A season for pruning churches in Australia

Does God sometimes allow unbelievers to do the work Churches should be doing themselves?

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

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

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

Jesus says,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Don’t “mess” with laws on freedom of religion, fix them!

At the start of the week, a news reporter stood outside on a North Carolinian street during Hurricane Florence, facing the heavy rain and struggling against winds. It looked as though he might be blown over at any moment. As he clenched his muscles and defied the hurricane’s power, two men passed by behind him, walking casually and without any trouble or concern caused by the winds.

Not all news is fake, but sometimes journalists exaggerate their case or they forget to mention other pertinent information. Maybe it’s due to ignorance, while at other times there is an agenda which they reckon can’t afford nuance or balanced reporting. I cannot say which is the case for Wednesday’s Editorial in The Age, “No need to mess with laws on freedom of religion”. Let’s assume the best and that the writer, Alex Lavelle, is simply not on top of the issues he is addressing.

Lavelle has stated a simple case, arguing Australia does not need further religious protections. Responding to the Prime Minister’s suggestion that religious freedoms require legislative protections,  Lavelle contends,

“There is a real risk such undue interference by government, which could undermine separation between church and state in a secular democracy, might unleash further discrimination, including the refusal to employ or provide goods and services to people of other religions or from the queer community. In short, Mr Morrison risks needlessly reducing the rights of many.”

Two important corrections need to be made.

First, existing laws do not adequately protect people of faith.

Alex Lavelle cites Section 116 of the constitution, which reads,

‘‘The Commonwealth shall not make any law for establishing any religion, or for imposing any religious observance, or for prohibiting the free exercise of any religion, and no religious test shall be required as a qualification for any office or public trust under the Commonwealth.’’

His point is that Section 116 provides adequate protections for religious people in Australia. What Lavelle ignores or is perhaps unaware of, is that  Section 116 has been interpreted so narrowly by the High Court that no successful litigation has ever been brought under it. Also, this section of the Constitution only binds the Commonwealth, not the States and Territories, and most of the growing problems in relation to religious freedom have arisen at a state level where S116 cannot help. 

When it comes to state laws, protections for religious freedom are inconsistent and often weak. In Tasmania, you can find yourself in serious trouble for doing nothing more than teaching the basics tenets of one’s religion. And in NSW, religion is not even a protected attribute for anti-discrimination law.

Second,  examples of religious restrictions are real and growing

The second major problem with this editorial is Lavelle’s reason as to why Australia is considering religious protections. He suggests,

“The issue exists only because former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull commissioned a review by former Liberal Party minister Philip Ruddock to assuage minority concerns about same-sex marriage.”

This is simply not the case, or at the very least, it is not the full story. The Ruddock Inquiry was initiated because there already is an issue relating to religious freedoms in Australia, and there are concrete reasons for thinking such freedoms will be further weakened and even denied.

Recent examples abound:

  • Archbishop Julian Porteous wrote to Catholics, explaining Catholic teaching on marriage, and he soon found himself facing the anti-discrimination laws of Tasmania
  • A Presbyterian preacher in Hobart wrote a blog article in which he addressed same-sex marriage from a Bible and pastoral perspective. The Anti-discrimination commissioner accepted a complaint against him.
  • A Queensland doctor is currently in trouble with the Medical Board for committing the horrendous crime of retweeting a selfie of Lyle Shelton and author Ryan Anderson (and expert in transgenderism), with Lyle encouraging people to read Anderson’s book.
  • In 2016, the Sydney University student body attempted to deregister the Evangelical Union, because it required students to affirm, “Jesus is Lord”.
  • Last September at the University of Sydney, a mob of 200 students violently attacked a small group of Catholic students who were peacefully handing out literature on marriage and encouraging a ‘no vote’ during the marriage plebiscite.
  • Churches were vandalised in the lead up to the marriage plebiscite.
  • A young university student asked another student if she would like prayer. He was told by university authorities that he had challenged a student’s beliefs, and was subsequently suspended. The university informed him that he was to attend fortnightly counselling and that he would be forcibly removed should he step foot on the university campus.
  • The Victorian State Government is seeking to ban ideology that does not fully embrace transgenderism and homosexuality. It may become unlawful to even question a person’s sexual self-identity or to present the Biblical view of abstinence outside of heterosexual marriage. Federal Labor is also putting forward for their national platform, policies that will include as child abuse, any persons (including parents) who do not support young children in transitioning from one gender to another.
  • The chief executive of a Queensland Baptist agency sent an email to staff, calling for people to respect differing views on marriage while also presenting his case against same-sex marriage. One employee complained and a case was taken to Queensland Industrial Relations Commission.

We praise Qantas when they wrap themselves in rainbow colours and when their chief executive officer publicly advocates gay marriage, but it’s deeply offensive and outrageous for a religious person to express an alternate view in their organisation (and a religious organisation at that!)? Had the Baptist chief executive sent an email to staff in favour of same-sex marriage, the outcome would be vastly different. To begin with, the Queensland Industrial Relations Commission would almost certainly be disinterested. On the off chance that he sent an email in which he advocated for a ‘yes’ vote in last year’s plebiscite, and one of his staff complained to the Baptist Union of Queensland, and he was reprimanded as a result, can you imagine the public outcry? How dare Baptists stifle this man’s freedom to voice an opinion and to share his views amongst his staff!

The Federal member of Goldstein, Tim Wilson, was asked about the particular case on Sky News only two weeks ago. Mr Wilson said,

“it’s not a good trend. It’s not a good principal, and it’s certainly inconsistent with the very basis of free speech”

He also pointed out how in the workplace free speech needs to be used “reasonably and respectfully”, and from what he had seen, this Queensland Baptist case hadn’t crossed that line.

Maybe Alex Lavelle is unaware of these and many other examples that have been disclosed in recent times. Perhaps he is unaware that his own newspaper has reported on some these cases. Perhaps he is also unaware of Fairfax journalists who have written articles arguing for the restriction of religious freedoms. To cite two examples,

Auberry Perry

“This survey offers us a conscious opportunity to make a firm stand in support of a secular government and to reject discrimination or favouritism based on religion. It’s our opportunity to say that religion has no part in the shaping of our laws. A vote against same-sex marriage is a vote for religious bias and discrimination in our legislation, our public schools, our healthcare, and ultimately, in the foundation of our social structure.”

Matt Holden,

“‘the best guarantee of religious freedom is keeping religion out of politics”.

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I  imagine that a decade ago most Australians would probably have agreed, there is little need to offer legal reform in relation to religious freedoms, for most Australians accepted that we should have freedom of association, and be free to speak and to have a conscience that accords with our religious convictions. Australia has changed and is changing. The move away from cultural and philosophical pluralism and toward domesticating and conditioning religion according to the zealotist rules of humanistic secularists is no mere trickle.

We can choose to ignore the evidence and to proffer that there is no issue, but we can only pretend for so long before that leaky tap spills over the sink and floods the entire house. The agenda to squeeze out religious beliefs from politics and schools and businesses and universities is all too real, and the fact that many cases are already reaching anti-discrimination tribunals demonstrates that there is a problem. Even if some of these cases are being thrown out or overturned, the tide is persistent, and without proper and positive protections in place, we will see an increasing number of religious Australians losing their freedom to believe and practice their faith.

Banning ‘Conversion’ Therapy, what does it mean?

Media outlets have renewed a campaign to outlaw gay conversion therapy (GCT). The Age published an article on the weekend with the title, Churches, LGBTI Christians urge crackdown on ‘conversion’ therapy.

The headline is somewhat misleading, for according to the SOCE website (the group who are asking the Federal Government to ban GCT), only four churches have signed their statement along with 3-4 church ministers. No doubt there other supportive Churches, but nothing like the groundswell of ecclesial enthusiasm that the newspaper implies.

If The Age had asked Christian leaders and Churches from across the country, I suspect that they would find partial agreement with the folk at SOCE Survivors, and also significant disagreement.

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To begin with, testimonies of gay conversion therapies are disturbing. Far from being ‘normal,’ these practices belong to fringe religious groups, finding little or no support amongst mainstream Christian Churches and theology. As a Christian, I do not support or agree with gay conversion therapy, as defined in terms of using pseudo-scientific and unbiblical spiritual methods to change a person’s sexuality. I feel for those who have undergone these traumatic experiences, wishing that they had not, and praying that they will find true and lasting recovery and peace.

The conversation is important because the health and life of LGBTIQ Australians matters enormously. They are not pawns to be played in political games, but human beings made in the image of God, and who ought to be treated with dignity. This, however, does not mean that every sexual preference and activity is morally good and beneficial, and neither does it mean that people who choose celibacy are somehow less complete or fulfilled as human beings.

It is interesting to learn that the SOCE Survivors statement makes the repeated observation that most organisations who once practiced GCT have now folded or no longer use such programs. If this is the case, then why are LGBTIQ groups and two political parties campaigning to have gay conversion therapy banned by Governments? If the aim is to inform the public of these formerly used and egregious methods, that’s fine, and yet their stated goals extend far beyond this. Why is there a concerted campaign to make illegal, practices that are no longer employed? As one reads further into the document, a picture emerges that their primary focus is no longer with GCT  but with any ideology that does not fully support LGBTIQ identity and lifestyles.

The statement argues that “many expressions of SOCE exist at the micro level, making them difficult to recognise, quantify, and regulate. The underlying ideology is firmly embedded in the everyday life of many faith communities as a collection of messages, beliefs and practices.”

According to their document, the key to this ideology is the erroneous and harmful belief (in their opinion) that “heterosexuality is the intended order”. Among these unacceptable practices are sermons that “talk about and reinforce traditional gender roles and ‘living as men and women of God”.

How broad is the net of unacceptable teaching and practice in faith communities? It certainly feels sufficiently broad to include the majority of Churches and Christian organisations. That’s part of the problem with the SOCE website, and also with the reporting in the newspaper, their descriptions of gay conversion therapy are vague, so much so that depending on how one reads in between the blurry lines, preaching a sermon on Genesis chs.1-3 or Romans 1:18-32 could fall foul of the authorities.

Definitions matter. The meaning of words and phrases is essential, lest we import a wrong sense or create confusion by speaking across each other. At the same time though, ambiguity and breadth are also proven rhetorical devices that gently and unassumingly push the envelope open even further.

In the Bible, God calls Christians to sexual purity. This does not necessarily mean there will be a change in sexual orientation. Some men and woman find their sexual desires and identity change with time, and to argue otherwise is to ignore the weight of personal testimonies. Indeed, researchers have demonstrated that the majority of children who experience gender dysphoria will grow out of it by adulthood and will happily identifying with their biological sex. However, the fact is, when becoming a Christian, many gay and lesbian people will not become heterosexual.

The Bible may not state that a person’s sexual orientation will change, but it does teach conversion. Christianity by definition is a conversion religion, where human beings made in the image of God, shift from looking for freedom in the myth of post-enlightenment moral relativism, and instead discovering the greatest freedom in the person of Jesus Christ. Let me repeat, I am not suggesting that people cease to struggle with aspects of their past, including sexual orientation, but it does mean that they now want to be godly in their sexuality. According to the Bible, this sanctification includes affirming that sex belongs to the loving, exclusive, mutually consenting, covenant of marriage between a man and a woman.

Does believing and teaching the above, and encouraging Christians to practice the above, push me outside the moral parameters of SOCE? Keeping in mind that none of the above views are new or novel, for they sit perfectly within orthodox Christian teaching and practice. Nonetheless, should this standard Christian view be considered wrong and harmful, and to be scrutinised by the authorities?

Anything other than the full affirmation of lgbtiq individuals as fully equal (including in the church, with a move toward correcting the poorly translated words currently classed as “homosexual” in the bible) is really unacceptable.”

While the SOCE Survivors document is vague at points, a spokesperson from SOCE has this week responded to a friend of mine who was also seeking clarification from them. The spokesperson said,

“The conversion therapy movement is very broad. Eg. theologically driven celibacy of lgbtiq people, prayer ministry, sermons that veer into exgay ideology leading to harm. They all need firm interventions. The survivors who wrote the statement are very keen to keep the definition broad. Anything other than the full affirmation of lgbtiq individuals as fully equal (including in the church, with a move toward correcting the poorly translated words currently classed as “homosexual” in the bible) is really unacceptable.”

The SOCE representative also asked,

“Would people who attend this group be encouraged to avoid being in a long-term committed same-sex relationship on theological or psychological grounds?”

When my friend suggested, ‘yes’, he was then informed that,

“I would say this group falls under the umbrella of the ex-gay movement. As you can see from the statement, the ex-gay movement has been viewed through many lenses over the years – from conversion therapy, to ex-gay programs that are less about therapy and more about solidarity. Regardless, such a group goes against the latest biblical scholarship, as well as a significant body of research detailing the harm caused by attempts to suppress or change a person’s orientation or gender affirmation on religious grounds. Thanks.”

There you have it. The agenda is wider than banning rare and harmful practices, but includes ministry and preaching that encourages the classical Biblical understanding of sexual holiness and human identity.

One might choose to ignore this most recent reporting of the issue, believing it’s another example of Christian philistinism. However, SOCE’s agenda is being adopted by two of the nation’s major political parties (ALP and the Greens), and the current Victorian State Government is also considering legislating on the issue. In other words, there is a strong possibility that these views will be shaped into legislation in the not too distant future, and could be used to against Christian Churches across Australia (and especially in Victoria). In case we assume there will be no severe implications from such legislation, as one example, the ALP platform speaks of removing children from parents who fail to affirm children in their self-assigned gender and sexuality, referring to this as child abuse.

Rather than chasing the culture down the rabbit hole of fluffy and imprecise language, Churches need theological and pastoral precision. This is a time for Christians to repudiate unsound, unbiblical, and harmful practices that have been used in the past, albeit by marginal and whacky groups. This is a time to repent of resentment toward LGBTIQ Australians and to ask for forgiveness where we have wronged them. This is also a time to embrace God’s good ways that are revealed in the Scriptures.

The future of Christianity does not depend on Governmental or societal approval, but it does hinge on whether Churches will “contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to God’s holy people.” Christianity didn’t survive and flourish in the Roman Empire because they allowed the sexual norms of the day to define the Church, or because they played dodge-the-bullet with broad and vague language, but because they believed and lived the freedom that was brought about by Jesus Christ. Clarity in an age of confusion; that is what is required of Christians today: humble clarity and gracious conviction that God’s purposes are good and true.

Gehenna’s Dead

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Piled in unmarked graves,

Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.

Filling Gehenna with what remains,

Of flesh and blood and marrow.

 

Who are these nameless ones,

Whose time on earth so short?

What mountain of horror to see,

the scandalous unwanted dead.

 

No coffin or ceremony,

No words of solace spoken.

Though lingering in the deep,

Are perhaps doubts and disquiet,

Wonderings and hopes.

 

What cause,

What appeal,

What affliction has created this disturbance?

What necessity or hate has so consumed,

That life is deemed discretional?

 

Who would give their children to Molek,

Or present offerings to Eros and Aphrodite?

What god so insatiable must we appease,

To pull from womb ones so dear?

 

A public commotion shudders the earth,

Let us dance and celebrate;

Cheers reverberate through the streets;

We are free to kill.

We choose to kill.

Little ones, do not deny our liberty.

 

Jezebel, she is a jealous prophet;

Let us prove our dignity and worth.

For freedom sake,

Give us our rights.

We choose ourselves,

And we vote to forfeit others.

 

The altar of self is a bloody place.

The smell of burning corpses stiffens the air.

Winning is losing and the losers die.

Is this progress’ price,

Suffer the little children, and let them not come?

 

“Death has climbed in through our windows and has entered our fortresses;

it has removed the children.”

With approval we look on;

Humanity scorched, and losing soul.

 

Who will love these little ones, imago dei?

Who will remember them, their smiles and motions,

their cries and laughter,

that first word and step?

Who will celebrate their first birthday,

Hug them and say, ‘I love you’?

 

Who would give life to these unwanted,

to those disdained and sacrificed for Molek?

What name is given to these young lives,

Who are found amidst rubbish and refuse alike?

 

Greater Josiah has come.

He will love them.

He will welcome them home.

This greater Josiah;

A King upon a cross,

purify Gehenna,

redeem the dead,

forgive the transgressor.

Come Lord Jesus, come.

Is this Rome’s time for Reformation?

An open letter written by Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, has connected the coverup of child sexual abuse with the highest offices in the Roman Catholic Church,

“A former Vatican ambassador to the United States alleges in a 7,000 word letter that top Catholic Church officials, including Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis, were long aware of sexual misconduct allegations against former D.C. archbishop Cardinal Theodore McCarrick.” (NPR)

For years it has been apparent that there is a culture of abuse among many Roman Catholic priests, and that church hierarchy has been quietly suppressing the stories for many decades. But this week’s allegations demand, even more, the need for Rome to reform. At this point, Pope Francis’ only response has been to say, “I will not say one word on this. I think the statement speaks for itself and you have sufficient journalistic capacity to reach your own conclusions.”

 

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When Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the Wittenburg Cathedral door in 1517, he was not calling for schism within the Roman Catholic Church, but for her reform. Luther rightly observed that reform begins with repentance.

The first of the 95 theses reads,

 “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ‘Repent,’ he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.”

Martin Luther’s rediscovery of the Gospel call had an almost immediate effect. As the Reformation swept across Europe in the 16th Century, Rome sent out counter punches in the hope of quelling the tide. In the centuries since, there have indeed been moments of change made inside the Vatican, but these revisions have been primarily cosmetic and cultural, rather than ripping out the rotted foundations and replacing them with τ γιαινούσ διδασκαλί.

It is interesting to note that the events which led to Martin Luther’s clarion call concerned an issue of abuse; Rome’s teaching of and reliance upon indulgences.

The practice of indulgences is nowhere taught or encouraged in the Christian Bible. Indulgences contradict the most basic of Christian teachings, that justification before God is by God’s grace alone, received by faith alone, because of Jesus Christ’s atoning death alone,

“For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9).

Roman Catholicism has taught indulgences since Medieval times, believing that they are a means by which people can receive remission for sins, and therefore reduce the time they would otherwise spend in purgatory. Leaving aside the fact that purgatory is another Roman concept which finds no warrant in the Bible,  indulgences take on multifarious forms, from saying a prayer, to completing a sacred pilgrimage, to helping the poor. Indulgences regularly contained a monetary aspect, paying a financial sum to the church to gain an indulgence, and thus time exemption from purgatory. The stunning St Peter’s Basilica in Rome that tourists and pilgrims enjoy today, was built in the 16th Century by stripping Europe’s poor via these indulgences.

In case we make the mistake of thinking that indulgences were left behind 500 years ago, they remain in vogue, with the current Pope publicly encouraging the practice of indulgences on at least two occasions since taking the seat in the Vatican in 2013. More odd, the ABC reported this week that the Anglican Church in Yea, Victoria, has recently taken up the practice in order to raise money to repair their dilapidated building.

Revelations made in recent years have once again made it clear that the problems inside Roman Catholicism are deeply rooted. When Martin Luther exposed the abuses made in the 16th Century, he rightly called for repentance and sought reform in the Church. Once again, Rome has been caught abusing the vulnerable, this time, sexually abusing young children and then consistently covering up the crimes. There are voices from within and many from outside, calling for Rome to reform her ways, but it appears that so far there is little sign of change. The allegations made this week by Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò suggest that change needs to extend to the very top. Indeed, should the Archbishop’s letter be proven accurate, this would confirm the abuse scandals to be the most profound  faced by the Roman Church in centuries.

In criticising Rome, please don’t misunderstand, I am not suggesting that Protestant Churches automatically make the cut. Children have been abused inside Anglican, Baptist, and Pentecostal Churches, and even one example is one more than should ever be. There is, however, a vast difference between cases of abuse, and a culture of abuse. In addition, Churches that have once embraced the principles of the Reformation, need to reaffirm them with every new generation, lest we too lose our way. Europe, the United Kingdom, and Australia are littered with churches that once joyful upheld the 5 Solas, but today are little more than crumbling buildings sitting on prime real estate supporting the retirement funds of heterodox clergy.

The Apostle Paul insisted that we hold onto both doctrine and life, “Watch your life and doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers” (1 Timothy 4:16). The former shapes the latter, and the latter can easily distort the former when we preference personal morality above the ethics given by a good and holy God.

Is this Rome’s time for Reformation? Will Rome finally wake up and realise that they need to do more than move around the furniture or cover up the walls with a new coat of paint? 500 years ago, abusive practices were called out and thousands of clergy and churches across Europe heeded God’s gracious call to repent, but Rome ignored the opportunity. How will Rome respond this time?

At the heart of the 16th Century, abuses derived from a distorted view of God and his Gospel. With the rediscovery of God’s good news and with the people gaining access to the Scriptures in their own languages, unhelpful and gross evil practices were exposed and removed.

Reformation needs to come from within, and reformation requires the dismantling of any and all teachings, practices, and traditions that confuse, cloud or contradict the Gospel of Jesus Christ. This kind of foundational change will be confronting and difficult. Christians can pray that a movement of repentance will take over Rome. We can pray that both among Rome’s clergy and congregations there will be a rediscovery of the Gospel, the good news that the Apostle Paul first shared with the Romans almost 2000 years ago,

“All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.” (Romans 3:23-24)

“For we maintain that a person is justified by faith apart from the works of the law” (Romans 3:28)

Bad Leaders and Good Leaders

The very notion of leadership has become a public parody, a cartoon, a crazy dream that strangely Orwellian and Black Adder together.

It seems as though among leadership of every kind and level, there is crisis, mismanagement, incompetence, and division. Whether we are talking about Australian politics or international politics, managing boards of major corporations, sporting clubs and yes even Churches, not even twitter can hashtag all the latest fiascos and failings. 

Of course, there are always criticisms, wingers, and dissenters, no matter who is leading. Even when leaders are performing their duties with excellence, grumblers are never far away.

At yet, corruption, bias, and abuses of power are very real and when it happens people are understandably upset, and they lose confidence in their leaders.

At the moment I’m preparing for Sunday’s sermon. We are currently preaching through the book of Jeremiah, and this week our reading is chapter 23, and it’s all about leadership: good leaders and bad leaders.

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I should note, this blog post is not about the current state of affairs in Australian politics.  It is about a form of leadership that is more significant, namely that of Christian or Church leadership. The original context of Jeremiah chapter 23 is of God addressing the leadership of Judah (which included the King, the priests, and the prophets); the equivalent for us today is the church.

Characteristics of a good leader

“Therefore this is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says to the shepherds who tend my people: “Because you have scattered my flock and driven them away and have not bestowed care on them, I will bestow punishment on you for the evil you have done,” declares the Lord. “I myself will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the countries where I have driven them and will bring them back to their pasture, where they will be fruitful and increase in number. I will place shepherds over them who will tend them, and they will no longer be afraid or terrified, nor will any be missing,” declares the Lord.

“The days are coming,” declares the Lord,
“when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch,
a King who will reign wisely
and do what is just and right in the land.

In his days Judah will be saved
and Israel will live in safety.
This is the name by which he will be called:
The Lord Our Righteous Savior.

“So then, the days are coming,” declares the Lord, “when people will no longer say, ‘As surely as the Lord lives, who brought the Israelites up out of Egypt,’ but they will say, ‘As surely as the Lord lives, who brought the descendants of Israel up out of the land of the north and out of all the countries where he had banished them.’ Then they will live in their own land.” (Jeremiah 23:1-9)

Two metaphors are used, the Shepherd and the King.

Like a Shepherd:

  • a good leader tends (feeding and protecting those under his care)
  • he gathers (brings them together)
  • he calms fears and terror

Like a righteous King:

  • he will act wisely
  • he will act with justice
  • he will act with righteousness

It is important to note that God identifies himself as the Shepherd, and the King (the righteous branch) is the promised Messiah. The point is, the Lord will accomplish what his leaders have failed to achieve. He will redeem his people from the mess created by failed leaders.

Seven Centuries following this Divine pronouncement,  a preacher from Galilee arose, and announced, “I am the good shepherd”. But the phrase, “I am”, he was adopting the holy name of the Lord for himself. By exclaiming “I am the good shepherd”, Jesus was identifying himself as the God of Jeremiah 23:3, in contrast to the generations of bad shepherds who had gone before him and who were prevalent during his own public ministry.

What is most remarkable, is the extent to which the Good Shepherd would go in order to save and bring lost sheep: he would lay down his life for his sheep. This Shepherd leader loves his sheep so much, that he would give his life to save them. Jesus is providing us with much more than a model of leadership, for his sacrificial death is unique is salvific power and design, and yet he also signals a pattern that is to be followed by those who would serve as leaders under his rule.

In Jeremiah 23:4, God also speaks of other shepherds who will work under him. “I will place shepherds over them who will tend them, and they will no longer be afraid or terrified, nor will any be missing,” declares the Lord.” While the salvific focus is on God himself and his leadership role, he intimates that he will raise up shepherds to work under him” (v.4).

1 Peter 5 interprets Jeremiah 23 (and similar Old Testament passages) by speaking of the Chief Shepherd (the Lord Jesus) and Elders of a local Church,

“To the elders among you, I appeal as a fellow elder and a witness of Christ’s sufferings who also will share in the glory to be revealed: Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, watching over them—not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not pursuing dishonest gain, but eager to serve; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock. And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that will never fade away”. (1 Peter 5:1-4)

Characteristics of a bad leader:

The leaders in question are Judah’s king, the priests, and the prophets. Rather than faithfully administering their responsibilities under God, according to his covenantal word:

i. They create their own ‘truth’

“I did not send these prophets,
yet they have run with their message;
I did not speak to them,
yet they have prophesied.” (verse 21)

“This is what the Lord Almighty says:

“Do not listen to what the prophets are prophesying to you;
they fill you with false hopes.
They speak visions from their own minds,
not from the mouth of the Lord.

They keep saying to those who despise me,
‘The Lord says: You will have peace.’
And to all who follow the stubbornness of their hearts
they say, ‘No harm will come to you.’ (vv.16-17)

 Like Dustin Hoffman and Robert De Niro in the film Wag the Dog, the prophets have raised a green screen and laid over an unreal picture of reality. The prophets have fabricated an alternate reality: times of peace and prosperity, with images of green fields and cool streams, sandy beaches, city cafes, captivating moods and suggestions of a beautiful life to come.

ii. They make promises that they can never keep

“They keep saying to those who despise me,

    ‘The Lord says: You will have peace.’

And to all who follow the stubbornness of their hearts

    they say, ‘No harm will come to you.’” (v.17)

iii. They falsely attribute their words to God

“I have heard what the prophets say who prophesy lies in my name. They say, ‘I had a dream! I had a dream!’ How long will this continue in the hearts of these lying prophets, who prophesy the delusions of their own minds?” (vv.25-26)

“I am against the prophets who steal from one another words supposedly from me. Yes,” declares the Lord, “I am against the prophets who wag their own tongues and yet declare, ‘The Lord declares.’ (vv.30-31)

iv. They are motivated by evil

“And among the prophets of Jerusalem
I have seen something horrible:
They commit adultery and live a lie.
They strengthen the hands of evildoers,
so that not one of them turns from their wickedness.
They are all like Sodom to me;
the people of Jerusalem are like Gomorrah.” (v.14)

This religious industry of ‘new’ Divine words was tied to a moral agenda that was being promoted by Judah’s leaders. God connects their words with the concept of adultery and he likens them to the days of Sodom and Gomorrah. In other words, they form their religious ideas and Divine words based on their moral vision. The reference to Sodom and Gomorrah is telling. Sodom and Gomorrah were the famous twin towns destroyed by God in Genesis chapter 19, as a result of the townsmen wanting to have sex with the men whom Lot was protecting. It is therefore likely that the prophets’ message was an 8th Century version of the sexual revolution.

According to God, the prophets were speaking new words because God’s words restrain sin and they want to live out sin. If the Bible doesn’t give me adequate justification to pursue immorality, let’s make up new words and say that they are from God.

v. They are responsible for division and destruction

The outcome is scattering, misery, and social and spiritual carnage.  As God exclaims, “They do not benefit these people in the least” (v.32).

 

Right expectations

Should we expect more of our political leaders? Politics in the age of social media has yet to deliver on the kind of stability, integrity, and unifying vision that some predicted would occur. There may be some principles worth reflecting upon for leaders in general, but like I said at the outset, Jeremiah ch.23 is not speaking to the question of modern civic and political leadership, but to those who assume or are recognised as leaders of Churches. The kind of leader God affirms, is one who chooses God’s ways over popular cultural movements, who is okay with being unoriginal and uninventive in his words, and who brings unity not division among God’s people.

What do we expect of our Church leaders? They will certainly fall short because they are as human as the rest of us. They carry weaknesses and they struggle with temptation like all of us, and yet the expectations set for those who oversee churches are appropriately high.

Jeremiah ch.23 reminds us of how perilous it is to entertain new and interesting ideas about God and to use God as justification for our moral proclivities. Whether it is the Roman Catholic crisis coming out of Pennsylvania or with the schism within the Uniting Church of Australia, or royal preachers, prosperity preachers, or theological scholars from the school of Lord Voldemort, it is not difficult to see the harm and division that is created by many modern-day priests and prophets. If our favourite preachers and authors smell like the culture and look like the culture, and are praised by the culture, perhaps it’s time for us to find new preachers and teachers.  Above all, I’m reminded of how much we need the promised Shepherd and King of Jeremiah ch.23.

“I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me— just as the Father knows me and I know the Father—and I lay down my life for the sheep.”

#Metoo for unborn girls?

Today at Church we celebrated the birth of a little girl. The parents gave thanks to God for her, and we as a congregation prayed for them. It was a joyous occasion, because life is so precious and wonderful, and every new life is beautiful.

As I was preparing for the infant dedication service earlier this morning, I came across this upsetting article in today’s The Age,

“A phenomenon of “missing girls” could be afflicting Victoria, as a study of more than a million births suggests some parents could be aborting unborn female babies or undergoing embryo selection overseas in order to have a son.

If nature was left to take its course, it is expected that for every 100 girls born, about 105 boys will be brought into the world.

But in findings researchers say indicate “systematic discrimination against females starts in the womb”, mothers within some key migrant communities are recording sons at rates of 122 and 125 for every 100 daughters in later pregnancies.

Lead researcher Dr Kristina Edvardsson from Melbourne’s La Trobe University said it showed gender bias persisted in Victoria, despite laws banning people from choosing the sex of their child, other than for medical reasons.

“We believe that some women may be terminating pregnancies after discovering they are expecting a girl and in other cases are travelling overseas to access non-medical sex selection services through assisted reproduction,” she said.

Analysing almost 1.2 million births between 1999 and 2015, the study found while the overall ratio of male and female babies born across Victoria was as expected (at close to 105 to 100), there were notable exceptions.

There is now widespread global access to ultrasound technology to determine the sex of a baby, and Australian parents can find out their baby’s gender from within 10 weeks with a newly-available blood test.

“The Indian government has estimated that two million girls go “missing” from its population each year due to sex selective abortion and other forms of discrimination that lead to premature death.”

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unsplash.com

The report is disturbing; it’s more than disturbing, it is utterly evil. Let’s be clear, we are talking about the conscious decision to kill little girls because they are girls.

One wonders, how quick will our fourth wave feminists be to speak against this phenomenon? The only children who are more likely to face abortion are children diagnosed with mental and physical disabilities, such as Down Syndrome. Even this year, we have seen that their right to live has been drowned out by placards and tweets about the ‘right to choose’, as though the value of human life depends on what we want it to be.

Why should killing on the basis of gender matter more than choosing an abortion for other biological or sociological reasons? It shouldn’t, but this article nonetheless reveals a terrible trend in our society that needs addressing.

I appreciate that sometimes, some of the people crying “pro life” are obnoxious, and even crass and hurtful, but these are few and hardly representative of the average Australian who does not support abortion. Surely it is possible, and indeed desirable to view every human being with dignity and inherent worth, but sadly the evidence suggests that we believe otherwise.

For example, #metoo has captured the fury and passion of millions of women and men all over the world. The outrage has much justification, for women are often mistreated, abused, or simply undervalued. However, like other agitations for social change, #metoo is selective in the injustices that they wish to advocate. I’m not talking about fighting any and every cause of injustice in the world, but one that is surely consonant with the fight for women’s equality. Where are the #metoo for unborn girls and unborn children with disabilities? Where is the wave of feminists marching the streets for the millions of girls who will never grow up and go to school and finds careers, and experience love and joy?

Perhaps, this is one reason why the rhetoric of these hashtag movements lack cogency and long-term positive change. They are not fighting for all women, but only some women.

The birth of Christianity contested the Roman practice of abortion and infanticide. Christians welcomed and loved little ones who were neglected and left on the hills to die from exposure; by far, the majority of these children were girls. They did this against the grain of popular culture, and often at great personal cost, and yet over time the good could not be denied. Aisha Dow’s article is simply unveiling another grotesque step in the dehumanising project that is becoming all too common in Australian culture.

Is there a correlation between a society that leaves Christianity behind, and a society that dehumanises others? There will be historians and sociologists better equipped than me to answer that question. But to me, evidence suggests that there is a connection. Even as science reveals more and more wonder about human life in the earliest stages of pregnancy,  many couples are using this modern technology to determine the sex of the child and therefore to abort those who don’t match their expectations. “Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools” (Romans 1:22).

Protests and social media outrage may win momentary ‘likes’, but it’s not enough, and to often these movements are hijacked by unhelpful groups. We need a better vision, a more beautiful and glorious vision to capture the minds and hearts of Australians.

Jesus once said, ‘Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends’. What an incredible way to consider people around us. Imagine, the betterment of society if we took Jesus’ words to heart! Indeed, how great is the love that sacrifices our hopes and plans for children who enter our lives unplanned. The very nature of a loving community is that it requires the unexpected and difficult, and rather than eliminating those surprises, we alter our life expectations in order to see their lives flourish. Perhaps instead of #metoo, we should be suggesting, #themtoo.