of humans and a particular way of serving God had better have an iron clad case for taking such a radical step. As I have indicated, there is a Bible-based case to be made in favor of ordaining females, and a strong one at that. This being the case, who am I to stand in the way of any properly gifted human, male or female, and a calling that human senses from God? 

"Look, I have set before you an open door, which no one is able to shut" (Revelation 3:8, NRSV).