Since when has Christianity been so concerned about religious freedom?

Fairfax Contributor, Matt Holden, has asked the question,

“since when has Christianity been so concerned about religious freedom?”

With a skilful display of not letting truth get in the way, he has answered,

“Not ever, really, is the short answer.”

The question is not, have forms of Christianity ever led to the diminishment of peoples’ religious freedoms, for history gives us such examples. However, history give many more examples where Christianity provides the philosophic undergirding for a genuine pluralist society. Holden cites the campaign against the Bendigo Mosque in 2016, asking, where were the Christians then? The truth is, there were Christians in Bendigo doing the very thing Holden alleges did not happen. Perhaps he should be asking, why did the media not report it? More recently, when Waverley Council in Sydney refused the building of a Synagogue in Bondi, Christian groups were vocal in calling for the Council to change their position.

 

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In a recent article for the Gospel Coalition, Dr Russell Moore (President of Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention), wrote,

“when we say—as Baptists and many other Christians always have—that freedom of religion applies to all people, Christian or not, we are not suggesting that there are many paths to God, or that truth claims are relative. We are fighting for the opposite. We are saying religion should be free from state control because we believe every person must give an account before the Judgment Seat of Christ.”

Have Christians always done this well? No, but more often they have, and the reality is, the social pluralism we enjoy in this country relies upon a Christian worldview. It is not irreligion that brought religious pluralism to our shores, but the Christian view that we ought to love our neighbours, and that authentic belief in God comes about through persuasion not coercion. This is another unfortunate mistake made by Holden. It seems as though he has swallowed the now popular myth that Christians are forcing their views onto society and that evangelism amounts to bullying. The reality is very different. By definition, Christianity is a conversion religion. No one is born Christian, but people become convinced by the claims of Jesus Christ; that he is true and good. Christianity is a persuasion religion, speaking and articulating and convincing others of what the Bible says.

Holden gives himself away when he insists, “‘the best guarantee of religious freedom is keeping religion out of politics”. In other words,  he doesn’t want religious Australians having the freedom to present their point of view. As it is, we enjoy one of the safest and most stable society’s in the world, where people of faith and none are free to express their beliefs, and to persuade others of their opinion. Holden says, those days must end.

He adds,

“This sudden defence of religious freedom by churches and religious lobby groups just doesn’t wash.”

I’m not sure how Holden would define ‘sudden’, but 116 years ago, in 1901, the framers of the Australian constitution used Judeo-Christian principles to establish a secular nation. By secular they did not mean banning religious thought from politics and public discourse. true secularism means the freedom to speak regardless of ones religious affiliation, or lack thereof. Indeed, this understanding of religious freedom can be traced back to the Bible and to the teaching of Jesus Christ.

The issue is, certain elements of the community don’t like what Christian have to say on about marriage and other social issues, but instead of engaging reasonably with argument, folk like Matt Holden are aiming to shut down those who disagree. Whether he is aware or not, Holden is not proposing secularism, but State imposed atheism; it is anti-pluralism. If the only permitted discourse must void of language deferring to God and religion, then what we have is exclusive and intolerant atheism.

We know how anti-religious world views have had a shot at taking charge of nations, and they have produced for the world Stalin, Mao Zedong, Pol Pot, and North Korea. I’m fairly sure that this is not the kind of country most Australians are wanting to become.

Last year the Victorian Government attempted to pass legislation that would have taken freedom from religious organisations in hiring staff. It was, as Dr Michael Bird explained at the time, an example of Secularized Erastianism, a philosophy which asserts that the State shapes and controls religious belief and practice. Is this the direction Australia wants to head?

Finally, despite various politicians and social commentators insisting that same-sex marriage has nothing to do with freedom of religion, they are dedicating an awful lots of words to argue how opponents of same-sex marriage are all haters and need to be silenced. Two weeks ago another Fairfax Columnist, Aubrey Perry, argued that the debate on marriage has everything to do with religion, by which she meant, let’s use marriage as a weapon to remove religion from public life altogether.

Pluralism in Australian will only continue so long as those in authority allow alternative views to be expressed publicly, without fear of litigation or threats of violence. To the surprise of many, the global movement in the early 21st Century is not away from religion to irreligion or from faith to reason, but away from philosophical pluralism to both religious and secular authoritarianism.  We are a long way from where things could lead, but we are no longer standing from the sideline and pontificating the possibilities. As Sherlock Holmes would say, ‘the game is afoot’. This should concern all Australians, not because pluralism is god, and not because we are moral and spiritual relativists, but because we believe a healthy society requires its citizens to argue and persuade, and to allow others to make up their minds.

 

 

 

In accordance with s 6(5) of the Marriage Law Survey (Additional Safeguards) Act 2017, this communication was authorised by Murray Campbell , of Melbourne, Victoria.

American Evangelicals have harmed Evangelicalism

“Therefore, you kings, be wise; be warned, you rulers of the earth.” (Psalm 2:7)

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Eleven months ago a good friend sat on the lounge in my home and told me that the Presidential race would be between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump…and that Trump would win!

I looked at him as though he had had a lobotomy. But over the course of the year my friend’s projection has been rattling in the deep recesses of my mind where I try to leave all the crazy thoughts.

Like the majority of Australians I feel as though I’m floating in a hypnagogic state. How many of us really thought that Trump would trump America?!

According to the latest figures, it appears the main reason for Hillary Clinton’s loss is because Democrats stayed home: 5 million fewer democrats voted yesterday than in 2012; that’s a lot of people. The Republican turn out was also slightly down, which is unsurprising given the candidate.

I have no doubt that there are numerous reasons behind Trump’s win, and I am no expert to decode all these, and neither is it my purpose to explore them here.

After surveying this morning’s twitter sphere, it revealed though how mainstream media, Hollywood, and the self acclaimed intelligentsia still don’t get it; the progressive moral and social agenda is repugnant to many Americans, and also to many Australians.

More concerning, American “evangelicals” don’t get it. I am hearing reports suggesting that as many as 85% of “evangelicals” voted for Donald Trump. Whatever the actual number, it will be a substantial percentage. I appreciate why Christians could not vote for Hillary Clinton; for example, her position toward unborn children is paramount to evil, but so is Trump’s posture toward women and refugees.

I want to reiterate a concern that I have raised in recent weeks, and that is how the evangelical cause will be weakened as a result of a Trump Presidency. The reason is obvious, “evangelicals” have so closely aligned themselves with Donald Trump that in the public eye the two have been aligned.

While there were multiple groups investing in the campaign, “evangelicals” are at least partly responsible for Donald Trump’s ascendancy to the American Presidency. That’s right, without their endorsements, the Republican nominee may well have been a Jed Bush or Marco Rubio.

You will notice my proclivity to use the inverted comma when referring to evangelicals, and that’s because the word has been regularly misappropriated by not only political pundits but also by Americans themselves. True evangelicalism has little to do with the political aspirations of right wing America, and everything to do with the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ. Authentic evangelicalism is defined by this Gospel as presented in the Bible, not by the political right or left, not with Democrats or Republicans, and for the Australian context, neither Liberal nor Labor.

While never wishing for a Clinton victory, I do think that scenario would have at least given “evangelicals” an opportunity to break with Donald Trump and start afresh, to repent of foolish associations and  to rethink how Christians should engage in the political space. Unfortunately, “evangelical” America supported the winner, and have been tarnished for doing so. I cannot see how this association will advance the cause of Jesus Christ. If anything, the word may become irretrievably immeshed in a cause that is not the Gospel.

I am thankful for the many evangelicals who have stood up to Donald Trump and have copped flack for doing so: Ed Stetzer, Russell Moore, and Al Mohler among them. In Australia, the general public will not be informed of these voices, and instead Australians will time and time again hear how “evangelicals” assisted Donald Trump to the White House. At least in the Australian public square, the 2016 Presidential election will tarnish Christian witness and further perpetrate myths about Christianity. It is for this reason I am calling on my American friends to return to their evangelical roots and think carefully about political associations.

It is one thing to be part of a Presidential win, but it is quite another to one day stand before the Judge of the earth and give an account for how our lives have adorned or maligned the Gospel of Christ.

This final point is not only true for American Christians but also Australian Christians. When will Christians learn not to place undue hope in Government? The election has exposed a messed up eschatology and misplaced soteriology, which will not only disappoint, but will prevent people from seeing Christ. However Donald Trump decides to build his wall along the Mexican border, it is nothing compared to the wall evangelicals have built in this election which will block out the wonder of the Gospel. How will true evangelicals work to dismantle this false gospel? What will we do publicly and in our Churches to redress the damage caused by this political misalignment?

We need much prayer. We need much repentance.

As the political shape of America turns, may Christians return to our true hope:

“For to us a child is born,

    to us a son is given,

    and the government will be on his shoulders.

And he will be called

    Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,

    Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

 Of the greatness of his government and peace

    there will be no end.

He will reign on David’s throne

    and over his kingdom,

establishing and upholding it

    with justice and righteousness

    from that time on and forever.

The zeal of the Lord Almighty

    will accomplish this.”

(Isaiah 9:5-7)

Evangelical! Who me?

When is it time to lay a word to rest? When is it appropriate to find an alternative name?

Stephen McAlpine is among a growing number of Evangelicals who are admitting we have a word problem, an identity problem. The term evangelical has become synonymous with a branch of American politics, and more recently, with a key group of Donald Trump supporters. Yes, there are notable evangelical voices repudiating Donald Trump, and recent polls suggest the majority of evangelicals would no more vote for Trump than they would Kylo Ren, but it is difficult to fight a bushfire with a garden hose.

McAlpine writes,

“The “Evangelical” brand is well on the way to being trashed in the US.  Time to think of a new word to describe ourselves I reckon, not just in the US, but across the West.

If it’s true financially that “when America sneezes, the world catches cold.”, the same appears to be true of American evangelicalism. The US arm of the brand has caught a pox from which it may not recover, and that pox is at risk of spreading to us.

It’s actually worse than a pox.  It’s gangrene. It has the whiff of death about it. Exxon, Union Carbide, Enron, Lehman Brothers. Perhaps we can add the “Evangelical” brand to that sorry pile. Time perhaps to cut ourselves off from the descriptor before we start to smell. Time for a new word

As he laters explains, the problem didn’t start with the rise of Donald Trump, it goes back to the 1980s when Christians hitched their wagon with the Republican movement.

The issue is even broader than North America. In Europe many denominations continue to use evangelical, as a eulogy to the past, although their theology often bares little resemble to that of their forefathers.

In Australia, evangelical has had branding kudos, at least in Christian circles, so much so that even many anti-evangelicals embraced the word: ’we don’t believe in the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ but the label works for us.’ To be fair, those who were slightly more ingenuous inserted adjectives, such as ‘broad’ or ‘progressive’, as a hint of their not so evangelical beliefs. This mass branding has not helped.

Language is situational, or least in part. When I describe my Christian faith in the community I refer to myself as a Christian, and sometimes I add that rarified name, Baptist! Rarely do I use words like evangelical or reformed, not because the words are getting a bad press, but because they hold little meaning to most Australians. Within ecclesiastical conversations I am happy to speak of my evangelical and reformed convictions, as they often help to build bridges of understanding, and at other times they clarify differences. But the reality is, when I’m chatting with my neighbours, evangelical doesn’t add anything.

If using the word inside churches is sometime confusing, McAlpine is right; outside of churches and theological institutions, identifying as an evangelical is becoming a herculean challenge, largely because our media lacks nuance. While it’s been trashed in the USA, at least American media acknowledge alternative evangelical viewpoints. Here in Australia, he only time evangelicals are mentioned is when there is a sniff of hydrogen sulphide in the air. For example, our news outlets have not been reporting Al Mohler on CNN or Russell Moore in the Washington Post, as they speak out against Donald Trump.

Has evangelical become unusable in Australia?

The Age newspaper now contains dozens of references to evangelicals, and almost without exception they associate these people with right wing American politics, or with ‘extreme’ Christian ideology in Australia.

ABC’s program, Planet America, regularly refer to the evangelical vote, and especially of their alleged support for Donald Trump.

It is clear that evangelical has become a by-word for religious right wing politics. While the media are responsible for selective reporting, they can hardly be blamed for tying at least some evangelicals with Donald Trump. After all, millions of Americans identify with evangelical and with the Republican movement.

There is an important lesson for us to learn, and that is, we must not bypass theology. We must resist making our identity a political ideology or social cause, we must begin with the Gospel and work out from there.

In 1989 David Bebbington first offered his now famous quadrilateral definition of evangelical. He understands evangelicals as holding four main qualities: biblicism, crucicentrism, conversionism, activism. There is much to like about his quadrilateral, however I also agree with Don Carson’s reservations (read “The Gagging of God”). Carson notes that even a Jesuit priest could put his hand up to this quadrilateral definition. As such, Bebbington has perhaps done evangelicals a disservice. 


To be evangelical is nothing less than being someone who holds to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The the very word from which we get evangelical is euangelion, which means Gospel.

I agree with Carson, who in turn follows John Stott, in taking us to 1 Corinthians 15:1-8. This is far from the only Scriptural place that explicates the gospel , but it does give us one of the fullest treatments of the Gospel, and we can’t overlook Paul’s introductory remark,

Now, brothers and sisters, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. 2 By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain.

For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance:

What is the euangelion?

that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve.  After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles,  and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.”

Both Stott and Carson summarise 1 Corinthians 15:3-7 with these 6 points: the Gospel is Christological, Biblical, Historical, theological, apostolic, and personal.

The problem is of course, people are no longer defining evangelical by the Gospel.

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While I’m in large agreement with McAlpine, I’m not giving up on evangelical just yet, because rightly understood it is a word we should cherish and defend. But should the waves of malcontent persist, and an alternative is necessary, I think I’ll begin follow in Russell Moore’s footsteps and refer to myself a Gospel Christian.

Gospel Christian has the same meaning as evangelical Christian, but without the unhealthy socio-political connotations. Interestingly, both in the United States and here in Australia, among the larger Christian networks we don’t find the Evangelical Coalition, but rather the Gospel Coalition.

Some Christians prefer to known as orthodox or classical. I warm to both of these words, although Stephen McAlpine criticises ‘orthodox’ as a group who don’t affirm the real and physical return of Jesus Christ. Perhaps I’m ignorant, but I would have thought belief in the parousia is basic to anyone claiming orthodoxy.

The reality is, many of our Christian labels are disdained. I wish it was suffice to say, I’m a Christian. After all, that’s what I am, I am a Christian. But sadly Christian is frequently associated with all manner of social ills and evils (sometimes warranted). And when I fess up to being a Baptist, I’ve more than once had to qualify it by saying, no, we’re not like the JWs or Mormons.

McAlpine suggests we call ourselves, ‘eschatological Christians’,

“Eschatological” springs to mind. If someone asks me these days I’ve taken to saying that I am an “Eschatological Christian.” Sure it’s not catchy, but it’s not toxic either. Sure I will have to spend a bit of time explaining what it is, but hey, I’ll have to spend virtually no time explaining what it is not.

“Eschatological” is more likely to elicit an eyebrow raise than a nose wrinkle.  It is more likely to raise a question than rule a line under an answer. Most importantly it will distinguish me – and us – as those whose hopes -and energies – are not grounded in the political machinations of this age, but in the politics of the age to come lived out in the church today, and overflowing in practical, loving and humble ways into the community.

“Eschatological Christian” also distinguishes orthodox Christians who actually believe that there is a parousia coming in which King Jesus will usher in a new kingdom and judge the world in righteousness, from those who view that as an outdated notion beneath our modern sensibilities. A view that won’t get them respect in the academy.

The name has a certain Fitzroy living single-origin drinking indie-rocking listening feel to it, but I am unconvinced. First of all, few people know what eschatology means,  and second, it is  defining our identity by one area of theology, rather than the whole.

What do others think? How do you describe your Christian faith? Do you identify as an evangelical?

Misappropriation and misunderstanding shouldn’t surprise us; is it not the expectation given to us by the Lord Jesus? Does not the history of the church give us multiple examples of culture trampling on or deconstructing the church? In a world that is constantly confusing and even hijacking the Christian message, and doing so for all manner of social and political ends, we though can be responsible for how we represent the Lord Jesus Christ. Indeed, the more faithful we are to God’s word, the more useful we will be to society. So whether we call ourselves evangelical, Gospel, orthodox, or just plain and simple Christian, let’s do it with a growing sense of clarity, humility, grace, and winsomeness, in order to display the reality of Christ and of the hope held out in his Gospel.