The Dividing Church: When a Denomination Chooses Syncretism

“Elijah went before the people and said, “How long will you waver between two opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal is God, follow him.”

But the people said nothing.” (1 Kings 18:21)

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Last week the 15th Assembly of the Uniting Church of Australia adopted a motion to permit same-sex marriage for their churches.

According to reporting by Eternity newspaper,

“The vote means the church will provide a choice of marriage services. A new marriage rite will be written for “two persons” to marry, and will sit alongside the UCA’s existing marriage service for men and women. This is often described as a “Two integrities” solution which attempts to allow two beliefs about marriage to co-exist in the one church structure.”

In other words, the Uniting Church has embraced same-sex marriage, but it is willing to give each minister and church, freedom to choose whether they will conduct marriages along the classical definition of marriage or according to the newly adopted definition.

The deal is being packaged as a triumph for diversity, and a celebration of recognising the rights of people to marry whomever they wish. However, once we’ve stripped the rhetoric of its layer of spray paint, what’s left behind is good old-fashioned syncretism.

How is the Uniting Church’s embracing syncretism?

Syncretism is the practice of merging two or more religions (or ideologies) together, often with the pretense of preserving the purity of one or of both. Syncretism is frowned upon in the Bible because of who God is. When God revealed his law Exodus 20,

“You shall have no other gods before me.

 “You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below.  You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me,  but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.”

The history of Israel in the Old Testament is replete with examples of syncretism. God likens syncretism to spiritual adultery.

“Has a nation ever changed its gods?

    (Yet they are not gods at all.)

But my people have exchanged their glorious God

    for worthless idols.

12 Be appalled at this, you heavens,

    and shudder with great horror,”

declares the Lord.

13 “My people have committed two sins:

They have forsaken me,

    the spring of living water,

and have dug their own cisterns,

    broken cisterns that cannot hold water.” (Jeremiah 2:11-13)

Of course, syncretism can take many forms. It may be that a Church identifies too closely with a particular political ideology, or takes on board practices from other religions. Jesus forced the issue when it came to wealth. He said,

“No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.” (Luke 16:13)

The reasons behind Israel’s choice of marrying other religions with their own varied. Sometimes they were convinced that other gods were more real and vital. On occasion, they endorsed new religious beliefs for sake of securing political power and retaining their social standing. Most often, these alternate religions preached a moral latitude that gave permission for practices that the people to embrace. It is interesting to note how often syncretism was accompanied with revisionist views on sexuality.

One of the important questions is, how do we know that the Uniting Church’s decision is out of line with orthodox Christian teaching? We could turn to church history, where we will find no endorsement of such practices until the most recent of years. We could observe how the majority of Christian churches around the world today continue to uphold the classical view of marriage. We should especially turn to the Bible where we find a clear definition of marriage, and where all other sexual practices and relationships are defined as porneia. In fact, the Bible views these alternate arrangements with such gravity that they are described in terms of keeping people out of the kingdom of God and being against sound doctrine and opposing the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ.

Vaughan Roberts is an Anglican Minister who has shared his own personal testimony of being same-sex attracted. In a recent interview at GACFON, Roberts noted,

“We cannot ‘agree to disagree’ on core convictions of the apostolic gospel, sexual sin is one of those.”

Archbishop Peter Jensen, speaking of the current troubles in the worldwide Anglican Communion, has suggested that what’s going on is the creation of new religion,

“What the liberal Americans did was to so breach the tradition – at a pretty vital point – that it has begun to create a new religion.”

By adopting two separate marriage definitions, the Uniting Church is saying that Christians can believe in both, and that we can practice both. The fact that an individual church can decide which version of marriage to adopt doesn’t retrieve the situation, for these two reasons: First, the denomination has clearly affirmed same-sex marriage as a moral good which Christians can embrace.  Second, the local Uniting Church, even should it hold to classical marriage, is nonetheless in union with other churches who no longer subscribe to orthodox Christianity. A question is, was the  Apostle Paul right when he suggested,

“For what do righteousness and wickedness have in common? Or what fellowship can light have with darkness?

Where to from here?

 

1. Anyone can fall

In the age when instant isn’t fast enough, no one wants to slow down like the NBN or be caught in the gridlock along Hoddle Street. When a new cultural wave hits our shores, we want the ride and we want to be among the first. One of the problems with the current swell is that it’s simultaneously popular and perilous. It sometimes feels as though the majority of Australian organisations and public voices are riding this latest wave of the sexual revolution, and it is hard to stand against it, and it’s even harder to pull out once you’ve been drawn in.

It is of little surprise that the Uniting Church is the first major denomination in Australia to take this decision,  and while most other denominations are unlikely to push ahead with redefining marriage for everyone, the idea of a “two integrities solution” may be seen as a viable option for other denominations who are trying to appease everyone. As I’ve already shown, it is no solution at all.

It is a challenging time for Christianity in Australia. Indeed, it is more grievous than last year’s events which led to the legalization of same-sex marriage in our country. It is one thing for society at large to make decisions relating to moral issues, but it is incumbent upon Churches to adhere to the theological and ethicals standards laid out by God in the Scriptures.

Churches always face tensions and temptations. None of us are beyond erring, should we take our eyes off the Lord Jesus. I pray that as the broader Christian Churches observe what has transpired in the Uniting Church, that we won’t respond with pride or with spiteful and unhelpful words, but humbly ask God to check our own hearts and desires, and ask him to keep us faithful to Christ.

2. This adds to Gospel confusion

The decision made by the Uniting Church of Australia doesn’t resolve confusion about Christianity; it makes it worse. It’s one of the ridiculous ideas that often dictates dying churches and denominations; they see their salvation from obscurity in becoming more like the culture.

The thing is, LGBT people matter so much, that we are failing to love them should we embrace same-sex marriage. It is not hatred that says, marriage is for a man and a woman, it is trusting God and believing that his ways are good.

Churches are 100% made up of men and women who in many ways have deconstructed God’s purposes and justified attitudes that are downright awful. Too many Churches, in trying to affirm classical marriage, have also tainted Gospel witness by exuding self-righteousness and demeaning their LGBT neighbours. Christianity is not, ‘we are better than you’, but that ‘we are like everyone else and in God’s grace he has gifted us now a better way’.

3. Be ready to welcome orphans from the Uniting Church

After Mount Carmel, Elijah felt overwhelmed by the experience and alone. God reminded him that he wasn’t the only remaining who was trusting Him, there were thousands more.
There are already Uniting Church members who are leaving their churches and looking for new churches to call home. Churches across the country need to welcome these brothers and sisters, to encourage them and care for them.

4. Pray

Above all, pray. Pray for the many Christians within the Uniting Church who have difficult conversations and decisions ahead of them. We can thank God for the faithfulness of those who have stood on the Gospel, in the face of what would have been a very difficult week. There are many important discussions to be had about the future of congregations who are choosing the Evangelical faith over the neo-Baalamism that has been introduced. We can pray that God fills them with wisdom and honours their faithfulness.

Baptists believe in Freedom of Association

Until Friday, I had never heard of Logan Robertson or Pillar Baptist Church in Queensland. Today, all Australia knows his name.

Logan Robertson and two other men have been charged with public nuisance offences following events that took place during the week at two Brisbane mosques. The incidents were ugly, offensive, and without warrant.

Mr Robertson is a New Zealand national who has already gained notoriety in his homeland for extreme religious views, including being subject to a police investigation regarding his public conduct. Prior to entering Australia a year ago, Robertson was cautioned about his behavior. Tonight he is in custody and will be shortly deported back to New Zealand.

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To begin with, along with Christians across the country, I wish to apologise to our Muslim Australians who were subjected to Robertson’s unruly conduct. People of any religion should be permitted to worship in freedom and without threat. We have seen other nasty incidents in recent months, usually with Christian churches and groups being targeted. On this occasion though,  the perpetrators were a group who purport to be Christian. We do not want Westboro or Münster type religious fanatics interfering with peoples religious freedoms, regardless of what their religion may be.

It is understandable that this story has made headline news across the country; this is a time when religious freedom is a topic of national conversation and we await the Government’s report on the Ruddock review. In the middle of these discussions, here is a ‘Christian’ minister intruding on a Muslim time of prayer and intimidating worshippers, including teenage boys.

Why does this matter? There are two issues here. First, there is the criminal charges and social ills that Robertson and others have allegedly engaged in. We should not intimidate other Australians by entering their worship spaces and interrupting religious services. Second, it is important to address this story, because just like the fake gynaecologist who was caught out and imprisoned in Melbourne this past week, a fake Baptist should also be called out because of the dangers in misrepresenting what Baptists, and Christians in general, believe.

While Logan Robertson self-identifies as a Baptist, as the media have rightly stated, he and his church have no affiliation with the Queensland Baptist Union and the Baptist Union of Australia. Indeed, there is little about Pillar Baptist Church that can be called Baptist.

As with all Christians, Baptist beliefs and practices are shaped by the Bible. What Christian Churches share in common is far greater than any differences. For example, while Baptists don’t baptise infants as do Anglicans and Presbyterians, and our church governance differs, otherwise,  we share the same beliefs that have been taught and lived out for 2000 years.

I have read the Doctrinal Statement of Pillar Baptist Church, and it does not resemble any Baptist confession that I have ever read before, and it includes some very strange ideas indeed.

Most Baptist Churches in Australia belong to the Baptist Union of Australia, and so they are in formal association with one another. There are also independent Baptist churches, and these vary in their beliefs and practices. Independence does not alone denote what a church is like, but as with every church (including those belonging to a traditional denomination), we ought to examine their doctrine and life closely. At the very least, when a Church states that it “reject[s] the teaching of the universal church” and does not associate with other Christian groups, that ought to raise serious questions.

Not only does Robertson’s Church have a doctrinal statement that doesn’t fit with historic Baptist faith, and not only are they unrelated to any formal Baptist association, it is clear that Logan Robertson has abrogated two important Baptist principles, namely that of freedom of conscience and freedom of association. While these principles are not owned by Baptists, they are closely aligned with Baptist thinking through the Centuries. Freedom of thought and freedom of association found clear expression among Baptists in the 17th Century, at a time when religious freedom didn’t exist but was often controlled by the crown, by Parliament, and by establishment churches. Baptists were often oppressed and even imprisoned for holding these beliefs. The author of Pilgrim’s Progress, John Bunyan, was twice imprisoned because he believed in and practiced freedom of religious association.

These two principles are not saying that Baptists agree with other religions or that we think that these religions are intellectually coherent, spiritually healthy, and morally good. Baptists are not theological and moral relativists. It does, however, mean that we believe Christianity is accepted through persuasion not by coercion, by gracious explanation and not by galling intimidation. Freedom of belief is not about privileging  one religious group over another, but positively guaranteeing that all Australians can speak and live their beliefs without harassment. Neither the State nor individuals in the community should resort to browbeating in order to change another person’s mind on an issue. We cannot create a healthy society by thuggery, whether it is noisy secularists forcing out Christians from the public square or religious fanatics spitting out their dogma in our faces.

Australia needs honest conversations about the big questions of life. We need these discussions happening in public spaces and in private meetings, and yet sadly, people like Logan Robertson caste a shadow on our optimism, and authoritarian secularists are throwing even darker clouds over the social and religious freedoms that we have long enjoyed in this country.

It is easy to say that Logan Robertson’s behaviour is unAustralian, but I’m not sure if I want to indict my New Zealand friends on this occasion! Robertson’s ideas and behaviour are certainly anti-Baptist, and therefore they have caused confusion over the beauty and goodness of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. When Jesus met people with whom he held profound disagreement, he loved them and he went to a cross to die that they might come to know and enjoy God forever. That is how Australians can tell a Christian, not that we agree with your beliefs, but that we love you and above everything we desire for you to know the Lord Jesus Christ, not to force him upon you, but with grace and fervour, with openness and humility, to explain the reason for the hope with have in Him.

12 Lessons from Jeremiah

I am currently preparing for a sermon series at Mentone on the book of Jeremiah. It is a daunting task, not least because of the size of this volume; Jeremiah is the longest book in the entire Bible. More than that, the message that God speaks through his prophet is often distressing and frightening. God’s indictment of Judah and on the nations is terrifying in what it reveals about the human heart. The sheer number of words given over to spell out the charges and judgment can be overwhelming to read.

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Here are 12 things that have struck me as I’ve been meditating on the book Jeremiah:

1. Disobeying or making light of God’s word is dangerous and reckless.

“‘How can you say, “We are wise,

    for we have the law of the Lord,”

when actually the lying pen of the scribes

    has handled it falsely?

 The wise will be put to shame;

    they will be dismayed and trapped.

Since they have rejected the word of the Lord,

    what kind of wisdom do they have?”  (Jer 8:8-9)

Refusing to accept, believe and obey God’s word led to an entire nation being destroyed, its cities made rubble and survivors sent into exile.

2. God not only uses history to achieve his purposes, but he shapes history according to his purposes.

For example, God’s orchestrates Babylon’s rise to regional power and they will become an instrument to punish Judah, and yet Babylon is not exempt from being accountable for their own actions.

 

3. God’s warnings about judgement are also an expression of grace.

Within lengthy passages where God expounds his pronouncements on Judah, we also find words of grace and mercy.

“Return, faithless people,” declares the Lord, “for I am your husband. I will choose you—one from a town and two from a clan—and bring you to Zion. Then I will give you shepherds after my own heart, who will lead you with knowledge and understanding.” (Jer 3:14-15)

God loves to show mercy. God longs for his people to repent and to return to him.

 

4. Social sins (i.e caring for the poor) are integrally connected to spiritual sin (what we think of God and his law).

“But these people have stubborn and rebellious hearts;
they have turned aside and gone away.

They do not say to themselves,
‘Let us fear the Lord our God,
who gives autumn and spring rains in season,
who assures us of the regular weeks of harvest.’

Your wrongdoings have kept these away;
your sins have deprived you of good.

“Among my people are the wicked
who lie in wait like men who snare birds
and like those who set traps to catch people.

Like cages full of birds,
their houses are full of deceit;
they have become rich and powerful

    and have grown fat and sleek.
Their evil deeds have no limit;
they do not seek justice.
They do not promote the case of the fatherless;
they do not defend the just cause of the poor.” (5:23-28)

5. Fake repentance is a thing

“In spite of all this, her unfaithful sister Judah did not return to me with all her heart, but only in pretense,” declares the Lord.” (3:10)

6. God’s promise of judgement is not merely rhetorical:

God promises:

“I have determined to do this city harm and not good, declares the Lord. It will be given into the hands of the king of Babylon, and he will destroy it with fire.” (21:10)

God acts:

“In the ninth year of Zedekiah king of Judah, in the tenth month, Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon marched against Jerusalem with his whole army and laid siege to it.” (39:1)

“Then he put out Zedekiah’s eyes and bound him with bronze shackles to take him to Babylon.The Babylonians set fire to the royal palace and the houses of the people and broke down the walls of Jerusalem.” (39:7-8)

 

7. God is serious about his 10 commandments

22 For when I brought your ancestors out of Egypt and spoke to them, I did not just give them commands about burnt offerings and sacrifices, 23 but I gave them this command: Obey me, and I will be your God and you will be my people. Walk in obedience to all I command you, that it may go well with you. 24 But they did not listen or pay attention; instead, they followed the stubborn inclinations of their evil hearts. They went backward and not forward”. (Jer 7:22-24)

 

8. Wrath is often a slow drip rather than a sudden flood

Jeremiah’s public ministry extended for almost 40 years, and there were prophets before him and afterward, who warned God’s people about their sin and who called them to repentance.

During the latter years of Jeremiah’s ministry, 13 years separated Nebuchadnezzar’s first invasion of Judah, and of his final defeat and destruction of Jerusalem.

This gradual unfolding of wrath and periods of ‘relief’ was sometimes interpreted as evidence that Jeremiah was wrong. It was not God who was lying, but Judah’s leaders and prophets,

“The prophets prophesy lies, the priests rule by their own authority, and my people love it this way. But what will you do in the end?” (5:2)

 

9. Not every story ends with grace, judgment can be final.

“There at Riblah the king of Babylon killed the sons of Zedekiah before his eyes; he also killed all the officials of Judah.” (Jeremiah 52:10)

 

10. Leaders of God’s people must not twist or ignore God’s word.

The strongest warnings and judgments are directed toward Judah’s teachers and priests, those who claim to speak for God and yet deny him with their words and actions. Churches leaders cannot afford to trivialise, ignore, and remove words of Scripture, simply because they are unpopular or difficult.

“They dress the wound of my people

    as though it were not serious.

“Peace, peace,” they say,

    when there is no peace.

Are they ashamed of their detestable conduct?

    No, they have no shame at all;

    they do not even know how to blush.

So they will fall among the fallen;

    they will be brought down when they are punished,

says the Lord.” (8:11-13)

 

11. Divine grace and forgiveness is more astonishing and wonderful than we can ever imagine

“At that time,” declares the Lord, “I will be the God of all the families of Israel, and they will be my people.”

This is what the Lord says:

“The people who survive the sword
will find favor in the wilderness;
I will come to give rest to Israel.”

The Lord appeared to us in the past,[a] saying:

“I have loved you with an everlasting love;
I have drawn you with unfailing kindness.

I will build you up again,
and you, Virgin Israel, will be rebuilt.
Again you will take up your timbrels
and go out to dance with the joyful.

Again you will plant vineyards
on the hills of Samaria;
the farmers will plant them
and enjoy their fruit.

There will be a day when watchmen cry out
on the hills of Ephraim,
‘Come, let us go up to Zion,
to the Lord our God.’”

This is what the Lord says:

“Sing with joy for Jacob;
shout for the foremost of the nations.
Make your praises heard, and say,
‘Lord, save your people,
the remnant of Israel.’

See, I will bring them from the land of the north
and gather them from the ends of the earth.
Among them will be the blind and the lame,
expectant mothers and women in labor;
a great throng will return.

They will come with weeping;
they will pray as I bring them back.
I will lead them beside streams of water
on a level path where they will not stumble,
because I am Israel’s father,
and Ephraim is my firstborn son.

10 “Hear the word of the Lord, you nations;
proclaim it in distant coastlands:
‘He who scattered Israel will gather them
and will watch over his flock like a shepherd.’

11 For the Lord will deliver Jacob
and redeem them from the hand of those stronger than they.” 
(Jer 31:1-11)

 

12. Jesus is the promised redeemer in Jeremiah

“the ministry Jesus has received is as superior to theirs as the covenant of which he is mediator is superior to the old one, since the new covenant is established on better promises.

For if there had been nothing wrong with that first covenant, no place would have been sought for another. But God found fault with the people and said:

“The days are coming, declares the Lord,
when I will make a new covenant
with the people of Israel
and with the people of Judah.

It will not be like the covenant
I made with their ancestors
when I took them by the hand
to lead them out of Egypt,
because they did not remain faithful to my covenant,
and I turned away from them,
declares the Lord.

10 This is the covenant I will establish with the people of Israel
after that time, declares the Lord.
I will put my laws in their minds
and write them on their hearts.
I will be their God,
and they will be my people.

11 No longer will they teach their neighbor,
or say to one another, ‘Know the Lord,’
because they will all know me,
from the least of them to the greatest.

12 For I will forgive their wickedness
and will remember their sins no more.”

13 By calling this covenant “new,” he has made the first one obsolete; and what is obsolete and outdated will soon disappear.” (Hebrews 8:6-13)

Tasmanian Art Needs Saving

Last month a friend was about to visit Hobart and asked me whether it was worth visiting the Mona (Museum of Modern Art in Hobart). At first I thought he said MOMA, and so I proceeded to give a rapturous endorsement of this famous art gallery in New York City. He then clarified that he had said Mona and not Moma, at which point I was no longer able to help him. Perhaps there is a vibrant contemporary art scene in Tasmania, perhaps not. But then today, as I peered outside my Melbourne window and across Bass Strait, the distant feint red glow of upside down crosses didn’t succeed in turning around  my opinion about Tasmanian art.

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This is art? I realise that in Tasmania, the ministry of the Arts is combined with Justice, Correction, and the Environment. Was someone in the ministry confused when they opened the public purse? Or is Tasmania introducing a new form of justice and correction?

These so called ‘Crosses of Saint Peter’ look more like half assembled mood lights from Bunnings, rather than works of art. Then again, perhaps I’m being unfair to Bunnings!

Dark Mofo is a winter solstice festival, which aims to shock and to subvert. Last year, the Festival caused controversy in its ‘artistic’ use of slaughtered bulls, with blood and guts smeared all over people. This year, there is an anti-Christian theme, which would be innovative and interesting, except that it’s not. It’s kind of old and tried, about 2000 years so,  and sticking a few coloured LEDs onto  crosses is somewhat pedestrian.

Speaking of which, also appearing during the Dark Mofo Festival, is another artist, Mike Parr, who is going to bury himself under a road for three days. It’s unlikely though that his performance will have the same energy and excitement as the real resurrection, given that he’s not actually dead, and presumably he’ll need to eat and drink and poo and sleep. The more pressing question is this,  how is Mr Parr going to assess the critics reviews? Is trampling and driving over his ‘grave’ a sign of critical acclaim or of people expressing disinterest in the stupidity of the stunt?

Going back to these disco coloured inverted crosses, not only are they advertising an absence of artistic creativity, surely this project is a theological and social misfire.

The sight of these crosses is upsetting some Christians around Hobart, and I understand their reasons. Indeed, for millions of women and men around the world, they are being imprisoned and even killed because they love and believe the message of the cross, but why we would allow such facts to interrupt the creative processes. More so, I also think that once we’ve taken a step back, we can evaluate these cultural illuminatatis in a different way.

In his interview on the ABC, Mikey Lynch said it well,

“My immediate reaction was a bit of an eye roll — here we go, a shock jock statement that gets Christians grumpy.

“It’s a religious symbol and so for some people it is precious, so of course people are going to find that hurtful.

“For Christians, the cross is a symbol of shame and it’s about God taking on shame for the salvation of the world, so there’s a weird irony in getting offended by a symbol which in itself is offensive.”

These artists are taking what is the most offensive object of history, the cross, and are attempting to make some subversive statement about Christianity and to offend Christians in the process. Really? Let’s shame the symbol of shame? Perhaps the point has escaped the genius of these Dark Mofo artists, because surely their own subversive and unoriginal interpretations of the cross in fact reinforces the original point that was proven on the cross.

The Apostle Paul put it most aptly when he wrote,

“18 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: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, 24 but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25 For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.” (1 Corinthians 1)

Tasmania may be disconnected from the mainland by 500km of water, but apparently there also exists an ocean separating the Dark Mofo team from the world of art. Artists of Tasmania, please paint and sculpt, and resurrect what remains of your reputation.

They have may failed to set the art world alight, but these winter solstice revellers have given Tasmanians a new reason to ask questions about the cross. What a great conversation starter for Christians in Hobart this week.

Melbourne Baptist Church Hosts Same Sex Wedding

A story broke on DavidOuld.net this morning, naming a Baptist Church in Victoria which has recently opened its building to host a same sex wedding.

The focus on DavidOuld.net is of several ordained Anglican ministers from the Diocese of Melbourne who were present at the ceremony, and who appear to have formally participated during the service. It is not currently known who the official celebrant was, but presiding over a same sex marriage is a violation of the government marriage licence for both Anglican and Baptist clergy. Anglican and Baptist marriage celebrants can only conduct weddings according to the marriage rites of their said denomination.

According to the Baptist Marriage Rites, marriage is “the union between a man and a woman to the exclusion of all others, voluntarily entered into for life.”

My concern is the news that a Baptist Church in Melbourne has hosted this wedding, and it appears as though at least one ordained Baptist minister was involved. This doesn’t project a view of Victorian baptists that will adorn the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

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Community Church of St Mark belongs to the association of Churches that is the Baptist Union of Victoria. I cannot imagine that they would have received permission from the BUV to conduct a same sex wedding on their premises. Such permission is not however required as local churches have significant autonomy.

There is a question as to whether the Community Church of St Mark rented out their building to a third party or were  formally hosting and supporting the event? In one sense, that distinction is a matter of semantics, for either option is a clear promotion of same sex marriage. Footage of the wedding procession clearly shows the banner of St Mark’s being paraded, thus indicating at least some involvement by the Church. In addition, an ordained baptist minister was also present and part of the procession, and it appears that she was involved in a formal capacity.

Why does this matter?

It is important for baptists for at least these two reasons:

First, Community Church of St Mark have misrepresented what Baptists believe about marriage. They have welcomed teaching and have blessed a view of marriage that contravenes the clear doctrinal position of the Baptist Union of Victoria. In so doing, they are sending confusing messages to local communities as to what Baptist believe about marriage, and in so doing they are leading people astray from God’s good purposes. 

Second, Churches who are affiliated with the BUV are in relationship with each other. There is rightly a significant degree of autonomy given to each church, however an association is not arbitrary or meaningless. Without clear theological common ground that is affirmed and practiced, churches can’t work together. To what point can we share an identity together when that name is being misrepresented in such grievous ways?  The question is, should our Baptist Churches allege unity with another Church who has decided to act against Baptist doctrine? Is it appropriate to call Community Church of St Mark to repentance?

The issue of marriage is not unimportant or secondary in the Bible. Indeed, during last year’s plebiscite debate advocates made it clear that they believe it’s about human rights and amending one of the great social evils in our country. For Christians, our Scriptures define sexual relations outside of heterosexual marriage as porneia, it being alongside many other activities which prevent people from entering the Kingdom of God. The Apostle Paul includes homosexual activity as being “contrary to the sound doctrine  that conforms to the gospel concerning the glory of the blessed God, which he entrusted to me.” If the Bible defines this as a Gospel issue, then it is incumbent upon us to do so as well.

This morning’s news is incredibly sad but unsurprising. For some time there have been baptist clergy and churches agitating to redefine marriage and to be given permission to formally conduct same sex weddings. These numbers are small, only representing tiny fraction of the BUV, but they are persistent. We are being naive if we believe that this matter will eventually blow over and that these advocates will simply give up.

A precedent can easily become a pattern if we don’t speak up.

As it currently stands, Baptist marriage celebrants cannot conduct same sex weddings. The position for churches is however somewhat murky. The spirit of the law suggests that a Baptist Church should not facilitate a same sex marriage, either by renting out their building or by inviting a secular celebrant to preside. However, the strict letter of the law does not (to my knowledge), prohibit this practice. This ambiguity needs to be attended to and fixed in the near future.

 


Update (Monday 7pm): I can now confirm that the officiating celebrant was Rev James (Jim) Barr. Rev Barr was formerly the Senior Pastor at Collins St Baptist and at Canberra Baptist. He is now a Welsh Methodist credentialed minister, and thus no longer holds a baptist licence. It is however unclear how how substantive his role was in this service, given that Baptist and Anglican clergy were also participating. In other words, one question is answered, but the original concerns remain, and they are substantive concerns for Baptists and Anglicans alike.

Should we speak of “Bible Believing Christians”?

“Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’” (Matthew 4:4)

 

Yesterday I was accused of making a “serious” category mistake in theology, namely to speak of “Bible believing Churches”. Geoff Thompson, who teaches Systematic Theology at the Uniting Church’s college here in Melbourne, wrote a respectful critique of my recent article on Bishop Michael Curry and his royal sermon.

The focus of Thompson’s piece was on a phrase I used, “Bible believing Church”. I was encouraging people who were struck by the wedding sermon to seek out a Bible believing and Jesus loving Church, as opposed to one that is not. Geoff Thompson has taken issue with my encouragement, saying,

“Christians are not called to ‘believe’ the Bible; they are called to acknowledge its authority, and to listen to it through the filter of the gospel proclaimed by Jesus. It is a serious category mistake to talk about ‘believing’ the Bible.”

I certainly agree with his statement about acknowledging the Bible’s authority and interpreting Scripture through the Gospel of Jesus Christ, but those things do not denude the phrase, ‘Bible believing’, in fact, they accurately reflect part of what it means to be a Bible believing Christian.

Does Geoff Thompson have a case? To answer, I thought, well, what does the Bible say? Let’s take some examples,

“And we also thank God continually because, when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as a human word, but as it actually is, the word of God, which is indeed at work in you who believe.” (1 Thessalonians 2:13)

“By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain”. (1 Corinthians 15:2)

“After he was raised from the dead, his disciples recalled what he had said. Then they believed the scripture and the words that Jesus had spoken”. (John 2:22)

“I look on the faithless with loathing, for they do not obey your word”. (Psalm 119:158)

“And now you will be silent and not able to speak until the day this happens, because you did not believe my words, which will come true at their appointed time.” (Luke 1:20)

“And because of his words many more became believers”. (John 4:41)

“Very truly I tell you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be judged but has crossed over from death to life.” (John 5:24)

“Don’t you believe that I am in the Father, and that the Father is in me? The words I say to you I do not speak on my own authority. Rather, it is the Father, living in me, who is doing his work.” (John 14:10)

“The apostles and the believers throughout Judea heard that the Gentiles also had received the word of God”. (Acts 11:1)

It is clear from these verses (and many others could have been used) that God wants us to believe his word. Accepting and trusting the Bible (which is God’s word) not only pleases God, it is one of the ways God differentiates between his people and those who are not. Indeed, when his people reject his word, he calls them to repent and to return to the word. Receiving, believing, and obeying the word is one of the Bible’s ways of describing who is Christian.

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This word is from God and is about God, and especially his son Jesus Christ.  God’s call to believe his words, both Old and New Testaments, is never merely about intellectual assent, but is about understanding, trusting, desiring, and obeying. In fact, prior to our response the word, the word must firstly begin a work in us, as the book of Hebrews declares,

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

The word is not only God working in the human heart but it is God saving, creating, and ruling. More than that, as many of above Bible references explain, when Jesus, the Apostles, and the Prophets talk about believing the word, they don’t divide belief in the word and belief in God; to trust in the Scriptures is to believe God.

In short, the Bible does talk about believing the Bible and it does so in a very positive and necessary way. To speak of Bible believing Christians and Churches is one way of talking about men and women who accept the Bible as God’s authoritative, true and good word, and who now commune with God by his Spirit through his word about his Son. 

Wouldn’t it be odd for someone to respond, “Oh that’s not Murray, that’s just his words…I believe in Murray, but not his words.”

Yes, there is a question of ontology, but nonetheless, we don’t divorce a person from their words. What does the Apostle Paul say to Timothy?

“14 But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it, 15 and how from infancy you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. 16 All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, 17 so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.”

Far from being a category error, “Bible believing Church” is a phrase which accurately reflects the Bible’s own presentation of the relationship between God, His word, and his Church. It doesn’t say everything, and neither is it intended to. Like any Christian idiom, it can be misappropriated, but that doesn’t mean it’s theologically wrong or misleading. Yes, it is possible for someone to believe the Bible is true or useful without having personal faith in Jesus Christ; our society is filled with such people. But is this what we mean when referring to Bible believing Christians and Churches? The only people I know who might talk about being Bible believing are those who have a living faith in Jesus Christ. If anything, it could be used, not adjectively, but as another way of describing a Christian.

The real question is, why do some Christian scholars want to discourage this identity marker?  Why is it the case that when God can define his people as those who believe his word, there are Christians telling us that it’s wrong to describe ourselves as Bible believing? Geoff Thompson explains, it’s because he doesn’t agree with my interpretation of the Bible. No doubt, the task of interpreting the Bible is incredibly important but that doesn’t mean it’s “seriously” wrong to talk about “Bible believing Churches”.

He argued, “When a church presents itself as ‘Bible-believing’, it is often a fairly blunt proxy for legitimating its interpretations of the Bible without acknowledging that they are interpretations.”

While that can be the case, it doesn’t have to be, and normally it is not. Thompson’s argument is more red herring rather than substantive.

On the other hand, when it comes to hermeneutics, the opposite can be true, “when a church wants to teach and practice revisionist morality, they often present the Bible as having many and varied meanings and we should accept validity in all interpretations.” Indeed, some are honest enough to admit that they no longer believe in certain parts of the Bible. 

I don’t know Geoff Thompson or the hermeneutical grid he uses to interpret the Bible, and how broad his theological canvas is in accepting divergent interpretations, so I won’t offer speculation. My purpose here is not to delve into those questions (as important as they are), but it is to correct the alleged correction, that it is wrong to speak of “Bible believing Churches”. Do we not want our Churches believing the Scriptures? I certainly pray so.

Bishop Curry and his Royal Sermon

“Jesus replied, “Anyone who loves me will obey my teaching. My Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them. Anyone who does not love me will not obey my teaching. These words you hear are not my own; they belong to the Father who sent me.” (John 14:23-24)

 

Michael Curry’s royal wedding sermon has been the hot topic of conversation over the last 2 days. Newspapers, television shows, and social media are alight with opinions over the bishop and his sermon.

I have heard people speak favourably of the preacher because of his energy and enthusiasm.

Some people are admiring Michael Curry because in their opinion, he has broken with royal convention and stuck it up at English tradition.

There were voices praising how this is a sign of dismantling white privilege and power.

Others were warmed by Curry’s message of love

Other again, were annoyed because he spoke too long.

Some people, including Christians, thought he preached an amazing Gospel sermon, while others have criticised Curry’s message for being Gospel absent, perhaps even implying an alternate gospel.

In other words, there are many very different reasons why people responded positively and negatively to this wedding sermon.

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My reaction? I was partly pleasantly surprised, and also profoundly concerned.

Did Michael Curry say some things that were true and helpful? Yes. Did he speak too long? For a wedding, probably yes, but every preacher know that temptation. Was it positive to see an African American preaching at a royal wedding? Absolutely. Maybe in the future we’ll see a Chinese or Persian Pastors preaching the Gospel at such an auspicious occasion. Did the bishop say anything unhelpful or untrue? The answer is, yes.

One Anglican Minister made this astute observation,

“Here’s the biggest problem I have with it: The Archbishop has made our love of others the driving force of the renewal of the world.

“Dr. King was right: “We must discover the power of love, the redemptive power of love.

And when we discover that, we will be able to make of this old world a new world. Love is the only way.”

According to Archbp Curry, Jesus dies to save us, but it’s *our love* of the other, including in marriage, that ultimately renews creation.”

If this is the case, then there is a significant theological problem with the message.

The one comment that I did share on social media Saturday night, wasn’t about the sermon or about Michael Curry’s ethnicity or personality, but one glaring point that was being overlooked. As someone who has the joy of marrying couples, I found it ironic, and sad, that the invited preacher doesn’t believe in the definition of marriage that was articulated in the wedding ceremony. I can’t imagine a church inviting someone to preach at a wedding service who doesn’t accept the understanding of marriage being declared, and who is also known publicly for their errant views.

The view of marriage that was read out loud at the start of service comes from the Anglican book of common prayer, and it is a beautiful expression, theologically rich and Biblically sound. The wording is so clear and helpful, that many other Christian denominations use the language themselves. As another friend noted, ‘it almost makes one want to be Anglican!’

Yes, it is great to see people talking about love and especially God’s love. We should pray that it will cause people to seek out a Bible believing and Jesus loving Church, and even to open a Bible for themselves to discover this extraordinary God who loves so much that he sent his only son into the world to atone for our sin. We cannot however ignore the fact, that despite his proclamations of love,  Michael Curry is partly responsible for leading an entire Christian denomination away from the Bible, and in so doing, is fracturing the Anglican Communion worldwide.

Michael Curry has not shied away from his belief in same sex marriage. He has publicly acknowledged that his views are out of sync with conservative Anglicans, and he has insisted that his American churches would not be returning to an orthodox view of marriage.

Many leaders in the Anglican Communion, including from Australia and especially from Africa and Asia, have explained their considerable concerns over Bishop Curry’s teaching and how it is causing harm both within the American Episcopal Denomination and Anglicans globally. The problem is most poignant for thousands of Anglicans in America who love God and his word, but who now face losing their church property and financial security, should they not conform to the newly fashioned views on marriage. Indeed, this is already happening.

My understanding is that in 2017, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, agreed to the wishes of the International Primates, and so sanctions were imposed on the American Episcopal Church, whose presiding bishop is Michael Curry.

The decision made by the American Episcopal Church is not insignificant; our view on marriage has important corollaries including how we understand the cross, sin, the Bible, ethics, and many other matters. This is unsurprising given the connection the Apostle Paul made between sex, sound doctrine, and the Gospel (1 Timothy 1:9-11). Relevant to the running theme of love, it is worth grappling with Paul’s logic in 1 Timothy ch.1 and how love is integrally tied to what is taught.  Love is not without definition and intent, but promotes truth.

As I urged you when I went into Macedonia, stay there in Ephesus so that you may command certain people not to teach false doctrines any longer or to devote themselves to myths and endless genealogies. Such things promote controversial speculations rather than advancing God’s work—which is by faith.The goal of this command is love, which comes from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith. Some have departed from these and have turned to meaningless talk. They want to be teachers of the law, but they do not know what they are talking about or what they so confidently affirm.

We know that the law is good if one uses it properly. We also know that the law is made not for the righteous but for lawbreakers and rebels, the ungodly and sinful, the unholy and irreligious, for those who kill their fathers or mothers, for murderers, 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.”

This matters because both love and truth matter, and to deny one is to reject the other. Without God’s truth, what remains is a sentimental religiosity, powerless to change and save. 

When it comes to weddings, couples are of course free to ask for someone outside the local church to marry them or to preach at their wedding. The presiding clergy however have the right and the responsibility to say yes or no to that request. Given the present suspension over the American Churches, which the Archbishop of Canterbury had agreed to follow, it is difficult to fathom how this decision came about. No doubt, there were many closed door conversations and internal pressures, but at the end of the day, was the decision so impossible to make?

The sheer volume of excitement over Michael Curry should at least make us ask the question, why is the media and the public so enamoured by his message? Is it because the message of love is universal and it hit the right spot? Is it because his message of love was broad that most people found nothing offensive about it? Maybe, a bit of both.  Perhaps I’m a little skeptical, but I think Jesus was also skeptical about the world loving him and his Gospel.

Will the decision to invite Michael Curry help heal deeps wounds within the Anglican Communion, or further alienate evangelical congregations  and confirm to them that her leaders lack the courage to stand on their own doctrinal positions?

These are very difficult times for Anglicans worldwide, especially for our brothers and sisters who live and serve in Dioceses that are moving away from the Gospel. Is it helpful for the rest of us to be praising a preacher who is leading his denomination away from Scripture, and in so doing, straining and even dividing the Communion?

We can be grateful for things said that were true, but let’s be slow to join the Michael Curry facebook fan club. The issues at stake here are far greater than a wedding sermon. The excitement and enthusiasm will soon disappear from news headlines, but the word of God remains, and I reckon it’s better for us to keeping believing God and not getting swept away by a few moments in Windsor.

 

 

 

For a slightly different but helpful take on the sermon, read Michael Jensen’s piece in the SMH