Census 2021 and the decline of Christianity in Australia

The 2021 Australian Census findings are out. According to the data, Australians are less religious and especially Australia is becoming less Christian.

Of our 25 million Australians, 43.9% identify as Christian, down from 52% in 2016 and 61% in 2011. Australians who now identify as non religious are 39%, up from 30% in 2016. Let’s not pretend otherwise, this is a significant fall and jump. Of course, the non religious category isn’t a synonym for atheism or God-free secularism, but rather these are Australians who belong across a spectrum of views but who do not identify comfortably with any specific religious expression. 

What are we to make of the national census data? How can we interpret this changing landscape of Australians’ deepest beliefs and convictions? 

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First of all, what we are seeing in Australia is not a decline of vibrant and genuine faith in Jesus Christ (i.e. Christianity), but the growing recognition that nominalism doesn’t count as real Christianity. What we are doing is simply observing the field and noticing that pretend grass isn’t the real thing and so we are now recognising it for what it is. People who have connections with Christianity are waking up to the fact that they don’t actually trust in Jesus or agree with the Bible or like the Church, and so they are simply pulling the plug. The decline of Christian nominalism is a positive, and I suspect we still have quite a way to go before this process is finished.

In that sense, as Australia moves into an environment where identifying as a Christian really means you are a follower of Jesus Christ and belong to a local church, then that distinction is good and healthy, not only for churches and for individual people but for the entire country. Instead of falling back onto the misnomer of Australia being a Christian country, we can properly cast that myth aside and rightly so. A Christian is someone who actively believes and lives and breathes the Gospel, not someone who attended a religious school or whose parents are believers. 

Of course, and I have noted this with the 2016 Census, accompanying this decline is a downside. As fewer people identify with the Christian faith, our activist and progressive overlords will use this as ammunition to further rid our society of Christian vestiges. That is a mistake because the very foundations of our civil society and the rule of law and social pluralism depend on the Christian worldview. Many Australians are unaware of this fact, that the air we breathe and the water we drink is heavily soaked in principles and ideas that stem from the Bible and depend upon the Bible. For example, the idea that all people have inherent dignity and worth, the idea that men and women are equal, and the view that we should persuade people with ideas and not use coercion.

We mustn’t be surprised therefore if we see all manner of values disappearing from the fabric of our society and being replaced with an artificial ‘heavenly vision’ which is undergirded by an authoritarian and intolerant secularism.

Carl Trueman assesses our modern age,

“The expressive individual is now the sexually expressive individual. And education and socialization are to be marked not by the cultivation of traditional sexual interdicts and taboos but rather by the abolition of such and the enabling of pansexual expression even among children.”

“While earlier generations might have seen damage to body or property as the most serious categories of crime, a highly psychologized era will accord increasing importance to words as means of oppression. … Once harm and oppression are regarded as being primarily psychological categories, freedom of speech then becomes part of the problem, not the solution, because words become potential weapons.”

While each Australian is responsible for what we believe and how we live, it is myopic of us to however lay all the blame on those Australians who are moving away from organised religion, and Christianity in particular. Christians are increasingly aware of not only our failings but of horrendous evils hidden and protected inside some religious institutions. Why would anyone walk inside a church when there are so many stories of clergy abusing children and men abusing women? The fact that such occurrences are relatively rare doesn’t reduce the reality of those incidences. The only way back from these great evils is repentance.

Another reason why churches need to shoulder some of the responsibility for the decline in Christianity is the insipid liberalism that has infected some denominations and churches for generations. As pastors convince themselves that the only way to stay relevant is to abandon biblical truths and water down key doctrines, the result isn’t growing churches and people professing the name of Jesus. The opposite is true. Visit the local theologically liberal Baptist Church and then visit the average Baptist Church and you will see a significant difference in attendance and ministry output.  These churches whose basic message is,  “God didn’t say“, are an irrelevance and they endanger people‘s eternal status by driving them away from the Lord Jesus Christ.

As Tom Hollands says, 

“I see no point in bishops or preachers or Christian evangelists just recycling the kind of stuff you can get from any kind of soft left liberal because everyone is giving that…if they’ve got views on original sin I would be very interested to hear that”.

It also doesn’t help when Christians see so little relevance of the Gospel in their daily living and are often more captured by the promises of the Aussie dreams than they are by God and his purposes. Why would anyone consider Christianity when the Gospel seems to leave little dent in the lives of Christians?

While the media will make bundles of hay out of the Census data today, I don’t think anyone is really surprised. As I’ve suggested, there is something good about clearing the decks. There is also something to mourn. And like churches have done for millennia, as we look across our streets and suburbs what we must see are people who are made in the image of God and who are divorced from God and whom we wish to love and serve and to share the greatest news the world has ever known. With today’s announcement, there ought to be a conviction and even excitement that drives Christians to prayer and to holiness and to explaining with joy the wonder of God who loved his world so much that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him will not perish but have life everlasting. 

As Australians admit they are turning their back on God, there are other nations where the people are turning to Christianity in their millions. Christianity isn’t dead. As Jesus said the harvest is ready so let’s get to work.

No Sean Winter, you are wrong about the Bible and abortion

Do you believe the Bible supports abortion? I’m not asking whether you support abortion or not, and to what extent. My interest here is more narrow. As you read the Bible, is your impression that the Scriptures advocate abortion or speak against abortion?

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Sean Winter, from the University of Divinity, argues in The Conversation, that Christian support for legislation prohibiting abortion is a cultural and political stance. It has nothing to do with the Bible.

I’ll admit, I was taken back when I read Winter’s argument. Even now as I write, I am stunned by his colander approach to the Bible. Winter makes some effort to quote many of the Bible verses that Christians refer to, but for the most part, he simply throws them away as irrelevant to any discussion on abortion. For someone who repeatedly states with imperial determination, ‘the Bible says nothing’, he offers virtually no interaction with the body of teaching in Scripture that speaks to the issue. Quoting and then dismissing Bible verses isn’t an argument. 

Winter’s (mis)use of the Bible deserves a response, not because I think there is any weight in his argument but because the issue of abortion matters, women matter, children matter, and what the Bible teaches matters.

His central thesis is, “Christian support for legislation prohibiting abortion is a cultural and political stance. It has nothing to do with the Bible.”

The article reads like a classic example of, I know what my conclusion is, therefore I’m going to do my utmost to squeeze Christian theology into my preconceived preferences.

Does the Bible use the word abortion? No.  Does this mean that the Bible is silent on the issue? Absolutely not. There are many words not found in the Bible and yet the Bible speaks clearly and wonderfully into these situations.  For example, the word ‘Trinity’ doesn’t appear and yet the Triune God is the most foundational of all Christian beliefs. Christian theology is rarely built on a single word or sentence from the Bible but properly takes into account the entire counsel of God and rightly attributes words and teachings according to their context in God’s schema that is salvation history. 

Let’s take a few examples, 

Of Psalm 139 Winter suggests, 

“What the Bible does contain are some verses which seem to refer to the status of the unborn fetus. The most famous and commonly cited is Psalm 139:13–16, a poem in which the Psalmist expresses the view that God created them in the womb.”

Winter offers virtually no argument, he simply discounts this famous Psalm as offering no contribution to the subject of abortion.  Let’s examine the verses in question,

The Psalmist is adoring God and recognising God’s exquisite craftmanship, and he shouts 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 139:13-16)

The child inside the womb is a child. This child is God’s creation and known to God, they are not a mere clump of cells and nonperson. There is no point at which the embryo is not human life and worthy of living. There is no artificial date set, as though they became a person at 12 weeks or at birth. The beauty and wonder of personhood is observed and considered from conception, ‘when I was made in the secret place’.

When it comes Jeremiah 1:5, Winter again wants us to think ‘there is nothing to see here’.

“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,

    before you were born I set you apart;

    I appointed you as a prophet to the nations.”

At the very least, this verse attributes Divine value and purpose to Jeremiah, which exists even before the point of his conception. Far from adding nothing to the conversation on abortion, Jeremiah 1:5 heightens the importance and dignity of the child carried in his mother’s womb.  

Winter then resurrects the worn-out trope, ‘Jesus said nothing’. This line of thought is sometimes brought out of the cupboard when someone wants to argue that Christianity supports homosexual relations: Jesus never said anything, therefore the act is morally good and Christians should support it. It doesn’t take much scrutiny to realise how tenuous is this argument. For example, when it comes to marriage, Jesus affirmed the Genesis paradigm, that marriage is for a man and a woman and all other sexual relations is porneia.

Winter asserts, 

“Jesus isn’t remembered as saying anything about the unborn. Paul is silent on the issue.

Attempts to claim otherwise are ideologically informed cases of special pleading.”

On the question of Jesus and abortion, Winter’s logic can as easily be reversed. Jesus never spoke in support of killing unborn children, and so “attempts to claim otherwise are ideologically informed cases of special pleading.”

As we read the Gospels in the New Testament what we find with Jesus is that he repeatedly and consistently affirmed the value of human life, from the youngest to the oldest. Jesus was known for his welcoming of and love of little children. Jesus loved the vulnerable in society and taught his disciples to do likewise. Who is more vulnerable than a little baby not yet born?

Perhaps the Bible’s clearest word on the topic of abortion is the 6th Commandment, 

“You shall not murder”.

In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus reaffirmed God’s law, including this prohibition, do not murder. If Jesus upholds the commandment on murder and murder is killing innocent human life, then it’s not ‘special pleading’ in believing Jesus disproves of abortion. That is the natural and right way to read the Bible. The only way for Winter to get around this teaching is if he believes the child in the womb isn’t a person. On this point, Winter seems unwilling to tell his readers. He is quite absolute about some things, but for some reason, he’s not able to tell us whether the embryo is a person or not. 

Although, at one point he makes this rather odd statement, 

“The Christian rejection of abortion seems to have been predicated on assumptions the fetus is a person”

Ummm…yeah, and it’s not an assumption, it is a biological fact. Is Sean Winter seriously suggesting that the foetus is not a person? Before ultrasounds, some abortion proponents could trot out that view, but we can now see with our own eyes how false that myth is. It just happens that the Bible was already right in what it describes about the unborn. 

The Bible is clear on these two factors: the unborn is a person and murder is wrong. Combining these two teachings of the Bible which is the logical thing to do, it’s apparent that Sean Winter is not even close to finding support for his thesis. Again, he may find a little traction amongst those who are searching for religious support for abortion, but even a half-measured reading of the Bible demonstrates that he falls shorter than teeing off a 5 par hole with a breadstick.

Once Winter has finished dismantling nothing from the Bible, he then proceeds to whitewash the known views of early Christians who consistently saw abortion and infanticide as sin. 

Early Christians were renowned for saving newborns who were unwanted and left to die from exposure and starvation. Abortion was an acceptable practice in many ancient civilisations but not among Jewish and Christian communities. In the ancient world, abortion was not always successful and doctors couldn’t discern the sex of the baby until birth. Hence, at birth, many little girls were left to die. Christians took them in and loved and raised them. Why? Because it was a political maneuver? Or perhaps they were convinced from the Christian faith that saving the lives of the littlest children was right.

The first century Jewish text, Sentences of Pseudo-Phocylides 184–186 (c. 50 B.C.–A.D. 50) says that “a woman should not destroy the unborn in her belly, nor after its birth throw it before the dogs and vultures as a prey.” Christians adopted the Jewish view of the unborn, as they did with many ethical principles from the Old Testament. 

The Didache 2.2 (c. A.D. 85–110) commands, “thou shalt not murder a child by abortion nor kill them when born.”

The Letter of Barnabas 19.5 (c. A.D. 130), said: “You shall not abort a child nor, again, commit infanticide.”

500 years before the invention of the ultrasound, John Calvin said this of Exodus 21:22

“The fetus, though enclosed in the womb of its mother, is already a human being, and it is almost a monstrous crime to rob it of the life which it has not yet begun to enjoy…if it seems more horrible to kill a man in his own house than in a field, because a man’s house is his place of most secure refuge, it ought surely to be deemed more atrocious to destroy a fetus in the womb before it has come to light,”

The position Calvin spells out from Scripture is today demonstrably proven through scientific technology. The living mass growing in the mother’s womb is indeed a human being.

One doesn’t need to be a gynaecologist or obstetrician or theologian to realise that the Bible is big on life and takes a very dim view of killing innocence. Winter is so far off the mark. “Christian support for legislation prohibiting abortion is a cultural and political stance. It has nothing to do with the Bible”? Not even close. The Christian view of life has everything to do with the Bible and everything to do with Jesus. Yes, this has political implications, as does every worldview. Winter’s claims are big and will no doubt be taken up as truth for some readers, but they are as false as the yeti and bunyip. 

Winter’s most significant transgression is how he snuffs out hope. By stripping the Bible of its meaning about life and killing, Winter rips the hope of Christ who offers forgiveness and new life. In recasting abortion as no longer an issue for God, Winter’s position leaves women without the hope that someone is able and willing to remove the guilt and pain they carry. I understand that it is currently popular to boast about abortion, but I also know the profound scars that are left behind. The Gospel is good news because Jesus sees our sins and he loves to forgive and restore. For Sean Winter to take away the need for forgiveness and restoration, is simply cruel and unbiblical. 

We can support FINA’s decision and show compassion

I’ve decided to dive into the conversation surrounding FINA’s decision on gender. I’m not jumping in because of some ‘culture war’, but I’m a dad with 3 children who each play sport. They have all played sport at a high level, including my daughter, and speaking up for girls in sport is the right thing to do.

I want to begin by saying what should be obvious, transgender people deserve our compassion. While many ideologues and activists require critique and even our condemnation. Learning to distinguish between these two groups isn’t always straightforward but is important.

FINA’s decision to ban biological men from competing in international swimming has caused a wave of criticism in some circles. One can get the impression that the divide is spread evenly across the lanes; I however suspect that is not the case, but as with many issues it is often the case that vociferous voices give the impression of greater numbers.

 It wasn’t so long ago that everyone knew men were men and women were women. It didn’t require a university degree or a catalogue of carefully asked questions. Seeing and knowing the differences between men and women formed part of basic human knowledge. Apart from  approximately 0.018%of people who are intersex (a properly defined medical condition), everyone falls neatly into either male or female. But of course, as the sexual revolution shifted from arguing for gender equality to removing distinctions between the genders, it  is becoming near impossible to define what is a man and a woman. Indeed, school children are berated for suggesting this natural binary and one can find themselves hauled before the HR Department at at work for believing so.

Dr Carl Trueman is correct when he writes, “The expressive individual is now the sexually expressive individual. And education and socialization are to be marked not by the cultivation of traditional sexual interdicts and taboos but rather by the abolition of such and the enabling of pansexual expression even among children.”

Chip Le Grand has written what I think is a very interesting piece for Saturday’s The Age. 

“FINA has also answered a thornier question that all sports bodies, in one way or another, must grapple with; can the biological advantage that comes from going through male puberty be entirely surrendered by someone who no longer identifies as male? The FINA position is that, in swimming, it can’t.”

Rugby League has quickly followed FINA and other sporting authorities may well follow. While the decisions are pretty definitive, they are unlikely to be the final and forever position. For anyone engaged in reading gender theory and watching their HR department and school curriculum, it’s pretty obvious that FINA’s decision will be overturned at some point. We are regularly reminded by gender theorists and political activists that they are rarely satisfied with the status quo . The pursuit to obliterate social structures and gender norms is their incessant agenda.  It’s obvious by the fact that even the pedestrian Aussie is either unable or too scared to define men and women any longer.  There is now an inbuilt nervousness and fear of backlash should we say what a woman is.

Stephen McAlpine is correct when he notes, 

“Just give it time. With the explosion of gender identity issues, and the railroading of our culture towards affirm and celebrate “or else” there’s going to be a storm in a World Cup not just a tea cup at some stage. Someone’s rights are going to trump someone’s rights. That’s what you get in this zero-sum game Sexular Age.”

I wish to make a few comments here in light of Chip Le Grand’s article and some conversations I’ve had over the past week.

First,  FINA’s decision is fair for women. 

Le Grand explains how “the FINA guidelines are based on the cumulative research and wisdom of some of the world’s leading authorities on physiology, sports law and anti-discrimination.”

He cites Doriane Coleman, professor of law at Duke University, 

“replacing biological sex with the more subjective, social construct of gender – something the Obama administration had already done in anti-discrimination law – would have potentially dire, unintended consequences for women’s sport…It doesn’t take a sea of them to obliterate the females’ competitive chances at every level of competition,” she warned. “If only a very small subset turn out to identify as women, we will be overwhelmed.””

Le Grand goes on to point out, 

“There is no longer any serious argument about the sporting advantage derived from testosterone, which biological males produce from the onset of puberty at about 15 times the rate of women. As Joyner explained to the FINA extraordinary congress in Budapest, it is the reason that the current US national records for 50m, 100m and 200m freestyle events for 13 and 14-year-old boys are faster than the women’s open world records for the same events.

Hunter told the congress: “As a result of testosterone and possessing the Y chromosome, males build larger, stronger and faster muscles, they have larger lungs and airways, they have bigger hearts to pump more blood, and they have more oxygen carrying capacity within that blood. Males are taller. They have longer limbs – arms and legs – they have bigger feet to kick water, they have bigger hands to pull that water.”

While attention this week is focusing on elite sport, the disparity between boys and girls is apparent in community sport and even clear at junior sporting levels. 

I think of a netball competition where a talented boy outshone even the best female players. I think of a football (AFL) competition where a boy was allowed to play in a girls competition and girls feared for their safety. They didn’t want to play against this muscular dude who is significantly stronger and more powerful than any girl playing the game. I think of my daughter who plays at a high level of cricket. While she enjoys playing in both girls and boys cricket, in the higher grades of boys cricket the fast bowlers are discouraged from sending down thunder claps at her. Both players and coaches and parents understand the obvious. This isn’t a case of boys needing to change the way they view girls, but rather one where boys are rightly observing reality.

As a dad who with three children who all plays sport at a fairly high level and as a parent to what is a lot of community sport and knows numerous coaches and clubs and how they are trying to navigate these issues, The answer is not as simple as those who identify with the other gender let them play. That inevitably means girls missing out on team selection or winning competitions and it often puts them in a place where they are in physical danger. Now I have heard some non-sporty types tried to argue against this but I tell you this is simply reality. Go stick your head out of your iPhone and go down to local footy games and watch what actually happens. 

I’m not arguing against boys and girls playing competitive sport with each other. There are some sports where this is workable and at some levels, but there is a difference between mix gendered competition and a girls/women’s competition. 

 Second, women’s sport forces transgender women to undergo changes.

While this isn’t Le Grand’s argument, his evaluation of the issues show us how transgender athletes are disadvantaged. Transgender women are are forced to medically alter their testosterone levels and therefore reduce their physical strength and biological character in order to compete.

Third, be concerned for young children.

One concern coming further from FINA’s ruling is that it doesn’t rule out children who transition before the age of 12.  This may lead to increased pressure upon pre-pubescent boys and girls to medically altar their hormones and bodies at an even younger age. 

Fourth, men ought to be speaking up.

Susan and I have raised our boys to show respect to girls and to protect them. Any time they fall short they know dad and mum will be having a conversation with them.  I find it quite extraordinary that on this issue, too often it is women who are left to defend women’s sport, while the men cower behind the ifs and buts and I don’t knows. 

This isn’t hard. Allowing biological men to compete in women’s sport will mean women missing out on team selection and missing out on competition medals, and in some sports this is dangerous to their physical well-being. If you don’t believe me, just watch a 15 year old boy tackle a girl in AFL. The argument, ‘but this isn’t happening very often’ is simply naive. It is true that it’s not happening everywhere, but examples are not hard to find, and as we continue to the smoke from the pot of expressive individualism and gender theory we will likely see the exceptions become a new norm. 

Annabelle Bennett is a member of the FINA legal and human rights panel who framed its eligibility guidelines. She admits,

 “this case involves a collision of scientific, ethical and legal conundrums. It also involves incompatible, competing rights.”

Bennet has hit the issue on the head. What do we do when science disagrees with an ethical position? What do we do when reality clashes with personal preference? Too often, our culture will choose against science. Instead of creating fairness and equity, it will create a bigger splash and eventually wash out women’s sport altogether.

For those who are smart enough and bold enough to know that ignoring biology isn’t the way forward and yet also have empathy for those who struggle to fit with their sex, how should we think about FINA’s decision? First of all, they made the right decision, and believing so is good for women. Supporting FINA is advocating for women. Second, FINA is now considering a transgender class-action for elite swimming meets. I have reservations about this move, but I nonetheless recognise that it is a possible way forward. Third, we ought to show compassion on men and women who are either struggling with their gender identity or who simply cannot reconcile sex and gender. Compassion doesn’t require us to agree with or support every feeling or every decision made. That’s the misstep some people make in their understanding of compassion; they assume kindness must lead to agreement and compromise. If that were the case, God’s compassion toward us in Jesus Christ would be shallow and ineffectual. In following His example, we are not required to ignore male and female distinctiveness, but as Jesus did, we honour these as an anthropological good. As a Christian I also mustn’t lose sight of how Jesus welcomes and loves those who sit outside and who experience marginalisation.

PS. Apologies for any typos. I’ve written this while watching my children at sport this morning

Australia and the secular mindset

“War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength.” 

What do we mean when we say, Australia is a secular state?

One of the popular myths circulating around Australia is that secular means freedom from religion. This myth has taken on almost legendary status, at times informing public policy and many an op-ed piece. Sadly, this kind of historical revisionism and hijacking of language isn’t rare, but it is effective: inject new meaning into a word or phrase and then repeat it often enough, and people will soon absorb, believe and adopt it soon enough.

It is no wonder that we often experience confusion in conversations with each other,; it’s because we understand important words to hold quite different meanings. 

In a recent exchange between Jane Caro and John Dickson, the issue of the secular state has once again come to the fore. The topic at hand is the school’s chaplaincy program. 

In Caro’s version of a ‘secular state’, God has no place in our schools. Writing for Rational Magazine, Caro presents her case as to “Why God has no place in public schools”. She says,

“To my mind, the very concept of religious education is an oxymoron. Education is meant to teach children how to think, not what to think. If you do the latter, it is not education; it is indoctrination and certainly should not be publicly subsidised.”

Historian John Dickson yesterday responded to Caro in the form of an open letter. Regardless of whether one supports chaplains in Government schools or not, John offers what I think is a fair and legitimate critique of Jane Caro’s argument. He outlines 6 flaws with her argument, but my interest here is the way they each think of the word, ‘secular’.

John refutes Caro’s view of secular. He writes,

“It seems to me that you fudge the word “secular”. The history of this word in political discourse makes plain that “secular” does not refer to the “exclusion of religion” from public life, whether from politics, education, the media, or whatever. It refers to the spheres of life that are not controlled by religion. When a healthy secular democracy shifts from “freedom of religion” — where anyone can choose to believe or not believe — to “freedom from religion” — which your article explicitly promotes — it is no longer either healthy or secular. At this point the word deserves the tag of an “-ism”. This is secularism, an ideology that seeks to keep religion out of important aspects of the live of our community.”

Dr Dickson is correct. Secular does not equal atheist. Secular does not mean ideological or theological neutrality. While the adjective is sometimes understood in these ways, this is not the historical meaning of secular in Australia’s political and social setting. The topic at hand, religion in schools, is a case in point.

Photo by Oleksandr Pidvalnyi on Pexels.com

The idea that education should be “free, compulsory, and secular” was settled in Victoria in 1872. This understanding of schooling became universal across Australian States in 1902. This concept of secular didn’t keep God out of school, rather it was a response to religious sectarianism. Secular education means that public schools should not be controlled by any single denomination. It was Protestant churches who strongly supported this approach to education.

Far from being atheist or religiously vacuus, the Australian secular education is about the promotion of pluralism and the healthy exchange of ideas (including religion). The approval of (and even encouragement of), Religious Instruction or Scripture classes in our schools is a historical example of the inclusive design of secular education. This is often done well, and sometimes poorly, but that is not the argument here. Our concern here is the principle guiding secular education.

In his excellent essay, Whose Religion? Which Secularism? Australia Has a Serious Religious Literacy Problem, Dr Michael Bird, explains how the parameters of secularism have been redefined in recent years from  “no longer as the freedom of the individual in religion, but as the scrubbing of religion from all public spheres.” 

“The Australian constitution was drawn up in this context, and Australia was intended as a secular nation. However, this secularity was never intended to sanitize the public square of religion. It was “secular” in the sense of ensuring that sectarian divisions in the old world would not be imported into the new.”

Whereas John Dickson understands ‘secular’ in its historical sense (which is important if we are to properly defend secular education), Jane Caro adopts what is a relatively new and now commonplace version of secular. In other words, Caro is less defending secular education as she is preaching for atheist education. Of greater interest to me here is how, once John presented the facts about Australia’s secularism, Caro doubled down as she retweeted comments such as, 

“No you are legally very wrong, we live in a secular society.

You may think it’s pluralistic but we have a Constitution that says otherwise. How have you not heard of “separation of church and state”.”

This is the unfortunate influence of doublespeak. We appeal to language that fits with a priori assumptions and preferences, and we reject definitional understanding when it clashes with those commitments (this is something we can all be guilty of doing). Whether we approve of Australia’s understanding of secular or not, John Dickson has accurately summarised the definition which has instigated, shaped and promoted Australia’s education systems and culture in general.

Caro concludes, “Australia is a secular country. It supports and celebrates citizens of all faiths and none. Freedom of religion and freedom from religion are among our core values. Our public schools must reflect that.” While her conclusion sounds attractive (and it is true, depending on how one unpacks the meaning of her chosen language), Caro’s meaning is that public schools must be emptied of religious influence.  This thinking is the fruit that comes from a faulty premise, that is, secular equals epistemological and moral neutrality. Of course, this doesn’t stack up on even a superficial level. Everyone brings to the table their own theological and moral commitments, which are always religious in some shape and form. Schools don’t only teach children how to think, but also what to think. Perhaps more than ever, schools are consciously shaping our children’s values.

As Jonathan Leeman observes in his book on political theology, 

“secular liberalism isn’t neutral, it steps into the public space with a ‘covert religion’, perhaps as liberal authoritarianism…the public realm is nothing less than the battle ground of gods, each vying to push the levers of power in its favour.”

Again, the meaning of language matters. This new version of secularism is far from ideologically neutral, as though removing religion makes education neutral. Instead, it is driven to educate, form and even control public life and policy. Indeed, Victoria’s Education Curriculum contains material that is not only antithetical to Islam, Judaism, and Christianity, but expressly describes mainstream religious beliefs as bigotry. Not only that, the new secular agenda (what I call, authoritarian secularism) doesn’t end at the division between public and private education or the public square or private life. The current Victorian Government recently passed laws limiting the freedom of religious schools to employ persons on the basis of their religious beliefs and practice. In other words, today’s secularists don’t believe in the division between church and state, but instead, they argue for a State overseeing Church.  I don’t know what Jane Caro thinks of this intrusion, but it would be interesting to find out. 

Australia is facing an important crossroad: will we uphold Aussie secularism and pluralism, or will we turn down the path of authoritarian secularism? 

Christians strongly believe in the separation of church and state. It is, after all, a historic Christian view. It was Jesus who said, 

“Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.”

Jesus wasn’t arguing for the exclusion of religious ideas from the political sphere and neither was he fusing them together. It is important to realise that the social pluralism we enjoy today is deeply embedded in Judeo-Christian beliefs. Indeed, Australia’s political and social pluralism is one of the byproducts of Christian theism. If, as some secularists want, we rid our culture of all public vestiges of Judeo-Christianity, we will in fact destroy the underpinnings for a healthy pluralistic society and instead create one that is far more authoritarian and far less tolerant. Do we want to take that road?

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?

On June 24th 2022 the Supreme Court of the United States overruled Roe V Wade, and thus returning the question of abortion to the States. The below piece was written almost two months prior to the decision in light of the leaking of the draft majority opinion. The observations made and the points argued remain unchanged in light of the decision.

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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”.