How this Christian is responding to the Federal Election

“The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world.” (2 Corinthians 10:4)

Australia has a new Prime Minister and a new Federal Government.

Millions of Australians are happy and excited by what may come about as the result of Saturday’s Federal election. Millions of other Australians are disappointed and even angry and concerned by the political shift. A large number of more Australians, probably in the millions also, are despondent with politics in general. Christians will also be found across this political spectrum. Christians may or may not be less favourably disposed toward the new Government. It is certainly the case that no Government will fully align with or be supportive of every issue that is concerns Christians. Indeed, we should not expect this to be the case, for it is the church that is God’s centrepiece, not a human Government, and hope is found in Christ, not in any political system or party. Theonomy is a dangerous and anti-Christian notion, as much as hardline secularism opposes healthy pluralism and democracy. 

I am not intending to dig into my own political preferences, nor to offer here any sociological insights into what the election may or may not mean for Australia’s future. Such analysis is outside the scope of my interest here. The point I wish to make is a simple one. The observation ought to be an uncontroversial one, but knowing how polarised and tribal our communities are becoming, I think it is worth reminding ourselves of a basic Biblical imperative.

Regardless of how one may feel about the election result and who your local MP is or isn’t, there is a Scripture that remains compulsory for all Christians. And it is this,

“I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people— for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. This is good, and pleases God our Savior, who wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.” (1 Timothy 2:1-4)

I was reminded of this timeless word by Justin Moffatt, the Senior Minister at Church Hill in Sydney. He said,

“One of the things I like about the prayers in the Anglican Prayer Book is that we always pray for the government of the day, and we pray the same thing no matter who governs.

It moves effortlessly from one to the next, as though the problem of the world isn’t government, and the hope of the world were found elsewhere.”

Whatever our reaction to the election, Justin is right. This Christian imperative doesn’t necessarily legitimise or remove how we are feeling about the election outcome, but it ought to remind us of the bigger picture and it rightly reorients us to what is eternal and ultimately important. There ought to be a certain constancy, evenness, and repetition that is evident in our churches as we note the changing political landscape. 

Because we have the habit of assuming that we live in the worst of times (or the best) it’s good to remember the plasticity of that view. The Apostle Paul wrote his words at a time when the Roman Empire was expanding and where there was no political freedom and where opposition to Christianity was emboldened. This was not an easy time to confess Jesus is Lord and to belong to a local church. One of the Emperors during Paul’s ministry was Nero! Nonetheless, the Apostle commands the church in Ephesus to pray for those in authority. 

The duty of Christians around Australia has not changed. And yes, the language of duty is appropriate. There is a new Prime Minister in the new Government and with that will come all kinds of policies and decisions impacting the economic and social landscape of the country. Anthony Albanese and his team are taking the helm following a very difficult season in our nation’s country and I suspect the more difficult place ahead, especially in regard to the question of China. 

Prayer like 1 Timothy 2:1-4 can circumvent Christians from overly aligning with any single political movement, and over eschatologising hope in political agendas, rather than in the Gospel of Christ and God’s mission into the world. 

It is very easy to be swept up in the political narratives that are preached around the country. As Christians, we need to resist these (or at the very least, temper them) by instead reminding each other of the lordship of Christ and the purposes of God that are found in the gospel. I am not suggesting that followers of Jesus ignore the political process and not participate; not at all. We, as with all citizens, have the opportunity and responsibility to serve the common good of our nation, and this includes political discourse. ‘Love your neighbour’ remains a word for us today. However, the prayer in 1 Timothy 2 frees us from both the jubilation and the despair that accompanies political change. 

Of course, with any change of government, there will always be questions about the good and bad in changing policy and direction. Neither am I suggesting that Christians shouldn’t engage with these issues and offer advice and opinion. When choosing to do so, we must however be clear about God’s mission and his character and not be dragged into compromising the gospel for the sake of political expediency. A new government may bring about significant change and re-ordering of social policy and moral direction; it’s naive to suggest otherwise. Nonetheless, as the Apostle Paul reminds Timothy in Ephesus, we know and pray to God who is sovereign over all things including governments and the nations. Our responsibility and opportunity as Christians remain the same: commit to God in prayer those in authority.

The duty of Christians in Australia has not changed. Pray for the new government and our political representatives. Live quiet and peaceful lives with all holiness. Keep the Gospel front and centre in both our hearts and lives and words, because God longs for people to be reconciled to him and come to a knowledge of the truth. Let us not allow our emotions and words to inhibit, disguise, or confuse this good news of God in Jesus Christ.

Anglican General Synod votes ‘yes’ & in so doing discredits controversial Victorian Law

The big story coming out of the Anglican General Synod this year will be the 12 bishops who voted against Jesus’ definition of marriage (10 bishops voted to uphold Jesus’ teaching).

It’s encouraging to learn that a large majority of laity and clergy affirm this basic Christian belief. Nonetheless, it is tragic to see ecclesial leaders voting against God’s good purposes.  To quote the Anglican marriage rites, “those whom God has joined together let no one put asunder”. These 12 bishops have decidedly torn the Anglican communion union, with a question remaining whether it can be healed or not. In response to the bishops abrogating their office & Christian teaching, synod delegates took the unusual step of writing and signing a letter this morning,  calling on those bishops to repent and to affirm the biblical and historical view of marriage. 

Archbishop Kanishka Raffel moved the original motion to support marriage. He later said how he was “deeply disappointed that a majority of Bishops voted against making a clear statement. A valuable moment for clarity has been lost.”

While the bishop’s decision to block the motion on marriage is grievous, other and related issues have been discussed and decided, and these have ramifications beyond what the General Synod may realise. 

Two motions have been adopted by an overwhelming majority. 

The first motion upholds the view that sexual intimacy is reserved for marriage alone. Outside marriage, people are to be celibate. While the motion was sponsored by the Sydney Diocese it received wide affirmation across the country, including from Melbourne delegates. Although there was some opposition, with one delegate speaking with more candour than they perhaps released, “I object to this motion because it has a too strong of a reliance on Christ’s words…”

Perish the thought that Christians would rely too strongly on Jesus’ words! 11 Bishops voted against this basic instruction from Scripture!

A second motion was presented by Dani Treweek, affirming singleness.

“Affirms that singleness is, like marriage, an honourable state for God’s people, in which the fullness of God’s blessings may be enjoyed. Singleness is highly commended in Scripture (1 Cor 7:8, 32-38; Matt 19:10-12).”

In her speech, Dani observed,

“I fear that our reluctance to genuinely honour singleness is deeply informed by an underlying and often unspoken suspicion that singleness is an undesirable and even unliveable state. A large part of our reasoning for this is bound up in contemporary attitudes towards sex.

To live a potential lifetime without sex?
To never experience the joy of sexual union with another person.
To expect an unmarried Christian to resist sexual temptation till their life’s end?

The world around us sees such prospects as unthinkable… even cruel. And so it also sees the Christian aspiration of a chaste single life as unthinkable… even cruel”.

Dani righty presses against this popular narrative as she powerfully and autobiographically explains, 

“Chastity, sexual abstinence, celibacy… whatever word we might otherwise insert here… is not an oppressive and unrealistic burden placed upon single Christians. Rather, chastity is the single Christians way of valuing their God-given sexuality.

To put it more personally, chastity is not a cruel suppression of my sexuality as a single Christian. Instead it is my active and godly expression of the sexuality God has gifted to me.

Chastity is the way in which those of us who are unmarried are able to both value our sexuality as a gift given to us by God… and the way for us to demonstrate to others the great esteem with which we hold that gift.”

What makes these two motions interesting is that their application in the State of Victoria is illegal. 

Among the delegates voting and adopting these motions, are representatives from the Victorian dioceses. Indeed, a number of Melbournians spoke in support of the motion. The statements are straightforward and positive and Christian, and yet they cut against the grain of how people often view sex and fulfilment today. In Victoria, while these statements can be read out loud and the biblical principles explained in a public setting (i.e. preaching a sermon), counselling an individual along this line now sits outside the law.  Victoria’s new conversion and suppression laws prohibit any conversation, counsel or prayer that is perceived to convert or suppress a person’s gender identity or sexual orientation. To be very clear, the law isn’t limited to banning aversion practices and nonconsensual activity (everyone agrees such practices are wrong) but extends to prohibiting consensual prayer and conversation where the Bible’s sexual ethic is encouraged. For example, counselling a Christian same sex attracted man to stick with Jesus and remain celibate and single, is illegal. Setting a stand for church members of sexual godliness in conformity with Scripture is also contrary to the new laws.

Anyone falling foul of these new laws can be brought before a civil tribunal and even face criminal charges and up to 10 years imprisonment. In other words, Christians can hold to the principles (how very gracious of the Victorian government to allow Christians to believe what Christians have for 2000 years), but we cannot apply these principles to discipleship, pastoring, and rare cases of church discipline.

The motions about singleness are designed to encourage positive conversations about this oft forgotten people, so that churches can work harder at encouraging them and making church a community where they belong. As positive and faithful as these motions are, they are another reminder of how foreign and countercultural Christianity is in today’s Australia. I wonder if the Synod realises the implications of the position they have taken? Imagine the headline, “Australia’s Anglican Communion votes to oppose Victorian law”!  I suspect the relevance has eluded most.

As a non Anglican observing the proceedings, there are lessons for other Christian denominations to learn, follow and avoid. The bonds of peace and spiritual unity require more than a few litres of administrative glue and a splash of rhetorical clag! Thank God for congregation members and local church leaders who have resisted the Sirens call to shipwreck on the rocks of Scylla. Isn’t that temptation? The sound of societal acceptance is strong. The pull of holding onto comfort and power is magnetic. However, we will not serve Christ and his body well, and neither will we display the beauty and grace of God by abandoning what God has laid out in his word as true and good. Even as I write this, the General Synod has returned to the issue of marriage with some voices calling for same sex marriage to be accepted. Despite the ominous signs in the Anglican communion as some blow the sails closer to the rocks, there are also some encouraging signs among crew members as they faithfully navigate through these dangerous waters.

What should we think of overturning Roe v Wade?

There are quite literally millions of strong opinions and emotions being expressed right now about the future of Roe v Wade. By no means am I attempting to say everything or even to offer the final word, but as an outsider, there is a message that I wish to convey to my American friends and even to Aussies, for the issue of abortion is also present here in Australia. But before I comment on the leak coming from the Supreme Court, I want to draw attention to an ancient, yet famous and important story.

Last Sunday our church started a new sermon series on the book of Exodus. I gave the series the title ‘Journeying Home’, as I think it captures the meaning of Exodus and the language used in Hebrews ch.11 that summarises the story’s theme and trajectory. 

Exodus begins with a violent and discordant juxtaposition: on the one hand, the LORD blesses his people and they multiply. From the 70 men and women who entered Egypt at the time of Joseph, generations later they now number more than a million, even more. At the same time, Pharaoh is threatened by the Israelites. He deems them a threat to social cohesion and cultural prosperity, and so he enslaves them. This strategy, while brutal, proves inadequate for God continues to bless the Israelites and their numbers increase. Pharaoh then sanctions the deaths of all newborn male infants. 

Two Hebrew women, Shiphrah and Puah, become heroes as they ignore Pharaoh’s decree and refuse to end the lives of these children. Frustrated that his ‘health plan’ was failing, he pushes further.  The river Nile may be the source of life for Egypt but Pharaoh turned it into a graveyard as thousands of babies were disposed of in the waters. 

I begin with the Exodus story, partly because it’s fresh in my mind and because we are rightly appalled by what we read. To hear of the mass destruction of the young should create outrage and tremendous grief. How can a civil authority feel so threatened by a people group that he gives licence for infant boys to be disposed of?  At the same time, Pharaoh was trying to protect a way of life; his autonomy, position and future. 

Of course, there are significant differences between Exodus and the United States and how the removal of the unborn or newborn is considered. However there is also an uncomfortable parallel, and that is, that the life of the young is conditional and the State can justify taking life when these little ones are deemed unwanted or a threat to personal progress and way of life. The evil perpetrated by Pharaoh does not stop at the fact that he sought to control an ethnic group, but that as an ethnic group these baby boys are human beings and therefore should never be treated as a commodity or considered as having less value or with fewer rights to live. 

United States Supreme Court Building. Original image from Carol M. Highsmith’s America, Library of Congress collection. Digitally enhanced by rawpixel. by Carol M Highsmith is licensed under CC-CC0 1.0

Today, the news story dominating the United States is the future of abortion. Yesterday a draft majority opinion was leaked to Politico. Written by Justice Samuel Alito, the paper outlines the argument to overturn Roe v Wade. This is the first time in American history that a document of this nature has been leaked. Many people are interpreting this leak as a last-ditch attempt to pressure the Supreme Court Justices to change their minds and uphold Roe v Wade.

Overturning Roe v Wade does not mean abortion will become illegal throughout all of the USA. It does, however (and in my mind correctly) determine that the United States Constitution nowhere presents or protects abortion as a right. If it turns out that the draft opinion accurately reflects the final decision of the court, it means that the issue of abortion will return to the states and therefore will become the responsibility of the people to decide what laws will govern the unborn. In practice this will probably mean some states will restrict abortion (limiting it to pregnancies under 24 weeks or 15 weeks), others may prohibit abortion altogether,  while other states will continue to commit abortions even up to the point of birth.

Any decision made by the Supreme Court of the United States has no legal bearing on my part of the world, but the cultural influence of America eventually washes across the Pacific Ocean. My own home here in the State of Victoria is more akin to New York State where abortion is lauded, even for infants who reach 40 weeks. While I am thankful for any public and legal decision that weakens the abortion position, I am reminded of how far my own context has regressed from upholding the sanctity of human life.

In the 50 years since Roe v Wade, 60 million children in the United States have been taken from the womb. In Australia, 10,000s children are aborted every year, many because they are diagnosed as carrying a disability or disease, and many because the child is felt to be an impediment to the dreams and life preferences of the mother (and sometimes the father).  Over the weekend, a famous (now retired) Australian swimmer revealed how her coach once pressured her into having an abortion. These stories are far more common than we dare acknowledge. 

As news broke about Justice Samuel Alito’s draft statement, one could hear the palpable joy and thanksgiving among many Americans. One could also hear the anger of others. From President Biden to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Elizabeth Warren, and even to politicians and commentators across the globe, including the Mayor of London, there is an anxious and loud demand to keep what they crudely describe as a ‘woman’s health care’. 

Should Roe v Wade be overturned, and I pray that it is, I also pray that pro-life Americans will not gloat or pride themselves and disdain others. Instead, give humble thanks and continue to give due love and care to women who are grappling with unwanted or difficult pregnancies. Justified anger at the destruction of life can be coupled with compassion and commitment to helping those who struggle.

When the Supreme Court decision is finally announced and comes into effect, may the final word not be one of triumphalism or anger. The story of Exodus doesn’t end in chapter 1 and with a river of death. There is much grace and mercy to be found in the story of Exodus. There is atonement for sin and freedom found for those who cry out to God.  

The blood of 60 million babies cries out for justice; God hears.  There are also countless women who to this day grieve over their dead children and the decision they once made.  The wonderful news to which Exodus points and which is found in Jesus Christ, is a word of forgiveness and hope and restoration. The final word isn’t judgement. Forever guilt isn’t the only option. The God of the Passover, the God who rescued Israel from Egypt, is the same God whose only Son gave his life to remove every stain.

As Jesus himself said, during that most famous of Passover meals, on the night he was betrayed, 

“This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.”

Christians, encourage and support the removal of Roe v Wade, and let us not lose sight of the Gospel of grace and forgiveness, which is our ultimate and only hope.

All children are a blessing

During last night’s debate between Scott Morrison and Anthony Albanese, a mother of a young autistic boy asked a question about funding,

“I have a four-year-old autistic son, we are grateful to receive funding under the NDIS. I have heard many stories from people having their funding cut under the current government, including my own. 

‘I’ve been told that to give my son the best future, I should vote Labor. Can you tell me what the future of the NDIS looks like under your government?”

Mr Morrison replied, “Jenny and I have been blessed. We’ve got two children who haven’t had to go through that.” 

Within a nanosecond, social media filled up with anger, and fair enough. Did Australia’s Prime Minister really say what we heard him say about children with disabilities?

I’m pretty sure Scott Morrison misspoke. I don’t think Scott Morrison believes that children with disabilities are not a blessing. There is in some Pentecostal circles some pretty awful theology when it comes to understanding suffering but I suspect Morrison wasn’t mimicking those terrible and wrongful beliefs. Rather, I suspect he was trying to convey thankfulness for healthy children. Are parents not thankful for when our children are healthy and doing well? I assume this is the kind of thing Scott Morrison was thinking and meant to say. Nonetheless, his actual words were wrong and parents are understandably offended by them. 

As one Labor Senator said last night, 

“I found it really offending and quite shocking, and it is something that people who have a disability, children with autism, it is a kind of response they get all the time,” she said.

“That people are blessed not to have what they have when, in actual fact, every child is a blessing.

“Certainly my daughter enriches my life and my partner’s life every day”

I am reminded of how Jesus welcomed young children, despite his irritated disciples trying to move them away,

 “People were bringing little children to Jesus for him to place his hands on them, but the disciples rebuked them. When Jesus saw this, he was indignant. He said to them, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.  Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.” And he took the children in his arms, placed his hands on them and blessed them.”

There is something profoundly good and human about a society that welcomes, protects, and provides for children. There is something beautiful about recognising the imago dei in others, especially in those who are different to ourselves in some way.

There is also an air of hypocrisy amidst today’s public outcry. Some of the very voices calling out Scott Morrison also support the killing of unborn children. Some who are angrily tweeting have actively legislated to legalise abortion, even up to birth. 

Thousands of children are aborted in Australia every year on account of them being diagnosed with a condition of some kind. Indeed, in some countries, certain disabilities are becoming rare because they are being wiped out in the womb. The shocking reality in Australia is that all children are a blessing, apart from those who are deemed unworthy of living. 

This is the grotesque outworking of the utilitarian ethics of Peter Singer and others. Professor Singer is renowned for his support of killing the disabled. In 2007, writing for the New York Times,  Peter Singer suggests that the life of a dog or cat has more value and ‘dignity’ than a human being with limited cognitive faculties. He even argued that an unborn child only has value insofar as they are wanted by their parents. In other words, the baby does not hold inherent worth but holds importance because of the value attached by others.

she is precious not so much for what she is, but because her parents and siblings love her and care about her“.

I hope this logic sounds abhorrent to you, but understand, that this is the ethical framework supported by our culture and by the law. 

I am still horrified by what a doctor once said to Susan and me. During the pregnancy of one of our children, we were having a checkup and the doctor informed us that our child might potentially carry an illness (and not a particularly serious one), and in light of that possibility did we want to continue with the pregnancy? 

If all children are a blessing, and indeed they are, why does our society legalise and even celebrate the destruction of so many of these little ones? 

The Psalmist shouts out what is true of all children, 

“For you created my inmost being;

    you knit me together in my mother’s womb.

I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;

    your works are wonderful,

    I know that full well.

My frame was not hidden from you

    when I was made in the secret place,

    when I was woven together in the depths of the earth.” (Psalm 139)

It shouldn’t need saying, but all children are a blessing: the youngest and the oldest, those who are healthy and those who are ill, those who are strong and those needing special help. We thank God for them and we ask God for grace, strength, patience, and wisdom as we care for and nurture our children.

It is refreshing to see how a poorly expressed sentence by our Prime Minister has been turned into many words of affirmation toward children with disabilities and difficulties.  Love and reality press against the utilitarian and selfish individualism that so often captures sex and relationships and family today. Let us remember that all “children are a blessing and a gift from the Lord.” (Psalm 127:3 CEV)

Bill Shorten said it right.

Since the 1960s societies like our own have pursued a moral outlook whereby the rules of life are thrown out in favour of personal autonomy and self-expression. The sentiment has existed far longer, but the sexual revolution provided the catalyst to make possible in public what was often lived out in private. However far from creating a hedonistic dreamland, we are turning the landscape into an unforgiving wasteland. 

The promises of sexual and social freedoms are now being met with education classes and workplace policies because we do not trust each other to act appropriately. Public figures who do or say something that even gives the appearance of impropriety are readily cancelled and publicly shamed. We have become expert fault finders, putting to shame the Puritans of old with our rules and public executions. 

Every word and gesture from our political leaders is noted and recorded and reported to the public in an instant whirlwind of media hysteria and political cannonading.

Yesterday it was the turn of Federal Labor leader Anthony Albanese. On the very first morning of the election campaign, Mr Albanese was asked two questions: what is the current unemployment rate and what is the cash rate? He was unable to answer either.  

Bill Shorten, who led Labor at the last Federal election, was asked this morning to comment on his leader’s error. Mr Shorten said,

“The last person who never made a mistake – we are celebrating Easter – was 2,000 years ago”.

I’ll leave the pundits to do their work in assessing the merits of Mr Shorten’s response. My interest here isn’t to speak to the politics. I wish to observe that Mr Shorten’s words are true, and even more astonishing than perhaps he realises. 

The last person who never made a mistake is Jesus Christ. Jesus lived in Judea 2,000 years ago. It was a period of tremendous political and social upheaval. Poverty abounded and social freedoms were anathema for most people. Life for populations living under Roman rule was hard and harsh. Into this world, came Jesus. 

Jesus’ life, his words and deeds consistently and unerringly testify to his human nature being without any sin. Instead, the historical records reveal how Jesus is the most selfless and compassionate, gentle, truthful and holy person ever to walk this earth. He always spoke the truth, even at great personal cost. He loved the loveless and showed kindness toward the discredited and despised in the community. He exercised Divine authority and power over every manner of evil and ill. As he journeyed to Jerusalem, questions over Jesus’ identity and mission heightened, who is this man? 

In so many ways Jesus was just like us: he ate and slept and worked and became tired, he expressed happiness and humour and he felt sadness and anger.  And yet, his character is blameless. People tried to find fault with him, especially the religious leaders of the day, and yet none could be found.

The Roman Governor, Pontius Pilate, oversaw Jesus’ trial. Upon examining Jesus, he could find no wrong in him. Pilate appealed to Jesus’ accusers, 

““I find no basis for a charge against him.”

The most remarkable fact about Jesus is not his sinless nature, although that is truly outstanding, it is that this innocent one chose a path of betrayal, suffering, and death.  The incredible fact of that first Easter is how the man without guilt resolved to die the death of the guilty. 

Why would a man of such promise, and possessing the character of God, choose to enter this world and embrace suffering, humiliation, and willingly face the most public and excruciating death that the Romans could devise? Was it a mistake?

Jesus didn’t die for our moral platitudes, platforms, and self-justifications, he died in the place of those who deserve to be cancelled by God.  On the third day, he rose from the grave, promising new life to everyone who believe.

“For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive in the Spirit.” (1 Peter 3:18)

As important as political elections are, this week we are approaching the weekend where we remember the definitive act of a loving God to redeem people with great fault.

There is far greater wonder and glory at Easter than we probably ever imagine, even for those who annually attend Easter church services. Our society rightly commemorates and thanks those who sacrifice their lives for the good of others. We even quote Jesus who said, “”Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13)”. On the cross, Jesus went even further, 

“You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”

This sublime world in which we live today with such advanced knowledge and ability has once again exposed our frailty and even culpability. Our uncertain world has been shaken by a pandemic and once again we are contemplating the possibility of global armed conflict. At home in Australia, we are wrestling with political disappointments and considerable social concerns. How much do we need a saviour who doesn’t make mistakes? 

Do Churches have a Houston problem?

Brian Houston has resigned as global senior pastor of Hillsong Church, following an internal investigation. He was found to have breached the church’s code of conduct with incidents involving two women over the past 10 years.

Concerns have been levelled at Hillsong over what is perceived to be a long standing lack of transparency and even an unwillingness to deal with erring leaders. One senses that the Board is now trying to set the record straight but even yesterday’s press release fails the mark. As many are noting, it is inappropriate to announce the resignation of a pastor found guilty of mistreating women and in the same letter, praise the man.

“Irrespective of the circumstances around this, we can all agree that Brian and Bobbie have served God faithfully over many decades.”

I suspect it was unintentional but the fact is, this one sentence diminishes the seriousness of the offences against the two women and it fails to acknowledge the damage now caused to the public reputation of the Gospel due to Houston’s behaviour. 

If you are staggered and angry by Brian Houston’s behaviour toward these women and the excuses offered by Hillsong (medication and alcohol), you are right to feel this way. If this raises further suspicions and causes you to ask if there are more stories hiding and may be uncovered, that reaction is pretty natural. If this latest Hillsong revelation is causing you to lose trust in churches and their leaders, I understand. If you’re wondering, is church a safe place for women, again the question is understandable. It is reprehensible that any person should mistreat another no matter the setting; how much worse though when the man is considered a pastor over Christ’s Church. It should never be. 

Having said that, this is not an anti-Brian Houston post. Neither am I here to throw rhetorical rocks at Hillsong. I rarely speak about Hillsong, especially in the public domain. Readers won’t be surprised to learn that I have never been a fan of Hillsong. There have been serious question marks over their ‘brand’ of Christianity for more than 30 years. The thing is, Hillsong isn’t alone in admitting to sinful and failed leaders. There are examples appearing in all kinds of churches. There are failed church leaders who once oversaw churches and organisations that are fairly aligned with my own theological convictions. Whether it is Mark Driscoll, Jonathan Fletcher or Ravi Zacharias, and many names that never reach public attention, bullying, abuse, sexual sin,  and unfaithfulness is a contagion that crosses denomination lines and churches, and societies. Hillsong has become a popular football for media pundits to kick around, but a quick look in our own backyard may reveal that we also have serious issues with inappropriate and even wicked leaders.

Houston has fallen, let us be careful lest we follow him.

What are we going to do about the growing number of errant and disqualified leaders? On the one hand, the Bible warns us that such figures will arise and control and damage churches and people’s lives. On the other hand, the Bible also expects leaders to be godly and faithful and humble and servant-hearted. 

Last year we decided that our first sermon series for Mentone Baptist Church in 2022 would be First Timothy. This letter written by the Apostle Paul is concerned with right and godly leadership over the church. As an example, last Sunday I was preaching on chapter 3, a fearful passage for any preacher given it outlines qualifications for church overseers (pastors) and deacons. I am not mentioning this in order to convey some hubristic sense of godliness, as though Mentone is holding the high bar perfectly and without shakes and knocks. Rather, as we revisited these important Scriptures, I am reminded of how high God’s bar is for those desiring to serve as church leaders.

I suspect, one of our issues isn’t that churches think too much of the Bible, but that we think too little of Scripture. Our problem isn’t too much faith in God, but that we don’t really believe what God says. We are quite proficient at pointing the Bible at other people but less willing to let God address our own lives.

A Church cannot survive on the personality or prowess of the pastor(s). The health and future of any church runs far deeper than any individual’s desire or demand to lead.

Desire is one thing. 1 Timothy 3:1 indicates that “whoever aspires to be an overseer desires a noble task”.  However, desire alone is inadequate. Our broader culture might believe that we should pursue what we feel. We mustn’t let any ceiling prevent us from realising our desires. Paul notes that pastoring is a noble task, however, desire is not enough.  Desire is necessarily coupled with qualifications and these are qualifications that must be recognised in the candidate by the church.

In the case of 1 Timothy ch.3, there are 13 qualifications. The list isn’t designed to be comprehensive, for there are more attributes and responsibilities explored in other parts of the New Testament. However,  these 13 are non-negotiable and must form part of the resume for any who are suited for pastoral ministry. For anyone interested in an explanation of the qualifications, you can listen to the sermon I gave last Sunday (or read a good commentary). For the sake of brevity, I will just state each qualification here:

  • the overseer is to be above reproach,
  • faithful to his wife,
  • temperate, 
  • self-controlled,
  • respectable, 
  • hospitable, 
  • able to teach,
  • not given to drunkenness, 
  • not violent but gentle, 
  • not quarrelsome, 
  • not a lover of money. 
  • He must manage his own family well and see that his children obey him, and he must do so in a manner worthy of full respect. (If anyone does not know how to manage his own family, how can he take care of God’s church?) 
  • He must not be a recent convert, or he may become conceited and fall under the same judgment as the devil. 
  • He must also have a good reputation with outsiders, so that he will not fall into disgrace and into the devil’s trap.

Over the last 5 -10 years, the broader culture has resurrected the question of character. Does a politician’s private life matter when it comes to public office? Can we ignore a leader’s personal sins so long as we approve of their politics? Whether it is the case of Barnaby Joyce or Donald Trump or Tim Payne, our aspiring neo-puritan age is indicating that character does in fact matter…at least in those cases where leaders fall foul of the culture’s milieu. 

The Bible has always said that character matters in our leaders. Godliness is important in all our lives, and especially those who are appointed to lead. 

As one way of getting around the problem I recently heard an old adage repeated: the way we avoid bad leadership is by having no leaders in the church. In order to fulfil some egalitarian dream of the church, everyone should have an equal say and role. Perhaps that sounds appealing to you, but of course, that model of church contradicts the pattern laid out in Scripture and it’s also irresponsible. What ends up happening is that those with personality and power end up leading by default.

In addition to those essential qualities presented in 1 Timothy ch.3, I want to suggest these further 7 points that I believe will help churches in protecting the congregation and helping leaders from falling into grievous sin. Of course, no system is perfect, and any process can be misused, but any Christian Church must recognise how high the stakes are. At hand are things of greater consequence than we can grasp. It is not only the question of character that the Bible emphasises, it is the gravity of the pastor’s work. It is of such weight that we should hesitate before raising our hands for the job or before accepting a nominee.

“Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood.”

May I humbly present this offering, as I reflect on our own church and the near impossible task of shepherding the people who belong to God and have been purchased by the precious blood of Christ:

  1. Don’t be a pastor. Of course churches need pastors, both those training formally at theological college and those raised from within the congregation. It is ok to slow down. It is okay to realise that this isn’t for you. It is okay to say no.
  2. Insist on character. Churches, don’t sacrifice character. 
  3. Establish a plurality of leadership. The New Testament’s vision for healthy churches is not a solo pastor but of a plurality of elders and plurality of deacons who are accountable not only to each other but also to the church membership.
  4. Insist upon clear accountability structures that are readily observed.
  5. Insist upon a fair and accessible grievance process for everyone in the church.
  6. Pray for those who lead.
  7. Build a culture of transparency and trust. It is worthwhile quoting Paul’s letter once again. In the chapter following the qualifications for elders and deacons, Paul urges Timothy to lead by showing and sharing his life as well as his teaching. Paul comprehended the value and importance of transparency and trust, and he also understood saw the goal to which this pastoral oversight is pointing,

Be diligent in these matters; give yourself wholly to them, so that everyone may see your progress. Watch your life and doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers”.

When Schools Educate Children away from Christianity

A friend’s teenage son recently attended a high school excursion in the city. The day was focusing on empathy and learning skills to understand people who are different from ourselves. Sounds great! There we are discussions about homelessness and disabilities, which is great. Some of the day was about how to relate to LGBT people. It still sounds as though it may be useful. As part of the training, the presenter informed the kids that Christians are among the worst offenders in handing out bigotry. Christians are hateful people who cause all kinds of harm to LGBT people. Indeed, the school children were informed that parts of the Bible needs to be removed.

The boy spoke up in front of the class and explained that the trainer’s claims were untrue; that takes courage. One can imagine how his views were received. The poor kid went home having been essentially made to feel that he and his family were awful people on account of their Christian faith…and his entire class now know it!

Let’s leave aside the overdose of irony about an ‘empathy’ training event teaching kids that Christians are the worst and are bigots, and so are parts of the Bible, the claim is simply not true.

This presenter is simply repeating the popular lie which alleges disagreement equals hate. The correlation is both intellectually and morally insipid. Take Jesus for example. Jesus Christ disagreed with all manner of beliefs and behaviour (including sex outside marriage) and yet he is the most loving person ever to have lived. Indeed, it is his love that drives him to disprove ideas and actions that contradict God’s good purposes. Jesus even went to the cross and willingly gave his life for people who actively opposed him in every way imaginable. Activists, politicians and educators may repeat the mantra a thousand times, but disagreeing on important matters is not equivalent to bigotry and hatred. 

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

And notice the gall of the presenter, who in the name of tolerance and acceptance, felt confident to tell a class of school children about all those hateful Christians and their hateful Bible. According to the group’s website, this organisation teaches 1000s of school children every year; imagine what other messages they have pushed onto children.

In a reasonable world, one might assume that defaming a religion in front of school children would be unacceptable. Surely inclusion includes Christians? Imagine the public outcry if a school program taught that Islam was evil or that Jews held abhorrent beliefs? Common sense ought to lead parents to trust that schools will object and never use the program again. But in today’s world, schools will probably shy away from doing the right thing because the fear of being outed by activists is tangible and the very long and judgemental arm of the Government is also quite real. 

We put trust in our schools who in turn place a lot of responsibility on these outside groups to deliver material in a considered and constructive way. People may remember the incident at Parkdale Secondary College last year when another group, addressing similar issues, asked all the white heterosexual Christian boys to stand up, and then berated them and told the class that these boys were responsible for the ills of our society.

In this particular case, I believe the school is disappointed by what occurred, but that’s the problem, schools are often in the dark as to what these outside groups are teaching our children. 

Schools are unlikely to go as far as formally objecting to these program providers and desist in using their services; they can’t afford to make such a stand in this age of public outrage. To push back on program content is interpreted as questioning the new ideology and that’s an automatic red card. The school will be branded as phobic and relentlessly so. Let the reader understand, Christian kids will either become forced converts to the new ideology or they will be sacrificed at the altar of today’s gods.

What happened to my friend’s child is no longer unusual. Believing that men and women are men and women, and holding to the classical view of marriage is considered anathema, and reforming these social ‘delinquents’ has become the task of the State. Educating and pressuring them away from the Christian faith is fast becoming normalised in Victoria’s Education system.

What makes this particular incident more egregious is that the organisation in question is connected to a supposed Christian Church. It would be laughable if it were not so serious. Of course, such Churches have long abandoned the faith. They long ago sold their soul and dumped Christian beliefs for the sum of social acceptance and admiration. In one sense they are forced to do so because without the Gospel they have no reason to exist other than to become advocates for the latest moral trends.

Parents, know what your children are being taught. When your children attend special seminars and lessons with outside groups, do your homework and find out what’s going on. Ask the school in advance for information about what will be taught. Debrief with your children afterwards. Listen to their questions with lots of patience and love. Remind them that God’s ways are good and show them how to persist with kindness and grace when our schoolmates disagree.  Lest you think this is only an issue in Government schools, this is now widespread among private and independent schools.

When I was at school 30 years ago Christians were tolerated but thought to be stupid. Today, Christians are evil. It’s a different world!

This latest story reminds me that things are not getting easier. We don’t need to jump into the pit of apocalyptic excesses to realise that following Jesus is becoming harder. The front line is school as much as it is the university or the workplace. The pressure on our children to give up what they know to be true now forms part of their school education. This reinforces how important home life is and the role of parents to display, teach, love, and pray for our children. I am reminded of how vital church is, to be that safe place where children can explore the faith and learn to trust God and to be encouraged and equipped throughout the week. 

We might be tempted to respond by withdrawing or self isolating from all these influences and pressures. I understand the pull, and there are times when we must make changes for the sake of our kids’ wellbeing. My general encouragement is, equip your children to navigate this course for they will face it beyond school and long after they have left home. I also suspect our churches need to invest more heavily in discipling our parents so that they are better equipped for the task. And don’t give up praying for them.

Shane Warne and our own mortality

I think it is fair to say that the whole nation is in mourning. The cricket world is in shock. At the age of 52, Shane Warne is dead. This legitimate Aussie larrikin and cricket legend (and legend is no exaggerated term) died suddenly on Friday night, apparently from a heart attack. To his family and friends, we cannot understand your loss and grief, and yet we want to mourn with you. Australia has lost one of our greatest ever sportsmen, and yet you have lost a Dad, a mentor, a friend.

It seems as though everyone has a Warnie connection. Conversations are taking place across our streets as neighbours and mates talk about some special moment with Shane Warne or memories of a special ball they witnessed him bowl at the G one day. I never met him, even though we share the same backyard. His local cricket club is one my boys play matches against regularly. Warnie’s former school is literally a one minute drive down the road from my church. Like millions of Aussies, I spent many a day admiring his cricketing genius as we watched him on the television or at the MCG.

The shock of Shane Warne’s unexpected death is doing more than creating conversations, The Age published this piece, “Warne’s untimely death a wake-up call for men in their 40s and 50s

Josh Gordon writes, “Shane Warne’s death from a suspected heart attack at the age of 52 has come as a wake-up call for middle aged-men across the country, many of whom took to WhatsApp groups Saturday morning to question their sense of mortality.”

Yes! Aussie men aren’t generally the most congenial visitors to the local GP, let alone verbalising their fears about mortality.  Visiting your local doctor for a check-up sounds like a pretty smart move. Now, I’m several years younger than Warnie and I’ve never smoked and never drunk the volume of alcohol that our famed Aussie cricketers are renowned for doing, but then again, avoiding such things is no guarantee of making a century. I mean, isn’t this the issue? None of us knows how long the innings will last. If Shane Warne’s passing has made you gasp in horror, talk to your GP. But let’s not stop with a stethoscope, blood pressure machine and cholesterol test. The question of our mortality goes well beyond what any doctor can observe and diagnose. 

The issue of human mortality is often laid hidden behind sterile rooms and hushed tones. When it comes to death, Aussies are not an upfront people. It’s not a subject for polite conversation. However, talk about death has become more urgent and real and public over the last two years. The COVID pandemic, especially in its earliest days, rushed forward the issue of mortality, entering people’s minds and even spoken on our lips. War in Ukraine is reminding us of the violent presence of death as does Afghanistan. And punctuating the thinly veiled pride and sense of masculine endurance is the sudden death of an Australian icon.

What are we to do with our mortality? How can we resolve this ignominious question? 

Death is the inevitable door that we long to avoid. For all our momentum in running away from the grave, we are all in fact heading along the same road: the great and the small,  the iconic and the average.

As a minister of a church, I have often spoken with people who are approaching death. There is always sadness for death is a great enemy, destroying life and ripping apart relationships. Rarely does anyone want the innings to end, perhaps ‘retire not out’ but no one wants to be bowled. Yet, we do not choose the day or manner of our dying, whether we are given time to assess our end or it comes suddenly and without warning. Ignoring the question will not fix it and save us. 

If it is time for middle-aged men to ‘wake up’ and get a check up, it is also wise and imperative that we find the ultimate answer to death. 

My Twitter feed has been filled with ‘RIP Shane Warne’ and ‘RIP Rodney Marsh’. When a person dies we often resort to this simple and hopeful phrase. I was reminded today of how the saying has been shortened.  The phrase was originally and purposefully longer: “Rest in peace and rise in glory”. This is a Christian idiom that harkens back to the early centuries AD and whose meaning is found in the Bible and rests in the person and work of Jesus. As the Scripture says, 

“Just as people are destined to die once, and after that to face judgment, so Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many; and he will appear a second time, not to bear sin, but to bring salvation to those who are waiting for him.” (Hebrews 10:27-28)

If this is indeed the time to evaluate our mortality, then may I suggest we need to go no further than the One who died and went to the grave, only to defeat death with resurrection life. You see, the answer is staring at us and has been for millennia. We have heard the words spoken at funerals, in school chapels and at church. These living and hope bringing words are found in every Gideon’s Bible and available to us on our smartphones. 

Young and old, men and women, cricket devotees and those who should be, if we are serious about answering the question of our own mortality, then believe the One who has gone ahead of us and conquered death for us, that it may not have the final word:

“When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.”

“Where, O death, is your victory?
    Where, O death, is your sting?”

The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” (1 Corinthians 15:54-57)

Thinking Through Ukraine

A mother and daughter from my church are currently residing in Ukraine. Bombs have hit the city near where they are living. Thankfully, for now, they are safe. While internet connections have become unreliable, the mum has been able to send a message to one of our church members. For us at Mentone, as with many families across Australia, the events unfolding in Ukraine are more than just stories in the news.

I think it is fair to say that many people around the world are stunned by the audacity of President Putin’s actions, but we should not be surprised. I don’t believe these are the decisions of a madman but someone calculating with warranted confidence.  For more than a decade Russia has had military successes with incursions into Crimea, Georgia, Chechnya, and Syria. More than that, as the world looks at the West, they see moral decay and social disruption and division; no wonder they might conclude that they can act with impunity.  The insurmountable disaster of the withdrawal from Afghanistan won’t cause nations to tremble at the United States and her allies. Far from fear mongering or throwing around hubris, this is about understanding human nature:  Belief + power + opportunity can be a very dangerous mix.

The West has become the polar bear who with each new season finds it harder to uncover firm ground to stand on, and instead relies on jumping across tiny and shrinking blocks of floating ice. As we consciously and deliberately remove the very foundations upon which our societies formed and which a civil and healthy society requires,  we create a future that is less certain and less safe. While other nations are perhaps economically and militarily weaker, they have greater conviction and resolve.

Stan Grant writes,

“This is the sort of war the West does not know how to fight. It is not just about territory, or borders, or resources, or power. It is existential — it is about identity.” 

As far as I can see, the United States gives all the appearances of being supine. The United Nations is weak. NATO cuts their own hamstring. Russia is emboldened, and so will China and Iran. This war in Ukraine is only beginning and it is unlikely to end at her borders. Indeed, ominous days ahead.

As we watch the war unfold on the news, what should we do? 

First of all, humble ourselves before Almighty God and pray. 

We should follow the example of many Ukrainian Christians and pray. Prayer is not the helpless pleading of people to a blank sky, but the cries of people to God who remain Sovereign and good today, even in Ukraine. Naturally, many Westerners with their sense of intellectual smugness will laugh at such a notion. I dare them to voice their condescension toward the many Ukrainians who are praying in public space at the moment or the pastors who have led their families to safety and then returned to care for the people. 

Few of us have the influence to make foreign policy, introduce sanctions or to speak to global leaders, but we can pray to the God to whom all authorities will be held to account.

Second, it is right to feel anger. Most often our anger is wrong and sinful, but there are times when anger is not only justified but even required. When innocent blood is shed, when a human life is abused, and when a nation is invaded by another for the sake of greed and control, it is appropriate to sense and express indignation. President Putin is a despot with millions of Russian people living in fear and under his autocratic rule, and he has just invaded a Sovereign State and put at risk the lives of millions of people.

Third, remember, God will judge the wicked. 

As Christians, we know and believe God is love. God is a merciful Father who pours out grace upon human beings who pursue the most arrogant of ways. Christians affirm alongside the Apostle Paul, “ Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst”.

We also believe that God will judge the nations by his Son. Neither the small nor the great are exempt. Ukraine’s UN representative, Sergiy Kyslytsya gave an astonishing speech yesterday, one that I suspect will enter the annals of history. Addressing the United Nations Security Council, Ambassador Kyslytsya spoke directly to the Chair, the Russian Ambassador, 

“There is no purgatory for war criminals, they go straight to hell.”

Purgatory does not exist, but hell certainly does. The world needs a judge who will put right the wrongs committed. As a result of human limitations and at times ignorance and even complicity, much evil escapes justice in the moment. One thing Jesus Christ promises is that the wicked will not escape his justice.

Fourth, we need a biblical anthropology. 

It is our failure to understand and believe human nature, that causes our disbelief in events such as the one unfolding in Ukraine. On this point allow me to give an extended quote from ‘Symphony From the Great War’, a little book that I wrote a couple of years ago, as it sums up the point at hand:

“The paradox of the human condition bewilders: such inexplicable worth and wonder and yet constant and repeated reproach. The height of creative prodigy with the ability to love and to show kindness, and yet in our DNA are also traits that stick like the mud of Flanders, and which no degree of education or scientific treatment can excise. At the best of times, we contain and suppress such things, and at the worst, we can explode into a public and violent confrontation. The First World War wasn’t human madness; it was calculated depravity. It was genius used in the employment of destruction. This was a betrayal of Divine duty. I am not suggesting that this war was fought without any degree of moral integrity, for should we not defend the vulnerable? When an emerging global war sends signals of an aggressor’s intent to its neighbours, to what point must we remain on the sideline and permit bullying and harassment? At what juncture do allies speak up as a buttress for justice but not support words with deeds? How much politicising is mere virtue signalling? 

“War creates no absolutely new situation: it simply aggravates the permanent human situation so that we can no longer ignore it. Human life has always been lived on the edge of a precipice.” (C.S. Lewis)


The temptation is to conclude that lessons have been learned and today we move forward with inevitable evolution. While the superficial has progressed enormously, that is, with scientific, medical, and technological breakthroughs, and with cultures building bridges and better understanding differences. And yet, we mustn’t make the error in thinking that today we are somehow better suited to the task of humanity. This is an anthropological fallacy of cosmic repercussions. The bloodletting has not subsided; it’s just that we exercise our barbarity with clinical precision or behind closed doors. We continue to postulate and protect all manner of ignominious attitudes and actions, but these are often sanctioned by popular demand and therefore excused. 

The world sees the doctrine of total depravity but cannot accept the veracity of this diagnosis of disease because doing so would seem to be leaving our children destitute, without hope for a better tomorrow. And yet surely wisdom causes us to look outside ourselves and beyond our institutions and authorities to find a cure for the disease that ails every past and future generation? 

It does not take a prophet to understand that the world will once again serve as the canvas for a gigantic bloodstain. There will be wars and rumours of wars. There will be small localised conflicts and globalisation will inevitably produce further large-scale violence, perhaps outweighing the experiences of the first two world wars. We may see and even learn from the past, but we project a fools’ paradise when we envision the human capacity to finally overcome evil. Religion is often no better a repose than the honest diatribes of Nietzsche and his philosophical descendants. Religion, ‘in the name of God’, is often complicit with death making and at times it is missing from the task of peacemaking, while other efforts are much like stacking sandbags against a flash flood: that is, hardly effective

Theologian Oliver O’ Donovan refers to the “nascent warrior culture” in the days of ancient Israel, some fourteen centuries before the coming of the Christ. This culture is perhaps no longer emerging in our world, but it is now long tried and tested among the nations. Does war intrude upon peace? Perhaps it is more accurate to say that war is interrupted by periods of relative peace and at times by ugly appeasement. Soon enough another ideologue and another authority tests the socio-political temperature and attempts to scale the ethereal stairs of Babel. 


The human predicament is perhaps a grotesque complement to the rising philosophical concerns of the late 19th Century. Karl Marx and Friedrich Nietzsche began dismantling the imago Dei with a new and devastating honesty. Far from discovering superior freedoms, they justified authoritarian systems of government and the mass sterilisation of ‘lesser’ human beings. To strip humanity of its origins is to leave us destitute and blind, but admitting this truth demands an epistemic and moral humility that few are willing to accept. Nietzsche was right, at least as far as his logic is concerned, that “the masses blink and say, ‘We are all equal – Man is but man, before God – we are equal.’ Before God! But now this God has died.” A contemporary of Nietsche, Anatole France retorted without regret, 

“It is almost impossible systematically to constitute a natural moral law. Nature has no principles. She furnishes us with no reason to believe that human life is to be respected. Nature, in her indifference, makes no distinction between good and evil.”

If optimism seems out of place and if pessimism is a crushing and untenable alternative, where does the future lie? The lush green cemeteries of the Western Front with their gleaming white headstones convey a respectful and yet somewhat misleading definition of war. This halcyon scene covers over a land that was torn open and exposed the capacity of man to destroy. Perhaps, as a concession, the dead have received a quiet bed until the end of time, but the serenity of this sight mustn’t be misconstrued in any way to deify war or to minimise the sheer horror that befell so many. In part, we want to learn and so avoid repeating history, and yet history shouts to us a message that we don’t wish to accept.

There is ancient wisdom that stands tall in the midst of time. There are words which demand closer inspection by those who are seeking to exegete the past and to consider an alternate tomorrow. Every step removed from this wisdom signals further hubris that we can ill afford, but epistemic humility and confession may well reorient the compass toward he who offers peace instead of war, life instead of death, and love instead of hate: 

“Why do the nations conspire

    and the peoples plot in vain?

The kings of the earth rise up

    and the rulers band together

    against the Lord and against his anointed, saying,

“Let us break their chains

    and throw off their shackles.”

The One enthroned in heaven laughs;

    the Lord scoffs at them.

He rebukes them in his anger

    and terrifies them in his wrath, saying,

“I have installed my king

    on Zion, my holy mountain.”

I will proclaim the Lord’s decree:

He said to me, “You are my son;

    today I have become your father.

Ask me,

    and I will make the nations your inheritance,

    the ends of the earth your possession.

You will break them with a rod of iron;

    you will dash them to pieces like pottery.”

Therefore, you kings, be wise;

    be warned, you rulers of the earth.

Serve the Lord with fear

    and celebrate his rule with trembling.

Kiss his son, or he will be angry

    and your way will lead to your destruction,

 for his wrath can flare up in a moment.

    Blessed are all who take refuge in him.

(Psalm 2)

Baptists, Creeds and Confessions

It’s time to set the record straight. Baptists are not anti-creedal. Or at least, they shouldn’t be. 

Perhaps you have heard Christians (most likely a baptist) assert, ‘no creed but Christ’ or ‘no creed but the Bible’. 

Both of these sayings sound appealing. Which Baptist is going to set up an authority on par with the Lord Jesus Christ? Who would argue that the Church has an authority equal to or greater than Holy Scripture? A desire to preserve the authority of Jesus Christ and the authority of Scripture is noble and right. The rightful Lord of the church is Jesus Christ and the Bible is God’s final, full and sufficient word. Unfortunately, despite their appeal, these creedal mantras present a false equivalence not intended by Creeds and Confessions, they fail to recognise that all Christians are creedal by definition, and they ignore the fact that historically many Baptists wrote and affirmed confessions of faith.

To begin with, throughout our 400 years Baptists have written and given ascent to many Confessions of faith. It is true that many have opposed written and formalised statements of faith, and many others welcomed such agreed formulations.

Even today some baptists are strident in their rejection of Creeds and Confessions. My understanding is that in Australia only one State Baptist Union includes a reference to the rejection of creeds or confessions. They do so, despite requiring all constituents to affirm a doctrinal basis. 

One of the earliest figures associated with the birth of baptists is John Smyth. In 1609, Smyth wrote a confession of faith, although he never published it. Some of Smyth’s ideas though became untenable for many Englishmen who had moved to Amsterdam with him. Smyth became a Mennonite and many of his followers eventually split with him and returned to England where they (under Thomas Helwys) established the first Baptist Church. Smyth was so concerned to avoid liturgy (which he believed stifled the work of the Spirit) that he did not permit the Bible to be read in the gathering. Either way, Smyth is hardly the baptist example par excellence

In 1611 Thomas Helwys wrote a declaration of faith for English Baptists living in Amsterdam. Since then,  no fewer than 50 Baptist Confessions of faith have been written, published and affirmed by various baptists across the centuries. Both the Second London Baptist Confession of Faith (1689) and the New Hampshire Confession of Faith (1833/1853) remain in use today across many baptist networks. In other words, any blanket statement about baptists being anti-creedal cannot be sustained. The historical record demonstrates that Baptists are among the most prolific writers of confessions among all Christian denominations. And these do not include all the statements of faith and doctrinal bases that are in use today across baptist fellowships.

When baptists speak of creeds and confessions, the correct description ought to be, many baptists adhere to confessions and creeds while others do not, and at times, both groups live and serve together.

We have answered the question, are baptists anti-creedal. The next question is, should baptists be anti-creedal?

In 2004, Russell Moore made the observation,

“all Christians are, by definition, “creedalists.” After all, the Spirit tells us that the regenerate person must “confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God has raised him from the dead” (Rom 10:9 ESV). All Baptists are, by definition, “creedalists” since our name signifies that we share a belief about the meaning of baptism in identification with Christ. This is where the shell game hypocrisy of the “anti-creedal” Baptists is so disingenuous.”

Since the earliest days of the Church there has been a standard of belief, a statement of foundational truths required by churches. Even the New Testament gives us evidence of such statements. For example, 1 Corinthians 15:3-5

 “For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve.”

Laying behind the anti-creedal movement may be a concern to preserve the authority and sufficiency of Scripture and to uphold Christ’s authority. Far from undermining these, Creed and Confessions, if they’re doing their job, will articulate and support these fundamental elements of the Christian Church. More often, or at least in contemporary situations, the issue is admitting that there are crucial points of doctrine where baptists no longer agree and then having to face the question of what to do next. Confessions and Creeds require agreement and commonality, whereas ‘no creed by Christ or the Bible’ is sufficiently vague so as to include all manner of weird, wonderful and downright heterodox positions. Whereas Creeds and Confessions require settled teaching, there is another “baptist” value that pushes against this, namely that the Spirit of God has new truths to enlighten us. This particular “baptist” distinction is one that I’ll respond to on another occasion for it is as historically controversial as is the question of creeds. Hence the use of inverted commas.

Creeds and Confessions of faith have long played a significant role for churches in articulating faith and doctrine, and in the formation of partnerships and unions. They are not infallible documents as is Scripture, but they can serve as faithful witnesses to and summaries of the Apostolic faith and of teachings crucial to the Church. A church that disconnects itself from historic Christianity is likely to move away from the faith once for all delivered. Is it any wonder that baptists can reject the bodily resurrection of Christ and still remain in union? Should it surprise anyone that penal substitutionary atonement, while formally declared in the ABM doctrinal basis, can be thrown out by some as an abhorrent teaching and yet happily fellowship together?

Creeds and Confessions alike can serve churches in these 4 helpful ways:

First, they ground our churches in the historic faith. They remind us that we are not separate from or distinct from faithful churches who have gone before us over the millennia; we share the same apostolic faith.

Second, they serve as a buttress, helping to preserve a church’s theological convictions. They give churches a reference point for summarising foundational beliefs and distinctives. Somewhat ironic, for all the talk about not relying on confessions, many Baptists are right now rushing about drafting statements of belief in relation to sex, gender, and marriage.

Third, such statements serve to aid the memory and function as useful catechizing tools.

Fourth, they serve to unify the church. For example, when we recite the Apostles Creed at church, with one voice we are affirming the faith that we hold together.

The next time a baptist looks you in the eye and with confidence tells you, baptists have no creed but Christ, perhaps ask them, which baptists? And then, if conversation permits, explore with them the reasons behind their objections.