The Unity and Diversity Paradox

Is it a rabbit or is it a duck?

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The nature of unity and diversity within Christianity has captivated and confused churches, denominations and Christian organisations for centuries. Unity and diversity can sometimes seem like polar opposites, and yet they can co-exist and in the Gospel we find that they do. However, what does the unity/diversity paradox look like in a Christian Church? What does it mean to be united? How diverse should we be and diverse in what?
Navigating the waters of unity and diversity can be trickier than piloting a supertanker up Port Phillip Bay, but it’s made even harder if we ignore the navigation system that is provided for ships to follow. For that reason, we must turn to the Bible and ask what does the Bible teach us about unity and diversity in the Christian Church?

The Bible affirms unity

The Gospel of Jesus Christ is God’s instrument that brings humanity to God. The Gospel isn’t an indefinable feeling or idea; the Gospel is a message that has concrete meaning and significance. The Gospel is God’s good news about Jesus Christ, his atoning death on the cross and his resurrection from the dead. At the heart of this message is God’s gracious gift of justification that we receive through faith in Christ.
We discover that through this Gospel of Jesus Christ, God has made two relationships possible: we are united to God (Eph 2:13, 16-18) and we are united to each other (2:14-15, 20). Christian unity begins and continues through faith in this Gospel.
In Ephesians chapter 4 the Apostle Paul stresses the importance of and joy of Christian unity. He is focusing on the local church, but nonetheless, Paul’s theology extends beyond the parameters of the local gathering of believers. We do not establish Christian unity, that work belongs alone to Christ through his shed blood on the cross and by the Spirit of God who unites us firstly to God in Christ, and through him to one another (Eph 2:11-22). Yet Paul insists that we need to work hard at maintaining this unity and growing this unity. Growing unity will be expressed through works of service, love, speaking the truth in love, and Christian maturity (which necessarily includes theological maturity, not diversity). It is interesting to note that this increasing sense of unity grows out of the ministry of the word (4:11).
There is sometimes a false dichotomy introduced between relationship and doctrine as though unity is found by being in relationship with one another, as opposed to doctrine which has the propensity to divide. However, unity is a commitment grounded in common assent to the Gospel; it is both relational and doctrinal (i.e. 1 Tim 4:16). Two ingredients are necessary for authentic unity to grow and mature: love and truth (both are found in and come from Christ). In Ephesians 4 Paul describes this dynamic growth as stemming from the ministry of the word of God. As the word of God rules the Church, her people are equipped for works of service and the outcome is maturity, strengthening, speaking the truth in love, and growth. Interestingly, when truth is absent or hidden, the effect on the church is devastating,
“Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming” (4:14).

The Bible affirms diversity

Ephesians ch.2 wonderfully describes the power of the Gospel to break down the barrier between Jew and Gentile; by the shed blood of Christ, the two people become one.
Gospel unity is not uniformity. There is a type of diversity that is to be welcomed and even desired. In the Gospel, God draws together men & women, young and old, people from every race and language, and from different cultures. Such demographic diversity reflects God’s purposes in the world.
Within the local church, there is also a diversity of gifts given by God, and there are many different opportunities to serve the body and to love the local community.
A further reality is that no single church can reach every person from every culture and place. Thus a diversity of churches in different places and with various cultural expressions is natural and laudable.
What about theological diversity? To my knowledge nowhere does the New Testament encourage or endorse a diversity of theological persuasions. There a couple of places that suggest that this may occur (ie the weaker brother in Romans 13) but it is a recognition of a situation rather than being something desired. There are, however, many examples where the Bible condemns theological diversity and proponents of those teachings are spoken of in the most severe manner.
Theological diversity is a reality, but it is not a desirable one and at times it requires churches to respond. I want to make note of the following examples of theological diversity:
i. This is one significant reason for the existence of denominations.
ii. A different standard exists for leaders than for congregation members (cf 1 & 2 Timothy, Titus 1:5-16; James 3:1). While new Christians have a newly found love for God, it is normal for them to have many questions and lack discernment over many theological matters (cf.1 Timothy 3:6). Leaders, however, are rightly expected to hold deeply to the faith and to be disciplined when they err.
iii. While there are no unimportant doctrines, Christians have historically believed that some doctrines are more central than others. Even in the New Testament, we have a suggestion that certain beliefs are primary. Paul, for example, outlines in 1 Corinthians 15:3-8 matters of ‘primary importance’. Christians have historically disagreed over matters like church governance, baptism, Charismatic gifts and eschatology, but over many other matters, any disagreement has been rightly deemed heterodox.
iv. Important to contemporary debates is 1 Timothy 1:8-11:
           “We know that the law is good if one uses it properly. We also know that  the law is made not for the righteous but for lawbreakers and rebels, the ungodly and sinful, the unholy and irreligious, for those who kill their fathers or mothers, for murderers, for the sexually immoral, for those practicing homosexuality, for slave traders and liars and perjurers— and for whatever else is contrary  to the sound doctrine that conforms to the gospel concerning the glory of the blessed God, which he entrusted to me.”
This passage is relevant to our discussion on unity and diversity for several reasons: sound doctrine is integrally connected to the Gospel, and we learn that sinful acts also contradict sound doctrine. There is no room for redefining sins as good and accepting them as Christians practices. If the Bible teaches that a particular act is sinful and keeps people from God’s Kingdom and is a reason for God to reveal his wrath, then there can be no doubt that to accept diversity of opinion here is to deny unity in the Gospel

Solving the unity/diversity tension

When it comes to applying this tension to actual relationships we should be aware of our own natural preferences, which may be to emphasise unity over diversity or diversity over unity. We all have blind spots, which is why we need to humbly return again and again to God’s word for correction and direction.
True Gospel unity and diversity is stunning; the alternatives shouldn’t be entertained. When God says something “is contrary to the sound doctrine that conforms to the gospel concerning the glory of the blessed God,” we must listen and obey. It is not enough for us to say that we agree with Paul, for if we then proceed to claim unity with someone who denies Paul we become complicit with them against Scripture; we have decided against Scripture that it is right to partner with persons (or groups) that hold views contrary to the Gospel. If the Gospel of Jesus is the thing that unites us and it is rejected, then what is it that unites?
I began with this article with a maritime metaphor and I want to conclude with a building metaphor from Ezekiel. In Ezekiel 13:9-11 God speaks of a “flimsy wall” being built and of the builders whitewashing the wall in order to hide its poor construction. When Christians attempt to build an organisation without strong foundations and firm doctrinal convictions we end up with a flimsy wall. We can dress it up with colourful paint and make it look attractive, and we can draw smiley faces around it, but the rain will eventually wash off the paint and the wind will tear it down.
We have established that the Gospel brings both unity and diversity, but both are given parameters by Scripture. The proper beginning point is a clearly articulated and defended exposition of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Diversity of age, culture, race, etc flows out of the singular Gospel. In other words, the unity/diversity paradox that Churches and many Christian organisations face will only be resolved when we believe and practice the unity and diversity that is found in Christ, as explained by the Scriptures.
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This is an updated version of an article posted at mentonebaptist.com.au from 2013

Let’s not waste the season God gives

On Saturday, Greg Clarke (former CEO of the Bible Society, Australia) sent out the following tweet,

“I remember as a young Christian at University in the 80s when we felt we would have to work really hard in Australia to ‘keep the rumour of God alive’. At the moment, it’s wall to wall God stuff.”

Greg Clarke is right. I’m not aged well enough to remember university in the 1980s but we don’t have to peer so far. Even looking back a few short years, I remember Christians being frustrated and saddened by the fact that God was absent from most conversations and seemed to be rarely on people’s agendas. It was as though the culture was erasing God for the public conscience, and it was only a small number of persistent believers who could jump-start God into the conversation.

Australia is experiencing are the most unusual season at the moment. For three months social media has been filled with conversations about religion and God and Christianity, and every day there is more reporting and more opinion pieces published about Christianity. Who would have guessed that the topic of hell would become an election issue? For a nation that is supposedly post-Christian and secular, we are engaging in a significant national conversation where God features.

To be sure, some of the conversations are less than edifying. Not all, but some reporting is little more than crude and unoriginal Christian bashing. Some of the commentary that is passing for Christianity is nothing of the sort. There are also atheists defending Christians. Even Professor Peter Singer, who preaches some of the most repugnant ideas that can be heard anywhere in the world today, last week wrote a constructive and reasoned article in support of Israel Folau. Other remarks come from well-meaning Christians, who are nonetheless being unhelpful and take conversations down misguided paths. There is also much anger being vented from various quarters and doubling down on caricatures of different people and ideas.

To argue that there is no issue of religious freedom in Australia is to close your eyes and ears to the growing number of cases that are being disclosed in many areas of Australian life, from sport to business and to education. Sure, as human beings we are sometimes guilty of exaggerating the socio-political climate; we are not living in the Soviet Union and this isn’t 1984. But neither is the culture static and neutral. I find it ironic that the voices most ardently insisting that there is no agenda to limit religious freedoms, are those lauding Rugby Australia for sacking Israel Folau and those urging for Christians Schools to lose their funding if they don’t subscribe to the sexual revolution, and on and on the list continues. Religious freedom is one of the pivotal tests of this generation. Without it we lose the capacity to be a truly pluralistic society. This topic should matter to all Australians, whether we are Christian or Jewish or Hindu or atheist. Do we really want to live in a State where corporate business dictates religious doctrine and where Government defines theological values? I have detailed this case on other occasions, my aim here is to underline another matter that is even more close to my heart.

As I read and agreed with Greg’s tweet, I thought a little more and my attention turned to 2 Corinthians chapters 5 and 6 (which I am currently preaching through at Mentone). For example, in 6:2 God defines the age in which we are living. He does not say that this is a post-Christian or post-modern or post or pre anything age. Rather, the announcement is,

“I tell you, now is the time of God’s favor, now is the day of salvation.”

Not was, not might be, and not maybe one future day, but today. The epoch of history in which we live is the day of salvation. That’s exciting!

Is the current Australian discourse on religion a final gasp before we venture into a new and intolerant and irrational era of religious restrictions, or will common sense prevail? We don’t know yet. What interests me is the fact that talk about God and Christ and the Bible is filling newspapers paragraphs and trending on social media every day at the moment. Have not Christians been praying for opportunities to give the reason for the hope we have? Do we not ask God for conversations where introducing Jesus is a natural progression?

That day is today.

Brothers and sisters in Christ, we can let this season slip past our attention, or we can engage in loving and useful ways.

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Here are 3 suggestions.

First, we can pray. Let us pray often, repeatedly, fervently for God to make known his Gospel love, just as he has shown us great mercy and kindness. Pray for our fellow Australians, regardless of their worldview and moral inclinations. If we are praying for them, we will have no time or desire to be spiteful or demeaning toward them.

We have the opportunity to break the cultural narrative and show Christ-like love to those who are vulnerable.  At Church this morning we prayed,

“Father in Heaven, help us to uphold your holiness and goodness. In an age of sexual confusion teach us clarity and to trust that your ways are good. May we present your Gospel with love and gentleness, patience and care. May Mentone Baptist Church be a safe place for people to investigate Christianity, to be welcomed and encouraged.”

Second, let us love

Be the best of friend, the most loyal work colleague, the gentle and helpful student, and be a kind voice on social media. Offer hospitality and ask permission to share the message that has changed our own lives.

Third, let us speak

In 2 Corinthian 5:11-18, the Apostle Paul employs 3 verbs to describe his intent in evangelising: persuasion, compulsion, and regard.

 “Since, then, we know what it is to fear the Lord, we try to persuade others. What we are is plain to God, and I hope it is also plain to your conscience. 12 We are not trying to commend ourselves to you again, but are giving you an opportunity to take pride in us, so that you can answer those who take pride in what is seen rather than in what is in the heart. 13 If we are “out of our mind,” as some say, it is for God; if we are in our right mind, it is for you. 14 For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died. 15 And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again.

16 So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer. 17 Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! 18 All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: 19 that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation.”

First, Christian evangelism is not compulsion, it is clear and passionate persuasion, presenting the facts of Jesus Christ and leaving it for people to make their decision. Second, it is not bigotry or ignorance motivating Christian evangelism but love; we don’t want anyone missing out on the astonishing benefits that come from knowing Jesus Christ. As one reads through the above portion of the Bible we don’t see any picture of oppression or forced faith, but freedom that surpasses any temporary offerings. Third, we ought to regard people not through the grid of any current cultural paradigm but through the sense of God’s good news about Jesus. This means we may not affirm every belief, idea, and action but we fight for the dignity of every person.

When it comes to the art of persuasion most often this is best done away from sharing thoughts and articles of social media, but instead taking an interest in the lives of people around us, listening to the dreams and fears of work colleagues and friends, and sharing how we believe Jesus is the ultimate answer.

In my opinion, the most unhelpful and loudest critics that I’ve heard during the Folau controversy are not from gay and lesbian Australians, but from comfortable and secure North Shore Sydneysiders who take virtue signaling to a new level. I have also heard about other social media interactions that hurt and insult people, and where gay and lesbians feel denigrated. Christians need to stand alongside gay and lesbian Aussies against such vitriol. A case in point is Israel Folau today speaking against those who have abused Magda Szubanski online for her sharing an opinion about the Rugby player.

This is no time to be sticking our heads in Bondi’s sand or holidaying in New Zealand. The whole nation is talking about Christianity. If God is right, and “now is the time of salvation”, let us be praying and loving and speaking.

Is Big Brother listening to your sermons?

Ok, I’m reading George Orwell’s 1984 at the moment, as it seems many people are doing! Leaving aside the somewhat hyperbolic imagery, there are important observations to be made regarding the interactions between Churches and the public space.

Would you like the media to enter your home and report to the world what was spoken? Would you appreciate a journalist attending a local club meeting and sharing the juicy bits on social media? Are you ok for a reported to look around your Facebook page and to publish content on a newspaper?

This week Israel Folau has provided our media with a new installment of gossip, slander, and innuendo. He was preaching on Sunday at his church in Western Sydney and the sermon was uploaded to the church’s Facebook page. It’s not as though a journalist took the time to visit the church and to hear everything that was said and done that morning and to observe all of Izzy’s words and interactions that morning. Rather, they listened to the sermon (and quite possible only parts of it), and with the nuance of a tank the headlines in our newspapers were,

“Folau launches fresh attack on gay and transgender people”

“Israel Folau intensifies stance on homosexuals”

“Israel Folau launches new LGBT attacks in church sermon”

“Israel Folau launches fresh homophobic attacks in church sermon”

Rugby Australia, Qantas, and much of the media have already succeeded in their quest to have Folau sacked and publicly disgraced for comments he made earlier in the year on social media. It appears as though the wolves are still hungry for more.

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This isn’t the first time that journalists have taken the courageous step to digging up church sermons in order to publicly tar and feather Christians. Back in 2016, there was a media campaign to have churches banned from renting public buildings in schools on the Central Coast, NSW. These churches were accused of homophobia and inciting hatred against gays and lesbians. Of course, this wasn’t the case, but telling the whole truth doesn’t always fit the narrative that click-bait journalism is seeking to portray.

There is today a growing antagonism toward Christianity, at least much of the media and among the back slapping cultural dominants in Australia. We are to be suspicious of Christianity. Engaging with the Christian message on its own terms isn’t required anymore, but ignorance necessitates a flurry of rhetorical bashing against those who believe Jesus is Lord. Of course, recent scandals and sins among some Christian organisations have understandably dented public trust. It would be unhelpful to judge those who judge churches for the terrible things down by supposed ‘men of God’. Nonetheless, the Folau controversy has nothing to do with these issues.

There are States around the world where officials are sent to visit local churches, to check on what is being taught and said. Thank God that’s not happening here in Australia. Instead, we use the media and public opinion to manipulate and to scare.

The media’s trolling of Israel Folau’s church raises questions about the dynamics and interactions between Churches and outside entities. Consider these other recent inquisitions:

  • In Victoria, Religious Instruction classes have been driven out of public schools.
  • The attempt has been made (and temporarily thwarted) to install the Government as an Ecclesiastical figure to oversee Christian schools, with the purpose of influencing doctrine and determining what is and isn’t ‘inherent belief’.
  • Sporting codes (and allegedly major corporations who sponsor them) are pressured into preaching the new moral orthodoxy and to provide special education classes to players who are found to hold a heterodox sexual ethic.
  • Universities are cracking down on faculty and students who articulate theological views that are not in keeping with the slippery and ever-changing moral environment of these institutions.

Of course, the situation differs from State to State, and from school to school, and from club to club. Many Aussies are reasonable and fair and think that the ‘God’ police are ridiculous and overreaching their authority.  The situation before us is one where secularists are attempting to take religion out of the public area and they are also beginning to step into the religious and to make pronouncements about that space also. This is somewhat concerning.

With the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, the freedom to preach was taken away in England. Preachers and pastors who didn’t comply with the State’s oversight of religious affairs were imprisoned and congregations shut down. We may look back to that era and think how ridiculous and unnecessary it was. Of course, we don’t want Government intruding upon traditional religious beliefs and practices. Don’t we believe in a separation of Church and State? This distinction never meant that there is no overlap between religion and State, for that is an impossible and undesirable position to hold. To make the public square and the political arena void of religious ideas is to attempt the status quo of China. As China exemplifies, it is an impossible task because it necessitates the Government to introduce policies about religion and to intrude into the religious space as well.

I am not suggesting that journalists, skeptics, and the irreligious shouldn’t visit a local church or listen to their sermons online. This blog regularly has journalists, social commentators and politicians reading it. Hey, I’d love them to also listen to our sermons at Mentone Baptist Church, so long as they quote words in their real context! Better still, come and visit us on Sundays. But there is also an element of hypocrisy in the interest surrounding Folau’s sermon at his local church. At a time where the secular world is wanting to squeeze religion out of the public sphere, the same people are peering into the religious arena and wanting to interfere that in that space.

This is not all bad. It’s a good opportunity for churches to ask some important questions. Why do churches post sermons and messages on websites and social media.? Is it for public consumption and education? Is the aim to provide a service to church members who couldn’t be present for that Sunday? Who the intended audience is and who else may end up listening?

If a church isn’t prepared for ‘outsiders’ to listen and to critique, my advice is, don’t publish your sermons online. Do we however really want to create a culture in Australia whereby churches no longer feel free to publish sermons online or are pressured into leaving out bits of the Bible because of who might hear and report on it in a skewed fashion? At the same time, there is a positive lesson and opportunity here. Preachers ought to take care of what we say and how we speak these words. This is no reason for watering down the good news of Jesus Christ but it is a great incentive for us to teach with clarity and compassion, faithfully and thoughtfully.

John Bunyan lived at the time of the restoration and was imprisoned for his preaching and for organising a church gathering that wasn’t sanctioned by the Government. His initial term of imprisonment was extended from 3 months to 12 years because he refused to cease preaching upon release from jail.  He famously said,

“What God says is best, is best, though all the men in the world are against it.”

This isn’t an argument for blunt and insensitive preaching. Bunyan wasn’t suggesting that we teach the Bible without appreciating its nuances or ignoring the real lives of the real people who are listening. The conviction was that truth and goodness is not defined by a poll or by the academia or even by the Government, but by God himself as revealed in his written word about his Son Jesus Christ. It is a word that challenges our moral preferences and even our deepest heartfelt intentions, not to crucify us but to redeem us and to fill us with a life of immeasurable joy.

At the end of the day, what we are discovering is that Aussie society doesn’t know what to think of Christianity. And I suspect many Christians are also unclear and they are unsure about how to go about relating to the broader culture: to love, be kind, and to relay a message that many find unfit for human consumption.

Israel Folau decision may set a course for the future

Christians across Australia have been given a message, “don’t commit social blasphemy” and “be careful if you choose to use the Bible”.

After three days of deliberations, a three person panel has found Israel Folau guilty of a “high level breach” of Rugby Australia’s player code of conduct.  Not that the outcome was much in doubt, given that Rugby Australia and the Waratah’s had bypassed due process and instead announced to the nation that Folau’s contract was terminated and that he would never be selected again to play for his country or club. Last night’s verdict was little more than a formality.

 

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Whatever Izzy’s motives may have been for posting on social media, he has forced onto the national stage an issue that has been pulled and tugged and tested in quieter situations from the East Coast to the West; can a pure form of Christian beliefs be permitted in the public space?

What was his offence? It is believed that Israel Folau declined to sign a document in addition to the standard players’ contract, which would have placed greater restrictions on his use of social media. He did, however, sign his contract, which presumably includes a clause about adhering to the players Code of Conduct. He has been found guilty of a “high level breach” of the Rugby Code of Conduct. This breach hangs on a subjective interpretation of Part 2 Article 1.3, “Treat everyone equally, fairly and with dignity regardless of gender or gender identity, sexual orientation, ethnicity, cultural or religious background, age or disability. Any form of bullying, harassment or discrimination has no place in Rugby.”  Interpretation of this clause depends on one’s a priori beliefs and moral framework, and in this case the panel have deemed that summarising 1 Corinthians 6:9-11 is a “high” form or harassment, even though the point of that passage is quite the opposite, and so too the meaning of Folau’s post.

Legal experts are expressing concerns over the handling of the issue. Professor Nicholas Aroney has interpreted the allegations against Folau with reference to International law. He explains that

“ [What] Folau has said is not an example of hate speech, and he should not lose his rugby career as a result.” Indeed, he reminds us of the broader framework in which Folau has posted comments, “In addition to repeatedly expressing his love and acceptance of all people, Folau has confessed to having committed many of the sins about which he now warns his readers. This makes it difficult to attribute any intention on his part to advocate hatred against these classes of people, for he numbers himself amongst them”

Setting aside legal questions (which I will certainly leave to those who legal expertise) what is clear is that Rugby Australia and the social commentators who’ve joined the scrum have defined ‘orthodox’ religion. Whether Rugby Australia realise it or not, they have taken a theological stand on Israel Folau and have determined to define what is and isn’t acceptable religious belief and speech. Remember, Folau was quoting the Bible and summarising basic Christian teaching.

Yes, as I and others have said a thousand times, Folau’s comments were not seasoned with grace and kindness. They appeared blunt and insensitive, much like a Rugby footballer. Was his manner lacking? Probably, yes. Were his words untrue to 2000 years of Christian belief? No.

Footballers have been forgiven for all manner of social and even criminal offences over the last few years; have we forgotten what some NRL and AFL players have been embroiled in the last few years. But Israel Folau isn’t to be forgiven.

And what of the teammates who have spoken out in support of Folau and have even agreed with his post? Surely Rugby Australia can’t afford to lose any more players before the World Cup? Is Folau to be a sacrificial lamb, served up to warn others of what might happen should they transgress again?

Let’s not be fools, Christians and non-Christians alike are praised for quoting the Bible when they squeeze it to fit with progressive social agendas. Kristina Keneally wasn’t removed from the Labor Party after quoting the Bible against Prime Minister Scott Morrison, and Peter FitzSimons hasn’t been sacked by Fairfax for repeatedly speaking of Jesus Christ? Why not? Because their speech falls into the rut of the cultural narrative, no matter how poor their handling of Christian texts may be.

Lest we conclude that this story will soon be forgotten as a blip on the cultural radar, Rugby Australia’s stance may well soon find legislative legs. The Australian Labor Party (as the Greens have already done) have announced that they are considering expanding “anti-discrimination legislation to shield gay and transgender ­people from harmful speech if elected, in a move that has alarmed lawyers and free-speech advocates.”

“When prejudice against LGBTIQ people contributes to harassment by the written or ­spoken word, such harassment causes actual harm, not simply mere offence, to people who have suffered discrimination and prejudice, and causes particular harm to young same-sex-attracted, gender-questioning or intersex people.

“Labor considers such harmful harassment is an unacceptable abuse of the responsibilities that come with freedom of speech and must be subject to effective sanctions. Labor will ensure that anti-discrimination law provides such effective sanction.”

Depending on how the language of ‘harm’ is understood, all manner of reasonable speech may be found on the wrong side of the law. For example, former rugby league player, Ian Roberts, last week alleged that comments like those of Israel Folau play a role in teenage kids committing suicide as they come to terms with their sexuality

“There are literally kids in the suburbs killing themselves — and I say that with the greatest sense of respect — I’m not implying that Israel’s responsible solely for that, please don’t take it that way.

“But it’s these types of comments and these off the cuff remarks, when you have young people and vulnerable people, kids in the suburbs who are dealing with their sexuality, confused, not knowing how to deal with it, these types of remarks can and do push people over the edge.”

If explaining the Christian view of sexuality is deemed to be a trigger for teenage suicide, we can anticipate further public outrage and potential legislation that will restrict and prohibit words that conform to and explain the Christian message. One might respond by pointing out that thousands of Christians are killed every year simply because they are Christian, therefore we must not limit or silence Christians freedom to speak their beliefs. If we are to be morally and logically consistent, Robert’s argument works in different directions. Leaving that aside, Roberts’ comments could be taken offensively by some Christians because we too are concerned for the wellbeing of teenagers. It is good to be reminded that these conversations are not merely academic or theoretical but they relate to real people who matte. We can thank Ian Roberts for this reminder.  No one wants teenagers despairing of their worth and believing they are unloved. I am reminded of Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman, a woman who’s sexual past was complicated, to say the least. Jesus didn’t affirm or applaud her but he did love her and speak a powerful word of compassion and hope to her.

“Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life….The woman said, “I know that Messiah” (called Christ) “is coming. When he comes, he will explain everything to us.”… Then Jesus declared, “I, the one speaking to you—I am he.” (John 4:13-14, 25-26)

In the midst of all the myriad of questions and issues relating to the Folau case, it is important to repeat an observation that was made last month: while Folau’s offending posts are in line with orthodox Christian teaching, he has on other occasions suggested a troubling view of the Trinity. He appears to advocate Oneness theology, which contradicts the Creeds and the very Scriptures themselves. This matters because it would be unwise to use Folau as a poster for Australian Christianity should he not subscribe to one of the most basic of Christian doctrines. It would be unwise and unChristian for Christians to pedestal Israel Folau while knowing he may well reject an even more foundational belief. As I suggested at the time, it may well be the case that Folau is like many Christians who are confused about and fuzzy on the Trinity. At the very least, this is a reminder as to why it is incumbent upon Pastors to teach the Bible clearly and faithfully in order to aid their congregations to understand such crucial doctrines.

The controversy over Israel Folau was not the first case and it is far from being the last. School children in Victoria are force-fed gender theories which are often unsupported by science and best medical practice, and many families have already felt pressured to leaving the public system and forced to pay the expense of independent schooling because of this Governmental pressure in Victoria. We can expect more corporations and organisations falling for the kinds of pressures that have been exposed by the Folau situation. Australia is moving toward introducing limitations on religious freedom that we see in parts of Europe and in Canada. We are heading closer toward the situation found in China, whereby Christians cannot join a political party and they cannot speak openly about Christianity and churches must be approved of by the State. This isn’t hyperbole, this is the natural progression of authoritarian secularism who will use the sexual revolution and identity politics to push all but their sanitised version of religion out of the public square.

A culturally palatable Christianity will entail deleting most Bible verses, any references to hell and to judgment, removing the core of the faith which is the atonement, and of course, we must let go of any teaching about marriage and sex and the roles of women and men. We will be left with a very tiny Bible and one that makes little sense, and one that has no power to give life and hope to this world.

“I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” That saying of Jesus will need to go. So too will Jesus’ introductory summary of his ministry, ““The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!” Anything that challenges personal autonomy and freedom to define self realisation cannot be tolerated.

I have said it before, Christians need to start taking Jesus’ words seriously, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.” We cannot afford to give up gentleness and compassion, grace and kindness, for these are indispensable attributes of the Gospel we claim to believe. We cannot respond to cultural shifts with hate but with enduring love because God has loved us. However, we have to accept the fact that loving others will not always be read as love because today’s secularist police will not permit views that transgress their narrow understanding of righteousness. Don’t give up on love, and don’t sacrifice truth and goodness for doing so means that we have also evacuated love from the picture.

If Christianity’s demise in Australia has been party due to Christianity’s seducement by the culture, then perhaps the clarifying disjunction between Church and culture will aid believers to regain Gospel convictions, compassion, and expectations. After all, it was communist China that created a moral and epistemic environment which catalyzed the explosion of Christianity and the conversion of 10s of millions of Chinese.  We may be disappointed by indicative direction Australian public life may be taking and the ramification this may have for our job security, education, and financial stability, but we are hopeful and joyful because Jesus Christ remains true and good today as ever. And by the grace of God, over time some our Aussie neighbours may come to realise that we are not against them but for them and have a message of hope that we alter their lives in the most satisfying and liberating fashion.

A season for pruning churches in Australia

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

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

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

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

Jesus says,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The only good Christian politician…

The only good Christian politician is one who has the prefix non sitting at the front. Or, if they insist on believing in God, make sure it’s not the Christian God. Or, if that too fails, just make sure the god being worshiped is domesticated and progressive and doesn’t really believe what the Bible says.

It only took a few days, but elements of mainstream media have established their narrative for Australia’s new Prime Minister: Scott Morrison is one of those whacky Christians who believe in prayer and who hates gays and refugees. He’s dangerous because he isn’t following the script, the one that is being redrafted continuously by social progressives as they cherry pick scientific research and dismantle moral parameters that don’t fit with their already fixed social theories.

 

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Tony Wright, yesterday sent our bodies into spasmic motions of laughter as we read his classic tales of Christian mockery and parody, Scott Morrison’s Sermon on the Murray. Love: it’s for Australians.

“Love, exhorted Australia’s latest Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, pacing like an old-time tent preacher. Love!

“I love Australia,” he cried.

“Who loves Australia?” he demanded.

“Everyone,” he answered himself.

“We all love Australia. Of course we do.

“But do we love all Australians? That’s a different question, isn’t it?

“Do we love ALL Australians? We’ve got to.

“That’s what brings a country together. You love all Australians if you love Australia.”

Call it Scott Morrison’s Sermon on the Murray.

It turned out to be a stream of consciousness devoid of policy announcements, starting and finishing with pledges to uphold Menzies’ legacy, and heavy on folksy family tales, love and, yes, prayer.

In the midst of a long and dreadful drought, glory be, it rained in Albury on Thursday.

Morrison wasn’t about to let that go by without homage.

“It’s great to see it raining here in Albury today,” he said, roaming the stage with a hand-held microphone.

“I pray for that rain everywhere else around the country. And I do pray for that rain.

“And I’d encourage others who believe in the power of prayer to pray for that rain and to pray for our farmers. Please do that.”

And in case there were those in the audience who weren’t God-fearing, Morrison included them, too.

“And everyone else who doesn’t like to do that, you just say, ‘Good on you, guys. You go well’. Think good thoughts for them. Or whatever you do.”…

The room by then was fairly oozing the love. No one had the poor form to note out loud that Morrison’s love for everyone apparently stopped firmly at the coastline he once defended by Border Force, or that supporters of that other Mardi Gras might not share his happy sense of family, given his well-known thumbs down to equal marriage…

No. He’d come to give his Sermon on the Murray. Family and prayer and individualism.

Yes. And love. Lots of love. For everyone, so long as they’re Australian.”

 

Ok, I have to admit, the “Sermon on the Murray” line is kind of funny, but mainly because I spent some of my childhood in Albury Wodonga and my name is, well, Murray!

Like every Prime Minister before him, Scott Morrison is creating a narrative of his own, and he has chosen to be upfront about his Christian faith. Good on him. Why should he hide it? We’re not living in North Korea, are we? Or in an Islamic country?

I’m not suggesting that Christians should be beyond scrutiny. Christians serving in the public sphere should not be exempt from serious questions on relevant policy and views. Christian beliefs are not beyond the scope of impassioned dialogue and debate. Indeed, as we read the story of the Bible we discover countless examples of the Apostles inviting careful investigation. Equally so, the Christian life ought also to display the character of Christ,

 “You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.” (Matt 5:14-16)

Don’t misunderstand me, Scott Morrison is no Messiah. I assume that our new PM, like every other Christian, will sometimes get things wrong, and that means that some of his decisions won’t always best reflect the Christian worldview that he upholds. For instance, do I think the Government’s policy on Asylum Seekers best reflects a Christian view of refugees? No, I don’t.  I think it’s cruel and unnecessary. But are our atheistic secularist friends really wanting an Australian Prime Minister to adopt policies that are shaped by Christianity?

If a politician or public figure makes their religious convictions known, it is entirely appropriate for journalists to note hypocrisy and inconsistency. However, it’s clear that the derision toward Scott Morrison’s Christianity doesn’t stop there; let’s mock the PM’s belief in prayer. Why? The issue isn’t even the fact that Scott Morrison has called for prayer, but that he’s praying to the wrong kind of god. The God who is revealed in Jesus Christ and who authored the Bible doesn’t preach their ‘progressive’ gospel of sexual fluidity, abortion, and non-heterosexual marriage.

Many of the same political pundits who are critical of Morrison’s Christianity are very quick to praise the sloganeering of religious figures like Rod Bower. They can’t get enough of his tirades of abuse toward conservative politicians. The more heretical his signs, the louder the applause. Yes, Australia remains ardently religious, and even the irreligious can’t help themselves. They’ll keep mocking religion that doesn’t fit their agendas, and they will praise from the heights (or lows) of twitter any Aussie in a clerical collar who preaches their message.

Mocking the right type of Christian will win ‘likes’ on social media, and will ensure our parodies are published in the paper, but it is all rather dull and unoriginal. This kind of mud-slinging has been going on since, well, since the time of Jesus. The Roman soldiers had a riot of a time while they mocked Jesus, before crucifying him, and the religious elite joined in the fun as Jesus hung there on the cross.

My advice to Aussie Christians is, don’t get too upset by the latest round mocking Christianity. Didn’t Jesus have something to say about insults in the Sermon on the Mount?  After all, remember the strangest irony of all, our Churches are filled with once-upon-a-time mockers. Our congregations are made up of people who once didn’t believe in prayer but have now discovered pray is effective. Today’s Christians were often yesterday’s critics; we once argued how the Bible is an archaic and immoral book, but now we have become convinced that the words of Scripture are true and good. Anti-theists become theists and worshipers of Jesus Christ.

Here ends today’s Sermon by Murray!

#Metoo for unborn girls?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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