The Primate is right, but don’t twist his meaning

Like many Australians I appreciated Philip Freier’s letter, and there is much to like about his message and the tone in which it was written. There is little with which I disagree.

In relation to the potential fallout from altering the Marriage Act , I suspect Freier’s optimism is misplaced; not that I want to dampen his hope, but there is substantial evidence pointing to the likelihood of decreased religious freedoms in event of the law changing. One only has to look at Canada and the UK to see the growing mountain of legal, political, and social disarray created by legalising same-sex marriage. Indeed, look at the State of Victoria, my own home state, to see a Government using sexuality issues to restrict public conscience and religious freedom.

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My attention here, however, is to point out the way this letter is being interpreted by some folk. For example, the headline for the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age reads, “Religious shift on same-sex marriage.” The underpinning logic is, Archbishop says follow your conscience, rather than the Bible.

The Archbishop is following a long tradition in esteeming the human conscience. *Evangelical Christians have long held that the conscience is an important part of the human psyche, and it should not be easily ignored and contravened.

Perhaps the most famous example from history is that of Martin Luther. As he stood before the council at the Diet of Worms in 1521, Luther is reputed to have said,

“Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason (for I do not trust either in the pope or in councils alone, since it is well known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. May God help me. Amen”

This conviction about the importance of the conscience goes back to the Scriptures itself:

Speaking of people who had not been raised with the Mosaic Law, the Apostle Paul writes,

‘They show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts sometimes accusing them and at other times even defending them.’ (Romans 2:5)

Elsewhere Paul says, ‘My conscience is clear, but that does not make me innocent. It is the Lord who judges me.’ (1 Corinthians 4:4)

‘One of the requirements for Church leaders is that they, ‘must keep hold of the deep truths of the faith with a clear conscience.’ (Titus 3:9)

It can be sinful and dishonest to act against the conscience, but this doesn’t mean that the conscience is morally neutral or always right. The conscience is corruptible as is every part of the human being:

“let us draw near to God with a sincere heart and with the full assurance that faith brings, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience” (Hebrews 10:22)

In the volume, Conscience in the New Testament, C.A Pierce notes that the conscience does not provide a set of moral norms for the person, as much as it functions as an alarm, alerting a person to their moral oversteps.

All this together means that the conscience is a subjective guide but not the ultimate guide for determining moral and spiritual truth. Of course I don’t expect my non Christian friends to agree with this point, but rather I am explaining a Christian perspective of the conscience. This is important, because while Christians affirm the the role of the conscience, we do not place it above or on par with the Scriptures.

To place the conscience on par with Scripture is to subvert the authority of the Bible and inevitably place the human mind over the Bible. Throughout life there are decisions to make where one must decide, do I accept what the Bible says or what my conscience is saying? Neither is it the case of having two equal but different axiomatic authorities, but when the conscience contradicts Scripture, it ought to be corrected and reshaped according to those words of God.

Philip Freier is right to encourage people not to act against their conscience, but it would be misleading to therefore conclude there are  multiple valid Christian positions on the issue of same-sex marriage. The Archbishop’s words are being celebrated today as a shift in Christian thinking about homosexuality. That is not the case, even as Philip Freier indicated, the Anglican Church is holding to its understanding of marriage; this is true of all major Christian denominations in Australia.

In other words, no Australian should ignore their conscience when deciding their view on marriage, but as far as Christians are concerned, it is the Bible not our subjective consciences, that defines the Christian view of marriage.

Finally, I agree with the Archbishop in that Australian Christians ought to respect the decision made by the Australian public. It may well be that the majority decide to retain the current definition of marriage, but in the event of change, we should respect the democratic process. One question remains, however, will dissenters be permitted freedom of conscience to continue teaching, officiating, and practicing the Christian view of marriage, without fear of litigation?

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* Evangelicalism has nothing to do with right wing American politics. That is a recent sociological phemenemon, which has stripped the word of its theological and historical roots. The word means, euangelion, the Gospel. Evangelicals are Christians who believe & live out the Gospel of Jesus Christ (which of course, by definition is foundational for all genuine Christianity)

Complementarianism, a conversation Baptists want to have?

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On the ‘Baptist Union of Victoria’s’ Facebook page this week, a series of articles have been posted on the topic of women in leadership. These articles are not written by Victorian Baptists, nor do they, I believe, reflect the formal Baptist position on women in leadership. If that were the case, the BUV would have to give up its affirmation of diversity, and a growing number of Baptist churches would no longer welcome in the BUV family.  However, the publication of these articles is raising questions among pastors, especially the commentary accompanying these posts,

Not all Baptist Churches provide opportunities for women to lead. How is your church doing? “Some sexism is blatant, but most of it is subtle, hidden behind so-called “good intentions.” In many churches, it is hidden behind misinterpreted gender roles.”’

What is your church doing to empower more women to lead?

The last question is useful and important, but unfortunately it is being framed by a particular view that wishes to distort a true complementation position.

Uncritically dumping articles into public space can be unhelpful, and leaves readers wondering whether the BUV agrees with the content of these articles, and whether their churches are meant to follow suit? 

Obviously someone is wanting to generate a conversation, and it is certainly a topic worthy of dialogue. But to avoid giving the appearance that the BUV is driving this, they ought to put their name to these posts, and they should publish articles that fairly represent the views they are so openly criticising.

The most recent post is Kylie Pidgeon’s article, Complementarianism and Family Violence: The shared dynamics of Power and Control. Kylie Pidgeon raises several important questions that deserve proper consideration by the local church, and I grateful to her for doing this. But sadly, the timbre of her message may be muddied due to the parodic character of other articles being promoted. 

In summary, the message being conveyed through this series of posts is that complementarianism means ‘sexism’, ‘gender inequality’ and even ‘domestic violence’. This is a serious accusation and one that ought only to be suggested with the greatest care.

Take for example, the article promoted yesterday, written by Charlie Olivia Grantham, The Case of Subtle Sexism.

Grantham writes,

“male headship are all different strains of the same toxic ideology—sexism. Some sexism is blatant, but most of it is subtle, hidden behind so-called “good intentions.” In many churches, it is hidden behind misinterpreted gender roles.”

But hold on, the Bible teaches and affirms male headship in both marriage and the church. Is the author suggesting the Bible is sexist? Is she accusing God, the author of Scripture, as being sexist? Or with a gigantic and unexplained hermeneutical leap, she can simply denude the relevance of all those passages of Scripture?

Also, Grantham refuses to accept there are countless intelligent and godly women who affirm complementarian theology and practice. In fact, one mature Christian woman, whom I was talking with today, rolled her eyes at Grantham’s suggestion. Is she a sexist for disagreeing with Grantham? Apparently so, as Grantham claims to know the mind of God (even if other women do not) when she says, ’I realized that even if God is calling her to preach, she will never know it because she is blinded by sexist lies fed to her over a lifetime.’

In encouraging woman to take the lead in church, Grantham doesn’t call women to the Scriptures, and to trust God in his word; instead, she calls women to believe in their ‘gut instinct’. What terrible advice to giver anyone, whether male or female. As Christians, is not God in his word an authority over us, and is not our task to trust him and follow his words?

Not only is Grantham’s advice unsound, her presentation of complementarianism is a gross caricature. It’s akin to me pointing to a picture of Bugs Bunny and saying to my kids, that’s exactly what real rabbits are like! Perhaps Grantham is picturing a conservative church somewhere, but it is not representative of any complementarian church I know of.

I remember sitting in a meeting with denominational leaders four years ago, and they all believed complementarians taught that women were inferior to men. I assured them that was not the case, and a church teaching such would be contravening Scripture. But what it showed me is that there is significant ignorance on this issue, and now I understand why, if people are relying on articles like this.

There is such a thing called misogyny, and when it worms its way into the home or the church, it needs to be exposed and thrown out: It is sin. But this is not what complementarians believe or practice. Was the Apostle Paul a woman hater for writing (under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, dare we add) 1 Timothy ch.2?

The Bible is adamant on the question of equality between men and women. One is not greater than the other, and neither are they the same. The Bible gives examples of women exercising ministry in the local church and encourages women to serve. We want to learn from them and seek to faithfully apply these Scriptures in our own churches. The Bible also teaches male headship in the home and church; stereotyping or disregarding these Scriptures, only serves to create bigger issues.

Complementarianism is not some strange and archaic practice belonging to pre-enlightenment era of history, it is a view held by many churches today, including Baptist Churches, and it is a position held with broad historical precedence and deep theological warrant. When I have time, I am keen to lay out these arguments in another article.

Having said this, I know thoughtful Christians who have done the hard work of exegeting the Biblical texts and have landed in a different place to myself. I disagree with them on this matter, but I still love them and we partner together in ministry ventures. 

Even among complementarians there are some differences. For example, New Testament theologian, Michael Bird, holds to a complementarian view of marriage, but not for the church. John Dickson is okay with women preaching in his church, although they do so under the authority of the church’s leadership. Some churches have male elders but encourage male and female deacons. At Mentone, we praise God for the many women who serve in a multitude of ways, including on staff and as deacons. We would be a far lesser people without their godliness, gifts and love in service.

It is disappointing to see this issue raised in such an unhelpful way. I’m sure it is probably just a super keen staffer wanting a conversation started. At the moment the BUV is an exciting people to be part of, with many encouraging things happening, and so this is a rather unfortunate incident. Hopefully we can do better in the future.