Bishop Curry: Preacher of love and Persecutor of the Church?

“give your servant a discerning heart to govern your people and to distinguish between right and wrong.” (1 Kings 3:9)

Who is wise? Let them realize these things. Who is discerning? Let them understand. The ways of the Lord are right; the righteous walk in them, but the rebellious stumble in them. (Hosea 14:9)

 

The world fell in love with Bishop Michael Curry last year as he delivered the sermon at the royal wedding. Even Christians were smiling and laughing at his wit and mesmerised at his storytelling, and nodding in agreement each time he spoke of love. He left convention behind, ignoring the stale, stuffy, and short sermonette that everyone has become accustomed to for a royal event, and he instead preached a long humorous monologue about love.

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Prior to this sermon which stole the news headlines around the world for days to come, few people had ever heard of Bishop Michael Curry outside The Episcopal Church (TEC), of which he is the Presiding Bishop. Within moments of beginning his homily, social media lit up with Christians and atheists alike, gleaming and expressing likes all-round.

Some voices dared challenge the message and the preacher; I was one of them. I understood why Curry’s sermon might appeal to non-Christians; his words sounded awfully like their own secular worldview, except that he added the idea of God to the conversation. But many Christians were disappointed and even angry by the fact that some Christian leaders questioned the royal sermon. Even when concerns were more fully expressed, some swiped them away as though we were throwing mud at a great man of God.

His sermon was stamped ex cathedra, out of bounds to any criticism. He mentioned love and God, and Jesus was thrown in somewhere, so what’s the problem? Jump off the critic’s chair and join the crowds in celebrating Bishop Curry and his message of love!

Earlier this week, a story reported that this preacher of love is perhaps less loving that he has been made out to be. Indeed, he is less like Apostle Paul who wrote 1 Corinthians 13 and more like Saul, the persecutor of the church.

Christian Today has reported that,

“The head of the US Episcopal Church has taken disciplinary action against the Bishop of Albany for opposing same-sex marriage ceremonies. 

Presiding Bishop, the Most Rev Michael Curry, moved to restrict part of Bishop William Love’s ministry after he introduced a policy in the diocese last year preventing churches from performing gay weddings.” 

The Bishop famed for his sermon on love has moved to discipline a local bishop who believes in upholding the biblical understanding of marriage.

In 2015, Episcopal Church’s General Convention protected dioceses who banned the practice of same-sex weddings, but those protections were removed last year. Bishop Love has instead chosen to follow what he believes is congruent with God’s word and to guard his congregations against damaging teaching and ceremonies. Bishop Love has responded to Curry’s disciplinary action, saying that his policy reflected the official teaching of the Church that marriage is between one man and one woman, and that no resolutions from the General Convention had overridden this. 

Before anyone assumes that this is the first of such instances, Michael Curry has a history of persecuting clergy and churches who don’t support his progressive views of sexuality and marriage.

This was one of the important facts that was whitewashed amidst all the public adulations being heaped on Michael Curry in the wake of the wedding; not only does he deny the biblical definition of marriage, he presides as Bishop over a denomination which has taken its own churches to court in order to remove them from buildings and property, on account that these churches won’t cave into theological liberalism. Michel Curry has been and continues to be one of the chief protagonists responsible for fracturing the Anglican communion not only in America but worldwide.

Curry’s latest actions against a local bishop are just another example of this man who preaches love and practices persecution.

It grieves me to know that while brothers and sisters in Christ in the United States are counting the cost for faithfulness to the Gospel, many other Christians remember that royal wedding sermon with fondness. It perhaps shouldn’t surprise us, but it ought to trouble us, that with a few slick words spoken at a wedding, Christians have sided with the world and decided that Curry’s heterodox beliefs and practices shouldn’t discount the warmth people enjoyed by his presence as he stood and spoke behind that pulpit in St Georges Chapel. It’s almost as though, for the sake of lapping up a captivating presentation, we are prepared to ignore reality and to toss out God’s loving truth, even when these things are made transparent to us.

Let us pray for and learn discernment. Let us side with those who are persecuted, and not with the persecutors. Pray for the churches and clergy who remain in The Episcopal Church and remain in Christ. And ask God that he might lovingly bring Michael Curry to repentance, just as God so graciously did for Paul on that road to Damascus.

Our Summer Vacation wasn’t a time for missing out on Church

“the gospel is bearing fruit and growing throughout the whole world—just as it has been doing among you since the day you heard it and truly understood God’s grace” (Colossians 1:6)

This year we decided to escape one month of the Australian summer by heading for the northern hemisphere. Susan and I had the opportunity to take an overseas holiday with our children, and so we packed our winter coats and gloves, grabbed the passports, made a dash across the equator and didn’t stop for 18000km.

We marched up The Mall to Buckingham Palace. We joined the Tottenham hoards at Wembley Stadium for an EPL game. We toured Lord’s Cricket Ground, wandered the galleries at Tate Modern, drove through Flanders and the First World War battlefields, spent days walking through the beautiful city of Paris, eating a ridiculous amount of tasty French breads and cakes, and finally, a mountain of bbq pork and daily yum cha in the enticing city of Hong Kong. Yes, it was amazing and alluring and many other adjectives beginning with the letter ‘a’.

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Amidst visiting and enjoying many wonderful sights, foods, and experiences, there was something else even greater and most astonishing, something we didn’t want to miss out on. To non-Christians, this may sound daft, and sadly, even among many Christians. What could possibly outdo the many places and tastes that garnished our holiday? What beats lunch in Paris and shopping at Selfridges? Answer? It was spending time with God’s people each Sunday. That’s right, the highlight of our trip was Church.

I admit it,  I don’t leap out of bed every week for church, let alone when I’m on holidays. It’s not that I don’t want to be with church, but rather, I’m exhausted, in every sense of the word. Nevertheless, I take Hebrews 10:23-24 seriously, and I have a beautiful wife who spurs me on even when I’m lacking motivation. And after all, when Christians in China are facing arrest and imprisonment for gathering together as Church, how can I justify nonattendance because I’m on holiday?

I remind my own congregation that regularly meeting with God’s people is both a command and a comfort, an exhortation and encouragement. Just as eating food is necessary and delicious, so church for the Christian is both vital and pleasing, nourishing the soul and feeding the body. That means, we need time with God, in his word, and with his people, even when I’m on vacation.

We visited several churches during our time away: 3 in London, 1 in Lille (France), and 1 in Hong Kong. We met people for the first time, who were already brothers and sisters on account of Christ. We sat among a French-speaking Church and heard the name of Jesus sung and preached with joyful earnestness. We watched another Church not only accommodate but love special needs children in the most natural and beautiful way; their spasmodic noises and motions were not an interruption to the service but were warmly embraced as part of their worship to God.

On our final Sunday before heading home to Melbourne, we listened to a sermon which captured wonderfully a truth that we experienced throughout our time away.

An old friend, John Percival, serves as the Senior Pastor of Ambassador International Church in Hong Kong. John opened the Scriptures to Colossians 1:1-8.

I was immediately struck by verses 3- 6, which reads,

“We always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, when we pray for you, because we have heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love you have for all God’s people—  the faith and love that spring from the hope stored up for you in heaven and about which you have already heard in the true message of the gospel 6 that has come to you. In the same way, the gospel is bearing fruit and growing throughout the whole world—just as it has been doing among you since the day you heard it and truly understood God’s grace.”

What I noticed is how the churches we visited are an embodiment of Colossians 1:3-6 (at the very least, this was our experience of them, as it is has been our joy and privilege in serving at Mentone Baptist for the past 14 years).

Each of the Churches we visited prayed for the nations and for the Gospel to advance throughout the world. They gave thanks for God’s grace at work in bringing people to Christ. The preachers pointed people to the Lord Jesus and called them to believe in him and put their hope in Christ and not the things of this world. It is always exciting to see these words spoken to a small town church 2000 years ago are still working today in the lives of congregations in different parts of the world, and knowing that it is the same Gospel at work in our own lives. And so, just as Paul thanked God for the Gospel at work among the Colossians, I am thankful to God for evidence of his grace among these churches

Our time away was beneficial for many reasons, and among them was seeing again how the Apostolic word is continuing to bear fruit all over the world, just as God said would happen. The same good news that we believe at Mentone Baptist is held by women and men 17000km away. The same message that is preached at Mentone is being proclaimed to people across continents in other languages. The same message that Paul speaks to the Colossians is, 21 Centuries later, still bearing fruit all over the world.

As in the years that have already past by, 2019 will no doubt provide us will another onslaught of church naysayers and Gospel skeptics. We’ll hear unbelievers knock the message of the cross and laugh at the notion of resurrection, and we’ll read about clergy doing the very same thing. New leadership gurus and theological “pioneers” will give advice about how we need to be more ‘radical’ and more ‘revolutionary’ in our approaches to ministry (as though innovation is the Gospel).

Instead, I have been refreshed by words that speak of a faith, love and hope that is growing among churches, born from hearing and understanding God’s grace, “true message of the gospel”. 

You see, if we had chosen the ‘easier’ path and not bothered to find a Bible-believing local church, if we had instead skipped church so that I could catch up on lost sleep or see more sights and try new things, we would have missed out on this great encouragement from God. I would have given up Divine food for stuffing myself with a few stale chips, such are medieval buildings, fashion houses, and restaurants, in comparison with what God is growing throughout the whole world.

So as I return to Melbourne and to a new year of pastoral ministry at Mentone, having enjoyed a time away and seeing God’s world and taking pleasure in many wonders of human intellectual and creative exercise. More importantly, I am reminded of the one Gospel which in 2019 will give birth to faith, love, and hope, and being reminded how these things grow together in and through the life of the local church.

The Pruning of Australian Christianity

Does God sometimes allow non-Christians to do the work Churches should be doing themselves?

God used Nebuchadnezzar and the Babylonians as a weapon of judgement against Judah, and God used Cyrus as an instrument to bring God’s people back to the land and to see the Temple rebuilt.

While we cannot say with certainty that any specific person or organisation has been handed the pruning shears by God (for the simple reason, God hasn’t told us), we do know from the Scriptures that God is concerned with cutting off dead branches, pruning lives branches, and bearing fruit in the lives of his disciples.

In John ch.15 Jesus uses one of his many analogies to describe his relationship with his people, namely that of the vine and branches.

Jesus says,

 “I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful. You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you. Remain in me, as I also remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me.

“I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. If you do not remain in me, you are like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned. If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.”

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There is no doubt that churches have been entangled in many scandals in recent years. Clergy have been guilty of committing terrible abuses on children, while other ecclesial authorities have at times hidden these crimes. Popular preachers have been called out for marital unfaithfulness, embezzling money, acting like mini-dictators, and saying some really dumb and unwise things relating to an array of social and political issues.

Australia has a band of public figures and journalists who are always quick to castigate, shame, and then to investigate, all manner of evils perpetrated by Christians (and by people of various kinds of religious perspectives). This is no bad thing, for why should Christians be given a jail free pass, simply because they allege a diplomatic Jesus card?

At the same time, Churches and Christians are being increasingly condemned for believing and practising things that are in line with their Scriptures. Whereas abusing children is abhorrent and aberrant to the Christian faith, believing in heterosexual only marriage is consistent with biblical and historical Christianity, and yet many do not care for such moral distinctions.

With the redefinition of marriage, only the most naive maintained that nothing would change; after all, the entire point of altering the marriage act was to create further societal change. The flow on effects has not been a flood, but it is a regular trickle and one that is far from finishing. Whether the bathroom tap is dripping slowly or water is pouring out of the faucet, the end result is the same, the sink fills up and floods the room.

Australian laws have and are changing, and the cultural narrative has is shifting faster than the writing of a cheap romance novel. Dozens of Australians have already faced the prospect of losing their jobs or businesses because of their religious convictions on marriage. Now it is religious schools who are being targeted. Indeed without carefully considered legislation,  the only religious schools that will remain in 10 years are those who have given up their convictions and fully subscribed to the religion of secular humanism. Hardline secularists will not be content to leave the agenda in the political arena or in schools. Next stop is the family home and after that, the local church. For example, if the Australian Labor Party platform becomes law, parents may face losing their children if they do not actively support a child who wishes to change their gender. Australians may soon be compelled to ignore biological fact and instead identify people according to their own chosen gender, and face anti-discrimination tribunals and prosecution should they decline to do so. And while Churches have some protections, it is delusional to conclude that teaching a Christian view of marriage will remain unchallenged by secular authorities.

Part of the problem is that the broader Australian culture has lost its cognitive awareness, rarely knowing what is and isn’t Christianity (and this blurring will only increase as Governments further squeeze out Christian education and religious freedoms); let’s return to the good old days of Pliny the Younger, who assumed the Lord’s Supper consisted of Christians eating the flesh and drinking the blood of fellow human beings! Weeds, plants, trees, and grass, all look the same, and the temptation to mow it all down is too great for some. This unfortunate and unsurprising trend toward religious ignorance is one reason why our society struggles to differentiate between the real sins in Churches and Churches who are properly exercising their faith.

Another problem is that in the world of today’s social media madness, the noise is at a crescendo, with people shouting and screaming at everything they don’t like, forgetting that not everything that they disagree with is necessarily wrong or harmful or evil. Religious and irreligious people are both guilty of the unsociable new norm, and it’s a worrying trend because when the volume reaches triple forte, it becomes near impossible to any worthwhile and important discourse.

Juxtaposed to these Metallica like screams is a deathly quiet that we find in some religious quarters. Rare moments of stillness can be of some value, but we should not confuse the appearance of saint-like silent meditation with spiritual authenticity; sometimes it’s nothing more than a magician’s trick to hide cowardice or complicity.

You see, at one level we can’t blame the culture, because it defines good and bad by its own standards, even if those moral lines keep moving around like a cat chasing a laser light. We are not expecting secular Australia to define moral goodness according to the Christian faith, because we understand, even as Jesus taught, that the two are not synonymous.

It’s not as though God’s righteousness is only true for the Church and is irrelevant to the outside world, for there is nothing in creation that escapes God’s good design and intent. The entire cosmos, including Governments, is subject to the rule of God, and yet they are in a state of rebellion, whereas the Church is meant to be a redeemed people, a city on the hill revealing the glory of Christ.

The greater responsibility lays with Churches and religious organisations, who have too often neglected the faith once for all delivered, and have instead adopted the moral and epistemological posture of the prevailing culture.

One of the persistent problems we have in Australia is with many Christian leaders failing in their responsibility. They have failed to stand for orthodox teaching. Instead of refuting bad and dangerous doctrines, these ideas are promoted and taught, or they give a silent endorsement. After all, can anyone really say that they know what the Bible says? Surely, only a puffed-up bigoted Pharisee would ever suggest that Biblical truth is clear and mandated? While far too many theologians and pastors have hired smoke machines to create ambiguity over pretty much every Christian doctrine, others have failed to act against bullies and abusers, perhaps through incompetence, and more often, through neglect or not being willing to pay the cost.

The question is if Churches are unclear about discipleship and if Church leaders are failing to fulfill their ordained responsibilities, perhaps God will employ another to do that all-important work of pruning?

I understand why some Aussies look at our backyard and conclude that religion in general, and Christianity especially, is waning. The culture has shifted, and every leaf and twig not conforming to the new pattern will be picked off for mulch. But that is to misunderstand what is happening. When a tree is pruned, it looks so bare and feeble that some might mistake it for being dead. That was certainly the reported diagnosis in the wake of last year’s national census, and with regular reminders about church closures and dipping church attendances. Is the Church dying? Is Christianity on the way out? Or is God in the process of cutting off dead branches and pruning those that bear fruit?

While many Australian Christians are concerned with happenings both inside Churches and in our surrounding communities, it would be wrong to respond with despair or hopelessness. It is a work of grace that God so loves his church that he attends to it: watering, feeding, and yes even pruning her. The vine is Jesus, and the branches are those who have been united with him. Remaining in Jesus is the only way to be fruitful, and remaining in Him is to remain in his word, namely to keep trusting and obeying his words. 

Surely we can be thankful as dead Christendom is removed from the scene, and while the culture isn’t savvy enough to discern between real and fake Christianity, the season can also be used of God to refine and prepare. In other words, pruning may hurt, but it’s good, and it’s the necessary prelude to a bumper crop. 

 

 

 


This is an updated piece from Sept 2018

The War Never Ends

William Campbell exchanged a coal mine for a trench, a cap for a soldier’s helmet, one shovel for another and added a rifle with fixed bayonet*.

Born in Wallsend, NSW, my great-grandfather joined the ranks of the 35th Battalion, 3rd Division, known famously as ‘Newcastle’s own’. We don’t know much about William Campbell’s experience of war. No stories have been passed on through the generation, and until a couple of years ago, I didn’t know that he had sought in the Great War.

He was shipped out to England in 1916 where the newly formed Division trained and trained and prepared to fight in France. Their commanding officer was a General who was yet to make his name, John Monash. Prior to Christmas they arrived in France and settled into a ‘quiet’ sector of the front, just east of Ypres.

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My great-grandfather is not remembered for any heroics. In fact, almost nothing has been recalled of his service in the First World War. He had a habit of going AWOL, and was even imprisoned at one stage for doing so. He was often sick and sent to a hospital in England. He survived the first weeks of frontline warfare, during the cold of winter and venturing on raiding parties across no man’s land. He fought at Messines, witnessing the tremendous mine explosions made famous in the film, Beneath Hill 60. Hundreds of his fellow soldiers were injured or killed in a gas attack the night before. He and the surviving members of his Battalion went over the top and drove the Germans back. Nine months later he was wounded at Villers Bretonneux, with the official war record stating that he ‘remained at duty’, but was later invalided to the UK.

I don’t know the reasons why William Campbell habitually ran off from his unit and from hospital. Was it fear? Was it an Aussie larrikinism taken to the extreme? Did his first sight and smell of battle push him over the edge? Perhaps so, but he did return to fight another day. By war’s end, he was disgraced and was never allowed to collect his medals.

This Sunday marks the 100th anniversary of the end to the war that was to end all wars. After four years of violent bloodshed, with 12 million dead (including 60,000 Australian dead), the time was set for the final volley of cannon and rifle shot. At 11am on the 11th day of the 11th month, 1918, the guns fell silent on the Western Front.

On that day William Campbell was detained in barracks and so he missed the eery and long forgotten tranquility that reappeared over Flander’s fields. Whatever his actions, both good and wrong, he went home and most of his mates did not.

This Sunday’s commemoration of the end of the First World War is worthy of attention. In part, we remember because it signifies the cessation of awful sacrifice. We must not forget or ignore the past. We should not neglect the blood of Australians that has been offered up for the security and stability of the nation. We also remember, more horrifically, that this date served as a catalyst to even greater and bloodier conflicts throughout the 20th Century: the Russian Revolution and the rise of Communism, the birth of fascism and 70 million dead of the Second World War, the so-called Cold War that piled the dead into untold millions more.

War begets war. Violence encourages violence.

Human beings have colossal value. It is why we fight so vigorously for life and it is why death appalls us so. The First World War revealed to modern man what we are capable of achieving when we are resolute. With the Enlightenment and Nietzsche’s declaration of the ‘death of God’ we did not evolve into better people, rather, we invented ways to more effectively wage war. It is true that the First World War so appalled some nations, including Great Britain, that in the 1930s they did their utmost to blow away the storm clouds of Nazism through diplomacy. War is hell, and damn to hell those who want another war.

We are being naive to believe that the world will not again witness warfare with such brutality. While recent wars may not have resulted in as great a loss of life for Western nations, we are largely ignorant of the huge numbers of casualties suffered over the last 20 years in Central Africa and in the Middle East. And this is only taking into account conflict through war, and not the many other issues that devour humanity.

We need a new paradigm for dealing with human conflict. We need an alternative narrative. The First World War reminds us of the glory and shame of humanity, and of the repeated incredulity of believing that we can be our own Saviour. Surely the First World War ought to cause us to turn from ourselves and to seek one who is greater than us and better than us, and who is loving enough to remove the greed and selfishness that is at the heart of these conflicts, and to change us and fill us with a love for our neighbour as ourselves.

Human warfare ought to provoke in us a desire for peace, and it should at the very least cause us to consider the One who claims to be the Prince of Peace. After all, if the last 100 years teaches us anything, it is that despite all our intelligence and sacrifice and our strength and ingenuity,  we are unable to produce a lasting and true peace for this world.

In the book of Revelation we are told that Jesus Christ redeems, rules and judges through the sword of his mouth, which is the word of God (1:16; 2:12; 19:15). Christians have sometimes forgotten this crucial truth, but more often they have lived by it. The Kingdom of God and the rule of peace comes through the proclamation of this Gospel of Jesus Christ. Men and women are turned from being God’s enemies to enjoying his peace through this Gospel, and as they are united to God in amazing love and joy they are also reconciled together. Jesus spoke of the love demonstrated by laying down one’s life for a friend. The Bible speaks of an even greater love that we would do well to adopt, “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us…if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life” (Romans 5:8 and 10).

This is a battle won not by the strong and the wise, but by a good God who redeems the weak and the sinful. In this, the Gospel of Jesus Christ turns the world upside turn in order to make it right. Instead of power corrupting and power destroying, God’s power is saving. Imagine God coming into the world, and laying down his life for his enemies. Imagine, while understanding and condemning all our wrongdoing, he yet offers us lasting peace and reconciliation, bought by blood but not our own, but with the willing once for all sacrifice of Jesus Christ for us.

Australian society, like many Western cultures, is now further entrenched in Nietzsche’s proclamation. We may not all believe God is actually dead, but we certainly think he is irrelevant. Maybe take him out on special occasions, pray a prayer on Remembrance Day, but be quick to close the good book until the next auspicious occasion. What if we’ve been wrong all this time? What if the slaughter of humanity signals not the failure of God but the persistent unbelief of humanity to believe the grace of God?

 

 

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*His stated occupation was in fact ‘fireman’, but the battalion he joined was largely made up of Newcastle coal miners.

Part of this article was first published by the Gospel Coalition Australia as part of the centenary commemorations of Gallipoli in 2015

A return to common sense pluralism in Victoria?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Replacing Safe Schools with a curriculum safe for our children

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

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

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

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

Don’t fall for revisionist views of secularism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is not about imposition, this is about recognition.

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

An intolerant secularism that is claiming the public space.

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

Barney Zwartz made this astute comment in the The Age,

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

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

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

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

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

Concerns with ‘Awakening Australia’ remain

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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