The Unity and Diversity Paradox

Is it a rabbit or is it a duck?

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The nature of unity and diversity within Christianity has captivated and confused churches, denominations and Christian organisations for centuries. Unity and diversity can sometimes seem like polar opposites, and yet they can co-exist and in the Gospel we find that they do. However, what does the unity/diversity paradox look like in a Christian Church? What does it mean to be united? How diverse should we be and diverse in what?
Navigating the waters of unity and diversity can be trickier than piloting a supertanker up Port Phillip Bay, but it’s made even harder if we ignore the navigation system that is provided for ships to follow. For that reason, we must turn to the Bible and ask what does the Bible teach us about unity and diversity in the Christian Church?

The Bible affirms unity

The Gospel of Jesus Christ is God’s instrument that brings humanity to God. The Gospel isn’t an indefinable feeling or idea; the Gospel is a message that has concrete meaning and significance. The Gospel is God’s good news about Jesus Christ, his atoning death on the cross and his resurrection from the dead. At the heart of this message is God’s gracious gift of justification that we receive through faith in Christ.
We discover that through this Gospel of Jesus Christ, God has made two relationships possible: we are united to God (Eph 2:13, 16-18) and we are united to each other (2:14-15, 20). Christian unity begins and continues through faith in this Gospel.
In Ephesians chapter 4 the Apostle Paul stresses the importance of and joy of Christian unity. He is focusing on the local church, but nonetheless, Paul’s theology extends beyond the parameters of the local gathering of believers. We do not establish Christian unity, that work belongs alone to Christ through his shed blood on the cross and by the Spirit of God who unites us firstly to God in Christ, and through him to one another (Eph 2:11-22). Yet Paul insists that we need to work hard at maintaining this unity and growing this unity. Growing unity will be expressed through works of service, love, speaking the truth in love, and Christian maturity (which necessarily includes theological maturity, not diversity). It is interesting to note that this increasing sense of unity grows out of the ministry of the word (4:11).
There is sometimes a false dichotomy introduced between relationship and doctrine as though unity is found by being in relationship with one another, as opposed to doctrine which has the propensity to divide. However, unity is a commitment grounded in common assent to the Gospel; it is both relational and doctrinal (i.e. 1 Tim 4:16). Two ingredients are necessary for authentic unity to grow and mature: love and truth (both are found in and come from Christ). In Ephesians 4 Paul describes this dynamic growth as stemming from the ministry of the word of God. As the word of God rules the Church, her people are equipped for works of service and the outcome is maturity, strengthening, speaking the truth in love, and growth. Interestingly, when truth is absent or hidden, the effect on the church is devastating,
“Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming” (4:14).

The Bible affirms diversity

Ephesians ch.2 wonderfully describes the power of the Gospel to break down the barrier between Jew and Gentile; by the shed blood of Christ, the two people become one.
Gospel unity is not uniformity. There is a type of diversity that is to be welcomed and even desired. In the Gospel, God draws together men & women, young and old, people from every race and language, and from different cultures. Such demographic diversity reflects God’s purposes in the world.
Within the local church, there is also a diversity of gifts given by God, and there are many different opportunities to serve the body and to love the local community.
A further reality is that no single church can reach every person from every culture and place. Thus a diversity of churches in different places and with various cultural expressions is natural and laudable.
What about theological diversity? To my knowledge nowhere does the New Testament encourage or endorse a diversity of theological persuasions. There a couple of places that suggest that this may occur (ie the weaker brother in Romans 13) but it is a recognition of a situation rather than being something desired. There are, however, many examples where the Bible condemns theological diversity and proponents of those teachings are spoken of in the most severe manner.
Theological diversity is a reality, but it is not a desirable one and at times it requires churches to respond. I want to make note of the following examples of theological diversity:
i. This is one significant reason for the existence of denominations.
ii. A different standard exists for leaders than for congregation members (cf 1 & 2 Timothy, Titus 1:5-16; James 3:1). While new Christians have a newly found love for God, it is normal for them to have many questions and lack discernment over many theological matters (cf.1 Timothy 3:6). Leaders, however, are rightly expected to hold deeply to the faith and to be disciplined when they err.
iii. While there are no unimportant doctrines, Christians have historically believed that some doctrines are more central than others. Even in the New Testament, we have a suggestion that certain beliefs are primary. Paul, for example, outlines in 1 Corinthians 15:3-8 matters of ‘primary importance’. Christians have historically disagreed over matters like church governance, baptism, Charismatic gifts and eschatology, but over many other matters, any disagreement has been rightly deemed heterodox.
iv. Important to contemporary debates is 1 Timothy 1:8-11:
           “We know that the law is good if one uses it properly. 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, 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 that conforms to the gospel concerning the glory of the blessed God, which he entrusted to me.”
This passage is relevant to our discussion on unity and diversity for several reasons: sound doctrine is integrally connected to the Gospel, and we learn that sinful acts also contradict sound doctrine. There is no room for redefining sins as good and accepting them as Christians practices. If the Bible teaches that a particular act is sinful and keeps people from God’s Kingdom and is a reason for God to reveal his wrath, then there can be no doubt that to accept diversity of opinion here is to deny unity in the Gospel

Solving the unity/diversity tension

When it comes to applying this tension to actual relationships we should be aware of our own natural preferences, which may be to emphasise unity over diversity or diversity over unity. We all have blind spots, which is why we need to humbly return again and again to God’s word for correction and direction.
True Gospel unity and diversity is stunning; the alternatives shouldn’t be entertained. When God says something “is contrary to the sound doctrine that conforms to the gospel concerning the glory of the blessed God,” we must listen and obey. It is not enough for us to say that we agree with Paul, for if we then proceed to claim unity with someone who denies Paul we become complicit with them against Scripture; we have decided against Scripture that it is right to partner with persons (or groups) that hold views contrary to the Gospel. If the Gospel of Jesus is the thing that unites us and it is rejected, then what is it that unites?
I began with this article with a maritime metaphor and I want to conclude with a building metaphor from Ezekiel. In Ezekiel 13:9-11 God speaks of a “flimsy wall” being built and of the builders whitewashing the wall in order to hide its poor construction. When Christians attempt to build an organisation without strong foundations and firm doctrinal convictions we end up with a flimsy wall. We can dress it up with colourful paint and make it look attractive, and we can draw smiley faces around it, but the rain will eventually wash off the paint and the wind will tear it down.
We have established that the Gospel brings both unity and diversity, but both are given parameters by Scripture. The proper beginning point is a clearly articulated and defended exposition of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Diversity of age, culture, race, etc flows out of the singular Gospel. In other words, the unity/diversity paradox that Churches and many Christian organisations face will only be resolved when we believe and practice the unity and diversity that is found in Christ, as explained by the Scriptures.
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This is an updated version of an article posted at mentonebaptist.com.au from 2013

Help Australians to understand the Bible

It has been reported today that Raelene Castle, the Chief Executive Officer of Rugby Australia, would still have sacked Israel Folau had he only posted Bible verses stated in the hearing against Israel Folau that she would have sacked him, even if the only thing he did was to post

Miranda Devine writes,

“Raelene ­Castle effectively damned the Bible as hate speech in astonishing unreported testimony at Israel Folau’s code of conduct hearing in May.

She declared it is the Bible itself which is offensive when she testified before a panel of three judges who went on to find Folau guilty of a “high level breach” for posting a biblical quote calling on “drunks, homosexuals, adulterers, liars, fornicators, thieves, atheists and idolaters” to repent or face hell.

Castle told panel chairman John West, QC, that some biblical passages are unacceptable, and that even if Folau had posted a photocopy of a Bible page, he still would have been sacked.

West asked Castle: “What if Mr Folau had photocopied passages from the Bible and simply posted that on his ­social media pages, would that have caused a problem for you?”

Castle replied: “I think it depends on which ones — which pages he photocopied.”

West asked: “If he’d photocopied the passages that are referred to in the posts would that have caused a problem for you?”

Castle, “Yes it would have.” 

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Bible in the Victorian Parliamentary Library

The Bible itself is apparently offensive and to be defined as hate speech.  Today’s revelations are not the first instance of throwing the Bible onto the bonfire of popular opinion. Gregory Callaghan suggested in The Age yesterday that,

“If we continued to take every biblical injunction seriously, slavery, the subjugation of women, stoning, cutting off hands, and being barred from wearing clothes woven of two kinds of fabric would be still in force.”

We have an issue in Australia with widespread biblical illiteracy and ignorance. It is a self-fulfilling prophecy that shouldn’t surprise anyone, given the deliberate fashion in which we have turned our backs on Christianity over a period of decades.  Some people fear what they do not understand and others dislike what they do understand and cannot accept.

Is the Bible really to be considered hate speech? Are we really at the place in Australian society where quoting the Bible can be used as material evidence against an individual?

This isn’t the first in history where the broad society has misunderstood and misrepresented what Christians believe. This is an ancient problem.  Remember the good old days in the Roman Empire? Pliny the Younger, the Roman Governor of Bithynia et Pontus, assumed that the Christian practice of the Lord’s Supper consisted of Christians eating the flesh and drinking the blood of fellow human beings. He also believed that all that Christian talk about brothers and sisters involved some sexual appetite for incest. What happened to the Christians in Bithynia? Filled with a fountain of misinformation and insisting that they also adhere to the cult of the Emperor, he began to have them systematically imprisoned and executed.

Thank God that we don’t live in one of the many countries that still practice this kind of punishment on Christians (and other minorities). What is new today is that the West (including Australia) has had centuries of Christian teaching, access to the Bible, and freedom to read, study and explore the meaning of the Scriptures. We are not living in first century Rome. At yet basic Bible knowledge and grasping that the  Bible is to be understood in light of the person and work of Jesus Christ escapes the attention of many.

We have a Bible comprehension problem. Churches are not always helpful on this front, as many sell their soul for an esteemed role in the marketplace and for public congratulations. How can outsiders understand the Bible if Christian preachers carry a pair of scissors in their pocket, and cutting out any teaching that contravenes society’s dogma?  If Churches are not reading and teaching the Bible faithfully how can we expect anyone else to be getting it right?

Jesus documented a similar issue in his day,

“Even after Jesus had performed so many signs in their presence, they still would not believe in him. This was to fulfill the word of Isaiah the prophet:

“Lord, who has believed our message
and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?”

 For this reason they could not believe, because, as Isaiah says elsewhere:

“He has blinded their eyes
and hardened their hearts,
so they can neither see with their eyes,
nor understand with their hearts,
nor turn—and I would heal them.”

 Isaiah said this because he saw Jesus’ glory and spoke about him.

 Yet at the same time many even among the leaders believed in him. But because of the Pharisees they would not openly acknowledge their faith for fear they would be put out of the synagogue; for they loved human praise more than praise from God.” (John 12)

 

My advice to Christians is this:

  1. Make sure that the public reading and preaching of the Bible is front and centre at all your Church services. Why wouldn’t it be?
  2. Make the reading and teaching of the Bible foundational to all your Church ministries. If it’s not, why not?
  3. Find ways to help your broader community engage with the Bible. Ask your friends, have they ever read the Bible and would they be interested to do so with you? Could you start up a group for interested people in a local school or community hall? Show people how to read and interpret the Bible. Share with people why the Bible informs and it transforms for good.

Raelene Castle has launched into a world familiar to many people of faith who have escaped oppressive nations, but this is unusual for Australia. To call out in a formal disciplinary tribunal that the Bible amounts to hate speech is extraordinary. This is an extraordinary step in the latest of a series of ridiculous cultural malpractice. Don’t be fooled,  she will find substantial support among our cultural elites. But is she on to something? Does the Bible never disagree with our moral inclinations? Do the Scriptures never cause discomfort? While the Bible is never hate speech, it is a dangerous book. Entire nations have changed on account of the Bible. Cultures have shifted toward enlightenment and progress on account of the Bible. Fairer societies have been built, slavery outlawed, fair working conditions for the poor, homes for orphans and the elderly, and in fact, much of the fruit we enjoy today finds its roots in ideas stemming from Biblical revelation.

“For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.” (Hebrews 4:12)

Let’s not waste the season God gives

On Saturday, Greg Clarke (former CEO of the Bible Society, Australia) sent out the following tweet,

“I remember as a young Christian at University in the 80s when we felt we would have to work really hard in Australia to ‘keep the rumour of God alive’. At the moment, it’s wall to wall God stuff.”

Greg Clarke is right. I’m not aged well enough to remember university in the 1980s but we don’t have to peer so far. Even looking back a few short years, I remember Christians being frustrated and saddened by the fact that God was absent from most conversations and seemed to be rarely on people’s agendas. It was as though the culture was erasing God for the public conscience, and it was only a small number of persistent believers who could jump-start God into the conversation.

Australia is experiencing are the most unusual season at the moment. For three months social media has been filled with conversations about religion and God and Christianity, and every day there is more reporting and more opinion pieces published about Christianity. Who would have guessed that the topic of hell would become an election issue? For a nation that is supposedly post-Christian and secular, we are engaging in a significant national conversation where God features.

To be sure, some of the conversations are less than edifying. Not all, but some reporting is little more than crude and unoriginal Christian bashing. Some of the commentary that is passing for Christianity is nothing of the sort. There are also atheists defending Christians. Even Professor Peter Singer, who preaches some of the most repugnant ideas that can be heard anywhere in the world today, last week wrote a constructive and reasoned article in support of Israel Folau. Other remarks come from well-meaning Christians, who are nonetheless being unhelpful and take conversations down misguided paths. There is also much anger being vented from various quarters and doubling down on caricatures of different people and ideas.

To argue that there is no issue of religious freedom in Australia is to close your eyes and ears to the growing number of cases that are being disclosed in many areas of Australian life, from sport to business and to education. Sure, as human beings we are sometimes guilty of exaggerating the socio-political climate; we are not living in the Soviet Union and this isn’t 1984. But neither is the culture static and neutral. I find it ironic that the voices most ardently insisting that there is no agenda to limit religious freedoms, are those lauding Rugby Australia for sacking Israel Folau and those urging for Christians Schools to lose their funding if they don’t subscribe to the sexual revolution, and on and on the list continues. Religious freedom is one of the pivotal tests of this generation. Without it we lose the capacity to be a truly pluralistic society. This topic should matter to all Australians, whether we are Christian or Jewish or Hindu or atheist. Do we really want to live in a State where corporate business dictates religious doctrine and where Government defines theological values? I have detailed this case on other occasions, my aim here is to underline another matter that is even more close to my heart.

As I read and agreed with Greg’s tweet, I thought a little more and my attention turned to 2 Corinthians chapters 5 and 6 (which I am currently preaching through at Mentone). For example, in 6:2 God defines the age in which we are living. He does not say that this is a post-Christian or post-modern or post or pre anything age. Rather, the announcement is,

“I tell you, now is the time of God’s favor, now is the day of salvation.”

Not was, not might be, and not maybe one future day, but today. The epoch of history in which we live is the day of salvation. That’s exciting!

Is the current Australian discourse on religion a final gasp before we venture into a new and intolerant and irrational era of religious restrictions, or will common sense prevail? We don’t know yet. What interests me is the fact that talk about God and Christ and the Bible is filling newspapers paragraphs and trending on social media every day at the moment. Have not Christians been praying for opportunities to give the reason for the hope we have? Do we not ask God for conversations where introducing Jesus is a natural progression?

That day is today.

Brothers and sisters in Christ, we can let this season slip past our attention, or we can engage in loving and useful ways.

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Here are 3 suggestions.

First, we can pray. Let us pray often, repeatedly, fervently for God to make known his Gospel love, just as he has shown us great mercy and kindness. Pray for our fellow Australians, regardless of their worldview and moral inclinations. If we are praying for them, we will have no time or desire to be spiteful or demeaning toward them.

We have the opportunity to break the cultural narrative and show Christ-like love to those who are vulnerable.  At Church this morning we prayed,

“Father in Heaven, help us to uphold your holiness and goodness. In an age of sexual confusion teach us clarity and to trust that your ways are good. May we present your Gospel with love and gentleness, patience and care. May Mentone Baptist Church be a safe place for people to investigate Christianity, to be welcomed and encouraged.”

Second, let us love

Be the best of friend, the most loyal work colleague, the gentle and helpful student, and be a kind voice on social media. Offer hospitality and ask permission to share the message that has changed our own lives.

Third, let us speak

In 2 Corinthian 5:11-18, the Apostle Paul employs 3 verbs to describe his intent in evangelising: persuasion, compulsion, and regard.

 “Since, then, we know what it is to fear the Lord, we try to persuade others. What we are is plain to God, and I hope it is also plain to your conscience. 12 We are not trying to commend ourselves to you again, but are giving you an opportunity to take pride in us, so that you can answer those who take pride in what is seen rather than in what is in the heart. 13 If we are “out of our mind,” as some say, it is for God; if we are in our right mind, it is for you. 14 For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died. 15 And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again.

16 So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer. 17 Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! 18 All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: 19 that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation.”

First, Christian evangelism is not compulsion, it is clear and passionate persuasion, presenting the facts of Jesus Christ and leaving it for people to make their decision. Second, it is not bigotry or ignorance motivating Christian evangelism but love; we don’t want anyone missing out on the astonishing benefits that come from knowing Jesus Christ. As one reads through the above portion of the Bible we don’t see any picture of oppression or forced faith, but freedom that surpasses any temporary offerings. Third, we ought to regard people not through the grid of any current cultural paradigm but through the sense of God’s good news about Jesus. This means we may not affirm every belief, idea, and action but we fight for the dignity of every person.

When it comes to the art of persuasion most often this is best done away from sharing thoughts and articles of social media, but instead taking an interest in the lives of people around us, listening to the dreams and fears of work colleagues and friends, and sharing how we believe Jesus is the ultimate answer.

In my opinion, the most unhelpful and loudest critics that I’ve heard during the Folau controversy are not from gay and lesbian Australians, but from comfortable and secure North Shore Sydneysiders who take virtue signaling to a new level. I have also heard about other social media interactions that hurt and insult people, and where gay and lesbians feel denigrated. Christians need to stand alongside gay and lesbian Aussies against such vitriol. A case in point is Israel Folau today speaking against those who have abused Magda Szubanski online for her sharing an opinion about the Rugby player.

This is no time to be sticking our heads in Bondi’s sand or holidaying in New Zealand. The whole nation is talking about Christianity. If God is right, and “now is the time of salvation”, let us be praying and loving and speaking.

The world’s best food is found in Menton(e)

Mentone has been awarded one of the world’s most prestigious culinary titles, “the world’s best restaurant.” This highly charged competition creates a stir every year as judges tour the world, noting the restaurants that offered them the finest dining experiences. Restaurants and Chefs rise to global attention, while others are shunned. Taste buds, noses, and eyes survey plates, tables, and venues, looking for originality, composition, and that good old subjective sense of ‘wow’.

In the recent award ceremony held in Singapore, the world’s best restaurant for 2019 has been given to Mentone! Yes, we are on the map! Global recognition has finally reached this beachside area.

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Ok, the award is for Mentone France, not Mentone in Melbourne. And in Mentone, they drop the final e, making it Menton. There does exist a close relationship between two towns for Mentone is named after Menton; just that one knows how to spell this English name and the other doesn’t!

The Menton restaurant that has been awarded this prestigious title is Mirazur.

Mirazur is described in the following way:

What makes it special: Unrivalled views of the French Riviera, three levels of cascading vegetable gardens churning out the sweetest produce and a team of outrageously talented cooks and front-of-house staff combine to make Mirazur the ultimate restaurant experience. Mauro Colagreco’s unique cuisine is inspired by the sea, the mountains and the restaurant’s own gardens, including Menton’s emblematic citrus fruits.”

I like to eat delicious food. I appreciate fine food. Susan and I once enjoyed a meal at last year’s “world’s best restaurant”, years before it was recognised as such.

It would be pretty cool if Mirazur had opened its doors in the Mentone of the south. We could do with a few locations for foodies. Mentone may not be a choice suburb for fine dining, but we do have a food experience of another kind, and I reckon it is even better. In contrast to this restaurant that sounds truly quite amazing, Mentone (Baptist Church) is serving up a very different meal. This meal costs a huge price and yet it is free. It is deeply satisfying and yet we are welcomed to eat and drink some more. It is intense in flavour and yet delicate on the palate. It is beautiful to behold and yet it is not pretentious.

At Mentone, we don’t expend all our energy on the packaging. No one is photographing what we serve. The building in which we meet looks as though it belongs to a vintage garage sale. The people are quite ordinary in appearance. The website doesn’t have the habit of making viewers drool at the sight of artistically plated courses. The meal, however, is worth everything.

The meal is in the message, and the message is about a person. It is God’s loving message about his Son, Jesus Christ. The message is one that engages the mind and moves the heart and feeds the soul.

Jesus said,

“I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” (John 6:35)

Do not work for food that spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For on him God the Father has placed his seal of approval.” (John 6:27)

““Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” (John 4:13-14)

This meal is regularly available to anyone who wants to visit Mentone, and indeed many of the other Churches around Melbourne that love Jesus. Churches are not interested in awards, community recognition, or popular adulations (or at least we ought not). We have been invited to eat at the grandest table, not because we are rich or famous or because we have the right contacts in the culinary world, but on account of a loving God who hates spiritual destitution and dereliction.

To the poor, to the hurting, to the hungry goes this invitation. A table filled not with egos but with gratitude, not with critics intent on deconstructing the slightest fault, but hearts and stomachs filled with unspeakable delight and joy.

I love good food. For one reason or another, I’ve had the opportunity to sit down at a table of some of the world’s great restaurants. These are memorable experiences, for which as a Christian I can acknowledge the creative genius of men and women and enjoy the astonishing tastes and smells of God’s creation. The best of food is like viewing a Picasso or Pollock, only that you get to eat it. But these delectable delights are momentary and passing compared to the food that God offers in Jesus Christ. In fact, heaven is described as a banquet, the supersize table where forever God’s family are welcomed to enjoy him and one another and a feast without ending. You see, Christianity doesn’t starve the intellect, the body, or the soul, the Christ of the Bible stimulates the senses and amazes us with the deepest satisfaction.

To those who can afford to eat out and enjoy the world’s best restaurants, there is better food available for your body and your soul. Why live for that which ends up in the toilet when we can eat food that gives eternal life?

To the majority who can never afford to pay for such a luxurious food experience, God offers food that will never spoil or perish, and that one day will make Kings and Chefs envious for that they passed it up in favour of a short-lived morsel.

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.

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.