Original Sin, COVID-19, and Personal Accountability

Two Christian doctrines of humanity that often create controversy are original sin and total depravity. I understand, these concepts cause us discomfort because of what they suggest about humanity in general, and me personally. However, this Biblical understanding of what went wrong in the world is part of our story and it’s vital if we are to understand ourselves and the world around us today. Indeed, just a doctor needs to diagnosis the illness before treating it successfully, we need a detailed and accurate diagnosis of the human condition.

Interestingly, in this second wave of COVID-19 that is responsible for locking down my city of Melbourne, we are seeing an analogy of these doctrines. The analogy isn’t perfect but nonetheless, I think it is a poignant illustration. I’ll come to this analogy shortly.

 

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Photo by CDC on Pexels.com

 

It is worth noting that the phrase, ‘original sin’ has reappeared in our vocabulary over recent months. Original sin is now employed to help explain the current issue of racism in both Australia and in the United States, and to find its connection with historical slavery. There is some warrant for using this category in a sociological and historical manner, but theologically it comes unstuck. Europeans didn’t introduce sin to these shores,  although we have urged it on, being living representations of the Christian doctrine of total depravity.

The Biblical notion of original sin begins in Genesis ch.3 where Adam and Eve doubted the truthfulness and goodness of God’s word by disobeying his clear instruction. The Apostle Paul traces every sinful thought, attitude, word and action back to this cataclysmic moment in the garden.

“Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all people, because all sinned” (Romans 5:12)

One of the resistances to the Biblical idea is the argument of justice. How can I be made responsible for the sin of another? Why should I pay the price for what someone else did thousands of years ago?

Just as the Bible explains sin’s origins in the one act of disobedience, it also explains how every human being chooses this path for themselves. Jesus responded to the Pharisees and teachers of the law in his day who argued for external adherence to religious laws by uncovering the heart of the issue,

“Don’t you see that nothing that enters a person from the outside can defile them? 19 For it doesn’t go into their heart but into their stomach, and then out of the body.” (In saying this, Jesus declared all foods clean.)

20 He went on: “What comes out of a person is what defiles them. 21 For it is from within, out of a person’s heart, that evil thoughts come—sexual immorality, theft, murder, 22 adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. 23 All these evils come from inside and defile a person.” (Mark 18-23)

In other words, we are responsible for our own hearts and the motives and lives that follow.

We may inherit the condition put in motion in Genesis ch.3, but we also embrace them. This doctrine of total depravity isn’t suggesting that we only transgress but that we are inclined to reject God and his righteousness and instead to create and justify our own moral truths, often with disastrous consequences. As God’s image bearers, we carry hints of the glory of God and exquisite glimmers of his purposes. That there is love among us is reflective of the fact that God is love. And yet, this image bearing is broken and we often take pride in this fracturing.

The Apostle Paul concludes his gut wrenching exposition of God’s justification for judging the world by saying,

“There is no one righteous, not even one;

there is no one who understands;

    there is no one who seeks God.

All have turned away…” (Romans 3:10-12)

Let’s now turn to the analogy. It is believed that Melbourne’s second wave of COVID-19 began with a single source, connected with security guards working in hotel quarantine. One transgression has led to thousands of people contracting COVID-19 and a growing number now dying. The analogy that I want to draw your attention to isn’t so much virus but the chain of social disobediences that has ensued.

Every day there are dozens of people caught and fined for breaching the rules of the lockdown. Yesterday one Melbourne woman was arrested by police for flaunting the rules and posting her defiance on social media in front of police. Others, echoing that ancient serpent, “did God really say,” have insisted that they don’t need to follow the restrictions because they think the pandemic is a hoax.

The single actions of hotel security guards has led to the situation where we are in a serious medical and social situation. Can the Bunnings Karens blame these guards for their own actions? Should those refusing to wear masks or continuing to gather illegally in groups defer responsibility to those guards? Despite those original actions that has produced the crises in which we find ourselves, is not every Victorian responsible for their own actions? Of course.

The analogy does break down at this point: many Victorians (most) are complying with the restrictions, whereas the Bible explains how every person is sinful and breaks God’s intention for us, by nature and by choice. As I said at the beginning, the illustration isn’t perfect, but it shows how one action produces an environment where others do what is wrong. The former created the situation but the latter cannot use this as a defence for their own actions.

It is also true that while we are responsible for our own sins, we can also be victims of other peoples wilful and selfish behaviour. This is evident for everyone to see in this pandemic. Thousands of Victorians are now ill because some decided that following rules didn’t apply to them. Even yesterday, as police and ADF members visited the homes of Melbournians who’ve been diagnosed with COVID-19, some of these people couldn’t be found because they had decided to return to work.

We may disagree with original sin, but the world around us and even our own lives bear testimony to it.

There is, of course, good news. The problem of sin has an answer, but it’s not found from within but from an outside source. The God who responded to original sin by cursing creation also offered his own life as an atoning sacrifice for our sins,

Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: “Cursed is everyone who is hung on a pole.” “(Galatians 3:13)

“For just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous”. (Romans 5:19)

Christians Avoiding the Pitfalls of Political Polarisation

I get it, our society isn’t just polarised, it’s being torn apart by tribalism, divisions, and unbending ideologues. It’s hard enough being an average Aussie let alone one who believes Jesus is Lord. What are we meant to do when we disagree with the Government? How should we respond when we don’t like what a Government says or decides?

Thankfully God hasn’t left us walking in the darkness. In his wisdom, God gives us clear instructions and principles in his word. Just like me who can feel heated by some of the political debates going on and therefore needs to be reminded of these words, I suspect many of us do.

I’m not intending to pull out every nugget in every verse that I quote below. My aim is simply to draw our attention to the main imperative or principle that is mentioned in each of these Bible passages.

 

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Pray

Take, for example, 1 Timothy 2:1-3

”I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people— for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. This is good, and pleases God our Savior, who wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.” (1 Timothy 2:1-3)

We are commanded to pray for those in authority. The imperative isn’t conditioned by our political preferences or by the decisions made in our favour. Keep in mind that Paul was writing at a time where there were no democratic societies and where there was little toleration of Christians.

We pray for our Governments and political representatives, not because we always agree with them, but they have a God given responsibility for society.

Indeed, Governments, politicians, and bureaucrats need our prayers. Not every authority is conscious of this or a would accept this proposition. They nonetheless carry significant responsibility and work long stressful and often thankless hours.  When I’ve messaged an MP and asked how I can pray for them, the response has rarely been, “no, don’t pray for me”.

Listen to what verse 3 says, “this is good and pleases God our Savior”.

 

Be subject to

What about Romans 13?

”Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended.” (Romans 13:1-3)

We are not only to pray for governing authorities but also to submit to and obey those in authority. Why? These authorities have been established by God, for the good order of society and to punish wrongdoing.

Submit

13 Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human authority: whether to the emperor, as the supreme authority, 14 or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right. 15 For it is God’s will that by doing good you should silence the ignorant talk of foolish people”. (1 Peter 2:13-15)

Listening to, honouring, and obeying the Government is God’s will for every Christian. It is one of the ways we do good and it serves to silence some of the ridiculous criticisms aimed at Christians. I am surprised (perhaps not) at how our readiness to adhere to Governments often depends on who is in power. It is amazing to see how much our political preferences shape our rhetoric and responses to a Government.

Also this, it is sometimes assumed that we will make a clearer statement for the Gospel by standing apart from the authorities, but that isn’t the argument given here in 1 Peter nor in Romans 13. We can bear faithful witness to Christ by submitting to authority.

Another issue relates to trust. Do we trust the words and decisions being made by those in Spring St and in Canberra? I understand the trust issues as much as any Australian. It may also be the case that those making decisions have a fuller perspective and better understanding of the issue than I. I’m not a medical doctor or a lawyer or an economist, and so I want to tread very carefully when issues relate to those subjects and countless others. I’m blessed to have members at my church and among my friendship networks who are professionals in these areas and whom I can go to with my questions and seek understanding. My point is, submitting to authorities is not only right, following expert advice is usually the wise course of action.

 

Appeal

In Acts ch.25 the Apostle Paul, having been arrested,  is interrogated by the Roman Governor of Judea.

Paul made his defense: “I have done nothing wrong against the Jewish law or against the temple or against Caesar.”

Festus, wishing to do the Jews a favor, said to Paul, “Are you willing to go up to Jerusalem and stand trial before me there on these charges?”

10 Paul answered: “I am now standing before Caesar’s court, where I ought to be tried. I have not done any wrong to the Jews, as you yourself know very well. 11 If, however, I am guilty of doing anything deserving death, I do not refuse to die. But if the charges brought against me by these Jews are not true, no one has the right to hand me over to them. I appeal to Caesar!”

12 After Festus had conferred with his council, he declared: “You have appealed to Caesar. To Caesar you will go!”

On this occasion, Paul uses his right as a citizen to appeal to Caesar. During his ministry, Paul was arrested and imprisoned on multiple occasions and he didn’t always make this legal case in his defence. He does however on this occasion.

When we disagree or hold a legitimate concern, we ought to follow due process. Not every citizen in every society has the opportunity or even the political right to address concerns to their governing authorities. One of God’s graces to us is that we do have this kind of freedom in Australia. We can write to our local MP. We can arrange meetings and even present our positions to Ministers of the Government. If that fails, every few years we have the democrat privilege of voting for (or against) our political representatives.

Christians have a choice, we can join in the fray and take sides on every single issue, and so add to the anger and cultural fragmentation. Or, we can choose the more difficult path. We can watch our tone carefully. We can choose to keep our words to ourselves.  When we open our mouths we should begin with prayer for those in authority. When we speak we can find good things to affirm and not only criticise the contemptible.

We don’t all have to be John Knox all the time and in every situation. Not every issue is a Martin Luther, ‘Here I stand’ moment. Life is far more complex. Even among Bible-believing Christians, we will sometimes come to different conclusions about the gravity of a subject and how Christians ought to respond.

I can’t help but wonder whether some of our Christian voice stems from a mistaken eschatology. In our protestations are we trying to make heaven out of earth? Do we conflate the nation state with the kingdom of God? Or, in speaking up are we appealing to the common good and love for neighbour, and upholding the tradition of religious toleration, defending for all people freedom of conscience and freedom of speech and religion?

There are times for civil disobedience but those occasions ought to be rare and for extraordinary reasons. There are first order issues and situations where a Christian must say no because it would be paramount to sinning against God, but that is not every matter. I can foresee a time where churches in Victoria will be forced to choose between Christ and the State, especially on issues surrounding sexuality. We may be pushed into the insane position of deciding whether we will teach God’s view on human sexuality or comply with Government regulation. When that day comes, the stand we take will look feeble and sound reminiscent of the boy who cried wolf. We need to be careful about using up all our capital now on lesser matters.

This is a good time for Christians to press closer to what God says in his word about Church and State. Begin with prayer, assume submission and obedience, do good, and choose our battles carefully. “This is good and pleases God”.

 


Let the reader note, in this piece I’m not addressing specific stories that have come out this week, but  I am thinking more generally.

Giving Jesus a bad name

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

 

It’s hard enough persuading Aussies about the wonder, truth and goodness of Jesus Christ without Christians mucking it up. We can have a hundred churches faithfully and lovingly speaking and living out His Gospel, but the foolishness of a few can quickly undo much good.

Let me begin by reminding ourselves, Jesus wasn’t exactly a popular guy in the first century AD. Crowds were drawn to him because of his memorable speeches and because of his miraculous deeds, but scarcely did they love him. In fact, the culture’s leaders conspired to have Jesus arrested, put him on trial in a kangaroo court and then killed in the most gruesome and public manner ever invented by humanity. As they did this, the crowds cheered on Jesus’ crucifixion.

Down the centuries and in every culture that has had contact with Christianity, Jesus Christ has been controversial. To many, he has been recognised as the Son of God, the resurrected Lord, and the only Saviour of the world. Through faith, this Jesus has destroyed great evil, removed personal sin and guilt, and has gifted new lives, new communities, and transformed cultures in ways that we continue to benefit from today. Much of what we have today is the result of this Jesus who changes beliefs, attitudes, and lives.

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Jesus Christ remains a controversial figure in the world of 2020. Many people allege a liking for Jesus…until they read and understand things like the cross, God’s justice, and his claims of Lordship. In other words, a Jesus that we mould into our own image is likeable. This kind of Jesus is given special mention in our ripostes against organised religion and in our sermons that espouse the latest moral dictums.

But as Jesus himself said,

“If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first. 19 If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you. 20 Remember what I told you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also. If they obeyed my teaching, they will obey yours also. 21 They will treat you this way because of my name, for they do not know the one who sent me. 22 If I had not come and spoken to them, they would not be guilty of sin; but now they have no excuse for their sin. 23 Whoever hates me hates my Father as well. 24 If I had not done among them the works no one else did, they would not be guilty of sin. As it is, they have seen, and yet they have hated both me and my Father. 25 But this is to fulfill what is written in their Law: ‘They hated me without reason.’ (John 17:18-25)

People will often accept a God who conforms to their own heart’s desires, but without Divine grace, they will find the God and Father of Jesus Christ repellent. As Jesus explains the world’s response to him, he includes a word for those who follow him; the world will hate them.

This idea of societal suspicion and even rejection of Christianity and Christian people is one of the regular reminders in the New Testament. Christians shouldn’t be surprised when there is backlash for believing the Gospel and for affirming God’s ways as good and true. This reaction is quite normal.

However, not all opposition to Churches and Christians is because of the Gospel or because we are doing what is right. Sometimes Christians are called out publicly because we are acting in foolish ways and even sinful ways. It can be difficult to always distinguish between foolishness and sin, partly because we are not privy to peoples’ hearts. Actions and words are however powerful communicators, and they can usually adorn the Gospel or confuse the Gospel.

Like in every crisis, the COVID-19 pandemic is not only witnessing the best and worst of humanity, but we are also seeing the best and the not so good of Christians.

Take, for example, Grace Community Church in California. Thousands of Christians from all over the world look up to this church and to their Senior Pastor, John MacArthur. His many decades of ministry has been a source of encouragment for significant numbers of Christian men and women, including here in Australia. Last week, the Elders of Grace Community Church decided to defy local Government orders and return to their normal Sunday services.

Before casting stones it is important to read the statement by the Elders at Grace Community, and also to read this response published on 9Marks.org by Jonathan Leeman. I concur with Leeman’s reflections, which in summary includes a general agreement with the theological convictions of Grace Community but disagreement over how they have applied these beliefs. For example, Lehman suggests,

“I personally wonder if defying government orders for the sake of a pandemic is the most judicious opportunity to exercise those muscles.” 

There are serious threats to religious freedom in our societies. With an increasingly secularised and polarised culture, there are reasons for believing life will become more difficult for Christians exercising their belief and practices. Is this pandemic really one of those issues?

Leeman again,

“Right now, the guidelines restricting churches also restricts restaurants, movie theaters, museum, gyms, funeral homes, non-essential offices, shopping malls, barbershops, and more. As those restaurant and gym owners cast a glance over at our churches, will our refusal to abide by the same restrictions which are causing them financial distress help the witness of the gospel, especially if we could find other ways to comply, such as meeting outdoors?”

Leeman also suggested,

“What’s implied in MacArthur’s statement is that his elders don’t believe there is a real threat with Covid-19.”

This is correct. Indeed photographs of their ‘triumphal’ return to Church last Sunday reinforces this message that COVID-19 is not the serious disease medical experts and Government authorities are communicating. Whether this was intended or not, this was the effect.

Was it necessary for Grace Community Church to recommence their services at this time? Does their decision show love to their neighbours?

Let’s take an example closer to home. A Christian school in Melbourne has today made the news for what was a stupid and unnecessary reason: they are demanding students to only wear face masks that match their school uniform and school colours. I think SBS is throwing a cheap shot at the school; this is hardly worthy of national news, and yet it now is.  A Christian school has made a needless decision that adds to the pointless growing number of examples of Christians making an unnecessary stand.

In addition, throughout the different stage of lockdown, there have been examples of churches flaunting the rules. The number of cases is tiny, but we already know that the media love to name and shame a Church when possible. Why give them a reason?

More serious are Christians who repeat and give oxygen to conspiracy theories surrounding COVID-19. Stop it, repent, and stop taking the Lord’ name in vain. The pandemic is difficult enough with medical experts trying to understand the nature of this terrible virus and how to best combat it, without armchair experts encouraging rumours, gossip, slander, and other sinful speech. I understand how some Government messaging is confusing and how medical opinion has at times conflicted. I appreciate that these serious restrictions are uncomfortable and difficult. But as a Christian, I am to honour and obey those in authority, even when I disagree with them. I am to love my neighbours, and I am not to create stumbling blocks for people. Aussies are already resistant to the Gospel of Christ without me building extra walls blocking out the beauty and glory of God that shines in the face of Christ.

Some of the examples I’ve cited above are not necessarily Christian behaving sinfully, but they are unwise. They may not represent many Christians but it does mirror far too many.

In this year of grave uncertainty and instability, of growing anxiety and fear, we as Christians have the greatest message of hope to offer our neighbours. Let it not get lost in the midst of needless biases, prejudices, and preferences.

As the Apostle said to the Colossians, “Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders; make the most of every opportunity.  Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.”

Australians don’t need to hear every thought and every theory that is gurgling around in our stomachs. They don’t need us to insist upon every tertiary preference. They need us to be wise, full of grace and adding salt (which is the Gospel not our speculative thoughts on immunology).

 


Here is an interview on Fox news with John MacArthur explaining their decision

A new course exploring Christianity

Making Sense of Christianity is a new course designed to present and explain the message of Christianity.

It’s starting in 6 days time (July 28th, 7:3pm)

The 4 week course examines some of the biggest questions of life:

  1. God and the universe
  2. Humanity, sin, and death
  3. Jesus Christ
  4. Christians and the church

The material is written by a Melbournian (me) and for Melbournians

To register, email Murray at pastor@mentonebaptist.com.au

Make sure you include your name, contact details, name of church (if you attend one), and why you’re interested in doing the course.

Check out the intro video

 

A Disgraced Newspaper

The New York Times was once looked upon with great respect by journalists and readers alike. This newspaper is read all over the world and was seen as one of the premier sources for accurate reporting and erudite opinion writing.  Some would argue that the writing has been on the wall for sometime. Yesterday many of those niggles and even a few prophetic words were confirmed. 

One of the New York Times senior journalists, Bari Weiss, has resigned. On her departure, she wrote an open letter explaining the reasons for her resignation. Weiss’ story is a damning exposure of a culture that includes intimidation, anti-semitism, and heavily biased reporting.

She explains,

“Twitter is not on the masthead of The New York Times. But Twitter has become its ultimate editor. As the ethics and mores of that platform have become those of the paper, the paper itself has increasingly become a kind of performance space. Stories are chosen and told in a way to satisfy the narrowest of audiences, rather than to allow a curious public to read about the world and then draw their own conclusions.I was always taught that journalists were charged with writing the first rough draft of history. Now, history itself is one more ephemeral thing molded to fit the needs of a predetermined narrative.”

…What rules that remain at The Times are applied with extreme selectivity. If a person’s ideology is in keeping with the new orthodoxy, they and their work remain unscrutinized. Everyone else lives in fear of the digital thunderdome. Online venom is excused so long as it is directed at the proper targets. 

Op-eds that would have easily been published just two years ago would now get an editor or a writer in serious trouble, if not fired. If a piece is perceived as likely to inspire backlash internally or on social media, the editor or writer avoids pitching it. If she feels strongly enough to suggest it, she is quickly steered to safer ground. And if, every now and then, she succeeds in getting a piece published that does not explicitly promote progressive causes, it happens only after every line is carefully massaged, negotiated and caveated.”

The shock waves of these revelations are still bouncing around the globe, and they ought. One of the world’s greatest newspapers has been exposed as a puppet of the twitter mob. This will likely go down in history as a glaring example of the intolerance and oppressive group think that now dominates so much of Western culture.

In an age when people are increasingly looking for confirmation bias, it is paramount that we can trust the culture’s reputable news outlets. Sadly, the kind of objective and truthful reporting that we need is becoming hard to find. Both the left and the right can be guilty of bending truth to a predetermined agenda. If that’s your spin, don’t pretend to be an objective newsroom.

I recall one journalist at a major Australian newspaper telling me that I shouldn’t expect fair reporting on Christianity because 1. most journalists have almost no understanding of religion, and 2. The majority don’t like religion (especially Christianity).

That’s part of the travesty here. The Times’ zealous commitment to woke culture has thrown journalism into the toilet. Thankfully I do know journalists who are well credentialed to handle religious stories and who have great integrity in reporting any story fairly and objectively. Indeed, Bari Weiss speaks of fine journalists who are remaining at the Times, but they appear to be either swimming against or drowning in the tide.

Don’t expect any sign of remorse or repentance. There are a few journalists sticking their heads over the parapet to express disappointment over how Bari Weiss has been treated, but will her words really changing the times? I suspect not. Why not? Because in the West truth no longer matters and fairness is an optional extra. These once upon a time virtues come at too high a cost for those wanting to hold onto careers, power, and success. Truth is uncomfortable and often betrays mainstream ethics and politics. Reporting on cultural heretics with a tone of respect and fairness is unacceptable. Any hint of digression from the new moral agenda is spat out with unreserved fury; not only Twitter, but also inside the New York Times, 

Bari Weiss shares, 

“My own forays into Wrongthink have made me the subject of constant bullying by colleagues who disagree with my views. They have called me a Nazi and a racist; I have learned to brush off comments about how I’m “writing about the Jews again.” Several colleagues perceived to be friendly with me were badgered by coworkers. My work and my character are openly demeaned on company-wide Slack channels where masthead editors regularly weigh in. There, some coworkers insist I need to be rooted out if this company is to be a truly “inclusive” one, while others post ax emojis next to my name. Still other New York Times employees publicly smear me as a liar and a bigot on Twitter with no fear that harassing me will be met with appropriate action. They never are.”

These revelations are extraordinary, and yet they are sadly predictable. 

I also find it telling that this global story is being ignored by most of Australia’s mainstream media outlets. I wonder, why? The Australian has published a piece, but what of the other major papers?

Truth telling is a precious commodity. The world needs more of it, not less.

I hope Bari Weiss’ courage serves as a catalyst for change within the New York Times and that other media institutions take note. I suspect though that real reform is unlikely; the culture is shifting quickly and so long as we continually erase Christian ideas and foundations from every part of life we will inevitably steer further away from the very virtues we need. The New York Times has caught wind of the change and their blowing full steam ahead.

We need more journalists standing against the wind, losing careers and reputations for the sake of the truth and fair reporting. The culture may cancel you, but the culture may in fact need your words. Since when has truth been popular? Didn’t they crucify the Son of God for speaking God’s truth to the world? 

In the meantime, the rest of us can take a word from the Bible, 

“test everything; hold fast what is good”. 

A Season for Conspiracy Theories: 1 Timothy 4

Conspiracy theories are to truth and life what arsonists are to a hot and dry summer in Australia.

Back in May I wrote a piece about the dangers of conspiracy theories and why it is the duty of Christians to not only avoid them, but also to refute them. At the time I was preaching through Colossians (and we still are!), and we made note of the warnings given by God about entertaining myths. As Colossians highlights, in the church “such things promote controversial speculations rather than advancing God’s work”.

At the time I tweeted what should have been a fairly innocuous statement, “In light of the growing proliferation of nutty conspiracy theories, I’m pleased that we’re currently studying Colossians at Church. Colossians presents a clear repudiation of gnosis. Christians are to be people of reason not speculation, love not fear.”

I was wrong; this was a highly controversial thing to say. 

In particular, I addressed the growing issue of QAnon, which is a political conspiracy theory nest that has recently morphed into a pseudo-christian and cult like religion. In the United States the FBI now consider some QAnon members a domestic terrorist threat. 

You can find the original article here (with links to several important investigative pieces from the Atlantic and the ABC).

Photo by Anna Shvets on Pexels.com

In the last few weeks I’ve had a number of conversations with people in the community who are hearing more of these conspiracy theories. For example, one friend today copied a text message that is being sent to people. The message claims that you have been in contact with someone who has COVID-19 and you must no self isolate. This scam is signed by “COVID-19anon”.

Such messages are foolish, needless, and potentially life threatening.

Other friends are sharing stories of peoples who are convinced that COVID-19 is a hoax orchestrated by the Government. It is interesting to note that those who are thinking this way also tend to believe in other conspiracy theories as well. 

The alternative position to conspiracy theories isn’t to lock your brain away in the freezer and glibly accept everything Governments say as gospel truth. Most of us understand that our political leaders are fallible and that they sometimes massage truth for the sake of political point scoring. There is however a massive gap between grasping political biases and believing in Government led hoaxes. 

Over the weekend, one of the Pastors at Mentone led a group discussion on 1 Timothy ch.4. While unintended, the words couldn’t come at a more pertinent time. 

1 Timothy 4:6 says, “Have nothing to do with godless myths and old wives’ tales; rather, train yourself to be godly”.

This chapter of Scripture is helpful for Christians in guarding themselves against conspiracy theories. Here are 7 salient points: 

  1. Paul assumes such ideas will appear and grab hold of peoples imaginations.

2. Paul assumes some of these theories will filter into churches.

3. Paul believes these myths have demonic origins; they are not from God.

4. In verses 3-4 he gives examples, which refer to teachings that deny creational order and good.

“They forbid people to marry and order them to abstain from certain foods, which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and who know the truth.For everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving,”

5. Paul tells Timothy that he has a responsibility to publicly repudiate these matters (vv. 6;11).

6. These ‘godless myths’ compete with and contradict the “truths of the faith” upon which Christians ought to be ‘nourished’ and “follow”. 

7. Whereas what is true and good produces godliness and life, these speculations drive a wedge into ones faith in Christ and are destructive in all kinds ways.

In addition (as I pointed out in my previous article on the issue), conspiracy theories often lead to gossiping, slandering, and to divisive behaviour. All such behaviour is sinful and contrary to how Christians are to speak and act. One of the sad ironies is that when someone leaves a church because they believe COVID-19 is a hoax, they are in fact proving Paul’s point in 1 Timothy 4 and Colossians 3. 

The sad reality is, it is very difficult to persuade people who believe conspiracy theories that they are mistaken. Conspiracy theories succeed because they play into pre-existing assumptions, and they justify irrational political and religious beliefs. Conspiracy theories don’t depend on evidence but on capturing those seeds of doubt or inquisitiveness that otherwise may lay dormant in the consciousness. Conspiracy theories can be refuted with reasoned argument and with actual experts but this unlikely to convince the skeptics. 

I understand people being suspicious of media and of politicians; many (not all) are prone to exaggeration, fear mongering, and sometimes they espouse straight out falsehoods. In treating truth this way, they encourage doubters and feed the skepticism that may have otherwise lay dormant among the population. And yet, throwing babies out with the bathwater is a really dangerous way to live.

Last week Andrew MacDonald (who is the associate director of the Wheaton College Billy Graham Center Institute), made this important statement about Christians and the media, 

“Having acknowledged the failures in journalism, it is critical that Christians resist the temptation to reject mainstream reporting altogether. This is a critical mistake that leads us down the pathway to isolation whereby we invalidate any news article we find unfavorable.

Moreover, there are good journalists in major outlets, even religion journalists who strive to understand and report on evangelicalism in all fairness. At times, this leads them to our failures, but in other cases they want to detail the nuance and complexity within the movement. I might not always agree with them, but I respect their integrity and desire to report honestly.

This all-or-nothing mentality also suggests a poor understanding of Christian engagement. Our goal should be a maturity to engage the new reporting of our time with a critical eye rather than to shout bias upon seeing the outlet logo. We need to read critically across a wide range, accepting hard truths that are well supported rather than if they support our political or cultural narrative. We need to resist our temptations to echo chambers; a temptation that is common to many other subcultures across the globe.”

This crazy year has another 5½ months to go. When there are crucial issues facing society, conspiracy theories are not far behind intruding with their secret knowledge and special insights. Handling the real issues is difficult enough for most of us without having also to put out these needless spot-fires. 

Ed Stetzer is right when he says to Christians, 

“Long story short, you’re ultimately bringing harm to yourself and your community. You may make yourself feel like you’re making a difference when you are not.

Most importantly, we damage our witness and that of your church when you focus on unproven theories and speculation more than the good news we’ve been commanded by our Lord to proclaim.”

The Hagia Sophia Marks History

The Hagia Sophia is one of the world’s most recognised and beautiful buildings. It is deservedly a Unesco World Heritage site.

I have yet to visit the truly extraordinary city of Istanbul and to walk inside this magnificent architecture along the narrows of the Bosphorus.  I have dreamed of wandering along its marble floors, admiring the mosaics and being entranced by the dome above. This Museum is no more.

Turkey’s President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has decided to change the Hagia Sophia. A Turkish Court has given the green light for annulling the Hagia Sophia’s status as a museum and to turning it once more into a Mosque. The Hagia Sophia has been a museum for nearly a century. Beforehand it was a Mosque. The Ottoman conquest of the city in 1453 saw the building converted from a church into a Mosque. Prior to the Ottoman invasion, the Hagia Sophia stood as a Christian Church for almost 1,000 years. 

President Erdogan has signalled that “Like all our mosques, the doors of Hagia Sophia will be wide open to locals and foreigners, Muslims and non-Muslims”. 

The first Muslim prayers will return to the Hagia Sophia on July 24th.

To be clear, I am not arguing against museums being transformed into mosques. There is another and more significant point to highlight about this historic decision. The return of the Hagia Sophia to a mosque illustrates the shifting cultural confidence around the world in 2020.

For 3,000 years Istanbul has stood at the world’s crossroads; it is where East meets West. For millennia this ancient city has witnessed civilisations rise and fall. While Turkey is no longer considered one of the world’s great powers, its geographical location remains significant. More so, the Hagia Sophia is symbolic of the global fault lines between East and West, and between Islam and cultural Christianity. 

Turkey is but one of a growing number of States who are observing a fractured, disillusioned, and weakened West. The United States, Europe, the United Kingdom, and even Australia, are pre occupied with internal culture wars that are quite literally tearing societies apart. Our politics is becoming increasingly divided and schismatic, our public figures are running fast to the extremities of left and right, and cancel culture is ready to devour any who cross the wrong line. What makes this venture more problematic is how the line continually moves. No one knows from one week to the next what the accept orthodoxy is, and yet everyone understands that stepping over this chalk line amounts to reputational suicide. In public discourse there exists little good will and common ground is rare to find. In the space of a few short years, western nations have dismantled their societies more successfully than two World Wars.

Unsurprisingly, this growing tribalism is creating disillusionment with mainstream politics, corporate identity games, and with the higher education sector. When we add a serious pandemic to the equation and the question of Climate Change, it is no wonder people are becoming anxious, depressed, and even despairing of hope itself. Internal fighting doesn’t build strong communities and resilient nations. But like the final days of Rome, the distraction and exhaustion gives others licence to take action.

There is an audible crescendoing confidence to despise Western culture. After all, when the West is itself setting fire to its past, this hardly discourages the rest of the world to embrace Western ideals. It is unlikely that China would be acting so confidently in Hong Kong had this not been the case. And for President Erdogan, the time is ripe for him to reinforce his Islamic credentials and to turn away from the fruits of Europe, which Turkey temporality found itself wanting to enjoy.

Of course, over here in the West the left will blame the right and the right will throw insults at the left. The reality is, in different ways both are responsible. When we pursue wealth at the cost of character, should we be surprised that people eventually object? When sexual identity becomes the primary definition of self worth, should we be shocked when the basic units of community are crushed?

20 years ago the United States was esteemed by most people around the world. Today, many of her own citizens despite her and want her institutions and constitution dismantled. Australia has not faired as negatively as our important ally, but we are not far behind. Our lackadaisical attitude and geographical remoteness has probably saved us from some of the sharpest barbs thus far, but these ‘qualities’ are no long term strategy for survival and prosperity.

I don’t think we can downplay the significance of President Erdogan’s decision.  History has turned on the changing Hagia Sophia and may well do so again.

It must be said though, lest we mess up Christian theology and witness, the church is not its building. The Church is the people, the body of Christ who are covenanted to one another and who congregate in the same space for mutual edification, discipleship, and love. A Church can just as successfully meet in a Cathedral as it can in a community hall or family lounge room. 

Gospel witness will not suffer as a result of returning this once church building back into a mosque. It does however serve as a reminder for churches to not take for granted the time we have to live and serve and to preach Jesus Christ as Lord.

For Christian Churches, whether in Turkey, Tulsa, Tottenham, or Templestowe, we must reform our ways, putting out trust in Christ and our hope in his Gospel. Churches desperately need Gospel conviction, clarity, and courage. This is not about slowing the rot in the West, but pointing people to the only certain hope there is. 

Churches are too often complicate in cultural syncretism and spiritual apostasy. When Churches find themselves too close to the halls of power, the temptation to accommodate is strong. Other churches are desperate to find their place and so will sacrifice almost anything for acceptance. 

The historian Tom Holland, who isn’t a Christian, has made this interesting observation about English churches (and the same could be said of Churches here in Australia),

“I see no point in bishops or preachers or Christian evangelists just recycling the kind of stuff you can get from any kind of soft left liberal because everyone is giving that…if they’ve got views on original sin I would be very interested to hear that”.

Whether it is claiming that President Trump is God’s ordained man or suggesting he is the antiChrist, whether it’s worshipping unfettered capitalism or preaching the gospel of  progressivism, too often Churches have sold their soul, betrayed Christ, and become the weakling and insipid shells that they are today. Much repentance is required. And praise God for the many churches who remain faithful in word and deed; they are precious to God and are wonderful outposts to eternal things.

Kingdoms come and go. Superpowers are made and they fade or are destroyed. It has always been the case. Buildings are created and they too eventually decay and crumble. According to Jesus Christ, the one entity that will last is his Church. 

“ I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.” (Matthew 16:18).

It is sad to see the Hagia Sophia morph once again. Knowing what this decision embodies mustn’t be missed. In all this, one thing is certain, 

“my brothers and sisters, make every effort to confirm your calling and election. For if you do these things, you will never stumble, 11 and you will receive a rich welcome into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.” (2 Peter 1:10-11)

Was Jesus Perfect?

CNN’s Don Lemon yesterday interviewed New York State Governor, Andrew Cuomo. During the conversation on racism, statues, and slavery, Mr Lemon came out with this rather bold assertion about Jesus,

“But here’s the thing, Jesus Christ, if you believe — if that’s what you believe in, Jesus Christ, admittedly, was not perfect when he was here on this Earth.”

Mr Lemon was using Jesus as an example of why it’s wrong to ‘deify’ America’s founders. He continued,

“So why are we deifying the fathers of this country, many of whom owned slaves, and in the Constitution – the original one – they didn’t want — they put slavery in there, that slavery should be abolished because it was the way the king wanted.”

In other words, if Jesus wasn’t perfect why should Americans regard their founding fathers so highly? Leaving aside the strained parallel, I’d like to ask Don Lemon this straight forward question, can you show us how Jesus was ‘not perfect when he was here on earth’? Name one thing Jesus ever said or did that was faulty or was sinful?

I am certainly interested to hear how Mr Lemon will substantiate his allegation.

When I define Jesus through my own fallible lens, I might assume that Jesus made mistakes. After all, if Jesus is just like me he must have made a bucket full or errors and transgressions. But here lies the problem. Jesus is simultaneously like us and he is unlike us.

Jesus is like us in that he is fully human. He ate, slept, and went to the toilet, he worked and knew tiredness, he expressed happiness and humour, and he experienced great suffering. He died.

Jesus is unlike us in two important ways.

First of all, Jesus is also fully God. His miracles, words, compassion, and forgiveness served to reveal his identity, power, and purpose as God the Son.

He is described in Colossians as the One who created all things and who has Divine power and authority to uphold the universe, 

The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. 16 For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. 17 He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.” (Colossians 1:15-17)

Mr Lemon may not believe or accept the biblical testimony, which might explain his bizarre comment. However, all the different strains of evidence, come to the same conclusion:

“We know also that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding, so that we may know him who is true. And we are in him who is true by being in his Son Jesus Christ. He is the true God and eternal life.” (1 John 5:20)

while we wait for the blessed hope—the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ” (Titus 2:13)

Second, as a human Jesus is what we are not, without sin. He is the sinless one who always did what was right and good, and always said what was true and loving, and always acted in purity and affection.

The testimony of Jesus friends and enemies alike is that he never did any wrong. At his trial, the judge announced Jesus to be innocent and yet sentenced him to death in order to appease the mob and the social censures of the day.

The testimony of the Scriptures insist upon Jesus’ moral and spiritual perfection, 

“God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21). 

This faultless living doesn’t suggest he was an artificial person. The book of Hebrews testifies to something far more necessary and extraordinary, 

“In bringing many sons and daughters to glory, it was fitting that God, for whom and through whom everything exists, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through what he suffered. 11 Both the one who makes people holy and those who are made holy are of the same family. So Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters

14 Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil— 15 and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death. 16 For surely it is not angels he helps, but Abraham’s descendants. 17 For this reason he had to be made like them, fully human in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, and that he might make atonement for the sins of the people. 18 Because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.” (Hebrews 2:10-18)

It is the fact that Jesus experienced the traumas of this world, and was tempted but resisted, that he can empathise with us. Here is a God with understanding. That he remained faithful to his character and purpose also proves Jesus was qualified to serve as Saviour. Jesus not only sympathises but he saves.

Don Lemon did highlight a stark and odious sin that was present among some of America’s Founding Fathers; slavery. The reality is, every human institution is going to have its limitations and frailties, even the very best. Governments, political systems, and every of social entity can do good and serve the betterment of communities, but they are not meant to reign as our saviour. Only one who is perfect can take on that role. Only one demonstrated the necessary qualities, and only one was able and willing to lay down his life on the cross, to take on the sins of the world.

Thank God Jesus was perfect, when he was on the earth. Thank God he remains perfect, the one true and sufficient Saviour that our hurting world needs.

A Message to Australia from Victoria

Australia, 

We are one of you.

Your border wall.

Is way too tall.

It will hurt us all.

 

 

You need Victoria,

For we’re your cornea.

The eye through which we see,

The vision of who we can be.

Like a ninja warrior.

 

 

You need Melbourne,

The most liveable and oh so believable.

A city of mythical,

Unpredictable, equiviocal and so very apolitical.

Life. 

Culture.

Single Origin.

Virus.

 

 

Are we so unforgivable?

Look, we are so miserable,

For doing the unthinkable.

I guess it was predictable,

Like a habitual criminal.

 

 

The wall.

The divide.

We will find a way. 

We’ll parachute, fly, or drive a highway.

We’ll dig a tunnel,

As our stern rebuttal

For locking us away.

 

 

Who will roast your beans?

Play your football,

Paint your art, 

Swim the Yarra, 

Walk the G,

And colour the streets with Graffiti?

 

 

We don’t want out,

Like a funky Brussel Sprout.

We know you want in,

For we’re your West Berlin.

Tear down that wall,

Tear down that wall,

Tear down that wall,

And join the masked ball.

Banning Books in Hong Kong and more

“As a young person, to already have the courage to face the pitiless glare, to overcome the fear of death, and to regain respect for death – this is the task of this young generation. And thus you do well in this midnight hour to commit to the flames the evil spirit of the past. This is a strong, great and symbolic deed – a deed which should document the following for the world to know”.

The above words formed part of a speech which was aimed at calling people to a return to morality and social decency. This address given to university students was of course delivered by Joseph Goebbels directly before one of the most infamous book burning scenes in history.

During the rise of Nazism in the 1930s, purging the population of dissenting ideas was seen as an essential step. The Säuberung or cleansing included destroying religious and political texts that didn’t conform to the new normal. 

The destruction of books is as old as literature. Hate is a strong motivator, as is fear. To be honest, there are plenty of books that I believe are dangerous, and I’m happy to warn people about their messages. There is a vast difference though between informing people about a book’s content and removing those same volume’s from libraries and blowing their ashes into the wind. 

The Age is tonight reporting, 

“Books by prominent Hong Kong pro-democracy figures have become unavailable in the Chinese-ruled city’s public libraries, days after Beijing introduced sweeping national security legislation, according to online records and one activist.”

A search for books by young activist Joshua Wong or pro-democracy politician Tanya Chan on the public libraries website showed the books, including Unfree Speech, co-authored by Wong, either unavailable or under review.

“The national security law … imposes a mainland-style censorship regime upon this international financial city,” Wong tweeted on Saturday, adding his titles “are now prone to book censorship.”

…It is unclear how many books are under review. Two titles by Chinese Nobel Peace Prize-winning political dissident Liu Xiaobo were still available, according to the online”

This isn’t the first attempt by the Chinese Government to eradicate writings that don’t support the State’s unbending ideologies.

In 2018, the Government began work on a new version of the Bible, to ensure that the Bible affirms ‘socialism’ and doesn’t contain ideas that might subvert the Government. One can imagine how distorted the Holy Scriptures will become once this atheistic, militant, and totalitarian, regime has finished their rewriting project. In many regions of China it is already difficult to own and read a Bible, let alone teach this book in a semi-public setting. Preaching ‘Jesus is Lord’ is likely to end in arrest and possible imprisonment.  

without the permission of the authorities, you can’t organize a Bible study. And if you do get permission, you’d better hold it in a Party-approved religious venue, at a Party-approved time, with a Party-approved leader and using the new Party-approved Bible, which contains quotations from Confucius and, of course, Xi Jinping.”

Not even Christians are permitted to change the words of Scripture, let alone a Government who wishes to change and control its message.

“For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.” (Matthew 5:18)

“All people are like grass, and all their glory is like the flowers of the field; the grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of the Lord endures forever.”  (1 Peter 1:24-25)

Let’s shine the camera on ourselves. 2020 is the year of cancelling. We might look at China with disgust and growing wariness of their geo-political agenda, but our own background is a growing mound of buried careers, reputations, and lives. We have long lost the will to disagree with other, even with passion. The mob demands destruction of any idea that is not representative of new morality and decency.

Let’s not forget, even the beautiful State of Victoria has faced the Government’s axe. In 2016, Christian programs were removed from State schools in light of many Christian ideas being deemed inappropriate. The same Government has recently reaffirmed its commitment to ban conversion practices (which under their current definition will probably include Christian teachings on sexuality. This includes normal Christian teaching and prayer that takes place in Churches). It would be silly to equate this situation with China, for the two are not the same. The point is simply, our own societies are not entirely blameless.

The Chinese Government is afraid of the Bible, and so are we. Perhaps we ought, for it is no small thing to contest the Sovereign God who made the universe and whose word says he will judge all the living and the dead.

Hong Kong libraries are beginning to experience what is commonplace in China and what religious groups have been forced to do for generations, hide their precious books under the bed because the bookshelf isn’t safe.

No society should take their literature for granted, especially the words that give eternal life.

Put away the matches, because as cancel culture is demonstrating, once it starts, it very easily burns out of control. Perhaps we, who want to preserve the freedom to read and teach our texts, ought to show a little humility toward those who prefer and magnify a different set of books. Let’s argue with words not by deleting them. 


Correction: I originally said ABC when it should have read The Age