Tag Archives: Christianity in the public sphere

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Jesus on The Project (with David Ould)

Did you catch David Ould on the Project last night.

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What a stunning performance. He captured the medium perfectly and was constantly on message. The segue out of the Brooke Satchwell interview that was all about sex on TV was brilliantly winsome. Especially when you check out Charlie’s face while Brooke was talking.

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The best bit came near the beginning when Charlie asked “what does it mean to be an Anglican Priest in 2013?”…

“It’s actually pretty much the same as it has been for 2,000 years. I’m opening up the Bible and telling people about the great news of the love of God in Jesus Christ and how it radically can transform your life through forgiveness and why that is not just emotionally and spiritually satisfying but also intellectually and historically credible. The great thing now in 2013 is I that I get to do some of that from an iPad.”

Another great bit was in the bullying segment…

“I wonder if part of it is just that we live more and more in this individualistic culture where everything says “it’s all for you, it’s all for you, it’s all for you” and then you reach a situation where you’re just asked to put yourself out completely for someone else and that notion of sacrificial love which we used to have in our culture just isn’t so prevalent any more. It’s not that people don’t want to, it’s just a model we don’t have any more.”

You can watch it online.

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Why I think it’s ok to criticise the ACL in public

This is probably the most important post in my recent series of ACL related posts – it’s the one objection that keeps cropping up when these posts start doing the rounds on Facebook – and I think it’s reasonably important ground to cover.

It’s probably the longest post I’ve ever written. It’s over 5,000 words long, plus a picture containing more words. I’d split it, but I don’t want to extend this series any further than it needs to be… in sum, to save you reading…

I start by clearing up some of the issues people have raised in response to my previous posts – in the comments here, and on Facebook.

Then I provide my rationale for making my criticisms public, alongside a framework I try to operate in (though I acknowledge that I fail in this area). My points are:

  1. It’s a gospel issue.
  2. The damage is public.
  3. To equip others.
  4. Because disagreement, and the ability to disagree, in public, should not put “Christian unity” at risk.

I want to make a few important points to begin with…

1. I am sure that the people involved in the ACL are Christians who love Jesus. From what I know of their ministries outside of the ACL – particularly Jim Wallace and Wendy Francis – they are concerned that people know Jesus. My problem is that they seem unwilling to see this translate into the positions they adopt in public discourse under the auspices of the ACL.

2. It is only really the public presence of the ACL, especially in the media, that bothers me – I have no idea what they do behind closed doors as they meet with politicians – which is doubtless where they see their main contribution in the political process. Like it, or loathe it, much lobbying now takes place via the media – and it is in the media where they are presented as the voice of Australian Christians – whether the ACL thinks of themselves that way or not. Their website makes this claim:

“The ACL does not seek to be the peak political voice for the church, but to be a professional witness to Christ in the Australian Parliaments which allows for the voice of the church and individual Christians to be more respectfully received in the public square.”

If parliament is where they want to do their work then they should say no to media appearances. Or be careful when they take on such media appearances not to speak beyond their remit, or be represented as the voice of Christianity in Australia. They are treading a fine line when it comes to their stated aim regarding the impact they have on the voice of the church and individual Christians in the public square if they are squeezing those Christians out of the public square.

3. I’m not suggesting the ACL should only talk about Jesus. That’s clearly not their function. I do have issues with their function – but I recognise their right to exist in a democracy. Rather, I’m suggesting they should start by, and possibly end by, talking about Jesus as the foundation of any moral position, and a relationship with Jesus (not legislation) being the true answer to any brokenness they identify in society. Even if this is edited out by journalists who are only interested in controversy (and I don’t think most journalists are like that, in my experience) – at least we could point to their work and say “context is important” – at the moment there is no real context for the moral proclamations the ACL makes except “this is what the law in Australia has always been like thanks to our Christian heritage”… this means, conversely, that I will not as one person suggested shut up about the ACL and just talk about Jesus – tackling issues from a gospel framework is important for our witness to the world. I will always talk about Jesus as I point out the shortcomings of how Christianity is represented in the public square. I can’t see any of my posts about the ACL where I haven’t done that.

4. I’m also not suggesting that evangelism is the ACL’s function. Nor that the ACL is “the Church.” It is not the ACL’s job to evangelise, but it is the ACL’s job to think about how what they say helps or hinders this job for others. I’d also say that when the ACL is in the public sphere representing Christians – they also need to be representing Jesus, and presenting their activities in the context of the gospel message. I am suggesting that when the exercise of their function is damaging to evangelism and the work of the church they’re not fulfilling their charter as a parachurch organisation – and when they “go rogue” like this it is the church’s job to call them out for it. If the damage is done in public – to the church’s witness to Jesus – then the response needs to be public to undo such damage.

5. Christian unity is in Christ – not in a conservative political position or our “Christian heritage” – one of the constant criticisms when my posts hit the interwebs is that Christian disunity is unattractive to non-Christians. And there is a fundamental truth there that I agree wholeheartedly with. It would be much better for our witness if we all just got along – but if there’s one thing church history shows us – it’s that it’s unlikely we’re all going to get along, and it’s especially unlikely when people stop being united on the main thing – Jesus, and the next main thing – loving one another as a testimony to our relationship with Jesus (John 13:35). This is part of the reason Paul tells Christians not to sue each other in Corinth (1 Corinthians 6). I’m going to argue below that this is not the only passage that has any bearing on public disagreements between Christians, because it’s not really saying “don’t argue with each other in public” – though it provides an ethical paradigm to work from, which does value unity.

6. I do believe that Matthew 18:15-17 is relevant here, though not as relevant as some suggest. I think raising a disagreement with the party involved is a valuable exercise – though I don’t think these verses are directly applicable (I flesh this out more below). I have discussed my problem with the ACL with them directly, and at some length, without fruit. I will always give them an opportunity to respond to what I write, and notify them when I have written about them. I’m not sure if I think the ACL is “sinning by omission” but I think they’re doing public relations, and public Christianity, in an unhelpful way.

I think that 1 Peter 3:15 is probably as important – I suspect the gentleness and respect that we’re to show to outsiders should be typical of our dialogue with each other. I need to be better at speaking in love when directing my writing at Christians, there is a remarkable difference in tone between my posts to Christians, and those aimed at non-Christians. Though perhaps this is the difference between “rebuke” and evangelism.  2 Timothy 2 is also particularly pertinent (but note that it doesn’t say “don’t disagree” or anything about the context of the disagreement (be it public or private)…

24 And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful. 25 Opponents must be gently instructed, in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth, 26 and that they will come to their senses and escape from the trap of the devil, who has taken them captive to do his will.”

I will say that I do not think this is a foolish or stupid argument, but a wildly important one.

“23 Don’t have anything to do with foolish and stupid arguments, because you know they produce quarrels.”

Ephesians 4 is also relevant… but again, maintaining unity doesn’t mean avoiding criticism. Criticism doesn’t equal disunity except in the most modern adversarial approaches to life. I’ve bolded the bits I think are relevant to this post.

“As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love.Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord,one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.

But to each one of us grace has been given as Christ apportioned it.”

11 So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, 12 to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up 13 until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.

14 Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming. 15 Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ. 16 From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.

20 That, however, is not the way of life you learned 21 when you heard about Christ and were taught in him in accordance with the truth that is in Jesus. 22 You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires23 to be made new in the attitude of your minds; 24 and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.

25 Therefore each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to your neighbor, for we are all members of one body.

29 Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen. 30 And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption.

I find it hard to think of truthfully telling other Christians to talk more about the foundational truth of Jesus -who changes our approach to morality –  as something that doesn’t build them up, or something that grieves the Spirit.

7. I am predominantly driven by concern for my non-Christian friends with what I write here. I hope my posts are helpful for other Christians in clarifying issues, and providing a framework for thinking about how public relations, evangelism, ethics and Christianity fit together. I am really only claiming to be anything like an expert on the public relations side of things, and I claim that reluctantly and mostly on the basis that people still pay me a fair amount of money in that field. I write these posts, and I share them as widely as possible, because I want any non-Christian friends who I hope to be a witness to through what I speak about, how I speak about it, and how I live, to know that I don’t think the gospel looks or sounds like it does when the ACL gets on a platform and whether intentionally or otherwise, makes unhelpful comparisons between things to further a political agenda that I do not always share.

8. I think it is really important not to water down sin, but I think it’s more important not to water down the gospel into “don’t sin”… I’m pretty careful when I’m writing not to suggest that the moral issues at the heart of the ACL’s campaigns aren’t moral issues (though I do think there’s a profoundly important difference between homosexual temptation and homosexual practice when it comes to sin). I’m not saying that Christians should never speak about morality – I’m just saying when we do it should always be in the context of what Jesus has done, and who Jesus is. And my preference would be to lead with that, then talk about sin, then talk about Jesus again – who Jesus is in relationship to the world makes what the Bible says about morality important, here’s what the Bible says about this moral issue, the good news is that even though we all fail morally, Jesus died in our place, taking our punishment – and he offers a restored relationship with God freely.

It’s not really that hard. You simply say: As Christians we follow Jesus, who we believe is Lord of all, and restores our relationship with the God who created everything. We believe God created the world in a way that makes this behaviour wrong, and while a case can be made from nature, we base our opinion on what he has revealed in his word, the Bible, which shaped our legislation in this country historically, and we think a better case needs to be made for moving away from this foundation. We believe that people are broken – including us – by a desire to not live this way, but God sent Jesus as a first step towards fixing us, and now works through his Spirit to help Christians live his way.”

Obviously I’ve argued elsewhere that because the Spirit is only active in regenerating Christians the case for legislating Christian morals with the expectation that people will keep them is fairly weak, but others have different opinions regarding the uses and efficacy of God’s law.

That’s a rather long preamble, and it has touched on the points I’m going to make below. But this is important stuff to think through well – because it’s important for how the gospel is presented and understood by the people we live, work, study, and play with…

Why I will criticise the ACL in Public: It’s a Gospel issue

If I didn’t think that failing to even mention Jesus when you’re talking about the brokenness of humanity and the solutions that human rights provide was a problem, I wouldn’t be critical. But if people think this is what the church thinks is the solution to a broken world – we have a problem. The solution to the problem of sin, at a social level, and for the individual, is for people to know Jesus as Lord.

The ACL is pushing a Christendom styled solution to a post-Christendom society. While 62% of Australians culturally identify as Christians, less than 20% are churchgoers – which I would suggest is a much better measure of Australia’s commitment to Christianity. Of that 20% there’s an incredible diversity of political affiliation and even a diversity of understanding of what the gospel is, who Jesus is, and what sin is. The “Christian constituency” is a myth.

Why I will criticise the ACL in Public: They are operating in public, the damage they do is public

I don’t think of myself as an ACL watchdog. Or watchblog. I’m not waiting for them to stuff up so that I can criticise them. There are more than 5,000 posts on this blog, and probably 15 of them are about the ACL. I could count – but you can check it out yourself. I often blog about other Christians in the public sphere, and how to do PR stuff without mentioning the ACL. I want that to be clear. Some people only pay attention when I pick on the ACL… but they’re not a particular “bee in my bonnet”…

I try very hard to abide by the principles of publicly criticising people that Tim Keller posted here, because I think they’re really useful guidelines (and part 2 – which is part 3 of a bigger series).

1. Carson’s RuleYou don’t have to follow Matthew 18 before publishing polemics.

Don Carson wrote an Editorial on Abusing Matthew 18 in which he addresses the often-made argument that a Christian should not publicly write criticism of other Christians’ theological views without going to them first, privately, citing Matthew 18. But Carson points out that this passage is talking about two people in the same church, or at least in the same ecclesiastical connection, since if the two parties disagree the whole matter can be taken to “the church,” meaning the congregation and its leaders…

…In short, if someone is publicly presenting theological views that are opposed to sound doctrine, and you are not in the same ecclesiastical body with this person (that is, there is no body of elders over you both, as when, for example, both of you are ministers in the same denomination,) then you may indeed publicly oppose those without going privately to the author of them. Carson does add a qualifier, but that comes under the next rule.

2. Murray’s RuleYou must take full responsibility for even unwitting misrepresentation of someone’s views.

If someone can demonstrate that I have misrepresented them I will retract, edit, and apologise for such a misrepresentation.

“Don Carson says that if you have strong concerns about Mr A’s views, and you are considering publishing a critique, it may be wise to go to Mr A first, but “not out of obedience to Matthew 18, which really does not pertain, but to determine just what the views of the [other person] really are.”…

… This is very sobering. In our internet age we are very quick to dash off a response because we think Mr A promotes X. And when someone points out that Mr A didn’t mean X because over here he said Y, we simply apologize, or maybe we don’t even do that. John Murray’s principle means that polemics must never be “dashed off.” Great care should be taken to be sure you really know what Mr A believes and promotes before you publish.”

I slightly diverge from Carson and Keller here – because I think being able to provide an immediate response to the perceived position of Mr A is vital for limiting some of the damage, and it’s the nature of blogging or reporting to be producing content as quickly as possible or you miss the moment. It’s PR 101. But I am pretty careful to read closely, as sympathetically as possible, and to update posts where necessary. Sometimes I’m not as sympathetic to the ACL as I should be – and I apologise. I’m always happy to rewrite sentences that impugn someone’s character or motives if they’re pointed out. I think my responsibility is to be mindful of the potential of misrepresenting others.

3. Alexander’s RuleNever attribute an opinion to your opponent that he himself does not own.

They were to “strive for truth, not victory” and they were to “know when to put a stop to controversy. It is a great evil in keeping it up” unnecessarily. He also urged them to not go public with criticism unless the error was very dangerous and important. Like Lloyd-Jones and (as we will see) John Calvin, Alexander taught that the ultimate purpose of controversy was to persuade and win over people in error. Therefore we must “avoid whatever is apt to create prejudice in opponents or auditors.” In other words, we must not argue in such a way that it hardens opponents in their views.

These other principles are similar:

4. Gillespie’s Rule A – Take your opponents’ views in total, not selectively.

5. Gillespie’s Rule B – Represent and engage your opponents’ position in its very strongest form, not in a weak ‘straw man’ form.

I do try to avoid guess work regarding the motives of certain people, and wherever possible, my understanding of the ACL comes from their own website, publications, and media releases – rather than the mainstream media. However, I think, when it comes to the public sphere – that it’s just as important to understand the public perception of the people you’re engaging with. The ACL may not seem to be the “peak body” – but it is certainly the “go to” organisation on public policy debates so far as the media is concerned, and as long as their annual report says:

“… the regular mentions of ACL in the media demonstrate that ACL is continuing to mature as a player in the Australian political landscape. It has become the go to organisation for Christian commentary on so many of the major issues facing Australia…”

I’ll be questioning whether their commentary is essentially “Christian”… which I think means it has to contain the gospel.

I’ll be dealing with this last principle substantively in the last point.

6. Calvin’s Rule – Seek to persuade, not antagonize, but watch your motives!

“In short, it is possible to seek to be winsome and persuasive out of a self-centeredness, rather than a God-centeredness. We may do it to be popular. On the other hand, it is just as possible to be bold and strongly polemical out of self-centeredness rather than God-centeredness. And therefore, looking very closely at our motives, we should be sure our polemics do not unnecessarily harden and antagonize our opponents. We should seek to win them, as Paul did Peter, not to be rid of them.”

7. Everybody’s Rule: Only God sees the heart—so remember the gospel and stick to criticizing the theology.

I’ve probably fallen foul of this one  a couple of times – in part because I think the very act of lobbying is counter to the gospel – in part because at times I have been critical of people alongside being critical of what they’ve said. But I will say again, as I have said above, and in previous posts – I do not doubt that the ACL is an organisation of my brothers and sisters in Christ. I agree with some of the criticism that has accused me of resorting to ad hominems on occasion – and I’ll strive to do that less, and to apologise more. And I’ll also be taking some principles from John Newton, cited in Keller’s third post on the rules (and fourth post in the series).

“But no one has written more eloquently about this rule than John Newton, in his well-known“Letter on Controversy.” Newton says that first, before you begin to write a single word against an opponent, “and during the whole time you are preparing your answer, you may commend him by earnest prayer to the Lord’s teaching and blessing.” This practice will stir up love for him and “such a disposition will have a good influence upon every page you write.” Later in the letter Newton says, “Be upon your guard against admitting anything personal into the debate. If you think you have been ill treated, you will have an opportunity of showing that you are a disciple of Jesus, who ‘when he was reviled, reviled not again; when he suffered, he threatened not.’ ”

Why I will criticise the ACL in Public: To equip others

Because I believe that Christianity, and especially Jesus, has an essential place at the table in public discussion, I want other people who want to participate in public discussion to have resources for thinking about how they might do that. I do have a certain level of expertise in this area that I haven’t really seen demonstrated elsewhere in the evangelical scene in Australia – and I’m constantly reaching out to other Christian experts in this field, or even secular experts, for feedback on these posts. People have told me that previous posts have been helpful for them, people like Mike O’Connor, in Rockhampton, who had this piece published in the Rockhampton paper this week (you can read a little more about where the paper slightly exaggerated his position here (though I’m not sure if you need to be his friend to read it)):

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Why I will criticise the ACL in Public: Because we need to grow up and move past the bizarre idea that robust criticism necessarily indicates disunity

I’m fairly certain that apart from one unfortunate moment when I referred to the ACL as pharisees, I’ve never actually suggested they weren’t Christians. I apologised for saying that, and even at that point I didn’t think that the ACL weren’t Christians, just that they were in danger of misrepresenting the gospel in a manner consistent with the Pharisees’ understanding of how to relate to God.

Paul pretty publicly criticises people in his writings (Paul affirms Peter’s apostolic authority (Gal 2:6-8) but also records, in writing, in the most public book of the last 2,000 years, that he “opposed Peter to his face” (Gal 3:1-19) because a moral position he has adopted is inconsistent with Christian unity in the gospel of Jesus, and he’s doing their witness to the Gentiles a disservice. His words, I think are both pertinent and paradigmatic for this discussion:

15 “We who are Jews by birth and not sinful Gentiles 16 know that a person is not justified by the works of the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law, because by the works of the law no one will be justified.

17 “But if, in seeking to be justified in Christ, we Jews find ourselves also among the sinners,doesn’t that mean that Christ promotes sin? Absolutely not! 18 If I rebuild what I destroyed, then I really would be a lawbreaker.

19 “For through the law I died to the law so that I might live for God. 20 I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. 21 I do not set aside the grace of God, for if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing!”

Paul also pretty publicly names Euodia and Syntyche, in the midst of trying to correct them, in a public document that was to be read in the context of the church gathering where there would be presumed to be a mix of Christians and non-Christians (cf 1 Corinthians 14:24-25)… urging them to be united in Christ – and he still regards them as co-workers in the gospel (Phil 4:2-3).

There’s nothing to suggest that when the Bible suggests people aren’t doing a great job at representing the gospel that they’re not Christians (I’m thinking particularly of Acts 15:36-41 which records a sharp disagreement about John Mark’s approach to ministry). It seems that calling one another out, in public isn’t a threat to Christian unity. I’m not saying I wouldn’t sit down and have a cuppa with people from the ACL, nor that I don’t think they are Christians, simply that when they speak they are not speaking for me, because I don’t think they’re speaking the gospel.

This isn’t a lawsuit between believers. I’m not taking the ACL to court to shut them up. I’m not launching any official action against them for falsely representing me as some Christians did with a political party calling itself Australian Christians, when they wrote to the Victorian Electoral Commission. And I don’t think that’s really the point Paul is making in 1 Corinthians. Corinth had a culture of vexatious litigation being used as a status booster where people would sue people for the boost in status a victory would bring – this was a problem because it denied the reality of who they were, in Jesus.

I’d feel convicted by this passage if my attacks on the ACL were in any way simply an attempt to boost traffic here by picking on an easy and unpopular target. But I feel sick to the stomach when the ACL makes it harder for people to know Jesus – and that’s my motivation. I truly want the ACL to do a better job of talking about Jesus – if that wasn’t the case I’d stop making that the substance of my criticism.

Further, upping your status at the expense of other believers – which Paul again deals with when he’s talking about idol food in 1 Cor 8-11 – is bad because they distract people from the true basis of their unity – Christ. So from 1 Corinthians 8:

Now about food sacrificed to idols: We know that “We all possess knowledge.” But knowledge puffs up while love builds up. Those who think they know something do not yet know as they ought to know. But whoever loves God is known by God.

So then, about eating food sacrificed to idols: We know that “An idol is nothing at all in the world” and that “There is no God but one.” For even if there are so-called gods, whether in heaven or on earth (as indeed there are many “gods” and many “lords”), yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom all things came and for whom we live; and there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live

Be careful, however, that the exercise of your rights does not become a stumbling block to the weak. 10 For if someone with a weak conscience sees you, with all your knowledge, eating in an idol’s temple, won’t that person be emboldened to eat what is sacrificed to idols? 11 So this weak brother or sister, for whom Christ died, is destroyed by your knowledge. 12 When you sin against them in this way and wound their weak conscience, you sin against Christ.

He concludes this argument in chapter 10.
31 So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God. 32 Do not cause anyone to stumble, whether Jews, Greeks or the church of God— 33 even as I try to please everyone in every way. For I am not seeking my own good but the good of many, so that they may be saved.

My argument from these passages, and the whole of Corinthians, is that we’re to be united around Christ, for the purpose of winning people over – and reading the conclusion of Paul’s argument about how the Corinthians are living in the world back into chapter 6, I’m arguing that the problem with lawsuits amongst believers is that they ruin the testimony of what Christ is doing in our lives. My problem with the way the ACL approaches the public sphere is that they run the risk of ruining our testimony about Christ. That’s why I don’t think this passage applies.

I think it’s possible to robustly criticise each other, in the public sphere, so that non-Christians know we take the gospel seriously. That we are prepared to be robust with each other, while in fellowship, because we want to get the gospel right. The idea that we should hide our divisions behind closed doors will lead to the conclusion that we don’t actually care about this stuff enough to speak about our differences.

It’s a product of our immature approach to politics in our country – where opposition is loud, adversarial, and dramatic – to think that any disagreement is bad and unhelpful. This plays out in all sorts of really harmful ways in society and leaves us with anaemic, politically correct, solutions to issues because nobody is passionate enough to come to improved resolutions through conflict. If we run away and bury our heads in the sand, say that criticism itself is wrong by nature of being public, or refuse to be sharpened through discourse then we’re going to end up with a fairly weak presence in the public sphere anyway.

UPDATE: Also – a few other people have suggested that we should just be thankful the ACL does the hard work that the church isn’t doing, and wear the cost of the gospel being obscured, or use the controversy they generate as opportunities for “conversations”… the main theme of these comments is that we should let God work through the bad teaching, or the imperfect vessel…

I’d say this is a little unhelpful, and short sighted – if you want the ACL to continue surely you want it to be getting ready as it responds to, and engages, with criticism from Christians as well as non-Christians. Plus part of the “conversations” it generates are conversations where we have to distance ourselves from the ACL anyway – if we want to be properly representing and proclaiming the gospel of Jesus. So this is, in a sense, exactly what posts like this are doing – they’re continuing the conversation.

Letting such “imperfect vessels” go uncorrected is pretty dangerous and will lead to a weak, confused, and potentially liberal presentation of the gospel. Better to robustly and lovingly offer correction – whether in public (so that you’re loving the audience of these “vessels” as well), or in private.

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What’s wrong with the Australian Christian Lobby: Can “lobbying” even be Christian anyway?

A little while back somebody on Facebook suggested that I seemed to not like the Australian Christian Lobby but not say why. I thought that was odd, because I thought it was self evident. I don’t like the Australian Christian Lobby because by not talking about Jesus and talking about issues, they are presenting a message that is not the good news of grace, but the bad news of law and morality.

But that challenge got me thinking, as did a question raised on my last Christian/politics rant, asking whether I’m suggesting there’s no place for Christian lobbying. Other people have previously also suggested it seems by being opposed to the ACL, careful when it comes to trying to “protect marriage” by legislation, and wary of government funding for school chaplaincy, that I’m advocating some sort of political quietism. My answer to this suggestion has always been that I’m not pushing for quietism, but that I think we need to be careful with how we raise issues. I think our priority, in any public “Christian” statements, should be to be Christian. To be clear about the gospel, and not making the gospel unclear by adding layers of morality. As it stands, most Christian contributions to public debate are incoherent because of several fatal methodological and philosophical/theological flaws.

First, the ACL seems to me to be a modernist organisation speaking to a post-modern world. They’ve got no sense of needing to use narrative or stories, rather than proclamation of absolutes, in order to change people’s thinking. This is why it appears that the gay marriage issue is splitting a generation in the US, and in Australia. This is also where I think the ACL ultimately fails on the communication front – their proclamations of right and wrong are too abstracted from real life, they never show the human face of what they’re talking about, but rather engage in high fallutin logical arguments about where society will head if changes are made. People want to know how an issue will change life for them. The pro gay marriage lobby has made the issue all about real couples who are wanting their real love recognised by the government. We haven’t been able to combat that because our arguments are just “this is wrong therefore don’t do it,” or perhaps worse “(the) God (you don’t believe in) says this is wrong.” This is why I’ve argued elsewhere that not only is it important to show how a moral stance relates to the gospel, because that keeps the gospel clear, it’s also important to show how the moral stance comes from a cohesive and legitimate worldview. Otherwise we’re just playing politics like it’s a numbers game, and the numbers are going to change (I’ll get to this below).

Second, the ACL comes from a pseudo ecumenical standpoint, aiming to speak for all Christians. Which is problematic because while Christians might broadly agree about moral issues, they’ll have some pretty fundamental disagreements about the root cause, and how to fix it. So, for example, reformed Christians believe that all people are totally sinful, that sin is natural, and that choosing to follow God requires divine intervention, while Catholics have a much higher anthropology where people are essentially a blank slate, and can naturally choose to follow God. There’s no way we’re going to articulate the gospel the same way when we’re talking about issues – as we saw from George Pell’s appearance on Q&A. If the ACL’s stakeholders can’t actually agree on what the gospel, or the Christian message on moral issues is, then the so-called “Christian” case is never going to be clearly presented.

While most theists, even Muslims, will agree on issues of the sanctity of life, and sexual morality, once you chuck Christian in your name you’d want to start speaking from the points of common ground for all creedal churches, which means sticking to Jesus. The fact that Catholics and protestants, and even types of protestants (so your Liberals, your Arminians who have a slightly more Catholic understanding of human nature, your fundamentalists who want to enshrine Old Testament Laws) disagree so completely on what it means to be a human, and what it means to have a relationship to God, or to live as one of his people (ie a Christian), means anything beyond this common ground is going to become incredibly difficult to articulate in a convincing, cohesive and winsome manner. If the Australian Christian Lobby isn’t speaking about Jesus then they can’t really claim to be speaking for Australian Christians, after that point we’re a very broad church, so broad that even speaking about Jesus doesn’t necessarily represent those who claim the moniker. This the fundamental reason I don’t think an ecumenical approach to social action works – but I can see that in order to mount a convincing political argument in this poll driven iteration of politics, that suggesting you’ve got a big bunch of voters who vote in a block standing behind your statements is politically expedient and a good strategy for lobbying. Which again leads me to my next point…

Thirdly. I don’t think Christians should be lobbying. The role of special interest groups in distorting the political landscape, where better organised and funded activists produce non democratic results, is a blight on the modern system, no matter how well intentioned the lobbyists are. Decisions should be made on what is the right thing to do, on the strength of an argument, whether there is one voice behind it, or a thousand. By participating in lobbying we’re not speaking against a broken system, but using it for our own gains. We’re perpetuating the broken, market driven, approach to democracy, a system the social tide is slowly turning against. And it’s seriously going to come back to bite us – either if “lobbying” becomes vastly unpopular quickly, or if a well organised anti-Christian lobby led by people of my generation as they come into positions of power run a cleansing campaign to finally remove Christianity from public life in Australia.

The idea that Christians should somehow be using political clout, obtained through numbers, to enshrine our worldview, might seem appealing in the short term, but, given the two objections outlined above – namely that there’s a whole generation of people who are watching how the church does politics, and being turned off church, and a whole generation of people listening to what the Christian voice is saying, and not hearing the gospel, we should probably be rethinking how we do political engagement anyway.

I’d argue that employing the language of “lobbying” presents a really harmful message for the non-Christian. We don’t like the tobacco lobby. We don’t like the gun lobby. We don’t like the gay lobby. We don’t like the climate lobby. We don’t like people putting special interests ahead of the common good – which is exactly what “lobbying” implies, it speaks to a strategic organising of people to push their own agenda. It speaks of an unhelpful approach to power and the state which I don’t think is really consistent with the counter-cultural message of the gospel. Particularly for those in my camp, the reformed evangelical types, who think that human nature has been broken by sin, where sin is the natural state of affairs for all people, and the Holy Spirit is required for real change of behaviour, we’re never going to be starting from the same presuppositions as other people in society, and we’ve got to work harder at defending that worldview before legislating from it.

Lobbying isn’t adopting the old Christian maxim of speaking truth to power. It’s trying to speak power to power. It’s playing a numbers game, enforcing the idea that might makes right, that somehow a majority view is what should determine how legislation gets passed. How does this work when the numbers aren’t in our favour? Though the dictionary definitions are almost identical, I wonder why the ACL didn’t choose advocacy as a definition of its work, advocacy at the very least is free of some of the special interest baggage. Especially if our advocacy is framed as protecting the innocent (which we tried with gay marriage after the horse had bolted by arguing about children needing a mother and father – this was a good argument far too late, and on the wrong legislation). Advocacy would free us up to work a bit better with people we disagree with broadly but agree with on specific issues, because it’d be more issue driven than based on arguing for some mythical cross-denominational Christian unity. Scott Stephens, the editor of the ABC’s Religion and Christian Ethics page, gave a really insightful critique of this distinction, as it relates to the gay marriage debate, in a conversation with Steve Austin on mornings last week. I don’t think the answer he puts forward to how Christians should participate in public life is on the money, it’s a little too wishy-washy, and doesn’t start with Jesus, but his diagnosis of the problems in this debate are spot on.

So there, in three nutshells, is why I “don’t like the Australian Christian Lobby” and why, when well meaning members of the ACL (and they are all well meaning, and generally lovely people, who are generally interested in serving God and his kingdom) tell me that I should join the ACL and help them do better, I answer that I’d rather stand apart from them and do my bit to speak truth to the power they’re trying to wield. Basically their policies aren’t good for Australia in the long run, because they’re going to damage the church and the understanding of the gospel for the average Australian, and they’re employing a political methodology that I think is fundamentally antithetical to Christian witness. So [pq]I pretty much think the ACL should change every word in their name to something else.[/pq]

If we are going to do social engagement well, and, as history demonstrates, I think Christians have an incredible role to play in the public sphere, then perhaps we should learn from our successful forbears, who relied on the strength of their argument, building support for change from the ground up, not relying on some powerful numbers play (Wilberforce), and relied on demonstrating a better way rather than simply telling people they were wrong (so the early Christians who cared for abandoned children, and the sick, in a way that made the empire feel guilty), who participated in the process of policy making from within the system rather than holding out the carrot and stick of a voting block (Wilberforce again). Or perhaps we should sacrificially seek out the minority groups who already feel vulnerable, showing that we love them, in a way that opens us up to persecution from the government rather than expects the government to bow to our whims (like, say, Jesus), rather than shouting from our lofty perches in a way that further alienates them from Jesus, who came to make broken people whole, by grace, and only through the Spirit, not by law and holding out the false hope that a moral life, other than the perfectly moral life of Jesus, counts for anything.

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Want to see somebody talk about the gospel in the media? Check this out

So. I’ve banged on about how Christians have a responsibility to use a mass media platform, if provided, to talk about Jesus in a winsome and engaging way. I’ve said that there are certain representatives in the political field who don’t do this well, and certain people who do.

And now, I have an example. This is how you go into an essentially hostile environment. Kochie lobs this set-up shot in front of the artist of a controversial piece of art work depicting Jesus as indigenous (which he was, to Palestine), transvestite (which he wasn’t), and as a drag queen. It’s clearly a piece of art designed to shock. He gives the artist free range to slag off Christianity’s record when it comes to these groups. And then he turns to Guy Mason, who’s an Anglican minister from Melbourne. And Guy smashes it out of the park. He talks about how Jesus died for sinners (a bit of substitutionary atonement). And invites people to use this as an opportunity to consider the way Jesus loved sinners and died for all of us. He leaves the shrill artist speechless, and debunks any sense of hostility.

I especially love the little dig about it being a “cliched” piece of art.

But you can also be “on message” for the gospel by not being deliberately on message. Kate Bracks. MasterChef. Is a Christian, this wasn’t a big deal in the series – except when she refused to call the Dalai Lama holy. She’s a Christian. And on Sunday night she won a competition that was watched by bucket loads of people. Perhaps because she didn’t want God being a product placement alongside Handy Ultra Paper Towel, or perhaps because she’s just classy, she didn’t choose to thank God when she won. Publicly, anyway. She thanked her husband and she acted with grace, poise and charm. And then. Today. She got to talk about why she didn’t thank God.

Kate says she thought about it, but then:

“But then I thought, everyone then goes ‘Oh great, it just sounds like the Logies’. It sounds corny and that is not the type of Christian I am,”

But what sort of Christian is she? This seems like a good opportunity to make a statement about her faith, right… well, she does (with a bit of humour when she was asked if she prayed for the win):

“I’m always talking to God but I don’t actually pray that he’ll help me win because I don’t really think he cares too much about that to be honest,” she said.

“I would say that I believe what the Bible says and I try to live that way so that it’s about trying to have a relationship with God and not about the things you do or don’t do.”

That’s how you do it. Classy. Winsome. Gospel centred. I know some churches that are lining up to get Kate along. Lets hope she doesn’t get worn out too quickly by this attention.

John Lennox on science and faith

Like the rest of evangelical Australia I’m a bit of a John Lennox fan at the moment. His turn on Q&A last week was a masterful attempt at presenting the gospel graciously in a relatively combative adversarial format. Those critical of his content (and I’ve seen a couple of Christians suggesting he could have answered a couple of questions better) should pay heed to the format, and the way both Eva Cox and the ABC’s moderator Virginia Trioli were keen to jump in on him before he could finish answering their questions. He articulated the need for forgiveness and the intellectual legitimacy of a God who intervenes in creation in a personal and relational way. I thought he did a stellar job. I thought Virginia Trioli’s banging on about circular reasoning was a little bit annoying because truth will essentially be self authenticating and circular, circular reasoning is a fallacy, but it’s not a defeater.

Anyway. Here’s John Lennox on a topic I wrote an essay about this semester.