Is Big Brother listening to your sermons?

Ok, I’m reading George Orwell’s 1984 at the moment, as it seems many people are doing! Leaving aside the somewhat hyperbolic imagery, there are important observations to be made regarding the interactions between Churches and the public space.

Would you like the media to enter your home and report to the world what was spoken? Would you appreciate a journalist attending a local club meeting and sharing the juicy bits on social media? Are you ok for a reported to look around your Facebook page and to publish content on a newspaper?

This week Israel Folau has provided our media with a new installment of gossip, slander, and innuendo. He was preaching on Sunday at his church in Western Sydney and the sermon was uploaded to the church’s Facebook page. It’s not as though a journalist took the time to visit the church and to hear everything that was said and done that morning and to observe all of Izzy’s words and interactions that morning. Rather, they listened to the sermon (and quite possible only parts of it), and with the nuance of a tank the headlines in our newspapers were,

“Folau launches fresh attack on gay and transgender people”

“Israel Folau intensifies stance on homosexuals”

“Israel Folau launches new LGBT attacks in church sermon”

“Israel Folau launches fresh homophobic attacks in church sermon”

Rugby Australia, Qantas, and much of the media have already succeeded in their quest to have Folau sacked and publicly disgraced for comments he made earlier in the year on social media. It appears as though the wolves are still hungry for more.

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This isn’t the first time that journalists have taken the courageous step to digging up church sermons in order to publicly tar and feather Christians. Back in 2016, there was a media campaign to have churches banned from renting public buildings in schools on the Central Coast, NSW. These churches were accused of homophobia and inciting hatred against gays and lesbians. Of course, this wasn’t the case, but telling the whole truth doesn’t always fit the narrative that click-bait journalism is seeking to portray.

There is today a growing antagonism toward Christianity, at least much of the media and among the back slapping cultural dominants in Australia. We are to be suspicious of Christianity. Engaging with the Christian message on its own terms isn’t required anymore, but ignorance necessitates a flurry of rhetorical bashing against those who believe Jesus is Lord. Of course, recent scandals and sins among some Christian organisations have understandably dented public trust. It would be unhelpful to judge those who judge churches for the terrible things down by supposed ‘men of God’. Nonetheless, the Folau controversy has nothing to do with these issues.

There are States around the world where officials are sent to visit local churches, to check on what is being taught and said. Thank God that’s not happening here in Australia. Instead, we use the media and public opinion to manipulate and to scare.

The media’s trolling of Israel Folau’s church raises questions about the dynamics and interactions between Churches and outside entities. Consider these other recent inquisitions:

  • In Victoria, Religious Instruction classes have been driven out of public schools.
  • The attempt has been made (and temporarily thwarted) to install the Government as an Ecclesiastical figure to oversee Christian schools, with the purpose of influencing doctrine and determining what is and isn’t ‘inherent belief’.
  • Sporting codes (and allegedly major corporations who sponsor them) are pressured into preaching the new moral orthodoxy and to provide special education classes to players who are found to hold a heterodox sexual ethic.
  • Universities are cracking down on faculty and students who articulate theological views that are not in keeping with the slippery and ever-changing moral environment of these institutions.

Of course, the situation differs from State to State, and from school to school, and from club to club. Many Aussies are reasonable and fair and think that the ‘God’ police are ridiculous and overreaching their authority.  The situation before us is one where secularists are attempting to take religion out of the public area and they are also beginning to step into the religious and to make pronouncements about that space also. This is somewhat concerning.

With the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, the freedom to preach was taken away in England. Preachers and pastors who didn’t comply with the State’s oversight of religious affairs were imprisoned and congregations shut down. We may look back to that era and think how ridiculous and unnecessary it was. Of course, we don’t want Government intruding upon traditional religious beliefs and practices. Don’t we believe in a separation of Church and State? This distinction never meant that there is no overlap between religion and State, for that is an impossible and undesirable position to hold. To make the public square and the political arena void of religious ideas is to attempt the status quo of China. As China exemplifies, it is an impossible task because it necessitates the Government to introduce policies about religion and to intrude into the religious space as well.

I am not suggesting that journalists, skeptics, and the irreligious shouldn’t visit a local church or listen to their sermons online. This blog regularly has journalists, social commentators and politicians reading it. Hey, I’d love them to also listen to our sermons at Mentone Baptist Church, so long as they quote words in their real context! Better still, come and visit us on Sundays. But there is also an element of hypocrisy in the interest surrounding Folau’s sermon at his local church. At a time where the secular world is wanting to squeeze religion out of the public sphere, the same people are peering into the religious arena and wanting to interfere that in that space.

This is not all bad. It’s a good opportunity for churches to ask some important questions. Why do churches post sermons and messages on websites and social media.? Is it for public consumption and education? Is the aim to provide a service to church members who couldn’t be present for that Sunday? Who the intended audience is and who else may end up listening?

If a church isn’t prepared for ‘outsiders’ to listen and to critique, my advice is, don’t publish your sermons online. Do we however really want to create a culture in Australia whereby churches no longer feel free to publish sermons online or are pressured into leaving out bits of the Bible because of who might hear and report on it in a skewed fashion? At the same time, there is a positive lesson and opportunity here. Preachers ought to take care of what we say and how we speak these words. This is no reason for watering down the good news of Jesus Christ but it is a great incentive for us to teach with clarity and compassion, faithfully and thoughtfully.

John Bunyan lived at the time of the restoration and was imprisoned for his preaching and for organising a church gathering that wasn’t sanctioned by the Government. His initial term of imprisonment was extended from 3 months to 12 years because he refused to cease preaching upon release from jail.  He famously said,

“What God says is best, is best, though all the men in the world are against it.”

This isn’t an argument for blunt and insensitive preaching. Bunyan wasn’t suggesting that we teach the Bible without appreciating its nuances or ignoring the real lives of the real people who are listening. The conviction was that truth and goodness is not defined by a poll or by the academia or even by the Government, but by God himself as revealed in his written word about his Son Jesus Christ. It is a word that challenges our moral preferences and even our deepest heartfelt intentions, not to crucify us but to redeem us and to fill us with a life of immeasurable joy.

At the end of the day, what we are discovering is that Aussie society doesn’t know what to think of Christianity. And I suspect many Christians are also unclear and they are unsure about how to go about relating to the broader culture: to love, be kind, and to relay a message that many find unfit for human consumption.

Media Freedom and Religious Freedom

According to the last few weeks of media reporting, George Orwell’s 1984 has come to roost in Australia. A headline in yesterday’s The Age announced that “This country’s treatment of whistleblowers has strong echoes of Orwell”. While acknowledging Orwell’s novel is set suspiciously in Oceania and that ‘Big Brother’ was headquartered on the Gold Coast, I reckon that the population of Hong Kong have a better understanding of the Orwellian State than we Aussies.

I am thankful for the fact that we live in a country where the press has the freedom to report issues. They don’t need to hide under a blanket and with a pseudonym, uploading stories to those who are brave enough to click on them This is not the case in every nation, and it’s a blessing that we shouldn’t take for granted.

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Journalists perform a vital task in modern societies: to investigate and to inform people of news stories. Media is a key source for attaining information regarding all manner of news items, and so it is essential that they have freedom from Governmental control and influence (and indeed, freedom from the control of big business and influential identities). I’m suspect that self-interest sometimes serves as a journalist’s catalyst which can encourage boundaries to be pushed or even crossed,  whether it is fame, extra clicks and likes, or corporate profit. I’m also sure that many work with personal convictions and integrity and are seeking to do good for the public interest. 

There was been a strong and immediate reaction to two raids made by Federal Police over the last couples of weeks, one in a journalist’s home and the second at the ABC’s Sydney office. Authorities enacting newly introduced laws that are aimed at protecting information sensitive to national security. 

In today’s The Australian, Labor Senator, Kristina Keneally said,

“When freedom of the press — a basic tenet of our democracy — is seen to be under attack, the government must speak up.”

While not all journalists are concerned by this ‘news’, across the media’s ideological spectrum there has been a fairly unified expression of concern. 

In an interview on ABC radio Melbourne last week, Kerry O’Brien commented

”people have to be really clear about what’s at stake here”.

“If they care about democracy, this does go to the heart of democracy and the democratic process”.

Richard Flanagan’s piece for Guardian goes even further,

“The AFP media raids aim to suppress the truth. Without it we head into the darkness of oppression

If mass surveillance is brought in, how will we know about it? Is national security best served by the inevitable abuses of such a scheme about which we are never told and which would go unpunished? Would national security be enhanced or weakened were Mr Dutton to use such powers for political advantage or to enable political persecution without our knowledge?

And if we cannot know the truth of such fundamental matters, what security as a democracy do we have?”

Professor Peter Greste has offered what appears like a more even-handed analysis, suggesting that, 

“We are not suggesting that those laws be repealed – clearly, we need to update our national security framework to deal with evolving threats – but if in the process of trying to make us safer, we undermine the very system that has made us one of the safest countries on the planet in the first place, something has gone terribly wrong.”

The legislation, if accurately summarised by Damien Cave in the New York Times, does seem needlessly broad and vague.

“The most recent expansion of governmental secrecy came last year with an espionage bill that increased criminal penalties for sharing information deemed classified, even if a document happened to be as harmless as a cafeteria menu, and broadened the definition of national security to include the country’s economic interests.”

It’s a little tricky to work out what all the relevant parties think about the Federal Police raid on the ABC. For example, both the Coalition and Labor last year supported the legislation which gave license to this police investigation. It was also last year that Greens Leader, Richard Di Natale, called for Parliament to introduce legislation to crack down on journalists who were allegedly engaging in “hate speech” (by which he meant, social commentary that he didn’t agree with). Last week, he was whistling a very different tune.

The Age newspaper ran with the headline, “without fear or favour”. It is a perfectly sensible ideal and many journalists aim to live up to this high standard. The benchmark is, of course, an impossible one, for no media corporation is without bias and no reporter is morally or politically neutral. Indeed, as society becomes more polarised, we are seeing a diminishment of this kind of “without favour” reporting, with many journalists spouting popular ideology and replacing evidential and reasoned reporting with sloganeeing, sometimes without the faintest idea of the subject matter that they are talking about. The topic of religious freedom is an all too obvious and rather ironic example of this.

There is more than a touch of incongruity in the middle of this public outcry. Many of the same voices who are today yelling grave concerns for journalistic freedoms have been quite prepared to deny similar freedoms to religious people when it comes to speaking and persuade in the public square. 

Parallels between media freedom and religious freedom

Indeed, I suspect some members of the press would squirm at the realisation that there are striking correlations between the media and religious communicators. 

Firstly, both groups have little protection under Australian law. Professor Peter Greste explains,

“Like a lot of people, I’m really concerned about the last two raids … it imposes an extra level of intimidation and that’s really unhealthy.

“That’s why it demonstrates to us the need for a media freedom act, that acts as a buffer to prevent these kinds of activities.”

Two South Australian Senators, Rex Patrick and Stirling Griff, have announced plans to introduce legislation to amend the Constitution in order to give the press similar protections to those enjoyed by American journalists under their Constitution. 

At the same time, legal experts have also been calling for the Government to give protection to religious organisations, schools, and churches so that they can continue to adhere to their values and to speak, without fear of Government intrusion and without businesses defining appropriate religious belief, as we have witnessed in the recent Israel Folau case. 

Secondly, both groups have a role and responsibility to broadcast and communicate a message. 

It is worth noting that the Biblical language for religious speech is not dissimilar to that of the reporter. To preach means to herald a message. To teach is to inform and to impart information of importance to others. The preacher may analyse social events and cultural trends but foremost they are to present the truth of Jesus Christ without “fear or favour”. In this way, I can empathize with journalists who feel as though the Government is attempting to intimidate and control.

Some of our media have mud in the eye today, or is that a plank? Sadly, I don’t think they’ve spotted it as yet. Freedom for the press, but not freedom for religious speech. Freedom from Government intrusion, unless you’re a religious organisation in which case the Government has every right to interfere. If only some of our most vocal journos practiced what they preached, “without fear or favour”, they might be receiving a little more sympathy today. Despite their lack of concern for the freedom of other Australians to present, speak, and persuade in the public square, other Aussies understand that there is an important principle at stake for both groups. With that in mind, might I suggest the following 5 points.

5 Points for Consideration

As I calculate the actions and reactions in light of the police raids, here are 5 thoughts for consideration:

1. Freedom of the press is paramount for sustaining a liberal democracy. We ought to defend the media’s freedom to pursue and publish stories that are of public interest and importance, without undue external pressures being applied.

2. Journalists shouldn’t work outside the law (I’m not saying that’s the case here with the ABC. The fact is, we don’t yet know). 

3. We should be slow to impute bad motives on our police (and on the Judge(s) who signed the warrants)

4. We should be cautious about making unsubstantiated judgments about Governmental interference. Rumouring and speculating don’t aid the cause of the media, nor that of the public. If we are truly concerned about ‘fake news’, we mustn’t let rhetorical flair escape the evidence at hand

5. If recently instated laws are unnecessarily inhibiting journalists from setting about their work with integrity and thoroughness, it is appropriate for the Government to reevaluate these laws (as well intended as these laws may be).

A Cricket Masterclass in Civility

India not only gave the world a masterclass in cricket last night but also in sportsmanship.

In Australia’s third game of the World Cup that is being played over in England, the Indians batted first and gave the crowd an exhibition of sublime batting, as well as exposing Australia’s lack of depth in our bowling attack.

Late in the innings when Steve Smith moved to field at third man on boundary line, much of the crowd, largely made up with thousands of Indian supporters, began to boo and jeer him. Smith has been booed throughout the tournament so far, whether he is fielding and especially when batting.

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Just over a year ago, Steve Smith was Captain of Australia’s men’s cricket team when he and two other players were embroiled in an incident of ball tampering, which resulted in a 12 month ban from the game. The ban has been served and now Smith and David Warner are back in the Aussie side.

Virat Kohli, India’s captain, was batting at the time when he left the crease and approached the spectators, signalling with his hands and telling them to stop booing Smith, and instead suggest that they clap Smith.

At the press conference after the game, Kohli spoke about the issue,

“So just because there’s so many Indian fans here, I just didn’t want them to set a bad example, to be honest, because he didn’t do anything to be booed in my opinion. He’s just playing cricket.

“He was just standing there, and I felt bad because if I was in a position where something had happened with me and I had apologised, I accepted it and I came back and still I would get booed, I wouldn’t like it, either.

“So I just felt for him, and I told him, I’m sorry on behalf of the crowd because I’ve seen that happen in a few earlier games, as well, and in my opinion that’s not acceptable.”

Kohli has exhibited the kind of leadership that is unusual in this highly charged and partisan age. At a time when the temptation is stop playing the ball and instead throw insults at those with whom we hold disagreement, a little grace and kindness is a powerful alternative. It is amazing how a few drops of perspective can breakdown a wall of irrational and unnecessary antagonism and bullish behavior.  I reckon our political leaders and leading social commentators could take a lesson from last night’s cricket. I suspect that even Christian leaders could do with learning to play few balls like this.

India didn’t lose anything by Kohli’s actions. He batted well and he captained his side to victory. At no risk to India’s performance, Kohli exercised fairness and tolerance, dressing down his own fan base for unsportsmanlike behavior. In doing so, he gained the appreciation of Smith and other Australian players, as well as that of the general public.

It was Jesus who said, “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you”

Peter would later write, “Show proper respect to everyone, love the family of believers, fear God, honor the emperor.”

The Apostle Paul added,

“clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.”

We don’t lose by exercising these qualities. But in this season of outrage we too often wrongly conclude that the only way to combat opposing ideas is to respond with throwing insults and alleging the worst of motives in others. Kohli last night proved that theory flawed. Of course, the issues being debated and argued on the world stage are of greater significance than a game of cricket, and yet this doesn’t lessen the power of civility and grace. Indeed, such qualities are of even greater necessity and value today.

The President went to Church and the Pastor prayed for him

President Donald Trump went to Church today. After playing a round of golf on Sunday morning, he visited McLean Bible Church in Vienna, Virginia. A spokesman from the White House said that President Trump was there to “visit with the pastor and pray for the victims and community of Virginia Beach.”

David Platt is a Pastor at McLean Bible Church. Platt was formerly the President of the Southern Baptist Convention’s International Mission Board and is a Council member of the Gospel Coalition. McLean Bible Church is a nondenominational church located just outside of Washington DC. The Church describes their aim as, “We glorify God by making disciples and multiplying churches among all nations beginning in greater Washington, DC.”

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What does a Pastor say when the President of the United States arrives for Church? One could conflate Christian faith with conservative politics and therefore deflate the Gospel and create needless divisions in your church. One could condemn the man and his politics and so initiate another unnecessary division in your church and once again confuse the Gospel. One could use the opportunity to campaign either for or against President Trump.

The Scriptures provide us with examples of how to navigate such scenarios, although I don’t recall a specific example of a national leader visiting a church service. There is Daniel before Nebuchadnezzar, and Paul before Agrippa, Festus, and Felix.  As David Platt made mention in his prayer, 1 Timothy 2 gives us instructions as to how to pray for Governing authorities,

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

It is clear from Platt’s prayer that he shares this Pauline view of the world.

I’m not privy to the arrangements made prior to the President’s visit (reporting suggests that it was quite an impromptu visit), but it is worth noting that Mr Trump did not speak or share while on the platform; Church is not a political rally. Mr Trump did not pray or read the Bible, as Church’s sometimes feel obliged when dignitaries visit. Pastor Platt and the Elders of McLean Bible Church respectfully guarded their pulpit and they rightfully acknowledged their nation’s leader with them and prayed for him and for the country.

We need more examples like David Platt.

How would we greet our political representatives, should they turn up to our churches next Sunday?  What would our reaction be should our Prime Minister, Scott Morrison or our Opposition Leader, Anthony Albanese decide to drop by for church? Or if you live in Victoria, what if our Premier Daniel Andrews wished to attend? Placards or prayer? Posturing or Gospel presentation?

In an era where social outrage and political partisanship are on the rise, and where the culture drives people to the poles of icy extremes, David Platt offers us an example worth heeding.

Take 3 minutes to watch the video and listen to the pastor’s prayer for the President.

 

Since writing earlier today I have received some pushback. For the most part, Christians have expressed gratefulness for the way in which David Platt prayed, but some are suggesting that it’s all about optics rather than the content of the prayer. I don’t know what motivated the President to turn up that morning (I’m not naive enough to think politics wasn’t at play), but I also believe that the God to whom we pray is more wise and powerful and can outwit even the optics created by the President of the United States. The will of God to whom we pray will outdo the intent of any who wish to spin it for their own short-term political ends.


David Platt has since written this letter to his church. I appreciate his love for the Gospel and for his Church https://www.mcleanbible.org/prayer-president?fbclid=IwAR1nxkslWRJlU7kxOquyYYmyQxsjilfOHIp5nCtKKbG5GZwuAjn2vMfvRlI 

 

Martin Luther King Jnr has fallen

Martin Luther King Jnr has fallen.

A large number of archived documents have been released by the FBI revealing that behind the oratory and political fortitude of Martin Luther King Jnr was an unfaithful husband and serial adulterer. Over the years I have heard people speak of MLK’s wanderings, but it appears as though these rumours were not only true, but they were only the tip of the iceberg.

 

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Pulitzer Prize winner, David Garrow, who has also authored a biography of King in 1986, has been sifting through the material.

“I always thought there were 10-12 other women,” he said. “Not 40-45.” He now believes that in the #MeToo age of revulsion for sexual harassment and assault, evidence of King’s indifference to rape “poses so fundamental a challenge to his historical stature as to require the most complete and extensive historical review possible”.

Archive tape recordings show that the MLK had sexual encounters with dozens of women, including with prostitutes, pressuring female parishioners from a friend’s church, orgies involving multiple people, and allegedly watching a fellow Baptist pastor rape a woman inside a hotel room.

According to reporting in The Times,

“One white prostitute told the FBI she had been drawn into a threesome with King and a black woman. Visiting Las Vegas in April 1964, King allegedly took the two women to his room at the Sands hotel, then phoned one of his associates and told him to “get your damned ass down here because I have a beautiful white broad here”. The trio had sex before the friend showed up and took his turn while King “watched the action from a close-by position”, according to the FBI account. Then the prostitute said she was “getting scared as they were pretty drunk and using filthy language”. She told an FBI interviewer it was “the worst orgy I’ve ever gone through”.

“At one point, senior FBI officials sent an incriminating tape and an anonymous letter to King, calling him “an evil abnormal beast” and warning him that “your adulterous acts, your sexual orgies” were “on the record for all time”. The letter ended with a barely veiled suggestion that King should commit suicide “before your filthy, abnormal, fraudulent self is bared to the nation”. When King learnt of the tape’s contents, he is said to have told one aide over a wiretapped phone line that the FBI was “out to get me, harass me, break my spirit”.

The read in The Times is truly troubling and awful.

There will be some people today who will gloat over the fall of Martin Luther King Jnr. Before doing so they should remember Obadiah 1:12 and watch their steps closely lest someone uncovers their hidden secrets.

“You should not gloat over your brother in the day of his misfortune, nor rejoice over the people of Judah in the day of their destruction, nor boast so much in the day of their trouble.”

Many more people, quite possibly millions, will be stunned and shocked upon hearing the stories and allegations that have been released concerning Martin Luther King’s private life. He is considered one the greatest Americans, with one of only a handful who has a statue in their honour near the National Mall in Washington DC.  MKL is considered of the most important voices of the 20th Century. Especially in the United States, but even here in Australia many people look to his words and example in the fight against racism and inequality. His sermons are often recited and quoted. Very few of us can hear MLK declare, “I have a dream” and not be moved.

Can a man who spoke with such eloquence and power also be so deeply flawed? Flawed is the wrong word, egregiously sinful and morally reprehensible is more accurate. Can such a man have been used by God? How does a nation dismantle the memory of a great citizen once he has been exposed for hypocrisy and possibly even criminal conduct relating to sex charges?

Perhaps some people will feel the need to dismiss this history. After all, is what he did so uncommon in America and Australia? Doesn’t the United States have a sitting President who is known for his sexual exploits? And what of Bill Clinton and JFK? Other people may acknowledge his wrongdoing but dampen the reality by explaining it away with a long list of possible mental ailments or frustrated life moments.

What will the #metoo movement do with these horrible revelations? Will MKL be excused or will his name be treated with the same contempt as other perpetrators of sexual assault and those guilty of derogatory treatment of women?

I cannot speak for America but one thing is certain, if Martin Luther King was alive today and his private life known, he could not serve as pastor of a church, nor preach from any pulpit, except in perhaps the most ‘progressive’ of churches. The reason is simple, his character fails the test laid out in the New Testament. Inspirational words are easily undone, even truthful words lose their influence when the speaker betrays them.

I suspect this is going to be a very difficult and complex conversation. Can a society hold onto the good that he achieved, and even be thankful for it, while being honest about MLK’s grave failings as a man, husband, pastor, and social leader?

There are two grave mistakes we can make in light of this news. First, we can conclude that none of this matters. I want to argue that it does matter. It matters that women were used and abused to satisfy his urges. It matters because marital faithfulness matters. It matters because the life of a Christian preacher should not betray the message. Is this not one of the cries that the secular world is continually making in light of all manner of clerical abuses?

The second mistake to avoid is that of vaporising MLK’s legacy altogether. My guess is that the Bible will offer a helpful directive if only we have the humility and wisdom to listen.

For example, which King should MLK be likened too? Is he more like Cyrus or David? The distinction is important. Cyrus was an unbelieving King from Persia who had a thing for killing and conquering. God chose to work through him for the good of others, and Cyrus even acknowledged this fact. David, on the other hand, was a man after God’s own heart and yet he sinned profoundly. He let his private parts turn his attention, he committed adultery and then had the husband of the woman murdered. David’s fall was of biblical proportions, and his eventual repentance was real. God never excused David’s actions, and in fact, the repercussions were terrible and long term, but nonetheless, God also showed grace and worked through David to bring about the most sublime promise the world has ever been told.

My point is this, God can choose a pagan King and work through him for good, and God can choose a righteous King and work through him despite his dreadful actions. In both instances the work accomplished was noble and right without ever diminishing the wrong. Is Martin Luther King more like Cyrus or David? I don’t know and I don’t think we need to choose, for God knows. God knows the final orientation of Martin Luther’s heart.

Every statue will build and every hero we salute, will eventually fall foul of scrutiny because even the greatest are deeply sinful at heart. The world sees total depravity but Christians believe in it.

Ultimately pedestals tumble down and monuments crack under the weight of expectations. We are left with only one and he too is a King. This Christian Gospel is not offered to the self-righteous but to the unrighteous.  Christianity is not for great ones who have all of life sorted, but for those who mourn over their sins and turn to a loving God. Thank God He does not ignore the real us and thank God that in love God’s Son took the full baggage that is ours and was crucified in our place. At the end of the day, we all need this truest King.

The King is dead. Long live the King.

Avoiding the St Edward Hospital Syndrome

I was preaching through 2 Corinthians 2:12-17 last Sunday at Mentone Baptist. It is a word of exhortation given by Paul to the Church in Corinth. The imagery doesn’t only denote the big picture purpose of Paul’s ministry, but one for all who are participating in Christ’s redemptive work and who are now being led by and used of God. In other words, this is yet another description of God’s intention for his Church in the world

During my sermon prep, I was reminded of an episode from Yes Minister. I love watching reruns of Yes Minister. This 1980s British comedy combines the best of British humour with a view of political rumbles that is at times eerily close to reality.

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A Hospital without doctors and patients

In the episode called, ‘The compassionate society’, Jim Hacker, the Minister for Administrative Affairs, learns about a new hospital that had opened in London, St Edward’s hospital. It is a large 1000 bed hospital that had had been opened for a year. Hundreds of staff had been employed and were working in the facility, but there were no doctors, no nurses, and no patients. Hacker is puzzled by this strange omission and so he questions his advisors. “How can the Government spending millions on pounds on a hospital that has no patients, no doctors or nurses?”

The reasoning is both absurd and logical. Sir Humphrey Appleby explains that hospitals require all manner of staff in order to function; For example, a hospital needs accountants, otherwise who would administer the finances and pay the employees and hospital costs?  Secretaries are necessary to facilitate communication between departments and with outside contractors and Governmental authorities. A hospital also needs maintenance staff and cleaners, and managers to every oversee each department, and so the rationalising continues.

Upon hearing this ridiculous state of affairs, Jim Hacker is beside himself, decrying the obvious missing point, “but there are no patients”.

Indeed, what is the point of having a hospital that doesn’t care for the sick?

The Minister finally decides to visit St Edward Hospital and to assess the situation for himself. He is led on a tour by the hospital’s CEO. She explains to him that St Edward is one of the best run hospitals in the UK and that they were recently nominated for the ‘Florence Nightingale’ award for best hygiene!

As he is shown around a surgical theatre which is filled with all the latest and best medical equipment, Mr Hacker turns to the CEO and asks,

“Doesn’t it disturb you that it’s not being used?”

She replies, “Oh no. prolongs the life of the equipment and cuts down costs.”

A Church without Gospel proclamation

A Church can exist, having people and a budget and running programs, but if we are not preaching the Gospel and calling people to repentance and faith in Jesus Christ, we are like St Edward hospital, void of the purpose for which God has called us. A Church can be busy doing stuff and being content in that, and yet failing to administer the work that God has set us aside to join. It’s not that all the other work is unimportant, but they designed to support and promote the primary work of a Church.

14 But thanks be to God, who always leads us as captives in Christ’s triumphal procession and uses us to spread the aroma of the knowledge of him everywhere.15 For we are to God the pleasing aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing. 16 To the one we are an aroma that brings death; to the other, an aroma that brings life. And who is equal to such a task?17 Unlike so many, we do not peddle the word of God for profit. On the contrary, in Christ we speak before God with sincerity, as those sent from God. (2 Corinthians 2:14-17)

Paul regularly reminds the Churches that he’s writing to that participation in God’s mission is no easy task. Indeed, he exclaims in v.15, “Who is equal to such a task”. He doesn’t however confuse difficulty with ambiguity.

God has given His Church a mission. This mission is clear and yet difficult. It is beautiful and yet sometimes poorly regarded. It is triumphal and yet necessitates costly sacrifice. It is the aroma of life to some and the stench of death to others.

The Christ who now leads a triumphant procession was first led in another procession, one that ended in a cross. God here views his own people as captives, which denotes an expectation of suffering but also of belonging, that Christ’s servants who are to obey his commissioning. As we follow as captives in Christ’s triumphal procession God uses us [the Church] to spread the aroma of the knowledge of him. This spreading is described in vv12-13 as preaching the Gospel of Christ. The true knowledge of God and knowing God comes through the Gospel of Christ who has been raised from the dead. Thus, the proclamation of this good news is the ministry of the church.

A challenge for our churches is that in a season where they are so many challenges and demands and opportunities, we want to avoid the St Edward Hospital syndrome, and the only way to do that is to keep trusting and obeying God to lead us and to use us in his Gospel mission, as he has revealed in his perfect word.

 

Hell just won’t go away

Once again, Australians are talking about hell. It was only last week that I wrote an article suggesting that the Israel Folau case might set a course for the future. Little did I realise that it would only take a few days before Australia would be hit with another example, and this time it’s one that might influence the outcome of a Federal election.

The week started with a schoolyard journalist believing they’d discovered the great gotcha moment. They asked Prime Minister Scott Morrison, “Do you believe gay people are going to hell?”

Mr Morrison gave a roundabout answer, which sounded like, “I do believe that, but my personal beliefs about hell don’t have anything to do with public policy and governing the country.”

There is some truth in this kind of response. Even a non-response would have been okay—after all, don’t answer a fool according to their folly is proverbial wisdom (Prov 26:4). But of course, as soon as the Prime Minister flustered his answer, everyone from Broome to Ballarat everyone knew that hell had now become an election issue.

Mr Shorten jumped on the Prime Minister’s response saying,

“I cannot believe in this election that there is a discussion even under way that gay people will go to hell,”

“I cannot believe that the Prime Minister has not immediately said that gay people will not go to hell.”

“No, I don’t believe gay people, because they’re gay, will go to hell. I don’t need a law to tell me that. I don’t believe it.”

“I think if you want to be prime minister of Australia you are going to be prime minister for all people. And I just don’t believe it. The nation’s got to stop eating itself in this sort of madness of division and toxicity”.

Finally, Mr Morrison issued a statement saying that he didn’t believe gays would go to hell.

In one sense, it’s not the answers that are the issue here (I’ll qualify this remark later on), but the fact that the question is being asked at all of our political leaders.

 

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I am fascinated by, and glad to see, Australians discussing eternal matters. These questions are of great significance. They bring God onto the nation’s radar and help us to ask existential questions about what we believe and how we live our lives. I am less encouraged, however, by some of the assertions being made by journalists and politicians alike. As a Christian, while I firmly believe that what we think of heaven and hell matters enormously, these things should not become tests for public office. Indeed, the Australian Constitution S116 offers protection and states that there is to be no religious test for office.

I understand why religious institutions, churches, and organisations would require agreement on the doctrine of hell. For example, how can someone teach the Bible at a theological college if they do not subscribe to the basic doctrinal position of the said institution? It’s not that hell is extraneous and inconsequential to the wider societal discourse, but have we entered the place where outside the church, a person’s theological convictions are to be judged?  Are we to define a person’ suitability for public office based on their personal views about eternal matters? Is the public square to be a place fitted with theological gates to keep out bits of the Bible that don’t applaud current cultural obsessions and attitudes? The answer seems to be, yes.

Once upon a time, if an employer asked you what you thought about hell, it wasn’t in order to find grounds to have you sacked. How quickly has our culture shifted!

I don’t think we should be getting our doctrine of hell from any given political party, and I don’t think we should be voting for or against candidates because of their particular understanding of hell. I can honestly say that as a Christian this issue has never been one of the top 50 questions that I’ve ever thought of asking candidates.

But truly secular society can never be a religion-free zone. That is a fictitious position that can only exist in the theoretical world and is posited by persons who are themselves reacting against set religious thinking (usually Christian theism).  Classic secularism (of which Australia is an example) is designed to provide a civil public life which encourages the discussion of life’s big questions without control by any single ideologue. Secularism, in contrast to the ravings of some, is not meant to establish atheism or soft and bland religion as the official state religion. Secularism is meant to be pluralistic; to make our society an Areopagus where people bring ideas to the table and where people argue and seek to persuade each other. No one is excluded because they are Christian or Jewish or Hindu or atheist.

Unfortunately, many of today’s secularists have shifted the goalposts. They don’t want secularism in the classic sense, they want to pit people against each other. They trade in outrage and scare campaigns—the intention of which are to punish and banish any heresy that doesn’t fit with their dogma. Hence, Rugby is no longer about playing football but is about subscribing to the narrow sexuality agenda being forced by corporate sponsors. University learning is less about the free exchange of ideas and discovery, but about forcing progressive theory into young minds. And now, Christian politicians are apparently required to affirm that they are theological liberals when it comes sexual matters.

My point is this, Christians who think they can hold onto their beliefs in private and keep them tucked away from public gaze, probably need to wake up and think again. While a generation of educators and public narrators told us that religion is a private affair and that our views about God are not welcome out loud, the very same parrots are now demanding that we open our mouths. Of course, they are not interested in listening and engaging with ideas. Far from it, they want us to speak because they are convinced that Christianity, like two atoms hurtling toward each other at extraordinary speed, will implode. Many of our cultural scriptwriters are keen to write out Biblical Christianity from the Australian storyline altogether, either by forcing Christians to admit that they believe the Bible or by denying it publicly.

It is time for Christians to think about what they really believe and why, and to formulate answers to these hot topics, explanations that are grace seasoned with salt. If colleagues at work or fellow students uni are aware that we follow Jesus, are they not already asking us these kinds of questions? Surely it is prudent for us to be thinking biblically, lovingly, clearly, and winsomely. As Peter writes,

“be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect.”

I would also suggest that  Christians reopen Augustine and Calvin, as aids to helps us think through the complexities of religion and public life. Jonathan Leeman’s, How the Nations Rage, is a new volume that deserves careful treatment (while written for an American context, there is a wealth of theological insight to gain from this book).

As it happens, I don’t believe anyone goes to hell because of their sexual orientation. I also don’t believe anyone goes to heaven because of their sexual orientation. Will gays go to hell? Will heterosexuals go to hell? The answer to both questions is yes, but not because of sexual orientation but because in a thousand expressions we all dismiss and denude God’s ways. Both self-realisation and self-righteousness are a sure path to hell, because both deny that there is God and that he is altogether good and holy and love. There will be plenty of happily married couples who never enter heaven and many same-sex attracted men and women who are welcomed by God. This isn’t because sex is malleable and or because the Bible’s teaching on marriage isn’t clear and good. Jesus insisted that any sexual activity outside the marriage between a man and a woman is to be considered immoral. And yet we also see his compassion on those who had digressed and lived in ways contrary to God’s design.

Heaven and hell isn’t a left or right issue, it is a human issue. The self-righteousness that is condemned in the Bible isn’t owned by any single political party, but it must not be a characteristic of those who profess to follow Jesus Christ as Lord. Rather, Christians can remind each other that we’ve come to understand the rightness of God who judges; the wonder of God who shows mercy; and that we desire nothing more than to see straight Australians, gay, lesbian and transgender Australians also finding this God who loves.

So to the question that is making headlines across the nation this week, when we are next asked, “do you believe gays will go to hell”, how will you answer?