Avoiding the St Edward Hospital Syndrome

I was preaching through 2 Corinthians 2:12-17 last Sunday at Mentone Baptist. It is a word of exhortation given by Paul to the Church in Corinth. The imagery doesn’t only denote the big picture purpose of Paul’s ministry, but one for all who are participating in Christ’s redemptive work and who are now being led by and used of God. In other words, this is yet another description of God’s intention for his Church in the world

During my sermon prep, I was reminded of an episode from Yes Minister. I love watching reruns of Yes Minister. This 1980s British comedy combines the best of British humour with a view of political rumbles that is at times eerily close to reality.

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A Hospital without doctors and patients

In the episode called, ‘The compassionate society’, Jim Hacker, the Minister for Administrative Affairs, learns about a new hospital that had opened in London, St Edward’s hospital. It is a large 1000 bed hospital that had had been opened for a year. Hundreds of staff had been employed and were working in the facility, but there were no doctors, no nurses, and no patients. Hacker is puzzled by this strange omission and so he questions his advisors. “How can the Government spending millions on pounds on a hospital that has no patients, no doctors or nurses?”

The reasoning is both absurd and logical. Sir Humphrey Appleby explains that hospitals require all manner of staff in order to function; For example, a hospital needs accountants, otherwise who would administer the finances and pay the employees and hospital costs?  Secretaries are necessary to facilitate communication between departments and with outside contractors and Governmental authorities. A hospital also needs maintenance staff and cleaners, and managers to every oversee each department, and so the rationalising continues.

Upon hearing this ridiculous state of affairs, Jim Hacker is beside himself, decrying the obvious missing point, “but there are no patients”.

Indeed, what is the point of having a hospital that doesn’t care for the sick?

The Minister finally decides to visit St Edward Hospital and to assess the situation for himself. He is led on a tour by the hospital’s CEO. She explains to him that St Edward is one of the best run hospitals in the UK and that they were recently nominated for the ‘Florence Nightingale’ award for best hygiene!

As he is shown around a surgical theatre which is filled with all the latest and best medical equipment, Mr Hacker turns to the CEO and asks,

“Doesn’t it disturb you that it’s not being used?”

She replies, “Oh no. prolongs the life of the equipment and cuts down costs.”

A Church without Gospel proclamation

A Church can exist, having people and a budget and running programs, but if we are not preaching the Gospel and calling people to repentance and faith in Jesus Christ, we are like St Edward hospital, void of the purpose for which God has called us. A Church can be busy doing stuff and being content in that, and yet failing to administer the work that God has set us aside to join. It’s not that all the other work is unimportant, but they designed to support and promote the primary work of a Church.

14 But thanks be to God, who always leads us as captives in Christ’s triumphal procession and uses us to spread the aroma of the knowledge of him everywhere.15 For we are to God the pleasing aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing. 16 To the one we are an aroma that brings death; to the other, an aroma that brings life. And who is equal to such a task?17 Unlike so many, we do not peddle the word of God for profit. On the contrary, in Christ we speak before God with sincerity, as those sent from God. (2 Corinthians 2:14-17)

Paul regularly reminds the Churches that he’s writing to that participation in God’s mission is no easy task. Indeed, he exclaims in v.15, “Who is equal to such a task”. He doesn’t however confuse difficulty with ambiguity.

God has given His Church a mission. This mission is clear and yet difficult. It is beautiful and yet sometimes poorly regarded. It is triumphal and yet necessitates costly sacrifice. It is the aroma of life to some and the stench of death to others.

The Christ who now leads a triumphant procession was first led in another procession, one that ended in a cross. God here views his own people as captives, which denotes an expectation of suffering but also of belonging, that Christ’s servants who are to obey his commissioning. As we follow as captives in Christ’s triumphal procession God uses us [the Church] to spread the aroma of the knowledge of him. This spreading is described in vv12-13 as preaching the Gospel of Christ. The true knowledge of God and knowing God comes through the Gospel of Christ who has been raised from the dead. Thus, the proclamation of this good news is the ministry of the church.

A challenge for our churches is that in a season where they are so many challenges and demands and opportunities, we want to avoid the St Edward Hospital syndrome, and the only way to do that is to keep trusting and obeying God to lead us and to use us in his Gospel mission, as he has revealed in his perfect word.

 

Hell just won’t go away

Once again, Australians are talking about hell. It was only last week that I wrote an article suggesting that the Israel Folau case might set a course for the future. Little did I realise that it would only take a few days before Australia would be hit with another example, and this time it’s one that might influence the outcome of a Federal election.

The week started with a schoolyard journalist believing they’d discovered the great gotcha moment. They asked Prime Minister Scott Morrison, “Do you believe gay people are going to hell?”

Mr Morrison gave a roundabout answer, which sounded like, “I do believe that, but my personal beliefs about hell don’t have anything to do with public policy and governing the country.”

There is some truth in this kind of response. Even a non-response would have been okay—after all, don’t answer a fool according to their folly is proverbial wisdom (Prov 26:4). But of course, as soon as the Prime Minister flustered his answer, everyone from Broome to Ballarat everyone knew that hell had now become an election issue.

Mr Shorten jumped on the Prime Minister’s response saying,

“I cannot believe in this election that there is a discussion even under way that gay people will go to hell,”

“I cannot believe that the Prime Minister has not immediately said that gay people will not go to hell.”

“No, I don’t believe gay people, because they’re gay, will go to hell. I don’t need a law to tell me that. I don’t believe it.”

“I think if you want to be prime minister of Australia you are going to be prime minister for all people. And I just don’t believe it. The nation’s got to stop eating itself in this sort of madness of division and toxicity”.

Finally, Mr Morrison issued a statement saying that he didn’t believe gays would go to hell.

In one sense, it’s not the answers that are the issue here (I’ll qualify this remark later on), but the fact that the question is being asked at all of our political leaders.

 

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I am fascinated by, and glad to see, Australians discussing eternal matters. These questions are of great significance. They bring God onto the nation’s radar and help us to ask existential questions about what we believe and how we live our lives. I am less encouraged, however, by some of the assertions being made by journalists and politicians alike. As a Christian, while I firmly believe that what we think of heaven and hell matters enormously, these things should not become tests for public office. Indeed, the Australian Constitution S116 offers protection and states that there is to be no religious test for office.

I understand why religious institutions, churches, and organisations would require agreement on the doctrine of hell. For example, how can someone teach the Bible at a theological college if they do not subscribe to the basic doctrinal position of the said institution? It’s not that hell is extraneous and inconsequential to the wider societal discourse, but have we entered the place where outside the church, a person’s theological convictions are to be judged?  Are we to define a person’ suitability for public office based on their personal views about eternal matters? Is the public square to be a place fitted with theological gates to keep out bits of the Bible that don’t applaud current cultural obsessions and attitudes? The answer seems to be, yes.

Once upon a time, if an employer asked you what you thought about hell, it wasn’t in order to find grounds to have you sacked. How quickly has our culture shifted!

I don’t think we should be getting our doctrine of hell from any given political party, and I don’t think we should be voting for or against candidates because of their particular understanding of hell. I can honestly say that as a Christian this issue has never been one of the top 50 questions that I’ve ever thought of asking candidates.

But truly secular society can never be a religion-free zone. That is a fictitious position that can only exist in the theoretical world and is posited by persons who are themselves reacting against set religious thinking (usually Christian theism).  Classic secularism (of which Australia is an example) is designed to provide a civil public life which encourages the discussion of life’s big questions without control by any single ideologue. Secularism, in contrast to the ravings of some, is not meant to establish atheism or soft and bland religion as the official state religion. Secularism is meant to be pluralistic; to make our society an Areopagus where people bring ideas to the table and where people argue and seek to persuade each other. No one is excluded because they are Christian or Jewish or Hindu or atheist.

Unfortunately, many of today’s secularists have shifted the goalposts. They don’t want secularism in the classic sense, they want to pit people against each other. They trade in outrage and scare campaigns—the intention of which are to punish and banish any heresy that doesn’t fit with their dogma. Hence, Rugby is no longer about playing football but is about subscribing to the narrow sexuality agenda being forced by corporate sponsors. University learning is less about the free exchange of ideas and discovery, but about forcing progressive theory into young minds. And now, Christian politicians are apparently required to affirm that they are theological liberals when it comes sexual matters.

My point is this, Christians who think they can hold onto their beliefs in private and keep them tucked away from public gaze, probably need to wake up and think again. While a generation of educators and public narrators told us that religion is a private affair and that our views about God are not welcome out loud, the very same parrots are now demanding that we open our mouths. Of course, they are not interested in listening and engaging with ideas. Far from it, they want us to speak because they are convinced that Christianity, like two atoms hurtling toward each other at extraordinary speed, will implode. Many of our cultural scriptwriters are keen to write out Biblical Christianity from the Australian storyline altogether, either by forcing Christians to admit that they believe the Bible or by denying it publicly.

It is time for Christians to think about what they really believe and why, and to formulate answers to these hot topics, explanations that are grace seasoned with salt. If colleagues at work or fellow students uni are aware that we follow Jesus, are they not already asking us these kinds of questions? Surely it is prudent for us to be thinking biblically, lovingly, clearly, and winsomely. As Peter writes,

“be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect.”

I would also suggest that  Christians reopen Augustine and Calvin, as aids to helps us think through the complexities of religion and public life. Jonathan Leeman’s, How the Nations Rage, is a new volume that deserves careful treatment (while written for an American context, there is a wealth of theological insight to gain from this book).

As it happens, I don’t believe anyone goes to hell because of their sexual orientation. I also don’t believe anyone goes to heaven because of their sexual orientation. Will gays go to hell? Will heterosexuals go to hell? The answer to both questions is yes, but not because of sexual orientation but because in a thousand expressions we all dismiss and denude God’s ways. Both self-realisation and self-righteousness are a sure path to hell, because both deny that there is God and that he is altogether good and holy and love. There will be plenty of happily married couples who never enter heaven and many same-sex attracted men and women who are welcomed by God. This isn’t because sex is malleable and or because the Bible’s teaching on marriage isn’t clear and good. Jesus insisted that any sexual activity outside the marriage between a man and a woman is to be considered immoral. And yet we also see his compassion on those who had digressed and lived in ways contrary to God’s design.

Heaven and hell isn’t a left or right issue, it is a human issue. The self-righteousness that is condemned in the Bible isn’t owned by any single political party, but it must not be a characteristic of those who profess to follow Jesus Christ as Lord. Rather, Christians can remind each other that we’ve come to understand the rightness of God who judges; the wonder of God who shows mercy; and that we desire nothing more than to see straight Australians, gay, lesbian and transgender Australians also finding this God who loves.

So to the question that is making headlines across the nation this week, when we are next asked, “do you believe gays will go to hell”, how will you answer?

Planting Churches or Gardens?

“For you have been born again, not of perishable seed, but of imperishable, through the living and enduring word of God” (1 Peter 1:23)

I have noticed there has been a growth in the gardening industry of late. Christians are planting roots into local communities by beginning community gardens and teaching horticultural skills. Churches and Christian organisations are making substantial financial commitments into establishing these beds of vegetation. In fact, no fewer than 3 Pastors have asked me about this phenomenon over the past month.

Such ventures sound like a great idea. They can encourage people to think creatively about sustainable food, they may foster relationships among local people, and impart practical skills. But should we call these activities mission? Should we understand these program as growing God’s Kingdom?

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Starting a community garden could well be an expression of Christlike love and may exhibit some of the qualities of God’s Kingdom to our neighbourhood. These activities may articulate an interest in our neighbours and an intent to serve our communities. They may create relationships from which we will share the Gospel and see local churches growing. However, at least in some instances, the soil isn’t producing a harvest for God’s Kingdom because Christians are planting with stones, not seeds. The problem lies when these activities are pursued in the place of evangelism and when we develop these ministries instead of cultivating the local church.

We mustn’t neglect peoples’ material needs. God’s love for us in Christ Jesus should be displayed in every aspect of our lives, and yet the Bible gives a clear vision for what God’s mission is about and the Bible gives the Church clear mandates for how this mission is to be fulfilled.

There is a substantial theological argument supporting the thesis that mission should be understood as evangelism: speaking, explaining, proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Whether we understand the biblical categories of mission to be speaking exclusively or primarily about evangelism, the imperative to preach Christ crucified, to call for repentance and faith in Christ, and seeing (new) Christians joining a local church is at the core of God’s purposes in the world.

If Jesus promised, “I will build my church”, why would Christians decline from joining in this task, or suggest that it is optional?

If Jesus calls on people to repent and believe the good news, how can we conclude that this is no longer central to our task?

The Great Commission places intentional Gospel telling front and center,

“Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

The book of Acts is a record of the Gospel being preached, men and women being saved, and Churches being planted.

As the Apostle Paul explains to the Romans,

“If you declare with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. 10 For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you profess your faith and are saved. 11 As Scripture says, “Anyone who believes in him will never be put to shame.” 12 For there is no difference between Jew and Gentile—the same Lord is Lord of all and richly blesses all who call on him, 13 for, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.

14 How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? 15 And how can anyone preach unless they are sent? As it is written: “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!”” (Romans 10:9-15)

We repeatedly discover that the Church is God’s given means through which he will display his purposes to the world,

“His intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms, according to his eternal purpose that he accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Eph 3:11-13)

I suspect the shift that we are seeing from evangelism to community work and from church to community results from several factors. For example:

  1. Planting a garden is more socially accepted than planting a church. The former is easier when it comes to gaining council approval, local funding, and people warm to the idea.
  2.  We look for immediate results. Church planting is a long term, patient work with no guarantees of immediate fruit whereas a garden bed or community program is tangible.
  3. Poor teaching on ecclesiology has resulted in breeding unhealthy churches and therefore a lack of confidence in churches.
  4. Cultural pressures have diminished our view of God and removed the Bible’s portrait of sinful humanity.  Another problem is how too many Christian no longer believe in sin and in a God who judges nor believe that personal repentance and faith in Jesus Christ is necessary.
  5. Confidence in God’s word has taken a beating through the exegetical and hermeneutical minefields laid down by Christian liberalism, who keep telling us that the Bible can’t surely mean what it says.

I attended a denominational workshop several years ago where the speaker was encouraging attendees to think about mission. It soon became apparent that his shtick was, “mission today depends on finding ‘new and innovative methods’”, and that verbal proclamation wasn’t one of them. When I asked a question about evangelism, the response given was, “I guess one might think about that as an option”. In other words, evangelism was not a necessary component for participating in God’s mission. At the very least this demonstrates a deficient theology of the Gospel.

If the biblical pattern is to preach the Gospel and plant Churches, why push these tasks to the periphery and instead focus on gardening or cafes or teaching life skills to kids? Again, I’m not dismissing these activities; I think they can wonderful ways to serve others and to show people God’s love. They may well serve as part of what we do as Christians, but let’s not pretend it is mission, unless we are also using these ministries to create conversations about Christ or as a jumping off point to begin a Christianity Explored course or reading the Bible 1-1.

As Ed Stetzer famously quipped, “feed the poor and if necessary use food!” Of course, he was responding the famous saying that is falsely attributed to Francis of Assisi, “preaching the Gospel, and if necessary use words”.

I suspect mission has joined the growing list of words that are becoming meaningless due to the loose ways Christians have been applying it. A 1000 people might sit in a room and mention mission and everyone will shout, ‘Amen’. The problem is, we’ve either defined mission so broadly as to make the term redundant or because of reluctance to deem any activity as not conforming to God’s mission, we avoid defining it all together.

My contention is this: if we view mission without Gospel proclamation and without view to building Christ’s Church, we have strayed a long way from the vision God has revealed in his word. Even worse, these ministries cease to be good works and become stumbling blocks to the Gospel.

For the third time, I am not saying that it’s a mistake for Churches or Christians to create ministries in their communities that provide services or helps. I say if it’s a constructive way to love neighbours in your area, go for it. May we not give up on doing good works and loving our neighbours in all manner of ways, but let us not blur our vision of what God’s Kingdom is about by taking our eyes off God’s word and believing what God has spoken about his mission in the world.

In the parable of the sower, the Lord Jesus tells us the secret of the Kingdom,

“The farmer sows the word… Others, like seed sown on good soil, hear the word, accept it, and produce a crop—some thirty, some sixty, some a hundred times what was sown.”

Surely we can trust God to produce a great harvest, even in this age of skepticism in which we find ourselves today. Our role in mission is to obediently plant His seed (the Gospel) and to keep asking the Lord of the harvest to make it grow, for the good and salvation of people and for glory of Christ.

By all means, plant potatoes, peas, carrots, and pumpkin seed but please don’t neglect the seed that is the word of God, the only word that gives life to sinners.

Israel Folau decision may set a course for the future

Christians across Australia have been given a message, “don’t commit social blasphemy” and “be careful if you choose to use the Bible”.

After three days of deliberations, a three person panel has found Israel Folau guilty of a “high level breach” of Rugby Australia’s player code of conduct.  Not that the outcome was much in doubt, given that Rugby Australia and the Waratah’s had bypassed due process and instead announced to the nation that Folau’s contract was terminated and that he would never be selected again to play for his country or club. Last night’s verdict was little more than a formality.

 

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Whatever Izzy’s motives may have been for posting on social media, he has forced onto the national stage an issue that has been pulled and tugged and tested in quieter situations from the East Coast to the West; can a pure form of Christian beliefs be permitted in the public space?

What was his offence? It is believed that Israel Folau declined to sign a document in addition to the standard players’ contract, which would have placed greater restrictions on his use of social media. He did, however, sign his contract, which presumably includes a clause about adhering to the players Code of Conduct. He has been found guilty of a “high level breach” of the Rugby Code of Conduct. This breach hangs on a subjective interpretation of Part 2 Article 1.3, “Treat everyone equally, fairly and with dignity regardless of gender or gender identity, sexual orientation, ethnicity, cultural or religious background, age or disability. Any form of bullying, harassment or discrimination has no place in Rugby.”  Interpretation of this clause depends on one’s a priori beliefs and moral framework, and in this case the panel have deemed that summarising 1 Corinthians 6:9-11 is a “high” form or harassment, even though the point of that passage is quite the opposite, and so too the meaning of Folau’s post.

Legal experts are expressing concerns over the handling of the issue. Professor Nicholas Aroney has interpreted the allegations against Folau with reference to International law. He explains that

“ [What] Folau has said is not an example of hate speech, and he should not lose his rugby career as a result.” Indeed, he reminds us of the broader framework in which Folau has posted comments, “In addition to repeatedly expressing his love and acceptance of all people, Folau has confessed to having committed many of the sins about which he now warns his readers. This makes it difficult to attribute any intention on his part to advocate hatred against these classes of people, for he numbers himself amongst them”

Setting aside legal questions (which I will certainly leave to those who legal expertise) what is clear is that Rugby Australia and the social commentators who’ve joined the scrum have defined ‘orthodox’ religion. Whether Rugby Australia realise it or not, they have taken a theological stand on Israel Folau and have determined to define what is and isn’t acceptable religious belief and speech. Remember, Folau was quoting the Bible and summarising basic Christian teaching.

Yes, as I and others have said a thousand times, Folau’s comments were not seasoned with grace and kindness. They appeared blunt and insensitive, much like a Rugby footballer. Was his manner lacking? Probably, yes. Were his words untrue to 2000 years of Christian belief? No.

Footballers have been forgiven for all manner of social and even criminal offences over the last few years; have we forgotten what some NRL and AFL players have been embroiled in the last few years. But Israel Folau isn’t to be forgiven.

And what of the teammates who have spoken out in support of Folau and have even agreed with his post? Surely Rugby Australia can’t afford to lose any more players before the World Cup? Is Folau to be a sacrificial lamb, served up to warn others of what might happen should they transgress again?

Let’s not be fools, Christians and non-Christians alike are praised for quoting the Bible when they squeeze it to fit with progressive social agendas. Kristina Keneally wasn’t removed from the Labor Party after quoting the Bible against Prime Minister Scott Morrison, and Peter FitzSimons hasn’t been sacked by Fairfax for repeatedly speaking of Jesus Christ? Why not? Because their speech falls into the rut of the cultural narrative, no matter how poor their handling of Christian texts may be.

Lest we conclude that this story will soon be forgotten as a blip on the cultural radar, Rugby Australia’s stance may well soon find legislative legs. The Australian Labor Party (as the Greens have already done) have announced that they are considering expanding “anti-discrimination legislation to shield gay and transgender ­people from harmful speech if elected, in a move that has alarmed lawyers and free-speech advocates.”

“When prejudice against LGBTIQ people contributes to harassment by the written or ­spoken word, such harassment causes actual harm, not simply mere offence, to people who have suffered discrimination and prejudice, and causes particular harm to young same-sex-attracted, gender-questioning or intersex people.

“Labor considers such harmful harassment is an unacceptable abuse of the responsibilities that come with freedom of speech and must be subject to effective sanctions. Labor will ensure that anti-discrimination law provides such effective sanction.”

Depending on how the language of ‘harm’ is understood, all manner of reasonable speech may be found on the wrong side of the law. For example, former rugby league player, Ian Roberts, last week alleged that comments like those of Israel Folau play a role in teenage kids committing suicide as they come to terms with their sexuality

“There are literally kids in the suburbs killing themselves — and I say that with the greatest sense of respect — I’m not implying that Israel’s responsible solely for that, please don’t take it that way.

“But it’s these types of comments and these off the cuff remarks, when you have young people and vulnerable people, kids in the suburbs who are dealing with their sexuality, confused, not knowing how to deal with it, these types of remarks can and do push people over the edge.”

If explaining the Christian view of sexuality is deemed to be a trigger for teenage suicide, we can anticipate further public outrage and potential legislation that will restrict and prohibit words that conform to and explain the Christian message. One might respond by pointing out that thousands of Christians are killed every year simply because they are Christian, therefore we must not limit or silence Christians freedom to speak their beliefs. If we are to be morally and logically consistent, Robert’s argument works in different directions. Leaving that aside, Roberts’ comments could be taken offensively by some Christians because we too are concerned for the wellbeing of teenagers. It is good to be reminded that these conversations are not merely academic or theoretical but they relate to real people who matte. We can thank Ian Roberts for this reminder.  No one wants teenagers despairing of their worth and believing they are unloved. I am reminded of Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman, a woman who’s sexual past was complicated, to say the least. Jesus didn’t affirm or applaud her but he did love her and speak a powerful word of compassion and hope to her.

“Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life….The woman said, “I know that Messiah” (called Christ) “is coming. When he comes, he will explain everything to us.”… Then Jesus declared, “I, the one speaking to you—I am he.” (John 4:13-14, 25-26)

In the midst of all the myriad of questions and issues relating to the Folau case, it is important to repeat an observation that was made last month: while Folau’s offending posts are in line with orthodox Christian teaching, he has on other occasions suggested a troubling view of the Trinity. He appears to advocate Oneness theology, which contradicts the Creeds and the very Scriptures themselves. This matters because it would be unwise to use Folau as a poster for Australian Christianity should he not subscribe to one of the most basic of Christian doctrines. It would be unwise and unChristian for Christians to pedestal Israel Folau while knowing he may well reject an even more foundational belief. As I suggested at the time, it may well be the case that Folau is like many Christians who are confused about and fuzzy on the Trinity. At the very least, this is a reminder as to why it is incumbent upon Pastors to teach the Bible clearly and faithfully in order to aid their congregations to understand such crucial doctrines.

The controversy over Israel Folau was not the first case and it is far from being the last. School children in Victoria are force-fed gender theories which are often unsupported by science and best medical practice, and many families have already felt pressured to leaving the public system and forced to pay the expense of independent schooling because of this Governmental pressure in Victoria. We can expect more corporations and organisations falling for the kinds of pressures that have been exposed by the Folau situation. Australia is moving toward introducing limitations on religious freedom that we see in parts of Europe and in Canada. We are heading closer toward the situation found in China, whereby Christians cannot join a political party and they cannot speak openly about Christianity and churches must be approved of by the State. This isn’t hyperbole, this is the natural progression of authoritarian secularism who will use the sexual revolution and identity politics to push all but their sanitised version of religion out of the public square.

A culturally palatable Christianity will entail deleting most Bible verses, any references to hell and to judgment, removing the core of the faith which is the atonement, and of course, we must let go of any teaching about marriage and sex and the roles of women and men. We will be left with a very tiny Bible and one that makes little sense, and one that has no power to give life and hope to this world.

“I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” That saying of Jesus will need to go. So too will Jesus’ introductory summary of his ministry, ““The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!” Anything that challenges personal autonomy and freedom to define self realisation cannot be tolerated.

I have said it before, Christians need to start taking Jesus’ words seriously, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.” We cannot afford to give up gentleness and compassion, grace and kindness, for these are indispensable attributes of the Gospel we claim to believe. We cannot respond to cultural shifts with hate but with enduring love because God has loved us. However, we have to accept the fact that loving others will not always be read as love because today’s secularist police will not permit views that transgress their narrow understanding of righteousness. Don’t give up on love, and don’t sacrifice truth and goodness for doing so means that we have also evacuated love from the picture.

If Christianity’s demise in Australia has been party due to Christianity’s seducement by the culture, then perhaps the clarifying disjunction between Church and culture will aid believers to regain Gospel convictions, compassion, and expectations. After all, it was communist China that created a moral and epistemic environment which catalyzed the explosion of Christianity and the conversion of 10s of millions of Chinese.  We may be disappointed by indicative direction Australian public life may be taking and the ramification this may have for our job security, education, and financial stability, but we are hopeful and joyful because Jesus Christ remains true and good today as ever. And by the grace of God, over time some our Aussie neighbours may come to realise that we are not against them but for them and have a message of hope that we alter their lives in the most satisfying and liberating fashion.

The Politico-Religious Tug Of War

The Gospel Coalition (USA) is under fire again, this time for apparently being too anti-Trump.

A notable American theologian has exclaimed with a tone of frustration, “Are all the vocal gatekeepers of The Gospel Coalition “Never- Trumpers”?”

I am staying away from the particulars of this conversation as it seems to be unfolding and there is perhaps misunderstanding on both sides. To be clear though, the issue does not relate to TGC, it concerns a comment made by a TGC writer on his own personal twitter account.  What I am interested in noting is criticisms aimed at  The Gospel Coalition’s positioning and contributions on a range of politico-ethical issues, which I think in fact reflects a healthy and constructive place.

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Over the last couple of years, there has been consternation over TGC being too ‘leftist’ and too social gospel orientated. This is quite different from the more regular criticism that is found in some Christian quarters and in the media whereby The Gospel Coalition is caricatured as overly conservative and exclusive.  In Australia, despite TGCA now being one of the major Christian websites in the country, with significant reach and influence across the nation and internationally, TGCA remains outside the radar of most Australian media and political attention; and that’s fine because they are not our audience. Nonetheless, within the smallish Christian circles that do exist in Australia, TGCA has been similarly attacked both left and right alike. 

First of all, we shouldn’t conflate every statement made on a personal social media account as representing The Gospel Coalition. I’m pretty sure that my fellow TGCA Council members wouldn’t agree with some of my personal tweets about football,  Melbourne, and food, let alone on every single theological comment I have uttered. Surely we can differentiate between what a person says under their own name and what is written under the umbrella of an organisation.

Second, the Gospel Coalition, both in the United States and in Australia (and its other chapters), does not identify with any given political spectrum. TGC(A) is not a political entity, representing any single political party or position. It is a coalition of Christian men and women who are gathered around the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and who affirm a set of theological convictions that are grounded in and are concerned for the fidelity of, the proclamation of, and living out of this Gospel of God. This coalition is made up of folk with clear theological convictions and from a wide range of ethnic groups, demographics, denominations and churches, and from many parts of the globe.

Third, it is quite possible, and indeed preferable, to critique positions on moral issues without suggesting whom we should vote for or which political party a Christian ought to support. TGC and TGCA contribute articles on a wide range of ethical and social issues, including abortion, racism, same-sex marriage, and these are argued Biblically and pastorally without taking that further step which is beyond the jurisdiction of pastors, namely to indicate how fellow Christians should vote or which party they should support.

As Australians go to the polls later this month to elect a Federal Government, I’ve heard once again the unhelpful (although probably well-meaning) voices of a few Christians encouraging fellow believers to vote for particular candidates and parties.  The problem is, sometimes their pleas become so impassioned that we are left with the impression that Christians must vote in a singular way and for only certain political parties and not others. Of course, there are very important issues for Christians that are better reflected in some party politics than others, but our cause is not Liberal or Labor, or Republican or Democrat. It is also possible that a time may come when it becomes impossible for Christians to support a particular party, given their policies are so anti-God and so anti-human, but we must be reticent to make such pronouncements, in contrast to some religious folk who seem to have this route locked on autopilot every election.

Our Gospel does not belong to and is not defined by progressive politics and morality nor by conservative politics and morality. The fact that TGC is regularly attacked by progressive branches of the media and by liberal Christians and that it is also sometimes accused of being too progressive and embracing of social issues, probably indicates that they are sitting in a wise place. It is even more important that our churches are wise when addressing social and political issues.

I don’t believe we should avoid talking about the political and social issues from the Scriptures, but we should not bind the consciences of our congregation beyond what Scripture allows. We must allow room for wisdom. In my view, unwise conscience binding includes promoting a given political party or politician (even those who purport to be overtly Christian) whether in our literature or from the Sunday church platform. I know of one church where a member of Parliament attends and is an active member. Both he and the church leadership are on the same page, making the conscious decision to refrain from presenting him or his party’s platform in the church context, lest people confuse Christianity and the Church with a particular political expression. Even on social media, Christians leaders need to be careful about aligning too closely with one candidate or another. Instead, teach our congregations well from the Scriptures, pray for them and pray for those in political authority over us (regardless of the party they represent), and trust that the Holy Spirit is working in lives of believers and giving them wisdom to discern how to vote.

Do Christians still believe in hell today? A response to Robyn Whitaker

“If you don’t believe in hell, you’ll never heard the love of God.” (Tim Keller)

 

As part of commemorating Easter, the Conversation published two articles by Uniting Church minister and theological college lecturer, Robyn Whitaker. 

Whitaker is (as I suspect many pastors have done in the past few weeks)  offering a contribution to the public debate on hell, which has followed Israel Folau’s recent Instagram comments.

Whitaker provides an interesting and at times informative account of the biblical notions of heaven and hell, but readers are left wondering whether we are meant to believe that these destinations are believable today.

It is difficult to know what Whitaker personally believes about heaven and hell. Her excurses take us through some biblical material and references to ANE religions, but there appears to be a reluctance to share what she herself believes. More problematic is the direction she is leaving for her readers.  It feels like an ethereal rendition of John Lennon’s,

‘Imagine there’s no heaven

It’s easy if you try

No hell below us

Above us only sky’

 

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istock photo

First of all, where does heaven and hell come from?

Readers are given the impression that heaven and hell don’t originate with God of the Bible, but rather they are evolving compilation of many different faith traditions. Whitaker notes the possible influence of cultures surrounding ancient Israel and Judea. While the Bible at times utilises words and images from surrounding cultures, that does not mean that the biblical concepts depend on or are derived from these religious settings.

The Bible describes heaven and hell as places created by and belonging to God, as much as this universe is made by the same God. Biblical authors may at times borrow language from other places to help readers understand what heaven and hell are about (of much greater influence on the New Testament is a heavy dependence on the Old Testament), but to imply that the Biblical teaching should be traced to another religious milieu is both unnecessary and counters the Scriptures themselves (i.e. Acts 17:16-31).

Whitaker not only suggests the Bible’s teaching about heaven and hell are sourced from other ancient religions, rather than originating with God himself, dotted throughout her presentation are misleading phrases like, “mythic stories”,  which reinforce the view that the Bible is either unreliable or is little more than a superb piece of fiction. The quote by Paula Gooder is telling in this regard,

“it is impossible to state categorically what the Bible as a whole says about heaven… Biblical beliefs about heaven are varied, complex and fluid.”

Two millennia of  Creeds, Catechesis, and doctrinal statements have achieved the very thing that Gooder says is impossible! That does not mean that every aspect of the Bible’s teaching on heaven and hell are captured in any of these statements, but the essence of and a faithful representation of these teachings can be accomplished.

Second, is hell a real place?

Whitaker’s argument leaves readers believing that the answer is a likely, no. While Whitaker is more than willing to accept heaven as an ultimate place (by which she understands heaven to be the healing and transformation of this world), her confidence in a literal hell is lacking, to say the least.

For example, Whitaker makes a big deal of the Bible’s use of metaphors and imagery and does so in a way that explains away any imperative to believe these things are representative of real and concrete places.

Jesus frequently used allegories and analogies in his teaching to convey concrete realities. For example, the mustard seed describing the kingdom of heaven, or the farmer’s seed which represents the word of God. The illustrations are vivid descriptions describing very real things. Similarly, fire and smoke and gnashing of teeth may be rhetorical and symbolic but they are not describing a fiction destination but an eternal place.

Speaking of the book of Revelation Whitaker says,

“It should be noted that these are poetic and highly symbolic apocalyptic texts whose purpose is primarily to persuade people to stay faithful to their God, not to set out a precise agenda for the afterlife.”

Why create the dichotomy? Can’t such texts achieve both? The opening verses of Revelation certainly suggest that the book is presenting an agenda for life both this side of death and on the other side.

“The revelation from Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show his servants what must soon take place. He made it known by sending his angel to his servant John, who testifies to everything he saw—that is, the word of God and the testimony of Jesus Christ. Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear it and take to heart what is written in it, because the time is near.” (Revelation 1:1-4)

In addition, there are plenty of non-poetic and non-apocalyptic texts within Scripture that explain future resurrection to either eternal life or to judgment.

“Just as people are destined to die once, and after that to face judgment” (Hebrews 9:27)

“ If we deliberately keep on sinning after we have received the knowledge of the truth, no sacrifice for sins is left, but only a fearful expectation of judgment and of raging fire that will consume the enemies of God.” (Hebrews 10:26-27)

Whitaker then suggests that the Bible itself implies that hell may not be a literal place. She contends,

“One challenge to the idea of hell as a literal place comes from the Bible itself. Parts of the New Testament record that when Jesus died on the cross he descended into the realm of the dead.”

“These fleeting references were preserved in ancient Christian creeds. Medieval Christians called Jesus’ descent to the dead the “harrowing of hell”. The theology behind it is that even the realm of the dead (hell) and death itself have been transformed by God.”

If I have accurately joined her dots together, Whitaker appears to be making the same error that some Reformed and Medieval theologians made, and that is to conflate the realm of the dead with hell. Death and hell are not the same. As Michael Bird explains in Evangelical Theology: A Biblical and Systematic Introduction,

“The New Testament distinguishes hadēs (waiting place of the dead) from geenna (judgment place for the dead).”

Part of the confusion with Jesus’ descending to the dead (or to hell) lays with a mistranslation of the creed. As Bird explains,

“the Latin creed does not say that Christ descended into hell. This wrong “tradition” is based on a mistranslation of the Latin. The Latin ad inferos found in the creed means “to the grave, the place of the dead” (i.e., hadēs). It does not say ad infernum, meaning “to hell,” the place of punishment after death…A better English translation of the creed, which is used in the Church of England, is this: “He descended to the dead.” In other words, the wrong “tradition” about a descent into hell is really a wrong translation of the Latin perpetuated by the Reformers, who did not differentiate “hell” from “Hades.”

Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection did not close the door on hell or bring about its demolition, rather his atoning sacrifice saved from entering hell those who repent of their sin and put their faith in Him.

And what about this unnecessary yet loaded phrase, “fleeting references”? Again, Whitaker is carefully laying down rhetorical mines to undermine confidence in the Bible. It’s as though she is saying, because the number of references are few, the teaching can’t be all that important or all that reliable.  How many Bible verses are required before we ditch ‘fleeting’ and treat the subject with due seriousness? As it happens, the topic of hell and of a final judgment is pretty commonplace in the New Testament, with it being spoken of in passing commentary and in extended didactic argument and portrayed in lengthy apocalyptic teaching. Lest we forget, Jesus taught about hell more often than any other person in the New Testament.

“If Jesus, the Lord of Love and Author of Grace spoke about hell more often, and in a more vivid, blood-curdling manner than anyone else, it must be a crucial truth.” (Tim Keller)

Third, motivation for talking about hell.

Robyn Whitaker (perhaps as a swipe at Israel Folau), mocks Christians who talk about hell.

“Similarly, some Christians invoke hell to persuade individuals to repent of their sins. Such rhetoric is from a different time and place, when scaring people into faith seemed like a good idea.”

There is some wisdom here, at least in terms of emphases. Becoming a Christian is not primarily about avoiding hell. Preachers who fixate on hell and not on Jesus Christ are in danger of skewing the good news message of Christianity. The Gospel is wonderful and amazing news of reconciliation with the living God through Christ, but it not less than salvation from hell, but more. Keep in mind, it is Jesus who invoked hell as a means of warning people from ungodly living,

“If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell.”(Matthew 5:29)

“Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell”. (Matthew 10:28)

Fourth. What God do we believe in?

In her conclusion, Robyn Whitaker reveals what the conversation is really about. Our views about heaven and hell reveal underlying suppositions about what we believe God is like.

“It begs the question – does hell continue to exist? Many Christians today would say no. Others claim an ongoing belief in a literal place of eternal punishment, which raises a different theological question: what kind of God do you believe in to think God consigns people to eternal torment?”

What we say about heaven and hell reflects what we believe about the Bible and ultimately about God.

What God do we believe in? Do we believe in a God who is telling us the truth in his word or in a God who fibbing or who has changed his mind or is unable to keep his word?

The Bible speaks of God who is love and who is holy. It is because of this love and holiness that hell exists. It is because of this love and holiness, God sent his only Son as a propitiation for our sins, and thus offering forgiveness and eternal wonder instead of his just judgment.

Part of the biblical teaching on hell is to remind and even encourage people that God is just and will bring about righteous judgment. If there is no final judgment, then what are we to suppose to conclude about justice and about God’s character and about hope for those who have suffered injustice?

Is the Bible warning humanity about a judgment that will not come? Is God’s promise of eternal life not eternal? When Jesus promised to return at the eschaton was he telling a whopper? And where is Jesus right now, following his resurrection and ascension? Major aspects of the atonement lose their power and significance, and so does Christ’s resurrection. If we follow Whitaker’s line of thinking we are left with a very different Christianity and a very different God.

What impression do her two articles leave with the reader? We conclude that hell is a minor theme mentioned by a few bible writers who were depending on other ancient religions for the concept, but isn’t something Christians really believe today, except for those few left behind angry medieval preaching type Christians. We are left sensing that both hell and heaven are difficult to pin down, and among Christians, there are diverging views and it is not necessary to that there is such a place known as hell. Is this a helpful conclusion to leave both Christians and unbelievers alike? Is this a recognisable Christian message?

If our speech about heaven and hell leaves people in doubt as to their existence, we have failed to be clear and faithful. If the Lord Jesus taught these topics with clarity and concern, should we not also?

If our speech muddies the Divine promise of a new heavens and new earth and of eternal judgment for the unrepentant, we are misrepresenting God and we are stripping people of hope. 

If our speech denies either the existence of heaven or of hell, then we have failed to be Christian. Christians may wrestle with the biblical material and be confused at times, but to explain away either heaven or hell is to ultimately set ourselves against the teaching of Jesus Christ and against God-given reasons for which he died on the cross and was raised to life.

“Then I saw a great white throne and him who was seated on it. The earth and the heavens fled from his presence, and there was no place for them. 12 And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Another book was opened, which is the book of life. The dead were judged according to what they had done as recorded in the books. 13 The sea gave up the dead that were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them, and each person was judged according to what they had done. 14 Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. The lake of fire is the second death.15 Anyone whose name was not found written in the book of life was thrown into the lake of fire.” (Revelation 20:11-15)

Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth,” for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”

 He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” Then he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.” (Revelation 21:1-5)

 

 

 

 


April 30th – A friend of mine who is familiar with Paula Goode’s writings has sent me a helpful email where she points out that Robyn Whitaker seems to have quoted Goode out of context. Far from undermining the ontological reality of heaven, Goode is simply noting the difficulty facing biblical writers in finding vocabulary and imagery to fully explain the wonder that is heaven.

God is not embarrassed by Christians

It shouldn’t be difficult to say the word, after all, people can’t wait to use it when there’s an opportunity to deride those who adhere to this worldview. And when representatives of their ranks are caught in a scandal or in an evil and immoral act, the social outrage queue is long and eager.  Sometimes though, in fact, more often than not, the unnameable populace doesn’t fit with the subscribed narrative that Western playwrights are busily writing on their twitter feeds, political speeches, and op-ed pieces. On these occasions, which again is the normal state of affairs, our progressive friends are left rhetorically naked and yet bound by their own scripts.

 

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CNN photo

Among the cast of notables who struggled to articulate what happened in Sri Lanka on Easter Sunday were Hilary Clinton and Barack Obama.

President Obama tweeted,

“The attacks on tourists and Easter worshippers in Sri Lanka are an attack on humanity. On a day devoted to love, redemption, and renewal, we pray for the victims and stand with the people of Sri Lanka.”

Clinton released this statement,

“On this holy weekend for many faiths, we must stand united against hatred and violence. I’m praying for everyone affected by today’s horrific attacks on Easter worshippers and travelers in Sri Lanka.”

 

The death toll currently sits at 359 people, with 500 injured. This is one of worse human-made atrocities committed anywhere in the world in the past decade, and possibly the largest terrorist attack since 9/11, and yet world leaders are stumbling over their words in order to avoid noting important facts

Who or what is an “Easter worshipper”? And since when have many faiths celebrated Easter? Our Jewish friends celebrate Passover during the same period, but who other than Christians worship Jesus Christ as God and accept his death and resurrection as the payment for sins and hope for eternal life?

I realise that the West is super keen to attach ‘Christian’ with everything that is wrong with the identity of the 21st Century world. Australians have been watching our own latest melodrama with Rugby and AFL players losing the socially mandated script and instead of inserting a few Bible verses here and there. We have since been reminded that such things are outdated and unacceptable, so much so that Israel Folau may lose his contract to play Rugby for Australia.

The media don’t seem to have an issue in ascribing ‘Christian’ to moral apostates (whether real or perceived) and they are quick to Christianise heretics like Father Rod Bower. Why? Because his own version of Christianity is a perfect fit with the sexualised authoritarian secularism that is published from our universities to our schools, from our television shows to our halls of Parliament. And most genuine Christians don’t shirk at the fact that sometimes other Christians behave in ways that are wicked or unwise or insensitive; we call it out. But when Christians are believing and behaving like Christians, as in, trusting Jesus Christ and growing in obedience to God of the Bible, watch the public edifice of our culture either move toward caricature, slander, or silence.

We could respond by being a little angry or disappointed, disillusioned even; I think it’s sad.

It is ok to use the word ‘Christian’. It is not a sin to mention by name the religion of the victims in Sri Lanka, nor is it immoral to mention the religious motivations of those who perpetrated this great evil.

Christians ought to grieve with those who grieve, whether they are Christian or atheist or Muslim or Hindu. Every human being is an image bearer of God and their life is precious and their dignity, great. The world is lessened when a life is taken, and we weep. Christchurch remains fresh on our minds. Christians mourned for Christchurch, and we prayed for the many Muslims people who were injured and for the families affected by that evil attack on their Mosques. 

We may long for justice in this world, and we are not amiss for expecting such, and yet we also understand that the world is fighting against the very notions of righteousness and goodness, because of a persistent antipathy toward God.

It is sad to hear that as hundreds of funerals take place throughout Sri Lanka today and this week, national leaders and notable commentators are unable to utter basic truths about what took place. This is not uncommon either, but a surge of whitewashing facts that don’t fit with preset views about the world.

We will not serve the honour of those who died by denying who they are, and neither can society confront and address the issues facing us while our leaders play the dangerous game of avoidance. Regardless of how Governments and societies respond to those who are the most persecuted group in the world today, namely Christians, we have a higher and truer authority who is perfect in love and justice, in mercy and righteousness, and it is to him whom we ultimately place our hope and find our comfort,

Then one of the elders asked me, “These in white robes—who are they, and where did they come from?” I answered, “Sir, you know.”

And he said, “These are they who have come out of the great tribulation; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.  Therefore,

“they are before the throne of God
    and serve him day and night in his temple;
and he who sits on the throne
    will shelter them with his presence.

‘Never again will they hunger;
    never again will they thirst.
The sun will not beat down on them,’
    nor any scorching heat.

For the Lamb at the center of the throne
    will be their shepherd;
‘he will lead them to springs of living water.’
    ‘And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes

(Revelation 7:13-17)