Your Gospel proclamation will only be as rich and magical as your Biblical Theology

Ben and Holly’s Little Kingdom is a kids TV show. My almost six year old loves it. The other day she was watching an episode where Nanny Plum, the resident fairy godmother, was undergoing a test for her magic license. She was confronted with a series of scenarios where she would have to solve a problem with magic — and her answer to every question was “turn them into a frog”.

 It’s a surprisingly effective tool, that adequately solves many of the problems, but it’s a very blunt instrument, and the tester is maybe looking for a little more.

It reminded me of that old ‘little Johnny’ joke where Johnny is asked a Sunday School question about animals who live in trees and eat Eucalyptus leaves, and he says “Miss, I know the answer is Jesus, but it sure sounds like a koala.”

And it reminded me of a little thing I’ve noticed about the relationship between models of Biblical Theology (understanding how the Old and New Testament fit together), and models of the Gospel message (understanding the essence of the good news about Jesus).

Here’s what should be a totally non-controversial thesis: your Biblical theology will only be as rich as your understanding of the Gospel, and your understanding of the Gospel will only be as rich as your Biblical theology.

And the real magic is not in a ‘turn them into a frog’ Biblical theology where the answer to every Old Testament passage is “Jesus” with a particularly narrow understanding of the essence of the Gospel, but one where we embrace the sort of circularity of how the reality of Jesus is given depth and dimension by the Old Testament ‘shadow.’ One of the criticisms of a ‘Christ Centred Biblical Theology’ — often the sort picked up in Reformed Evangelical circles here in Australia is that it ends up with a ‘Jesus bit’ tacked on to a sermon, and, experientially, that Jesus bit feels like a ‘penal substitution’ bit tacked on and that can be legitimate, but it can also be a frog where we could have a prince. There are so many rich categories created by rich and deep reading of the Old Testament narrative — around God’s promise to reign as king, about a re-creating day of the Lord that would return people from exile and give us new hearts, about the defeat of Satan and the powers and principalities so that all nations might belong rightfully to Yahweh, the most high, as a fulfilment of our ‘image bearing’ vocation… and the Gospel is that all those threads, and promises, and more are fulfilled in Jesus. That is a Gospel that is not simply “my personal sins can be forgiven if I repent” but that the cosmos is renewed from the throne room of heaven down and repentance is a recognition not only of my sin, but the goodness of this new reality. One way to challenge this is to move beyond a ‘Christ Centred’ Biblical theology that often is reduced to a ‘penal substitution centred’ theology (and again, I’m not saying this isn’t an aspect of the Gospel built for us by a Biblical theology that incorporates, say, the sacrificial system in the Old Testament), to a broader ‘Christotelic’ reading that doesn’t simply impose a Gospel summary/reduction back into the text, but that allows the text to provide categories (and a story) that Jesus then fulfils.

If your Gospel is simply an aspect of the Gospel — a ‘small Gospel’ — whether that’s Lordship, or cosmic victory, or penal substitution and you flatly impose that meaning when digging back into the Old Testament, a proclamation of the Gospel drawing on the Old Testament will end up sounding like Nanny Plum turning everything into a frog. Sometimes I think that’s what’s happening as people get to a passage in the Old Testament that only leads to penal substitution via the crucifixion, rather than a better category (like kingship, or victory, or new creation) and shoehorn that ‘Jesus bit’ onto the end; it’s the “turn them into a frog”… “I know the answer is Jesus” mentality, and maybe we should be allowing the text to give us richer categories, so that when we’re invited just to proclaim the Gospel we have a richer toolkit at our disposal than just “God saves sinners from Hell”…

You can, if you want to apply a blunt instrument, try to make every Old Testament passage about Jesus and reduce Jesus to the substitutionary sacrifice for sin, and it’s probably better than not making the Old Testament about Jesus at all — a surprisingly effective better (in that, I’m surprised, still, by how many modern Christians still have a pretty flat grid that they apply to the Old Testament, seeing it as “Scripture” without recognising our standing as Gentiles, and its standing as Israel’s Scriptures fulfilled in Jesus) — but imagine if you had more tricks in your magic tool kit. Here’s where, as a sidebar, I want to give an obligatory shoutout to The Bible Project, who I think do a great job of expanding our horizon to see more narrative categories and ‘story patterns’ in the Old Testament so that we end up with a richer Gospel.

Imagine if your bigger Gospel — whether that’s in the classically expansive ‘The Gospel is the material contained in the Gospels’ or an integration of atonement models (like kingship, representation, and cosmic victory) — was something you could pull out when digging into Old Testament texts; but also something shaped by the Old Testament texts that give us the categories and messianic/cosmic expectations that Jesus fulfils.

And here’s where the rubber hits the road on a critique like this. I think at times we celebrate frogs — as magic — when there’s a more rich and robust, more enchanting and ‘good’ version of the good news that we should be encouraging one another to pursue. Better a frog magically produced on Q&A than no enchantment at all, and yet, what if we had a real magician?

When the Gospel is proclaimed as penal substitution — that God saves sinners — it can often end up being anthropocentric (that is, it puts us humans at the centre of the Gospel). When, in that context, we talk about repentance it can sound a lot like we’re saying ‘turn from sin because sin is bad and you will face God’s judgment unless you repent’ — and that’s certainly true. But it’s a frog. The deep magic of the Gospel is much bigger than toads being turned into frogs.

The deep magic of the Gospel is not really about ‘me’ at all; it’s about Jesus. The good news about the one who fulfils the Old Testament; the true Israel, the true son of God — the divine and human “son of Man” who through his incarnation, obedience, death, resurrection, and ascension, the pouring out of God’s Spirit, and future return, has begun God’s recreating act by launching his new kingdom; who invites us to ‘repent’ by turning from the old, to the new, which involves receiving God’s Spirit as an act of re-creation and being united with God. There’s so much more magic than just ‘forgiveness of sins’ — though forgiveness of sins is part of our restoration and resurrection; our move from death to life, darkness to light and the kingdom of the now defeated Satan, into the kingdom of heaven… and even that the resurrection is not just a ‘pie in the sky’ heavenly future for our souls, but physical life in God’s kingdom in a renewed heavens and earth, so that our lives now are an expression of the kingdom because we are ambassadors of this future reality and citizens of the kingdom of God now.

There is, of course, some C.S Lewis in the background of this reference to “deeper magic” — and in The Lion, The Witch, And the Wardrobe (and the rest of the Chronicles of Narnia), the ‘deeper magic’ includes penal substitution — but it stretches out to new creation; it includes the effects of being faithfully caught up in that magic on mice like Reepicheep. Here’s Aslan, from The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe:

It means that though the Witch knew the Deep Magic, there is a magic deeper still which she did not know. Her knowledge goes back only to the dawn of time. But if she could have looked a little further back, into the stillness and the darkness before Time dawned, she would have read there a different incantation. She would have known that when a willing victim who had committed no treachery was killed in a traitor’s stead, the Table would crack and Death itself would start working backwards.

The deep magic is more than simply one dying in the place of another, it’s the new life that flows from that act. In Prince Caspian the mouse Reepicheep loses his tail in battle, and Aslan restores it, moved by his commitment to Aslan’s kingdom, and as an act of love. The deep magic of the Gospel involves death working backwards as new creation works in — not just sins being forgiven, but restoration to new life found in the kingdom and its king.

“Not for the sake of your dignity, Reepicheep, but for the love that is between you and your people, and still more for the kindness your people showed me long ago when you ate away the cords that bound me on the Stone Table (and it was then, though you have long forgotten it, that you began to be Talking Mice), you shall have your tail again.”

So magic tricks — Gospel proclamation — that looks like ‘here’s a frog’ are all well and good; better than no magic. But what if we do the work of digging deeper into the book of tricks — expanding our understanding of the whole counsel of God, and the Gospel of the Lord Jesus, the victorious saviour and king as its culmination — then maybe our ‘Gospel proclamation’ would do more than just see Jesus as the one who calls us to repent and dies to take our punishment; it might see Jesus as the one who brings a new pattern for life in this world by restoring us to the life and presence of God.

I, for one, am committed to serving up more than frogs in my attempts to do the magical and enchanting work of telling God’s good news story.

A big table and the paradox of tolerance

There’s a popular meme that circulates on social media from time to time; one of those sort of epigrams for our age — “when you have more than you need, build a bigger table, not a higher fence” — it’s always struck me as an interesting quote as someone whose denomination talks of my role in administering the sacraments as involving “fencing the table,” and it strikes me too that much commentary around the direction of Eternity News playing out on social media is grappling with whether Eternity should be a big table, or whether it should erect some fences.

I have massive sympathy for what Eternity News is trying to achieve in its opinion section, and while it pains me to see the culture wars fought out in a publication I love, and one that I’ve invested time, energy, and words into contributing to and promoting over the years, and to have been part of the war of words, I do believe Eternity’s vision to provide a forum for conversations for those who’ll share eternity together is good and necessary, and that it requires a diversity of political and theological positions to be gathered around one table.

This week Eternity ran a pro-Israel Folau/ACL campaign piece by David Pellowe, and then, for balance, ran a piece critical of that campaign. I do fear John Sandeman’s approach of pursuing ‘balance’ in the opinion section by posing opposing views rather than views that seek to discern the truth (ie classic news/feature writing) ends up fuelling the division rather than bridging the gap — especially because of how the Caldron Pool reacted to the two part series in this piece by Mark Powell (that seems to have no sense of the existence of the Pellowe piece). There’s also an irony here in that Mark Powell, in a 2019 interview with the then Bible Society CEO, asked a question that implied correct views on the Trinity should be a deal breaker for their platform, but he and his mates are quite keen to promote Israel Folau’s orthodoxy.

The Caldron Pool piece was, predictably, shared by the union of figures I’d named in my now deleted article. They don’t like that Eternity will feature voices critical of their political theology and practice. Curiously, the editor of Caldron Pool, who’ll write pieces against cancel culture, will, without irony, seek legal advice and complain to church courts if anyone has the temerity to criticise his publication in public. The Caldron Pool is not a ‘broad table’ — it has, clearly, different aims to Eternity, though its unclear who they believe will share the eternal table with them. One might ask at what point their accusations of ‘wolflike’ behaviour for those ‘woke pastors’ and woke platforms represent an act of discernment that these people fall outside the kingdom?

The table is such a profound and powerful Christian image; for many Christian traditions the table is the centre of the church gathering — around communion, the Lord’s Supper, or the Eucharistic meal (depending on one’s theology or tradition). At the table we Bible believing Christians do the work Paul calls us to in 1 Corinthians 11 of ‘discerning the body.’ Now, part of this is surely to do with how one understands the presence of Jesus in the sacrament, but, in the context of 1 Corinthians 12, and the bad table manners Paul is correcting in 1 Corinthians 11, this act of discernment includes recognising that our union with Christ and the church, by the one Spirit, draws together people from all corners of society to this one ‘gathering’ (what ‘the church’ is) as one body.

Jesus spent lots of time at the table in the Gospels; sometimes these were tables managed by religious leaders who were out to get him, often he ate with sinners and tax collectors; some of the most beautiful moments are when he brings the judgmental religious people to the table with those people searching for the kingdom who were on the margins of society to reveal something of the character of God and his love for the outsider. Jesus didn’t stop eating with the people who were out to get him — right up until the Last Supper he’s eating at a table in the presence of his enemies. In that meal, as he gave us the model for our meals together that Paul draws on in 1 Corinthians, Jesus speaks about the eternal table; the heavenly banquet, such that his act of hospitality as he breaks bread and pours out the wine is not just a picture of his coming death, but of eternity.

In Luke’s account, Jesus talks about the nature of his kingdom — that the table won’t run in his kingdom like it does in the kingdom of the Gentiles, where rulers lord it over others and the seats at the table are allocated in some sort of status game (that’s the Corinthian problem), instead, he says he is at the table as “one who serves” and greatness, or indeed “the kingdom” is defined differently for those who Jesus says will “eat and drink at my table in my kingdom.”

Earlier in Luke, Jesus also talked about how people in this kingdom should participate in other tables — not as fence builders or power grabbers, but as guests. Guests who do not seek the places of honour, or to have their status boosted and their voices heard by all at the table, but as those who sit in the lowly places, he says “those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted,” and then pivots to providing hospitality advice for when we run tables around the same ethic. He says don’t just invite the powerful; the high status — those who’ll make you look good and give you a boost in the world. That’s the gentile power-game. Instead make space for “the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed.”

This advice should guide how those of us who’ll spend Eternity together might use our tables — whether those are literal, in our churches and homes – or metaphorical, our digital places of hospitality and dialogue. It’s not that such spaces should exclude the powerful necessarily, Jesus eats with Pharisees and religious leaders, as well as sinners and tax collectors, it’s just that we Christians should recognise the dynamics here (and our own tendency to act more like Pharisees and religious leaders than sinners, tax collectors, or “the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.” When Eternity is at its best it is sharing stories — making space at the table — for the outsiders in our church communities; when it is at its worst it has religious leaders like me sparring with others in the opinion section. My own contributions have ranged from lofty heights — working beside marginalised voices in the broader church, to the lows — writing a piece so inflammatory it was pulled after an outpouring of anger, and some legal posturing.

While I, and other church leaders, often bear a responsibility to administer a table as we lead our communities in the sacraments, and while this might mean ‘discerning the body’ and ‘fencing the table’ from some we believe fall outside the kingdom based on our doctrine and practice, Eternity is a deliberately broad table, crossing denominational and local boundaries. Those of us who run narrower tables — in denominations, or local tables — in local churches — need such ‘broad tables’ to remind us that the kingdom of God and the body of Christ exist outside our particular tribes and communities. Eternity invites us to sit at the table, discern the body, and enter conversation and perhaps even communion with those saints we will join with for Eternity. We need voices from outside our local bubbles or theological grids to offer gentle critique, encouragement, and opportunities to listen to other ideas as we humbly remember that all our human institutions are the product of humans who are simultaneously justified and sinful (at least for Protestants that’s part of the package). Institutions like Eternity, and their big table, remind us of our union with Christ unites us with loads of people who think and live differently to us (and might encourage us to practice hospitality when it comes to how the tables in our churches or homes operate).

After my controversial anti-culture war piece (that became a culture war piece) — one that ended with a call for peace-making across very real divides, David Pellowe, host of the Good Sauce, convener of the Church and State Summit, and now, it seems, Eternity columnist, who I’d specifically named in my piece, reached out across the divide and invited me to break bread with him, and subsequently, he invited me onto his YouTube program, Pellowe Talk, where I sat at the table (or desk) in his studio and we had a conversation. I’m reasonably convinced that David Pellowe thinks we’ll be spending Eternity together, even if his most recent piece describes positions I hold — positions on core, orthodox Christian doctrine (like the Trinity being foundational) as making me a “progressive believer.” If that’s progressive, count me in. David’s hospitality and this act of peacemaking helped both of us ‘discern the body’ in such a way that while I still believe his politics, and those shared by others on the Christian Right are dangerous to both the church and society, I would not ‘fence the table’ if he attended our church gathering, nor would I keep him from my dining table; I’m not, by extension, concerned that Eternity makes space for him at the table of public discourse. I do recognise that it creates a genuine expression of ‘the paradox of tolerance.’

In a nutshell, this paradox, coined by Karl Popper, says that for a tolerant society — or table — to operate, it has to be intolerant of intolerance. Or, as my friend Cameron puts it “you can’t invite people to the table if their express goal is to set the table on fire.” The trick here is that even if fellows like Pellowe, and other new Eternity columnists are committed to a ‘broad table’ — and even if Eternity itself is — at some point a broad table becomes unsafe, and not just for the ‘leftists’ or whoever the target of intolerance is.

Quite a few of my Eternity columnist stablemates have been in conversation over the rightward lurch in the opinion section, concerned about this new direction, in part because it seems to us that some of these new writers are not interested in tolerance, or pluralism (and indeed, many from the Christian Right turned to language of boycotts and cancellation when Eternity ran pieces critical of the hard right), the catch is, some of the gentler voices in the Eternity stable are also grappling with the goodness or wisdom of sharing a table with the intolerant. Meanwhile, John Sandeman, Eternity’s editor has been doing the rounds of conservative Christian media outlets (including Pellowe’s show, and Jonathan Cole’s The Political Animals) to cast his vision for a broad table as an invitational act of peacemaking (in part managing the fallout from my piece, and one of his own), and to court the addition of gentler conservative contributions.

I am not inclined to boycott Eternity, or its opinion section, because of these new voices being included. I love Eternity, and I find John’s vision compelling — but this is, perhaps, a product of my privilege and my place at the table.

I don’t want the answer to be fencing the table from conservative religious leaders with significant status, but, at the same time, it is true that sometimes particularly aggressive sheep can bite like wolves and be a danger to the flock, and just as my role in our church community — with other elders and leaders in our church — is to shepherd the flock in the way of the good shepherd, Eternity, as a “Christian institution,” even a broad table, has some pastoral responsibility here too. One that might look like a firmer editorial hand, or clearer parameters around acceptable voice or tone that defines the sort of conversation one might be invited to enter at the table; some agreed upon Eternity table manners. I was the first to admit that my pulled article was ill-mannered (that, rather than ‘untruth’ was why it was pulled). Eternity did not ‘cancel me’ or my piece, though some people I wrote about did — and are continuing to push for my cancellation in other spheres I operate in, in response to the piece. John and I made the call in consultation, and John’s hand was forced into that consultation because I publicly apologised for the tone of my piece and distanced myself from that tone, while Eternity was still expected to host it. I’m seeking to learn from that experience as a contributor, but I wonder if there is space for Eternity to apply some learnings from that piece and the fallout across the board, beyond just that it’s hard to be a place where iron sharpens iron. Sometimes sharp iron, and flecks of iron thrown off in the process can do real damage to people.

My concern about the current editorial direction of Eternity is not only that seeking loud mouth institutional voices (like mine) to engage in traffic driving ‘iron-sharpens-iron’ tit-for-tats in the opinion section, and the comments on Eternity’s Facebook page drowns out the experience of the lost, the last, and the least — the sinner and tax collector, or “the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind” — those we should be hosting at our tables, but also that some recent articles are inhospitable to those we should be including.

Want to find a community of ‘sinners and tax collectors’ or the downtrodden and oppressed, who need Jesus in our modern western world — there are plenty of candidates, from members of the LGBTIQA+ community, to those whose experiences sit outside the ‘male, middle class, and white’ norm of Australian institutions (like the church), including women (whose voices were drowned out in Eternity’s own stories on International Women’s Day by a boisterous boys club push-and-shove).

The catch is that for many in those communities — if you pay attention to the comments on social media, these new voices introduced to the comments section are pictures of intolerance and exclusion of their own voices and experience, not only by virtue of arguments, but because of trauma responses because religious institutions, and their tables, have not always been shaped by the way of Jesus.

Some of these more recent opinion pieces have an intolerant tone — not a tone that is hospitable to “the other,” but that is dangerous to those who’ve been hurt by wolves or biting sheep in the past. Even if these writers are fellow guests; fellow sheep; fellow members of the body — such words, and the way they are spoken, can produce an atmosphere of condemnation, or produce traumatic responses in the vulnerable or hurting, or can lead to others feeling unwelcome not only at Eternity’s table, but at God’s eternal table. Some, believe this new tone — and also the words being said — have made Eternity a less hospitable table. This is not the case for bull-headed people like me who are prepared to go charging into any conversation without fear for my own safety. This lack of hospitality is not something I tend to feel in the ‘Christian bubble’ as a religious leader with status, education, and a degree of wealth, status, and security. It’s precisely people like me who should be challenged by the words of Jesus about his table — and how Christian spaces operate, and precisely those others — who feel a sense of inhospitality — who Jesus called his kingdom to be hospitable to. It’s this change that others who have been part of the Eternity stable but are feeling uncomfortable are reacting to. Eternity has become a hospitable place for religious leaders to play power and status games, and an inhospitable place for those who are, or have been, outsiders and victims in those games.

I’d love to see their vision of a big heavenly table involve a broadening of the voices (including perspectives, practices and experiences) they platform, and correspondingly, some of us prominent blokes with institutional power dialling down our participation in culture war bunfights to make space for that — for the richness of the body of Christ to be on display we must decrease so they might increase.

I’d love to see the ethics of that heavenly table shape the tone of voice Eternity allows at its table, not just the broad spectrum of political views invited to speak.

The paradox of tolerance is real, it is impossible to run a broad table when some of your guests are telling others they aren’t welcome, and while this might go both ways, the way of Jesus is clear — the religious leaders who believed they were the righteous ones, who had power and status, and were used to running the table — they were able to stick around so long as they were listening to the Lord of hosts, through his chosen king, even when he spoke pointedly to condemn them, and the lost, the last, and the least — those were the people who have priority at the tables of the kingdom. It’s possible that creating safe tables for those others — whether through calling for change in existing institutions (like churches and publications), or starting new ones is the work of the kingdom here; and it’s possible that such pressure might be applied by refusing to share a table with those trying to burn down your table, or who want to build big fences.

The challenge for committed pluralists like me is to take up invitations to be a guest at hostile tables, to provide hospitality through the tables I serve at, especially to those we’re called to love and serve by Jesus

#QandA is more like Pokemon than Poker: a review of Martyn Iles’ appearance

Martyn Iles did well on Q&A last night. He articulated some deep Christian truths, the Gospel even, with his feet held to the metaphorical fire. And he did it with a degree of grace.
Here’s a snippet from the transcript:
“Alain, thank you for the question, and it’s important, and I’m glad to have the opportunity to answer it in front of you and others who are watching. There was a word in the question which I’d like to address first, and then I’ll address Israel Folau, if that’s OK. The first word I’d like to address is the word ‘hate’. ‘Hate’ is a word that is thrown around a lot. I see it every day thrown at me. It’s a very, very serious word. It refers to somebody’s motive. It’s an attitude of heart that would like to see someone else come into harm. Jesus said, effectively, that if you hate your brother, then you’ve murdered him in your heart. It’s a very serious thing. For a Christian to hate is a bad sin. The reality is this – a Christian never looks fundamentally at another person as an enemy to be destroyed. And that’s the danger of politics – that we can get sucked into that. We never look at the other person as somebody who we would like harm to befall. We only ever… And I cannot say this strongly enough. We only ever look at people as souls to be saved, and that includes me, and so…”
Now. I’d say Christians see people as people to be saved, and that this includes bodily life both now and into eternity, not just souls, but I’m not sure Martyn was espousing a sort of platonic dualism in that last bit… But this was helpful. So was his presentation of Jesus’ universal call to repent.
I have some quibbles around his defence of antivaxxers (because nobody asked him to do that), and his ongoing conflation of trans/gender diverse people with a political agenda (ie an approach to the people and questions that is political rather than pastoral).
But he played a tough hand well.
The thing is, Q&A is not poker. It’s more like Pokémon. You bring your deck with you. And Martyn’s deck is stacked, by Martyn.
The tough hand is a hand of his making.
Imagine a Christian at that table with a different hand.
Imagine a Christian, even one with conservative sexual ethics, who represents an organisation that had invested time and energy into loving the LGBTIQA+ community and seeking their inclusion and representation in our democracy, from an organisation known for love and service. Imagine a call to repent in a relational context of love rather than one of perceived self-interest.
Imagine an organisation with a track record of advocating for First Nations peoples, around deaths in custody (last night’s most powerful segment). Imagine if that organisation was known for pushing for the application of the recommendations of a 30 year old Royal Commission, rather than to extend the playing career of a 32 year old millionaire footballer (with heretical views on the Trinity… only Biblical sexual orthodoxy counts).
We shouldn’t have to imagine this. Churches, church run institutions, and church members — Christians — navigate issues across the political spectrum/divide all the time.
Martyn’s statement last night that there are lots of Christian charities addressing poverty and inequality is true.
They are not called ‘Australian Christians against poverty’ though. If it is true that the ACL is focused on the political realm on behalf of Christians then surely racial reconciliation and poverty are issues that have structural and political changes that need making and the ACL, like the church, could walk and chew gum here.
Here’s what Martyn said on this:

“I think everybody would love it if the ACL did exactly what they wanted us to do. The fact is that the top 25 charities in this country, I think 23 of them actually had a faith basis and they work on alleviating poverty. And I say, wonderful work. More power to them. I myself was involved in youth work for a period of six years with disadvantaged kids. There is a huge wealth of Christian charity in that regard.ACL has a certain area that we focus on, which is the political realm, and the reason… I mean, we spent that much money on that ad. I’m here to tell you, we spend many times that on defending Margaret from Blacktown, Patricia from Sydney, Jason from Perth, Byron and Keira from Perth, who are no longer foster-parents, who are no longer medical professionals…”

The issue is that the ACL serves a constituency; it has a narrow political agenda, and that’s fine, but a broad name, and that’s not so fine.
So long as the ACL serves a narrow political agenda, and one that alienated many Christians in its narrowness, when Martyn goes on TV and preaches the Gospel he will align the Gospel with that narrow agenda in the minds of the audience (or public).
And that’s great for those who share his politics, but not so great for those who share his Gospel.

A question for Martyn about #lethimplay

Israel Folau is a multimillionaire footballer who secured a multimillion dollar settlement from the Australian Rugby Union after a dispute around his sharing of a meme that targeted homosexuals and other sinners with a hatefully twisted quote from the Bible.

Israel Folau is on the record rejecting the essential Christian doctrine of the Trinity.

Israel Folau is unwanted by any NRL club, there are no attempts to register him as a player.

It’s quite possible to believe that Folau was hard done by, that religious freedom should be extended to non-Christian cult-like members who use social media to preach hate; no matter the commercial risks involved. It is possible, even, to believe that at least some part of the response to Folau’s tweet was not only religiously intolerant and confused, but a little racist. It is possible to believe those things and be horrified by the ACL’s #lethimplay campaign.

The ACL is spending donor dollars, and resources, to run a campaign that literally nobody is asking for — Folau hasn’t asked (according to the ACL), no club is asking (according to the NRL). But, the ACL in its wisdom, is running this campaign despite Martyn Iles, in the past, suggesting that a lack of resources is what keeps the organisation from broadening its platform beyond pleasing a conservative/right-wing constituency. Iles said:

“When these issues come up, somebody’s got to address it and ACL is the go-to group on some of these things. With limited budget and limited resources … you know, you are depleted in terms of what you can do.

“The reality is I am spent in my abilities and capacity to do what we are doing. My staff are spent and we are doing the best [we] can.

“I make absolutely no apology. No apology for focussing on life, for focussing on the gospel, focusing on the issue around LGBT stuff because that is an ideology that is moving actively and viciously against the Christian faith.

“The niche we’ve found ourselves in is one where we talk about a lot of things that other people don’t necessarily want to talk about. They’re the harder subjects and we’re sort of the lightning rod from time to time. Someone’s got to do the job because, if we are silent on issues of gravity and importance, we will be silenced.”

He said something similar in a recent interview on the podcast The Political Animals. This is his go to excuse for a small platform — limited resources.

Now, to justify spending dollars on this campaign:

“The purpose of the ads is to connect more people with the campaign, and anybody who wants to have a say has the opportunity to do so.”

It turns out their niche now extends to getting jobs for millionaire footballers past their prime, with clubs that don’t want him.

It turns out you don’t need extensive ‘resources’ for political lobbying; you just need a platform and a team of willing voices who’ll use it. It shouldn’t be that hard for the ACL to set up similar campaigns for all those issues they are too stretched to pursue. Maybe they could help people — passionate Christian people — have a say about these other issues too?

Next time the ACL says they don’t have the resources to pursue an issue remember they spent dollars on a full page advertisement in a News Ltd paper to get a multi-millionaire a job that nobody wants to give him.

Australian Rugby League Commission Chairman Peter V’Landys said:

“This Christian Lobby with their full-page ads basically are wasting their resources and money because there is no application. There are a lot more things in life that they could be lobbying for, like [an end to] poverty and inequality and all those sort of things, rather than this.”

Martyn is on Q&A this week. Someone might care to ask him about this. They might also ask how getting a non-Christian millionaire a job in a sporting competition is remotely Christian, and whether they might consider becoming registered sports agents and leaving public Christianity to people not committed to playing culture war games. Here’s the question I sent to Q&A:

I am a Presbyterian minister in Queensland. I have long been puzzled by the ACL’s approach — but have found Martyn’s leadership increasingly baffling in terms of both the policy platform and the approach to politics as a ‘culture war’ — which seems inconsistent with the teaching and example of Jesus.

Martyn. You have said the ACL’s policy platform is limited by resources — that you don’t lobby on issues like refugees, racial justice, and poverty because the ACL is limited in what it can focus on. This week you’re campaigning to secure employment for a multimillionaire footballer no NRL team wants to employ, who publicly denies the essential Christian doctrine of the Trinity. Would these resources not be better offered somewhere like ARL chairman Peter V’landys suggested — to dealing with poverty or inequality, would that not be more consistent with the way of Jesus?

Sex in the prayer room; and when ‘thin places’ become thick

There’s lots that can (and must) be said about the present crisis in Australia around toxic sexuality (as an expression of toxic masculinity and rape culture). Lots is being said about the relationship between institutional Christianity, purity culture, and this crisis both outside the church (in the church shaped western world), and inside the church. I’m working with a brilliant friend who is a scholar on the Song of Songs to piece together a helpful response both for my own church community, and beyond.

But I was struck by reports emerging about videos and stories of bad sexuality in parliament house; and particularly struck by the location identified as home base for perhaps the worst of the depravity.

The prayer room.

If parliament house were meant to be a sort of temple to Christendom this is the sort of thing that would have Jesus flipping over the tables; it certainly reveals the hollowness (rather than hallowedness) of our parliamentarians praying “The Lord’s Prayer” at the start of the day (and of campaigns to keep that in place).

When Jesus flips the tables in the temple in Jerusalem it’s part of a wider act of judgement against those running the show; a judgment that culminates with the curtain temple tearing at his death, and with his Spirit not coming to the holy of holies in the temple, but into the hearts of those who recognise him as Lord. The church. The house — a place that once was the meeting place between God and humanity — is left desolate; and Jesus’ judgment is that this is the case because “My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations’? But you have made it ‘a den of robbers.”

In 2012, a travel writer from the New York Times, Eric Weiner, wrote a piece that popularised the concept of thin places, places in nature, but perhaps even places of human architecture, where ‘heaven and earth’ come closer together.

“No, thin places are much deeper than that. They are locales where the distance between heaven and earth collapses and we’re able to catch glimpses of the divine, or the transcendent or, as I like to think of it, the Infinite Whatever.

Travel to thin places does not necessarily lead to anything as grandiose as a “spiritual breakthrough,” whatever that means, but it does disorient. It confuses. We lose our bearings, and find new ones. Or not. Either way, we are jolted out of old ways of seeing the world, and therein lies the transformative magic of travel.”

The Temple was meant to be a ‘thin space’ — where the boundaries of heaven and earth were less obvious; a place that threw worshippers towards the transcendent realm; the heavens. Where the supernatural and natural overlapped. A house of prayer; but it had been corrupted by the idolatry and materialism of its day; the attempts to secure meaning and goodness not through relationship with God, but in material realities, like money and power.

There’s a corresponding story to Jesus judging the Temple in the New Testament to God’s judgment on ‘thin places’ (which are often ‘high places’ in the OT, if you want to trace this as an interesting and legitimate thread); particularly the judgment brought on those who are meant to be stewarding the Tabernacle; the ‘tent of meeting’ or dwelling place of God at the start of 1 Samuel. There’s an old priest, Eli, whose two sons are corrupt and corrupting not only the meeting tent — the thin place — but the whole nation of Israel. They’re extorting people, stealing food, and sleeping with the women allocated to serve in that thin place — abusing their power in pursuit of pleasure. And God steps in to judge this family because of their failure to represent God as his priestly people, presenting his house as a meeting place between God and the world.

Parliament house is built like an ancient temple. It has columns and courtyards and a pillar that reaches towards the heavens. It sits on the hill overlooking the capital. It’s a monument to our values and is meant to be an expression of our heart; our commitment to democracy; the equality of all people in the law, and perhaps, under God.

Whether or not it was ever meant to be a ‘house of prayer’ — leaders in western democracies; landscapes shaped by Christendom; were meant to be doing the work of God for us; leading ‘under God’; and the house and its prayer room and the Lord’s Prayer are all vestiges of that sort of vision.

If Parliament House was meant to be one of these ‘thin spaces’ — how much more the prayer room: a room where people go to connect with the divine; a sacred space; profaned. Desecrated.

When the apostle Paul writes about sexual ethics for married couples — upholding the goodness of the one flesh union of husband and wife as a created gift from God to be enjoyed together, he says the one thing that might keep them apart is their devotion to God, they might prioritise prayer “for a time” over sex; our parliamentarians have turned all that on its head; both the sexual ethic of the mutuality, commitment, and intimacy of marriage — where the parties belong to one another and are bound up in love and communion — but the idea that prayer might be a priority.

But these news stories — that MPs would use the prayer room — a thin space — for such thick purposes; worldly purposes far removed from the heavens — reveal something about our modern gods, our modern pursuit of goodness (and even perhaps echoes of transcendence not through prayer, or religiosity, but through the liturgy of sex and orgasm), and perhaps, for just a table-flipping moment, just how toxic and damaging these new gods are to us, and to our leaders.

Want to know why we’ve got no social changes or political will around rape culture — look at the heart of our nation and how deeply embedded this poison is.

The Lord’s Prayer opens by acknowledging the nature of reality and the heavenly realm; “our father,” it says “who is in heaven”… it acknowledges that God’s kingdom represents the overlap between this realm and the earthly realm — “your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” — parliamentarians prayed this because the idea was their actions were meant to be part of the answer to this prayer. They’re clearly not. And should stop pretending.

Someone should flip some tables.

The kicker in the Lord’s Prayer here — when it comes to Jerusalem and its thin-place-become-thick, or Canberra and its thin-place-become-thick, is in the opening “hallowed be your name” — God’s name was attached to his temple, and his people. The way they lived and acted was to be an expression of the God they worshipped and a reflection on his reputation; it could either bring glory, or desecration. And desecration of God’s name brought consequences. Table flipping. Judgment. Jerusalem no longer the centre of, or vehicle of, God’s kingdom. Their temple, and nation, declared no longer a ‘thin space’ where heavenly realities are realised; but thick, and dead, and disgusting. This isn’t to say these things about the Jewish people; Jesus was Jewish, the vast majority of the ‘new temple’ were Jewish people, including those at Pentecost who had been spread into the distant corners of the globe, but about the hollowed out rather than hallowed religion of those operating the Temple in pursuit of false gods; perverting the name of the God they served.

Parliament House isn’t a ‘thin place’ — it’s become thick, or perhaps it is a ‘thin place’ like the corrupted Temple in Jerusalem, a place that reveals who we have become. In the NY Times piece that function of a thin place is meant to be good and life-giving, as it pushes us towards a greater sense of reality, but perhaps it can push in another direction too; exposing us like Jesus exposed the politcal-religious leaders of his day (and the prevailing culture that enabled them, and that they perpetuated)? So the Times piece says:

“Thin places relax us, yes, but they also transform us — or, more accurately, unmask us. In thin places, we become our more essential selves.”

Parliament house, like the temple, has been unmasked — and the essential selves revealed by this mirror, or this revelation, are not pretty. Parliament House, and these leaders — or this institution, won’t bring the sort of liberation from idolatry and the destructive nature of dehumanising toxic sexuality that is rampant in our culture; because it can’t. Instead, while this toxic heart beats — where sexual pleasure with no regard for another person is God — it’s just going to push us further and deeper into that pit. Unless someone flips the tables… unless a new heart is dropped in.

And yet, at the same time there is something revealing about the approach to sex in a ‘thick world’ in all this; we’ve replaced God and the presence of the divine — even the idea of ‘thin places’ we might travel to; with sex. With pleasure. With ‘created things, instead of the creator’ as Romans 1 puts it…

Sex is one of those ‘thin experiences’ that might push us towards the idea of something divine; a God out there who made goodness, and sensuality, and put us in this world so that we might seek him, and perhaps find him, with the help of all these good things that reveal his divine nature and character. Thin places and thin experiences are meant to push us towards the transcendent. Our issue, at heart, is that we keep exchanging the truth about God for a lie; we’ve put sex in the place of God, instead of sex being something that throws us towards the overlap between heaven and earth.

And so maybe the prayer room is the right place to take that search for meaning and significance; even if in doing so we’re opening ourselves up for judgement; turning what is meant to be a ‘house or prayer’ into a temple to toxic sexuality.

Maybe in this moment of judgement and exposure we might start to ask questions about the sort of culture we’re building when we make this exchange.

Maybe, though we’re quick to throw stones at the ‘Temple’ or thin space in Canberra, we might also — those of us who are Christians — seek to get our own houses in order; asking if they — whether our church spaces and communities, or our own homes — are built on the same hollowed out sexual idolatry and damaging, dehumanising practices — or are spaces committed to the coming of God’s kingdom and the hallowing of God’s name; lest the tables be turned on us.

On my Eternity News story being pulled

It is difficult to draw attention to the culture wars, and the danger they present, without being drawn into the culture wars as a combatant. I have watched in horror this week as the conversations about my piece spiralled further and further away from its conclusion; entrenching division rather than bringing people to the table in peace.

John and I have listened to the concerns raised by those I spoke about, and in the comments at Eternity, and around social media, and sought to clarify the link I attempted to draw between jokes about violence and potential acts of violence. In further consultation we have come to the position that this piece was simply best retracted, so that a slower, gentler conversation might take place about the significant issues here.

I accept that Dave Pellowe and Martyn Iles were joking and do not want to see a violent revolution (and have never doubted this), but I believe jokes and language about conflict and violence normalise conflict and violence, and worse, normalise seeing the ‘other’ as an opponent, not a neighbour.

I believe there is a link that can be drawn between jokes about violence, ‘war language,’ and potential acts of violence — a link that is clearly attested to in the United States. Many commentators in America — including conservatives Rod Dreher and David French made exactly these links around the January 6. 

It has saddened me to see this piece close off the opportunity for conversation with those advocating a ‘culture war’ agenda, and I must own that this is my responsibility for how I presented the piece — both in not being clear around the issues I took with the joke, not being clear to distinguish the point being made about the Church and State Summit, and the people on the platform at the summit who have a history of using such terminology, and not moderating my own ‘jokes’ that were lost in print. I must also own that there is a context in which my own words are interpreted, and that I have been critical of this approach to politics, and the engagement of the Australian Christian Lobby in particular for some time. My description of Martyn Iles as a golden-haired boy was a reference to the idiom of a figure, in a community, who can do no wrong. I bear Martyn no malice, and do not doubt the sincerity of his faith, or the faith of others mentioned.

My piece, though it spoke of Church and State, was prompted more by James Macpherson’s recent article and the heightened culture war posture and rhetoric of the site Caldron Pool. The Church and State Summit, and the reported comments, occurred against this background, with parallels to the CPAC conference held coincidentally in the United States.

One ‘good’ thing to have come from the conversation sparked by my post was fellow Brisbane resident Dave Pellowe taking up the challenge of my piece’s conclusion, and reaching across the divide to form a friendship and to have face to face conversation. We met yesterday and hope to publish further reflections on our meeting soon. After I met with Dave, and heard how my comment about Martyn (which are part of a pattern of my comments about Martyn when writing about his public persona) was received, and how it undermined my piece, I posted a public apology yesterday on my own Facebook profile. I make that apology again here, and now. Not for the overall substance of my piece, but for the way I spoke jokingly, or idiomatically, about a brother in Christ. I will endeavour to do better, while maintaining my conviction that pragmatism, or a utilitarian approach to power-based politics, when coupled with a hard-right agenda and a ‘culture war’ narrative is dangerous to both society, and our witness as the church.

In the meantime, I am happy for my piece to be pulled from Eternity’s pages in order to encourage more peace and reconciliation within the body of Christ, and more robust conversations about genuine political convictions, and the dangers of warlike metaphors in more relational environments where tone is not lost, and the humanity of the other is inescapable. Eternity will be publishing its own statement shortly.

Cancelled (by Martyn)

“Those who hate the truth must censor” — Martyn Iles

I’m still trying to navigate that tension of not being sucked into the culture war vortex that some Christian leaders from the hard right want to call us into (and look, I suspect there’s some bias in this Fairfax report about a recent conference here in Brisbane, but probably not that much…), but also calling such leaders who claim to represent Christ to account. Not because I think this is my job in particular — but if a group is going to claim to represent Christians, then I do think they should be prepared to listen to their constituency; and the nature of lots of these movements is that they are a law unto themselves and disconnected from institutions who provide accountability and discipline (so, for example, if I’m out of line, you’re welcome to take that up with the Presbyterian Church, who I am accountable to for my words and actions).

So while I’m trying to avoid ungodly and combative interactions with the likes of Martyn Iles and Lyle Shelton on social media, I do see a whole lot of other leaders in the church sit idly by, and talk to many of them in private about shared concerns about the direction these men and their organisations are pulling the church, or at least the public perception of Christians.

So last night when Martyn Iles posted a long (by his standards) rant about the irreverence of just referring to Jesus by his name, Jesus, rather than a host of divine titles also due to him as Lord and Christ, I responded. I suggested he might go to a theological institution and get some training before putting himself in the position of teacher and judge. Accountability is a good thing after all; so is expertise. Then I tagged a prominent Christian social commentator and historian asking for his talks, and that commentator responded by pointing out that young Martyn’s hypothesis seemed misguided when weighed up in the Gospels.

This is the same Martyn Iles who hates cancel culture and who just recently posted this about censorship:

But now, dear reader, after some very mediocre analysis of Martyn’s truth claim; analysis made public, but counter to the view Martyn would have his readers hear, my comments have been censored (removed) — and my ability to comment on Martyn’s wall has been revoked. Or one might say I’ve been “cancelled”…

Now. I’m not a victim here. I am not playing the victim card by making this observation. I’m sure Martyn and whoever gets roped in to run his socials sees my contributions as generally against the mission of the organisation or platform, and I have plenty of platforms where I can exercise my own free speech, and speak both my own mind, legitimate criticism of Martyn and the ACL and the direction they seek to take the church, and even against this sort of censorship. I have plenty of privilege and this isn’t, ultimately, a restriction of my voice. It’s not like Martyn’s wall is a news service (he and the ACL kept posting things through Facebook’s news ban).

I’m also known to block people infrequently on social media, for my own headspace, and, because, at some point I am not obliged to provide a platform for views I don’t agree with. I’m really reluctant to do this, and so comment threads on things I write can get messy and ugly (especially on Facebook). I am not a ‘public square’ — my Facebook presence is a private square that I, in various ways, rent from Facebook (by providing content and getting people to spend time on their site), and my blog is utterly ‘privately owned’ — it receives no funding beyond the dollars I pour into keeping it running. How I choose to use this space, or my ‘rented’ space on Facebook, is up to me as host. That’s fine.

People not wanting to respect the ‘house rules’ is a thing that makes me think more censorship would be a good thing, not to prevent analysis, but because hospitality might sometimes require kicking out guests who want to make everyone else feel unwelcome. This is a thing called the ‘paradox of tolerance’ — and I tend not to pull that lever to censor ideas, but rather to protect relationships.

But it does strike me as interesting. The people who bang on about censorship and cancel culture are so quick to employ it.

And there’s a silver lining here — because I spent most of my morning chatting to people who’d only come across Martyn’s stuff on Facebook because I couldn’t help but comment on it… And now. Well.

Why Conversion Therapy is not a ‘unicorn’ or a ‘wacky pseudo-psychological practice’; but might involve a coercive culture we need to change

Eternity News published a piece from James Macpherson today that’s the latest in a string of articles from white blokes, typically in positions of leadership or influence in the Institutional Church, waxing lyrical about the state of affairs facing Christians in Victoria; specifically the circumstances facing (typically blokes who are) leaders in church communities in Victoria who may transgress the new Change and Suppression (Conversion) Therapy bill in Victoria.

I’ve lost count of how many people disclaim their objections to this Bill by pointing out that they — like everybody else — don’t believe in aversion therapy or electric shock therapy — the archaic forms of clinical practice employed by therapists when homosexuality was considered a psychological disorder, in the professional field of psychology and psycho therapy (the manual of psychological disorders the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) of the American Psychiatric Association only removed homosexuality from its list of diagnoses in 1973). So here, for example, are a couple of these disclaimers from prominent blokes with institutional influence, starting with the piece from Eternity (which also ran, in an expanded, and more terrible form, at The Spectator; it’s a culture war piece more at home on Caldron Pool):

“We were told that the Change or Suppression (Conversion) Practices Prohibition Bill, passed by the Victorian government last month, was to stop archaic practices such as electric shock therapy being used on gay people. The legislation has deliberately sought out voices that insist conversion therapy is not simply some wacky pseudo-psychological practice that has fallen by the wayside, but standard church practice and teaching.”

Or…

“The Bill is so hopelessly sourced, and – despite its claims to be targeting what is ostensibly a unicorn, – namely pseudo-spiritual conversion therapy techniques that are rare and indeed extinct – is intended to fire a shot across the bows of churches that take a traditional and orthodox line when it comes to sexuality matters.”

Or…

“For example, it wasn’t that long ago that aversion therapies were taught at a university here in Melbourne and practiced by doctors. Second, contrary to rhetoric offered by the Government and activist groups, conversion practices (ie aversion therapy) were always rare and unusual in religious settings. These are groups who blindly followed what was considered mainstream science at the time. However, instead of  limiting legislation to banning an archaic practice that everyone agrees is wrong, the Parliament has outlawed praying and even talking with another person about sexuality and gender.”

Or…

“There is nobody who supports or condones the sort of coercive “gay conversion” practices which might have occurred in the context of psychological treatment and some faith communities in the middle of last century.  Such practices are abhorrent.”

Lyle Shelton and Martyn Iles both provide caveats in their public objections to the Bill along these lines too; it’s the almost essential disclaimer because everyone agrees that zapping away the gay is beyond the pale; they just aren’t sure if we should be able to ‘pray away the gay’… But the idea that the Bill is targetting something abhorrent, and slipping in a bunch of ‘normal’ Christian practices (that aren’t harmful at all) is a common objection to the Bill. There’s a sort of widespread incredulity that the government would go after much more nebulous church practices beyond these overtly harmful practices; and there’s often a commitment to small government driving these objections (a suggestion that this is an illegitimate use of power). Whether that small government objection is right or wrong is an interesting question, it’s one I personally have sympathy for — except, that I think we welcome government intervention in areas where we genuinely believe harm is happening, so this objection actually sits on a fundamental belief that run of the mill Christian culture and practices aren’t harmful for Gay people; which is to say, these voices don’t believe the stories behind the Bill, that produced the broad brush approach.

I wrote a piece for Eternity with my student Minister Matthew Ventura (you can read his thoughts about life as a celibate gay Christian at singledout.blog), where we suggested believing the stories of harm would be a great first step for us Christians. In the course of writing this piece, we spoke to a few other friends, including another celibate gay Christian, Tom Pugh, who has been involved in ministry with a conservative evangelical organisation (you can read Tom’s excellent insights at Transparent).

Tom made a point that became a paragraph in our piece, saying:

“There’s something about the theological system and ministerial structure/practice that seems to produce what you might call spiritual codependancy. When taken as a whole, the preaching and practice of a church can, to a certain kind of person, function in a way that is effectively coercive.”

This insight — and Tom is not alone in expressing this view — is, I think, part of the picture that more conservative ‘small government’ Christian figures with institutional influence are missing; and there’s a couple of analogies I’d like to draw in order to plead with my brethren (and it is, so far as I can tell, exclusively blokes who keep making this point); because I think it’s a point that is a product of privilege (both institutional, and from the individual experience of being a cisgendered, heterosexual, bloke).

I wrote recently about an article by Michael Emerson on racism that made the point that white people tend to think individualistically about race, while people of colour tend to think collectively, and further, that: “Whites tend to view racism as intended individual acts of overt prejudice and discrimination,” while “most people of colour define racism quite differently. Racism is, at a minimum, prejudice plus power, and that power comes not from being a prejudiced individual, but from being part of a group that controls the nation’s systems.” This disparity in thinking, I think, is actually a right/left distinction as well as an individual/collective cultural distinction — the ability to think about systems and the power (sometimes oppressive, harmful, or coercive) that systems wield. This maps on to the objections about conversion therapy legislation that broaden the definition from overt acts of conversion therapy to attempts to tackle the harm caused by coercive systems. You could frame it as ‘conservative Christians tend to view conversion therapy as intended individual acts of overt violence and harm,’ while the government (and those reporting stories to them) ‘define conversion therapy quite differently. Conversion therapy is, at a minimum, prejudice plus power…” you see what I’m doing there… it’s the same dynamic. Arguably it also works with feminism and other stuff that forms the whole ‘critical theory’ approach to ‘whiteness’ and ‘wokeness’ and intersectionality; that is, when you’re the beneficiary of an institution or status quo, when you’re ‘the norm,’ you can be blind to the dynamics that don’t directly effect you, but perpetuate your position in that system. Like, you know, the Pope and the church establishment when Luther started trying to bring systemic reform.

There’s no coincidence that this particular objection about the prescriptive definition of conversion therapy being broadened to something nebulous comes from typically right-thinking men who experience institutional influence (also, to be fair, those perhaps most at risk of transgressing the legislation). It comes with a particular understanding of the world; one that may or may not be objectively true; but is, I’d suggest subjectively likely that they will hold that position based on the privileged position they typically occupy in the institutional church. I’m aware that this sort of claim can be quite triggering to conservative blokes, in conservative institutions, who think individually not just systemically, because my default is to be those things.

And here’s the questions I’d put to those mounting this argument against the legislation (whether or not the legislation is good is an entirely different question), and one that I have covered previously.

a) Are you in favour of government intervention in church practices around both systemic issues and particular practices on child safety, especially after the Royal Commission?

b) Do you think steps being taken by governments to legislate against ‘coercive control’ in the context of Domestic Violence are good and necessary?

The reason I think these questions are worth pondering is that I think there’s a direct line between both these questions and Conversion Therapy legislation.

The research supporting the Bill in Victoria involved hearing real stories — it didn’t have the scope, or the national reach, that the Royal Commission had, but the stories of those who had been harmed by practices beyond just ‘archaic unicorn’ therapies were believed; and, even those people still in our church communities, committed to celibacy, would say there is a system or culture at work in the church that is harmful; and that often involves the sort of things that enlightened conservative individuals don’t themselves practice (or that their church communities don’t practice), but do defend (like Margaret Court’s ‘tin ear,’ or Israel Folau’s tweets, or practices that are cultural, rather than individual, around the view of homosexuality or the treatment of LGBTIQA+ people in our communities; I had, for example, an older Christian tell me this week that the country started falling apart when homosexual practice became legal); there’re a bunch of other things our Eternity article points to to fill this out some more.

If these practices do cause harm the legislation might be a clumsy, blunt, overreach, but at least it is trying to tackle something — like child safety — we should’ve been dealing with ourselves. I recognise that there is a push to attack any reasonably orthodox teaching that suggests homosexuality is, like many forms of heterosexuality, impacted by the fall and so both sinful and ‘broken’ (I also note that my own denomination, here in Queensland, believed ‘brokenness’ was too soft when it came to finding language to articulate this, and that those of us who use it had ceded too much).

The research around ‘coercive control’ and family violence demonstrates that abuse is not limited to particular incidents of physical assault, or even of verbal abuse, but that the relationships that can culminate in extreme violence — even murder — involve harmful dynamics that aren’t presently ‘illegal’ or even just ‘particular actions’ but do follow a recognisable pattern. Jessica Hill’s See What You Made Me Do is, I think, required reading on Domestic and Family Violence. I think Hill’s work profoundly and cogently makes the case for some government intervention on coercive control, as nebulous as it is. Even if it’s not currently dealing with acts of physical violence that are currently illegal; this is, in part, because I think trauma is real harm; and that it impacts the body and psyche as profoundly and deeply as physical violence (see, for example, The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel Van Der Kolk).  Hill makes some observations about the dynamics of abusive, coercive, relationships that might also be true of coercive systems, she identifies ‘three primary elements’ at the heart of coercive control: “dependency, debility, and dread.” Now, note that my friend, without making these links, describe Christian culture — particularly life in conservative institutional Christianity — as creating “a spiritual codependency.”

Gay, or Same Sex Attracted, people growing up in Christian communities where the sort of ‘culture’ we typically hear minimised, or marginalised as ‘not what good churches do’ describe developing cognitive dissonance as a survival technique; the sort produced by the dread of being exposed as something other than the Christian norm — or, that if one was outed, this might include being outered — excluded from family or church family life. That dread, in itself, can become coercive and forms the ‘system’ behind conversations that might seem like harmless ‘pastoral’ offers of prayer or support.

The scientist Hill draws on, Albert Biderman, observed the ‘coercive control’ practiced by North Korean soldiers who had imprisoned US Prisoners of War, and suggested their practices included “eight techniques: isolation, monopolisation of perception, induced debility or exhaustion, cultivation of anxiety and despair, alternation of punishment and reward, demonstrations of omnipotence, degradation, and the enforcement of trivial demands.”

Now, churches don’t practice all of these when it comes to LGBTIQA+ people in our communities, or families, but some of these line up with real stories from real people, both in the Victorian research behind the Bill, and in stories I hear from my celibate gay Christian friends. In the context of domestic violence, coercive control can include policing things like language and dress, enforcing ‘cultural’ or community standards around language; limiting who people can or can’t see and speak to, controlling how time is spent, and seeking to modify behaviours that someone (the coercive controller) is uncomfortable with. Hill reports that the parallel between coercive control in POW camps and in DV situations has been observed since the 1970s; and in the earliest research making the link “survivors insisted that [physical violence] was not the worst part of the abuse,” the coercive control was more damaging. This might be, by analogy, the case with same sex attracted people in our communities — it may be that the most harm is experienced not in ‘aversion or shock therapy’ (violence), but in the system or culture that leaves them traumatised and having to navigate a culture filled with trauma reminders (or triggers) that compound the damage, and the sense of shame (the opposite of a sense of belonging).

This friend I spoke to, Tom, said the cognitive dissonance he experienced growing up in a church community produced “anxiety and depersonalisation” for him; depersonalisation being a ‘trauma based coping mechanism’. Tom was keen to reiterate that he doesn’t believe the culture he grew up in was operating maliciously, he observes that LGBTIQA+ individuals who grow up in church communities, especially as the broader community becomes more welcoming, can experience trauma, mental health challenges, and a sense of shame that come from navigating a culture or system that coercively ‘suppresses’ or ‘converts’ more of their personhood and experience than is necessary in order for them to faithfully uphold orthodox teachings on sexuality, and belong in traditional church communities.

Now, my point is not to say that standard church practices are a form of coercive control, and thus necessarily abusive — but that the stories shared by LGBTIQA+ people who have been harmed by church environments and practices aren’t being dishonest, and nor are governments, simply because the ‘unicorns’ of aversion or electric shock therapy are no longer practiced. Standard church practices might actually be harmful, and might not be necessary, so it might be legitimate for governments to expand their interest and care beyond ‘violent’ intervention or actions, into systemic and cultural practices; especially post-Royal Commission. Until we grapple with this — especially when we’re talking to left-leaning governments who think in ‘woke’ ways about intersectionality, privilege, and systems — we’re talking past those making the laws.

If our practices are causing actual harm, and we could do better — it’s on us to make the distinction between child safety regulations and conversion therapy regulations; and at the moment just saying ‘but we’re not zapping someone’ isn’t actually engaging in the conversation on its terms; or recognising that harm can come from more than just ‘particular’ actions, but can come from coercive or controlling systems and cultures that dehumanise and dominate.

Don’t be a Macarthur-in-the-closet on religious freedom… come out like Macarthur did

John MacArthur has been in the news quite a bit in the last 12 months. But he’s been a phenomenon on the Christian web for many years. MacArthur’s influence has spawned many of the darkest parts of the Christian internet; watchbloggers, discernment trolls, and theobros out to destroy anybody who disagrees with their spiritual framework (mostly provided by Pastor John) like Jordan Peterson destroys everyone on YouTube. You find a fundamentalist internet outpost and do a word search (or try this one), or click the tag, for John MacArthur, and you’d be forgiven for thinking “Pastor John” is something like the Pope in these (typically) Baptist circles (which is ironic). His infallible reaction to Trump, to Covid (and church closures) and his hardlined, unwavering fundamentalism is admired from pillar to post. Even Pulpit and Pen, who hate everybody, love John MacArthur.

The pile of things I agree with John MacArthur on is outweighed by the mountain that I don’t.

But he’s a conviction pastor, and I can respect that. He names his convictions and he holds them. And that has integrity — and, in a time where prominent church leaders are being exposed for lacking integrity, I’d rather leaders were consistent and not hiding their beliefs behind a veneer of respectability (actual respectability would be next level). I respect MacArthur’s lack of respectability, and his consistency.

The same man who proudly proclaimed that President Donald Trump had called him to thank him for fighting in the courts to keep his megachurch open during a pandemic that has now claimed 500,000 lives in his country, has recently come out to proclaim that he doesn’t believe in religious freedom. He said:

“The new administration will uphold religious freedom? I don’t even support religious freedom. Religious freedom is what sends people to hell. To say I support religious freedom is to say I support idolatry, it’s to say I support lies, I support hell, I support the kingdom of darkness. You can’t say that. No Christian with half a brain would say, ‘We support religious freedom.’ We support the truth!”

Religious freedom is the hill to die on for lots of conservative Christians; and it is something that I think is pretty important to uphold in a secular democracy; because genuine religious freedom is what prevents sectarian politics that shoots for a theocracy at the expense of those who disagree. It’s what stops us living in a Catholic, or Muslim, or Presbyterian state (even while, on a technical level, it’s not clear why we in Australia are not an Anglican state, except for systematised pluralism…).

The TL;DR summary of all this is if you’re a MacArthur in the closet, you should come out. Stop pretending religious freedom is your goal, or a good thing, if you don’t believe it, especially if you’re closeted because it is expedient or allows you to push for more worldly power. And if you’re not a MacArthur in the closet, then you’re actually a pluralist (in some form) and you might need to expand your definition of ‘religion’ in order to fully embrace religious freedom as a civic good (while holding your own theological convictions about what is true and good), or be able to describe why you want to limit the freedom of others (and not be limited yourself).

The thing is, in my observation lots of the people who lobby for religious freedom in a country like Australia actually mean ‘Christian Freedom,’ this is true with the exception, I think, of the lobby group Freedom For Faith, who have, in the main, profoundly understood the landscape here, although perhaps have too narrow a definition of what constitutes ‘religious’.

Tara Isabella Burton’s Strange Rites unpacks a little of the problem with some of our thinking about religious freedom, and what ‘religious’ means, when we limit it to institutional religions rather than spiritual commitments and the pursuit of some vision of the good through acts of worship. She suggests that for the emerging generations in the secular, liberal, west, religion functions much more broadly and in a ‘remixed’ way where people harness ‘religiosity’ in their pursuit of an authentic self and self-understanding. She says, for example, that the essence of a religion for these ‘Remixed flocks’ is that it provides “four elements: meaning, purpose, community, and ritual.” And that they are “intuitional” rather than “institutional”

“By this, I mean that their sense of meaning is based in narratives that simultaneously reject clear-cut creedal metaphysical doctrines and institutional hierarchies and place the locus of authority on people’s experiential emotions, what you might call gut instinct.”

This feels true (see what I did there) — and — if our democracy is genuinely secular (that is ‘without an official religion’) and democratic — then our understanding of “religious freedom” and what is being navigated and protected has to navigate the landscape where both institutional and intuitional religious freedoms are protected and balanced. Presbyterians have religious convictions, and so too do those people for whom the pursuit of LGBTIQA+ rights and recognition have taken on those religious characteristics (connected to meaning, purpose, community, and ritual).

Christians, more than anybody, should be seeing these modern communities of meaning and purpose as ‘religious’ because our understanding is that to be human is to worship something; and that the issues with human behaviour is that we’re prone to wander towards idols — worshipping created things, rather than being moved to wonder at God’s glory from the things he has made. That’s Romans 1. Right there. Idolatry, as Pastor John recognises, is religious. And to support religious freedom is to allow idolatry. MacArthur is right. But we might be allowing idolatrous worship in order to allow people to pursue true worship, as we hope to be those who worship in Spirit and in truth.

Religious freedom is a necessary outworking of a commitment to reciprocity — the sort of ‘love your neighbour as you love yourself’ reciprocity; and an outworking of epistemic humility. If we are all worshippers — and we are all, as Paul says in Athens, created and located so we might ‘reach out for God’ and perhaps find him, and if we are all prone to error in that search, and to idolatry, it is unlikely that any religious expression — including any particular denominational expression — has fully grasped the truth about God.

This isn’t to say that objective truth doesn’t exist, doesn’t matter, or shouldn’t be pursued — but it is to acknowledge our limitations as finite creatures, even in traditions that stack up the accumulated wisdom of many finite creatures, who are trying to know God through his revelation to us that, in Calvin’s conception, necessarily involves him ‘accommodating’ to our limits. We can’t, and won’t, ever wrap our brains and hearts around the entirety of who God is, or his love, or character — because we have puny human brains that are prone to self-seeking error, and even in the New Creation, with God’s unmediated presence, God will be gloriously, infinitely, overwhelming and we’ll have an eternity to keep knowing more of him.

Pluralism is required to even allow the ongoing presence of denominations other than your own and to recognise that in those theological distinctives, that can be quite substantial, there is simultaneously error and a quest for truth.

To not be a pluralist means to plant your flag in the ground and say “I am totally right, and everyone must agree with me.” To not be a pluralist, with integrity, is to be John MacArthur.

Now, it might be that there are boundaries where, at least for Christians, true belief is demarcated — they might be confessional, traditional, or catholic (in the broadest sense). For me, for example, the Trinity and the Divinity of Jesus, plus his life death and resurrection as described in the Gospels — those would be deal breakers where I would say to not hold those is to not be holding on to the essence of Christian belief. I’m also part of an institutional religious tradition where I have sworn to ‘assert, maintain, and defend’ the teachings of an institutional church (albeit one that sees liberty and conscience as important things for pursuing truth from God’s revelation in his word, rather than just human, institutional, traditions as binding). But, for those not holding my belief, I’m not sure the answer is to legislate away their ability to believe something other than what I believe (in fact, I am reasonably convinced that is not the answer). In fact, I’m reasonably convinced the answer is to legislate for the freedom for others to engage in the intutional and institutional quest for meaning, purpose, community and ritual; that is, I think religious freedom is really important and good and broad and essential for pluralism and secularism and democracy.

There is, also, the paradox of tolerance here — some religious convictions are beyond the pale, some are damaging and have no place in a democracy because they dehumanise parts of the ‘demos.’ The Old Testament is full of God’s anger at, for example, Molech worship and the violence, sacrifice of children, dehumanising debauchery and oppression carried out in the name of that god (and especially anger at Israel for jumping into bed with all these diabolical gods).

And our modern secular democracy makes all sorts of decisions about limiting freedoms in pursuit of the common good that we celebrate — the catch is, because we’ve become ‘beyond the pale’ and damaged children in our care, been complicit in violence and oppression — that sort of thing so that ‘limiting’ for the common good is now being applied to us (sometimes justly, like with the imposition, by the government, of new practices and regulations around child safety). It takes a certain sort of consistency to speak against that regulation as an interference of our religious freedom; and that’s not something I’ve seen much of. We also face limits around, say, our practices in a pandemic — and I am starting to see religious freedom type objections to singing restrictions, particularly in New South Wales. Whether those restrictions are ‘common sense’ or not, we’ve generally not been unhappy (unlike MacArthur) to have some of our freedoms restricted for the sake of our neighbour. Our freedoms aren’t totally unrestricted because we give up some rights in order to live responsibly as neighbours, and to care for vulnerable people in our communities — we Aussies also have a very low authority view of church community and membership, and so we aren’t imposing ‘restrictions’ on the religious freedoms of people in our churches (typically) — either through church discipline, or not letting people leave church communities (or change denominations, or convictions) as expressions of ‘religious freedom’…

I think we’d get a lot further in conversations about religious freedom if we were more committed to pluralism, and to extending those freedoms way beyond where we currently do — to gender dysphoric people who don’t share our theological convictions, to same sex couples who’d like to get married, and to various other communities we rail against. It’s a brave Christian in conservative churches who supports the building of mosques, or the rights of a community of Satanists to gather built on the principle of pluralism or religious freedom; but it takes real courage (it seems) to say ‘that gay couple should be allowed to get married as an expression of their convictions that are ultimately religious’ — that’s where our own ‘intuitional’ religion kicks in; where for so many Christians it seems that the thing that gives us meaning, purpose, community and ritual is not our ‘Christian’ practice, but our conservative politics (which isn’t to say that being a Christian is not a political calling; “Jesus is Lord” is a political statement that provides a certain amount of meaning, purpose, community and ritual). We conservative Christians fought the plebiscite like a political culture war — not as people committed to religious freedom as a broad and inclusive good, but as a political fight (where we refused to acknowledge, in the main, the religious convictions driving our own understanding of marriage; there was a deliberate strategy to argue in the secular world as though our definition of marriage was purely ‘natural’ and secular, while those arguing for redefinition were arguing more religiously — along the lines of meaning, purpose, community, ritual and also, I’d say, offering a ‘religious’ vision of the good). And now we fight for religious freedom as though it is purely defined by being able to tell people they can’t do things. Why don’t we try telling people why it is good to follow Jesus; why Jesus brings meaning, purpose, community and ritual as the heart of ‘true religion’ and a guide to the worship we were made for?

But I digress. It’s an important digression because while I don’t respect those who play the ‘religious freedom’ game while paying lip service to a pluralism they don’t practice; I do respect someone who says ‘pluralism is bunkum and religious freedom is promoting idolatry;’ to be a pluralist isn’t to celebrate that those around you who aren’t pursuing true worship — the worship of the triune God made possible by the Holy Spirit being poured out to unite us with Jesus as the Gospel is unleashed; to be a pluralist is to acknowledge that other people are free to choose their gods, and the consequences of that choice. Just like God allows idolatry (see, again, Romans 1). It’s not my job to change someone’s object of worship; it’s my job to worship in Spirit and in truth, and to trust that God will change hearts as the Spirit turns the hearts of people towards God. Once I recognise that this is not my responsibility, I am freed to live beside people, to love them, to serve them, to pray for them, and to enjoy them as good gifts from God in my life who are given life, and breath, and everything by the God who wants them to reach out for him, and perhaps find him (even in a city as full of idols as Athens). Idolatry isn’t cause for celebration; it can be cause for despair — like for Paul in Athens — but Paul doesn’t set about changing the legislation in Athens to forbid idol worship, he introduces Jesus as the way to know the “unknown God” (and, by the by, his speech to the Areopagus, the gatekeepers of the Pantheon, meets the conventions required to officially introduce a god to the plurality of options available in Athens).

Here’s the thing. I think most people who like John MacArthur actually agree with John MacArthur on religious freedom but don’t have the courage to name it.

I think most conservative Christians who are politically active don’t actually want pluralism or even a secular democracy. I think most progressive Christians who are politically active don’t actually want pluralism or a secular democracy either — and that they’d like to eradicate conservatives not just from the public table, but from the denominational tables they belong to (and this is true, too, within conservative denominations). But very few people will name it; because they’re busy ‘coalition building’ in order to support their own (institutional) interests; not in order to practice loving reciprocity that allows others to pursue their own religious intuitions.

This isn’t to say that confessional standards or institutional doctrines and traditions aren’t important — in fact, I suspect that in our intuitional age what should be fairly fixed has become contested and that lots of fights around the ownership of different denominational tables are actually power/property grabs, where it would be better for everybody just to generously schism into a plurality of traditions, or to set up ‘communions’ or denominations that are deliberately broad (ironically, I think the Presbyterians with our declaratory statement, and emphasis on liberty of opinion, are meant to be a much broader evangelical ‘Reforming’ tradition than the Big R Reformed types fighting to run our table would like us to be).

Their animating end game is the ‘city of man’ looking a whole lot like ‘the city of God’ (to use Augustine’s terms); this side of the eschaton. They aren’t particularly interested in the heart change required to see the overlap grow (the sort that would come through exercising our religious freedom in constructive ways that are small, and local, and person by person work from the bottom up, while allowing others to exist whose existence and religion they find offensive), they’re interested in the mechanics of power — the levers that can be pulled to get the results. And taking John MacArthur’s stance is not going to get laws changed in any properly secular democracy. It’s not politically expedient; it has no utility. It has a certain sort of respectable virtue — conviction and integrity — even if it is not necessarily built on wisdom or truth.

MacArthur even explicitly states that he is under no allusion that his stance will be effective; it is simply consistent with his pre-millennial eschatology.

“We don’t win down here, we lose. You ready for that? Oh, you were a post-millennialist, you thought we were just going to go waltzing into the kingdom if you took over the world? No, we lose here — get it. It killed Jesus. It killed all the apostles. We’re all going to be persecuted. … We don’t win. We lose on this battlefield, but we win on the big one, the eternal one… We will proclaim the exclusivity of the gospel, the unique revelation authority of Scripture. We’re not going to lobby for freedom of religion. What kind of nonsense is that? We are in the world to expose all those lies as lies. So this is just part of what’s been on my mind.”

He named it. With admirable clarity, theological consistency, and conviction. And I can respect that; most political Christian voices nail two of those three in any given moment. I once tried to tabulate how theological anthropology, one’s understanding of the Gospel, and one’s eschatology intersect in different political theologies (it’s not the most beautifully structured table ever). MacArthur has consistency all the way down. He’s out of the closet as a government-hating pre-millennialist fundamentalist who believes anybody who doesn’t share his views is an idolater. The only point where he isn’t yet out of the closet and consistent is identifying the point at which he is in fellowship with, or not in fellowship with, other traditions within the church; his theobros and discernment blogging friends put a fair bit of energy into trying to draw those lines for everyone though, based on his teaching being authoritatively ‘the southern baptist tradition’… which again, is ironic.

See, what’s interesting here, again, is that so much of the ‘Christian Right’ operates with a sort of dominionist/post-millennial belief that we are tasked with building the City of God here on earth; not with faithfully being God’s presence in our cities as we wait for ‘the Holy City, the new Jerusalem’ to come down from heaven on Jesus’ return ala Revelation 21. So much ‘Christian lobbying’ is towards that end. But try getting people to unpack their theological vision — their eschatology — and how that lines up with their politics and actions, and you get mud. Partly because there are a plurality of theologies, and eschatological models, out there that all produce different political visions but often the same political action (so we can have a coalition for marriage, religious freedom, or against conversion therapy laws, that includes Catholics and Muslims, or we’ll call a Trinity-denier a Christian because he agrees with our sexual ethic, but we can’t have Christian institutions that make space for progressive Christians (theologically or politically) to work together on common causes like the Environment or anti-bullying programs in schools, or even ‘coalitions’ with the LGBTIQA+ community to work on shared visions of the good, or our Indigenous community to work against systemic racism because that is ‘woke’). As it stands, ‘pluralism’ only works in one direction in the conservative ‘institutional’ religion – it’s to prop up institutional interests; and so often ‘religious freedom’ campaigning is the same (with, admittedly, a desire to see the religious commitments of adherents to these institutions protected in other institutions or workplaces)…

To name those differences though, within the church, especially within the conservative “Christian Right”  would commit us to a certain sort of religious freedom or pluralism that we don’t like to practice outside the church, and, this is also true on the other pole; ‘progressive Christianity,’ but I write as a member of a conservative (theologically and politically) institution, one that, for example, joined the ‘Coalition for Marriage’ and publicly lobbied against conversion therapy laws in Victoria).

We’d have to admit either that those with different positions are welcome at the table of a ‘broad church’, or, that we don’t believe them to be Christians at all, such that we should oppose their speech (and again, MacArthur and his online cronies are more consistent on this front too). And where we share ecumenical fellowship — whether around progressive causes, or through shared coalescing around ‘the Gospel’ across institutional lines, we’d have to acknowledge that we are already practicing pluralism. And we have to acknowledge the tension that creates — that in that practice we maintain a clear sense of what we believe to be the ‘capital T’ truth we’re prepared to die for, but that we’ve managed to engage in pluralism without compromising that sense, although perhaps engaging in pluralism is actually a path to broadening one’s understanding of truth — because it involves listening to others. Then we need to stare down the questions around why if we are happy for Baptists or Catholics, to continue to exist and practice their institutional religiosity (and where we would oppose legislation that sought to limit their existence), we aren’t prepared to advocate for space to be made for more ‘intuitional’ religions — especially as those lines start to get quite murky with emerging intutional/institutional Christianity (ala the emerging church movement, or Pentecostalism).

The beauty of MacArthur coming out like this is that in a secular democracy, the polis now knows where he is coming from and has to decide whether to tolerate or accommodate his views. His intolerance of pluralism is exactly the test that pluralism needs; you’ll see voices from the Christian left trying to denounce and cancel him — not just in the civic space, but the church; you’ll see voices from the intolerant ‘hard secular’ world trying to restrict his freedoms beyond just asking his church not to gather during the pandemic, or to wear masks. Some of his crazier views will be exposed and people will be able to exercise their freedoms to find less crazy popes (or, hey, no pope at all).

When Jesus said “blessed are the peacemakers” he didn’t exclude the “Culture War”

The New Testament pictures life in this world, for Christians, as a spiritual war, and it also tells us how followers of Jesus should participate in that war.

When Paul writes about ‘the armour of God’ in Ephesians he says “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (Ephesians 6).

Some part of this spiritual war is played out in the realm of worldly politics. When John writes Revelation he pictures the beastly Roman empire, in league with Satan, going to war with the church on Satan’s behalf. Culture wars, like other wars, can be expressions of this spiritual warfare. I’ve really enjoyed Richard Bauckham’s work on Revelation and Michael Heiser’s work on the Unseen Realm and thinking about the overlap of politics and the ‘powers and principalities’ in the heavenly realms, and how nations outside of Israel might have been given to these other members of the divine court.

In The Unseen Realm, Heiser unpacks Deuteronomy 4 and 32 (and a disputed translation in 32, where english versions choose either ‘sons of God’ or ‘sons of Israel’), to suggest:

“As odd as it sounds, the rest of the nations were placed under the authority of members of Yahweh’s divine council. The other nations were assigned to lesser elohim as a judgment from the Most High, Yahweh.”

Heiser’s work here is fascinating; and, I think, lines up with something Paul says about the church; and the coming together of Jew and gentile in Christ, and what that means not just in earth, but also in the heavenly realm, where he says:

His intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms, according to his eternal purpose that he accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord. — Ephesians 3:10-11

The ‘spiritual war’ playing out in the Bible is a war for our fidelity, as humans, a war for our worship; being fought out by cosmic beings — God, the creator, other ‘gods’ who are given people other than God’s own people to rule, and the sinister figure of Satan pulling the strings behind human empires set up in opposition to God — he’s there in the background in Ephesians, and in Revelation, and is the figure who is the opponent in the spiritual war the Bible describes from Genesis to Revelation; he is the enemy who holds us in sin, death, and destruction — as Paul puts it:

“As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient.” — Ephesians 2:1-2

It would be naive to suggest Christianity does not involve a war; and that this war doesn’t impact politics. The Bible explicitly links worldly regimes like Egypt, Babylon, and Rome to spiritual forces aligned against the kingdom of God (and has Israel jump on board with each of these regimes at various times, and in various ways).

It would be naive, even, to suggest that the war the Bible describes, being predominantly played out around objects of worship, and the cultures created by these empires to make different gods alluring, or desirable, is not a ‘culture war.’ The ‘cultures’ — or ‘cultic groups’ at war in the Bible are the culture of lesser gods and their glory, and the culture of God’s kingdom; the culture of the nations surrounding Israel — especially what Walter Wink called “domination systems” — cultures driven by the proud, the sword wielding, and the idolatrous seeking their own glory and the culture of a kingdom whose God “opposes the proud, and gives grace to the humble,” or “and lifts the needy from the ash heap; he seats them with princes and has them inherit a throne of honour.” The Kingdom of God has a ‘culture’ built on the character of God as revealed in the king of God’s kingdom — the crucified Jesus. And, so, the ‘culture war’ we fight is not fought with worldly weapons; or by playing ‘power games’ in a domination system; seeking dominance for our own interests. The ‘culture war’ we fight is with the armour of God; or in weakness and ‘cruciformity’ (living lives shaped by the ethic of the cross). Or, as Paul puts it in 2 Corinthians, after saying his approach to proclaiming God’s kingdom involves ‘renouncing underhanded’ and worldly ways:

“But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may also be revealed in our mortal body. So then, death is at work in us, but life is at work in you.” — 2 Corinthians 4:7-12

And…

“For though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does. The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds. We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.” — 2 Corinthians 10:3-5

We do not wage culture wars as the world does either. We do not fight culture wars with the weapons of this world. Paul goes on to describe his approach, again, as involving weakness; his scars and floggings and broken body are an embodiment of his message; the message of the cross; where God won his victory over sin, and death, and Satan, or, as the writer of Hebrews puts it, “he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil” (Hebrews 2:14).

The real ‘culture war’ is a ‘worship war’ — it’s a battle for the love, loyalty, and eternal security of people — a fight to join God’s kingdom and its mission to win people from the clutches of Satan, and the depths of darkness, into the kingdom of light, the presence of God, and union with Jesus via the presence of the Holy Spirit in a person’s life so that they are raised with Jesus and seated with him in the heavenly realms as not just his inheritance, but as God’s heirs.

Christian culture warriors who want you to join a political battle and “fight furiously” using domination system games, or the tools of worldly empire, even if they see the spiritual reality behind the culture wars, are signing you up for a mugs game, and potentially to pay a game that leads straight into the enemy’s camp; not as prisoners of war, or infiltrators, but as people who think they’re on the side of the angels but who are actually participating in a kingdom other than the kingdom of God.

Christian culture warriors who see weakness as failure, and not as God’s strength, or wisdom, are not wise. They are worldly. The cross is the wisdom and power of God; not political campaigns, numbers games, lobbying, aggressive arguments, or hit pieces published on propaganda websites.

Christian culture warriors who want to dominate and go to war with ‘the other’ — be they ‘Christian social justice warriors’ or soldiers on the ‘Christian right’ — or the ‘political left’ or the ‘political right’ — are adopting the weapons of this world and so picking an armour or weapon, that does not come from God, or serve God. This is true even if one grants that the empires built by the left, or the right are demonic, idolatrous, domination systems harnessing a variety of dark spiritual forces. The catch is, when we take up worldly weapons and fight in worldly ways — when we play ‘culture warrior’ rather than ‘peace maker,’ we are actively joining the spiritual battle on the wrong side.

And life when the church — or the ‘city of God’ is at work as God’s ‘faithful presence’ in the world, and shaping ‘cities of man’; on both the right and the left; this is complex and variegated. What isn’t complex is the decision about how Christians should participate in the culture war, or the Spiritual battle we find ourselves in that plays out in our politics.

Because Jesus, not the Caldron Pool, gives us our marching orders. And he doesn’t tell us to fight. He tells us to turn the other cheek. He tells us, ultimately, to take up our cross and follow him.

He does not say ‘blessed are the culture warriors, who dominate the other, for they will bring the kingdom of God.’ He doesn’t even say ‘blessed are those who use the Gospel as a worldly power play and try to build a Christian state.’ He doesn’t say “blessed are you when the government makes it easy for you to be a citizen of two kingdoms, so fight for that right,” or even “evangelise for that purpose.” He doesn’t say the government will use ‘the sword’ to protect us, or what’s good — in fact, he seems to expect the government will use a sword to arrest him, and a cross to crucify him, and we are called to take up our cross and follow (by Jesus), and to “submit” to the same crucifying empire by Paul.

Jesus does say “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me.” (Matthew 5:9-11), and then he goes to make peace between God, and us — though we were enemies in a culture war — by laying down his life on a cross (a symbol of the Roman domination system).

When Jesus said “blessed are the peacemakers” — he didn’t just mean for his disciples to remember this when the leaders of Israel, the Pharisees and teachers of the Law, see Jesus as their enemy in a ‘culture war,’ or when Roman soldiers come to arrest him with swords drawn to crucify him, or later when the same regimes conspire to arrest them and crucify them upside down (Peter), or the same Jewish leaders turn on them, and try to put them to death (like Paul in Acts). He didn’t just mean ‘the church shouldn’t go to war against other religious or culture groups’ with swords to secure ‘holy territory’ like in the Crusades, or Christendom… He meant ‘blessed are the peacemakers’ in our culture war, because this is how the spiritual war is fought and won. He meant that love, and giving up our rights, and blessing in response to persecution were the hallmarks of the Kingdom, and the ‘weapons’ God uses to bring an end to enmity between people and himself as they embody the message of the cross.

When Jesus said ‘blessed are the peacemakers’ he was talking about how we, the people of his kingdom, take part in the Culture WarTM — or rather, how we refuse to… When your enemy declares a culture war on you, “do not resist an evil person,” (Jesus, in Matthew 5:39), or as Paul puts it “Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone,” (Romans 12:17-18). When your ‘enemy’ — some ‘other’ — “slaps you on the right cheek,” or tweets about you, “turn to them the other cheek also,” or if they take want to trap you in some legal situation where you have to insist on your rights to fight some good fight, if they sue you for your shirt, “hand over your coat as well” (Matthew 5:40). He said ““You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven,” (Matthew 5:43-45). When your enemy declares themselves an enemy; love them, “treat others as you would have them treat you.”

He didn’t say ‘use the court system, or political power, to eradicate anybody who does not hold your opinion, or to make laws that destroy worldly kingdoms in opposition to your own. He didn’t say ‘vote for rulers who promise you a seat at the table and political power’ or ‘ask rulers to do things for you in exchange for votes (or give up your birthright for a bowl of soup). He did say “what good is it to gain the whole world, and yet forfeit your soul” right after he says “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.” (Matthew 16:24-26). Paul does say we demolish those strongholds with the Gospel, and that we should proclaim the Gospel by ‘carrying the death of Jesus in our bodies’ as ambassadors for Christ.

Confession: I am not always virtuous in my online interactions

Yesterday, in my anger, I sinned.

I am spending lots of time angry at the moment. I’m angry at the culture wars; and the way the institutional church — especially the one I am part of — is being co-opted into that war and given a position at the centre of the line on the hard right. I’m angry that this mirrors the way the church got in bed with Trump and we can’t see how that damaged our witness.

I’m angry at our tin ear that is produced by seeing every issue as a battlefront in the culture war that we need to fight with gusto. I’m angry that it’s the people in our communities who are most vulnerable who get caught in the cross fire on these culture wars (the ones who have intersecting interests with the causes championed by the other side of the war).

I’m angry at how little thought goes into the positions we take — whether theological reflection, theological anthropology, or theological ethics. I’m angry that we thought sexual orthodoxy was more important than theological orthodoxy (and even nuance) when it came to the Israel Folau saga; that we couldn’t defend him without making him ‘one of us’. I’m angry at our ethics being utilitarian, where any means are justified by the ends of the culture war.

I’m angry that to speak against the hard right — in a conservative denomination is to be, a bit like the ‘never Trump’ Republican, viewed as some sort of ‘Fifth Column’ trying to undermine the culture war agenda.

I’m angry that people call out my ‘lefty responses’ to influential figures in our denomination — like Mark Powell, or his framing of our Moderator’s email — but won’t ever call out the hard right because they’re fighting the good fight. You know whose criticisms of Trump I valued — not the Democrats; but the Lincoln Projects; not the progressive Christians who’d dismissed the authority of the Bible, but faithful never-Trump thinkers like Karen Swallow Prior, or Alan Noble.

I’m angry that we can’t escape the polarising view of the world provided to us by social media and our current socio-political context — and so, that everything I say about that grid gets interpreted as reinforcing that grid — the same goes for critiquing ‘right/left’ politics as expressions of liberalism; if I’m not ‘for’ one side of the culture war, then I must be against that side. It’s exhausting.

I’m angry too, that in fighting against the culture war, and against the hard right, I inevitably become a player in the culture war and the left keep wanting to make me a champion.

A pox on all your houses.

#teammecutio.

Some people have said that ‘where I’m coming from’ is confusing — or, have demonstrably been confused about where I’m coming from, seeing me as a would be champion of ‘the left’ (almost never of ‘the right’). And that makes me angry too.

So here. Let me confess my beliefs, before I move on to confessing some particular sins from this week.

I am not a theological, or political, progressive — I am sympathetic to causes the progressive side of the culture war has decided to pursue, just as I am to causes conservatives have decided to pursue.

I do not want to be a champion of either the theological or political left, co-opted to fight some culture war against the right. But I am not in an institution with people on the theological left, so I devote my energy and my words to trying to bring reform in the communities and institutions that I have signed up to. I believe the oaths I swore when signing up to minister in the Presbyterian Church. I believe this institution should be broad enough to accommodate Mark Powell and me (and people to my left who stay silent because taking on establishment figures like Mark Powell who spend their time platform building and boundary policing is really costly).

I am theologically conservative in that my beliefs are confessional, and creedal — but I am also committed to the spirit of the Reformation, and the belief that human institutions can build traditions in error and so must constantly ask what it is we are ‘conserving’ and seek to move back to the original teaching and tradition — the Scriptures, and especially, Jesus, the exact representation and image of God. I believe Jesus defies categorisation in modern partisan terms, so his church should too.

This is not to say that I do not like people on the political or theological left, or people on the political or theological right. I believe in loving our neighbours, and our enemies.

I am pro-life, #alllifematters.

I am pro-non-government mediating institutions.

I am pro people being able to form communities that pursue shared beliefs about ‘the good.’

I am pro-religious freedom. I believe the Bible to be the authoritative word of God.

I don’t believe we should revise church traditions in response to worldly progressive politics.

I do believe we should revise church traditions where they are not aligned with the word of God, and, especially the way the word of God — the whole counsel of God — is about Jesus.

I do believe that the Bible calls us to love people, and invite them to submit to Jesus, and That people cannot live as though Jesus is Lord, or even as those in the ‘image and likeness’ of God if they have exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worship created things instead of the creator.

I believe that the Bible calls us to love the marginalised and the oppressed.

I believe God opposes the proud, and the oppressor, and gives grace to the humble; and liberation to the oppressed. I believe that political and physical oppression are visible symptoms of spiritual oppression; and that Jesus didn’t just come to deal with the ‘spiritual’ reality of sin and our status before God, but also with the way sin impacts individual lives, and systems, and nations.

I believe the Bible pictures sin as both personal and systemic, and that we should recognise both. I believe ‘the right’ reduces sin to the personal, or individual, and that ‘the left’ reduces sin to the systemic, especially systems that oppress.

So, for example, I believe that racism is evil, and that it is not just about individual attitudes, but systems set up when individual attitudes were explicitly racist, and where those systems have been perpetuated in ways that advantage ‘the proud’ and the wealthy, and disadvantage the outsider.

I don’t believe people should be cancelled. I believe that speech should be costly — but the cost of speech is ‘ethics’ (ethos); living up to your words with integrity and sacrifice. I don’t believe people holding different opinions, and holding those in communities-of-difference should be inherently harmful. I believe cancellation is typically ‘religiously’ motivated, and that everybody worships — either the true God, or an idol fashioning God into an image of our making.

I believe there’s a spiritual dimension to our reality where political systems reflect the nature of shared ‘national’ gods — and these might actually be real spiritual beings, not just avatars of human desires, and that ‘human empires’ like Babylon, or Rome, are actually expressions of cosmic rebellion against God, and that religious people through history (think Israel) often get swept up into false kingdoms while believing they are worshipping God.

I don’t believe state power should be used to do much more than uphold a civic space in which people and communities can pursue truth, goodness, and relationship, but I believe state power will almost always serve a ‘god’ or collection of gods, and that politics is religious. I believe our politics should be built on the Gospel, and that we should be more concerned about the pastoral than the political, and, because the kingdom of God is not yet universalised, we should uphold pluralism and the religious freedom of others to pursue life on their terms, as we would have them treat us.

I believe our sexed bodies are realities given to us by God to be stewarded. I believe that the fall effects our biology (including that our bodies die). I believe this means Intersex people are real, and gender dysphoria is real, and that it’s possible that if there’s an intersex body there is an intersex brain. I believe that gender is performed, and constructed. And that most ‘progressive’ thinking denies physical realities — and so is gnostic — while most ‘conservative’ thinking denies social dynamics (like construction and performance) and so is materialist. I believe that it’s possible that people who don’t believe our bodies are given to us by God are ‘acting in good faith’ according to their own religious and political convictions when making laws to protect such individuals, or affirm their vision of the good.

I believe sex — and our bodies — and our relationships to other people (families, spouses, children, and especially the church) to be as central to our personhood (or identity) as our ‘personal desires’ and that our ‘performance’ of our gender should reflect those realities not just our desires. I believe that ‘individualism’ as it applies to the modern, post-Christendom west, is a Christian heresy. I believe that marriage isn’t just a ‘natural order’ biological thing about making babies through straight sex; but a picture of the relationship between Jesus and his church. I believe we are called, particularly as Christians, to be people of good character (who thus make decisions from our hearts) — not to do what gets results.

I believe greed, power, and empire are actually more pressing idols shaping the western world than sexual liberty — and that the church turns a blind eye to those (and is swept up in them), while demonising idolatry in the areas of sex, sexuality, and gender to our detriment. I believe often sex and sexuality are actually functions of greedy power games, including ‘self-liberty,’ and we spend more time on symptoms than on the heart of the problem.

There are many other things I believe. But this is a start.

I am angry at how easy it is for positions like this to be forced into a ‘right/left’ grid so that we might dismiss some other.

I am angry that these beliefs lead to some people calling me ‘a wolf’ and ‘everything that is wrong with the church’ and ‘woke’ and ‘a pharisee’. But I’m not really that concerned about how people think about me. I’m angry that the culture war has a crossfire that catches faithful, orthodox, nuanced pastors I admire from the left, and individuals living vulnerably in church communities, while making the church seem unwelcome to anyone to the left of Scott Morrison, from the right. I have thick skin, and bankable skills. I’m not marginalised, or a victim, or oppressed. I am not claiming victim status here. I just don’t want to be a fighter in your stupid wars, and I don’t want our institution to be a significant culture war player held up as an example by the leaders and media platforms of the hard right.

I’m angry at how our ‘tin ear’ could mean that on a day in which international apologist Ravi Zacharias — championed by political and theological conservatives (like Mike Pence and Martyn Iles) was exposed as a serial predator and rapist, and megachurch pastor Carl Lentz was exposed as a narcississtic predator, somehow those urging peace, or nuance, in a culture war are called ‘the biggest danger to the church‘… And let’s face it — Mark might publicly deny that this is about me, but everyone – including Mark — knows that he was writing this about me. But if it’s not — the great sins that article points out — nuance, a desire to be pastorally sensitive, a desire to enforce one’s ecclesiological structures, and a desire to be theologically accurate in our public engagements — are all apparently dangers to the church because they undermine our culture war efforts.

So, I’m angry. And there isn’t much virtue in anger — and, there’s a warning about this in the Bible that doesn’t say anger is inherently wrong.

But it does say: “In your anger do not sin” (Ephesians 4:26).

And I am guilty of sinning in my anger in the last few days; in ways that undermine all the stuff that makes me angry.

It is clear that to be angry at the culture war — and to try to take no side — can end up just making you some sort of champion for a ‘third way’ of culture warring, or a mercenary who gets pulled from one side to another. And I have no interest in that.

Blessed are the peacemakers.

And so. Here are my confessions.

I find it harder to love my brothers and sisters on ‘the right’ — who should be ‘my friends’ — given that I am part of a confessional, theologically conservative, denomination — than I do to love those on ‘the left’ in the culture war. I find the commitment to justice for the marginalised more compelling than commitments to our own institutional power and Christian morality being extended beyond the church. I speak in harsher terms about their positions — especially those within my institution — than I do about those I believe to be in error on the other side. I do a better job of listening to and engaging charitably with the progressive theological and political positions that I agree with than with the conservative ones — in part because I’d like to present conservative positions without ‘culture war’ engagement, and to cut through the messaging that sees something like religious freedom as a culture war battlefront is difficult without differentiation. I believe there are times where this difficulty produces ungodly and immoderate interactions with others (I had several comments on a forum moderated yesterday because I consistently, and deliberately, misspelled the name Caldron Pool). I can do better at this, and am thankful for friends who call me out.

I particularly have difficulty finding a loving way to engage with those pushing a hard culture war agenda, and adopting the tactics of the Christian Right in the U.S. In my humble assessment these are the greater danger to those of us who are theologically conservative than to become theologically progressive.

I have trouble because I see things in fairly integrated ways, with not disentangling that integration. So. On the day Ravi was exposed in the way he was, as, I think, an indictment not just of Ravi, but of the sort of celebrity power-game culture that Christians have bought into and justified via ‘utilitarian’ arguments (eg, the idea Ravi didn’t need scrutiny because of how fruitful he was for the kingdom), I sinned by commenting on a glowing endorsement of Ravi by an Australian culture warrior made on the day of his death — when the accusations against him were public and well known, but dismissed as part of a culture war agenda against this giant of the faith.

This was cheap and unbecoming. There are more constructive ways to make that point.

I have been so swept up in my anger that I have lost a sense of what is righteous, and taken shortcuts around pursuing what is true. So today, I shared and condemned a tweet that I thought was from an American culture warrior that was actually from a parody account. I took a ‘culture war’ side; not because I think the ‘left’ had things right, but because I believe the hard right to be diabolically in error and problematic allies for theological conservatives. I was quick to speak, and quick to anger. I was deceived.

I could do with meditating more on this passage, that I do believe should guide our interactions on social media.

Don’t be deceived, my dear brothers and sisters. Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows. He chose to give us birth through the word of truth, that we might be a kind of firstfruits of all he created.

My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires. Therefore, get rid of all moral filth and the evil that is so prevalent and humbly accept the word planted in you, which can save you.”
— James 1:16-21

So. I’m working on my anger. Working on my peacemaking. Working on being constructive in my contribution to discussions about the intersection between Christianity and politics. Working on my contrarian streak that has me acerbically and cynically pushing back on those with whom I have genuine disagreements. This doesn’t mean that everything I’ve posted, said, or done is worthy of the criticism I’ve received, but that criticism does reflect an area of my life and practice that is worth repenting of, and there are areas that I, like any of us, can benefit from the calm correction of brothers and sisters. It’s that sort of calm criticism — rather than dog whistled, culture war driven, labelling of one another as ‘wolves’ that is likely to produce change; and those friends are the voices worth listening to.

I’m working on this stuff — but I won’t always get it right; and nor do I believe that working on this stuff can be done by staying silent on the damage the culture war is doing to our witness to the goodness of the kingdom of Jesus for all people.

I don’t think talking about virtue ethics requires perfection of virtues — but it does require a commitment to becoming more virtuous over time. And I hope to do that.

On Presbyterians preaching ‘the whole counsel of God’ while burning dollar bills

In 1994 the performance art group the K Foundation (aka musicians KLF) burned 1 million quid. They stacked up a bunch of banknotes and set fire to their hard earned dollars — capital they’d built up through years of craftsmanship. Every time I think of the way the church has responded to LGBTIQA+ issues in Australia I picture that burning money. All the social capital we spent years building through establishing schools, hospitals, and charities — advocating for the local and global poor, looking out for those on the margins… set up in flames; a $1 million dollar donation from a prominent Evangelical denomination there, an attempt by a less prominent-but-still-wanting-to-be-significant denomination to exit marriage all together if those others were granted recognition here… smoke and ashes. Gone.

One way I know we haven’t learned is that in the face of the Change or Suppression (Conversion) Therapy Bill passing in Victoria we haven’t been able to recognise that smell of smoke in the air as our own capital burning up. In fact. We’ve doubled down and stoked the fire with whatever small bills we’ve got left.

Now. This isn’t to say the Church shouldn’t be faithful, at cost to itself, in the world. Or that popularity of social capital is the essence of faithful presence in the world (though we are meant to ‘live good lives before the pagans,’ lives that are appealing and notable… but I had hoped we’d burn our social capital speaking against the powerful on behalf of the marginal (or, particularly, not out of our own self interest). Now I know, I know, speaking out for God’s design for sex and marriage and human flourishing is speaking for marginalised people. That’s true.

But when the Government acts because it says we are harming a marginalised people group through our practices, and so many of us are prepared to say ‘yes, those practices did exist in a relatively mainstream way in the past, but they’re unicorns now, but trust us…,’ the additional fuel we have to throw on the fire is this.

We keep insisting on our right to keep harming people.

Publicly.

At least. That’s how it reads. All the nuance in the world about what exactly we’re objecting to isn’t going to cut it so long as people are convinced that our practices and beliefs lead gay young people to suicide. All the world is hearing in our objections to this Bill is that we want to keep hurting people. We might not think we’re saying that, but there’s a big pile of smouldering bank notes sitting behind us just itching for a little more fuel. In the eyes of Joe and Jo Public, The Royal Commission showed our institutions can’t be trusted to have power over vulnerable kids, while the plebiscite showed we aren’t particularly safe for LGBTIQA+ individuals.

If we genuinely, in the interest of our neighbours, want to invite people to know the goodness of submitting one’s whole self — including our sexuality — to loving and worshipping Jesus, and we want that to be persuasive (humanly speaking), we need to rebuild our social capital — perhaps precisely by caring for vulnerable kids and the LGBTIQA+ community (creating some public distance from Andrew Bolt might be wise on that first one). Most churches have outdone themselves in responding to the findings of the Royal Commission — and there’s a vast gap between the credibility of an entire Royal Commission and one Victorian Study interviewing traumatised survivors of church practices — but maybe, just maybe, we could take those survivor’s accounts seriously and respond pastorally. Not just to rebuild our social capital as some appeasement exercise, but because it’s the right thing to do…

The other thing we might do, to take up the task of rebuilding our social capital, is heed the call of the Presbyterian Church of Australia’s Moderator General Peter Barnes to ‘preach the whole counsel of God’ in Victoria, and perhaps around the country. Rev Barnes responded to the legislation passing in Victoria by urging Presbyterian ministers around the country to: “preach all that He has revealed to us, whether law or gospel, and to do so in a spirit of love and truth.” Barnes has been praised for his courageous leadership. What the K-Foundation did was courageous too. Burning all that money. Courage isn’t necessarily wisdom.

Now. Rev Barnes was particularly encouraging ministers to clearly proclaim the Bible’s prohibition on same sex sexual intercourse, calling sin sin, that was both the spirit of the email he sent out and the spirit of the glowing feature article written by another Presbyterian Minister over at cess pit Caldron Pool, that site took a break from calling Joe Biden a Communist, to run an article headlined “Presbyterian Church of Australia Set to Defy Gay Conversion Bill”... which is just another way of saying “Presbyterian Church of Australia wants to harm Gay people.” Because the thing is, despite the scare campaign about an (overreaching) Bill, the legislation only kicks in when Christian practices are harmful. Now, harm is a nebulous and utterly subjective concept, to be sure. But. The plain reading of a headline urging defiance of a Bill that prohibits harm, is that this denomination wants to harm people. Another way of framing the article could well have been “Presbyterian Church of Australia set to set fire to $1 million” — only, we probably don’t have the money.

But Rev Barnes is right. We Presbyterians should be prepared to call sin sin. Even if it makes us unpopular. We should preach the whole counsel of God — including the Bible’s design for sexuality and human flourishing — grounded as it is in the relationship not just between man and woman, but Jesus and his bride (the church).

We should preach about greed. About affluence and Aussie comfort. About penalty rates, and the modern banking industry, and negative gearing. We should talk about how the Bible has lots more to say about the idolatry of Greed than the idolatry of sex, and how comfortable the average Aussie is with the notion that greed is good, and economic prosperity should drive our ethical decision making. Greed is sin.

We should preach about systemic racism. About how all people are made to bear the image of God, and how sin gets entrenched in structures to improve the lot of the proud and haughty — nations and systems that rule at the expense of others — and how the Kingdom of God came to reverse these structures because of God’s nature and character, and his love for all humankind. Racism is sin.

We should preach about the environment — about how we were made to be stewards who ruled the world with God, and for his purposes, to bring life and fruitfulness — but how our sin, especially greed, turned our ‘dominion’ with God into ‘domination’ and destruction. Vandalising God’s planet is sin.

We should preach about gender equality and toxic masculinity and the way the same cursed, sinful, relationships that create systems of racial inequality create systems of gender inequality, and create the grounds for things like coercive control and family violence. Sexism is sin. Family violence is sin.

We should preach about how the story of being exiles brought home to God — as gentiles — is a lot like the story of Israel being brought as refugees out of Egypt, and how that story of God’s hospitable welcome to us in Jesus, just like the Exodus for Egypt, should cause us to love and be hospitable to the refugee. Not showing hospitality to vulnerable people — our neighbours — like in the Good Samaritan — that’s sin.

We should preach about the importance of truth in an age of fake news, and hit-piece sites that run polarising attack ads on the repugnant political other. Bearing false witness is sin.

We should preach about Australia’s past; the dispossession of our First Nation’s peoples, and the ongoing systemic disadvantage they now face not just because of the original European settlement, but because of government policy decisions that led to things like massacres, and stolen wages. Murder is sin. Theft is sin. Racism is sin.

We should preach about God’s love for the poor, and the marginalised, and act in ways that led the church for generations before us to invest in building institutions like schools and hospitals not just for our own good, but the good of our neighbours, building credibility for the goodness of the Gospel of Jesus. And we should practice what we preach.

We should preach the whole counsel of God. Both law and Gospel. We should call all these things sin, in a Spirit of love, and truth. And we should offer the same pastoral support to Greedy people, racists, and toxic men.

But we won’t. Or, most of us will do that too — but we don’t get emails from the Moderator General inviting us to do this when laws pass that prop up the destruction of the environment, or support our greed, or continue our track record of racism or the abuse of refugees. We won’t get told to ‘preach the whole counsel of God’ when the Close The Gap report gets handed down, or when new statistics about family violence in our country are reported.

We’ll just keep talking about sexual morality — one of the things that was meant to set Christians apart from their neighbours. We’ll keep asking to harm people in Jesus’ name, rather than love them into an encounter with his bride, and body, the church, that makes his love tangible and oh, so worth it.

We’ll just keep adding fuel to the fire.

Maybe we could try not treating LGBTIQA+ people and their allies like the enemy (or, doing what Jesus said to do to our enemies)

Victoria passed its Change or Suppression (Conversion) Practices Prohibition Bill yesterday and the online reaction is predictably polarising.

I’ve written about why I think this was a bad Bill, but also why Christian opposition to the Bill was misguided and doomed to fail previously. I don’t have skin in the game on this fight (though Queensland has its own laws), but, my parents are moving to Melbourne in coming weeks to take up a job with a significant Melbourne Presbyterian Church, so I’m not exactly a disinterested observer either.

This morning the usual culture war champions Martyn Iles and Lyle Shelton have come out swinging against ‘Dictator Dan,’ Lyle is busy proclaiming this the death of liberal democracy (he’s also doing his best to disparage his home suburb of West End, in Brisbane, every time he opens a video blog), while young Martyn, when he’s not mansplaining vaccines, or defending Craig Kelly and Israel Folau, is also devoting significant attention to the Bill.

It’s been great that everyone who has spoken out against the Bill — including Lyle — have spoken explicitly against Conversion TherapyTM, the particularly coercive attempts to pressure same sex attracted people into orientation change. But almost every statement I’ve read has followed the condemnation of Conversion Therapy with a disclaimer that this is a unicorn, or phantom, or non existent problem, in order to pivot to smashing the Bill’s overreach.

I also appreciate David Bennett’s reaction to the Bill. David is a ‘Side B’ Christian (same sex attracted and committed to celibacy, read my review of his book A War of Loves here — that could well be a banned book now). He says, in a pretty powerful critique, that this is an attempt from the Victorian Government to ‘colonise queer Christian bodies.’

Look. This is complex. Christians are anxious — and despite the consistent disclaimer that we should be ‘not anxious’ even while reacting against this Bill, the reaction itself is a picture of an anxious response that the disclaimer isn’t overcoming. More than being non-anxious — we should be loving to our neighbours (including our political leaders), perhaps especially to those in our community it now seems needed an act of parliament to be protected from us (while we kept asking to keep being able to do things that apparently harmed them).

But here are three suggestions for a way forward for Christians — whether you’re in Victoria, or in a state yet to legislate in this area.

Show the LGBTIQA+ people in church communities you don’t want to eradicate or ‘colonise’ them

I mentioned David Bennett’s contribution to the discussion around this Bill above — of all the Side B Christians I know, he’s the first I’ve seen publicly respond to this Bill; and he, like others I know, has also given significant energy to carving out space for Side B Christians in theologically conservative churches. There’s a variety of possible positions for same sex attracted, or gay, Christians, and the labels Side B, Side A, and Ex-Gay are prominent options (there’s also a ‘Side Y’). Side A are the people who believe committed gay relationships are within God’s design for sex and marriage, Side B are those who don’t look to ‘change’ or ‘suppress’ their orientation, but redirect their lives and love to Jesus (typically they would be ‘celibate gay Christians’ or Christians in mixed orientation marriages), ex-Gay Christians are those who no longer ‘identify’ as same sex attracted, possibly having experienced therapeutic intervention.

In my observation, being a Side B Christian in conservative Christian institutions (and families) is pretty fraught. You get smashed from all sides:

  • from Side A, because you have decided their conclusions are erroneous and sinful, and they fear you are suppressing something that you require for a flourishing life, even in the church,
  • from Side ex, and lots of heterosexual church leaders because you are not fully ‘mortifying’ your sin and ‘changing your identity’ (and there’s plenty of policing about what label you can or can’t use, and what you should and shouldn’t do — both institutionally, and within families),
  • from the world, because you’re not pursuing the expression of your authentic self based on your natural desires, you are suppressing something, and that is perceived as being harmful.

At the same time this Bill was being debated, church denominations like mine were writing documents that made Side B Christians in our community feel more marginalised; this is common around the world as major conservative evangelical denominations — of the kind most at risk from something like Victoria’s Bill — were busy also policing the identity-marking language used by celibate gay Christians — one denomination said such people shouldn’t call themselves  a ‘Same sex attracted Christian,’ or ‘a ‘gay Christian’ but rather ‘a Christian who experiences same sex attraction’ — this sort of thing, then, gets used in family and church contexts to further marginalise these brothers and sisters; often looking (and feeling) a lot like they are being asked to ‘convert’ or ‘suppress’ something about themselves; and often in ways that are damaging and harmful. Every time I write about things like this I end up with more stories from people.

When we say ‘conversion therapy is a unicorn’ we have to be sensitive to the way our ongoing posture, as an institutional church, is causing harm — there are brothers and sisters so committed to Jesus and his bride, the church, that they remain in our communities despite this harm (and all human relationships involve a modicum of harm). But there are many others who have experienced this sort of policing of their person, our own internal identity politicking, who have left the church feeling harmed or traumatised.

I’m not sure that church experiences alone are ever the entire picture of trauma or harm experienced by gay people — suicidality in LGBTIQA+ communities is also disproportionately large in more liberal and supportive countries than Australia — but we have to own that we do not have a good record, or reputation, for loving LGBTIQA+ people in church communities, let alone those outside the church.

The theological posturing behind our identity politics on this feels a lot like assuming a modernist framework, and one built around renaissance-slash-reformation liberalism, and its emphasis on ‘the individual’ and ‘identity’ — and I’m not sure these are coherent theological categories to use to solve complex questions. This cuts both ways, because I’m not sure ‘gay identity’ is a coherent anthropological category in a totalising way — I’m probably more inclined to see descriptors as experiential rather than ‘ontological’ or to pursue a ‘narrative ontology,’ and one that accommodates the givenness of our bodies, and relationships, as genuine realities, over some sort of personal desire based neo-gnostic thing anyway. But we’re way underdone in our theology around personhood and desire — and until we’re not pumping out Margaret Courts and Israel Folaus without clear differentiation between their positions and ‘orthodox Christianity,’ and indeed, so long as we keep saying these sorts of marginal figures are orthodox simply because we agree with them on orthopraxy (or more literally, how people should use their genitals), we won’t get anywhere good (I mean, Folau doesn’t even embrace the Trinity).

The thing is, it’s our Side B Christians — like David Bennett — who are having to do not just the emotional, but the intellectual, labour on these questions; and rather than colonising them and insisting they align their experiences as closely as possible to ours, maybe we should be listening to them… I don’t just say this as a cheap ‘virtue signal’ thing either — the work of writers like Wesley Hill (and others at Spiritual Friendship), Nate Collins and people in the Revoice team, or Ed Shaw and others at Living Out — is way ahead of heterosexual Christian thought leadership on sexuality, the body, and identity — even as people in each of those groups have theological disagreements. These guys are the ‘desert fathers’ of the modern world; experientially disconnected from the mainstream idolatry of sex and individualism, and so in a position to critique the way the church has been swept up in idolatrous systems.

Show your LGBTIQA+ neighbours you understand the pain caused by Christians (and Christendom) as they celebrate this legal change

There are people in the Australian community genuinely rejoicing today and feeling like a victory has been won — not just the cynical culture warriors who’ve used this as a wedge issue to advance a progressive agenda and score social capital points without tackling deep, complex, structural issues (this is pretty low hanging fruit in a culture war). There are those who have pastored Side A Christians whose experiences of conservative churches have been deeply traumatic, those who’ve seen lives lost to suicide where bad Christian practices have been part of the story, those who are not Christian who see this as part of the ongoing march towards justice for their community-of-identity. In our collective grief and anger it would be easy to marginalise or dismiss that joy — rather than learning from it and asking where we should have reformed our behaviour both in the church, and outside it.

The same political actors who drove the Christian contribution to the culture war on Same Sex Marriage have not learned, and, as they double down not only are we continuing to set fire to our social capital (if we had any left after the plebiscite, or royal commission), they continue to perpetuate the reputation that Christians are homophobes who can’t live civilly in community with people who disagree with them. Fighting against this Bill, with whatever nuance we can muster, against the backdrop of rejecting the extension of participation in a civil institution to people who wanted it broadened to include them, and against harming vulnerable minors in our institutional care, looks a whole lot like Christians insisting on our rights to keep harming minors in our care, especially LGBTIQA+ minors. It was a deck way stacked against us, and the more we speak, the worse we look — we can’t say ‘we don’t like conversion therapy’ and ‘but it’s a unicorn’ while saying ‘let us keep doing what we’re doing’ if the perception is that we do bad things to people. We’d be better off investing in rebuilding our social capital — especially with the LGBTIQA+ community.

We should be signing up for ally training in our workplaces, advocating for improvements in mental health and wellbeing for LGBTIQA+ people, gently engaging with the complexity of the umbrella where the Trans political ideology finds itself at odds with LGB experience (and feminism), listening carefully and responding with love and concern both to individuals and, where possible, pushing for legitimate structural/systemic reform for the good of our neighbours. Pastoral theologian Mark Yarhouse, who is widely published on issues around sexuality and gender and writes from his own perspective as someone holding a traditional Christian sexual ethic, but also as someone who has conducted secular research in this field, co-authored a book in 2020 titled Emerging Gender Identities: Understanding the Diverse Experiences of Today’s Youth. A friend shared this quote from the book on Facebook:

“If theologically conservative Christians were as committed as politically active LGBTQ+ are to developing and upholding policies that protect all people, including vulnerable transgender people, in matters like bathroom access and workplace violence, perhaps our current polarisation could be attentuated, even if we still experience disagreements about human anthropology and the like.”

Perhaps indeed. It’d be nice to give it a try at least — the old ‘love your neighbour as yourself’ or ‘treat others as you would have them treat you’ (not ‘as they treat you’) — you know — what Jesus calls his followers to do. Personally, I’d like my neighbours to respect and allow my ability to gather in community with those I belong to, to freely practice my beliefs, and, inasmuch as possible, to be able to have the government recognise and allow me to practice my sexuality in a committed and safe relationship framework (while recognising that the government has a role in stopping me using my freedoms to hurt others).

Perhaps loving relationships across culture war divides, built on reciprocity and genuine seeking the interest of others is the best defence against Christian teaching meeting the legal threshold for action under this Bill. Harm.

Maybe Christians could do this with people who’ve got other experiences/identities shaping their approach to participation in community — like LGBTIQA+ individuals, but perhaps Christians in Victoria could do this, as well, by, you know, joining the Labor Party. Do some branch stacking of our own — and actually turn up to meetings and participate in political life.

Don’t fight the culture war

The absolute hottest of hot takes on this legislation ignores (or minimises) the face value rationale given for its introduction. LGBTIQA+ rights are definitely a hallmark progressive agenda item — partly because of critical theory, and intersectionality, and the left’s commitment to undoing structural inequality and its connection to patriarchy. But this is complicated — it’s the same ‘intersectionality’ that presents pressing issues for this bill; LGB groups and feminists have issues with trans ideology. Something has to give on that front, which means the ideological basis for this legislation as a piece of virtue signalling is weak — but — there’s also the genuine face value reason given, and that reason is possibly sufficient grounds for a progressive government to act in the interest of its polis. LGBTIQA+ individuals are statistically speaking, more vulnerable — and we don’t know all the factors leading to that vulnerability, but some of those factors are environmental/cultural — and some of that comes from Christendom and its moral frame (the sort of frame that saw homosexuality criminalised), and some of that comes from church practices (the type that has parents ostracising gay kids, with the support of their church community). We didn’t — and don’t seem willing — to get our own house in order on this issue. Maybe the Government actually is genuinely acting because of Christian bigotry, genuine harm, and a legitimate research paper into Christian culture and practices being a contributor. Maybe it’s evidence based — with a dash of ideology thrown in — and maybe it’s the ideology that led to overreach (noting that the Queensland government has already banned conversion therapy in clinical/professional settings and didn’t reach quite so far into the hard left’s bag of tricks).

The hottest of hot takes is that this Bill represents a government that is out to get Christians. That it is the thin end of a wedge — and next they’ll send out right-think manuals for churches, and then they’ll come for our sermons. Ultimately we’ll have to chop Romans 1 out of the Bible.

Let’s assume the premise of this hot take for a moment; that the concept of ‘conversion therapy’ is a phantom — or unicorn — that churches are beautiful and harmless communities committed to the flourishing of gay individuals in our families, and in the broader community, perhaps, then, this really is an attempt by the Victorian Government to eradicate us religious people who are beyond the pale… a crushing blow in the culture war… Perhaps this is the next stop on a ‘slippery slope’ or ‘cultural marxism’s long march through our institutions’ we keep being told about (rather than the ongoing pendulum swing towards leveling the legal/cultural playing field that once treated homosexual sex as illegal, and where there’s still work to go for that community in securing the freedoms it believes it needs to live a flourishing life).

Let’s assume the premise that the other side is fighting a culture war, hell-bent on our destruction; if that’s truly the case, we should respond in a heaven-bent way. The same person who said “blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God,” and “Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Said:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you. “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven.” — Matthew 5:38-45

Our anxious temptation in the hottest of hot takes is to feel the heat and fight fire with fire. To lobby. To write letters (that in the context sound like we’re asking to keep harming people).

We should, as our Lord says, turn the other cheek. If the government is behaving badly, and there are those who would use this law to bring action against Christians we have a guidebook, and a guide: our crucified King. The answer to others playing a culture war against the church is not for us to play the culture war right back; it’s for us to be peacemakers who are ambassadors for Christ and ministers of reconciliation because we have been reconciled to God and are now part of his kingdom.

I’m often called naive for minimising the threat of the secular left (where, mostly, I just want to point out the similar threat posed by the secular right). I’m often asked, when I say, ‘don’t fight the culture war’ accused of pushing some sort of quietism, or asked whether I think that will work (whether ‘working’ is changing hearts, or minds, or legislation, or just ‘stopping them hitting us’). To be honest, I don’t assess the rightness of political action based on the results it might produce — but rather, on what it cultivates in me (and would cultivate in others). I do think that, over time, virtuous political action presented in a compelling way can bring positive change (think Wilberforce and slavery, or pretty much the historic impact of Christianity on the western world), but I don’t think it’s a short term silver bullet — and — frankly, I don’t think Christians are meant to pick actions that ‘win’ political fights or produce particular results — I think we’re meant to ‘do good,’ and that this ultimately is about following the example of Jesus, who, remember, was crucified by the state. I think the point of ‘martyrdom’ (that is, actions that testify to a bigger truth) is vindication by God, ultimately, because we have been faithful witnesses to his kingdom.

The good news is that if we respond to those who are seeking to do evil to us (again, still assuming there’s a nefarious agenda at play here, not the charitable surface level read of the motivations of the Victorian government, and those who voted for and advocated for this Bill)… if we respond to their evil with love, that exposes their evil for what it is, as Paul puts it in Romans 12:20-21: “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”

Why not try this?

It’s the same school of thinking that, when they were coming for our bakers, said ‘if someone wants to sue you for not making them a cake, bake them a wedding cake and give it to them for free’… We could be surprisingly loving in the face of hostility, rather than defensive and reactive. We could do things that rebuild some social capital, rather than setting it on fire as a beacon to our own self-righteousness. We could be a community of people who have a reputation not for harming LGBTIQA+ people, but pursuing their flourishing, even as we disagree on their theological convictions, in the hope that our love for them might be a plausible picture of the better humanity we find in Jesus and his kingdom.

We could be so loving and nurturing LGBTIQA+ people in our communities that not only are they plausible advocates for the goodness of the Gospel — even at personal cost of sex — not only are those individuals clearly still able to flourish (and not be harmed), but we — the church — become a plausible community for our LGBTIQA+ neighbours to enter while exploring the truth-claims of the Gospel. We can’t do that while also publicly doing things that look committed to their harm instead.

This Bill has enormous capacity for overreach — if, as it is tested in real life, and that is demonstrably the case, there will be opportunities for legislation to be changed and challenged. What this Bill aims to do, though, is undo the damage the church has (and does) do to vulnerable people in our community because we can’t get our posture and message right on sexuality and the call of Jesus for all people who join his kingdom.

What’s ‘best for my kids’ is ‘what’s best for the kingdom’

If we had a family with kids join us for every time a family with kids said “we’re looking for the best church for our kids,” we’d have a really vibrant community of kids (and adults) in our church. If families with kids had stayed with us every time they said “we’re looking for a church that’ll cater for our teens,” we’d have a really vibrant youth group.

And yet, while we have some faithful and committed families who are part of our church, we’re stuck in a position that so many churches of our size find themselves in — a bit like the small town where people finish school and leave for university — we don’t attract families because we don’t already have lots of families. Families create an attractional pull for other families. And we do often hear those two lines when people are investigating our church, or, when people are leaving. Which, as a parent of three primary school aged kids, can be discouraging.

I’m also sure we’re not alone in this as a church — there are lots of small to medium suburban or inner urban churches out there who feel like they have to compete with megachurch kids programs in order to attract kids and families (or, at least, make a consumer driven case that plugging your kids into a small church won’t leave them worse off).

While I do feel a certain sort of professional and emotional weight around this, and it’s true that I’d love some of those families who say they’re ‘doing what’s best for the kids’ to ‘do what’s best for the kingdom’ because modelling that sort of decision making is actually what’s best for their kids — I also think there’s a short sightedness and a consumerism underpinning some of this approach to church community that is ultimately not what is best for the kingdom of God, and thus, not what is best for our kids. And I think what is best for the kingdom of God is what is best for our kids. This is why we, as a family, are slugging it out in a church where some other families don’t join, or go elsewhere. It’s not because I have to, it’s because I genuinely think this is best (and, we love and want to keep connected to those in our community who are similarly committed).

This isn’t to say that joining our church is the best thing for the kingdom of God, all things considered it probably won’t be… unless you’re a very specific sort of person (like, you live in Brisbane, you don’t already go to a church where you’re embedded relationally, where the Gospel is taught faithfully, and you could put up with me preaching a fair whack of the time), but it is to say that people joining churches that don’t have a whizz-bang already established kids program is good for the kingdom, and joining those churches might be neutral (or worse — and, it might also be great, these churches, at least in our theological niche, often grow because they do things well). If you are looking for the church that is ‘best for your kids’ — then go with ‘what’s best for the kingdom,’ and this might (probably) also mean staying where you are, if where you are is, in your best estimation, a faithful community committed to Jesus as Lord, and to being part of God’s church.

Also, parenting is hard. All of it. Christian parenting adds a degree of difficulty. And, ultimately, I’m hoping this encourages you — parent — to make decisions under less pressure not more pressure. And I’m not about using guilt as a motivator (even if you feel guilty) — I’m suggesting, actually, that re-ordering our decision making towards the character of God’s kingdom, and limiting our choices (and the pressure that comes with them) and trusting God to work through his designs and systems is liberating, and good, and it takes the pressure off for us to ‘get things right’ and appropriately places the responsibility for the life of our children in God’s hands as we show them what it looks like to live for his kingdom, where he rules, not our own kingdom where we rule through choice.

So here’s three reasons to think differently about choosing a church family to join as a family, and three things to consider as ‘criteria’ for doing ‘what’s best for the kingdom.’

Three reasons to think differently about ‘what’s best for my kids’

We live in a world that idolises children, and champions ‘right consumer choices’ as the way to sacrifice to that idol — participating in this world, ultimately, sacrifices your kids

We’re used to making consumer decisions about our kids when it comes to things like schooling. Parents instinctively want what’s best for their kids — and no parent wants their kid to be ‘worse off’ than they were — so our instincts lead us, often, to sacrificing our own flourishing in order to elevate theirs. That feels noble, but, I suspect, for a bunch of reasons it’s misguided (so, for example, the best thing you can give your kids is your presence as a healthy and flourishing person who isn’t absent because you’re working to pay for their education).

One of the features of modern western life is that we’ve lost a sense of ‘meaning making’ coming from something supernatural and beyond us, so we assess the parenting challenge in physical ‘here and now’ terms. We’re also not, culturally, great at long term thinking or delayed gratification. And we’re obsessed with technique and technology. Because part of the ‘meaning making’ enterprise is about figuring out what is ultimate, our culture has replaced God (or supernatural things) with natural things that we think are really valuable. Often this means we’ve turned very good things like marriage and family, and specifically our kids, into the ultimate source of meaning and significance in our lives. This is a form of idolatry. We Christians are often ‘syncretists’ — we try to have our supernatural God, but also have little altars to a variety of other gods from our culture (money, sex, marriage, children), we also often bring in the liturgies, or religious practices, of our neighbours with those altars — so Christianity has become just another ‘consumer option’ for us where we can express our authentic individuality and identity by making personal choices (including the choice about what church to belong to — this really is a very new thing in the history of the church, that is both a product of various schisms in church life, mostly after the Reformation (creating lots of choices), and the invention of the car (and later, the internet), so that we don’t have to ‘stay local’ but can find a community that best reflects ‘me’ and ‘what I think already’ and can give me ‘what I want in a church.’

To participate in idolatry — rather than the kingdom — requires sacrifice (the sort you make to deliver your kids ‘their best life,’ whether educationally or in terms of what church you choose. But making church another consumer choice in the quest to give your kids their best life, if it’s part of an idolatry you’ve caught from the world, will ultimately sacrifice your kids as you teach them that the good life is found in consumer choice, and in sacrificing for your kids — rather than in serving in God’s cross-shaped kingdom.

The choice about what church to attend that is ‘best for my kids’ is an expression of lots of what is wrong with the modern world, one way to do what’s best for your kids is not to choose a church based on ‘what’s best for you’ but a church where you can best serve and contribute to the life of the kingdom of God as a family, as you become part of a community. It’s to minimise choice, or taking, and maximise service or giving. In that decision (which is also a choice, though a choice to limit your unfettered individual freedom) you are also modelling something to your kids.

The program driven ‘attractional’ kids ministry feeds that idol, and forms consumers

In the mid 20th century a bloke, Donald McGavran, returned from the mission field in India to his home country, America. He realised the America he left was no more, and that America was now a mission field to be reached by missionaries. Nothing wrong with that. McGavran’s solution was to look to the surrounding culture for tools and techniques that could be used to reach people effectively. He’s the father of the ‘church growth movement’ and the adaptation of corporate practices (and metrics) like marketing and creating programs that ‘attract’ different demographics. The catch with this model is that the forms we use actually form us; the medium is the message. So when we make kids church, or Sunday School, programs that either imitate the school classroom or The Wiggles, or some form of kids entertainment product in order to attract kids (and families) we actually produce a certain type of thinking and action, and thus form our kids into certain types of people. There are as many problems with embracing the form (and pedagogy) of the modern school room as there are with embracing the form of an entertainment program. But if you’re choosing a church because of the program it offers your kids, rather than because of the community you and your children are joining, then I think you’re not actually doing what is best for your kids, or the kingdom, but you are perpetuating a broken system that breaks people.

This isn’t to say churches shouldn’t have kids programs, or be trying to teach content to children — of course they should — but we should be careful in our choices about those programs not to be investing in unhealthy models of church. The catch for many churches is that there’s a ‘keeping up with St. Joneses’ effect that happens here, where, in order to survive (and to be seen as thriving) a church feels like it needs to invest heavily (in energy, time, and money) to build a program people will come to; and they do — because we do.

A ‘big program’ with lots of peers isn’t what produces ‘resilient disciples’

The other trap we fall into is thinking that ‘what’s best for my kids’ is having lots of peers around them (and I’m including me in this, I often despair that there aren’t more kids the age of my kids in our church family). I value my Christian peers in childhood. Having kids my age who were my friends, who I loved, was a big part of the ‘plausibility structure’ for the Gospel for me, at least inasmuch as I can accurately describe my thinking. But having parents who taught and modelled the Gospel was even more important (thanks mum and dad). And, the research suggests (and this research exists, and I’ve written about how our church is grappling with it here) that peers aren’t the best predictor for kids who become ‘resilient disciples’ as adults — and neither are programs — the best predictor is actually relationships and a commitment to formative Spiritual disciplines like prayer, Bible reading, serving, and participating in church community. The best thing you can do for your kids is actually connect them to a genuine community of Christians where they are included, where they ‘walk the walk, and talk the talk’ beside others — not just other kids — but adults who are actively involved in their wider (church) family life.

Three things to look for in a church

Adults/mentors who aren’t you (parent) who will invest in and model the Gospel and wisdom to your kids for the long term

We live in a world of instant gratification, where people cut and run from things that are hard, or to choose things that look shinier. We live in a constant state of ‘present shock‘ — that’s the title of a book that describes our present moment as one where “rather than focusing on building a better future, society is primarily concerned with building a worthwhile present.” This thinking — rather than long term thinking — is part of the hunt for silver bullets around church; both for pastors and leaders, and for attendees. It’s a toxic and vicious cycle; and, in the face of this vice, we should rediscover virtue, and the long, hard, slog of character building being what’s at the centre of discipleship. The great commission to ‘make disciples’ is not a command to fire silver bullets to facilitate the instant of conversion — it’s a call to a long hard slog of life in Christian community where we teach one another the truths of the faith, and call one another to follow the example of Jesus. And this is also true for parenting, and discipling children.

Aristotle, one of the founding fathers of ‘virtue ethics’ said things (in his Nicomachean Ethics) like “I say that habit’s but a long practice, friend, And this becomes men’s nature in the end,” or Virtue, then, being of two kinds, intellectual and moral, intellectual virtue in the main owes both its birth and its growth to teaching (for which reason it requires experience and time), while moral virtue comes about as a result of habit, whence also its name (ethics) is one that is formed by a slight variation from the word ethos (habit),” and It makes no small difference, then, whether we form habits of one kind or of another from our very youth; it makes a very great difference, or rather all the difference.” He also said we need a community of neighbours whose virtuous actions we can observe and contemplate, and a community who will prompt us towards continuous action shaped by a commitment to the good and virtuous, or that “A certain training in virtue arises also from the company of the good.” There’s something Proverbial about all this — it sounds a lot like ‘train a child in the way they should go, and when they are older they will not depart.’ Character is destiny (as a different Greek philosopher, Heraclitus, said).

Aristotle was big on formation of virtue in community — but so is the New Testament. And the best people to train our kids in Christian virtues aren’t peers; and it might not just be parents (though that’s part of parenting), it’s people who are more mature modelling the maturity caught up in the example or way of life of Jesus. The best thing you can give your kids is not a church with a good set of programs, and peers — it’s your example of deep, long term, commitment to Jesus and to his bride, the church. The next best thing is a church community you’re connected to where that example is lived out not in abstraction, but in a way that is connected with your kids and their lives, and that is presented as a good, wise, and compelling.

The book Faith For Exiles, that I dig into in the link where I outline how we’re tackling kids ministry, suggests it’s actually these relationships, in a Gospel soaked community, that produces resilient disciples; and it’s the production of resilient disciples that is what is best for the kingdom (and your kids).

Teaching and communal life shaped by the Gospel that is compelling and engaged in calling out, and deconstructing, alternative stories about ‘the good life’ and counterfeit gods

That series of Aristotle quotes had a point and a payoff beyond that last one — Aristotle made a useful distinction between ‘intellectual’ and ‘moral’ virtue — think ‘knowledge’ and ‘wisdom’ — or ‘right information’ and ‘right action’ — and both are important, and they integrate. For Christians this looks like ‘doctrine’ and ‘life’ being aligned — which is what Paul tells Timothy maturity in the church looks like, and how he’s to be an exemplary leader in the church.

The best thing you can do for your kids is plug them in to a church community that teaches the truths of the Gospel (doctrine) in compelling ways (including ways that connect with how we work as people who process information best as stories, not just factoids, and who have bodies, and emotions, who learn from experience, in relationships, and environments shaped to reinforce beliefs and actions), and a community where this doctrine is put into practice in a compelling and inviting way that (y)our kids want to imitate. If a church isn’t teaching your kids the Gospel, but is just giving moral lessons based on characters in the Old Testament, then it is not best for them, no matter how flash the program is, or how many peers are helping them with that morality (or wisdom). Kids need to be formed by the story of Jesus, not by the law presented by a faux-Blue Wiggle, or a talking carrot. But they also need to be hearing why other religious stories — including morality tales, but also including the ‘counterfeit gospels’ they’re hearing about individual choice and freedom in the schoolyard, or on YouTube — are not good news.

Part of this is a thing Faith For Exiles suggested was important — helping kids develop their cultural engagement muscle in the face of false narratives about life, and false gods. It’s tricky to do that if, in our choices about church community, we’re buying into the kinds of idolatry outlined above. Our forms, or medium, end up undermining our message. The best medium is lives — a community of lives — plausibly living out a better story.

A community that sees kids as part of God’s family and encourages them to actively participate (and serve) as disciples of Jesus

This one is a challenge for our church as much as for any. Kids aren’t just an afterthought. Sunday School (or whatever you call it) isn’t just child minding. Kids are part of the family of God — Paul writes to them in the New Testament with the expectation that the Gospel is shaping their lives (and probably that they’re hearing all the stuff he’s had to say in his letters, not just the bits where he speaks directly to them). When he does, it’s with an expectation that they will act in accordance with the truths of the Gospel (specifically, in Ephesians, for example, it’s an instruction to obey their parents, who, presumably are teaching them the Gospel in word and deed as they ‘submit to one another’).

When Paul says this: “Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship,” there’s no reason to think he’s excluding kids from this formative practice — this picture of worship that is then connected to what he says in the next sentence: “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will” (Romans 12:1-2).

The best way to stop our kids becoming consumers — beyond not being consumers when it comes to the church we choose ‘for their sake’ is to connect to a church that will encourage them in the habit of serving Jesus as part of the body of Christ. Offering themselves as part of the body of Christ, in view of God’s mercy to us, as our ‘spiritual act of worship’. The best thing you can do for your kids is not find a church where they can be catered to with a good product, but lead them in worshipping the king who sacrificed everything for their sake and calls us to take up our cross daily and follow him.

Helping our kids do that is what’s best for them — if the Gospel is true — and what’s best for the kingdom.

On Australia Day

A few years ago I wrote about the complexity of multiple Australian stories converging on Australia Day, and how I was finding January 26 increasingly difficult to navigate as a Christian. I’ve kept listening to people like Aunty Jean Phillips — who I mentioned in that linked post — and to others, be they First Nations voices across the political spectrum, white Aussies, or migrants whose citizenship began on the national holiday.

This year I tuned in to Common Grace’s #changetheheart service (you can read a post on the Common Grace website about why), which you can still view online, and I’d encourage you to do so. You should probably prioritise that over reading what really amounts to another white guy adding noise to a conversation that needs less white guys adding noise. I’m still working out how to ‘pass the mic’ in these conversations so that I don’t just become a whitesplaining bloke who keeps ‘centering’ himself, while also having a corner of the internet where I write and process my own thoughts (while also realising that even using ‘whitesplaining’ and ‘centering’ is so ‘woke’ that I’ve already triggered an overt negative emotional response from some readers).

The difficulty I feel personally around January 26 hasn’t eased in the intervening years, though I’m not at all convinced by arguments, typically — but not exclusively — from white folk that we should keep the national day as January 26 and morph it into a day of mourning and acknowledgment, as well as celebration.

I’m puzzled as to why this question — the date of a national public holiday — has become such a polarising ‘culture war’ battlefront not between people of different ethnicity, or history, but between people of different political affiliation. That is, why we can’t just all say together ‘yeah, it’d be really good to have a national day that wasn’t inherently offensive to people in our community.’ That so many people want to hold on to January 26 while so many people are distressed by it just seems to me to be a failure to be good neighbours. It’s like the house on the street that wants to play their music loud, without considering the family with the unsettled infants, because, ‘freedom rules’…

I’ve noticed in the hyper-polarised discussion this year (see, for eg, News Ltd going to town on the ABC allowing its employees to refer to January 26 as Australia Day or Invasion Day), that the predictor of how one responds to the national day, and the call to national pride or national mourning that comes with it is not necessarily linked to ethnicity, but rather, a predilection to a certain political pole.

There are Indigenous, migrant, and white Australians on the right who want to celebrate the goodness of Australia as a land of opportunity, where individuals can flourish, and there are Indigenous, migrant, and white Australians on the left who want to see deep systemic change in Australia and believe that dealing with our nation’s history, or at least acknowledging it as a source of ongoing inequality, is the first step towards closing the gap. There are also those who want to do both. Simultaneously. On the same day. One thing I’ve noticed when (typically white) people call for a ‘redemption’ of January 26 through holding the tension of lament and celebration is how few Aboriginal Christians seem publicly supportive of the idea.

I’m not convinced this is possible, or good, for a few reasons, but one of them — in particular — is built on a Biblical principle around freedom and disputable matters, and I’ll unpack this below — other reasons are just how recently January 26 became a national Public holiday, what it is that January 26 commemorates, the ongoing injustices created by that date, and that a day of unity is not a day of unity when not everybody wants to come to the table. So long as the day is treated as a front in a culture war between right and left it can never be what those on the right say they want it to be (a day celebrating the unity and goodness of our nation). To achieve that end, the ‘left’ in the culture war would have to be wiped out. Before I get to the Biblical rationale for, at least Christians, supporting a change to the date, I found this essay fascinating and helpful when it comes to understanding how issues around racial equality play out, broadly speaking, along political lines both in the U.S (the context of the article), and I think also in Australia. I found it helpful in trying to unpack how we might transcend political division and work at peacemaking, especially as Christians. The piece was originally looking at how white people and black people in America approached race differently, but I think it’s actually also about how those on the right, and those on the left, approach race differently (including why people on the left accept Critical Race Theory, and the idea of ‘whiteness’ as an oppressive construct in white-dominated western countries). Michael Emerson, a sociologist, wrote The Persistent Problem back in 2010, the introductory thesis statement says:

“While whites tend to focus on creating good-intentioned, right thinking people, people of colour tend to focus on group equality and justice. Both are important, so they need not be at war. But the focus must be on working together to undo the racialised society, and that is by definition not just about individuals.”

The essay drills down into how this plays out in areas like how one defines racism — and again, I think the individual/systemic divide is a right/left divide, not (only or exclusively) a white/black divide.

“Whites tend to view racism as intended individual acts of overt prejudice and discrimination.”

To call a right leaning person a racist, with this definition operating in our heads, shuts down the conversation because the right leaning person says ‘but I do not have hatred in my heart towards a person of colour, nor am I personally prejudiced such that I discriminate’. Emerson observed that this individual emphasis is particularly held by white Christians. Perhaps this is because of the way individualism is a construct of both western thought (and thus ‘white’ thought), and Christian thought, as I unpacked a little while ago.

“Most people of colour define racism quite differently. Racism is, at a minimum, prejudice plus power, and that power comes not from being a prejudiced individual, but from being part of a group that controls the nation’s systems.”

We see this definition at work in, say, the Black Lives Matter protests, Critical Theory, and the response to the Australian Prime Minister’s (racist by this definition) statements about the First Fleet this week — that’s a classic expression of the sort of racism this definition describes, even if ScoMo has no personal animosity towards individual Indigenous people (or Indigenous communities). Interestingly it’s probably also why when we talk about ‘closing the gap’ and we want it to be about individual health care, and opportunities for education, and fixing individual behaviours that might cause less individual flourishing around health and education, it’s possible the system (the government) that is responsible for health and education, and that has a straight line institutional responsibility for the historic dispossession of our First Nations people, is doomed to fail.

Some of the gap that needs closing is a product of our nation’s systems — whether its stolen wages, the stolen generation, or the stolen land. All of these government operated policies created intergenerational disadvantage and when a government tries to create equal opportunities, or even reconciliation, against this historic disadvantage, without acknowledging the systemic ramifications of that historic (and ongoing) sin, it is probably not going to work — and yet, it is also true that better health and education outcomes for individuals are an important path to flourishing.

Disagreeing on racism’s definition means not only the potential for more group conflict, but also reduced potential for overcoming it. Different definitions mean groups and people are working to different ends using different means.

Emerson’s essay unpacks the idea of ‘white privilege’ in a useful and clear summary built on the three pillars of ‘white structural advantage’ where most of society’s institutions (public or private) are controlled by white people who benefit from the status quo of the system set up by and for them (an example here in Australia is, for example, that I come from at least three generations of land owners, such that the inherited wealth and stability I am born into allowed me to easily access education and be schooled in a secure environment that allowed me to thrive and pursue even more education, while also receiving good health care, in those generations my family ‘urbanised’ moving from settler status in regional New South Wales to life in inner city suburbia), ‘white normativity,’ where white people don’t have to navigate life in these systems as outsiders society is set up so ‘the way we do things’ is very close to ‘the way things are’ (so, I don’t have to navigate a difference between my ancestral language, music, and culture and the dominant or popular culture and language, plus, my ‘story’ is the ‘typical’ Aussie success story, totally built on ‘opportunity,’ wisdom, and ‘hard work’ but without state-sanctioned tragedy in the mix), and ‘white transparency’ where I don’t have to think about what is or isn’t an expression of ‘whiteness’ (and, beyond ‘whiteness’ I have very little idea about my cultural heritage, and don’t need to — for example, I was a teenager when I found out our ‘Campbellness’ comes, most directly, from Ireland, rather than Scotland).

Emerson makes a useful distinction between a ‘racist’ society — where these structures are overtly prejudiced against the other, and a racialised society where these structures work to systemically advantage those who neatly fall within them, and disadvantage other groups. And, while this is difficult for those of us who are ‘right-leaning’ — systems and especially institutions are a classic building block of small government conservatism so the sort of colour-blind individualism one might find advocated by commentator Gerard Henderson in his Australia Day piece, where ‘group identity’ is out and ‘individual success’ is to be celebrated across ethnic lines, is tricky to mesh with lived reality where one (an individual) receives their success only by successfully navigating and embedding in such institutions (like a university). It assumes a colour blind status quo that simply does not exist given the history and multiple stories interweaving in our nation. Emerson’s piece is, again, U.S centric, but it describes life in Australia in observably real terms.

A racialised society allocates what society values—income, wealth, fine neighbourhoods, quality schools, social status, respect, psychological well-being, health, life expectancy—unequally along racial lines. Society (its institutions and its people) create racial categories which change over time, as well as the form of racialisation—such as slavery, Jim Crow segregation, de facto segregation and inequality. So while its form changes, what does not change is that race matters considerably for people’s identities, whom they know, where they live, whom they marry, and their life chances.

If education and better health outcomes are essential parts of closing the gap in Australia — and if the gap is a genuinely observable phenomena in a way that meets this definition of a ‘racialised’ society — then some changes will need to be systemic, not just the result of heroic individuals overturning the status quo and its disadvantages (though long may those individuals exist and be celebrated). No person is born into the world as an individual though — we are not the authors of our own story — we are born into families and social groups, and places, that we have no control over but that reflect the advantage, or otherwise of the people who have come before us. Again, it’s a fundamentally conservative thing to acknowledge this truth, the political left, and, typically, non western collectivist cultures just make this a bigger deal than our individual/liberal culture. Emerson says:

“We need to focus our attention on undoing our racialised society, on making our organisations fairer places for people of all racial backgrounds, on making our congregations places that do not reinforce racial division, but which instead bring people of all backgrounds together for the common purpose of glorifying God. We would do well to acknowledge that for all the reasons discussed earlier, whites’ tendency will be to focus on creating good-intentioned, right thinking people, whereas people of colour’s tendency will be to focus on group equality and justice. Both are important, so they need not be at war. But the focus must be on working together to undo the racialised society, and that is by definition not just about individuals.”

Again, for some purposes ‘white’ and ‘people of colour’ are interchangable with political ideologies (right, and left) that emphasise the individual and those that emphasise the collective. Although, it’s also true that ‘right’ and ‘left’ are built on the same western liberalism that makes ‘freedom’ the chief good; they have a common foundation, so there might be a ‘western right’ and ‘western left’ or ‘white right’ and ‘white left’ that operate differently to other political cultures from outside western liberal traditions… Part of ‘de-racialising’ might be ‘de-westernising’ or ‘de-whiting’ our society, so that we think corporately or systemically, not just individually.

One must — I think — particularly as a Christian see identity functioning corporately at least a little. For Christians this happens both for Israel (and the nations) in the Old Testament, and for the church and our union with Christ in the New Testament. Sin and blessing work inter-generationally in the Bible as well, with, for example, blessings and curses for Covenant obedience (land v exile) for Israel, and also judgment on the nations who mistreat Israel (and then, the church, in, say, Revelation).

A multi-purpose Australia Day where lament and celebration are held in tension doesn’t actually address the cause of the tension in Australia — it does not close the gap, nor does it address the ‘racialisation’ of our society, or help us develop the sort of language and common purpose that could allow us to start working towards de-racialisation and improvement in our communities. It may be that a mixed day is better than a nationalistic day of what is essentially conservative (or white) pride, but even if that means conservative (right-leaning) indigenous people, or successful individuals who have navigated the pressures of racialised society, feel their story is being celebrated — it does nothing for those people who by either ethnic experience, or political conviction, feel like something token is being offered. It’s not ‘virtue signalling’ to call for a date change to a more inclusive date if inclusivity is the starting point for a de-racialised society any more than it is ‘virtue signalling’ to call for the date to remain the same (for the white/right leaning Australian), or for a mixed occasion (for the person comfortable with tension). Every option put forward for January 26 is a contribution to a conversation about the virtues we want at the heart of our society — be it celebrating individual triumph in a nation we think has everything sorted (right-leaning nationalism), calling for mature holding of tension (typically a ‘centrist’ position from a position of privilege, that wants a more honest appraisal of history, and a maintaining of parts of the status quo worth celebrating), or a call to change the date to a mark a more inclusive and re-constructive occasion (typically a position from the political left).

And here’s why, as a Christian, I think we should throw our lot in with the Change the Date movement (while also pursuing the harder #changetheheart work) — not as an expression of ‘rightness’ or ‘leftness’ but as a path towards actual unity and deconstruction of our own racialisation, so that we operate as ministers of reconciliation — those who have been brought together in Christ — in an unreconciled nation. Nationalism is often a form of idolatry — this was true where the nation state and a religion were perfectly overlapping realities (say, in Ancient Rome, or in modern monarchies where the king or queen rule as divine regents), but it is also true in a secular world where the nation has become the ‘ultimate’ good in a world that has pushed divine or supernatural realities to the margins. One of the reasons the national holiday is so contested in the modern culture wars is that it is a ‘holy day’ — a chance to celebrate what we think should be held sacred (ANZAC Day is another expression of secular nationalistic religiosity). Marking a national holy-day is potentially idolatrous, that isn’t to say that Christians shouldn’t ever join in celebrating the good things about our nation, and to be thankful for God’s providence to us, just that we already have reason to be careful — because we are ‘citizens of heaven’ and worshippers of God, serving our Lord and King, Jesus. The Old Testament is full of nationalistic idolatry — just read the book of Daniel — and we should try to navigate life in the public square much like Daniel did. He was a contributor to Babylon’s success (much like Joseph was to Egypt’s), but he did not worship its king in a display of empire-celebration (nor did Esther or Mordecai in Esther). We should approach a national day of celebration as people who live in our country, but whose citizenship is, ultimately, elsewhere — in a way that creates the potential for differentiation from calls to participate in idolatry. Some people in our midst will feel like the line between ‘idolatry’ and ‘not idolatry’ falls in different places — a bit like in the first century ‘food sacrificed to idols’ debate in the early church.

White nationalism is a particular form of idolatry that Christians, especially in the U.S, but not exclusively, are predisposed towards — perhaps because much of what we take for granted as ‘whiteness’ is a product of Christianity’s influence on the modern west and its nations — including our emphasis on the individual. When we are asked to celebrate Australia, what we might think we are being invited to celebrate is a western nation built on ‘judeo-Christian values’ — and so our conservative impulse is to use this as an opportunity to signal the good fruits of Christianity in our nation. Those outside ‘whiteness’ or ‘conservatism’ — whether those committed to a more collectivist outlook because of politics, or culture, or religious convictions might see ‘idolatry,’ or at least a participation in sin caught up much earlier in the celebration or participation in nationalism — right back to the choice of date and what is being ‘celebrated.’ When they are asked to celebrate Australia Day, with a time of lament attached to beginning, it feels a bit like saying grace before chowing down on food from the idol temple up the road. Those peoples consciences are seared to the extent that they are genuinely hurt when other members of the body — people who share their ultimate citizenship — participate without thinking in idolatry. The unity in the Body of Christ is damaged. The analogy isn’t exact, but I don’t think Paul’s ethical principles outlined in Romans and 1 Corinthians are only about food sold in the meat markets in the first century but about the absolute priority of unity in Christ; particularly, when it came to food laws, unity between two ethnic groups — Jew and Gentile. Paul’s ethic was to create a ‘de-racialised community’ built on the absolute truth of our union with Christ. I say it’s not a perfect analogy because Paul thought eating idol meat in your home was not the same as going to the idol temple and eating it in a liturgical BBQ. He definitely did not think Christians could or should participate in overt idolatry — and it’s possible to make a case that Australia Day, and certain forms of Australia Day celebrations, function overtly as holy-days for an idolatrous post-Christian ‘white nationalist’ society, especially given our nation’s history.

So for me, when some members of the body of Christ — our indigenous brothers and sisters — even if it’s not all of our indigenous brothers and sisters — say that they feel a breaking of fellowship when others participate in something — an area of genuine liberty — but one that they can only understand as participation in idolatry, I think we should listen, and respond in love. At least personally that’s where I’m at. I admit it’s hard for me to be convinced that anybody is deeply and ideologically wedded to January 26 as the traditional date, given its reasonably recent history (it’s only been a national holiday since 1994).

Changing the date won’t do everything in terms of de-racialisation, but not changing the date communicates something that keeps us from sharing the table with one another — whether in the church, or in the nation at large. All the fancy lamb ads in the world won’t overcome that divide. Not changing the date, or joining the call to have it changed, will keep some members of our community (whether church or nation) away from the table, and feeling like we’re at (culture) war with one another, rather than trying to make peace.

In Romans 14:5-9, Paul says:

“One person considers one day more sacred than another; another considers every day alike. Each of them should be fully convinced in their own mind. Whoever regards one day as special does so to the Lord. Whoever eats meat does so to the Lord, for they give thanks to God; and whoever abstains does so to the Lord and gives thanks to God. For none of us lives for ourselves alone, and none of us dies for ourselves alone. If we live, we live for the Lord; and if we die, we die for the Lord. So, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord. For this very reason, Christ died and returned to life so that he might be the Lord of both the dead and the living.”

And that sounds all well and good. We should each be convinced of our own position — whether from our ethnicity or our politics — and yet, he doesn’t end there… does he. Part of the ethical implications of our own individual union with Jesus — our not living for ourselves alone — is that we are also connected to one another… Part of the reason I’m unpacking my thinking here is that I’m not entirely sure this is just a ‘disputable matter’ or an area of total freedom. I do think there’s some idolatry caught up in Australia Day, and nationalism, that moves from ‘area of freedom’ to ‘area of sin’ — and while I’m not Paul, he tried to tread the line between taking an obvious position on a moral issue, upholding freedom and liberty, and making the absolute moral priority our union with Jesus. To be clear, I’m not saying you can’t in good conscience celebrate Australia Day as you see fit on January 26, with or without lament — but simply that because I am aware of the distress this causes some of my brothers and sisters, I can’t. Because to do so would be to no longer act in love — even with lament and tension, nor would it be to act towards de-racialisation as effectively as changing the date (whether that’s a token, or not, it’s going to help build trust in the sorts of institutions that provide education and healthcare, rather than perpetuate distrust).

Here’s how Paul concludes his example on idol meat in Romans 14:15-21… applying our union with Jesus to our union with one another. He says we should ‘make every effort’ to do what leads to peace, and the responsibility lies with the person who is not distressed, but who causes distress through the exercise of their freedoms around a Holy Day.

“If your brother or sister is distressed because of what you eat, you are no longer acting in love. Do not by your eating destroy someone for whom Christ died. Therefore do not let what you know is good be spoken of as evil. For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit, because anyone who serves Christ in this way is pleasing to God and receives human approval.

Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification. Do not destroy the work of God for the sake of food. All food is clean, but it is wrong for a person to eat anything that causes someone else to stumble. It is better not to eat meat or drink wine or to do anything else that will cause your brother or sister to fall.”

Note: I’m using this image here because for some reason when the link gets shared it’s grabbing a picture of Trump holding a Bible from a ‘related post’…