Christian Leadership, Risk Absorption, and Conversion Therapy

white sheep near the brown board
Photo by Rod Long on Unsplash

A few years ago I had to stay overnight with my younger sister on suicide watch. She was in a pretty vulnerable place and at a high risk of harm, and since I was in town it just made sense for me to support her by being present and keeping her safe overnight.

It wasn’t my first time giving support to a suicidal person, but I do remember feeling an added heaviness as the weight of responsibility took a toll on my own emotional well-being. I felt shaken up and anxious for a very long time afterwards. During this experience I gained a new appreciation for people who offer this sort of care all the time; I can’t even imagine how some people live week to week with the responsibility of keeping someone else alive.

But of course even that is nothing compared to the challenge of experiencing suicidality yourself. The risk of harm to my well-being was nothing compared to her risk of harm to her life.

During that week I had to keep reminding myself of this: it might take a toll on me, but it was a small price to pay to keep someone safe. To see them live another day.

You absorb the cost of late and sleepless nights, carrying an emotional load to care for someone at a high risk of harm.

I call this ‘risk absorption.’ Sitting with a vulnerable person at a high risk of harm and choosing to absorb some of their risk for yourself. Carrying some of the emotional load so that their load becomes that little bit lighter.

There’s nothing particularly profound about risk absorption. We do it all the time for people we love. Parents do it for their children intuitively, and friends and partners form healthy relationships based on mutual self-sacrifice. There’s something natural and right about absorbing risk for our friends and neighbours—those we’re close to.

But what about those we’re far from?

‘But Lord, who is my neighbour?’

I think a truly Christian model of leadership should be based on the idea of risk absorption: taking the risk of harm away from ‘the least of these’ and placing it squarely on the leaders’ shoulders. The very embodiment of Christian leadership, Jesus, said of himself “the good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” (John 10:11). The good shepherd doesn’t run away from danger or complain about his rights and freedoms, but he sacrifices every freedom including his very life to protect his flock.

It’s why in Philippians 2, Paul cites Jesus’ example as the model for Christian communities to imitate:

In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross!

Philippians 2:5-8

It’s fairly uncontroversial to say that a Christian leader should be prepared to put themselves in harm’s way to protect the vulnerable. This should be true of all Christians, but there’s a higher risk for leaders who are entrusted with greater responsibility and whom God will hold to account. It’s why the apostle James warns, “Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly” (James 3:1).

“A Christian leader should be prepared to put themselves in harm’s way to protect the vulnerable.”

So, like I said, it seems pretty uncontroversial so far.

But apparently not everyone agrees with me. The widespread backlash against bills prohibiting harmful conversion therapy practices seems to tell a different story. Anyone who’s followed the discourse on Australia’s various recent bills prohibiting Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Change Efforts (SOGICE) will have heard numerous Christian leaders loudly decrying the loss of their religious freedoms. The loudest narrative in the church goes something like this: “This bill will make it illegal for me to pray for my same-sex attracted friend or freely teach what the Bible says about gender and sexuality—it’s a violation of my religious freedom!”

I keep hearing Christian leaders taking up space to talk about ‘my religious freedom, my safety, my rights.’ Or maybe it’s framed as a concern for our own people: our freedoms, our safety, our rights. And I’ll be the first to acknowledge that insisting on one’s own dignity and rights is a profoundly good and humanising thing to do, but if that’s all we’re doing then we’re no different from the rest of the world. Where is our love for our neighbour? Who is advocating for their freedom, their safety, their rights? Or better still, not just speaking about them, but to them: your freedom, your safety, your rights.

Where are the Christians talking about protecting LGBTQ+ minors from harm? Where are the leaders denouncing evil practices that have harmed vulnerable people in Jesus’ name?

We know these people have suffered horrific harm. For anyone willing to listen, there have been numerous well-documented accounts of the widespread harm—and ineffectiveness—that SOGICE practices have afflicted on vulnerable people.

Where are the good shepherds laying down their own safety to protect the sheep?

Are we so entrenched in an ‘Us vs Them’ mentality and so afraid that ‘if we give an inch, they’ll take a mile’ that we decide to say nothing about the harm they face?

Because here’s the thing about these conversion therapy bills: there has always been a risk of harm. The only thing that’s changing is who shoulders the bulk of that risk.

  • For the 13-year-old boy whose parents pressure him to see a ‘Christian counsellor’ after he comes out as gay, there has always been a risk of harm: risk that in what should be a safe, professional therapeutic relationship, he will be coerced and shamed in ways that leave deep psychological scars. Risk that he will grow up so harmed by his encounters with Christians that he abandons his faith for good.
  • For the suicidal teenager secretly navigating gender dysphoria sitting in your pews, there has always been a risk of harm: a risk that thoughtless messages proclaimed from the pulpit with no accountability would drive them deeper into life-threatening secrecy and farther from a community where they should have been safe to share these things and receive loving care.
  • For the young man in your Bible study group, there has always been a risk of harm: risk that when he finally realises that what his male youth leader did to him years ago constitutes sexual assault and finally shares that with a leader, he will be advised to try dating women, as though his sexual orientation is the problem, and not the abuse he experienced.
  • For the asexual woman struggling in her marriage, there has always been a risk of harm: risk that the pastor’s wife she confided in doesn’t believe asexual people exist, risk that she is shamed into having non-consensual sex with her husband, and risk that repeatedly violating her own body is seen as the solution to the ‘problem’ that is her sexual orientation.

“There has always been a risk of harm. The only thing that’s changing is who shoulders the bulk of that risk.”

Risk has always been there. These people—these vulnerable lambs—have been the ones absorbing ALL of the risk until this point in history. And now our government is giving us the opportunity to absorb some of that risk for them.

There’s an opportunity for Christian leaders to take on a possible threat to our freedom to ensure that these lambs under our care are protected from harm.

I say bring it on. As one of the people in Australia most likely to be impacted by limitations on what we can say about gender and sexuality, I welcome the chance to take one for the team. My most recently published piece was an article in Soul Tread on the topic of Celibacy, and it’s possible that it’s about to get much harder in the future for me to speak about celibacy as an option for gay Christians. It’s possible that even sharing my story publicly as a celibate gay Christian committed to a traditional Christian sexual ethic could make me vulnerable to accusations of homophobic hate speech. And you know what? I welcome that risk.

As a gay man: I’m no stranger to risk of harm, and I’ll happily absorb someone else’s risks to keep them safer.
As a Christian leader: it’s literally what I signed up for.

(For what it’s worth, I happen to think that these bills don’t even present a very high risk to Christian leaders: because unless the way you pray for your same-sex attracted friends causes so much damage that it constitutes a legal definition of “serious harm” that can be demonstrated beyond reasonable doubt in a court of law, you probably don’t have much to worry about. And if your prayers do regularly have that affect on people, then I think you have bigger problems to address.)

When I look at this through my dual lenses as a Christian and as a gay man, the possible risk to Christian religious freedom seems so miniscule beside the risk of harm, suicide, and spiritual abuse that queer people already face. It reminds me of my opening story, where staying overnight on suicide watch for a loved one might take a toll on my well-being, but it’s still nothing compared to the risk that the other person faces. It’s costly, but it’s a small price to pay for someone’s safety.

Let me be clear on what I’m saying. I’m not presenting a comprehensive argument for or against a particular conversion therapy bill. What I am saying is that if the Christian’s first response to a bill designed to protect vulnerable people from harm is to clamour ‘but that leaves me at risk!’ then perhaps we’ve borrowed a worldly set of values.

Yes, let’s critique the specific wording of bills to minimise risks to all persons concerned. Yes, let’s have deeper conversations about what LGBTQ+ people really need and how holistic care has to move beyond just legislation. And please, let’s talk about intersectionality and how all of this affects those of us caught in the middle as celibate gay Christians. But let’s never forget our calling as Christians to absorb harmful risks as we protect our neighbour—or even love our enemy.

A Christian leader doesn’t just insist on their own safety, but sacrifices it to keep another safe.

The sort of Christian community I want to be a part of is one where the leader looks LGBTQ+ people in the eye and says things like, “I think part of the role of a pastor is to make space for your brothers and sisters to flourish, laying down your own strength while serving the chief shepherd,” and “I will, as a pastor, give my strength, privilege, and voice, to carve out space for them to flourish, and to serve our church — and I will advocate for them when they find themselves under attack from the wolves, or bitey sheep.

You know what Jesus would do? He’d lay down his life for the sheep.

One thought on “Christian Leadership, Risk Absorption, and Conversion Therapy

  1. Matt, well written – it is openhearted and full of grace but throws up some very important challenges. I am a pastor though in the Netherlands not Australia. Yet the questions that you pose in relation to real people whom Christ loves and yet can be all kinds of risk, is relevant for anywhere. Thanks for taking the time to write this, including sharing some of your own journey.

    Like

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