Is there persecution in Australia?

I don’t know if anyone has done the numbers, and I’m not old enough to know what Australian media was like before the mid1990s. I may be wrong, but my sense is that media is reporting more stories about Christians and Christianity than even 5 or 10 years ago. Many of the stories are negative (sometimes with good reason), while some are supportive of Christianity. There are stories and op-eds being written about Christianity and culture by Christians, and by agnostics, atheists, and Muslims; even sporting journalists are getting in on the act.

A good deal of what we read skews what Christians believe and practice, but why should we be surprised by that? Even some of the sympathetic journalism is unhelpful because it paints Christianity in ways other than through the lens of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

On the upside, all the flurry of Christian attention is opening all kinds of opportunities to have conversations with people. On the downside, I am noting how many Christians are running too quickly to the poles, and not sticking with Jesus and letting his word shape our words and actions. As soon as another story about Christianity hits the news, responses are often tailored more by notions of progressive or conservative identities, and that’s a problem. When Christians too readily identify with left or right issues, we often can’t admit that there’s any problem unless it’s on the ‘right’ foot. The myopia is made worse by the fact that everyone has their preferred sources for news. The ABC is a friend…or foe. Are we Murdoch readers or Fairfax subscribers? And which journalist best represents our socio-political proclivities?

Last week’s story about children evangelising in Queensland school grounds is a classic example of this ridiculous Christian ping pong. On the one hand some Christian leaders ran to Andrew Bolt’s side, while other’s waved the Education Minister’s statement as proof that the entire story was a beat up. Both were wrong. The prohibition is real enough, and the Minister’s denial, while welcome, does not resolve the issue. Neither, though, is the Queensland Government the anti-Christ, as some silly people were suggesting.

Another example of this inane and insane polarisation took place today when Andrew Bolt jumped on the story of a Hobart Presbyterian Minister, Campbell Markham, who’s been notified of complaints made against his teaching by an upset atheist. As soon as people began to share the story on social media, it’s as though the Red Sea parted, with some going to the right in praise of Bolt’s defence, and others moving left to distance themselves from the Herald Sun columnist and all those shallow allegations of persecution in Australia.

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We would be mistaken if we defer to Andrew Bolt as some pseudo-Bishop for Aussie Christianity. After all, he does tell us that he is not a Christian. We are also mistaken if we close our eyes and claim that there’s nothing to see, and that any suggestion of persecution is simply overreach and unhelpful hyperbole.

Let’s take a look at the Bible’s language of persecution. The Biblical words convey a broad sense of opposition. The primary word, dioko, means to pursue, chase, or drive away. The aim of persecution is to drive away the Gospel, Jesus, and those who follow him.

Persecution can take on many shapes and sizes.

Persecution can be intense and severe: you may be marked out in your community and lose privileges that others enjoy. You may lose your job, be imprisoned, be forced to flee and seek asylum in another country. You may be killed. This is the experience of many millions of our brothers and sisters today in different parts of the world.

On other occasions, the Bible gives examples of ‘softer’ persecution. For example, in the Beatitudes Jesus says,  “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you.”

We must be careful not to conflate our circumstances with those faced by many of our brothers and sisters in other parts of the world. Disagreement for example is not persecution.

We must also be careful not to minimise real threats that have been  made again some Christians in Australia. To argue that there is no persecution is ignorant and even callous.  Sure, persecution in Australia is unusual, but it’s not unknown. Indeed, more than a few members of my church have been subjected to bullying by parents and by spouses because they have chosen to follow Jesus. This includes disownment and disinheritance, should they persist in being baptised and joining a local church.

Across Bass Strait, Campbell Markham and David Gee are the latest Tasmanian preachers to have formal complaints made against them for their Bible teaching. Being brought before a State’s Anti-Discrimination Commissioner, because someone took offence at your preaching, is a form of thlipsis.

Just because there is no tsunami doesn’t mean that the tide isn’t changing, and neither does the changing tide mean that there’s a gigantic wave about hit the shore.

At Mentone Baptist we are currently preaching through Romans ch.12-16, and our text yesterday was 12:14-21. No matter the direction of the tide, it is a posture to have continually define our response,

“9 Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. 10 Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves. 11 Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord. 12 Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. 13 Share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality.

14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. 15 Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. 16 Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited.

17 Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. 18 If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. 19 Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. 20 On the contrary:

“If your enemy is hungry, feed him;

    if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.

In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.”

21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”

Queensland Education Department is afraid of Jesus?

In the school playground, children talk about everything and anything: what they watch on television, who is eating what for lunch, their favourite sporting players and what bands they’re listening too, and what they’re hoping to do on the weekend. But if the Queensland Education Department have their way, the one topic children will not be allowed to speak about is Jesus.

In our click bait media culture, it is sometimes hard to discern real stories from the dubious, but sure enough, this story is legitimate.

The Queensland Education Department have undertaken to inform schools that children are not to discuss Christianity outside formal Religious Instruction classes.

To quote from the Departmental report that has been given to schools,

“While not explicitly prohibited by the EGPA or EGPR, nor referenced in the RI policy statement, the Department expects schools to take appropriate action if aware that students participating in RI are evangelising to students who do not  participate in their RI class, given this could adversely affect the school’s ability to provide a safe, supportive and inclusive environment for all students.”

What is extraordinary about this memorandum is that the Department admits that this prohibition falls outside the parameters of any formal policy and guidelines, but they are nevertheless insisting schools take action.

Evangelism is defined by the Department as “preaching or advocating a cause or religion with the object of making converts to Christianity”.

The problem with their definition of evangelism is that in effectively prohibits any conversation that involves God, Jesus, and Church. Inviting a friend to a Christmas service might be interpreted as evangelism. Sharing what you learned about God could be taken as evangelism. It is only natural for children to talk about and share things that are important to them and that they enjoy; for many children this includes belief in Jesus and being part of a church.

Is the education department really wanting to squash children’s freedom to talk about issues beyond homework, sport, music, and latest i-pad apps?

Is inviting a friend to a church event really going to undermine pluralism and respect? Is a group of student engaging in the big questions of life so unacceptable?

 

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Associate Professor of Law, Neil Foster, has written an important response to this QLD report, pointing out that it fails several important tests. It is worth taking the time to read. In summary, he notes that,

1. This “expectation” is not supported by legislation

2. This “expectation” is probably illegal as discriminatory

3. The “expectation” is illegal as contradicting the head legislation

4. The “expectation” undermines free speech of pupils

5. The “expectation” undermines religious freedom for pupils

 

These points alone amount to checkmate, but there is more.

First, the prohibition fails the test of what is sensible.

Remembering what it’s like to be a child at school, and having 3 children at school, I can imagine the kinds of conversations that will happening today. During lunch there will be 10 year old students inviting their friends to the movies this weekend: Do you want to come with me and watch the new Transformers  movie or Planet of the Apes film? Watching age inappropriate movies is fine, but Church is too dangerous. Birthday cards will be handed out, but please avoid Christmas cards. Have a giggle over dirty jokes, but let’s be clear, no one can mention the Bible.

I realise Queensland is the sunny state, but one can have too much sun. This Departmental imposition really is as silly as it sounds, and it will in fact achieve the opposite of their intention, which is to ‘provide a safe, supportive and inclusive environment for all students.’ 

In recent years we have laughed at schools who have banned balls from the  playground, because they are a threat to children’s safety. Now, we have to remove Jesus talk because it will undermine social cohesion in schools?  Do we really not trust that our kids can have reasonable conversations about religion? It is all the more ironic, because the very principles that these bureaucrats  want to see in school, that of respect and inclusion, are based on Christian beliefs?

Second, the QLD Education Department wrongly assumes that non-God talk in the playground is somehow morally and spiritual neutral, as though children can chat about any topic in a theologically neutral way. This is not true secularism, it’s imposed atheism. It is anti-pluralism. If the only permitted discourse is void of language deferring to God and religion, then what we will have is exclusive and intolerant atheism. Is that the kind of school environment we want for our children?

As I was reading about this story this morning, my mind turned to the book of Acts in the Bible and to chapter 4 where the city’s leadership arrested Peter and John for talking about Jesus with people. They warned the disciples, ‘do not speak or teach in the name Jesus’. Peter and John replied, ‘we can’t help it’.  One can only assume that these education officials haven’t ready a Bible nor studied history, because demanding that people stop talking about Jesus usually has the opposite affect.

I trust that sane heads will prevail and that the Queensland Education Department will retract this injunction.

 

 


Update:

The QLD Education Minister has released a statement this afternoon denying there’s any ban on students sharing their faith with other students. Ms Jones said, ‘No one is telling a child what they can and can’t say in the playground.”

This is welcome news. However it doesn’t explain the Department’s report which she accepted, a report which urges schools not to permit God-talk by students outside of Scripture Classes. This report falls under the official policy section of the Education Department, titled, ‘Religious instruction policy statement’.

On this page there is a section marked ‘Reviews’ which is introduced with this statement,

“The purpose of the reviews is to provide guidance to state schools as to whether the program complies with departmental policies, procedures and applicable law.”

This ban is official guidance for schools.

In other words, the Minister’s statement is at odds with her own Department’s position. 

We encourage Ms Jones to follow through with today’s positive announcement and ensure that those statements about evangelism are removed altogether.

ABC, Domestic Violence, and Churches

Over the course of the week I affirmed much of the ABC’s reporting into domestic violence, and made it clear that any and all abuse is wrong and not to be tolerated. Abuses in the home contravene the teaching of the Bible, and expressly transgresses the Bible’s teaching on marriage. I have made my views public, not only this week, but 2 years ago.

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Unfortunately, ABC reporters are choosing to draw links and make strong insinuations where the threads are tenuous.

For instance Julia Baird has hit back at people who questioned the ABC’s reporting of statistics, suggesting that they were “quibbling” over data. At the same time, panelist Georgina Dent, insisted that there isn’t enough data. On the one hand, viewers were told that anyone asking questions about the research were ‘quibbling” and denying some of the assertions made by Baird and others, and then viewers were being told that the research should be even more damning than it is. This is problematic and confusing for so many reasons.

I do take issue with some comments being made this week. I have not appreciated the tone of some individuals, who instead of recognising that abuse can occur in a Church context, they simply went on the defensive. This is poor form, and it only aggravates the appalling wounds of women who have had courage to speak up this week.

Having said this, it appears somewhat disingenuous when the reporters suggests there is ‘quibbling’ of data. Let’s be clear, the ABC report relies on particular research, and it has since come to light that the evidence does not support some of the connections that Baird and others are trying to establish. For example, one of the main arguments being made on the ABC is that ‘headship’ teaching plays a significant role in the abuse of women. The research however says that the men who are the least likely to abuse their wives are those who are active and regular members of conservative churches. There is though a connection between abuse and men who are sporadic attenders of conservative churches.

Those ‘quibblers’ were not doubting the veracity of the research, but the ABC’s presentation of the evidence. Viewers are left asking, should we accept the research or not?

One of the key researchers that the ABC’s report relies upon is the work of Professor W Bradford Wilcox. Over the weekend he has weighed in on the conversation with a series of tweets, in which he questions the way that the ABC has represented the findings from his studies. It certainly unusual for an academic to step in and comment on a journalistic article from a different country.

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Secondly, in a follow up piece from last night’s The Drum, the views articulated by David Ould, are not fairly represented. It’s not that you misquote him, but that you didn’t quote the rest of what David said, and that you inserted these particular comments in a context that suggests his views are out of touch with what Christians really ought to believe. The reporter didn’t even properly explain what the Bible means by headship and submission, but presents it in such a way that readers are meant to think, ‘well, we all know how silly and wrong that view is’. 

I whole-heartedly agree with this comment by Philip Freier, offered last night on The Drum,

”I know that these words are easy sometimes to say, but I think we should be truly regretful where we have failed and we haven’t listened to people, or understood the depth of their suffering, or the kind of situation that they are being urged to go back into.”

However, the Melbourne Archbishop also made this astonishing remark in which he, as a Christian leader, denounced the very own Scriptures he is ordained to uphold,

“I don’t find there is an essential reading of the Bible that teaches me that I must believe in the headship of men. I read the Bible and see that it talks more about the mutuality of people and their love towards each other.”

That’s a problem, because the Bible does teach a view of headship, and this view is one where the husband leads in love like Christ and lays down his life for his wife. Surely, the Archbishop isn’t asking husbands to ignore this biblical model? Not only that, his comment speaks against the very research that the ABC originally relied upon, that churches teaching and practicing Ephesians 5:22-31 have the male members who are LEAST likely to abuse their wives.

ABC, you have highlighted an issue that requires open and rigorous conversation. Almost every Christian leader I know is receiving this report with sober judgment and eagerness to do better when it comes to caring for abuse victims and dealing with perpetrators. I am concerned however, that this important report is mixed with at times poor journalism, and by doing so you will ultimately distract us from the actual issue that needs deliberation and action. The last thing we want is unhelpful journalism clouding the important stories being told by women about abuse, and from churches learning how to do better in the future.

 

 

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P.S. This is not an anti-ABC article so please don’t circulate it as such. Thank you

Regeneration Church, a Church in and for Monash

It was a great joy to visit Regeneration Church last night for their first ever public service. It was exciting to see a packed building, and encouraging to see the Regeneration team in action for the first time.

If you live in/around Clayton, why not visit one Sunday?

 

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I was invited to offer a word of exhortation to the new church. Below is a copy of my remarks:

“200,000 people live in the City of Monash. They are made in the image of God, important to God, and needing Jesus.

The Great Commission is Jesus sending his disciples to the nations in order to preach the Gospel and to make disciples. In line with this mission, Mentone Baptist Church has sent the Regeneration team to area of Monash, a place where the nations have come.

Understand that being part of a new church may be the hardest venture, the most joyful venture, and the more important venture, of your lives. Indeed, today marks the beginning of a new Gospel work that, we pray, will bear fruit lasting into eternity.

Most residents in this area won’t know of Regeneration Church and many won’t care, and some people will become interested and join. Understand, whatever the reception, God loves his church, Jesus will build his Church, and she is marvellous in his eyes.

While we at Mentone Baptist we will miss all of you, we are not so much saddened to see you go, as we are excited to partner with you in this new work. Indeed, Melbourne needs hundreds more Gospel-centred Churches. New Churches have begun in Box Hill, Northcote, Officer, Footscray, and elsewhere. And yet we are yet to penetrate the first layer of skin in Melbourne.

As Paul reminded the Corinthians, may I impress on you,

“I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God has been making it grow. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow.”

Understand our role, it is to plant and water. Regeneration Church: Do the work of evangelism, preaching, teaching, loving and caring, serving. And trust God to grow his church. Trust him, depend on him, ask him.

Mentone will keep you in our prayers, and we are keen to continually support you in other ways. I’m  also looking forward to preaching here a couple of times this year.

May God richly bless this work, to grow a Church glorifying his Son.”

Victorian Greens banning the conscience

The Victorian Parliament is expected to commence debate on an assisted-suicide Bill next week, although the conversation has been taking place for many months already.

Two of the main issues that I have heard expressed concern the ethics of killing human beings, and the question of safeguards. In regard to the latter issue, Peter Singer (who is one the most notable global pro-euthanasia voices) recently admitted in a Melbourne meeting,

“Euthanasia without patient consent does happen in Europe. Don’t worry it happens here too.”

 

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This week, however, another important area of debate has been brought to the fore by the Victorian Greens.

St Vincent’s Health Australia has made it clear that should euthanasia be legalised in Victoria, they will not be offering this ‘procedure’, given that killing human life contradicts their values. In response, Victorian Greens have asked the Government to review public funding of St Vincent’s if clinicians are banned from administering assisted suicide. How extraordinary that a political party would remove funding from a major health care provider on account that they refuse to assist patient suicide. Imagine living in a State where hospitals were forced to participate in killing patients; welcome to Victoria. In all probability, it is unlikely that the Parliament would support such measures, but this is yet another example of how far our society has moved in the dehumanisation project.

A Greens spokesperson then had the audacity to attack St Vincent’s hospital, accusing them of lacking compassion for the terminally ill and “condemning people to pain.” One can imagine what the doctors and nurses at the hospital think of such a repugnant comment.

I am a strong supporter of the Greens policy to ban Greyhound racing because of the appalling statistics of these dogs being euthanised. We own a greyhound rescue dog, and he’s a much loved member of our family. How ironic that the same political party not only support proposed legislation to encourage assisted suicide of human beings, they would also threaten health providers who find such action unconscionable.