Why calling something idolatry is not ‘soft-pedalling’ on sin; and how idolatry is breath-takingly dangerous

I’m an asthmatic. For most of my life I’ve managed to mostly ignore this, except when exercising in winter, but lately, my asthma has been worse than in the past and I’ve found myself with a preventer — when I remember to take it, things go well for me, when I don’t, well, there’s nothing worse than feeling breathless and scrounging around the house looking for the ventolin inhaler my kids have hidden somewhere. That sense of not being able to breathe is oppressive, and scary, and has me considering the shortness of my breath not just in the moment (when it comes to lung capacity), but in my finitude — I have a limited number of breaths I will take with these lungs before I expire. And asthma — the disordered restriction of those airways — means that some of my breathing is more breathless than it should be; and that those breaths in particular serve as a reminder of my mortality.

When I’m wheezing and spluttering and trying to breath what I need is ventolin. I can definitely reduce the impact of my asthma on my life by taking preventative measures like being healthy. But in that moment of breathlessness; if all you do is hold up a picture of healthy airways and tell me I should do all in my power to have those, I’ll still expire. And you’ll be a massive jerk; especially if you have some ventolin in your back pocket.

In the fallout of a controversial recent post it has been suggested that the framework I’ve put forward for speaking about sexuality in the modern world — that it’s a form of idolatry — is ‘soft pedalling’ when it comes to calling sin “sin”.

I disagree.

The Bible, from start to finish, is pretty sure that idolatry is deadly and destructive — the most deadly and destructive sin — and I’d argue that it sees most sinful actions as a result of an idolatrous disposition. It even gets the top two spots in the ten commandments.

“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. — Exodus 20:3-6

I’ve written stacks of stuff about how when Genesis says we’re made in the image of God, this uses a word used elsewhere (in the ancient world) for ‘idol statue’ — and our job is to be the living, breathing representatives of God in his world, which is what makes idolatry a particular inversion of the created order where we, as Paul puts it in Romans, worship the creation instead of the creator; this represents a disordering of the natural world — we were meant to rule the world with God, and instead are being ruled by it. The second commandment is a big deal because breaking it turns the created order on its head. As we live in disobedience to this command we’re actually living against the ‘created order’ — our order-bringing mission in the world — which disorders the world, and us. This disordering involves, as Augustine would put it, a ‘disordering of our loves’ — if we were made to chiefly love and worship God, and rule over the creation, but put created things in the God slot in our hearts, we end up living lives that are not optimal but destructive. Or to use the flourishing language that picks up the ‘be fruitful and multiply’ command in Genesis 1, we live lives that are not fruitful, and instead spread death. When I say something is idolatry I’m not backing away from saying something is sinful, I’m diagnosing something as terminal, using the same diagnosis the Bible gives. But this diagnosis comes with a particular treatment (as I’ll suggest right at the bottom of this post).

A lot of the debate around changes to the definition of marriage, because they misdiagnose the problem (in my opinion), miss the solution. Lots of people in my theological camp — those who hold Reformed convictions about God and the world — talk about ‘creation ordinances’ — things that God instituted for ‘all people’ not just ‘his people’ ‘in the beginning’ — before people rejected him and the world was cursed — that last beyond that curse (typically largely undamaged by it and still accessible and good for all people). These ‘creation ordinances’ typically are listed as marriage and multiplication, work and dominion, and the sabbath. These are part of how ‘God has ordered the world’ for all people; a sort of ‘natural law’ that should be apparent for everybody.

These ‘creation ordinances’ are often linked to the concept of ‘common grace‘ (wikipedia); they’re part of how God continues to bless all people, and they become the basis Christians in this framework use to assess the work of governments; whose role relates to common grace as they ‘restrain evil’ and who are not just meant to restrain bad things but uphold these basic universal goods.

It’s interesting to consider how far our culture has departed from work and dominion, and from sabbath, and how little we made a fuss about those changes (and other changes to marriage — like no fault divorce) when considering how stridently we argue for marriage now… the onus now seems to be on those who suggest these ordinances are undamaged by the fall to demonstrate how this is the case (not just insist it is), or we need a different model for explaining the world (and the Biblical data).

Now. I have some issues with this basic framework as it has been applied — because I think it misses a couple of important and foundational ‘creation ordinances’ that humanity departs from as soon as we’re given the opportunity; and because we walk away from these, I think this gives us a framework for understanding why humans (individuals, cultures, and governments) walk away from the others; and what is required to have people walk back. I also think these particular commands — pre-fall — are particularly connected to our telos or purpose as humans, and that post fall they are frustrated rather than ongoing; that ‘work’ was meant to be the work of extending the garden of Eden — as the place God dwelled with humanity (like the Temple) — over the face of the earth; that ‘sabbath’ was meant to be the enjoyment of rest with God in this expanding garden, and that marriage was to reflect the image of God in a one-flesh union ‘male and female’; and that multiplication was the multiplication of living breathing images of God who would represent him in his ‘temple-kingdom’ as it spread. Nature is oriented towards a certain function, and that function is broken by sin. So, for example, I see these functions being recaptured in the church — the cultural mandate becomes the Great commission (which sees the ‘temple-kingdom’ of the Church — people with the Spirit — spreading around the globe).

But let’s work with this category of ‘creation ordinances’ being the ongoing things that God gives to all people for our universal good. I think the list is missing a few, and here’s the two things I’d say God gives to all humans that are, perhaps, bigger and more vital to our humanity than those other things held to be ordinances — ‘image bearing’ and ‘breath’. These are two concepts that Christians have used politically in very similar ways to the others — in upholding the sanctity of human life — and they are certainly universal. But they are also closely tied to our created purpose in the world; the other creation ordinances, and those two commandments quoted above.

Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.” — Genesis 1:26

Then the Lord God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being. — Genesis 2:7

If these are not ‘creation ordinances’ — that are true for all people of all time — then I’m not sure that ‘creation ordinance’ is a valid category.

They’re also concepts the prophets return to as they call God’s people back from idolatry (and arguably at the heart of how Israel is meant to be a blessing to the nations — who share these realities — as they call those nations away from idolatry and to life in God.

Because here’s the thing. Idolatry distorts these creation ordinances. Idolatry literally takes your breath away. It is worse than asthma. It is deadly. And Idolatry deforms us as we are conformed into the image of the images (or other gods) we worship. Idolatry is the gradual process of eradicating God’s image in our lives and replacing it with an idol — a process that is complete when we become breathless.

Consider, for a moment, how the Bible speaks of idolatry distorting work, or the ‘cultural mandate’ — to take the good things God has made and create with them; Genesis 2 speaks of the gold in Eden; look what Isaiah says about those who fashion idols from silver and gold.

With whom, then, will you compare God?
    To what image will you liken him?
 As for an idol, a metalworker casts it,
    and a goldsmith overlays it with gold
    and fashions silver chains for it.
 A person too poor to present such an offering
    selects wood that will not rot;
they look for a skilled worker
    to set up an idol that will not topple. — Isaiah 40:18-20

“Tell us, you idols,
    what is going to happen.
Tell us what the former things were,
    so that we may consider them
    and know their final outcome.
Or declare to us the things to come,
     tell us what the future holds,
    so we may know that you are gods.
Do something, whether good or bad,
    so that we will be dismayed and filled with fear.
 But you are less than nothing
    and your works are utterly worthless;
    whoever chooses you is detestable. — Isaiah 41:22-24

All who make idols are nothing,
    and the things they treasure are worthless.
Those who would speak up for them are blind;
    they are ignorant, to their own shame.
 Who shapes a god and casts an idol,
    which can profit nothing?
People who do that will be put to shame;
    such craftsmen are only human beings.
Let them all come together and take their stand;
    they will be brought down to terror and shame. — Isaiah 44:9-11

This is maybe my favourite bit of this extended treatment of how idolatry is fundamentally a departure from not just the creator but these created ordinances, talking about the craftsman who cuts a block of wood in half and uses one half to make an idol and the other as kindling to cook his food:

Such a person feeds on ashes; a deluded heart misleads him;
    he cannot save himself, or say,
    “Is not this thing in my right hand a lie?”” — Isaiah 44:20

It’s not just Isaiah either…

Everyone is senseless and without knowledge;
    every goldsmith is shamed by his idols.
The images he makes are a fraud;
    they have no breath in them. — Jeremiah 10:14

The thing is; the Old Testament consistently says the product of idolatry is that we become what we worship. And when we worship breathless and dead gods, rather than the living, breathing, God, we become breathless. 

The idols of the nations are silver and gold,
    made by human hands.
They have mouths, but cannot speak,
    eyes, but cannot see.
They have ears, but cannot hear,
    nor is there breath in their mouths.
Those who make them will be like them,
    and so will all who trust in them.— Psalm 135:15-18

Here’s where ‘common grace’ kicks in — for as long as we’re still living and breathing we’re still, in some capacity, representing the God who made us — whether we like it or not — but our idolatry means we’re hurtling towards breathlessness as we hurtle away from the ‘creation ordinance’ of life representing God and ruling over creation (because we’ve made created things our God). And this life and breath is still a good gift from God — a ‘common’ gift to all people.

This is what God the Lord says—the Creator of the heavens, who stretches them out,

    who spreads out the earth with all that springs from it,
    who gives breath to its people,
    and life to those who walk on it. — Isaiah 42:5

Ultimately it’s idolatry that takes us to death as its natural end… it takes breath away, and it takes our bearing the image of the living, breathing, God away. It changes the way we work and rest. Why should it not also threaten how a culture understands marriage and multiplication? At some point in this trajectory from living and breathing and bearing God’s image a person — be they an idol maker, or idol worshipper — sees God’s common grace to them overcome by the effects of their sin and idolatry. This seems to be also true of cultures. At some point, culturally, a shared idol distorts us or deforms us away from the image of God and into the image of a culture’s gods; at some point our shared loves created by cultural stories disorder our loves so that we don’t love God as we were made to and as the Bible commands. The cultures in the Old Testament that were idolatrous were led by kings who were basically the ‘popes’ of their idol cults — who were also held to be ‘the image of god’ in their cultures. Idolatry happens corporately and culturally, and typically around narratives about what a god is and what they require and provide. Common grace is held in tension with the sort of temporal judgment for idolatry Paul speaks about in Romans 1 — where we no longer see the natural as natural — or with what has been called the ‘noetic effect‘ of sin.

For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.

For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. — Romans 1:20-21

Here’s how I understand the logic of this passage — God’s invisible qualities should be clearly seen from creation — creation ordinances are relatively logically clear and embedded in nature itself; but oriented towards us knowing God. When we deliberately choose not to know God, culturally or individually, we’re no longer able to see these obvious connections — our thinking and loves — our minds and our hearts — are darkened or ‘disordered’ — and this is ultimately an act of judgment from God. Our breathlessness starts now; the process of becoming what we worship starts now. God gives us what we want. And the result is that we individually and corporately start walking away from life-giving, common grace producing  ‘creation ordinances’ and towards death and destruction.

Another way of framing this might be ‘how much uncommon grace is required to pull someone back to knowing and worshipping God’? And then ‘how do we do this’? We’ll get there below. Before we do, there’s a pretty compelling account of how the noetic effect changes the way we see some good things God has made (like moral ordering of the universe) in a different degree to how we see others (like the logical ordering of the universe — eg mathematics) in this paper on how sin effects scholarship; I think it’s worth grappling with that paper and at least seeing that common grace and the noetic effect are held in tension. I’ve written elsewhere how because of the ‘subjectivity’ created by sin and idolatry (following this model), marriage might be more like music than mathematics.

It seems to me that from the limited survey of some Biblical gear above that it is reasonable to conclude that sin changes our ability to know and worship God — it pulls us away not just from the creator but from the ‘creation ordinances’ in their pre-fall state — even if those things are all still good and provide ‘common grace’ benefits to people as a part of what it means for us to be human. The questions for us with this data are: how much is this effect corporate, not just individual? And at what point does the ‘noetic effect’ of sin eclipse common grace in a culture (or an individual)?

At some point we need to be able to account for why it is that the people in our culture are so happy to redefine a ‘creation ordinance’ if the category of creation ordinance is going to have any valid descriptive power when it comes to life in this world. As well as accounting for why our world seems to be departing from these creation ordinances, we probably need to better account for why it’s people who believe in a creator who seem to be less likely to do this (why is the coalition for marriage just a bunch of religious leaders?). It’s not just that these communities are more sold on history or biology. It’s not just that theism comes with an orientation towards the ‘classical view’ of the world; we have to account for why others don’t buy this. I think the answer that best accounts for and describes this reality is idolatry. That’s the diagnosis. It’s serious. And it’s terminal if not properly treated.

Let me be unequivocal in not ‘soft-pedalling’…

The Bible says that marriage is created by God as a ‘one flesh’ relationship between one man and one woman. This ‘one flesh’ relationship is sexual, but also unitive in that it forges a single identity unit of ‘two-persons-as-one’. It is part of how such a man and woman then bear the image of God, and marriage is part of how we humans were to fulfil the command to ‘be fruitful and multiply’ — this isn’t to say that every person has to be married to bear the image of God, or contribute to fruitfulness, or even that children are the ‘purpose’ of marriage or having children its essence.

This is God’s design for humanity and is part of what a truly flourishing society is built on. To depart from this design is sin.

That we have walked away from God’s design for sex and marriage is a result of sin. The deadly sin of idolatry where we’ve, as a culture, decided to worship sex (a created thing); and see the flourishing human life as being connected to love and sex — and so marriage — rather than being connected to God. This is idolatry — it’s not just our gay neighbours who do this (and it’s not just outside the church); this is a culture wide decision to live in a different story and to put a ‘created thing’ as an ultimate good. Part of the problem with how the church speaks about this is that we’re so complicit with the idolatry of sex and marriage — the idea that these are necessary for human flourishing — that it sounds like we’re actually denying a thing we think of as god (or an ultimate good) to others. When we extol the virtues of marriage and family in idolatrous terms — as though they truly satisfy — and then deny them to people who are different to us, we do not sound loving. This is part of why talking about Jesus in this conversation about marriage and sex is not just window dressing…

This sin, or idolatry, is deadly in that it pulls us away from bearing God’s image as it forms us according to a different image or vision of the good and flourishing life. This is why our culture has walked away from God’s design for marriage. We’re pursuing a different God, or ultimate good. Once we, as a culture, pursue that good it makes sense to afford the ‘good’ of marriage to any one of our neighbours who is living in this story or according to this vision.

If what the Bible says about idolatry is true then this is deadly. It’s not soft-pedalling on sin to call the push for same sex marriage a ‘religious’ or ‘idolatrous’ thing; but like any doctor delivering a fatal prognosis our bedside manner is important. Especially if there is a cure and a treatment plan…

At some point sin means our ‘breath’ is more like the breath of an asthmatic on the way to a fatal asthma attack than like a human with a healthy set of lungs — or like the lungs of somebody who has deliberately set out to reduce their capacity by unhealthy living or smoking. When I’m in a state of breathlessness, panicking as I open every drawer in the house looking for an inhaler, I don’t just need to picture what my lungs should be without this disorder. We don’t treat an asthmatic or someone with asbestosis or mesothelioma by showing them a picture of healthy lungs — creation ordinances — and telling them to jump back to living that way; we treat disordered lungs by fixing the disorder, or with a lung transplant.

We respond to idolatry — disordered love — with the Gospel of Jesus, which re-orders our love for God, others, ourselves, and the world.

God restores breath to breathless lungs, and restores his image in us, by the Spirit as it conforms us to the image of Jesus.

Without this intervention we’re holding up a picture of healthy lungs to an asthmatic as they suffocate to death.

I’ll unpack more of this in part 2.

How (not what) to vote in the plebiscite in 11 (not easy) steps

I made this image for my last how to vote in 11 not easy steps post; it still seems relevant…

It’s funny that in the context of a big sermon in Matthew’s Gospel on how people are going to persecute Christians for being different, that talks about loving our enemies and praying for those who persecute us, and turning the other cheek, Jesus teaches people to pray the most political prayer ever. It’s funny that our politicians pray this prayer when parliament sits too (and they should probably stop it). It goes like this. You might know it.

“‘Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name,
your kingdom come,
your will be done,
    on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us today our daily bread.
And forgive us our debts,
    as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And lead us not into temptation,
    but deliver us from the evil one.’ — Matthew 6:9-13

Your kingdom come… your will be done…

Makes voting simple. Right?

This prayer should shape our politics, as Christians, because it should shape our ethics (the sermon on the mount is a picture of what the life of the king of God’s kingdom looks like; and this prayer is one that king, Jesus, ultimately answers — he also calls us to take up our cross and follow him). Because this should shape our politics, it should also shape our engagement in something like a non-compulsary, non-binding, postal survey about marriage in our nation.

But first, a note on why I’m putting this out there…

Lots of Christian leaders are handing out how to vote advice while saying at the same time they’re not seeking to ‘bind people’s consciences’ (though it appears that means something quite different to people to what I think it means). Their how to vote advice has, so far, exclusively been what to vote advice. I said in a recent post that I wouldn’t be telling people how to vote; but I think I missed an important distinction, I think there are things to be said about how we approach voting as Christians that are potentially good and wise things to put out there; I certainly won’t be telling people in my church what to vote; not from me, not from anybody else.

This sort of advice and its relationship to your conscience gets confusing in different church polity structures; there’s a question of how much a congregation member or attendee needs to be bound by doctrinal positions of a church; and how to understand those doctrinal positions, and how much a ‘how to vote’ approach is consistent with a church’s polity, let alone their theology. Senior figures from the Baptist Church, the Anglican Church, and the Presbyterian Church have all issued statements consistent with being part of the coalition for marriage; and those statements have different bindingness in both the theology of these churches and the polity they represent. It’s interesting times…

I assume, on any given Sunday, that barely anybody in my congregation knows what ‘Presbyterian’ means when it comes to our governance; they’re with us because they love Jesus and we’re on about Jesus, they come from a variety of backgrounds — whether they’re Iranian asylum seekers, new converts, people who’ve relocated to Brisbane from around Australia or the world looking for churches, or people who’ve grown up Presbyterian who do hold to reformed theology, but love the way it’s the Gospel that gets centre stage in our community; and that we’re able to gather with quite an eclectic bunch where a plurality of theological views are held alongside our unity in Jesus. Plus I assume there’s going to be a bunch of people with us on a Sunday still figuring out how with us they are, and what they think about this Jesus thing. We’re a church that is seeing people decide to follow Jesus from pretty diverse and extreme positions. This means I’m never going to read out an ‘official position’ statement and assume that anybody but I should hold it (if it’s a question of doctrine), and our polity as Presbyterians means we’re able to make this call as a church (led by our senior pastor). This is true for all other Presbyterian Ministers who are ‘moderators’ of their own church gatherings. We do not have bishops. Our committees are not bishops. Our assemblies are not bishops. How we respond to issues and moderate our communities, while holding to the doctrine and oaths we’ve sworn is not quite so simple as it is in a top down form of church government (think Anglican or Catholic).

People want short soundbite advice and easy conclusions; a one page thing to handout in church or chuck on a website; a simple directive… something accessible. I believe that actually becomes unhelpful both in how it helps people to come to their own conclusion based on conscience (ultimately, belief in what is Godly or not); and in how we then participate in a conversation beyond the soundbite. In West Wing terms, for fans, it’s all well and good until somebody says ‘what’s the next ten words’…

I know there are lots of Presbyterians, and lots of people in my congregation, thinking through how to vote (and asking for advice). So here’s my advice on how to vote (different to the last post where I laid out why I’m not telling people what to vote, in my next ‘how to’ post I’ll talk about how to participate in the conversation).  I think you can follow these steps and end up with a variety of positions on the plebiscite; but these are the things I think we should be weighing up. As Christians.

  1. Consider your vote prayerfully.
    Knowing that God isn’t just the creator, but the sustainer of all things — who works through governments for his purposes, even as he hardens the hearts of these governments in judgment, or uses them to promote good and restrain evil. Pray to God for his wisdom, that he would be merciful, and for the sake of your neighbours. Pray that his kingdom might come (you know, the Lord’s Prayer), and then live as though your life is shaped by that prayer. There’s a great irony that this prayer is prayed by our parliament before it sits — I agree with those who say it shouldn’t be; because I don’t think our politicians are in a position to work towards it being answered the way God answers it in the death and resurrection of Jesus and the launch of his kingdom; the church.
  2. Consider your vote knowing that if you’re a Christian, Jesus is your king and you are a citizen of heaven.
    You live as a dual citizen, or a foreigner, whose first allegiance is to Jesus. This is what it looks like to live the Lord’s Prayer — his kingdom coming as you live for Jesus and encourage others to do the same. This doesn’t present issues if you’re a Christian in terms of our Aussie constitution — our government doesn’t recognise this dual citizenship; but you must.
  3. Consider your participation in our democracy carefully.
    Marriage is a big deal. How we engage politically is a big deal. And this is more complicated than an arbitrary black/white view of the world allows. We live in a parliamentary democracy. Consider how parliament should be making decisions for a diverse community. We live in a secular democracy where our constitution says there is no established religion (s116), and we generally consider this a good thing because, for example, it means we’re not a Catholic country, and our head of state is not also the head of a church (though the Queen technically is the head of the Church of England, so, umm…). This stuff — the nature of our political reality — matters more than some voices suggest it does. Different people have different ideas about how democracy functions, and how we should function in it as a Christian; don’t vote blind on this. Consider how you want others treating democracy when it comes to your citizenship, when thinking about how your citizenship should be exercised for their sake too.
  4. Consider your participation as a Christian carefully.
    What does your faith require of you? I’d say we’re people who follow Jesus as king, who live for his kingdom as members of his kingdom, and so we seek to follow his example and his commands. We also want our neighbours to become disciples because that’s the chief good for them. How might our vote (and our conversations around the vote) best serve those ends; not just support a secondary good thing, like marriage, but present and pursue the primary good — people knowing Jesus. Jesus says some very clear things about marriage and how our sexuality is shaped by participation in the kingdom (Matthew 19); but it’s not immediately clear how these words about life in the kingdom apply to our neighbours who aren’t yet citizens of heaven (which, we believe, comes with the indwelling of the Holy Spirit). How might the Lord’s Prayer apply to your vote and actions? What best serves the fulfilment of that prayer being not people living as though they belong to the kingdom when they don’t, but people following Jesus as Lord and King.
  5. Consider your vote in terms of what the Bible says and expects of people who do and don’t worship God
    The Bible pretty much begins with marriage, and it ends with marriage. God makes people and gives us marriage as a way (not the only way) to fulfil his command to be fruitful and multiply. Marriage is part of God’s design for human life (but not essential to being human). It is a good gift from God, and when people, Christian or otherwise, enjoy that good gift in ways close to how God designed it, it’s good for them. Marriage as we know it is never as God designed it. It is frustrated by the curse of sin (specifically in Genesis 3:16). There is no ideal marriage; but we still have a picture of that ideal. The Old Testament tells many stories of marriages that are not ideal amongst God’s people (eg David and Michal, David and Bathsheba, Solomon and his 700 wives), and many that aren’t ideal outside of God’s people (eg Esther and Xerxes), and some that appear to be reasonably beautiful (Ruth and Boaz). The Old Testament operates on the expectation that people who reject God as God and turn to other gods will trash God’s design for humanity and marriage — that we will become dead and breathless, reflecting the images we worship, but also that once that happens the natural order of things will be rapidly eradicated (eg Leviticus 18). It also assumes that God’s relationship to his people is a marriage like relationship — and they become adulterous, cheating, spouses who God patiently waits for. The New Testament contains the life and example of Jesus, and his teachings on marriage, but it also contains a wedding invitation — we’re invited to become ‘the bride of Christ’ — to be God’s faithful people again (to join the love story of the Old Testament); without that story people won’t understand marriage as God designed it; with that story how we approach our marriages (if we’re married) will be shaped by the love of Jesus (Ephesians 5), as will not being married (Matthew 19, 1 Corinthians 7). Marriage makes sense to us as Christians because of what we believe; can we really expect it to make the same sense to people who choose not to love and worship God (Romans 1, which is a lot like Leviticus 18).
  6. Consider the models of engagement we have with non-Christian (or non-Godly) governments in the Bible
    Lots of our ‘political theology’ in the west was written in the context of governments that had been shaped by, and were supportive of, Christianity. That’s not the scenario we find for ourselves now, so it’s time to channel the Spirit of the protestant reformers and go back to the source material. The Old Testament Prophets had a particular responsibility as the voice of God speaking to Israel’s government (mostly) calling for repentance; there’s not much evidence of these prophets speaking directly to the nations (there’s some in 1-2 Kings). Joseph participates in and supports the regime of the first Pharaoh, Moses becomes a member of the later Pharaoh’s household and uses that position to unsuccessfully make the case for life God’s way; his success depends on God pretty drastically stepping in to rescue his people from deadly slavery. Jonah is probably the best picture of a prophet speaking directly to a government outside of Israel calling them to but we don’t really hear much of the substance of his message (Jonah 3), the whole book seems to serve as a condemnation of Israel for its collective failure to bless the nations the way they should have (Genesis 12), by representing God well (Jonah ends on a downer, him being in the whale is a like exile from God for disobedience). Solomon also had lots of opportunities to share God’s wisdom with the leaders of the nations (in the world of the Old Testament, like in the story of Jonah, if you converted the head of a state to a religious belief, that became the religion of the people). Esther operated from within the courts of a pretty nasty regime, at personal cost, to bring about God’s promises to his people. Daniel and his friends did the same with Nebuchadnezzar who saw himself as a god (idolatry); but they did this in a manner of faithful difference; they didn’t participate in disobedience to God personally, but by serving that regime they were participants in that system without being corrupted. I’ve seen John the Baptist cited as a political model a few times — but he called Israel to repent and be ready for the coming king and kingdom; and challenged Herod, who had set himself up as a pretender to that particular throne — Herod and his old man considered themselves the kings of Israel. Herod sr had tried to exterminate Jesus as a baby because he didn’t want competition. Jesus told us to expect persecution and to love our enemies and turn the other cheek, including from the authorities and promised to give his disciples the words to say when they were on trial (Matt 10); the government of his day executed him (the same government Paul says is used by God for his good purposes and as a servant). Paul appears before governors and kings on route to his trial in Rome; and uses his trials to proclaim the Gospel — when he’s appearing before Festus and Agrippa, Agrippa even says to him ‘are you hoping to convert me’, to which Paul replies:Paul replied, “Short time or long—I pray to God that not only you but all who are listening to me today may become what I am, except for these chains.” — Acts 25:29Imagine if that was the approach Christians were taking when our positions are put on ‘trial’ in the public square. Recognising that governments (and governors) aren’t Christian; but that we can live with them as Christians seeking the good of our neighbours while being different and using that difference to persuade people to love Jesus. If Joseph, Daniel, Paul, and Jesus are your models for engaging with a non-Christian government (I’m not sure you should marry the king, like Esther did), then that’s probably a good thing; the prophets and John the Baptist adopted a particular stance towards God’s people when they looked indistinguishable from the nations. We might one day need Moses types who call the government to ‘let our people go’ — but we’re not there yet. 
  7. Consider your vote in terms of what it means to love your neighbour as you love yourself; and to do for them what you would have them do for you
    This one is where it gets tricky and all the options are still on the table because we have to balance competing goods (and life in a non-ideal world with what the ultimate ideal is). Vote out of love for your neighbour. Weigh up what the complexity of life together throws up at us. Consider your ultimate goal for your neighbours — whoever they are — for Christians our goal for one another is to present others mature in Christ; I suspect that pastoral goal should frame all of our political endeavours, and that our sense of what is good for our Christian brothers and sisters (and ourselves) should shape our love for others and the future we would have for them, which means our political goal should also be evangelistic — in that we should want our neighbours to be open to hearing about Jesus. We don’t love people as a means to that ends though; love is an ends in itself for our ‘political life’.
  8. Consider your participation in democracy as much more than voting
    Politics is not about power but about life together as people. It is about citizenship; not government (that’s what the word means). People in a polis are people who in some sense are joined as citizens. Voting is one way we shape that life together, as we appoint people to govern for us (or make our voices heard), but there is much more to life together than voting, and much more to a good life together than simply not transgressing laws; the good and ethical life is not constrained or limited by our politicians but by something like civility, or neighbouring. Consider what being a good neighbour and citizen might look like here beyond this non-binding, non-compulsary, survey  — and how, perhaps, your participation in the conversation around the survey is more political and will shape your relationships with other citizens and what life together looks like than the vote itself.What would happen if we saw politics first as neighbouring or hospitality and our participation in public conversations first as being an exercise in listening and empathy before in being heard? What would happen if every Christian committed to getting to know at least one individual or couple who are seeking a law change because of their desires (I suspect there’d be a lot less slippery slope arguing and a lot less talking past each other). How might that change your vote? Your process of considering your vote? Your approach to politics? What if before you vote you commit yourself to reaching out to people you know in the LGBTIQA community to find out what they desire and why; to figure out what parts of those desires you can understand, empathise with, and recognise? What if you commit to understanding the best arguments for or against by listening and seeking to understand; not simply proclaiming your vision of the truth by vote or declaration (or Facebook profile picture).
  9. Consider gently and respectfully rejecting the status quo as it is served up to you (this is a democracy after all)
    Accepting that politics is about participating in a vote where there are only two options on the table and the contest is framed as a zero sum game is an unimaginative reinforcing of the status quo. Consider that a plebiscite might run counter to the spirit of our system of democracy (where we elect decision makers to act for all, not just to act according to the opinion polls or the popular vote).
  10. Consider not telling anybody how you’re voting or making this a further point of division between Christians and the world.
    It’s one thing to have a stance, it’s another thing to aggressively campaign in the name of ‘participating in the conversation’ or ‘defending what you believe’; you don’t have to campaign just because people organising a campaign tell you to. You’ll inevitably defend a position against somebody who holds that position rather than finding some sort of common ground or different solution. What is gained by publicly taking a stance? I recognise you might think this is ironic given my recent post about abstaining; but I publicly did not take a stance (or took no stance) in response to a call from other Christian leaders suggesting that not only should we take a public stance; but we should be compelled to publicly take a particular stance.
  11. Consider that our best political statement as Christians is Jesus; that praying and living ‘your kingdom come’ and proclaiming the kingdom is political; and allows our words and marriages to be political in a different sense.We Christians have made the mistake of allowing our view to be defined as the ‘no case’ for same sex marriage rather than the ‘yes case’ for Jesus and what he says about marriage, sex, and love. Getting people to love Jesus more than the idea of marriage is the most profound political change we can be part of in our society; it’s also God’s political mission. There’s lots we can say about marriage that is tied to the Gospel; Paul says that marriage is a ‘mystery’ in how it reflects the relationship between Jesus and the Church, so that to speak of one is ultimately to speak of the other; you wouldn’t know that hearing Christian voices in the public square making the ‘no case’ — our challenge, at the water cooler, online, in our marriages, and as we participate in political life (and this conversation about marriage); is to have our dual citizenship on show; to live ‘your kingdom come’; to love our neighbours by pointing them to the marriage proposal we have on the table from God, and to have those we engage with echo the words of Agrippa:”Do you think that in such a short time you can persuade me to be a Christian?”

    And our answer be: I pray it’s so, such is my love for you.

What I want people to know about marriage and the plebiscite…

What I believe about marriage

I’m a Christian.

This means I believe that Jesus Christ is God’s king (Christ just means ‘king’). It means I believe in a God who made the world, who made us, who loves us enough to send Jesus to die for us to not just connect us to the life God made us for, or pay the price for our failure to live that life, but to bring us a new sort of life altogether; eternal life. I believe the God who made the world and us actually has something to say about the ideal human life. The Bible opens with the story of God making us as his ‘image bearers’ in the world — representatives of the nature and character of God, and shows that his plan for humanity involves us ‘being fruitful and multiplying’ — in the next part of the story he puts people in a garden filled with beautiful things to do and eat. It’s legitimate to take this ‘fruity’ picture of human life and talk about what, for people who believe in the Bible, a ‘flourishing’ or good and fruitful life looks like.

The God in the Bible’s first chapters is good, and loving, and hospitable. We are to be like him. There’s another complex and mind blowingly good thing about the Christian God; the Christian God is triune, a God of relationship because the nature of God is relational — father, son and Spirit. When this God makes humankind, God says ‘let us make man in our image’ — the ‘us’ and ‘our’ are plural; and then we’re told he makes us male and female; different and equal, different and necessary in this job of being like God. We see something of God’s nature and image when his image bearers relate together in intimate love. Our culture believes intimacy is just about sex, but the Bible doesn’t say all intimacy is sexual, it does, however, then picture sexuality and marriage — between men and women — as part of what a flourishing life might look like. I’d say that intimate relationships with others are an essential part of bearing God’s image, and marriage between a man and a woman is a form of that; another form is family, so when the story of the Bible introduces marriage as a foundational and good-for-flourishing relationship, it says this:

The man said,

“This is now bone of my bones
    and flesh of my flesh;
she shall be called ‘woman,’
    for she was taken out of man.”

 That is why a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh.

This is what Christians believe marriage is — two different image bearers (man and woman) — joining together to express a particular sort of oneness, or intimacy, through sex (a joining of flesh) and a ‘communion’ or commitment to unity. Like God’s inter-triune love spills out to produce the creation of the world and humanity, this marriage relationship can produce a particular sort of fruit; the ‘multiplication’ Genesis 1 talks about — children. It creates families as a context for more love and intimacy. In an ideal world. The world doesn’t stay ideal for very long in the Bible’s story, in the next few sentences in the Bible this first marriage almost falls apart, and the love and intimacy pictured initially fades away, or is shattered, by self interest.

Christians believe this picture of marriage and intimacy is God’s design for all people; for the good and fruitful life. If we were able to achieve it, and as much as we are able to achieve it, the outcomes are better than alternative options. We believe it is good for people who don’t believe in God even if they don’t believe it is; and so that it can be loving to encourage people to see marriage the way it is created by God. This is complicated in a world where belief in God is contested, and where there are other understandings of what marriage is. It’s also complicated in a world where there is so much wrong with us, and with marriage, that this ideal almost never seems to happen; even in good marriages; those marriages are affected by our selfishness so that they aren’t ‘perfect harmonious unions’ or ‘perfect intimacy’. So we can’t argue for an ideal that is impossible to achieve, but nor should we ignore this ideal in thinking about what a good or flourishing life looks like.

When we get things wrong in this world it’s an expression of what happens in the next part of the story — sin — our rejection of God’s plan for human flourishing, and our pursuit of our own. It’s interesting that this attempt to redefine flourishing also involves fruit; and the rejection of God’s hospitable plan for a flourishing life.

For Christians, our goal is to pursue relationships that reflect who we were made to be, life and love reflecting the character of God. Our marriages are part of that, but not all of that… we also have a ‘church family’ that we belong to; brothers and sisters not just of flesh and blood, but people adopted into God’s family. We’re used to family structures that are bigger than just the biological, and understand that children are often raised in the context of a village or community far beyond just these biological family units. That’s what it looks like when we use our marriages and families for the overflowing of love, intimacy (beyond sex), and hospitality.

We can’t really do this getting back to the created ideal, we believe, on our own steam. Our hearts and loves are so disordered by our attempts to build fruitful or flourishing lives that we naturally put all sorts of things in the place God is meant to occupy in our hearts, minds, and devotion. We put money first. Or sex first. Or marriage first. Or the success of our nuclear family first. All these things are good things, but when our sin, our selfishness, leads us to put these things first we are both putting God out of his place, and distorting the way we live around our love for these things. An example of this would be where valuing my nuclear family might stop me hospitably loving those in need, or where valuing money above my family might turn me into a miser who doesn’t treat my children generously or kindly; we all have a hierarchy of loves; and if we put anything other than God at the top of that hierarchy, that thing becomes our god, and rules our other loves. We all understand the ‘flourishing’ life based on what we put in this God slot. The Bible says that just like in this first story in the Bible, when we reject God and pursue flourishing apart from him — he gives us what we want — life apart from him, which actually means death, because he is the source of life. The Bible pictures this as exile from God, or estrangement, or divorce. A breaking of intimacy. This is what Christians mean when we talk about sin earning judgment from God — he lovingly gives us what we ask for, we just don’t always realise we’re asking for death. And we miss that God wants our good, and that his ways are best for us, and that there’s actually harm and destruction involved in choosing to love things other than him.

The Old Testament frames life in this world in this way; we can pursue fruitfulness by choosing the living God, and be given the goodness of eternal life in him, or we can pursue fruitfulness apart from him and choose to love, or worship, dead, breathless, things and so die. These things are good things God has made — like marriage — but if we make them ultimate things we die. Over and over again it becomes clear that we can’t actually choose life by default; that we need God to intervene and change our loves by reclaiming them; the Old Testament is the story of humanity waiting for God to re-order our loves by his Spirit; it’s us waiting for the image of God in all of us to be rediscovered and re-breathed into, because we humans become the image of dead gods as we pursue them.

Now. This all seems a long way from the conversation about marriage; so let’s head back that way.

God, in the Old Testament, is depicted as a scorned spouse; a divorcee, who waits patiently for his ex — us — to stop playing the field, loving all sorts of things or partners, that aren’t our spouse, who waits with the offer that we might come home to the one who truly loves and is good for us; but doesn’t just wait passively. God sets out to bring us back by sending Jesus — a person of the Trinity — into the world to invite us back. We humans, generally, don’t think much of that offer, we like playing the field; so we killed Jesus. We mostly scorned his offer. We mostly choose to keep doing our own thing; but some of us — Christians — take it up. We re-enter the intimate relationship with God that we were made for. And this intimate relationship shapes how we understand our other intimate relationships; including marriage and family. We start pursuing God’s pattern for life again. We start ordering our sexual love and where we seek intimacy around God’s design for flourishing.

Now. I’m a Christian, as I said, which means I love Jesus. I love Jesus more than I love my wife. I love God too, but there’s something particular about a Christian’s relationship to Jesus. I love Jesus, and Jesus is a man, and I’m a man… the Bible even pictures the Christian’s love for Jesus (brought about by an intimate relationship where God dwells in us and makes us one with the Trinity by the Spirit, ‘uniting us to Christ’) as a marriage; the church is often called ‘the bride of Christ’. For some churches, especially the Catholic Church, marriage is a sacrament; something that reveals something deep, and true, and real, about our relationship with God. This is even part of why the Catholics practice celibacy for nuns and priests. I’m not Catholic, I don’t think marriage is a sacrament because I don’t think all people should (or can) participate in marriage. But I do believe marriage is a picture of the Gospel and the oneness it creates; it’s something beautiful for Christians because of this symbolism, and this symbolism is to shape the way we approach marriages as Christians (Ephesians 5:21-33). I believe, as a Christian, that how I understand marriage, and how I either participate in marriage, or don’t, is a product of who God is (and who I am, a sinful and broken image bearer being transformed by God’s Spirit). I don’t believe that Christian marriages are ideal, or never end in divorce, or never feature sinful behaviour; but I do believe Christians approach marriage by putting God first, and loving Jesus such that our ‘marriage’ to him is our ultimate reality. Jesus puts it this way when he is asked about marriage by people trying to figure out how it works in a broken world. They’re actually asking about divorce, and how that works, but he answers them by going all the way back to the beginning of the story, and God’s design for marriage:

Haven’t you read,” he replied, “that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” — Matthew 19:4-6

As his answer continues, Jesus makes a bold claim that how we approach marriage, and sex (our loves for things and people God has made that reveal something about the nature of God) — how we approach the ‘flourishing life’, actually begins with how we understand our relationship with him as our loving king, and how we understand life in his kingdom. He says:

“Not everyone can accept this word, but only those to whom it has been given. For there are eunuchs who were born that way, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others—and there are those who choose to live like eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. The one who can accept this should accept it.” — Matthew 19:11-12

There are three things to notice here:

  1. Jesus knows this teaching is hard and some won’t accept it.
  2. Jesus says some are born ‘eunuchs’ — eunuchs were unable to be married or have sex, typically because they had been castrated so they could be ‘safely’ around a powerful person’s collection of wives (a horrible practice); but Jesus says some are born in such a way that marriage as God has designed it is not for them.
  3. Jesus says some will choose to live as eunuchs — without sex and marriage — ‘for the sake of the kingdom of heaven’
  4. Jesus repeats that this teaching is for ‘the one who can accept it’ and that if they can they should.

Jesus is saying that our human flourishing; our need for intimacy, might first be found in the kingdom of heaven, and that this will, for some people, shape how we participate (or don’t) in marriage and family. There are many Christians who are same sex attracted, or single, who practice this teaching by not marrying and being celibate. If this meant ‘no intimacy’ that would be destructive for human flourishing; intimacy (apart from sex) instead needs to be found in the context of family; I think it’s reasonable in the first century to see this as taking place in being adopted into a household (the church, and the way it gathered as family), but it probably also comes with the adoption of children within that family, and a role with them. This has interesting implications for how we, the church, might accommodate families built around a same sex union where those parents choose to follow Jesus, and so redefine their family life around his teaching about sex, marriage, and intimacy.

Because I believe all this, I’m very happy to affirm the Presbyterian Church’s doctrinal position on marriage, before the plebiscite, and after it, no matter what the result is. This is what I believe marriage is, and the basis on which I will conduct marriages as a minister, and seek to have those marriages recognised by the government of Australia:

“the life-long union of one man with one woman, voluntarily entered into, excluding all others.”

I believe this is what marriage is. Unequivocally. I also believe that a good and flourishing life involves seeing marriage this way, and either entering or not entering one on that basis. I believe marriage, defined this way, is the best definition of marriage for my society and my neighbours.

But (the limits of my belief in a democracy).

I don’t think the plebiscite is asking “what is your definition of marriage” or “how do you understand marriage” but “what should the definition of marriage be in Australia”. I believe these are different questions (as I’ve been trying to spell out in previous conversations). While I understand the logic of people who agree with me on the definition of marriage in wanting to see that definition upheld as long as possible, and find it compelling, I also believe there are limits to how far this definition can and will extend.

I believe these limits are, in some ways, actually God-given, as a result of our departure from his plan for a flourishing life (as cultures, not just individuals); and our decision to have common gods, or idols, that shape our society and our understanding of the good and flourishing life in community.

I believe this makes this marriage debate more complicated than the plebiscite and this discussion allows it to be, and think we should have a much more sophisticated conversation, with better solutions than those that are currently on the table (one might be for the government to stop defining marriage altogether, and to just offer ‘registered relationships’, another would be to have an inclusive definition of marriage with very robust freedom of religion laws that go beyond simply protecting celebrants). This is why I don’t think there’s a clear cut binding case for Christians (or Presbyterians) to vote no in the plebiscite campaign, or persuade others to do so, while holding to the definition of marriage above.

There are five important things to notice.

  1. I am a Christian.
  2. I believe marriage is defined this way, and that it is built into a good life in this world, because I am a Christian and believe God made the world.
  3. Many of my neighbours are not Christians.
  4. Some of my neighbours identify as Christians and have a different understanding of marriage.
  5. Australia is a democracy.

I love my neighbours, and one of the ways I think I’m to do this is to participate well in the democracy (I don’t buy that participating well means accepting the status quo for participation established via special interests, or a winner takes all approach to power and discourse; I don’t believe it is limited to casting a vote). Here’s how this love shapes my thinking about this debate.

  • Because I love my neighbours and want them to flourish I would like them to become Christians; to meet Jesus and find God’s pattern for a flourishing life.
  • Because I love my neighbours I also want them to be free to pursue life in the same way that God wants them to; to choose life in God, and its consequences, or to choose life apart from God and its consequences. I want to make the case for the former, but I want to accept and protect the right for them to do the latter, even if that means they adopt different meanings for words and institutions as a result.
  • Because Australia is a democracy, I think it should accommodate this free pursuit, and my ability to make the case for a flourishing life being found in God’s design, including his design for marriage (and the corollary that life apart from God is not a flourishing life at all). You might think this case hangs on the plebiscite result; I’m looking beyond it. If you think the plebiscite is the be all and end all, then you should definitely vote no and campaign accordingly.
  • Because Australia is a democracy I believe other people should have a say in, and be represented in, the laws of Australia. Just as I should, and I hope my views might be accommodated still beyond marriage redefinition.
  • Because Australia is a democracy, and we all have the ability to have a say in how our society operates, and what the law does and doesn’t recognise, we should all speak, converse, vote, and live according to our consciences and our freedom; balancing this with the freedoms of others, and seeking their good (I can see how this can lead to a no vote, a yes vote, or a not voting approach to the plebiscite).

Here’s some other bits and pieces to throw in the mix of this conversation.

I believe that it is presently true that all Australians can enter into a marriage as God defines it for Christians, and as the law currently defines it; there have been and continue to be, many same sex attracted people entering opposite orientation marriages. My sister is married to my brother in law, who is same sex attracted.

I believe that it’s at least partly evident that what we’re being asked for is to change the fundamental definition of marriage (and that it’s not about love at all), and that this is clear because we have to qualify the word to talk about the campaign ‘same sex marriage’; some people calling for a changed definition have noticed this and started saying ‘or as I prefer to call it ‘just marriage’… it’s not bigotry to point this out, and to ask what might be at stake in the change; but nor is that we’re changing the definition of a word or institution a knockdown argument. We do that all the time, for very good reasons (and sometimes for bad reasons).

The best argument for same sex marriage

I hear many gay neighbours — those who are strangers and friends — asking for the definition of marriage to change because they believe they should have the right to pursue a flourishing life as they see fit; which includes changing the definition of the word marriage to incorporate their life long commitment to another, at the exclusion of all others. This is, I think, compelling in the context of a secular democracy where no religious view is given priority.

I don’t believe ‘love is love’ is actually the best argument for marriage redefinition, marriage equality, or same sex marriage. I don’t buy the argument that sex is love (or that it necessarily involves, or is involved in, intimacy). I believe it’s that for a gay couple to flourish as best as they can within their understanding of the good life in this world, a relationship of commitment, love, and intimacy, is, without God, better for them than alternatives. And, because gay couples can already adopt, birth, and raise children, I believe this sort of relationship provides more stability for children than alternatives (just as this is true for marriages that are not Christian marriages). I don’t believe these marriages are God’s ideal (or marriage at all, in God’s sight, or the sight of the church), but I am able to hold my (God’s) definition of marriage while recognising that other people can and will define marriage differently. That must surely be how Christians in nations where marriage has been redefined operate? And how we must operate beyond the plebiscite if marriage is then redefined at law in Australia. I don’t see this as involving cognitive dissonance, or cheapening my own definition or marriage just because the meaning of the word now being contested.

I believe it is important to listen well, and with empathy, to our gay neighbours, and to understand what they seek and why our best arguments for marriage don’t convince them. I believe it has been a mistake for Christian leaders to ignore the human rights arguments for marriage because we think human rights are either conferred by the God our neighbours don’t believe in, are non-existent, or must be universal. It means that there is some emotional weight to the argument that we are this century’s racists or bigots. We’ve utterly failed to engage with this argument in a compelling way because we’ve tended to simply deny its weight, or we’ve jumped straight to the important question of competing rights without acknowledging the strength of the argument (on the basis of human flourishing and ‘the good’ and that being derived from a competing view of the world).

What about the rights of the child and ‘normalisation’ of ‘genderless parenting’

Some people believe that our duty as Christians is to help the government ‘restrain evil’ or maximise morality, through our vote (I’d say that’s one way to do it, but it’s limited). This sounds nice in an ideal world where there’s a clear line between black and white. They use this line of argument to say that a Christian must oppose same sex marriage not so much because of the freedom of the people entering the marriage, but for the rights of the children. Life in this world — a world that isn’t ideal, but is broken by sin — is complicated, and a good life involves balancing non ideal options while pursuing virtue out of love for others. Here’s a little example of a conundrum; Christians are rightly heartbroken by abortion, we see it as a fundamentally unrelated question to the question of same sex marriage, but it isn’t. Everything is connected. One of the solutions for minimising abortion must surely be to allow more imaginative options for a woman fearing the results of an unwanted pregnancy; including, as many Christians have suggested, better adoption laws. Now. We say children should have a right to know their biological parents; but that’s not the same as saying they should not be adopted, because we’d say in this other circumstance that adoption is better than abortion. That creates a quandary though when it comes to same sex adoption, doesn’t it? Life is complicated; ethics are often about retrieving good, and restraining evil, is it better, for those opposing same sex marriage through the children’s rights prism, for those children to be adopted or aborted? Idealism can make for some pretty messed up politics; our world is a world of competing goods, competing evils, and imaginative solutions. Wisdom is about charting a course between these competing rights, wrongs, and contested rights and contested wrongs.

Human rights can, I think, be conferred within a particular community by the decision of that community, in response to the desires of people within that community. I do believe that the rights of children are important, and that in an ideal world a child would know their biological family (and they should have a right to know) — but also that family is bigger than biology (and the suggestion that it isn’t is relatively modern and western; for example, adoption in Rome made parentage a very interesting thing, and part of the early church growing as rapidly as it did was their practice of adopting and caring for abandoned and unwanted children, in part because our doctrine of adoption into God’s family as co-heirs with Christ makes that a really big deal). I don’t believe we operate in an ideal world, or a Christian one, but a world where ideas are contested and in some sense this contest should, wherever possible, involve contradictory ideas co-existing through a commitment to charity and empathy.

Now, let’s for a moment take off the political hat and put on the pastoral and evangelistic hat we should be wearing as the church; the Gospel hat. How will our words here and now be heard by the same sex families that already exist? Let alone the future ones? How will our statements about absolutes and ideals and good and evil (disconnected from the Gospel and its power to re-order our loves) be heard by these families, who are already vulnerable because they fall outside social norms (there’s a reason people in our community think we need Safe Schools, and it’s not that Christians have an exclusive run on bigotry/hatred of people outside the norm). How might we speak about these families in a way that supports them and invites them to see us as an ally in loving them and their kids in a world where there is no ideal? I want gay families to come to my church. I want them to be loved by us. I want them to hear of God’s love for them and decide together what impact that will have on their life together, and I want our church families to be geared towards intimacy enough that these families can continue to love each other, be committed to each other, be involved in the lives of the children they’ve committed to, but also pursue a flourishing life of faith in Jesus. This isn’t helped when Christians publicly suggest we’re creating a stolen generation or the ‘commodification of children’.

My biggest concerns

Let’s go back to my first paragraph. I’m a Christian. I think God is real and good and loving. And the best life is found in loving him. Not in sex. Not in marriage. Not in human family and having and raising children (though these are all good things). I don’t want to spend the next few weeks (or years) trying to tell people why they should see marriage the way I see it without also, or first, inviting people to see the world the way I see it; to see the goodness of God’s design for our humanity, for intimacy, and for love. To see that a life lived with God at the centre, following Jesus, is a better, more beautiful, and more presently and eternally satisfying life — so much so that we can change or give up other loves, and approach other good gifts of God differently to our neighbours.

I want my neighbours to understand how marriage operates in the lives of Christians who believe the stuff I’ve written above; that it is special and important and good for humanity. I want Christians to work hard at building marriage relationships, families, and intimacy beyond sex, in such a way that our way of life is compelling and definitively and persuasively ‘more flourishing’ than the alternatives. As I participate in this particular conversation I want it to be the top half of this post that is my consistent contribution to the conversation, it’s having that view accommodated that is my goal in a democracy (not having it squish all other views). I want to listen more than I speak. I want people to understand that love and intimacy in marriage is good, but love and intimacy in Jesus and his church is better (I want to build the church so it actually is better too). And that they’re fundamentally connected — that marriage is a metaphor for the bigger and richer reality of connection to God.

Here’s an interesting thing; McCrindle Research indicates that a growing percentage of Aussies know very few Christians in real life; some people are unable to empathise with our cold ‘rational’ arguments because they have no emotional/relational context to see or hear them in. You want to persuade people about Christian marriage and family — invite them into your home; but I reckon there’s a corollary. I think part of our tone deafness on this when it comes to the trenches, is that so many Christians have no deep relationships with gay people or couples. We’re not able to feel the strength of their emotional or coherently rational (without God) arguments, because we have no emotional/relational context to hear them, and when we do hear them it’s in the context of a fight where we’re just seeking to defend our patch.

We’re not even great at accommodating same sex attracted people in our churches and providing non-sexual intimacy, and non-biological family, in our church culture. How many of us have shared meals with gay friends in our homes, or even on our streets? How many of us are listening to reports from vulnerable gay people about what this plebiscite feels like for them? How quick are we to dismiss those emotions and hurts as valid data in an ‘evidence based’ democracy? How many of us are prepared to question the status quo of democracy in this country and whether a zero-sum game built around a non-binding vote following a public conversation where we hurl invective at each other is the best way to make decisions for the good of all? To participate in our democracy according to this status quo is to reinforce it… yet saying you’re not going to participate in a non-binding plebiscite creates the assumption you’re not doing your duty or participating in our shared life.

I believe the best thing for my gay neighbours — before or after they marry, if they marry or not — is loving Jesus. That marriage. I don’t want to be asking or answering ‘how does the church fight the gay marriage culture war’, but ‘how do we help our neighbours discover the love and intimacy of God and his people in a way that makes us wonder if sex and marriage are actually the ultimate thing to build our life around.

I want to be asking, talking, and pondering questions like: ‘how do we be a church that gay families come into, where they meet Jesus in such a way that it radically rearranges their lives’ in the same way I want to be asking ‘how do we be a church that straight families come into, where they meet Jesus in such a way that it radically rearranges their lives’ — at the moment our tone deaf, un-empathetic, approach to the marriage debate means I don’t think we need to worry too much about those questions; there’s very little chance that, apart from a miraculous work of God, these families are going to check Jesus out at all; we’re hardening hearts towards Jesus, rather than softening them. I say this appreciating the paradox that somehow it is always a miracle for someone to move from death to life as the Spirit works in us, and that it is God who softens and hardens hearts; I think God delights in doing this through soft-hearted people though.

A political theology (outlined): Or ‘why I’m not advocating Christians say nothing about politics’

Well. I’ve certainly learned my lesson. I will not be posting short posts very much anymore. They take far more time than long ones… I’ve also learned that when you leave things unsaid people will make all sorts of assumptions about what you are saying. So let me clear this up. Because this objection is the one that irks me most. People making this accusation may not be aware that I’ve consistently written about how to participate in our democracy, and spoken out about many issues, from the framework I’m advocating, but this framework does also keep evolving so this post might serve to outline some more of what I’m actually arguing for.

Allow me to introduce you to what is a growing body of work about how Christians engage in the public sphere, as Christians, and a growing conviction that pluralism is part of the picture when it comes to life in a democracy. Then. To clear things up a bit further; in my next post I’ll demonstrate how speaking into the marriage debate (while abstaining from voting in the plebiscite) is possible by actually doing it (again), according to what I believe is a consistent application of this model.

I’ll do another numbered list; with links to posts and short summary statements.

  1. Any ‘political theology’ begins with a theological anthropology. An understanding of what it means to be human (because politics is about being human together). My anthropology is built around the idea that all people are made in the image of God to worship, glorify, and represent him; but that the distorting effect of sin is that we worship idols, represent them, and are conformed into their image. The image of God remains in us so long as we draw breath (because that we live and breathe is part of what distinguishes us from idols); but we work to eradicate it, apart from God, until death when we finally become ‘breathless’ like the things we worship. We are worshippers. This, more than any other thing, is what separates humans from animals and actually underpins all the other differences and distinctives of our humanity (that we tell stories, that we imagine, that we make things, that we love etc).
  2. I believe that being made in the image of God is not a thing we do as individuals; that when God says ‘let us make man in our image’ and then he makes us ‘male and female’ it indicates that image bearing is something we do in community. Here’s a great quote from a journal article by Brendon Benz titled ‘The Ethics of the Fall: Restoring the Divine Image through the Pursuit of Biblical Wisdom’:

    “Genesis 1 indicates that God is imaged only when two or more are gathered in the freely self-limiting relational character of God…The implication of this requirement is that an individual neither posses the divine image as a substance of his or her own being, nor images God in isolation. Rather, the imago Dei is manifest only in relation”

    This is a big claim, but I think borne out by Genesis 2 and the declaration that unlike the rest of creation in its completion, ‘it is not good’ for Adam to be alone… This means that image bearing is itself essentially ‘political’ if politics is the ‘organisation of life together’.

  3. Any Christian political theology, and any ‘Christian’ engagement with the public sphere/politics, is built around an underlying conviction that Jesus is Lord, and life following him is life as a member of his kingdom. The Gospel is inherently political in that it creates a kingdom (a polis), and revolves around serving a king.
  4. The Gospel is a political message centred on the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. The crucifixion shapes our manner such that living as a citizen of the kingdom of God requires a certain commitment to the message of the crucifixion, and a posture of cruciformity. God’s strength is not found in political clout, but in weakness; in us embodying the Gospel as a community, and this is what it looks like for us to represent God by being conformed into the image of Jesus (this is, essentially, the subject of my masters thesis, with some of point 1)
  5. When I say I’m not interested in contributing to political discussion ‘apart from the Gospel’ as I did in my plebiscite post; I do not, and never have, meant we should speak ‘just the Gospel’ in a sort of emphasis on individual salvation through the cross, or say nothing (I don’t think that’s what the Gospel is, I think salvation is an implication of the Gospel, which instead, is the proclamation that Jesus is Lord and king, and an invitation to join his kingdom through his victory over sin and death at the cross and in his resurrection, and then to follow his example by the Spirit… Instead, I mean we must ground our positions in the goodness of God revealed in Jesus, and in his Lordship of our lives (and our belief that he is Lord of all and the source of the good, or flourishing, life for all people). When I say ‘apart from the Gospel’ I mean I’m not interested in public Christianity that comes from an anthropology that thinks natural law arguments will be enough to reason people into righteousness, or approaches the secular democracy we live in as though we must only make ‘secular’ arguments. When I say ‘the Gospel’ I include the invitation to turn to Jesus (away from sin), and the implication of not doing that (God’s judgment now — a less good life according to his design for life — and the trajectory towards death, not life, this puts people on).
  6. Because the Gospel is political and shapes the way we live in public as citizens of God’s kingdom, and of the place we live as embodied image bearers, there is no ‘secular/sacred’ divide; and the modern idea that faith is a private matter does not line up with our understanding of faith in Jesus. The idea that faith is private has reinforced a divide between the sacred and the secular in the minds of our politicians and media, which means that, for example, religious protections will almost certainly be offered to clergy around same sex marriage, but nobody else. One way to keep addressing this is to keep participating in public political debate as Christians not as ‘secular citizens.’ But that means point 4 and 5 are important and essential elements of our contributions.
  7. I believe, as Christians, we have legitimate insight into what the good and flourishing life looks like for our neighbours; but that this is always connected with the good and abundant life secured for us by Jesus; the call to rediscover our humanity as it was made to be through Jesus, and the renovation of our humanity that comes through the indwelling of the Spirit. I believe the goodness of God and his love for us reorders our loves of the things he has made, and it is this reordering that makes the Gospel truly good news for people who have rejected his design and worshipped created things instead. We should speak of that flourishing, but always in connection to its real source, and always as an invitation and an appeal to be recognised as participants in our shared life, as good neighbours.
  8. Our democracy is not Christian, it is secular. The constitution ensures that in a way that is protective for Christians and other religious groups. I believe that for those of us in confessionally reformed churches this presents a challenge because I don’t believe the Westmintser Confession of Faith anticipates this sort of construction when talking about the Civil magistrate (nor do I think it adequately assesses the nature of the state as Paul writes Romans 13). One of Charles Taylor’s insights in A Secular Age that is relevant here is that now all ideas on the ‘good life’ are contested and driven by a question of what place a ‘super-natural’ reality has in decisions about ‘material reality.’ We have to take on board that most of our neighbours have totally different, coherent, and wrong, visions of the good life, arrived at via a worship decision they have made (that God has confirmed in them — Romans 1), not just reason. I believe this means we should adopt a position that sees one of humanity’s chief goods being freedom to rediscover our ‘chief end’ — via freedom to worship — and we should extend that freedom to others (all human identities are constructed around worship). This means pursuing a sort of pluralism, rather than monotheism (trying to act as if everybody is Christian, or not), or polytheism (trying to act as though all views are true and able to be synthesised). This means when it comes to ‘identity politics’ or a ‘politics of recognition’ or a ‘pursuit of authenticity and finding our true selves’ we need to recognise that Jesus provides these things for us, but without Jesus people are left looking for these things elsewhere.
  9. I believe it is increasingly apparent that we Christians are exiles in the secular west, and not running the show (or even close to running the show), and to assume anything that looks like Christendom or that Australia has ‘judeo Christian values’ is to fundamentally misunderstand the Australian narrative apart from the ‘establishment’ story of the colonists/upper class; it misses the egalitarianism at the heart of the Aussie identity and that most people think the church has done more harm than good in Aussie life (especially in the light of the royal commission). I think part of a political theology involves reflecting on our position in society (to use the table metaphor ‘how far from the head we are’). We’re not at the head, we’re close to not even being invited anymore. The census data confirms this trajectory (the McCrindle Research on faith and belief in Australia even more so), and should give us a sense that we need to rethink how we be the church. This means freedom for religion is a luxury, and that our great temptation will be to take the ‘carrot’ of liberalism to avoid the stick. The answer here is perhaps to offer ‘pluralism’ generously to all.
  10. I believe that we aren’t just exiles who are faithful on many things and fighting a battle on sex, but exiles whose imaginations, narratives, practices, loves and lives have already been conscripted by ‘Babylon’ and sexuality is just the last (or only) place we’re resisting. We need to rediscover an urge to be different when it comes to money, the economy, the environment; and rediscover how our anthropology and creation story shape a way of life in the world that is different to the lives lived by those with other stories and visions of the good life. And consistency in these other areas would lend potency to our attempts to be different when it comes to sex and marriage.
  11. I believe faithful theology existed before Luther and the Reformation, and our best guides for a political theology in exile post-christendom comes from pre-christendom (and to some extent from Augustine, who’s ‘early Christendom’ — as in a little after Constantine). The apologies of Tertullian and Justyn Martyr, the Epistle to Diognetus, those insights from ancient texts about what it looks like to be the church in a hostile world trying to carve out space for ourselves for the good of our neighbours.
  12. One of the implications of this pluralism, and the command to love our neighbours and ‘do unto others’ is not just the idea of reciprocity (that would be ‘treat others as they treat you’) but generosity (‘treat others as you would have them treat you’). We don’t act the way we do because we expect others to respond by treating us the same way; but because we believe it is the right thing to do. I believe this means when it comes to issues like same sex marriage and religious freedom for baker and florists we might have to consider ‘third way’ options like helping Christians in those industries do imaginative things like saying yes to a request for service, especially when it feels like a trap, but refusing to profit; that hospitality of the other becomes our strategy (and a form of ‘turning the other cheek’).
  13. I believe, for example, the Australian Christian Lobby’s strategy and participation in the political process fails several of these points. They fail point 3 both in content and manner. They operate from a different theological anthropology, secondly, they operate from a different political strategy (not cruciformity but the wielding of the power of the Christian constituency) in a way that distorts democracy (I think we should advocate, rather than lobby, and that ‘lobbying’ is inherently coercive and involves attempting to take more than our fair share of the democratic pie), and I believe they’ve bought into an unhelpful understanding of a secular democracy which means they deliberately exclude religious arguments. I believe many of us Christians take our lead on political engagement from the ACL (and thus adopt their political theology), and I respect the people involved, but I believe they are wrong. I believe this model has become the strategy of the official organisations responsible for the ‘no campaign’; and this is part of what sees us forming a broad coalition with other advocates of natural law (including muslim religious leaders).
  14. I believe Christians should participate in our democracy with imagination, that we should not feel bound by the status quo or binary options tabled by people who see politics as a zero sum game of winners and losers. That this is part of pursuing Christian wisdom. I believe part of this will require Christians deciding whether or not their job is to ‘dirty their hands’ by getting into the muck of the political process (and compromise, perhaps joining a party), to keep their hands clean (standing apart from the process and speaking as an objective ‘conscience’), or being busy building ‘political institutions’ that operate apart from the government. Abstaining from the vote on the plebiscite is a form of maintaining clean hands.
  15. I believe participation in democracy extends a long way beyond just voting, or even just letter writing, that often when we call for change we should be prepared to carry the cost of that change. We shouldn’t pursue free speech but costly speech; recognising that we are embodied democractic actors not just voices. So; calling for changes to abortion laws means being willing to adopt babies into our homes and communities, and speaking out about asylum seekers means being willing to house them and support them. Participating in democracy is not about free speech or an easy vote; it’s about carrying the cost of our positions as we love our neighbours as Jesus loved us; this extends to letter writing too.
  16. I believe a generous pluralism involves seeing civic life as a ‘shared table’ where we practice hospitality when we’re the host, and recognise that we often are not. I believe both wisdom and hospitality require the hard work of empathising and listening to others we disagree with, and attempting to understand the desires, motivations, language, and categories they are using; so that we are engaging in dialogue rather than simply proclaiming our position (see Colossians 4, and Paul in Athens). I love this bit from the Benz essay cited above:

    “in 1 Kings 3, Solomon asks for “a listening heart (lēḇ šōmēaʿ) in order to judge your people and to discern between good and evil” (v 9). After expressing pleasure with this request, God identifies Solomon’s “listening heart” as a “wise heart” (lēḇ ḥāḵām; v 12). Read in parallel, these two statements indicate that wisdom is predicated on the capacity to listen (see Prov 1:5, 8; 12:15; 18:15; 19:20). Thus, wisdom demands a partner—one who is willing to speak, and at the same time, one who is willing to give ear. The result of this corporate engagement is the ability to discern between good and evil, and thereby administer justice.”

  17. I believe one of the most political things we can do is build the church as a ‘political institution’; an alternative polis, that lives and proclaims the Gospel. That we have to think of the church as more than a Sunday event, and instead see it as the community of believers who are representatives of the Kingdom of God in a particular place, living and proclaiming the Gospel — including showing how it connects to public issues of the day and is genuinely good news.
  18. I believe we should be cultivating a faithful presence where we present the truth and beauty of the Gospel as an alternative (and prophetic) voice in the public square, not one that seeks to dominate and drown out other voices, and that this means it is possible to faithfully articulate our position on things (and on the sinfulness of our culture and laws), without calling for our view to be implemented for all (and rather politely requesting that it be accommodated). I believe there are examples of this in Daniel in Babylon (an idolatrous regime), and Erastus in Rome (an idolatrous regime); and that we can simultaneously serve idolatrous and God-hating rulers who make awful laws (that order people to bend the knee, or crucify Jesus in Rome’s case), submit to their authority to punish us for rejecting their idolatry (eg not bending the knee, going to the cross), and that the Gospel works most powerfully in those moments.
  19. I believe it is possible to not ‘oppose sin’ without ‘affirming sin’ (and we manage it with most legislation around banking and the environment that seems to be predicated on greed), and even to be in ‘favour’ of legislation that enables pluralism in our secular democracy (in much the same way that I think we should support the building of mosques). If I affirm the building of a mosque I am, in Christian theology, enabling sin every bit as much as if I am ‘in favour of same sex marriage in a democracy’, but also, I believe, every bit as much as God enables sin in Romans 1, and as the father ‘enables the sin’ of the prodigal son by giving him his inheritance when the son basically wishes the father was dead (a picture of humanity’s rejection of God).
  20. I believe we can expect persecution to increase at some point; but that the best way to respond to cultural marxism or an aggressive anti-Christian agenda is to ‘treat others as we would have them treat us’ and to build strong mediating ‘pre-political’ institutions (the church, but also businesses etc) using our imagination and understanding of the human condition. Again, this is not to avoid persecution, I don’t believe the ‘golden rule’ will have us avoid persecution, but will vindicate us in the eyes of some when we are persecuted; and that doing right in the face of opposition, trusting that God will judge, will ‘heap burning coals’ on the heads of those who persecute us as we live faithfully and do what is right (Romans 12). I believe we should attempt a generous pluralism even if our opponents want to practice an aggressive and idolatrous monotheism (sexual liberation), but we should also invite our opponents to consider a generous pluralism, and community liberty (the freedom for communities to be built around common shared identities/visions of human flourishing), as a common grace, or common good. When I asked some of the most aggressive campaigners for same sex marriage if they would dial down their aggression in response to us offering pluralism rather than what they perceive as an aggressive monotheism they said yes.
  21. I believe our job is to hollow out the value of idols by showing them to be empty and the alternative to be greater; that we should, in a pluralist context, take our lead from Paul in Athens (at the Areopagus) and Ephesus (where the Gospel causes a collapse in the value of the idol market). We should be disruptors of the social order, not just ‘conservers’… and that the Gospel is unsettling. I believe that this is the way to bring people back from the distorted images they bear in the world; that the Gospel is our political strategy because it is how people and societies are transformed.



Living Faithfully in the ‘sexular age’ (a talk/panel thing)

A couple of months ago the Presbyterian Church of Queensland met for its AGM, we call it ‘Assembly’, and our committee (The Gospel in Society Today) presented a forum on how the leaders of our churches might process the rapid upheaval in our world around the areas of sex, gender, sexuality and marriage.

I ripped off Stephen McAlpine’s ‘A Sexular Age‘ pun on Charles Taylor’s work to provide what I believe is a framework that is both Biblical and ‘real’ to describe the age we live in and what’s going on in conversations around these topics. We filmed the thing. Here it is. I don’t always blow my own trumpet, but if you want a tight summary of the thinking behind all the stuff I’ve written about sexuality and marriage here on this site, it’s probably 30 minutes of me talking that is almost worth watching… the panel discussion is better because there are more voices and people’s actual questions.

We also launched a website for the committee which you should check out (which has a mailing list you should subscribe to).


10 Reasons why I won’t be voting in the postal plebiscite (or telling people in my congregation how to vote)

So we have a plebiscite. A non-binding postal plebiscite where MPs will still ultimately get to vote based on conscience. And I don’t know about you, but my newsfeed and email inbox has gone nuts. It feels like D-Day has arrived on the same sex marriage thing in Australia, and that there’s a certain inevitability to the outcome of the postal vote. Cue the hand wringing from Christian leaders (and Tony Abbott) trying to get out the vote for the no case.

The moderator of our own denomination sent out an email to all ministers which included this paragraph:

“It’s important to urge every Presbyterian Christian to engage in the process and vote, and to vote “NO” to change. We ask every attendee at church to both register and vote, and then seek to persuade as many as possible of their family and friends to do likewise.”

I won’t be doing this; I’ll be doing the opposite (hence this blog post). And here’s some reasons why:

  1. I believe the Golden Rule (treat others as you would have them treat you) isn’t just a nice idea, but an important command for Christians to pursue as we live together with neighbours who disagree with us.
  2. I believe the Christianity we see in the New Testament assumes a society and moral order that is fundamentally different in outlook to the way of being in the world produced by the Gospel, and it’s not our job to police sexual morality outside the church (1 Corinthians 5).
  3. I believe the best version of a liberal, secular, democracy is pluralistic; that our life together as citizens of Australia works best when we allow for and accommodate a diversity of views on what a good or flourishing human life looks like. If I want my definition of marriage recognised by law, and it comes from my convictions, as a Christian, about what God says a good and flourishing life looks like, then I should be prepared (because of the Golden Rule) to make space for others to have their definition of marriage recognised by law.
  4. I believe that religious freedom is a big part of pluralism, and that all people are worshippers, whether they worship God, or something like sex and marriage; that worship is about our primary love and our vision of the good or flourishing life. That’s part of our humanity. This means everybody defines marriage through the prism of their worship, or love, or vision of the good life (Romans 1 seems to make a connection between what we choose to worship (creator or created things) and how we live in the world. I believe that if I, as a Christian, want the legal freedom to define marriage as God defines it within our church community, and as a Christian in the community, then I should allow my neighbours to have their definition of marriage receive the same legal freedom within the context of a liberal, secular, democracy.
  5. I believe the plebiscite is a bad idea (and poorly executed); that democracy is not about populism and ‘majority rules’ but about balancing competing and different visions of the good life, and making space at the table for all views to be protected and represented in our life together. I think Christians should be particularly concerned about how minority groups in our society are treated both while we have power (because of the Golden Rule), but because I’m not sure we’ll have that power for much longer.
  6. I’d much rather encourage people in my congregation to love their neighbours, regardless of their religion or sexuality, because it’s in our Christ shaped love for those who are different (our following of the Golden Rule), that the message of the Gospel as the ultimate account of human flourishing actually has sense. I don’t want to fight for Christian morals apart from the Gospel, because seeing the world God’s way and living in it as those being transformed into the image of Jesus actually requires his Spirit (Romans 8).
  7. I believe that our current public posture (as the ‘institution’ of the church in Australia, or the political arm of Christendom) is damaging the Gospel by, amongst other things, failing to take points 1-6 into account. I want to be a different voice to those voices (also by failing to speak the Gospel at all, a Crikey essay on the ACL I read this week claims they deliberately avoid religious language in their lobbying).
  8. I have big problems with any ‘Christian’ activity that feels coercive or manipulative, or like an attempt to apply our power or clout to the lives of others outside the church. I don’t think coercion is consistent with the Gospel of the crucified king who ultimately renounced human power and influence; and I believe the Cross is the power and wisdom of God, not the sword (or the democratic equivalent). I think lobbying and special interest groups distort the operation of democracy.
  9. I don’t want to talk to my gay friends and neighbours about why the church doesn’t want them to enjoy what they understand as a basic human right in the context of telling people how to vote in the plebiscite, I want to talk to them about the goodness of Jesus, and the (I believe objectively) better life that is produced if we worship the God who is love, and created us to love, rather than what’s wrong with their ‘worship’… I believe, like the old preacher Thomas Chalmers, that what is required for people’s loves to be changed is ‘the expulsive power’ of new loves, not the creating of a vacuum.
  10. I don’t want to bind people’s consciences to follow my lead, or my vote, because I recognise that within my church community, and denomination, there are many different views on the last 7 points, and coercing or manipulating people to act according to my understanding of the world fails the Golden Rule too.


That’s all well and good, you might be thinking, but why not vote yes, instead of abstaining? This one’s complicated. I am broadly in favour of same sex marriage for religious freedom reasons, as I’ve said above and elsewhere, but I also do believe that God’s design for marriage between a man and a woman is the best path to human flourishing not just for individuals, but for communities. I totally get that others disagree and think those disagreements should be accommodated, but I also recognise that if I was to advocate voting for same sex marriage I’d be causing many brothers and sisters who hold deep convictions about marriage to stumble, and Paul talks about this in the context of eating food sacrificed to idols (and whether first century Christians should do it or not), because I believe how we view marriage is a product of worship, it’s in the same ball park of what the Bible says about idolatry (worshipping a created thing instead of God), and so I think similar principles apply.

As a leader in church community, and someone with a little bit of a say in how our denomination engages in the public sphere (through some committees I’m on at a state and federal level), I don’t want to be telling people how to vote on much at all or doing anything that appears coercive; so now that I’ve taken a public stance, the abstinence approach to same sex marriage seems the best way to not appear to be binding another to follow my lead.


The Persecution Complex: Why Jesus, not Andrew Bolt, is the ‘leader’ the church needs

The Church has found an unlikely ally in recent weeks; not even an ally, a champion. A strong voice prepared to lead the fight for us in the culture wars in Australia. Commentator Andrew Bolt. Sure. He’s got his own wars to fight both in terms of his politics, and his economic interests (where he’s got his sights set on the ABC), and we’re almost a convenient party to co-opt into these fights, but he’s noticing something many Christians have been noticing for some time… we’re facing a battle; a David v Goliath type scenario. There are people out there wanting to silence Christians; to stomp us out of public life. In a column today titled ‘Enemies of Christianity declaring new war on religion,‘ Bolt describes the battle lines, calls God’s people to find a champion, and outlines the problems as he sees them. Here’s a few choice quotes.

Here’s the opening salvo.

“CHRISTIANS, prepare for persecution. Open your eyes and choose stronger leaders for the dark days.

I am not a Christian, but I am amazed that your bishops and ministers are not warning you of what is already breaking over your heads.”

I’ve got to ask what bishops and ministers he’s listening to; cause we’ve been banging on about ‘dark days’ since that dark afternoon when our leader was nailed to some planks of wood by the empire… it’s just we see the solution caught up with his return, and with our faithful perseverance in the face of similar worldly interests. Goliath has always been beating at our doors.

Bolt’d know this. If he wasn’t blinded to our situation by those very key words in his admission ‘I am not a Christian’… once he says that I suspect his thoughts on leadership are deeply problematic for us, and that he’s more interested in conscripting us to fight his own battles… but then, he says such nice things about us; here’s some more:

In fact, Christianity produce better citizens in many ways.

Surveys show Christians are more inclined to volunteer, donate and keep families together.

So what do the enemies of Christianity wish to achieve by smearing, silencing and destroying this civilising faith? What would they replace it with?

With the atheism that preaches every man for himself? With Islam?

Or with the green faith that has not inspired a single hospital, hospice, school, or even soup kitchen?

Yet the persecution is starting. Are the churches ready?

How could we refuse the insights of such a generous and prescient ally?

Bolt is pretty keen to put himself at the head of the charge; on the frontline, to position himself as an exemplary David, facing the Goliath that is ‘aggressive secularism’ in Australia. Only this David doesn’t believe God has anything to do with the fight… He crafts quite the narrative, linking together a string of stories that do demonstrate a real sense that those advocating Christianity in the public sphere — particularly those fighting the culture wars with him — face an uphill battle. Then he digs the boot in to the ‘weakness’ of the church. We’re kinda to blame for the predicament we find ourselves in if we don’t step up to fight the way he wants us to (this is an odd sort of victim blaming considering Bolt fundamentally misunderstands the essence of a religion that involves a crucified king).

No wonder, when the weaker churches cower before the persecution.

Last week, some even licked the boots of the anti-Christian ABC when it launched yet another attack, smearing churches as the haven of wife-beaters.

This wannabee David wants to take on this secular Goliath for us, but has no sense that God works not through a ‘theology of glory’ but through weakness; through crucifixion. This ‘David’ is no ‘David’ at all. He’s a Saul, looking for other Sauls, not for sons of David. And certainly not the Son of David who was crucified; who tells us what leadership looks like when we’re facing our own Goliaths. The problem is, when it came to defeating Goliath, Saul was lacking. And for us Christians, there’s a force standing behind Goliath, the triumvirate of sin, death, and Satan, and we know those enemies were also defeated by weakness; by the ‘son of David’ being nailed to a cross.

You know, the thing about crucifixion is it looks and feels a lot like persecution. And we Christians should be careful not to take our marching orders from a bloke who doesn’t understand the fundamentals of our religious beliefs, but likes the fruit our enacted beliefs produce. Cause there’s a good chance he’ll miss the point. We Christians should be careful who we appoint as our champion to face Goliath; if there’s a sense he might look more like Saul, than like David. Remember that story? Let’s jump back into the Old Testament narrative; one that informs the story of Jesus, and so informs us as Christians as we think about staring down ‘enemies’… take this narrative (including Jesus) out of the picture and you get a very wonky and worldly picture of leadership (and Bolt has no place for this narrative).

Israel had settled in the promised land. They decided — against what God had commanded — that they wanted a ‘king like the other nations’ — a strong and mighty leader. They — against what God had commanded — looked for a big and strong leader who’d fight well for them. God gave them what they asked for; not because it was going to be good for them, but to show them what happens when we take our lead from people who don’t believe in the power of God to save. God had been delivering them from their enemies over and over again; but their inability to follow his lead, and to trust in him, saw them spiral into a bunch of bad decisions (read the book of Judges). Picking Saul was the culmination of these bad decisions. Samuel the prophet gets a bit upset at Israel because they keep asking for a ‘king like the nations’; and here’s what God says:

And the Lord told him: “Listen to all that the people are saying to you; it is not you they have rejected, but they have rejected me as their king. As they have done from the day I brought them up out of Egypt until this day, forsaking me and serving other gods, so they are doing to you. Now listen to them; but warn them solemnly and let them know what the king who will reign over them will claim as his rights.”
— 1 Samuel 8:7-9

They end up with Saul, son of Kish. Who is described in the sort of terms we might look for in a leader.

Kish had a son named Saul, as handsome a young man as could be found anywhere in Israel, and he was a head taller than anyone else. — 1 Samuel 9:2

Things look pretty good for a while. Saul sure is mighty. But he starts to believe his own press; he reckons its his strength that Israel needs; he stops listening to God (he’s a bit of a metaphor for Israel), and God turns his back on Saul and instead picks a king after his own heart. When Samuel speaks to rebuke Saul, he says:

“You have done a foolish thing,” Samuel said. “You have not kept the command the Lord your God gave you; if you had, he would have established your kingdom over Israel for all time. But now your kingdom will not endure; the Lord has sought out a man after his own heart and appointed him ruler of his people, because you have not kept the Lord’s command.” — 1 Samuel 13:13-14

He goes out and following God’s commands, picks a leader quite different to the sort the nations might choose; and the sort Israel might jump in to follow. He picks the runt of the litter. When Samuel goes to find this new king, the one God chooses to replace ‘the king like the nations’, he goes to Jesse’s farm and there’s this line up of tall strong sons to choose from… and God chooses the puny David. He has this exchange with Samuel, as Samuel looks at Jesse’s big, strong, warrior son, Eliab.

But the Lord said to Samuel, “Do not consider his appearance or his height, for I have rejected him. The Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.” — 1 Samuel 16:7

David turns out to be pretty mighty — as a weapon in God’s hands — he takes a sling and takes down the giant that Saul, Eliab, and all the warriors of Israel, were unable to defeat.

See, the thing about Bolt in his cultural crusade, in his desire for strong leaders; cultural crusaders from within the church; the thing is, Bolt is not well placed to pick the sort of leaders we might need. Bolt is looking at the world from outside God’s story. Bolt is going to pick an Eliab, or a Saul, not a David.

The sort of champion God requires is not a strong, worldly, leader. It’s not the Andrew Bolts of this world we should be pinning our hopes on; or the people Bolt would have us stand behind… those who respond to secular Goliaths with equally strong and robust arguments. We don’t need a baptised Goliath to take down Goliath.

We need leaders who take their lead from the ultimate king after God’s own heart… our ultimate leader. The one from the line of David.

Bolt pays lip service to some of the teachings of Jesus in his call to arms; he says, of the threat of Christianity to the Secular Goliath: “Is it that stuff about loving your neighbour? Or that instruction to respect the dignity of every human life that makes Christians the enemy of totalitarians?” It’s that stuff that makes Christianity dangerous and subversive, certainly, but there’s a bit that makes Christianity a danger to people like Bolt; a double edged sword that cuts both sides of the culture war. It’s the bit about loving our enemies. It’s the bit about taking up our cross; about praying for those who persecute you; about living at peace and seeking the good of those who seek our destruction because we know that ultimately this is how God works. It’s the bit where we follow leaders who follow the example and teaching of Jesus, the son of David, the king truly ‘after God’s own heart’

Jesus predicts persecution for his followers; in fact, it comes with the territory. Here’s a couple of things our great leader says that should shape how we face up to those who look like Goliaths, but who have actually, in the scheme of things, been defeated already by the victory of Jesus on the cross, and the security promised by his resurrection. It’s in these moments of persecution that the Gospel is truly on display; as we faithfully proclaim it. And this is what Christian leadership looks like; trusting, following, and proclaiming Jesus when our feet are in the fire.

“I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves. Be on your guard; you will be handed over to the local councils and be flogged in the synagogues. On my account you will be brought before governors and kings as witnesses to them and to the Gentiles. But when they arrest you, do not worry about what to say or how to say it. At that time you will be given what to say, for it will not be you speaking, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you.” — Matthew 10:16-20

Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it. What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul? For the Son of Man is going to come in his Father’s glory with his angels, and then he will reward each person according to what they have done. — Matthew 16:24-27

If, like Bolt, you don’t believe this stuff Jesus promises about what he achieves in his death and resurrection, you’re going to fundamentally miss the point of Christian leadership, and you’ll end up offering terrible and destructive advice to the church in order to co-opt us into some battle that is not our own; a battle for life in this world where we forfeit our soul.

If, though, you believe the words of Jesus, and follow his lead, then persecution is opportunity; it is where God speaks and the nature of his life-giving kingdom is on display. It’s where the character built by loving our enemies is forged and displayed. It’s where the fruits of the Gospel that bolt so admires comes from.

That’s the leadership the church needs; it’s the leadership the world needs too. Not Bolt’s leadership. Not the culture wars. We need Davids. Not Sauls. Leaders who trust that God is king; not those who want kings like the nations.

When ‘secularism’ defaults to ‘atheism’ and why that might be a problem for Christian kids (or the government)

UPDATE: The Queensland Government has released a fairly emphatic statement on the story in the Australian.

“Ms Jones said the Palaszczuk Government supported religious instruction in state schools in consultation with parents.

“No one is telling a child what they can and can’t say in the playground,” she said.

“There has been no change to the religious instruction policy in state schooling.

“We are an inclusive education system that aims to provide a good education for all students of all faiths.

“The policy in place in Queensland state schools today is exactly the same as the policy in place under the former Newman Government and has been the same for more than 20 years.”

There’s a story in the Australian today that I’ve been following for a little while that I’m still struggling to get my head around.

A little while ago the Queensland Government conducted a review on RI lessons in state schools. I wrote a letter to the Education Minister Kate Jones. I’m an RI teacher and a parent of a child who attends a state school who loves talking about Jesus. Jesus is part of her life. She loves kids church. We talk about him at home, our assumption as parents is that there is not a millimetre of life in this world where Jesus is not king and God is not present. There is not a subject she’ll be taught at school — be it math, science, or reading and writing — that is not in some way revealing something of the nature of God, and the nature of humanity.

As good Presbyterians, we believe that our faith answers questions not just about the meaning of life but about the purpose of life; and that love and safety for others is ultimately tied to these questions of meaning and purpose. Christians, for a long time, have engaged in a practice called ‘catechising’ their children; that means teaching, or instructing them of the foundations of our belief. It’s an ‘education’ word.

Here’s what the catechism most Presbyterian churches use says about the meaning and purpose of life:

What is the chief end of man?
A. Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever

It’s very hard, if this is true, for a Christian to believe you can remove this fundamental purpose of existence from other spheres of life. I think the paragraph this media coverage hangs off in a review of religious instruction material misunderstands the fundamental nature of religious belief. I think it requires something impossible of my children. Here’s what the Queensland government’s review of the material I teach in RI says:

“While not explicitly prohibited by the EGPA or EGPR, nor referenced in the RI policy statement, the Department would expect schools to take appropriate action if aware that students participating in RI were evangelising to students who do not participate in their RI class, given this could adversely affect the school’s ability to provide a safe, supportive and inclusive environment for all students.”

Exactly what ‘appropriate action’ is for an activity that is ‘not explicitly prohibited’ is up in the air; and apparently the Ministers office has been largely unresponsive to people seeking clarification.

One thing that this debate hangs on is the meaning of words. I’ve been catechising our kids using this book called Story Catechism; which teaches our kids how to see the world through the story of the Bible; which is ultimately the story of Jesus. The ‘good news,’ which is what ‘gospel’ means, and the word for ‘gospel’ in Greek is where we get the ‘evangel’ bit of ‘evangelism’. I am shaping my kids to be ‘Gospel kids,’ which means I’m shaping them to live the gospel, which means the most natural thing in the world for them will be to speak the Gospel.

As good Aussies, we’re keen to raise our kids in a secular democracy as generous pluralists; I want my kids to know that other people should be free to choose their own religious beliefs, even if that means rejecting Jesus, and should be free to understand meaning and purpose differently; and I want my kids exposed to those other ideas so they can make their own decisions about belief. This potential overreach from the State Government seems to be a threat to that; I say potential because until its clear what’s actually at stake here, or what principals will be required to do if a Christian kid is ‘evangelising,’ I suspect this is one of those ideas that sounds nice in theory but one that will create a crazy amount of admin work for our already overworked teachers and school administrators to implement and police. It does seem to place a dangerous tool in the hands of any principal who is, themselves, aggressively ‘secular’ or who faces a noisy ‘secular’ parent or group of parents. I say ‘secular’ because the meaning of the word secularism is contested; as noted by philosopher Charles Taylor in his massive A Secular Age.

Secularism does not mean atheism; it does not mean ‘freedom from religion’ but ‘freedom to hold any religious belief’. It doesn’t mean religious beliefs should be excluded; but rather that all religious (and non-religious) beliefs should be included. There’s a danger that the pursuit of ‘safety’ as the ultimate human good will actually not teach our kids to be good participants in a secular democracy; that it will instruct them not to be generous pluralists in a secular world; but rather, sectarian. That our children will withdraw into the safe space, the cultural ghetto, of the religious instruction class room, where they’ll be told what is fundamental to their humanity is their religious belief; and then the ‘commons’ — the playground — will be a place where they are unable to be truly human. I can imagine lots of religious parents seeing this as the moment where they withdraw their kids even further, into Christian schools, or home schooling, which again is unlikely to produce the sort of generous pluralistic approach to common life that our society requires in order to flourish.

Here’s what I think the next three steps are for Christian parents reading the coverage in the Australian today.

  1. Teach your kids the Gospel; that Jesus is king over every part of their life, and that God created the world so that everything they learn at school, that is true about the world, helps them understand his divine nature and character. Teach them that the Gospel is good news that gives them hope and purpose, and that like mathematics, their job is to reveal God’s divine nature and character; that we are ‘God’s workmanship created in him to do the good works he has prepared in advance for us to do.’
  2. Teach them to respect the different views of others; and that they don’t have to agree with their school friends (or teachers) but they do have to listen respectfully and consider what they say, in order to understand one another, in the same way we hope we will be understood.
  3. Tell your kids that because Jesus is king; it’s him we listen to, and that that might mean being misunderstood and even punished by their school. And that will be part of life in a world where ‘secular’ is contested.
  4. Write to the education minister seeking clarification; without assuming an anti-Christian agenda; explain how such an ambiguous statement seems inconsistent with Christian belief and practice. I’ll be writing my own letter and will post it somewhere.
  5. Participate in public discussion about this story (whether its on radio talkback, the comments sections in websites, or on social media). Be gracious, assume that this is just a misunderstanding or well motivated overreach from the government; not part of a sinister agenda to persecute Christians.

A tale of two tables: Public Christianity, common conversations, and our place at the table

One of the most telling things about many of the conversations I’ve participated in and watched around the ABC expose on domestic violence in churches in the last week is around the place we Christians seem to want to occupy at the common ‘table’ and the way we then operate our own ‘table’…

A tale of two tables

Bear with me. I’m going to use the table as a metaphor for where these conversations happen. Let’s assume for a moment that the public square is like a dining table; lots of people with ideas clamour for seats. For a long time, in Christendom, the institutional church had one of the prime positions (if not the prime position for a while) at this table. We set the agenda; we were the hosts; it was assumed we would look out for the common good. Over time our place at the head was contested, and we moved away from the head but remained in a position of influence. We were still heard. Now. Well. The table is both ‘secular’ in that our voice doesn’t get a particularly special place, ‘pluralistic’ in that many voices — institutional, and even religious — are welcomed, but there’s increasingly an expectation that religious beliefs are a bit out of touch and probably don’t have much of a place, and we’re tolerated so long as we’re prepared to put our money where our mouth is and act to bring change according to an agenda set by the host.

There’s a second table in this metaphor. It’s the table that we run. The one where we invite other people to be part of discussions; where we are the host, and where we should be particularly interested to invite people that the rest of society ignores. Historically this has been where the church has been an excellent force for social change; because the conversations at this second table have informed our participation at the first. But mostly because this table is where we see the power of the Gospel to generally bring people together as family; where the worldly games of status and power get put aside (incidentally, this is why Paul is so keen to rebuke the way status games are creeping in to the share meal in Corinth)… Our literal table is meant to be different as an expression of this metaphor. If the first table is the public square, and the banquet is the communication that happens there; the second is our Christian community and the conversations that happen there. How we approach the first table as leaders or the ‘institution’ shapes the tone of the second, and who feels welcome (because in fact, how we approach the first table should reflect who is speaking at the second).

The dilemma is that not only have we lost our place of honour at the first table — now it’s a place where we’re increasingly losing our dignity. We’re now viewed with the sort of suspicion reserved for the slightly delusional great-uncle at a family gathering. There’s now increasingly a belief that we’re not just delusional but harmful and unwelcome. So we protest like that same great-uncle would about being shunted down the line, replaced by new in-laws, out-laws, and Johny-come-latelys. We’ve lost a bit of status and dignity. We’re really worried about losing our seat; and so we act out a bit, yell loudly about our historic contribution, and forget that a big part of our value was what we brought to table one from table two; that those contributions were noticed and gave us legitimacy. And yet, we do still get seats at the table; our lobbyists are heard, and invited onto TV panel programs, so too are pretty exceptional representatives of the clergy and the church; who are invited to contribute to discussions.

I’m not the first to use these two tables as a metaphor; Jesus was. But more recently there was a great article in Cardus’ Comment Magazine that planted this idea for me. Here’s a bit from Luke 14, where Jesus has been invited into the house of a Pharisee; to dine at the table of a ruler of the pharisees. This is the public sphere; and Luke tells us ‘they are watching him carefully’… it’s the sabbath. And Jesus heals a man with dropsy; an outcast. A man whose illness and physical disfigurement would’ve excluded him from the sort of power and influence his host enjoyed. And at this table, there’s a competition for top spot…

Now he told a parable to those who were invited, when he noticed how they chose the places of honour, saying to them, “When you are invited by someone to a wedding feast, do not sit down in a place of honour, lest someone more distinguished than you be invited by him, and he who invited you both will come and say to you, ‘Give your place to this person,’ and then you will begin with shame to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit in the lowest place, so that when your host comes he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher.’ Then you will be honoured in the presence of all who sit at table with you. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”

He said also to the man who had invited him, “When you give a dinner or a banquet, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbours, lest they also invite you in return and you be repaid. But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you. For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the just.” — Luke 14:7-14

It feels to me like we Christians are getting bumped down the pecking order in that table of influence; further and further away from the place of honour. And we keep grabbing a seat that’s about where we think we should be and being dropped a peg or two; and the way back up isn’t to noisily defend our honour; but to act with honour and dignity; to present ourselves as more lowly than we actually are… and there seems to be a connection between this picture and the one that immediately follows of hosting a banquet. This is a picture of the sort of literal and metaphorical hospitality we should be offering in this world; of our priorities in terms of the sorts of people whose voices we should be concerned about at our table. 

When it comes to the Domestic Violence conversation, here’s where I think our approach to the dilemma we’re more broadly experiencing around our place at table one kicks in. We’re so keen not to be the crazy uncle, we’re so keen to keep our place at the table, that we lash out at anybody who has the temerity to suggest that there is anything at all wrong with us that should keep us from the conversation. Like the crazy uncle who keeps turning up in his underwear and thinks there’s a great conspiracy to get rid of him when all the rest of the family want is for him to wear pants and behave with common decency; and to stop trying to sit at the head and dictate the conversation for everybody else.

This is what it looks like to me when we keep going after the ABC for ‘bias’ or as though there’s an anti-Christian agenda behind this story or its use of stats (which I do believe were a very minor part of the investigation and the story, they were just the controversy used to sell the story). And News Ltd isn’t helping (nor is our ongoing desire for the institution to be vindicated by the court of public opinion). They’ve found a wedge in their ongoing stoush with the ABC and they’re using the figure of the great uncle to score points against another voice at the table. Every time we try to land a blow on the ABC we’re failing to ‘turn the other cheek’ or to respond to curse with blessing. Every time we clamour for a spot at table one by asserting our dignity and our rightful place there, we’re making table two seem less hospitable to the victims in our communities.

We may well have been misrepresented — certainly the headline and hook sentence of that first article (probably written by a sub-editor, not the reporters) was unhelpful, and Media Watch has rightfully critiqued the ABC’s coverage for that… but what we’re not considering in our attempts to maintain an honourable position at table one, is what the cost is to our ability to run our second table; to being hospitable and welcoming to those we should be hospitable and welcoming to.

Table two should be our primary concern. Table two is the table where we should be making space for the victims; the vulnerable, and the oppressed. And so many of those women, on social media, are reporting that our concern to maintain face and dignity at table one — institutionally — to protect the brand — is coming at a cost of them feeling welcome at table two. Our leaders have been so quick to share criticisms of the ABC article, its methodology, its headline, its use of ‘research’ (and I use those quote marks deliberately because on the one hand we’re dismissive of the year long investigation of actual stories in Australia, and on the other hand I think research from America a decade ago is of questionable value in assessing the Australian scene anyway); and this, in my observations, has been from a desire to maintain the dignity of the church and keep us getting a place at the table. I think it’s a wrong strategy. I think it’s harmful for our table one status; and disastrous for our hosting of table two. And we need to assess our priorities. And the way to do that is to listen to the people who are at our table with us — or should be — the victims; be that in the stories Julia Baird unearthed, or the many victims who’ve come forward on social media. One of my Facebook friends, Isabella Young, is a victim and an advocate for victims in the church; she said the other day:

“This appears to be turning into the rest of the church versus the abuse victims unfortunately. I really don’t care what those stats say, what I do care about is that no one is discussing the individual points raised in the article or documentary. But we all like a fight don’t we?”


Our job is to be the hosts of this other table that is utterly different to the table of the Pharisees — the tables that operate in the world of power and status. Jesus returns to the idea of places of honour at banquets a bit later in Luke’s Gospel.

“Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and love greetings in the marketplaces and the best seats in the synagogues and the places of honour at feasts, who devour widows’ houses and for a pretense make long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.” — Luke 20:46-47

This is a picture of the status hungry gone rogue — people who in pursuit of their own honour also devour widows houses. People who should be hosts but are wolves and abusers of the vulnerable. That’s what we’re not to be; people who are so concerned with our own dignity and place at the public table — these ‘feasts’ — that we are destroying our ability to be hospitable to the vulnerable.

I reckon that’s a key to this role we’re meant to play as generous hosts to the vulnerable, who are then able to represent the vulnerable well as advocates in other spheres. I suspect the closer we are to the head of table one — the more proximate we are to worldly power — the harder this passionate advocacy is to achieve; much like it would have been harder for Jesus to challenge the Pharisees if he was one. Our relationship to worldly power should be the same, I suspect, as his relationship to the Pharisees; an expectation of crucifixion for calling out when that power is being abused. It’s hard to do that if we’re at the head of that table, or our relationship is too cosy, or if we want to be treated with dignity and respect; rather than seeing our mission as speaking on behalf of those at table two. Our table.

Here’s the thing. Realising that we’re not at the head of the table, or in a place of honour, any longer at table one is vital for our ability to do public Christianity; or participate in the public square; with dignity. Self-protection is a lot like aiming for a place of honour that we don’t deserve; having others protect our dignity is not an opportunity for us to say “I told you so” — if it happens it is nice, and we should be thankful, but turning the other cheek means we don’t use another person’s testimony in our favour to hit back.

Realising we’re not the host of the public conversation also guides the way we contribute to the conversation; its not our conversation to run, it’s not our job to define terms, or to be defensive; our best ‘defence’ is who we host at table two, and how we speak for and look out for their interests. That’s where we gain credibility; that and in our humility which is expressed in treating our host and conversation partners with respect even when they wrong us; even when they’re trying to trap us; even if ultimately they’ll crucify us. That’s what Jesus was doing in Luke 14, even as he implicitly rebuked the Pharisees by healing the crippled man on the sabbath; as he explicitly rebuked them by suggesting his host and guests had their approach to hospitality and honour wrong, and building a table for “the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind” is what Jesus came to achieve; the table he builds is the table of his kingdom; these people are tangible pictures of those who know they need God and salvation in Luke’s Gospel — Jesus has previously proclaimed ‘it’s not the healthy who need the doctor, but the sick’ (Luke 5:31), and these are the people Jesus explicitly said he came to liberate in Luke 4. This is the sort of table we’re to be building in our own communities; and our efforts in the last few days, in many cases, have been deconstructive rather than constructive. 

Once more on the domestic violence in church thing: answering some common objections to the ABC’s coverage

Julia Baird’s piece has been in the wild for a couple of days; and there’s an ongoing cloud of ‘suspicion’ hanging over it in conversations online; particularly around the stats the piece uses from some American research from 2008, which have been ‘exposed’ by Andrew Bolt. Apparently, I’ve been told a handful of times today, if we want to get to the ‘truth’ we need to listen to Andrew Bolt, not Julia Baird, because somehow he is pro-Christian and she is anti-Christian.

Which blows my mind.

This whole thing about the US data blows my mind; it’s a red herring in the post-mortem of the article fuelled by people who don’t want the story to be true, or who reject (perhaps rightly) the implication that a certain stream of theology drives abusers. The truth in Baird’s story is not found in the secondary sources she uses to frame her story, but in the primary sources that drive it — the stories of real women. Real victims. Who have suffered in our churches because their husbands have twisted the Bible and got away with it, or worse, been tacitly supported by church leaders… worst still, some of them have been church leaders!

I think the better understanding of Baird’s point is that a certain stream of theology can create an environment in which abusers flourish… but these stats are not at all the bit of the story that I’d be emphasising. It’s a shame that they have been so closely tied to the introduction of the piece when the same conclusion could perhaps have been produced from the stories of women interviewed without the foreign data (and perhaps this comes down to our modernist hang ups and suspicions about the power of personal story in certain segments of the church).

I don’t think the idea that ‘sporadic church attenders’ were described as the most prevalent abusers in some 2008 data is the point, or the impetus behind, this story. Which Julia Baird unpacked in this interview on The Drum, where she also describes the research behind this story, and summarises the findings:

“I’ve found countless stories; I’ve spoken to dozens and dozens of women who within the church have experienced abuse at the hands of their husbands, who were twisting Scripture in order to enable and justify their abuse, who have then turned to their pastors and told them what’s happened. They’ve not been believed; they’ve been turned away; they’ve been told to submit and endure.”

“I found a great defensiveness in talking about it and a very piecemeal approach to looking at it; you know there might be the odd task force or protocol, or some counselling available, but there’s no real urgency, no real listening to the women. It’s what one woman… describes as ‘an abuser friendly culture’ within churches, and there is a question of grooming, there is a question of an emphasis on what’s interpreted as male control, and male rule, and it’s meant that the victims have been sidelined, and in some cases abused for many years.”

“This is part of the problem when I speak to a question of urgency, is a lack of serious collection of data about this. What we do know is from a Queensland study discovered that one in five perpetrators go to church. There’s American research that suggests that evangelical men who go to church sporadically are more likely than any other group in the community, religious or not religious, to assault their wives; and it should be added to that that those who go to church regularly are less likely to, so there’s a real disconnect between people who are passing through, or on the periphery, or who don’t have a depth of faith which is an interesting part of the discussion.”

These stories this week come from stories from real women in real churches; and by all accounts they continue to flood in to Baird and others. And there’s a bunch of people missing the point and raising these common objections.

1. “Andrew Bolt’s opinion pieces are ‘knock down’ arguments against the ABC piece and we should point people to them”

Andrew Bolt is a strange bedfellow for the church on this issue. He’s not a Christian (by his own claims). He has a particular political agenda when it comes to domestic violence (so wants the focus on Islamic communities and indigenous communities). And he has a commercial/political interest in denigrating the ABC as being ‘left leaning’ (and so, by extension, institution hating and anti-Church etc).

Let me do a Bolt and play the man for a second. Bolt is not a journalist. He’s a commentator/opinion writer. What he writes is just that, opinion and commentary. There is a difference between opinion writing and news/feature writing in terms of ethics, fact checking, burdens of proof, etc. He does purport to be ‘fact checking’ the ABC piece by digging in to the American data both the American article and The Drum interview quote, and then he uses this ‘fact checking’ to suggest Baird’s entire premise is faulty.

I suspect, in the world of news, things went in a different direction (and you get a sense of this from The Drum). It seems to me that it’s the dozens and dozens of women Baird spoke to that constitute her investigation; and its those stories — first hand accounts — where the weight of Baird’s argument sits. The data from another place  (America) in another time (2008) is interesting corroborating evidence; and were one to question the veracity of the conclusion of Baird’s piece, which seems to be similar to the US evidence, one would actually have to ask Julia Baird and co-writer Hayley Gleeson, if their conclusion was also carried by the dozens and dozens of primary sources they interviewed. Given that the data is essentially used to corroborate these sources, I suspect that is the case. But I might be wrong.

2. The stats quoted are wrong/misleading/from the US/from 2008/say the opposite of the article.

And this leads to the next point. Those stats could have not been in this story at all and it would probably have been stronger and more compelling; it would have made a much more compelling case against the church (if that was Baird’s agenda) to not point people to the articles that say regular church going men are the least likely to perpetrate abuse (which Baird offers voluntarily in The Drum video), and which is in the piece (though apparently that bit was subject to an edit for clarity).

The weight of the article in our time and place, and for our churches, does not sit with statistics from 10 years ago in America; but with the very real testimony of real women from our communities. Plus, stats on domestic violence are almost impossible to collect. How do you do it? How do you ask a woman currently in an abusive relationship to reveal that she is? In what context is that possible? How do you ask people who’ve escaped to come forward if they carry a sense of shame (and possibly even ‘guilt’ associated with victim blaming culture)? Who funds this sort of research?

It’s incredible that we have this story built from interviews with dozens and dozens of victims in the first place. And those should be enough; especially if there’s a particular pattern caught up in church culture of ‘enabling and concealing domestic violence’. If we think the ‘sporadic churchgoer’ thing is where the emphasis is, we’ve probably missed the most useful point (though this is still useful anecdotal evidence, and we’ll get to that below).

Why are we majoring on a minor? Making this the point of ‘truth’ on which the story is made or broken; the vast amount of the work, and the content of the piece, is in the bringing together of these stories. The bits about whether our theology has a causal relationship to those stories, or it’s just our practice that contributes to the harm, is where the rubber hits the road. Surely? These are real women; and this is how statistics and sampling works: there will be more of them.

3. What about male victims of DV?

This is literally the biggest red herring in this discussion. I’m sure that men are abused in relationships. Women are sinful too. But this story, fundamentally, is about whether church culture perpetuates abuse through the weaponising of key verses about women, from the Bible. Here’s a bit from the original piece:

“Abusive men commonly refer to several different parts of the Bible.

First are the verses — cited by Sally’s husband Peter, above — telling women to submit to their husbands and male authority, under the doctrine known as male headship.

Second are verses that say God hates divorce.

And third are those in 1 Peter that tell women to submit to husbands in a very particular way, as they follow instructions to slaves to submit to even “harsh masters””

Abused men are not being abused by the twisting of those verses; they’re not coming forward to Julia Baird to tell their stories of the church perpetuating their abuse. It’s just not this story. And this story is not other stories. This story is not the exclusive final word on domestic violence in Australia

4. Why not focus on all the Christian men who aren’t abusing their wives (and the stat from the quoted report that says men who attend church regularly are the least likely to offend).

This one was a doozy. Lyle Shelton from the Australian Christian Lobby tweeted this at Julia Baird after her 7:30 segment aired last night. In fact, he had a series of digs at the program.

Now. I think this is a fundamental and egregious exercise in missing the point. The point of this story isn’t about the men who don’t abuse women in the church; but about the men who do. It’s not about those who have a real and active faith in the crucified Jesus, but about those who want to twist words about him to keep controlling and abusing their wives. It isn’t about sheep; but about wolves. And inasmuch as it is about the church it is about how we shepherd the flock and keep wolves from the doors.

Lyle followed up that tweet, and Julia Baird’s reply, with this one; in a further exercise in missing the point.


Men who abuse women in churches are not the the church’s fault, necessarily, but dealing with them, if a wife comes forward for help, is the church’s responsibility.

Pastors are called to be shepherds; that is literally what the word means. Biblically shepherds have a couple of responsibilities — feeding the sheep and protecting them from wolves. That means part of the job of a pastor might be to weed out wolves who are masquerading as sheep in the flock — the ‘sporadic church attender’ who is twisting the Bible to abuse a vulnerable member of the flock would be a pretty clear example of a wolf. Here’s a thing Jesus says:

“Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? Likewise, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them.” — Matthew 7:15-20.

Here’s what Jesus then says about himself, and what a good shepherd does for the sheep when confronted by wolves…

“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep. So when he sees the wolf coming, he abandons the sheep and runs away. Then the wolf attacks the flock and scatters it. The man runs away because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep.” — John 10:11-13

Now. In the context, in both these cases, I think he’s first talking about the Pharisees — those he’ll also accuse of ‘devouring widows houses’. In the John passage he’s also drawing on some imagery from Ezekiel… where shepherds don’t just give their sheep to the wolves, they become wolf-like — and some of the stories about people in ministry being abusers is pretty shockingly evocative of this sort of imagery.

The point is, there’s a very real passing of the shepherd’s baton (or crook, or cross) from Jesus to the church at the end of the Gospels as Jesus commissions Peter to ‘feed my sheep’ (and this continues into the epistles). And these stories must surely help us in the task of being better shepherds — especially if we’re talking about wolves, not members of the flock, but people who pretend to be; those who come amongst us to twist the word of God in order to lure vulnerable people to their destruction… these sporadic church attending abusers are not Christians; they’re not following the example of teaching of Jesus. They are predators.

Domestic violence is not necessarily the fault of the church, but being good shepherds of the flock is our responsibility; and that means weeding out the wolves, and changing the culture that allows them to prey on our sheep; it certainly is our responsibility not to feed a sheep to a wolf. Which is very much what some of these stories Baird’s piece shares sound like…

5. The ABC is anti-Christian. This proves it.

This one bothers me. The ABC publishes more pro-Christian content through its religion and ethics platform than any other media outlet. John Stackhouse, a Christian academic, was on Q&A this week. Baird herself is a Christian. It’s particularly ironic when Bolt makes this claim in order to further his political agenda that has the church as some sort of moral guardian in his own civic religion. Baird might be anti-complementarian, but her piece is not anti-Christian.

“Unlike the Koran, there are no verses in the Bible that may be read as overtly condoning domestic abuse.

To the contrary, it is made clear that God hates violence and relationships must be driven by selflessness, grace and love.

There is no mainstream theologian in Australia who would suggest that a church should be anything but a sanctuary, or that a Christian relationship be marked by anything but love.”

That’s her foundational assumption; it’s not a huge leap to go from there to see that part of the thrust of her piece is that those who are abusing their wives and using the Bible to do so aren’t following the basis of Christianity, and it’s a mystery as to why the church has been not so good at being on the front foot on this, or understanding the urgency. If I’d heard dozens and dozens of stories from abused women in churches, I’d see this issue as urgent too… urgent enough to use my media platform to blow the lid off…

6. Why not keep this in house? Shouldn’t we be dealing with this issue behind closed doors? It’s denigrating the name of Jesus.

You know what denigrates the name of Jesus more than anything else.

Cover ups.

People who appear to be more worried about our institutional reputation than the lives and well being of those we’re supposed to be caring for. You know what Paul says in Ephesians 5:

For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Live as children of light (for the fruit of the light consists in all goodness, righteousness and truth) and find out what pleases the Lord. Have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness, but rather expose them. It is shameful even to mention what the disobedient do in secret. But everything exposed by the light becomes visible—and everything that is illuminated becomes a light.” — Ephesians 5:8-13

The question is how committed to the light we are; and how bright we want it to be, and how much we trust that these instructions aren’t just wise but Godly. How prepared are we to expose darkness even if it costs us in order to transparently have nothing to do with darkness. Our reputation to outsiders matters; and what’s scary for me is the implication that many abusers may actually be leaders in our churches. Have a squiz at 1 Timothy 3 and its qualifications for being an ‘overseer’; I’ll bold the bits that are particularly interesting in this context.

Now the overseer is to be above reproach, faithful to his wife, temperate, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not given to drunkenness, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. He must manage his own family well and see that his children obey him, and he must do so in a manner worthy of full respect. (If anyone does not know how to manage his own family, how can he take care of God’s church?) He must not be a recent convert, or he may become conceited and fall under the same judgment as the devil. He must also have a good reputation with outsiders, so that he will not fall into disgrace and into the devil’s trap.” — 1 Timothy 3:2-7

How do we have a good reputation with outsiders if we deal with stuff like this in house, in a climate where people are suspicious that all we want to do is protect the institution at the expense of the people?

7. Julia Baird is biased against conservative evangelical churches and has an agenda, she fails to show how women in leadership would solve this problem.

Well. This one might be true; Julia Baird’s pro-women’s ordination track record is pretty clear, and it’s not immediately clear other than in some arguments about a diminishing patriarchy (and the inclusion of women’s voices) being part of what stops the church ‘enabling and concealing’ domestic violence… listening to women does seem like an essential thing but not at all outside the parameters of complementarian theology… and I’d suggest elders like the men Timothy describes her would be a big help in fighting against wolves who are infiltrating our churches. But this objection is the one I tried to address at some length yesterday; it’s such a misguided response to her service in bringing these stories to our collective attention.

Because let’s be clear; that’s what might be behind sporadic church attendance; church being used as a mechanism to control vulnerable women by crafty wolf-like men. Let’s not pretend there’s any way you can understand and be following the example of Jesus and beating, abusing, or controlling your wife in the way the stories Julia Baird has uncovered; and let’s make sure that’s clear by, as the church, being utterly committed to weeding out wolves and handing them over to be dealt with by the appropriate authorities while we tend to those God has placed in the care of our communities.

Quibbling over the data, or whether Julia Baird has a particular axe to grind (or possibly it’s a well honed axe that she’s swinging again) is missing both the trees and the forest here. This isn’t an area where complementarians and egalitarians should be at each other’s throats trying to play the blame game; but one we must urgently address; and there’s the means to do this in the theology (and practice) of both camps. Ironically; this is the take home message in both the academic paper the Baird piece links to, and the one by the same author that is quoted in that paper. It’s a shame all the people looking for a smoking gun didn’t focus on that bit. The author, Steven Tracy, concludes with three challenges to complementarians, and three to egalitarians, and then this closing statement. This seems to be the point of his peer reviewed and published paper… let’s focus on this for a while:

“Domestic violence continues to be a hideous global social problem. Secular feminists and many egalitarians assert that patriarchy is the ultimate cause of all abuse against women. While there is considerable evidence that patriarchy contributes to much domestic violence, the etiology of domestic violence is far too complex to support any single cause hypothesis. Furthermore, patriarchy must be carefully defined when assessing its impact on abuse, for a wide spectrum of “patriarchy” exists today, from authority based traditional patriarchy to shared authority “soft patriarchy.” While all forms of patriarchy can and do contribute to domestic violence, it appears that the models of patriarchy which give husbands the greatest levels of power and authority are most likely to stimulate domestic violence.

Furthermore, recent social science research which reveals an inverse relationship between church attendance and domestic violence among conservative Protestant men challenges both patriarchalists and egalitarians to modify their understanding of gender roles and abuse and to work together to combat domestic violence.




Domestic Violence, the ABC, and the spirit of the Reformation

The ABC ran a longform piece on domestic violence in churches that take a ‘complementarian’ approach to gender roles in marriage yesterday, ahead of a story that will appear on 7:30 tonight. The piece is written, in part, by ABC journalist Julia Baird, and the response within the virtual circles I mix in has been fascinating… especially given stuff I’ve written recently about women, the internet, and the Spirit of the Reformation.

This might just be my observations, and I might be biased, or have an agenda, or whatever… but I’ve seen quite a few blokes (especially in ministry) getting defensive (or going on the offensive — and yeah, there’s Andrew Bolt’s response), and so many women gently suggesting that getting defensive isn’t the response in this moment on this issue.

In the Bible, wisdom is personified as a woman; perhaps we should take our lead from that and listen to some wise women sometimes? All the time? Perhaps Julia Baird is a voice worth listening to?

500 years ago this year, Martin Luther was so motivated by the inherent brokenness in the system of the church he loved and served, and by the cost of its corruption on the vulnerable (through the sale of indulgences), that he nailed 95 things he believed the church was doing wrong to a wall and kick started a movement we now call ‘the Reformation’ — the great irony is almost all the churches this ABC piece specifically mentions (apart from the Catholics) trace their history back to this moment. We should, according to our narrative, welcome voices that call for us to consider how our theology and practice are coherent, or not, and when our practices are damaging to vulnerable people in our world. We should be committed to a ‘priesthood of all believers’, where we expect God to raise up and use all sorts of people to speak truth to the ‘establishment’ (be it church or state)… and we should welcome criticism as the chance to consider whether or not more reform might be necessary.

We, more than other religious traditions, should welcome this sort of criticism as an opportunity for self assessment and reform (and it’s probably worth noting that Baird wrote part 1 of this series about domestic violence in Islam). We have a chance to respond to the publication of a thesis like this the way the Catholic Church should’ve responded to Luther. We should see Baird as a sister in Christ who is so moved by the injustice she has witnessed in this investigation on domestic violence in our churches that she has used her platform with the national broadcaster as a ‘Wittenberg door’. We should see this not as an ‘attack on mother church and all we hold dear’, but as a cry for reform from someone who has, by her account, heard dozens of the sorts of stories she shared in her piece yesterday in the course of her investigations.

And yet; today, on the Christian interwebs, I’ve seen countless heartbreaking examples of the counter-reformation; people expressing suspicion of Baird because she’s an egalitarian who is out to get us, or the ABC (and Baird) hate Christians and is out to get us.

I’ve seen it called ‘a hit job on Christians,’ a ‘conflation’ of her theological agenda with an emotive political one, a ‘smear of the church in general, and Christian men in particular’… I’ve seen people cite Andrew Bolt’s hatchet piece on the article as a voice for Christian values, when he doesn’t claim to be a Christian, but Baird does…  and I’ve seen so much discussion that wants to make the point that Baird draws on (peer-reviewed) publications about statistics in the US for part of her argument, and these stats aren’t from our own context and she hasn’t completely summarised the sources (while she has provided links to them).

It is awful and depressing. I get that people feel horrified by the idea that we blokes in leadership might be complicit in this problem (or that it might be as bad as the article suggests). I feel horrified. I get anger and denial as responses; that’s part of the grief cycle. It’s just important we don’t stay there, or we’ll repeat the mistakes of the ‘establishment’ in reformation history… we’ll try to shoot the messenger and that’ll only bolster the message (that churches led by blokes are more likely to be hostile and abusive to women).

Here are some key quotes from the article (which is largely first hand accounts of abuse and the response from churches in Australian churches from real people).

“There is no mainstream theologian in Australia who would suggest that a church should be anything but a sanctuary, or that a Christian relationship be marked by anything but love.

But church counsellors and survivors of family violence report that many abusive men, like Sally’s husband, rely on twisted — or literalist — interpretation of Bible verses to excuse their abuse…

What is clear from the women interviewed by ABC News is that they do not resent the church — they urgently seek its reform.”

We need Julia Bairds like we needed Martin Luther. We need to listen to the stories she is telling from real women in our churches about how our real theology has been used to create bad practice, but also to see how it is clear from her piece that bad practice ultimately comes (from the perpetrators) from wolves who twist the words of God to create their own bad theology to justify their insidious practice. Her point is that if we aren’t clear about our theology and practice we provide cover for wolves — ‘false teachers’ — the kinds of people the Bible warns us we should be looking out for.

Baird’s piece is certainly a result of her egalitarian convictions but it doesn’t require egalitarian convictions to agree with her in her observations of the problems, or to listen to the stories she tells and ponder how we might reform from within before a reformation movement happens without us.

I’m thankful for Julia Baird. I wish the church had a thousand more journalists like her. I don’t believe that complementarian theology causes abuse, or that egalitarian theology is the silver bullet (here’s a post I wrote specifically about gender and abuse a few months back); but she is certainly right that the abuse of complementarian theology can be used to keep people in abusive situations. Neither complementrianism or egalitarianism will provide a model that protects people from abuse; Jesus will. And how we respond to the calls of reformers is a chance for us, like it should have been for the Catholics, to keep reforming so that our theology and practice are more closely tied to the God revealed in Jesus, and the way of life demonstrated by him.

In churches where men are in positions of responsibility and ‘authority’; where disclosure of domestic violence in relationships within the church will likely be to these men, and where there’s control and abuse being perpetuated using twisted theology, how we respond to this sort of piece matters; it communicates something. It’s an opportunity either to perpetuate the exact cultural problem that allows wolfish abusers to operate under the cover of darkness or behind closed doors, or to reform the culture.

I fear too much of the conversation about this article online has been defensive and about theological differences, where we could, and should (and many have) simply been welcoming this call for reform and heeding its advice (and the accounts of many Christian sisters who have been abused) to bring about real change in how we approach this issue. We might as a reformed church (and by this I mostly mean protestant churches in Australia that hold to broadly complementarian gender roles), bang on about remembering our history and celebrating 500 years of the Reformation; but we’ve possibly missed the essence of the Reformation (a pursuit of Christlikeness through reforming practices and institutions that have become broken by our sinfulness and the enshrining of broken traditions as norms).

What if instead of being defensive we welcomed the light being shone on this issue (and the one shining the light, even if we disagree with her brand of torch).

What if we used this as an opportunity to produce clear statements about our approach to domestic violence, and how the cross of Jesus shapes Christian marriage and also our sense of leadership (what the strong do for the weak)?

What if we’d used this to clean our laundry rather than accusing Julia Baird of either airing the dirty laundry or throwing mud at our clean clothes?

What if we’d used this to thank Julia Baird and celebrate the way she has used her gifts and her platform to both bring this attention into the light (ala Ephesians 5 — which is about more than just marriage), and to attempt to reform the church out of a love for both Jesus and his bride?

What if instead of expressing dismay at ‘shoddy statistics’ we’d simply said ‘this is awful, we commit to working to change’?

I suspect we’d be bringing honour to Jesus and we’d be committing ourselves to healthy change and a healthy expression of how men of God relate to women of God who bring wise counsel… maybe we’d be practising what we preach…

Some positive links.

Census sensibility: 10 thoughts on the 2016 Australian census results and what they mean for Christians

Almost no Christian commentator involved in church ministry that I’ve read this week is particularly surprised by, or concerned about the findings of the 2016 census. Which might come as a surprise to those out there who’ve used the data as some sort of evidence for the decline of Australian religiousity, or to suggest that the influence of the church on Australian life is on the wane. There is, however, one Christian position that becomes increasingly difficult to maintain in the face of the data — and that’s the assumption undergirding some political Christianity that has mounted political arguments based on the size of the Christian population; one such lobby group — the ACL — even urged people to tick the ‘Christian’ box (or fill out the question appropriately) to maintain a strong Christian constituency.

Why is it important? While the census data is rightly used to assist the government to plan for services and infrastructure, other groups, including some atheists, are seeking to push their  agendas by encouraging people to leave the form blank.  Not every person who holds judeo-Christian values attends a church, but if enough of them leave this section blank, some will use this to minimize the importance of basic Christian values in this country.  We need to prove the size of the constituency who hold these values.

I reckon we’re in big trouble if we Christians are reinforcing the idea that Christianity is a values system, not a lived belief in the resurrected Jesus Christ, and we open ourselves up to the sort of chest-beating we read from aggressive secularists if people think ‘Christian’ is just a box you tick on a form. Here’s some more of what I think, and how I feel about this census stuff; and what does have interesting implications for the church in Australia, and what doesn’t, from the data.

1. The Bible takes a pretty dim view of census taking because they’re often a measure of worldly kingdoms and their power.

Which isn’t to say we should pay no attention, just that we should remember who the real king is and what kingdom we Christians belong to. The census data provides us interesting insight into Australia as a mission field; but terrible justification for Christians to wield our influence in the political sphere as a ‘majority’ — we should put this data in its place.

In the Old Testament, David conducts a census (1 Chronicles 21, 2 Samuel 24) to gauge his own might; which is a slap in the face to the idea that God gives strength to his kingdom and he gets rebuked and punished.

In the New Testament, Caesar Augustus conducts a census as a measure of the might of his empire (Luke 2) — this even gets a mention in his eulogy the res gestae, which makes for interesting reading), and as history unfolds this is the moment of Rome’s undoing — cause it’s the mechanism by which God brings about the birth of the true king, Jesus, as prophesied, in a way that would ultimately be the undoing of Caesar’s ‘divine’ dynasty, as the empire became Christian. I don’t want to overstate the case here against being too worried about shifting dynamics in the worldly kingdom of Australia, but for Christians tempted to panic because we’re going to lose influence, it’s worth pondering this little interchange between Jesus and Caesar’s representative, Pilate:

Pilate then went back inside the palace, summoned Jesus and asked him, “Are you the king of the Jews?”

“Is that your own idea,” Jesus asked, “or did others talk to you about me?”

“Am I a Jew?” Pilate replied. “Your own people and chief priests handed you over to me. What is it you have done?”

Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place.”

“You are a king, then!” said Pilate.

Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. In fact, the reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.” — John 18:33-37

2. Australia has never meaningfully been a Christian nation and the decay of nominal/cultural Christianity is a good thing

But wait, you’ll say, our laws are founded on Judeo-Christian principles, and the church was part of the establishment of Australia as a colony, and we had all those ‘impressive’ Christian types like Lachlan Macquarie and Samuel Johnson running about early in our history.

To that, I’d say, there’s more than one Australian story… there’s a difference between the educated upper class establishment being Christian, and a whole host of other Australians not being Christian but being governed by Christians. Once church attendance was no longer compulsory (as it was for convicts), the population largely stopped going (and early population stats don’t count the significant number of indigenous Aussies not going to church either). So, for example, in 1907, less than 11% of those who identified as Anglican in Brisbane in the census regularly attended church (source: An inquiry commissioned by the Anglican Church diocese of Brisbane, conducted on the “Religious Knowledge and Habits of the People” cited in Tom Frame’s Losing My Religion a book on faith and practice in Australia — I wrote an essay on this census data stuff while at college).

Banjo Patterson’s The Bush Christening describes settler life outside the urban centres…

On the outer Barcoo where the churches are few, And men of religion are scanty, On a road never cross’d ‘cept by folk that are lost, One Michael Magee had a shanty”

3. This data isn’t news it has been a long time coming and Christians have been too complacent on our definition of ‘Christianity’ in part because our understanding of the Gospel is more geared towards ‘decision’ and ‘cultural identity’ than ‘discipleship’ and following Jesus. 

A prominent Christian lobby group in Australia urges people to identify as Christians in the census if they wanted to maintain conservative Christian values by ‘proving the size of the constituency’. I’d rather sign up with the movement that urges people to only say they’re Christian if they hold to the historic creeds.

I’ve finally, after having it on my shelf for years, started reading Scot McKnight’s The King Jesus Gospel, and while it’s responding to the US context and I don’t want to extrapolate their data too much into our own context, but his diagnosis of what has gone wrong in America where so many people identify as Christian but don’t practice nails us for our wrong understanding and presentation of the Gospel (and what being Christian means), rather than trying to understand ‘Christian’ as a cultural identity thing; and I think he’s on the money.

“The correlation between making a decision and becoming a mature follower of Jesus is not high. Here are some approximate numbers: among teenagers (13-17) almost 60% of the general population makes a commitment to Jesus — that is, they make a “decision”… However we look at this pie, most Americans ‘decide’ for Jesus. But if we measure discipleship among young adults (18-35), we find dramatic shifts in numbers. Barna has some measures for “discipleship” including what they call “revolutionary faith,” a “biblical worldview” and “faith as a highest priority in life.” Take revolutionary faith, which sorts out things like meaning in life, self-identification as a Christian, Bible reading, and prayer, as well as questions about how faith has been or is transforming one’s life. That almost 60% becomes about 6%… Our focus on getting young people to make decisions — that is, “accepting Jesus into our hearts” — appears to distort spiritual formation”

You should read the book. But his point is that we’re sloppy about our definition of Christian and that costs us and creates a perception that isn’t real — and throw in campaigns to distort the data in our favour, for our political advantage, and we’re in a terrible mess.

4. If you’re shocked by this Barna group data, or the census results, you should probably go out and read Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age and Jamie Smith’s How (Not) To Be Secular, then make things worse cause we’re in Australia and have less definitively Christian heritage.

Christianity has not been profoundly part of the Australian experience in the way it is part of the narrative in the United States (again, ignoring the elephant in the room that is the religiousity of the indigenous peoples in both nations). We are not a Christian colony set up by religious people escaping persecution, but rather the church was part of the way the European establishment sought to control the penal colony… we are much more profoundly secular and pluralist in our outlook/story (including in the constitution), I found this vision of religiousity (or secularity) in Australia from this paper on Indigenous Religion in Secular Australia a pretty compelling description of how religion works in our psyche (and history). It’s talking about what exactly our Constitutional provision around religion (that we have no official state religion or church) emerged from (which is different to similar provisions in the US).

Australian secularism owes less to theory than to culture. It emerges in our foundation myths of frontier self-reliance and working-class larrikinism and in our modern self-image of cosmopolitan hedonism. Where other nations have often developed secular constitutions while retaining vibrantly religious cultures, Australian cultural secularisation was arguably well-advanced before Federation opened the agenda in which the issue of constitutional secularism became relevant.”

Or, as this paper on Secularisation and the Church/state relationship puts it:

As religious organisations became differentiated and secularised from the state, their relationship to the state was changed in three fundamental ways. First, the state no longer maintained a monopoly over religion. As a result, individuals were now able to choose whether they would follow a particular religion. Second, religious plurality was able to be developed and maintained. Third, all religious organisations would receive equal rights under the law. In addition, religion could maintain public significance as it would be supported but not controlled by the state.”

This ‘secular frame’ means that Taylor’s secular age thesis happens on steroids in Australia… because our national narratives are already a couple of steps down the path towards irreligion than in the US. I’d suggest our religiousity in the census is much more ‘cultural’ than a product of a meaningful narrative that people see themselves participating in (or a story that shapes one’s experience/identity). One implication of this sort of secularity though is that Christians should be more upfront about how our religion shapes us in public conversations as a legitimate secular/pluralist expression of our national identity.

5. Migration is part of the story of the decline in cultural Christianity, but also part of the story of opportunity for the church

26% of Australians alive today were born overseas. Many more are second generation Australian. Migration from non-European nations has altered the responses to the census religion question since it was first asked… This change isn’t all ‘European-background Aussies de-converting’… there’s a more complex picture underneath the data.

It should be obvious, but the more Australians born overseas, or born to parents who have migrated from overseas, from countries that are not Christian by heritage, the greater percentage of Aussies there are who aren’t likely to identify as Christians, culturally. And this is a fantastic opportunity for churches in Australia to grapple with multi-cultural/multi-ethnic outreach.

6. We’re increasingly going to need (at least a) ‘two-speed’ approach to being the church in Australia

Multi-ethnic ministry is probably a third speed altogether — but there’s another rapidly growing divide in the Aussie population based on age and worldview.

Us churchy types need to figure out the balance between gearing ourselves towards Australia’s aging population, with its particular suppositions and ‘cultural Christian’ baggage, and younger generations who have none of the baggage, or the assumptions.

39% of people aged under 34 said they have ‘no religion’ as opposed to 31% aged over 34. Younger Aussies are less religious than their older counterparts.

These two are related.

The stats amongst young people are much more dire than the stats amongst oldies — though the ‘aging population’ conundrum means oldies are becoming increasingly common, or as the ABS puts it:

Australia’s once youthful population is ageing slowly. Our median age is now 38. It was 23 in 1911, 28 in 1966, and 37 in 2011.

As our baby-boomer generation ‘matures’, we find that one in six of us are now over 65, compared to one in seven in 2011 and only one in 25 in 1911.

We’re probably going to live longer and the birth rate is down on what it used to be, but there’s a good chance that the ‘no religion’ stat will keep accelerating amongst young people which means we need a sort of ‘two speed economy’ approach to mission in Australia.

If we want to think about what the future of the church looks like beyond that aging population we might need to start recalibrating the way we do church to post-modern, post-Christian, post-truth types (how we present the Gospel and grow people to Christian maturity) a little more urgently; while also figuring out how to reach out to the old modernist Aussies who either think they’re Christians but don’t meaningfully follow Jesus, or have decided Christianity isn’t for them.

7. If you didn’t believe Australia was already post-Christian, post-modern, and post-truth, maybe now is the time to start figuring out how to change the way we do stuff both in the public realm and in the church?

Campaigns encouraging Aussies to tick ‘Christian’ in the census to maintain Christian values, that are disconnected from campaigns to embed those values in people’s hearts are part of the problem, not the solution. Public Christianity that confuses people about what Christians believe is deleterious to the church’s mission and we need to get better at expressing what the Gospel is and why following Jesus as king leads to a better, wiser, fuller, more beautiful and eternal life in a compelling alternative community where love is a reflection of the character of God revealed at the cross of Jesus.

I’ve written some thoughts on how we might be the church for the post-truth/post-modern generation here. Our challenge is to match our rational truth with the sort of experience and community that makes it emotionally plausible.

8. Pessimism is for losers. 

On the flip side, you might not think the census data is particularly bad, or particularly accurate. Because you might think the numbers are actually much lower than it suggests and it isn’t particularly newsy. You might agree that Christianity isn’t a box ticked in a census, but membership of an alternative kingdom following King Jesus, and you might already see Australia as a massive mission field in which we’re meant to be living and proclaiming the Gospel so as to make disciples while we follow Jesus in trying to seek and save the lost.

You might not actually think all this is that bad, because you might have friendships with people who’ve ticked the “Christian” box, but don’t follow Jesus, or plenty of friends who tick the ‘no religion’ box who are comfortable with the sort of historic ‘secular’ norm in Australia (so they aren’t out to silence you, although perhaps they might think it’s time our laws stopped reflecting values they don’t share). That’s me. Despite the odd coverage from places like Buzzfeed, and the weird chest-beating from the aggressive ‘hard secularist’ types who want to use this data to silence Christians altogether.

So what then?

Well. Here’s two more thoughts.

9. Qualitative data beats quantitative every time in terms of painting a meaningful picture.

McCrindle’s Faith and Belief in Australia survey, which asks more pointed questions, is a heaps better measure than the Census, and provides more reason for optimism, and a clear picture on how churches keen to proclaim and live the Gospel in Australia might shape that proclamation in ways that produce emotional plausibility and connect with the Australian psyche.

Here’s a couple of encouraging findings from McCrindle’s summary.

A genuine faith the greatest attraction to a religion or spirituality
Observing people with genuine faith is the greatest attraction to investigating spirituality. Second is experiencing personal trauma or a significant life change. On the inverse, the top repellent to Australians investigating is public figures or celebrities who are examples of that faith. This is followed by miraculous stories of healings or supernatural occurrences.

Perceptions of Christianity
Australians most value Christian organisations for their work with those in need, specifically looking after people who are homeless, offering financial assistance/food relief programs and providing disaster relief (74%, 72% and 69% respectively).  8% of Australian adults (1.5 million) do not know any Christians, while for Generation Y this is almost one in ten. One in 29 Australians have never heard of Jesus.

10. The problem here is with the church, not the world. We don’t need no Benedict Option, but we do need ‘thick’ joyful creative communities prepared to operate at, from, and for the margins.

The days of the Aussie church (and its dominant mission field) being upwardly middle class, educated, and of European descent (ie coming out of the ‘establishment narrative’ where to be Australian is to have a Judeo-Christian heritage and approach to life) might be over. And maybe that’s a good thing.

This data could feed all sorts of narratives out there about how hostile the world we live in is to the church, but maybe this sort of data shouldn’t be a wake up call about how hostile the world is becoming, but rather, about how disengaged the church is from the world, and perhaps how much we’ve been resting on our laurels with the assumption that we live in a Christian nation.

We might be tempted to withdraw into our own little communities by this data (and the response), and to work harder on reinforcing the boundaries…Maybe, if we’re going to tick a box identifying ourselves with Christ in a secular census, we need to be on about living out Jesus’ ‘golden rule,’ his ‘greatest commandments,’ and ‘great commission’

Maybe it’ll help us be more urgently on about the Gospel and less worried about civic religion and/or our influence in society based on inflated numbers.

Maybe being a good Aussie citizen, as a Christian, is actually about first being a good citizen of the kingdom of heaven, and then participating in a rich secular, pluralist, society. Maybe our participation should happen in such a way that how our religious views shape our lives becomes obvious, and in turn shapes how people understand what being a Christian is, and where our beliefs are evident to all (and plausible to some) because how we live is so different to many of our neighbours. It should be really costly to tick the ‘Christian’ box on the census; because, as Bonhoeffer put it, when Christ calls a person, he calls them to come and die…

Maybe we need to stop pretending that Christianity can possibly just be a values system that we hope other people will tick and flick so that we can maintain our slightly inaccurate belief that Australia is a ‘Christian nation’ with a ‘Christian majority,’ because those beliefs are becoming less and less plausible every census.

Why I use loaded words like ‘feminism,’ ‘patriarchy,’ and ‘privilege’: not just words used in the Bible (but I do think they’re Biblical concepts)

My friend Akos just wrote a post on his blog arguing that we Christians should not so readily use loaded/non-value neutral words like privilegepatriarchyfeminism. I think he’s wrong.

He says:

“Christians sometimes (increasingly?) discuss this sensitive topic using jargon like ‘patriarchy’, ‘privilege’, and ‘gender-equality’.”

I definitely do this. Often. Here’s a bunch of posts on Christian feminism from my archives (on just the first page of results I use the word privilege eight times, and the word patriarchy 12 times — by tagging this post as ‘feminism’ it’ll add a few more). Here’s a talk I gave on What The Church Gets Wrong About Feminism where I talk about the patriarchy, and privilege, as it operates outside the church and inside it (I also talk about ‘safe places’ and how the church should be the safest place for women).

Now. There’s an irony that two blokes are banging on about how we should talk about feminism in the church, and there’s plenty of great stuff out there by women (often left voiceless in these convos), and you’d be better off reading them (eg my friend Tamie’s posts on meetjesusatuni or fixinghereyes). But it’s important for blokes to get this right so we’re not treading all over women and/or excluding them from the conversation, and thus ironically making the point that we need words like privilege, patriarchy, and feminism.

Akos has some bolded summary statements to explain why this is a bad idea, and what ‘better’ might be.

  • These Terms Are Ideologically Loaded 
  • They’re not ‘value-neutral’. 
  • Jesus Often Comes off Looking Second Best When He’s Evaluated By Secular Feminism 
  • When We Feel Embarrassed By What The Bible Says, We Can Start Doubting The Bible
  • A Better Way To Engage This Topic: Leave out the buzzwords, and grapple with the Bible. 
  • Let’s discuss the roles of men and women – but on the Bible’s terms.
  • We’ll Always Be Out Of Step With Our Culture: But that’s God’s design.

I have problems with the last one — I think the crucifixion of Jesus will always put us out of step with our culture and provide and create an alternative one; but I also think the framework provided by the Bible is the best and wisest account of life in our world (it might take the Spirit for people to see it); we shouldn’t be afraid to engage with where people in our world are identifying that it seems broken, because there’s a good chance the Gospel will provide a more satisfying and eternal answer.

One of Akos’ paragraphs says:

“If we allow our embarrassment to drive our view of the Bible, then it’s not long before we’re relying on our own experience and insight (influenced in large part by our culture’s views) to interpret – or even supersede – the Bible.”

Now. My problem is, I think all these terms are actually descriptions the Bible would be comfortable with to describe particular aspects of our sinfulness, and the way sin (and specifically the curse) plays out in the world. I think we get these categories — or something very like them — if we do grapple with the Bible, and, for example, observe how men in power behave towards women in the Old Testament and how Jesus is different.

Here’s one reason to use them… I’ll put it in bold.

We Christians are in conversation with the world, and conversations require listening

These aren’t just internal Christian discussions; they’re discussions we’re entering into in a world where feminism, patriarchy and privilege are live issues — and it’d be silly not to listen to people identifying how the curse of sin affects our neighbours and to not ask if it might have infected the church too. This is also an area that is in the top belief blockers for non-Christian Aussies — and if we’re going to be different to the world maybe it’s worth being different in a way that is less cursed, not more — it’s quite probable that the crucified king will leave us with very different answers to the world’s, and that these answers will confound both the solutions offered by conservatives and progressives outside the church.

When Paul steps up to the podium in the Areopagus in Athens he uses a bunch of values-laden words that describe Biblical concepts, but come from Greek poets and philosophers, and Athenian observations about how the world works. He uses these words because he has listened carefully to these poets and philosophers, and he has carefully observed Athens, and has been in dialogue with the people of Athens using their categories. He shows how their categories actually find their best answers in Jesus.

If I want to say that sin and the cursed pattern of relationships between men and women plays out structurally, I think it’s ok to use the word patriarchy to describe how men have systemically used our strength and power to shape the world according to our desires (and in a way consistent with the Genesis 3:16 curse). We see this in the way, for example, Solomon has 1,000 wives, and David treats Bathseba as an object to be claimed, not a co-image bearer (having previously discarded his wife Michal). We see it in modern talks on this passage when male preachers make the issue David betraying Uriah rather than David raping Bathsheba (sending soldiers to ‘get her’ doesn’t particularly imply consent, nor does anything in the narrative). Men and women in the Old Testament, after Genesis 3, don’t seem to operate very often in the way envisaged by Genesis 1-2.

If I want to talk about the advantages I enjoy as a man because of this system I’ll use privilege — stuff like not really ever fearing that I’m going to be raped, ignored (especially in churches), patronised in conversations about science, engineering, math, etc, not employed or paid the same as my peers because of my gender, or in a positive sense, that I’m more likely to hold a leadership position in a company, the church, or politics, and I’m more likely to find protaganists in stories that our culture consumes and is shaped by that are just like me (and talk to other people of the same gender but not about romance). These aren’t small things. And they are privilege.

If I want to say this is a problem because men and women were made equal in value, and equal in ultimate function, as image bearers of God (which is a function), I’ll use the concept of gender-equality. 

The honus is on us Christians, just as it was with Paul in Athens, if we’re going to use these worldly words, or categories, to reframe them according to the Bible’s story, so that the Bible is the best explanation for this status quo, and the curse-reversing work of Jesus the best treatment of is the best solution. But not using the words means not participating in the conversation that the world is having (it’s not just a conversation happening in the church), and this means missing out on opportunities to present the truth, goodness, and beauty of Jesus. Who is a better feminist than any merely human feminist because he actually does something substantial and eternal about patriarchy, privilege, and gender-equality. Sometimes we non-egalitarian Christians have been so scared of how this verse is used that we make it say almost nothing about gender; but what it is is the reversing of the curse; the promise of what will be in the new creation, and what begins in the church (though we, the church, are still in dialogue with and operating within a cursed and broken world).

So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptised into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise. — Galatians 3:26-29


PS: I don’t see complementarian or egalitarian coming up as terms in the Bible either… and to quote Akos with a minor edit:

“At best, they’re confusing to most people (who aren’t up on feminist evangelical terminology); and at worst, these words prejudge the Bible’s teaching and impose a secular worldview onto it.”

A graphically expressed third way on gender stuff in a messed up world: Complementarian? Egalitarian? Or the Cross?

Men and women are, on average, or typically, physiologically, anatomically, and hormonally different. To deny this is would be odd because the evidence is pretty concrete. Here’s a thing from the Australian Bureau of Statistics from 2011/12:

The average Australian man (18 years and over) was 175.6 cm tall and weighed 85.9 kg. The average Australian woman was 161.8 cm tall and weighed 71.1 kg.

This size and weight ratio, on average, means men are physically bigger and stronger. There are exceptions. But this average also means that men who throw their weight around are a danger to women, and we know this and talk about this beyond the church when we talk about violence against women, rape culture, and the patriarchy. Some approaches to gender issues want to deny or minimise this difference and the effect it has on the world assuming that equality or equity is the answer to this problem.

You might have seen this graphic.

Now. I like the sentiment there. But this other version an important corrective; acknowledging that sometimes inequality is a result of systemic injustice.


At the moment Aussie Christians are talking about gender equality in the church and home. And I thought of these pictures and wondered how applicable they might be. I reckon both of these graphics are a bit naive when it comes to problems of gender inequality and the solutions both in the church, and in the world.

Let me demonstrate this graphically with my own little picture. In the interests of using images that I own the rights to, let’s assume that the ultimate good, or what it means for humans to flourish, is represented by the ability to watch my old soccer team, Kustard FC, compete in a grand final (in an equal world this would be a mixed sport perhaps, but bear with me), so the ultimate expression of ‘gender equality’ is everybody enjoying the same view of the game.

An unimpeded view of the looks like this. No fences. Right behind the goal mouth.



When we talk about gender equality in the church and the world it’s worth acknowledging what we’ve said up front; the different physical strength of men and women, and a few other issues, means that over time men wielding influence and power has become systematised. There’s no fence in this picture; there’s people. Men. This is the patriarchy. A group of 175.6 pixel high, 85.9 pixel wide men using their size and weight to secure their own ultimate good at the expense of others.

Now. This is where it gets interesting for Christians.

Because we have a different sense about what the world should be to our patriarchy loving or patriarchy hating neighbours, that comes from our story, and an explanation for why, instead, the world is the way it is. It starts in the beginning.


So God created mankind in his own image,
    in the image of God he created them;
    male and female he created them.

God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.” — Genesis 1:27-28

I’ve bolded them to emphasise that this is plural and the plurality in sight is ‘male and female’ people as created by God. They are blessed; not cursed. This blessing is caught up in, and enables their partnership. We Christians believe that at creation men and women were created to flourish together in partnership. To share in the task of bearing God’s image, ruling the world together, cultivating and keeping the sanctuary of God’s garden-temple and expanding it as we multiplied his image-bearing presence across the face of the earth. In Genesis 2 we see Eve, woman, created as a helper for Adam, man, because he can’t do his job alone, and the Hebrew word used for ‘helper’ ezer is elsewhere used of God in a military context coming to the aid of Israel, and means something more like ‘necessary ally’ than ‘servant’.

It was meant to look like…


But things broke. The ideal was lost in the fall (Genesis 3), amidst a bunch of curses (not blessings) in response to Adam and Eve’s sin (and the Serpent’s deception), God says:

“I will make your pains in childbearing very severe;
    with painful labor you will give birth to children.
Your desire will be for your husband,
    and he will rule over you.” — Genesis 3:16

We were made to rule together, but now, and this is the pattern of life in the world in the Bible’s account of our humanity, man rules over woman. Over, not with.

So now, as a result. Here’s what happens when the average woman (161.8 pixels by 71 pixels) would also like to ‘watch the game’ ie flourish.


The ‘patriarchy’, or the problem of gender equality isn’t a problem where there’s just a fence impeding the view of the women; it’s a problem where men are impeding that view because they are bigger and stronger and it’s to their advantage. The worst form of this probably should be depicted with men trampling all over women because of their strength, not just blocking access to the ultimate good, but abusing women to secure something bad and treating it as good (eg abuse).

This ‘patriarchy’ is not what life was meant to look like; it’s not how men and women were made to live together. This is ‘curse’, as Genesis 3 puts it. This is the new ‘natural’ order of things. It is not good. It is not what God made life to be. It is not the ideal. We might think that because it is normal the best thing to do is to find other things for the women standing behind these men to do. Perhaps they could help them flourish and enjoy the game by giving them a back massage. Perhaps they could play a ‘different’ role, or find a ‘different’ sort of flourishing in order to let men rule. This feels a lot like having the curse be our norm.

So we’re left with three options to respond to this as humans, and as Christians, to deal with this patriarchy. Classically as Christians we see two options, the middle two. We reject the first (rightly), and I want to suggest we should embrace the fourth as we follow the example of Jesus.

Option 1: Embrace it (Chauvinism)

So when men like the four blokes on the right decide that they aren’t just going to secure a better ‘flourishing’ life for themselves by nature of being themselves and benefiting from the system, but rather they’ll use their strength to take advantage of others, trampling on them to secure an even better ‘view’… This is chauvinism. It’s abuse. It’s not just curse it’s sin.

The Changed Status Quo (Curse + Sin)

When sin happens on top of curse we get an even more messed up view of the world. When people take advantage of a power inequality for their own ends it amplifies the problems of a systemic inequality (a broken system). The world now looks like this. Part sinful abuse, part cursed system. Not what it was meant to be.



Christian Options

Now. Let’s for the sake of graphical clarity make Christian men and women colourful, and assume the status quo in the cursed world is part cursed system (patriarchy) and part abusive (chauvinism), that our challenge as Christians is to avoid sinful abuse (chauvinism) and overcome the curse (patriarchy) while living in this world.

Option 2. The Egalitarian Option (full equality)

Egalitarians stress the equality of all people; men and women; and our shared task in the world as God’s image bearing people. It is idealistic in that it looks back to the world before the fall, and the world as promised beyond the fallen world (the new creation) to establish an ideal for how men and women should relate.

Here’s how an egalitarian approach plays out with the status quo in place. And yes. It’s getting confusing. But let me explain what is happening. This is a set of coloured characters we’ll call ‘the church’ operating as equals, overlaid (in the main) over the status quo.

On the left you’ve a Christian man and woman operating where both the their access to a ‘flourishing’ life is blocked by a some abusers who have elevated themselves at the expense of others. The next four people are Christian men and women operating as equals in an unequal society, it’s easy for the man. He just has to be himself, and he gets to flourish without it costing him anything (he can see the game). The women notice no change, they just aren’t being abused; the patriarchy is still in their way. The last two men and women don’t have the patriarchy in front of them because those members of the patriarchy represent that proportion of the population who recognise the inequality and so have become egalitarians… it’s only when the systemic stuff is removed that that last woman on the right has access to the ‘flourishing’ life. It only works for the very privileged (particularly for middle to upper class western white women). It does offer an answer to the unprivileged, but because the diagnosis and the treatment are disconnected from (at least what the Bible describes as) the disease, it’s not totally effective in the face of the patriarchy. It relies, basically, on powerful people either being overthrown, or voluntarily giving up their power when confronted with it. This is why egalitarianism fails; in fact, it’s why I don’t think the Bible puts forward egalitarianism as a solution to the status quo.
Egalitarianism — the equality of men and women — is the world’s naive, or optimistic, solution to the problem of cursed life in the world; it’s a solution that comes without truly understanding that the problem is that life in the world is cursed, and that we can’t fix the curse ourselves just by pretending it isn’t there. It recognises a truth about our equality in dignity and value, and is less likely to accept the parameters offered to us by curse and sin. But it often settles for equality or equity as solutions, and doesn’t totally acknowledge that our difference is real, and that sin and curse have exaggerated the impact of that difference. It is an attempt to respond to a broken world by creating a new one (and in some sense, it does look forward to the new creation, but perhaps optimistically over-realises that picture in this world). So for Christians to adopt it just strikes me as missing the heart of the diagnosis, and the solution, that come with our story. As I’ve argued recently, the antidote to inequality is not equality, equality is a middle ground, a neutral, the positive antidote to inequality is service. A neutral option in a broken status quo won’t cut it (though it’s better than perpetuating or amplifying that brokenness).

Option 3. The Complementarian Option (equal but different)

Here’s one way Christians have approached the relationship between men and women in this world. Charitably it assumes that men and women are different (including physiologically) for a reason, and this difference manifests itself in different roles that do not negate our equality; and that somehow, as we operate as church and family in a fallen world, it makes sense for the stronger man to lead and the woman to help and support men in their work in the home or the church. This assumes that the best way to fight against patriarchy, abuse, or the broken status quo is to team up in a way that relies on strong leadership that challenges the status quo. Uncharitably, and sometimes in practice it assumes that the pattern of the curse is normal.

When it comes to the graph below, where the Christian men and women are in colour, it assumes that if you make a man a Christian it’s good to stand behind him and support him. That the man has a particular role to play in life in the world, as a Christian, and that the woman has a different role, reclaiming the task of ‘helper,’ only, the task looks perhaps different to the way it looked before the fall. Perhaps this difference is because the world is different, and a greater threat to the flourishing of women — but it’s possible that sometimes a Christian bloke is just as likely to get in the way of a woman’s flourishing as a non-Christian bloke.

So. Graphically, the way this plays out is that a complementarian man probably stands between a woman and an abuser (a bit like Jesus standing between the pharisees and the adulterous woman they wanted to stone), so that’s what’s going on with the the first two figures. But, in the next two figures, there’s some reasonable evidence to suggest that complementarian theology can misfire so that men are either abusive without realising it, or claim to be Christians in order to abuse women with some sort of divine support; this isn’t what is at the heart of ‘complementarian’ theology, but many Christian women escaping domestic violence say they were kept there by a theology much like it. In the next (the fifth) little vignette along, we see a complementarian woman standing behind a non-Christian patriarchal husband in order that by her way of life she might save him (eg 1 Peter), and then, in the last two, we see where in complementarian marriages and church structures (so ‘authority’ in the church), men and women model a different way of relating that is not abusive, but nor does it allow women access to the ‘full picture’ of human flourishing (unless to flourish as a woman is somehow tied to helping the flourishing of a man, not to a shared task). For many it’s hard to see the difference between this last category of relating and the patriarchy/status quo. Some though read this model back into the garden of Eden, and it’s hard to unpick then how much sin and curse have changed the way we view and experience the default.

It’s fair to say that complementarianism grapples with the physical reality of our difference and acknowledges the way sin has made that difference worse. It is a realistic response to the broken world, but it does, in the hands of abusers, perpetuate abuse, and it’s hard to argue that overthrows systemic curse or injustice to replace it with something better. There are many ways that because it is realistic, not just idealistic, it’s actually better than option 2, it also seems to assume the Bible has good reasons to argue for/create different roles for men and women that aren’t simply cultural but are a response to sin and curse, but I don’t think it’s the ideal because it doesn’t appear to challenge or change the cursed and sinful status quo.

Subvert it (The cross)

Let’s return to that image from the start of the post…

It would be nice to simply remove the fence; but in this case the fence is ‘the patriarchy’ — it’s a human fence created by the status quo which involves men using their strength for our own benefit.

The world is geared towards the success of men. We’re bigger on average, stronger on average, faster on average, less vulnerable to sexual assault on average, get paid more on average, take less time off work for family on average. We’re more likely to be in positions of authority and influence because of many of these factors. This is what the patriarchy looks like; and sure, sometimes men get into these positions because of the voluntary sacrificial love of women in their lives who genuinely want to help them flourish, and for many Christians the flourishing life looks different to most of these criteria. It’s possible to theologise and suggest that this is what difference should look like, and that this difference creates, through the Gospel, a particular responsibility for the husband to love and serve his wife (this is the best version of option 3 looks like).

It would be nice to simply remove the barrier (ala the boxes and fence graphic above); or to get boxes for women to stand on so that we enjoy equity when it comes to our access to the flourishing life. But this does not factor in the real heart issue behind the barrier; the barrier is people, not just a ‘system’…

I want to suggest the Gospel actually provides us with a third way that is both like option 2 in its idealism and option 3 in its realism. Men following the example of Jesus and laying down our strength and even our natural-but-cursed claim to power and authority is a different way forward that produces qualitatively different outcomes as men and women operate as different and equal in our world. It needs a funky name; obviously; and some friends online call it being an imagodeian (imago dei is latin for ‘image of God’). When I was talking about this with my boss (credit where credit is due) he suggested ‘imaginarian’ which is nice, because we’ve been teasing out how important imagination is in responding to the cursed and sinfully twisted world as people shaped by the Gospel.

Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves,  not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.

 In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:

 Who, being in very nature God,
    did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
    by taking the very nature of a servant,
    being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
    he humbled himself
    by becoming obedient to death—
        even death on a cross! — Philippians 2:3-8

Philippians 2 is the background for lots of what Paul says about gender relationships (eg Ephesians 5, and 1 Corinthians 11-14). Paul is a realist about both the difference between men and women, and the way the world makes this difference harmful to women, and he is giving us the good news that in the Gospel we have an answer to abuse and patriarchy; to sin and curse. We have the start of something new that will bring us towards a new reality, ultimately. Submission, then, which gets brought up in Ephesians 5 is both mutual (Ephesians 5:1), but also a preparedness to be served, to acknowledge that difference should play out in such a counter cultural way, and that this is the best and most counter-intuitive inversion of the patriarchy/curse and challenge to sin/abuse. Authority, then, is about casting one’s vote, or using one’s strength, for the sake of those you are serving. The cross utterly inverts human patterns of authority.

Now. Both egalitarians and complementarians will read this bit and say “he’s misunderstood us, this is what we’re already on about,” and to some extent this is true. There are good and true things in both systems… But this is how the Christian story gears us to think about gender relationships and flourishing in a fallen world, and it both realistically recognises that men and women are different, that the cursed world makes this difference particularly apparent for women, particularly when abuse is involved, so that it’s harder for all of us to flourish in this broken world.

The solution looks like this, because this is what it looks like for the stronger (on average, men) to use their strength by laying it down on behalf of those who sin and curse oppresses (on average, women). This is what it looks like to follow the example of Christ in all our relationships, or to love our wives as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her. It doesn’t, and can’t, look like abuse and patriarchy; and equality on this side of the new creation doesn’t fight the systemic injustice (patriarchy) or sin (abuse). What this imaginarian approach looks like is perhaps more in the realm of ‘different and equal’; it acknowledges what is real, and what is ideal, and aims to recapture as much of the ideal and to live out as much of the new as possible, in marriage or church this looks like the powerful utterly renouncing the use of strength and power for personal gain or comfort, and instead using it to enable the flourishing of others as we raise them up, by lowering ourselves. This isn’t to say that women are exempt from sacrificial service (we’re all called to that in our relationships in Philippians 2), but this re-levels the playing field somewhat so that they’re in a stronger starting point in which to then give things up in their relationships too. Without us first addressing inequality by cancelling it out (giving up power that is not really ours to grasp) we actually double the ‘service burden’ on women. What this looks like concretely will be worth unpacking, but here, at least, is a visual (note, it’s a metaphor for overcoming the barrier as the strong give up strength to allow all of us to flourish, I’m not suggesting we join the circus).

Wake up! The Aussie church needs hopeful wisdom and imagination; not the ‘status quo’

“The sad truth is that many of us are, at best, only half awake. We think we’re engaged with the real world — you know, the world of stock markets, stockcar racing, and stockpiles of chemical weapon — but in fact we’re living in what Lewis calls the “shadowlands.” We think we’re awake, but we’re really only daydreaming. We’re sleepwalking our way through life — asleep at the wheel of existence — only semi-conscious of the eternal, those things that are truly solid that bear the weight of glory.” — Kevin Vanhoozer, In Bright Shadow: C.S. Lewis on the Imagination for Theology and Discipleship

I’ve spent the last few days feeling like most of us Christians in Australia need a bit of a wake up call.

And not because the world is going to turn against us because of what we think and believe and teach… but because we need to wake up to ourselves… to think — to rethink— or re-imagine even — how it is we live in the world as Christians.

I’ve been confronted recently about the stark reality of death, and the incredible and real hope the Gospel offers in the face of death; and how the cross and resurrection offer us some really amazing models for engaging with the problems we face in our world when people do stupid and evil stuff to each other.


Day after day, week after week, I read think-pieces on Christian blogs, statuses posted on social media, and books, even books, about how the world is falling apart.

How Christians have it tougher in the west then ever before. How people now hate us just for thinking what we’ve always thought.

The Margaret Court saga is the latest in a long line of this… and if you’re part of my weird corner of the Aussie church there’s now a fight about whether some people at a conference said Christian women should exist to make men shine, should view being CEO of a company as an opportunity to be a ‘helper’ to men, or should not cut their hair short, and should avoid tattoos or something.

What are we doing? Why do we keep treading such obscure well trodden unimaginative paths that make the Gospel less and less appealing to our neighbours. Can’t we when faced with interesting dilemmas choose to be interesting and category confounding while still being faithful?

And yet. Time after time… we’re just…

So boring.

So predictable.





We’re sleepwalking our way through a changing environment and wondering why we keep bumping into things.

Seriously. There might be new problems; or at least new manifestations of old problems… but we’re not offering many new solutions. We’re retreating to the same black and white ‘factual’ answers to a bunch of complicated questions where people are feeling the implausibility of the way we live out those facts and so rejecting the answers that got us into a mess; and we’re wondering why it’s not working.

We’re wondering why even our growing churches are barely keeping pace with population growth (which means we’re shrinking in real terms).

And our answers aren’t the Gospel.

They’re not hopeful.

They so lack imagination that we wonder why the church in Australia is stuck in a rut. We can’t imagine why it is.

But there are a bunch of people clamouring to describe what is; to explain why things are so bad, but offering very little in terms of imaginative or new solutions to the problem except perhaps to bunker down and hope for revival.

There are a bunch of voices attempting to out doom-say one another about the future of the church here in Australia, predicting greater difference between us and our neighbours if we maintain the status quo… and maybe they’re right. But maybe instead of considering how to maintain the status quo in the face of opposition we might rethink the thing. Some of those doomsday prophets have had to re-think their narrative a little in the face of the latest McCrindle Research on Faith and Belief in Australia (it turns out the aggressive ‘secular left’ commentariat might be out of touch with what most Aussies think about religion and Jesus). Here’s a few interesting snapshot findings from the report:

“Australians vary in their current attitudes towards Christianity. When asked whether they themselves say that they are a ‘Christian’, almost two in five (38%) ‘consider themselves a Christian’ (compared to 45% who identify with Christianity as a religion). A further 24% are ‘warm’ towards Christianity with 12% neutral towards it. The remaining 26% of Australians are ‘cool’ (negative) towards Christianity.”

“Perceptions of Christians and Christianity are negatively influenced by the actions and behaviours of Christians in society. Perceptions of church abuse are the greatest negative influence (73% say this is massive/significant), followed by religious wars (65%). Two thirds (65%) say they are negatively influenced by hypocrisy.”

I don’t blame those who are ‘cool’ towards Christianity in Australia who are negatively influenced by our actions and behaviour (and I’d say even our thinking). Not just when it comes to abuse and wars… but when it comes to our utter failure to live out a plausibly better alternative to the visions of the good life offered by our world. I’m a Christian; a pastor; and half the time I don’t even feel like the Gospel is ‘good news’ as lived out by our churches… Certainly not if you’re something other than male, middle class, english-speaking, at least second generation Australian, educated, and heterosexual. Ironically, I wonder what percentage of the 26% of Aussies who are cool towards Christianity also fall in those categories… it also turns out that of the 38% of all people surveyed who define themselves of Christians only 7% of all people surveyed (18% of self-identifying Christians) are active practicers/’extremely involved’…

And I can’t blame them.

Because we’re terrible. And boring. We lack imagination so we’re unable to put together any particularly coherent and persuasive case even to those who call themselves Christians about why they should be involved in church life… let alone for those people who describe themselves as warm to Christianity who aren’t Christians, the 12% who are neutral or the 26% who are ‘cool’…

Here’s my doomsday prophet statement. I’ll put on my funky wizard’s hat:

The problem for the church in Aussie society isn’t with the society. It’s with the church. 

We have so utterly failed to understand the people around us and why they don’t like us that it’s left us fearful, or worse, unimaginative. We trot out the same lines in response to new challenges and wonder why they’ve lost their edge; and we never really ask if the lines we’re trotting out are actually coherently Christian (or Biblical), or if the way we’ve implemented our theology (our traditions) might need reforming.

Wisdom and the imagination

Maybe we should rethink what wisdom actually is. That it’s about navigating between two seemingly contradictory poles rather than picking one and beating people with it.

I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest that wisdom requires imagination. Not a rule book. And we’re failing society at large (and ourselves) because we keep assuming wisdom is about having the right facts or knowledge; rather than about using our Spirit-shaped imagination to chart shrewd paths through difficult extremes.

That’s why Proverbs — a book of Biblical wisdom — can contradict itself within two sentences.

Do not answer a fool according to his folly,
    or you yourself will be just like him.
Answer a fool according to his folly,
    or he will be wise in his own eyes. — Proverbs 26:4-5

Here’s two places where, in the New Testament, we’re called to be wise in the way we engage with the world.

“I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.” — Matthew 10:16

Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders; make the most of every opportunity. Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone. — Colossians 4:5-6

Now. These two use different words for wisdom (the word the NIV translates as ‘shrewd’ in Matthew 10 is φρόνιμος (phronimos) which means practically wise), but both attach wisdom to action rather than to knowledge; we’re to ‘be as shrewd as’ and ‘wise in the way you act’ — this isn’t about head knowledge but about the charting of a path in life, in Matthew it’s to live amongst hostile wolves, and in Colossians, where Paul has just mentioned his chains, it’s to live amongst hostile wolves who are ‘outsiders’ but in the hope they ask questions that we can then answer with the Gospel… he’s just said: “And pray for us, too, that God may open a door for our message, so that we may proclaim the mystery of Christ, for which I am in chains.” (Colossians 4:3).

A way this wisdom thing seems to play out in Jesus’ life is in those moments where the wolves are out to get him; to trap him between two undesirable positions, when, say, the Pharisees ask him a question about tax and the scope of Caesar’s power where they’re trying to trap him and he confounds them by picking a grander third way between those two poles. He re-imagines their question and uses it to show where they’ve got humanity and power all wrong…

“Then the Pharisees went out and laid plans to trap him in his words.”

This is wolf like. What Jesus does in response is shrewd.

Tell us then, what is your opinion? Is it right to pay the imperial tax to Caesar or not?”

But Jesus, knowing their evil intent, said, “You hypocrites, why are you trying to trap me? Show me the coin used for paying the tax.” They brought him a denarius, and he asked them, “Whose image is this? And whose inscription?”

“Caesar’s,” they replied.

Then he said to them, “So give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.”

When they heard this, they were amazed. So they left him and went away. — Matthew 22

The implication here is that God’s image is on something other than these metal disks. It’s a bold gambit. It’s imaginative. It helps us re-imagine and re-image our humanity; and it avoids the obvious trap; Jesus would’ve been in trouble with the Pharisees and Israel if he’d claimed Caesar was the supreme power in the world, but he’d have been in trouble with Rome if he’d denied Caesar’s authority.

What a shame we appear to have lost the ability to imagine our own way through similar dilemmas and similar tests in the face of similarly powerful empires. Our answer now seems to be to just slam Caesar and those out there in the world who aren’t like us, and in doing so, to slam the door on Gospel opportunities.

I’m pretty sure our lack of ‘practical wisdom’ or shrewdness — our inability to imagine new ways — is limiting our ability to proclaim the mystery of Christ to people. And it is driving me mad. The way this manifests itself is that as soon as someone offers an alternative way they’re treated with the suspicion of liberalism or heresy, and interpreted in really binary labels; we can’t think outside the boxes that we’ve made for themselves.

Please. Can we start using our imaginations in the pursuit of wisdom… rather than simply doggedly repeating the same old mantras that got us here?

Here’s the thing; according to McCrindle’s research it’s not taxes and what we give to Caesar that’s the prime trap or ‘belief blocker’ for the church in Australia — for those Aussie Christians who want to take the Bible seriously as the word of God. It’s homosexuality. And again; this is an area where we rely on pat answers, ‘facts’, ‘proof-texts’, odd traditions and a total lack of imagination; both in the church and in our interface with the world at large. In a weird confluence; perhaps providentially… this is the issue that many doomsayers in the church are seeing as a sort of watershed, a sign that the culture has finally turned on us (perhaps, instead, this is just the only bit of the culture we’re prepared to offer some sort of resistance to, because for so long it’s been an area where we thought our norms were in the ascendency… we’ve ceded so much ground on stuff like economics and work (greed) and other types of idolatry so that we don’t look any different to our neighbours on that stuff). Here’s a quote from one famous piece of doomsaying, Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option (see my (mostly positive) review here):

“Christians who hold to the biblical teaching about sex and marriage have the same status in culture, and increasingly in law, as racists. The culture war that began with the Sexual Revolution in the 1960s has now ended in defeat for Christian conservatives. The cultural left—which is to say, increasingly the American mainstream— has no intention of living in postwar peace. It is pressing forward with a harsh, relentless occupation, one that is aided by the cluelessness of Christians who don’t understand what’s happening.”

I liked The Benedict Option because while it used metaphors consistent with doomsday prepping and heading to the hills; it did outline a positive and imaginative way of being the church in the world. It stumbled onto a some great solutions for the real problem facing us as the church despite perhaps over-reaching in its diagnosis of the problems (though writer Rod Dreher is as much writing to wake the church up to who we should be as he is to diagnose the problems outside us and what they might do to us).

But what if to read the situation this way as a ‘Christian conservatives’ v ‘cultural left’ ‘culture war’ is to be impaled on the horn of a particularly nasty dilemma; to choose between, if you’ll excuse the clumsy labelling of Christian conservatives as Pharisees, Caesar and the Pharisees. What if there are a bunch of alternative ways we might imagine to engage with people who disagree with us on this issue while maintaining our own faithfulness? What if Margaret Court had considered options other than boycotting Qantas? This sort of ‘third way’ is what I was outlining a bit in a recent post; but now we’ve got some interesting data from McCrindle to throw into the mix.

Homosexuality and Same Sex Marriage

“The biggest blocker to Australians engaging with Christianity is the Church’s stance and teaching on homosexuality (31% say this completely blocks their interest). This is followed by, ‘How could a loving God allow people to go to hell?’ (28%).” — McCrindle, Faith and Belief In Australia

Where I think we’ve failed here is that we’ve assumed faithfulness to Jesus means opposing same sex marriage for non-Christians in a secular nation. Because the Bible doesn’t recognise same sex marriage as marriage we should not allow anybody to; and, charitably, because same sex marriage will be bad for participants and families because it is outside God’s design, the loving thing to do is to oppose it. I understand this logic; I just think it lacks imagination and is ultimately a net loss when it comes to love and wisdom (in part because it becomes a significant blocker for people who as a result misunderstand how we feel about same sex attracted people and so stops them considering Jesus). If you stop someone considering Jesus because of a stance you take, you’re a bit like the crowd in the Zaccheus story in Luke 19; a barrier to Jesus’ mission to seek and save the lost. You’re not loving. You’re hating. There are better ways to be clear about what the Bible says about sex than just to adopt a black and white opposition to same sex marriage.

Here’s a question. What would happen if we engineered everything we did and said around homosexuality around two scenarios (that might seem implausible to many of us).

  1. A gay or lesbian couple curious about Christianity who married overseas, have kids, and want to explore the Gospel.
  2. A same sex attracted Christian committed to Biblical teaching about sex who is pursuing a life of celibacy or a mixed-orientation marriage.

What if it was our prayerful hope that our churches would be full of people like the people in this scenario, and church life revolved around figuring out how to work out what it means for us broken people to follow Jesus together. With my doomsday hat on again — and backed by the stats — our current unimaginative approach to this complicated question is keeping these scenarios from playing out.

The lens these scenarios would have us bring to questions about same sex marriage outside the church is totally different to the lens it seems our Christian political organisations and institutions want to bring to the political question. I can not imagine many of my gay friends and neighbours wanting to explore the truth claims of Christianity when we take their current hopes, dreams, and understanding of what a fulfilling life looks like, and spit on it without considering that our thinking about sexuality might be at all shaped by our prior decision to believe there’s a God, who reveals himself in the Bible and in Jesus, who has a design for our present and future, and who we love above all other loves.

Let’s assume that deciding how to approach your sexuality and your desires is a decision you make (what you do with them not who you are attracted to) that is either pleasing or displeasing to this God… and that our sexuality is something that God’s law/outline for what a flourishing human life looks like teaches us about. How do we approach questions of homosexuality for those who do not love God when the Bible itself says:

The mind governed by the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so. Those who are in the realm of the flesh cannot please God.

You, however, are not in the realm of the flesh but are in the realm of the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God lives in you. And if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, they do not belong to Christ. — Romans 8:7-9

What do we hope to achieve by taking God’s law (natural law, or revealed law) and arguing that it should be the law of the land? Where do our expectations for this come from?

Why have we just categorically assumed that marriage as defined by God (in the Bible, and as seen in human history in most cultures) is what marriage should be for a bunch of people who reject God, and see nature as a thing to be conquered by human will, freedom, and ingenuity? Our failure to imagine how to run a ‘shrewd,’ wise, loving and compelling line on this issue begins with an utter failure to apprehend the playing field (and this too, is a failure of the imagination. We’ve assumed a status quo that is no longer there, and then imagined the status quo is worse than it actually is, because we haven’t really understood why and how the playing field has changed and how we might actually be better equipped to play on it than we imagine).

What if people just want to hear that we also have a vision of the good human life, and that rather than beginning with loving another person intimately, and expressing that love in sex, marriage, and belonging to a family, we believe it starts with loving God intimately, and through that being part of his family in a way that changes how we view sex, love, and marriage. We understand that our views of marriage require a particular view of God, and for those who don’t share that view they’ll seem archaic and weird. But that’s ok. We’re happy to be weird, because we believe we’re right and nature and human history seem to support this conclusion but we recognise that people should be free to make their own decisions about God. I don’t know anybody at this point who would call me a bigot for holding these views (I’ve not yet been called one), but I also think it’s both Biblical and compelling. So long as we really believe and live as though God is more important to us than sex and marriage.

Let’s for a moment, consider marriage as an institution that is shaped by religious beliefs — not just a ‘natural’ order thing — we know this is a thing because the Catholics view marriage as a sacrament where Protestants don’t, because Mormons in some parts of the world allow polygamy as a result of their beliefs, and so too do some Muslims (so do the Old Testament patriarchs, so it’s not totally clear even in the Bible that marriage as monogamy is a natural rather than revealed thing)… Let’s for a moment draw an analogy with another religious practice prior to coming to love Jesus above all else; halal food. Do we expect a Muslim we hope to introduce to Jesus to stop eating halal food; perhaps even to eat bacon; before they become a Christian?

It seems an odd hill to die on, and like an impediment to Gospel ministry if the political changes happen (and it seems like they will); and even the most nuanced opponents to same sex marriage within the church get tarred with the same brush as the more extreme fringes because we’re not particularly good at explaining why Christian beliefs should shape secular legislation (let alone simply be accommodated by secular legislation).

Our responses to proposed changes to the Marriage Act have also been utterly without imagination; we’ve been worried about protecting Christian bakers and florists rather than thinking about how Christian bakers and florists might engage with the gay community who come knocking. Maybe instead of refusing to serve our gay neighbours because we hold to a different definition of marriage; we should refuse to profit from a changed institution and so offer our services for free.

Maybe we should pursue a generous pluralism; allowing other people to re-shape a secular/common understanding of marriage while still recognising our own religious distinctives, rather than seeking to defend the status quo for as long as possible.

Maybe we should, as much as possible, seek to create opportunities to have conversations with our gay neighbours from a position of love for them, and belief that Jesus is actually fundamentally better than sex or romantic love and could be more compelling than sex should a gay family come through our doors, and leave that for us to figure out with our neighbours in the context of a loving Christian community rather than relying on public statements that are interpreted as hateful or that close down doors and opportunities.

Maybe the voices we should be listening to at times like this are the voices of the faithful brothers and sisters living out the Gospel calling when it comes to their sexuality; about their experience of their desires, about what they find compelling about Jesus, and about what helps life in the church, following Jesus, be a plausibly better alternative than embracing an alternative ‘gospel’… Here’s an interesting piece in Eternity from this week, from David Bennett, a same sex attracted, celibate, Christian. Here’s a bit from him:

“The pressure that has been put on the Christian Church by the gay lobby only makes things worse for LGBTQI Christians like myself who are trying to bring a subtler, but far more profound change in the Church. You heap pressure on faithful Christians like me, most of whom hide themselves away. But we are part of you – we are just as ‘gay’ but we don’t have gay relationships.

We are defined by our relationship with Christ; we have had lives that are just as hard and if not harder as a minority within a minority. We are not trying to change the Church’s theology, but agree with it. Marriage between a man and a woman is scriptural and God’s design and a picture of the gospel. But we are trying to change a deeper ethic, bringing a revival to the Church’s worship life, which has for too long enshrined the idols of romanticised notions of love, money and middle-class life, which denies many from the gospel whether refugees, the poor, people of other cultures, religions and ethnicities, and LGBTQI people.”

Let’s re-imagine and hope for something better with David. A church where his sort of faith is more celebrated and more plausible… but this isn’t going to happen if we just accept the status quo.

How do we do create a new ‘social imaginary’? 10 helpful starting points

Maybe the doom and gloom scenario from doomsayers like Dreher and the Christian blogosphere is not totally accurate.

Maybe what we’ve seen is just a small development in the secular ‘social imaginary’ — the phrase philosopher Charles Taylor uses to describe how we imagine the world we live in; the kind of structures that shape the way we understand life in the world. Maybe once the world’s social imaginary, when it came to sex and homosexuality, looked very much like ours; our vision of the ‘sexual person’ and how that part of us fit into the order of things was uncontested. We didn’t have to worry about being out of touch with reality because our cultural reality shared much of the same cultural furniture; and there hasn’t been this wholesale and sudden rejection of the Christian social imaginary, but rather this last piece of the furniture was chucked to the curb; and it was our favourite chair. Maybe if we want to respond coherently we should be thinking about what a ‘social imaginary’ is comprised of, how to spot what’s going on in the world, and how to build an alternative reality that can exist alongside the dominant one as a plausible, though weird, and reasonably welcome alternative. At the moment we seem to want to insist that everybody should imagine the world the way we do; with God present and revealing the image of the flourishing human. And, just to be clear, the imagination does not just mean ‘fantasy land’ but how we see the world as it is, and where we turn to plot what it could be.

This could be the first time I’ve positively linked to Desiring God; but this Kevin Vanhoozer talk/essay on the imagination and its place in the Christian life is good and important.

“We feel a discrepancy, a fateful disconnect, between the world in which we live and the system of theology we believe. The imagination can help. I have said that theology is about the new reality in Christ and discipleship is about participating in that new reality. I now want to say that imagination is the faculty that wakes us up to that new reality and helps us to stay awake…

Here is the marvel: the one whose story the Bible tells is not confined to that story. He is Lord, and he is here. To see the common things of daily life drawn into the bright shadow of the Christ — this is the mark of a well-nourished theological imagination. It is precisely the biblically formed and transformed imagination that helps disciples wake up and stay awake to what is, and will be, in Christ Jesus.”

These are ten basic tips to be less boring and more imaginative. They’re a bit abstract, and I’ll unpack them over time… but feel free to explore what this might look like by asking questions.

  1. Tell better stories.
  2. Build better (and bigger) institutions (communities with a purpose — churches and groups/organisations on a ‘mission’ to do or create stuff) that hold the Gospel and ‘action’ (eg social justice or ‘deeds’) closer together.
  3. Be a more compelling alternative to the world (be saboteurs).
  4. Prepare to significantly change the way we live together so we look and feel different to our neighbours.
  5. Read more ancient (less panicked) voices.
  6. Use these ancient voices to question modern ‘orthodoxy’.
  7. Imagine better answers to complex questions.
  8. Listen more (especially to the voices of people grappling with the application of our doctrines).
  9. Be comfortable with mystery not just black/white ‘pat’ answers.
  10. Get the relationship between belief, behaviour and belonging the right way around (maybe it’s actually belong, behave, believe).