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 by 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-Balaamism that has been introduced. We can pray that God fills them with wisdom and honours their faithfulness.

8 thoughts on “The Dividing Church: When a Denomination Chooses Syncretism

  1. Thank you Murray. As a minister of the UCA I believe you have clearly outlined the terrible dilemma that the Assembly has put before the UCA. Prayers and compassion from our fellow Christians are very much appreciated.

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  2. On your point 3 above —

    I am currently attending a local Uniting Church, and our senior pastor was a delegate to the National Assembly. He — with other evangelical Uniting Church leaders — stood up against the motion.

    He has now asked our church to pray for 40 days, not in any expectation that our theological stand will change, but to bring our strategic deliberations before the Lord and to save us from knee-jerk reactions.

    He has also indicated that he is in active conversation with other like-minded Uniting Church ministers, and I presume that one of the things they must be discussing is a group action. To my mind, this would make more sense than individual local Uniting Churches, or individual members of local Uniting Churches, each taking different and uncoordinated courses of action.

    There are a number of options to be explore, of course. An evangelical movement within the Uniting Church (cf. GAFCON in the Anglican Communion), local churches realignment with other accrediting bodies (eg. FIEC), a split of the Uniting Church into two, a mass-exodus of local churches as a group… I am pleased that the evangelical leadership are discussing the situation and, again, believe that a coordinated response will probably be best.

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    • Hi Tim, it is good that the adversely affected members of the UCA should gather, pray and discern God’s will for them as a group. The path travelled so far by the UCA has been in one direction. Evangelical members have already worked hard as ‘Reforming Alliance’ ‘Evangelical Members of the UC’ and lately as the Assembly of Confessing Congregations in the UC. These peoples have worked for decades to inform the church and offer guidance.
      The momentum held by liberal christians in the UC is currently expressed in the latest Assembly decision. The consensus decision process creates compromise and prevents hard decisions being made by majorities with less than 75% numbers. Also the ordination of leaders with very clear social and progressive sexual agendas adds to the current dilemma. Debate and unrest has been going on for decades. A coordinated Christ centred approach could now create the Uniting Church that it should have become, with the wisdom of past experiences giving an emerging church(out of the old) a wonderful opportunity to clearly present the Gospel. Even if it means separation.

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  3. I am leaving the UC for 2 reasons: 1. I do not agree with the Assembly’s decision. 2. I did not like the undemocratic way in which they handled the matter. I think people will be remaking their wills.

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    • Meriilyn as a church council chair and full time estates lawyer, take a tip: The vast majority of persons within the UCA leave nothing to the UCA, nor have they for quite some time. There are no wills to remake!

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  4. Such a great article. As someone has said the Church is following the world downhill, usually 20 years later instead of the Church leading the world uphill. Jesus never lowered his standards to meet the people He always lifted people to meet His standards. Isn’t that heart of the Gospel? Isn’t that being born again? That’s exactly what happened to me, and I’m so very thankful the Lord didn’t leave me where I was. 😊

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  5. The Bible tells us of some Churches moving away from bibical teaching,the UC has been and still is, The Bible also tells us a womens role in the Church ,since women have taken a leading role in the U C this has been happening.it is so wrong that they use the UC to follow the beliefs that is against true teaching.

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  6. Hello Murray, Syncretism is in the dictionary. A simpler understanding is human reasoning. Tooshay some Ministers voted they have a superior understanding of the will of God! Another Eg. Marian doctrine in the Catholic Church. Unless parishioners bow to the Bishop’s understanding of the word of God, go somewhere else!
    But a crucial point not yet driven home for the sake of LGBTIQ is the need for Parliament to validly Legislate for same sex marriage. A same sex coupling does not comply with the Act 1961 Marriage defined as ‘a union of two people’. In actual fact atm the Marriage Celebrant simply authorises a blessing upon a same sex couple, a non-union couple of the same gender as was Option 1 of the UCA Assembly doctrine group report( Option 4 the conscience choice). God is still in the mix! UCA Celebrants are not an authority for authority’s sake as a Chamber Magistrate, Church is but an administration, not another layer of authority, amen. Yet it can press Government to Act the Act to give a same sex Marriage bond equal standing under the Law and to thus differentiate from opposite-sex marriage as it should. Then Church could better understand it’s role to serve both straight and gay people as we are able. A Christian Gay couple identifying as married by whoever immediately is excluded from fellowship, immediately disfellowshipped, the UCA decision just a joke yet a defacto Gay couple is welcome to worship and fellowship together with other Christians. A Gay Minister need remain single with support, a sanctified life without controversy. God’s House a house of prayer for all nations, not politics. Murray just being superior is the same human reasoning response, not serving, not denying himself taking his cross and following the Lord! A trinity 3 part response is required Murray, not just 2 ily ?
    You are too Protestant..? Thankyou for your views. Test all things. Hold fast what is good. Abstain from every form of evil. Trinity again!

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