How should Seventh-day Adventists respond to this proposed legislation?
The past few decades have been marked by increasing openness regarding human sexuality. Issues that were once considered taboo are now openly discussed and debated in schools, universities and the media.
In recent years, the informal public conversation has progressed to a more formal stage, particularly with regard to LGBTQ rights, which in turn has resulted in lawsuits, court decisions and new government legislation. Along with other Western nations, Australia has adopted a progressive approach to LGBTQ-related matters, resulting in the 2017 legalisation of same-sex marriage.
More recently, Queensland and the Australian Capital Territory became the first Australian jurisdictions to pass legislation banning conversion therapies. And in Victoria, the Change or Suppression (Conversion) Practices Prohibition Bill 2020, which would ban any attempt to change or suppress a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity, is currently before state parliament.
Various Christian groups in Australia fear that this bill might open the way for a broader agenda that could infringe on religious freedoms in Australia. How should Seventh-day Adventists respond to this proposed legislation? To address this question, it might be helpful to consider how Adventists have approached the question of epistemology or how we know what we know.
From its early years, the Adventist Church has sought to integrate what we know of the world and human life from Scripture with what we know of the world and human life from the world of science.1 For example, in contrast to the Medieval Church, which was convinced that Scripture supported the notion that the sun moved around the Earth and thus tried Galileo for heresy, our understanding of the Cosmos has been informed by science and thus we accept a heliocentric worldview.
At the same time, however, we also embrace a biblical understanding of origins, and thus the Genesis account of Creation, rather than Darwinian evolution, is foundational to our understanding of the world, as well as the meaning and purpose of human life.
Similarly, in the area of health and healing, we recognise that God is the source of all healing and that Christians are called to live by faith. However, we also believe that, more often than not, God works with and through the gift of increased medical knowledge. As a Church, we have historically sought to integrate these sources of knowledge while recognising that there may be Adventists who lean toward both ends of the continuum—between scriptural exclusivity at one end (thus rejecting aspects of modern medicine, such as vaccination) and scientific exclusivity at the other end (thus embracing a more evolutionary understanding of origins).
This integrative approach to knowledge also means that, while we attempt to interpret what we know from science in light of Scripture, we also recognise that science sometimes speaks into domains of human life that Scripture does not. For example, while the Scriptures are central to our understanding of spiritual growth, we recognise that the Bible says very little about child development. Hence, in striving for excellence in our denominational school system, we look to Scripture for the principles of children’s spiritual development, while allowing social science to inform our understanding of the psychological development of infants and children, which in turn informs our understanding of how children learn and grow.
Similarly, while the Scriptures underscore the sanctity of human life, they are silent regarding the modern technologies that create some of our most significant ethical questions, such as the termination of high-risk pregnancies, assisted reproductive technologies such as IVF, and end-of-life decision-making. Consequently, the Church has sought to prayerfully understand how to wisely relate to these technologies in a way that is true to the spirit of the Scriptures.
In the area of homosexuality and transgenderism, however, the Church has struggled to adopt an integrative approach. In its attempt to remain faithful to a biblical sexual ethic, the Church has not always understood the challenges faced by the LGBTQ community.
This has been particularly true in the area of change or suppression practices, also known as conversion therapy. The Scriptures proclaim the reality of new birth and new life in Christ, and so, for many years, various Christian organisations promoted and practised a variety of conversion-related practices, including talk therapy, prayer and even exorcism, which aimed to change sexual orientation from lesbian, bisexual or gay to straight, as well as to change gender identity from transgender or nonbinary to cisgender.
In recent years, however, social science research has revealed that the conversion practices of both medical and faith communities are not only unsuccessful in reducing same-sex attraction or increasing other-sex attraction, but that they have a wide range of potentially harmful side effects, particularly for LGBTQ youth, including loss of faith, as well as significantly higher levels of depression and suicidality.2
Accordingly, in 2012, Exodus International, a US-based interdenominational Christian organisation that had promoted conversion practices, renounced conversion therapy, stating that it was not effective in changing same-sex attraction, apologised for the harm they had inflicted on participants and closed the organisation.
While Exodus International no longer exists, conversion therapy and related practices continue to be promoted in some faith-based communities, including in Australia. According to a 2018 research report initiated by La Trobe University, the Human Rights Law Centre, and Gay & Lesbian Health Victoria, conversion therapy continues to be practised in some religious communities, causing real harm to vulnerable individuals.3
The report called for action by governments, the health sector and religious communities, in order to minimise harm to individuals who experience conflict between their sexual orientation or gender identity and their beliefs. Accordingly, as outlined above, some Australian states have passed or are in the process of passing legislation prohibiting conversion practices.
The Seventh-day Adventist Church in Australia does not support conversion therapy and related practices due to evidence that, not only are they not effective in changing sexual orientation, but that they can cause harm to vulnerable individuals.
However, the bill that is currently before the Victorian State Parliament is of concern to Adventists due to its ambiguous wording. The bill does not clearly define Change or Suppression (Conversion) Practices, making it possible that praying with an individual who is struggling to reconcile their sexual orientation or gender identity with their faith might be criminalised.
Further, the ambiguous wording of the bill raises concerns regarding teaching and preaching a biblical sexual ethic, which the Adventist Church has always sought to uphold. In addition to these concerns, the bill criminalises change or suppression (conversion) practices “whether with or without a person’s consent”, thus negating our belief in human free will, which is central to our understanding of humanity being created in the image of God.
Thus, while we are supportive of legislation aimed at protecting the vulnerable and preventing harm, the Adventist Church will be voicing its concern regarding the proposed bill in its current form.
The Seventh-day Adventist Church, in consultation with various groups, is supporting submissions made by Freedom for Faith, the Institute for Civil Society and Christian Schools Australia.
Dr Edyta Jankiewicz is family ministries specialist within the Discipleship Ministries Team at the South Pacific Division.