Let’s not waste the season God gives

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That day is today.

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

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Here are 3 suggestions.

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

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

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

Second, let us love

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

Third, let us speak

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is Big Brother listening to your sermons?

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

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

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

“Folau launches fresh attack on gay and transgender people”

“Israel Folau intensifies stance on homosexuals”

“Israel Folau launches new LGBT attacks in church sermon”

“Israel Folau launches fresh homophobic attacks in church sermon”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Media Freedom and Religious Freedom

According to the last few weeks of media reporting, George Orwell’s 1984 has come to roost in Australia. A headline in yesterday’s The Age announced that “This country’s treatment of whistleblowers has strong echoes of Orwell”. While acknowledging Orwell’s novel is set suspiciously in Oceania and that ‘Big Brother’ was headquartered on the Gold Coast, I reckon that the population of Hong Kong have a better understanding of the Orwellian State than we Aussies.

I am thankful for the fact that we live in a country where the press has the freedom to report issues. They don’t need to hide under a blanket and with a pseudonym, uploading stories to those who are brave enough to click on them This is not the case in every nation, and it’s a blessing that we shouldn’t take for granted.

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Journalists perform a vital task in modern societies: to investigate and to inform people of news stories. Media is a key source for attaining information regarding all manner of news items, and so it is essential that they have freedom from Governmental control and influence (and indeed, freedom from the control of big business and influential identities). I’m suspect that self-interest sometimes serves as a journalist’s catalyst which can encourage boundaries to be pushed or even crossed,  whether it is fame, extra clicks and likes, or corporate profit. I’m also sure that many work with personal convictions and integrity and are seeking to do good for the public interest. 

There was been a strong and immediate reaction to two raids made by Federal Police over the last couples of weeks, one in a journalist’s home and the second at the ABC’s Sydney office. Authorities enacting newly introduced laws that are aimed at protecting information sensitive to national security. 

In today’s The Australian, Labor Senator, Kristina Keneally said,

“When freedom of the press — a basic tenet of our democracy — is seen to be under attack, the government must speak up.”

While not all journalists are concerned by this ‘news’, across the media’s ideological spectrum there has been a fairly unified expression of concern. 

In an interview on ABC radio Melbourne last week, Kerry O’Brien commented

”people have to be really clear about what’s at stake here”.

“If they care about democracy, this does go to the heart of democracy and the democratic process”.

Richard Flanagan’s piece for Guardian goes even further,

“The AFP media raids aim to suppress the truth. Without it we head into the darkness of oppression

If mass surveillance is brought in, how will we know about it? Is national security best served by the inevitable abuses of such a scheme about which we are never told and which would go unpunished? Would national security be enhanced or weakened were Mr Dutton to use such powers for political advantage or to enable political persecution without our knowledge?

And if we cannot know the truth of such fundamental matters, what security as a democracy do we have?”

Professor Peter Greste has offered what appears like a more even-handed analysis, suggesting that, 

“We are not suggesting that those laws be repealed – clearly, we need to update our national security framework to deal with evolving threats – but if in the process of trying to make us safer, we undermine the very system that has made us one of the safest countries on the planet in the first place, something has gone terribly wrong.”

The legislation, if accurately summarised by Damien Cave in the New York Times, does seem needlessly broad and vague.

“The most recent expansion of governmental secrecy came last year with an espionage bill that increased criminal penalties for sharing information deemed classified, even if a document happened to be as harmless as a cafeteria menu, and broadened the definition of national security to include the country’s economic interests.”

It’s a little tricky to work out what all the relevant parties think about the Federal Police raid on the ABC. For example, both the Coalition and Labor last year supported the legislation which gave license to this police investigation. It was also last year that Greens Leader, Richard Di Natale, called for Parliament to introduce legislation to crack down on journalists who were allegedly engaging in “hate speech” (by which he meant, social commentary that he didn’t agree with). Last week, he was whistling a very different tune.

The Age newspaper ran with the headline, “without fear or favour”. It is a perfectly sensible ideal and many journalists aim to live up to this high standard. The benchmark is, of course, an impossible one, for no media corporation is without bias and no reporter is morally or politically neutral. Indeed, as society becomes more polarised, we are seeing a diminishment of this kind of “without favour” reporting, with many journalists spouting popular ideology and replacing evidential and reasoned reporting with sloganeeing, sometimes without the faintest idea of the subject matter that they are talking about. The topic of religious freedom is an all too obvious and rather ironic example of this.

There is more than a touch of incongruity in the middle of this public outcry. Many of the same voices who are today yelling grave concerns for journalistic freedoms have been quite prepared to deny similar freedoms to religious people when it comes to speaking and persuade in the public square. 

Parallels between media freedom and religious freedom

Indeed, I suspect some members of the press would squirm at the realisation that there are striking correlations between the media and religious communicators. 

Firstly, both groups have little protection under Australian law. Professor Peter Greste explains,

“Like a lot of people, I’m really concerned about the last two raids … it imposes an extra level of intimidation and that’s really unhealthy.

“That’s why it demonstrates to us the need for a media freedom act, that acts as a buffer to prevent these kinds of activities.”

Two South Australian Senators, Rex Patrick and Stirling Griff, have announced plans to introduce legislation to amend the Constitution in order to give the press similar protections to those enjoyed by American journalists under their Constitution. 

At the same time, legal experts have also been calling for the Government to give protection to religious organisations, schools, and churches so that they can continue to adhere to their values and to speak, without fear of Government intrusion and without businesses defining appropriate religious belief, as we have witnessed in the recent Israel Folau case. 

Secondly, both groups have a role and responsibility to broadcast and communicate a message. 

It is worth noting that the Biblical language for religious speech is not dissimilar to that of the reporter. To preach means to herald a message. To teach is to inform and to impart information of importance to others. The preacher may analyse social events and cultural trends but foremost they are to present the truth of Jesus Christ without “fear or favour”. In this way, I can empathize with journalists who feel as though the Government is attempting to intimidate and control.

Some of our media have mud in the eye today, or is that a plank? Sadly, I don’t think they’ve spotted it as yet. Freedom for the press, but not freedom for religious speech. Freedom from Government intrusion, unless you’re a religious organisation in which case the Government has every right to interfere. If only some of our most vocal journos practiced what they preached, “without fear or favour”, they might be receiving a little more sympathy today. Despite their lack of concern for the freedom of other Australians to present, speak, and persuade in the public square, other Aussies understand that there is an important principle at stake for both groups. With that in mind, might I suggest the following 5 points.

5 Points for Consideration

As I calculate the actions and reactions in light of the police raids, here are 5 thoughts for consideration:

1. Freedom of the press is paramount for sustaining a liberal democracy. We ought to defend the media’s freedom to pursue and publish stories that are of public interest and importance, without undue external pressures being applied.

2. Journalists shouldn’t work outside the law (I’m not saying that’s the case here with the ABC. The fact is, we don’t yet know). 

3. We should be slow to impute bad motives on our police (and on the Judge(s) who signed the warrants)

4. We should be cautious about making unsubstantiated judgments about Governmental interference. Rumouring and speculating don’t aid the cause of the media, nor that of the public. If we are truly concerned about ‘fake news’, we mustn’t let rhetorical flair escape the evidence at hand

5. If recently instated laws are unnecessarily inhibiting journalists from setting about their work with integrity and thoroughness, it is appropriate for the Government to reevaluate these laws (as well intended as these laws may be).

Israel Folau decision may set a course for the future

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.