A return to common sense pluralism in Victoria?

Matthew Guy, leader of the Victorian State Opposition, has announced that “a government I lead will bring back religious instruction in schools because it’s very important.”

This is encouraging news, not only for Christian families but also for Victorians in general. Let me explain.

But first of all, it is important to premise my commentary with this statement: when I talk about various policies or pieces of legislation, one shouldn’t read into this an advocation for any one political party.  I don’t believe it is the role of a pastor to dictate or to suggest to their congregation (or to others) how to vote. I also recognise that there are many important issues which influence the way we vote and on these Christians may differ. One, however, may comment on specific policies, for such things are designed to influence and to shape aspects of society, and therefore they can very real consequences for constituents. It is a misstep however for the reader to conclude that either giving praise or criticism is a signal to vote in any one direction.

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Having said that, let’s address the issue at hand.

In 2015, the Victorian State Government announced that Special Religious Instruction (SRI) classes would cease in our schools, during class hours, as of January 2016. This was not a policy that State Labor took to the election.

At the time, Education Minister, James Merlino, offered this reason for SRI’s removal, ‘We can’t have kids missing out on essential teaching time.’ However, he then announced that a new program will be introduced to schools, replacing SRI, which includes instruction on faith and ethics. The reasoning behind the axing morphs again when the Australian Education Union supported the decision, stating that SRI is at ‘odds with Victoria’s secular education system’.

To be fair, Mr Merlino also made it clear that SRI could continue “outside the curriculum.” I am sure that Mr Merlino was and is aware of what every parent knows, and that is our children already have multiple programs running during lunchtimes and after school. During those breaks when they are not having sport or music practice, they need that downtime to relax and to play with friends.  Yes, schools are permitted to run SRI, but the goal posts were moved so frequently that almost no one knew what was permissible, and the red tape has been wound so tight that most schools were unable to give students an option. Despite the rhetoric about schools being allowed to run religious classes, by design, there is a massive disconnect between optics and what is actually possible on the ground.

One of the results of this move is that many Victorian families no longer feel welcomed in State Schools, and instead have been pressured into moving their children into religious schools, often at significant and unplanned cost to these families. This movement may have benefited independent schools, but our State Schools are the poorer for it. Matthew Guy’s announcement is welcoming and sends the message that all children are welcome.

It is also important to note that under the current Government (and the previous Government), important lessons were learned in relation to the training of religious instructors and to preferring an opt-in approach. Mistakes were made by SRI providers, but the sensible answer, however, was never to rid schools of these classes.

Once again, I understand that Matthew’ Guy’s announcement is enmeshed in politics and an upcoming election; so let me repeat, that’s not my interest here. What can be said is that (whatever the motivation) the Liberal’s position on this issue better reflects the Australian ethos than does the current position on religion in schools. The announcement permits and encourages healthy pluralism, as opposed to the narrow ideology that is currently being forced upon an entire generation of children.

A return to opt-in SRI also better reflects the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) which was adopted by the United Nations in 1948:

‘Every child shall enjoy the right to have access to education in the matter of religion or belief in accordance with the wishes of his parents or, as the case may be, legal guardians, and shall not be compelled to receive teaching on religion or belief against the wishes of his parents or legal guardians, the best interests of the child being the guiding principle.’

Art5(2) Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief (1981)

Replacing Safe Schools with a curriculum safe for our children

Matthew Guy has also announced that a Coalition Government would remove the  Safe Schools curriculum from Victorian schools. This is a safe option for our children.

While some of the intent of Safe Schools needs affirming, it was unnecessarily but inextricably enmeshed in unscientific and dangerous theories that have potential to cause immense damage upon our children. To teach our children to respect others, regardless of their sexuality, is right and important, but to teach that gender is fluid, to encourage exploration in sex, and to encourage children to transition to another gender despite research indicating that most children will recover from dysphoria with maturity, it is morally and intellectually reprehensible to have such things taught in our schools. To label children who believe in heteronormacy as ‘sexist’ is itself sexist, and demonstrates the hypocrisy that’s woven into the program. The whole saga has been troubling; Safe Schools isn’t about anti-bullying, it’s about forcing on our children a particular and narrow view of sexuality. When the very authors of the curriculum pointed out this fact, the Government were quickly dismissive.

Since the introduction of Safe Schools, two separate and academic reviews have been conducted (the first by Professor Louden and one by Professor Parkinson), both demonstrating significant flaws and problems with material, including dependence on fake statistics, unscientific theories, and in places presenting as fact ideas that remain highly contested within the medical fraternity. Following Professor Louden’s Review, the Federal Government announced significant changes to the curriculum, but Victoria has insisted on ignoring the findings and implementing the program without change.

What has happened in Victoria over the past 3 years is that a ½ hour opt-in religious program was removed and then replaced with compulsory curriculum (not only Safe Schools but also Respectful Relationships). In addition, the Government began designing a ‘general religious’ curriculum course for schools, which is to be compulsory across our schools (I am not aware if this course has been implemented as yet).

Don’t fall for revisionist views of secularism

According to The Age, “Australian Education Union Victorian branch president Meredith Peace said special religious instruction had no place in the curriculum of secular public schools.

She said there was already room to learn about religion and its role in society and history in state schools.”

“But it shouldn’t be taught by unqualified people who come into the schools with a very different purpose.”

These remarks prove the point. Contrary to Meredith Peace, secular does not mean non-religious or keeping religion out of public education and other public domains. The definition of secularism is not private religion, as Peace implies. True secularism allows for and encourages the plurality of ideas.

Also contrary to Meredith Peace, it is sensible that those who teach the Bible, should be qualified people (whether teachers or volunteers) who understand and believe the Bible’s message, rather than skeptics who explain away and misrepresent the Bible’s message.

Neutral education is a fairy tale, and it’s simply disingenuous for anyone to suggest such. This bias is clearly demonstrated by the Department’s own statements in the draft general religious studies program. As someone who holds an honours degree in theology I am in some way able to speak to the following statements.

According to the Education Department, these are the key premises of Christianity:

“There is one God, consisting of the Father, the Son (Jesus Christ) and the Holy Spirit. God is the creator and sustainer of the universe. God became human in the person of Jesus, the Son.

People have one life and its purpose is to live in a loving relationship with God, with others and with the world. The life and teachings of Jesus show how this is done and make possible the life-giving changes needed in individuals and society. Christians are empowered by the Holy Spirit and are called to demonstrate God’s love, compassion and justice in all their relationships and interactions. Most Christians believe in an afterlife; that after their physical death, they will live forever with God.

The Bible is the sacred text for Christians. The Bible has two parts, known as the Old and New Testaments. The Old Testament contains Jewish books and teachings, before the time of Jesus. The New Testament records the teachings of Jesus as well as the history and teaching of the early Church which is based on the teaching and example of Jesus.”

Some of the above statements align with Christianity, while others are blatantly wrong, and some of the most central tenets are altogether missing.

Here is one example of a basic error, ‘Most Christians believe in an afterlife; that after their physical death, they will live forever with God”. No, all Christians believe in an afterlife, and this life beyond death will be physical.

Notice how there is no mention of sin, Jesus’ death on the cross and his resurrection, and of salvation on account of God’s grace. There is no mention of hell. Without these things, there is no Christianity. It is not enough to make the excuse, we can’t say everything in a few paragraphs, the core of Christianity has been ripped out and in so doing it is presenting a Christianity that is inauthentic and inaccurate.

To quote the Bible, Christianity is about “Christ and him crucified”.

My point is this, if the Education Department is unable to fairly and accurately summarise the Christian faith, how can we trust what they want to be taught about any and all religion?

Would we want our children being taught maths by a teacher who doesn’t understand algebra? Would we be happy to learn that the school biology teacher doesn’t believe in male and female anatomy? Is it acceptable for sports teachers to deny the value of physical exercise? Why is it, therefore, acceptable when it comes to Christianity specifically, and religion more generally.

This is not about imposition, this is about recognition.

Why shouldn’t we give our children an opportunity to explore the greatest book that has ever been written? A book to which we owe more than any other? A book that has given shape to millennia of civilisation (not only in the West but also in the East), and has given our society its ethical and political moorings?

An intolerant secularism that is claiming the public space.

The version of secularism that now dominates much public and political conversation in Victoria feints intellectualism and freedom, but it is simply the guise for a new wave of intellectual totalitarianism, where dissent is squashed by a tirade of shout downs.

Barney Zwartz made this astute comment in the The Age,

“This attitude masks a more serious problem in the widespread contemporary misunderstanding of what “secular” means, one that I suspect is shared by Fairness in Religions in School. It has never meant, as many imagine, the absence of religion from the public arena but simply that no religion should be privileged (as, for example, the Church of England is in Britain).

Properly understood, that works to protect people of all religions and none, and to foster an open, vibrant, tolerant public culture.”

Are we so frightened of the Bible that we must prevent our children from spending 1/2hr of the week from exploring it in a safe and fun environment? It is sad to see children having taken from them the freedom and opportunity to explore what is the greatest book to have influenced Australian life and culture.

I said it in 2015, and it remains the case today; 20 years from now, a generation of Victorians will look back upon the decisions that have been made, and we will recognise the diminished experience that we have given our children, having kept from them the very ideas that gave birth to Augustine and J.S Bach, C.S Lewis and Martin Luther King, and many of the greatest thinkers, scientists, artists, writers, and humanists of history.

I would encourage the Government to reconsider their own policies on these issues, and to realign them true secularism and with best scientific and medical research. Surely for the good our children and the future of the State, it is worth it.

Concerns with ‘Awakening Australia’ remain

Over the past two months, there have been several articles, many conversations, and 100,000s of people engaging in reading and talking about Christian revival.

The catalyst for this discussion is a revival event that is planned for  Melbourne next month, “Awakening Australia”.  Hundreds of Churches and thousands of Christians across Australia have been energised and excited by the idea of coming together and hearing Christ preached, and praying for many thousands of Aussies to come and to know Christ.

In September, Stephen Tan wrote an article for The Gospel Coalition Australia, in which he offered a critique of Bethel Church and Bill Johnson. Stephen attended a Bethel connected church in Melbourne for several years, and so he has first-hand knowledge of their teaching and practices. The impetus for that article is the upcoming “Awakening Australia’ weekend, which is heavily influenced by, supported by, and promoting Bethel ministries.

I have twice already stated that “Awakening Australia” is more than a Bethel event, but it is not less than. For example, the organiser and one of the keynote speakers, Ben Fitzgerald, is a Bethel missionary, Bill Johnson will be speaking from the platform, and Bethel is supporting the event financially and is sending hundreds of volunteers to serve in Melbourne. In addition, the vision for this event lays in similar events that have been organised in Europe, which again have their origins in Bethel Church, Redding. There is nothing wrong per se with an American Church coming to Australia and bringing other churches together for an event. It is misleading, however, to explain away or to minimise ‘Awakening Australia’s connections with Bethel and with the word of faith movement.

Why am I writing again on this topic? Because, as a Christian and as a pastor and as a Melbournian, I remain very concerned by this event and the potential it has in damaging the physical and spiritual well-being of many people.

One of the concerns that have been raised relates to Bill Johnson’s teaching about the Divinity of Christ, and the ways in which his writings repeatedly minimise and at times seem to deny, that the incarnate Christ is fully Divine. Two weeks ago Bill Johnson issued a statement through text message to Ben Fitzgerald, which I was given permission to make public. The statement clarifies and to some extent corrects Johnson’s own public teaching about the person of Jesus Christ.

If Bill Johnson’s statement reflects a genuine correction, surely he will make further public clarifications and go to great to lengths to correct this teaching in his books. After all, is there any more significant a subject than who is Jesus Christ? To date, Bill Johnson and Bethel have released no such statement on their websites or in any public forum, other than this one casual text message. I find that astonishing.

There have been a number of updates over the past couple of weeks. I wish to bring to attention two of these.

First, a major Christian documentary was released last week. American Gospel: Christ Alone. It is a documentary produced by Americans to warn Christians around the world of what is America’s most dreadful export around the globe, the word of faith movement. The documentary features  American theologians and pastors who are decrying a false Christianity that has gained wide acceptance in the United States and is now being transported globally and is leaving behind millions of shattered people.  There are two hours of interviews, testimonies and biblical explanations of what the word of faith movement is about, and why it is so dangerous and damaging. Of immediate interest are sections in the documentary that explore some of Bill Johnson’s and Todd White’s teaching and ministry, including White’s connections with Kenneth Copeland and the prosperity gospel, their views about healing and the kenosis heresies. If anyone is interested to know why Stephen Tan, myself, and many others are so concerned about ‘Awakening Australia’ and the word of faith movement more generally, it is worth taking the time to view American Gospel: Christ Alone.

Second, ‘Awakening Australia’ has released and promoted a profile of Bill Johnson, ahead of his visit to Melbourne. As part of this bio, we read,

“healing and deliverance must become the common expression of this gospel of power once again”

“Bill teaches that we owe the world an encounter with God, and that a Gospel without power is not the Gospel that Jesus preached.”

By power Gospel, Bill Johnson believes that miracles and deliverance from evil spirits is an essential aspect of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, so much so that “a Gospel without power is not the Gospel that Jesus preached”.

 

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First of all, let’s note the implication of these words. These statements work against the very claim that the organisers have been making, namely, these revival meetings are about building unity amongst Aussie Churches.  Hold on, Awakening Australia has just informed thousands of Churches across the nation that they don’t believe the real Gospel. Straight away, evangelical churches and reformed churches are excluded, based on these statements.

Let’s be clear, both Johnson and White believe that the Gospel centers on the manifestation of miracles and healings, and as Johnson loves to say, ‘on earth as it is in heaven’ (as though we can drag heaven into our lives now and overcome sickness and poverty, etc). This differs substantially from the Gospel of Christ that is revealed and taught in the New Testament.

In American Gospel: Christ Alone, one of the interviewees offers this comment on Todd White’ messaging,

“This method of evangelism by blessing, it’s changing the Gospel from you are dead in your sins and this is what you need by God’s grace, repentance, and faith…it’s changing that message to God loves you, he accepts you, here’s some free stuff. He’ll cure you of your ailments, he’ll heal  your back pain”

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The focus shifts from sin and God’ wrath, to a positive message of, ‘you’re ok and let me give you a blessing today’. What did the Apostle Paul teach?

“As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient. All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our flesh and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature deserving of wrath. But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved.” (Ephesians 2:1-5) 

Not only does the New Testament focus on atonement for sin by sufficient death of Christ, New Testament authors specifically repudiate teachers who add to the Gospel of Christ, including those who demand or expect to see signs

For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. 19 For it is written:

“I will destroy the wisdom of the wise;
the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate.”

20 Where is the wise person? Where is the teacher of the law? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?21 For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. 22 Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, 23 but we preach Christ crucified.” (1 Corinthians 1:18-23)

Hymenaeus and Philetus are two blokes who are mentioned in the Bible, not as examples to emulate, but as people to avoid (2 Timothy other 2:17-18). They taught that the “that the resurrection has already taken place.” In other words, they alleged that the promises that will one day be experienced at the resurrection could be enjoyed in the present. Paul says of these two men that their teaching is like ‘gangrene”, they had “departed from the truth” and that they “destroyed the faith of some.”

God does not promise physical or mental healing in this world. If you’re sick, visit your GP. Doctors and medicine are God’s common grace available to us. We can, of course, pray for God’s healing for our Heavenly Father invites us to talk to him about everything, but it is a lie for any preacher to promise such and to suggest that miracles must accompany the Gospel. The power Gospel is not signs and miracles today, it is Christ crucified: “we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Corinthians 1).

Sean DeMars rightly points out in the documentary, “bad theology hurts people.”

I am not suggesting that there are not genuine believers involved in Awakening Australia. I am not discouraging Churches from partnering together in the Gospel. I am not dissuading Christians from praying for revival. Praise God for such things. The greatest joys I have witnessed in life are when I have witnessed or heard of someone coming to know Christ through repentance and faith in him. Christian unity is beautiful and precious, but fudging the Gospel or downplaying aspects of the Gospel will not create a greater sense of unity amongst brothers and sisters; it only distorts and fractures.

Over the past month, a number of people have suggested that it is wrong and divisive to question ‘Awakening Australia’, and instead of criticising we should get behind it. Let’s remind ourselves, by their own promotional material,  Awakening has implied that thousands of Australian churches are not preaching the Gospel.  My response to those who have pushed back and raised concerns from what I and others have said is this, pastors of churches have a responsibility under God to be concerned for truth and to teach what is right and good and to warn our churches of ideas that or contravene or muddy the Gospel.

Jude exhorts us to “to contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted”

As Paul shared with Timothy that he was being poured out like a drink offering, he gave him this charge,

“In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who will judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I give you this charge:Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction. For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths. But you, keep your head in all situations, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, discharge all the duties of your ministry.”

I trust and pray that this is not the case, but if the Gospel presented at ‘Awakening Australia’ reflects the messaging that Bill Johnson and Todd White are widely known for espousing (and remember they are both speaking at the event), the effect will not be greater Gospel unity or genuine Spirit given Christ glorifying revival. The effect will a hyped up pseudo- spirituality which will fade in the weeks to come and which will confuse unbelievers as to what Christianity is really about, and which will cause great pain for the sick who are offered false promises of healing. Until such time that Awakening Australia distances themselves for these speakers and their links with the word of faith movement, concerns will remain.

Religious Freedom and Civil Speech: the insane, the fair, and the good

Narrative is important. In 2018, the winning argument doesn’t rely on facts and accurate information but depends upon telling a story which will garner the outrage of one’s constituents. Anger is power. Anger is persuasion. Truth-telling has become optional; useful when it supports one’s thesis, and redundant when it does not.

In this current age of rage and rhetorical bashing (which both progressives and conservatives are utilising), alternative narratives are often not presented with accuracy and fairness. It is proving increasingly difficult, and at times, near impossible to engage in civil discourse, because the climate is reaching temperature levels that resist reasoned and gentle speech.

The test case was the now infamous 2017 conversation promoted by the Bible Society and featuring Tim Wilson and Andrew Hastie. The point of the exercise was to demonstrate that it is possible to conduct a civil conversation over a beer while disagreeing on same-sex marriage.  Apparently, the very notion that Australians could enjoy polite disagreement on SSM was too much, as beer drinkers all over the nation raged and smashed bottles of Coopers’ Beer in protest. Coopers’ was threatened with boycotts to the point that they were forced to recant and join those waving rainbow flags (despite the fact that they were never sponsoring the video in the first place). Sadly, this response is now normal in Australia today.

One month ago, most journalists in the country were saying very little about the Ruddock inquiry into religious freedom…until a Christian became Prime Minister. Since then there has been an almost absurd flurry of attention given to this review in which the Government is still yet to release its decisions. Don’t get me wrong, there is a legitimate story here as to why the Government has been so slow in releasing its findings from the Ruddock review, but instead of waiting to find out what the Government’s position will be, media outlets began hypothesising and arguing points based on speculation, and when a summary of the Ruddock report was leaked to the media, everyone went nuts.

In the first few days, Fairfax published no fewer than 19 articles, in which they argued that the Government was taking steps to give religious schools freedom to expel gay students.

It soon became apparent that this was not a measure that the Government was considering, in fact, this provision already existed and it was introduced by the Labour Government in 2013. More importantly,  Christian schools across the country came out, saying that they were not aware of this policy and they certainly did not support or practice it. Eternity newspaper made inquiries around the nation and found the whopping sum total of schools who were expelling gay students to be zero. The other day I asked a teacher who works at a Christian school in Melbourne and they were stunned that the media would argue that this was a practice inside Christian schools.

In other words, the whole story was a beat up. But it hasn’t stopped anti-Christian hysteria, with numerous social commentators and now members of Parliament attacking this dangerous practice that doesn’t exist.

ABCs Media Watch presented an excellent summary of this sloppy journalism.

To be fair, since publishing the first 19 articles, Fairfax has now allowed two pieces which finally offer an alternate perspective. Both articles are indeed excellent and worth reading.

Come this morning, I wake up and the top of my Twitter feed is sprucing another article, with this title, “Sydney Anglicans set to ban gay weddings and pro-LGBTI advocacy on church property

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The problem with this piece is that it is neither new news nor is it news at all. The Sydney Anglican Diocese, like other Anglican Dioceses around Australia, already have a position on marriage and their clergy and property is already constrained to practice weddings that conform to their definition of marriage. I realise that journalists are under growing pressure to write articles that are provocative and opinionated because such writing can increase audience reach and circulation, but this does not cultivate better public conversation. 

Deep into the article, after readers have already been won over to once again tut tut these  incredulous Christians, Michael Koziol, adds this important detail, one which in fact completely debunks that click-bait headline,

“Bishop of South Sydney Michael Stead, the senior clergyman who authored the proposal, told Fairfax Media that the use of church property had “always been governed by various regulations” and the new policy merely sought to consolidate those into a single document.

“The new policy doesn’t represent a change in our position and I wouldn’t expect it to have an effect on any activities currently occurring on church trust property,” he said.

“Because the federal government has changed its definition of marriage, the policy makes clear the church’s doctrine of marriage has not changed and that property use scenarios relate only to man/woman marriage.”

Is it so shocking that a Christian denomination should reaffirm their already stated beliefs? Is it so outrageous that Christians should practice what they preach? How dare Christians believe what Christians have always believed and practiced!

There is literally no point in publishing this article on the Anglican Synod, other than trying to add weight to the narrative that’s being spun, namely that conservative Christians in general, and especially Sydney Anglicans, are awful people who are intolerant, and who are fighting a rearguard action against the inevitable tide of sexual and moral progressiveness. Just so readers come away believing that Sydney Anglicans are really out of step, Koziol finds a few quotes to suggest that most Christians (certainly Anglicans) don’t support this out of touch view of marriage. Readers are told that Sydney Anglicans are just playing power games of ‘privilege’.

There you have it; it doesn’t matter what’s true or not, just insert one of those key intersectionality words, like ‘privilege’, and the story is complete; Sydney Anglicans are bad!

I’m reminded of a conversation that I had with a Fairfax journalist not so long ago. They shared with me how most journalists have little understanding of religion, in general, let alone comprehending Christianity. Of course, sometimes Christians add to the confusion by doing and saying things that are not true of Christianity. This kind if misinformation happened in the time of the New Testament Church. Take, for example, Alexander the metalworker whom Paul mentions as having “done him a great deal of harm”.

There are many fine journalists around Australia, some are Christians, many are not. I wonder though, how can we reach out to journalists and help educate them as to what it is Christians do and don’t believe?

Regardless of what one’s personal suppositions and moral inclinations are, Australian society needs to find ways to reduce the dangerous and at times disingenuous reporting and commentary that is taking over the public square. It would be great if our politicians would show the way, and societal conversations would certainly be strengthened if media outlets stepped away from speculative and sensationalised reporting.

Regardless of how others decide to debate ethical and political issues, Christians must follow the guidelines that are set out by the very Scriptures which our society deems as foolish and immoral.

Early this week I was reminded of this timely words written to Timothy by his friend and mentor, Paul,

 Don’t have anything to do with foolish and stupid arguments, because you know they produce quarrels.  And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful.  Opponents must be gently instructed, in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth,  and that they will come to their senses and escape from the trap of the devil, who has taken them captive to do his will.” (2 Timothy 2:22-26)

That’s not a bad place for us to begin.

Update on Questions relating to Bethel and Bill Johnson

Three weeks ago Stephen Tan wrote a critique of the Bethel movement, ‘At What Price Awakening? Examining the Theology and Practice of the Bethel Movement’ (published on The Gospel Coalition Australia website). The article has created quite a stir and has been followed up by a report published by The Gospel Coalition and a book review on 9Marks; both were deeply critical of the Bethel movement and Bill Johnson.

One of the good things that have resulted, is a conversation that took place last Friday in Melbourne. A small group of pastors including Stephen Tan met with organisers of ‘Awakening Australia’.

It was a robust and gracious conversation. Ben Fitzgerald (Bethel missionary and chief organiser of ‘Awakening Australia’) did not refute or disagree with most of the points raised by Stephen Tan in his article, given the serious nature of those points this confirmation is concerning. There was, however, push back on three salient points.

‘Awakening Australia’ and Bethel

First, the representatives from ‘Awakening Australia’ insisted that this is an ecumenical revivalist movement, not a Bethel event. In response, no one has disputed this fact, but the point being made by Tan (and by myself last week), is that ‘Awakening Australia’ is heavily influenced by Bethel.

At the time I wrote,

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

Since writing, Bill Johnson is no longer a keynote speaker but will instead occupy a shorter speaking time slot during the weekend. However, the other points remain. In addition, the ‘Awakening Australia’ Facebook page last week announced that Bethel was planning to send 150-200 members to serve at the Melbourne event and were recently raising money to support for the event. There is nothing wrong doing any of those things, the point is, the Bethel relationship is more than incidental and marginal.

The use of cemeteries

Second, Ben Fitzgerald responded to commentary about ‘grave sucking’, suggesting that he had acted unwisely but that he was not attempting to draw out the spiritual powers of dead saints. Instead, he visited the tombs for inspiration and prayer (to God, not to these dead saints).

Joe Carter (writing for TGC) also notes that Bill Johnson has refuted the allegation, but then he notes a somewhat conflicting statement in Johnson’ book, Physics in Heaven,

“There are anointings, mantles, revelations and mysteries that have lain unclaimed, literally where they were left, because the generation that walked in them never passed them on. I believe it’s possible for us to recover realms of anointing, realms of insight, realms of God that have been untended for decades simply by choosing to reclaim them and perpetuate them for future generations.”

Jesus Culture* founder and director, Banning Liebscher, while not supporting ‘grave sucking’ himself, he has recently admitted that it is practiced among students at their School of Supernatural Ministry,

“I’m not a proponent for it, I’m just saying like there’s an anointing on Elijah or Elisha, there’s an anointing on his grave that made the guy come back to life, and maybe there’s an anointing [here],” says Liebscher, the founder and director of Jesus Culture. “And then it started getting to where like, I don’t know man, I don’t know what students were doing. But it was weird. But that’s the stuff that all of a sudden has blown up all over the place.”

What is and isn’t sanctioned and practiced remains unclear, and perhaps part of the ambiguity is because individuals each have their own spin on ‘grave sucking’, rather than there being an officially sanctioned position.

I won’t deal with other important matters relating to healings, the Passion translation, and what Johnson calls, “Jesus is Perfect Theology”, for Fitzgerald did not take issue with how Stephen Tan presented these Bethel teachings. This alone raises major theological and pastoral concerns for evangelical churches.

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The Chalcedon Box (via Fred Sanders), summarising the orthodox parameters.

The question of Christology

A third point that Ben Fitzgerald questioned was Bill Johnson’s Christology. Does Bill Johnson teach that the incarnate Jesus was somehow less than fully Divine? This is perhaps the most important of all the issues that have been raised, and it is encouraging that a conversation could be had last Friday. Ben Fitzgerald contacted Bill Johnson and asked him for a comment. Johnson has replied via text and permission was given to publish the comment.

First, I wish to show what Bill Johnson has texted in relation to the Divinity of Christ, then to show examples of what he says in his published books, and then to offer a comment.

“Without question Ben I believe that Jesus is 100% God, and Jesus is 100% man. That is the great and beautiful mystery of the gospel. Some people think I believe Jesus isn’t God. It isn’t true. But it probably comes from my emphasis of his humanity. I do that only to encourage the believer  – Jesus gave us an example that could be followed. I certainly understand anyone who opposes me if they think I believe Jesus is not God. It would be well-founded. But in this case it isn’t. Jesus is God. He never stopped being God. He is eternally God.

Paul said that Jesus thought the equality was God was not a thing to be grasped. That’s a tough thing to communicate well. And I’m sure that in my efforts to do that I have created misunderstanding.  I am sincerely sorry for that, but I also try in every setting where I teach on every subject to emphasise the Divinity of Jesus. So thank you for carrying the banner well. Much love”.

This statement differs substantially from the position he has repeatedly presented in various books and online articles. For example (bold is my emphasis),

He laid his [sic] divinity aside as He sought to fulfill the assignment given to Him by the Father: to live life as a man without sin…The sacrifice that could atone for sin had to be a lamb, (powerless), and had to be spotless, (without sin).”  (When Heaven Invades Earth, p85)

“Jesus Christ said of Himself, ‘The Son can do nothing.’…He had NO supernatural capabilities whatsoever! …He performed miracles, wonders, and signs, as a man in right relationship to God…not as God.” (When Heaven Invades Earth, p29)

“…Jesus had no ability to heal the sick. He couldn’t cast out devils, and He had no ability to raise the dead.  He said of Himself in John 5:19, ‘the Son can do nothing of Himself.’  He had set aside His divinity. He did miracles as man in right relationship with God because He was setting forth a model for us…Jesus so emptied Himself that He was incapable of doing what was required of Him by the Father – without the Father’s help…” (The Supernatural Power of a Transformed Mind p.50)

“While Jesus is eternally God, He emptied Himself of His divine powers and became a man (see Phil. 2:7). It’s vital to note that He did all His miracles as a man, not as God”. (Charisma Magazine)

One of the difficulties lays in the fact that Johnson’s teaching is often unclear and even contradictory. For example, Johnson’s text explanation of Jesus’ identity differs significantly to what he has said in his writings. Why is this the case? I trust that his text is an indication of wanting to make further public corrections and clarifications on his Christology. The reality is, Bill Johnson’s and Bethel’s teaching about Jesus Christ has caused so much confusion that it has led people to believe that the incarnate Jesus is less than fully Divine. This has been rightly pointed out as a major problem for Christian orthodoxy.

The issue of Jesus’ humanity and Divinity is of such central importance to Christianity, that Johnson’s erring statements require more than a text message explanation which only a few people will read. Is there any subject more imposing and vital than that of Jesus Christ? Does any topic have greater glory attached and greater consequences than understanding and knowing the Lord Jesus Christ?  Accepting Bill Johnson’s acknowledgment that he has “created misunderstanding”, every effort now ought to be made to publicly correct this ambiguous-at-best teaching and to affirm the ancient creeds of the faith. Chalcedon wouldn’t be a bad place to start.

“We, then, following the holy Fathers, all with one consent, teach men to confess one and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, the same perfect in Godhead and also perfect in manhood; truly God and truly man, of a reasonable (rational) soul and body; consubstantial (coessential) with the Father according to the Godhead, and consubstantial with us according to the Manhood; in all things like unto us, without sin; begotten before all ages of the Father according to the Godhead, and in these latter days, for us and for our salvation, born of the Virgin Mary, the Mother of God, according to the Manhood; one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, Only-begotten, to be acknowledged in two natures, inconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably; the distinction of natures being by no means taken away by the union, but rather of the property of each nature being preserved, and concurring in one Person and one Subsistence, not parted or divided into two persons, but one and the same Son, and only begotten, God, the Word the Lord Jesus Christ; as the prophets from the beginning (have declared) concerning him, and the Lord Jesus Christ himself has taught us, and the Creed of the holy Fathers has handed down to us.” (The Creed of Chalcedon, 451 AD)

In an interview where Bill Johnson was asked about faith and place of revival, he spoke at length about miracles. He shares, “the most normal thing in the world is for Christians to experience miracles on a regular basis; it’s abnormal not to…it’s the normal Christian life…we need to repent on lowering the standard of the Gospel to our level of experience…Jesus is perfect theology.”

Really?

This is so far off the mark that it would be absurd if it were not so destructive. One can pray that this is not the type revivalism that ‘Awakening Australia’ is seeking to bring to these shores

 

 

A new article with update information was published October 25th – https://murraycampbell.net/2018/10/25/concerns-with-awakening-australia-remain/

 


* ‘Jesus Culture’ is one of Bethel’s ministries, most notably known for their music

Critic Of The Gospel Coalition Criticises Them For Critiquing

Mike Frost has once again taken out his rhetorical shotgun and gone shooting. In the spray, there a few pellets which hit the mark, but many fall wide.

Mike is my brother in Christ, we even share a Baptist heritage. We don’t always see eye to eye, but I have never thought of him as a heretic (or even close), which is somewhat ironic given the article that he has posted today.

I had to laugh at his introduction which talks about the last heretic to be executed because that’s exactly what I want to see happening today, church heretics once again being publicly executed for their religious views. But seriously, as with much of Mike’s commentaries, he says some things that are helpful and other things are incorrect.

200px-Ikone_Athanasius_von_Alexandria

picture of bearded dude who called out heresy

 

In his post, Mike is outlining concerns with Christians using the language of heresy, and in particular, he presents The Gospel Coalition as having a habit of and being quick to label others as heretics.

He says,

“I get it that the Gospel Coalition sits firmly in the Calvinist tradition. And I get that they have differences with Anabaptists (like Bruxy Cavey) and Pentecostals (like Bill Johnson) and female seminary professors. They have every right to express those differences. But could we lay off condemning every tradition we disagree with as heretical and refusing to have anything to do with them?!”

Hey, I’m all for robust exchanges. I’m not complaining about vigorous theological disagreement. But a few too many TGC writers seem to be making the assumption it’s their role to pass judgement on heresy or orthodoxy”

Mike leaves readers with the impression that there is a culture of heresy bell ringing within The Gospel Coalition. This is untrue.

The Gospel Coalition Australia (TGCA) publishes around 15-25 articles a month (similar number to that of Canada), while The Gospel Coalition (TGC) publish around 150 new resources every month. It would be accurate to say that some articles are critical of ideas, events, and teachings that have gained some prominence or momentum around the globe. It reasonable to expect notable Christian coalition would sometimes offer comments and even criticisms of significant movements within society and Christianity. These articles only represent a minority of all the material that is ever published on the websites, and even then, only on very rare occasions has it ever been suggested that a teaching is outside the bounds of orthodox Christianity. By rare, I mean perhaps 10 articles on the TGCA website out of many hundreds of articles. The New Testament books call out false teachers more regularly than TGCA!

Let’s take a snapshot of the articles that are currently being shown on TGCA’s homepage:

  • “6 ways to teach children humility”
  • “Pray for China”
  • “Which is Easier”
  • “1 Corinthians 5: Why it is Necessary and Loving Not to Associate or Eat with Certain ‘Christians’”
  • “Resilience = A Spiritual Project”
  • “The Challenge of Feminism (2): God’s Better Solutions”
  • “Use Your Singleness to Prepare for Marriage (Not)”

I noticed that Mike Frost is very selective in the examples he brings forward. He doesn’t mention TGC’s very public stance against racism, which has resulted in significant backlash in some conservative American quarters. He failed to tell his readers of the recent TGC article that refers to racism as ‘demonic’. Mike neglects to mention TGCA’s critique of Churches that have failed to properly support and care for women who are victims of domestic abuse.

If Mike’s point is simply to caution Christians about being too quick to use the language of heresy, then he has a valid and important point to make. Thank you. I agree with him. In fact, I can’t think of a single contributor to TGCA who wouldn’t agree with that point. Mike is going much further, by suggesting that the Gospel Coalition condemns every tradition it disagrees with as heresy. This is simply false.

There are different degrees of agreement and disagreement, and we find such even in the New Testament. Not every issue is a question of orthodoxy, not every disagreement means division, disunity, and breaking fellowship. Sometimes it is a matter of orthodoxy. These nuances are readily and constantly found articles published by Gospel Coalition.

It is also a caricature to paint The Gospel Coalition as a homogenous group without difference. Don Carson has recently written this helpful explanation of the nature of relationships within TGC.

No one is denying that there are many shared theological convictions among those on the TGC and TGCA Councils. Isn’t that a strength? Isn’t that a sign of Gospel unity? We must also note that these very members represent and serve in many different Christian traditions and they in turn fellowship with and serve and do mission with many other Christian traditions. And of course, there have been occasions when TGCA has published two separate articles on the same topic but from different theological persuasions. I don’t remember anyone throwing heresy grenades on this occasions, but I do recall robust and gracious discussion.

Mike is not pushing against rigorous theological discussion. He does, however, say this,

“I don’t see it as my responsibility to condemn anyone as a heretic.”

Critically assessing what we believe, teach, and practice is a biblical thing to do. Mike wouldn’t disagree with that.

Loving one’s congregation and other Christians such that we alert them to ideas and practices that are unhelpful or even dangerous, is a biblically mandated thing to do.

“Let them merely exist, but have nothing to do with them. Is this any way to speak of our brothers and sisters with whom we disagree?”

Doesn’t this depend on the issue? For many matters, this would be a gross way to speak to brothers and sisters in Christ, but on occasions, as Paul himself says several times in the NT, this is precisely what a church should do.

When Mike refers to my recent use of Acts ch.20 as some ‘wow’ moment, the fact is, the Apostle Paul did speak those words to the Ephesians Elders, and I reckon Church leaders ought to take them seriously. It loving and biblical for pastors and elders to watch over their congregations and to guard them against ideas that are wrong and harmful. In another gush of over-the-top embroidery, Mike insinuates that TGC must be denying peoples intelligence and minds. He says, “We’re not in the 11th century. Our congregations don’t comprise illiterate farmers and blacksmiths. Our church members are capable of critical thinking and basic research.”

Of course, we’re not living in 1066. And just as in the 11th Century, the Holy Spirit is given to every believer today, but this does not undermine or reduce other instructions in Scripture about how God gives gifts to some believers to teach and to have responsibility for congregations.

Mike has a habit of using of hyperbole, and in doing so he sometimes misrepresents the people he is criticising. This has been pointed out to him in the past. In this most recent article, Mike is quick to paint Stephen Tan with a furious and negative brushstroke. He describes Stephen as an “inquisitor” and acting as “a theological gatekeeper”. The very choice of words is designed to remind us of those terrible days in history, that no one wants to see returned. Let’s get the facts straight. Stephen attended a Bethel connected Church for several years and has first-hand experience and knowledge of Bethel teaching. He is not a distant gatekeeper or armed spiritual warrior descending on helpless victims. Stephen knows what he’s talking about. He has seen and experienced the damage caused by Bethel teaching. Of course, Mike could have mentioned this, given that he also quotes a post of mine where I explicitly point out this important fact.

Can Christians (on any platform) ever make mistakes and misunderstand and mispresent others? Of course, none of us are immune to this, including TGCA. Where we are wrong, we need to correct and to apologise. It is true, Stephen did make a couple of mistakes in his original post, and he was quick to fix these as soon as they were pointed out; these did not alter the overall concerns he was expressing.  Mike says that ‘Awakening Australia’ have responded to Tan’s article. Perhaps he could provide readers with a reference, for the only remark I have seen thus far is from the organiser, Ben Fitzgerald, who has referred to criticisms of Bethel as “smaller issues” and “tiny things”. There has been no explanation of what they do believe and no refutation of the criticisms in Tan’s article.

It is only a minor point but Stephen Tan is not a TGCA member. He is an Aussie Pastor who has twice submitted articles for the website, for which we are appreciative.

Perhaps the strangest thing in Mike’s article was this remark,

“Interestingly, in response to a critical blog post I wrote recently about Franklin Graham, someone from a TGC-like tradition asked me, “So if Franklin Graham tried to attend your church would you bar him?”

What does Franklin Graham have to do with any of this? Why refer to a nameless “someone from a TGC-like tradition”, in an article aimed at criticising TGC?  If Mike really wants to drag American politics into this discussion, shouldn’t he tell his readers of the two Gospel Coalition writers whom he knows have publicly agreed with his concerns about Franklin Graham’s upcoming visit to Australia?

One gets the impression that Mike is setting up a false dichotomy, and for what purpose? Surely he isn’t implying that like Franklin Graham, TGC is somehow ardently supportive of Donald Trump, over and against the ‘righteous’ left? Really?

It is healthy for us to take the kernel of truth in what Mike has presented here. Yes, let’s be very careful in how we use the language of orthodoxy and heresy.  Sometimes though, people do present and encourage beliefs that are outside of Christian orthodoxy, and it is wise and loving to warn our brothers and sisters about it. It is unfortunate that in offering a caution, Mike needed to caricature people and organisations.

Did Jesus empty himself of his Divine Powers?

“Believe me when I say that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; or at least believe on the evidence of the works themselves.” (John 14:11)

The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John 1:14)

 

No one likes to be misrepresented; it hurts and offends. We don’t appreciate it when people attribute to us characteristics, words or actions that are false. If faithful representation matters to us, how much more important it is when we are speaking about God.

“The study is arduous, for we are dealing with matters too great for us, which we must bow in worship, recognising, our utter inadequacy.” (Calvin)

Bethel Church, Redding, and their Senior Pastor, Bill Johnson, have received significant attention in recent days, with two important articles being published: one by Stephen Tan (who formerly attended a Bethel connected Church) and the other by Joe Carter. Their commentary includes serious charges, and I trust that the leadership of Bethel and ‘Awakening Australia’ will soon offer a considered response. Among the more weighty concerns is Johnson’s view of Jesus’ Divinity.

Throughout the history of the Church, there have been many attempts to explain the Divinity of Christ and the humanity of Christ. Many different formulations have strayed from the Biblical testimony, either undermining the humanity or the Divinity of Christ or fusing the two natures together in compositions that once again err. These errors are sometimes referred to as heresy, for they misrepresent the person who is Jesus Christ, which unavoidably impacts our understanding of God, and which leads to confusing and even denying a corollary of important Christian doctrines.

One of the more modern Christological heresies is known as the kenosis heresy, which speaks of an emptying, and it argues that the incarnate Christ gave up or lessened his Divinity during his earthly ministry. There are variations within this view, from Jesus ceasing to be God while on earth to Jesus laying aside certain Divine attributes, in particular, the omnis (ie. omnipotence, omniscience).  To put it simply, was the Lord Jesus on earth, in any way, less than fully God? It is this issue that is being asked of Bill Johnson and Bethel Church.

The question is being asked (and has been raised for some years now) because Bill Johnson has made several comments in which he appears to deny the Divinity of Christ on earth.

 

For example, writing for Charisma Magazine Bill Johnson explains,

“While Jesus is eternally God, He emptied Himself of His divine powers and became a man (see Phil. 2:7). It’s vital to note that He did all His miracles as a man, not as God. 

If He did them as God, I would still be impressed. But because He did them as a man yielded to God, I am now unsatisfied with my life, being compelled to follow the example He has given us. Jesus is the only model for us to follow.”

According to Bill Johnson (Tan cites other references where Johnson makes a similar point), we should expect to see and even do miracles because Jesus did so and he performed his miracles not as God, but as a man. Apparently, if Jesus had performed miracles as God, we shouldn’t expect miracles by Christians today. This is problematic for at least two reasons. In the first place, while Jesus’ miracles were loving acts of compassion and mercy, they were designed to point to his Divinity. Second, Johnson has misinterpreted Phil 2:7 in a very significant way.

To begin with, Bill Johnson cites Philippians 2:7 as evidence of Jesus giving up his “divine powers”. Does this verse teach what Johnson is claiming? Let’s take a look,

In Philippians ch.2 the Apostle Paul writes,

“In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:

Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;

rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.

And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross!”

A number of important points need to made here:

  • Verse 7, ‘he made himself nothing’, can also read, ‘he emptied himself’ (kenosis). This family of words appears rarely in the New Testament, and when it does, it is most often used metaphorically rather than literally.
  • Far from Jesus losing his Divinity or giving up Divine attributes, in verse 6 Paul indicates that Jesus’ Divinity continues (he uses the present participle, ’being in very nature God’).
  • In verse 7, the emptying is given particular expression: taking the form of a slave and being found in human form. In other words, as Robert Letham explains, “He empties himself by addition, not subtraction, by adding his human nature with all that that entails, not by abandoning his deity.”[1]

Mike Bird concurs, “The emptying occurred not by what he left behind but through what he took on, humanity – humanity in humiliation no less.” [2][3]

This is precisely what we find when reading the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ earthly life and ministry. Jesus repeatedly identifies himself as God and his actions reveal that he is God.

Firstly, the incarnate Christ identified himself as God, not as somehow less than God or partially God, but God. He didn’t deny his humanity nor his Divinity but expressly affirmed both.

“Very truly I tell you,” Jesus answered, “before Abraham was born, I am!” (John 5:58).

Following this statement, Jesus’ opponents pick up stones with the intent of killing him? Why? Because they understood that Jesus was claiming to be God.

“I and the Father are one” (John 10:30). Once again, people understood Jesus’ meaning and attempted to kill the alleged blasphemer.

Following the resurrection, Thomas exclaimed, “my Lord and my God” (John 20:28)

The phrase used by Jesus in John 5:58, “I am” (γώ εμί), is spoken by Jesus many times during his earthly ministry. It is a peculiar phrase that harkens back to Exodus ch.3 where God appeared by Moses and revealed his name, “I am”.  Jesus would repeatedly identify himself as the God who appeared to Moses at the burning bush: “I am the true vine”,  “I am the Good Shepherd”, “I am the bread of life”, and so on.

Not only does Jesus identify himself as God, his deeds also point to this reality.

While many miracles that are recorded in the Bible serve to point people to God, the miracles of Jesus point to the fact that he is God. Jesus’ miracles were acts of compassion and kindness, and they were also identity markers, explaining and revealing both that he is the Christ and is God.

Take, for example, the calming of the storm in Mark ch.4. The question is posed by the disciples, who is this? By a word, Jesus stilled the storm, which for a Jewish reader, would remind them of Genesis 1 and also Psalm 107.

“28 Then they cried out to the Lord in their trouble,
and he brought them out of their distress.

29 He stilled the storm to a whisper;
the waves of the sea were hushed.

30 They were glad when it grew calm,
and he guided them to their desired have” (Psalm 107:28-30)

When Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, Jesus comforted Martha with words that not only affirmed the promised resurrection but  Jesus signally that he is the great I AM, he is God who raises the dead. As a demonstration of the validity of these words, Jesus moves to the tomb’s entrance, he speaks a word and Lazarus came out of the tomb: living, breathing, walking, no longer dead.

Somewhat ironically, but importantly, far from Johnson’s suggestion that Jesus’ miracles point to him not being Divine, Jesus’ miracles are signs pointing to the fact that he is God.

The testimony of the Gospels don’t support Johnson’s interpretation of Philippians 2:7, and even Philippians ch.2 doesn’t support his thesis.

In no sense should we undermine either the humanity of Christ or the Divinity of Christ. At the incarnation, the eternal Son of God also became man. On earth and at his resurrection and now in heaven, Jesus remains fully man and fully God.

It remains unclear what Bill Johnson and Bethel Church really believe about the Divinity of the incarnate Christ, although what I’ve so far read is concerning. One thing is clear, Bill Johnson’s teaching has been interpreted by some of his followers as advocating the kenosis heresy, and some of Bethel’s critics have also understood Johnson’s words to mean such. Therefore, at the very least, Johnson is communicating unclear and unhelpful words about Jesus and he is using them to build an unbiblical case for miracles today.

It seems as though the crux of the issue for Bill Johnson is that he wants to claim miracles for today and to guarantee the performance of signs and wonder by Christians today. It’s as though Johnson starts with a premise, namely that Christians can and ought to perform miracles today, and in trying to prove his point, he then goes back to the Bible and reconstructs Jesus’ identify in order to fit with his argument. Now, of course, one does not need to do any of this in order to believe that God can perform miracles today. But Johnson wants to push further and to insist that signs and wonder are necessary for authentic Christian experience.

I don’t know Bill Johnson or those organising ‘Awakening Australia’, but I do know people who have been confused by and damaged by the teachings and expectations of Bethel.

As a growing number of stories come to light from past Bethel members, and as more concerns are raised, I trust that Bill Johnson and Bethel’s leadership will take the time to respond and to bring clarity where there is murkiness. The spiritual wellbeing and eternal state of people is too important and the glory of God in Christ Jesus is of such weight that these matters require clarification.

 

 

 

 

 


1. Robert Letham, The Holy Trinity, p41.

2. Michael Bird, Evangelical Theology: A Biblical and Systematic Introduction

3. Other theologians have suggested that by ‘emptying’, Jesus was limiting or holding back from revealing his full glory. Where the transfiguration was a moment’s unveiling of God’s glory,  This is a possible interpretation, but it is a far cry from how Johnson has interpreted the verse.

AFL Passion

Only once have I missed the AFL Grand Final, and that was in 1999.  We were living in London at the time, but even then, I woke up at 4 in the morning to read the then minute by minute updates that were being published on the internet (yes, this was before the days of live-streaming).

It doesn’t matter whether my team is playing on Grand Final day or not, it’s un-Melbourne not watch and enjoy the game.

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mysterious photo of the MCG,  taken the night before football

There will be 100,000 people filling the MCG this afternoon and living out their love for football, with millions more watching on television at home or at the pub.

Where ever one walks in the city, there are kids and adults dressed up in their football colours. Houses are fitted out in black and white, and the very rare and very brave, yellow and blue.  Everywhere you look, men, women and children are wearing footy jumpers and scarves. The only news today is about this single game of football. Football fans are not hard to spot: they are committed to supporting their team, they’re enthusiastic, they attend matches and if they can’t they will watch it on tv, they talk about footy at work, there are footballs lying around the house to hold and caress. 

Think about how much interest we take in the footy, how many conversions begin or end with footy, how passionate we get during the game (even if our team isn’t playing), and how the entire day revolves around the AFL.

Our own household has descended into the deep navy blues, pondering the good old days of 1995 and 1987, remembering that we are still the most successful club in AFL history, and will again rise…maybe.

Grand Final day is so important to Melbourne that we now celebrate a public holiday on the day before Grand Final!

For the 3.5 Melbournians who don’t love footy, there will be something else that you’re passionate about – art, music, gardening, cooking, technology,  spending time with friends, travel.

To prove that I’m not just another nodular barely-civilised football fan (can’t think why Collingwood comes to mind!), remember that famous balcony scene in Romeo and Juliet where Juliet is standing outside in the night sky and Romeo sees her, and is smitten and starts talking to himself, 

‘See how she leans her cheek upon her hand. O that I were a glove upon that hand, That I might touch that cheek.’

Romeo would be satisfied to be a glove on her hand so that he could touch her cheek. It’s all very romantic, but that’s what happens with passions and desires. Whatever the heart most desires, we think and talk and dream about it.

Football, music, and poetry are among the many good things we enjoy under a good God, and every year Grand Final week makes me wonder why Christians don’t exhibit similar enthusiasm for the good news of Jesus Christ?

Listen to what the Apostle Paul wrote,

“I speak the truth in Christ—I am not lying, my conscience confirms it through the Holy Spirit—  I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart.  For I could wish that I myself were cursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my people, those of my own race.”

I think of Jesus who as he approached Jerusalem, wept, and said,

‘“If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace’

Where is this Gospel driven passion today? Where is the deep-heart-convinced desire to tell Melbournians the Gospel? We are passionate about many things and yet the purposes of God in Christ is rarely one of them.

Imagine if Christians preferenced time with Church over lazy weekends and sporting events?

Imagine if Christians gave just a portion of their football fanaticism to the Great Commission instead?

Charles Spurgeon once remarked, ‘‘Have you no wish for others to be saved? Then you’re not saved yourself, be sure of that!”

The thing is, while we may give intellectual assent to Surgeon’s question, what we truly desire is evident by what we give our energies too and the decisions we make in life.

Imagine, if Christians put first in their lives, God’s mission into the world?

Like everyone, I have limited time and energy, and so I need to be wise and ensure that how I live is being driven by the reality that I am persuaded is of greatest value. Friends, make it the Gospel.

FYI Collingwood by 11 points!

(This is a revised version of the article that was first published for the GF in 2015)