Can Churches Sing or not?

The day after Victoria was declared COVID free, the DHHS reversed their directive and introduced a ban on singing in churches.

Yesterday my church gathered together for the first time in almost nine months. We did all the rights things in regard to social distancing and mask wearing, registering attendees and cleaning before and after each service. We didn’t share morning tea as we love to do. We even bought prepackaged communion wafers and cups. 

I preached a sermon on Psalm 33,  which begins with a call to worship, 

“Sing joyfully to the Lord, you righteous;

    it is fitting for the upright to praise him.

Praise the Lord with the harp;

    make music to him on the ten-stringed lyre.

Sing to him a new song;

    play skillfully, and shout for joy.”

To obey the Christian call to worship in song has now been forbidden by the DHHS. Earlier in November we spoke to a DHHS officer who guaranteed that we are allowed to sing in church, so long as we wear masks. The Health directives on the Government website, even as late as last night, still stated in one section that singing is permitted for indoor religious ceremonies. 

First of all, I have no doubt that those working in the DHHS have much on their plates. There is an enormous breadth of decisions to make, including producing directives for areas of community life where they have little experience or understanding. This is hard at the best of times. I appreciate how the tragic events that Victorians have experienced this year does not make  producing health advice or directives any easier.

There is no need to attack the DHHS or impugn motives that we are not aware of. My aim here is understanding and to ascertain a helpful explanation from the DHHS.

I have been informed that over the past week there has been confusion within the DHHS and with the DHHS’s messaging. Official Government’s websites have simultaneously allowed singing and prohibited singing for religious ceremonies. The permission granted to my church for singing has not been overturned in writing. However it is my understanding that the DHHS will today confirm on their website that singing is not permitted for religious ceremonies. 

On the surface the DHHS reversal makes no rational sense. The day after Victoria is declared COVID free, the DHHS impose (or at the very least, confirm) a prohibition on singing in churches? 

The question is, what is the justification for reversing the decision on singing?

Several months ago, suggestions were made by some medical experts that singing could play a role in spreading the virus. We certainly want to listen carefully to the findings of research. I note that this information was available months ago and it do not prevent the DHHS from giving religious groups in Victoria the green light for singing. Let me stress, with this information widely available, the DHHS decided that singing was permissible. 

Since those early indications that singing causes COVID to spread, more recent research has found that singing is not more problematic than speaking.

The BBC reported in August, 

“Singing does not produce substantially more respiratory particles than speaking at a similar volume, a study suggests.”

“Dr Rupert Beale of the Francis Crick Institute, said: “This important research suggests there is no specific excess risk of transmission due to singing”

It is not for me to discern how COVID-19 spreads and whether singing is a worse offender or not. I believe in listening to the science. To my knowledge, no new evidence linking singing to the spread of COVID-19 has come to light in the last couple of weeks, the same time frame that has introduced this 180 degree change by the DHHS. Perhaps new scientific data has become available in the past week. If so, it is incumbent upon the DHHS to explain.

This policy reversal is even more bizarre given the fact that Victoria has recorded zero new cases of COVID-19 for 31 days. There has been an entire month with zero new cases, despite many 1000s of people being tested every single say. It’s not as though the health situation is growing more perilous. Indeed, on November 28th Victoria was declared COVID-19 free! 

The logic is quite strange – while there remained a few cases of COVID-19 in Victoria, Churches could sing. Now that there are no cases and Victoria is declared COVID safe, churches can no longer sing?

It is not asking too much for the DHHS to detail the precise reasons to the1000s of churches and 100,000s of religious Victorians who are finally beginning to meet again after almost nine months of severe restrictions

Government bureaucrats perhaps do not appreciate the importance people of faith place on meeting together for worship, and the key role singing plays in these services. For Christians, to sing is one of the great joys and imperatives. It is an essential aspect of Christian worship. 

In 3 week time there will be crowds of 25000 people shouting and singing and chanting at the MCG’s Boxing Day Test. I intend to among that crowd! Groups of noisy patrons are already filling our pubs, sharing spittle as they talk over tables and cheer across the room. While people are amassing in restaurants and pubs 2sq m apart, people in church must sit 4sq m apart. 

There is a moral obligation for the DHHS to demonstrate this ban is necessary, because, for 1000,000s of Victorians, singing is a necessary expression of the faith we hold. If the DHHS has genuine cause for introducing the ban, okay. We will respond appropriately, as we have done so throughout 2020. 

A Day of Reckoning: Victorian Government pushes to ban Christian practices with threat of 10 years in prison

The day has come in Victoria where Christians and Churches need to decide whether to obey God or the Government. Such a decision should never be forced onto believers but the current Victorian Government insists that it must be so.

There are times when we use hyperbole and exaggerate the significance of words or decisions, but I do not think this is one of those occasions.

The Change or Suppression (Conversion) Practices Prohibition Bill 2020 has been tabled in the Victorian Parliament. This is the most significant threat to religious freedom in Victoria in living memory. The current Government has been slowly removing religious freedoms for a number of years, but nothing quite like this.

Anyone found engaging in ‘change or suppression practices’ may face 10 years imprisonment.

Premier Daniel Andrews

“Cruel and bigoted practices that seek to change or suppress a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity will soon be stamped out across Victoria, thanks to new laws introduced to Parliament today.       

The Change or Suppression (Conversion) Practices Prohibition Bill 2020 will put in place new measures to protect Victorians from the serious damage and trauma caused by conversion practices.

The Bill denounces such practices as deceptive and harmful, reinforces that the ideology behind these practices is flawed and wrong.

The laws empower the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission (VEOHRC) to consider and respond to reports of change or suppression practices from any person, as well as launch investigations where there is evidence of serious or systemic change or suppression practices.”

The Change or Suppression (Conversion) Practices Prohibition Bill may have wide-reaching ramifications for thousands of religious groups in Victoria, for 100,000s of Victorians, and for the entire State as it turns its back on religious freedom in favour for State-controlled religion. 

Now that the Bill is available to read, what does it mean for Christians and for churches?

The Bill is long and complex. There are important details that need to be addressed which I or others will do so later on. I want to comment here on some of the larger issues.

I want to begin by stressing that if the Government’s intention is to protect vulnerable people from extreme practices that were once employed by a few and marginal religious groups, there is a warrant for conversation.

When the Guardian reported, 

“Religious groups have sought to distance themselves from the older practices of electro-shock treatment, aversion therapy or other extreme methods, while arguing that religious counselling encouraging people to change their sexuality or gender identity should not be banned if a person consented to the treatment.”

I must respond and say, not true. We are not distancing ourselves from these older practices because almost no church ever engaged in them. Until a few years ago I didn’t know that such practices once occurred in a few religious groups. Despite the efforts of the Government and various advocacy groups, this is not and was never widespread among Christians in Victoria. In addition, I note the government has carefully avoided telling the public that this the so-called ‘conversion therapy’ originated not with Christian churches but within secular psychology. Decades ago, some well-meaning people unfortunately adopted the ideas and practices from psychology and added a spiritual twist. 

If the Government is concerned with banning shock therapy and particular counselling methods, pretty much all Christians would find agreement. For those people who have undergone those kinds of experiences, I pray that they will find healing and come to know the God of all comfort. However, these narrow and debunked practices are not the parameters of this Bill, nor the goal of this Bill. Both the Premier and the Attorney General have made it clear,

Premier Daniel Andrews referred to conversion practice as,

 “This bigoted quackery”, 

and 

“The Bill denounces such practices as deceptive and harmful, reinforces that the ideology behind these practices is flawed and wrong.”

Attorney-General Jill Hennssey said,

“We’re sending a clear message: no one is ‘broken’ because of their sexuality or gender identity,” 

“These views won’t be tolerated in Victoria and neither will these abhorrent practices.”

Let us take note, it is not only the alleged activity that Daniel Andrews and Jill Hennessy want to be eradicated from Victoria, it is “these views”. In other words, to think or have ‘these views’ is something that the Victorian Government wants rooted out.

In other words,  the Government is not only targeting those rare, few and extreme practices (that frankly don’t happen anymore), the government is aiming its intention at the beliefs and the thoughts of 100,000s of Victorians. Is it the role of government to police our minds and to decide what theology can and cannot be believed? Since when did God give them jurisdiction over the conscience?

Churches are left with little protection

The Bill contains no explicit protection of the rights of religious people to believe and teach their views. At one point it refers to the Charter of Human Rights but it fails to offer any specific protection to religious people and religious organisations. With a note of irony that can’t be missed, the Bill’s explanatory memo references to “freedom of thought, conscience, religion and belief”, in the context of constructing an entire Bill aimed at taking those freedoms away.

The Government’s position is of course hypocritical and disingenuous. For example, while they argue sexual orientation is fixed and that persuading anyone of an alternative is morally wrong, the Bill offers protections for those who are in the business of transitioning people into a gender other than their birth sex. In another law that the Government pushed through a year ago, on one’s birth certificate you are free to legally change the gender on your birth certificate every 12 months. When it comes to children who are wrestling with gender dysphoria, they are now encouraged and urged to no longer identify with their biological sex but to assume a new gender identity. The government have acted in this manner despite an increasing consensus in the medical fraternity that this kind of counselling and medical intervention is fraught with danger and is unlikely to resolve the issues facing these children.

What is considered ‘conversion or suppression practice?

In terms of the particulars of this Bill. it is important to understand how terms are defined, in particular, what constitutes ‘conversion or suppression practice’.

5 Meaning of change or suppression practice 

(1) In this Act, a change or suppression practice means a practice or conduct directed towards a person, whether with or without the person’s consent—

(a) on the basis of the person’s sexual orientation or gender identity; and

(b) for the purpose of—

(i) changing or suppressing the sexual orientation or gender identity of the person; or

(ii) inducing the person to change or suppress their sexual orientation or gender identity.

(3) For the purposes of subsection (1), a practice includes, but is not limited to the following—

(a) providing a psychiatry or psychotherapy consultation, treatment or therapy, or any other similar consultation, treatment or therapy;

(b) carrying out a religious practice, including but not limited to, a prayer based practice, a deliverance practice or an exorcism; 

(c) giving a person a referral for the purposes of a change or suppression practice being directed towards the person.

Take note of the following details:

  1. The Bill will ban consensual practices. If a person invites a pastor or person to pray for them in relation to their sexual orientation or gender identity, the pastor or person can be charged according to the Act.
  2. Section 5.3 provides examples of what constitutes ‘practices’.  Prayer is banned. For example, if a person asks for prayer that they would live a godly life and refrain from sexual activity that they believe is inconsistent with follow Jesus Christ, the person praying can be charge according to this Act. 
  3. Section 5.3 specifies that practice is not limited to the examples that are provided. 

Where does this leave preaching and teaching the Bible’s sexual ethic? What of the sermon, the Bible study group, and seminars? 

To be clear, Christianity does not teach that a persons gender or sexual orientation will change. Christianity does however teach and urge Christians to live sexually godly lives which include only having sexual relations within the marriage covenant between a man and a woman. The Bible contains many exhortations for believers to not engage in sexual activity outside marriage. Will these formal and informal conversations be permitted under this Bill? At the stage, that is far from certain.

For teaching abstinence or offering pastoral counselling in line with the Bible’s vision of sexuality, and praying with fellow believers that they will be godly in their sexuality, does this fall foul of the Bill?  

This ambiguity needs to be clarified in the Bill. If teaching and sermons and study groups are not subject to this Bill, then it needs to be made explicit so that religious organisations are afforded due protection.

As it stands, there are details that this Bill does not answer and deliberately (or least it seems a conscious decision) leaves open. What if a church runs a seminar on marriage or raising children and we explore the bibles teaching on sexuality?

Where the Bill is silent, we may turn to the Bill’s explanatory memorandum and to the HCC and HRLC reports which the Government used extensively for shaping their position. 

The explanatory note states,

“These examples are illustrative only and do not narrow the definition in subclause (1) which is intended to capture a broad range of conduct, including, informal practices, such as conversations with a community leader that encourage change or suppression of sexual orientation or gender identity, and more formal practices, such as behaviour change programs and residential camps.”

In other words, a conversation is deemed an offence. A chat where a Christian encourages another Christian to follow a Christian ethic could become unlawful.

The Explanatory memo doesn’t hold as much legal weight as the Bill itself. However, I am reliably informed that a Court may refer to the explanatory note.

The Health Complaints Commissioner’s Report for the Government, adds this information,

“Conversion therapy/practices reinforced homosexuality as a form of ‘brokenness’”

And

“Church teachings that homosexuality is sinful;”

Notice the attention given to Church teachings (as opposed to other religions who also identify homosexual practices as sinful). In other words, classical Christian teaching about sexuality is deemed to be harmful. According to the HCC, an exposition of Romans ch.1 or 1 Corinthians ch.6 would fall under the umbrella of harm. If a Church organises a marriage enrichment day where the Bible’s presentation of marriage is affirmed, this event could fall foul of harm. From weddings to Sunday sermons, from Bible study groups to counselling sessions, in contexts where sex outside of heterosexual marriage is spoken of as sinful or broken, the Health Complaints Commissioner identifies all of the above as harmful and therefore the State can justify limiting religious freedom.

The other report which the Government has underscored is from the Human Rights Law Centre.

Under  conversion practice they include,

“pastoral care which includes (or claims to include) ‘counselling’, ‘healing’, claims about ‘curing’, ‘changing’ or ‘repairing’ a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity, or claims about improving a person’s mental or physical health, would likely still be classified as a health service, and the above regulations would apply.”

Indeed, the definition is so expansive that it may include sermons, Bible Studies, marriage courses, counselling, and prayer.

The HRLC report also included new forms’ of conversion practice, among them is self-control and abstinence.

“Instead, they are beginning to promote activities designed to help same-sex attracted people live chaste and celibate lives, in accordance with the sexual ethics of their religious traditions.”

The HRLC and HCC reports are not part of the Bill, but they do form background and reveal the sorts of practices that are being views. The Government has a responsibility to clarify where the HRLC and HCC understandings of ‘practices’ can or will influence interpretation of the Act.

Concluding Remarks for now

Once again, we can all agree that there used to be unhelpful and damaging practices done to fellow Victorians. We oppose them and pray that those individuals who have been harm, may find peace and healing. The Government’s Bill, as it stands, goes well beyond those archaic and now debunked practices. This is an attack on normal and deeply held beliefs and practices among Christians all over the world.

I am less shocked by the Government’s narrative as I am saddened. Pumping children with hormones and cutting off breasts and penises is not harmful, but Christianity is harmful. Praying for Christians to be godly about sex is harmful. Teaching the Bible’s vision for human sexuality and relationships could be defined as harmful. 

Without important revisions and corrections, this Bill will make vulnerable 100,000s of Victorian Christians who are persuaded by the Bible’s vision for human sexuality.  For Christians, this is never about forcing our views on anyone. It is about casting a better vision for the world and human life, and about persuading and loving others as Christ has loved us.

If the Government doesn’t intend to prosecute Christians or Churches for praying or teaching or practicing a Christian view of sexuality, then it is incumbent upon them to clarify their goals and to correct this Bill.

I trust that the Victorian Parliament will see commonsense and introduce significant revisions to this anti-religion Bill. 

To Churches, faith groups, and denominations, I encourage you to write to your local members of Parliament and express your concerns winsomely and clearly.


LGB Group opposes the Bill

https://www.theaustralian.com.au/nation/conversion-therapy-ban-may-backfire-lgb-group/news-story/f065829f62254bfdbdaac91961b9ab20

Associate Prof. Neil Foster begins to unpack the legal issues with the Bill – https://lawandreligionaustralia.blog/2020/11/26/victorian-conversion-practices-prohibition-introduced/?fbclid=IwAR1FXurFqxt6SFJojCi5BvSFK_agfYbp8Zn18UyY0E8qa4vcuG2QJ4l8ouA

This legal analysis exposes deep problems with the legislation, including how it works against children and families. No wonder LGB groups and some transgender people are appalled by the proposed Bill – https://freedomforfaith.org.au/library/labor-government-in-victoria-makes-prayer-a-criminal-offence?fbclid=IwAR378h-hypTQLwfVRM0KAoY-WRnhdQ22L2xUaJLgtXldSWSolZlBypYP8pw

Goodness in Victoria Exposes Dreadful Hypocrisy

Victoria should we known as the State of Confusion.

A beautiful announcement was made in Victoria yesterday. Victorians who have lost a baby during pregnancy can now apply for a certificate from the Registry of Births, Deaths and Marriages.

13 years ago Susan and I were overjoyed to learn that we were having another child. This elation broke on the day he had the ultrasound and learned that our little one’s heart was no longer beating. Even today, there is an echo of grief in our hearts as we remember our child. There is also a joy and anticipation in knowing that the day of resurrection is coming and we will be reunited in heaven. 

Susan and I are but one of 100,000s of couples in Victoria who experience a miscarriage. It is believed that perhaps 1 in 5 pregnancies ends in miscarriage. 

The concept for the certificate started with a Ms Moran, who works for SANDS, an organisation who supports families through miscarriages, stillbirths, and newborn deaths. This recognition by the State of the life and value of these little children will be welcomed; it is a wonderful idea.

Victoria’s Attorney General Jill Hennessy commented, 

“These certificates are a meaningful way to recognise this significant event,” she said.

“It’s important we remember those children who were taken too soon.”

Victoria’s decision comes with an elephant of mammoth proportions. On the one hand, we are affirming the life and value of little ones who die in the womb, while also advocating the killing of children in the womb. 

Under Victorian law (since 2008), a mother may abort her child, even up until the point of birth. 

In 2015, Dr Rachel-Carling Jenkins MLC  introduced a Bill to the Victorian Parliament, calling to ban abortions after 24 weeks. It was defeated. Jill Hennessy, who was the Health Minister at the time, rejected the Bill. She said

The really challenging decision that women may have to make about the future of a pregnancy is one that should be kept between the woman and her doctor. This is a matter that has been settled for a long time in Victoria, and we intend to ensure that continues to be the case”

Legislative Council member, Ms Patten responded to the Bill,

“I can’t believe that in 2015 we are even discussing abortion laws any more”.

Five years later, babies who die in the womb, even in the earliest weeks, can now be formally acknowledged by the State. And this, while we continue to legally permit many thousands of abortions every year, even at the point of birth. 

There is a ghostly horror lurking behind this irreconcilable contradiction. Either there is a human being in the mother’s womb or there is not.  They are a child or they are not. This isn’t rocket science. Indeed, with more technology at our disposal and with greater knowledge, the more we have discovered about life in the womb. We can see the heartbeat of a baby in the earliest weeks. We can delight at a child’s fingers and toes growing at 6 weeks. We now know that babies can hear and respond to music by 16 weeks; the next Mozart is already learning to feel and marvel at the beauty of sound.

If the State now recognises an infant who dies in the womb, how can we also persist with the view that it is right to kill a child of the same age? The disjunction is obvious and grotesque.

Behind claims of equality and human dignity are assumptions that contradict such public speech. Human life in Victoria does not have inherent or equal worth. Rather, life is defined subjectively and only carries the value assigned by other individuals. This is the law for the unborn. A child is not to live and have life because they are intrinsically human and have inherent worth; under Victorian law these are qualitative and conditional features assigned by a mother who chooses to keep her pregnancy.

With knowledge comes responsibility. With information comes accountability. Instead, my own State of Victoria which I love sadly testifies to the fact that wisdom doesn’t also accompany greater knowledge. Righteousness does not necessarily flow from increased learning.

To argue, it is the women’s choice, does not stand to moral or scientific reasoning. If this child is a person, as Victoria’s Registry of Births, Deaths and Marriages now recognise, and as medical science has long established as fact, we can no longer sustain the view that the child’s life depends on a woman’s choice.

Should we be surprised that most media outlets have overlooked the fantastic story of the certificates? Or is likely that the jarring contradiction is too obvious for public consumption?

I am reminded of a young couple whose little boy died one week after he was born. The Dad fell into deep grief. This same man later wrote a Psalm where he not only expends his grief but also his contrition for decisions he made which led to this overwhelming situation.  The Psalm is pertinent for Victoria because on the day our consciences are shocked by the reality of decisions we have made, and we are disturbed at the thought of what we have done, we will look for One who can forgive us. Thank God that such a God exists and who forgives more fully than we can ever imagine or deserve.

“Have mercy on me, O God,
    according to your unfailing love;
according to your great compassion
    blot out my transgressions.

Wash away all my iniquity
    and cleanse me from my sin.

For I know my transgressions,
    and my sin is always before me.

Against you, you only, have I sinned
    and done what is evil in your sight;
so you are right in your verdict
    and justified when you judge.

Surely I was sinful at birth,
    sinful from the time my mother conceived me.

Yet you desired faithfulness even in the womb;
    you taught me wisdom in that secret place.

Cleanse me with hyssop, and I will be clean;
    wash me, and I will be whiter than snow.

Let me hear joy and gladness;
    let the bones you have crushed rejoice.

Hide your face from my sins
    and blot out all my iniquity.

Create in me a pure heart, O God,
    and renew a steadfast spirit within me.

Do not cast me from your presence
    or take your Holy Spirit from me 

Restore to me the joy of your salvation
    and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me” (Psalm 51:1-12)

Clarifying repentance, forgiveness, and baptism

Forgiveness and repentance are stunning and central concepts to Christianity.  To not only consider but to experience Divine forgiveness and to live a life of repentance is truly wonderful, life giving and life filling.

Jason Goroncy of Whitley College has written a short article for the Baptist Union of Victoria on the nature of forgiveness and repentance. He offers a few helpful insights. For instance, he recognising how repentance is hard. He is a great line about confession, “confession is neither a transaction nor a negotiation in order to secure forgiveness. Moreover, it is ‘the after-the-last gasp of a corpse that finally can afford to admit it’s dead and accept resurrection”.

Unfortunately, the article is also filled with a series of strange and problematic arguments which may leave readers confused about what Baptists believe and what the relationship is between repentance and forgiveness.

First of all, why is a baptist minister promoting (on a baptist website) infant baptism? 

“This is one reason why infant baptism, not something all Baptists always appreciate or welcome, can be such a powerful witness to the Gospel. It makes public the claim that no amount of sincerity, grovelling, or religious acrobatics can achieve forgiveness. Rather, forgiveness comes before we ask for it, before we are aware of its need before we take our first breath.” 

As I was reading this paragraph a baptist pastor called me. He too was stunned by this out of place argument. The analogy may well find a home in Anglican or Presbyterians circles but it is certainly not Baptist. Don’t misunderstand, I love my Anglican and Presy brothers and sisters, but baptism is one of the key distinctives that set us apart. 

There is a reason why Baptists don’t “appreciate or welcome” infant baptism; it’s because we do not believe infant baptism as taught or practiced in the New Testament. Also, Baptists don’t accept that infant baptism is a “powerful witness to the Gospel” because we’re unconvinced that infant baptism is congruent with Scripture. Baptists do however gladly affirm and acknowledge how believers baptism holds a theological connection with God’s grace, as it does with repentance and faith. Baptism symbolises our response to God’s grace. It marks our receiving of God’s gift of salvation through faith in Christ. 

At Pentecost the crowds listened to Peter preach the Gospel. We read, 

“When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?”Peter replied, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. “

As the Baptist Union of Victoria’s Doctrinal Basis states,

“Baptism being the immersion of believers upon the profession of their faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, and a symbol of the fellowship of the regenerate in His death, burial and resurrection;”

I don’t know what Jason’s personal convictions are about baptism. It would be odd for an ordained baptist minister to hold to infant baptism.

It is also a little unclear whether Jason is in fact advocating infant baptism here or not. At one level that point is moot, for the issue is that a Baptist theologian believes infant baptism is a valid theological explanation for the grace of God. That in itself cuts against the grain of what Baptists believe. I confess that I also find it weird to read this kind of theologising in a Baptist context. As someone said to me last night, should we be expecting the next article to advocate for bishops?

There is another statement that sits uncomfortably. Jason claims, “confession is something like waking up to what is already most true about us – that we are loved beyond measure – and about God – that God will not be God without us!” 

I agree with the first and second parts of the sentence. But the third? God refuses to be God without us? Can God not be God without us? Is Jason suggesting that God needs us or that God is somehow lacking without us and without our repentance? What does he mean? I understand how theologians love to write in obscure and impenetrable ways, but sometimes this leaves readers (even intelligent readers) with a conclusion that may not be intended, despite how it reads. I certainly hope Jason isn’t suggesting a needy God.

There is another and broader theological issue that I wish to raise about Jason’s Goroncy’s piece. He repeatedly suggests that forgiveness comes before confession and repentance. Indeed, this is his main thesis.

“The parable [of the Prodigal Son] also suggests that as far as Jesus is concerned, real confession is both subsequent to and made possible by forgiveness. Only the forgiven can confess their sins.”

“forgiveness comes before we ask for it, before we are aware of its need before we take our first breath. It comes like a grieving father breaking all protocols – exposing his bare legs and running out to embrace a traumatised child at the edge of life’s horizon where life has become no life. It is pure gift. It is unthinkable. It is.”

I want to say a big ‘Amen’ to the suggestion that God’s forgiveness is a gift; I couldn’t agree more. If Jason’s primary concern is to guard against human performance and to emphasize God’s grace, that is a worthwhile venture. Indeed, it is not the perfection of our repentance which saves. Only Christ can redeem us, and His atoning death on the cross is sufficient for this task. However, to achieve this emphasis Jason has made a misstep. He seems to conflate forgiveness with grace. Of course the former is an expression of the latter, but the two are not identical. In making this categorical error, Jason argues that Divine forgiveness precedes repentance. 

In the example of the parable of the Prodigal Son, Jason suggests that forgiveness is the action the Father takes as he awaits his son’s return. In my view, that is reading too much into the parable. We are told, “while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him” (v.20). This is certainly a picture of God’s grace. It is an exquisite illustration of the Father’s grace toward us. It is compassion that compels the father to take initiative toward his loved and yet undeserving son. In Darrell Bock’s 2 volume commentary on Luke’s Gospel, he summarises verse 20 in two words, “compassion reigns”. But to mount an argument from this scene that forgiveness is given prior to repentance is asking more of the text than we are given. 

This means we need to rely on other parts of the Bible. As we do, we discover that Divine forgiveness does not precede confession and repentance. Rather, grace precedes our confession and repentance (as in the prodigal son parable), and forgiveness follows our confession and contrition. 

Of particular note, following the Prodigal Son Parable, only two chapters later, Jesus say this, 

“If your brother or sister sins against you, rebuke them; and if they repent, forgive them. Even if they sin against you seven times in a day and seven times come back to you saying ‘I repent,’ you must forgive them.” (Luke 17:3-4). (Bold indicates my emphasis)

Forgiveness is conditional upon confession and repentance.

1 John 1:9 explains,

“If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.”

Psalm 32:5,

“Then I acknowledged my sin to you and did not cover up my iniquity. I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the Lord.” And you forgave the guilt of my sin.”

Again, assuming that Jason’s purpose is to stress God’s grace a priori, we can say that it is not the size of or emotional intensity of repentance that leads to forgiveness. We are nonetheless told in Scripture that forgiveness comes to those who confess their sins and turn from them.  In no way does this make repentance into performance, repentance is the acknowledgement of personal guilt before a holy God, the dependence upon the work of Christ for forgiveness, and the transformed life that follows.

Is there any sense in which God forgives prior to our repentance? Yes, but only in a very particular sense and only to those who are in Christ. To those who are called by God to be in Christ and on account of Christ, God forgives all our sins, including our yet to be committed sins.

Stephen Wellum explains, 

“from God’s viewpoint there is no problem with saying that when he declares us just, he forgives our future sins—as well as our past and present sins—since our future lies before him as an open book. Yet from our point of view, it’s best to think of our justification as the forgiveness of all our past and present sins, and as the judicial ground for the forgiveness of future sins.”

…There is absolutely no contradiction between justification by grace through faith and our need for ongoing forgiveness of sin. We ask God to forgive us not to be re-justified but to walk before him in confidence that Christ has paid it all, and we are debtors to grace alone. Justification occurs once for all time, yet confessing sin and receiving forgiveness is ongoing until we are glorified and sin no more.”

A book for Remembrance day

“Whatever the rationale that attempts to explain his actions, William Campbell was no Ajax or Achilles. He was awarded no bravery medals and he was never mentioned in despatches. It is a strange reminder that the determinator of immortality are those who record names, places, and deeds. Our history books remember feats of bravery. Our war memorials recognise the dead, although we don’t know with certainty how they all died. There is a certain reading between the lines that is required. We have adopted Thucydides’ posture, “For the whole earth is the tomb of famous men; not only are they commemorated by columns and inscriptions in their own country, but in foreign lands there dwells also an unwritten memorial of them, graven not on stone but in the hearts of men. Make them your examples, and, esteeming courage to be freedom and freedom to be happiness, do not weigh too nicely the perils of war.”

From ‘Symphony from the Great War’. Available now on Amazon for only $6.99

Pubs, Churches, and Government Rules

The strict and prolonged lockdown in Victoria has tested the most resilient among us. As the State slowly opens up we should not be surprised if we find ourselves affirming some decisions and disagreeing with others. Where discrepancies appear and they are irreconcilable, it is incumbent on the Government to explain and to justify their rationale.

The example I want to talk about here concerns churches. On September 28th Eternity newspaper approached me for comment on Victoria’s roadmap to recovery. I said, 

“The Premier’s announcement on Sunday was encouraging because it means 130,000 people are returning to work and primary aged children returning to school…While I appreciate this, most of Melbourne’s restrictions remain in place. In my view, the Government’s roadmap is treating churches fairly at the moment, although we are still a couple of months away from being allowed to gather in any sizeable number.”

Unfortunately, this is no longer the case. As of today (October 19), in regional Victoria pubs and restaurants can now have 40 patrons indoors and 70 patrons seated outdoors. Churches, however, can only have 20 people gathered outside and no church of any size is permitted indoors. At the moment all churches in Melbourne are closed and so we are watching with interest the roadmap in regional Victoria. The disparity between churches and pubs is unfortunate. I trust this is nothing more than an oversight which will be quickly resolved, rather than the beginning of a longer term trend.

At yesterday’s press conference the Premier made a comment about why greater numbers of people are allowed in pubs than in homes. The reason given is,  restaurants and cafes are a regulated industry. But what of churches? I trust the implication isn’t that churches cannot be trusted to organise and regulate safe COVID-19 practices.

On the Neil Mitchell show this morning on 3AW, Victoria’s new Health Minister, Martin Foley, claimed that the reason for the differences between pubs and churches is that international and local evidence points to church communities being unsafe.  

Where is the evidence? What international scientific research is Mr Foley referring to? 

In July the New York Times in July made a similar statement and it was quickly proven incorrect.

On July 8 The New York Times published an article claiming that churches were Covid-19 super spreaders. The headline read, “Churches Were Eager to Reopen. Now They Are a Major Source of Coronavirus Cases.”

The article alleged, 

“Weeks after President Trump demanded that America’s shuttered houses of worship be allowed to reopen, new outbreaks of the coronavirus are surging through churches across the country where services have resumed.”

The problem with the NYT article is that the maths didn’t add up. Even the evidence mentioned in the piece contradicted the main thesis. The article cites several churches where multiple cases of COVID-19 were found, and it also disclosed the total number of COVID-19 cases linked with churches: 650. At the time, the United States had 3 million confirmed cases. The total number of cases connected with churches across the entire nation represent 0.0002% of all cases in the country.  Writing for Christianity Today, Ed Stetzer noted that a tiny number of churches had not done the right thing, but the overwhelming majority were conducting church according to strict Covid-19 plans.

“Churches have been remarkable partners in the fight again the coronavirus, with the vast majority closing their gatherings all around the country. Yes, there have been a few outliers, but their paucity demonstrates the cooperation of churches with officials throughout this pandemic.

Churches have overwhelmingly been partners with health authorities and have carefully taken each small step.”

I know many pastors and churches around the world and interstate. As they reopen they are taking Government policies seriously and acting responsibly and pastorally toward the people under their care. It is part of what we do in loving our neighbours. 

Throughout the pandemic Church leaders have spoken regularly and consistently about obeying Government directives, and about ensuring churches have responsible plans in place for a return to public gatherings. We continue to pray for our Prime Minister and our Premier and all who lead in Government and in health agencies. Churches are not asking for special treatment, but it is not too much to request that churches be permitted to open up with parity to restaurants and pubs and other analogous organisations and events.

Governments play an important role in society, but they do not give meaning to people. Governments provide structures and protections for its citizens, but offering the message that nourishes the soul, brings forgiveness to transgressors, and eternal life is beyond their job description. Churches are essential for Victorian communities. In a year where millions of Victorians have struggled and where many have lost everything, we need a message of hope. We need good news of hope that surpasses the material and temporal, and a hope that is more secure and certain than what we had once relied upon. It is possible that churches have never before been so important for this State and the future wellbeing of the people.

The Bible offers a message of living hope, not only to churches but even for those who have considered themselves disinterested in things spiritual. By definition, it is a breathtaking announcement for people who have lost hope,

“Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade” (1 Peter 1:3-4).

People are not disembodied beings. We are physical creatures who require physical presence and social interaction. We are also more than flesh and blood. We are mental and spiritual beings, who depend on more than food and sleep for life. It was Jesus who famously said in the Sermon on the Mount, “Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes?”

Churches provide one of the few remaining places where people can meet and share the joys and sorrows of life, and where supportive relationships are created. Zoom and social media are a blessing but they are no substitute for real and personal meeting. Indeed, church by definition is the physical gathering of Christians, meeting to worship God and to encourage one another. 

I trust the Victorian Government will correct this unnecessary discrepancy between pubs and churches, and avoid similar and further disparities in coming months. 

Churches, give people a message of hope

Tom Holland is the spiderman of historians. His latest conversation with Glen Scrivener is well worth the listen for it includes more than a few intriguing thoughts in the web of ideas.

I really appreciate his thoughtfulness and honesty. It was this reflection by Holland that especially struck a chord with me. He said, 

“I felt that over the course of this year the churches have been a let down. I think that the experience of pandemic, it sets you to asking why is this happening…it raises profound issues of theodicy.”

He mentions one moment that stood out to him, when he watched the Pope give an open air mass in the middle of an empty St Peter’s Square. Otherwise the message he’s heard from churches is much like what one would find on a Government help line. 

“I felt that the response of churches was a kind of pallid echo of public health announcements. That’s what public health officials are for. I kind of think that churches are there to give answers and to situate our happening.”

When Glen asked what Churches could be doing, Holland suggested,

“I think it can be expressed in open air services…an attempt to root what’s happening in the cultural and  the scriptural inheritance of what has gone before. I haven’t almost nothing about why this is happening…what does the Bible have to say about plagues…This seems to me an incredibly important source…”

Could Tom Holland, an agnostic, be urging churches to do church and to preach Bible messages that explain the world today through the lens of Scripture? I think so.

Holland’s remarks are like a bucket of icy water, or least they should be. It could also be likened to a defibrillator. The admonishment reminds me of the Church in Sardis. Jesus addresses this church in Revelation ch.3 and he rebukes her for having a reputation for being alive but in reality, the church is dying and has little breath remaining.

Holland isn’t knocking churches for talking about their buildings, social distancing and COVID-19 plans. He notes that these things are important. The overall presentation of Christianity that he has heard and seen over the last 6 months (and keep in mind Tom Holland is a studious observer of Christianity), the message he’s received is overall bland and uninspiring and offers little hope to a world he says is desperate for salvation.

I know enough churches, not only here in Australia but also win the UK and USA, to realise that Holland’s critique is partial. There are churches trying to reach people with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Sadly, this message is often drowned out by a cacophony of noisier and more appealing narratives and agendas.

It is also the case that many Churches are simply trying to remain alive during the time, keeping care of congregation members and encouraging some semblance of online discipleship. It is nonetheless worth considering the vision we are leaving the world during this time of pandemic.

For months the message from many of our churches has been dominated by hygiene rules and facial masks. In recent weeks I’ve noted that churches are increasingly calling Governments to allow a return to public worship services. Letters are being written and petitions signed, even here in Melbourne. I haven’t signed any such letter, but I understand Christians wanting their freedom back to worship God publicly in their church community. I am supportive of some reasons and may yet sign a letter in the future. It is interesting to note though how some of these arguments proceed. They explain that churches are essential; I agree. However, instead of offering the Biblical reasoning for Church, Christians are instead deferring to more secular rationales to convince Governments to reinstate public church gatherings. For example, church provide sanctuary and help for people struggling with mental health and with loneliness, and church provide so many positive contributions to local communities. This is all true and important, but it’s also falling into the same kinds of milky lukewarm explanations that Tom Holland believes are inadequate. Our community needs something more. Our world needs a bigger message, a greater story, and we have one to give and yet we are so often reluctant to tell it.

This Sunday at Mentone Baptist I’m preaching on Revelation chapters 4 and 5. The Bible doesn’t get any bigger than this passage. The message of Christianity is spelled out here with a grandeur and beauty and wonder that is unsurpassed. In our world that is despairing through a pandemic and with climate change and racism and geopolitical uncertainties, the vision of Revelation is truly stunning and shocking. 

Chapter 5 begins with a search for someone who is worthy to take the scroll from God, the scroll with contains the plans of God in the world. No one is found. John (the disciple of Jesus), is witnessing this heavenly scene and he weeps because there seems to be no answer. But then, a lamb appears. Not just any lamb but one who has been slain. This lamb however is called the lion, which means King. This lion/lamb is worthy to take and open the scroll. Who is this person? It is Jesus who was crucified, risen and now reigning.

Melbourne needs a vision beyond lockdown rules and the pandemic and eventual reopening and kickstarting schools and the economy. Churches, by the grace of God, have this vision to share and proclaim and preach to our city. Let’s do it

Revelation 5

“Then I saw in the right hand of him who sat on the throne a scroll with writing on both sides and sealed with seven seals. And I saw a mighty angel proclaiming in a loud voice, “Who is worthy to break the seals and open the scroll?” But no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth could open the scroll or even look inside it. I wept and wept because no one was found who was worthy to open the scroll or look inside. Then one of the elders said to me, “Do not weep! See, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has triumphed. He is able to open the scroll and its seven seals.”

Then I saw a Lamb, looking as if it had been slain, standing at the center of the throne, encircled by the four living creatures and the elders. The Lamb had seven horns and seven eyes, which are the seven spirits[a] of God sent out into all the earth. He went and took the scroll from the right hand of him who sat on the throne. And when he had taken it, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb. Each one had a harp and they were holding golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of God’s people. And they sang a new song, saying:

“You are worthy to take the scroll
    and to open its seals,
because you were slain,
    and with your blood you purchased for God
    persons from every tribe and language and people and nation.
10 You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God,
    and they will reign on the earth.”

11 Then I looked and heard the voice of many angels, numbering thousands upon thousands, and ten thousand times ten thousand. They encircled the throne and the living creatures and the elders. 12 In a loud voice they were saying:

“Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain,
    to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength
    and honor and glory and praise!”

13 Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and on the sea, and all that is in them, saying:

“To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb
    be praise and honor and glory and power,
for ever and ever!”

14 The four living creatures said, “Amen,” and the elders fell down and worshiped.”

An apocalyptic world needs healthy churches

“Do not put your trust in princes,

    in human beings, who cannot save.” (Psalm 146:3)

I watched the first Presidential debate yesterday. Over the last two months I have also been watching many of Premier Daniel Andrews daily press briefings during the Melbourne lockdown. To say politics has been both enthralling and disturbing in 2020 is an understatement. There is much that is concerning, polarising, frustrating, and even dangerous.

At Mentone Baptist we made the decision to preach through the book of Revelation during the latter months of 2020. We settled on this last book of the Bible for several reasons, among them is how Revelation reminds us that the local church  is key to God’s eternal purposes. 

Jesus authored the book of Revelation. He tells John to write down everything he sees and hears and to have messengers send the manuscript to the 7 churches. These 7 churches were real and historical churches, each located in what is today Western Turkey (Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and  Laodicea). In apocalyptic literature the number 7 also denotes wholeness, suggesting that Revelation is not only for those original 7 churches but for the entire church. The timeframe in which Revelation is set (from Jesus’ resurrection to his return) and the way Jesus addresses those who are forgiven and are made citizen of his kingdom, all strongly suggest that this book is for all churches regardless of time and place. 

Importance in our society is laid at the feet of Governments, education institutions, and celebrity opinion. Public conversation and newspaper columns are filled with stories about politics, disasters, and sport. What is remarkable about Revelation is that as Jesus interprets the world and defines justice, life and death, it is to his churches that he speaks. He does not address Governments, Prime Ministers or Presidents. His attention is not toward political representatives, corporate CEOs or university Vice Chancellors. His message is for his churches. 

Not only is Revelation addressed to the church, the message is largely about the church. The central message is the triumph of Jesus Christ over death and evil, but this Gospel is tightly connected to the church, both the challenges they will face in this temporary world and the hope that is guaranteed to all who persevere to the end.

For example, the first of two visions that are recorded in Revelation (1:12-20) explains that the Son of Man is among his churches. Jesus Christ is described in terms of holding sovereign authority and majesty and yet is found among the 7 golden lampstands. He is with his churches and he is concerned for them. The seven letters  that follow this vision (chs. 2 and 3) demonstrate the love Jesus has for his churches, whether he is consoling them or correcting them. Not only is the Son of Man addressing his churches, but God reveals the Church to be more pivotal than any other institution, and to have greater influence than even an Empire such as Rome and an Emperor such as Domitian. 

This vision strikes a different song to the one our own culture plays on repeat. Keep in mind that this was equally the case in the First Century AD, only those churches had even less public capital and fewer legal protections. As apocalyptic literature reminds us, what we see and what is, are not always identical. This is no excuse for entertaining speculations and gnostic theories about Governments and cultural power brokers. The function of Biblical apocalyptic is to reveal that which would otherwise be veiled. In a world like ours where secular ideals takes centre stage and where progressive religion serves as priest,  Revelation reminds us that the message is Christ triumphant and his church is where God is centralising his work and purposes. 

In other words, the best thing Christians can do in this unhealthy political environment is to invest in your local church: join, commit, persevere, serve. There is an important role for Christians in politics and in the public square, but we must not engage at those levels at the expense of the mission and life of the local church. As Jonathan Leeman often reminds, the best solution to the mess and fears and divisiveness that mark our culture is to ‘build healthy churches’. 

Is this counter intuitive? It is certainly counter-cultural, for it means investing in a covenant community that is assumed by many as irrelevant, antiquated, and even as a threat to society.   That is why Jesus’ words to his 7 churches are so poignant for churches today. Let his word rules our hearts and let his purposes set our agenda. If the Son of Man identifies his church as central to the purposes of God, how can we suppose otherwise? 

Perhaps we are suffering from an Ephesus problem. Have we forsaken the love we had at first? Our attention and affection is drawn elsewhere and we have little time for giving effort in our local church. There are plenty of distractions and demands on us and Jesus recognises that Church life is not always easy. The 7 letters to the church show how church life can be rocky at times, and yet see how Jesus persists with even erring churches. 

Are you concerned about ideological changes that are grabbing hold of our society? Are you concerned by the lack of integrity and humility that so often absent from the public square? Are you frustrated by dangerous theories that are sexualising our children in perilous ways? Do you fear the lack of resolve among political leaders to address issues that effect the most vulnerable in society? 

Instead of entrenching ourselves into partisan politics, we need deeper roots in our local church. Rather than sliding into the ditch of either pole in the culture wars, and lobbing tweets at opposing views, our allegiance to Jesus Christ expects us to hold tightly to his word.

In an apocalyptic world there remains one message of salvation; the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Even in an apocalyptic era, the one who is the Alpha and the Omega remains with his churches; this is the testimony of Revelation. Jesus’ words being true, how can Christians therefore consider abandoning the local church or diminishing ones commitment? In this fracturing world we need healthy local churches more than ever. Recent Barna research indicates that during the pandemic many Christians are deciding to think less of church and even of leaving altogether. For any who confess the Lordship of Christ, to take that route is to ignore the words of the Son of Man and to be played as fools by the world around us. 

As Christ said to the church of Sardis,

“Remember, therefore, what you have received and heard; hold it fast, and repent’

Operation Soteria

The Victorian Government gave the infamous hotel quarantine program the code name, Operation Soteria. In light of the disastrous outcomes from the program, ‘goddess of rescue’ is hardly a suitable name; Eris seems far more appropriate. 

The city of Melbourne is slowly emerging from the worst disaster in her 185 year history. The past six months has revealed Melbourne’s heart and the diagnosis is not altogether positive. Good has been uncovered and also much that should concern anyone who knows that a malfunctioning heart is likely to cause future grief. 

The Covid 19 pandemic in Victoria has thus far resulted in over 20,000 cases and 781 deaths. In terms of global statistics these numbers are relatively small, but of course in June the State was approaching almost zero cases, following a small first wave. Something like 90% of all Victoria’s COVID-19 cases and almost all the deaths have occurred in the second wave. Since July 100,000s of VICtorians have lost their jobs, 1000s of businesses may never reopen, the economy is bleeding a $1 billion every week. The impact on individual lives can scarcely be measured. The pandemic has compounded mental health issues, children’s education impacted, churches closed.

Victoria, especially Melbourne, is living with the greatest restrictions imposed on personal liberty and social freedom that has ever been witnessed in Australian history. A strict curfew has been enforced for months and Melbournians cannot leave a 5km radius from their homes. Schools are shut and most of the workforce must work from home. Churches have not met since March and may not for some considerable time. Families and friends are not permitted to mingle, either indoors or outdoors. 

The pandemic and how it has been handled in Melbourne reveals human nature in ways that we may find uncomfortable. Once the second wave has left our shores, I imagine millions of Melbournians wanting to move on and to leave behind 2020 as we would an awful nightmare. Relief is a powerful medicine, albeit a placebo. I want to offer three observations about how the pandemic is revealed our societal health.

1. Self Preservation or Self Sacrifice?

The pandemic began with hoards of people rushing to supermarkets and emptying shelves of essential goods. The situation deteriorated to the point that supermarkets set aside the first hour of each day for our senior citizens, so that they would not go without because of the surge of people fighting over toilet paper and grabbing the final bag of rice or pasta.

We became a state of dobbers. In May alone, Victorian police received 80,000 calls from Victorians who were reporting on their fellow citizens for allegedly breaking restrictions in one way or another. I am not excusing those who foolishly think they can live in disregard for the law. Yes, there are cases of people being ignorant of the rules, but more often this exposed a selfish impulse. However, the fact we have accumulated 100,000s of complaints over the course, and that the Government urged us to betray our neighbours, is quite telling. Personally, while I am irritated by people who think they can live above law, I find it sad that we were so quick to dob on our neighbours to the police.

In the meantime, many other Victorians worked tirelessly to fight the virus and keep people alive. Working long hours and putting themselves at risk in order to care for the sick and for those who are most vulnerable. 

There is a telling disparity between those who preference self preservation and those who choose self-sacrifice.

2. Fear or Love?

Whether we like it or not, the base motivator that has been used to control peoples behaviour during the pandemic is fear.  Government press conferences and newspaper articles have been primed with scaring people into submission. 

Let it said, it is foolish to think that COVID-19 isn’t a serious and deadly disease. It is no Spanish flu or Bubonic Plague, but the virus is nonetheless highly contagious. The Corona Virus is a life threatening disease for the elderly and for people with certain preexisting medical conditions. Without diminishing these facts, it has been interesting to watch the narrative used to force compliance. There is little talk about loving our neighbour, instead many threats have been made and cataclysmic proclamations given to funnel the population into ‘doing the right thing’. 

Fear can be a useful tool. We should not discount it altogether. Even the Bible speaks of fear as being the correct response to particular scenarios. However, what does this prevalent public narrative say about our society? What kind of city are we living in and raising our children in where the threat of punishment rather than compassion has become the normal modus operandi?

3. Suspicion or Trust?

This leads to a third observation, who do we trust. On the one hand, reactions to the Government’s position on COVID-19 soon fell into political partisanship and conspiracy theorists were not going to let this opportunity slide either. Yet overall, Victorians have followed the restrictions. This may be a sign that we trust the Government or that we’re afraid of fines and even longer lockdown (I suspect the truth is a mix of both). 

The speed at which Victorians gave up basics freedoms was interesting to watch. The willingness in which the people have filed away the State’s Human Rights Charter probably speaks to a combination of self sacrifice and fear. Once upon a time we would look at the world’s most authoritarian regimes, perplexed at how people give up freedoms to the State. A question for Victorians is now, for what other reasons are we prepared to accept rigid limitations on personal liberty? Are there other scenarios in which we would lay down our freedoms to associate, work, play, and live? My underlying observation is that while we have built our nation on certain myths, these are more fiction than fact, and among them is our belief in independence and self making. 

While there is certainly an air of trust in Government directives and following public health warnings, the COVID-19 response was not be built on the premise of trust, but of suspicion. The Government anticipated that people won’t follow best medical advice and that people won’t follow reasonable measures (ie social distancing). Their suspicions have some warrant. 

Suspicion can be a powerful delusion and for others it is a source for angry repose. In some circumstances it can also serve as a wise friend. Unfortunately, our suspicious minds have led to an ‘all or nothing’ dichotomy. This absolutism has controlled much of the rhetoric causing needless divisions  in the community and had the effect of pushing aside reasonable and respected voices from the medical fraternity and from the Melbourne world of law, business, and economics.

Take for example this new Bill that the Government is brining before the Parliament, ’COVID-19 Omnibus (Emergency Measures) and Other Acts Amendment Bill 2020’. If it passes any citizen can be appointed and given the authority to detain any fellow citizen who is suspected of having COVID-19 and whom authorities believe may not fully comply with quarantine.  In theory, as an untrained citizen who is not a police officer, I can be employed to report, check on, and even detain fellow citizens in a manner reminiscent of the Stasi. 

A significant number of QCs and SCs have written a letter outlining concerns about this Bill, including Retired High Court judge Michael McHugh and former Federal Court judges Peter Heerey and Neil Young. They explain,

Authorising citizens to detain their fellow citizens on the basis of a belief that the detained person is unlikely to comply with emergency directions by the ‘authorised’ citizens is unprecedented, excessive and open to abuse”.

“The bill would also allow any person the secretary considered appropriate to be authorised to exercise emergency powers”.

“There would be no requirement that persons authorised be police officers, or even public servants.”

As astonishing and dangerous as this Bill is to a free and democratic society, the Government not only has the gall to argue for it, but many Melbournians I suspect will be okay with it.  I suspect this doesn’t bode well for the future.

Choosing suspicion over trust works both ways. I’ve noted voices making unrealistic expectations and unsympathetic calls, condemning any and all mistakes. This fails to appreciate the nature of this pandemic; it is new and scientists are still trying to understand how the virus works and what is the best public approach. We may not know for another year which nation stumbled into the most advantageous roadmap. There is also a difference between mistake and incompetence. In the swamp of news conferences, tweets, and inquiries, discerning the truth is not always easy. 

The Victorian people deserve to know the truth of what happened in the Melbourne hotels which has crippled our State, and yet it seems increasingly likely that we will remain in the dark. 

Just today, Health Minister Jenny Mikakos fell on her sword, the morning after her boss stabbed her in the back. Sure, there have been apologies for “Operation Soteria” and even admissions of mistakes made, and yet when it came to the Inquiry no one it seems knew the answers to key questions. Instead, there was lots of blame shifting. It is quite extraordinary (and sadly predictable) that in the case of the worst disaster in our State’s history no one is taking responsibility. How can the State expect its people to behave with integrity when its leaders play blame games in order to save their own political skin? 

This has been a difficult year for everyone. For those who have lost loved ones the pain is excruciating. For those who face financial ruin, the road ahead is long and uncertain. If anything, 2020 is a rehearsal for times that are yet ahead, and challenges that will shake our city to the very foundations. 

We need a better rescue plan

“Operation Soteria” has proven to be an ironic an even sardonic name. The rescue turned out to be a sinking ship. 

To be fair, what COVID-19 is revealing about Melbourne  did not begin with the pandemic, rather it shone a light on our preexisting condition. To build relationships on trust, to do right out of love, and to self sacrifice: these are noble virtues and they are far too rare and absent in our city.

During the inquiry into the hotel quarantine the Bible was held aloft, and yet sadly its message is all too often ignored. Instead of making promises on the Bible perhaps we should open its pages, then read and follow what it says. On the sacred page is a story of the original and best, Operation Soteria. It’s not another Greek myth or Melbourne fiction, but the account of the Son of God whose trust triumphed over worldly suspicion, whose love conquers all fear, and who laid down his life for the sake of his enemies. 

Melbourne has long turned its gaze away from the person of Jesus Christ. As we seek to recover surely it’s time to revisit him and to discover the One who truly rescues. As our city has faced the pandemic our foundations have been proven frail. I suspect that as Summer arrives, in our desperation for normalcy we’ll try to forget the year that has been. I understand the sentiment, but there are harder and deeper lessons to learn, ones which require us to look beyond even health and economic issues and into the very soul of our city. 

Christians must not contend as the world fights

Tim Keller sent out this tweet on Saturday, 

“the demonization and dehumanization of the other side must stop. When professing Christians do it, it is triply wrong.”

The statement shouldn’t be controversial for Christians, but in today’s America (and to a lesser degree, Australia), it was outrageous for Tim Keller to make this suggestion.

Despite many people appreciating his comment (and others that he has recently made on social media), there has been a lot of backlash and complaints. For example, 

“Another comical and tone deaf statement by Keller. It’s triply wrong when Christians do it because we expect non-Christians to be awful people that do crappy things.”

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on Pexels.com

Tim Keller is observing a very real and concerning problem in our societies. Public debate no longer has room for grace, kindness, and patience.  Genuine conversations are hard to find and even more difficult to start because of the cacophony of stereotypes, insults, and shouts that now dominate public space. The force of political diatribe is sweeping aside nuance and fairness and patience. There is little toleration for paving a new path in this age in intolerance. Keller is rightly noting how it is all too easy for Christians to slide into the assumed poles that are being defined by left and right, progressive and conservative.

Today’s posture is the opposite of Proverbs 18:13 which says, 

“To answer before listening— that is folly and shame.”

The reality is, Christians may agree with a moral principle but we may believe that there are different ways to approach the issue and we might feel more or less passionately about the issue than the next Christian. Among these matters are abortion, racism, refugees, and climate change. We can agree that these are important ethical issues. We grieve over how our culture buys into and even celebrates theories and policies that dehumanise our fellow human beings. It is quite possible, indeed it is inevitable, that while concurring that a certain belief or action is wrong, there is often diverse opinion about how to best approach the issue. It may be unpopular to suggest this, but these disparate positions often have less to do with shared theological convictions and more to do with political philosophy (ie. what is the role of Government?) and personal experience. Instead of recognising the way we form our views, we have wrongly purchased the arrogant absolutism that is now pervading our society. 

I have seen this happening even in Australia as the nation deals with the latest manifestations of the sexual revolution, with bushfire crisis and now with the COVID-19 pandemic. A person may rightly identify an important issue, but if we respond to evil with more sin, how have we contributed in any constructive way? If we only react according to our sense of ‘righteous indignation’, are we not in danger of relying upon rhetorical power to fend off terrible things rather than ‘grace seasoned with salt’? 

If I need to resort to slander, gossip, and caricature, in order present my case, I have already lost.  

As I casual onlooker of American culture and someone who lives inside Australian culture, it is clear that we have foot faulted, and convinced ourselves that because others are getting away with it, so can we. One of the consequences is that instead of adorning the Gospel, we attached a pugnacious moralism.

The harder path is the road less trod. A myopic culture may not see much benefit in taking this path, but as Christians we are surely looking ahead toward eternity, not just the next social schism or election. 

Another response to Keller’s tweet said this, 

“Are we implying Christians have NO BATTLE to fight? Demolishing arguments and exposing unbiblical ideologies ≠ attacking individuals. Let’s not forfeit the battle to “the powers of this dark world and the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms”

The comment is quite revealing, for it makes the very mistake that Tim Keller is urging Christians to avoid. There is a battle, but we do not fight as the world fights. We don’t resort to the same tactics that are employed by Government and corporations, by Hollywood and by social media platforms. The Bible is clear, we take our stand with truth and faith and righteousness. Our feet are readied with the ‘gospel of peace’. Notice this, Paul describes God’s good news about Jesus Christ as the gospel of peace. The staggering truth is, this is inauguration of peace for those who are not at peace with God. This is a peace for people who are not at rest but who are struggling against God and even ourselves. In this way, the Christian path in our secular age is to proclaim reconciliation and forgiveness through Christ.

When our political and social commitments speak louder than our Gospel convictions we inevitably begin to mirror the culture and not the Church of Jesus Christ. The cross is not a weapon to beat down opponents, it is God’s amazing news of salvation for sinners, of whom I am the worst. 

This is the place to begin each day and every conversation, 

“Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst.” (1 Timothy 1:15)

When we view ourselves in light of the cross, it changes the ways we understand ourselves and the way we view others. We can mourn the days in which we live (and there is much reason for mourning). There are sometimes godly reasons for anger. But the cross will surely recompose our attitudes and ambitions and avenues.

As the Lord Jesus hung on the cross, he said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”

How can a Christian live and speak and act without seeing that it was my sin that held him there?

“It was my sin that held Him there

Until it was accomplished

His dying breath has brought me life

I know that it is finished

I will not boast in anything

No gifts, no power, no wisdom

But I will boast in Jesus Christ

His death and resurrection

Why should I gain from His reward?

I cannot give an answer

But this I know with all my heart

His wounds have paid my ransom”