Evangelical! Who me?

When is it time to lay a word to rest? When is it appropriate to find an alternative name?

Stephen McAlpine is among a growing number of Evangelicals who are admitting we have a word problem, an identity problem. The term evangelical has become synonymous with a branch of American politics, and more recently, with a key group of Donald Trump supporters. Yes, there are notable evangelical voices repudiating Donald Trump, and recent polls suggest the majority of evangelicals would no more vote for Trump than they would Kylo Ren, but it is difficult to fight a bushfire with a garden hose.

McAlpine writes,

“The “Evangelical” brand is well on the way to being trashed in the US.  Time to think of a new word to describe ourselves I reckon, not just in the US, but across the West.

If it’s true financially that “when America sneezes, the world catches cold.”, the same appears to be true of American evangelicalism. The US arm of the brand has caught a pox from which it may not recover, and that pox is at risk of spreading to us.

It’s actually worse than a pox.  It’s gangrene. It has the whiff of death about it. Exxon, Union Carbide, Enron, Lehman Brothers. Perhaps we can add the “Evangelical” brand to that sorry pile. Time perhaps to cut ourselves off from the descriptor before we start to smell. Time for a new word

As he laters explains, the problem didn’t start with the rise of Donald Trump, it goes back to the 1980s when Christians hitched their wagon with the Republican movement.

The issue is even broader than North America. In Europe many denominations continue to use evangelical, as a eulogy to the past, although their theology often bares little resemble to that of their forefathers.

In Australia, evangelical has had branding kudos, at least in Christian circles, so much so that even many anti-evangelicals embraced the word: ’we don’t believe in the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ but the label works for us.’ To be fair, those who were slightly more ingenuous inserted adjectives, such as ‘broad’ or ‘progressive’, as a hint of their not so evangelical beliefs. This mass branding has not helped.

Language is situational, or least in part. When I describe my Christian faith in the community I refer to myself as a Christian, and sometimes I add that rarified name, Baptist! Rarely do I use words like evangelical or reformed, not because the words are getting a bad press, but because they hold little meaning to most Australians. Within ecclesiastical conversations I am happy to speak of my evangelical and reformed convictions, as they often help to build bridges of understanding, and at other times they clarify differences. But the reality is, when I’m chatting with my neighbours, evangelical doesn’t add anything.

If using the word inside churches is sometime confusing, McAlpine is right; outside of churches and theological institutions, identifying as an evangelical is becoming a herculean challenge, largely because our media lacks nuance. While it’s been trashed in the USA, at least American media acknowledge alternative evangelical viewpoints. Here in Australia, he only time evangelicals are mentioned is when there is a sniff of hydrogen sulphide in the air. For example, our news outlets have not been reporting Al Mohler on CNN or Russell Moore in the Washington Post, as they speak out against Donald Trump.

Has evangelical become unusable in Australia?

The Age newspaper now contains dozens of references to evangelicals, and almost without exception they associate these people with right wing American politics, or with ‘extreme’ Christian ideology in Australia.

ABC’s program, Planet America, regularly refer to the evangelical vote, and especially of their alleged support for Donald Trump.

It is clear that evangelical has become a by-word for religious right wing politics. While the media are responsible for selective reporting, they can hardly be blamed for tying at least some evangelicals with Donald Trump. After all, millions of Americans identify with evangelical and with the Republican movement.

There is an important lesson for us to learn, and that is, we must not bypass theology. We must resist making our identity a political ideology or social cause, we must begin with the Gospel and work out from there.

In 1989 David Bebbington first offered his now famous quadrilateral definition of evangelical. He understands evangelicals as holding four main qualities: biblicism, crucicentrism, conversionism, activism. There is much to like about his quadrilateral, however I also agree with Don Carson’s reservations (read “The Gagging of God”). Carson notes that even a Jesuit priest could put his hand up to this quadrilateral definition. As such, Bebbington has perhaps done evangelicals a disservice. 

To be evangelical is nothing less than being someone who holds to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The the very word from which we get evangelical is euangelion, which means Gospel.

I agree with Carson, who in turn follows John Stott, in taking us to 1 Corinthians 15:1-8. This is far from the only Scriptural place that explicates the gospel , but it does give us one of the fullest treatments of the Gospel, and we can’t overlook Paul’s introductory remark,

Now, brothers and sisters, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. 2 By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain.

For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance:

What is the euangelion?

that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve.  After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles,  and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.”

Both Stott and Carson summarise 1 Corinthians 15:3-7 with these 6 points: the Gospel is Christological, Biblical, Historical, theological, apostolic, and personal.

The problem is of course, people are no longer defining evangelical by the Gospel.


While I’m in large agreement with McAlpine, I’m not giving up on evangelical just yet, because rightly understood it is a word we should cherish and defend. But should the waves of malcontent persist, and an alternative is necessary, I think I’ll begin follow in Russell Moore’s footsteps and refer to myself a Gospel Christian.

Gospel Christian has the same meaning as evangelical Christian, but without the unhealthy socio-political connotations. Interestingly, both in the United States and here in Australia, among the larger Christian networks we don’t find the Evangelical Coalition, but rather the Gospel Coalition.

Some Christians prefer to known as orthodox or classical. I warm to both of these words, although Stephen McAlpine criticises ‘orthodox’ as a group who don’t affirm the real and physical return of Jesus Christ. Perhaps I’m ignorant, but I would have thought belief in the parousia is basic to anyone claiming orthodoxy.

The reality is, many of our Christian labels are disdained. I wish it was suffice to say, I’m a Christian. After all, that’s what I am, I am a Christian. But sadly Christian is frequently associated with all manner of social ills and evils (sometimes warranted). And when I fess up to being a Baptist, I’ve more than once had to qualify it by saying, no, we’re not like the JWs or Mormons.

McAlpine suggests we call ourselves, ‘eschatological Christians’,

“Eschatological” springs to mind. If someone asks me these days I’ve taken to saying that I am an “Eschatological Christian.” Sure it’s not catchy, but it’s not toxic either. Sure I will have to spend a bit of time explaining what it is, but hey, I’ll have to spend virtually no time explaining what it is not.

“Eschatological” is more likely to elicit an eyebrow raise than a nose wrinkle.  It is more likely to raise a question than rule a line under an answer. Most importantly it will distinguish me – and us – as those whose hopes -and energies – are not grounded in the political machinations of this age, but in the politics of the age to come lived out in the church today, and overflowing in practical, loving and humble ways into the community.

“Eschatological Christian” also distinguishes orthodox Christians who actually believe that there is a parousia coming in which King Jesus will usher in a new kingdom and judge the world in righteousness, from those who view that as an outdated notion beneath our modern sensibilities. A view that won’t get them respect in the academy.

The name has a certain Fitzroy living single-origin drinking indie-rocking listening feel to it, but I am unconvinced. First of all, few people know what eschatology means,  and second, it is  defining our identity by one area of theology, rather than the whole.

What do others think? How do you describe your Christian faith? Do you identify as an evangelical?

Misappropriation and misunderstanding shouldn’t surprise us; is it not the expectation given to us by the Lord Jesus? Does not the history of the church give us multiple examples of culture trampling on or deconstructing the church? In a world that is constantly confusing and even hijacking the Christian message, and doing so for all manner of social and political ends, we though can be responsible for how we represent the Lord Jesus Christ. Indeed, the more faithful we are to God’s word, the more useful we will be to society. So whether we call ourselves evangelical, Gospel, orthodox, or just plain and simple Christian, let’s do it with a growing sense of clarity, humility, grace, and winsomeness, in order to display the reality of Christ and of the hope held out in his Gospel.

Nothing will Change!


The people advocating for marriage equality in Australia are not attempting to impose their beliefs on to any church, they are simply objecting to churches imposing their definition of marriage onto the rest of us.”¹ (Jane Gilmore, Freelance writer, 18/10/16)

What happened in Ireland, and Great Britain, most of continental Europe, most of the Americas, New Zealand, Canada and all the rest?


Nothing.”² (Lisa Wilkinson, 14/10/16)

I challenge people here to demonstrate that changing the Marriage Act will lead to negative changes in religious freedom.”³ (paraphrase of a statement spoken by Mark Dreyfus at the recent Freedom For Faith Conference, 23/09/16)

It is unsurprising to hear a growing cacophony of voices dampening suggestions that changing marriage in Australia will lead to any negative consequences for society and religious freedom. To acknowledge such impact would probably weaken their position. But it is important for Australians to recognise that the argument of ‘no change’ is simply untrue.

Scott Sanders from The Geneva Push recently sat down with Mikey Ovey (Principal of Oak Hill College, London) to talk about what has been happening in the UK since same-sex marriage was legalised in 2014. It is worth taking time to listen to these 4 short videos. Keep in mind, Mike is speaking directly to the situation in the United Kingdom. There are also examples coming out of Canada and the USA which demonstrate how same sex marriage undermines not only freedom of religion, but also freedom of conscience. Al Mohler’s program, The Briefing, is a helpful resource for gauging the shifting climate in North America.

Even here in Australia, and this being prior to the legalisation of same-sex marriage, there are clear examples of how this issue is rearranging and limiting religious freedoms. For example, it is no longer possible to win preselection in the Australian Labor Party unless you agree to same-sex marriage. In recent weeks, in light of the now unlikely plebiscite, politicians across Parliament have been discussing which people and organisations will receive legal protections, should same-sex marriage be introduced. If there are no negative outcomes, why is the Government drafting legislation to protect certain groups?

Reshaping marriage means reshaping society and society’s laws and expectations, and reshaping the contour of religious freedom and practice. Lisa Wilkinson and Jane Gilmore can argue otherwise, but it is the logical flow on effect, and we are seeing this in practice around the world.

With all this talk about religious freedom one may be forgiven for thinking that this is the chief reason why Christians are arguing against changing the Marriage Act. This is not the case. Christians believe that  the Genesis paradigm for marriage is a creation mandate that is a good for all humanity, not only for Christians. Until a few years ago this view of marriage was an assumed good, but now we are aiming to persuade our fellow Aussies that it remains a good for society today. At the same time, it is imperative that we understand the kinds of changes that will issue from this watershed redefinition of marriage.

To Christians reading this, be assured, our ultimate confidence is in the Gospel of Jesus Christ, not in Australian law. The future of Christianity is not contingent upon any current or future legislation. No matter the socio-ethical landscape, we know God will continue his work through the Gospel and Churches will continue and people will become Christians. If God can redeem 50 million Chinese in communist China, and millions under persecuting Roman Emperors, cannot God still work in Australia? This of course includes  implications for how Christians  love and serve our gay and lesbian neighbours, whether the definition of marriage changes or not. I trust we are already making every effort to befriend and support them, and to show them the love of Christ. For we remember that we too, in all manner of ways, once defined morality and truth in ways to fit with personal inclinations, and in that moment God graciously revealed Christ to us.

1. http://www.news.com.au/lifestyle/gay-marriage/opinion-the-logic-fail-of-christian-objections-to-marriage-equality/news-story/bc247a193538625138d6f86f5c7cde65

2. http://www.huffingtonpost.com.au/lisa-wilkinson/what-will-happen-if-we-legalise-same-sex-marriage/

3. https://freedomforfaith.org.au/

“The Island of Despair”


“When a child expresses that want to kill themselves in that environment, we believe them.”  (Gabby Sutherland, Former Specialist teacher on Nauru Island)

If it came to my attention that there were children in my local community who were self-harming, being locked-up, being denied access to clean drinking water and sanitation, would I speak up? Would it not be unethical and iniquitous of me to remain silent?

I don’t know all that is happening in Nauru and Manus Island. We hear conflicting reports, but it is difficult to ignore two recent published reports, one by the United Nations and the other by Amnesty International. It is also difficult to ignore the stories that were shared last night on Four Corners by former teaching staff on Nauru, and by children themselves, whose words had to be recorded in secret.

In today’s The Age, I read,

“Anna Neistat, Amnesty’s senior director of research who travelled to Nauru, said the report provided direct evidence of Australia’s responsibility for day-to-day decision-making, and that Australia should be held accountable for breaching the Convention Against Torture – with a remote possibility that individual government officials could be prosecuted under international law.

“It’s the intentional nature of it,” she told Fairfax Media. “The Australian government is not even hiding the fact that the key purpose of this policy is deterrence. When you set up a system that inflicts deliberate harm as a deterrence, it’s really hard to find another name for it other than torture.”

Dr Neistat, a 15-year veteran of crisis work in Syria, Yemen and Chechnya, said the Nauruan regime was particularly galling because people’s suffering was “absolutely unnecessary” and shrouded in “shocking” secrecy. “I was not prepared for what I saw, and definitely not prepared for what I heard,” she said.

Torture is a loaded word and one not to be used lightly,  sadly the growing mountain of evidence suggests there is warrant for its usage in the case of our nation’s policies towards asylum seekers.

Off shore detention was introduced by the Howard Government in 2001, and has been continued by Labor and Coalition Governments since. According to the report released yesterday by Amnesty International, there are currently there are 1,159 asylum-seekers and refugees on Nauru: 410 people reside in the Refugee Processing Centre; 749 refugees live outside of the centre. Among this number are many children who have been in detention for over 3 years.

I’m not going to pretend that I have a detailed knowledge of what is transpiring in these detention centres, and I’m not going to naively suggest I have the answers. But one thing is clear to me, we have principles given by God as to how we ought to consider the refugee, and we would do well to use these as as a starting point for framing reasonable and humanitarian policies.

I realise most Australians are quick to ditch the Bible, especially the Old Testament for in it they perceive a God who is vindictive and harsh. Yes, there are hard words spoken in the Old Testament, and also in the New Testament. The fact is, some of the most difficult words ever spoken came from the lips of Jesus Christ. Instead of shunning these words, perhaps we Aussies ought to listen to them because clearly our hearts are calloused toward many of the world’s most vulnerable people.

In the Old Testament we read,

“He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing”. (Deuteronomy 10:18)

In the New Testament we read,

“Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.” (James 1:27)

If God is concerned for the world’s refugees and we are not, what does that say about us?

As Australia’s off-shore policies were developed, were there genuine concerns about people smugglers and the safety of refugees fleeing onboard unseaworthy boats? Yes.

Is there also an inherent selfishness among Australians, not wanting to share our plenty with those who have lost their homeland? Yes.

Is there a stain of racism that makes Australians apathetic towards refugees? Yes.

The first issue cannot be ignored and finding a fair solution is not without complication. But it seems to me as though there is an core problem with the way Australians look at the world. We live and work and care when we find net value for ourselves, but the notion of loving our neighbour as ourselves is being lost, and polluted by rampant individualism and self service. Maybe you may think I’m sounding just a little cynical, but is not the evidence before us?

Perhaps it is pride that’s preventing our Government from changing its policies toward asylum seekers. I don’t know the answer to that, although it seems plausible, and alternative explanations are far less laudable. Political pride is ugly, but we can no more blame our Parliamentary representatives than ourselves, for they are a reflection of Australia, and of the values and ambitions we cherish.

We did not create the conditions that led to so many people seeking refuge in our country, but we can be part of the answer and give these human beings hope and a safe place to live. Are we not the most prosperous and liveable nations on earth? Do we not have more to share than most other countries can even imagine? Are we not able to sacrifice a little for thousands who have lost so much?

Reports of poor conditions, deteriorating mental health among children, and abuses by detention officers are not new, but today we will be damning our consciences if we close eyes and hearts to these latest reports.

Would we ever intentionally put our own children in an unsafe environment, or permit the Government to do so? And should we be made aware that this is so, would we not get them out of there straight away? Is this not common sense, let alone the caring thing to do?

Same-sex marriage narrative isn’t so neat


It wasn’t that long ago that we were listening to advocates for marriage change insist marriage wasn’t about children, and that it was misleading to use children as part of an argument for classical marriage.

For example, last year on QandA, the Federal Greens leader, Richard Di Natale, shouted down a fellow panellist for daring to connect marriage with raising children. The panellist was Katy Faust, an American blogger who was raised by two lesbians (one being her mum). She speaks affectionately about both women who raised her, she nonetheless believes children ought to have a mother and father.

“While my mother was a fantastic mother and most of what I do well as a mother myself I do because that’s how she parented me, she can’t be a father. Her partner, an incredible woman — both of these women have my heart — cannot be a father either.”

Penny Wong is also on the record, rebuffing Eric Abetz who submitted same-sex marriage would deny children the basic rights of a mother and father.

Di Natale’s and Wong’s outrage in not unique to them,  it has been mimicked by other politicians and social commentators. Indeed it has become part of the narrative: don’t bring children into the marriage conversation.

The only problem with this plot line is that SSM advocates have now found ways to use children in support of their own case. Hence, it’s anathema for one side to mention children, but it is only right and natural for children to be front and centre waving rainbow flags.

Last weekend in Melbourne at a marriage change rally, young children were organised to be on the platform and talk about their positive experiences of living with 2 mums or 2 dads. These children then featured in weekend newspapers across the nation.

Today in Canberra, Bill Shorten and Mark Dreyfus met with ‘rainbow families’ at Parliament, and the ensuing photo-op has been splashed all over social media tonight.

This dramatic shift in narrative has taken an even stranger twist today; while children from gay families were being welcomed by Mr Shorten and Mr Dreyfus, in Canberra was another woman raised by 2 lesbian mums. But for some reason, Labor representatives were not keen to meet with her, and certainly no photography and selfies for their twitter accounts. Why were some children raised by 2 mums or dads put in the political spotlight, and  24 year old Millie Fontana was refused even a casual chat?

It appears as though her story doesn’t fit with story that is being written for Australia’s history books.

In an interview in Triple J today, Millie Fontana says,

‘I’m an atheist. But our story needs to be told. It’s natural to want a mum and a dad. But when we speak, we are told we are homophobes and Christians’.

Fontana is not alone in her belief that children should have a father and mother; there are numerous similar stories of children who were raised in same-sex contexts, but for the most part these testimonies are being ignored. Why? They don’t fit into the narrative being spun by certain political and social scriptwriters. 

The changing story goes something like this: children are not relevant to this marriage debate…except now those raised by lesbian or gay parents…so long as those kids don’t believe that children should have a dad and mum. 

Millie Fontana’s testimony is especially awkward because unlike someone like Katy Faust, Fontana is an atheist and even supports same sex marriage, but she does not believe children should be denied their mum and dad.

The reality is, there are many different Australians concerned with same-sex marriage and with its consequences, and they can’t be put in a box labelled, ‘heterosexual religious bigots’. In fact, very few people can accurately be described as such, but again, that’s not the story Mr Shorten, Ms Wong, and others want Australia to believe.

I’d love to see Mr Shorten and Mr Dreyfus meet with Millie Fontana, to hear her story. More important, the Australian public ought to be aware that the SSM narrative is not so neat and tidy, and contrary to reassurances from political leaders, there are real consequences that will flow from changing the definition of marriage.

Read more of the Triple J interview with Millie Fontana

While she’s for same-sex couples marrying, she has deep concerns about what same-sex marriage would mean for family structures. Families like hers.

“Same-sex parenting is not something I’m against,” Millie told Hack. “It’s got to be done ethically. There’s no easy way of raising a child in a same-sex scenario.”

“Same-sex marriage coming in basically says we don’t need biology,” she said. “Marriage itself has been so intertwined with child reproduction, and what I want to see happen is the preservation of child rights, regardless of who gets married.”

Not knowing her dad denied her “genetic integrity”, Millie said.

All children have a right to know who they are.”

Millie didn’t meet her dad until she was 11 years old. His absence had a big impact on her life.

She’d asked her mums to meet him as a young child, and they’d said no. She started acting out and having problems at school.

“It was very hard for me to establish a stable identity,” Millie said. “It was negatively impacting my development.”

‘There was always something missing’

No one ever teased her at school, and her mums were loving and provided all she needed for a stable home life. But Millie said she still clung to the “missing gender” in her life.

“There was always something missing for me, and I can honestly say that I always wanted to know who my father was.”

Millie is against same-sex couples denying their children access to their mother or father. She’s also against single people choosing to have children, for the same reason.

Skullduggery in the Church?

Descending onto Melbourne yesterday wasn’t the gale force winds sweeping across from South Australia, but another tirade against Sydney Anglicans. I’m not sure why The Age even bothered to reproduce the article, given it has little relevance to Melbourne, but why should Sydney keep all the sensationalism to themselves?


It is always disappointing to read of anyone being misrepresented in the media. We all know it happens, and we know it ought not, but it does. It doesn’t matter who is being misrepresented, slander is slander regardless of who is in the firing line.  In this case, it is the Anglican Diocese of Sydney. 

Author and Columnist, Elizabeth Farrelly, is careful to paint a vivid portrait of Sydney Anglicans. The language is suitably chosen to support her thesis:

“skullduggery in the church”

“What if the Pharisees are back in charge?”

“It’s not just the ongoing nightmare of institutionalised child-sex abuse and the decades-long connivance that implies. Nor even the antediluvian opposition to women preachers and same-sex marriage. Exacerbating all that is an increasingly aggressive stamping out of dissent.”

“These are voices the church now works to destroy.”

“Sydney Anglicanism’s now “cultish” atmosphere”

And on it goes.

Everyone warms to Friar Tuck and the Vicar of Dibley, and we all like to boo Camerlengo Patrick McKenna, the Bishop of Hereford, and John Ballard. Elizabeth Farrelly wants to leave readers in no doubt as to which group of clergy the Diocese of Sydney belongs.

Farrelly’s language is selected carefully in order build a case of Pharisaism against Sydney Anglicans, and to portray Keith Mascord and others as victims who lay in their wake. It is of little consequence that the allegations are as thin as the slimmest slice of swiss cheese; cheese smells.

Especially worrying is the way Farrelly so easily draws in the issue of child abuse. With such an incredibly  sensitive and serious matter, it is disingenuous and even dangerous to clump it with the topic she is primarily addressing. For example, to introduce the situation with child sexual abuses in the Newcastle Diocese as evidence of hypocrisy among Sydney Anglican is misleading and paramount to libel. Farrelly’s gotcha moment is a quote from Sydney pastor, Rev David Ould…except that his actual quote says the opposite of what she claims. He has subsequently written this response to the misquote.

It is also important to note this crucial factual error, which Farrelly’s case depend on: depends on for her chief criticism of the Diocese: contrary to what Farrelly writes, Keith Mascord was not delicensed as a priest last week. He has not been licensed since 2013. Not only that, he was recently offered a licence to minister in his local parish, but Keith declined as he was unwilling to follow his ordination vows.

When evidence is not to be found, Farrelly resorts to conjecture in order to further her case:

She says, “You might think an institution of diminishing influence would engage its internal questioners in eager debate. You might expect the church, having been built around a rocker-of-boats and tipper-of-apple carts, to know that comfortable words pattered out over tea are not the only ones to hear.”

Anyone who has studied at Moore College or attended Diocesan Synods will know that Sydney Anglicans are more willing to debate issues and have those difficult conversations than any other Christian denomination I know of in Australia. The issue is not whether the Diocese is open to serious debate, but that they have not landed in a place that Farrelly would approve of.

Also this,

“The tellers of uncomfortable truths are those we most need. People whose truths come at significant cost to themselves, whose truths are wrenched from them; they’re the heroes, the soothsayers, the prophets. But these are voices the church now works to destroy.”

Farrelly doesn’t define what she means by truth; all we know is that the Sydney Diocese don’t have it, and the dissenting voices whom she supports do have it.

In the case of Keith Mascord, we are not seeing any example of Pharisaism, but of common sense. If a builder confessed that he no longer accepted the building code, and that he would proceed to break it at several points, it would be reasonable for his licence not be renewed. Similarly, when a Christian minister explains that he can no longer abide by the beliefs of the Denomination he is licensed to, it is appropriate that he not continue.

Are Sydney Anglicans perfect? Of course not, and I suspect nearly all Sydney Anglicans would gladly put up their hand in agreement. That’s what Christians do, we confess our sins.

I’m not a Sydney-sider nor am I an Anglican, but the impression I am left with is that Elizabeth Farrelly is no supporter of the Sydney Anglicans! I don’t think anyone  is insisting that Elizabeth Farrelly like or approve of their teaching, but when it comes to reporting a story, readers deserve to be presented with the facts.

A Statement from the Sydney Diocese regarding Keith Mascord’s license can be read here 

Redeeming social justice from liberals (and conservatives)

Behind this post are two conversations that I’m having with myself today: One, Mike Frost wrote a piece titled, It’s Not a Liberal Agenda, it’s the Gospel!. Second, this Sunday I’m preaching on Matthew 7:15-23, and so I’m spending time grappling with these words from the Lord Jesus.

As you read these ponderings you shouldn’t read them as a critique of Mike Frost, unless I refer to him explicitly. Mike’s meanderings serve as a jumping point for some ideas rather than the framing of what I want to say.

Also, as you read this article I understand that some people may burst a boil as you spot caveats, ‘what ifs’, and buts. In light of these medical emergencies may I offer this prefatory remark: this is a blog post not a 15,000 word essay, and so don’t be disappointed if I don’t fill in every gap or close every alleged theological aperture.


i. Social selectivism

The Bible is certainly not short of individuals who lived a ‘form of godliness’, but ‘denied its power’, meaning they were bereft of Christ’s Gospel.

In my experience, both cultural conservatives and progressives have a propensity to fail in this way.

First of all, they are almost always selective in the kind of issues they promote. When was the last time you heard social and theological progressives defending the rights of unborn children and fighting to retain a classical view of marriage? Of course, the question could be asked of many issues across the socio-political spectrum.

It shouldn’t need to be said, but we know it needs to be said, Jesus never voted Green, Labor, or Liberal. Trying to squeeze Jesus under under any socio-political umbrella is wrong;  maybe he would prefer to stand out in the rain!

There are historical reasons why evangelicals have dropped the ball on many social concerns. These include the World Council of Churches’, Missio Dei, Second Vatican, and Lausanne 1974, each which have negatively impacted confidence in and need for verbal proclamation of the Gospel. Before this century long trajectory, Evangelicals immersed themselves in caring for the poor and suffering in society; some of the greatest evangelists were also intimately involved in creating orphanages and charities for the poor (John Wesley and Charles Spurgeon, for example).

Perhaps Mike’s critics smell some WCC residue in his social concerns; I don’t know.

But I love the fact that Mike Frost (and others) is seizing these issues from those who think they belong to a ‘leftist agenda.’ Concerns for Refugees and Indigenous people doesn’t belong to theological liberals, any more than other issues belong to the ‘right’. Rather, he’s rightly placing all things in the scope of God’s cosmic rule in Christ. While none of us can be active across all that troubles this fallen world, there is no opting out of loving our neighbour, including further examples that Frost cites,  people caught up in gambling and in the sex industry.

ii. Missing the Evangelical heart.

“Our job, as his followers, is to both announce and demonstrate what the rule of King Jesus is like and invite others to join us, to recognize that Jesus’ sacrificial death atoned for the sins of all, and that his resurrection establishes him as the Son whom God has appointed judge of the world and Lord of the coming kingdom.” (Mike Frost)

It’s a great statement, but the question is, in practice what is this looking like? Four questions/concerns come to mind. I don’t know Mike well enough to know what he’d think of these points, but they are certainly true of some of my friends who readily identify with some social justice issues. With the view of loving the poor:

1. Verbal proclamation of the Gospel is often relegated, if not dispensed with altogether.

I remember sitting in a seminar a few years back, addressing the topic of local mission. The presenter spoke of ‘doing mission’ by creating programs to help the poor and marginalised. I asked a question about evangelism, to which he answered, one might explain the Gospel but it is not necessary.

I did find this comment of Mike’s about evangelism a little boorish,

‘Is the gospel really just a set of magic words, like an incantation, I have to blurt out to appear to be true to Jesus?’

I certainly don’t know anyone who thinks this way, and it’s a bit mischievous to portray folk this way. We would do well to remind ourselves of Jesus’ earthly ministry where he prioritised the public preaching of God’s Word, a model adopted by the Apostles and passed on to future generations of pastors. At the same time, they didn’t ignore the very real social needs around them, and Jesus gives us the example par excellence of loving society’s most disadvantaged.

2. Aspects of the atonement such as Christus exemplar and Christus victor take centre stage while penal substitution is squeezed out, often becoming little more than an awkward ‘theory’.

3. The Gospel of ‘forgiveness of sins’ drops from the centre of  the Christian message, and we fall danger of converting people into a Gospel of works.

4. I want to be careful about confusing Gospel fruit with the Gospel, although we want to say the Gospel will inevitably and necessarily produce fruit (cf. Matt 7:15-23).

If any of these points are representative of the bald man of Manly, then there may be warrant for criticism, but fighting for refugees is no indicator of belittling evangelism or compromising the Gospel. And of the social concerns he has written, how can we not want to speak up and to defend and love?

iii. Redeeming social justice.

None of the above points are inevitable. Serving the hurting, lonely, and unwanted, are beautiful and necessary examples of loving our neighbours. These actions are fruit of the Gospel.

Does not the good news of Jesus Christ change everything? When we have experienced God’s forgiveness, and by grace been brought into his family, this love changes the way we view other people. Therefore, we mustn’t leave these issues to the left or right, for the love of Christ compels us.

In light of the Scripture I think it is fair to say that a Church who promotes social justice but doesn’t practice evangelism has failed to understand the Gospel and is disobeying God. And Christians who believe in evangelism and who think it unChristian to fight for the most oppressed, they too are yet to grasp the Gospel. As Jesus says, a good tree will produce good fruit. And in the Sermon on the Mount, fruit is almost a synonym for righteousness, and righteousness here includes purity, humility, sacrifice, and generosity. Is it not applicable to live out these things for the good of society’s most vulnerable people?

From what I can see, Evangelicals are returning to social justice ministries, and many respected evangelical leaders are increasingly speaking to these issues, including Tim Keller, Russell Moore, Al Mohler, and the Anglican Archbishop of Sydney, Glenn Davies. Why? The Gospel changes everything.

We don’t have to choose between helping the poor and doing evangelism. We ought to do both for both express love for others, and we commit to both without de-centralising the place of Gospel telling.

Drumming along to the wrong beat

Yesterday’s The Drum invited two Anglican ministers and an atheist to discuss the question of marriage and homosexuality.


Panellist Jane Gilmore came out and suggested, ‘Logically, I can’t see how Christian stance on homosexuality and ‘marriage equality’ makes sense’.

Her reasoning for this Christian’ illogic’ is that Christianity is about accepting ‘Jesus as the Son of God and the Gospels as the word of God’ but that Jesus said nothing about homosexuality and so Christians should support both homosexuality and Same-sex marriage.

It is true, accepting Jesus as God’s Son and believing the Bible to be the word of God are both essential (and might I add, sublime) parts of the Christian faith, but is her rationale about marriage accurate?

I understand most Australians no longer read the Bible, and rarely listen to sermons expounding the Bible, but when one goes on national television and erroneously suggests the support of Jesus Christ, I can hear someone shouting fact check!

When we open and read the Bible we soon discover that Jesus often spoke about marriage, and when he did he repeatedly affirmed these two points: First, he affirmed the Old Testament view of marriage, that it is between a man and a woman intended for life. Second, Jesus called all other sexual behaviour porneia, meaning sexual immorality. It is important to note that Jesus was not towing the normal cultural line  of his culture; often he spoke about marriage in front of people who contravening Old Testament teachings by divorcing their wives for all kinds of crazy and wrong reasons. He challenged the marital norms of his day by reaffirming one woman and one man for life.

“But at the beginning of creation God ‘made them male and female.’ ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two, but one flesh,” the words of Jesus in Mark‬ ‭10:6-8‬.

According to Jane Gilmore, not only did Jesus have nothing relevant to say about current questions over marriage, homosexuality is only mentioned in the Old Testament. Unfortunately, Gilmore also gets this wrong. The New Testament speaks of homosexuality on three occasions. We shouldn’t make more of it than there is, but we cannot ignore the fact that on every occasion the New Testament speaks of homosexual behaviour, it does so negatively.

It should be said, none of these passages are pitching their argument against people who experience same-sex attraction or sexual confusion, but of practice. Indeed, there are many Christians who live with same-sex attraction, and have chosen to live a life of abstinence.

Abstinence is of course portrayed as one of today’s deadly sins; a vice not a virtue. But perhaps this says more about our society than it does about the good of self-control.

Gilmore is guilty of one further error, although it’s understandable for those who haven’t read the Bible: It is a mistake to pit Jesus’ words against the rest of the Bible, for it is believed he is the ultimate author of all Scripture, and as Jesus himself said, all the Scriptures point to him. Again, the 3 New Testament mentions of homosexuality are found in the midst of discussions exploring the Gospel of Jesus Christ and what is considered ‘sound doctrine’.

The two Anglican ministers on the panel unfortunately did not correct Jane Gilmore, and I suspect the reason is, revising her lack of Bible knowledge would expose the hypocrisy of their own views. Let’s be clear, these two men were on the program specifically because they support same-sex marriage, a position which Julia Baird pointed out is not supported by most Anglicans. The truth is, all major Christian denominations in Australia share what we might call, the classic view of marriage.

Rod Bower, of Gosford Anglican, tried to give some credence to Gilmore’s miss-exegesis when he claimed the Bible authors only knew of heterosexuality and nothing of homosexuality. To back up this allegation, he suggested that the Bible’s only issue with homosex is when heterosexuals are doing it. This is a very poor reading of Romans ch.1, and only few scholars would even entertain this as a possible interpretation. The phrase ‘abandoned natural relations’ (Romans 1:27) does not mean heterosexuals acting contrary to their nature. The noun phusikos is used in both Scripture and Hellenistic Jewish traditions to speak of created order. Neither Paul, nor any Bible writer, differentiates between“homosexuals” committing acts of homosex and “heterosexuals” committing homosex. Homosexual behaviour, regardless of how one might define one’s sexuality, is contrary to God’s created order, contrary to phusikos.

Our atheist professing panellist did get something right, Jesus did speak about love. It’s true, Jesus said a lot about love, and he wasn’t just a preacher, he practiced love, and he loved those whom others were unwilling to love. But this love Jesus taught and modelled was not expressed in a moral vacuum, such that we can fill it up any way we like, and his definition of love was not derivative of popular morality or from religious shibboleths. Rather, his love is an expression to human beings of Divine love, a Trinitarian love, a holy love.

Jesus had plenty to say about sex and marriage, but arguing that Jesus would support same sex marriage is as incongruous as predicting Sydney Swan supporters will be barracking for the Doggies at Saturday’s AFL Grand Final. In Jesus we will not find an ally for progressive sexuality, we do however discover a God who demonstrated profound love and concern for those who found themselves in alternate situations, some by choice, others forced upon them. He gave up his life to promise a new kind of life that is more ultimate and satisfying, no matter where we have found ourselves.

The Sri Lankan evangelist, Ajith Fernando tells the story, ‘A convert to Christianity, when asked what attracted him to Christ, said “what other God would die for people like me?’

People may choose to disagree with Jesus but let’s not debase these important conversations by misrepresenting him, or anyone for that matter. At a time when our national discourse is often overrun with stereotypes and misinformation about opposing views, is it asking too much that we get the facts right?