Churches need to be more like the world?

I’ve just read Nikki Gemmell’s latest contribution to The Weekend Australian, “Why the Anglican church must evolve or die”. At first, I assumed this must be satire, for the essence of her argument is that for Churches to succeed they need to become more like majority culture!

“the majority of Australians do support same-sex marriage. It feels like the archbishop is damaging his church and Jesus’s teachings of tolerance, gentleness and inclusivity. “

“The church has been on the wrong side of public opinion recently on abortion as well as same-sex marriage. It’s slowly killing itself by refusing to open its heart to others.”

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Without question, Gemmell’s call to the Anglican Church sounds almost identical to what Jesus says, in a dysutopian Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy kind of way.

“If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first” (John 15:18)

“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.” (John 15:19)

“When he comes, he will prove the world to be in the wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment” (John 16:8)

“What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?” (Mark 8:36)

It’s almost as though Jesus is saying the precise opposite of Nikki Gemmell. Jesus doesn’t think the world is always the best measure for what is good and true. Indeed, it’s pretty obvious that Jesus is telling us that the world’s understanding of life is frequently at odds with God.

The wonderful paradox that is Christianity is that while the world’s beliefs oppose those of God in his word, and while God stands in judgment over a world that subverts his creational purposes, God still loves. “For God so loved the world”. This love is not a sign of moral alignment with our culture, far from it.

“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. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. 18 Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son. 19 This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil”. (John 3:16-19)

To be like Jesus isn’t to support same-sex marriage, abortion,  and a myriad of other popular moral messaging, but it does involve loving those who are different and to desire their good despite vehement disagreement.

Gemmell’s offering is such a silly argument. Only the majority are ever naive enough to believe that majority equals right. Majority opinion or minority opinion doesn’t establish a position as right or wrong, just popular or unpopular. In addition, being in opposition to majority opinion doesn’t make one’s own position any more correct. It could be the case that both groups are advocating stupid ideas. What makes Christian belief, well, Christian, is that it conforms to the Christian Bible, as rightly understood through the lens of Jesus Christ. In the case of Glenn Davies’ recent comments to Anglican Bishops, they may be uncomfortable and even sound intolerant, but Jesus and the Apostles also used pretty strong language toward leaders who attempted to subvert his Church with erring ideas. That’s the point, the Sydney Anglican Archbishop was calling out fellow bishops who have abandoned Christian doctrine in favour of popular culture.

Not only does Gemmell equate Church success with supporting what the majority of Australians believe, but she also makes another blunder by lumping everything she doesn’t like about Churches under the same umbrella of ‘bigotry’.  This is poor theology and it is misleading sociology. For example, the Sydney Anglican Diocese believes strongly in mandatory reporting, whereas the Catholic Church does not support it.  However, the former is an expression of Christian concern that arises from biblical principles, the latter is the result of longstanding tradition but not Biblical principles. Apples and Pineapples may share the same name but they are hardly the same fruit. As an Anglican, Gemmell should know better.

To be sure, Christians sometimes espouse Christianity with a distasteful tone. That is disappointing and dishonours the good news that is our message.

Nikki, Gemmell is correct about one point, and that is when she notes how Australians are confused about Churches and Christianity.

“The public image: a riven and confused church that doesn’t quite know what it stands for but is pushing people away in the process. Not only members of the congregation but non-churchgoing parents with children in Anglican schools.”

Yes, there is confusion. The average Aussie is confused because there are Churches leaders taking her advice and diluting the Christian message with the dominant moral posturing of Aussies. They are confused because there are ‘Christians’ redefining Jesus into their own image in order to support all manner of popular sexual revisionism. The answer, however, isn’t for Churches to give up Biblical Christianity and to adopt more of society’s moral inclinations. We need our Churches to be more biblical, not less. We need our Churches to be more like the Lord Jesus, not less.  For what have we offer Australian society if all we are doing is preaching the society’s values back to itself? Could it not be the case, that Christian Churches are convinced that God’s design for human life is better and more satisfying than some of the alternatives that have currently captured the imagination of pop culture?

To quote one famous Anglican Bishop, who facing the unpopularity of 16th Century England, stood firm and found himself in a public firestorm, “Be of good comfort, and play the man, Master Ridley; we shall this day light such a candle, by God’s grace, in England, as I trust shall never be put out.” 

The major problem with Gemmell’s presentation is that she equates Christian gentleness and tolerance with agreement of current cultural norms. For Gemmell, to be the Church of Jesus Christ is to say yes to what the majority of Australian want in regard to sexuality and abortion. What a puerile thing to say.

Does she not realise from history that Churches who align with the values of majority culture are those most likely to witness decline? While Churches who believe, teach, and practice good old fashioned Christianity are more likely to experience growth. It is a demonstrable fact of history that people have been persuaded by the truth and goodness of Jesus Christ because Churches have stood out as distinct from the surrounding culture.

I’m still not convinced that Nikki Gemmell’s piece isn’t satire. If it is,  I’m just slow to see the humour, then I apologise for my sluggishness; it is Saturday morning after all.