In Defence of Being Directive
Debate continues to rage over the government’s commitment to end conversion therapy. A brief mention in the recent Queen’s speech and an accompanying statement have confirmed that the Government is working towards a legislative ban to protect people from ‘the coercive and abhorrent practice of conversion therapy’. It was also announced that there will be a short consultation before legislation is brought forward and that new funding will be provided to support victims of conversion therapy.
One area of the debate I’m finding rather confusing is the way that some campaigners, even Christian campaigners, are indignant at the idea that a ban might still allow ‘directive’ pastoral care, teaching, and prayer. This has emerged as a prominent point in the debate because of concerns that the Government’s most recent statements pledge only to ban ‘coercive’ conversion therapy practices. The argument being made by supporters of a broad ban is that for a religious leader to be directive is the same as to be coercive.
For example, one such objection written by a Christian states that a ban only of coercive practices ‘will be a licence to continue to pray and give “pastoral support” in a directive way rather than start with the acceptance of a person’s sexuality’. I presume this means that they believe it should be illegal for a pastor to tell me, a same-sex attracted guy, that God has something to say about how I should live out my sexuality. Apparently, all a pastor or Christian friend should actually do is allow me to make my own decision, without wisdom or guidance from anyone else, and then affirm me in that decision.
But surely all Christians should recognise that directive teaching and support are at the core of the Christian faith. In fact, Jesus’ commission to his followers was to make disciples and to teach them to obey everything he has commanded (Matthew 28:19-20). To teach people to obey all that Jesus has commanded is an unavoidably directive task. How can we fulfil Jesus’ call to us if we are not able to be directive in our teaching and pastoral care? Every Christian who takes Jesus’ words seriously should recognise that we must fight to retain the right to be directive.
And directive teaching is very different from coercive teaching. Directive teaching lays out a clear position, along with the authority and reasoning that supports that position, and leaves individuals free to choose how they respond to the teaching. That is what I have experienced as a gay Christian and what I do as a pastor.
As a same-sex attracted guy who wants to be a faithful follower of Jesus, I have received directive teaching and pastoral support. At no point has that teaching been forced upon me or been presented in a coercive way or used to manipulate me. I have received teaching (from a variety of viewpoints) and have then engaged with that myself to make my choice about how I will seek to best follow Jesus.
I’ve also always been well aware that decisions I make about how I live in relation to my sexuality will affect the extent to which I can be a part of, and, in particular, to serve and lead in certain church communities. This has always made perfect sense to me: churches are communities of Jesus followers; Jesus laid out parameters by which his followers should live. Therefore, it makes sense that adherence to the teaching of Jesus should be required for certain levels of involvement in a church community. This is not coercion or manipulation, and it’s not an injustice. It’s the natural consequence of the teaching of Scripture.
As a pastor who wants to help others to faithfully follow Jesus, I pastor and teach people directively. These people come to me or listen to me of their own free choice. I present to them what I believe to be true and the reasons why I believe it to be true. I call them to be obedient to that truth, but ultimately I leave individuals to make their choice on what they believe and how they will choose to live in light of that.
My experience and my practice involve things that are directive, but they do not involve things that are coercive. They involve very normal Christian practices, practices that would have many parallels across society: parents teaching children, friends advising friends, doctors supporting patients, teachers instructing pupils.
There is, of course, sadly, in any of these relationships and practices the risk that they could be misused and could become coercive or abusive. This is why safeguarding and accountability are so important, in churches as elsewhere in society. But while directive teaching and support can become coercive and abusive, they are not in themselves coercive and abusive. They are in fact, rooted in key human rights. (Which is one of the reasons the ban being proposed by some would actually contravene human rights.)
In reality, what those who object to directive teaching and pastoral support really object to, is not the nature of the teaching or support, but the direction in which it points. I have no doubt that if I as a gay Christian went to some of the Christians campaigning for this ban and asked them for advice about how God wanted me to respond to my experience of same-sex attraction, they would give me an equally directive answer. But the direction, of course, would be different.
It seems to me that those who are arguing for a broad ban actually want to be more directive than I do and are at risk of using the law to be coercive in their directive practices. These campaigners don’t want me and people like me to have the freedom to explore all the possible Christian understandings of sexuality. They have already decided which should be allowed and which should be illegal. While claiming that they want to stop directive teaching, they are actually fighting for a law that would leave only one legally acceptable understanding of Christian teaching on sexuality. That sounds pretty directive to me.
Any teaching and support can be misused, and we must therefore prioritise safeguarding, transparency, and accountability to make sure that all people are protected from coercive and abusive practices. This is why we should support a targeted ban that will protect people from coercive and abusive practices that attempt to change sexual orientation or gender identity. But directive teaching and pastoral support are not in themselves coercive or abusive. Rather, they are based on our human rights and are necessary to fulfil the commission Jesus has given to us.