Boxing Day: the hardest Sunday of the year?

The hardest Sunday of the year for organising church is the first Sunday following Christmas Day. As it happens, this year the Sunday falls only one day after Christmas,  Boxing Day.

Boxing day in Melbourne is huge.  For Melbourne Boxing Day means cricket at the MCG and shopping sales at Chadstone and eating lots of delicious post-Christmas food. I love all those things and later on our family will be participating in each of those activities today. But as Melbourne awakes from its Christmas slumber and drinks enough coffee to get the body going, something else is happening around Melbourne today. Gathering in small groups across hundreds of locations there is something taking place that is of even greater significance and will do more to accomplish the direction of 2022 than everything else Melbournians will be doing and enjoying this Boxing Day.

For most of us at Mentone Baptist, holidays have started and the majority of our congregation are already away interstate visiting family whom we have not been able to see for almost 2 years; that’s important. Others at Mentone have returned for church, only 24 hours since we last met.

Despite meeting in smaller numbers than usual (and yet counting many thousands across Melbourne), men and women are praising God and remembering God’s good news about his son and we are committing to God in prayer the year that has been and the year that is about to start.

Such praise,  we are told in the Bible is like a pleasing aroma to God and which reaches heaven and is accepted by him. The voracious sounds of the MCG cricket crowd today is nothing compared to the praises of God‘s people.

And the prayers we pray to our Father in heaven may be of such consequence that lives will be changed and the very fabric of society can move. After all, God heard the pleas of his people in the Old Testament and answered them by sending the saviour of the world. The kaleidoscope of history is pitted with God answering prayer and fulfilling all his promises. There is nothing in all the world, no event, no pandemic,  no government that can outbid or outlast what God will accomplish through his Son.

To the many and the few who are this morning meeting as church, be encouraged. We are probably feeling tired this morning and we’re looking forward to Melbourne’s Boxing Day allures (as am I).  Also be encouraged, that as you meet for those precious minutes as a church today, this praise and prayer is of infinite worth and pleases God. And we can trust that God will use these petitions to accomplish his purposes in 2022.

A Christmas Acrostic

What is Christmas about? What does Jesus have to do with Christmas? How relevant today is the story of Jesus’ birth? Here’s a brief explanation via a short acrostic.

C

Christ came into the world: Christ means God’s anointed ruler. He is given authority by God to reign over a Kingdom that will never end, and he rules with justice and righteousness. He can always be counted on for doing what is right and good. 

H

Holy Spirit: Mary’s pregnancy was miraculous. While the circumstances of Jesus’ birth demonstrate his humanity, other particulars observe how this child is also God the Son. There are unique features surrounding Jesus which point to God’s special involvement. “His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 1:18).

R

Redeemer: God’s Son came into the world on a rescue mission. Jesus wasn’t born because everything is okay, but because everything is not okay. And yet God loves us despite our multitude of failings and sins. That’s an idea worth thinking about it!  “You are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” (Matthew 1:21)

I

Incarnation: God didn’t ignore the human condition. Jesus didn’t pretend to be a person. The one who enjoyed eternal communion with the Father took on human flesh. “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14).

It is because Jesus is God that he has the character necessary and power required to overcome sin and death. It is because Jesus is man, he could serve as our substitute and saviour. Today, this same Jesus lives embodied in his resurrection body, acting as our mediator in heaven and guaranteeing our resurrection from the dead. It is not putting it too lightly when the Bible says that Jesus is the hope of the world.

S

Scripture: The events of Jesus’ birth are more than history. They were promised by God in the Scriptures (Bible) over many centuries. Christ’s coming into the world was the long awaited event God’s people yearned to see. 

T

Travel: Jesus’ journey didn’t begin or end with the manger in Bethlehem. Jesus didn’t remain a forever baby, stuck inside Christmas cards or in portraits hanging in art galleries. Christmas is necessary preparation for Easter. The Son journeyed from heaven to earth, from Bethlehem to Nazareth, then to Jerusalem and the cross, the tomb and to life, ascension and heaven.

M

Manger: Jesus was born in the most humble of circumstances. His first bed was an animal’s feeding trough. God doesn’t ignore the baseline,  the poor or suffering. When he entered the world, he identified with those who have little. 

“Who, being in very nature God,

    did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;

rather, he made himself nothing

    by taking the very nature[b] of a servant,

    being made in human likeness.

And being found in appearance as a man,

    he humbled himself

    by becoming obedient to death—

        even death on a cross! (Philippians 2:5-8)

A

Adoration: The angels praised God, the Shepherds worshipped the infant, and the Magi brought him precious gifts.  This same Jesus is deserving of all honour and glory because of who he is and because of what he has accomplished for us. It’s right to sing songs about and to this Jesus, and it is proper for us to live all of life for him. Who else died for sin? Who else can forgive sins? Who else can gift us eternal life? 

S

Shepherds. Among the first to hear the good news of Jesus’ birth were ordinary people, even social outcasts. This reminds us how God’s good news isn’t for society’s elite but for those without a voice. Christianity is not a gospel validating self-sufficiency but revealing human anx and God’s efficacy. To quote Jesus, ‘I’ve not come for the healthy but for the sick’.

Photo by Somchai Kongkamsri on Pexels.com

If these facts about Jesus’ birth intrigue you, perhaps you’d like to open a Bible and read the Bible for yourself. Might I suggest starting in Luke’s Gospel, as it jumps straight into the story of Jesus, including the famous Christmas narrative. You may also like to visit a church over Christmas or in the new year. If you live around Mentone or Cheltenham (or in the Bayside area of Melbourne), you’re very welcome to visit us at Mentone Baptist Church.

Let us rediscover the power of forgiveness

As  I watched one of my boys play a cricket match over the weekend, I chatted with one of the dads for much of the time. As we talked about how our kids are growing up and the challenges they face in the big mean world of Melbourne, the conversation turned to the topic of forgiveness. This cricketing aficionado said to me with a tone of sadness, we live in a time where people no longer know how to forgive. 

I agreed. One of the key ingredients for human living is forgiveness, and it’s now lost. Our societal impulse is no longer to forgive (let alone understand the other). In today’s Australia, the first to throw the stone is the victor, regardless of whether the offence is real or just perceived. Anger is the mood of today. Controlling the story line and asserting individual rights is the power play at work.

It is interesting to observe that as our self-appointed cultural adjudicators assess the merits of Christianity and move from defining her teaching as half-baked to harmful, we should not be surprised to see our society also shifting away from forgiveness. 

Expressive individualism is god and politics, education, and social media are the priesthood. People and society exist to serve my interests, rather than I have a duty to love my neighbour as myself. But what good is a power play like this if we lose our soul in the process? In ditching the message of Jesus Christ, we are not gaining, we are losing.  If you don’t believe me, spend a few moments on Twitter today.

I’m not suggesting that only Christians know how to forgive (and yes, some Christians need to relearn this basic good), but I am saying that it is because of this Christian message our world learned how to forgive. As we turn away we leave behind key ingredients that keep society together.

There is a distinctive element in this Jesus framed understanding of forgiveness, one that is inescapably powerful in its goodness. Forgiveness isn’t something we practice because of self interest (although forgiveness brings benefits to the person doing the forgiving in important ways). Forgiveness isn’t a decision we bring to the table when we believe the offender is deserving of those words, ‘I forgive you.’ The very nature of forgiveness is that the offending party has wronged you and shouldn’t expect a semblance of peace making. 

Forgiveness is acting in mercy toward an individual in light of their transgressions toward you. In what is one of the greatest words ever spoken, on the cross Jesus sees those responsible for his public execution and prays, “Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”

All this is to preface a word of grace and forgiveness that was spoken recently by a young woman at the funeral of her father. It is a word she shared about what she now wants for the man who murdered her dad.

Police Officer Richard Houston, of Mesquite, Texas, was killed in the line of duty by 37-year-old Jaime Jaramillo during a domestic disturbance.

At Mr Houston’s funeral, she said, 

“I remember having conversations with my dad about him losing friends and officers in the line of duty.

I have heard all the stories you can think of, but I’ve always had such a hard time with how the suspect is dealt with.

Not that I didn’t think there should be justice served, but my heart always ached for those who don’t know Jesus—their actions being a reflection of that.

I was always told that I would feel differently if it happened to me. But as it’s happened to my own father, I think I still feel the same.

There has been anger, sadness, grief, and confusion. And part of me wishes I could despise the man who did this to my father.

But I can’t get any part of my heart to hate him.

All that I can find is myself hoping and praying for this man to truly know Jesus.

I thought this might change if the man continued to live, but when I heard the news that he was in stable condition, part of me was relieved.

My prayer is that someday down the road, I get to spend some time with the man who shot my father—not to scream at him, not to yell at him, not to scold him—simply to tell him about Jesus.”

Do you find in her intent something hideous or something beautiful? Are we repelled by her attitude or intrigued?

The enacting and receiving of forgiveness is fast becoming a social memory. We all know how important it is, but the identity games that control social media and politics is creeping into our homes and every aspect of living. And it’s not only forgiveness that is being lost, we are also losing our grip on patience and gentleness and kindness; all virtues that are necessary for maintaining healthy relationships and a civil society. 

So long as we’re the one holding the stone or the dislike button, and everyone’s retweeting our version of justice, we can get by for a while. However, sooner or later we are the ones needing forgiveness. Indeed, one day the toll will toll for thee!

Jesus once taught his disciples to pray this,

“And forgive us our debts,
    as we also have forgiven our debtors.

And lead us not into temptation,
    but deliver us from the evil one.’

For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.”

Is this Jesus so dangerous that a young woman finds in Him the power to want good for her father’s killer? Even that she might one day be able to tell him about Jesus? No one is ignoring the fact of the heinous crime or pretending justice should not be acquired. Just as we cannot live in a world without justice, we cannot live without forgiveness and neither will we survive for long without knowing the One who purchased for us Divine forgiveness.

May I suggest, don’t listen to our cultural overloads, avoid getting swept up by the tides of rage and intolerance that’s drowning our souls and dividing our society. Instead, let’s reconsider the powerful story of the Christ whose forgiveness so reconfigures the human heart, that we can be moved to desire good for those so undeserving. If we restart our own story with the definitive story of forgiveness, I can guarantee it will move our lives forward in ways that will surprise and surpass everything else.

John, one of Jesus’ disciples put it this way,

“This is the message we have heard from him and declare to you: God is light; in him there is no darkness at all. If we claim to have fellowship with him and yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live out the truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin.

If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. 10 If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word is not in us.”

Private prayers in Victoria a legal ‘grey area’

I’ve written about The Change or Suppression (Conversion) Practices Prohibition Act numerous times given the extraordinary nature of this Government intrusion into the lives of religious Victorians.  In this post, I want to inform people of one further way these laws will encroach on religious and civil freedoms and commonsense.

The laws will come into effect in February 2022. Churches are supportive of some measures contained in these laws, but the Act goes well beyond what is reasonable or right.

Among the more extraordinary measures found in the Act is banning people from having conversations with individuals about sexuality and gender, and prohibiting praying with them in line with a Christian view of sexuality (even with their express consent). 

Slide is from a VEOHRC forum

The new laws may well extend even beyond consensual prayer.  In a letter sent to church leaders from my own denomination we read, 

“There is some uncertainty about the application of the Act to praying for or with people regarding their sexual orientation or gender identity. The Act specifically includes “a prayer based practice, a deliverance practice or an exorcism” in the unlawful practices, even if the person seeks or consents to such prayer. However, the VEOHRC has advised that it is a “grey area” if the person is not present when they are being prayed for. It may be unlawful if the person is aware of such prayer, in that this would be understood to be directed at them with the intention of change or suppression.”

Private prayers are considered a ‘grey area’ by the VEOHRC (Victoria Equal Opportunity Human Rights Commission). If that doesn’t make your eyes pop out of your head and roll down the hallway, what will?

For example, a believer prays for a friend, it’s just them and God. Or perhaps  2 or 3 friends pray together, as Christians do all the time, and they bring a request to God about another friend for whom they are concerned. This prayer, even if the person never knows about it, is potentially a breaking of the law. And depending on how police treat the crime, it could potentially lead to a term of imprisonment. More likely, the guilty prayers will be investigated by a civil tribunal and have their lives turned upside down and be forced to attend a reeducation camp where they must learn how to pray and believe in line with the religious views acceptable to the government.

Part of the problem with the VEOHRC coming out with what they call a ‘grey area’ is that it likely means a test case. Some poor woman or man will have their life dragged through the mud, legal system and courts, to see if a vexatious complaint can push the limits of the law.

What business is it of the Government to interfere with my prayers to God, or the prayers offered by anyone? 

For those who are not already convinced, can we not see the massive overreach and the insanity that a Christian’s personal prayers are treated as a violation of State law? 

What is it about prayer that the Government is so concerned about? Are they worried that God might answer prayer? As a Christian, I follow the Bible’s exhortation to regularly pray for our Governments, regardless of who is in power. I pray they might have wisdom and discernment, to act rightly, fairly, and mercifully. 

What is it about prayer that is so egregious? The answer is, activists are not content to ban what were a few rare and abhorrent practices. The intention is to delete any belief and practice that does not fully embrace their own worldview.

One group behind the laws explained,

“A similarly insidious development in conservative religious communities is the ‘welcoming but not affirming’ pastoral posture.”

Ro Allen (the VEOHRC Commissioner) said in an interview,

“The proposed law is quite clear in countering any teaching that says that homosexual sex is wrong, so this may well be part of their education”

I thank God that Jesus welcomes us while not affirming every attitude and behaviour I might have. The very crux of Christianity is that God mercifully welcomes those who contravene his good design in many different ways. I will say again, for those who haven’t read before, the Gospel aim isn’t to change a person’s orientation but it is that they might live a godly life (the distinction is important). There are many same sex attracted Christians who uphold and want to live in light of the Bible’s sexual ethic. The very nature of Christianity is that it welcomes and includes everyone who doesn’t belong by nature and choice. That’s good news worth thinking about. 

 But understanding the very notion of sin and conversion, transgression and forgiveness cuts against what some groups will tolerate in our society. They are not prepared to live in a civil society where a plurality of thought is encouraged or permissible. Banning certain behaviours isn’t sufficient; the aim is to change and control what we believe and even think. Yes, even our prayers.

Orwell’s 1984 has been done to death in recent years. The next latest 1984 analogy is getting rather tiresome and predictable, but sometimes Mr Orwell had a knack of looking into the hearts of men and seeing something disturbing, 

The aim of the Party in 1984 was power and they would orchestrate mind games in order to gain control over even the thoughts of the citizens,

“The thought police would get him just the same. He had committed–would have committed, even if he had never set pen to paper–the essential crime that contained all others in itself. Thoughtcrime, they called it. Thoughtcrime was not a thing that could be concealed forever. You might dodge successfully for a while, even for years, but sooner or later they were bound to get you.”

There is one who understands the mind and who hears our prayers, and it is beyond the purview of any Government.

“Search me, God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts.”  (Psalm 139:23)

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

Let God judge our prayers and our minds. And perhaps with time, reasonable minds will appreciate the misstep taken by the Victorian Government and seek to amend this set of laws.

Does the Holy Spirit speak new words today?

The idea that God has new things to say and that the Holy Spirit speaks to people outside of Scripture is a common understanding among some religious circles. The ‘Holy Spirit said to me’ has become a popular belief particularly among pentecostal and progressive Christians. Stories of the Spirit speaking offer powerful testimonies, albeit ones that cannot be verified. The claim is often used to justify ideas and decisions we want to make. After all, how can we say no to an idea if the Spirit has spoken?!  This is, however, a misleading and dangerous notion. This view of the Spirit and God’s speech is one that ignores the Spirit’s own testimony through Scripture and it is one that often leads to all manner of pastoral issues.

Indeed, when we have a dodgy doctrine of the Bible we shouldn’t be surprised if we take a wrong turn on all kinds of theological and ethical issues.

Before I turn to the Bible I want to clarify a few potential pushbacks.

What I’m not saying

I’m not for a moment suggesting that we only listen to Scripture and that other voices are unimportant. It is an act of love and respect that we listen to and understand the culture around us. We value people by appreciating the questions and fears and longings they feel and express. It’s for this reason, that people matter, that it’s vital Christians don’t go around playing God and claiming authoritative words from God.

Let me also preface,  I am not pretending that the culture we live in doesn’t influence how we read the Bible. The conversation however is not a dialectical one where we come to the truth by listening to both the Bible and the voices of today. Rather the Holy Spirit sanctifies God‘s people so that we understand and embrace more of what God has spoken. His word will increasingly draw us into conformity with his Son and not with the standards of our cultural moment.

I am not denying the active work of God’s Spirit in the lives of God’s people. The Spirit illumines the words of God so that we may understand, believe and obey them. The Spirit ministers to our hearts, and affects joy, peace, and love, perseverance. The Spirit unites us to Christ and with each other. The Spirit does not however speak new words or words that contradict Holy Scripture.

Photo by Brett Jordan on Pexels.com

The Holy Spirit and the Bible

Allow me to demonstrate my point from the Bible.

The suggestion that God’s Spirit is revealing new truths beyond the Bible goes against the grain of what we learn about the Spirit’s role in revealing God and his plan of salvation. John 14-17 is one of the Bible’s most important sections for giving us a doctrine of Scripture. In these chapters, Jesus teaches his disciples extensively about the work of the Holy Spirit. Please note the following:

  1. The Holy Spirit is sent from the Father and the Son (14:26; 15:26–27; 16:7).
  2. He is the Spirit of truth (14:17; 15:26-27). Already in John’s Gospel the truth has been defined as Jesus (14:6) and the Father’s words are defined as truth (17:7). As the Spirit of truth his representation of God and God’s purposes are true. He does not lie. 
  3. The Holy Spirit has a speaking role. He is, however, not a free agent doing and saying whatever he pleases, but as the One sent from the Father and the Son his mission is tied to theirs (16:13–15). Jesus makes this very clear to his disciples.
  4. The content of the Holy Spirit’s speech is Jesus: ‘the Holy Spirit will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you’ (14:26); ‘the Spirit of truth…will testify about me’ (15:27).
  5. Most scholars agree that in 14:26 and 16:13–15 Jesus is addressing his apostles, rather than the Church at large. After all, when Jesus says, the ‘Holy Spirit…will remind you of all that I have said to you’, this must be addressed to the apostles who were with Jesus during his earthly ministry. 

Thus, Jesus is not saying that the Spirit will teach us new things, he is teaching his apostles that the Holy Spirit will help them remember, understand and apply Jesus’ teachings. In other words, the Holy Spirit is pointing back to Jesus. On three occasions John shows his readers this divine’ remembering in action (2:22; 7:39 12:16).

6. The Spirit’s words to the disciples become what we know as the apostolic message, the New Testament Scriptures. In John 17:6–19 Jesus prays for his disciples, that as men who had been sanctified by the truth, and as Jesus had been sent by the Father, so Jesus sends his disciples into the world. This prayer is immediately followed up by a prayer for all future believers, those ‘who will believe in me through their message’ (17:20). To summarise: God’s revelation comes from the Father and from the Son, it is mediated by the Spirit, to the apostles, about the Son, who in turn are sent into the world. There is no hint that the Holy Spirit will speak words beyond the apostles or in addition to the full revelation of God in Christ.

In my view, this is game, set and match. Jesus’ teaching on the Spirit and Scripture in John 14-17 gives clarity as to the how, what, and why of the Spirit teaching.

One of the corollaries accompanying the view that the Spirit speaks new words today is the belief that the Bible isn’t sufficient. But is this the way Jesus and the Apostles describe the Bible? Let’s explore, 

Jesus consistently taught that the entire Old Testament (for the New Testament had not yet been written) ought to be considered as the words of God, and accordingly trusted and obeyed. 

For example, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus establishes his Scriptural hermeneutic, saying,

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfil them.  For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.” (Matt 5:17-18)

This statement is important for at least these two reasons: First, Jesus explicates one of the chief purposes of the Old Testament Scriptures. “Law and Prophets” is shorthand for the entire Old Testament (from Genesis to Malachi), and with clarity, he explains their ultimate design, which is to prepare for and point people to himself. Jesus is not dismissing the fact that there is much to learn about God, the world, and ourselves through reading the Old Testament. In its pages, God reveals his character and Being, his justice and mercy, his righteousness and kindness, his power and his gentleness. We uncover human nature, spoken of without our masks and artificial moral colouring: people are presented in all their glory, worth, and depravity. In addition, historians, anthropologists, and linguists gain knowledge about the ancient world through reading this most unique of texts. Jesus, however, announces that the Old Testament is a word of promise, a divine plan that was awaiting fulfilment, and with his coming, the plan was being realised.

Second, not only is all Scripture full of divine purpose, it is also authoritative. Jesus states that every letter and brushstroke is considered true, important and abiding. The smallest letter in the Hebrew alphabet is yod, a tiny inverted comma-like flick of the pen. The least stroke of a pen is more difficult to identify with precision, although scholars have suggested several plausible candidates, including the letter waw, an ornamental stroke known as a “crown”, or even a hendiadys. Jesus’ point is nonetheless clear; not even the tiniest drops of ink on the page will be erased from Scripture but will remain until everything is accomplished.

Those listening to Jesus are left with no doubt that he has the highest regard for all the Scriptures, as the very words of God and words that remain authoritative. These words are to be interpreted in light of Christ but still hold continuing relevance and jurisdiction.

In summary, the Old Testament is true and purposeful, not losing its significance but finding fulfilment in the person and work of Jesus Christ. This is important for all kinds of contemporary issues surrounding racism, sexuality and gender.

Lest one thinks Matthew 5:17-18 is an isolated statement and we don’t need to take it that seriously, following his death and resurrection, Jesus once again explained the gravity of those events to his disciples by opening the Scriptures, again proving the link between the Old Testament promises and himself.

“He said to them, “This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.”

 Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures.  He told them, “This is what is written: The Messiah will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day,  and repentance for the forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem.  You are witnesses of these things.” (Luke 24:44-48)

Jesus not only connects the Old Testament with himself but also the New Testament. This is unsurprising in many ways, given that the life of Jesus dominates the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, and the remaining 23 books expound on the living reality and meaning of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. Jesus himself possibly never wrote a word with ink and papyri, and yet the authors of the New Testament were not independent biographers and theologians. They wrote not only about but under the direction of the Word become flesh.

Throughout the remainder of the New Testament, it is clear that the Apostles did not veer from Jesus’ view of the Old Testament Scriptures, and their own writings confirm Jesus’ foretelling of the work of the Holy Spirit who would enable them to retell God’s final revelation who is Jesus Christ. 

For example, the Apostle Paul insists of Scripture,

“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”. (2 Timothy 3:14-17)

The words of Scripture come from the breath of God. The relationship between God and the Bible is akin to one’s mouth and breath. Every word was expired from the mouth of God, and every word is useful. None is to be erased or excused, but all are useful for life and doctrine.

This Pauline paragraph also points to the way Scripture is authoritative and relevant for future generations of Christians, specifically in this case, Timothy. Words that were then centuries old remain useful to second-generation Christians. In other words, the Scriptures continue to hold their truth, crossing generations and cultures, nations and languages. 

Hebrews ch3 provides us with a really clear example of the relationship between Scripture, the Holy Spirit’s voice, and today. 

So, as the Holy Spirit says:

“Today, if you hear his voice,

do not harden your hearts
as you did in the rebellion,
    during the time of testing in the wilderness,

9 where your ancestors tested and tried me,
    though for forty years they saw what I did.

10 That is why I was angry with that generation;
    I said, ‘Their hearts are always going astray,
    and they have not known my ways.’

11 So I declared on oath in my anger,
    ‘They shall never enter my rest.’ ”

12 See to it, brothers and sisters, that none of you has a sinful, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God.”

The author of Hebrews confirms that the Holy Spirit speaks and he chooses a present active verb to suggest the continuing relevance of this speech. And notice the words the Holy Spirit speaks: Psalm 95. And notice the warning of the Spirit words which are Psalm 95, don’t harden your hearts to his words.

In his excellent book, ‘Hearing God’s words, Peter Adam, quoting Calvin, says,

“For Calvin, ‘Scripture is the school of the Holy Spirit’. Moses, for example, ‘wrote his five books, not only under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, but as if God himself had suggested them out of his own mouth’. The words of SCripture do not come from the pleasure of men ‘but are dictated by the Holy Spirit’. Amos ‘possessed the discerning of the Holy Spirit’ and Ezekiel ‘only spoke from the mouth of God, as the organ of the ‘Spirit’.

“God not only caused the Scriptures to be written originally, but also sends the Spirit to bring those same words deep into the hearts of believers.” (Adam)

“For by a kind of mutual bond the Lord has joined together the certainty of his Word and of his Spirit so that the perfect religion of the Word may abide in our minds when the Spirit, who causes us to contemplate God’s face, shines.” (Calvin)

Wrongful claims about the Holy Spirit are unnecessary, misleading, and dangerous

The view that the Holy Spirit is speaking new words today cannot be sustained in light of the Spirit given word that is the Bible. What it does do is create a host of problems.

  • It undermines people‘s confidence in the Bible
  • It subjectivises the way God speaks.
  • It collapses revelation into illumination.
  • It inevitably suggests the Holy Spirit is a contrarian who gives contradictory words to different groups of believers. Which words are true? Which words are we to listen to?
  • It is often used to justify ethics and decisions that are clearly contrary to the what God does say in his word.

God hasn’t given us a dodgy word that needs supplementation or revision. The issue isn’t that we need ‘new’ words from God, but that we often don’t press close to God in his sufficient word: reading, trusting and obeying.

Is God in a habit of having to correct himself? Is God a contradictory God? Are we to believe that the Holy Spirit is communicating new ideas that reject parts of the Bible?

Heterodox ideas throughout history have often come about because people have either added to or subtracted from God‘s Word. It’s the serpent on repeat, did God really say? It’s like building your case for or against vaccines based on the personal opinions of vociferous social media voices rather than medical experts. And sometimes, churches have adopted the letter of the word but lost the heart of what God is saying, and in doing so they cause many to stumble.

If we want to know what God thinks, open the Bible and read it; not plucking verses out of their context but reading it as we ought, in context, understanding genre,  recognising that all Scripture is preparing for and fulfilled by and is about Jesus Christ. 

A classic example of this arose during Jesus’ ministry. The Pharisees of Jesus’ day had adopted a revisionist view of marriage and one day approached Jesus with the aim of entrapping him by their new understandings. Jesus’ response wasn’t to reinvent human sexuality and the nature of marriage. Instead, Jesus pointed people back to the Scriptures and affirmed God’s purpose in marriage. Not only that, Jesus defined (in accord with Scripture) that any sexual relations outside marriage between a man and a woman are considered porneia

The wonder of God’s word is that it doesn’t leave us with pronouncements of judgment for all the ways we reject and break his good word. God’s Gospel word is that he loves to forgive and reconcile. This isn’t because righteousness becomes unimportant or fluid. Rather, the Scriptures show us that the God of absolute goodness and holiness is also the God of extreme mercy. This is where we find true inclusion and acceptance; God not excusing or endorsing human attitudes and behaviour, but in Christ God forgiving and restoring us no matter who we are and what we have done. We don’t need to find new words to add to this final one.


Some of this piece is taken from an essay and a lecture that I gave some years ago

The real boy called Christ(mas)

I admit it. I’m a bit of a fan of Christmas movies. It doesn’t fall as low Hallmark, but put on a classic Christmas show I’ll make the popcorn.  As a kid and now with children of my own  I love sitting down and watching the snowfall and a Christmas tune and trying to take in the smell of pine and fir trees through the tv screen.

Home Alone, the Grinch, and A Christmas Carol are perennial favourites in our house. Even a Harry Potter Christmas scene is enough to take me in.

At this time of year, everyone is churning out new seasonal Christmas movies. Among the most anticipated Christmas movies for 2021 is ‘A boy called Christmas’. The movie features a lineup of British actors including Maggie Smith, Jim Broadbent and Toby Jones.

I haven’t seen the movie yet, but the trailer certainly caught my attention. First of all, ‘A boy called Christmas’ has all the hallmarks of another half-decent, fun viewing, film for families. It has the right amount of snow and pretty lights and elves and Christmas jargon to draw us into the story being told.

But if the movie is anything like the messaging that’s promoted in the trailer, ‘A boy called Christmas’ deserves an eye roll the size of Hollywood.

Covered with enough sugar dusted on top to make it all sweet, the story projects a couple of myths about Christmas.  

Before I dare follow the well-trodden path of the Grinch and criticise anything connected with Christmas, let’s keep in mind that this new version of the origins of Christmas is fantasy and fiction; the producers and writers aren’t pretending otherwise. Nevertheless, ‘A boy called Christmas’, reinforces (as truth) two myths that are perpetually bouncing around our culture today.

First of all, Maggie Smith’s character makes a claim as she tells  a group of children the story of Christmas,

“Long ago nobody knew about Christmas. It started with a boy called Nicholas.”

Ummm….no. There was once a man named Nicholas. He lived in the 4th Century AD and served as a Christian Bishop in the city of Myra (located in what is today, Turkey). But Christmas didn’t start with him, nor was it about him. In fact, one can pretty much guarantee that Nicholas would be appalled by any suggestion that he invented Christmas.

The event that we know as Christmas today certainly started with a boy, but his name wasn’t Nicholas; it was Jesus.

It’s worthwhile separating the day on the calendar called Christmas and the original event it is honouring. By Christmas, I’m not referring to the public holiday or to December 25th, but to the event that changed the world and which the world has sought fit to mark with a celebration every year in December. In fact, while Christians have always believed and held onto the birth of Jesus as a crucial step in God’s plan of redemption, no one celebrated a day called Christmas for hundreds of years. 

I realise the name kind of gives it away, but in case we’re unsure, Christmas has something to do with Christ. Indeed, it has everything to do with the Christ. Christ of course is the Greek noun for the Hebrew name, Messiah. It’s a title that denotes ruler and anointed King. Christ is God’s promised ruler who will receive a Kingdom that will never end, fade, or perish.  

“The woman said, “I know that Messiah” (called Christ) “is coming. When he comes, he will explain everything to us.”

 Then Jesus declared, “I, the one speaking to you—I am he.” (John 4:25—26)

“Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ is born of God, and everyone who loves the father loves his child as well.” (1 John 5:1)

This first faux pas from ‘A boy called Christmas’ is forgivable, in the same way, Narnia and Dr Seuss aren’t given to us as history or sacred writ, but please make sure our kids realise this is the case. It is this next line from the movie trailer (which presumably features as a motif) that is nothing short of inane. A young Nicholas is given this advice, 

‘Things only exist if you really believe in them!’

What a stupid thing to say! Does gravity only work when we believe it exists? Is Mount Everest only real because it has been seen and climbed? Do I cease to exist because most people on the planet have never heard my name or seen my face?

The advice, as insipid as it is, is however true to form. The movie is mimicking the way we are now trained to think and make choices and choose beliefs today. In Western culture, truth is no longer truth. Truth is your truth. Truth is the set of ideas that you preference and want to hold onto for meaning and guidance in life. One of the startling consequences of this is that we now live in a post-science age. For example, biology no longer determines reality, what matters is how you feel inside. Whether the issue is vaccines or climate change or a host of important issues, the scientific task is often considered little more than an instrument used to promote various socio-political agendas.

In a similar fashion, history has succumbed to revisionist keyboards, where events are rewritten and retouched according to a priori commitments to identify politics and other prevalent social preferences. 

Here’s my advice, don’t learn theology from Netflix. Don’t use Hollywood as a history book or as a manual for learning about God, or pretty much anything for that matter. I guess this advice is kind of obvious, and many of us not only agree but respond with a rather dull ‘duh’. However, perhaps we underestimate the extent to which movies and tv shows influence the way we think about issues and the way these mediums inform our understanding of history and world events. 

Movies are successful, not only because of their entertainment value, but because of the ways they both mirror the culture and change the culture. Hollywood, Netflix and Stan each echo the clarion call from our academic institutions and leading social activists. They are today’s poets and preachers, both teaching and enticing us to adopt new ways of thinking and living. Movies are designed to recalibrate attitudes and even to normalise ideas that are not yet embraced by our neighbours.

The real story of Christmas exceeds Netflix’s best attempts. It is more powerful and stunning and dangerous and wonderful than the best of fantasy writers, except the Biblical story is true. 

The birth of Jesus is not a fact of history because I choose to believe. I believe because the events are historical and because they speak of wonders that are too good to ignore.

The Bible (yes, that ancient book which is supposedly unreliable and bad for your health), says some pretty startling things about belief and what is true and the great existential dilemmas. 

The Bible authors insist on recording history with accuracy. The Bible writers also provided an explanation for the meaning of these events. Historians do not doubt the birth of Jesus Christ, and historians do not deny that the Bible is the earliest and most reliable source for retelling the circumstances of His birth, and life, death, and resurrection. Of course, some of the details are astonishing, for example, the presence of angels and the virgin birth. But this is the point, amidst seemingly ordinary history, such as the birth of a child, there was something extraordinary taking place.

In 2014 (note: this was said before the pandemic), historian Dr John Dickson went on the front foot to expose the view that real historians doubt the historicity of Jesus’s birth. He said,

controversial enough to get media attention. They have just enough doctors, or doctors in training, among them to establish a kind of “plausible deniability.” But anyone who dips into the thousands of secular monographs and journal articles on the historical Jesus will quickly discover that mythicists are regarded by 99.9% of the scholarly community as complete “outliers,” the fringe of the fringe. And when mainstream scholars attempt to call their bluff, the mythicists, just like the anti-vaccinationists, cry “Conspiracy!” 

Christianity isn’t true because we choose to believe. We believe in this Jesus Christ because he is proven true and we trust him with all life because he is demonstrably good and efficacious. 

So yes, I’m looking forward to watching ‘A boy called Christmas’, but kids please don’t get your theology from Hollywood. Parents, it’s okay to let your children enjoy these Christmas movies, but take a moment and explain to them that these are fun but untrue stories, and the real story is better than any fiction. 

I thank God that the advice given to Nicholas isn’t true. Think about it, what a burden to carry if truth and reality were dependent on my understanding and adherence. I thank God truth doesn’t come from within. Thank God truth doesn’t depend on me believing it to be so. 

Christmas didn’t not with some boy named Nicholas, but with God sending his one and only son into the world. He didn’t hide away in a toy factory. He didn’t hand out bicycles, lego, dolls, X-boxes, and puppy dogs wrapped in colourful paper. He laid down his life for us. As the book of Romans testifies about the Christ,

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

The incarnation (that is, God the Son becoming human) is inescapable. The imprint of Jesus coming not only remains at Christmas but is all around us today. As we follow this Jesus we gain the greatest gift that no Christmas tree can hold or no toy factory manufacture: Peace with God, the forgiveness of sin, and eternal life. 

It’s time to consider God

Check out this short video that explains how we’re returning to church at Mentone Baptist. It may be a little while before we are gathering as one congregation and doing everything that is so important to us, but this is a start.

Whether you’re a Christian or not, you’re very welcome to join us. If you don’t live near Mentone/Cheltenham and would like to find a church to visit, let me know and we’ll try to suggest one for you.

To register follow the link – https://mentonebaptist.com.au/service-registration/

Victoria and the Gradual Reversal of Constantine

Premier Daniel Andrews’ Pandemic Management Bill, is one hot potato. The Bill is currently being debated in the Victorian Parliament and it is drawing much attention in the media and also among the legal fraternity

The President of the Victorian Bar, Christopher Blanden, QC, says of these new powers,

“Stasi police would have been more than happy with the range of powers if they were given it…It’s extraordinary.”

Such authoritarian tendencies have been the hallmark of this Premiership. I’m not here to speak about this contentious Bill. And please note, what I have to say in this article should not be read as a politically partisan presentation, for that is not my agenda. When a Government accomplishes good, I am thankful, no matter who is in power. Without taking away from any good that this Government has achieved in recent years, it is evident that it is drawn by draconian impulses. No Government in Australia in contemporary history has introduced as many policies targeting religious freedom as has this Victorian Government. I say this as someone who lives in Victoria and is watching religious liberties slowly eroding through a combination of policy and power. 

Most recently, in February this year, the Government introduced and adopted the  Change or Suppression (Conversion) Practices Prohibition Bill 2020.  While Churches agreed with aspects of the Bill, the Government took the unnecessary approach (breaking with jurisdictions around the world) to define conversion practices as broad as possible, such that normal Christian activities are now prohibited. The Act makes it illegal for Christians (and others) to pray with or speak with another person about sexuality and gender with the aim of persuading them according to Christian beliefs. The Government believes that these activities are so heinous that they have attached a prison sentence of up to 10 years for some offences (this law comes into effect February 2022). 

While almost all attention this week is on the new powers being given to the Premier through the Pandemic Management Bill, another Bill has been tabled this week and it deserves attention, The Equal Opportunity (Religious Exceptions) Amendment Bill 2021. It will be debated in Parliament in 2 weeks time.


The proposed amendments to the Equal Opportunity Act are directly aimed at further reducing religious freedoms in Victoria,

The Premier says of the Bill, 

“Religious organisations and schools will only be able to make employment decisions based on an employee’s religious beliefs where these are inherent to the job. Religious bodies and schools will still be able to practice their faith, teach their beliefs and set the religious ethos within their organisation.”

The Premier’s second statement is denuded by the first. By introducing an inherent requirement test for jobs in religious organisations, the Government is self-determining the nature of religious work and removing from these organisations their freedom to make employment decisions for the benefit of their school, church, or charity. 

The Bill not only impacts the ability of religious organisations (and faith-based schools) to employ persons according to their established religious convictions. Attorney-General Jaclyn Symes, explains,

“The Victorian bill would also mean no faith-based organisations could discriminate when delivering government-funded services such as counselling or homelessness support, or hiring out community facilities”.

Should the State dictate to religious organisations what constitutes religious work and what is not? Do we really want the State defining the theological beliefs and requirements of faith-based organisations? Is a gardener or an office administrator not doing specifically Christian work because they are not teaching Scripture? The Government is creating a false dichotomy that does not exist in the Christian faith, nor in many other religions. Every role is an expression of commitment to God and is a valuable part of the whole that serves a common purpose.

The Government is also mistaken in assuming that because a role does not have a direct theological or spiritual teaching component, it is therefore irrelevant whether the employee agrees with the organisation’s ethos, beliefs, and vision. This is purely illogical. Why would any organisation or company employ someone who does not support the basic values and vision of that association?

One month prior to the Bill being tabled in Parliament, the Attorney-General indicated that the new parameters maybe even further expanded, 

“We could be convinced to extend it, we just haven’t consulted on that particular element of reform. I certainly wouldn’t have a closed mind to revisiting that down the track”.

A similar comment was made about the Conversion or Suppression Practices Act by the then Attorney-General, Jill Hennessy. Hennessy told Parliament that conduct “such as sermons…may be considered as part of the Legislative Assembly’s ongoing inquiry into anti-vilification protections.”

In other words, as extraordinary as these amendments are, the Government is already indicating that further religious restrictions may be introduced in the future.

In 2016, a similar amendment to the Equal Opportunity Act was narrowly defeated, however, this latest attempt is likely to pass. 

Today not only marks the release of this Bill in Victoria’s Parliament, it also coincides with another day from history. On October 28th 312AD, the Roman Emperor Constantine won a famous victory. This pagan ruler attributed his triumph to what had been up until that moment an illegal religion: Christianity. Soon after, Christianity was legalised and the formal oppression of Christians came to an end in the Roman Empire.


Christianity and the State have not always had an easy relationship, whether it was Ancient Rome, Tudor England or China’s Sinicization. In Australia, for more than a century our society achieved a healthy dynamic between Church and State. The Church does not control the State and the State doesn’t dictate religious beliefs and practices. This division doesn’t mean that religious ideas can never influence public policy.  After all, politics is never free from worldview, ideology, and theology. Indeed, our appreciation of the secular state has its roots in the teaching of Jesus Christ.

One day when Jesus was confronted by a group of political and religious pundits, he responded with what has become a vital principle for a healthy society, 

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

Jesus wasn’t arguing for the exclusion of religious ideas from the political sphere and neither was he fusing them together. Similarly, the Australian Constitution doesn’t advocate for secularism without religious ideas and contributions, but rather Government is protected from the control of any single religious organisation.

It is important to realise that the social pluralism we enjoy in Australia is deeply embedded in Judeo-Christian beliefs. Indeed, Australia’s political and social pluralism is one of the byproducts of Christian theism. If, as some hardline secularists want, that we rid our culture of all public vestiges of Judeo-Christianity, we will in fact destroy the underpinnings for a healthy pluralistic society and instead create one that is far more authoritarian and far less tolerant. Do we want to take that road?

It took almost 300 years for Christianity to be no longer deemed dangerous and criminal. In the space of 5 years, basic Christian ideas have been maligned and even made illegal in my State of Victoria. It’s one thing to disagree with Christian teaching, but such Governmental interference is wrong and needless. Without diminishing this overreach, I don’t want to overstate the case either. It’s not as though the future of Christianity depends upon Governmental permission. Far from it! Christianity often grows where the State opposes Churches. The opposition forces Christians to consider who we truly worship, love and follow. When Christians attribute too much to Government, we can weaken the Gospel and lose sight of the centrality of the Church. We are not theocrats! Government intrusion does however make following Jesus Christ more difficult and costly.

At a time where many nations are turning the screw on religious freedoms, from China to Iran and to Russia, why would we want to join this number? The Equal Opportunity (Religious Exceptions) Amendment Bill 2021 achieves less for inclusion and instead gives the State greater control over what religious organisations can do in line with their religion. This legislation contradicts healthy pluralism, and it denies the very foundations upon which our secular society is built. 


This article is an update on comments I made about the proposed Equal Opportunity Amendments last month

Associate Professor Neil Foster provides a legal analysis of the Bill here

A Victorian Church’s Plan for returning to Church

I’ve been asked by a number of pastors what Mentone‘s plan is for returning to church later this year. Our church elders recently put together a document and  they’ve given me permission to share it here, in the hope that it may be of some value to others.  I stress, it is important to read the entire document and not remove one statement from the context of others.

 We have tried to convey the complexity of issues that lay before churches in Victoria. We are not suggesting that this is the only path forward for churches. We appreciate that churches will land on these issues in slightly different ways. This is Mentone Baptist’s direction and the theological framework that is underpinning our decisions. In light of the fact that the COVID-19 situation is fluid (and as we state in the document), some aspects of the plan may change in the event of new information and updates. We pray that the Lord grants ongoing wisdom and patience to the churches across our State as we navigate this difficult season.

Statement by the Elders of Mentone Baptist Church regarding the return to church and vaccines

We realise that the topic of vaccine mandates and church is a contentious issue, with strongly held opinions in the community and including among Christians. The Elders have sought advice, discussed at length, and prayed over our position. Here is what we think. 

We outline 5 principles in this document which together serve to frame the position we are taking in relation to church and vaccines. As you will see, forming a view is not a matter of using one Bible verse or singling out one issue. Rather, there are multiple issues and many theological strands that together help us formulate the conclusions we have arrived at. Also, it is not the case that we prioritise one of these convictions over the others, but that we hold all 5 together. 

We appreciate that each church will be required to carefully consider these issues and some may arrive at slightly different conclusions. We are not pretending that the subject is easy and neither are we claiming to have infallible insight. We are nonetheless persuaded that the direction we have settled on is wise and godly. We also understand that if the rules change we may need to reassess the decisions we have made.  As men who love the Lord Jesus and uphold the authority of Scripture and are committed to the health and future of Mentone Baptist Church, we commit this plan to you.

1. We believe the in-person gathering of the church is essential

We believe that Church is an essential service, both for the spiritual and social wellbeing of Christians and for the spiritual and social health of society.

People are not disembodied beings. We are physical creatures who require physical presence and social interaction. We are also more than flesh and blood. We are mental and spiritual beings, who depend on more than food and sleep for life. It was Jesus who famously said in the Sermon on the Mount, “Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes?”

Churches provide one of the few remaining places where people can meet and share the joys and sorrows of life, and where supportive relationships are created. Zoom, Youtube, and social media are a blessing but they are no substitute for real and personal meeting. Indeed, church by definition is the physical gathering of Christians, meeting to worship God and to encourage one another. 

The Scriptures exhort believers to meet regularly and not to give up this practice,

“And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, 25 not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.” (Hebrews 10:24-25).

Without diminishing the Biblical principle of in-person gathering, it is worth pointing out lessons from history. In times of plague and emergency, Churches were adaptable and took reasonable measures for the common good. For example, when the Spanish Flu struck North America in 1918, churches closed for several months. In the 16th Century, while there was little understanding about the way disease spread, Christian leaders including Martin Luther and John Calvin adapted their ministry practices during outbreaks of the plague.

In a letter Martin Luther wrote, 

“Others sin on the right hand. They are much too rash and reckless, tempting God and disregarding everything which might counteract death and the plague. They disdain the use of medicines; they do not avoid places and persons infected by the plague, but lightheartedly make sport of it and wish to prove how independent they are. They say that it is God’s punishment; if he wants to protect them he can do so without medicines or our carefulness. This is not trusting God but tempting him. God has created medicines and provided us with intelligence to guard and take good care of the body so that we can live in good health.”

If in the Old Testament God himself ordered lepers to be banished from the community and compelled to live outside the city to prevent contamination (Leviticus 13–14), we must do the same with this dangerous pestilence so that anyone who becomes infected will stay away from other persons, or allow himself to be taken away and given speedy help with medicine.” 

Restraints on freedom to gather for public worship must be reasonable and temporary. We believe that current limitations on church gatherings qualify as reasonable and short term, although we are concerned about the increasing toll this is taking on peoples’ mental, social, and spiritual wellbeing. Subsequently, we accept there is an argument for reevaluating the current restrictions imposed on Melbournians. When we believe the Government is acting unfairly and unreasonably toward Churches, we will ask for correction. 

2. We believe we have a duty of care toward others

“Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.” (Philippians 2:3-4)

“Be careful, however, that the exercise of your rights does not become a stumbling block to the weak.” (1 Corinthians 8:9)

We want church to be safe for everyone and we want everyone to have opportunity to hear the Gospel and for all God’s people to gather as Church. Among these goals are competing tensions and we need wisdom for navigating these. 

The Elders accept the broad consensus in the medical community that the COVID-19 vaccines are overwhelmingly safe and effective and we encourage people to be vaccinated. This is a way we can show consideration toward others. While we encourage people to be vaccinated, we also understand that a few cannot for medical reasons and others may express concerns. It is important for us to love those who have come to different conclusions. 

We also don’t want to do anything that will discredit the Gospel and unnecessarily cause anyone to think ill of Christ and his Church. At a time where Christianity has lost social credibility through important issues such as abuse, are our actions adorning the Gospel or confusing the Gospel or conflating the Gospel with other worldviews and political agendas? Serving the wellbeing of our community and city is an important way of demonstrating the love of Christ.

3. We believe obeying the Government is a matter of godliness

“Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended. For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience.” (Romans 13:1-5)

Remind the people to be subject to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready to do whatever is good, to slander no one, to be peaceable and considerate, and always to be gentle toward everyone.” (Titus 3:1-2)

The two exceptions to this principle of obedience are 1. where Government policy directly violates Holy Scripture, and 2. where a Government mandate is manifestly unjust.

4. We believe the conscience has an important although not supreme role in determining what is right and good

We are mindful of the conscience and believe we should tread cautiously before acting against ones conscience. However, the conscience is not infallible. We mustn’t assume that strong feelings equal right feelings. We mustn’t assume that an issue must be primary or essential because people hold strong views or feel strongly about it. As Jonathan Leeman says (Political Church: The Local Assembly as Embassy of Christ’s Rule: 2016),  

“Christians no doubt possess a duty to be faithful to their consciences, yet I would argue that they possess a higher duty to be right. After all, consciences in the Bible can be misguided and must be instructed.”

There is a mistaken view of the conscience that has taken hold in some quarters, and that is, the conscience should never be violated and thus whatever I think about public health measures should only be enforceable where I agree with those measures. Jonathan Leeman is once again helpful,

“First, government is very much in the business of binding whole persons, including their consciences. […] God established governments in Genesis 9 precisely because humanity’s consciences had become unbound. A person might be conscientiously convicted that a nation’s immigration laws are unfair, but he or she is still obligated to obey them, even while simultaneously working to change them. His or her conscientious objection is no measure of the law’s legitimacy. An act of disobedience by the Christian can only be justified by demonstrating that the law is not just or right, not simply that one has a conscientious objection to it.”

“Luther’s celebrated parry against usurpatious princes and priests, “To go against conscience is neither right nor safe,” makes for good Protestant sermon fodder, but a theology of authority and submission is a bit more complex. God does in fact authorize various individuals and institutions to place burdens on the conscience. When a parent instructs a child to go to bed, the child should feel conscience bound to obey. So with a prince and subject or an elder and church member in their areas of jurisdiction.”

Professor Patrick Parkinson (Academic Law Dean at the University of Queensland and Chair of Freedom for Faith) explains why the argument from conscience is not always legitimate,

If I object to taking a vaccine because I am worried about side-effects, or because I am concerned that it is insufficiently tested, I am not objecting on moral or conscientious grounds. I am making a decision based upon my assessment of the risks versus the benefits to myself on medical grounds. We should not fool ourselves into thinking that such a judgment is a religious one. The Bible gives us no guidance whatsoever on the medical efficacy or benefit of a new vaccine. A religious person who has an objection to a vaccine does not have a religious objection by reason only of the fact that he or she happens to be religious.

‘A religious person who has a non-religious objection to vaccination is absolutely entitled to refuse a violation of his or her bodily integrity; but this does not mean that governments and employers are not justified in imposing restrictions to protect others, so long as the restrictions are reasonable.”

In other words, we believe that coercing the conscience is fraught with problems, however not every argument against taking the COVID-19 vaccines can be attributed to the conscience.

5. We believe keeping the unity of the body of Christ is of paramount importance

“Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.” (Ephesians 4:3)

“I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another in what you say and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly united in mind and thought.”  (1 Corinthians 1:10)

“My goal is that they may be encouraged in heart and united in love, so that they may have the full riches of complete understanding, in order that they may know the mystery of God, namely, Christ” (Colossians 2:2).

At Mentone Baptist Church we will not divide the church with endless controversies (Titus 3:9-11) and/or over disputable matters. Christians who repeatedly introduce topics to the Christian community which are both divisive and of tertiary importance (such as the debates around covid), and refuse to stop doing so are guilty of dividing the church. People are free to have these discussions in their own time with others who wish to participate. But it is inappropriate to hash these discussions out in Bible study chat groups or church zoom meetings. 

We will not treat with antipathy those who cannot be vaccinated or those who hold reasonable grounds for not getting vaccinated. We want to show grace and peace toward all.

We will affirm the Gospel together and that we are one in Christ Jesus. We will encourage each other with this Gospel and not allow other matters to distract or destroy the fellowship we enjoy together in Christ. 

We encourage anyone who has concerns to speak with one of the Elders. We encourage anyone who has concerns about vaccines to speak with their GP.

Mentone’s roadmap for returning to Church:

The Victorian Government has announced the roadmap to recovery. We understand that the pathway is subject to unforeseen changing circumstances, but nonetheless it is useful to have this clarity. 

Our 5 governing principles are each important but as the Victorian plan indicates, putting these into practice is not always straightforward. We maintain the essential nature of the public gathering of church, our duty of care toward others (both inside and outside the church), the need to obey Government, the role of conscience, and God’s command to maintain the unity of the Church. 

In light of these 5 principles, our goal is to return to a single service and with everyone meeting in the same room (auditorium) as soon as possible. We recognise that this aim will come about in stages over a period of time. For the sake of public witness and public health we should exercise patience and grace.

Below are key dates and the Church activities that can recommence as per Government guidelines:

DateOur decisionVictorian Government Roadmap” ‘Place of worship’
From October 26Growth Groups and prayer meetings can recommence outdoors (on church property).  If there are persons in a Growth Group who are unvaccinated, we encourage the entire group to continue meeting online rather than divide the group.  Youth Group may restart, with the discretion of leaders.If fully vaccinated, with medical exemption, and u16: Meetings must be outside, DQ4, 50 cap. 
 Unknown vaccination status: any meeting is capped at 20, is outdoors, DQ4.
From November 5thIn addition to the above, and depending on latest health advice, we intend to return to in-person gatherings on Nov. 7th. If meeting indoors we will need to meet over 2 services. For those unable to attend we will provide online access.Fully vaccinated: Indoors DQ4 and 150 cap, outdoors DQ2 500 cap. 
Or,
Unknown vaccination status: any meeting is capped at 20, is outdoors, DQ4.

From November 19tbd
  • Note: all dates are indicative and may change

The Government rules currently require proof of vaccination for entry into a place of worship to operate with appropriate numbers. As such, those who are unvaccinated (apart from those with a medical exemption and underage children) will be excluded from indoor and main gatherings in the short term.

We have concerns about this. As Sydney’s Anglican Archbishop Kanishka Raffel has said, 

“Churches have a responsibility to minister to all, regardless of immunisation status…We want everybody to be safe at church, but we also want to make sure we minister to everybody.” 

Hence, we will comply with Government restrictions so long as they are reasonable, fair and temporary. For both stages of reopening (October 26th and November 5th), the Victorian Government is mandating double vaccination for people wanting to attend any events, restaurants, and churches. Therefore, this is not discrimination against Churches. In fact, whereas other public events and spaces are not permitted to include unvaccinated people at all, the Government have made provision for unvaccinated people to gather for a religious service, so long as it is outdoors and with a maximum of 20 persons. We are not comfortable in keeping anyone from our main gatherings, even for a limited period of time, but the rules do indicate that the Government is accommodating religious Victorians. 

Many of us may disagree with aspects of the Government’s plan or share concerns, but that is not sufficient reason to disobey.  Once the vaccination rates hits the required target on or around November 19th, we anticipate that Australia’s National Plan will remove the barriers between vaccinated and unvaccinated people. If this is the situation, we are prepared to endure 2 weeks of this less than ideal situation. To signal our unity in Christ, for Sundays Nov 7 and 14, we will refrain from the Lord’s Supper. In addition, rather than speaking of church we will use the language of ‘public gathering’.

We believe it is incumbent upon both the Federal and State Governments to confirm with adequate time the date when unvaccinated Victorians can mingle unhindered with vaccinated Victorians. If it becomes clear that these arrangements are going to extend beyond November 19th, we will appeal to the proper authorities and we will discuss with the church what the wise and godly course of action will be.

We recognise that these arrangements are less than ideal; it is the nature of a pandemic. We are very conscious of the fact that while the majority of people agree to being vaccinated, we understand that others have concerns. We are also aware that we have a duty of care toward those who are unable to be vaccinated for medical reasons and we want to be able to confirm with visitors that we are a safe space for them. Each member is important to the whole body and we do not want to live in an environment where some are excluded. Again, we encourage people to be vaccinated if not for their own wellbeing, then doing so out of love for others. The Elders are happy to address any moral or theological concerns, but we ask that you speak to your GP for any medically related issues.

Brothers and sisters, let’s “make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace”. (Ephesians 4:3)

Victoria’s Conversion Practices Act is a genuine assault on religious freedom

I just got off the phone with a friend and fellow baptist pastor from Melbourne. He has resigned himself to the likelihood that he will face imprisonment over the next few years. This isn’t because he’s done anything wrong or immoral. He’s a faithful follower of Jesus and lovingly serves a local church. He shared how he has been made to feel that he is a criminal. Again, this is not because he is behaving in any egregious manner. It is because he is a faithful follower of Jesus and a loving pastor that he is expects to face jail time.

My friend had just attended an information session for baptist pastors regarding Victoria’s new conversion practices laws. I attended the same forum but on a different day. 

The Government representatives provided a thorough briefing on the intent and details of The Change or Suppression (Conversion) Practices Prohibition Act. No assurance was given that the laws are only targeting extreme practices. Instead, the Government representatives made it clear that numerous Christian beliefs and practices are now on the wrong side of the law.

I won’t repeat everything that was said in the forum, nor will I cover all the ground that I’ve written about previously and that others have well documented.  The aim here is to remind Victorians of the serious threats posed by The Change or Suppression (Conversion) Practices Prohibition Act. The Bill was adopted by the Victorian Parliament in February this year,  and it comes into effect  February 2022. 

At the moment, churches are understandably focused on issues relating to COVID-19 and what church may look like once we can return in November. At the same time, this Act looms large and will have real consequences for faithful Christians and also for Victorians who seek solace and new identity in Jesus Christ. 

Government Doctrine

The forum speakers were at pains to say that their role was to explain the law and not enter discussions about religious doctrines. However, their commentary was interspersed with judgements on various Christian beliefs and practices.  One Government official referred to the Christian view of sexuality as ‘insidious’. The law itself  is designed to stop certain beliefs and practices inherent to the Christian faith.  Indeed, the Change or Suppression (Conversion) Practices Prohibition Act is a religious manifesto wrapped in the guise of politics and law. Lest we were left in any doubt, the government presenters offered ‘Christian’ resources for us to read. None of the sources reflect Christian  views, but the teachings of LGBT activist groups. 

For example, we were informed that no person’s sexuality or gender identity is broken or sinful, and to suggest so contravenes the intent of the new laws. While this may be a popular view in our cultural moment, it is logically incoherent and experientially false. 

We were told that,

“It’s deceptive to say there’s a problem when there isn’t one.”

And

“It wrong to suggest that “you cannot have faith unless you change”.

However, by definition Christianity is a conversion religion. God requires us to repent of sin and to turn to him for forgiveness, new life, and reconciliation. There is no Christian without change. People are persuaded by the message of Jesus Christ and are changed by it. I am not suggesting that a person’s sexual orientation changes, nor do we minister for that goal. Contrary to the views presented at the forum which repeatedly stated that people cannot change, the fact is,  some people do find their sexual orientation change, while many do not. What does change however is an individual’s desire to live in conformity with God’s righteousness. It is normal for people to share this newly found desire in Christ and to seek counsel and prayer to live in light of the beliefs that they are now persuaded to be good and right.

We were informed by a lawyer representing the Government that, 

“We are to affirm peoples sexual orientation and preferences and ‘the love of God’ in that!”

The love of God as described by God in the Bible is given to people not on account of moral aptitude and adherence to his laws. The beautiful account of God in the person of Jesus Christ is that God loves ‘sinners’. It is not a love that condones human sexual behaviour and preferences, but a love that is offered despite our behaviour and desires. To affirm certain preferences is not ‘the love of God’, that is a betrayal of his love, and it is beyond the scope of a government lawyer to suggest so.

The following questions were asked during the forum of the panel:

Christians believe that sexual practices should only take place within marriage between a man and a woman. This belief comes from the Bible, affirmed by Jesus, and has been the norm for thousands of years. 

Say, for example, someone approaches a Christian and shares that they are same sex attracted. They ask for prayer because they don’t want to live out those desires but instead live according to Christian principles. I am acting unlawfully by praying this with/for them?

If the same person also asks me for assistance on how to live according to Christian beliefs and so refrain from sexual relations outside heterosexual marriage, am I acting unlawfully?

The answer in both cases is, yes, this would be a breach of the law.

Here’s another example, a home group may conduct a Bible study on Romans chapter 1. However, if during the study someone shares that they are homosexual, the study cannot continue, because doing so may be interpreted as an attempt to change or suppress the individual’s sexual orientation. 

There is one point where confusion remains; it relates to church positions (whether staff, volunteer, or membership). While a church can appoint persons in line with expressed doctrinal values, it seems to be the case that once a person reveals their sexual orientation or gender identity, you cannot remove them from their role. This will have real repercussions for issues of employment, freedom of association, and the Christian practice of church discipline.

To be clear, it is not only religious leaders who are subject to the Act, everyone Victorian is subject to these laws.

Government Overreach

Since governmental discussions on conversion practices started 4-5 years ago, the direction was pretty clear, and today’s forum has reinforced this simple fact: in Victoria only one view of humanity is permitted, and the Christian view is not it.

No doubt, some Victorians will be very pleased with this news. However, for all the pop-talk about the separation of church and state, and of government commissions not getting involved in church doctrine, this law is all about doctrine and forcing a hardline (and at times anti-scientific) humanistic view onto religion.  As another pastor expressed to me, for a law that’s designed to ban ‘conversion’, he feels that he is being forcibly converted away from Christianity and into some new fangled civil religion.

It is extraordinary for a government to assume such authority and tell its citizens how to pray and who to pray for. It is beyond reason and fairness that a government should threaten religious people for loving others as Christ has loved us. To wield the law in order to bully churches into changing their beliefs is beyond the pale.

Through reading and hearing stories I am aware that a few religious groups have taught and practiced things that are wrong and harmful. I don’t know of anyone who disagrees with every element of the Act. I’ve been on the record since I first heard about ‘conversion practices’ and publicly repudiated such activities. However, this law goes well beyond banning a few practices that belonged on the fringes of a small number of religious organisations. It’s like the Government noticed an ingrown toenail on the left foot and their answer is to cut off the entire leg, and then threaten to cut off other leg should should we offer any resistance! Let me repeat, this law makes it illegal to speak with someone and pray with someone about human sexuality in line with the Christian faith. Worse still, it threatens to silence the most precious good news the world can ever know.

The Bible is clear and good

“Or do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor men who have sex with men[a10 nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. 11 And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.” (1Corinthians 6:9-11)

Becoming a Christian doesn’t remove every issue or struggle, but it does give us a new standing and status before God, and by his Spirit he gives us a new set of desires and purpose. I am not saying that a person’s sexual orientation will change. I don’t think the aim is to change a person’s orientation, nor have I ever suggested so. The Christian goal is to persuade people with the Gospel of Jesus Christ and to encourage believers to live godly lives that reflect God’s good purposes as revealed in the Bible.

Again, the Bible is clear. You may not agree with it, but that’s part of living in a healthy and pluralistic society. People share and exchange ideas, and people do their best to love and care, and people can choose to engage or not. When the Government deems it necessary to clamp down on historic mainstream Christianity, all Victorians needs to be aware and consider what is becoming of our society. 

What can Churches do? Write a letter to their local MP expressing concerns. Speak with your organisational/denominational leaders and them to provide adequate protections and advice for churches. Don’t give up on the goodness of the Gospel.