A season for pruning churches in Australia

Does God sometimes allow unbelievers to do the work Churches should be doing themselves?

God used Nebuchadnezzar and the Babylonians as a weapon of judgement against Judah, and God used Cyrus as an instrument to bring God’s people back to the land and to see the Temple rebuilt.

While we cannot say with certainty that any specific person or organisation has been handed the pruning shears by God (for the simple reason, God hasn’t told us), we do know from the Scriptures that God is concerned with cutting off dead branches, pruning lives branches, and bearing fruit in the lives of his disciples.

In John ch.15 Jesus uses one of his many analogies to describe his relationship with his people, namely that of the vine and branches.

Jesus says,

 “I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful. You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you. Remain in me, as I also remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me.

“I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. If you do not remain in me, you are like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned. If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.”

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There is no doubt that churches have been entangled in many scandals over recent years. Clergy have been guilty of committing terrible abuses on children, while other ecclesial authorities have at times covered over these crimes. Popular preachers have been called out for marital unfaithfulness, embezzling money, acting like mini-dictators, and saying some really dumb and unwise things relating to an array of social and political issues.

Australia has a band of public figures and journalists who are always quick to castigate, shame, and then to investigate, all manner of evils perpetrated by Christians (and by people of various kinds of religious perspectives). This is no bad thing, for why should Christians be given a jail free pass, simply because they allege a diplomatic Jesus card?

At the same time, Churches and Christians are being increasingly condemned for believing and practising things that are in line with their Scriptures. Whereas abusing children is abhorrent and aberrant to the Christian faith, believing in heterosexual only marriage is consistent with biblical and historical Christianity, and yet many do not care for such moral distinctions.

Broader Australian culture has lost its cognitive awareness, rarely knowing what is and isn’t Christianity (and this blurring will only increase as Governments further squeeze out Christian education and religious freedoms); let’s return to the good old days of Pliny the Younger, who was assumed the Lord’s Supper consisted of Christians eating the flesh and drinking the blood of fellow human beings! Weeds, plants, trees, and grass, all look the same, and the temptation to mow it all down is too great for some. This unfortunate and unsurprising trend toward religious ignorance is one reason why our society struggles to differentiate between the real sins in Churches and Churches who are properly exercising their faith.

Another problem is that in the world of today’s social media madness, the noise is at a crescendo, with people shouting and screaming at everything they don’t like, forgetting that not everything that they disagree with is necessarily wrong or harmful or evil. Religious and irreligious people are both guilty of the unsociable new norm, and it’s a worrying trend because when the volume reaches triple forte, it becomes near impossible to any worthwhile and important discourse.

Juxtaposed to these Metallica like screams is a deafly quiet that we find in some religious quarters. Rare moments of stillness can be of some value, but we should not confuse the appearance of saint-like silent meditation with spiritual authenticity; sometimes it’s nothing more than a magician’s trick to hide cowardice or complicity.

You see, at one level we can’t blame the culture, because it defines good and bad by its own standards, even if those moral lines keep moving around like a cat chasing a laser light. We are not expecting secular Australia to define moral goodness according to the Christian faith, because we understand, even as Jesus taught, that the two are not synonymous.

It’s not as though God’s righteousness is only true for the Church and is irrelevant to the outside world, for there is nothing in creation that escapes God’s good design and intent. The entire cosmos, including Governments, is subject to the rule of God, and yet they are in a state of rebellion, whereas the Church is meant to be a redeemed people, a city on the hill revealing the glory of Christ.

The greater responsibility lays with Churches and religious organisations, who have too often neglected the faith once for all delivered, and have instead adopted the moral and epistemological posture of the prevailing culture.

One of the persistent problems we have in Australia is with many Christian leaders failing in their responsibility. They have failed to stand for orthodox teaching. Instead of refuting bad and dangerous doctrines, these ideas are promoted and taught, or they give a silent endorsement. After all, can anyone really say that they know what the Bible says? Surely, only a puffed-up bigoted Pharisee would ever suggest that Biblical truth is clear and mandated? While far too many theologians and pastors have hired smoke machines to create ambiguity over pretty much every Christian doctrine, others have failed to act against bullies and abusers, perhaps through incompetence, more often, through neglect or not being willing to pay the cost.

The question is if Churches are unclear about discipleship and if Church leaders are failing to fulfill their ordained responsibilities, perhaps God will employ another to do that all-important work of pruning?

I understand why some Aussies look at our backyard, and conclude, religious and especially Christianity is waning. The culture has shifted, and every leaf and twig not conforming to the new pattern will be picked off for mulch. But that is to misunderstand what is happening. When a tree is pruned, it looks so bare and feeble that some might mistake it for being dead. That was certainly the reported diagnosis in the wake of last year’s national census, and with regular reminders about church closures and dipping church attendances. Is the Church dying? Is Christianity on the way out? Or is God in the process of cutting off dead branches and pruning those that bear fruit?

While many Australian Christians are concerned with happenings both inside Churches and in our surrounding communities, it would be wrong to respond with despair or hopelessness. It is a work of grace that God so loves his church that he attends to it: watering, feeding, and yes even pruning her. The vine is Jesus, and the branches are those who have been united with him. Remaining in Jesus is the only way to be fruitful, and remaining in Him is to remain in his word, namely to keep trusting and obeying his words. 

Surely we can be thankful as dead Christendom is removed from the scene, and while the culture isn’t savvy enough to discern between real and fake Christianity, the season can also be used of God to refine and prepare. In other words, pruning may hurt, but it’s good, and it’s the necessary prelude to a bumper crop. 

 

‘Awakening Australia’ won’t wake the dead

“fair is foul and foul is fair” (MacBeth Act 1, Scene 1)

 

If you didn’t think grave soaking was a thing, think again!

Ben Fitzgerald, a former Pastor at Bethel Church in Redding, California, and one of the organisers of Awakening Australia has a thing for visiting cemeteries and attempting to ‘suck up’ the spiritual powers of dead Christians. I kid you not!

 

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This is only one of many crazy and unbiblical practices that are encouraged and taught by Bethel teachers around the world.

The reason why this is of interest to us in Australia is partly because Bethel music is hugely influential in many churches today, and because of the ‘Awakening Australia’ movement which is being sponsored by and promotes Bethel. Awakening Australia, an upcoming revivalist event in Melbourne (November 2018).

While Awakening Australia is more than a Bethel event, the chief organiser is from Bethel, two of the keynote speakers belong to Bethel (Ben Fitzgerald and Bill Johnson), and Bethel is providing much of the music.

Awakening Australia website explains their aims,

“Our vision is to raise up a nationwide prayer mandate for the salvation of our families, friends and our country.

Right now our country is at a critical point in history, so now more than ever we must lift up prayer that grips us for our loved ones who do not yet know God.

God clearly gave us the number of 100,000 Australians coming to Him in 2018. If we all take our place in this mandate this is very possible.”

This all sounds exciting and amazing until one scratches the surface and reads that the Jesus believed and preached by Bethel is not the same as the Jesus revealed in the Bible and the Christianity that is promoted also differs to the Gospel that is outlined in the Scriptures. I am not saying that everyone involved or who is planning to attend aligns with Bethel theologically, for no doubt there are many genuine followers of Christ who will be there. But surely, because of such influence, it’s important to make people aware of concerns regarding Bethel’s influence and involvement.

Stephen Tan has published an insightful and important article on the Bethel Movement and its connection with Awakening Australia.  At What Price Awakening? Examining the Theology and Practice of the Bethel Movement has already been read widely by 10,000s of people all over the world, especially in Australia and the USA.

As with any article, there are people who agree and there are people who disagree. Some of the criticisms suggest that Stephen Tan (and the Gospel Coalition) are just mounting an attack on a legitimate Christian group, simply because they are different to TGCA. People should know though that Stephen has not written an anti-Charismatic or anti-Pentecostal article; he’s not a cessationist! Stephen Tan is not writing from the perspective of an outsider, but as someone who once attended a Bethel connected church in Melbourne, and who has first-hand experience of Bethel teaching and practices. Also this, he has carefully and fairly laid out the theology and praxis of Bill Johnson and Bethel, citing many examples which anyone can source and investigate for themselves. It is also interesting to see many people coming forward as a result of this article and sharing their own experiences from being part of the Bethel movement.

It’s important for me to be upfront, I know Stephen personally. He was an intern at Mentone Baptist for two years, and 18 months ago he planted a church with a team from Mentone. He is a man of integrity and with a deep love for Jesus and for people. Before his article was published on the Gospel Coalition Australia website, I had an opportunity to read the article. Having read the draft, I know there is much more that can be said of the Bethel movement but we wanted to keep the article short enough so that people would read it.

Another criticism being leveled against Stephen is that he’s been uncharitable toward Bethel, pointing out negatives and not the positives. Regardless of how many niceties and positives one might say, none of them can cover up and denude the very serious theological concerns that have been raised.

I have also noted that some critics have confused disagreement on secondary matters, with disagreeing over primary core doctrines. Bill Johnson holds that the incarnate Christ is less than fully Divine. He preaches the necessity of miracles and healing attached to the Gospel. let the reader understand, we are not talking about insignificant matters, but ones that question the power and definition of the Gospel and the identity of the Lord Jesus Christ.

It is not uncharitable of a Christian leader to inform others of a popular movement that is gaining acceptance in the broader church. The New Testament outlines how Christian leaders have a responsibility to alert fellow believers to dangerous ideas and doctrines. Correcting and exposing a movement like Bethel is important because the glory of God matters, the purity of the Gospel matters, and the health and life of people matters. The Apostle Paul exhorted the Elders of Ephesus,

“Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood.  I know that after I leave, savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock.  Even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them. So be on your guard!” (Acts 20:28-31)

Over the past week, the Australian news has been dominated by the story of strawberries. There have numerous incidents of people biting into strawberries, only to be stabbed by pins and needles that have been hidden by some yet unknown persons. Beautiful, sweet and tasty strawberries have been contaminated, and so it’s vital that the public is made aware. When the good news of Jesus Christ has been contaminated, it is incumbent upon pastors to warn people and to explain what is wrong, and to point people to fruit that is safe and good.

We pray for revival, longing to see many Australians coming to Christ, but no one has ever been saved by a false Gospel, no church has ever grown closer to God through a spirituality that has more in common with MacBeth’s three witches than the God of the Bible.

I agree with Stephen’s concerns with the gathering that is taking place in Melbourne later this year. I would encourage people not to attend, for the sake of their own spiritual health and for the good of their friends. I would urge churches to reconsider their participation and for pastors alert their congregations.

“I am concerned that the upcoming “Awakening Australia” event also fits the description and has the potential to cause much confusion and spiritual damage to thousands of unsuspecting Australians. To those who are supporting this event in the name of revival, may I ask this question: “At what price, awakening?” Is it worth pursuing awakening if it means that the gospel is compromised and that false teaching is promoted? I am reminded of the words of Jesus in Matthew 18:6If anyone causes one of these little ones–those who believe in me–to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.”

Don’t “mess” with laws on freedom of religion, fix them!

At the start of the week, a news reporter stood outside on a North Carolinian street during Hurricane Florence, facing the heavy rain and struggling against winds. It looked as though he might be blown over at any moment. As he clenched his muscles and defied the hurricane’s power, two men passed by behind him, walking casually and without any trouble or concern caused by the winds.

Not all news is fake, but sometimes journalists exaggerate their case or they forget to mention other pertinent information. Maybe it’s due to ignorance, while at other times there is an agenda which they reckon can’t afford nuance or balanced reporting. I cannot say which is the case for Wednesday’s Editorial in The Age, “No need to mess with laws on freedom of religion”. Let’s assume the best and that the writer, Alex Lavelle, is simply not on top of the issues he is addressing.

Lavelle has stated a simple case, arguing Australia does not need further religious protections. Responding to the Prime Minister’s suggestion that religious freedoms require legislative protections,  Lavelle contends,

“There is a real risk such undue interference by government, which could undermine separation between church and state in a secular democracy, might unleash further discrimination, including the refusal to employ or provide goods and services to people of other religions or from the queer community. In short, Mr Morrison risks needlessly reducing the rights of many.”

Two important corrections need to be made.

First, existing laws do not adequately protect people of faith.

Alex Lavelle cites Section 116 of the constitution, which reads,

‘‘The Commonwealth shall not make any law for establishing any religion, or for imposing any religious observance, or for prohibiting the free exercise of any religion, and no religious test shall be required as a qualification for any office or public trust under the Commonwealth.’’

His point is that Section 116 provides adequate protections for religious people in Australia. What Lavelle ignores or is perhaps unaware of, is that  Section 116 has been interpreted so narrowly by the High Court that no successful litigation has ever been brought under it. Also, this section of the Constitution only binds the Commonwealth, not the States and Territories, and most of the growing problems in relation to religious freedom have arisen at a state level where S116 cannot help. 

When it comes to state laws, protections for religious freedom are inconsistent and often weak. In Tasmania, you can find yourself in serious trouble for doing nothing more than teaching the basics tenets of one’s religion. And in NSW, religion is not even a protected attribute for anti-discrimination law.

Second,  examples of religious restrictions are real and growing

The second major problem with this editorial is Lavelle’s reason as to why Australia is considering religious protections. He suggests,

“The issue exists only because former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull commissioned a review by former Liberal Party minister Philip Ruddock to assuage minority concerns about same-sex marriage.”

This is simply not the case, or at the very least, it is not the full story. The Ruddock Inquiry was initiated because there already is an issue relating to religious freedoms in Australia, and there are concrete reasons for thinking such freedoms will be further weakened and even denied.

Recent examples abound:

  • Archbishop Julian Porteous wrote to Catholics, explaining Catholic teaching on marriage, and he soon found himself facing the anti-discrimination laws of Tasmania
  • A Presbyterian preacher in Hobart wrote a blog article in which he addressed same-sex marriage from a Bible and pastoral perspective. The Anti-discrimination commissioner accepted a complaint against him.
  • A Queensland doctor is currently in trouble with the Medical Board for committing the horrendous crime of retweeting a selfie of Lyle Shelton and author Ryan Anderson (and expert in transgenderism), with Lyle encouraging people to read Anderson’s book.
  • In 2016, the Sydney University student body attempted to deregister the Evangelical Union, because it required students to affirm, “Jesus is Lord”.
  • Last September at the University of Sydney, a mob of 200 students violently attacked a small group of Catholic students who were peacefully handing out literature on marriage and encouraging a ‘no vote’ during the marriage plebiscite.
  • Churches were vandalised in the lead up to the marriage plebiscite.
  • A young university student asked another student if she would like prayer. He was told by university authorities that he had challenged a student’s beliefs, and was subsequently suspended. The university informed him that he was to attend fortnightly counselling and that he would be forcibly removed should he step foot on the university campus.
  • The Victorian State Government is seeking to ban ideology that does not fully embrace transgenderism and homosexuality. It may become unlawful to even question a person’s sexual self-identity or to present the Biblical view of abstinence outside of heterosexual marriage. Federal Labor is also putting forward for their national platform, policies that will include as child abuse, any persons (including parents) who do not support young children in transitioning from one gender to another.
  • The chief executive of a Queensland Baptist agency sent an email to staff, calling for people to respect differing views on marriage while also presenting his case against same-sex marriage. One employee complained and a case was taken to Queensland Industrial Relations Commission.

We praise Qantas when they wrap themselves in rainbow colours and when their chief executive officer publicly advocates gay marriage, but it’s deeply offensive and outrageous for a religious person to express an alternate view in their organisation (and a religious organisation at that!)? Had the Baptist chief executive sent an email to staff in favour of same-sex marriage, the outcome would be vastly different. To begin with, the Queensland Industrial Relations Commission would almost certainly be disinterested. On the off chance that he sent an email in which he advocated for a ‘yes’ vote in last year’s plebiscite, and one of his staff complained to the Baptist Union of Queensland, and he was reprimanded as a result, can you imagine the public outcry? How dare Baptists stifle this man’s freedom to voice an opinion and to share his views amongst his staff!

The Federal member of Goldstein, Tim Wilson, was asked about the particular case on Sky News only two weeks ago. Mr Wilson said,

“it’s not a good trend. It’s not a good principal, and it’s certainly inconsistent with the very basis of free speech”

He also pointed out how in the workplace free speech needs to be used “reasonably and respectfully”, and from what he had seen, this Queensland Baptist case hadn’t crossed that line.

Maybe Alex Lavelle is unaware of these and many other examples that have been disclosed in recent times. Perhaps he is unaware that his own newspaper has reported on some these cases. Perhaps he is also unaware of Fairfax journalists who have written articles arguing for the restriction of religious freedoms. To cite two examples,

Auberry Perry

“This survey offers us a conscious opportunity to make a firm stand in support of a secular government and to reject discrimination or favouritism based on religion. It’s our opportunity to say that religion has no part in the shaping of our laws. A vote against same-sex marriage is a vote for religious bias and discrimination in our legislation, our public schools, our healthcare, and ultimately, in the foundation of our social structure.”

Matt Holden,

“‘the best guarantee of religious freedom is keeping religion out of politics”.

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I  imagine that a decade ago most Australians would probably have agreed, there is little need to offer legal reform in relation to religious freedoms, for most Australians accepted that we should have freedom of association, and be free to speak and to have a conscience that accords with our religious convictions. Australia has changed and is changing. The move away from cultural and philosophical pluralism and toward domesticating and conditioning religion according to the zealotist rules of humanistic secularists is no mere trickle.

We can choose to ignore the evidence and to proffer that there is no issue, but we can only pretend for so long before that leaky tap spills over the sink and floods the entire house. The agenda to squeeze out religious beliefs from politics and schools and businesses and universities is all too real, and the fact that many cases are already reaching anti-discrimination tribunals demonstrates that there is a problem. Even if some of these cases are being thrown out or overturned, the tide is persistent, and without proper and positive protections in place, we will see an increasing number of religious Australians losing their freedom to believe and practice their faith.

The Magpie: Melbourne’s Most Dangerous

 

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It is time for the wisteria,

to send her sweetness into the warming air.

Sun rays are gently descending,

Rebirthing the dormant soil.

 

Playgrounds, parks, and backyards,

are once again filling.

Children, joggers, and dogs.

Cyclists are speeding to work.

Couples holding hands, plagarising that romantic walk at dusk.

 

As winter closes her door,

And the new season begins,

Moods lift and conversations shift.

Smiles erupt for September is here.

 

Yet, not all is well for a Melbourne spring.

These streets with blossom filling,

And the pungent fresh of newly mowed grass,

Forewarn a coming danger.

 

Tis the season of the magpie!

No, I don’t mean that scrawny football team,

The 18 to deride and despise.

That team of bogans,

The belly aching black and white of Collingwood.

 

I mean that Luftwaffe of birds,

Patrolling the suburban sky.

Waiting to swoop on innocence below.

Like the crack of a rifle which follows the bullet,

There is no warning for victims of the magpie.

The first known sign is the strike to the head,

And only thereafter, the woosh of wings soaring past.

 

Sirens sound, screams are heard.

It’s too late.

Another child, another cyclist has been hit.

Bleeding, scratched, afraid,

Resembling the Collingwood fan club.

 

The tropics have beaches and crocodiles to share.

The surf is a blood bath for surfers and sharks.

The bush floor is a game of hide and seek for strolling walkers and venomous snakes.

But from the sky, comes our most aboding fore.

 

Land, sea, and air, there is no escape.

Australia is made to scare.

Touch the water.

Tip toe on land.

Reach your hand inside that dark crack.

Duck, cover, put that helmet on.

 

It’s the magpie,

That makes us cower.

It’s happy laugh which signals spring.

The sirenic call, that ironic laugh.

How beautiful we say,

Final words for those for whom it’s too late to take cover.  

 

 

The Sound of Papal Silence

 There is “a time to be silent and a time to speak”.

Pope Francis has been mastering the technique of silence in recent weeks, although I suspect there has been little quiet behind Vatican walls. Last month, former Vatican envoy to Washington, Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò,  published an 11-page document, outlining allegations of cover-up by Vatican officials in relation to hundreds of cases of abuse in Pennsylvania. Included in the list of those who had knowledge of Cardinal Theodore McCarrick’s appalling history of sexual abuse, is the current Pope.

Pope Francis’ initial response to the allegations was to say, 

“I will not say one word on this. I think the statement speaks for itself and you have sufficient journalistic capacity to reach your own conclusions.”

Then eight days ago, he added,

“With people who do not have good will, with people who seek only scandal, who seek only division, who seek only destruction, even within families,” the answer is “silence. And prayer.”

“May the Lord give us the grace to discern when we must speak and when we must be silent. And [to do] in all of life: in work, at home, in society…” to become more closely imitators of Jesus Christ

As it says in the day’s Gospel, the people “rose up, drove [Jesus] out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill… to hurl him down headlong. But he passed through the midst of them and went away.”

Those who drove Jesus out of the city were not people, but “a pack of wild dogs,” …They shouted instead of using reason, and in the face of this, Jesus’ response was to remain silent.”

I certainly hope Pope Francis wasn’t inferring that he is behaving like Jesus and that those asking for clarification of the allegations are not like ‘a pack of wild dogs.’

Yesterday (September 11), Pope Francis once again broke his silence, by preaching a sermon in which he accused Satan of undermining Rome’s Bishops. He said,

“In these times, it seems like the ‘Great Accuser’ has been unchained and is attacking bishops. True, we are all sinners, we bishops. He tries to uncover the sins, so they are visible in order to scandalize the people. The ‘Great Accuser’, as he himself says to God in the first chapter of the Book of Job, ‘roams the earth looking for someone to accuse’. A bishop’s strength against the ‘Great Accuser’ is prayer, that of Jesus and his own, and the humility of being chosen and remaining close to the people of God, without seeking an aristocratic life that removes this unction. Let us pray, today, for our bishops: for me, for those who are here, and for all the bishops throughout the world.”

I’m presuming Pope Francis hasn’t read my particular recent criticisms, but in case he has and this is what he reckons,  I think he and I need to have a chat. Far more likely, this is a veiled attack on Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò and others who are bringing to light details of a very sordid history. Notice there is no sense of what Jesus asks his followers, “Blessed are the poor in the spirit…Blessed are those who mourn.” There is, however, a game of blame the Devil for the bishopric scandal!   Don’t get me wrong, I believe in a real Satan, one who is an architect of evil, but surely the evil is of men pretending to be of God and penetrating shocking acts against children. Surely, the work of the Devil is to obfuscate the beauty and goodness of the Gospel of Jesus Christ by introducing ideas that are septic.

So why the Papal silence?

There are 3 reasons why one would choose silence in the face of serious allegations, such as those being leveled by Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò.

First, there is weight to the allegations, and so one is working out the best strategy before speaking up. There is something to be said about this. Not every word needs to be spoken along the high-speed highway that is Twitter. It is okay to slow down a little and to offer considered responses rather than instant tweets. I think it is appropriate given the gravity of the allegation, that a thoughtful response is offered. It has however been several weeks now and the Pope has been speaking, but just not answering.

A second reason for choosing silence is because you consider your interlocutors or accusers as fools. As Jesus said, why cast pearls before swine?

A third reason for keeping quiet is because it’s an effective rhetorical tool. I will bore people to the point of giving up, and they’ll soon enough be swept up in a controversy somewhere else.

One of the suggestions being made is that there is a civil war breaking out in the Vatican. Perhaps this is true, but of course, that does not mean the allegations are any less true (or untrue as may be the fact).  I’m not interested in internal bickering inside the Vatican unless of course, it involves calls to return to the Gospel of the Lord Jesus, in which case we praise God for such a movement.

I also remain amazed at how the mainstream media have played down this story, given that it is potentially the biggest religious stories of this Century thus far.

Since the story broke in August, much of the media have either sided with Pope Francis, arguing that this is nothing more than internal fighting with conservatives trying to push back on the enlightened progressives inside the Vatican, or they have kept quiet. It’s as though the Pope said, “shh,” and the media answered, “ok.”

Since becoming the Pope, Francis has bedazzled onlookers, with his vintage styled uniforms with glittering gems, and his seemingly progressive views on social issues.

The behavior is most unusual, given that journalists are usually trigger happy when it comes to reporting the sins of Christians. Even when there is a sniff of an allegation or rumours of another religious nut saying espousing an outrageous message, we can sure that there are journalists at hand, with shovel ready to dig it up. If you think I’m exaggerating, as a veiled attempt to mock Scott Morrison’s Christian faith, last week The Guardian uncovered a Pentecostal preacher whom no one has ever heard from a church that no one has ever heard of,  and they reported his scandalous message ‘from God’ about our new Prime Minister. Yes, the preacher was saying dumb things that were not from God, but was it really worthy of public attention? Catholic clergy who have been accused of abusing children or of covering up abuse, have been rightly highlighted in our news. And yet, when the head of the Roman Church and other most senior Catholic clergy are named as co-conspirators to protect child abusing priests, the cone of silence descends not only on the Vatican but also on the media.

One of the accusations leveled at religious organisations is their lack of transparency and their long attempts to cover up abuse. Peoples’ anger at religious institutions is understandable and largely justifiable. It is beyond outrageous that ecclesial authorities should hide evil men who have destroyed the lives of thousands of children in their care. It is an automatic pass to hell.

If I had friends who were victims in Pennsylvania, for their sake I’d be wanting answers. If my children had ever been placed in such a vulnerable position, I would be in Rome right now with placards and a megaphone and a list of verbalisms to compete with any that Martin Luther ever preached.

This is time for reform inside the Roman Catholic Church. They ignored the opportunity when it came around 500 years ago, but they cannot afford to ignore it now. Bad theology leads to justifying bad living, and a trail of broken people in the wake.

 

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In the growing strange web of paradoxical ‘silence’, Rome refuses to break the seal of the confessional, but the Pope is still breaking God’s rules about praying, as he sends out more tweet prayers to Mary and to other saints.

I say all this, being aware of the plank in my own eyes, and the wood-paneled rooms of my own denomination. This is not about, ‘let him who has no sin throw the first stone’. Our broader society often misinterprets Christianity and Churches, and claims wrongdoing when there is none, but on this issue, people are right to be horrified. The harshest words Jesus ever spoke, were not toward those who admitted ignorance about God, but those who claimed to know and represent God, but by their actions denied him.

There is no glory or good to be found in the silence or in feeble half measures. If Jesus is Lord, then we must obey his call for repentance. Repentance repudiates cover-ups and superficial penances or forced retirements; repentance begins with confession and true contrition.

We wait to hear the silence end.

The only good Christian politician…

The only good Christian politician is one who has the prefix non sitting at the front. Or, if they insist on believing in God, make sure it’s not the Christian God. Or, if that too fails, just make sure the god being worshiped is domesticated and progressive and doesn’t really believe what the Bible says.

It only took a few days, but elements of mainstream media have established their narrative for Australia’s new Prime Minister: Scott Morrison is one of those whacky Christians who believe in prayer and who hates gays and refugees. He’s dangerous because he isn’t following the script, the one that is being redrafted continuously by social progressives as they cherry pick scientific research and dismantle moral parameters that don’t fit with their already fixed social theories.

 

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Tony Wright, yesterday sent our bodies into spasmic motions of laughter as we read his classic tales of Christian mockery and parody, Scott Morrison’s Sermon on the Murray. Love: it’s for Australians.

“Love, exhorted Australia’s latest Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, pacing like an old-time tent preacher. Love!

“I love Australia,” he cried.

“Who loves Australia?” he demanded.

“Everyone,” he answered himself.

“We all love Australia. Of course we do.

“But do we love all Australians? That’s a different question, isn’t it?

“Do we love ALL Australians? We’ve got to.

“That’s what brings a country together. You love all Australians if you love Australia.”

Call it Scott Morrison’s Sermon on the Murray.

It turned out to be a stream of consciousness devoid of policy announcements, starting and finishing with pledges to uphold Menzies’ legacy, and heavy on folksy family tales, love and, yes, prayer.

In the midst of a long and dreadful drought, glory be, it rained in Albury on Thursday.

Morrison wasn’t about to let that go by without homage.

“It’s great to see it raining here in Albury today,” he said, roaming the stage with a hand-held microphone.

“I pray for that rain everywhere else around the country. And I do pray for that rain.

“And I’d encourage others who believe in the power of prayer to pray for that rain and to pray for our farmers. Please do that.”

And in case there were those in the audience who weren’t God-fearing, Morrison included them, too.

“And everyone else who doesn’t like to do that, you just say, ‘Good on you, guys. You go well’. Think good thoughts for them. Or whatever you do.”…

The room by then was fairly oozing the love. No one had the poor form to note out loud that Morrison’s love for everyone apparently stopped firmly at the coastline he once defended by Border Force, or that supporters of that other Mardi Gras might not share his happy sense of family, given his well-known thumbs down to equal marriage…

No. He’d come to give his Sermon on the Murray. Family and prayer and individualism.

Yes. And love. Lots of love. For everyone, so long as they’re Australian.”

 

Ok, I have to admit, the “Sermon on the Murray” line is kind of funny, but mainly because I spent some of my childhood in Albury Wodonga and my name is, well, Murray!

Like every Prime Minister before him, Scott Morrison is creating a narrative of his own, and he has chosen to be upfront about his Christian faith. Good on him. Why should he hide it? We’re not living in North Korea, are we? Or in an Islamic country?

I’m not suggesting that Christians should be beyond scrutiny. Christians serving in the public sphere should not be exempt from serious questions on relevant policy and views. Christian beliefs are not beyond the scope of impassioned dialogue and debate. Indeed, as we read the story of the Bible we discover countless examples of the Apostles inviting careful investigation. Equally so, the Christian life ought also to display the character of Christ,

 “You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.” (Matt 5:14-16)

Don’t misunderstand me, Scott Morrison is no Messiah. I assume that our new PM, like every other Christian, will sometimes get things wrong, and that means that some of his decisions won’t always best reflect the Christian worldview that he upholds. For instance, do I think the Government’s policy on Asylum Seekers best reflects a Christian view of refugees? No, I don’t.  I think it’s cruel and unnecessary. But are our atheistic secularist friends really wanting an Australian Prime Minister to adopt policies that are shaped by Christianity?

If a politician or public figure makes their religious convictions known, it is entirely appropriate for journalists to note hypocrisy and inconsistency. However, it’s clear that the derision toward Scott Morrison’s Christianity doesn’t stop there; let’s mock the PM’s belief in prayer. Why? The issue isn’t even the fact that Scott Morrison has called for prayer, but that he’s praying to the wrong kind of god. The God who is revealed in Jesus Christ and who authored the Bible doesn’t preach their ‘progressive’ gospel of sexual fluidity, abortion, and non-heterosexual marriage.

Many of the same political pundits who are critical of Morrison’s Christianity are very quick to praise the sloganeering of religious figures like Rod Bower. They can’t get enough of his tirades of abuse toward conservative politicians. The more heretical his signs, the louder the applause. Yes, Australia remains ardently religious, and even the irreligious can’t help themselves. They’ll keep mocking religion that doesn’t fit their agendas, and they will praise from the heights (or lows) of twitter any Aussie in a clerical collar who preaches their message.

Mocking the right type of Christian will win ‘likes’ on social media, and will ensure our parodies are published in the paper, but it is all rather dull and unoriginal. This kind of mud-slinging has been going on since, well, since the time of Jesus. The Roman soldiers had a riot of a time while they mocked Jesus, before crucifying him, and the religious elite joined in the fun as Jesus hung there on the cross.

My advice to Aussie Christians is, don’t get too upset by the latest round mocking Christianity. Didn’t Jesus have something to say about insults in the Sermon on the Mount?  After all, remember the strangest irony of all, our Churches are filled with once-upon-a-time mockers. Our congregations are made up of people who once didn’t believe in prayer but have now discovered pray is effective. Today’s Christians were often yesterday’s critics; we once argued how the Bible is an archaic and immoral book, but now we have become convinced that the words of Scripture are true and good. Anti-theists become theists and worshipers of Jesus Christ.

Here ends today’s Sermon by Murray!

Banning ‘Conversion’ Therapy, what does it mean?

Media outlets have renewed a campaign to outlaw gay conversion therapy (GCT). The Age published an article on the weekend with the title, Churches, LGBTI Christians urge crackdown on ‘conversion’ therapy.

The headline is somewhat misleading, for according to the SOCE website (the group who are asking the Federal Government to ban GCT), only four churches have signed their statement along with 3-4 church ministers. No doubt there other supportive Churches, but nothing like the groundswell of ecclesial enthusiasm that the newspaper implies.

If The Age had asked Christian leaders and Churches from across the country, I suspect that they would find partial agreement with the folk at SOCE Survivors, and also significant disagreement.

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To begin with, testimonies of gay conversion therapies are disturbing. Far from being ‘normal,’ these practices belong to fringe religious groups, finding little or no support amongst mainstream Christian Churches and theology. As a Christian, I do not support or agree with gay conversion therapy, as defined in terms of using pseudo-scientific and unbiblical spiritual methods to change a person’s sexuality. I feel for those who have undergone these traumatic experiences, wishing that they had not, and praying that they will find true and lasting recovery and peace.

The conversation is important because the health and life of LGBTIQ Australians matters enormously. They are not pawns to be played in political games, but human beings made in the image of God, and who ought to be treated with dignity. This, however, does not mean that every sexual preference and activity is morally good and beneficial, and neither does it mean that people who choose celibacy are somehow less complete or fulfilled as human beings.

It is interesting to learn that the SOCE Survivors statement makes the repeated observation that most organisations who once practiced GCT have now folded or no longer use such programs. If this is the case, then why are LGBTIQ groups and two political parties campaigning to have gay conversion therapy banned by Governments? If the aim is to inform the public of these formerly used and egregious methods, that’s fine, and yet their stated goals extend far beyond this. Why is there a concerted campaign to make illegal, practices that are no longer employed? As one reads further into the document, a picture emerges that their primary focus is no longer with GCT  but with any ideology that does not fully support LGBTIQ identity and lifestyles.

The statement argues that “many expressions of SOCE exist at the micro level, making them difficult to recognise, quantify, and regulate. The underlying ideology is firmly embedded in the everyday life of many faith communities as a collection of messages, beliefs and practices.”

According to their document, the key to this ideology is the erroneous and harmful belief (in their opinion) that “heterosexuality is the intended order”. Among these unacceptable practices are sermons that “talk about and reinforce traditional gender roles and ‘living as men and women of God”.

How broad is the net of unacceptable teaching and practice in faith communities? It certainly feels sufficiently broad to include the majority of Churches and Christian organisations. That’s part of the problem with the SOCE website, and also with the reporting in the newspaper, their descriptions of gay conversion therapy are vague, so much so that depending on how one reads in between the blurry lines, preaching a sermon on Genesis chs.1-3 or Romans 1:18-32 could fall foul of the authorities.

Definitions matter. The meaning of words and phrases is essential, lest we import a wrong sense or create confusion by speaking across each other. At the same time though, ambiguity and breadth are also proven rhetorical devices that gently and unassumingly push the envelope open even further.

In the Bible, God calls Christians to sexual purity. This does not necessarily mean there will be a change in sexual orientation. Some men and woman find their sexual desires and identity change with time, and to argue otherwise is to ignore the weight of personal testimonies. Indeed, researchers have demonstrated that the majority of children who experience gender dysphoria will grow out of it by adulthood and will happily identifying with their biological sex. However, the fact is, when becoming a Christian, many gay and lesbian people will not become heterosexual.

The Bible may not state that a person’s sexual orientation will change, but it does teach conversion. Christianity by definition is a conversion religion, where human beings made in the image of God, shift from looking for freedom in the myth of post-enlightenment moral relativism, and instead discovering the greatest freedom in the person of Jesus Christ. Let me repeat, I am not suggesting that people cease to struggle with aspects of their past, including sexual orientation, but it does mean that they now want to be godly in their sexuality. According to the Bible, this sanctification includes affirming that sex belongs to the loving, exclusive, mutually consenting, covenant of marriage between a man and a woman.

Does believing and teaching the above, and encouraging Christians to practice the above, push me outside the moral parameters of SOCE? Keeping in mind that none of the above views are new or novel, for they sit perfectly within orthodox Christian teaching and practice. Nonetheless, should this standard Christian view be considered wrong and harmful, and to be scrutinised by the authorities?

Anything other than the full affirmation of lgbtiq individuals as fully equal (including in the church, with a move toward correcting the poorly translated words currently classed as “homosexual” in the bible) is really unacceptable.”

While the SOCE Survivors document is vague at points, a spokesperson from SOCE has this week responded to a friend of mine who was also seeking clarification from them. The spokesperson said,

“The conversion therapy movement is very broad. Eg. theologically driven celibacy of lgbtiq people, prayer ministry, sermons that veer into exgay ideology leading to harm. They all need firm interventions. The survivors who wrote the statement are very keen to keep the definition broad. Anything other than the full affirmation of lgbtiq individuals as fully equal (including in the church, with a move toward correcting the poorly translated words currently classed as “homosexual” in the bible) is really unacceptable.”

The SOCE representative also asked,

“Would people who attend this group be encouraged to avoid being in a long-term committed same-sex relationship on theological or psychological grounds?”

When my friend suggested, ‘yes’, he was then informed that,

“I would say this group falls under the umbrella of the ex-gay movement. As you can see from the statement, the ex-gay movement has been viewed through many lenses over the years – from conversion therapy, to ex-gay programs that are less about therapy and more about solidarity. Regardless, such a group goes against the latest biblical scholarship, as well as a significant body of research detailing the harm caused by attempts to suppress or change a person’s orientation or gender affirmation on religious grounds. Thanks.”

There you have it. The agenda is wider than banning rare and harmful practices, but includes ministry and preaching that encourages the classical Biblical understanding of sexual holiness and human identity.

One might choose to ignore this most recent reporting of the issue, believing it’s another example of Christian philistinism. However, SOCE’s agenda is being adopted by two of the nation’s major political parties (ALP and the Greens), and the current Victorian State Government is also considering legislating on the issue. In other words, there is a strong possibility that these views will be shaped into legislation in the not too distant future, and could be used to against Christian Churches across Australia (and especially in Victoria). In case we assume there will be no severe implications from such legislation, as one example, the ALP platform speaks of removing children from parents who fail to affirm children in their self-assigned gender and sexuality, referring to this as child abuse.

Rather than chasing the culture down the rabbit hole of fluffy and imprecise language, Churches need theological and pastoral precision. This is a time for Christians to repudiate unsound, unbiblical, and harmful practices that have been used in the past, albeit by marginal and whacky groups. This is a time to repent of resentment toward LGBTIQ Australians and to ask for forgiveness where we have wronged them. This is also a time to embrace God’s good ways that are revealed in the Scriptures.

The future of Christianity does not depend on Governmental or societal approval, but it does hinge on whether Churches will “contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to God’s holy people.” Christianity didn’t survive and flourish in the Roman Empire because they allowed the sexual norms of the day to define the Church, or because they played dodge-the-bullet with broad and vague language, but because they believed and lived the freedom that was brought about by Jesus Christ. Clarity in an age of confusion; that is what is required of Christians today: humble clarity and gracious conviction that God’s purposes are good and true.