What Melbourne’s Earthquake reveals about ourselves

On the day Melbourne equalled the world record for the longest lockdown of the COVID-19 pandemic and during another day of violent protests in our city, we were struck by a surprising visitor.

About 9:15 in the morning, our house began to shake violently. For the first 3-4 seconds I assumed a large truck was speeding down the road past our home. I soon realised then that this was more than a vehicle travelling too quickly. The floor and the walls continued to sway for over 20 seconds. 

The earthquake hit 6.0 on the Richter scale, just north of Melbourne. Thankfully no one was injured and the damage was limited to 40 buildings.  

Melbourne isn’t exactly the epicentre of earthquakes. Australia sits comfortably in the middle of a tectonic place, and yet even this seat proved unstable.

At the time my 12 year old daughter  described the event as “surfing on concrete”.  Over the course of the morning Melbournians came together in a way we rarely see, and on Twitter of all places! Comedic memes and funny one liners appeared. One of the best ones was a take on our Premier, then Dan Andreas Fault! Even better was the meme featuring Melbourne’s Federation Square with the tag line suggesting that the earthquake has improved this iconic building.

As the day progressed, people tried to explain the earthquake. Scientists suggested New Zealand was responsible, an explanation that makes sense to most Aussies. Apparently it’s something to do with moving plates and the Kiwis jumping and breaking them in order to keep our nuclear subs away.

Other people pointed to the protests erupting in Melbourne or the Government for its continued lockdown rules.  Others again, suggested the event was some kind of Divine sign, even if most said it in jest. 

It’s this last thought connection which is most interesting. There remains in Melbourne’s subconsciousness, a reference to God and the supposition that behind cataclysmic events is God. Sadly though we less often associate all the good things and beautiful things with God, even though God, 

“satisfies your desires with good things

so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s” (Psalm 103:5)

This thought process isn’t a drop of evolutionary dross that remains to be drained from our minds, it is evidence of the God whom we are trying to shut out.

Should we connect the earthquake with God generally or with God’s anger more specifically? The Bible has much to tell us about this question. For example, God is Sovereign and the earth is His. He made all that is and he remains in control.

“Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account.” (Hebrews 4:13)

Earthquakes are mentioned in the Bible, usually as historical events and other times as analogies illustrating God’s activities and character. And of course, as Jesus hung on the cross and died, there was a violent earthquake in Jerusalem. 

Perhaps the most poignant Biblical reference to earthquakes is found on the lips of Jesus, 

“You will hear of wars and rumors of wars, but see to it that you are not alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come. Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be famines and earthquakes in various places. All these are the beginning of birth pains.” (Matthew 24:6-8).

Jesus is describing the world as it is and the world that will continue to be until the Son of Man returns to judge. Jesus’ explanation doesn’t ignore a scientific one, he is answering the why question rather than the how. To be clear, Jesus’ summary of world history is not connecting specific ‘natural’ events with particular human transgressions, as Melbournians suggested with humour yesterday. For example, in Luke’s Gospel the story is retold of a tower collapsing in Jerusalem and 18 people died. Jesus says of this tragedy, “do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem?” The answer was, no. 

You see, the jokes about judgement, while missing the mark in one sense, are in another way closer to the truth than may realise. Earthquakes, bush fires, pandemics, and wars each defy and destroy the hopes we have. They are violent reminders telling us that life isn’t right and that the world isn’t what we long for it to be. This is why, even in our subconsciousness we desire for things likes  restoration and reconciliation. Even in our secular age where unbelief is the passport to intellectual and popular success, we cannot escape the inbuilt desire to explain our world in design with God, and with a God who both judges and saves.

Today Melbourne has taken the world record for having the longest lockdown, and we know that are many more weeks to go. Dreams have been shredded. Securities have come up empty. Suffering is real. For many, hope has fallen through the cracks.

Jesus understands. He has interpreted the world for us and his words are written down to prepare us. Jesus doesn’t leave us with a world of hopeless despair. He entered it with us and for us, even death on a cross. Through resurrection from the grave, he offers something we need, not just for heaven, but to make sense of today and to give the peace and joy today.

In the same message where he talks about earthquakes, Jesus also says this, 

“Now learn this lesson from the fig tree: As soon as its twigs get tender and its leaves come out, you know that summer is near. 33 Even so, when you see all these things, you know that it[e] is near, right at the door. 34 Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened. 35 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.

“Therefore keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come. 43 But understand this: If the owner of the house had known at what time of night the thief was coming, he would have kept watch and would not have let his house be broken into. 44 So you also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him.

Why it is becoming harder for Christians to gain a fair hearing in society

I think it’s helpful to learn and hear how others perceive Christians when we argue for religious freedom issues. It may be increasingly difficult for Christians to get a fair hearing, but there is value in us learning about the fears, concerns, and attitudes the unbelieving society is expressing.

A piece in Saturday’s The Age attempted to draw together several issues including the State Liberal leadership, proposed legislation targeting Christian Schools and the Conversion Practices Bill which passed earlier this year.

I know nothing about alleged promises made between Michael O’Brien and the ACL and these things are not my interest here.

As I read, I noticed that one of quotations came from me, although it wasn’t attributed to me (from The Age 5/12). I mentioned this to the reporter (who by the way has been doing excellent reporting on the pandemic in Victoria) as well as a brief summary of why Christians are rightly concerned by the  Change or Suppression (Conversion) Practices Prohibition Bill 2020 . I noted how Churches agreed with aspect of the Bill while explaining how other aspects are overreach and misguided. 

With the same degree of surprise as someone jumping into sea and expecting to get wet, the Twitter community bandied together to object to what I said. Their objections were telling. For instance,  one person used the issue of child sexual abuse in churches to argue Christians have no right to engage in conversation and dialogue,

“Christian faith had no right to use prayer institutions to groom, abuse, assault, persuade and then cover up child sexual abuse for decades either. Stay out of people’s sexual choices. You lot lost any moral right to have anything to do with persuading (bullying) people.”

While I disagree with how they conflate issues that are very separate, it’s worth listening to the comment. The harm caused by evil people who worked their way inside some churches is truly insidious. Though their abuse may have taken place many years ago, it will have an ongoing effect for many years to come, and possibly for generations. In the first place, the damage inflicted on victims of these crimes is both real and abhorrent. Second, the damage these actions has caused to the reputation of Christ and churches is real. We may say, as I have myself have pointed out, churches are overwhelmingly safe and that such behaviour contradicts every fibre of Christian faith. Indeed, the Bible warns us how people with evil intent will worm their way into churches and cause harm both by their words and by their actions. And of course, issues of sexual abuse are widespread throughout every part of society. Nonetheless, we need to understand how these sins and the manner in which some churches at times overlooked abuse, has understandably marred peoples’ view of Christianity.

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on Pexels.com

Second, there are members of the community who genuinely believe Christians have no right to speak and practice our religion publicly. These voices range from the anonymous Twitter account through to high-profile social commentators and one can mount the case that this is becoming an adopted view inside the current Victorian government.

For example, a few responses to my tweet stated that Christians have no right to persuade anyone,

“In this context, those “offers” are unquestionably acts of psychological abuse, deliberately inflicted on vulnerable people. That you would defend this as your “right” is a damning indictment. Disgraceful. You’re not a victim, stop pretending otherwise.”

The problem is one of framing. I mentioned this issue last week in relation to the Victorian Attorney General’s announcement of forthcoming legislation that is targeting faith-based schools. Instead of supporting the rights of religious organisations to employ people who affirm their values, the Government, using it’s own theological priorities, is seeking to insert its own preferences onto faith-based schools and other organisations. 

Similarly, the Conversion Practices Act attempts to remove what are common sense and essential aspects of Christian faith; namely the freedom to persuade and to pray. The lead up to the debate on conversion practices was framed according to a narrow and at times misleading narrative. The Government told stories of so called Christian practices that are horrible (and these are horrible especially to Christian ears).  The problem was, these practices were either only ever practised by a small number of marginal religious groups many years ago, or never at all. Instead, what happened is that a straw man was built out of thousands of plastic straws and with a couple of strands a genuine hay. This  predominantly false presentation was used to justify making illegal activities that are not only congruent with 2000 years of Christian history, but also congruent with a civilised and pluralistic society that encourages persuasion and conversation and prayer. Does the government have any right to tell me who I can pray for and what I can pray for? It somewhat bemusing to hear ardent secularists approve of political means to step into the religious realm and legislate against prayer and conversation. In the name of equality, Victoria is again moving to diminish freedom and equality and tolerance. 

I have been saying for many years that society and sometimes churches have not always treated gay and lesbian neighbours in love and with the respect due them. Every Christian who is a born again Christian is aware of the fact that we only come to know God‘s wonderful forgiveness and the gift of reconciliation because of His undeserved grace and love towards us in Christ. This grace doesn’t motivate hatred toward others, but desires to see people doing well. Of course, the narrative that now controls much public discourse is that you cannot love another person and uphold the Christian view of marriage. It is said that one cannot hold to a Christian view of sexuality and truly want the best for others. The megaphone may be loud, constant, and popular, but it is no more true than those who claim the earth is flat or those who argue that the climate is not warming. 

One thing Christians in Victoria need to realise is that we no longer hold a place of respect or authority in our society. Of course, that is a generalisation, for there many Victorians (even among unbelievers) who still value the contributions of Christians and who believe in healthy pluralism. Nonetheless, we need to comes to terms with the fact that culture is shifting The answer isn’t for Christians to pine for yesterday. The answer isn’t to ‘reclaim’ our political or social position. These attempts not only usually fail, they often lead to further polarisation and to muddying the Christian message. There is a place to contest unfair laws and unjust governmental intrusion, but these avenues should be pursued by reasonable minds not by angry activists. Rather, Christians need to be doing what Christians have always done at their best and that is, humbly walk before God, and being persuaded by the Bible keep living out God’s good ways, and with patience, grace and clarity, keep speaking God’s good news, and keep loving our neighbours no matter who they happen to be. 

Victorian Government to Discriminate against Faith-Based Schools

The past 18 months have proven difficult for all Victorians. During this time 100,000s of Victorians rely on and are grateful for the support, care, and education provided by religious organisations: from schools to counselling services, and more. Churches have continued to minster to people and offer hope where disease and lockdowns have darkened the lives of so many. During this same period, the Victorian Government has moved again and again to reduce the freedoms of religious organisations for the simple reasons: for holding beliefs and practices that align with the historical convictions of their religion. 

In February this year, the Government introduced and adopted the  Change or Suppression (Conversion) Practices Prohibition Bill 2020.  While Churches agreed with aspects of the Bill, the Government took the unnecessary approach (breaking with jurisdictions around the world) and defined conversion practices as broad as possible, such that normal Christian activities are now prohibited. The Act makes it illegal for Christians (and others) to pray with or speak with another person about sexuality and gender with the aim of persuading them according to Christian beliefs. The Government believes that these activities are so heinous that they have attached a prison sentence of up to 10 years for anyone breaking the law (this law comes into effect February 2022). 

This week, Attorney-General Jaclyn Symes announced another piece of legislation. This Bill will be brought to the Victorian Parliament before the end of year, limiting religious organisations in employing persons who subscribe to the values of the school, counselling centre, or aid agency.

The  Age reports,

“Religious schools in Victoria will be prohibited from sacking or refusing to employ teachers because of their sexuality or gender identity under sweeping social reforms proposed by the Andrews government.

Attorney-General Jaclyn Symes said legislation would be introduced later this year to close an “unfair, hurtful” gap in anti-discrimination laws that allow faith-based organisations to discriminate on the basis of sexuality, gender and marital status.

“People shouldn’t have to hide who they are to keep their job,” Ms Symes said.”

While the story focuses on Christian schools, the legislation is again broad and will swallow a great number of organisation (even some churches),

“The Victorian bill would also mean no faith-based organisations could discriminate when delivering government-funded services such as counselling or homelessness support, or hiring out community facilities”.

The proposal is deeply flawed and should trouble religious and non religious Victorians alike.

First of all, the conversation is wrongly framed. Not only is the Attorney General twisting the narrative, but even The Age assumes the story line that is being fed to us by today’s cultural preachers. 

The canvas paints Christians as mean and intolerant and makes us think that they’re firing gays and lesbians in their schools every second Tuesday. Instead of the crude and misleading ‘religious people hate gays’ rhetoric, this is about faith based organisations appointing staff who affirm their values. 

Faith-based schools largely exist because 100,000s of Australian families have lost trust in State schools to deliver an education that isn’t also accompanied by certain ideologies.  Christian and other faith based schools are growing because families want their children to be educated in line with their faith. Not only have families been driven away from State schools, now the Government is pursuing them in their faith-based schools.

Rather than saying, here are mean and intolerant Christians discriminating against others, the real picture is of religious organisations wanting to employ persons who affirm their stated values. It’s called freedom of association. 

Should a cricket club be forced to appoint a coach who wants to change the game to lacrosse? Should the ALP be forced to welcome One Nation members into the fold and change their platform to accomodate One Nation? If a hospital employs a doctor who later changes their views, coming out as an anti-vax campaigner who disagrees with COVID vaccines, should the hospital be forced to put them in charge of immunology? 

Not only does the framing of this conversation sounds like a badly acted caricature on Comedy Central, the policy itself is flawed and troubling for it depends on imposing a secularist view of religion. 

“Ms Symes said the reforms would “narrow” the exceptions to anti-discrimination legislation so that any discrimination would need to be “reasonable” and an inherent requirement of the job. For example, a school might be permitted to prevent a gay or transgender person being a religious studies teacher but could not stop them being a maths teacher.”

Who is the Attorney General to dictate to religious organisations what constitutes religious work and what is not? Do we really want the State educating and defining the theological beliefs and requirements of faith-based organisations? Is a gardener or an office administrator not doing specifically Christian work because they are not teaching Scripture? The Government is creating a false dichotomy which does not exist in the Christian faith, nor in many other religions. Every role is an expression of commitment to God and is a valuable part of the whole which serves a common purpose.

The Government is also mistaken in assuming that because a role does not have a direct theological or spiritual teaching component, it is therefore irrelevant whether the employee agrees with the organisation’s ethos, beliefs, and vision. This is purely illogical. Why would any organisation or company employ someone who does not support the basic values and vision of that asociation?

Equal Opportunity doesn’t mean sameness. I’m not doubting the Victorian Government’s commitment to ‘equal opportunity’, but their paradigm is flawed, and represents an ethic that is ultimately not about diversity, but is about conformity.

Is the Attorney General the new Archbishop? Is the Government replacement ecclesiastical council?  The question needs to be asked, is it reasonable for a Government to determine what constitutes required religious adherence or not? Is it the Government’s role to dictate theology and ministry practice? Does the Government have the necessary skills and knowledge required to adequately understand theology and therefore make the right judgement regarding the question of what is inherent?

The Labor Government tried to pass similar legislation in 2016, the Equal Opportunity Amendment (Religious Exceptions) Bill. It fell short by a single vote in the Legislative Council. The vote is likely to be reversed on this occasion.

Not only is this latest attack on religious freedom a step too far, Jaclyn Symes is already hinting at expanding the legislation. The Bill has not even been tabled in Parliament and the Attorney General is fishing for justification to broaden the intrusion into religious organisations, 

“We could be convinced to extend it, we just haven’t consulted on that particular element of reform. I certainly wouldn’t have a closed mind to revisiting that down the track”.

The previous Attorney General, Jill Hennessy, made a similar comment in 2020 in relation to the Conversion Practices Bill. She indicated that the Government is open to extending prohibited ‘practices’ in the future and include church based sermons.

This ensures that conduct generally directed— such as sermons expressing a general statement of belief—is not captured. However, such conduct may be considered as part of the Legislative Assembly’s ongoing inquiry into anti-vilification protections.”

These Government moves sadden me, not only because the proposal is so unnecessary and a significant threat to religious freedom, but also because like many Christian leaders, I have urged people to do the right thing throughout this pandemic and to be patient with Government restrictions. We regularly pray for our Premier and the Government, and so this latest legislative move is a vicious and unnecessary attack on Victorians. 

 Religious organisations are already free to employ people regardless of sexuality, if they so choose. The Victorian Government wants to take away choice. 

For those who can still remember back to 2017 and the assurances offered during the Marriage Plebiscite, they have proven to be as leaky as a bucket of water held by a politician in one hand and an electric drill in the other hand, and with a team of social activists turning on the power. 

Above all, what concerns me is how the legislators framing of this debate skews the very nature of the Christian message. The Gospel of Jesus Christ isn’t phobic or bigoted, and neither does it affirm and agree with every idea and desire that we express. The good news is God’s gracious and loving message of redemption. The Christian worldview presents an attractive alternative. Of course, not every Victorian will be convinced (and I’m the first to admit that sometimes Christians don’t help convince neighbours by some of the things we say and do), but this Government is bent on removing this choice and imbedding a version of sexual secularisation into Christian schools and organisations. This kind of intrusion will not strengthen our society and enable the vibrant pluralism and tolerance that once marked Victoria. 

By the end of the year, hundreds of schools and organisations will need to decide who they’ll follow. Will they sacrifice the good and God given vision for marriage and human sexuality or will they sacrifice Government funding*? A healthy and pluralistic society should never force this junction. At a time when we are still trying to survive the most difficult season in living memory, this Government is threatening religious organisations. One may hope that commonsense will prevail and that this legislation will fall down, but I suspect it’s time for organisations to consider what their true values are and where their ultimate allegiance lies.


Teachers have shared with me that it’s not just funding at stake but also registration and the ability to continue as a school

The 20th Anniversary of 9/11

16,000kms may separate Australia from New York but no distance could keep us apart from our American friends on that day, September 11th 2001.

I don’t remember the exact moment I turned on the television. I think it was about 11 pm. Susan and I were getting ready for bed but I thought to quickly look at the late night news before going to sleep. 

On the screen, I saw a plane crashing into what appeared to be a skyscraper in New York City. For a few moments, I asked myself, what movie is this? It took me several seconds to release that this was no Hollywood production. I was seeing a real passenger airplane explode into a ball of fire as it struck the World Trade Centre. I called out to Susan and for the next 3 hours we sat in horror at the unfolding scenes taking place in New York City, Washington DC and a Pennsylvanian field. In real-time we saw real people jumping out of buildings and those buildings crash to the earth. In real time we saw the Pentagon billowing with fire and smoke. 

Our generation had never witnessed an event on this scale: Three thousand people murdered by a group of Islamic terrorists who hijacked four civilian aircraft, filled with innocent passengers. 

Susan and I were living in Sydney at the time, and I was studying first year of a Divinity degree at Moore College. As we woke up in the morning in the safety of our home and street, I turned on the news again. As the Manhattan skyline was filled with choking smoke, our suburb of Erskineville and Newton was in stunned silence. I don’t recall everything that happened that day at College but I do remember the community gathering to pray. My first-year chaplaincy group later met across the road at a cafe called the Green Iguana, where we sat, shared, and prayed. 

Twelve years later, in 2013, Susan and I took our 3 children for a holiday in the United States. For 5 weeks we lived in New York. The city of Seinfeld, Home Alone, and the Muppets had enthralled my imagination since childhood and the opportunity to visit with our children was too good to decline.

 

Our Greenwich Street apartment was situated only 50m away from where the Twin Towers once stood. Outside our window, we would see the queue forming each day as people waited to visit the 9/11 Memorial. Every morning we walked past the NYC Fire Fighters memorial wall as we went about enjoying the incredible city that is New York. For that short time, we were New Yorkers, observing the tourists.

One afternoon I visited the 9/11 Memorial with a friend. His father had worked on the construction of the Towers in the late 1960s.

There is an entire generation of Australians and Americans growing up with no recollection of 9/11 and with little appreciation for what took place. I’m so glad my children have seen the area in lower manhattan and know what happened on September 11th 2001. Although, even now it is impossible to grasp how Greenwich Street was once filled with thousands of fleeing office workers, a ferocious dust storm, twisted metal, and millions of paper sheets drifting through the air. The streets are still noisy with people and the occasional blaring of a siren from police or fire trucks. But it in the late Autumn of 2013 the city of New York was healing, Christmas celebrations were gearing up, and the new skyscraper that is One World Centre was well on its way toward completion. 

Today marks the 20th Anniversary of 9/11. In the 20 years that have past it is not only the New York skyline that has changed. While American resilience and muscle proved to be strong in the months following the attack, and the world largely stood alongside our American friends, today the world is very different. It is the same world with the same fundamental flaws and sins, but the pieces are shifting on the global stage. 

America was proven to be vulnerable that day. Not only the United States but the West itself. Years followed with terrorist attacks all over the world and armed conflict in the Middle East. At the same time, these 20 years that have gone by have also produced years of economic growth, technological advancement. Yet the cracks are more pronounced. The West no longer needs enemies abroad. Al Qaeda may have injured the West, the West is killing itself. Block by block we are removing the very foundations that created the modern secular and pluralist society we enjoy. Tolerance is giving way to strident opinion. Basic facts about the human condition can no longer be spoken without fear of losing one’s job and place in society. The ability to listen and engage the other is now a luxury few can afford. Words are now rarely used to unite and bring peace, they are weapons of power used to breed fear, and to humiliate and silence those who think differently. 

Several years ago I met an American man by the name of Mack Stiles. His story is well known. He and his wife have a heart for the Middle East and to share Christ with Muslim people. Their decision to leave the United States and move to UAE was interrupted by 9/11, or least one would have thought so.  Instead, the Stiles resolved that the Gospel is good news even for the millions living in the Middle East. On September 13th 2001 the Stiles sold their home. They then flew to Dubai. For the last 20 years they have been serving Christ, planting Churches and loving Muslim people in the UAE and in Iraq. 

Without ever diminishing the evil done that day 20 years ago, and without us pretending that the sins committed against us are ever okay, there is an alternative to hatred and the persistent rage, selfishness, and hostility that is now controlling public discourse in many Western societies, including Australia and America. Now, I am not a pacifist. I accept Romans 13 which speaks of Government having authority in taking up the sword. Sadly, Governments often wield the sword unjustly, even if it there was justification in unsheathing it to begin with. What I am saying is that the answer our societies so desperately need is the good news we are turning our back on. We are not rejecting it through sword, but with words and heart. With a hubris that it’s only matched by the indignation shown toward the very worst of public sins, our cultural leaders deem Biblical Christianity to be a threat to society. In some Australian States, our Governments are even beginning to legislate in order to protect society from Christian teaching. This is a mistake. 

“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16)

“For if, while we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life!” (Romans 5:10)

What if we grasped that God has loved those who do not love him? What if we understood that the God of complete holiness is also the God of mercy? What if we had ears to hear the announcement that God who just in punishing evil has also spoken a word of forgiveness and reconciliation? This isn’t something we should be deleting from the social consciousness but resurrecting in order to save us from community self-harm and cultural destruction.

In the day following 9/11 Mack Stiles was persuaded by the Christian message such that he left his home to love and serve a people who were despised in the West. If this Gospel of Jesus Christ has the power to do that, think of the good this same message can accomplish in Australia today, and in America, Afghanistan and across the world. If it is wrong to bite the hand that feeds us, let us not despise the Son of God who died to save us.

I will never forget 9/11, but even more I pray that we will never forget the One who laid down his life for his enemies.

Why We Can’t Sign the Ezekiel Declaration. An Evangelical Response.

This post is co-published with David Ould.

Over the past week a letter has been promoted and circulated around many churches and religious organisations. The Ezekiel Declaration (“the Declaration”) is addressed to Prime Minister Scott Morrison and outlines concerns over a potential “vaccine passport” that would be required for church attendance. The letter has now received 2000+ signatures of religious leaders from across Australia, and for that reason alone it is gaining much attention receiving quite a splash. For every signatory there are certainly many more Christian leaders who have not signed their names. Still, 2000+ names and the organisations that they represent is a significant number.

In some respects there are a number of clear core statements in the Declaration that we (David Ould and Murray Campbell) would want to support. We strongly agree that there is a serious question to be asked about “vaccine passports”, particularly when they impact upon church attendance. We are also in robust agreement with the authors of the Declaration that “conscience should never be coerced”.  

Nevertheless, we have declined from adding our names and support to this manifesto. While we share some of the concerns raised in the Ezekiel Declaration, we are unable in good conscience to align ourselves with other aspects and the overall tone and content. 

Our purpose here is to explain the reasons why we have not signed the Ezekiel Declaration and to also caution others from doing so. While we respect how some religious leaders have and will wish to affirm this document and continue to respect those leaders as individuals, we encourage people to think through the issues that we raise here before adding their endorsement to what we consider to be a confused and ultimately unhelpful document.


First, the tone of the letter is combative rather than cooperative.

Both the title and subtitle suggests a posture of hubris and even spiritual smugness: “The Ezekiel Declaration” and  “Watchmen, it’s time to speak”.

Really? Are the authors claiming a prophetic word or preaching Divine judgment upon those who are drafting COVID policies?  This level of rhetoric continues throughout the letter. For example, the authors refer to “medical apartheid” and “the dangerous precipice of a therapeutic totalitarianism”. This seems to be inflammatory language that does not accurately represent the current situation.

Straight away the letter therefore signals an ‘us versus them’ position; we the churches against a bullish and autocratic Government. At this point in time in Australia the situation is more akin to Daniel ch.1 than Daniel ch.6. We are appealing for a fair hearing before the Government, not open defiance with our lives being threatened for any dissent. We are seeking to persuade, not calling for civil disobedience.

We understand the issues at stake and we share concerns about any proposed vaccine passport, but from the outset the tone of the letter communicates an angry sermon rather than bridge building.

We will further address the theological implications of this title below but, for now, simply note that the Declaration takes on a combative approach.

We are also concerned that the Declaration is unnecessarily political. We are entirely convinced that there is a place for responsible engagement with political parties (at times working with them and at times challenging them) but a genuine danger in being seen to be overly partisan. The Declaration has already been leveraged by one political party for political purposes and this does nothing to allay fears that the Declaration is first and foremost a political document, and one that comes from a particular political position.


Second, the letter nowhere encourages people to be vaccinated and it fails to affirm the safety and efficacy of the available COVID-19 vaccines. 

There is a single word that is accepting but not positive ofin favour of vaccinations, and even then it is partnered with a word of dissent,

While some individuals will receive the vaccination with thanks, others may have good and informed reasons for declining. 

The Declaration does not define what these ‘good and informed reasons’ are. It then proceeds to misuse the words of the Federal Health Minister in February 2021 in support of refraining from being vaccinated. 

One such reason [for declining vaccination] is highlighted in the statement of the health minister Greg Hunt: 

“The world is engaged in the largest clinical trial, the largest global vaccination trial ever, and we will have enormous amounts of data.”

When we read the linked transcript of the interview we see the Minister endorsing the vaccination process, not casting aspersions upon it. He states, 

One of the things that is absolutely fundamental to confidence is the belief in safety. And the essence of safety is a full and thorough assessment…that’s ultimately about making sure we have the maximum take-up in Australia, and above all else, safety, safety, safety. That’s our duty. But it also leads to confidence and take-up.

Hunt’s argument is not that the vaccine is unsafe. On the contrary, he is stating that the approval process for the vaccine is there to provide confidence in it; confidence in the face of the uncertainty that some feel – the same uncertainty that the Declaration promotes.

We see a similar failure to handle sources responsibly in the reference to a CDC study when discussing the efficacy of vaccines. The Declaration states, having referenced the study, “it is evident that vaccines do not prevent infection”. This is, at best, misguided language. Nobody claims that the vaccines prevent infection, simply that they greatly reduce the rate of infection and the negative outcomes from those infections. Further, the report that is linked in the Declaration to support this claim closes with these words,

While numerous studies have shown that the vaccines don’t work as well against the delta variant as they did against other strains, health officials say they are still highly effective, especially in protecting against severe illness and death. Roughly 97% of new hospitalizations and 99.5% of deaths in the U.S. are among unvaccinated individuals, U.S. health officials repeated this week.

The CDC also said the data has limitations. The agency noted that as population-level vaccination coverage increases, vaccinated persons are likely to represent a larger proportion of Covid cases. Additionally, asymptomatic breakthrough infections might be underrepresented because of detection bias, the agency said.

The CDC also said the report is “insufficient” to draw conclusions about the effectiveness of the authorized vaccines against Covid, including the delta variant, during this outbreak.

In recent months, data coming from overseas and now locally is demonstrating the substantial effectiveness of these vaccines in lowering the risk of people being seriously ill and dying with COVID-19, a benefit that far outweighs the very small recorded risk of vaccine side-effects.

Christian leaders have an obligation to quote people in context and to represent their position with fairness. Christian leaders also have a duty of care to listen to experts,  convey accurate information, and to refer people to their local GP, rather than publicly undermine health advice. We have documented how at two critical points in its argument the Declaration does not do this.

We appreciate how some Australians are hesitant to take the vaccine at this point in time and are sympathetic towards them. Our intention isn’t to ‘force’ the conscience. We also understand and affirm that there are valid medical reasons why a limited number of Australians cannot use these vaccines. We also understand that as time progresses our understanding of COVID-19 and the best ways to fight against it will improve and at times perhaps change tack. Our concern here is how the Ezekiel Declaration offers no encouragement and no positive information about COVID-19 vaccines. At best this is disappointing, at worst this is knowingly misleading and may undercut people’s confidence in being vaccinated when it is actually the best decision for most of our population when the relative risks are properly assessed.

Finally, we note that it is now well-established that widespread vaccination is the single greatest accelerator for achieving an opening up of our communities and a more “normal” life, the very thing that the Declaration strives for.


Third, the arguments are a kaleidoscope of confusion, conflation, and misrepresentations. 

We have already noted above some serious errors in the way the Declaration handles other material. More generally it seems to us that there is an unhelpful and unclear mixture of different arguments being made. Had the Declaration not contained much of this it would be more useful. Instead the authors have chosen to roll in additional arguments that do little to support their case, especially when (as we have shown) their arguments are based on poor use of external material.

One more example is helpful.

The authors spend much time addressing the issue of mental health. While this is pertinent to discussions surrounding the pandemic, including ongoing lockdowns, it isn’t directly relevant to the question of mandatory vaccine passports for churches. Our hearts ache for those who are overwhelmed and exhausted mentally and emotionally. As pastors we tend to congregation members who are suffering and struggling because of the pandemic. The growing strain is palpable and we too are concerned at the emotional, social, economic, and spiritual toll this is taking on millions of lives. We are pleased to see that politicians, doctors and the media are beginning to address these issues with increasing urgency. These factors, however, are separate from the question of vaccine passports and whether the government should introduce them and even mandate them for public worship services. To conflate them as the Declaration does is to confuse the argument.

The Declaration presents itself as a call against mandated vaccination for attendance at worship service. In reality it also attempts to argue against lockdowns and repeats discredited anti-vaccination arguments and does so with questionable use of source. By rolling in these two extra divisive issues in the manner that it does it presents a far less cohesive argument, let alone fails to garner comprehensive support amongst a wider Christian cohort.


Fourth, the list of signatories raises some concerns in a number of ways. We are uncomfortable signing our names to an alliance of ‘Christian leaders’ where the list includes members of a non-Christian sect and numerous ‘churches’ and other organisations that are considered fringe if not heterodox any other day of the week.

One notable example is the endorsement of Reignite Democracy Australia, an anti-masking anti-lockdown and anti-vax group whose founder was recently charged with incitement following on from illegal anti-lockdown demonstrations.

In addition we have been personally contacted by those who tell us their names have appeared as signatories on the Declaration without their action or consent. We have also had correspondence with those whose professional background includes the investigation of data integrity and they have raised concerns with some elements of the data as it is presented. None of this is to suggest in any way that the writers and promoters of the Declaration have deliberately falsified the signatories, yet there remain concerns about how some of the signatories have been recorded.


Fifth, instead of offering clear Gospel hope to our country, this letter creates suspicion and suggests that Christians are more interested in their own freedom rather than the common good.

At a time when Australia desperately needs to hear and see the beauty of God’s good news, this letter fails to deliver. Despite the closing language affirming the gospel, the message given is not one filled with grace and hope, but rather one of frustration, unbelief, and defiance which obscures and even contradicts the final gospel call. 

Gospel and Biblical fidelity will always be a concern with any declaration made by Christian leaders but particularly one styling itself after the “watchman” of Ezekiel. In Ezekiel 33 we learn what the watchman’s role is:

Ezek. 33:1-6   The word of the LORD came to me: 2 “Son of man, speak to your people and say to them: ‘When I bring the sword against a land, and the people of the land choose one of their men and make him their watchman, 3 and he sees the sword coming against the land and blows the trumpet to warn the people, 4 then if anyone hears the trumpet but does not heed the warning and the sword comes and takes their life, their blood will be on their own head. 5 Since they heard the sound of the trumpet but did not heed the warning, their blood will be on their own head. If they had heeded the warning, they would have saved themselves. 6 But if the watchman sees the sword coming and does not blow the trumpet to warn the people and the sword comes and takes someone’s life, that person’s life will be taken because of their sin, but I will hold the watchman accountable for their blood.’

EZEKIEL 33:1-6

In the context of the writing of Ezekiel (the impending judgment of Judah under God’s hand by the means of Babylon) the watchman’s role is clear; he calls the people to repentance for their sin in the face of judgment (a judgement signalled as imminent by the blowing of a trumpet). In other words, it is the role of any gospel minister to warn of the coming judgement and urge people to find their refuge in Christ. This document does not do that. By using the title of “Ezekiel Declaration” it confuses that great eternal moment of decision with a lesser, albeit significant, matter before the churches. It frames the question of vaccine mandates in the churches (and more general questions around vaccination and lockdowns) as on a scale with the Babylonian invasion and destruction of God’s people. The immediate remedy it suggests is not the gospel of Jesus. The Declaration communicates a defiance of God-ordained authority rather than trusting submission of the Lord as we engage with a difficult moment in our common life. By using the language of the “watchman” it also labels those who do not agree as failed watchmen who have neglected their solemn duties as stewards of the gospel. We are firmly convinced there is a much higher threshold for this charge of abandoning the gospel than disagreement over the matters raised in the Declaration. It is deeply divisive.

Why We Can’t Sign the Ezekiel Declaration

There is a genuine issue relating to vaccine passports, both in general and specifically when tied to church attendance. We will be extremely concerned if Governments decide that religious organisations must mandate vaccination for attendees and participants in public worship services and other religious meetings. There may yet be a need to respectfully make our case and even courageously refuse to place a limit on who may gather together with the people of God. But we are not at the moment yet, nor has any such potential restriction even been announced. Our concern is that the Ezekiel Declaration neither provides a productive pattern by which opposition should happen if required nor increases the opportunity for productive engagement with Governments before then.

Finally a personal word. The two authors have come to publish this position with some hesitancy. We are both known, perhaps even notorious, for standing for gospel purity within our own denominations. That has sometimes come at personal cost. Nor have we been shy when it comes to public engagement with the authorities, be they media, governmental or other. Where necessary we have taken the opportunity to speak of Jesus in the public sphere especially when his word is not well-received. We respectfully do not believe that the charge of “selling out” or cowardice can be levelled against us. We are also acutely aware that many of those that we are effectively criticising here are our natural allies in many of these struggles, not to mention those that we are at times more comfortable with when it comes to political expression. One of us has spoken on your platforms and been featured in your websites. We have spoken plainly about “culture wars” and the like and will continue to do so. We are fellow evangelicals.

Despite this we felt the need to write. We ask that the above be received as it was intended, “wounds from a friend that can be trusted” (Prov. 27:6). We long for gospel unity with all our brethren and offer this letter in that spirit.

To the rest of our readers we ask you to consider whether adding your endorsement to the “Ezekiel Declaration” is the wisest choice at this moment in time or even if you ought to now ask for it to be removed. We believe that the Ezekiel Declaration is an unhelpful move, unnecessarily political, confused in its argumentation and ultimately divisive at a time when the church should be known for its united loyalty to Jesus and his gospel, expressed in an appropriate engagement with the world.

Ps. Murray Campbell, Lead Pastor Mentone Baptist Church, Melbourne.

Rev. David Ould, Senior Associate Minister St John’s Anglican Cathedral Parramatta.

Sadness grips Mentone this week

My suburb of Mentone was struck with awful news on Sunday evening. A teenage boy was killed by a man driving erratically on the wrong side of Nepean Hwy. Lachlan McLaren died at the scene, outside my local supermarket, and his girlfriend sustained injury.

It was his 16th birthday.

Despite some 24,000 people living in the suburbs of Mentone and Parkdale, I have been surprised by how interwoven peoples lives are in this community.  I never had the privilege of knowing this young man but my eldest son was in the same Grade 5/6 class as Lachlan in 5 years ago. All my children attended the school where Lachlan’s mum teaches, and we have friends who know the family and we know children who attend Mentone Grammar School. These layers of connections intensify the sense of shock and sadness that our community is experiencing this week. Most of us barely know each other and yet we are interconnected. Of course, our shock is nothing compared to the grief that a family is now undergoing just a few streets away from where I live. 

Mentone beach

As a dad living in Mentone, my heart goes out to the McLarens and my prayers are with them.  All parents know how precious their children are. It is not for us to second guess the sorrow and distress of another, for each person’s grief is profoundly personal, and yet we want to share the burden that must be carried.

As a pastor of a church in Mentone, I have sat in many homes over the years with grieving families and conducted many funerals. Each one is accompanied by great sadness. Trying to make sense of the incomprehensible is natural but not always possible. It is often impossible for us to offer words to what is inconceivable. Sometimes we must simply sit in the dust and mourn with them. 

I recall how the Bible recounts the occasion when Jesus hears news that his friend Lazarus has died. When Jesus arrived at the family home, he saw Lazarus’ sisters weeping and the community grieving. We read, Jesus was “deeply move in spirit and troubled”.

We are then told in what is the shortest verse of the Bible and yet one of its of tender, “Jesus wept”. 


He wept because he loved his friend. Jesus wept because death is awful. Indeed, the Bible describes death as God’s enemy. As Jesus grieved he also knew that the grave is not the end, death will not win in the end.

Jesus said to Martha, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die. Do you believe this?”

Life is fleeting. Life is inestimable.

Parents, hug your children and tell them that you love them. Teenagers, yes it may feel a little awkward, but let your mum and dad have that moment to give you that hug.

Teenagers, tell your friends how you appreciate them. 

I thank God that he hates death. I thank God that he understands grief; his only Son died on a cross. And I thank God that because of Jesus he will one day remove death forever. I thank God that in Jesus he promises resurrection and reconciliation. 

Australia, it’s time to lament

“How deserted lies the city,

    once so full of people!

How like a widow is she,

    who once was great among the nations!

She who was queen among the provinces

    has now become a slave”. (Lamentations 1:1)

Today, August 19th 2021, marks 200 days of lockdown in Melbourne since the pandemic began last year. Beginning March 30th 2020 there have been 200 days where 5 million residents have been forced to stay at home. Over these 18 months we have experienced weeks without lockdown, but those days have all been lived with tight restrictions. 

The streets of Melbourne are deserted. Schoolyards are empty, apart from the occasional gust of wind that moves the leaves from one end to the other. Office buildings have become catacombs. Football grounds are empty of competition and of children chasing the footy.

What lessons will we learn through this once in a 100-year pandemic? What truths will resurface now that so many of our habits have stalled and excesses moved into lockdown?

As the months move sketchily forward, Australians are eager for a day of celebration; a national day of festivities to announce the end of the pandemic. Many Aussies are also skeptical and wonder if this day will be pushed further and further back as Government directed expectations change. I’m certainly keen for the day to arrive when we are assured of no more lockdowns and when we reach 80% of the population fully vaccinated. However, if we fast forward to rejoicing we are bypassing important lessons that can be uncovered now.

I am not one to dismiss momentary distractions that serve to alleviate the pandemic symptoms that we’re all facing. Thank God for some of these helpful diversions. We are not however acting wisely if we use these to cover over the widening crevices that are appearing in our society and in our own souls. We have a moment, dare I suggest, a God-given moment, to reevaluate the big questions of life.

Last year I proposed a series of life topics where the pandemic may impact. Among the suggestions was a question mark over the sexual revolution. Would COVID-19 cause the sexual revolution to slow down? At the time I wasn’t sure. What we have seen over the last 18 months is that moral progressivism hasn’t taken a back seat to the pandemic. Its course is deliberate and continues to drive through our culture in first gear. Far from applying brakes, the sexolution has navigated the roundabouts and traffic lights of this pandemic with great skill, ensuring that legislations continue unabated.

Victoria is the State that adopted legislation that may imprison Christians for speaking to or praying with a person about sexuality or gender.

On the one hand, our society speaks against the mistreatment of women, while on the other hand, Victoria is decriminalising sex work, as though this is a great emancipation moment.

In life there is time for play and pleasure. There is a time for rejoicing and celebration. There is also a time for mourning.

Last week a national campaign was given a megaphone in our newspapers. The aim was to increase unbelief in God just as Aussies participated in Census 2021. Dropping God  became a national talking point, when instead we should be bowing  our knees before our Maker and asking for his mercy. 

Despite the mantra of “of all being in this together”,  what  we are witnessing is an awful lot of boasting, selfishness, political chest-beating and growing civil restlessness.  The phrase “this is not a time for politics” has lost all meaning, that is, if it ever had any substance to start with. Far from being an empty phrase, it is sharpened into a political weapon for striking opponents and causing further division.

This hubris is shared by the left and right and everywhere in the middle. Imagine how much more unified and together we will be if this pandemic continues into 2022?! 

Part of the problem is how our Aussie psyche demands happiness without repentance. We want success without humility. We want prosperity without generosity. What if the Australian dream is faulty? What if we are cheating ourselves of a better life because of a wrong posture we’ve assumed?

We are not very good at learning from history. For example, in the 6th Century BC the city of Jerusalem was laid waste. The population had progressed, or so they believed. They had moved on from many of their traditions and old ways of thinking.  They didn’t remove belief in God as such, but they did manufacture new gods to support the sexual and economic policies they wanted normalised. And they deconstructed all those Scriptures  that didn’t offer unwavering support to their new life pursuits. 

As Jerusalem lay in ruins, the book of Lamentations was written. Lamentations is one of the most forgotten books of the Bible. Given the subject mater, one understands why.  But perhaps our extraordinary situation requires us to open this difficult book. It is a distressing book to read given the account it retells of what went wrong and of the severe suffering that was left behind. The author of Lamentations speaks of people mocking those in distress and hardening their resolve against God. This expansive lament is honest in its recognition of human sin, the rightness of God, the despair accompanying the suffering, and the single source of hope:

Do we concur with these sentiment?

“The Lord is righteous,

    yet I rebelled against his command. (1:18)

Can we speak words like these?

I remember my affliction and my wandering,

    the bitterness and the gall.

I well remember them,

    and my soul is downcast within me.

Yet this I call to mind

    and therefore I have hope:

Let him sit alone in silence,

    for the Lord has laid it on him.

Let him bury his face in the dust—

    there may yet be hope. (Lamentations 3:19-21, 29)

Can we conclude,

“Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed,

    for his compassions never fail.

They are new every morning;

    great is your faithfulness.

I say to myself, “The Lord is my portion;

    therefore I will wait for him.” (3:22-24)

Understand, the Lamenter didn’t arrive at the place of hope without first lamenting his condition. Again, this is one of our regularly failings as Aussies. Instead of blaming God or excluding God, the writes takes responsibility. It is this requisite for humility that we have become accustomed to avoiding. Instead of learning, it appears that we Aussies prefer to hold onto this hubris, and that does not bode well for the future. 

Learn from author of Lamentations. And listen to the book of James, 

“Grieve, mourn and wail. Change your laughter to mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up.”  (James 5:9-10)

It must be said lest anyone reads into my words a meaning that’s not there: we cannot equate particular suffering with particular sin. God has not spoken a word about COVID 19. That means we should treat with extreme caution anyone who makes such assertions. We can however say that suffering in general is a sign of a world that’s cursed and fallen, and that these pains can serve as a loud call to understand our mortality and our need for a Saviour of Divine nature.

Neither does finding purpose in trials diminish s the very real suffering attached to plagues and other trials.  The Apostle Peter could simultaneously speak of finding joy and suffering grief in the same event, 

“In all this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials” (1 Peter 1:6).

Above all, remember Jesus who endured all manner of hardship, which not only characterises him as the understanding God, but this served for Him to our substitute . He is the Son of God who need never suffer and yet in love chose that path for us.

“He was despised and rejected by mankind,
    a man of suffering, and familiar with pain.
Like one from whom people hide their faces
    he was despised, and we held him in low esteem.

Surely he took up our pain
    and bore our suffering,
yet we considered him punished by God,
    stricken by him, and afflicted.”
(Isaiah 53:3-4)

Instead of discrediting this length period of pandemic, we could slow down a little and ponder the very questions we spend so much of life trying to avoid. You see, trials scratch away the surface and expose our deepest longings and fears and dreams. They also serve to teach us how we should not take for granted the many things we enjoy in life. Too often, our habit is to mistranslate our copious freedoms and pleasures and turn them into rights and demands as as though God owes us anything.

Charles Spurgeon was a man who was more than familiar with suffering. He offers this astute observation “Trials teach us what we are; they dig up the soil, and let us see what we are made of.” 

What are we learning about ourselves during COVID-19?

John Donne is one of the great poets of the English language. Donne lived through one of the many plagues that struck Europe over the centuries.  Like so many living in the 17th Century, John Donne was familiar tragedy. 5 of his children died before the age of 10 and his wife died at a young age. As the city of London was again ravaged by disease, John Donne fell ill.  He survived, but during each of the 23 days of sickness he wrote a meditation. Meditation 17 is the most famous. for these 2 lines,

“no man is an island” 

and 

“ask not for whom the bell tolls, for it tolls for thee.”

Each day the church bells of London rung out to announce the most recent deaths of Londoners. As Donne lay in his sick bed, not knowing whether it would become his death bed, he could hear the bells toll. He was not oblivious to this daily public cry, but rather in the sound he heard a gracious reminder.

“No man hath affliction enough, that is not matured and ripened by it, and made fit for God by that affliction…Tribulation is treasure in the nature of it, but it is not current money in the use of it, except we get nearer and nearer our home, heaven, by it.  Another may be sick too, and sick to death, and this affliction may lie in his bowels, as gold in a mine, and be of no use to him; but this bell that tells me of his affliction, digs out, and applies that gold to me: if by this consideration of another’s danger, I take mine own into contemplation, and so secure myself, by making my recourse to my God, who is our only security.”

As we all look forward to the day when mass restrictions are behind us and when some semblance of normalcy returns, let’s not push aside the treasure found in this moment, the treasure grasped by John Donne and millions beside. 

Eddie Betts emotional plea against racism

My wife & I just watched the interview Eddie Betts gave on Fox Sports about the latest examples of racism in the AFL.

I remember my daughter doing a school assignment on her favourite football player when she was 10. She chose Eddie Betts.

Being ardent Carlton supporters we were sad when Eddie moved to Adelaide and excited when he returned home to the mighty blues. 

However we are not excited by persistent stories of racism in the AFL that reach the news. No doubt there are many more examples that don’t reach the ears of the media. 

As we listened to Eddie Betts speak we were impressed by his graciousness and we heard the pain in his voice. He shared how he and his mother and father have been dealing with racism all their lives.

“It’s tiring. It hurts. It’s draining. It really hurts to be honest…”

“It’s been hard and I reckon I just need everyone to really go on a journey to start educating, to start those conversations.

It is difficult to listen to the interview without being moved by Eddie’s story.

The reason for typing these few words is because hear Eddie and I have a small voice in which I can say something publicly.

Firstly, I want to communicate to Eddie Betts and to other Indigenous footballers, you are right in not accepting racism. We want to stand with you in saying no to racism.

While I have never experienced racism, I know my wife’s family have; they were subjected to the White Australia Policy amongst other things. In my church are people who come from all kinds of ethnic backgrounds; beautiful people, some who have experienced racism because of the colour of their skin or cultural background.

Second, as a Christian leader in Melbourne (who also follows the footy), I believe we ground the dignity of human beings in something substantial,  something sublime, and yes, even of Divine intention. You see, racist slurs and behaviour is an egregious attack on God and his purposes. Let me explain.

The God whom I know and worship is the God who made the heavens and earth, and who made all humanity in his image.

It was out of this theological conviction that Martin Luther King cried, 

“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character.”

The Bible begins with this extraordinary notion that every human being bears the image of God and therefore has inherent dignity and worth. No race is greater or lesser than another; all have His print on us. 

The Bible has more to say. The creator God sent his only Son, Jesus Christ, into the world because humanity was bent on throwing away the dignity of the imago dei. Humanity’s actions have resulted in the belittling of human life in a thousand different ways, including the abhorrent belief of racial inferiority.

This Jesus who was crucified and raised, and he now holds a message of redemption and reconciliation for the nations. 

The Bible’s story ends with a vision of a new creation where God is at the centre and his world is filled with people from nation and language,

“After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands.” (Revelation 7:9)

I realise churches sometimes fail, but more often they do offer a little glimpse into this heavenly future. I thank God, that despite our own worts, Mentone Baptist is a community with people who come from all over world. This multi ethnic community is amazingly dynamic in unity and love.

Going back to Eddie Betts testimony on television, how can we despise or belittle an image bearer of God? How can we insult people for whom Christ died? How can we fight against the Divine plan to reconcile peoples from across the world in Christ? 

Jesus once said this, 

“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.”

The Bible also encourages us to ‘mourn with those who mourn’. So, while most of us may not understand what it’s like to be in Eddie Bett’s shoes, we can still stand beside him, and ask how we can help shoulder this burden. We can check our own hearts and we can speak up whenever we hear someone disparage another on account of their ethnicity.

The contentious Census question: Religion

Tuesday August 10th is Australia’s favourite night of the year. Every person will be in their house, flat, unit or caravan. Studiously we will open laptops or take out a pen and the journey will begin: Census 2021. Although, like myself you may be one of the millions who’ve jumped the gun and completed the form in advance.

Our local atheistic allies have been campaigning hard as though the Census is an election of some kind. The conversion plan is overtly evangelistic and with promises of life ending in nothingness to all who join them. In advance of victory,  I can almost hear their voices warming up to sing another rendition of ‘Imagine’. 

Monica Dux, writing for the Sydney Morning Herald, tries to sway lapsed Catholics by reminding them of all the things they mustn’t like about Catholicism. She claims, 

“In the upcoming census, religious affiliation is a category that will be closely watched, in part because participation in organised religion has declined so sharply, to the point that, in the 2016 census, the fastest growing belief was non-belief.”

Not so fast! ‘No religion’ is not a synonym for ‘non-belief’. ‘No religion’ is simply a junk draw for unbelievers, undecideds, spiritualists, and independents alike.

My advice is simple, just be honest. 

Perhaps for Census 2026 we can add another box, “uptight atheist”.

There is however a major flaw with the question on religion. No, I’m not referring to the top of the page preference that’s given to ‘no religion’. The error is this, Christianity doesn’t appear as an option.

Instead, Anglican, Baptist and Presbyterian, appear alongside Islam and Buddhism and Hinduism as though they are all different religions. As a friend noted, Pentecostalism doesn’t appear at all, even though there are more Pentecostal Christians in Australia than most of the denominations specified. 

I’m all for learning about the breakdown of how many Aussies identify with all the different Christian denominations; that’s useful information for a pastor such as myself. But Baptists are not a different religion to Anglican or Presbyterian or the Uniting Church (well, there is case that this last one should be separated). 

Let me illustrate,

It’s like the census asking this question, what sport do you play? Then the options given are the following;

Carlton

Hawthorn

Swimming

Tennis

Collingwood

Golf

Cycling

St Kilda

It’s stupid! Carlton isn’t a sport, it’s a club that plays the same sport as Hawthorn, Collingwood and St Kilda. It may be a legitimate question to find out who supports which AFL club, but that’s not the same question as ‘what sport do you play?’. 

Will our Census counters combine the numbers from across the Christian denominations? If so, will they include or exclude in those numbers cult like groups such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Mormons?

Before sociologists explain to us why Australia is no longer a Christian nation (by the way, the answer is, we never were and we are not meant to be), it’s kinda important to know how the solicited answers shape the question being asked.  It’s also worth pointing out that in the last census only 60% of Australians answered the question on religion. So, just like a plebiscite, the answers have some value, but what the other 40% think and what Australian genuinely believe about religion remain a Census mystery. 

The Census provides useful and interesting information about the people who make up our nation. The data provides Governments, Councils, and community organisations a window into the people around us. We learn interesting facts about how old we are and how much income we earn and what languages we speak at home. 

The Australia Bureau of Statistics explains why there is a question on religion, 

“A person’s religion is asked as part of a suite of questions on cultural diversity and has been collected since the first national Census in 1911. This is the only optional question on the Census. Information gathered is used by religious organisations and government agencies to plan service delivery and encompass religious practices within community services, such as education, hospitals and aged care facilities.”

This information also becomes political hay and ammunition agitating for future Government funding and policy making. One thing the Census is not, and that is a measure of the spiritual health and intelligence of our country.

There is merit in knowing how people formally identify with different faith groups. Indeed, the fact that this question remains is quite telling. However, I’m more interested in knowing how many Aussies are in fact attending and actively belonging to a Christian Church and what are their beliefs and struggles and joys. I’m interested in learning why other Aussies have dropped out of church and /or why they no longer believe the Gospel of Jesus Christ. I’m interested in learning about what is it about other religions that appeals to people. These questions are for more interesting and beneficial. 

“God made me fast. And when I run, I feel His pleasure”

“God made me fast. And when I run, I feel His pleasure,” so said Eric Liddell, the 400m gold medalist from the 1924 Paris Olympics Games. 

Such a view may appear strange to many of our ears, partly because God is the idea we are trying hard to leave behind. Who needs God today? But also, we have accepted a popular myth; God is baggage that keeps us from having success and happiness. Over the course of the Tokyo Olympics we have heard multiple athletes showing us otherwise.

Like millions of Aussies, COVID lockdowns have been softened a little by the Olympic Games. Last night we were treated to an epic high jump final. Australia’s Nicola McDermott won silver and achieved an Australian record in the process. 

In the post medal ceremony interview, Nicola McDermott was asked about her faith,

“I think as a teenager i was always an outcast; and I got welcomed into a faith community that loved me. And I just remember encountering god’s love and it changed the way I though of my self – as a misfit why was I created so tall and stuff –  and it gave me passion and purpose to use it.

“In 2017 was my big moment when it flicked the switch and I decided to pursue God over sport.- whatever comes from sport is a bonus but I am already complete  and perfect and loved as a person regardless of it.

“That just allowed me to soar over high jump bar and not be scared anymore because I am loved and that is the most important piece.”

In a recent interview for the Guardian, Mcdermott offered this insight, 

“I keep the focus on making my identity outside of sport – I do sport, but it’s not who I am. That’s been the breakthrough for me – realising that my performance does not determine my identity. Once you do that, you realise that it doesn’t matter whether you win the Olympics or come last, you’re still the same person.”

Sydney McLaughlin is an American athlete who won 2 gold medals at the Tokyo Games, including breaking the 400m hurdle world record. Following her 400m hurdle final, Mclaughlin spoke to NBC, saying, 

“All the glory to God…Honestly, this season just working with my new coach and my new support system, it’s truly just faith and trusting the process. I couldn’t ask for anything more and truly it is all a gift from God.”

“I think the biggest difference this year is my faith, trusting God and trusting that process, and knowing that He’s in control of everything. As long as I put the hard work in, He’s going to carry me through. And I really cannot do anything more but give the glory to Him at this point.”

McLaughlin’s Instagram bio says, 

“Jesus saved me.”

“I no longer run for self recognition, but to reflect His perfect will that is already set in stone. I don’t deserve anything. But by grace, through faith, Jesus has given me everything. Records come and go. The glory of God is eternal. Thank you Father.”

Last week the gold medal winning Fijian Rugby 7s team sang of this reality that exists above.

These testimonies expose a large crack in the myth that belief in God prevents us from having the fullest life. These athletes winning Olympic glory speak of an even greater glory that belongs not to them but to God. For them, this greater identity and meaning exceeds winning athletic Olympic medals.

Of course, there are extraordinary athletes who follow Jesus and there are extraordinary athletes who do not. In every field of endeavour this is the case. Some of the most brilliant minds in the world today are followers of Jesus while others are not. Many of history’s most influential thinkers were professing Christians and others not. Today, in the fields of medicine, law, science, music, film, and economics, there are men and women who profess the name of Jesus and there are men and women who do not.

The difference does not depend on a persons intellect or effort but in the category that is greater than all others. Neither is the distinguishing characteristic success, as though Christians are more likely to win Olympic medals or non Christians are more likely. 

You don’t need to sacrifice God for sporting achievement. You don’t need to ditch God in order to find success. We are not required to ignore God in order to find our truest self. Nicola McDermott and Sydney McLaughlin are among the many athletes who prove this myth to be false. And what these athletes have shared is a message of good news that surpasses sporting achievement. Eric Liddell who felt God’s pleasure as he raced to gold, also said this, “Many of us are missing something in life because we are after the second best.” 

The Apostle Paul once wrote a letter to a young man. He used a sporting analogy to describe the greatest race worth running. 

“ I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.  Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day—and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing.”

No doubt many young Aussies are dreaming about future sporting success. Many more are thinking about the future and considering the possibilities before them. We do not need to make the mistake of denigrating God from life. Indeed, through Jesus Christ he promises something of eternal meaning, joy and satisfaction. A few may eventually win an Olympic medal, but let’s not miss out because we are after the second best.