The Dividing Church: When a Denomination Chooses Syncretism

“Elijah went before the people and said, “How long will you waver between two opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal is God, follow him.”

But the people said nothing.” (1 Kings 18:21)

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Last week the 15th Assembly of the Uniting Church of Australia adopted a motion to permit same-sex marriage for their churches.

According to reporting by Eternity newspaper,

“The vote means the church will provide a choice of marriage services. A new marriage rite will be written for “two persons” to marry, and will sit alongside the UCA’s existing marriage service for men and women. This is often described as a “Two integrities” solution which attempts to allow two beliefs about marriage to co-exist in the one church structure.”

In other words, the Uniting Church has embraced same-sex marriage, but it is willing to give each minister and church, freedom to choose whether they will conduct marriages along the classical definition of marriage or according to the newly adopted definition.

The deal is being packaged as a triumph for diversity, and a celebration of recognising the rights of people to marry whomever they wish. However, once we’ve stripped the rhetoric of its layer of spray paint, what’s left behind is good old-fashioned syncretism.

How is the Uniting Church’s embracing syncretism?

Syncretism is the practice of merging two or more religions (or ideologies) together, often with the pretense of preserving the purity of one or of both. Syncretism is frowned upon in the Bible because of who God is. When God revealed his law Exodus 20,

“You shall have no other gods before me.

 “You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below.  You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me,  but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.”

The history of Israel in the Old Testament is replete with examples of syncretism. God likens syncretism to spiritual adultery.

“Has a nation ever changed its gods?

    (Yet they are not gods at all.)

But my people have exchanged their glorious God

    for worthless idols.

12 Be appalled at this, you heavens,

    and shudder with great horror,”

declares the Lord.

13 “My people have committed two sins:

They have forsaken me,

    the spring of living water,

and have dug their own cisterns,

    broken cisterns that cannot hold water.” (Jeremiah 2:11-13)

Of course, syncretism can take many forms. It may be that a Church identifies too closely with a particular political ideology, or takes on board practices from other religions. Jesus forced the issue when it came to wealth. He said,

“No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.” (Luke 16:13)

The reasons behind Israel’s choice of marrying other religions with their own varied. Sometimes they were convinced that other gods were more real and vital. On occasion, they endorsed new religious beliefs for sake of securing political power and retaining their social standing. Most often, these alternate religions preached a moral latitude that gave permission for practices that the people to embrace. It is interesting to note how often syncretism was accompanied with revisionist views on sexuality.

One of the important questions is, how do we know that the Uniting Church’s decision is out of line with orthodox Christian teaching? We could turn to church history, where we will find no endorsement of such practices until the most recent of years. We could observe how the majority of Christian churches around the world today continue to uphold the classical view of marriage. We should especially turn to the Bible where we find a clear definition of marriage, and where all other sexual practices and relationships are defined as porneia. In fact, the Bible views these alternate arrangements with such gravity that they are described in terms of keeping people out of the kingdom of God and being against sound doctrine and opposing the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ.

Vaughan Roberts is an Anglican Minister who has shared his own personal testimony of being same-sex attracted. In a recent interview at GACFON, Roberts noted,

“We cannot ‘agree to disagree’ on core convictions of the apostolic gospel, sexual sin is one of those.”

Archbishop Peter Jensen, speaking of the current troubles in the worldwide Anglican Communion, has suggested that what’s going on is the creation of new religion,

“What the liberal Americans did was to so breach the tradition – at a pretty vital point – that it has begun to create a new religion.”

By adopting two separate marriage definitions, the Uniting Church is saying that Christians can believe in both, and that we can practice both. The fact that an individual church can decide which version of marriage to adopt doesn’t retrieve the situation, for these two reasons: First, the denomination has clearly affirmed same-sex marriage as a moral good which Christians can embrace.  Second, the local Uniting Church, even should it hold to classical marriage, is nonetheless in union with other churches who no longer subscribe to orthodox Christianity. A question is, was the  Apostle Paul right when he suggested,

“For what do righteousness and wickedness have in common? Or what fellowship can light have with darkness?

Where to from here?

 

1. Anyone can fall

In the age when instant isn’t fast enough, no one wants to slow down like the NBN or be caught in the gridlock along Hoddle Street. When a new cultural wave hits our shores, we want the ride and we want to be among the first. One of the problems with the current swell is that it’s simultaneously popular and perilous. It sometimes feels as though the majority of Australian organisations and public voices are riding this latest wave of the sexual revolution, and it is hard to stand against it, and it’s even harder to pull out once you’ve been drawn in.

It is of little surprise that the Uniting Church is the first major denomination in Australia to take this decision,  and while most other denominations are unlikely to push ahead with redefining marriage for everyone, the idea of a “two integrities solution” may be seen as a viable option for other denominations who are trying to appease everyone. As I’ve already shown, it is no solution at all.

It is a challenging time for Christianity in Australia. Indeed, it is more grievous than last year’s events which led to the legalization of same-sex marriage in our country. It is one thing for society at large to make decisions relating to moral issues, but it is incumbent upon Churches to adhere to the theological and ethicals standards laid out by God in the Scriptures.

Churches always face tensions and temptations. None of us are beyond erring, should we take our eyes off the Lord Jesus. I pray that as the broader Christian Churches observe what has transpired in the Uniting Church, that we won’t respond with pride or with spiteful and unhelpful words, but humbly ask God to check our own hearts and desires, and ask him to keep us faithful to Christ.

2. This adds to Gospel confusion

The decision made by the Uniting Church of Australia doesn’t resolve confusion about Christianity; it makes it worse. It’s one of the ridiculous ideas that often dictates dying churches and denominations; they see their salvation from obscurity by becoming more like the culture.

The thing is, LGBT people matter so much, that we are failing to love them should we embrace same-sex marriage. It is not hatred that says, marriage is for a man and a woman, it is trusting God and believing that his ways are good.

Churches are 100% made up of men and women who in many ways have deconstructed God’s purposes and justified attitudes that are downright awful. Too many Churches, in trying to affirm classical marriage, have also tainted Gospel witness by exuding self-righteousness and demeaning their LGBT neighbours. Christianity is not, ‘we are better than you’, but that ‘we are like everyone else and in God’s grace he has gifted us now a better way’.

3. Be ready to welcome orphans from the Uniting Church

After Mount Carmel, Elijah felt overwhelmed by the experience and alone. God reminded him that he wasn’t the only remaining who was trusting Him, there were thousands more.
There are already Uniting Church members who are leaving their churches and looking for new churches to call home. Churches across the country need to welcome these brothers and sisters, to encourage them and care for them.

4. Pray

Above all, pray. Pray for the many Christians within the Uniting Church who have difficult conversations and decisions ahead of them. We can thank God for the faithfulness of those who have stood on the Gospel, in the face of what would have been a very difficult week. There are many important discussions to be had about the future of congregations who are choosing the Evangelical faith over the neo-Balaamism that has been introduced. We can pray that God fills them with wisdom and honours their faithfulness.