The city council of West Lafayette, IN, is on the verge of voting to ban conversion therapy (sometimes also called reparative therapy) for minors. It appears to me that this ordinance is targeted specifically at one church. Faith Church has a decades-old Biblical Counseling ministry that is well known in the surrounding area and in churches around the midwest. “Biblical Counseling” is meant to be a Christian alternative to the many Godless psychologists. Crucially, this means that biblical counselors are almost all unlicensed.
Ever since Cincinnati passed a city ordinance forbidding reparative therapy for minors, I have made a point of reading the text of these laws. In its current form the West Lafayette ordinance stands alone in one respect: Instead of targeting licensed therapists and counselors, it explicitly excludes them. To quote the law, “the City of West Lafayette strongly discourages licensed persons from engaging in conversion therapy with a minor person,” but they are not in danger of being fined. Whereas the next sentence says, “It shall be a violation of this ordinance for an unlicensed person to engage in conversion therapy with a minor person.”
The fine is set at one thousand dollars ($1000) “each day that a violation occurs or continues.”
No other law against conversion therapy that I have seen is like this. For example, the Cincinnati ordinance, though its language is a bit slippery, explicitly applies only to people who are licensed (though what license is left alarmingly unclear).
Not surprisingly, the pastor of Faith Church, Steve Viars, has raised an alarm. He makes a good argument when he writes:
Imagine a scenario where an area teenager voluntarily visits a self-identified faith-based counselor, but because the counselor used the Bible as their source of truth, the local police department imposed a fine of $1000 per day. Sound like a poorly-written plotline from a dystopian fiction flick? Actually, that could be our new reality, courtesy of the West Lafayette City Council and their proposed ordinance 31-21.
This is clear. It is a straightforward explanation of why this proposed ordinance is insane.
Unfortunately, World reports that Pastor Viars also “made clear he did not favor conversion therapy, a secular technique.”
Pastor Viars is opposing this law that is targeted specifically against “conversion therapy.” No other sort of therapy is prohibited. Nevertheless, Pastor Viars “made clear he did not favor conversion therapy.”
If Pastor Viars is opposed to conversion therapy himself, why is he opposing this law against conversion therapy? Why isn’t he helping promote this law and laws like it? Perhaps he is just a strong supporter of free speech. Maybe his attitude towards counselors performing conversion therapy is like the (spurious) Voltaire quote: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” Is it because he supports free speech so strongly that he’s willing to defend the rights of those counselors that he thinks are doing harm?
Of course not. The reason he is opposed to this law is because it is targeted directly at his church and its ministry.
Pastor Viars is in an unenviable position. He needs to oppose this law, but he also needs to toe the Biblical Counseling party line as laid out by his own Association of Certified Biblical Counselors (ACBC) and Al Mohler several years ago, when they said that reparative therapy was bad.
I’ll never forget asking other local pastors to join me in opposing Cincinnati’s proposed ordinance against reparative therapy for minors. A local conservative reformed pastor responded to me with an article by Heath Lambert, then-executive director of ACBC, on their website, biblicalcounseling.com, titled “What’s Wrong with Reparative Therapy?” As far as this pastor was concerned, reparative therapy was bad, so he had no reason to oppose the law.
Pastor Viars is on the board of ACBC, and in their most recent podcast episode he was interviewed by ACBC Executive Director, Dale Johnson. In his introduction Johnson trips all over himself trying to clarify why this law is different and bad, while they refused to speak up against other similar laws in the past. First he makes the mistake of admitting that all of these earlier laws were targeted at “sexual orientation change efforts” in general, not something technically specific and distinct called “reparative therapy.” Then he backtracks and tries to say that ACBC men don’t do reparative therapy. Finally, he ends by admitting that the only difference with this law is that this one applies to themselves, not just to others:
What they’re trying to do in legislations is they’re often trying to give some perspective on sexual orientation change efforts, and they’re saying things like, for those who are licensed counselors, you cannot engage in sexual orientation change efforts with a minor if you are a licensed professional. In all of that legislation, there is typically a clause that releases non-licensed religious providers from that demand. So, we’re free to engage with biblical conviction in sexual orientation change efforts, not reparative therapy. I want to make that very clear. That’s something distinct.
The ordinance that’s happening in West Lafayette is distinct and different because it now includes this issue of non-licensed providers and so it would incorporate us as biblical counselors.
But then, just a short time later, Pastor Viars tries to back up and claim that actually something else is new about this law:
What was amazing about that, for one thing—an unlicensed counselor—that was stunning. But as I started to read what they were proposing, they weren’t really talking about conversion therapy and that’s really the game here. They have defined it so broadly that it would include a parent, a teacher, certainly a counselor or a pastor, who would even open the Word of God and show a young person what Scripture says about the church’s 2000-year-old principle of chastity in singleness and fidelity in a monogamous marriage.
The members of ACBC and others that follow them, could be forgiven for feeling a bit of whiplash. After all, in my appeal to my fellow pastors in 2015, I pointed out that, “this law does not just prohibit a certain kind of therapy they claim is professionally discredited. Rather this law prohibits ‘any treatment that aims to change sexual orientation.’”
Is Pastor Viars actually amazed at what is prohibited in this ordinance? If so, I wonder what rock he’s been living under. It beggars belief that he would be unaware that this is what every law against conversion therapy or reparative therapy has forbidden.
The men in charge of ACBC didn’t seem to care as long as the laws only targeted Christian counselors that were licensed. Now that a law targets them as unlicensed counselors, suddenly they have seen the light, and this one law is problematic. There is no other substantive difference in the laws for them to point to even if they wanted to. All of the laws define their terms clearly. Whether they call it Reparative Therapy, or Conversion Therapy, or sexual orientation change efforts, the laws all make clear that they are referring to any attempt to help men live as men, women as women, and both as God made them from the beginning, one woman for one man.
Pastor Viars then goes on to complain that the city council aren’t being honest about their goals. And it’s true. They don’t just come out and admit, “We hate God and His word.” But they are being a lot more straightforward than Viars and the ACBC are even in this podcast. Here, for example, is Viars being quite disingenuous himself:
It’s disingenuous and I’ve said to our city council, listen, if you want to criminalize biblical counseling, stand up and be honest and say that you’re doing it, but don’t call it conversion therapy because we have never practiced conversion therapy. We don’t believe in it. That came from the secular world. We’ve never practiced it. But if you’re going to use the term conversion therapy, define it properly or if what you’re really going after—What you’re going after is anybody who has a viewpoint about human sexuality different than yours—at least be willing to stand up and say to the community what you’re doing.
Again, I wrote something remarkably similar in 2015. I said the Cincinnati law “established a new, official moral code for the city that calls evil good and good evil, and which will attempt to silence loving Christian counselors and therapists who won’t toe the new line.”
That’s because these city councils have always made it obvious who they are targeting. They are clear about what they are attempting to do. They have stood up and said to the community what they are doing. They’re ready to pass an ordinance stating exactly what they won’t stand for anymore. They want to prohibit any counseling that speaks truth into the lives of those led astray by homosexual, transgender, and other sexual temptations. Any counseling that seeks to help people turn away from these sins is anathema today. They want to prohibit conversion therapy.
Sure, for now they might only be able to get away forbidding a subset of it based on who is doing it (licensed or unlicensed) and with whom (minors). But their words and goals are clear.
Everybody in the world knows that conversion therapy is any attempt to turn somebody away from these sins. As Wikipedia puts it, conversion therapy is the “practice of attempting to change an individual’s sexual orientation from homosexual or bisexual to heterosexual or their gender identity from transgender to cisgender using psychological, physical, or spiritual interventions.” This is not confusing or dishonest. Conversion therapy has always been a general term for any sort of treatment or counseling with the goal of changing somebody’s sexuality from wrong to right, including plenty of secular strategies, yes, but also “spiritual interventions such as ‘prayer and group support and pressure.’”
As any biblical counselor knows, the words we use are important. We need to be honest with ourselves about what we are doing, and use words that are accurate to describe what we are doing.
But Viars is still claiming that he’s opposed to conversion therapy. That he doesn’t do it. This is a man living in denial.
Like when the anti-gambling crusader gets caught playing blackjack at the casino, and he wants to argue that technically blackjack isn’t gambling. Nobody is impressed.
Yes, we want to distance ourselves from the damage done by some few men, whether under the name of reparative or conversion therapy or sexual orientation counseling or any other thing it has been called.
But it has never been about the damage. That is the big lie. When the world claimed that it was concerned about children being harmed by the effects of bad counselors, the ACBC bought the world’s big lie, hook, line, and sinker. The world has never cared about the harm, let alone the children. The world is actively pursuing the harm of children in these very laws, promoting psychological and physical harm that will last a lifetime, and worst of all, inflicting spiritual harm on these poor sheep that will last an eternity apart from the grace of God.
No, the world is not concerned about the harm being done to children, and any Christian with a modicum of common sense knows that. The world has only ever opposed conversion therapy because it stands against the sin into which the world is rushing headlong. Should we seek to turn people away from their sexual perversions? Yes or no. This is the real battle. So why did Christians like Pastor Viars allow themselves to be sidelined from the real battle? Why did they let their words to the church and the watching world be “yes, yes and no, no” when everybody wanted to know whether Christ could indeed change sinners such as these? Why did they clamor to add their voices to those who declared that conversion therapy was harmful, thus implicitly denying that change should be sought or expected in Christ?
Why, at this late hour, with a law targeting his own church ministry, is Viars still denying that he does what the world hates?
Cowardice. They didn’t want to be faced with the accusation that they were harming children, so they tried to find a way around the charges.
Viars is indeed in an unenviable position, but it’s one of his own making. If he would simply be honest and straightforward, he would be far more helpful for God’s kingdom work. Instead, he insists that he is opposed to conversion therapy, while also opposing a law forbidding conversion therapy.
The world is clear in opposing help for people resisting sexual sin.
But Pastor Viars? Who knows? Apparently he still both supports it and opposes it.
This law was always going to be the end result. Did Al Mohler, the ACBC, and Pastor Steve Viars honestly think they could join their voices to the world’s in declaring conversion therapy harmful without the world calling their bluff? Now the world has turned around and said to them, “Great! If you oppose conversion therapy, then stop doing it.” And all these silly men can do is act offended and say, “But I’m not doing conversion therapy! I’m doing Biblical Counseling!” As if the world would ever respect the ACBC’s made-up technicalities. As if the world would let them continue to do their own “special” version of conversion therapy after they had loudly agreed with the world’s condemnation of conversion therapy.
They turned their heads and refused to see when their brothers and sisters in Christ were suffering under laws just like this around the country. After all, those people weren’t “biblical” counselors. They didn’t know how to posture themselves. They didn’t know how to nuance their words properly. They were licensed instead of certified. They were dirty. They were outsiders.
Such laws were of no concern to the men of ACBC. They thought they had found a way to have friendship with the world and God.
Well, now it’s time for them to face the music of the world they’ve created, where they’ve given up so much ground there’s nothing left to defend except the fact that they haven’t gotten licensed.
But truthfully, that’s the least of the concerns these men should have. In fact, fearing the music of the world is largely responsible for the fact that they are in this sad position right now. The far bigger concern for each of us is facing the judgment of God.
The fact is that the ACBC’s cowardice led to their double-tonguedness, and it has in turn led many Christians to join them. These often well-meaning followers take the logic and run with it. The fruit is just now beginning to come ripe, and the damage they have done will only become more and more clear in the coming years.
In Canada a new law just came into effect on January 7, 2022, which makes it a criminal offense, punishable by up to two years in jail to even promote conversion therapy. Promoting the idea of counseling against sexual sin is now forbidden in the same statute as child pornography, subject to censorship and seizure by the government so the public won’t be harmed by seeing it. “Conversion Therapy” is once again very carefully defined much like the other laws that came before it to include any “practice” that leads people to “repress or reduce non-heterosexual attraction or sexual behaviour.”
What will Canadian Christians and pastors do under this new law?
Five years ago in The Grace of Shame, we warned that Al Mohler and the ACBC were setting people on a terrible path. Read the things they said:
“The goal of Reparative Therapy is heterosexuality.… This goal is not one that biblical counselors can embrace.… The Holy Spirit will not give his grace to pursue goals not prescribed in Scripture.”
“Reparative therapy is a ‘superficial’ response to homosexual and transgender change and Christian ministers must instead call all people to repentance and faith in Jesus Christ.”
“We call . . . disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ to live in holiness and wholeness, which is defined by obedience to him, each in our own way.”
“We don’t call people to embrace heterosexuality. We call people to embrace Christian faithfulness.”
I was reminded of these statements today when I read of a pastor in Canada who wasn’t particularly concerned about the new law. Why not? Isn’t he afraid of going to jail? No. If somebody comes to him asking questions, he’s going to teach them how they can be “faithful as a queer Christian.” He is “not assuming that they could become heterosexual.” And he concludes by stating, “And really I care far more about how they love God and their neighbour, listen to God’s Word in Scripture, participate in the church, etc. than I do about their orientation.”
He’s doing just what the leaders of the biblical counseling movement recommended years ago. Just like Mohler came to understand that sexual orientation was real and stopped calling homosexuals “to embrace heterosexuality,” so this man is not calling queer Christians to embrace heterosexuality. That’s not a goal prescribed in Scripture. Rather, he wants to see them be good disciples, loving God and neighbor. That’s the real goal. Christian faithfulness. Queer Christian faithfulness. Each in our own way.
I’m fond of telling people that the best way to practice being evangelistic is to say the word “Yes” out loud. Then say the word “No.” Nice and loud. Say them with conviction. Say them clearly. Say them unapologetically. Say them without embarrassment. Without fear. Repeat them until you’re comfortable saying such simple words. Now add some simple questions.
Do you believe in calling people to embrace heterosexuality?