The Pruning of Australian Christianity

Does God sometimes allow non-Christians to do the work Churches should be doing themselves?

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

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

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

Jesus says,

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

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

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

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

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

With the redefinition of marriage, only the most naive maintained that nothing would change; after all, the entire point of altering the marriage act was to create further societal change. The flow on effects has not been a flood, but it is a regular trickle and one that is far from finishing. Whether the bathroom tap is dripping slowly or water is pouring out of the faucet, the end result is the same, the sink fills up and floods the room.

Australian laws have and are changing, and the cultural narrative has is shifting faster than the writing of a cheap romance novel. Dozens of Australians have already faced the prospect of losing their jobs or businesses because of their religious convictions on marriage. Now it is religious schools who are being targeted. Indeed without carefully considered legislation,  the only religious schools that will remain in 10 years are those who have given up their convictions and fully subscribed to the religion of secular humanism. Hardline secularists will not be content to leave the agenda in the political arena or in schools. Next stop is the family home and after that, the local church. For example, if the Australian Labor Party platform becomes law, parents may face losing their children if they do not actively support a child who wishes to change their gender. Australians may soon be compelled to ignore biological fact and instead identify people according to their own chosen gender, and face anti-discrimination tribunals and prosecution should they decline to do so. And while Churches have some protections, it is delusional to conclude that teaching a Christian view of marriage will remain unchallenged by secular authorities.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 


This is an updated piece from Sept 2018

Religious Freedom and Civil Speech: the insane, the fair, and the good

Narrative is important. In 2018, the winning argument doesn’t rely on facts and accurate information but depends upon telling a story which will garner the outrage of one’s constituents. Anger is power. Anger is persuasion. Truth-telling has become optional; useful when it supports one’s thesis, and redundant when it does not.

In this current age of rage and rhetorical bashing (which both progressives and conservatives are utilising), alternative narratives are often not presented with accuracy and fairness. It is proving increasingly difficult, and at times, near impossible to engage in civil discourse, because the climate is reaching temperature levels that resist reasoned and gentle speech.

The test case was the now infamous 2017 conversation promoted by the Bible Society and featuring Tim Wilson and Andrew Hastie. The point of the exercise was to demonstrate that it is possible to conduct a civil conversation over a beer while disagreeing on same-sex marriage.  Apparently, the very notion that Australians could enjoy polite disagreement on SSM was too much, as beer drinkers all over the nation raged and smashed bottles of Coopers’ Beer in protest. Coopers’ was threatened with boycotts to the point that they were forced to recant and join those waving rainbow flags (despite the fact that they were never sponsoring the video in the first place). Sadly, this response is now normal in Australia today.

One month ago, most journalists in the country were saying very little about the Ruddock inquiry into religious freedom…until a Christian became Prime Minister. Since then there has been an almost absurd flurry of attention given to this review in which the Government is still yet to release its decisions. Don’t get me wrong, there is a legitimate story here as to why the Government has been so slow in releasing its findings from the Ruddock review, but instead of waiting to find out what the Government’s position will be, media outlets began hypothesising and arguing points based on speculation, and when a summary of the Ruddock report was leaked to the media, everyone went nuts.

In the first few days, Fairfax published no fewer than 19 articles, in which they argued that the Government was taking steps to give religious schools freedom to expel gay students.

It soon became apparent that this was not a measure that the Government was considering, in fact, this provision already existed and it was introduced by the Labour Government in 2013. More importantly,  Christian schools across the country came out, saying that they were not aware of this policy and they certainly did not support or practice it. Eternity newspaper made inquiries around the nation and found the whopping sum total of schools who were expelling gay students to be zero. The other day I asked a teacher who works at a Christian school in Melbourne and they were stunned that the media would argue that this was a practice inside Christian schools.

In other words, the whole story was a beat up. But it hasn’t stopped anti-Christian hysteria, with numerous social commentators and now members of Parliament attacking this dangerous practice that doesn’t exist.

ABCs Media Watch presented an excellent summary of this sloppy journalism.

To be fair, since publishing the first 19 articles, Fairfax has now allowed two pieces which finally offer an alternate perspective. Both articles are indeed excellent and worth reading.

Come this morning, I wake up and the top of my Twitter feed is sprucing another article, with this title, “Sydney Anglicans set to ban gay weddings and pro-LGBTI advocacy on church property

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The problem with this piece is that it is neither new news nor is it news at all. The Sydney Anglican Diocese, like other Anglican Dioceses around Australia, already have a position on marriage and their clergy and property is already constrained to practice weddings that conform to their definition of marriage. I realise that journalists are under growing pressure to write articles that are provocative and opinionated because such writing can increase audience reach and circulation, but this does not cultivate better public conversation. 

Deep into the article, after readers have already been won over to once again tut tut these  incredulous Christians, Michael Koziol, adds this important detail, one which in fact completely debunks that click-bait headline,

“Bishop of South Sydney Michael Stead, the senior clergyman who authored the proposal, told Fairfax Media that the use of church property had “always been governed by various regulations” and the new policy merely sought to consolidate those into a single document.

“The new policy doesn’t represent a change in our position and I wouldn’t expect it to have an effect on any activities currently occurring on church trust property,” he said.

“Because the federal government has changed its definition of marriage, the policy makes clear the church’s doctrine of marriage has not changed and that property use scenarios relate only to man/woman marriage.”

Is it so shocking that a Christian denomination should reaffirm their already stated beliefs? Is it so outrageous that Christians should practice what they preach? How dare Christians believe what Christians have always believed and practiced!

There is literally no point in publishing this article on the Anglican Synod, other than trying to add weight to the narrative that’s being spun, namely that conservative Christians in general, and especially Sydney Anglicans, are awful people who are intolerant, and who are fighting a rearguard action against the inevitable tide of sexual and moral progressiveness. Just so readers come away believing that Sydney Anglicans are really out of step, Koziol finds a few quotes to suggest that most Christians (certainly Anglicans) don’t support this out of touch view of marriage. Readers are told that Sydney Anglicans are just playing power games of ‘privilege’.

There you have it; it doesn’t matter what’s true or not, just insert one of those key intersectionality words, like ‘privilege’, and the story is complete; Sydney Anglicans are bad!

I’m reminded of a conversation that I had with a Fairfax journalist not so long ago. They shared with me how most journalists have little understanding of religion, in general, let alone comprehending Christianity. Of course, sometimes Christians add to the confusion by doing and saying things that are not true of Christianity. This kind if misinformation happened in the time of the New Testament Church. Take, for example, Alexander the metalworker whom Paul mentions as having “done him a great deal of harm”.

There are many fine journalists around Australia, some are Christians, many are not. I wonder though, how can we reach out to journalists and help educate them as to what it is Christians do and don’t believe?

Regardless of what one’s personal suppositions and moral inclinations are, Australian society needs to find ways to reduce the dangerous and at times disingenuous reporting and commentary that is taking over the public square. It would be great if our politicians would show the way, and societal conversations would certainly be strengthened if media outlets stepped away from speculative and sensationalised reporting.

Regardless of how others decide to debate ethical and political issues, Christians must follow the guidelines that are set out by the very Scriptures which our society deems as foolish and immoral.

Early this week I was reminded of this timely words written to Timothy by his friend and mentor, Paul,

 Don’t have anything to do with foolish and stupid arguments, because you know they produce quarrels.  And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful.  Opponents must be gently instructed, in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth,  and that they will come to their senses and escape from the trap of the devil, who has taken them captive to do his will.” (2 Timothy 2:22-26)

That’s not a bad place for us to begin.

Cricket and Fair Play

Cricket Australia is in the Australian news once again. This time, the issue isn’t sandpaper and ball tampering, but abortion.

Cricket Australia employee, Angela Williamson, had her position terminated following comments she made on twitter in relation to abortion laws in Tasmania.

Williamson had criticised the Tasmanian Government over its restrictive abortion laws, which resulted in her flying to Melbourne in order to have her child aborted. In her frustration, she tweeted,

“Most irresponsible, gutless & reckless delivery in early ever #politas”

Cricket Australia released a statement, saying it “respects an individual’s right to their opinion”…and it also “expects that employees will refrain from making offensive comments that contravene the organisation’s policies.”

Do I think Angela Williamson’s views are gross and immoral? Absolutely. Let’s stop hiding the reality of what we’re talking about behind clinical words like ‘abortion’ and ‘medical procedure’, and behind power words such as ‘women’s rights’. No matter how you look at it, this is about killing children, taking away their right to live.

Despite me strongly disagreeing with Angela Williamson’s views on abortion, should this have been a sackable offense?

Like others, I struggle to understand how an employee of a ‘secular’ organisation can lose their job for making a political comment of this nature. Perhaps there is a clause in her employment agreement which she has clearly broken (apparently this was the second occasion), perhaps the issues are more complex than Williamson and the media are presenting, I don’t know.

Let’s assume that the issue is no deeper than what the media has presented. If this is the situation, and it appears to be so, then I agree with those voicing concerns over Williamson’s dismissal; not because I like what she said, but because in a civil society, citizens have a right to voice opinions about social and political issues. How can public policy ever be resilient if commentary and opinions are squashed? In the case where the integrity of the organisation is put into question as a result of an employee’s public comments, it is understandable that a disciplinary process would be undertaken, but it’s hard to see how this could be the case here.

What’s been most interesting to watch over the last 48 hours, is the level of protest being voiced in the media and by various social commentators. Oh, the irony!

John Birmingham of The Age wrote,

“CA demonstrably does not respect anybody’s right to voice any opinion that might make things a little awkward in the members pavilion the next time some freeloading politician is there hoovering up the triangle sandwiches and complimentary fairy cakes.

And it can expect whatever it wants, but it has no legal authority to decide what makes a comment offensive, and it has never even tried to explain how Williamson contravened any written policy of her employer. Mouthing the words after the fact doesn’t make it so.”

And on last night’s The Drum, Dr Kerryn Phelps said,

“I’m concerned about this case. What extent is there a crossover between peoples’ personal views on social media, and their employment? Can you be gagged in your job for something that you feel very strongly about personally?”

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Only a few months earlier, Dr Phelps said of Israel Folau,

“People are entitled to their views, but not everyone is entitled to express their views if they’re hurtful to a group of people and you’re a celebrity.”

There is more spin here than Warnie on his best day. This isn’t about fairness and consistency, but a team of socially left ideologues complaining when the umpire’s decision doesn’t go their way. As it happens, I agree with their appeal for ‘not out’, but let’s not pretend that the current outrage is about defending peoples’ “right to voice any opinion”. This is about defending those views that conform to the narrative being created by social progressives, and it’s about denouncing voices who dare raise a different story.

If we are to take them seriously, where are their voices speaking up for religious Australians who are being bullied into silence forever daring question the morality of same-sex marriage? How many of these social progressives stood on the field to defend Israel Folau? Where were the Fairfax and ABC opinion pieces jumping to the aid of Julian Porteous who did nothing more than publish a gracious word to Catholics about the Catholic view of marriage? How many of our journos,  political progressives, and gender revisionist advocates drank a Coopers Beer in protest against the vile reaction to Tim Wilson and Andrew Hastie? The two men sat down over a Coopers beer and enjoyed a civil conversation about marriage. Within minutes pubs across the nation were boycotting Coopers, and tirades of abuse hit social media. So incensed were non-beer drinkers and craft-beer drinkers across the nation, that they bought bottles of Coopers beer only to smash them in alleys across the nation until Cooper’s management joined the fight for same-sex marriage. The implications are clear: There is public backlash and even financial loss for those who will not openly affirm the current and popular philosophic views of sexuality.

The Federal Government is expected to shortly release their report, following the Ruddock review on Religious Freedom. Religious groups are not asking to change the rules of society, but rather, to hold onto the freedoms that have been, until recently, assumed and enjoyed by all Australians.

Sadly, cricket in Australia today is no longer about how you play the game, it’s become about ‘winning at all cost’. And no, I’m not talking about the sport. With groups like Amnesty International calling for faith-based organisations to lose their funding, should they not sign up to the new sexual ethic, and with the public square demanding total allegiance, it is reasonable for Christians and Australians of other faiths to expect unfair dismissals.

It is important to note that there are Christians defending Angela Williamson, despite disagreeing with her opinions. Michael Kellahan (Executive Director of Freedom for Faith), said, “Cricket Australia – you no more own Angela Williamson’s conscience than Rugby Australia owns Izzy Folau’s soul. Big mistake to sack her.” Unfortunately though, the same cannot be said of a growing number of institutions and public commentators who have little interest in keeping to the same standard for other Australians. Many Australians are losing confidence that our society is willing to play fairly and consistently, and until we see a change in the rhetoric and public views of many authoritarian secularists, these doubts will remain.

 

Baptists believe in Freedom of Association

Until Friday, I had never heard of Logan Robertson or Pillar Baptist Church in Queensland. Today, all Australia knows his name.

Logan Robertson and two other men have been charged with public nuisance offences following events that took place during the week at two Brisbane mosques. The incidents were ugly, offensive, and without warrant.

Mr Robertson is a New Zealand national who has already gained notoriety in his homeland for extreme religious views, including being subject to a police investigation regarding his public conduct. Prior to entering Australia a year ago, Robertson was cautioned about his behavior. Tonight he is in custody and will be shortly deported back to New Zealand.

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To begin with, along with Christians across the country, I wish to apologise to our Muslim Australians who were subjected to Robertson’s unruly conduct. People of any religion should be permitted to worship in freedom and without threat. We have seen other nasty incidents in recent months, usually with Christian churches and groups being targeted. On this occasion though,  the perpetrators were a group who purport to be Christian. We do not want Westboro or Münster type religious fanatics interfering with peoples religious freedoms, regardless of what their religion may be.

It is understandable that this story has made headline news across the country; this is a time when religious freedom is a topic of national conversation and we await the Government’s report on the Ruddock review. In the middle of these discussions, here is a ‘Christian’ minister intruding on a Muslim time of prayer and intimidating worshippers, including teenage boys.

Why does this matter? There are two issues here. First, there is the criminal charges and social ills that Robertson and others have allegedly engaged in. We should not intimidate other Australians by entering their worship spaces and interrupting religious services. Second, it is important to address this story, because just like the fake gynaecologist who was caught out and imprisoned in Melbourne this past week, a fake Baptist should also be called out because of the dangers in misrepresenting what Baptists, and Christians in general, believe.

While Logan Robertson self-identifies as a Baptist, as the media have rightly stated, he and his church have no affiliation with the Queensland Baptist Union and the Baptist Union of Australia. Indeed, there is little about Pillar Baptist Church that can be called Baptist.

As with all Christians, Baptist beliefs and practices are shaped by the Bible. What Christian Churches share in common is far greater than any differences. For example, while Baptists don’t baptise infants as do Anglicans and Presbyterians, and our church governance differs, otherwise,  we share the same beliefs that have been taught and lived out for 2000 years.

I have read the Doctrinal Statement of Pillar Baptist Church, and it does not resemble any Baptist confession that I have ever read before, and it includes some very strange ideas indeed.

Most Baptist Churches in Australia belong to the Baptist Union of Australia, and so they are in formal association with one another. There are also independent Baptist churches, and these vary in their beliefs and practices. Independence does not alone denote what a church is like, but as with every church (including those belonging to a traditional denomination), we ought to examine their doctrine and life closely. At the very least, when a Church states that it “reject[s] the teaching of the universal church” and does not associate with other Christian groups, that ought to raise serious questions.

Not only does Robertson’s Church have a doctrinal statement that doesn’t fit with historic Baptist faith, and not only are they unrelated to any formal Baptist association, it is clear that Logan Robertson has abrogated two important Baptist principles, namely that of freedom of conscience and freedom of association. While these principles are not owned by Baptists, they are closely aligned with Baptist thinking through the Centuries. Freedom of thought and freedom of association found clear expression among Baptists in the 17th Century, at a time when religious freedom didn’t exist but was often controlled by the crown, by Parliament, and by establishment churches. Baptists were often oppressed and even imprisoned for holding these beliefs. The author of Pilgrim’s Progress, John Bunyan, was twice imprisoned because he believed in and practiced freedom of religious association.

These two principles are not saying that Baptists agree with other religions or that we think that these religions are intellectually coherent, spiritually healthy, and morally good. Baptists are not theological and moral relativists. It does, however, mean that we believe Christianity is accepted through persuasion not by coercion, by gracious explanation and not by galling intimidation. Freedom of belief is not about privileging  one religious group over another, but positively guaranteeing that all Australians can speak and live their beliefs without harassment. Neither the State nor individuals in the community should resort to browbeating in order to change another person’s mind on an issue. We cannot create a healthy society by thuggery, whether it is noisy secularists forcing out Christians from the public square or religious fanatics spitting out their dogma in our faces.

Australia needs honest conversations about the big questions of life. We need these discussions happening in public spaces and in private meetings, and yet sadly, people like Logan Robertson caste a shadow on our optimism, and authoritarian secularists are throwing even darker clouds over the social and religious freedoms that we have long enjoyed in this country.

It is easy to say that Logan Robertson’s behaviour is unAustralian, but I’m not sure if I want to indict my New Zealand friends on this occasion! Robertson’s ideas and behaviour are certainly anti-Baptist, and therefore they have caused confusion over the beauty and goodness of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. When Jesus met people with whom he held profound disagreement, he loved them and he went to a cross to die that they might come to know and enjoy God forever. That is how Australians can tell a Christian, not that we agree with your beliefs, but that we love you and above everything we desire for you to know the Lord Jesus Christ, not to force him upon you, but with grace and fervour, with openness and humility, to explain the reason for the hope with have in Him.

Public Speech: the New Code of Conduct

Last week the national crisis was cricket, this week it’s Rugby. The cricket story concerned 3 members of the national side who were caught cheating; the rugby headlines concern an individual player who has made a statement on instagram about his religious convictions.

I don’t follow Rugby Union; I’ve grown up with AFL, the game Israel Folau once tried to play. However, one doesn’t need to understand the rules of Rugby, to grasp that the rules for public speaking have changed in Australia. Governments are yet to determine what laws and codes of conduct will be written to support the recent amendment to the Marriage Act, but sporting codes and iconic companies are making it clear where they want lines to be drawn.

 

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On his instagram account, Israel Folau responded to a question about “gods plan for gay people” by saying, “Hell…unless they repent of their sins and turn to God”.

First up, did Israel Folau say anything untrue?

Did he suggest anything that is out of sync with the Christian faith? No.

Could he have said it in a better way? I think so. Folau could have said something like, “Homosexual practices are one example of many ways in which we ignore God’s purposes. All of us, including myself, are guilty of living without regard for God and because of that we deserve hell. God  is holy and he also merciful, and that’s why Jesus came and died on the cross. The amazing thing is, by trusting in Jesus we are forgiven and the direction for life changes for the better, and we are promised a future that we don’t deserve but is God’s incredible gift to us.”

Perhaps he could have ignored the questioner who was clearly trying to trigger a response. Sometimes the wise thing to do is to say nothing. However, Israel Folau chose to speak up, and good on him for doing so. I wish he had been more gentle and nuanced with his answer, but his words were not wrong.

Christian beliefs are grounded in the Bible, and the Bible’s message about sexuality is clear and consistent.  As the Bible itself teaches, there is a trajectory within its story line, and so we are meant to read and interpret the Old Testament in light of the New Testament, and to apply meaning through the lens of Jesus Christ. That means there are Bible verses which were spoken for a particular people and time, and no longer directly applicable to us. It also means that parts of the Bible are describing events to us us rather than prescribing specific norms for today. Nonetheless, the Bible’s teaching about human sexuality, including homosexuality and of marriage, retains a moral goodness and integrity from Genesis to Revelation.

Rugby Australia boss Raelene Castle has stated, “Israel’s comment reflects his personal religious beliefs, however it does not represent the view of Rugby Australia or NSW Rugby…We are aligned in our view that rugby is a game for all, regardless of sexuality, race, religion or gender, which is clearly articulated in rugby’s inclusion policy.”

There are two clear problems with Castle’s comments: First, Rugby Australia’s inclusion policy theoretically includes ‘religion’, and yet all the talk is about excluding Folau and his religious convictions, and these are beliefs which are in line with orthodox, historic Christianity and which are believed by thousands of Christian Australian who are playing sport at every level in this country. Second, there is a massive assumption being made here, that is, Folau’s comment is “homophobic”.

The policy states, “There is no place for homophobia or any form of discrimination in our game and our actions and words both on and off the field must reflect this”.

Here lies the problem. It is now taken as fact, certainly by Alan Joyce and others, that affirming the Bible’s view on sexuality is homophobic. If you agree with the Bible, you are a bigot. This is simply untrue. For example, Jesus spoke many words of disagreement to people around him, but was his motivation fear and hatred, or was it love and kindness? Did Jesus insist on calling sin, sin, because he wanted to crush people or because he wanted to save people? Sadly, there are individuals who are hateful toward people in the LGBTI community, and it is awful, and without excuse, and we Christians need to stand with you against any tirade of abuse.

Jesus once said, “the truth will set you free.” He didn’t say, the truth will agree with you, for he goes on to say, “Very truly I tell you, everyone who sins is a slave to sin. Now a slave has no permanent place in the family, but a son belongs to it forever. So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.”

This goes to the very heart of Christianity, which is God who disagrees with us, and yet became incarnate, speaking and living truth, dying and rising from the dead to redeem sinners. This message may not be popular in Australia of 2018, but then again, history shows us that the Gospel has rarely been a social media success, and yet it is too good and too important for silence. There is no other God who is honest with us like Jesus, and there is no one else who loved us to the extent of suffering crucifixion for our eternal joy and good.

It is not homophobic to hold to the Bible’s teaching on sexuality. That’s not to say, people should listen to or accept this message, but calling it hate speech is false. Should Israel Folau be sanctioned for his comment? Is Qantas right to threaten Rugby Australia with their sponsorship?

I don’t agree with Alan Joyce’s views on sexuality, and I don’t like the way he has rebranded QANTAS as a gay pride flag flying company. Have I boycotted Qantas? No, in fact I’m flying with them tomorrow! What we are seeing is a major Australian company pressuring a sport to exclude a player who professes Christian beliefs. I think it would be unwise, but they might. I would ask,  is this the Australia we want to call home?

The Coopers Beer saga of last year served as a watershed (or should that be, beershed?!) moment in Australian social history, indicating that there would be a social and economic cost to anyone who doesn’t subscribe to the new morality. The art of toleration in Australia is being scrubbed out by a vocal priesthood of humanistic secularists who are intent on reframing the Australian identity and conscience. It is not only anti-Christian, it is an anti-freedom movement and is serving to diminish both religious and public non-conformity. Israel Folau is but another inevitable target of what will become many more in months and years to come.

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Late this afternoon at a press conference, RA chief executive Raelene Castle has said,

““This is a difficult issue when you think you are trying to combine religious beliefs, freedom of speech and inclusion, respect and the use of social media,” Castle said.

“We’re proud of the fact that he’s a strong believer and he’s prepared to stand up for what he believes in.

“We’re proud of the fact that he’s a strong believer and he’s prepared to stand up for what he believes in.

“We want athletes in our code who are prepared to do that and that’s really important.

“But at the same time, Rugby Australia’s got a policy and position of inclusion and using social media with respect.

“So that’s where we shared stories, shared ideas and shared positions and both of us recognise that what we want is a situation where we use our social media platforms in a respectful and positive way.”

There are some positives here and it’ll be interesting to see how it unfolds over the next few days, especially as to whether Qantas will turn down their rhetoric. Also interesting is Castle’s recognition of a now existing ‘tension’. Perhaps this is an opportunity for good listeners and reasonable minds to sit down and begin talking about how we can regain the art of disagreement in public discourse.

Why David Marr is wrong about Religious Freedom

Qu’ils mangent de la brioche

David Marr had his very own Marie Antoinette moment yesterday, when he exuded incredible ignorance on the issue of religious toleration in Western society. 

It is of course incumbent upon same sex marriage advocates to tell us that ‘nothing will change’. Admitting otherwise  impacts their chances of seeing the Marriage Act redefined.

David Marr asks the question, “Whatever’s happened to free speech?”

What a great question to ask in light of a string of public outings this year: Coopers Beer and the Bible Society, Rev. Markham Campbell in Tasmania, Dr Steve Chavura of Macquarie University, and others.

None of these people or organisations were acting maliciously toward LGBTI communities. In the case of the Bible Society they were simply modelling a respectful conversation about marriage. Dr Chavura hadn’t said anything publicly about same sex marriage, but being associated with an organisation was reason enough for a kangaroo court.

In addition, following the next Federal election, it will be no longer possible to win preselection in the Australian Labor Party unless you agree to same-sex marriage.

Earlier this year, Federal Shadow Attorney-General, Mark Dreyfus, indicated that Labor is considering expanding section 18C, to include banning speech that same-sex marriage advocates find offensive. According to The Australian editor, Chris Merritt,

“Under Labor’s proposal, advocates of same-sex marriage would be empowered, for example, to take legal action under 18C-style laws if they felt offended or ­insulted by those who publicly ­defended the traditional definition of marriage. Those at risk would include priests, rabbis, imams and other religious leaders who publicly oppose same-sex marriage.”

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While criticising a recent article by journalist Paul Kelly, Marr alleges that,

“He seriously oversimplifies those conflicts but this is not the place to go into detail. Most are examples of citizens, governments and institutions fed up with church gay bashing. Equal marriage was a side issue.”

Marr doesn’t try to prove these ‘oversimplifications’, but immediately turns to the trusted ad homimen, those people must have been gay haters. Really?

Should the Marriage Act change, it automatically places people who affirm classical marriage on the wrong side of the law. It is inevitable that this will lead to all manner of anti-discrimination claims and litigations, maybe not straight away but they will come. How can one publicly teach that marriage is only between a man and a woman when the law says otherwise? How can one refuse their premises for a same-sex wedding? What will happen in our academic and educational institutions for anyone arguing for heterosexual only marriage? And let’s keep in mind, there are already individuals being threatened with legal action and with loss of employment, and the law hasn’t yet changed!

While David Marr would have his readers believe that Christians are only interested in self-preservation, the contrary is in fact true. Christians are concerned about freedoms for other groups. For example, when a local council recently refused the building of a Synagogue in Bondi, Christians leapt to support the local Jewish community.

Marr adds, “Calls for religious freedom are now rolling across the landscape, but they remain strangely vague. We never see a neat list of them.”

That’s not entirely true. Dean Smith’s Bill outlined potential protections. And earlier in the year, a Parliamentary Committee sought submissions in light of the exposure draft legislation from Brandis. Many groups, including the  Aussie think tank, Freedom for Faith, made submissions and these arguments are available for anyone to read.

It is true however that the Government is yet to release details of any potential marriage legislation, and it is imperative for them to do so quickly. How can the Australian public make up their minds when they are unable to read what is being proposed?

I am not arguing for special protections, but am simply making the point that the evidence is already here, and it is already being played out in Canada, the UK, and elsewhere; changing the marriage law will change society and it will impact religious freedoms for millions of Australians.

Having said this, I don’t for a moment want anyone to get the idea that the health of Christianity depends upon the graces of Government or society. On this point I offer partial agreement with David Marr: religious organisations do enjoy certain privileges in society, and we ought not assume them. Having said that, religious organisations have done enormous good for Australian society, such that without them we would be intellectually, socially, morally, economically, and spiritually poorer. And do we want Australia to be the kind of nation that interferes with peoples religious freedoms? History is littered with Governments that have tried to control religion; do we really want to follow their examples?

It is rather ironic that David Marr can so glibly speak about ‘privilege’ while sweeping the ashes of religious freedoms under the carpet. Reshaping marriage means reshaping society and society’s laws and expectations, and reshaping the contour of religious freedom and practice. David Marr can argue otherwise, but it is the logical flow on effect, and we are already seeing this in practice around the world.

With all this talk about religious freedom one may be forgiven for thinking that this is the chief reason why Christians are arguing against changing the Marriage Act. This is not the case. Christians believe that the Genesis paradigm for marriage is a creation mandate that is a good for all humanity, not only for Christians. Until very recent, almost everyone accepted this view of marriage and believed it was good for society,  but now we are aiming to persuade our fellow Aussies that it remains a good for society today. At the same time, it is imperative that we understand the kinds of changes that will issue from this watershed redefinition of marriage.

With a final swing of sarcasm, David Marr ponders the future: “Can’t their faith, they wonder, win a free debate? How will it survive bullying demands for protection and privileges? How will it survive the hatred in the air?”

I’m sure Mr Marr reads history and will know that Christianity often flourishes when the State or society derides it. Christians have nothing to fear. While Australia remains a pluralist society, we will seek to persuade people, as Christians have done so for millennia. We do so, being assured that our ultimate confidence is in the Gospel of Jesus Christ, not in Australian law. The future of Christianity is not contingent upon any current or future legislation. No matter the socio-ethical landscape, we know God will continue his work through the Gospel and Churches will continue and people will become Christians. This of course includes implications for how Christians love and serve our gay and lesbian neighbours, whether the definition of marriage changes or not. I trust we are already making every effort to befriend and support them, and to show them the love of Christ. For we remember that we too, in all manner of ways, once defined morality and truth in ways to fit with personal inclinations, and in that moment God graciously revealed Christ to us.

Whatever position one takes on this national survey, whether to vote or not, to say yes or no, no one is served well when journalists whitewash the facts that don’t suit them. Indeed, one might ask David Marr, “Can’t your faith win a free debate?”

Our Rubicon River

Should a cricket club have freedom to appoint persons who share the values of their club?

Should a political party have liberty to pre-select individuals who support and will promote their policies?

Should not a corporation employ professionals who will abide by the values and vision of that institution?

For most of our nation’s history Churches and Governments have enjoyed a mutually beneficial relationship; understanding their distinct roles while together serving for the good of society. Both have had their failings as well as making enormous contributions to building our society, but Australians have always been careful not to confuse the two.  Tomorrow (Tuesday 8th November) this judicious relationship may come to an end as the Victorian Government proposes a hostile takeover of all religious organisations.

The Victorian Legislative Council will tomorrow debate and vote on the proposed Inherent Requirements test. The purpose of this amendment to the Equal Opportunity Act is to require religious organisations to demonstrate that their employees must necessarily subscribe to the beliefs and values of that church, school, or charity. 

Religious organisations currently have freedom to employ persons who affirm the beliefs and practices shared by that organisation; this is only sensible. Should this legislation pass, a tribunal will be appointed by the Government who will determine what constitutes inherent requirements for all religions across the State. In other words, the Government is posturing itself as a teacher and arbiter of theology, with power to inform Churches, Synagogues, and religious schools whom they are to employ.

The Government has presented the amendment as a natural extension in the fight for equality, but the reality is quite different. Labor wants sameness not equality. This Bill will inevitably work against a pluralist and diverse society, and instead demand that Victorians fall into line with a rigid and historically dubious view of secularism.

Dr Michael Bird was right when he called out the inherent requirement test as an example of Secularized Erastianism, a philosophy which asserts that the State shapes and controls religious belief and practice.

I can imagine some secularists will be ecstatic at hearing the Government’s plan to further diminish religious freedom in Victoria, but is there not an air of hypocrisy in all this? Do atheistic humanists really want the Government functioning as bishops over churches, religious schools, and charities? Do nonbelievers genuinely think they have the academic credentials, expertise, and the right to define the theological parameters for synagogues and churches, explicating what is inherently required of that religion or not?

As Dr Bird notes, the problem is that “demonstrate a necessary connection” between beliefs and roles is notoriously subjective. There are no objective criteria here since beliefs and roles will vary from religion to religion and from organization to organization. So who is going to decide when a “necessary connection” exists between beliefs and roles and exactly how they will decide?’

The ‘inherent requirement’ test is all the more ironic, given how the Andrews’ Government has spent the last two years introducing several policies designed to push out Christian involvement from the public square, and now they are intent on invading religious spaces.

I cannot speak for all religious organisations, but when it comes to Christian Churches they are, for the most part, welcoming of anyone from any cultural, religious, sexual orientation background. I am not denying that there are appropriate rules and requirements for those who would serve in a formal capacity, and neither am I ignoring that associations can sometimes get it wrong. But the Christian Gospel is all about welcoming men and women who have no rights on God, no inherent claims on him, and yet in Jesus Christ we are lovingly forgiven and welcomed. This conviction has forged a tradition throughout the world of Christians starting not only churches, but also schools and hospitals and aged-care facilities, without which both our Government and society would collapse.

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Former Victorian Crown Counsel, Mark Sneddon, recently offered this caution against the Bill,

“The proposed bill amending the Equal Opportunity Act will not encourage Victorians to get along with each other. It won’t enable Victorians to live and let live. In fact, it is more likely to exacerbate division by creating legal weapons for forcing some voluntary associations to host or endorse views with which they deeply disagree.

Deep differences of moral vision will not be resolved by trying to legislate one view to supremacy and squashing others. Rather, we should accept that there are different views, and defend each other’s rights to hold and live out different views. Importantly, we should also commit to respectful communication so we can understand each other and agree how to live together peacefully with our differences.”

All the good that this Government may achieve is being swallowed up by their rigid and aggressive social agenda. This legislation is not only nonsensical, it is dangerous; they have reached the Rubicon and are intent on crossing it, and Victorians have no assurances that the Government will stop there.

As our representatives vote, I trust common sense will prevail and that freedom of association and religion will remain after November 8.