For those interested, here is a copy of a letter that I have sent to several Victorian MPs in the last few weeks. Note, the actual letter varies slightly depending on the recipient. I’ve also made one change here in light of Victoria reaching the target of 90% fully vaccinated today.
I am writing to express concern about the rules governing who can attend religious worship services in Victoria.
Throughout the pandemic, almost all churches have closely followed the health directives and we continue to do so. Like other religious leaders, I am persuaded by medical professionals that the vaccines are overwhelmingly safe and efficacious, and I have encouraged others to follow this advice. This public stance has come at some cost to me personally.
I am grateful for the availability of the vaccines. My entire family is fully vaccinated, including our 3 children. In my church, we anticipate that the overwhelming majority of members will be vaccinated, indeed at a higher percentage than the Victorian population. I am also heartened by the fact that over 93% of Victorians have already received at least the first dose of a vaccine.
While our State needed to increase vaccination rates, certain restrictions on Churches were understandable. However, in light of the new targets, it is no longer reasonable for unvaccinated Victorians to be separated in Church.
On September 19th, Premier Daniel Andrews announced Victoria’s Roadmap. This document stated that once Victoria reaches 80% of 12+ fully vaccinated, all settings will “align with National Plan to transition Australia’s National COVID-19 Response”. It was expected that when Victoria reached this target, any Victorians who remained unvaccinated would return to normal worship services alongside those who are fully vaccinated. We are now in a much better position than was anticipated. This is encouraging news. It, therefore, makes no sense to further exclude from worship services those who remain unvaccinated. Fully vaccinated people have no need to fear those who are unvaccinated.
I acknowledge that the Government has made provision for churches to hold services for people with unknown vaccination status. For a few short weeks, this is possible, but it is not a long term solution. First, a church is one community and it is wrong and harmful to divide it, especially after almost 2 years of lockdowns and hard restrictions. Second, Churches have a responsibility to welcome and minister to all kinds of people including the vulnerable. And it is among this demographic that we find many who are unvaccinated. Third, churches are largely run by volunteers. Forcing churches to organise additional services is not sustainable for an already exhausted community.
For almost two years Churches have chosen to comply with Victoria’s health directives because we have believed that they were reasonable, fair, and temporary. However, to separate church attendees further is neither, reasonable, fair or temporary.
I note that Churches in NSW have returned to normal worship services (as of October 24th) and so there is no division between those vaccinated and those with unknown vaccination status. If NSW can implement this positive step safely and equitably, surely Victoria can do so as well.
Apart from the health issues, this pandemic has created significant social tensions and has brought harm to the mental and spiritual well-being of countless Victorians. It is now time for our State to heal and move on. I am therefore requesting that the vaccination status mandate be removed from churches now that we have reached the target of 90%.
Your advocacy for local religious communities will be much appreciated.
I look forward to hearing from you shortly,
Unfortunately, during the course of the year, some letters have been sent to MPs by some religious quarters containing misinformation, negative messaging toward vaccinations, and a tone lacking any semblance of grace. In contrast, the approach that has proven constructive (ie leading to favourable arrangements for NSW Churches, and even the Victorian Government giving some special consideration to Church) is one where church leaders have advocated responsibly and positively with consideration of society’s overall wellbeing.
Another Australian cricket captain has been sent to the pavilion. Sandgate has been replaced with a sexting scandal. News reported this week that in 2017 Tim Paine sent lewd text messages to a female colleague. The following year Tim Paine took over Australia’s second most important job, following Steve Smith’s disgrace.
The reactions have been revealing. Almost everyone agrees that Tim Paine’s messages were wrong (in some sense), and certainly foolish. No doubt, this near-universal pronouncement is being made while many quietly put on an innocent face. The various criticisms of Paine and even the decision to stand down tell us something about sex and our culture: we no longer know what to think about sex.
One of the big questions concerns whether these text messages were mutually consensual or not. Some people are suggesting they were not, and it appears that the woman did make a complaint to Cricket Australia regarding what she says was an “unwelcome and unsolicited” photo of Paine’s genitalia.
Cricket Australia investigated the incidents back in 2018 and they exonerated Paine of any wrongdoing. Cricket Tasmania yesterday released a statement in which they state.
“The Cricket Tasmania Board reaffirmed its view that Paine should not have been put in a position where he felt the need to resign over an incident that was determined by an independent inquiry at the time to not be a breach of the code of conduct and was a consensual and private exchange that occurred between two mature adults and was not repeated.”
Obviously, I’m not privy to what really went on, and so I want to tread very carefully here and not allege what hasn’t been proven. Even if the messaging was consensual (as Cricket Tasmania have stated), we live at a time where women have found a voice and told us blokes that they are sick and tired of being used as sexual pawns rather than as human beings. Fair enough! Interestingly, what this tells us is that sex is more than consent. Mutual agreement isn’t adequate grounds for engaging in a sexual act, even where there is no physical contact. Tim Paine has stood down from the Captain’s role, not because he sent a woman (non) consensual pics of his privates, but for not treating a woman with the respect she deserves.
It’ll be no surprise that I think Tim Paine has done the wrong thing. Not only is there a question of consent, but why on earth did a married man think it was okay to send sexually explicit messages to a woman who is not his wife and who is also married? Paine’s wife is now having to relive the hurt caused by her husband. I suspect we all feel for her and instinctively know that she has been wronged by her husband.
But here lies the problem, these feelings of moral disgust and disappointment cut against the grain of our culture’s view of sex. Tim Paine isn’t guilty of breaking the rules of sex, he is guilty of following them.
It’s difficult enough to know all the rules for cricket, we certainly no longer understand the rules for sex. Indeed, the sexual revolution aimed at erasing all the rules, and so it shouldn’t us surprise that we find ourselves in this sea of ambiguity. We know there are boundaries. Even our instincts tell us that there is a moral line when it comes to sex but the problem is, for the last 60 years, that line has been repeatedly erased and redrawn, and even today the lines are only drawn in pencil.
Since the 1960s the culture has consciously derided traditional sexual ethics and has intentionally revised what we might describe as normative patterns for sexual behaviour. By law and belief, we decided that marriage is no longer intended for life. By inclination, medicine, and law, we determined that sex without babies is a moral right.
By way of an analogy, think of sex as a 4 legged chair. What we have done is effectively cut off 3 of the legs: covenant (marriage), telos/purpose (making babies), and fidelity. The only leg left standing is consent but that isn’t enough. As essential and nonnegotiable as consent is, it is not enough to sustain a healthy view of sex. To be sure, ethicists, activists and lawmakers are trying to fix the problem but the new sexual virtues are like match sticks; they can’t bear the weight that sex demands.
In his important book, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to Sexual Revolution, Carl Trueman traces the rise of the expressive individual.
“The expressive individual is now the sexually expressive individual. And education and socialization are to be marked not by the cultivation of traditional sexual interdicts and taboos but rather by the abolition of such and the enabling of pansexual expression even among children. One might regard this change as obnoxious, but it reflects the logic of expressive individualism in the sexualized world that is the progeny of the consummation of the Marx-Freud nuptials. . .”
“While sex may be presented today as little more than a recreational activity, sexuality is presented as that which lies at the very heart of what it means to be an authentic person.”
Along with consent, the new pillars for sexuality today are expressive individualism, celebration, and affirmation. Not only is someone free to determine their own sexual preferences and practices, we are to celebrate their choices and we are to affirm their choices. Disproval and disagreement with another person’s sexuality and practice is paramount to the greatest sin we can commit. Celebration and affirmation are now so incumbent on sexual ethics that school children are required to wear purply ribbons and rainbow ribbons, and to write essays agreeing with all manner of queer theory. Workers are forced to become ‘allies’, that is, if they wish to keep their job. And even Churches can no longer hold conversations with people about sex and gender, for it is illegal (as of February 2022) and offences may result in a hefty fine and even imprisonment.
In today’s Australia, infidelity is praised. If a man decides to divorce his wife because he now feels that he is a woman, he (or she) will be lauded for courage. Consideration for the wife and children is lost in the praise for this self-discovery. Casual sex remains a moral good, affirmed by every second Netflix show and let’s not get started with all those hotted-up dating shows on television. Running parallel are ‘serious’ articles explaining the benefits of ‘open relationships’, as did the ABC recently. Then take a look at what our kids are learning with sex-ed curriculums in our schools, where experimentation and living out your inner desires are validated signs of authenticity. It was only two months ago that I attend a meeting where three officials from the Victorian Government explained without equivocation that no person’s sexuality was broken, and suggesting so is morally unacceptable. I wonder, what they would call sending graphic messages to someone who isn’t your spouse?
We’ve been told a lie about sex. All the promises of sexual liberation and the breaking of norms isn’t producing safer and better sex. It’s breeding confusion, hurt, and shame. Even if Cricket Australia absolved Tim Paine of wrongdoing, even Tim Paine knew that his actions were wrong, as his own messages to the woman indicated. What is it about sex that demands more than consent and notions of being true to oneself? Ironically, in the pursuit for self realisation, rather than finding freedom, we are slowly turning society into some neo-puritan culture, where signed consent forms must be filled out and where we must undergo strict training to learn how to use a pronoun, and where Governments see an increasing need for new laws to protect us around sex.
The story around Tim Paine not only concerns his moral failing, but also the sentence he has received. He has been forced to resign from the most prestigious job in Australia. But you see, how does this public shaming and judgment square with what is continually lauded on tv and taught in our HR programs?
In what was an inane attack on the Federal Government’s proposed Religious Discrimination Bill, David Marr (who without reading the Bill) wrote a piece where he suggested society is improving and freer because of the diminishing influence of Christianity.
“Shame is the business of these churches. Shame and forgiveness. But first there has to be shame….The problem for the business model of the churches isn’t freedom of belief but the dwindling of shame. Not so long ago, shame was everywhere and so were the churches.”
But of course, the testimony of recent years suggests that the opposite is true. Tim Paine is but one example of an extended list of people who face execution in the secular space because of their sexual actions. In our sexular age, guilt, shame, and humiliation for wrongful deeds or perceived wrongful deeds, often leads to the loss of reputation and work and the church has nothing to do with it. I can’t remember a time where our society has been so enraged and unforgiving.
The new sexual zeitgeist can’t deliver on what it promises. On the one hand, our culture is demanding the celebration of all manner of sexual ‘idiosyncrasies’ let’s call them (or ‘sin’ as the Bible describes them), and yet there is an expectation that our leaders and respectables will adhere to norms that longer exist according to our cultural preachers. The situation is as farcical as the French revolutionaries crying ‘equality’ while bloodying the guillotine on all who oppose them.
Not only does a Christian view of sex hold more common sense than we are probably prepared to acknowledge, but churches are fast becoming the few places left in society where forgiveness can be found. I understand that churches have lost their voice partly because of our own wrongdoing. We all know the horrendous stories of priests and parishioners who’ve perpetrated or hidden incalculable evil. They are guilty, not of living out Christian teaching on sex, but of breaking it in the most horrific ways. They are not most churches.
The very core of Christianity is not a message of moral virtue, but one of Divine mercy for sinners. At the heart of Christianity is God’s message of undeserved forgiveness and reconciliation. The Gospel of Mark records an incident where the nation’s leaders were appalled by Jesus’ interactions with people who had been cancelled,
“ When the teachers of the law who were Pharisees saw him eating with the sinners and tax collectors, they asked his disciples: “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?”
On hearing this, Jesus said to them, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”
Jesus’ words angered the cultural adjudicators of his day, and no doubt they will spiral people into fits of rage today. But the thing is, expressive individualism isn’t a road to freedom and happiness. Just like free-falling from a plane, it’s an amazing feeling for a while but at some point, you’re going to hit the ground.
After a 3 year DRS Review, Tim Paine has been given out. Even Tim Paine knew at the time he was doing the wrong, maybe not for breaking some code of conduct, but he failed to love his wife and he failed to respect the woman he was messaging. In a moment of honest evaluation, I suspect most of us know that we too should be given out. Whether that day comes sooner or later, our cancelling culture has little appetite for forgiveness and it’s hungry for shaming. Please remember, when that day comes for you, there is still one person where we turn, and his name is Jesus.
I thought I would take a moment to share some of the things pastors are trying their best to address at the moment. Pastoring a church is a tremendous privilege and joy, and it’s not always an easy task. Indeed there is reason why many pastors burn out after a few years and many don’t make it beyond 10 years in the ministry. This pandemic has bowled a googley at all of us, no matter our religious views, job, and life situation. Pastors are not immune from the daily stresses, troubles, and temptations that we all face. If there is a difference, face although it may be, there is an expectation that pastors will continue to work with a smile on the face, they will accept all the comments made to their face and behind their back, and push through whatever the cost.
In recent weeks numerous pastors have shared with me how they are going; most of them are barely surviving. This isn’t because our task is necessarily harder than others, but for this one simple reason, we are just like everyone else. It’s because of one such conversation I had today, that I thought, let me an open window and let people see inside to gain a snapshot of the kinds of issues and responsibilities confronting pastors in Melbourne churches at the moment (in no particular order):
We are trying to pastor people who have undergone all manner of trials and hardships over the past 2 years.
Trying to love and pastor people who are wrestling with all manner of non pandemic related difficulties.
Recognising that everyone is tired, run down, and desperate for a holiday, pastors don’t want to burden their congregations with what are often routine tasks, and so they agree to shoulder a little more.
Overseeing COVID Safe plans.
Planning the regathering of our churches after months without any in person gatherings, and doing so under tight and changing Government directives.
While many people are about to wind down for the year and planning to go away and take off time, the pastor’s workload is increasing.
We are counselling those who are nervous about returning to church, due to many reasons including those who immuno-compromised and those who are fearful of becoming a COVID close contact and being forced into isolation (again).
Counselling those who remain unvaccinated and who are feeling hard done by as a result of Government rules.
Navigating 50 different expectations and demands on what returning to church ought to look like.
Advocating to the Government for the unvaccinated to be free to return to church while also encouraging people to be vaccinated and knowing the responsibility to the protect the vulnerable.
Working to uphold the unity of the Spirit through the bonds of peace when society is becoming increasingly fragmented and angry, and these influences capture hearts inside the church.
Urging people to remain gospel centred rather than allow political issues and allegiances to dominate and divide.
Writing and preaching sermons every week.
Organising church services.
Leading Bible study groups.
Meeting with leadership team.
Keeping an eye at ever unstable finances.
Having lates nights away from the family because of another meeting or crisis.
Processing Victoria’s new Conversion and Suppression Practices laws that target Christians, Writing articles and letters to raise awareness, appealing to the Government to overturn these unjust laws, and preparing our churches for laws that are a genuine threat to Christian freedom, belief, and practice.
Reading, understanding and responding to legislation amending the Equal Opportunity Act which will further limited religious freedom in Victoria.
Spending time in prayer for the people under our care, and for our community and the world around us.
Fast tracking reading of books and articles that’s required to understand the theological doozy’s that regularly arise in our preaching and in our pastoral care.
Christmas. Did someone say we’re having Christmas Carol services and Christmas Day services?
Planning for 2022. Who knows what that will mean!
Welcoming visitors (and praise God for people who are checking out Church).
Rejoicing with those who are rejoicing and mourning with those who mourn, correcting the wayward, and grieving those who depart.
Burying the dead, visiting the sick, marrying couples, sitting with those with marriages falling apart.
Loving our families and giving them the love, time and attention they need and deserve.
These are some of the things pastors are working on this November. As I hope you can see, these things are rarely quick, easy or unimportant. Most of these activities demand an intellectual, emotional, and psychological gravitas that overwhelms pastors at the best of times, let alone in the time and place we currently find ourselves. This isn’t a cry for help or asking for a slap on the back. This is just a little message to share what pastors are up to at the moment. To our churches, we love you and we’re there for you in the good times and the bad. But understand, we are also tired and the emotional fuel tank is running pretty low.
We get tired and grumpy and worn out. The words, actions, and attitudes of others impacts us too. We love the people whom God has committed under our care, but there is only Saviour and we’re not him!
I am incredibly thankful for the saints at Mentone who despite their own tiredness and troubles, are persevering and together we are running the race.
And that’s how it’s meant to work. This isn’t about pumping up pastors with pride but as each member lovingly serves the other, pastors are better able to give and serve as we ought. And indeed, as pastors do their work well, the congregation is released to ministry and to grow together. This is why when one of my own congregation asks how they can be praying for me, I often ask them to pray for the church: let us keep loving one another and serving each other with patience and grace. Everyone wins and God is glorified and the Gospel is seen for what it is: stunning and beautiful and good.
The Apostle Paul put it like this,
“Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.” (Ephesians 4:2-3)
“Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, 2 then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. 3 Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, 4 not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.
5 In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:” (Philippians 2:1-5)
And pastors, let’s remember we are not superman, iron man or whoever the current superhero is meant to be. And we are certainly not the world’s Saviour.
Be content in not doing everything.
Keep things as simple and straightforward as you can.
Be willing to say no to people
Be understanding that many peoples capacity for serving is reduced at the moment
Take regular breaks.
Make sure you take proper annual leave over summer; otherwise you may not survive 2022.
Do something fun.
Refresh yourself daily in God’s word and in prayer
Share and be accountable to a small group of peers (including inside the church)
“And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, 2 fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.” (Hebrews 10:1-3)
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.
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,
“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
“fundamentalist is most often an epithet for those whose whose views on politics, theology, or church life seem more rigid than yours.” Thomas Kidd
In today’s Australia reasoned argument is optional. Presenting a point of view with gentleness and grace is seen as a liability. If you want to win over the public gallery, the key is to include as many trigger words as possible. Create a swell of anger or fear among your audience; that’s the choice pathway for getting your opinion heard today.
To be build a case that the current Treasurer of NSW, Dominic Perrottet, is unfit to serve as Premier, Dowrick throws out one of today’s shibboleths that’s used to identity the baddies in society: fundamentalist.
Not content to call out one fundie in Australian politics, Dowrick names Australia’s Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, as another example of religious fundamentalism.
What is Perrottet’s sin? According to Rev Dr. Dowrick, he is “a highly conservative Catholic with views that represent the most extreme end of a rigidly male-dominated institutional church.”
Notice the plethora of descriptive words employed in just this one sentence: ‘highly’, ‘conservative’, ‘most extreme’, ‘rigid’. This approach becomes the hallmark of Dowrick argument; use as much emotionally charged language as possible to win over readers.
At one point Dowrick offers an explanation of what she means by fundamentalism,
“Fundamentalisms vary greatly. What they have in common, though, is a narrowness of conviction that cannot be challenged by logic, evidence or appeals to reason.”
“in its righteousness and self-righteousness around central questions of identity, sexuality, gender politics, minority rights and an unwavering conviction that this is the “one, true faith”, it is also far from mainstream 21st-century Christianity. And far from the progressive, vibrant Catholicism that flourishes in many parishes and among numerous laypeople active in social and environmental justice.”
If that’s the case, I assume Dowrick also believes Jesus is a fundamentalist. After all, Jesus defines all sexual activity outside of marriage between a man and a woman as immoral.
In summary, Dowrick’s fundamentalists are anyone who disagrees with her version of religion.
Dowrick admits that neither Perrottet or Morrison would describe themselves as ‘fundamentalists’, but that’s not going to stop her using the label. She even insists that fundamentalists have a “total lack of self-awareness”. It’s a classic example of a fallacious circular argument: You are what I say you are, regardless of whether you agree with me or not. Indeed, some might suggest that this is a version of fundamentalism!
When it comes down to it, Dowrick is simply using fundamentalist in a pejorative sense to describe Christians with whom she disagrees. It’s an insult. It’s a disparaging comment designed to undermine another person. As the theologian Thomas Kidd points out, “fundamentalist is most often an epithet for those whose whose views on politics, theology, or church life seem more rigid than yours.”
The word fundamentalist once referred to someone who upheld the fundamentals of a belief system. To be a fundamentalist was neither good or bad, it was a description of faithful adherence to one’s said belief system. For example, a fundamentalist was someone who consistently upholds believing the doctrines of the Christian faith, as opposed to a progressive who no longer believes but still wants to keep the name Christian for various cultural reasons.
In a recent article, Andrew Prideaux notes how in the 1950s English bishops referred to Billy Graham as a fundamentalist. They called out Graham’s version of Christianity as elevating “‘the penal doctrine of the atonement,’ ‘the call for conversion after evangelistic sermons,’ and ‘an individualistic doctrine of the Holy Spirit’s work which makes churchmanship and sacraments practically superfluous.”
This bishopric description of Graham’s beliefs is not extreme, it simply biblical Christianity, the same Christianity that has existed for 2,000 years and continues to be true today. It is this now popular reinvention of the word fundamental that Dowrick is implying.
It’s at this point that Dowrick tells a fib. She claims that progressive churches are the ones ‘flourishing’ in Australia today. That is simply untrue. Progressive churches, which is code for, we no longer believe the historic faith, are emptying. They may be popular among a segment of unbelieving Aussies and they may have clout at some institutional levels, but their churches were empty pre-Covid and will continue to be so afterward. The Christianity that is growing today are churches who hold to traditional beliefs (or what should be called biblical beliefs and practices) and are living them out with clarity, conviction, and love.
Thankfully others are calling out the article for what it is, a political hit piece. A number of journalists are also slamming it.
Chief reporter for The Age newspaper, Chip le Grand, said,
“The drips will lap it up but it is dispiriting to read this snide sectarianism. Imagine if we ridiculed Jewish or Muslim MPs like this?”
Another journalist tweeted,
“Let’s try this headline with a couple of other politicians.
“Meet Julia Gillard – the avowed atheist and childless woman about to take Australia’s top job.”
“Meet Josh Frydenberg – the Jew about to be Australia’s treasurer.”
Can’t see those headlines getting a run.”
From beginning to end there is no fire in Dowrick’s argument, just a very big smoke machine hired from Bunnings. The smoke is spread thick and is designed to cause readers to believe there is also a fire. Instead, lurking behind is little more than the classic authoritarian secularist argument wanting a religious test for public office.
According to Dowrick, both Dominic Perrottet and Scott Morrison are unfit for public office because their religious beliefs differ to hers. Since when is a person’s religious affiliation a qualification for public office?
There is no religious test for assuming public life Australia, and neither should there be. One of the virtues of a pluralistic and democratic society is that citizens from different backgrounds and holding various beliefs can be nominated for office, and should they be elected, they can stand in Parliament and even lead a Government. It’s called democracy.
Let’s not play the erroneous game that secular means ‘without religion’. Australian political and public life is not designed by law or ethos to limit religious ideas inside of church buildings. Australian secularism encourages a plurality of thought and conviction. True secularism simply means that the State is not controlled by any single religious group. Parliament is not a neutral space where only non religious views can be expressed.
As Jonathan Leeman observes in his book on political theology,
“secular liberalism isn’t neutral, it steps into the public space with a ‘covert religion’, perhaps as liberal authoritarianism…the public realm is nothing less than the battle ground of gods, each vying to push the levers of power in its favour’.
I don’t have any skin in the game when it comes to NSW politics. I don’t know Dominic Perrottet from a bar of soap. Neither am I here to defend Roman Catholicism or Pentecostalism. I disagree with both of these theological positions on a number of significant points. But we are not talking about a church appointment here or calling a lecturer to a theological college, where such distinctions are important. Does Australia really want to exclude from political life Aussies who hold to traditional forms of Christianity?
No doubt many would say yes. Today’s letters to the Editor are praising Dowrick. But let us understand, this is not a sign of a maturing and tolerant society, but one that is losing its moorings.
“Fundamentalist thinking is also highly divisive. The world consists of “us” – and the rest of you. High levels of conformity are demanded; to doubt, self-question, is unwelcome or forbidden.”
It sounds as though Dorwick may be guilty of the very thing she is accusing others of representing.
Given how Dowrick is attacking Christianity, I am again reminded of how Jesus was committed to his beliefs. His understanding of the world contradicted the prevailing mood of society at that time. With love and truth he served a people who didn’t tolerate him. It was Jesus’ convictions that led him to the cross. If there is a characteristic that defines fundamentalism (as commonly understood today) it is this, a lack of love.
I cannot comment on Perrottet’s and Morrison’s Christianity, for I don’t know these men. But throwing verbal insults at someone isn’t much of a way to progress serious conversation. And advocating for a religious means test for public office is a road Australia would do well to avoid.
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, 4 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. 2 Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. 3 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. 4 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. 5 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, 2 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:
Victorian Government Roadmap” ‘Place of worship’
From October 26
Growth 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 5th
In 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 19
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)
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.
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.”
“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.
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[a] 10 nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. 11 And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.” (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.
On the day Melbourne equalled the world record for the longest lockdown of the COVID-19 pandemic and during another day of violent protests in our city, we were struck by a surprising visitor.
About 9:15 in the morning, our house began to shake violently. For the first 3-4 seconds I assumed a large truck was speeding down the road past our home. I soon realised then that this was more than a vehicle travelling too quickly. The floor and the walls continued to sway for over 20 seconds.
The earthquake hit 6.0 on the Richter scale, just north of Melbourne. Thankfully no one was injured and the damage was limited to 40 buildings.
Melbourne isn’t exactly the epicentre of earthquakes. Australia sits comfortably in the middle of a tectonic place, and yet even this seat proved unstable.
At the time my 12 year old daughter described the event as “surfing on concrete”. Over the course of the morning Melbournians came together in a way we rarely see, and on Twitter of all places! Comedic memes and funny one liners appeared. One of the best ones was a take on our Premier, then Dan Andreas Fault! Even better was the meme featuring Melbourne’s Federation Square with the tag line suggesting that the earthquake has improved this iconic building.
As the day progressed, people tried to explain the earthquake. Scientists suggested New Zealand was responsible, an explanation that makes sense to most Aussies. Apparently it’s something to do with moving plates and the Kiwis jumping and breaking them in order to keep our nuclear subs away.
Other people pointed to the protests erupting in Melbourne or the Government for its continued lockdown rules. Others again, suggested the event was some kind of Divine sign, even if most said it in jest.
It’s this last thought connection which is most interesting. There remains in Melbourne’s subconsciousness, a reference to God and the supposition that behind cataclysmic events is God. Sadly though we less often associate all the good things and beautiful things with God, even though God,
“satisfies your desires with good things
so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s” (Psalm 103:5)
This thought process isn’t a drop of evolutionary dross that remains to be drained from our minds, it is evidence of the God whom we are trying to shut out.
Should we connect the earthquake with God generally or with God’s anger more specifically? The Bible has much to tell us about this question. For example, God is Sovereign and the earth is His. He made all that is and he remains in control.
“Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account.” (Hebrews 4:13)
Earthquakes are mentioned in the Bible, usually as historical events and other times as analogies illustrating God’s activities and character. And of course, as Jesus hung on the cross and died, there was a violent earthquake in Jerusalem.
Perhaps the most poignant Biblical reference to earthquakes is found on the lips of Jesus,
“You will hear of wars and rumors of wars, but see to it that you are not alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come. 7 Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be famines and earthquakes in various places. 8 All these are the beginning of birth pains.” (Matthew 24:6-8).
Jesus is describing the world as it is and the world that will continue to be until the Son of Man returns to judge. Jesus’ explanation doesn’t ignore a scientific one, he is answering the why question rather than the how. To be clear, Jesus’ summary of world history is not connecting specific ‘natural’ events with particular human transgressions, as Melbournians suggested with humour yesterday. For example, in Luke’s Gospel the story is retold of a tower collapsing in Jerusalem and 18 people died. Jesus says of this tragedy, “do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem?” The answer was, no.
You see, the jokes about judgement, while missing the mark in one sense, are in another way closer to the truth than may realise. Earthquakes, bush fires, pandemics, and wars each defy and destroy the hopes we have. They are violent reminders telling us that life isn’t right and that the world isn’t what we long for it to be. This is why, even in our subconsciousness we desire for things likes restoration and reconciliation. Even in our secular age where unbelief is the passport to intellectual and popular success, we cannot escape the inbuilt desire to explain our world in design with God, and with a God who both judges and saves.
Today Melbourne has taken the world record for having the longest lockdown, and we know that are many more weeks to go. Dreams have been shredded. Securities have come up empty. Suffering is real. For many, hope has fallen through the cracks.
Jesus understands. He has interpreted the world for us and his words are written down to prepare us. Jesus doesn’t leave us with a world of hopeless despair. He entered it with us and for us, even death on a cross. Through resurrection from the grave, he offers something we need, not just for heaven, but to make sense of today and to give the peace and joy today.
In the same message where he talks about earthquakes, Jesus also says this,
“Now learn this lesson from the fig tree: As soon as its twigs get tender and its leaves come out, you know that summer is near. 33 Even so, when you see all these things, you know that it[e] is near, right at the door. 34 Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened. 35 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.
“Therefore keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come. 43 But understand this: If the owner of the house had known at what time of night the thief was coming, he would have kept watch and would not have let his house be broken into. 44 So you also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him.
I think it’s helpful to learn and hear how others perceive Christians when we argue for religious freedom issues. It may be increasingly difficult for Christians to get a fair hearing, but there is value in us learning about the fears, concerns, and attitudes the unbelieving society is expressing.
A piece in Saturday’s The Age attempted to draw together several issues including the State Liberal leadership, proposed legislation targeting Christian Schools and the Conversion Practices Bill which passed earlier this year.
I know nothing about alleged promises made between Michael O’Brien and the ACL and these things are not my interest here.
As I read, I noticed that one of quotations came from me, although it wasn’t attributed to me (from The Age 5/12). I mentioned this to the reporter (who by the way has been doing excellent reporting on the pandemic in Victoria) as well as a brief summary of why Christians are rightly concerned by the Change or Suppression (Conversion) Practices Prohibition Bill 2020 . I noted how Churches agreed with aspect of the Bill while explaining how other aspects are overreach and misguided.
With the same degree of surprise as someone jumping into sea and expecting to get wet, the Twitter community bandied together to object to what I said. Their objections were telling. For instance, one person used the issue of child sexual abuse in churches to argue Christians have no right to engage in conversation and dialogue,
“Christian faith had no right to use prayer institutions to groom, abuse, assault, persuade and then cover up child sexual abuse for decades either. Stay out of people’s sexual choices. You lot lost any moral right to have anything to do with persuading (bullying) people.”
While I disagree with how they conflate issues that are very separate, it’s worth listening to the comment. The harm caused by evil people who worked their way inside some churches is truly insidious. Though their abuse may have taken place many years ago, it will have an ongoing effect for many years to come, and possibly for generations. In the first place, the damage inflicted on victims of these crimes is both real and abhorrent. Second, the damage these actions has caused to the reputation of Christ and churches is real. We may say, as I have myself have pointed out, churches are overwhelmingly safe and that such behaviour contradicts every fibre of Christian faith. Indeed, the Bible warns us how people with evil intent will worm their way into churches and cause harm both by their words and by their actions. And of course, issues of sexual abuse are widespread throughout every part of society. Nonetheless, we need to understand how these sins and the manner in which some churches at times overlooked abuse, has understandably marred peoples’ view of Christianity.
Second, there are members of the community who genuinely believe Christians have no right to speak and practice our religion publicly. These voices range from the anonymous Twitter account through to high-profile social commentators and one can mount the case that this is becoming an adopted view inside the current Victorian government.
For example, a few responses to my tweet stated that Christians have no right to persuade anyone,
“In this context, those “offers” are unquestionably acts of psychological abuse, deliberately inflicted on vulnerable people. That you would defend this as your “right” is a damning indictment. Disgraceful. You’re not a victim, stop pretending otherwise.”
The problem is one of framing. I mentioned this issue last week in relation to the Victorian Attorney General’s announcement of forthcoming legislation that is targeting faith-based schools. Instead of supporting the rights of religious organisations to employ people who affirm their values, the Government, using it’s own theological priorities, is seeking to insert its own preferences onto faith-based schools and other organisations.
Similarly, the Conversion Practices Act attempts to remove what are common sense and essential aspects of Christian faith; namely the freedom to persuade and to pray. The lead up to the debate on conversion practices was framed according to a narrow and at times misleading narrative. The Government told stories of so called Christian practices that are horrible (and these are horrible especially to Christian ears). The problem was, these practices were either only ever practised by a small number of marginal religious groups many years ago, or never at all. Instead, what happened is that a straw man was built out of thousands of plastic straws and with a couple of strands a genuine hay. This predominantly false presentation was used to justify making illegal activities that are not only congruent with 2000 years of Christian history, but also congruent with a civilised and pluralistic society that encourages persuasion and conversation and prayer. Does the government have any right to tell me who I can pray for and what I can pray for? It somewhat bemusing to hear ardent secularists approve of political means to step into the religious realm and legislate against prayer and conversation. In the name of equality, Victoria is again moving to diminish freedom and equality and tolerance.
I have been saying for many years that society and sometimes churches have not always treated gay and lesbian neighbours in love and with the respect due them. Every Christian who is a born again Christian is aware of the fact that we only come to know God‘s wonderful forgiveness and the gift of reconciliation because of His undeserved grace and love towards us in Christ. This grace doesn’t motivate hatred toward others, but desires to see people doing well. Of course, the narrative that now controls much public discourse is that you cannot love another person and uphold the Christian view of marriage. It is said that one cannot hold to a Christian view of sexuality and truly want the best for others. The megaphone may be loud, constant, and popular, but it is no more true than those who claim the earth is flat or those who argue that the climate is not warming.
One thing Christians in Victoria need to realise is that we no longer hold a place of respect or authority in our society. Of course, that is a generalisation, for there many Victorians (even among unbelievers) who still value the contributions of Christians and who believe in healthy pluralism. Nonetheless, we need to comes to terms with the fact that culture is shifting The answer isn’t for Christians to pine for yesterday. The answer isn’t to ‘reclaim’ our political or social position. These attempts not only usually fail, they often lead to further polarisation and to muddying the Christian message. There is a place to contest unfair laws and unjust governmental intrusion, but these avenues should be pursued by reasonable minds not by angry activists. Rather, Christians need to be doing what Christians have always done at their best and that is, humbly walk before God, and being persuaded by the Bible keep living out God’s good ways, and with patience, grace and clarity, keep speaking God’s good news, and keep loving our neighbours no matter who they happen to be.