The Dividing Church: When a Denomination Chooses Syncretism

“Elijah went before the people and said, “How long will you waver between two opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal is God, follow him.”

But the people said nothing.” (1 Kings 18:21)

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Last week the 15th Assembly of the Uniting Church of Australia adopted a motion to permit same-sex marriage for their churches.

According to reporting by Eternity newspaper,

“The vote means the church will provide a choice of marriage services. A new marriage rite will be written for “two persons” to marry, and will sit alongside the UCA’s existing marriage service for men and women. This is often described as a “Two integrities” solution which attempts to allow two beliefs about marriage to co-exist in the one church structure.”

In other words, the Uniting Church has embraced same-sex marriage, but it is willing to give each minister and church, freedom to choose whether they will conduct marriages along the classical definition of marriage or according to the newly adopted definition.

The deal is being packaged as a triumph for diversity, and a celebration of recognising the rights of people to marry whomever they wish. However, once we’ve stripped the rhetoric of its layer of spray paint, what’s left behind is good old-fashioned syncretism.

How is the Uniting Church’s embracing syncretism?

Syncretism is the practice of merging two or more religions (or ideologies) together, often with the pretense of preserving the purity of one or of both. Syncretism is frowned upon in the Bible because of who God is. When God revealed his law Exodus 20,

“You shall have no other gods before me.

 “You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below.  You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me,  but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.”

The history of Israel in the Old Testament is replete with examples of syncretism. God likens syncretism to spiritual adultery.

“Has a nation ever changed its gods?

    (Yet they are not gods at all.)

But my people have exchanged their glorious God

    for worthless idols.

12 Be appalled at this, you heavens,

    and shudder with great horror,”

declares the Lord.

13 “My people have committed two sins:

They have forsaken me,

    the spring of living water,

and have dug their own cisterns,

    broken cisterns that cannot hold water.” (Jeremiah 2:11-13)

Of course, syncretism can take many forms. It may be that a Church identifies too closely with a particular political ideology, or takes on board practices from other religions. Jesus forced the issue when it came to wealth. He said,

“No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.” (Luke 16:13)

The reasons behind Israel’s choice of marrying other religions with their own varied. Sometimes they were convinced that other gods were more real and vital. On occasion, they endorsed new religious beliefs for sake of securing political power and retaining their social standing. Most often, these alternate religions preached a moral latitude that gave permission for practices that the people to embrace. It is interesting to note how often syncretism was accompanied with revisionist views on sexuality.

One of the important questions is, how do we know that the Uniting Church’s decision is out of line with orthodox Christian teaching? We could turn to church history, where we will find no endorsement of such practices until the most recent of years. We could observe how the majority of Christian churches around the world today continue to uphold the classical view of marriage. We should especially turn to the Bible where we find a clear definition of marriage, and where all other sexual practices and relationships are defined as porneia. In fact, the Bible views these alternate arrangements with such gravity that they are described in terms of keeping people out of the kingdom of God and being against sound doctrine and opposing the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ.

Vaughan Roberts is an Anglican Minister who has shared his own personal testimony of being same-sex attracted. In a recent interview at GACFON, Roberts noted,

“We cannot ‘agree to disagree’ on core convictions of the apostolic gospel, sexual sin is one of those.”

Archbishop Peter Jensen, speaking of the current troubles in the worldwide Anglican Communion, has suggested that what’s going on is the creation of new religion,

“What the liberal Americans did was to so breach the tradition – at a pretty vital point – that it has begun to create a new religion.”

By adopting two separate marriage definitions, the Uniting Church is saying that Christians can believe in both, and that we can practice both. The fact that an individual church can decide which version of marriage to adopt doesn’t retrieve the situation, for these two reasons: First, the denomination has clearly affirmed same-sex marriage as a moral good which Christians can embrace.  Second, the local Uniting Church, even should it hold to classical marriage, is nonetheless in union with other churches who no longer subscribe to orthodox Christianity. A question is, was the  Apostle Paul right when he suggested,

“For what do righteousness and wickedness have in common? Or what fellowship can light have with darkness?

Where to from here?

 

1. Anyone can fall

In the age when instant isn’t fast enough, no one wants to slow down like the NBN or be caught in the gridlock along Hoddle Street. When a new cultural wave hits our shores, we want the ride and we want to be among the first. One of the problems with the current swell is that it’s simultaneously popular and perilous. It sometimes feels as though the majority of Australian organisations and public voices are riding this latest wave of the sexual revolution, and it is hard to stand against it, and it’s even harder to pull out once you’ve been drawn in.

It is of little surprise that the Uniting Church is the first major denomination in Australia to take this decision,  and while most other denominations are unlikely to push ahead with redefining marriage for everyone, the idea of a “two integrities solution” may be seen as a viable option for other denominations who are trying to appease everyone. As I’ve already shown, it is no solution at all.

It is a challenging time for Christianity in Australia. Indeed, it is more grievous than last year’s events which led to the legalization of same-sex marriage in our country. It is one thing for society at large to make decisions relating to moral issues, but it is incumbent upon Churches to adhere to the theological and ethicals standards laid out by God in the Scriptures.

Churches always face tensions and temptations. None of us are beyond erring, should we take our eyes off the Lord Jesus. I pray that as the broader Christian Churches observe what has transpired in the Uniting Church, that we won’t respond with pride or with spiteful and unhelpful words, but humbly ask God to check our own hearts and desires, and ask him to keep us faithful to Christ.

2. This adds to Gospel confusion

The decision made by the Uniting Church of Australia doesn’t resolve confusion about Christianity; it makes it worse. It’s one of the ridiculous ideas that often dictates dying churches and denominations; they see their salvation from obscurity in becoming more like the culture.

The thing is, LGBT people matter so much, that we are failing to love them should we embrace same-sex marriage. It is not hatred that says, marriage is for a man and a woman, it is trusting God and believing that his ways are good.

Churches are 100% made up of men and women who in many ways have deconstructed God’s purposes and justified attitudes that are downright awful. Too many Churches, in trying to affirm classical marriage, have also tainted Gospel witness by exuding self-righteousness and demeaning their LGBT neighbours. Christianity is not, ‘we are better than you’, but that ‘we are like everyone else and in God’s grace he has gifted us now a better way’.

3. Be ready to welcome orphans from the Uniting Church

After Mount Carmel, Elijah felt overwhelmed by the experience and alone. God reminded him that he wasn’t the only remaining who was trusting Him, there were thousands more.
There are already Uniting Church members who are leaving their churches and looking for new churches to call home. Churches across the country need to welcome these brothers and sisters, to encourage them and care for them.

4. Pray

Above all, pray. Pray for the many Christians within the Uniting Church who have difficult conversations and decisions ahead of them. We can thank God for the faithfulness of those who have stood on the Gospel, in the face of what would have been a very difficult week. There are many important discussions to be had about the future of congregations who are choosing the Evangelical faith over the neo-Baalamism that has been introduced. We can pray that God fills them with wisdom and honours their faithfulness.

Baptists believe in Freedom of Association

Until Friday, I had never heard of Logan Robertson or Pillar Baptist Church in Queensland. Today, all Australia knows his name.

Logan Robertson and two other men have been charged with public nuisance offences following events that took place during the week at two Brisbane mosques. The incidents were ugly, offensive, and without warrant.

Mr Robertson is a New Zealand national who has already gained notoriety in his homeland for extreme religious views, including being subject to a police investigation regarding his public conduct. Prior to entering Australia a year ago, Robertson was cautioned about his behavior. Tonight he is in custody and will be shortly deported back to New Zealand.

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To begin with, along with Christians across the country, I wish to apologise to our Muslim Australians who were subjected to Robertson’s unruly conduct. People of any religion should be permitted to worship in freedom and without threat. We have seen other nasty incidents in recent months, usually with Christian churches and groups being targeted. On this occasion though,  the perpetrators were a group who purport to be Christian. We do not want Westboro or Münster type religious fanatics interfering with peoples religious freedoms, regardless of what their religion may be.

It is understandable that this story has made headline news across the country; this is a time when religious freedom is a topic of national conversation and we await the Government’s report on the Ruddock review. In the middle of these discussions, here is a ‘Christian’ minister intruding on a Muslim time of prayer and intimidating worshippers, including teenage boys.

Why does this matter? There are two issues here. First, there is the criminal charges and social ills that Robertson and others have allegedly engaged in. We should not intimidate other Australians by entering their worship spaces and interrupting religious services. Second, it is important to address this story, because just like the fake gynaecologist who was caught out and imprisoned in Melbourne this past week, a fake Baptist should also be called out because of the dangers in misrepresenting what Baptists, and Christians in general, believe.

While Logan Robertson self-identifies as a Baptist, as the media have rightly stated, he and his church have no affiliation with the Queensland Baptist Union and the Baptist Union of Australia. Indeed, there is little about Pillar Baptist Church that can be called Baptist.

As with all Christians, Baptist beliefs and practices are shaped by the Bible. What Christian Churches share in common is far greater than any differences. For example, while Baptists don’t baptise infants as do Anglicans and Presbyterians, and our church governance differs, otherwise,  we share the same beliefs that have been taught and lived out for 2000 years.

I have read the Doctrinal Statement of Pillar Baptist Church, and it does not resemble any Baptist confession that I have ever read before, and it includes some very strange ideas indeed.

Most Baptist Churches in Australia belong to the Baptist Union of Australia, and so they are in formal association with one another. There are also independent Baptist churches, and these vary in their beliefs and practices. Independence does not alone denote what a church is like, but as with every church (including those belonging to a traditional denomination), we ought to examine their doctrine and life closely. At the very least, when a Church states that it “reject[s] the teaching of the universal church” and does not associate with other Christian groups, that ought to raise serious questions.

Not only does Robertson’s Church have a doctrinal statement that doesn’t fit with historic Baptist faith, and not only are they unrelated to any formal Baptist association, it is clear that Logan Robertson has abrogated two important Baptist principles, namely that of freedom of conscience and freedom of association. While these principles are not owned by Baptists, they are closely aligned with Baptist thinking through the Centuries. Freedom of thought and freedom of association found clear expression among Baptists in the 17th Century, at a time when religious freedom didn’t exist but was often controlled by the crown, by Parliament, and by establishment churches. Baptists were often oppressed and even imprisoned for holding these beliefs. The author of Pilgrim’s Progress, John Bunyan, was twice imprisoned because he believed in and practiced freedom of religious association.

These two principles are not saying that Baptists agree with other religions or that we think that these religions are intellectually coherent, spiritually healthy, and morally good. Baptists are not theological and moral relativists. It does, however, mean that we believe Christianity is accepted through persuasion not by coercion, by gracious explanation and not by galling intimidation. Freedom of belief is not about privileging  one religious group over another, but positively guaranteeing that all Australians can speak and live their beliefs without harassment. Neither the State nor individuals in the community should resort to browbeating in order to change another person’s mind on an issue. We cannot create a healthy society by thuggery, whether it is noisy secularists forcing out Christians from the public square or religious fanatics spitting out their dogma in our faces.

Australia needs honest conversations about the big questions of life. We need these discussions happening in public spaces and in private meetings, and yet sadly, people like Logan Robertson caste a shadow on our optimism, and authoritarian secularists are throwing even darker clouds over the social and religious freedoms that we have long enjoyed in this country.

It is easy to say that Logan Robertson’s behaviour is unAustralian, but I’m not sure if I want to indict my New Zealand friends on this occasion! Robertson’s ideas and behaviour are certainly anti-Baptist, and therefore they have caused confusion over the beauty and goodness of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. When Jesus met people with whom he held profound disagreement, he loved them and he went to a cross to die that they might come to know and enjoy God forever. That is how Australians can tell a Christian, not that we agree with your beliefs, but that we love you and above everything we desire for you to know the Lord Jesus Christ, not to force him upon you, but with grace and fervour, with openness and humility, to explain the reason for the hope with have in Him.

What Senator David Leyonhjelm’s words teach us about ourselves

Like most Australians, I was disgusted by what Senator David Leyonhjelm said to Senator Sarah Hanson-Young and to television interviewer, Angela Bishop.

His remarks are vile and sexist and unbecoming of one who represents the Australian people in Parliament.

During a discussion on women’s safety inside the Upper House Chamber, Senator Leyonhjelm told Senator Hanson-Young to “stop shagging men”.

Over on Twitter, Senator Leyonhjelm responded to Angela Bishop’s criticism of him by calling her “a bigoted b#tch”.

Senator Leyonhjelm remains unapologetic, and offered this defense on ABC news radio yesterday,

“It is a normal Australian behavior”

“I am a normal Australian, I am elected by normal Australians, normal Australians call people bitches, bastards, shut up, various things of that nature.

“I don’t discriminate between men and women.”

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I don’t know whether Senator Leyonhjelm truly believes his own defense, but let’s suppose he does. For argument sake, let’s assume Senator Leyonhjelm believes that he ought to speak to women in the same manner as he does with men. Is this not the kind of equality we are hoping to attain as a society? Should men and women not speak to each other in undifferentiating ways? Aussie blokes are known for their colourful language. I’m not agreeing with this cultural ‘norm’, but swearing and deriding each other long been a sign of social acceptance…and also of insult (discerning the difference isn’t always straightforward!). If men and women are identical and should be treated equally, should we not use the Aussie vocabulary tool bag for men and women alike?

Let me be clear, I believe Senator Leyonhjelm’s comments are indefensible and that he should apologise without reservation. It is entirely appropriate for Senator Hanson-Young to call him out and to expect an apology. Indeed, Senator Hanson-Young has revealed that this is only the latest in what is a culture of bile-like rhetoric which is thrown around the corridors of Canberra. I doubt if many of us are surprised, but surely it is entirely right for Senator Hanson-Young, and for all of us, to expect better from our political representatives.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, has spoken up, saying,

“That type of language has no place in Parliament, it shouldn’t have a place in any workplace…Respect for women in particular is one of the highest priorities that we should be focused on.”

His emphasis, “respect for women in particular”, is worth noting. Why do Senator Leyonhjelm’s derogatory comments jar? Because we know it’s wrong, it’s always wrong, and as Prime Minister Turnbull states, it is particularly wrong when a man speaks to a woman in such a way. A man can get away with calling another bloke a ‘b#stard’, but it is entirely different when a man refers to a woman as a ‘b#tch’. This is not about social conventions, but an inherent-born-with understanding that men should not belittle and abuse women by their words or actions. We know it’s wrong. Boys were raised to respect girls and to treat them well, not because there’s some masculine superiority complex at play, but because it is how men should behave. Boys might fight each other, but you never hit a girl. Boys might open a door and walk through it first, but most women appreciate the man who stops and opens the door for them first. 

While Senator Leyonhjelm’s obscenity is receiving widespread condemnation, this same Australian culture has, however, embraced other language that is designed to denigrate and silence other Australians. For example, last year’s marriage debate witnessed people slandering gay and lesbian Australians and also slandering heterosexual Australians. The former was rightly called out, but the latter was often supported by and even used by our political representatives and media personalities to popular adulation. Another body of language has recently come into common usage, which aims to deride white males, because apparently if you are white and male you represent everything that is wrong with society. The point is, our problem is much deeper than simple misogyny. 

Whether we like it or not, Senator Leyonhjelm has revealed something ugly about Australian society, and it is more complex than gender equality. We have taught ourselves to treat men and women without distinction and we have encouraged a culture of vulgarity. We often praise the outspoken disparager. We believe in freedom of expression, where obscenity is even called artful and humorous. Let’s pile a hundred naked men and women on a supermarket roof in Prahran, take a photo, and call it art. Listen to the Shakespearen-like lyrics of Beyonce and other pop musicians that we download in the millions. Walk into any Melbourne comedy club and find an act that’s not going to resort to jokes about peoples’ private parts and sexual proclivities! The jokes don’t even need to be funny, just say a dirty word and the audience will laugh.

How different is the verbal posture presented by the Apostle Paul,

“No foul language is to come from your mouth, but only what is good for building up someone in need, so that it gives grace to those who hear.” (Ephesians 4:29)

Of course, Paul is writing to Christians here, and so this a word that we Christians must take seriously. It’s also pretty good advice for everyone. Instead of following the Australian way, which loves to kick the pedestal out from others, perhaps we need to introduce the language of honour and respect. Maybe we should be teaching young boys to respect girls. Maybe we should be doing more to tackle the problem of pornography.  Maybe we shouldn’t demonise gender differences but acknowledge them as a common good. And maybe self-control is not so detrimental to our health, but considering our words before speaking them is important for healthy relationships.

While there is a great deal of public anger this week, it doesn’t suffice to shame men like Senator Leyonhjelm, or to call for resignations, or to argue that we need more education. Jesus reveals an uncomfortable truth about ourselves,

“what comes out of the mouth comes from the heart, and this defiles a man. (Matt 15:18)

Our words are revealing, communicating to others what is going on in our hearts. We speak what we think, and we verbalise the deep-seated attitudes that we hold. It is interesting to note that Jesus spoke these words in the context of a conversation regarding the family unit, and how children and parents relate to each other (Matt 15:8-16). Jesus continues,

 For from within, out of people’s hearts, come evil thoughts, sexual immoralities, thefts, murders, 22 adulteries, greed, evil actions, deceit, promiscuity, stinginess, blasphemy, pride, and foolishness. 23 All these evil things come from within and defile a person.”

Our problem in Australia is that we don’t believe Jesus. We ’re unconvinced by his analysis, and that many of these heart attitudes are wrong. Jesus said, “You are the ones who justify yourselves in the sight of others, but God knows your hearts. For what is highly admired by people is revolting in God’s sight” (Luke 16:15). It’s true, we often justify our loves and actions and use all manner of social slogans to protect ourselves, and yet our social engineering projects are building communities that are deeply fractured and tearing. We are becoming proficient at identifying social ills,  but we are falling far short of adequate solutions. We need to ask ourselves some hard questions about our hearts, not of the girl or guy next to us, but our own hearts. But are willing to acknowledge what we discover? Without a gracious and merciful God, the Proverb will be true,

“At the end of your life, you will lament when your physical body has been consumed, and you will say, “How I hated discipline, and how my heart despised correction. (Proverbs 5:11-12)