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?

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

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.

Australia and the secular mindset

“War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength.” 

What do we mean when we say, Australia is a secular state?

One of the popular myths circulating around Australia is that secular means freedom from religion. This myth has taken on almost legendary status, at times informing public policy and many an op-ed piece. Sadly, this kind of historical revisionism and hijacking of language isn’t rare, but it is effective: inject new meaning into a word or phrase and then repeat it often enough, and people will soon absorb, believe and adopt it soon enough.

It is no wonder that we often experience confusion in conversations with each other,; it’s because we understand important words to hold quite different meanings. 

In a recent exchange between Jane Caro and John Dickson, the issue of the secular state has once again come to the fore. The topic at hand is the school’s chaplaincy program. 

In Caro’s version of a ‘secular state’, God has no place in our schools. Writing for Rational Magazine, Caro presents her case as to “Why God has no place in public schools”. She says,

“To my mind, the very concept of religious education is an oxymoron. Education is meant to teach children how to think, not what to think. If you do the latter, it is not education; it is indoctrination and certainly should not be publicly subsidised.”

Historian John Dickson yesterday responded to Caro in the form of an open letter. Regardless of whether one supports chaplains in Government schools or not, John offers what I think is a fair and legitimate critique of Jane Caro’s argument. He outlines 6 flaws with her argument, but my interest here is the way they each think of the word, ‘secular’.

John refutes Caro’s view of secular. He writes,

“It seems to me that you fudge the word “secular”. The history of this word in political discourse makes plain that “secular” does not refer to the “exclusion of religion” from public life, whether from politics, education, the media, or whatever. It refers to the spheres of life that are not controlled by religion. When a healthy secular democracy shifts from “freedom of religion” — where anyone can choose to believe or not believe — to “freedom from religion” — which your article explicitly promotes — it is no longer either healthy or secular. At this point the word deserves the tag of an “-ism”. This is secularism, an ideology that seeks to keep religion out of important aspects of the live of our community.”

Dr Dickson is correct. Secular does not equal atheist. Secular does not mean ideological or theological neutrality. While the adjective is sometimes understood in these ways, this is not the historical meaning of secular in Australia’s political and social setting. The topic at hand, religion in schools, is a case in point.

Photo by Oleksandr Pidvalnyi on Pexels.com

The idea that education should be “free, compulsory, and secular” was settled in Victoria in 1872. This understanding of schooling became universal across Australian States in 1902. This concept of secular didn’t keep God out of school, rather it was a response to religious sectarianism. Secular education means that public schools should not be controlled by any single denomination. It was Protestant churches who strongly supported this approach to education.

Far from being atheist or religiously vacuus, the Australian secular education is about the promotion of pluralism and the healthy exchange of ideas (including religion). The approval of (and even encouragement of), Religious Instruction or Scripture classes in our schools is a historical example of the inclusive design of secular education. This is often done well, and sometimes poorly, but that is not the argument here. Our concern here is the principle guiding secular education.

In his excellent essay, Whose Religion? Which Secularism? Australia Has a Serious Religious Literacy Problem, Dr Michael Bird, explains how the parameters of secularism have been redefined in recent years from  “no longer as the freedom of the individual in religion, but as the scrubbing of religion from all public spheres.” 

“The Australian constitution was drawn up in this context, and Australia was intended as a secular nation. However, this secularity was never intended to sanitize the public square of religion. It was “secular” in the sense of ensuring that sectarian divisions in the old world would not be imported into the new.”

Whereas John Dickson understands ‘secular’ in its historical sense (which is important if we are to properly defend secular education), Jane Caro adopts what is a relatively new and now commonplace version of secular. In other words, Caro is less defending secular education as she is preaching for atheist education. Of greater interest to me here is how, once John presented the facts about Australia’s secularism, Caro doubled down as she retweeted comments such as, 

“No you are legally very wrong, we live in a secular society.

You may think it’s pluralistic but we have a Constitution that says otherwise. How have you not heard of “separation of church and state”.”

This is the unfortunate influence of doublespeak. We appeal to language that fits with a priori assumptions and preferences, and we reject definitional understanding when it clashes with those commitments (this is something we can all be guilty of doing). Whether we approve of Australia’s understanding of secular or not, John Dickson has accurately summarised the definition which has instigated, shaped and promoted Australia’s education systems and culture in general.

Caro concludes, “Australia is a secular country. It supports and celebrates citizens of all faiths and none. Freedom of religion and freedom from religion are among our core values. Our public schools must reflect that.” While her conclusion sounds attractive (and it is true, depending on how one unpacks the meaning of her chosen language), Caro’s meaning is that public schools must be emptied of religious influence.  This thinking is the fruit that comes from a faulty premise, that is, secular equals epistemological and moral neutrality. Of course, this doesn’t stack up on even a superficial level. Everyone brings to the table their own theological and moral commitments, which are always religious in some shape and form. Schools don’t only teach children how to think, but also what to think. Perhaps more than ever, schools are consciously shaping our children’s values.

As Jonathan Leeman observes in his book on political theology, 

“secular liberalism isn’t neutral, it steps into the public space with a ‘covert religion’, perhaps as liberal authoritarianism…the public realm is nothing less than the battle ground of gods, each vying to push the levers of power in its favour.”

Again, the meaning of language matters. This new version of secularism is far from ideologically neutral, as though removing religion makes education neutral. Instead, it is driven to educate, form and even control public life and policy. Indeed, Victoria’s Education Curriculum contains material that is not only antithetical to Islam, Judaism, and Christianity, but expressly describes mainstream religious beliefs as bigotry. Not only that, the new secular agenda (what I call, authoritarian secularism) doesn’t end at the division between public and private education or the public square or private life. The current Victorian Government recently passed laws limiting the freedom of religious schools to employ persons on the basis of their religious beliefs and practice. In other words, today’s secularists don’t believe in the division between church and state, but instead, they argue for a State overseeing Church.  I don’t know what Jane Caro thinks of this intrusion, but it would be interesting to find out. 

Australia is facing an important crossroad: will we uphold Aussie secularism and pluralism, or will we turn down the path of authoritarian secularism? 

Christians strongly believe in the separation of church and state. It is, after all, a historic Christian view. It was Jesus who said, 

“Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.”

Jesus wasn’t arguing for the exclusion of religious ideas from the political sphere and neither was he fusing them together. It is important to realise that the social pluralism we enjoy today is deeply embedded in Judeo-Christian beliefs. Indeed, Australia’s political and social pluralism is one of the byproducts of Christian theism. If, as some secularists want, we rid our culture of all public vestiges of Judeo-Christianity, we will in fact destroy the underpinnings for a healthy pluralistic society and instead create one that is far more authoritarian and far less tolerant. Do we want to take that road?

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.

Anglican General Synod votes ‘yes’ & in so doing discredits controversial Victorian Law

The big story coming out of the Anglican General Synod this year will be the 12 bishops who voted against Jesus’ definition of marriage (10 bishops voted to uphold Jesus’ teaching).

It’s encouraging to learn that a large majority of laity and clergy affirm this basic Christian belief. Nonetheless, it is tragic to see ecclesial leaders voting against God’s good purposes.  To quote the Anglican marriage rites, “those whom God has joined together let no one put asunder”. These 12 bishops have decidedly torn the Anglican communion union, with a question remaining whether it can be healed or not. In response to the bishops abrogating their office & Christian teaching, synod delegates took the unusual step of writing and signing a letter this morning,  calling on those bishops to repent and to affirm the biblical and historical view of marriage. 

Archbishop Kanishka Raffel moved the original motion to support marriage. He later said how he was “deeply disappointed that a majority of Bishops voted against making a clear statement. A valuable moment for clarity has been lost.”

While the bishop’s decision to block the motion on marriage is grievous, other and related issues have been discussed and decided, and these have ramifications beyond what the General Synod may realise. 

Two motions have been adopted by an overwhelming majority. 

The first motion upholds the view that sexual intimacy is reserved for marriage alone. Outside marriage, people are to be celibate. While the motion was sponsored by the Sydney Diocese it received wide affirmation across the country, including from Melbourne delegates. Although there was some opposition, with one delegate speaking with more candour than they perhaps released, “I object to this motion because it has a too strong of a reliance on Christ’s words…”

Perish the thought that Christians would rely too strongly on Jesus’ words! 11 Bishops voted against this basic instruction from Scripture!

A second motion was presented by Dani Treweek, affirming singleness.

“Affirms that singleness is, like marriage, an honourable state for God’s people, in which the fullness of God’s blessings may be enjoyed. Singleness is highly commended in Scripture (1 Cor 7:8, 32-38; Matt 19:10-12).”

In her speech, Dani observed,

“I fear that our reluctance to genuinely honour singleness is deeply informed by an underlying and often unspoken suspicion that singleness is an undesirable and even unliveable state. A large part of our reasoning for this is bound up in contemporary attitudes towards sex.

To live a potential lifetime without sex?
To never experience the joy of sexual union with another person.
To expect an unmarried Christian to resist sexual temptation till their life’s end?

The world around us sees such prospects as unthinkable… even cruel. And so it also sees the Christian aspiration of a chaste single life as unthinkable… even cruel”.

Dani righty presses against this popular narrative as she powerfully and autobiographically explains, 

“Chastity, sexual abstinence, celibacy… whatever word we might otherwise insert here… is not an oppressive and unrealistic burden placed upon single Christians. Rather, chastity is the single Christians way of valuing their God-given sexuality.

To put it more personally, chastity is not a cruel suppression of my sexuality as a single Christian. Instead it is my active and godly expression of the sexuality God has gifted to me.

Chastity is the way in which those of us who are unmarried are able to both value our sexuality as a gift given to us by God… and the way for us to demonstrate to others the great esteem with which we hold that gift.”

What makes these two motions interesting is that their application in the State of Victoria is illegal. 

Among the delegates voting and adopting these motions, are representatives from the Victorian dioceses. Indeed, a number of Melbournians spoke in support of the motion. The statements are straightforward and positive and Christian, and yet they cut against the grain of how people often view sex and fulfilment today. In Victoria, while these statements can be read out loud and the biblical principles explained in a public setting (i.e. preaching a sermon), counselling an individual along this line now sits outside the law.  Victoria’s new conversion and suppression laws prohibit any conversation, counsel or prayer that is perceived to convert or suppress a person’s gender identity or sexual orientation. To be very clear, the law isn’t limited to banning aversion practices and nonconsensual activity (everyone agrees such practices are wrong) but extends to prohibiting consensual prayer and conversation where the Bible’s sexual ethic is encouraged. For example, counselling a Christian same sex attracted man to stick with Jesus and remain celibate and single, is illegal. Setting a stand for church members of sexual godliness in conformity with Scripture is also contrary to the new laws.

Anyone falling foul of these new laws can be brought before a civil tribunal and even face criminal charges and up to 10 years imprisonment. In other words, Christians can hold to the principles (how very gracious of the Victorian government to allow Christians to believe what Christians have for 2000 years), but we cannot apply these principles to discipleship, pastoring, and rare cases of church discipline.

The motions about singleness are designed to encourage positive conversations about this oft forgotten people, so that churches can work harder at encouraging them and making church a community where they belong. As positive and faithful as these motions are, they are another reminder of how foreign and countercultural Christianity is in today’s Australia. I wonder if the Synod realises the implications of the position they have taken? Imagine the headline, “Australia’s Anglican Communion votes to oppose Victorian law”!  I suspect the relevance has eluded most.

As a non Anglican observing the proceedings, there are lessons for other Christian denominations to learn, follow and avoid. The bonds of peace and spiritual unity require more than a few litres of administrative glue and a splash of rhetorical clag! Thank God for congregation members and local church leaders who have resisted the Sirens call to shipwreck on the rocks of Scylla. Isn’t that temptation? The sound of societal acceptance is strong. The pull of holding onto comfort and power is magnetic. However, we will not serve Christ and his body well, and neither will we display the beauty and grace of God by abandoning what God has laid out in his word as true and good. Even as I write this, the General Synod has returned to the issue of marriage with some voices calling for same sex marriage to be accepted. Despite the ominous signs in the Anglican communion as some blow the sails closer to the rocks, there are also some encouraging signs among crew members as they faithfully navigate through these dangerous waters.

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? 

Do Churches have a Houston problem?

Brian Houston has resigned as global senior pastor of Hillsong Church, following an internal investigation. He was found to have breached the church’s code of conduct with incidents involving two women over the past 10 years.

Concerns have been levelled at Hillsong over what is perceived to be a long standing lack of transparency and even an unwillingness to deal with erring leaders. One senses that the Board is now trying to set the record straight but even yesterday’s press release fails the mark. As many are noting, it is inappropriate to announce the resignation of a pastor found guilty of mistreating women and in the same letter, praise the man.

“Irrespective of the circumstances around this, we can all agree that Brian and Bobbie have served God faithfully over many decades.”

I suspect it was unintentional but the fact is, this one sentence diminishes the seriousness of the offences against the two women and it fails to acknowledge the damage now caused to the public reputation of the Gospel due to Houston’s behaviour. 

If you are staggered and angry by Brian Houston’s behaviour toward these women and the excuses offered by Hillsong (medication and alcohol), you are right to feel this way. If this raises further suspicions and causes you to ask if there are more stories hiding and may be uncovered, that reaction is pretty natural. If this latest Hillsong revelation is causing you to lose trust in churches and their leaders, I understand. If you’re wondering, is church a safe place for women, again the question is understandable. It is reprehensible that any person should mistreat another no matter the setting; how much worse though when the man is considered a pastor over Christ’s Church. It should never be. 

Having said that, this is not an anti-Brian Houston post. Neither am I here to throw rhetorical rocks at Hillsong. I rarely speak about Hillsong, especially in the public domain. Readers won’t be surprised to learn that I have never been a fan of Hillsong. There have been serious question marks over their ‘brand’ of Christianity for more than 30 years. The thing is, Hillsong isn’t alone in admitting to sinful and failed leaders. There are examples appearing in all kinds of churches. There are failed church leaders who once oversaw churches and organisations that are fairly aligned with my own theological convictions. Whether it is Mark Driscoll, Jonathan Fletcher or Ravi Zacharias, and many names that never reach public attention, bullying, abuse, sexual sin,  and unfaithfulness is a contagion that crosses denomination lines and churches, and societies. Hillsong has become a popular football for media pundits to kick around, but a quick look in our own backyard may reveal that we also have serious issues with inappropriate and even wicked leaders.

Houston has fallen, let us be careful lest we follow him.

What are we going to do about the growing number of errant and disqualified leaders? On the one hand, the Bible warns us that such figures will arise and control and damage churches and people’s lives. On the other hand, the Bible also expects leaders to be godly and faithful and humble and servant-hearted. 

Last year we decided that our first sermon series for Mentone Baptist Church in 2022 would be First Timothy. This letter written by the Apostle Paul is concerned with right and godly leadership over the church. As an example, last Sunday I was preaching on chapter 3, a fearful passage for any preacher given it outlines qualifications for church overseers (pastors) and deacons. I am not mentioning this in order to convey some hubristic sense of godliness, as though Mentone is holding the high bar perfectly and without shakes and knocks. Rather, as we revisited these important Scriptures, I am reminded of how high God’s bar is for those desiring to serve as church leaders.

I suspect, one of our issues isn’t that churches think too much of the Bible, but that we think too little of Scripture. Our problem isn’t too much faith in God, but that we don’t really believe what God says. We are quite proficient at pointing the Bible at other people but less willing to let God address our own lives.

A Church cannot survive on the personality or prowess of the pastor(s). The health and future of any church runs far deeper than any individual’s desire or demand to lead.

Desire is one thing. 1 Timothy 3:1 indicates that “whoever aspires to be an overseer desires a noble task”.  However, desire alone is inadequate. Our broader culture might believe that we should pursue what we feel. We mustn’t let any ceiling prevent us from realising our desires. Paul notes that pastoring is a noble task, however, desire is not enough.  Desire is necessarily coupled with qualifications and these are qualifications that must be recognised in the candidate by the church.

In the case of 1 Timothy ch.3, there are 13 qualifications. The list isn’t designed to be comprehensive, for there are more attributes and responsibilities explored in other parts of the New Testament. However,  these 13 are non-negotiable and must form part of the resume for any who are suited for pastoral ministry. For anyone interested in an explanation of the qualifications, you can listen to the sermon I gave last Sunday (or read a good commentary). For the sake of brevity, I will just state each qualification here:

  • the overseer is to be above reproach,
  • faithful to his wife,
  • temperate, 
  • self-controlled,
  • respectable, 
  • hospitable, 
  • able to teach,
  • not given to drunkenness, 
  • not violent but gentle, 
  • not quarrelsome, 
  • not a lover of money. 
  • He must manage his own family well and see that his children obey him, and he must do so in a manner worthy of full respect. (If anyone does not know how to manage his own family, how can he take care of God’s church?) 
  • He must not be a recent convert, or he may become conceited and fall under the same judgment as the devil. 
  • He must also have a good reputation with outsiders, so that he will not fall into disgrace and into the devil’s trap.

Over the last 5 -10 years, the broader culture has resurrected the question of character. Does a politician’s private life matter when it comes to public office? Can we ignore a leader’s personal sins so long as we approve of their politics? Whether it is the case of Barnaby Joyce or Donald Trump or Tim Payne, our aspiring neo-puritan age is indicating that character does in fact matter…at least in those cases where leaders fall foul of the culture’s milieu. 

The Bible has always said that character matters in our leaders. Godliness is important in all our lives, and especially those who are appointed to lead. 

As one way of getting around the problem I recently heard an old adage repeated: the way we avoid bad leadership is by having no leaders in the church. In order to fulfil some egalitarian dream of the church, everyone should have an equal say and role. Perhaps that sounds appealing to you, but of course, that model of church contradicts the pattern laid out in Scripture and it’s also irresponsible. What ends up happening is that those with personality and power end up leading by default.

In addition to those essential qualities presented in 1 Timothy ch.3, I want to suggest these further 7 points that I believe will help churches in protecting the congregation and helping leaders from falling into grievous sin. Of course, no system is perfect, and any process can be misused, but any Christian Church must recognise how high the stakes are. At hand are things of greater consequence than we can grasp. It is not only the question of character that the Bible emphasises, it is the gravity of the pastor’s work. It is of such weight that we should hesitate before raising our hands for the job or before accepting a nominee.

“Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood.”

May I humbly present this offering, as I reflect on our own church and the near impossible task of shepherding the people who belong to God and have been purchased by the precious blood of Christ:

  1. Don’t be a pastor. Of course churches need pastors, both those training formally at theological college and those raised from within the congregation. It is ok to slow down. It is okay to realise that this isn’t for you. It is okay to say no.
  2. Insist on character. Churches, don’t sacrifice character. 
  3. Establish a plurality of leadership. The New Testament’s vision for healthy churches is not a solo pastor but of a plurality of elders and plurality of deacons who are accountable not only to each other but also to the church membership.
  4. Insist upon clear accountability structures that are readily observed.
  5. Insist upon a fair and accessible grievance process for everyone in the church.
  6. Pray for those who lead.
  7. Build a culture of transparency and trust. It is worthwhile quoting Paul’s letter once again. In the chapter following the qualifications for elders and deacons, Paul urges Timothy to lead by showing and sharing his life as well as his teaching. Paul comprehended the value and importance of transparency and trust, and he also understood saw the goal to which this pastoral oversight is pointing,

Be diligent in these matters; give yourself wholly to them, so that everyone may see your progress. Watch your life and doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers”.

When Schools Educate Children away from Christianity

A friend’s teenage son recently attended a high school excursion in the city. The day was focusing on empathy and learning skills to understand people who are different from ourselves. Sounds great! There we are discussions about homelessness and disabilities, which is great. Some of the day was about how to relate to LGBT people. It still sounds as though it may be useful. As part of the training, the presenter informed the kids that Christians are among the worst offenders in handing out bigotry. Christians are hateful people who cause all kinds of harm to LGBT people. Indeed, the school children were informed that parts of the Bible needs to be removed.

The boy spoke up in front of the class and explained that the trainer’s claims were untrue; that takes courage. One can imagine how his views were received. The poor kid went home having been essentially made to feel that he and his family were awful people on account of their Christian faith…and his entire class now know it!

Let’s leave aside the overdose of irony about an ‘empathy’ training event teaching kids that Christians are the worst and are bigots, and so are parts of the Bible, the claim is simply not true.

This presenter is simply repeating the popular lie which alleges disagreement equals hate. The correlation is both intellectually and morally insipid. Take Jesus for example. Jesus Christ disagreed with all manner of beliefs and behaviour (including sex outside marriage) and yet he is the most loving person ever to have lived. Indeed, it is his love that drives him to disprove ideas and actions that contradict God’s good purposes. Jesus even went to the cross and willingly gave his life for people who actively opposed him in every way imaginable. Activists, politicians and educators may repeat the mantra a thousand times, but disagreeing on important matters is not equivalent to bigotry and hatred. 

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

And notice the gall of the presenter, who in the name of tolerance and acceptance, felt confident to tell a class of school children about all those hateful Christians and their hateful Bible. According to the group’s website, this organisation teaches 1000s of school children every year; imagine what other messages they have pushed onto children.

In a reasonable world, one might assume that defaming a religion in front of school children would be unacceptable. Surely inclusion includes Christians? Imagine the public outcry if a school program taught that Islam was evil or that Jews held abhorrent beliefs? Common sense ought to lead parents to trust that schools will object and never use the program again. But in today’s world, schools will probably shy away from doing the right thing because the fear of being outed by activists is tangible and the very long and judgemental arm of the Government is also quite real. 

We put trust in our schools who in turn place a lot of responsibility on these outside groups to deliver material in a considered and constructive way. People may remember the incident at Parkdale Secondary College last year when another group, addressing similar issues, asked all the white heterosexual Christian boys to stand up, and then berated them and told the class that these boys were responsible for the ills of our society.

In this particular case, I believe the school is disappointed by what occurred, but that’s the problem, schools are often in the dark as to what these outside groups are teaching our children. 

Schools are unlikely to go as far as formally objecting to these program providers and desist in using their services; they can’t afford to make such a stand in this age of public outrage. To push back on program content is interpreted as questioning the new ideology and that’s an automatic red card. The school will be branded as phobic and relentlessly so. Let the reader understand, Christian kids will either become forced converts to the new ideology or they will be sacrificed at the altar of today’s gods.

What happened to my friend’s child is no longer unusual. Believing that men and women are men and women, and holding to the classical view of marriage is considered anathema, and reforming these social ‘delinquents’ has become the task of the State. Educating and pressuring them away from the Christian faith is fast becoming normalised in Victoria’s Education system.

What makes this particular incident more egregious is that the organisation in question is connected to a supposed Christian Church. It would be laughable if it were not so serious. Of course, such Churches have long abandoned the faith. They long ago sold their soul and dumped Christian beliefs for the sum of social acceptance and admiration. In one sense they are forced to do so because without the Gospel they have no reason to exist other than to become advocates for the latest moral trends.

Parents, know what your children are being taught. When your children attend special seminars and lessons with outside groups, do your homework and find out what’s going on. Ask the school in advance for information about what will be taught. Debrief with your children afterwards. Listen to their questions with lots of patience and love. Remind them that God’s ways are good and show them how to persist with kindness and grace when our schoolmates disagree.  Lest you think this is only an issue in Government schools, this is now widespread among private and independent schools.

When I was at school 30 years ago Christians were tolerated but thought to be stupid. Today, Christians are evil. It’s a different world!

This latest story reminds me that things are not getting easier. We don’t need to jump into the pit of apocalyptic excesses to realise that following Jesus is becoming harder. The front line is school as much as it is the university or the workplace. The pressure on our children to give up what they know to be true now forms part of their school education. This reinforces how important home life is and the role of parents to display, teach, love, and pray for our children. I am reminded of how vital church is, to be that safe place where children can explore the faith and learn to trust God and to be encouraged and equipped throughout the week. 

We might be tempted to respond by withdrawing or self isolating from all these influences and pressures. I understand the pull, and there are times when we must make changes for the sake of our kids’ wellbeing. My general encouragement is, equip your children to navigate this course for they will face it beyond school and long after they have left home. I also suspect our churches need to invest more heavily in discipling our parents so that they are better equipped for the task. And don’t give up praying for them.