COVID anger, frustration, and recalibrating our hearts

Earlier this week a young woman was refused permission to attend her own father’s funeral in Queensland. The daughter lives in Canberra where there has been zero COVID-19 cases for two months. There are not 5 actives cases or even 1. For 60 days there has been 0 cases. The Queensland Government initially gave the woman permission to travel to Queensland to visit her dying father, but only after she quarantined for 14 days. During that time her father died. When she asked for permission to attend the funeral she was refused, and even informed that she should no longer be in the State? Why? Because her stated reason for travelling to Queensland was to visit a dying parent, it was not for attending his funeral.

The story gets worse because the Prime Minister contacted Queensland’s Premier, Annastacia Palaszczuk, asking for special dispensation for the young woman to attend the funeral with her family. The response was for the Premier to take aim at Scott Morrison in public and in the Queensland Parliament by accusing him of ‘bullying’. She then suggested that the decision was not hers to make but that of Queensland’s Chief health officer Jeanette Young.

Speaking of which, last night, Dr Young explained why Queensland is giving exemptions to some people. She said, “I’ve given exemptions for people in entertainment and film because that’s bringing a lot of money into this state.”

The double standards are pretty gross. I understand that no approach to the pandemic is going to be always clean, clear, and consistent. There are competing issues and needs, but in trying to protect human life we are in danger of dehumanising real people. This is not a zero-sum game. There are genuine and vital competing issues that require attention and balancing. When grieving families cannot be together, when a couple cannot marry, when mental health issues are considered a lesser problem, we as a society are skirting along a dangerous path. I fear that as politicians make decisions, hubris take control and that the science and advise from the breadth of the community takes a back seat.

Take another example from this week. I don’t agree with the Roman Catholic practice of the ‘last rites’ but I know how important it is for Roman Catholics. In Victoria, priests are not permitted to give the last rites to dying parishioners. This is a startling infringement on religious freedom. Governments should not exist to strangle the freedoms of their citizens but to protect and preserve them.*

I am not having a go at any single Government, it is all to easy for people to politicise the pandemic I appreciate that Governments and their advisors are under are extraordinary stress and they are facing daily and often competing issues. This is one of the reasons my church is regularly praying for them. But of what value is it in preserving a State if the very means of salvation requires the demolition of communities? The question is not without warrant, what if the cure is worse than the disease?

It is okay to be angry at the decisions made in Queensland and of their woeful follow up defence about profiting from Hollywood. However, do not sin in your anger. Instead, “mourn with those who mourn” (Rom 12:15). Indeed Romans ch.12 gives the Christian much practical wisdom for dealing with difficult times. I find that when I’m being swept up with the emotion of peoples stories and the news that frustrates and disappoints, I need to turn my eyes back to the Bible. Scripture has this powerful effect of recalibrating the heart and adjusting the lens through which I measure hope and the ways I ought to see people. I encourage you to do the same.

“Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. 10 Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves. 11 Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord. 12 Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. 13 Share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality.

14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. 15 Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. 16 Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited.

17 Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. 18 If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. 19 Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. 20 On the contrary:

“If your enemy is hungry, feed him;
    if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.
In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.”

21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”  (Romans 12:9-21)

We can long for Governments to behave in such a way, but as Christians we must, and we ought to begin living this out without waiting for others to first treat us well. Remember God, he didn’t wait for us to act rightly before showing us grace and compassion; it is because he first loved us.

“You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 6:-8)

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*The Victorian Premier has just announced that he will rectify the issue over performing the last rites in Victoria


A Response to Victoria’s Roadmap

Yesterday was Father’s Day. it was also the day when Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews announced the roadmap to the State’s recovery. 

Instead of enjoying a family lunch and celebrating the usual quirkiness of Dads, many households were attentive to the livestream of the Government’s announcement. 

Some Victorians are pleased with the proposed roadmap. Some Victorians are angry. Many if not the majority of Victorians are frustrated (whether agreeing or disagreeing with the Premier’s roadmap). There are Victorians who are enjoying the opportunities arising from lockdown (ie more time with children, working from home), while many others are struggling to cope with loneliness, anxiety, and economic devastation. 100,000s of Victorians have lost their jobs, 1000s of businesses will close down, and dozens of churches, if not 100s, will not survive.

As of next Sunday it will have been 6 months since our Church has met. Most school children have only had 3 weeks of onsite learning since April, and the Premier admitted yesterday it’s possible that children won’t return this year (apart from Prep-2, and VCE). 

There have been 675 COVID-19 related deaths in Victoria and close to 20,000 cases. The vast majority of these deaths and diagnoses have happened during the second wave. 

What’s next for churches in Victoria?

For Churches, the best case scenario is that groups of 10 will be permitted to meet outdoors from late October. To reach this stage, the entire State must average fewer than 5 new cases/day for a period of 14 days and have a total less than 5 cases with no known source. 

If Victoria has zero new cases for 14 days, from November 23rd  churches can open their doors and recommence services according to the Government’s density quotient.

A return to normalcy then requires 28 days of zero new cases and zero active cases in the entire State, and zero outbreaks of concern in other parts of Australia. 

In short, a medium sized Church like Mentone Baptist is almost certainly not going to meet as a whole until 2021. Based on the Government’s  plan, it may well be Easter before Churches are gathering as usual, even later. 

If this news causes you grief, as I hope it does, then pray for God’s grace and mercy, and observe the best medical advice that is being presented to the public.

Christians (and Victorians generally) are today sifting through the fine print of the Government’s roadmap and we’re also assessing our own thoughts and feelings toward the fair grim announcements that have been made for the State. I want to encourage us to avoid certain pitfalls and to stay on course in a way that honours the God and doesn’t diminish the Gospel.

  1. Don’t be an Eliphaz. 

This first word is largely for those not living in Victoria, but I suspect it’s also true for we Victorians as well. 

During a pandemic there are thousands of armchair experts, who apparently know without question what the right pathway should be. There are plenty of Job’s friends offering their thoughts and proverbial manure on social media. In contrast, I appreciated two Christian brothers from Sydney who instead of posting annoying platitudes about a situation there’re not facing, they called me and asked how am I going, and how are people feeling in Melbourne right now. When I told them, they prayed. I am thankful to God for friends whose names are not Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar.

2. Pray for those in authority.

I don’t care if you voted for Daniel Andrews or not, it is the duty of Christians to pray for our Governments. Ask the God of grace to grant our political leaders and health officers the wisdom they need to do serve the State and make decisions for the good of our society. A Christian may espouse vociferous  political views, but it’s little more than noise pollution if it doesn’t begin with practicing prayer for our Governments. 

3. Follow the Rules

“Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended. For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience.” (Romans 13:1-6)

Must I agree with every rule before I obey the law? Must I understand everything exhaustively before I comply? The answer is a clear no. 

There are genuine issues relating to extending the State of Emergency powers and to banning protests. Any citizen who takes democratic freedoms seriously, should ask questions (I say this while not supporting the current protests in Victoria), but there are constructive ways to do this and unwise (and selfish) ways.

The circumstances in which a Christian disobeys a Government are rare and exceptional, and we have not entered that territory during the pandemic. I have made it abundantly clear that such a scenario may arise in the future here in Victoria (cf the proposed ban on conversion practices), but we have not reached that point, far from it. We must not confuse our political preferences with Gospel convictions. We must not conflate our personal desires with Biblical mandates. 

4. Love and serve your neighbour

Enormous numbers of Victorians are struggling emotionally, mentally, and financially. We shouldn’t assume that Government will or can care for every need. Do you know of someone who could do with a phone call or a meal? Let’s not neglect the people whom God brings into our lives and with whom we have opportunity and the means to assist

5. Avoid false binaries

As a pastor it concerns me when I hear Christians slipping into political lanes and becoming stuck and unable to critique their own preferences and political heroes. By all means have a preference but don’t assign allegiance to political groups with the kind of zeal and commitment that you ought only to have for God. If a Christian is wanting to have a Gospel impact in Victoria right now, stop mimicking Labor or Liberal or Greens. 

It was fascinating (and frustrating) to engage in one Facebook thread yesterday. It was probably unwise of me to comment, but my intention was to help explain not inflame his post. A Facebook friend from interstate was trying to defend the Victorian Premier. He suggested that,

 “The best science we have says movement restrictions are what’s needed in a major outbreak. The government enacts movement restrictions. The science projects a resulting reduction in cases, and that’s precisely what happens. The same science advises a cautious pace for reopening, if further outbreaks are to be avoided. The government designs a process following the science”

Is this true? I suggested to my friend that leaving aside predictable political mudslinging, there is a growing number of medical experts who believe there is a valid and alternative roadmap to the one announced by the Premier. I pointed out that mainstream media have now interviewed several high ranking medical experts in Victoria who are convinced there’s another way. In addition, last week a group of doctors wrote a letter to the Premier, offering a plan to move the State forward. Over 500 doctors have now signed this letter, including several of the most senior doctors in the country. 

All this should be fairly straightforward and uncontroversial. Well, I was wrong!

The logic applied by various respondents on the thread was quite astonishing. At first, I was told that these doctors mustn’t be real doctors or perhaps they are anti science doctors (which is kind of weird!). When I noted  that the 500+ doctors include some of the most respected medical names in Victoria, the next line of attack was to say, “but they’re not epidemiologists”. Apparently, the only doctors who have anything worthwhile to say about a pandemic are epidemiologists. Leaving aside that strange assumption, I then shared an article in The Age where three Professors of epidemiology expressed concerns over the Government’s direction. Not even this wasn’t enough to convince these people that the science isn’t an infallible papal edict. I was then told that the views of these epidemiologists is irrelevant because they are not working for the Government. 

Nowhere did I make a partisan statement, but I was accused of being political. Nowhere did I suggest the Government’s modelling was inaccurate or that the State’s Health Officer’s conclusions were incorrect. I simply noted that there isn’t consensus among the scientific community as to how we should proceed for dealing with the pandemic. For stating these simple facts and demonstrably showing these facts, it was insinuated that I am science denier!  

My point in sharing this example is twofold. First, if as a Christian your political commitments don’t allow you to question or critique your own side, it is a problem (whether it’s right or left or up a gumtree). Second, please avoid false binaries. False binaries add to the ugly polarisation that now dominates our society. It doesn’t lift public conversation and it doesn’t honour the Lord Jesus. In addition, as in the above example, such myopism amounts to burdening science with an absolutism that it cannot sustain.

The Age’s chief reporter Chip Le Grand, said last night, “Daniel Andrews has placed great faith in epidemiological modelling which, by its nature, is an inexact science. He should start placing more in business, industry and others with a significant stake in Victoria’s social and economic revival.”

How can Le Grand say such a thing about the modelling? Le Grand understands what doctors appreciate although it is sometimes politically dangerous for them to admit it in public. In fact Le Grand was repeating the views expressed by Melbourne University epidemiologist Tony Blakely, who co-authored the very modelling that the Andrews Government is using! 

That does not mean that the modelling is faulty or shouldn’t be used, far from it. My point is, don’t attribute truth claims to data and information that even the experts say is unwarranted.

6. Ignore Conspiracy theories

The reality is, COVID-19 is a new disease and the best minds around the globe are still trying to understand how the disease works and how to best treat it and how to guide communities into living with it. None of these uncertainties are reason though for turning to or promoting conspiracy theories. It is worrying to hear Christians espousing conspiracy theories, arguing that COVID-19 is a hoax and so on. Most Christians don’t believe these crazy rumours, but some do. I’ve written at length about conspiracy theories this year, and so I’ll defer to those articles. In summary though, it is sinful for Christians to promote speculations and dangerous theories. 

 “Have nothing to do with godless myths and old wives’ tales; rather, train yourself to be godly”. (1 Timothy 4:6)

“See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the elemental spiritual forces of this world rather than on Christ.” (Colossians 2:8)

7. Put your hope in the Lord

Here is a wonderful that is worth meditating on this week. Psalm 130,

Out of the depths I cry to you, Lord;

    Lord, hear my voice.
Let your ears be attentive
    to my cry for mercy.

If you, Lord, kept a record of sins,
    Lord, who could stand?

But with you there is forgiveness,
    so that we can, with reverence, serve you.

I wait for the Lord, my whole being waits,
    and in his word I put my hope.

I wait for the Lord
    more than watchmen wait for the morning,
    more than watchmen wait for the morning.

Israel, put your hope in the Lord,
    for with the Lord is unfailing love
    and with him is full redemption.

He himself will redeem Israel
    from all their sins.”

This Psalmist’s focus reflects a healthy and Christian response to a pandemic. We lament the suffering we see around us and that we experience. We listen to the authorities and follow their directives, but our hope is found in God and his unfailing love.

Times of crises reveal our heart’s deepest desires and where we ultimately place our trust. Trials test us and they expose our fears, foibles, and sins.

Without question, 2020 is a test. What is life really about? In whom am I truly depending for hope? Am I satisfied with materialism or hedonism, or will I let God be God?

Pandemics rarely change people, rather, they bring our bring our true character to the surface. Let us not be found wanting or wandering during this pandemic. 1 Peter is a letter written to Christians who are experiencing exile. They were away from home and the life they wanted to lead. Peter says to them, 

“In all this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. These have come so that the proven genuineness of your faith—of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire—may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed. Though you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy, for you are receiving the end result of your faith, the salvation of your souls.”

If you get this perspective right, and keep our eyes focused on Christ, it will have the remarkable effect of aiding us to avoid conspiracy theories and false binaries, and to practice humble, loving, and God pleasing lives in Victoria, for the sake of our community.


The Australian newspaper has today published this important article, with interviews of scientists who have been behind the modelling being used by the Victorian Government –

“World-leading scientists linked to the modelling Daniel Andrews has used to lock down Melbourne say the research has been misrepresented and have urged the Premier to rethink the restrictions as his virus ­suppression targets are impossible to meet.

Melbourne University’s dean and head of medicine is urging the Victorian Premier to rerun the model with more ­realistic data that could allow an earlier move to ­restrictions being lifted….”

https://www.theaustralian.com.au/nation/politics/professors-message-for-daniel-andrews-redo-the-coronavirus-modelling/news-story/5cf65533b11cce3ef23f3cfedd247143

The Victorian people need greater clarity from the Government for pandemic objectives

Throughout this pandemic I have encouraged my fellow Victorians to follow government restrictions and the official health advice from the Department of Health and Human Services. Not understanding an issue or not agreeing with a policy is not sufficient reason for ignoring the rules. As a Christian the Bible tells us to honour those in authority and to follow the law, this is something I take seriously. It is also the case that in our system of Government we are able to participate and to ask questions and to be informed about reasons for public policy. 

I can only imagine how difficult this year has been for our decision-makers. This is not only the first pandemic in a century to hit Australia but this disease is new and scientists still know very little about how it works. 

Governments around the world have approached COVID-19 in different ways and these varied approaches don’t always conform to a set pattern or align with success ratios of other countries that are following a similar set of rules and guidelines. This is not a criticism of any single approach but simply noting that when it comes to tackling COVID-19, certainty is elusive and only with hindsight will we really know what was the most sensible strategy.

Many have made the crucial point that in the pandemic there are competing issues and concerns. I agree, it would be derelict of us to focus on just one aspect of the pandemic at the neglect of others.

To repeat, I don’t envy those who have responsibility for making these decisions. One thing I am continually doing (as is my church and many others too) is praying that those in authority will have wisdom and understanding, and choose the best path forward. Indeed, we are doing more than pray, for this is a time to assist our fellow Victorian in all manner of practical ways. 

In my role as a Melbourne church pastor, I listen to people who are struggling and finding life difficult.

I am concerned for the mental health of many Victorians.

I am concerned for school students and their education this year, and for their mental, social, and physical well being.

I am concerned about the economy and 100,000s of Victorians who have lost their jobs. Losing $1 billion per week from the Victorian economy is not about the money, it is about peoples jobs and livelihoods. I am also concerned about the staggering debt we are accumulating which our children and their children will have to pay back one day.

I am concerned for thousands of Victorians who are too afraid to visit their GP or to receive the medical treatments that they require.
Victoria’s State of Emergency powers is set to expire after being in place for 6 months. On Sunday, the Premier announced that he wants a 4 week extension. There is also the State of Disaster powers which were brought into play at the beginning of August and will continue until September 2nd. Such powers are rightly limited in duration because under normal circumstances, it is inappropriate and immoral for the State to limit the rights of citizens to work, travel, and participate in everyday activities.

From my perspective, before any such extensions are given, it is incumbent upon the Victorian Government to explain their objectives and to be clear about the details with the Victorian people. It is not healthy for any Government to keep Victorians in the dark. 

At this stage, Melbourne will remain under Stage 4 until September 13th. We have not been told under what conditions these restrictions be relaxed, nor when we will return to Stage 2, which is the point where most Melbournians can return to work, restaurants opening, and with schools and sport resuming. Under Stage 2, only the smallest of churches can recommence normal services.

It may be the case that the Department of Health and Human Services and the Premier have not decided what numbers are required before loosening the restrictions. It is apparent from various medical doctors who are publicising their views, that there is wide and varied opinion about what the aims should be in fighting COVID-19.  This is unsurprising, given the nature of this disease. When medical doctors and scientists voice their opinions in the public square (which they are entitled to do), it is not always helpful and sometimes it exacerbates public confusion. For example, are they simply expressing their opinion or are they trying to influence government directives? Are we aiming to lower the curve or to reach elimination? Is the aim of the lockdowns to have zero community transmission? Are Governments planning to suppress social freedoms until there is vaccine? 

While many are hopeful that a vaccine will be soon discovered and made available, no one yet has any idea what length of time we’re talking about. The Prime Minister has this week indicated there are positive signs about a vaccine coming from Oxford University, which sounds promising. At the moment estimations for having a vaccine in our hands range from 6 months to 12 and 18 months time. This is assuming that a suitable vaccine is found.

I am not advocating for a Swedish method or for a China style lockdown or anything in between. There are enough arm chair experts in our community without me becoming another annoying one. All I am saying is that we are now 6 months into this pandemic and there is uncertainty in our community about what the objectives are, both for the short term and the longer term. 

The request is simple and it’s important, the Victorian people deserve greater clarity about what the goal is for September 13th, and what the Government’s goals are for each following stages on the path to recovery. This information will not only assist compliance with rules, but also help business, schools, churches, and community groups to begin planning for the future. 

Rest assured, I continue to pray for our Federal and State Governments, and for our Health officials as they tackle this pandemic. 


Since writing this piece I have learned that the Oxford Vaccine “makes use of a cell line cultured from an electively aborted human foetus.” This raises important ethical questions about its use here in Australia. See https://www.eternitynews.com.au/world/covid-vaccine-protest-by-three-archbishops/

Learning to Face Death

“Death lies on her like an untimely frost
Upon the sweetest flower of all the field.”
(Act IV, Scene V, Line 33)

 

Over the past 24 hours, 19 Victorians died as a result of COVID-19. In light of the volume of new cases that we are seeing, many more Victorians will die from this terrible virus over the coming days and weeks. Each and every single one of these people is a life to be mourned.

Victoria averages between 3000-4000 deaths per month, from all kinds of causes. That’s over 300 people dying every day in our State. Each of them is a loss to our community and is cause for grief.

Julie Power, writing for the Sydney Morning Herald (‘Even in a pandemic, most people shun talk about death and dying’, August 11), has highlighted how Australians are “reluctant to think about death or make plans for how they want to go.”

According to a recent survey conducted among 1,100 people in NSW, 70% of Australians prefer to avoid addressing the issue of death.

Power’s suggests that “The deaths of older Australians alone and isolated from friends and families during the pandemic highlights the need to talk about what constitutes a good death.”

I agree, we need to talk. We appreciate that such conversations are difficult at the best of times. Who among us is keen to discuss our final days and to make decisions about funerals? Contemplating death is altogether horrible, even more, when we are considering people we know and love. Death is, to quote the Bible, ‘the last enemy’.

photo-1579255971754-8c6b1385a2b5

Unlike most cultures for much of history, we have managed to sanitise death with our modern medicines, clean white sheets and closed doors. We have successfully delayed death through vast improvements in medicine and technology, with greater standards of livings, by educating people about health, and through legislating thousands of laws guarding public and workplace safety. Despite all this, we cannot account for the unexpected accident, a natural disaster, or the coming of a pandemic. Even when we evade such tragedy, our bodies have been in motion since birth, taking the road of gradual deterioration and decline.

One thing this pandemic has proven is how much we wish to rage against the dying light, to fight and resist it with all our might. Death is not a friend, it is an enemy to struggle against.

It is one thing to have discussions about dying well, as Julie Power is urging, but it is quite another to die with or without hope. Hope doesn’t evade death, and neither does it remove painful grief, but it makes all the difference in the world.

A young mum whom I knew, died from ovarian cancer on August 1st. She grew up with an atheistic worldview, but when confronted with cancer and receiving a poor prognosis, she began asking questions and searching for hope. Suffering didn’t reinforce her atheism, it led her to seek out God. In learning about the person and work of Jesus Christ, she didn’t feel repulsed or angry at God for her cancer, rather her life was transformed by the beauty and warmth of Jesus. This wasn’t Christianity offering her a placebo in the face of death, but her becoming convinced about the reality, goodness, and certainty of the Christian Gospel.

“he will swallow up death forever.

The Sovereign Lord will wipe away the tears

    from all faces;” (Isaiah 25:8)

There is never a good time to talk about death. Conversations about funeral arrangements and taking care of those who remain behind are important. These are difficult discussions we need to have with close family members; not because death is imminent for most of us, but because we do not know when the hour will come.

As a Pastor of a Church, it is my great privilege to spend time with people who are facing their final days on the earth and to sit with grieving families in their homes and to stand with them at the graveside. The question of hope is rarely left alone as people grapple with the reality of the grave.

On one occasion Jesus arrived at the home of his friend Lazarus, who had died some four days earlier. Visiting the tomb of his friend, we read what is the shortest sentence in the entire Bible,  “Jesus wept”. Mingled with grief, Jesus also spoke confidently of hope, not only for Lazarus but for all who look to him.

“I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die. Do you believe this?”

Original Sin, COVID-19, and Personal Accountability

Two Christian doctrines of humanity that often create controversy are original sin and total depravity. I understand, these concepts cause us discomfort because of what they suggest about humanity in general, and me personally. However, this Biblical understanding of what went wrong in the world is part of our story and it’s vital if we are to understand ourselves and the world around us today. Indeed, just a doctor needs to diagnosis the illness before treating it successfully, we need a detailed and accurate diagnosis of the human condition.

Interestingly, in this second wave of COVID-19 that is responsible for locking down my city of Melbourne, we are seeing an analogy of these doctrines. The analogy isn’t perfect but nonetheless, I think it is a poignant illustration. I’ll come to this analogy shortly.

 

coronavirus

Photo by CDC on Pexels.com

 

It is worth noting that the phrase, ‘original sin’ has reappeared in our vocabulary over recent months. Original sin is now employed to help explain the current issue of racism in both Australia and in the United States, and to find its connection with historical slavery. There is some warrant for using this category in a sociological and historical manner, but theologically it comes unstuck. Europeans didn’t introduce sin to these shores,  although we have urged it on, being living representations of the Christian doctrine of total depravity.

The Biblical notion of original sin begins in Genesis ch.3 where Adam and Eve doubted the truthfulness and goodness of God’s word by disobeying his clear instruction. The Apostle Paul traces every sinful thought, attitude, word and action back to this cataclysmic moment in the garden.

“Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all people, because all sinned” (Romans 5:12)

One of the resistances to the Biblical idea is the argument of justice. How can I be made responsible for the sin of another? Why should I pay the price for what someone else did thousands of years ago?

Just as the Bible explains sin’s origins in the one act of disobedience, it also explains how every human being chooses this path for themselves. Jesus responded to the Pharisees and teachers of the law in his day who argued for external adherence to religious laws by uncovering the heart of the issue,

“Don’t you see that nothing that enters a person from the outside can defile them? 19 For it doesn’t go into their heart but into their stomach, and then out of the body.” (In saying this, Jesus declared all foods clean.)

20 He went on: “What comes out of a person is what defiles them. 21 For it is from within, out of a person’s heart, that evil thoughts come—sexual immorality, theft, murder, 22 adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. 23 All these evils come from inside and defile a person.” (Mark 18-23)

In other words, we are responsible for our own hearts and the motives and lives that follow.

We may inherit the condition put in motion in Genesis ch.3, but we also embrace them. This doctrine of total depravity isn’t suggesting that we only transgress but that we are inclined to reject God and his righteousness and instead to create and justify our own moral truths, often with disastrous consequences. As God’s image bearers, we carry hints of the glory of God and exquisite glimmers of his purposes. That there is love among us is reflective of the fact that God is love. And yet, this image bearing is broken and we often take pride in this fracturing.

The Apostle Paul concludes his gut wrenching exposition of God’s justification for judging the world by saying,

“There is no one righteous, not even one;

there is no one who understands;

    there is no one who seeks God.

All have turned away…” (Romans 3:10-12)

Let’s now turn to the analogy. It is believed that Melbourne’s second wave of COVID-19 began with a single source, connected with security guards working in hotel quarantine. One transgression has led to thousands of people contracting COVID-19 and a growing number now dying. The analogy that I want to draw your attention to isn’t so much virus but the chain of social disobediences that has ensued.

Every day there are dozens of people caught and fined for breaching the rules of the lockdown. Yesterday one Melbourne woman was arrested by police for flaunting the rules and posting her defiance on social media in front of police. Others, echoing that ancient serpent, “did God really say,” have insisted that they don’t need to follow the restrictions because they think the pandemic is a hoax.

The single actions of hotel security guards has led to the situation where we are in a serious medical and social situation. Can the Bunnings Karens blame these guards for their own actions? Should those refusing to wear masks or continuing to gather illegally in groups defer responsibility to those guards? Despite those original actions that has produced the crises in which we find ourselves, is not every Victorian responsible for their own actions? Of course.

The analogy does break down at this point: many Victorians (most) are complying with the restrictions, whereas the Bible explains how every person is sinful and breaks God’s intention for us, by nature and by choice. As I said at the beginning, the illustration isn’t perfect, but it shows how one action produces an environment where others do what is wrong. The former created the situation but the latter cannot use this as a defence for their own actions.

It is also true that while we are responsible for our own sins, we can also be victims of other peoples wilful and selfish behaviour. This is evident for everyone to see in this pandemic. Thousands of Victorians are now ill because some decided that following rules didn’t apply to them. Even yesterday, as police and ADF members visited the homes of Melbournians who’ve been diagnosed with COVID-19, some of these people couldn’t be found because they had decided to return to work.

We may disagree with original sin, but the world around us and even our own lives bear testimony to it.

There is, of course, good news. The problem of sin has an answer, but it’s not found from within but from an outside source. The God who responded to original sin by cursing creation also offered his own life as an atoning sacrifice for our sins,

Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: “Cursed is everyone who is hung on a pole.” “(Galatians 3:13)

“For just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous”. (Romans 5:19)

Giving Jesus a bad name

“There is a time to be silent and a time to speak”

 

It’s hard enough persuading Aussies about the wonder, truth and goodness of Jesus Christ without Christians mucking it up. We can have a hundred churches faithfully and lovingly speaking and living out His Gospel, but the foolishness of a few can quickly undo much good.

Let me begin by reminding ourselves, Jesus wasn’t exactly a popular guy in the first century AD. Crowds were drawn to him because of his memorable speeches and because of his miraculous deeds, but scarcely did they love him. In fact, the culture’s leaders conspired to have Jesus arrested, put him on trial in a kangaroo court and then killed in the most gruesome and public manner ever invented by humanity. As they did this, the crowds cheered on Jesus’ crucifixion.

Down the centuries and in every culture that has had contact with Christianity, Jesus Christ has been controversial. To many, he has been recognised as the Son of God, the resurrected Lord, and the only Saviour of the world. Through faith, this Jesus has destroyed great evil, removed personal sin and guilt, and has gifted new lives, new communities, and transformed cultures in ways that we continue to benefit from today. Much of what we have today is the result of this Jesus who changes beliefs, attitudes, and lives.

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Jesus Christ remains a controversial figure in the world of 2020. Many people allege a liking for Jesus…until they read and understand things like the cross, God’s justice, and his claims of Lordship. In other words, a Jesus that we mould into our own image is likeable. This kind of Jesus is given special mention in our ripostes against organised religion and in our sermons that espouse the latest moral dictums.

But as Jesus himself said,

“If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first. 19 If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you. 20 Remember what I told you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also. If they obeyed my teaching, they will obey yours also. 21 They will treat you this way because of my name, for they do not know the one who sent me. 22 If I had not come and spoken to them, they would not be guilty of sin; but now they have no excuse for their sin. 23 Whoever hates me hates my Father as well. 24 If I had not done among them the works no one else did, they would not be guilty of sin. As it is, they have seen, and yet they have hated both me and my Father. 25 But this is to fulfill what is written in their Law: ‘They hated me without reason.’ (John 17:18-25)

People will often accept a God who conforms to their own heart’s desires, but without Divine grace, they will find the God and Father of Jesus Christ repellent. As Jesus explains the world’s response to him, he includes a word for those who follow him; the world will hate them.

This idea of societal suspicion and even rejection of Christianity and Christian people is one of the regular reminders in the New Testament. Christians shouldn’t be surprised when there is backlash for believing the Gospel and for affirming God’s ways as good and true. This reaction is quite normal.

However, not all opposition to Churches and Christians is because of the Gospel or because we are doing what is right. Sometimes Christians are called out publicly because we are acting in foolish ways and even sinful ways. It can be difficult to always distinguish between foolishness and sin, partly because we are not privy to peoples’ hearts. Actions and words are however powerful communicators, and they can usually adorn the Gospel or confuse the Gospel.

Like in every crisis, the COVID-19 pandemic is not only witnessing the best and worst of humanity, but we are also seeing the best and the not so good of Christians.

Take, for example, Grace Community Church in California. Thousands of Christians from all over the world look up to this church and to their Senior Pastor, John MacArthur. His many decades of ministry has been a source of encouragment for significant numbers of Christian men and women, including here in Australia. Last week, the Elders of Grace Community Church decided to defy local Government orders and return to their normal Sunday services.

Before casting stones it is important to read the statement by the Elders at Grace Community, and also to read this response published on 9Marks.org by Jonathan Leeman. I concur with Leeman’s reflections, which in summary includes a general agreement with the theological convictions of Grace Community but disagreement over how they have applied these beliefs. For example, Lehman suggests,

“I personally wonder if defying government orders for the sake of a pandemic is the most judicious opportunity to exercise those muscles.” 

There are serious threats to religious freedom in our societies. With an increasingly secularised and polarised culture, there are reasons for believing life will become more difficult for Christians exercising their belief and practices. Is this pandemic really one of those issues?

Leeman again,

“Right now, the guidelines restricting churches also restricts restaurants, movie theaters, museum, gyms, funeral homes, non-essential offices, shopping malls, barbershops, and more. As those restaurant and gym owners cast a glance over at our churches, will our refusal to abide by the same restrictions which are causing them financial distress help the witness of the gospel, especially if we could find other ways to comply, such as meeting outdoors?”

Leeman also suggested,

“What’s implied in MacArthur’s statement is that his elders don’t believe there is a real threat with Covid-19.”

This is correct. Indeed photographs of their ‘triumphal’ return to Church last Sunday reinforces this message that COVID-19 is not the serious disease medical experts and Government authorities are communicating. Whether this was intended or not, this was the effect.

Was it necessary for Grace Community Church to recommence their services at this time? Does their decision show love to their neighbours?

Let’s take an example closer to home. A Christian school in Melbourne has today made the news for what was a stupid and unnecessary reason: they are demanding students to only wear face masks that match their school uniform and school colours. I think SBS is throwing a cheap shot at the school; this is hardly worthy of national news, and yet it now is.  A Christian school has made a needless decision that adds to the pointless growing number of examples of Christians making an unnecessary stand.

In addition, throughout the different stage of lockdown, there have been examples of churches flaunting the rules. The number of cases is tiny, but we already know that the media love to name and shame a Church when possible. Why give them a reason?

More serious are Christians who repeat and give oxygen to conspiracy theories surrounding COVID-19. Stop it, repent, and stop taking the Lord’ name in vain. The pandemic is difficult enough with medical experts trying to understand the nature of this terrible virus and how to best combat it, without armchair experts encouraging rumours, gossip, slander, and other sinful speech. I understand how some Government messaging is confusing and how medical opinion has at times conflicted. I appreciate that these serious restrictions are uncomfortable and difficult. But as a Christian, I am to honour and obey those in authority, even when I disagree with them. I am to love my neighbours, and I am not to create stumbling blocks for people. Aussies are already resistant to the Gospel of Christ without me building extra walls blocking out the beauty and glory of God that shines in the face of Christ.

Some of the examples I’ve cited above are not necessarily Christian behaving sinfully, but they are unwise. They may not represent many Christians but it does mirror far too many.

In this year of grave uncertainty and instability, of growing anxiety and fear, we as Christians have the greatest message of hope to offer our neighbours. Let it not get lost in the midst of needless biases, prejudices, and preferences.

As the Apostle said to the Colossians, “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.”

Australians don’t need to hear every thought and every theory that is gurgling around in our stomachs. They don’t need us to insist upon every tertiary preference. They need us to be wise, full of grace and adding salt (which is the Gospel not our speculative thoughts on immunology).

 


Here is an interview on Fox news with John MacArthur explaining their decision

A Season for Conspiracy Theories: 1 Timothy 4

Conspiracy theories are to truth and life what arsonists are to a hot and dry summer in Australia.

Back in May I wrote a piece about the dangers of conspiracy theories and why it is the duty of Christians to not only avoid them, but also to refute them. At the time I was preaching through Colossians (and we still are!), and we made note of the warnings given by God about entertaining myths. As Colossians highlights, in the church “such things promote controversial speculations rather than advancing God’s work”.

At the time I tweeted what should have been a fairly innocuous statement, “In light of the growing proliferation of nutty conspiracy theories, I’m pleased that we’re currently studying Colossians at Church. Colossians presents a clear repudiation of gnosis. Christians are to be people of reason not speculation, love not fear.”

I was wrong; this was a highly controversial thing to say. 

In particular, I addressed the growing issue of QAnon, which is a political conspiracy theory nest that has recently morphed into a pseudo-christian and cult like religion. In the United States the FBI now consider some QAnon members a domestic terrorist threat. 

You can find the original article here (with links to several important investigative pieces from the Atlantic and the ABC).

Photo by Anna Shvets on Pexels.com

In the last few weeks I’ve had a number of conversations with people in the community who are hearing more of these conspiracy theories. For example, one friend today copied a text message that is being sent to people. The message claims that you have been in contact with someone who has COVID-19 and you must no self isolate. This scam is signed by “COVID-19anon”.

Such messages are foolish, needless, and potentially life threatening.

Other friends are sharing stories of peoples who are convinced that COVID-19 is a hoax orchestrated by the Government. It is interesting to note that those who are thinking this way also tend to believe in other conspiracy theories as well. 

The alternative position to conspiracy theories isn’t to lock your brain away in the freezer and glibly accept everything Governments say as gospel truth. Most of us understand that our political leaders are fallible and that they sometimes massage truth for the sake of political point scoring. There is however a massive gap between grasping political biases and believing in Government led hoaxes. 

Over the weekend, one of the Pastors at Mentone led a group discussion on 1 Timothy ch.4. While unintended, the words couldn’t come at a more pertinent time. 

1 Timothy 4:6 says, “Have nothing to do with godless myths and old wives’ tales; rather, train yourself to be godly”. This chapter of Scripture is helpful for Christians in guarding themselves against conspiracy theories. Here are 7 salient points: 

  1. Paul assumes such ideas will appear and grab hold of peoples imaginations.

2. Paul assumes some of these theories will filter into churches.

3. Paul believes these myths have demonic origins; they are not from God.

4. In verses 3-4 he gives examples, which refer to teachings that deny creational order and good.

“They forbid people to marry and order them to abstain from certain foods, which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and who know the truth.For everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving,”

5. Paul tells Timothy that he has a responsibility to publicly repudiate these matters (vv. 6;11).

6. These ‘godless myths’ compete with and contradict the “truths of the faith” upon which Christians ought to be ‘nourished’ and “follow”. 

7. Whereas what is true and good produces godliness and life, these speculations drive a wedge into ones faith in Christ and are destructive in all kinds ways.

In addition (as I pointed out in my previous article on the issue), conspiracy theories often lead to gossiping, slandering, and to divisive behaviour. All such behaviour is sinful and contrary to how Christians are to speak and act. One of the sad ironies is that when someone leaves a church because they believe COVID-19 is a hoax, they are in fact proving Paul’s point in 1 Timothy 4 and Colossians 3. 

The sad reality is, it is very difficult to persuade people who believe conspiracy theories that they are mistaken. Conspiracy theories succeed because they play into pre-existing assumptions, and they justify irrational political and religious beliefs. Conspiracy theories don’t depend on evidence but on capturing those seeds of doubt or inquisitiveness that otherwise may lay dormant in the consciousness. Conspiracy theories can be refuted with reasoned argument and with actual experts but this unlikely to convince the skeptics. 

I understand that people have some warrant for being suspicious of media and of politicians; many (not all) are prone to exaggeration, fear mongering, and sometimes they espouse straight out falsehoods. In treating truth this way, they encourage doubters and feed the skepticism that may have otherwise lay dormant among the population. And yet, throwing babies out with the bathwater is a really dangerous way to live.

Last week Andrew MacDonald (who is the associate director of the Wheaton College Billy Graham Center Institute), made this important statement about Christians and the media, 

“Having acknowledged the failures in journalism, it is critical that Christians resist the temptation to reject mainstream reporting altogether. This is a critical mistake that leads us down the pathway to isolation whereby we invalidate any news article we find unfavorable.

Moreover, there are good journalists in major outlets, even religion journalists who strive to understand and report on evangelicalism in all fairness. At times, this leads them to our failures, but in other cases they want to detail the nuance and complexity within the movement. I might not always agree with them, but I respect their integrity and desire to report honestly.

This all-or-nothing mentality also suggests a poor understanding of Christian engagement. Our goal should be a maturity to engage the new reporting of our time with a critical eye rather than to shout bias upon seeing the outlet logo. We need to read critically across a wide range, accepting hard truths that are well supported rather than if they support our political or cultural narrative. We need to resist our temptations to echo chambers; a temptation that is common to many other subcultures across the globe.”

This crazy year has another 5½ months to go. When there are crucial issues facing society, conspiracy theories are not far behind intruding with their secret knowledge and special insights. Handling the real issues is difficult enough for most of us without having also to put out these needless spot-fires. 

Ed Stetzer is right when he says to Christians, 

“Long story short, you’re ultimately bringing harm to yourself and your community. You may make yourself feel like you’re making a difference when you are not.

Most importantly, we damage our witness and that of your church when you focus on unproven theories and speculation more than the good news we’ve been commanded by our Lord to proclaim.”

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/