The Danger of Conspiracy Theories according to Colossians

Conspiracy theories are never far from the public imagination. In the midst of a turbulent event or changing culture, rumours and speculations emerge which attempt to offer an explanation. Conspiracy theories don’t rely on accessible knowledge, reasoned argument, and evidence, but rather, they join the hidden dots that allegedly lay behind the scenes.

What is QAnon and why is it dangerous?

Two weeks ago The Atlantic published a disturbing piece, The Prophecies of Q: American Conspiracy Theories entering a dangerous new phase. Written by Adrienne LaFrance, this is a lengthy and detailed description of the short history of QAnon. Q is an anonymous figure who began posting messages on the internet in October 2017. The messages are cryptic and relate to current socio-political dramas in the United States. These online notes suggest a world of intrigue that is taking place behind the scenes against President Trump by the so called ‘deep state’.  For those interested, in addition to LaFrance’s article, Joe Carter has written an important summary of QAnon on The Gospel Coalition. Marc-André Argentino’s piece for The Conversation is another informative article.

At the time of reading The Atlantic’s exposé, I sent out this tweet.

“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”.

In case I had doubt as to whether QAnon was a thing, within minutes I had people replying to the tweet, espousing QAnon ideas and carrying QAnon references on the twitter bios. Somewhat ironically, they have since deleted their comments and disappeared in the dark web once more. What was interesting about the comments are these 3 points: 1. They referenced belonging to a chapter of QAnon in Australia, 2. They used Christian language/categories, 3. They obviously exist.

The connection between QAnon and ‘Christianity’ (I stress the inverted commas here) became highly visible when Joe Carter wrote his article for TGC. Many comments were made by people who identify with QAnon. It is quite astonishing and concerning.

QAnon is connected to misinformation campaigns on COVID-19, suggesting it is a hoax, and also offering miracle cures for the pandemic.

This conspiracy theory is now national security in the United States. It is important to note that some QAnon members have been identified by the FBI as a domestic terror threat, and with good reason: there have been cases of threats of violence, people arrested for making bombs, and even a case of a man storming a Washington DC restaurant with an AR-15 rifle because he believed it was a front for a child sex ring that was being run by Hilary Clinton.

Joe Carter also points to the spread of QAnon overseas,

“While most are presumably peaceful, some QAnon followers have allegedly been involved in terroristic threats against Trump and his family, an arson that destroyed 23,000 acres in California, and armed standoffs with law enforcement. The conspiracy theory has also spread to Europe with a QAnon-inspired mass murder in Germanyarson targeting cell towers, and attacks on telecom workers in Belgium, Cyprus, Ireland, and the Netherlands.”

In its short history, QAnon has morphed from a tiny political conspiracy into a religious movement. While it remains fringe and most of us had probably never heard of it until recently, its tentacles have extended into churches, taking Christians captive to its dangerous ideas.

LaFrance explains,

“it is also already much more than a loose collection of conspiracy-minded chat-room inhabitants. It is a movement united in mass rejection of reason, objectivity, and other Enlightenment values. And we are likely closer to the beginning of its story than the end. The group harnesses paranoia to fervent hope and a deep sense of belonging. The way it breathes life into an ancient preoccupation with end-times is also radically new. To look at QAnon is to see not just a conspiracy theory but the birth of a new religion.”

One QAnon exponent has now published several books. Take note of the religious themes in the titles, Hearing God’s Voice Made SimpleDefeating Your Adversary in the Court of Heaven, and American Sniper: Lessons in Spiritual Warfare.

The theory revolves around the idea of a coming “Great Awakening”,

“It speaks of an intellectual awakening—the awareness by the public to the truth that we’ve been enslaved in a corrupt political system. But the exposure of the unimaginable depravity of the elites will lead to an increased awareness of our own depravity. Self-awareness of sin is fertile ground for spiritual revival. I believe the long-prophesied spiritual awakening lies on the other side of the storm.”

“The language of evangelical Christianity has come to define the Q movement. QAnon marries an appetite for the conspiratorial with positive beliefs about a radically different and better future, one that is preordained.”

There is now a gathering of QAnon members, which Argentino argues is essentially a ‘church’. It’s known as Omega Kingdom Ministry.

QAnon sounds as though it is more prevalent in the United States than here in Australia. Although as I experienced last week, there are adherents in Australia and at least one organised groups of followers (on the Gold Coast). Christians should at least be aware of its existence so that we can respond pastorally, should anyone in our congregations be drawn in. Let’s be clear, as  Joe Carter writes,

“Christians should care about QAnon because it’s a satanic movement infiltrating our churches.

Although the movement is still fringe, it is likely that someone in your church or social media circles has either already bought into the conspiracy or thinks it’s plausible and worth exploring. We should care because many believers will or are being swayed by the demonic influences of this movement.”

photo of broken red car on grass

Photo by Dominika Kwiatkowska on Pexels.com

 

How Colossians warns us against conspiracy theories

I am writing this blog post, partly to raise awareness of this dangerous movement but also to demonstrate from Scripture (Colossians in particular) that conspiracy theories, in general, are anti-Christian.

In writing to the Church in Colosse, the Apostle Paul notes an emerging group of false teachers, which Bible scholars observe are a form of proto-Gnosticism. These teachers are spreading new ideas that spring from secret knowledges and that in contradiction to the true Gospel of Jesus Christ that had been received by the Colossians. In this letter, Paul is both calling the Church to remain firm on the Gospel of Christ and to reject these new and unChristian teachings

“My goal is that they may be encouraged in heart and united in love, so that they may have the full riches of complete understanding, in order that they may know the mystery of God, namely, Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. I tell you this so that no one may deceive you by fine-sounding arguments. For though I am absent from you in body, I am present with you in spirit and delight to see how disciplined you are and how firm your faith in Christ is.

So then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live your lives in him, rooted and built up in him, strengthened in the faith as you were taught, and overflowing with thankfulness.

See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the elemental spiritual forces of this world rather than on Christ.

For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form, 10 and in Christ you have been brought to fullness.” (Colossians 2:2-9)

Firstly, God’s mystery has been revealed. In the Old Testament, the fulness of God’s purposes were not revealed and made clear. The Apostles stresses that in Christ this mystery is now made known. Indeed Christ and inclusion into Christ is the mystery.

“the mystery that has been kept hidden for ages and generations, but is now disclosed to the Lord’s people. 27 To them God has chosen to make known among the Gentiles the glorious riches of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.” (1:26-27)

Secondly, God’s revealed mystery, which is Christ, is sufficient in every way. The fulness of God is in Christ, for he is fully and eternally God. This fulness has been given to us through faith. The exhortation is to remain in Christ, not shifting from him and onto something new and different. Why not? Because God’s promises and blessings and purposes are all wrapped up in Christ and are already ours in Him.

In chapter 1 Paul offers what is a superlative picture of the Lord Jesus Christ, detailing that he is supreme and sufficient,

“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. 18 And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. 19 For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, 20 and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.”

Thirdly, in contrast to the true and sufficient knowledge given us in Christ, Paul warns Christians about being attracted to new theologies. He refers to these as deceptive yet persuasive (2:3), as hollow and deceptive philosophy, and as arising from human traditions and elemental forces rather than Christ.

The origins of this new and secret knowledges is human speculation. As Paul adds in 2:15 behind these movements are devilish ‘powers and authorities’. These have been defeated by the cross, but are lingering about and trying to take God’s people ‘captive’ and uprooted from Christ.

 

Christians need to push against conspiracy theories

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.

Christians should avoid conspiracy theories because they depend on rumours and spreading speculations. Christians should ignore conspiracy theories because they reject well-established truth and they regularly turn to gossip and slander. There are clear examples of this in relation to QAnon.

Conspiracy theories also encourage suspicion and hatred, where the Christian ethic requires us to love our neighbours.

The issue is heightened when the conspiracy theory links itself to Christian teaching in some form. Paul insists that churches are to be on their guard and refute ideas that undermine the person and work of Christ, that suggest new and improved spirituality beyond Christ, that promote eschatological prophecies regarding the future, and that creates discouragement and division in the Church (2:2). It’s a car crash waiting to happen.

These Apostolic concerns regarding Proto-Gnosticism can be easily linked with modern day cults such as Mormonism and Jehovah’s Witnesses. Some forms of Pentecostalism and Christian liberalism would also fall under this umbrella. The reason being is that in different ways they deny the supremacy of the Lord Jesus or reject the sufficiency of the atonement. And like other those ancient heresies of Arianism and Montanism, that cause believers to doubt the clear teaching of Scripture and the fulness of God’s revelation in Christ, these contemporary storylines depend on new and secret knowledge.

We measure Christian doctrine according to the measure give to us by God, namely the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ. When we find ourselves being pulled by extraordinary and too-good-to-be-true stories and understandings, they most probably are too good to be true. Be careful lest you step yourself away from the fullness God has already given us in Christ, and drag others with you.

How will COVID-19 change the world?

Last week I wrote a piece noting 7 (possible) trends for Churches that are emerging through the COVID-19 pandemic. In this piece, I am thinking more broadly about culture and society, rather than specifically about Churches. In regard to the future of Christianity in Australia post-COVID-19, I am circumspect, trusting the Sovereignty of God and the power of His Gospel, but also noting limitations of people’s ability or willingness to change.

Without the Holy Spirit sanctifying minds and hearts, we are even less likely to choose positive change. Of course, I believe in God’s common grace that he pours out onto the world and which is received by believers and unbelievers alike. Where human progress and good achieved, we should be thankful for the evidence of this grace. As political analysts, economists, and social academics, begin to theorise about ‘what next’, what should we be thinking? Will the world change or not?

For the sake of avoiding a public stoning or being held up as a prophet of sorts, let me be clear: I don’t know what Australia will look like in 2021, let alone in July 2020. There are more variables at play here than in predicting what the weather will be like in Melbourne on any given day.

For example, no one knows what this virus will do next. Will it dissipate with time or with a change of season? Will it morph into new and more deadly strains? Indeed, there is a growing suggestion that we may not transition into a post-COVID-19 world, but rather, we may have to learn to live with COVID-19.

It is also unclear what Governments are aiming to achieve. Two months ago the objective was to flatten the curve so that our health system wouldn’t be overwhelmed. This didn’t mean more people wouldn’t catch COVID-19 but that we would slow the spread. However, toward the end of April, the rhetoric began to change, suggesting that we might eradicate COVID-19 from Australia. From my humble perspective, surely this requires either 1. long term social restrictions (including keeping national border closer indefinitely), or 2. reaching herd immunity, or 3. finding a vaccine. Depending on which immunologist or epidemiologist we listen to, a vaccine may be available as early as late this year, others suggest sometime 2021/2022, while other experts are more circumspect and are raising the possibility that an effective vaccine may never be found. It is important for Governments to be transparent with the people about what their objectives are as they look to the future.

There are two obvious conclusions that we can draw thus far. First, even the experts have little idea where we will be in 6 months time,  in terms of fighting the disease, social health, and global and local economics. Second, built into this pandemic, including responses made by Governments across the world, are some long term changes to society.

COVID-19

 

The new will be like the old

Predicting the future is a dangerous task and usually ends with inflations, conflations and misinterpretations. Looking forward is however an important step for making decisions today. We want to avoid crazy conspiracy theories like the plague, but are there indications of what tomorrow may look like?

As a Christian, I believe in listening to the experts. Scientists, economists, and psychologists are important voices to be listened to in this crisis, along with our political representatives. No one is suggesting they won’t make mistakes or that their agendas are pure as snow, but it is nonsense to ignore professional advice. As a Christian, I am also guided by Scripture, which sets our expectations for life and teaches us how to live in the midst of life’s myriad seasons.  For example, in Jesus’ famous apocalyptic sermon in Matthew ch.24, he describes life in the world between his first and second comings. He says,

“Watch out that no one deceives you. For many will come in my name, claiming, ‘I am the Messiah,’ and will deceive many. 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.”

If you think that these words are like the world today, as well as the world 6 months ago or 20 years ago and 200 years ago, you would be correct. Wars and natural disasters are not signs of the imminent return of Christ, but a description of the pattern of life that will be experienced until He returns. That means, events like a pandemic are not fuel for conspiracy theories and they are unlikely to be the great catalyst that fundamentally changes the world. This is an extraordinary time for us living through COVID-19 but it is not so out of place in the broad sweep of history. Such events have happened before and will reappear in the future. Whether it is disease or economic disaster or armed conflict, these things remind us that we live in a fallen world, filled with uncertainty and sin and death.

It is worth noting that in his apocalyptic sermon, Jesus tells us not to be alarmed by such events. God hasn’t been taken by surprise. He hasn’t let go of his Sovereign hand over the universe.

 

The new will also be different.

I suspect many people would like to see a return to the old normal; it is familiar and safe. Others are preaching that this is the time for radically reorienting society. For example, Leader of the Australian Labor Party Anthony Albanese this week announced a “Vision Statement on Australia Beyond the Coronavirus”. He has said that this is a ‘once in a life time opportunity’ to redefine and redirect Australian society. Which will it be? A return to normal or will a radically different Australia energy from COVID-19?

 

Here are 5 aspects of life that are likely to change due to COVID-19.

1. Socialising

While many people are eager to return to face to face relationships, others are reluctant about entering someone’s home let alone offering a hug or handshake. It is quite possible for two opposing trends to coexist and I suspect we’ll see both these attitudes running juxtaposed.

Given the 3 Stage plan to recovery that the Federal Government announced (and note that Stage 3 is far from what we can describe as normal) any return to usual socialising will take longer than many wish. We are not talking weeks or even months, but perhaps a couple of years. This will take a toll on people’s wellbeing, and it will seriously aggravate mental health issues. On May 15th the Federal Government have recognised this and so announced a $48 million Mental Health package to help with this endemic emerging in our suburbs and streets.

Human being are social beings. We need interpersonal contact and relationship for our mental health and for community strength. We should be patient and understanding with friends who are slow to take up invitations to meet in person. We also need to encourage a return to in-person relationships.

There is a cost attached to letting people congregate together and there is a cost for keeping people apart.

 

2. Unprecedented Government spending and debt.

State and Federal Governments are spending and handing out staggerings sums of money. In the space of two months, $100s billions have been committed to keeping the economy afloat during the pandemic. The forced closures of businesses and schools and communities have required Governments to step in with financial assistance, but it all comes at a cost.

There are already voices calling for some of these initiatives to remain permanently, including paid child care and the job seeker allowance (which has been doubled temporarily). This leads to deeper questions about how we want society to be structured and the role of Government.

The day is coming when we will have to pay off this debt, either with higher taxes or with austerity measures, or a combination of both. We are blindsiding ourselves if we don’t appreciate that this is likely to have long term and significant impact on employment levels, housing affordability, investments, household spending, and the viability of many thousands of businesses, community groups, sporting clubs, and churches.

 

3. Our dependence on China must change.

China isn’t an ally, she is a trading partner and a geopolitical competitor. The rise of China has been a gift to Australia and also a danger. There are enormous trade and economic benefits from the relationship, but have we been ignoring the costs?

I think the Australian Government is right to be asking serious questions of China’s role in the Corona Virus pandemic and to demand transparency. China’s evasiveness throughout the pandemic has once again demonstrated that this Communist State should not be trusted. Let me be emphatic, I am not talking about Chinese people, but the Government of China, which is a totalitarian and oppressive regime with a long record of dishonesty and human rights abuse.

China’s role in covering up the true extent of the Corona Virus and their influence over the World Health Organisation (WHO) is far from the worst of it. 1 million Uyghurs remain locked away in ‘education’ camps in northwestern China, Christian Churches are continually oppressed and Christians arrested, and there is China’s growing interference in Hong Kong and their military expansion in the South China Sea.

For the most part, Australia has, alongside many countries, tried to benefit from and also feed a China hungry for economic and political expansion.

You don’t placate a bully, you stand up to them.

I first came across Peter Jennings in an interview with John Anderson last year. Peter Jennings is the Executive Director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute. In a recent article, he warns against China’s bullish tactics and their interference in the accurate transmission of information and application of international standards,

“As Beijing hardens its position on what it considers to be acceptable applications of the One China policy it is reacting badly to international judgments that Taiwan very effectively suppressed the spread of Covid-19 without resorting to the punitive measures we saw in Wuhan.

This week China’s ambassador to New Zealand sharply rebuked Wellington for backing a growing international call to make Taiwan an observer at the WHA meeting. The foreign ministry spokesman, Zhao Lijian, said New Zealand should “immediately stop making wrong statements on Taiwan, to avoid damaging our bilateral relationship”.

China’s ever more strident and stringent demands for countries to publicly acquiesce to Beijing’s political agenda is seemingly having the opposite reaction.”

Latika Bourke reported last Friday that Australia’s dependence on China places us in a vulnerable position. For example,

“An international study of essential supply lines has found that Australia relies on China for critical medical technology more than any other ‘Five Eyes’ nation.”

China’s behaviour is also creating unusual alliances. In what is a remarkable statement, The Australian Worker’s Union last week joined forces with Australia’s conservative Federal Government in calling China to account,

“Free trade must be fair.

Australia must stand up to China and protect our national sovereignty and local jobs.

The Chinese Government is threatening massive trade tariffs on Australian barley, beef and other products in response to our demands for a COVID-19 investigation and action taken against the illegal dumping of products by China.

Dumping of imported goods, by selling products like steel and aluminium below cost, is a trade violation which aims to destroy Australia’s industries and make us more reliant on foreign supply.

We have the right to stop cheap, low quality steel and aluminium from reaching our shores, jeopardising tens of thousands of Australian jobs. Every other country does this.

Threatening crippling tariffs against Australia’s world leading agriculture industry is a bullying tactic.

The AWU is calling on Scott Morrison and the Federal Government to stand up to China’s bullying, protect Australian sovereignty and jobs, and declare its intentions to work with nations that support fair, free trade.”

When it comes to China, we are not witnessing the awakening of a sleeping giant panda, but a dragon. In December 2019 Niall Ferguson argued that a new Cold War had begun.

“Something [else] changed in 2019. What had started out as a trade war — a tit for tat over tariffs while the two sides argued about the American trade deficit and Chinese intellectual property theft — rapidly metamorphosed into a cluster of other conflicts.

In short order, the United States and China found themselves engaged in a technology war over the global dominance of the Chinese company Huawei in 5G network telecommunications and an ideological confrontation in response to the abuses of Uighur Muslim minorities in China’s Xinjiang region, as well as a classic superpower competition for primacy in science and technology. The threat also loomed of a currency war over the exchange rate for the Chinese yuan, which the People’s Bank of China has allowed to weaken against the dollar…”

If a new cold war hasn’t descended, it should be clear by the falling autumn leaves and the dropping temperature that winter is coming. These next few years will be pivotal in determining how cold or how hot this economic and geopolitical standoff will become.

 

4. Time to rebuild traditional models of University

University education in Australia is huge. Never before has there been such a large menu of courses to choose from and so many students and so much money to be made. Education is Australia’s 3rd largest export industry, worth $10s of billions annually.

In 2017, there were almost 800,000 international students enrolled in education programs in Australia, including 350,000 studying in universities. With the arrival of COVID-19, huge numbers of students are unable to travel to Australia and many others have been forced to leave and return to their home country.

According to Peter Hurley of the Mitchell Institute,

“The university sector faces cumulative losses of up to A$19 billion over the next three years due to lost international student revenue.

Modelling from the Mitchell Institute shows the next big hit will come mid-year when $2 billion in annual tuition fees is wiped from the sector as international students are unable to travel to Australia to start their courses for second semester.

Such losses are not just a university problem. ABS data show for every $1 lost in university tuition fees, there is another $1.15 lost in the broader economy due to international student spending.

This means the Australian economy could lose more than $40 billion by 2023 because of reduced numbers of higher education international students.”

This should not be taken as a negative word toward international students. Far from it, my personal encounters with students from China, Malaysia, Brazil, and Uganda, and from across the world, has been incredibly positive. In many respects, I am glad that they have an opportunity to study here and I have valued the friendships I have formed with many students. Indeed some of these students make Australia their home, and they are welcomed and vital members of the community. The issue isn’t international students, it’s the model of education that looks more like a $ sign than actual education.

A related issue is the indulgence of our higher learning institutions to provide courses and degrees that lead to nowhere. The breadth of inane and dead-end tertiary courses is truly ridiculous.

For example, my eldest child is reaching the stage in high school where students are exploring what type of vocation interests them and therefore what university course they should consider undertaking. As part of this conversation, we have spoken with several people who work in a field that he’s interested in and who teach this area in our universities. The overwhelming feedback that we received was that it is nearly impossible to make a career in this area and to even get a job. Apparently, only two graduates for every 80 end up successfully working in this industry.

Could the massive loss in income force our tertiary institutions to recalibrate and return to traditional models of education and research? Might our universities rid themselves of the shackles of profit-making and rediscover learning? Instead of offering useless degrees that cost students $10,000s and with no job at the end, can we rewrite the young people’s ‘success manual’ and create pathways from school into careers without the ‘middle man’?

5. The social engineering project of authoritarian secularism.

This includes the latest chapters in the sexual revolution, identity politics, and religious freedom issues.

Socio-political agendas that existed prior to COVID-19 will remain afterwards. The sexual revolution may have been forced into hibernation for the time being (at the very least the media is currently distracted by other issues), but as life returns to some sense of normalcy, we can expect these social threads to be taken up once again.

There is a question mark over how successful or popular these agendas will be once we have adjusted to COVID-19. Will a few months of breathing space help us to regain our senses and to starve these already vacuous ideologies of their droplets of oxygen? Perhaps, but then again,  a survey of the 20th Century demonstrates that two World Wars, the Nuclear threat, and Vietnam, didn’t subtract from the evolving abandonment sex’s natural paradigm. The sexual revolution with its demand for moral allegiance is far from over. However, like the French Revolution, this is a movement that eats its own. Feminists, lesbians, gays, are being publicly cancelled as they don’t pay full homage to the latest theories on gender and sex. I anticipate that the West will continue to dismantle itself in the attempt to follow Romans 1:18-32 word for word. The rest of the world will look on and laugh at our foolishness.

 

Conclusion

Evidence suggests that COVID-19 will change the world, but it is not yet possible to see the extent to which these new normals will impact the average Aussie. Old attitudes and dreams will continue but newly laid roads will redirect our paths. The rush for a return to the old normal will be strong and understandable but there are socio-economic factors and geopolitical manoeuvrings that will likely stifle this revival.

Even as we are surprised and even shocked by some of the changes, none of this takes God by surprise. I am reminded of the Lord Jesus’ declaration, “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End.”

Life in this world sometimes appears like sailing with a gentle breeze and at other times, the sea is rough and turbulent and we are knocked about and fear for life itself. There is however one old message that will stand the test of time. The One who stilled the storm rose from the dead and His word of life has outlasted the greatest cultural changes of history. His Gospel is cosmic in scope and personal in efficacious power.

At Mentone Baptist Church today I gave an exposition on Colossians 1:15-23, and I think it’s a worthy place on which to conclude these reflections on COVID-19,

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. 18 And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. 19 For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, 20 and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.

21 Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of[g] your evil behavior. 22 But now he has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation— 23 if you continue in your faith, established and firm, and do not move from the hope held out in the gospel. This is the gospel that you heard and that has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven, and of which I, Paul, have become a servant.”

The Archbishop of Canterbury Tweets a Tale

A pandemic is not the time to begin showing love for fellow humanity, it is an important time for us to continue loving and caring and demonstrating solidarity. A pandemic, however, is not an occasion for lowering the bar on theological conversation and for confusing or conflating essential understandings of God.

Justin Welby yesterday tweeted something that no Anglican Archbishop or Christian leader should ever tweet. He has given us an example of how not to exercise religious ecumenicalism. He said,

“Pope Francis has called for a day of prayer for an end to the pandemic on 14th May, and a day of good works. People of all faiths are seeking God’s intervention at this time. Let us pray for God’s mercy, in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  #PrayForHumanity

I’m sure the tweet will go down like a treat among religious progressives who have already given up almost every distinctive aspect of Christianity.

I’m sure it’ll also be a hit among some irreligious types who think it’s fantastic that the religions of the world are leaving behind differences and are working together.

However, beneath this appealing facade is something dishonest and dishonouring to God. The Archbishop of Canterbury’s tweet was unnecessary, unhelpful, and untrue.

JustinWelby

The problem isn’t to do with prayer or encouraging Christians from around to pray about the COVID-19 pandemic. Many millions of Christians around the world have been praying through this pandemic and will continue to pray. It is entirely right to pray, for God remains Sovereign over the world today. There is no event in the world, significant or small, that escapes his attention and concern. He is the God of whom the Lord Jesus said, “ Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?”

The Archbishop of Canterbury’s tweet is going considerably further than encouraging Christians to pray to God.  He appears to be adopting the position established by the Second Vatican Council toward world religions when as an Anglican (and Christian) leader he ought not. There are two key problems here: first, what are we suggesting by calling people from different faiths to pray together, and second, are people of all faiths praying to God?

Yoking is more than a metaphor

My question is, what does the Archbishop of Canterbury’s message communicate to people about God? The fact that he ends the tweet with, “Let us pray for God’s mercy, in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit”, doesn’t make up for what he says earlier in the tweet. It’s almost as though he’s trying to appease Christians, hey this is what I mean by God: the Father, the Son and the Holy, while at the same time offering what is a best a murky statement about other religions and how they view God.

To begin with, what is Welby (and Pope Francis) communicating by the ecumenical call to prayer? When I invite someone to pray with me, I am signalling that there exists some spiritual commonality between us and that this union is adequate for us to share in this activity together. I am implying a spiritual union with the other person as we together address God. Justin Welby is calling for and therefore implying that we (regardless of faith) can share in the some spiritual activity together as though we are united in this task. However, do Christians share spiritual union with other faiths?

“Do not be yoked together with unbelievers. For what do righteousness and wickedness have in common? Or what fellowship can light have with darkness? 15 What harmony is there between Christ and Belial? Or what does a believer have in common with an unbeliever? 16 What agreement is there between the temple of God and idols? For we are the temple of the living God” (1 Corinthians 6:14-16)

People of different faiths have (or should have) freedom to exercise their views about prayer and to pray on any day they choose. But a Christian leader inviting and encouraging global prayer between religions suggests an alignment that is clearly discouraged in the Bible, and even forbidden.

Playing pretend about  prayers to the same God

Justin Welby has also suggested that “People of all faiths are seeking God’s intervention at this time.” By using the upper case for God it implies that all these religions are praying to a true and real God. That Welby uses the noun in the singular, suggests that we are all ultimately praying to the same God.

Does a man say to his wife, “well, so that I don’t make all these other people feel left out and call me mean words like ‘exclusionary’ and ‘bigot’, let’s have everyone join us in bed tonight”. By the way, that is one of Bible’s metaphor’s to describe how awful it is when we betray God.

Do people from other religions pray to the same God as Christians, or do their own version of god have merit such that these prayers are efficacious?

“Half of the wood he burns in the fire;

    over it he prepares his meal,

    he roasts his meat and eats his fill.

He also warms himself and says,

    “Ah! I am warm; I see the fire.”

17 From the rest he makes a god, his idol;

    he bows down to it and worships.

He prays to it and says,

    “Save me! You are my god!”

18 They know nothing, they understand nothing;

    their eyes are plastered over so they cannot see,

    and their minds closed so they cannot understand.” (Isaiah 44:16-18)

I am not trying to establish the case here that the God of the Bible is real and living (although I am convinced he is), but that the Bible makes a sharp distinction between God and the rest. The teaching of the Second Vatican Council may give room for thinking all religions are somehow drawing toward the same God (it is from this Council that arises the current Pope’s predications toward religious pluralism and syncretism). However, neither the Christian Bible nor basic human reasoning can support this thesis. For example, Hindus believe there are millions of different gods, while such thinking is abhorrent to Muslims, Jews, and Christians who are monotheists. The Bible reveals one God who is Trinity: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Both Muslims and Jewish people find this objectionable and irreconcilable. Indeed this is the case.

God was pretty clear when he announced the first two of the 10 Commandments,

“You shall have no other gods before me.

 “You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.  (Exodus 20)

God’s insistence on there being only one God continues throughout both the Old and New Testaments.

“I am the Lord, and there is no other;

    apart from me there is no God.

I will strengthen you,

    though you have not acknowledged me,

so that from the rising of the sun

    to the place of its setting

people may know there is none besides me.

    I am the Lord, and there is no other.

I form the light and create darkness,

    I bring prosperity and create disaster;

    I, the Lord, do all these things.” (Isaiah 45:5-7)

 

“For this is what the Lord says—

he who created the heavens,

    he is God;

he who fashioned and made the earth,

    he founded it;

he did not create it to be empty,

    but formed it to be inhabited—

he says:

“I am the Lord,

    and there is no other.”  Isaiah 45:18

And it is Jesus Christ who has revealed God to us,

“All things have been committed to me by my Father. No one knows who the Son is except the Father, and no one knows who the Father is except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.” (Luke 10:22)

 “No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God and is in closest relationship with the Father, has made him known”. (John 1:18)

Not only does the Bible describe there existing only one living God, but his person, nature and attributes are unlike the many deities that have been suggested and worshipped through the millennia. For example, while some religions claim that their god(s) loves, only the Bible speaks of ‘God is love’.

I doubt if Justin Welby believes that all religions worship the same God or that other gods are capable of answering prayer. I suspect the Archbishop is simply trying to be careful with his words, and so avoid offending anyone. However, that is the problem. It’s one of the chief issues confounding Christianity in Western nations. We aim to be unclear on any Biblical doctrine that causes offence and we’re super keen to use catchwords that find common ascent and praise in the culture. We shouldn’t do theology in this manner and we certainly shouldn’t exercise prayer and religious activity in this way. Why add to peoples’ confusion about God? Why turn beautiful and vital Christian beliefs into sludge?

We love our neighbours and friends from other religions by treating them with respect and kindness, not by conflating their god with God, or pretending that we are somehow engaged in the same activity. We affirm to the death our shared humanity and imago dei, and we engage in gentle but robust conversation to persuade people about the truth and goodness and grace of Jesus Christ, but we do not play the game of ‘we’re all in the same family’.  More importantly, we love God by honouring his name and nature and character as he reveals himself to be, not by cavorting with a religious version of illogical identity politics; that road ends in denying God’s unique being and qualities. If I wouldn’t treat my friends in such a way, why do we think it is okay to do with God?

A Response to ‘Coronavirus, creation and the Creator: What the Bible says about suffering and evil’

There are few people who don’t hold a view on COVID-19 and what it means for the world. Religious and irreligious people alike are espousing beliefs and theories. Two Baptist theologians from Whitley College in Melbourne, Mark Brett and Jason Goroncy, have offered a contribution to the conversation. They have written a piece for the ABC, in which they present a theological reflection on ‘Coronavirus, creation and the Creator: What the Bible says about suffering and evil’.

I read the article with interest partly because of the topic and also because I’m a Melbourne Baptist who is pastoring a Baptist church in this city. Brett and Goroncy have given a number of helpful insights, and they have also presented several theological ideas that are problematic for anyone holding to Biblical and historical Christianity. If I have misunderstood Mark Brett and Jason Goroncy in some way, I’m more than happy to be corrected. Indeed, such articles can be useful for creating ongoing conversations. 

COVID-19

To begin, allow me to note some worthwhile insights offered by Brett and Goroncy.

4 Helpful Insights 

  • They suggest that one useful response to the pandemic is reviving the practice of lament. This is a great idea.
  • This statement about the Bible is true and helpful, “The Bible is honest about human suffering in this world, whether it be that of the “righteous” and the “devout” or that of the “sinful” and “unrepentant.” It is equally honest about the sheer fact of dis-ease in the world.”
  • They point to the fact that God in Christ has shared in the suffering of this world. This is one of the wonders of the Gospel.
  • They offer a historical perspective, noting that what we are experiencing with COVID-19 is not new.

Before I turn to two crucial issues that lay at the heart of their argument, I want to briefly pushback on 3 other points. These points are not central to Brett and Goroncy’s thesis, but they do reveal something of their theological biases.

3 revealing comments

First, Brett and Goroncy set up their conversation as though Christian thinking on COVID-19 is a religious version of President Trump vs Enlightened Progressives.

For example, their opening salvo is aimed at ‘a few churches in the United States’, although by the end of the paragraph it seems as though the whole church has nothing useful to say about COVID-19,

“A few churches in the United States have attracted new notoriety by meeting together against the advice of public health officials, even presenting such dissidence as a mark of true faith. But what kind of faith is this exactly? On the other hand, some pastoral leaders have become all too aware of the immediate challenges, and have left the theological questions to one side. One might be left with the impression that the church has nothing to say about some of the most pressing questions that many people continue to dare to ask…”

It seems as though these American Trump supporting churches are stuck on their minds,

“Whole churches, it seems, have never heard of the book of Job, or perhaps they ignore such unsettling Old Testament discourse because it has been trumped by some version of apocalyptic theology.” [italics my emphasis]

“If we seek inspiration from the Hebrew Bible and New Testament in this present crisis, we would not expect God to intervene like a cosmic President, to declare emergency powers and veto the freedoms of the ecological systems within which all creatures live.” 

My issue here is that Brett and Goroncy almost entirely ignore mainstream Christian belief and practice. Instead, they have set up a conversation between a straw man with a deep southern accent and their own position. I’m not saying that such individuals don’t exist, of course, they do, but they are hardly representative of Christianity across Australia let alone in the United States. Brett and Goroncy’s foible is far too simplistic, which means they rarely engage with evangelical theology that is held by the vast number of Bible believing Christians. To quote a friend of mine, “Basically they just sound like Greta Thunberg if she had a PhD in theology”, but that’s probably going too far.

Second, when referring to the Old Testament, they speak of the ‘Hebrew Bible’. For Jewish people, this is an entirely appropriate term, but these are Christian theologians, and for Christians, we do not present the Old Testament as being separate from or not part of the Christian Bible.

Jesus repeatedly made the point that the Old Testament is Christo-centric book,

“And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.” (Luke 24:27)

“Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.” (Luke 24:44)

The Apostles also understood the Old Testament as being about Jesus Christ and for Christians,

“For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, 4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures,” (1 Corinthians 15:3-4)

“from infancy you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.” (2 Timothy 3:15)

Third, why begin a discussion about Jesus’ miracles with the conditional conjunction, ‘if’?  “If we find miraculous healings in the New Testament…” It is impossible to tell whether Brett and Goroncy accept Jesus’ miracles as a historical fact or a myth, and that alone is problematic. Is this some academic game where we pretend to speak above all those awkward beliefs that don’t conform to post-Enlightenment thinking? Do theologians gain kudos for framing statements about miracles with suspicion?

My question here is, why provoke readers to doubt the veracity of Jesus’ miracles? Are their comments giving people greater confidence in the truth of the Bible or does it create further suspicion and disbelief, and drag old Bultmann out of the grave?

I will add that I agree with their understanding of how the miracles function in the Gospels, but as a reader, I am left in the dark about whether I should believe these miracles were real or a myth.

 

2 Critical problems

There are serious problems with Brett and Goroncy’s view of God and creation, such that their proposals are at times unrecognisable with Biblical Christianity. I will comment on two particular examples: God’s Sovereignty and the cross of Christ. There are other significant issues, including their view of the goodness of creation, the Fall, and human sin, but for the sake of brevity, I won’t address these here.

1. Is God Sovereign?

The Bible presents God as being Sovereign over all things. God’s Sovereignty includes his control, authority, and presence. There is nothing outside his knowledge and permission, nothing beyond his control and will.

“Our God is in heaven;

    he does whatever pleases him.” (Ps 115:3)

“ The Lord Almighty has sworn,

“Surely, as I have planned, so it will be,
and as I have purposed, so it will happen.

25 I will crush the Assyrian in my land;
on my mountains I will trample him down.
His yoke will be taken from my people,
and his burden removed from their shoulders.”

26 This is the plan determined for the whole world;
this is the hand stretched out over all nations.

27 For the Lord Almighty has purposed, and who can thwart him?
His hand is stretched out, and who can turn it back?”
(Is 14:24-27)

“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. 18 And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. 19 For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, 20 and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross. (Col 1:15-20)

 “The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands. 25 And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else.”  (Acts 17:24-25)

For Brett and Goroncy, God is powerful but not Sovereign. By relying on some rather inventive exegesis, they suggest God’s power and goodness has competition before the creation of the world and even in the new creation.

When it comes to the beginning of the universe, they reject creatio ex nihilo (creation out of nothing) and instead propose “creatio ex profundis (creation out of the deep waters, creation as the germinating abyss”.

creatio ex profundis is an obscure idea that has almost zero support in Christian theology, and even less in the history of the Christian Church. It seems to have its roots in process theology, which is a small 20th Century movement in theology which rejected many key Christian beliefs, including that God is Sovereign.

The notable systematic theologian Louis Berkhof rightly notes, “the Christian church from the very beginning taught the doctrine of creation ex nihilo and as a free act of God”

As Michael Horton explains, the language in Genesis 1:2 of formless and empty, and darkness, “is itself the unformed matter that God had already brought into existence from nothing, the created stuff out of which he fashions the world.”

Not only does Genesis 1:1-2 not support the idea of creatio ex profundis, places like John 1:1-3 and Colossians 1:15-17 make is abundantly make the case clearly,

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made”.

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.”

Brett and Goroncy favour creatio ex profundis, because it opens the possibility of “natural evil” existing before creation. This is their proposal:

“we might think of creation as God’s protest against chaos — against the “churning, complicating” and “interstitial darkness” that “refuses to disappear” and which ceaselessly threatens to undo God’s “good” work by dragging creation back into the discord against which it was formed.”

God’s Sovereignty over creation is therefore denied, or least it is defined in a very narrow sense, for evil existed outside of and before God creating. God’s Sovereignty over the new creation is also disputed as they contend that death is part of the new creation,

“We would do well to remember that death was not wholly removed from the picture of a “new heavens and new earth” in Isaiah 65:17–24. There, the prophetic vision sets out a minimum life expectancy of a hundred years, so that children will not be “born into calamity.” In short, this text does not promote a heavenly immortality; the new earth still very much means the renewing of our own.”

Does Isaiah 65:20 suggest that death will be part of the new creation?

“Never again will there be in it

    an infant who lives but a few days,

    or an old man who does not live out his years;

the one who dies at a hundred

    will be thought a mere child;

the one who fails to reach a hundred

    will be considered accursed.”

In his commentary on the book of Isaiah, Alec Motyer explains, “it is not meant to suggest that death will still be present. This would contradict forever (18), no more (19), and the death of death in 25:17-18. It simply affirms that, over the whole of life, the power of death will be gone.” In other words, Isaiah is using metaphor and hyperbole to make the point that there will not be death in the new creation. 

If we’re going quote Isaiah ch.65, why not permit readers to be aware of those Scriptures toward which Isaiah is pointing and which make clear that there will be no more death? For example, Revelation ch.21,

 “And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”

He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” Then he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.”

By relying on obscure exegesis and leaping over large swathes of relevant texts, Brett and Goroncy have painted a God who is not totally in control over the world. They are not saying God is absent or completely powerless, however. They do point to Jesus and to the cross as an example of God sharing in our suffering. However, their explanation of the cross is extraordinarily reductionist and leaves the cross and God empty of saving power.

2. Don’t empty the cross of its power.

For an article that is wanting to offer hope in the midst of this terrible pandemic, I found it strange that both Jesus Christ and his cross are rarely mentioned. They write,

“Even death on a Roman cross, in this impatient theology, is simply a means to an end. It could not be an enduring revelation of the character of God. As if perhaps, in the crucifixion of Jesus, God was just faking weakness, was not really thirsty and abandoned at all.”

In the single time where they do mention Christ and the cross, it is to criticise a straw man version of a Sovereign God. The death of Christ is reduced to that of God sharing in our suffering. The idea of God understanding suffering is true enough. This is a beautiful Christian teaching, that God in Christ Jesus has participated in the world and suffered.  Hebrews ch. 2 expresses this wonder,

“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…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… 18 Because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.”

Brett and Goroncy have reduced the cross to an image of God joining in our suffering. But he lacks the power to defeat suffering and evil and death.

The good news is that the real cross of Christ that took place in history and is faithfully recorded in the Scriptures is the means by which God will accomplish the end of death and evil. The cross is not only about God with us or for us in some representative way, but Christ dying in our place. Jesus’ death was sacrificial, it is an atoning death whereby God satisfied his righteous anger and where sinful beings are forgiven and set free from sin and from judgment to come.

“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)

At the end of the day, according to Brett and Goroncy, the world’s Saviour is us. This is something we can accomplish collectively as a human race if we follow God’s lead,

“We cannot say that this world simply appears by divine imposition. According to Isaiah, human participation in the justice of God is still required, as already pointed out. What we can say, however, is that God stands firstly with the less-abled among us, and with the poor, inviting them to participate — indeed, to offer leadership — in a new society. The Spirit of God calls the rest of us, the privileged, to new practices of solidarity…”

“we would look to the God who always chooses to act in solidarity, who quietly calls us to act freely as better human beings — fellow creatures with the earth — and to embody the justice of God in every area of our lives together.

The COVID-19 pandemic has unveiled once again the inequalities of our world. This is not the fulfilment of apocalyptic prophecies — like those in the Book of Revelation, for example — but it is certainly a new unveiling of what has been termed “slow violence.” Our planet continues to burn, and our seas continue to acidify. Patterns of production and consumption continue to despoil the resources needed by future generations. A new world is calling, for which we need a fuller understanding of creation.”

There is no real hope in those words, just more misery and despair. We have had thousands of years to put things right, it is a ridiculous notion that somewhere we are now capable of change. At the end of the day, there is no difference between their solution and that being offered by the most politically energised climate change activists. I’m not a climate change sceptic, far from it. But I reject the notion that we can create a ‘new world’. Instead of proclaiming God’s  ‘good news’ that is the Gospel of Jesus Christ and what He has accomplished by his atoning death and resurrection the dead, Brett and Goroncy offer just another zealous religion, high on sentiment and free from Divine power.

COVID-19 may not be a direct result of specific human sins, but it is an expression and timely reminder of a world in turmoil because of human sin and because God has cursed this creation in response. There is hope, a wonderful and undeserved hope. The hope of Christianity lies in a Sovereign God in whom nothing is beyond his care and control. The hope in Christianity is that God has done what is required: the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ. This single event has dealt with the heart of the problem, and one day, in God’s timing, will remove all the presence and stain of sin, suffering, and death.  And the new creation that has already begun in the hearts and lives of those in Christ Jesus, will be consummated and universal

John Frame puts it this way,

“The point is not that the stars and planets have sinned and need atonement as human beings do. But rather, the sin of human beings has led to a twisting of the whole universe that only redemption of human sin can set right.”

Far from this forgiveness of sins making Churches complicit with environmental vandalism, it should change the way we view other human beings and the world, but we do not pretend that we can drag some less than perfect new creation into the world tomorrow. Rather, as the Apostle Paul expresses our hope in Romans ch.8,

“For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope 21 that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God.

22 We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. 23 Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies. 24 For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what they already have? 25 But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently.”

7 (possible) Church trends emerging from COVID-19

The COVID-19 pandemic is affecting almost all parts of society. The impact is minimal in some areas of life, and in others, the change is significant and life altering. Churches are not immune from the broader tremors that are shaking core social and economic foundations.

Today is our seventh Sunday without Church. Each week I am preaching a sermon which is then posted online for our congregation. On Sunday mornings many of our people join on zoom to listen to the sermon and then spend time catching up and prayer together. But it’s not church. During the week small groups once again meet on zoom for Bible study and prayer, and there are numerous other interactions taking place every day.

While the current arrangements are far from ideal, we understand them. Life has required Australians to make adjustments, some which cause grief and uncertainty. Most Churches I suspect are still adapting and finding a rhythm to manage society’s new pace, let alone thinking of what the status quo will be like in six or twelve months time.

It is now 3rd May 2020. No one knows how long the pandemic will continue and what the long term repercussions will be. Most States across Australia are beginning to relax restrictions. Although in  Victoria, Stage 3 restrictions remain, but even here I anticipate that small groups will be allowed to start meeting again from later this month. Large gatherings, however (including church services) are probably months away.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

 

As we approach two months of COVID-19 restrictions, I have noticed a number of trends beginning to emerge among Australian Churches. These indications are based on my own experience and the many conversations I am having with pastors across the country. Also, standing behind the observations are these 3 theological premises:

  1. God remains Sovereign over the world today.
  2. Human nature doesn’t change. The Bible’s doctrine of total depravity remains the status quo.
  3. The Gospel of Jesus Christ remains good, true, and powerful today.

 

1. A godly hunger.

Not only at Mentone, but as I speak with pastors and Christians from around the country, I am seeing and hearing countless stories of service and kindness. People are making an effort to serve others practically, in prayer, and in word. This eagerness to love the body of Christ is accompanied by a growing hunger for being together again as a church. Praise God!

At Mentone, we are not trying to replicate church on Sundays or to pretend that what we’re doing is church. We consciously avoid using the language of ‘church’ or ‘service’, and we have made deliberate choices not to include every element that would be present on a Sunday service. For example, we are not commemorating the Lord’s Supper while we are apart. Doing this, being clear about what we are and are not doing during this season, is not only theologically responsible but it is creating a godly hunger among our people to be together again in person, to see one another face to face, and to worship God as church, and to partake of the Lord’s Supper again.

If these weeks of isolation create a hunger in God’s people to love the church and long to be together as a church, then that is a sign of God’s grace.

“Recalling your tears, I long to see you, so that I may be filled with joy.” (2 Timothy 1:4)

“But, brothers and sisters, when we were orphaned by being separated from you for a short time (in person, not in thought), out of our intense longing we made every effort to see you. 18 For we wanted to come to you—certainly I, Paul, did, again and again—but Satan blocked our way. 19 For what is our hope, our joy, or the crown in which we will glory in the presence of our Lord Jesus when he comes? Is it not you? 20 Indeed, you are our glory and joy”. (1 Thess 2:17-19)

2. An ungodly separation

While many members of our churches are using this season to draw closer to Christ and to his church, others will sadly use the situation to create distance.

Without regular face to face church, it is easier for people to walk away. Churches will lose people during this pandemic. These people were probably already drifting prior to the restrictions, but without the accountability of regular and public gatherings, the cover of forced separation is their justification for leaving your church and perhaps Christ also.

I shared these verses from 1 Peter with Mentone during the week, to help us combat this temptation,

Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you.

Be alert and of sober mind. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. 9Resist him, standing firm in the faith, because you know that the family of believers throughout the world is undergoing the same kind of sufferings.”

 

3. The shift from fast to fatigue and then to rest

Adapting to the new environment has required an immense amount of time and energy. The ministry and mission of a local church don’t fundamentally change, but the immediate and drastic constraints forced upon us have necessitated rapid learning, quick responses, high energy mixed with headaches and new anxieties. It’s a classic recipe for fatigue.

Speaking personally, after running at a sprint for the first 5 weeks, I needed to take 3 days rest last week; I was toasted, baked, and grilled, all in one. Rest is important. Indeed, our doctrine of God becomes real to us. If he remains Sovereign over the world and if Christ is still Lord of his church, then we can rest in Him and trust that he has everything under his loving care. It’s okay to turn off the laptop. It’s okay to produce a sermon that’s not quite finished. It’s okay for online presentations to be a little rough. It’s okay if you didn’t manage to call everyone you had on your list for that week.

Government restrictions are likely to continue for some months, even if the tightest limitations begin to loosen during May. Therefore pace ourselves, set realistic goals for each week, be content with less efficiency and lower productivity. In this, we can rediscover the grace of resting in Christ and practising our doctrine of God.

 

4. Breaking the back of Christian consumerism?

My expectation is that apart from the grace of God our bad habits will continue on the other side of COVID-19.  This fourth observation is, however, a call for change. The example I have in mind here is the consumerism and obstinate individualism that is deeply ingrained in Australian culture and which is also pervasive in Christian attitudes toward the Church. Consumerism works against discipleship and long term committed members and instead creates short term attendees and parasitic Christians. The Church’s manual becomes some poor religious version of Vogue or Netflix when it should be the word of God and church covenants.

The pandemic is a great opportunity to go simple and return to Bible basics. Do we need a professional band in order to worship God acceptably and to lift our hearts? Do we really need stand up comics in our pulpits? Are academy award winning visuals necessary for weekly announcements? 

I’m not saying that aiming low is somehow more sanctified. Let’s be clear, the quality of production is not a measure of faithfulness, whether it is created by a television crew or by a 6-year-old helping out Dad to press record on his iPhone.

A likely scenario is that Churches with high production value online will most likely attract the greater number of visitors once the crisis ends. This is great news if it is the Gospel drawing people. My question is, are our online ‘services’ reinforcing the consumer mindset or can we break the culture by doing things differently? By different, again I’m not arguing for anti-excellence, but rather I’m calling for simple faithfulness that is driven by core Gospel principles. These include making disciples, the centrality of reading and preaching the Word, preaching the whole counsel of God, permeating everything with prayer, and letting the congregation be heard when singing.

5. Churches may become more local and smaller

This point may seem to contradict the above suggestion, but not necessarily. Culture normally shifts in multiple directions and so it’s quite possible for two different paths to be true at the same time.

Are the days of mega-churches over? I doubt it (and this isn’t a criticism of large churches), but the longer restrictions remain in place for large gatherings there may be a turning toward people joining local and smaller churches. For example, the ABC last week reported that large crowds may not be permitted to meet until a vaccine is available; that means 2021 or even beyond.

With restrictions on large gatherings and with people driving less and staying closer to their own community, we may see a transition toward local church. I do think such a shift will benefit Gospel work. Of course there is is no ‘right’ size for a church. Every size and location has peculiar strengths, but there is something compelling about belonging to a church that’s found in your local community. It enables closer and deeper Gospel community and it created more evangelistic opportunities. Is it easier to invite a friend living 5 minutes drive away or 50 minutes?

6. Financial loss and ministry recalibration 

Churches are very much part of society. When the community is hurt or impacted, so are Churches, and that is not a bad thing. Many Australians have lost jobs in the past month, and many more are now working reduced hours with less income. Given that most churches rely solely upon the generosity of God’s people, it’s inevitable that churches will face financial reduced giving.

There are options available for assistance from both Federal and State Governments, which may alleviate some of the financial pressures (there are pros and cons for churches joining these programs). The reality is, as a result of long term restrictions and economic downturn, some churches will close permanently, others will need to reduce staff, and the way churches conduct ministry may need to change.

To repeat my earlier contention, what we believed prior to this crisis is what we will carry with us through to the other side. Hence, for many declining churches the fundamental problem is not the pandemic but years of poor teaching and bad theology that has left congregations destitute and spiritually dry. Churches who sold their soul to the culture will simply advertise the fact when they put the ‘for sale’ sign outside their front doors. There is also grief for small and faithful churches who will struggle to remain open into 2021. We can do without faithless churches but Australia doesn’t need fewer faithful churches.

Given the huge numbers of people who are losing jobs, the extraordinary debts now being accumulated by Governments and businesses, economic constraints are likely to continue for a very long time. This acute situation may also serve as grace to force churches to reconfigure their mission and ministry priorities. It is a time to be asking, what is the church? What is the mission? How can be best arrange Gospel priorities in our budget?

 

7. People looking for hope

“now is the time of God’s favor, now is the day of salvation.” (2 Corinthians 6:2)

I think it is true to say that many Australians are nervous and even fearful of the future. There is an audible note of despair and reassessing life values. Whether this results in people turning to Christ or not, we’ll learn over the coming months.

Time will tell whether this pandemic is the watershed moment that’ll bring about revival or further wash Christianity into the culture’s sewers. My sense is that we are unlikely to witness either. History shows that significant social events rarely create the ground for revival or great influx of people returning to church. If two World Wars, the Great Depression, the threat of nuclear war, September 11, and the 2008 Stockmarket crash, didn’t cause societal attitudes toward Christianity to improve, why do we think this most current crisis will be any different? 

Jesus teaches that such things have always been and will continue to be experienced,

“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.”

Accompanying world events, Jesus also explains,

“And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come”.

While I’m reticent to place confidence in a ‘changing’ world, the Bible tells us that “today is the day of salvation”.  God remains Sovereign and the Gospel remains good, true and powerful. Therefore God is perfectly able to grow his Kingdom beyond our expectations and prayers. God is not bound by my glass half empty views.

If people are asking questions, let’s offer the good news of Jesus Christ. If people are fearful, let’s offer His comfort. If people are looking for hope, let’s present the secure hope of Christ.

Devote yourselves to prayer, being watchful and thankful. And pray for us, too, that God may open a door for our message, so that we may proclaim the mystery of Christ, for which I am in chains. Pray that I may proclaim it clearly, as I should. 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. (Colossians 4)

 


I’ve written (May 17) a follow up piece, but this time examining potential changes to the culture at large – https://murraycampbell.net/2020/05/17/how-will-covid-19-change-the-world/

Andrea Bocelli sings ‘Amazing Grace’

The world famous operatic tenor, Andrea Bocelli, performed a live concert over Easter at Milan’s Cathedral. The performance was given the apt name, “music for hope.” Many millions of people have already watched the stunning combination performance.

What grabbed my attention was the final song, ‘Amazing Grace’.  This Christian hymn offers great encouragement & hope, more than we perhaps realise at first. 

What is the message of Amazing Grace?

Who wrote this most popular hymn and why?

I offer an explanation here in this short podcast.

 

 

The Paradox of the Cross

This headline appearing in The Age caught my attention, ‘Bad weather in Victoria is a “blessing” for social distancing’.

“Victoria’s Deputy Health Officer Dr Annaliese van Diemen called the bad weather over the Easter Weekend a “great blessing” in keeping people at home.

She said there were only four reasons people should be going out: food and supplies, medical care and care giving, exercise and work or education and that police would be out in force issuing fines.

“Chocolate can be considered a food and can be sold in supermarkets, people are allowed to leave home to get food and essential supplies,” she said.”

Leaving aside the apparent argument over whether chocolate should be considered a food, there’s little disputing the fact that the weather in Melbourne has deteriorated over the Easter weekend. It’s been raining, the wind is blowing, and the Autumn cool has arrived.

MentoneBaptist Church easter

It wasn’t the predictability of Melbourne’s unpredictable weather that grabbed my attention, but the intentional paradox made by Victoria’s Deputy health officer: our “bad” weather is a “blessing”.

This partnering of bad and blessing, and especially the bad being the cause of something positive, cuts against the logic of how we usually think of life. We readily assume that bad is the opposite of blessing, and with good reason.

However, Dr van Diemen’s words are a timely illustration of the paradox that belongs to Easter. The days leading up to and including Good Friday can be aptly described as bad. Indeed, it was truly horrendous. Jesus was innocent of all wrongdoing. The judge at the trial, Pontius Pilate, declared the Nazarene’s innocence. It was said that Jesus was the Son of God, a claim that Jesus himself attested to throughout his life, and yet he was now being ridiculed as a heretic and as an enemy of the State.

Good Friday was truly awful: the crucified one was the one without sin, the one who offered perfect love, kindness, and compassion, the one who didn’t play games with the rich and influential but who sought out the poor and the weak and welcomed them. The most holy man to have ever walked the earth was put to death in the most gruesome way imagined, slowly, deliberately, and to cheers and applause of those looking on.

It was bad and yet it was also a blessing because the Bible explains that Jesus’ death was not him losing, rather it was God bringing about a decisive win over death and evil. The cross recognises the naked reality of human corruption and enduring love of God who was paying the penalty in our stead. The Old Testament speaks of anyone hanging on a tree as being cursed by God. As Jesus announced in his cry of dereliction, Jesus willingly endured that curse on the cross so that we might experience the undeserved blessing of God.

Peter, one of Jesus’ disciples, summaries this paradox in this way,

“He himself bore our sins” in his body on the cross, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; “by his wounds you have been healed” (1 Peter 2:24).

In his death, Jesus was taking the justice of God that is aimed at all the injustice in the world. The blessing or good news of Jesus’ death is that it means guilty people are forgiven, broken people can be healed.

The world cries out for the paradox: for justice and for mercy, to punish wrongdoing and yet also to forgive.

As Melbourne theologian, Dr. Michael Bird suggests,

“The proclamation of the cross sounds like folly to many, when in fact it is God’s wisdom.

What looks like powerlessness is God’s power.

What sounds like a tragedy is stunning victory. The death that looks so shameful has established God’s honor.

What appears as a cause to mourn is a cause for inexpressible joy.

God has triumphed in the cross of Jesus, and we share the triumph with him.”

Easter is the most significant of all Christian celebrations, for it marks the beginning of all Christian hope. The cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ is God’s answer to the greatest paradoxes, tensions, and hopes that we share. It is why the good news message of Jesus remains compelling and why it is cherished by so many millions of people to this day.  It is not a message however for those who think highly of themselves and who count their morality or spirituality as wise and strong. This is a message for people who grasp their unworthiness before a holy God and yet who become convinced that, through that weekend in Jerusalem almost 2,000 years ago, God is more forgiving than we can possibly imagine.

As we remain indoors this Easter weekend, perhaps we can take time to ponder this most astonishing of paradoxes.