A Response to ‘Coronavirus, creation and the Creator: What the Bible says about suffering and evil’

There are few people who don’t hold a view on COVID-19 and what it means for the world. Religious and irreligious people alike are espousing beliefs and theories. Two Baptist theologians from Whitley College in Melbourne, Mark Brett and Jason Goroncy, have offered a contribution to the conversation. They have written a piece for the ABC, in which they present a theological reflection on ‘Coronavirus, creation and the Creator: What the Bible says about suffering and evil’.

I read the article with interest partly because of the topic and also because I’m a Melbourne Baptist who is pastoring a Baptist church in this city. Brett and Goroncy have given a number of helpful insights, and they have also presented several theological ideas that are problematic for anyone holding to Biblical and historical Christianity. If I have misunderstood Mark Brett and Jason Goroncy in some way, I’m more than happy to be corrected. Indeed, such articles can be useful for creating ongoing conversations. 

COVID-19

To begin, allow me to note some worthwhile insights offered by Brett and Goroncy.

4 Helpful Insights 

  • They suggest that one useful response to the pandemic is reviving the practice of lament. This is a great idea.
  • This statement about the Bible is true and helpful, “The Bible is honest about human suffering in this world, whether it be that of the “righteous” and the “devout” or that of the “sinful” and “unrepentant.” It is equally honest about the sheer fact of dis-ease in the world.”
  • They point to the fact that God in Christ has shared in the suffering of this world. This is one of the wonders of the Gospel.
  • They offer a historical perspective, noting that what we are experiencing with COVID-19 is not new.

Before I turn to two crucial issues that lay at the heart of their argument, I want to briefly pushback on 3 other points. These points are not central to Brett and Goroncy’s thesis, but they do reveal something of their theological biases.

3 revealing comments

First, Brett and Goroncy set up their conversation as though Christian thinking on COVID-19 is a religious version of President Trump vs Enlightened Progressives.

For example, their opening salvo is aimed at ‘a few churches in the United States’, although by the end of the paragraph it seems as though the whole church has nothing useful to say about COVID-19,

“A few churches in the United States have attracted new notoriety by meeting together against the advice of public health officials, even presenting such dissidence as a mark of true faith. But what kind of faith is this exactly? On the other hand, some pastoral leaders have become all too aware of the immediate challenges, and have left the theological questions to one side. One might be left with the impression that the church has nothing to say about some of the most pressing questions that many people continue to dare to ask…”

It seems as though these American Trump supporting churches are stuck on their minds,

“Whole churches, it seems, have never heard of the book of Job, or perhaps they ignore such unsettling Old Testament discourse because it has been trumped by some version of apocalyptic theology.” [italics my emphasis]

“If we seek inspiration from the Hebrew Bible and New Testament in this present crisis, we would not expect God to intervene like a cosmic President, to declare emergency powers and veto the freedoms of the ecological systems within which all creatures live.” 

My issue here is that Brett and Goroncy almost entirely ignore mainstream Christian belief and practice. Instead, they have set up a conversation between a straw man with a deep southern accent and their own position. I’m not saying that such individuals don’t exist, of course, they do, but they are hardly representative of Christianity across Australia let alone in the United States. Brett and Goroncy’s foible is far too simplistic, which means they rarely engage with evangelical theology that is held by the vast number of Bible believing Christians. To quote a friend of mine, “Basically they just sound like Greta Thunberg if she had a PhD in theology”, but that’s probably going too far.

Second, when referring to the Old Testament, they speak of the ‘Hebrew Bible’. For Jewish people, this is an entirely appropriate term, but these are Christian theologians, and for Christians, we do not present the Old Testament as being separate from or not part of the Christian Bible.

Jesus repeatedly made the point that the Old Testament is Christo-centric book,

“And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.” (Luke 24:27)

“Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.” (Luke 24:44)

The Apostles also understood the Old Testament as being about Jesus Christ and for Christians,

“For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, 4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures,” (1 Corinthians 15:3-4)

“from infancy you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.” (2 Timothy 3:15)

Third, why begin a discussion about Jesus’ miracles with the conditional conjunction, ‘if’?  “If we find miraculous healings in the New Testament…” It is impossible to tell whether Brett and Goroncy accept Jesus’ miracles as a historical fact or a myth, and that alone is problematic. Is this some academic game where we pretend to speak above all those awkward beliefs that don’t conform to post-Enlightenment thinking? Do theologians gain kudos for framing statements about miracles with suspicion?

My question here is, why provoke readers to doubt the veracity of Jesus’ miracles? Are their comments giving people greater confidence in the truth of the Bible or does it create further suspicion and disbelief, and drag old Bultmann out of the grave?

I will add that I agree with their understanding of how the miracles function in the Gospels, but as a reader, I am left in the dark about whether I should believe these miracles were real or a myth.

 

2 Critical problems

There are serious problems with Brett and Goroncy’s view of God and creation, such that their proposals are at times unrecognisable with Biblical Christianity. I will comment on two particular examples: God’s Sovereignty and the cross of Christ. There are other significant issues, including their view of the goodness of creation, the Fall, and human sin, but for the sake of brevity, I won’t address these here.

1. Is God Sovereign?

The Bible presents God as being Sovereign over all things. God’s Sovereignty includes his control, authority, and presence. There is nothing outside his knowledge and permission, nothing beyond his control and will.

“Our God is in heaven;

    he does whatever pleases him.” (Ps 115:3)

“ The Lord Almighty has sworn,

“Surely, as I have planned, so it will be,
and as I have purposed, so it will happen.

25 I will crush the Assyrian in my land;
on my mountains I will trample him down.
His yoke will be taken from my people,
and his burden removed from their shoulders.”

26 This is the plan determined for the whole world;
this is the hand stretched out over all nations.

27 For the Lord Almighty has purposed, and who can thwart him?
His hand is stretched out, and who can turn it back?”
(Is 14:24-27)

“The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. 16 For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. 17 He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18 And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. 19 For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, 20 and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross. (Col 1:15-20)

 “The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands. 25 And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else.”  (Acts 17:24-25)

For Brett and Goroncy, God is powerful but not Sovereign. By relying on some rather inventive exegesis, they suggest God’s power and goodness has competition before the creation of the world and even in the new creation.

When it comes to the beginning of the universe, they reject creatio ex nihilo (creation out of nothing) and instead propose “creatio ex profundis (creation out of the deep waters, creation as the germinating abyss”.

creatio ex profundis is an obscure idea that has almost zero support in Christian theology, and even less in the history of the Christian Church. It seems to have its roots in process theology, which is a small 20th Century movement in theology which rejected many key Christian beliefs, including that God is Sovereign.

The notable systematic theologian Louis Berkhof rightly notes, “the Christian church from the very beginning taught the doctrine of creation ex nihilo and as a free act of God”

As Michael Horton explains, the language in Genesis 1:2 of formless and empty, and darkness, “is itself the unformed matter that God had already brought into existence from nothing, the created stuff out of which he fashions the world.”

Not only does Genesis 1:1-2 not support the idea of creatio ex profundis, places like John 1:1-3 and Colossians 1:15-17 make is abundantly make the case clearly,

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made”.

The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. 16 For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. 17 He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.”

Brett and Goroncy favour creatio ex profundis, because it opens the possibility of “natural evil” existing before creation. This is their proposal:

“we might think of creation as God’s protest against chaos — against the “churning, complicating” and “interstitial darkness” that “refuses to disappear” and which ceaselessly threatens to undo God’s “good” work by dragging creation back into the discord against which it was formed.”

God’s Sovereignty over creation is therefore denied, or least it is defined in a very narrow sense, for evil existed outside of and before God creating. God’s Sovereignty over the new creation is also disputed as they contend that death is part of the new creation,

“We would do well to remember that death was not wholly removed from the picture of a “new heavens and new earth” in Isaiah 65:17–24. There, the prophetic vision sets out a minimum life expectancy of a hundred years, so that children will not be “born into calamity.” In short, this text does not promote a heavenly immortality; the new earth still very much means the renewing of our own.”

Does Isaiah 65:20 suggest that death will be part of the new creation?

“Never again will there be in it

    an infant who lives but a few days,

    or an old man who does not live out his years;

the one who dies at a hundred

    will be thought a mere child;

the one who fails to reach a hundred

    will be considered accursed.”

In his commentary on the book of Isaiah, Alec Motyer explains, “it is not meant to suggest that death will still be present. This would contradict forever (18), no more (19), and the death of death in 25:17-18. It simply affirms that, over the whole of life, the power of death will be gone.” In other words, Isaiah is using metaphor and hyperbole to make the point that there will not be death in the new creation. 

If we’re going quote Isaiah ch.65, why not permit readers to be aware of those Scriptures toward which Isaiah is pointing and which make clear that there will be no more death? For example, Revelation ch.21,

 “And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”

He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” Then he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.”

By relying on obscure exegesis and leaping over large swathes of relevant texts, Brett and Goroncy have painted a God who is not totally in control over the world. They are not saying God is absent or completely powerless, however. They do point to Jesus and to the cross as an example of God sharing in our suffering. However, their explanation of the cross is extraordinarily reductionist and leaves the cross and God empty of saving power.

2. Don’t empty the cross of its power.

For an article that is wanting to offer hope in the midst of this terrible pandemic, I found it strange that both Jesus Christ and his cross are rarely mentioned. They write,

“Even death on a Roman cross, in this impatient theology, is simply a means to an end. It could not be an enduring revelation of the character of God. As if perhaps, in the crucifixion of Jesus, God was just faking weakness, was not really thirsty and abandoned at all.”

In the single time where they do mention Christ and the cross, it is to criticise a straw man version of a Sovereign God. The death of Christ is reduced to that of God sharing in our suffering. The idea of God understanding suffering is true enough. This is a beautiful Christian teaching, that God in Christ Jesus has participated in the world and suffered.  Hebrews ch. 2 expresses this wonder,

“In bringing many sons and daughters to glory, it was fitting that God, for whom and through whom everything exists, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through what he suffered…14 Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil— 15 and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death… 18 Because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.”

Brett and Goroncy have reduced the cross to an image of God joining in our suffering. But he lacks the power to defeat suffering and evil and death.

The good news is that the real cross of Christ that took place in history and is faithfully recorded in the Scriptures is the means by which God will accomplish the end of death and evil. The cross is not only about God with us or for us in some representative way, but Christ dying in our place. Jesus’ death was sacrificial, it is an atoning death whereby God satisfied his righteous anger and where sinful beings are forgiven and set free from sin and from judgment to come.

“God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” (2 Corinthians 5:21)

At the end of the day, according to Brett and Goroncy, the world’s Saviour is us. This is something we can accomplish collectively as a human race if we follow God’s lead,

“We cannot say that this world simply appears by divine imposition. According to Isaiah, human participation in the justice of God is still required, as already pointed out. What we can say, however, is that God stands firstly with the less-abled among us, and with the poor, inviting them to participate — indeed, to offer leadership — in a new society. The Spirit of God calls the rest of us, the privileged, to new practices of solidarity…”

“we would look to the God who always chooses to act in solidarity, who quietly calls us to act freely as better human beings — fellow creatures with the earth — and to embody the justice of God in every area of our lives together.

The COVID-19 pandemic has unveiled once again the inequalities of our world. This is not the fulfilment of apocalyptic prophecies — like those in the Book of Revelation, for example — but it is certainly a new unveiling of what has been termed “slow violence.” Our planet continues to burn, and our seas continue to acidify. Patterns of production and consumption continue to despoil the resources needed by future generations. A new world is calling, for which we need a fuller understanding of creation.”

There is no real hope in those words, just more misery and despair. We have had thousands of years to put things right, it is a ridiculous notion that somewhere we are now capable of change. At the end of the day, there is no difference between their solution and that being offered by the most politically energised climate change activists. I’m not a climate change sceptic, far from it. But I reject the notion that we can create a ‘new world’. Instead of proclaiming God’s  ‘good news’ that is the Gospel of Jesus Christ and what He has accomplished by his atoning death and resurrection the dead, Brett and Goroncy offer just another zealous religion, high on sentiment and free from Divine power.

COVID-19 may not be a direct result of specific human sins, but it is an expression and timely reminder of a world in turmoil because of human sin and because God has cursed this creation in response. There is hope, a wonderful and undeserved hope. The hope of Christianity lies in a Sovereign God in whom nothing is beyond his care and control. The hope in Christianity is that God has done what is required: the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ. This single event has dealt with the heart of the problem, and one day, in God’s timing, will remove all the presence and stain of sin, suffering, and death.  And the new creation that has already begun in the hearts and lives of those in Christ Jesus, will be consummated and universal

John Frame puts it this way,

“The point is not that the stars and planets have sinned and need atonement as human beings do. But rather, the sin of human beings has led to a twisting of the whole universe that only redemption of human sin can set right.”

Far from this forgiveness of sins making Churches complicit with environmental vandalism, it should change the way we view other human beings and the world, but we do not pretend that we can drag some less than perfect new creation into the world tomorrow. Rather, as the Apostle Paul expresses our hope in Romans ch.8,

“For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope 21 that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God.

22 We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. 23 Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies. 24 For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what they already have? 25 But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently.”

7 (possible) Church trends emerging from COVID-19

The COVID-19 pandemic is affecting almost all parts of society. The impact is minimal in some areas of life, and in others, the change is significant and life altering. Churches are not immune from the broader tremors that are shaking core social and economic foundations.

Today is our seventh Sunday without Church. Each week I am preaching a sermon which is then posted online for our congregation. On Sunday mornings many of our people join on zoom to listen to the sermon and then spend time catching up and prayer together. But it’s not church. During the week small groups once again meet on zoom for Bible study and prayer, and there are numerous other interactions taking place every day.

While the current arrangements are far from ideal, we understand them. Life has required Australians to make adjustments, some which cause grief and uncertainty. Most Churches I suspect are still adapting and finding a rhythm to manage society’s new pace, let alone thinking of what the status quo will be like in six or twelve months time.

It is now 3rd May 2020. No one knows how long the pandemic will continue and what the long term repercussions will be. Most States across Australia are beginning to relax restrictions. Although in  Victoria, Stage 3 restrictions remain, but even here I anticipate that small groups will be allowed to start meeting again from later this month. Large gatherings, however (including church services) are probably months away.

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As we approach two months of COVID-19 restrictions, I have noticed a number of trends beginning to emerge among Australian Churches. These indications are based on my own experience and the many conversations I am having with pastors across the country. Also, standing behind the observations are these 3 theological premises:

  1. God remains Sovereign over the world today.
  2. Human nature doesn’t change. The Bible’s doctrine of total depravity remains the status quo.
  3. The Gospel of Jesus Christ remains good, true, and powerful today.

 

1. A godly hunger.

Not only at Mentone, but as I speak with pastors and Christians from around the country, I am seeing and hearing countless stories of service and kindness. People are making an effort to serve others practically, in prayer, and in word. This eagerness to love the body of Christ is accompanied by a growing hunger for being together again as a church. Praise God!

At Mentone, we are not trying to replicate church on Sundays or to pretend that what we’re doing is church. We consciously avoid using the language of ‘church’ or ‘service’, and we have made deliberate choices not to include every element that would be present on a Sunday service. For example, we are not commemorating the Lord’s Supper while we are apart. Doing this, being clear about what we are and are not doing during this season, is not only theologically responsible but it is creating a godly hunger among our people to be together again in person, to see one another face to face, and to worship God as church, and to partake of the Lord’s Supper again.

If these weeks of isolation create a hunger in God’s people to love the church and long to be together as a church, then that is a sign of God’s grace.

“Recalling your tears, I long to see you, so that I may be filled with joy.” (2 Timothy 1:4)

“But, brothers and sisters, when we were orphaned by being separated from you for a short time (in person, not in thought), out of our intense longing we made every effort to see you. 18 For we wanted to come to you—certainly I, Paul, did, again and again—but Satan blocked our way. 19 For what is our hope, our joy, or the crown in which we will glory in the presence of our Lord Jesus when he comes? Is it not you? 20 Indeed, you are our glory and joy”. (1 Thess 2:17-19)

2. An ungodly separation

While many members of our churches are using this season to draw closer to Christ and to his church, others will sadly use the situation to create distance.

Without regular face to face church, it is easier for people to walk away. Churches will lose people during this pandemic. These people were probably already drifting prior to the restrictions, but without the accountability of regular and public gatherings, the cover of forced separation is their justification for leaving your church and perhaps Christ also.

I shared these verses from 1 Peter with Mentone during the week, to help us combat this temptation,

Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you.

Be alert and of sober mind. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. 9Resist him, standing firm in the faith, because you know that the family of believers throughout the world is undergoing the same kind of sufferings.”

 

3. The shift from fast to fatigue and then to rest

Adapting to the new environment has required an immense amount of time and energy. The ministry and mission of a local church don’t fundamentally change, but the immediate and drastic constraints forced upon us have necessitated rapid learning, quick responses, high energy mixed with headaches and new anxieties. It’s a classic recipe for fatigue.

Speaking personally, after running at a sprint for the first 5 weeks, I needed to take 3 days rest last week; I was toasted, baked, and grilled, all in one. Rest is important. Indeed, our doctrine of God becomes real to us. If he remains Sovereign over the world and if Christ is still Lord of his church, then we can rest in Him and trust that he has everything under his loving care. It’s okay to turn off the laptop. It’s okay to produce a sermon that’s not quite finished. It’s okay for online presentations to be a little rough. It’s okay if you didn’t manage to call everyone you had on your list for that week.

Government restrictions are likely to continue for some months, even if the tightest limitations begin to loosen during May. Therefore pace ourselves, set realistic goals for each week, be content with less efficiency and lower productivity. In this, we can rediscover the grace of resting in Christ and practising our doctrine of God.

 

4. Breaking the back of Christian consumerism?

My expectation is that apart from the grace of God our bad habits will continue on the other side of COVID-19.  This fourth observation is, however, a call for change. The example I have in mind here is the consumerism and obstinate individualism that is deeply ingrained in Australian culture and which is also pervasive in Christian attitudes toward the Church. Consumerism works against discipleship and long term committed members and instead creates short term attendees and parasitic Christians. The Church’s manual becomes some poor religious version of Vogue or Netflix when it should be the word of God and church covenants.

The pandemic is a great opportunity to go simple and return to Bible basics. Do we need a professional band in order to worship God acceptably and to lift our hearts? Do we really need stand up comics in our pulpits? Are academy award winning visuals necessary for weekly announcements? 

I’m not saying that aiming low is somehow more sanctified. Let’s be clear, the quality of production is not a measure of faithfulness, whether it is created by a television crew or by a 6-year-old helping out Dad to press record on his iPhone.

A likely scenario is that Churches with high production value online will most likely attract the greater number of visitors once the crisis ends. This is great news if it is the Gospel drawing people. My question is, are our online ‘services’ reinforcing the consumer mindset or can we break the culture by doing things differently? By different, again I’m not arguing for anti-excellence, but rather I’m calling for simple faithfulness that is driven by core Gospel principles. These include making disciples, the centrality of reading and preaching the Word, preaching the whole counsel of God, permeating everything with prayer, and letting the congregation be heard when singing.

5. Churches may become more local and smaller

This point may seem to contradict the above suggestion, but not necessarily. Culture normally shifts in multiple directions and so it’s quite possible for two different paths to be true at the same time.

Are the days of mega-churches over? I doubt it (and this isn’t a criticism of large churches), but the longer restrictions remain in place for large gatherings there may be a turning toward people joining local and smaller churches. For example, the ABC last week reported that large crowds may not be permitted to meet until a vaccine is available; that means 2021 or even beyond.

With restrictions on large gatherings and with people driving less and staying closer to their own community, we may see a transition toward local church. I do think such a shift will benefit Gospel work. Of course there is is no ‘right’ size for a church. Every size and location has peculiar strengths, but there is something compelling about belonging to a church that’s found in your local community. It enables closer and deeper Gospel community and it created more evangelistic opportunities. Is it easier to invite a friend living 5 minutes drive away or 50 minutes?

6. Financial loss and ministry recalibration 

Churches are very much part of society. When the community is hurt or impacted, so are Churches, and that is not a bad thing. Many Australians have lost jobs in the past month, and many more are now working reduced hours with less income. Given that most churches rely solely upon the generosity of God’s people, it’s inevitable that churches will face financial reduced giving.

There are options available for assistance from both Federal and State Governments, which may alleviate some of the financial pressures (there are pros and cons for churches joining these programs). The reality is, as a result of long term restrictions and economic downturn, some churches will close permanently, others will need to reduce staff, and the way churches conduct ministry may need to change.

To repeat my earlier contention, what we believed prior to this crisis is what we will carry with us through to the other side. Hence, for many declining churches the fundamental problem is not the pandemic but years of poor teaching and bad theology that has left congregations destitute and spiritually dry. Churches who sold their soul to the culture will simply advertise the fact when they put the ‘for sale’ sign outside their front doors. There is also grief for small and faithful churches who will struggle to remain open into 2021. We can do without faithless churches but Australia doesn’t need fewer faithful churches.

Given the huge numbers of people who are losing jobs, the extraordinary debts now being accumulated by Governments and businesses, economic constraints are likely to continue for a very long time. This acute situation may also serve as grace to force churches to reconfigure their mission and ministry priorities. It is a time to be asking, what is the church? What is the mission? How can be best arrange Gospel priorities in our budget?

 

7. People looking for hope

“now is the time of God’s favor, now is the day of salvation.” (2 Corinthians 6:2)

I think it is true to say that many Australians are nervous and even fearful of the future. There is an audible note of despair and reassessing life values. Whether this results in people turning to Christ or not, we’ll learn over the coming months.

Time will tell whether this pandemic is the watershed moment that’ll bring about revival or further wash Christianity into the culture’s sewers. My sense is that we are unlikely to witness either. History shows that significant social events rarely create the ground for revival or great influx of people returning to church. If two World Wars, the Great Depression, the threat of nuclear war, September 11, and the 2008 Stockmarket crash, didn’t cause societal attitudes toward Christianity to improve, why do we think this most current crisis will be any different? 

Jesus teaches that such things have always been and will continue to be experienced,

“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.  Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be famines and earthquakes in various places. All these are the beginning of birth pains.”

Accompanying world events, Jesus also explains,

“And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come”.

While I’m reticent to place confidence in a ‘changing’ world, the Bible tells us that “today is the day of salvation”.  God remains Sovereign and the Gospel remains good, true and powerful. Therefore God is perfectly able to grow his Kingdom beyond our expectations and prayers. God is not bound by my glass half empty views.

If people are asking questions, let’s offer the good news of Jesus Christ. If people are fearful, let’s offer His comfort. If people are looking for hope, let’s present the secure hope of Christ.

Devote yourselves to prayer, being watchful and thankful. And pray for us, too, that God may open a door for our message, so that we may proclaim the mystery of Christ, for which I am in chains. Pray that I may proclaim it clearly, as I should. Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders; make the most of every opportunity. Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone. (Colossians 4)

 


I’ve written (May 17) a follow up piece, but this time examining potential changes to the culture at large – https://murraycampbell.net/2020/05/17/how-will-covid-19-change-the-world/

What are Pastors doing during the Pandemic?

One of the questions I’m often asked by unbelievers is, so what do you do? Once I have explained that I’m a pastor of a local church, the follow up question is often (and sometimes by Christians too), do you only work on Sundays? What do you do for the rest of the week? 

I’m sure there are a few people who are curious to know what pastors are doing during this pandemic, given that Sunday Church services are postponed for the foreseeable future. Walking the dog and watching Netflix aside, there are one or two responsibilities that occupy a pastor’s time. 

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The principal of Ridley College (Melbourne), Brian Rosner, has written an excellent article on the ABC, Coping with coronavirus disappointments: Five lessons from Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Rosner highlights, 

“Bonhoeffer’s approach to prison life was not to allow the confinement to restrict his activity. Quite literally, he did not sit still while waiting for his hope for freedom to materialise”

Not that any of us are in prison, but parallels with today’s restrictions have some warrant. Speaking of his incarceration, Bonhoeffer wrote,

“I read, meditate, write, pace up and down my cell — without rubbing myself sore against the walls like a polar bear. The great thing is to stick to what one still has and can do — there is still plenty left — and not to be dominated by the thought of what one cannot do, and the feelings of resentment and discontent.”

So how are pastors spending this time during Stage 3 lockdown? In short, the work never ceases. In fact, the past three weeks have proven to be extra busy and particularly stressful. They are also exciting, not because of the threat to peoples’ health and livelihoods, but because we believe in a Sovereign God who can exercise his grace and mercy even during a season such as this. 

Here are some of the things Pastors are continuing to do during this season of uncertainty (not in any particular order):

  1. Pastors will be praying for their congregations, neighbours, community and nation. Pastors will be praying for the sick, for medical workers, and for our Governments.
  2. Pastors are reflecting theologically on this crisis in order to rightly direct Christians and non Christians alike to think and respond in appropriate ways.
  3. Pastors are listening to Government advice and guidelines so that our churches adhere to best practice in order to flatten the curve.
  4. Pastors will continue to study the Scriptures, in order to be refreshed and to refresh others.
  5. Pastors will continue to shepherd their Churches, exercising responsibility for the spiritual health of the body.
  6. Pastors are regularly connecting with church members: phone calls, emails, live conferencing, etc.
  7. Pastors are meeting with their leaders in order to see that they are doing ok and are equipped to carry out their responsibilities 
  8. Pastors are finding new ways to teach and using older models of teaching. Among the methods I’m using are: preaching a weekly sermon, writing short articles, publishing short podcasts, personal conversations (virtual) with particular people, and starting an online cohort who are studying a subject at Bible College.
  9. Pastors will continue to guard their churches against bad theology which rots peoples’ lives and offers misleading hope.
  10. Pastors are organising Sunday gatherings for their congregations online, and discerning what is theologically appropriate and pastorally edifying. 
  11. Pastors are maintaining the administrative side of church, ensuring that the every day behind the scenes structures remain in place and are in working order
  12. Pastors are organising spiritual, financial, and practical care for people.
  13. Pastors continue with the task of evangelism
  14. Pastors are trying to model godliness in the face of uncertainty.
  15. Pastors are helping at home, loving their spouse and children, and finding more time to help make homestay a success.
  16. Pastors will continue to serve the sick and the dying
  17. Pastors will continue to conduct weddings and funerals

These are some of the activities that require a Pastor’s attention and energy.

The stresses experienced by many pastors will be similar to those of a small business owner: for many, financial difficulty is a very real prospect. And yet the analogy only goes so far, for pastors are not selling products to consumers, they are Shepherding God’s people. 

A pastor’s work can also be likened to that of a medical professional, although we are not fighting against physical disease but caring for both peoples’ temporary and eternal condition. As has been witnessed in Italy, sadly many doctors and nurses have fallen ill and even died from COVID-19, and by their sides many priests have also become ill and died. 

A pastor’s duty is also analogous to that of a teacher, trying to establish healthy discipline among students, encouraging them to learn and not give up or become distracted in this virtual world of online education.

By no means is any of this meant to play up or down the work anyone is doing during this time. A pandemic requires a whole community approach. I simply sharing with readers the kind of activities pastors are engaging in at the moment. While pastors are very much conscious of their responsibilities, we are also thankful for and reliant upon the Chief Shepherd. We will make mistakes. We will grow tired and grumpy and not handle every situation with grace. There is one Saviour to whom we direct our congregation, and for whom we serve. He is our great joy and it is our great privilege to be engaged in his work at this time.

I’m reminded of what Peter wrote to the elders of the churches in Asia, 

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

Stay at Home

Stay at home. This is the new warning being issued to my suburb.

I’m typing away on a beautiful autumn day here in Melbourne. The sun is out, the sky is blue and the temperature is nudging toward a perfect 25.

Dare I say it, it’s almost beach weather. It would be a stunning day for lazing about at the beach except that my local council has today closed all the beaches in the City of Kingston. I happen to live in a beachside suburb of Melbourne. In fact, both Parkdale and Mentone beaches are within walking distance of my house. Despite the close proximity, I have a small confession to make, I rarely wander down to the sand and water. As a lifelong Melbournian, Melbourne and beach have never quite synchronised, as they do for Sydney. Melbourne should be about food and culture, enjoyed under gloomy skies and drizzly rain, not this pseudo subtropical lifestyle for living in Byron Bay and Bondi.

 

Kingstonbeaches

Speaking of Bondi, last night we discovered that Melbournians are as poor at doing maths as our northerly neighbours in Sydney. Only a day earlier we tut-tutted the masses in Bondi for flouting the new social distancing rules, but then St Kilda beach revealed that we are as stupid.

The warning coming to us beachside homemakers has become, Stay Home. 

The new limitations being brought to bear on our lives are a challenge for many. We don’t like our freedoms being curbed. Like the Law of Moses, we read a prohibition and subconsciously begin to plot how we can break it. 

In Australia, we have lived the dream. We have maximised pleasure and autonomy. Melbourne is regularly voted the most liveable city in the world, and not without good reasons. But what are we discovering? All this is fleeting. The good life is not certain. 

The book of Ecclesiastes should become required reading for this season. We would do well to listen to the wise person and in their pursuit for meaning.

I said to myself, “Come now, I will test you with pleasure to find out what is good.” But that also proved to be meaningless. “Laughter,” I said, “is madness. And what does pleasure accomplish?” I tried cheering myself with wine, and embracing folly—my mind still guiding me with wisdom. I wanted to see what was good for people to do under the heavens during the few days of their lives.

I undertook great projects: I built houses for myself and planted vineyards. I made gardens and parks and planted all kinds of fruit trees in them. I made reservoirs to water groves of flourishing trees. I bought male and female slaves and had other slaves who were born in my house. I also owned more herds and flocks than anyone in Jerusalem before me. I amassed silver and gold for myself, and the treasure of kings and provinces. I acquired male and female singers, and a harem[a] as well—the delights of a man’s heart. I became greater by far than anyone in Jerusalem before me. In all this my wisdom stayed with me.

10 I denied myself nothing my eyes desired;

    I refused my heart no pleasure.

My heart took delight in all my labor,

    and this was the reward for all my toil.

11 Yet when I surveyed all that my hands had done

    and what I had toiled to achieve,

everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind;

    nothing was gained under the sun.”

The COVID-19 crisis will eventually subside and a new normalcy will settle into our lives. We will return to the beaches and to the footy. We’ll once again hang out at the cafe and pub, and splurge on shopping and holidays. These can be good things to enjoy, but will we learn the lessons that are now being forced upon us? How will we understand life’s meaning? Will we return to all the extras and scoff them down in a frenzied attempt to make up for lost time, to will we discern that contentment and happiness can be had without them?

Here is a simple word of advice: don’t waste your stay at home. This forced homestay presents us with an unusual and unique moment. We could, by God’s grace, learn the answers to the biggest and most important of questions.

Accompanying these social closures are some very real dangers; we can anticipate growing social distancing and loneliness. Authorities have good reason to be fearful about increased domestic abuse in our homes. We need to be conscious of these awful realities and to combat them.

Without diminishing the negative, there are also enormous benefits and possibilities to be seized at this time. Here are a few:

  1. We can spend more time with our children
  2. We can rediscover the long lost art of creative thinking
  3. We can reevaluate the big questions of life
  4. We have the time to form healthy spiritual disciplines: regular prayers and Bible reading
  5. We can catch up on sleep
  6. We can develop intentional habits for looking out for friends and neighbours
  7. We can learn how to enjoy and be content with the simple things

How are you planning to maximise your home stay?

Hope during uncertain times

We all need hope during uncertain times.  As a way of giving encouragement and stimulating thought on important topics, I’m starting a youtube channel (and podcast to come). The aim is to upload 1-2 short messages each week.

Feel free to subscribe

MurrayCampbell

You can also subscribe to the podcast on itunes:

https://podcasts.apple.com/au/podcast/murray-campbell/id1504044662

Imagine there is God

Imagine there is no ultimate meaning, purpose or goal toward which our lives are headed.

Imagine there is no overarching design and no inherent significance. 

Imagine if our lives were reduced to the pot luck outcome of billions of years of impersonal atoms and molecules running around hitting and missing, making and destroying.

Imagine a world where the reality of conscience and moral choice has no grounding in a purpose beyond that of group survival in the evolutionary race to the top.

Imagine human affections are ultimately an illusion, a cruel joke orchestrated by the impersonal rules pf physics.

Imagine all the people living for today, for tomorrow is the end.

Welcome to the world offered by John Lennon’s song, Imagine.

A group of celebrities have posted a new version of Imagine. The only reason this is going viral and being watched by millions of people is that these people are celebrities. Otherwise, the at times tone-deaf warbles in the rendition of this average pop song would probably have attracted zero attention. Music criticism aside, the song itself is hardly a suitable anthem for a time like this, or for any time in the world history for that matter.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

In contrast to Lennon’s nihilist proclamation, people want to know that there is hope beyond a crisis and that there is hope when faced with mortality. Times of economic uncertainty can drive people to the kinds of selfish and greedy hoarding of supplies that we have been witnessing. A health crisis can lead to further fragmentation in societies. Indeed, the longer this crisis continues the more likely we are going to witness the breaking of social cohesion. And yet as these economic, social and health pressures tighten, it is all the more necessary for people to hear news of hope.

There is little consolation to a gravely ill person that not only is death imminent, but that it is ultimately meaningless. This atheistic ethic doesn’t do much to help grieving families who have just witnessed a loved one being ripped from their lives.

We want there to be a heaven, a better world with a better life. We want the cessation of sorrow and suffering, but Imagine cannot offer any such promise. 

At the same time, hell is also a necessity, for we do not want to live in a world where evil wins or where injustice prevails. While we should be thankful for our judicial system, it is not full proof and many terrible deeds are never prosecuted. People need to know that in death the wicked do not escape justice. Imagining there is no hell would be a form of hell its self.

John Lennon’s song collapses in on its own irrationality. He imagines ‘living life in peace’, and there being no “greed or hunger”, but such talk demands a form and purpose, but atheism and naturalism cannot provide such a definition. 

The COVID-19 crisis is a voracious reminder of the fragility of life and the uncertainty of building society on credit. Hedonism is vanity. Pushing against greed and social disharmony suggests meaning, but meaning is disqualified in a God absent universe. As Solomon the wise wrote in the book of Ecclesiastes, 

“Meaningless! Meaningless!”

    says the Teacher.

“Utterly meaningless!

    Everything is meaningless.”

Nietzsche was right, at least as far his logic is concerned, that “the masses blink and say ‘We are all equal – Man is but man, before God – we are equal.’ Before God! But now this God has died.” A contemporary of Nietsche, Anatole France retorted without regret,

“It is almost impossible systematically to constitute a natural moral law. Nature has no principles. She furnishes us with no reason to believe that human life is to be respected. Nature, in her indifference, makes no distinction between good and evil.”

What if there is heaven and hell? What if God exists? Everything must change. What we think and say has greater import. How we live and how we treat others has far more consequence. 

What if the God who exists is the God of the Bible: who is Sovereign, and altogether righteous and loving, just and kind? What if Jesus Christ is the perfect image of God, the One who as John testifies, 

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it…14 The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.”

These words are far more sustainable and substantial than the sentiment of living in a world without Divine structure. A Biblical view of the world both assesses its beauty and its horror, the worth and the uncertainty. These Scriptures bring us to the most astonishing words, ones that counter John Lennon’s pipe dream with concrete hope, 

 “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16)

Mentone’s COVID-19 Policy: neither alarmism nor complacency

We have communicated with the Mentone family our policy for COVID-19. Of course, with changing circumstances, the policy may well change over coming days. I’ve posted a copy here for readers as an example of what one church is communicating.

COVID-19

 

Dear Church,

Over the last two Sundays at Church we have explored Jesus’ apocalyptic teaching in Matthew’s Gospel. Our preaching schedule is usually organised months in advance and in God’s providence he has been provided us with a timely word. In light of living in this age, the Lord Jesus cautions us against both alarmism and complacency. We don’t need to resort to panic or irrational behaviour because God is Sovereign and the Lord Jesus remains on the throne. Neither should we be careless or thoughtless.

The certainty of our hope in Jesus Christ gives us great freedom and impulse to love our neighbours. A significant way we can serve one another during this current health crisis is to adopt sensible measures as a church.

Mentone Baptist Church will follow government and health department advice and wish to put forward the following as our policy from today:

1. If you have been in countries now on the travel ban list or have high cases of infection (China, South Korea, Iran, Italy), you are required to quarantine yourself for two weeks before gathering with your brothers and sisters from Mentone Baptist Church. 

We expect this list will expand in the near future. In light of this, we are requesting that anyone who has recently travelled internationally to not attend Sunday services for 2 weeks (upon the date of your return to Australia).

2. If you suspect you have been in contact with any of the community COVIC-19 infections that are being reported in the news, please consult a GP and also self-quarantine.

3. There are also regular colds beginning to circulate among us that aren’t and won’t be COVID-19. We ask that you use commonsense.  If it is not COVID-19 there is no need to quarantine yourself. However please be mindful of others in the church community and minimise the chances of infection by taking care in your personal contact and when we gather.

4. As a policy, we will now be urging our church members not to shake hands or hug (or high-five) with one another. Given the nature of Christian community, this is not easy among brothers and sisters in Christ, but we do so in order to love our neighbour and honour those who are in authority over us.

5. In addition, cover your mouth and nose when coughing and sneezing with a tissue, or cough into your elbow.Dispose of the tissue into a bin and then wash your hands afterwards. 

6. Wash your hands regularly, using soap and water, including after using the toilet, and before eating. Alcohol-based sanitiser (greater than 60 per cent alcohol) is a good back-up if soap and water is not readily accessible.

7. If you are planning not to attend a service, we encourage you to contact us (Mike or myself) and let us know how you are going and if there is anything we can be doing to help.

We are monitoring advice that is being issued from the BUV (Baptist Union of Victoria) and from Government agencies. We will keep you informed if the situation arises where we need cancel public gatherings for a period of time (inc. Sunday services). In the event of cancelling public gatherings, we will inform you of alternative arrangements (ie livestreaming).

We encourage you to look after each other by following these steps. Also, given there is a shortage of some supplies in supermarkets, if you are needing something please ask people in our church family. The church’s private facebook group is an easy way to do this. Let us show generosity toward one another.  Let us check on the elderly in our church and ensure that are ok. Let us pray for each other, and pray for our local community.

Above all, know that the Lord Jesus is sovereign over his people and he tends his flock like a shepherd (Isa. 40). We have his love and peace and security over our lives because nothing can separate us from his love (Rom. 8). So go in peace to love and serve him even in the midst of this crisis. Speak liberally and graciously about the peace Jesus offers to those who are most anxious and worried at this time.