GAFCON leading the way

A game of AFL is taking place on a local oval when a small group jump the fence and start kicking a round ball along the ground. The game stops. Players approach the group and ask them to desist. 

They retort, ‘we’re also playing football.

The players answer, ‘no, you’re playing a different game. Different ball, different shaped ground, different goals….if you’re interested, you can join us but first of all, get rid of the soccer ball’.

The group insist, ‘no, we are playing football. We can all play together at the same time.”

In trying to point out the obvious, someone again speaks up, ‘hang on, look…the balls are a different shape. The goals are different. You’re wanting a completely different sport.’

Ignoring the self-evident, the group gaslight the footy plays and again insist, 

“We’re going to use this ground. Let’s talk about it. Let’s arrange a series of meetings to sort it out. After all, what we share in common is far greater than our differences.”

In the meantime, the match has been severely disrupted, the umpires feel bullied, and with each new sentence uttered by the small group of soccer players, they encroach further onto the oval and begin handing out Man U jumpers to everyone.

A significant announcement was made this week, one which may change the Church landscape in Australia. The decision is not so much about changing the game but is confirming that we will not change the game. GAFCON is responding to what is a tireless intrusion onto Christian Churches by certain bishops and leaders who are trying to change the Gospel beyond recognition. They are not playing the same game as Christians Churches, but something quite different. 

Bishop Richard Condie, has explained the situation well, 

“You know as well as I do that there is an emergency…When some of our bishops have failed to affirm basic biblical teachings [on marriage and sexual ethics] at the recent General Synod – when 12 of our bishops failed to uphold what Christians have taught for millennia – you know there is an emergency.”

“The issue for us is the authority of the Bible.”

He’s right. And let’s not fall for the red herring, “GAFCON are obsessed with sex and sexuality”, as one person put it yesterday. Not at all. It is the errant bishops who keep pushing and insisting churches allow and change their doctrines and practices on sex and marriage. GAFCON is rightly observing how these aberrant views impact and are ultimately shaped by a distorted theology of the Bible and the Gospel.

Marriage may be the presenting issue, but it is about so much more. There is an irreconcilable view of the Bible, of the cross, of the nature of sin and salvation, and the list continues. It shouldn’t surprise us to learn that ecclesial leaders who reject the Bible’s teaching on sexuality often don’t believe in other crucial doctrines including the atonement and the resurrection.

As we turn to Jesus, we find the superlative includer. Jesus shows kindness and mercy toward those who for 100 reasons sit outside the Kingdom of God.  The very definition of a Christian is someone who did not belong and now by grace alone is welcomed by God. The same Jesus insisted on the biblical teaching on marriage and human sexuality. Jesus describes any sexual activity outside marriage between a man and a woman as ‘immoral. Today’s faithless bishops are pretty much saying,  Jesus is wrong.

The Bible is clear, our moral practitioning is connected to other essential Christian beliefs about God and about sin and salvation and more.

“Or do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor men who have sex with men 10 nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. 11 And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.” (1 Corinthians 6:9-11)

“ We also know that the law is made not for the righteous but for lawbreakers and rebels, the ungodly and sinful, the unholy and irreligious, for those who kill their fathers or mothers, for murderers, 10 for the sexually immoral, for those practicing homosexuality, for slave traders and liars and perjurers—and for whatever else is contrary to the sound doctrine 11 that conforms to the gospel concerning the glory of the blessed God, which he entrusted to me.” (1 Timothy 1:9-11)

Churches that adopt the anthropological positions of popular culture are not serving their community well or God. They are giving people a message without hope and without grace. They are like an old English General sipping his brandy from a grand chateau while sending a carrier pigeon to the front line and telling the soldiers in the trenches, ‘there is peace. You are safe. All is well’. 

Even as hundreds of Australian Anglicans meet in Canberra this week, I’ve heard some Anglican voices crying out, ‘peace, peace…what we need to do is keep dialoguing and living together’.

This reminds me of Bishop Curry and his famed sermon of ‘love’ at Meghan and Prince Harry’s wedding in 2018. Behind the scenes, this preacher of love was seizing church properties and dragging leaders before disciplinary hearings. For what crime of the church? These pastors and churches continued to teach the orthodox position on marriage rather than capitulating to the culture. 

Conversations and meetings and forums and synods have met for years, and sadly little progress made. What are Christian Churches meant to do when bishops and coaches insist on changing the very game?

GAFCON is choosing faithfulness to God over allegiance to broken institutions.

The Sydney Morning Herald has published a fair report on the story, although there was this one unfortunate line,

“The Diocese of the Southern Cross was formally launched in Canberra on Sunday. The first service was led by a rebel minister who resigned from the liberal Brisbane Archdiocese because he “cannot go along with same-sex blessings”.

Rebel isn’t the right word to describe Rev Peter Palmer. He has given up a steady stipend and is now driving a bus to put bread on the table. His congregation has lost their church’s property. Far from being a ‘rebel minister’, Palmer is a Christian minister who has chosen to remain faithful to Jesus while his Diocesan bishops have chosen faithlessness to both the Gospel and the churches under their care. 

As news of this week’s GAFCON announcement circulates, I am not hearing cheers and laughter over the decision to introduce a new Anglican Diocese in Australia, but tears and lament at seeing ecclesial leaders persisting with errant teachings and destroying churches under their care. And there is love for God and the deep desire for the Gospel to go out to Australians.

Christ’s Church is holy to God. The Gospel is too vital for Christians to play ball with those who are maligning it.  People (both inside and outside churches) are too important and misleading them with errant teachings doesn’t help anyone.

This issue isn’t limited to the Anglican Communion. There are other Christian denominations in Australia facing similar trouble. Eventually, we must decide, who will we follow. Will we obey the Lord of the Church, Jesus Christ, or will we play the role of the chameleon and keep changing the gospel according to the whims of the culture?

Should Church-run hospitals be forced to perform abortions?

Preface: please read the entire piece & not just one or two snippets. The whole argument matters, not just a quote or two. thank you

———————————–

I’m beginning to think that when some people read ‘1984’ and ‘A Brave New World’, their impression is, what a great idea. Let’s model our society on ‘Oceania’ or ‘World State’!

There is a certain predictability about our political and social overlords: Christianity is bad, science is a subject in the Arts faculty, and conscience is only free for those who follow the right agenda. 

In its latest iteration, Victorian Legislative Council member, Fiona Patten, from the Sex Party (sorry, it’s now called ‘Reason’ Party) is tabling legislation that will force Church-based hospitals and health institutions to perform abortions. Patten’s Bill threatens these hospitals with losing their public funding if they refuse patient requests for abortion. 

Before I respond to Patten’s reasoning, I want to admit that abortion isn’t a topic I like to write about. I appreciate how this is a very real and sensitive and emotionally charged issue for many people. Despite angry messages that I receive from certain quarters, the reality is, women carry tremendous guilt and pain from having an abortion, even many years later. ‘Celebrate your abortion’ may be a thing right now, but behind the slogans, many women struggle. The way to find forgiveness and freedom from the past isn’t to redefine a wrongful act as good, as our political representatives feel necessary today, but to take the harder and better road that Jesus outlines: admit our terrible decisions and turn to God who is big enough and willing to wipe away every spot of guilt. Churches and religious organisations remain communities who gladly help where there is a difficult pregnancy, and who also gladly welcome people who carry heavy burdens. Churches are not communities of the moral oppressors, but of those who found a loving and forgiving God. I encourage readers to ignore the caricatures of Christianity that we read about in the media and instead check out the real thing for ourselves.

Having said that, Fiona Patten explains her legislation, 

“Publicly funded hospitals and other health institutions have no right to refuse these legally enshrined rights that a woman has control over her body and reproductive health.”

“Religion is a blessing to many amid the mysteries and vagaries of existence, but imposed religious faith has no place in the public health system.”

According to The Guardian

“Patten said institutions should not be able to claim “conscientious objection” and that the bill would ensure public hospitals were not able to prevent a doctor from performing legal abortion procedures.”

First of all, let the reader understand, Fiona Patten does not believe in the separation of Church and State. She thinks that the State ought to control religion. The State of Victoria has witnessed the slow erosion of this healthy distinction (and partnership) in recent years, including the State removing freedom from religious institutions to employ people on the basis of their religious convictions, and banning certain prayers and conversations with fellow Victorians. Patten believes that the State should force religious health providers to perform acts of killing unborn children, an action that deliberately cuts against sound religious convictions. 

Patten regularly campaigns to have any vestige of Christianity removed from the public square (ie think the Lord’s Prayer in Parliament*) and she regularly promotes legislation that will bring down State sanctioned secular ideology onto religious organisations. This is but the latest manifestation of a growing trend.

This is dangerous political overreach. 

Second, does Fiona Patten appreciate that her threat will only further harm our health system, a healthy system that is already overburdened and not coping? Is throwing rocks at vital and overworked hospitals going to help the sick and injured? Removing public funding from these hospitals won’t save lives and relieve the mounting pressures and massive backlog of important surgeries. 

Instead of threatening religion-based hospitals, perhaps our political representatives should ask, how can we be helping?

Third, in the grand tradition of doublespeak, Fiona Patten obscures the reality of abortion by ignoring the life of the child and speaking of a woman’s right. Few activists admit today that the child in the womb is anything less than a human being. Science and technology simply won’t allow the ‘clump of cells’ myth to continue. We can see the little human inside the mother’s womb growing. Even at 16 weeks, we now know that babies are thinking and feeling. They respond to sound and to music. Their cognitive faculties, creative faculties, and listening and communication skills are far more advanced than was once believed. 

“I am reminded of the words spoken by one excited mum, ‘As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy” (Luke 1:44).

A society that claims a right to destroy such life is a society that has lost sight of its humanity and its obligations to the most vulnerable. But not content with abortion taking place in public and some private medical centres, move is afoot to force religious medical providers to perform this unconscionable act.

The prophet Isaiah said, 

“Woe to those who call evil good

    and good evil,

who put darkness for light

    and light for darkness,

who put bitter for sweet

    and sweet for bitter.”

I suspect Fiona Patten’s Bill will fail to win sufficient support in Parliament. I could be wrong, but I don’t think the majority of Victorians would think her reasoning is reasonable. Nonetheless, let the reader understand that she doesn’t represent a marginal cultural perspective but rather she belongs to the vanguard of cultural change. We shouldn’t be surprised to see, as we have on other issues, that ‘try, try, again’ will eventually see hardline authoritarian secularism succeed.

I wonder, does Fiona Patten believe that the State should have the power to coerce her to act against her conscience? As we’ve seen with the Manly 7 and a growing list of examples, the argument for conscience moves in only one direction, and that’s not a song and dance routine that I want to follow. 

What do other Victorians think? Should doctors and nurses be compelled to take human life?

What a crazy, sinful, grief giving world we live in. 

The insatiable blackhole of today’s groupthink requires a response that our political and culture wars can’t handle. Facts, figures and commonsense rarely belong to the debates of today, and even more rare is the nuance and grace that we desperately need. In our thinking, we need to dig deeper.

Of course, Christians aren’t going to cave into Patten’s threats and start killing babies. What an absurdity! Without giving an inch to this grim ideological pressure, I caution against responding with anger or with spite. Rather, follow the example of Jesus. At the beginning of what we now called the Passion week, Jesus stood over Jerusalem, and he wept. Jesus said,

“If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace—but now it is hidden from your eyes.”  He then entered the city, resolved to lay down his life for those who wanted to take his. 

—————

  • Christians recognise there are valid reasons for keeping the Lord’s Prayer in Parliament and for removing the Lord’s Prayer from Parliament.

Peter FitzSimons doesn’t understand the Manly 7

The NRL is the latest promoter of inclusion to exclude people of faith. On Monday the Manly Sea Eagles unveiled their newest jersey, with the gay pride colours splashed across the front. 

I have little interest in the game of Rugby League, although I did live through the scrummage of Sydney for 4 years. When it comes to preferencing football codes, for me NRL ranks some below quidditch (sorry, I meant, quad ball!). Having said that, stories like the one coming out of Manly this week are happening across Australia in schools and workplaces, as well as in sports. This is simply the latest high-profile example of what is now going on in many pockets of societal life, work, and play. I regularly hear stories of children being urged and manipulated into wearing coloured ribbons and supporting organisations, and workplaces forcing special days and causes onto staff.

The 7 Manly players informed the club that they cannot wear the rainbow jersey on account of their religious beliefs. This isn’t a decision that they or any players should be forced to make. After all, the fact that Muslims, Christians, marrieds, singles, gays and others can already wear the normal jumper is a sign of inclusion. But we are no longer living in that world.  Professional sport now comes attached to all kinds of amendments and attachments. 

The public reaction has been mixed, and the media have jumped all over it. Manly’s coach, Des Hasler, was put in the unenviable position of facing the media yesterday. I thought he did a sterling job given the circumstances. On behalf of the club, he apologised to everyone and recognised that the club had handled the issue poorly (apparently no club official thought it worthwhile to first talk to players about the jersey idea and see if it would cause anyone offence). The club (whether they wish to or not) will go ahead with the new jumper for this weekend’s game and the 7 players will sit out the game.

Like a well-regulated bowel motion, Peter FitzSimons leapt to his usual tricks. Within minutes of the story breaking, he swung his rhetorical axe and called for the 7 players to leave Manly. 

“The short answer for all seven should be: “No probs, and good luck with your new club!”

Yesterday, he continued, writing an opinion piece for the SMH. Even before the game starts, Fitz blew his whistle to call out anyone who might disagree with him, 

“o many points, so little time. So little space, so many space cadets.’ You have been named!”

That’s good to know. Fitz views dissenters as intellectually feeble and cognitively inept. He’s smart enough to know that such insults will win praise among his followers, but it achieves little in encouraging serious dialogue.

Fitz not only detests Christianity, he doesn’t get it. 

What the hell is wrong with you blokes that you don’t get it? You are prepared to trash the entire Manly season on this issue alone? In a world where rugby league has led the sporting fraternity in making change, in making it clear that the game really is for all races, all genders, all sexualities, all religions you want to make a stand for …”

Let’s be clear, it is the football club that made the decision and assumed players would have no issue wearing the different jumper. I’m sure the 7 players love the game and their club and are desperate to play, but what Fitz fails to realise is that there is a higher code than football. For Christians, all of life is about Jesus and wanting to represent him well. If we are forced to make a decision between Jesus and football, the answer is kind of obvious. 

In our age where we are supposedly sensitive toward the consciences of others, does FitzSimons really believe these players should act against faith and conscience?

It was Jesus who said,

“Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.  For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it. What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? 37 Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul?”

Fitz not only fails to appreciate the nature of Christian discipleship, he also misrepresents the rainbow banner.

“That is all that Manly wearing the rainbow jersey is saying. To put it in terms that might resonate, “We are all God’s little creatures, and we come in all shapes and sizes, all colours, all sexualities, so isn’t it all just wonderful!””

Wearing the jumper isn’t about solidarity, it represents conformity. Wearing the colours is very much about promoting what Stephen McAlpine famously calls, ‘our sexular age’. He says,

“the Pride story is a good news story itself. It’s an alternate gospel.”

Mcalpine is right. The pride story is a story of self salvation. Redemption is all about self realisation. Rather than the Bible’s story of us needing divine salvation from sin in ourselves, today’s culture says that I define my own value system and it’s the job of God and everyone else to affirm me. 

As pop icon Taylor Swift proclaimed during a recent speech,

“I know it can be really overwhelming figuring out who to be, and when. Who you are now and how to act in order to get where you want to go. I have some good news: it’s totally up to you. I also have some terrifying news: it’s totally up to you.”

That’s today’s gospel: Be your authentic self. 

The thing about the pride gospel is that it’s not satisfied with individuals arriving at their own decision, everybody else has to join the chorus, and not singing along just proves you’re a hateful awful, repressive social recalcitrant. 

In the real world, I can think of same sex attracted people who’d refuse to wear the rainbow colours. There are gays and lesbians who don’t wish to promote the LGBTIQ+ movement, and who for various reasons could not in clear conscience support Manly’s decision. Of course, they won’t stick their heads over the parapet, and I don’t blame them. Why should they share their views, only to have Peter FitzSimons call them bigots?

The rainbow message doesn’t represent inclusion, it’s about capitulation. It represents doing away with traditional sexual ethics and embracing a new and unforgiving ‘truth’.  Does anyone remember the Coopers’ beer incident from 2016? Two politicians sat down over a Coopers beer to talk about same-sex marriage. Tim Wilson spoke in support of changing the law and Andrew Hastie spoke against. It was a civil conversation about an important issue, and yet within hours pubs around the country were destroying their supply of Coopers beer and the company was pressured into apologising and to wave every rainbow flag they could get their hands on. 

Today’s message isn’t to hum along to ‘let it be’, it is forced conversion. The Manly story is a perfect example of this. The players were given no choice other than to wear the pride colours, regardless of their personal convictions.

This isn’t just a problem for professional sportsmen and sportswomen, the pressure is real in workplaces, universities and schools across the country. HR Departments pressure employees to fall into line with the latest version of the coloured flag. School is a difficult environment for children who are convinced by Christian, Jewish or Muslim views of sexuality, marriage and family.

Peter FitzSimons continues his game plan by weirdly mounting what reads like a backhanded racist attack,

“You are mostly from the wonderful Islander community, one that is beloved in the football community and wider still. Nevertheless, there really are shocking bigots who have attacked that community through nothing other than their own bigotry. How do you not get that your actions disgust most, but please many of the very same bigots who judge people on their race?”

Is he seriously suggesting to these Islanders didn’t arrive at their Christian beliefs through their own careful investigations and deliberations, but somewhere they are victims of bigots (presumably white colonial Christian missionaries)? I suspect a retraction is in order. 

A number of people have already alerted Fitz to his inconsistent views. Instead of acknowledging his mistake, he doubles down and insults people for recognising the hypocrisy in his position.

For example, a young muslim woman stood for her beliefs earlier this year and refused to wear the rainbow colours on her AFLW jersey. She said,

 “As the first Australian Muslim woman in the AFLW, I have a responsibility to represent my faith and my community,

In Fitz’s mind she receives a free pass because,

“she is already progressive enough to break down the barriers to be the first Islamic woman to play in the AFLW – and to have played in the Pride round last year, albeit without personally wearing the jersey.”

Both cases are pretty much identical, and yet Fitz blows the whistle at one and not the other. Why? Because it’s okay for a white Aussie bloke to blow his trumpet against male Christians. But a Muslim woman isn’t an acceptable target. In other words, because she is a Muslim woman we can forgive her, but these 7 Christian men are beyond our grace.  In contrast to Fitz’s double standards, a more consistent view is to say that both have reasonable cause not to wear the pride jumper and they should not be compelled to do so.

I remember at the time of of the marriage plebiscite, Lisa Wilkinson was among the voices promising that same sex marriage won’t change anything. 

“What happened in Ireland, and Great Britain, most of continental Europe, most of the Americas, New Zealand, Canada and all the rest?

Again.

Nothing.”

Jane Gilmour assured Aussies, 

“The people advocating for marriage equality in Australia are not attempting to impose their beliefs on to any church, they are simply objecting to churches imposing their definition of marriage onto the rest of us.”

Australia’s new Attorney General, Mark Dreyfus, spoke at a Freedom for Faith Conference in 2016, saying, 

“I challenge people here to demonstrate that changing the Marriage Act will lead to negative changes in religious freedom.”

I don’t think anyone really believed Wilkinson and others at the time. After all, other social commentators gladly preached a message of social change, 

For example,

Auberry Perry, in The Age (Sept. 3, 2017),

“This survey offers us a conscious opportunity to make a firm stand in support of a secular government and to reject discrimination or favouritism based on religion. It’s our opportunity to say that religion has no part in the shaping of our laws. A vote against same-sex marriage is a vote for religious bias and discrimination in our legislation, our public schools, our healthcare, and ultimately, in the foundation of our social structure.”

Mauvre Marsden wrote in the Sydney Morning Herald (Oct 4, 2017),

“Yes, marriage is not the final frontier. Yes, we want safe schools. Yes, gay conversion therapy is child abuse. Yes, we want transgender kids’ agency to be respected and supported – regardless of what their parents want. Yes.”

We’re no longer living in Athens and we’re no longer invited to speak at the Areopagus. This is imperial Rome where sacrifice to the gods is made compulsory for every citizen. I can hear Fitz saying, ‘you can believe in your Christian God at home or in the private setting of your church, but out here you are obliged to follow our gods.’ 

In the space of a few years we have seen hundreds of organisations and corporations guilted into signing up the latest iterations of the sexular age. After all, no one wants to be called a bigot, especially as the insult is usually untrue. Public statements and policies can barely keep up with the changing rules that are determined by our moral overloads. The changes have real implications for real people. In Victoria, religious organisations have lost the freedom to employ people on the basis of the association’s beliefs. Again in Victoria, some religious conversations and prayers are now illegal. The Christian view of marriage and human sexuality is described by Victorian Education Department materials as phobic. Across Australia, businesses, clubs, and schools feel the pressure to embrace all the latest (and ever changing) sexologies. 

I’m not hankering for the supposed good old days and neither am I bemoaning today, this is about recognising the space in which we now live.

Let’s be honest, when the boss at work or school principal hands out the rainbow flags and pin, the answer for Christians is clear. However, when you’re being tackled, it’s normal to feel the pressure. It’s not easy to stand up to a group assault. After all, won’t life be easier if we slip on the jumper? We’re not being asked to make a public comment, not yet anyway. And it’s just for 1 day in the year…until next year.

If you (Christian) haven’t already sorted out your convictions, now’s the time to do so. Understand your ultimate allegiance and prepare your answer. 

I thank God for the Manly 7.  Anyone thinking that because they are well paid professional footballers, their stance is an easy one, think again. Sometimes a high profile makes the fall harder. 

And I feel for Fitz. He mocks and disdains the message that he clearly does not understand. It’s the message that means everything to these Manly players, even more than playing rugby league. Their decision may impact their future in the game (time will tell), but I suspect they understand that choosing to wear that jumper would bring an even greater cost. 

What’s even more problematic than the position forced on the Manly 7, is how the public conversation is forced into a false dichotomy: either you fully support gay players and wear the colours or you are a hateful bigot. This is a false binary. No matter how often Peter FitzSimons and your HR department preach it, it remains untrue.

The life of Jesus Christ shows how he often disagreed with peoples’ thoughts, words and actions. Does his disagreement represent fear and hatred? Or is it love that drives him to say ‘no’ to us? The central message of Christianity is that God disproves of our many of our desires and decisions, and yet his love led the Lord Jesus to the cross. Christians can’t wave the rainbow flag but we can and do love our gay and lesbian friends.  We enjoy playing sport alongside you and eating meals and going to concerts. There is something good and sensical, although sadly it’s becoming rare, when we can say, I disagree with you but I am nonetheless committed to your good.  I think you’ve made a mistake, but I remain your friend.

————————-

Steve McAlpine helpfully explains the difference between the pride colours and wearing a jumper with club sponsors in this piece – https://stephenmcalpine.com/manly-in-babylon/?fbclid=IwAR29Az8ICNVJf_VcXSUwINDxnwTZBekk53gnkMUFHYcHGfkL1VT4as1JntM

“I’m not an idiot”

“I’m not an idiot”, so said Michael Jensen in an interview with Peter FitzSimons for Sunday’s Sydney Morning Herald

FitzSimons opening barrage on Jensen was to portray Christianity in his typically parodic manner, as though Christians are a bunch of uneducated, antiscientific, and annoying cluster of flies. Hence, Michael’s initial response. Although to be fair, apart from the opening line to Jensen,  the article is pretty decent and Fitz does a good job in questioning both Fiona Patton and Michael Jensen. His topics were the Lord’s Prayer and churches’ tax exemption status. 

For those who don’t know of Fiona Patten, she is a member of the Legislative Council in the Victorian Parliament. Her party, Reason Party, was formally called the Sex Party. Unsurprisingly, Patten is a passionate advocate for progressive sex ideology. Michael Jensen on the other hand is Senior Pastor at St Mark’s Darling Point in Sydney and holds a PhD from Oxford University.

On the topic of the Lord’s prayer, Michael Jensen is typically Christian as he sees both pros and cons with Parliament reciting the Lord’s Prayer. On the issue of tax exemption rules, Jensen explains,

“the first thing to say is that Jesus told us to pay taxes and churches should too, on [straight-out businesses they run]. But churches as places of worship come under the charity law as a community group and for the purposes of taxation don’t have special privileges that other community groups don’t have. So sports, for example, don’t pay tax because they are a community group, as are trade unions, things like Men’s Shed, the CWA and indeed political parties. So this is not a special provision just for churches. And when it comes to churches, the view is that money put in the plate has already been taxed – it is people’s after-tax dollars – and so doesn’t need to be further taxed, just as when people donate to community groups.”

“Tax law needs supervision, needs compliance and needs data to be administered properly. Most of the long-established churches like ours have an accumulated wealth, particularly through property, because of our longevity in Australia – and most of our buildings are held in a trust to support the purposes for which the organisation exists, which is not for making profit. So we’re not remotely a business in that sense.”

Jensen is correct. I acknowledge that I’m biased, but it does not require a PhD from Oxford to realise that Jensen’s explanation is reasoned and grounded in what actually happens in churches across Australia and how their financial paradigm fits comfortably within the ACNC (Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission). Of course, where churches engage in business enterprises they rightly follow the law and pay their taxes. If and when there are examples of churches failing to comply, it is appropriate for authorities to investigate. 

Photo by Brett Sayles on Pexels.com

Fiona Patten holds a very different view from Michael Jensen. In this interview, she offers a clear explanation as to why she believes churches should be taxed: she doesn’t like them. 

“If you are talking about religious charities, providing shelter for the homeless, food for the hungry – what we in society consider real charity – I absolutely think those genuine charities should be tax-exempt, and I totally support that. But the problem is the tax exemption the law provides for “the advancement of religion”. That used to be regarded as being for the public benefit but fewer people than ever think that. And why should you get a tax break for promoting a superstition?”

First of all, what Patten describes as ‘real charity’ is in error. The ACNC includes all kinds of organisations, including, community sporting clubs, unions, political parties, Rotary and Lions, and more. Is Fiona Patten suggesting that all these should have their tax exemption rescinded because they are not involved in giving food to the hungry?

If you look at Patten’s words, her position is hardly an argument, but it is a reason of sorts. She doesn’t like religion, therefore churches should lose their tax exemption status. Now, there are many charitable organisations that I don’t particularly like or attach much value to.  I don’t enjoy swimming or basketball, but should these sporting clubs lose their not-for-profit status because I personally don’t receive benefit? Can I not admit what is true, and that is, that other people find value in these community organisations even if I don’t? But of course, this is the issue: Christianity is not only viewed as irrelevant, but it is also immoral and dangerous. Or at least, that’s the narrative being preached around the country from university campuses to school classrooms and newspaper opinion pieces. 

In this interview, Michael Jensen is simply stating facts, as the Federal Minister for Charities, Andrew Leigh, confirmed. And yet, social media yesterday turned on industrial-sized heaters, blowing angry and distasteful commentary.

John Dickson said, 

“The Fitz article is good. The responses demonstrate a key point in our debate about taxing churches as businesses. Those who oppose church tax exemptions do so (almost invariable) because they despise – ‘bigoted’ ‘stupid’ ‘paedophilic’ ‘nonsense’ ‘fairytale’ – religion!”

A few hours later John tweeted further,

“The level of anti-religion argument in this country is very poor. It is emotion and distaste all the way down. Bring back the old atheists, I say!”

Over at the land of twits I offered a simple affirmation of Michael Jensen’s answers, and it didn’t take long for Fitz’s followers to unload. It’s not as though people offered rebuttal as such, it was more akin to pointing a flamethrower at anyone standing with Jensen.

For example, 

“I just read this, all nonsense. You talk about dependence on God, which one, Thor, Odin? Get this nonsense out of our govt.”

“What rubbish”

“What benefits did christianity bring again? Ignorant belief in imaginary gods used as an excuse for control of others, forced unwilling pregnancies on women, looked away from paedophilia & domestic violence, great examples of man’s evil though.”

“Seriously, can’t you do better than that?

“Let’s reverse it – You just love religion. That’s the only real reason you have for defending tax breaks for religion. 

See how facile that is?”

And then this doozy for a happily married man of 22+ years…

“You virgin Murray!”

I can receive a lot worse than these contributions, but the examples I’ve cited are nonetheless telling. These comments and countless more like them simply rehash Patten’s view: ‘I don’t like religion, therefore we should remove their tax exemption.’

It’s a sad state of affairs but this is the calibre of what’s becoming normalised public scrutiny and debate today. Rather than weighing on facts and reason and listening carefully to the other, debate is shut down by the loudest mob. They don’t need to rely on evidence or rationality,  pushing people into silence is effective. And it’s proving effective because Christianity is no longer seen as stupid, it is an evil that requires intervention. Of course, Christianity and evil are diametrically opposed,  but this is not how Aussies are taught to view Christianity any longer. 

Yes, Christians are at times obnoxious and give off an unpleasant smell. More often, Australians assume to be true what they hear repeated often enough and they believe what they are taught, and what we are taught is that Christianity is bad for you. Hillsong was used as an example by both Patten and people on social media. Hillsong is a popular target, and for some reason, but 99.9% of churches are not Hillsong, and judging the whole on the basis of that single example is superficial at best, and fallacious at worst. 

It’s important for Christians to come to terms with how the fabric of education and belief has shifted in Western countries like Australia. The Christian message, and therefore Churches, is a social toxin that requires social, political, and even legal action to minimise its spread. It is therefore only natural for people to believe churches don’t deserve their tax exemption status. After all, if Christianity is bad for you, why should the Government provide tax exemptions?

There are people who are hurt by religion. There are people who hate religion, by which they usually mean Christianity. There are many people who simply do not understand Christianity. Michael Jensen has served us well.

Yesterday’s pushback on Jensen reminds me how Churches have more work to do to correct these misnomers about churches and money, and most importantly about the nature and purpose of the local church. Of course, churches can preach and live as faithfully to Jesus as possible and still face wild outrage and bitterness, but let’s not be too quick to throw out all opposition into the basket named, ‘hatred’.  One of the trends we are seeing is growing ignorance of what Christianity is about and for that, we can hardly blame the average Aussie. To be sure,  our cultural elites must take some responsibility as they distort Christianity in the ploy to remove her influence from society. Churches shoulder greater responsibility for the confusion that exists in our broader society. Why? Gospel clarity and conviction and teaching and life are often missing from our churches. The beauty and power of the Christian message is often defused by poorly trained pastors or through religious Benedict Arnolds.

I happen to agree with Fiona Patten in that some religions are little more than superstition, but others are not. Christianity is necessarily and integrally grounded in history and reality. The claims of Jesus Christ are consequential because they are rooted in real events and real people and for a real world. Far from superstition, Christianity provides the very ideas that have converged to build the very best of Australian society and the building blocks necessary for democratic liberalism and social pluralism: the equality and dignity of all human beings, the art of persuasion not coercion, belief in the rule of law, and so on. 

Christians have a better story. It’s not a story that Christians are somehow better than others (for we are not), but a living example that shows how crucified and now living Christ is better. The Federal Minister for Charities, Andrew Leigh, is an atheist and yet recognises the ways in which belief in God and joining a religious community changes peoples lives for the better, creating greater generosity and servanthood and helping out for the good of others (cf Leigh’s interview with John Dickson).  

While fewer Australians are formally identifying with religion, the fact is that the advancement of religion remains hugely important to millions of Australians. More so, at a time when Australia is experiencing less social cohesion and staggering levels of loneliness and people living without hope, there is an argument for churches having an even greater role and responsibility in bringing people together. Removing the tax status of churches is not only irrational, but Australian society will also be worse off. Churches are communities where people come and share life together and find the answers to life’s greatest questions. These are communities where people enormous amount of time and energy to loving others and sacrificially giving. These are voluntary associations where people gather to learn and discover the greatest message the world has ever known. Yes, it requires money for the upkeep of buildings and utilities and ministries. The social capital for broader Australian society is huge, and dare I say it, the implications are of eternal nature.

Disagree with Christianity by all means. Let us listen and argue well and disagree well, but removing churches’ tax exemptions will achieve little more than shooting ourselves in the head and expecting a good outcome to follow.

What are church pastors up to right now?

I’m going on leave today and beginning the first family holiday in 3 1/2 years. Before I sit beside the swimming pool and eat lots of satay, I thought I would update a list that I scribbled down late last year which mentions some of the tasks and responsibilities pastors have had to carry during the pandemic. 

You’ll notice a couple of items have now been successfully crossed off the list, however, there are others that have been added. 

Pastoring a church is a tremendous privilege and joy, and it’s not always an easy task. Indeed there are reasons why many pastors burn out after the first few years and many don’t make it beyond 10 years in the ministry. The COVID pandemic has bowled a googley at all of us, no matter our religious views, job, and life situation. Pastors are not immune from the daily stresses, troubles, and temptations that we all face. If there is a difference, there is an expectation that pastors will continue to work with a smile on the face, that they will accept all comments made to their face and behind their back, and push through whatever the cost. 

Many pastors have shared with me how they are going; some were treading water late last year, and some now feel as though they’re sinking. This isn’t because our task is necessarily harder than others , but for this one simple reason, we are just like everyone else. It’s because of one such conversation that I first wrote down and share this list, hoping to an open window and let people see inside and gain a snapshot of the kinds of issues and responsibilities confronting pastors in Melbourne churches at the moment (in no particular order). Additions to last year’s list are written in bold and those items that are now resolved are crossed out:

  • We are trying to pastor people who have undergone all manner of trials and hardships over the past 2 years.
  • Trying to love and pastor people who are wrestling with all manner of non pandemic related difficulties.
  • Recognising that everyone is tired, run down, and desperate for a holiday, pastors don’t want to burden their congregations with what are often routine tasks, so they agree to shoulder a little more. Rather than 2022 seeing things returning to normal, we are finding that people are even less able to serve in regular ways, as COVID continues and many people struggle with flu and colds.
  • Every week somewhere between 30%-50% of the congregation is away with COVID, flu or colds. The capacity to run services, Sunday school and more is challenging and it’s often impossible to find last minute volunteers to fill in gaps for those who are sick or away.
  • Reminder our people of the mission field and gearing everyone for evangelism.
  • Organising financial aid, meals, and other helps for members who are struggling.
  • Encouraging and equipping team leaders and filling in for them when they need a break.
  • Overseeing COVID Safe plans.
  • Planning the regathering of our churches after months without any in person gatherings, and doing so under tight and changing Government directives.
  • While many people are about to wind down for the year and planning to go away and take off time, the pastor’s workload is increasing.
  • We are counselling those who are nervous about returning to church, including those who are immuno-compromised and those who are fearful of becoming a COVID close contact and being forced into isolation (again).
  • We are counselling those who remain unvaccinated and who are feeling hard done by as a result of Government rules.
  • Navigating 50 different expectations and demands on what returning to church ought to look like.
  • Navigating 50 different expectations and demands on what church should look like in 2022
  • Advocating the Government for the unvaccinated to be free to return to church while also encouraging people to be vaccinated and knowing the responsibility to protect the vulnerable.
  • Working to uphold the unity of the Spirit through the bonds of peace when society has become fragmented and angry and these influences capture hearts inside the church.  
  • Urging people to remain gospel centred rather than allow political issues and allegiances to dominate and divide.
  • Writing and preaching sermons every week.
  • Organising church services.
  • Leading Bible study groups.
  • Training leaders.
  • Meeting with leadership teams.
  • Keeping an eye on ever unstable finances.
  • Having late nights away from the family because of another meeting or crisis.
  • Processing Victoria’s new Conversion and Suppression Practices laws that target Christians, Writing articles and letters to raise awareness, appealing to the Government to overturn these unjust laws, and preparing our churches for laws that are a genuine threat to Christian freedom, belief, and practice. 
  • Reading, understanding and responding to legislation amending the Equal Opportunity Act which will further limit religious freedom in Victoria.
  • Spending time in prayer for the people under our care, and for our community and the world around us.
  • Fast tracking the reading of books and articles that’s required to understand the theological doozys that regularly arise in our preaching and in our pastoral care.
  • Christmas. Did someone say we’re having Christmas Carol services and Christmas Day services? 
  • Planning for 2022. Who knows what that will mean!
  • Planning the second half of 2022, and realising how uncertain our plans can be
  • Welcoming visitors (and praise God for people who are checking out Church).
  • Rejoicing with those who are rejoicing and mourning with those who mourn, correcting the wayward, and grieving those who depart. 
  • Burying the dead, visiting the sick, marrying couples, sitting with those with marriages falling apart. 
  • Loving our families and giving them the love, time and attention they need and deserve.

These are some of the things pastors are working on right now. As I hope you can see, these things are rarely quick, easy or unimportant. Most of these activities demand an intellectual, emotional, and psychological gravitas that overwhelms pastors at the best of times, let alone in the time and place we currently find ourselves.  This isn’t a cry for help or asking for a slap on the back. This is just a little message to share what pastors are up to at the moment. To our churches, we love you and we’re there for you in the good times and the bad. But understand, we are also tired and the emotional fuel tank is running pretty low.

We get tired and grumpy and worn out. The words, actions, and attitudes of others impact us too. We love the people whom God has committed under our care, but there is only Saviour and we’re not him!

I am incredibly thankful for the saints at Mentone who despite their own tiredness and troubles, are persevering and together we are running the race. 

And that’s how it’s meant to work. This isn’t about pumping up pastors with pride but as each member lovingly serves the other, pastors are better able to give and serve as we ought. And indeed, as pastors do their work well, the congregation is released to ministry and to grow together. This is why when one of my own congregation asks how they can be praying for me, I often ask them to pray for the church: let us keep loving one another and serving each other with patience and grace. Everyone wins and God is glorified and the Gospel is seen for what it is: stunning and beautiful and good.

The Apostle Paul put it like this, 

Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.” (Ephesians 4:2-3)

“Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.

 In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:” (Philippians 2:1-5)

And pastors, let’s remember we are not superman, batman or whoever the current superhero is meant to be. And we are certainly not the world’s Saviour.

  • Be content in not doing everything. 
  • Keep things as simple and straightforward as you can. 
  • Be willing to say no to people
  • Be understanding that many people’s capacity for serving is reduced at the moment
  • Take regular breaks.
  • Make sure you take proper annual leave over the summer; otherwise you may not survive 2022. 
  • Do something fun. 
  • Refresh yourself daily in God’s word and in prayer
  • Share and be accountable to a small group of peers (including inside the church)

“And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.” (Hebrews 10:1-3)

Census 2021 and the decline of Christianity in Australia

The 2021 Australian Census findings are out. According to the data, Australians are less religious and especially Australia is becoming less Christian.

Of our 25 million Australians, 43.9% identify as Christian, down from 52% in 2016 and 61% in 2011. Australians who now identify as non religious are 39%, up from 30% in 2016. Let’s not pretend otherwise, this is a significant fall and jump. Of course, the non religious category isn’t a synonym for atheism or God-free secularism, but rather these are Australians who belong across a spectrum of views but who do not identify comfortably with any specific religious expression. 

What are we to make of the national census data? How can we interpret this changing landscape of Australians’ deepest beliefs and convictions? 

Photo by Nothing Ahead on Pexels.com

First of all, what we are seeing in Australia is not a decline of vibrant and genuine faith in Jesus Christ (i.e. Christianity), but the growing recognition that nominalism doesn’t count as real Christianity. What we are doing is simply observing the field and noticing that pretend grass isn’t the real thing and so we are now recognising it for what it is. People who have connections with Christianity are waking up to the fact that they don’t actually trust in Jesus or agree with the Bible or like the Church, and so they are simply pulling the plug. The decline of Christian nominalism is a positive, and I suspect we still have quite a way to go before this process is finished.

In that sense, as Australia moves into an environment where identifying as a Christian really means you are a follower of Jesus Christ and belong to a local church, then that distinction is good and healthy, not only for churches and for individual people but for the entire country. Instead of falling back onto the misnomer of Australia being a Christian country, we can properly cast that myth aside and rightly so. A Christian is someone who actively believes and lives and breathes the Gospel, not someone who attended a religious school or whose parents are believers. 

Of course, and I have noted this with the 2016 Census, accompanying this decline is a downside. As fewer people identify with the Christian faith, our activist and progressive overlords will use this as ammunition to further rid our society of Christian vestiges. That is a mistake because the very foundations of our civil society and the rule of law and social pluralism depend on the Christian worldview. Many Australians are unaware of this fact, that the air we breathe and the water we drink is heavily soaked in principles and ideas that stem from the Bible and depend upon the Bible. For example, the idea that all people have inherent dignity and worth, the idea that men and women are equal, and the view that we should persuade people with ideas and not use coercion.

We mustn’t be surprised therefore if we see all manner of values disappearing from the fabric of our society and being replaced with an artificial ‘heavenly vision’ which is undergirded by an authoritarian and intolerant secularism.

Carl Trueman assesses our modern age,

“The expressive individual is now the sexually expressive individual. And education and socialization are to be marked not by the cultivation of traditional sexual interdicts and taboos but rather by the abolition of such and the enabling of pansexual expression even among children.”

“While earlier generations might have seen damage to body or property as the most serious categories of crime, a highly psychologized era will accord increasing importance to words as means of oppression. … Once harm and oppression are regarded as being primarily psychological categories, freedom of speech then becomes part of the problem, not the solution, because words become potential weapons.”

While each Australian is responsible for what we believe and how we live, it is myopic of us to however lay all the blame on those Australians who are moving away from organised religion, and Christianity in particular. Christians are increasingly aware of not only our failings but of horrendous evils hidden and protected inside some religious institutions. Why would anyone walk inside a church when there are so many stories of clergy abusing children and men abusing women? The fact that such occurrences are relatively rare doesn’t reduce the reality of those incidences. The only way back from these great evils is repentance.

Another reason why churches need to shoulder some of the responsibility for the decline in Christianity is the insipid liberalism that has infected some denominations and churches for generations. As pastors convince themselves that the only way to stay relevant is to abandon biblical truths and water down key doctrines, the result isn’t growing churches and people professing the name of Jesus. The opposite is true. Visit the local theologically liberal Baptist Church and then visit the average Baptist Church and you will see a significant difference in attendance and ministry output.  These churches whose basic message is,  “God didn’t say“, are an irrelevance and they endanger people‘s eternal status by driving them away from the Lord Jesus Christ.

As Tom Hollands says, 

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

It also doesn’t help when Christians see so little relevance of the Gospel in their daily living and are often more captured by the promises of the Aussie dreams than they are by God and his purposes. Why would anyone consider Christianity when the Gospel seems to leave little dent in the lives of Christians?

While the media will make bundles of hay out of the Census data today, I don’t think anyone is really surprised. As I’ve suggested, there is something good about clearing the decks. There is also something to mourn. And like churches have done for millennia, as we look across our streets and suburbs what we must see are people who are made in the image of God and who are divorced from God and whom we wish to love and serve and to share the greatest news the world has ever known. With today’s announcement, there ought to be a conviction and even excitement that drives Christians to prayer and to holiness and to explaining with joy the wonder of God who loved his world so much that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him will not perish but have life everlasting. 

As Australians admit they are turning their back on God, there are other nations where the people are turning to Christianity in their millions. Christianity isn’t dead. As Jesus said the harvest is ready so let’s get to work.

How this Christian is responding to the Federal Election

“The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world.” (2 Corinthians 10:4)

Australia has a new Prime Minister and a new Federal Government.

Millions of Australians are happy and excited by what may come about as the result of Saturday’s Federal election. Millions of other Australians are disappointed and even angry and concerned by the political shift. A large number of more Australians, probably in the millions also, are despondent with politics in general. Christians will also be found across this political spectrum. Christians may or may not be less favourably disposed toward the new Government. It is certainly the case that no Government will fully align with or be supportive of every issue that is concerns Christians. Indeed, we should not expect this to be the case, for it is the church that is God’s centrepiece, not a human Government, and hope is found in Christ, not in any political system or party. Theonomy is a dangerous and anti-Christian notion, as much as hardline secularism opposes healthy pluralism and democracy. 

I am not intending to dig into my own political preferences, nor to offer here any sociological insights into what the election may or may not mean for Australia’s future. Such analysis is outside the scope of my interest here. The point I wish to make is a simple one. The observation ought to be an uncontroversial one, but knowing how polarised and tribal our communities are becoming, I think it is worth reminding ourselves of a basic Biblical imperative.

Regardless of how one may feel about the election result and who your local MP is or isn’t, there is a Scripture that remains compulsory for all Christians. And it is this,

“I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people— for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. This is good, and pleases God our Savior, who wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.” (1 Timothy 2:1-4)

I was reminded of this timeless word by Justin Moffatt, the Senior Minister at Church Hill in Sydney. He said,

“One of the things I like about the prayers in the Anglican Prayer Book is that we always pray for the government of the day, and we pray the same thing no matter who governs.

It moves effortlessly from one to the next, as though the problem of the world isn’t government, and the hope of the world were found elsewhere.”

Whatever our reaction to the election, Justin is right. This Christian imperative doesn’t necessarily legitimise or remove how we are feeling about the election outcome, but it ought to remind us of the bigger picture and it rightly reorients us to what is eternal and ultimately important. There ought to be a certain constancy, evenness, and repetition that is evident in our churches as we note the changing political landscape. 

Because we have the habit of assuming that we live in the worst of times (or the best) it’s good to remember the plasticity of that view. The Apostle Paul wrote his words at a time when the Roman Empire was expanding and where there was no political freedom and where opposition to Christianity was emboldened. This was not an easy time to confess Jesus is Lord and to belong to a local church. One of the Emperors during Paul’s ministry was Nero! Nonetheless, the Apostle commands the church in Ephesus to pray for those in authority. 

The duty of Christians around Australia has not changed. And yes, the language of duty is appropriate. There is a new Prime Minister in the new Government and with that will come all kinds of policies and decisions impacting the economic and social landscape of the country. Anthony Albanese and his team are taking the helm following a very difficult season in our nation’s country and I suspect the more difficult place ahead, especially in regard to the question of China. 

Prayer like 1 Timothy 2:1-4 can circumvent Christians from overly aligning with any single political movement, and over eschatologising hope in political agendas, rather than in the Gospel of Christ and God’s mission into the world. 

It is very easy to be swept up in the political narratives that are preached around the country. As Christians, we need to resist these (or at the very least, temper them) by instead reminding each other of the lordship of Christ and the purposes of God that are found in the gospel. I am not suggesting that followers of Jesus ignore the political process and not participate; not at all. We, as with all citizens, have the opportunity and responsibility to serve the common good of our nation, and this includes political discourse. ‘Love your neighbour’ remains a word for us today. However, the prayer in 1 Timothy 2 frees us from both the jubilation and the despair that accompanies political change. 

Of course, with any change of government, there will always be questions about the good and bad in changing policy and direction. Neither am I suggesting that Christians shouldn’t engage with these issues and offer advice and opinion. When choosing to do so, we must however be clear about God’s mission and his character and not be dragged into compromising the gospel for the sake of political expediency. A new government may bring about significant change and re-ordering of social policy and moral direction; it’s naive to suggest otherwise. Nonetheless, as the Apostle Paul reminds Timothy in Ephesus, we know and pray to God who is sovereign over all things including governments and the nations. Our responsibility and opportunity as Christians remain the same: commit to God in prayer those in authority.

The duty of Christians in Australia has not changed. Pray for the new government and our political representatives. Live quiet and peaceful lives with all holiness. Keep the Gospel front and centre in both our hearts and lives and words, because God longs for people to be reconciled to him and come to a knowledge of the truth. Let us not allow our emotions and words to inhibit, disguise, or confuse this good news of God in Jesus Christ.

Bill Shorten said it right.

Since the 1960s societies like our own have pursued a moral outlook whereby the rules of life are thrown out in favour of personal autonomy and self-expression. The sentiment has existed far longer, but the sexual revolution provided the catalyst to make possible in public what was often lived out in private. However far from creating a hedonistic dreamland, we are turning the landscape into an unforgiving wasteland. 

The promises of sexual and social freedoms are now being met with education classes and workplace policies because we do not trust each other to act appropriately. Public figures who do or say something that even gives the appearance of impropriety are readily cancelled and publicly shamed. We have become expert fault finders, putting to shame the Puritans of old with our rules and public executions. 

Every word and gesture from our political leaders is noted and recorded and reported to the public in an instant whirlwind of media hysteria and political cannonading.

Yesterday it was the turn of Federal Labor leader Anthony Albanese. On the very first morning of the election campaign, Mr Albanese was asked two questions: what is the current unemployment rate and what is the cash rate? He was unable to answer either.  

Bill Shorten, who led Labor at the last Federal election, was asked this morning to comment on his leader’s error. Mr Shorten said,

“The last person who never made a mistake – we are celebrating Easter – was 2,000 years ago”.

I’ll leave the pundits to do their work in assessing the merits of Mr Shorten’s response. My interest here isn’t to speak to the politics. I wish to observe that Mr Shorten’s words are true, and even more astonishing than perhaps he realises. 

The last person who never made a mistake is Jesus Christ. Jesus lived in Judea 2,000 years ago. It was a period of tremendous political and social upheaval. Poverty abounded and social freedoms were anathema for most people. Life for populations living under Roman rule was hard and harsh. Into this world, came Jesus. 

Jesus’ life, his words and deeds consistently and unerringly testify to his human nature being without any sin. Instead, the historical records reveal how Jesus is the most selfless and compassionate, gentle, truthful and holy person ever to walk this earth. He always spoke the truth, even at great personal cost. He loved the loveless and showed kindness toward the discredited and despised in the community. He exercised Divine authority and power over every manner of evil and ill. As he journeyed to Jerusalem, questions over Jesus’ identity and mission heightened, who is this man? 

In so many ways Jesus was just like us: he ate and slept and worked and became tired, he expressed happiness and humour and he felt sadness and anger.  And yet, his character is blameless. People tried to find fault with him, especially the religious leaders of the day, and yet none could be found.

The Roman Governor, Pontius Pilate, oversaw Jesus’ trial. Upon examining Jesus, he could find no wrong in him. Pilate appealed to Jesus’ accusers, 

““I find no basis for a charge against him.”

The most remarkable fact about Jesus is not his sinless nature, although that is truly outstanding, it is that this innocent one chose a path of betrayal, suffering, and death.  The incredible fact of that first Easter is how the man without guilt resolved to die the death of the guilty. 

Why would a man of such promise, and possessing the character of God, choose to enter this world and embrace suffering, humiliation, and willingly face the most public and excruciating death that the Romans could devise? Was it a mistake?

Jesus didn’t die for our moral platitudes, platforms, and self-justifications, he died in the place of those who deserve to be cancelled by God.  On the third day, he rose from the grave, promising new life to everyone who believe.

“For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive in the Spirit.” (1 Peter 3:18)

As important as political elections are, this week we are approaching the weekend where we remember the definitive act of a loving God to redeem people with great fault.

There is far greater wonder and glory at Easter than we probably ever imagine, even for those who annually attend Easter church services. Our society rightly commemorates and thanks those who sacrifice their lives for the good of others. We even quote Jesus who said, “”Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13)”. On the cross, Jesus went even further, 

“You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”

This sublime world in which we live today with such advanced knowledge and ability has once again exposed our frailty and even culpability. Our uncertain world has been shaken by a pandemic and once again we are contemplating the possibility of global armed conflict. At home in Australia, we are wrestling with political disappointments and considerable social concerns. How much do we need a saviour who doesn’t make mistakes? 

Thinking Through Ukraine

A mother and daughter from my church are currently residing in Ukraine. Bombs have hit the city near where they are living. Thankfully, for now, they are safe. While internet connections have become unreliable, the mum has been able to send a message to one of our church members. For us at Mentone, as with many families across Australia, the events unfolding in Ukraine are more than just stories in the news.

I think it is fair to say that many people around the world are stunned by the audacity of President Putin’s actions, but we should not be surprised. I don’t believe these are the decisions of a madman but someone calculating with warranted confidence.  For more than a decade Russia has had military successes with incursions into Crimea, Georgia, Chechnya, and Syria. More than that, as the world looks at the West, they see moral decay and social disruption and division; no wonder they might conclude that they can act with impunity.  The insurmountable disaster of the withdrawal from Afghanistan won’t cause nations to tremble at the United States and her allies. Far from fear mongering or throwing around hubris, this is about understanding human nature:  Belief + power + opportunity can be a very dangerous mix.

The West has become the polar bear who with each new season finds it harder to uncover firm ground to stand on, and instead relies on jumping across tiny and shrinking blocks of floating ice. As we consciously and deliberately remove the very foundations upon which our societies formed and which a civil and healthy society requires,  we create a future that is less certain and less safe. While other nations are perhaps economically and militarily weaker, they have greater conviction and resolve.

Stan Grant writes,

“This is the sort of war the West does not know how to fight. It is not just about territory, or borders, or resources, or power. It is existential — it is about identity.” 

As far as I can see, the United States gives all the appearances of being supine. The United Nations is weak. NATO cuts their own hamstring. Russia is emboldened, and so will China and Iran. This war in Ukraine is only beginning and it is unlikely to end at her borders. Indeed, ominous days ahead.

As we watch the war unfold on the news, what should we do? 

First of all, humble ourselves before Almighty God and pray. 

We should follow the example of many Ukrainian Christians and pray. Prayer is not the helpless pleading of people to a blank sky, but the cries of people to God who remain Sovereign and good today, even in Ukraine. Naturally, many Westerners with their sense of intellectual smugness will laugh at such a notion. I dare them to voice their condescension toward the many Ukrainians who are praying in public space at the moment or the pastors who have led their families to safety and then returned to care for the people. 

Few of us have the influence to make foreign policy, introduce sanctions or to speak to global leaders, but we can pray to the God to whom all authorities will be held to account.

Second, it is right to feel anger. Most often our anger is wrong and sinful, but there are times when anger is not only justified but even required. When innocent blood is shed, when a human life is abused, and when a nation is invaded by another for the sake of greed and control, it is appropriate to sense and express indignation. President Putin is a despot with millions of Russian people living in fear and under his autocratic rule, and he has just invaded a Sovereign State and put at risk the lives of millions of people.

Third, remember, God will judge the wicked. 

As Christians, we know and believe God is love. God is a merciful Father who pours out grace upon human beings who pursue the most arrogant of ways. Christians affirm alongside the Apostle Paul, “ Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst”.

We also believe that God will judge the nations by his Son. Neither the small nor the great are exempt. Ukraine’s UN representative, Sergiy Kyslytsya gave an astonishing speech yesterday, one that I suspect will enter the annals of history. Addressing the United Nations Security Council, Ambassador Kyslytsya spoke directly to the Chair, the Russian Ambassador, 

“There is no purgatory for war criminals, they go straight to hell.”

Purgatory does not exist, but hell certainly does. The world needs a judge who will put right the wrongs committed. As a result of human limitations and at times ignorance and even complicity, much evil escapes justice in the moment. One thing Jesus Christ promises is that the wicked will not escape his justice.

Fourth, we need a biblical anthropology. 

It is our failure to understand and believe human nature, that causes our disbelief in events such as the one unfolding in Ukraine. On this point allow me to give an extended quote from ‘Symphony From the Great War’, a little book that I wrote a couple of years ago, as it sums up the point at hand:

“The paradox of the human condition bewilders: such inexplicable worth and wonder and yet constant and repeated reproach. The height of creative prodigy with the ability to love and to show kindness, and yet in our DNA are also traits that stick like the mud of Flanders, and which no degree of education or scientific treatment can excise. At the best of times, we contain and suppress such things, and at the worst, we can explode into a public and violent confrontation. The First World War wasn’t human madness; it was calculated depravity. It was genius used in the employment of destruction. This was a betrayal of Divine duty. I am not suggesting that this war was fought without any degree of moral integrity, for should we not defend the vulnerable? When an emerging global war sends signals of an aggressor’s intent to its neighbours, to what point must we remain on the sideline and permit bullying and harassment? At what juncture do allies speak up as a buttress for justice but not support words with deeds? How much politicising is mere virtue signalling? 

“War creates no absolutely new situation: it simply aggravates the permanent human situation so that we can no longer ignore it. Human life has always been lived on the edge of a precipice.” (C.S. Lewis)


The temptation is to conclude that lessons have been learned and today we move forward with inevitable evolution. While the superficial has progressed enormously, that is, with scientific, medical, and technological breakthroughs, and with cultures building bridges and better understanding differences. And yet, we mustn’t make the error in thinking that today we are somehow better suited to the task of humanity. This is an anthropological fallacy of cosmic repercussions. The bloodletting has not subsided; it’s just that we exercise our barbarity with clinical precision or behind closed doors. We continue to postulate and protect all manner of ignominious attitudes and actions, but these are often sanctioned by popular demand and therefore excused. 

The world sees the doctrine of total depravity but cannot accept the veracity of this diagnosis of disease because doing so would seem to be leaving our children destitute, without hope for a better tomorrow. And yet surely wisdom causes us to look outside ourselves and beyond our institutions and authorities to find a cure for the disease that ails every past and future generation? 

It does not take a prophet to understand that the world will once again serve as the canvas for a gigantic bloodstain. There will be wars and rumours of wars. There will be small localised conflicts and globalisation will inevitably produce further large-scale violence, perhaps outweighing the experiences of the first two world wars. We may see and even learn from the past, but we project a fools’ paradise when we envision the human capacity to finally overcome evil. Religion is often no better a repose than the honest diatribes of Nietzsche and his philosophical descendants. Religion, ‘in the name of God’, is often complicit with death making and at times it is missing from the task of peacemaking, while other efforts are much like stacking sandbags against a flash flood: that is, hardly effective

Theologian Oliver O’ Donovan refers to the “nascent warrior culture” in the days of ancient Israel, some fourteen centuries before the coming of the Christ. This culture is perhaps no longer emerging in our world, but it is now long tried and tested among the nations. Does war intrude upon peace? Perhaps it is more accurate to say that war is interrupted by periods of relative peace and at times by ugly appeasement. Soon enough another ideologue and another authority tests the socio-political temperature and attempts to scale the ethereal stairs of Babel. 


The human predicament is perhaps a grotesque complement to the rising philosophical concerns of the late 19th Century. Karl Marx and Friedrich Nietzsche began dismantling the imago Dei with a new and devastating honesty. Far from discovering superior freedoms, they justified authoritarian systems of government and the mass sterilisation of ‘lesser’ human beings. To strip humanity of its origins is to leave us destitute and blind, but admitting this truth demands an epistemic and moral humility that few are willing to accept. Nietzsche was right, at least as far as his logic is concerned, that “the masses blink and say, ‘We are all equal – Man is but man, before God – we are equal.’ Before God! But now this God has died.” A contemporary of Nietsche, Anatole France retorted without regret, 

“It is almost impossible systematically to constitute a natural moral law. Nature has no principles. She furnishes us with no reason to believe that human life is to be respected. Nature, in her indifference, makes no distinction between good and evil.”

If optimism seems out of place and if pessimism is a crushing and untenable alternative, where does the future lie? The lush green cemeteries of the Western Front with their gleaming white headstones convey a respectful and yet somewhat misleading definition of war. This halcyon scene covers over a land that was torn open and exposed the capacity of man to destroy. Perhaps, as a concession, the dead have received a quiet bed until the end of time, but the serenity of this sight mustn’t be misconstrued in any way to deify war or to minimise the sheer horror that befell so many. In part, we want to learn and so avoid repeating history, and yet history shouts to us a message that we don’t wish to accept.

There is ancient wisdom that stands tall in the midst of time. There are words which demand closer inspection by those who are seeking to exegete the past and to consider an alternate tomorrow. Every step removed from this wisdom signals further hubris that we can ill afford, but epistemic humility and confession may well reorient the compass toward he who offers peace instead of war, life instead of death, and love instead of hate: 

“Why do the nations conspire

    and the peoples plot in vain?

The kings of the earth rise up

    and the rulers band together

    against the Lord and against his anointed, saying,

“Let us break their chains

    and throw off their shackles.”

The One enthroned in heaven laughs;

    the Lord scoffs at them.

He rebukes them in his anger

    and terrifies them in his wrath, saying,

“I have installed my king

    on Zion, my holy mountain.”

I will proclaim the Lord’s decree:

He said to me, “You are my son;

    today I have become your father.

Ask me,

    and I will make the nations your inheritance,

    the ends of the earth your possession.

You will break them with a rod of iron;

    you will dash them to pieces like pottery.”

Therefore, you kings, be wise;

    be warned, you rulers of the earth.

Serve the Lord with fear

    and celebrate his rule with trembling.

Kiss his son, or he will be angry

    and your way will lead to your destruction,

 for his wrath can flare up in a moment.

    Blessed are all who take refuge in him.

(Psalm 2)

Devonport: a word offered when no words can be found

A devastating tragedy struck the Tasmanian town of Devonport yesterday. On what should have been a fun filled celebration for Grade 6 children who were finishing their final day of primary school, became the worst of nightmares. Children were playing on a jumping castle when a sudden gust of wind swept it high into the air, before plummeting 10m to the earth. Five children have died and another four remain in critical condition. 

One dares not speak a word, for what can one say? Even as a parent with 3 children, what words can I utter? One cannot understand what these families are going through unless one has already experienced such loss ourselves. How do we make sense of the senseless? The death of any child is beyond words, but five lost to such circumstances? The reporter on the news last night added the note that this accident has happened so close to Christmas.

I don’t think the proximity to Christmas makes this awfulness any more harrowing than it already is. But perhaps there is something in the Christmas story that touches and empathises with the inexplicable. 

Soon after Jesus’ birth, a tragic incident occurred in Bethlehem, and it forms part of the Christmas story. It is part of the original Christmas although we don’t often read it. And fair enough, it was a terrible event that involved the deaths of many little children.

“A voice is heard in Ramah,

    weeping and great mourning,

Rachel weeping for her children

    and refusing to be comforted,

    because they are no more.”

There are words in Scripture that speak the word of unspeakable grief in losing a child. The circumstances and time and place are different but they nonetheless echo the human heart. Indeed, those words from the prophet Jeremiah are all poignant and jarring for the loss of those little ones in Bethlehem following the birth of another child, the Christ.

This Son of God, whose name is Jesus,  would one day preach a sermon which today echoes through the generations and still pierces light and life into the darkness. In the address, Jesus spoke these words,

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.”

He is willing to comfort those who cannot be comforted.

On another occasion, in Jesus’ inaugural public address, he chose for his Bible text, verses from the book of Isaiah,

“the people living in darkness

    have seen a great light;

on those living in the land of the shadow of death

    a light has dawned.”

What an astonishing announcement, the darkness will not win. The shadow of death is long and thick, but its hold will not last forever. For you see, this same Jesus doesn’t only offer comfort, he has walked the path none of us wishes to undergo and yet will do so one day. He accepted the cross and descended to the dead so that he might punch through the darkness and bring the light of life that can never be dimmed.

We may struggle and grasp to find words to express our sorrow for these families in Devonport today, and that’s ok. For what can one say?  Sometimes all one can do is sit and quietly grieve. 

The one thing I can say to my fellow Aussies as we look on is this: the message of Christmas has a word to offer in every situation, even the darkest grief and unknown. Strip away Christmas from all the presents and food and decorations, and we uncover in the biblical story a God who hates death. He is appalled by it. He opposes it.  His only Son experienced the harrowing of that darkness, for us, that one day death may be defeated forever and all who call on him will know his resurrection power.

We cannot answer the ‘why’ of much that happens in life. The unfathomable can sit like an incurable pain. The Jesus of Christmas tells us there is one who knows and we can go to him, not because we can explain everything, but because he has already taken that journey through death and he has broken through to life again.