Should we speak of “Bible Believing Christians”?

“Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’” (Matthew 4:4)

 

Yesterday I was accused of making a “serious” category mistake in theology, namely to speak of “Bible believing Churches”. Geoff Thompson, who teaches Systematic Theology at the Uniting Church’s college here in Melbourne, wrote a respectful critique of my recent article on Bishop Michael Curry and his royal sermon.

The focus of Thompson’s piece was on a phrase I used, “Bible believing Church”. I was encouraging people who were struck by the wedding sermon to seek out a Bible believing and Jesus loving Church, as opposed to one that is not. Geoff Thompson has taken issue with my encouragement, saying,

“Christians are not called to ‘believe’ the Bible; they are called to acknowledge its authority, and to listen to it through the filter of the gospel proclaimed by Jesus. It is a serious category mistake to talk about ‘believing’ the Bible.”

I certainly agree with his statement about acknowledging the Bible’s authority and interpreting Scripture through the Gospel of Jesus Christ, but those things do not denude the phrase, ‘Bible believing’, in fact, they accurately reflect part of what it means to be a Bible believing Christian.

Does Geoff Thompson have a case? To answer, I thought, well, what does the Bible say? Let’s take some examples,

“And we also thank God continually because, when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as a human word, but as it actually is, the word of God, which is indeed at work in you who believe.” (1 Thessalonians 2:13)

“By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain”. (1 Corinthians 15:2)

“After he was raised from the dead, his disciples recalled what he had said. Then they believed the scripture and the words that Jesus had spoken”. (John 2:22)

“I look on the faithless with loathing, for they do not obey your word”. (Psalm 119:158)

“And now you will be silent and not able to speak until the day this happens, because you did not believe my words, which will come true at their appointed time.” (Luke 1:20)

“And because of his words many more became believers”. (John 4:41)

“Very truly I tell you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be judged but has crossed over from death to life.” (John 5:24)

“Don’t you believe that I am in the Father, and that the Father is in me? The words I say to you I do not speak on my own authority. Rather, it is the Father, living in me, who is doing his work.” (John 14:10)

“The apostles and the believers throughout Judea heard that the Gentiles also had received the word of God”. (Acts 11:1)

It is clear from these verses (and many others could have been used) that God wants us to believe his word. Accepting and trusting the Bible (which is God’s word) not only pleases God, it is one of the ways God differentiates between his people and those who are not. Indeed, when his people reject his word, he calls them to repent and to return to the word. Receiving, believing, and obeying the word is one of the Bible’s ways of describing who is Christian.

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This word is from God and is about God, and especially his son Jesus Christ.  God’s call to believe his words, both Old and New Testaments, is never merely about intellectual assent, but is about understanding, trusting, desiring, and obeying. In fact, prior to our response the word, the word must firstly begin a work in us, as the book of Hebrews declares,

“For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.” (Hebrews 4:12)

The word is not only God working in the human heart but it is God saving, creating, and ruling. More than that, as many of above Bible references explain, when Jesus, the Apostles, and the Prophets talk about believing the word, they don’t divide belief in the word and belief in God; to trust in the Scriptures is to believe God.

In short, the Bible does talk about believing the Bible and it does so in a very positive and necessary way. To speak of Bible believing Christians and Churches is one way of talking about men and women who accept the Bible as God’s authoritative, true and good word, and who now commune with God by his Spirit through his word about his Son. 

Wouldn’t it be odd for someone to respond, “Oh that’s not Murray, that’s just his words…I believe in Murray, but not his words.”

Yes, there is a question of ontology, but nonetheless, we don’t divorce a person from their words. What does the Apostle Paul say to Timothy?

“14 But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it, 15 and how from infancy you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. 16 All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, 17 so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.”

Far from being a category error, “Bible believing Church” is a phrase which accurately reflects the Bible’s own presentation of the relationship between God, His word, and his Church. It doesn’t say everything, and neither is it intended to. Like any Christian idiom, it can be misappropriated, but that doesn’t mean it’s theologically wrong or misleading. Yes, it is possible for someone to believe the Bible is true or useful without having personal faith in Jesus Christ; our society is filled with such people. But is this what we mean when referring to Bible believing Christians and Churches? The only people I know who might talk about being Bible believing are those who have a living faith in Jesus Christ. If anything, it could be used, not adjectively, but as another way of describing a Christian.

The real question is, why do some Christian scholars want to discourage this identity marker?  Why is it the case that when God can define his people as those who believe his word, there are Christians telling us that it’s wrong to describe ourselves as Bible believing? Geoff Thompson explains, it’s because he doesn’t agree with my interpretation of the Bible. No doubt, the task of interpreting the Bible is incredibly important but that doesn’t mean it’s “seriously” wrong to talk about “Bible believing Churches”.

He argued, “When a church presents itself as ‘Bible-believing’, it is often a fairly blunt proxy for legitimating its interpretations of the Bible without acknowledging that they are interpretations.”

While that can be the case, it doesn’t have to be, and normally it is not. Thompson’s argument is more red herring rather than substantive.

On the other hand, when it comes to hermeneutics, the opposite can be true, “when a church wants to teach and practice revisionist morality, they often present the Bible as having many and varied meanings and we should accept validity in all interpretations.” Indeed, some are honest enough to admit that they no longer believe in certain parts of the Bible. 

I don’t know Geoff Thompson or the hermeneutical grid he uses to interpret the Bible, and how broad his theological canvas is in accepting divergent interpretations, so I won’t offer speculation. My purpose here is not to delve into those questions (as important as they are), but it is to correct the alleged correction, that it is wrong to speak of “Bible believing Churches”. Do we not want our Churches believing the Scriptures? I certainly pray so.

Bishop Curry and his Royal Sermon

“Jesus replied, “Anyone who loves me will obey my teaching. My Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them. Anyone who does not love me will not obey my teaching. These words you hear are not my own; they belong to the Father who sent me.” (John 14:23-24)

 

Michael Curry’s royal wedding sermon has been the hot topic of conversation over the last 2 days. Newspapers, television shows, and social media are alight with opinions over the bishop and his sermon.

I have heard people speak favourably of the preacher because of his energy and enthusiasm.

Some people are admiring Michael Curry because in their opinion, he has broken with royal convention and stuck it up at English tradition.

There were voices praising how this is a sign of dismantling white privilege and power.

Others were warmed by Curry’s message of love

Other again, were annoyed because he spoke too long.

Some people, including Christians, thought he preached an amazing Gospel sermon, while others have criticised Curry’s message for being Gospel absent, perhaps even implying an alternate gospel.

In other words, there are many very different reasons why people responded positively and negatively to this wedding sermon.

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My reaction? I was partly pleasantly surprised, and also profoundly concerned.

Did Michael Curry say some things that were true and helpful? Yes. Did he speak too long? For a wedding, probably yes, but every preacher know that temptation. Was it positive to see an African American preaching at a royal wedding? Absolutely. Maybe in the future we’ll see a Chinese or Persian Pastors preaching the Gospel at such an auspicious occasion. Did the bishop say anything unhelpful or untrue? The answer is, yes.

One Anglican Minister made this astute observation,

“Here’s the biggest problem I have with it: The Archbishop has made our love of others the driving force of the renewal of the world.

“Dr. King was right: “We must discover the power of love, the redemptive power of love.

And when we discover that, we will be able to make of this old world a new world. Love is the only way.”

According to Archbp Curry, Jesus dies to save us, but it’s *our love* of the other, including in marriage, that ultimately renews creation.”

If this is the case, then there is a significant theological problem with the message.

The one comment that I did share on social media Saturday night, wasn’t about the sermon or about Michael Curry’s ethnicity or personality, but one glaring point that was being overlooked. As someone who has the joy of marrying couples, I found it ironic, and sad, that the invited preacher doesn’t believe in the definition of marriage that was articulated in the wedding ceremony. I can’t imagine a church inviting someone to preach at a wedding service who doesn’t accept the understanding of marriage being declared, and who is also known publicly for their errant views.

The view of marriage that was read out loud at the start of service comes from the Anglican book of common prayer, and it is a beautiful expression, theologically rich and Biblically sound. The wording is so clear and helpful, that many other Christian denominations use the language themselves. As another friend noted, ‘it almost makes one want to be Anglican!’

Yes, it is great to see people talking about love and especially God’s love. We should pray that it will cause people to seek out a Bible believing and Jesus loving Church, and even to open a Bible for themselves to discover this extraordinary God who loves so much that he sent his only son into the world to atone for our sin. We cannot however ignore the fact, that despite his proclamations of love,  Michael Curry is partly responsible for leading an entire Christian denomination away from the Bible, and in so doing, is fracturing the Anglican Communion worldwide.

Michael Curry has not shied away from his belief in same sex marriage. He has publicly acknowledged that his views are out of sync with conservative Anglicans, and he has insisted that his American churches would not be returning to an orthodox view of marriage.

Many leaders in the Anglican Communion, including from Australia and especially from Africa and Asia, have explained their considerable concerns over Bishop Curry’s teaching and how it is causing harm both within the American Episcopal Denomination and Anglicans globally. The problem is most poignant for thousands of Anglicans in America who love God and his word, but who now face losing their church property and financial security, should they not conform to the newly fashioned views on marriage. Indeed, this is already happening.

My understanding is that in 2017, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, agreed to the wishes of the International Primates, and so sanctions were imposed on the American Episcopal Church, whose presiding bishop is Michael Curry.

The decision made by the American Episcopal Church is not insignificant; our view on marriage has important corollaries including how we understand the cross, sin, the Bible, ethics, and many other matters. This is unsurprising given the connection the Apostle Paul made between sex, sound doctrine, and the Gospel (1 Timothy 1:9-11). Relevant to the running theme of love, it is worth grappling with Paul’s logic in 1 Timothy ch.1 and how love is integrally tied to what is taught.  Love is not without definition and intent, but promotes truth.

As I urged you when I went into Macedonia, stay there in Ephesus so that you may command certain people not to teach false doctrines any longer or to devote themselves to myths and endless genealogies. Such things promote controversial speculations rather than advancing God’s work—which is by faith.The goal of this command is love, which comes from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith. Some have departed from these and have turned to meaningless talk. They want to be teachers of the law, but they do not know what they are talking about or what they so confidently affirm.

We know that the law is good if one uses it properly. We also know that the law is made not for the righteous but for lawbreakers and rebels, the ungodly and sinful, the unholy and irreligious, for those who kill their fathers or mothers, for murderers, 10 for the sexually immoral, for those practicing homosexuality, for slave traders and liars and perjurers—and for whatever else is contrary to the sound doctrine 11 that conforms to the gospel concerning the glory of the blessed God, which he entrusted to me.”

This matters because both love and truth matter, and to deny one is to reject the other. Without God’s truth, what remains is a sentimental religiosity, powerless to change and save. 

When it comes to weddings, couples are of course free to ask for someone outside the local church to marry them or to preach at their wedding. The presiding clergy however have the right and the responsibility to say yes or no to that request. Given the present suspension over the American Churches, which the Archbishop of Canterbury had agreed to follow, it is difficult to fathom how this decision came about. No doubt, there were many closed door conversations and internal pressures, but at the end of the day, was the decision so impossible to make?

The sheer volume of excitement over Michael Curry should at least make us ask the question, why is the media and the public so enamoured by his message? Is it because the message of love is universal and it hit the right spot? Is it because his message of love was broad that most people found nothing offensive about it? Maybe, a bit of both.  Perhaps I’m a little skeptical, but I think Jesus was also skeptical about the world loving him and his Gospel.

Will the decision to invite Michael Curry help heal deeps wounds within the Anglican Communion, or further alienate evangelical congregations  and confirm to them that her leaders lack the courage to stand on their own doctrinal positions?

These are very difficult times for Anglicans worldwide, especially for our brothers and sisters who live and serve in Dioceses that are moving away from the Gospel. Is it helpful for the rest of us to be praising a preacher who is leading his denomination away from Scripture, and in so doing, straining and even dividing the Communion?

We can be grateful for things said that were true, but let’s be slow to join the Michael Curry facebook fan club. The issues at stake here are far greater than a wedding sermon. The excitement and enthusiasm will soon disappear from news headlines, but the word of God remains, and I reckon it’s better for us to keeping believing God and not getting swept away by a few moments in Windsor.

 

 

 

For a slightly different but helpful take on the sermon, read Michael Jensen’s piece in the SMH

Victorian Government aims to outlaw Gay Conversion Therapy

Last year a journalist from the ABC phoned me, to ask about gay conversion therapy. I must have been a poor interviewee because they didn’t run a story at that time.

The questions were easy to answer, I asked him explain what he meant by gay conversion therapy. He wasn’t very sure, but he did share a few anecdotes, to which I responded,

“that sounds awful…I don’t know anyone who practices this and so I couldn’t even tell you who to speak to about it…I wouldn’t want anyone subject to this kind of counselling and I don’t know anyone who has been.”

I don’t know how widespread this practice is, but it was easy to agree that the stories shared with me were disappointing and an awful experience for those who went through those programs. There is however, a  now very real possibility that Victoria will erroneously conflate those extreme views with normal and historic Christian beliefs about sexuality. 

There is a massive difference between offering someone shock therapy or performing a supposed exorcism, and reading the Bible with someone and them concluding that they no longer wish to identify as same sex attracted or transgender. But will the Victorian Government make this vital distinction. There are certainly prominent social voices who would not care whether there is a difference or not, anything other than complete allegiance to the current sexual narrative must be followed.

The Age has published a series of articles this year on this issue and the result is that the Victorian Government is planning to take action. In today’s edition, reporter Farrah Tomazin writes, 

Rogue religious leaders and health practitioners who claim that homosexuality can be “fixed” could end up being prosecuted as the Andrews government orders an unprecedented inquiry into gay conversion therapy.

Health Minister Jill Hennessy has asked Victoria’s Health Complaints Commissioner to conduct a broad-ranging investigation, and has not ruled out tougher laws to crack down on those attempting to change or suppress a person’s sexuality or gender identity.

The inquiry will capture registered or unregistered counsellors, clinicians who treat homosexuality as a disorder, and anyone purporting to convert LGBTI people through therapeutic means.

But significantly, it will also seek information on a more insidious trend: faith-based ministries and church figures who disguise their work as “spiritual guidance”.

“We have zero tolerance for anyone purporting to ‘convert’ gay people through any medical or therapeutic means,” Ms Hennessy told The Age.”

 

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I want to respond to Farrah Tomazin’s piece and to the comments being made by our Health Minister, Jill Hennessy.

First, because I am a Christian, I do not support gay conversion therapy, as defined in terms of using pseudo-scientific and unbiblical spiritual methods to change a person’s sexuality.

Second, in the Bible God calls Christians to sexual purity; this does not necessarily mean there will be a change in sexual orientation. The fact is, in becoming Christian many gay and lesbian people will not become heterosexual. When people become Christians, there is however always a change in life. What point is there in becoming a follower of Jesus Christ if nothing changes? In beginning the Christian life, there are newly found desires for sanctification. Let me repeat, this does not imply that people cease to struggle with aspects of their past, including sexual orientation, but it does mean that they now want to be godly in their sexuality. According to the Bible, sanctification includes affirming that sexual practices remain within the loving, exclusive, mutual consenting, covenant of marriage between a man and a woman.

You see, the Bible may not state that a person’s sexual orientation will change, but it is does teach conversion. Christianity by definition is a conversion religion, where human beings made in the image of God, shift from looking for freedom in the myth of post-enlightenment moral relativism, and instead discovering the greatest freedom in the person of Jesus Christ.

Third, I know people who are committed and godly Christians, and who continue to experience same-sex attraction. They are convinced that their greater and more satisfying identity is in Jesus Christ, and that living a celibate lifestyle is positive and good.

Fourth, it is an indisputable fact that some people do change sexual orientation. I appreciate that this evidence doesn’t fit with the current sexual narrative and it’s become socially and politically taboo to even mention it, but I don’t believe in ignoring research and personal stories, even if they contradict popular attitudes. For example, the majority of children who experience gender dysphoria will grow out of it by adulthood and will happily identifying with their biological sex. There are also many gay and lesbian people who have found their affections changing and have become heterosexual.  Let me reiterate, this does not mean that there is some proven or absolute way to reconfigure a person’s sexuality, but it is empirically false and socially irresponsible to deny that some people do experience a change of affections and self identification.

Fifth, I am concerned about how our culture is increasingly marginalising people who are conscious of their sexual orientation but do not wish to express or live it out. This is one of the key flaws with the Safe Schools curriculum; there is no freedom offered to children to say no to their feelings. The emphasis is on instruction children to be who they currently think they are, and to celebrate and express it. I have found no pastoral empathy in the material that encourages children to think in alternate ways

It is hypocritical for us to defend the rights of LGBT people who want to express their lifestyle and to condemn those who do not wish to follow their orientation. You can’t claim to believe in gender fluidity and then disallow entire part of the population, simply because the don’t fit inside the current subscribed spectrum; it is intellectually dishonest and morally absurd.

Sixthly, there should be concerns as to how far the Victorian Government will proceed in drafting legislation to outlaw conversion therapies. If the reporting in The Age is correct, it may become illegal for churches to teach (whether from the pulpit or in private counselling) what the Bible says about sexuality.

Without due consideration and careful definition (ie what is conversion?), it is not beyond the realm of plausibility that legislation will ban Christians from teaching the Bible’s ethics on sexuality. Sadly this is not new, for back in 2016 the current Government sought to hamstring religious toleration in Victoria with a proposed amendment to the Equal Opportunity Act.

It seems to me that there are voices on both spectrums who are ignoring science and the Bible. We might assume that both of these groups have good intentions, but whether it is political progressive with their latest interpretation of the sexual revolution, or a few crazy Pentecostals pursuing unhelpful ideas, both are making mistakes that will cause undue harm to real people.

If the Government intends to ban gay conversion therapy, consistency would have them also prohibit therapies that are aimed at changing the gender of children. In light of the research which indicates most children with gender dysphoria naturally reorienting over time, it is appalling to know of schools who are denying young children’s biological sex, and are putting them in counselling to begin transitioning them to the opposite sex. This not only includes outside dress and appearance, but hormonal therapy and eventually there is the possibility of surgery. What is even more staggering is that schools can commence some of these steps without the permission of and even knowledge parents.

To outlaw gay conversion therapies and not ban gender reassignment treatment and therapy among our youth would be sheer hypocrisy. Equally so, it is egregious to conflate fringe excessive programs with mainstream and historic Christian beliefs about sexuality, and to prohibit the freedom to articulate and persuade others with these beliefs.

I share concerns over some of the alleged practices that are contained in these so-called conversion therapies. The well-being of gay and lesbian Victorians is important, but recent political history and the current reporting in the media does not give us much hope that any drafted legislation will be fair and reasonable. There is reason to believe that these laws could negatively impact many Victorians who are wrestling with their sexuality (as is already happening through Safe Schools), and that legislation will effectively diminish religious freedoms in this wonderful State of Victoria. Indeed when the Government interferes with the teachings of Churches, all Victorians, from across religions and of none, should be troubled and asking our political representatives serious questions.

Indonesian Church attacks: some reflections

Surabaya

At approximately 10:30am, during the Sunday service at Mentone Baptist Church, three churches in Indonesia were attacked. While our children were heading out for Sunday School and the adults opening their Bibles for a second Scripture reading, suicide bombers entered 3 churches in the city of Surabaya. 11 people have died, with another 40 people injured.

As shocking as this news is, it is sadly not an unusual story for Christians in Indonesia. The persecution of Christians has been commonplace for many years in certain Indonesians provinces: in East Kalimantan, Aceh, and the city of Medan, just to name a few.

Not only in Indonesia, but similar horrific events are happening around the world on an almost weekly basis. Churches are attacked in Egypt, Nigeria, China, Pakistan, and many other parts of the world. The reality is, for millions of Christians in the world today, belonging to a Church and even attending a Church service, comes with an awareness that the cost may be great.

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Source: ABC news

Abusing our religious freedom

As I’ve reflected upon the juxtaposition between Mentone and what happened inside those Indonesian Churches, I remembered one of the verses that I preached on today,

“Then the church throughout Judea, Galilee and Samaria enjoyed a time of peace and was strengthened. Living in the fear of the Lord and encouraged by the Holy Spirit, it increased in numbers.” (Acts 9:31)

This verse follows the conversion of the Apostle Paul. Previous to becoming a Christian, Paul was a renowned persecutor of Churches, killing Christians and imprisoning others. After a period of persecution, came a time of peace for these new church being planted across Judea and Samaria.

In the New Testament we learn that there can be seasons when there is relative societal peace and tolerance of Christianity, and there are also times of acute and dreadful opposition. In the book of Acts, we discover that Churches can grow and flourish in both situations.

Joining a Church in some parts of the world is potentially life threatening. On the other hand, attending Church in Australia is easy. We wake up on Sunday mornings, perhaps following a sleep in. We eat breakfast, get dressed, and drive down the road to a local church. There’s a good chance that we’re running late, and have already missed the first 10 minutes, but the temptation to spend those extra minutes at home is hard to fight against.

Making it to Sunday Church is easy in Australia, and yet how many of us find it hard, if not a burden? No one is going to enter our buildings and blow themselves up. The Government isn’t going to arrest congregation. And yet, so many of us Aussie Christians struggle to attend Church weekly. The situation has become so dire that once a month is now considered regular attendance! Imagine only eating one meal a month with your family and arguing that it is ‘regular family time’! Picture an employee informing their colleagues that turning up for 1 in 4 meetings was suffice and a demonstration of real commitment!

Of course belonging to a local church can’t be reduced to Sunday attendance, but it is the primary and central gathering of God’s people to whom you have covenanted. We meet to encourage others, just as they are meeting in order to love and grow us in Christ.

Making it to Church regularly should be easy. Unlike millions of Christians in other parts of globe, we have the freedom to meet, and we have the means: we can walk, we can drive, we can take public transport. And yet, we find it so hard. We don’t need the threat of bombs to keep us away from Church, the allure of the beach or of a coffee shop is more than equal to the task.

I once tried to calculate how many “ordinary” Sundays were in the calendar year. To begin with, there are summer holidays which take out about 6 Sundays, and then another 3 Sundays for each of the Autumn, Winter, and Spring school breaks. On top of that, in between there’s a highway of long weekends with public holidays attached to them, and we mustn’t forget Mothers Day and Fathers Day. I also assume, that like myself, other people catch winter colds and flues, and so that might mean we miss another 1-2 Sundays. If we have children, we can strike out a few more weeks with sore throats, head colds, and bouts of diarrhoea.

It is so easy to attend Church in Australia, and yet we find it so difficult. Australian society offers so much, promising our children every dream, offering us every heart desire. How hard it is to saying to our kids, we can’t play footy on Sundays because we have Church. We work so hard to climb ladders and create success and to pay extravagant mortgages, that we find ourselves with little energy for much else. We need the fishing trip and the late Sunday brunch, because we’ve exhausted ourselves in trying to drag heaven onto earth. I wonder, are we not worshiping God with his people on Sundays because we are no longer worshiping Him with our lives from Monday to Saturday?

Instead of using freedom of religion to minimise effort and commitment, should we not maximise the time we have? Are we so arrogant as to presume that freedom of religion will continue forever in Australia?

There are of course legitimate reasons for missing Church on a Sunday morning. Churches (and Pastors) should be understanding of members who are simple unable to attend every week, because of poor physical or mental health, because kids are sick or that long awaited annual vacation has come around. There are professions where workers are rostered for Sundays; after all, we can’t run hospitals or police or trains without people.

Make Church a habit

I was speaking with one of my church’s members recently. He and family are going through a difficult time, and so when they arrived late one Sunday, I said to him that I would understand if they couldn’t make it to Church on occasion. He responded with this gracious and rather memorable rebuke,

“Murray, of course we come to Church every week; it’s what we do.”

By this, he didn’t mean that Church attendance was a ritual or tired tradition. Rather, it was a helpful habit. Going to bed on Saturdays, they already knew what they were doing the next morning, because as a couple they had already settled in their hearts and decided made with their minds, Church matters. It wasn’t always easy, but they didn’t have to make the choice each Sunday because the decision was settled and the habit formed.

Consider Church a Joy

Tonight, as I pray for Indonesia and for Mentone, I want to cherish the local church and to make the most of the freedoms we have to meet each week, and even more.

May be I should be thinking, what temporary offerings can even begin to compare to the wonder of knowing God and to be part of the Church that Jesus has promised to build? Would I settle for playing football on the X-box if an AFL team called me to join their side? And yet we easily sacrifice Church, for small moments that will soon be forgotten.

According to Hebrews, a sign that our hope is directed in the right place, is that we are fight against the temptation to diminish Church. Those who draw near to God, are those who not give up on one another.

22 let us draw near to God with a sincere heart and with the full assurance that faith brings, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water. 23 Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. 24 And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, 25 not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.” (Hebrews 10)

Richard Condie’s Positive Steps to help victims of child abuse

I want to commend the steps taken by Tasmania’s Anglican Bishop, Richard Condie, to redress the issue of child sexual abuse.

According to this evening’s ABC report,

“Tasmania’s Anglican Diocese is proposing to sell more than 120 properties, including churches, halls, houses and vacant land, to fund redress for survivors of child sexual abuse.

The church said it would need to sell just under half of its Tasmanian properties to cover an estimated $8 million of liability in additional payments to survivors.

It has been lobbying for the State Government to sign up to the National Redress Scheme for survivors, due to start on July 1 as a result of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.

The Tasmanian Diocese also agreed to increase the payment cap for its own Pastoral Support and Assistance Scheme from $75,000 to $150,000 per claim.

Previous claimants will be entitled to have their claims reassessed, which may result in extra payments.

The figure of $8 million is based on advice that 150 survivors may be eligible to receive the average payment of $78,000 under the national scheme, or a similar figure from the church’s own scheme.”

“Survivors will not be able to claim from both schemes but, unlike the national scheme, the Tasmanian Anglican scheme is open to non-Australian citizens, those with a criminal conviction or people who were abused as adults.”

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Christian denominations and organisations have been rightly rebuked for the evil acts of child abuse that have been carried out by clergy and employees over many decades.  The abomination is not only the fact that the lives of young children have been devoured by demonic men, but that some groups covered up the crimes, or through inadequate training others did not respond to the cries of victims as they needed.

In part due to the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, Australians are more aware of the depth and breadth of the issue, and positive moves are now being taken to ensure children are safe and that Churches and other groups are better informed as to how to deal with reports of abuse. It still saddens me that the Royal Commission was ever required, but we should thankful for the tireless work of those who organised and participated. It is also encouraging to see many organisations being quick to follow the report’s recommendations, and it is disturbing to hear of others who are slow to practice repentance.

The damage created by decades of abuse will remain with us for decades to come. Thousands of Australians have been personally scarred, and their families too. Confidence in many institutions, including Churches, has been understandably broken. Churches have given Australians reason to doubt the authenticity of the Gospel, and to disbelieve the witness of Churches. This should never have been the case, for the name of Jesus Christ is good and holy, and without a single spot of unrighteousness, and followers of Jesus are called to be like their Lord and show others how good He is. Yet men from hell came and covered themselves in white robes and stole innocence. God is just and their evil behaviour will be recompensed in full, but  we are being naive if we believe that Aussies will quickly forgive or forget. We should not forget, we must repent.

I am reminded of the Law in the Old Testament. The Pentateuch may have fallen out of favour in our culture, like an out of date carton of milk, but perhaps we shouldn’t be so quick to pass judgment. Yes, the Mosaic law sours when it’s misapplied, but the law is more useful and essential than we might be willing to admit. In reading the law we learn two profound truths: Justice is paramount, and mercy is desperately needed.

“Do not deny justice to your poor people in their lawsuits.” (Exodus 23:6)

“Do not pervert justice or show partiality.” (Deuteronomy 6:19)

I thank God for Richard Condie’s leadership in practicing public and genuine repentance. He has not minimised the sins of past generations, and he is willing to go beyond recommendations in order to offer compensation to victims.

“When justice is done, it brings joy to the righteous but terror to evildoers” (Proverbs 21:15).

Let justice be done. My prayer is that others will follow the example of the Tasmanian Anglican Diocese (and that of the Sydney Anglican Diocese who have also made welcoming steps forward).

Are we prepared to walk away, for sake of Christ?

Israel Folau has come out and explained his recent remark on Instagram that has led to huge public controversy, and has involved Rugby Australia and their chief sponsors. It seems as though everyone has an opinion, and so it has been helpful to hear Israel speak for himself.

I appreciate his honesty and his humility. It made me think of the Apostle Paul’s words,

The grace of our Lord was poured out on me abundantly, along with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.

Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst. But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his immense patience as an example for those who would believe in him and receive eternal life”. (1 Timothy 1:14-16)

I appreciate Folau’s clarification about what believes. I appreciate his unswerving faith in Jesus Christ and his trust that the Bible is true and good,

“I believe when Jesus died on the cross for us, it gave us all the opportunity to accept and believe in Him if we wanted to. To enter the kingdom of Heaven, though, we must try our best to follow His teachings and, when we fall short, to seek His forgiveness.”

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He has indicated that should Rugby Australia find his views to be untenable he would resign,

“After we’d all talked, I told Raelene if she felt the situation had become untenable – that I was hurting Rugby Australia, its sponsors and the Australian rugby community to such a degree that things couldn’t be worked through – I would walk away from my contract, immediately.”

At this point in time, no decision has been made by either Folau or Rugby Australia. Last week, Rugby Australia chief executive Raelene Castle, admitted the difficulty she is facing,

“This is a difficult issue when you think you are trying to combine religious beliefs, freedom of speech and inclusion, respect and the use of social media,” 

“We’re proud of the fact that he’s a strong believer and he’s prepared to stand up for what he believes in.

“We want athletes in our code who are prepared to do that and that’s really important.

“But at the same time, Rugby Australia’s got a policy and position of inclusion and using social media with respect.

“So that’s where we shared stories, shared ideas and shared positions and both of us recognise that what we want is a situation where we use our social media platforms in a respectful and positive way.”

I think Castle helpfully summarises some of the tensions that now exist in the broader community. As a nation we are struggling to cope with societal pluralism. Sexuality has now been defined in such strong terms, that alternative views, as reasonable and loving as they may be expressed, are now perceived as evil and unacceptable. It’s reached the point that sporting codes are now making theological commentary, and assuming a position on hell. Unfolding before us is another test for Australian society. Are we serious about religious freedoms and freedom of speech, or does the rhetoric only apply when beliefs fall into line with the new sexual morality? Do we accept that millions of Australians don’t subscribe to the now popular view on marriage and sexuality, and that these Australians have a right to express their opinions? While politicians and company CEOS and sporting organisations wrangle over a position on religious freedom, it is even more important for Australian Christians to be thinking through these issues. What do we really believe? How can we best communicated what we believe? What are prepared to lose for the sake of knowing Christ Jesus as Lord?

Even though Folau’s sporting future remains uncertain, his testimony presents a healthy challenge to the rest of us Aussies who profess faith in Jesus Christ. Would we be prepared to walk away from job security? Would we be willing to give up a lucrative income? Are we ready to embrace public abuse?

I hope no one is thinking, Israel Folau can afford to make a decision to leave because he’s already earned millions of dollars and he has options in front of him to return to Rugby League. First of all, those who have more often find it exponentially harder to give it up. It is relatively easy to keep our beliefs quiet and to ourselves, and the pressure to compromise can be immense. Second, in standing by his Christian convictions, Folau is likely to face further public backlash. Third, NRL chief executive Todd Greenberg, has made it clear that Folau’s belief in hell would be unacceptable in their code, meaning that there is far from any guarantee that he could return to Rugby League.

When Jesus spoke about taking up a cross and giving up the world’s offerings, he wasn’t speaking rhetorically. Perhaps it is time for us to ponder his words and examine our own hearts and ambitions,

Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.  For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it.  What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?  Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul? If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of them when he comes in his Father’s glory with the holy angels.” (Mark 8)

Public Speech: the New Code of Conduct

Last week the national crisis was cricket, this week it’s Rugby. The cricket story concerned 3 members of the national side who were caught cheating; the rugby headlines concern an individual player who has made a statement on instagram about his religious convictions.

I don’t follow Rugby Union; I’ve grown up with AFL, the game Israel Folau once tried to play. However, one doesn’t need to understand the rules of Rugby, to grasp that the rules for public speaking have changed in Australia. Governments are yet to determine what laws and codes of conduct will be written to support the recent amendment to the Marriage Act, but sporting codes and iconic companies are making it clear where they want lines to be drawn.

 

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On his instagram account, Israel Folau responded to a question about “gods plan for gay people” by saying, “Hell…unless they repent of their sins and turn to God”.

First up, did Israel Folau say anything untrue?

Did he suggest anything that is out of sync with the Christian faith? No.

Could he have said it in a better way? I think so. Folau could have said something like, “Homosexual practices are one example of many ways in which we ignore God’s purposes. All of us, including myself, are guilty of living without regard for God and because of that we deserve hell. God  is holy and he also merciful, and that’s why Jesus came and died on the cross. The amazing thing is, by trusting in Jesus we are forgiven and the direction for life changes for the better, and we are promised a future that we don’t deserve but is God’s incredible gift to us.”

Perhaps he could have ignored the questioner who was clearly trying to trigger a response. Sometimes the wise thing to do is to say nothing. However, Israel Folau chose to speak up, and good on him for doing so. I wish he had been more gentle and nuanced with his answer, but his words were not wrong.

Christian beliefs are grounded in the Bible, and the Bible’s message about sexuality is clear and consistent.  As the Bible itself teaches, there is a trajectory within its story line, and so we are meant to read and interpret the Old Testament in light of the New Testament, and to apply meaning through the lens of Jesus Christ. That means there are Bible verses which were spoken for a particular people and time, and no longer directly applicable to us. It also means that parts of the Bible are describing events to us us rather than prescribing specific norms for today. Nonetheless, the Bible’s teaching about human sexuality, including homosexuality and of marriage, retains a moral goodness and integrity from Genesis to Revelation.

Rugby Australia boss Raelene Castle has stated, “Israel’s comment reflects his personal religious beliefs, however it does not represent the view of Rugby Australia or NSW Rugby…We are aligned in our view that rugby is a game for all, regardless of sexuality, race, religion or gender, which is clearly articulated in rugby’s inclusion policy.”

There are two clear problems with Castle’s comments: First, Rugby Australia’s inclusion policy theoretically includes ‘religion’, and yet all the talk is about excluding Folau and his religious convictions, and these are beliefs which are in line with orthodox, historic Christianity and which are believed by thousands of Christian Australian who are playing sport at every level in this country. Second, there is a massive assumption being made here, that is, Folau’s comment is “homophobic”.

The policy states, “There is no place for homophobia or any form of discrimination in our game and our actions and words both on and off the field must reflect this”.

Here lies the problem. It is now taken as fact, certainly by Alan Joyce and others, that affirming the Bible’s view on sexuality is homophobic. If you agree with the Bible, you are a bigot. This is simply untrue. For example, Jesus spoke many words of disagreement to people around him, but was his motivation fear and hatred, or was it love and kindness? Did Jesus insist on calling sin, sin, because he wanted to crush people or because he wanted to save people? Sadly, there are individuals who are hateful toward people in the LGBTI community, and it is awful, and without excuse, and we Christians need to stand with you against any tirade of abuse.

Jesus once said, “the truth will set you free.” He didn’t say, the truth will agree with you, for he goes on to say, “Very truly I tell you, everyone who sins is a slave to sin. Now a slave has no permanent place in the family, but a son belongs to it forever. So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.”

This goes to the very heart of Christianity, which is God who disagrees with us, and yet became incarnate, speaking and living truth, dying and rising from the dead to redeem sinners. This message may not be popular in Australia of 2018, but then again, history shows us that the Gospel has rarely been a social media success, and yet it is too good and too important for silence. There is no other God who is honest with us like Jesus, and there is no one else who loved us to the extent of suffering crucifixion for our eternal joy and good.

It is not homophobic to hold to the Bible’s teaching on sexuality. That’s not to say, people should listen to or accept this message, but calling it hate speech is false. Should Israel Folau be sanctioned for his comment? Is Qantas right to threaten Rugby Australia with their sponsorship?

I don’t agree with Alan Joyce’s views on sexuality, and I don’t like the way he has rebranded QANTAS as a gay pride flag flying company. Have I boycotted Qantas? No, in fact I’m flying with them tomorrow! What we are seeing is a major Australian company pressuring a sport to exclude a player who professes Christian beliefs. I think it would be unwise, but they might. I would ask,  is this the Australia we want to call home?

The Coopers Beer saga of last year served as a watershed (or should that be, beershed?!) moment in Australian social history, indicating that there would be a social and economic cost to anyone who doesn’t subscribe to the new morality. The art of toleration in Australia is being scrubbed out by a vocal priesthood of humanistic secularists who are intent on reframing the Australian identity and conscience. It is not only anti-Christian, it is an anti-freedom movement and is serving to diminish both religious and public non-conformity. Israel Folau is but another inevitable target of what will become many more in months and years to come.

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Late this afternoon at a press conference, RA chief executive Raelene Castle has said,

““This is a difficult issue when you think you are trying to combine religious beliefs, freedom of speech and inclusion, respect and the use of social media,” Castle said.

“We’re proud of the fact that he’s a strong believer and he’s prepared to stand up for what he believes in.

“We’re proud of the fact that he’s a strong believer and he’s prepared to stand up for what he believes in.

“We want athletes in our code who are prepared to do that and that’s really important.

“But at the same time, Rugby Australia’s got a policy and position of inclusion and using social media with respect.

“So that’s where we shared stories, shared ideas and shared positions and both of us recognise that what we want is a situation where we use our social media platforms in a respectful and positive way.”

There are some positives here and it’ll be interesting to see how it unfolds over the next few days, especially as to whether Qantas will turn down their rhetoric. Also interesting is Castle’s recognition of a now existing ‘tension’. Perhaps this is an opportunity for good listeners and reasonable minds to sit down and begin talking about how we can regain the art of disagreement in public discourse.