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

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

Here’s the opening salvo.

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

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

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

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

In fact, Christianity produce better citizens in many ways.

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

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

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

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

Yet the persecution is starting. Are the churches ready?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


David Palmer says:

Hi Nathan,

I haven’t looked at your blog for a year or more.

Andrew Bolt writes behind a pay wall which I can’t access and you only include 3 quotes which don’t really amount to a great deal other than to say that Christians are in a good deal of cultural difficulty, which we would agree is undeniable, and that Christian leaders should be participating in the public domain arguing for Christian positions.

Leaving aside his particular front foot style, nothing to get too bothered about, I would have thought. There is nothing wrong with Christians speaking into the public domain expressing views on a range of issues for which there is Biblical and historical precedence, marriage being the current issue of the day. In fact I would say it is a good thing to do, provided we make use of the-appropriate-mix-for-occasion four voices of the church (the prophetic, the professional/academic, the persuasive and the artistic).

Think about Luther and Calvin’s two kingdom theology or Kuyper’s “there is not one square inch (metre?) over which Christ does not declare, “that is mine”” assertion. The Presbyterian Church in Victoria, has, for some years now, been running the Religion in the Public Square colloquium.

It is, at least in part, a matter of loving our neighbour, that Christians should defend good and godly ways in public life. The fact that it is only 2 or 3 generations ago that general societal norms had been extensively shaped by these good and godly ways only adds force to speaking up now when we see so much damage being done to our social fabric.

For example, are we going to speak out on marriage as between a man and a woman and not two persons of the same sex, or not? If we don’t, we will end up acquiescing – Denny Burke has an excellent article on this matter. I say we must. You?

I spent an hour with my local MP, Tim Wilson on this very subject yesterday, making clear that we Christians (with the exception of the liberal church) are implacably opposed to ssm and are not for turning, regardless of whether or not the law is changed. I asked him to honour the Government’s commitment to a plebiscite but if there is to be a change in the law a genuine attempt be made to allow people to act according to conscience. He expected me to say such things and respected me for so doing. BTW, he did as much talking as I did.

Personally, I’m fairly pessimistic and indeed quite sad about how things are developing in our nation, and how difficult things are going to become for Christians, affecting even things like employment options. I don’t know whether you have read Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option? – I’ve made a start on it.

In the meantime, we preach and teach by whatever means available the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ and for me at a personal level Mark 8:34, which you quote from Matthew, coupled to 1 Peter 2:20f are the key texts. Calvin has a marvellous section in Book 3 of his Institutes on the Christian life which he discusses under four headings.

Just one last point. Unless I missed something, you appear to refer to our Lord exclusively as “Jesus”. I would like to challenge you on this point. In the Gospels and in Hebrews He is referred to as “Jesus” – for in these places, His humanity is to the fore. In the Epistles where God’s work of salvation – which would comprise a good deal of your preaching and conversation with students – is to the fore, then He is addressed as “Lord”, “Jesus Christ”, “Christ Jesus”., and so on. We are not just talking about the man Jesus in our evangelism, but the eternal Son of God, or as the Nicene Creed expresses it, “God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God”. I understand this practice of referring to Him virtually exclusively as “Jesus” is very widespread, but it is a step, however small, in the direction of Unitarianism, which is precisely what happened in the 18th century to almost all those English Presbyterians evicted from their Parish Churches in 1662.

PS I’m having a slack Saturday afternoon.

Nathan Campbell says:

Hi David,

Somehow I didn’t get notified about this comment needing approval, but it’s up now.

I’m still figuring out where I stand on the Two Kingdoms/Kuyperian/political theology spectrum. I have a hard time coming at models that don’t also work in pre-Constantine Rome (which I understand as both the backdrop for the New Testament’s political theology and a picture of our present trajectory).

I’ve written a couple of posts in the last little while that might help you see more of where I’m coming from with regard to Bolt and the Benedict Option (my review).

Tony says:

I agree with some of the sentiments in this article. However, I think that to ridicule Andrew Bolt because he is siding with the church, albeit not as a Christian, is a bit niggardly. Bolt is saying some things that Christians ought to be saying, but are too scared to. The church in Australia, and probably much of the Western world, is suffering from a great deal of timidity. We could take a leaf out of our Tasmanian Presbyterian brethren’s books and be a lot more active in actually preaching the gospel. Let’s face it, for much of the church, they think that evangelism is what happens in the safety of the church’s four walls, rather than out there in the market place. It’s left largely to the professionals – pastors, evangelists, etc. I for one am glad that a non-Christian has the gumption to risk his popularity, and perhaps even his safety, to point out the way things are changing. Who knows? Maybe the Lord is using him. After all, he used Nebuchadnezzar and numerous other non-believers in the Bible to do His will. Rather than ridiculing him, shouldn’t we rather be praying for his salvation?

[…] Christian leaders to be more vocal in their defence of the church/Christians. To this, my friend Nathan Campbell has written a wonderful Jesus-centred response. So I link to this Bolt article not to approve of his agenda at the end, but to merely give an […]