This is a longer than usual piece. So grab a cuppa and take some time…
For most of my life I’ve thought that the Old Testament sacrificial system was a way for people to be forgiven for their sins. The death of an animal was a powerful reminder to Israelites that they deserved to die for their sin, but that God accepted the animal as a substitute for them.
This then affected the way I read the story of Jesus. When he forgave sins without requiring people to offer sacrifices at the temple, he was effectively declaring that he, not the temple, now represented the presence of God. When he died on the cross, he became the sacrifice of all sacrifices, paying the penalty for my sins so that I could be free.
Recently I have been reading through the Old Testament teaching around sacrifice. It’s not something we often do, for it is a very foreign world with its talk of things and places being holy, clean or unclean, and is full of intricate and detailed rules regarding ways sacrifices are to be made. Given we no longer make sacrifices it is difficult to be motivated to explore these texts. Yet I have been surprised to discover that the Old Testament sacrificial system was not about the forgiveness of sin but the ritual cleansing of the pollution of sin. This has significant implications for how we understand Jesus and his death.
The sacrificial system is described in the books of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. Leviticus the most extensive. There were five types of sacrifice:
1. Burnt offering
2. Grain offering
3. Fellowship offering
4. Sin offering
5. Guilt offering
The two sacrifices related to forgiveness of sin were the sin offering and the guilt offering. These are extensively described in Leviticus chapters 4-6. They were not sacrifices for the forgiveness of sins in general, but could be offered only for “unintentional” sins. Chapter 4, which describes the sin offering, begins
“when anyone since unintentionally and does what is forbidden in any of the Lord’s commands…”
In verse 13 it continues
“if the whole Israelite community since unintentionally does what is full beaded in any of the Lord’s commands, even though the community is unaware of the matter, when they realise their guilt and the sin becomes known, the assembly must bring a young bull was a sin offering…”
The guilt offering seems to be distinguished by the fact that it is for unintentional sins “in regard to any of the Lord’s holy things” (5:15).
The sacrificial system did not provide a means by which the adulterer, the murderer, the thief, the violent, the oppressive, could find forgiveness for their sins. The Old Testament law was quite explicit that those who engaged in such behaviours were to be removed from the community because their behaviour represented a flagrant and destructive breach of the community’s calling, or they were required to make recompense in order to set the breach right. Where forgiveness does occur it is not obtained through the offering of sacrifice but as a free and gracious act of God.
The sacrificial system was an integral part of Israel’s purity system. It is difficult for Westerners to get our heads around, because it represents such a foreign way of thinking. We frame holiness and purity in terms of morality. Israel extended holiness to the ritual state of things and people. People, places and things existed in one of three states: holy, clean, or unclean. Those things closely associated with God were considered “holy”, most things were considered clean, but certain things in certain states of being could be considered unclean. For example, certain types of animals were considered unclean. A person could become unclean by eating these animals, or in a variety of other ways such as through an emission of bodily fluids such as semen or blood, or by touching something that was clean such as a dead body. When that occurred, there were a number of purification rituals that needed to be undertaken in order to restore them to a state of cleanness. It was quite normal for a person to become unclean and to then go through the process of being made clean again.
Because the land in which Israel lived was owned by God and because God dwelt amongst the people in the tent of meeting, it was important that the holiness of the tabernacle and the priests be preserved and that the cleanness of the people and the land be preserved. The sacrificial system served a number of goals, but the sin and guilt offerings represented a way of making purification for the offenders and of the tabernacle. The animal was not slaughtered on the altar, but outside the tent of meeting. The priest would take blood from the animal and sprinkle it on parts of the tent of meeting and burned particular portions of the animal in order to create an aroma pleasing to God. The blood of the animal appears to have been accepted as some kind of cleansing agent.
Yet what of those intentional sins, for which people had either been required to make restitution or to be cut off from the community? They not only created individual guilt but created an accumulation of uncleanness that needed to be cleansed. This occurred
on the annual Day of Atonement. Described in Leviticus 16, this involved the cleansing of the tabernacle through the sprinkling of the blood of a slaughtered goat and the cleansing of the people through the use of a scapegoat.
First there was a cleansing of the tabernacle.
shall slaughter the goat of the sin offering that is for the people and bring its blood inside the curtain, and do with its blood as he did with the blood of the bull, sprinkling it upon the mercy seat and before the mercy seat. Thus he shall make atonement for the sanctuary, because of the uncleannesses of the people of Israel, and because of their transgressions, all their sins; and so he shall do for the tent of meeting, which remains with them in the midst of their uncleannesses… Then he shall go out to the altar that is before the Lord and make atonement on its behalf, and shall take some of the blood of the bull and of the blood of the goat, and put it on each of the horns of the altar. He shall sprinkle some of the blood on it with his finger seven times, and cleanse it and hallow it from the uncleannesses of the people of Israel.
Atonement here does not refer to the forgiveness of sin as release from the penalty of sin, but to the cleansing of the tent of meeting, including the “mercy seat”, which was the cover on the ark of the covenant and the place God’s presence was manifest.
Having made atonement for the tabernacle, the tent of meeting, the altar and the mercy seat, atonement was then made for the people through the sending of a scapegoat into the wilderness.
When he has finished atoning for the holy place and the tent of meeting and the altar, he shall present the live goat. Then Aaron shall lay both his hands on the head of the live goat, and confess over it all the iniquities of the people of Israel, and all their transgressions, all their sins, putting them on the head of the goat, and sending it away into the wilderness by means of someone designated for the task. The goat shall bear on itself all their iniquities to a barren region; and the goat shall be set free in the wilderness.(verses 20-22).
There has been significant discussion as to exactly what the goat does and how it bears away the sins of the people. We should be clear that it does not involve forgiveness in the sense we speak about it today. The Day of Atonement ritual did not mean that those who had intentionally and openly broken the law of God would be forgiven. The penalties were quite clear in the law. Rather it seems to be that the ritual uncleanness that accumulated in Israel was cleansed.
In addition to the regular sacrifices and the Day of Atonement, Israel also celebrated a Passover once a year. It was commemoration of the final act of God to liberate the Israelites from their Egyptian slave masters. The story is recorded in Exodus 12. God would
pass through the land of Egypt… strike down every firstborn in the land of Egypt, both human beings and animals
The Israelites were to share a meal together and apply some of the blood of the animal they slaughtered upon the doorframes of their homes.
The blood shall be a sign for you on the houses where you live: when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and no plague shall destroy you when I strike the land of Egypt.
Every year when the Israelites gathered together to re-enact the Passover they were reminded of this occasion on which God passed over their households with an act of judgement against their oppressors in order to liberate them from slavery to be a new community.
So what does all this mean for how we understand Jesus? First, when Jesus went around declaring people’s sins were forgiven, he was not assuming for himself the prerogatives of the temple. The sacrificial system did not result in the forgiveness of sins but in the cleansing of the land, the people, and the tabernacle from the accumulated uncleanliness their sin created. Forgiveness, in the sense of release of a person from the penalty of their sin, was something that only God could offer and was done quite independently of the sacrificial system. When Jesus offered forgiveness to a woman caught in adultery, to a renowned sinful woman who washed his feet with her tears, and to a tax collector like Zacchaeus, he was assuming the prerogative of God to freely and unilaterally forgive. And Jesus made clear that this free and unilateral forgiveness was available to all.
Second, we must stop importing the doctrine of penal substitution into our understanding of Jesus’s death as a sacrifice. The Bible writers use the metaphors of Passover and the Day of Atonement to describe what Jesus did. The blood on the door posts marked them out as those whom God was liberating from the Egyptians, in order to bring them to the land of Israel where they might live as God’s people. Jesus was enacting a second Passover, in which God’s people were being liberated from the power of sin in order that they might live as those who reflected the character of Jesus.
On other occasions the New Testament seems to have in mind the day of atonement. In a complex and much debated passage, Romans 3: 21-26, Paul explicitly refers to the cover on the ark of the covenant that was cleansed on the Day of Atonement (the term is commonly translated as “sacrifice of atonement” and then given a penal substitutionary meaning), and seems to bring together the idea that Christ is the place where God meets us and that the shedding of his blood served to cleanse us. This is certainly the way Jesus’s death is read in Hebrews 9 and 10. In 2 Corinthians 5 Paul talks about Christ being “made sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God”. Reading this against the Old Testament Day of Atonement does not picture a legal transfer of sin from us to Christ who dies to pay the penalty for it and a transfer his righteousness to us. Rather in which probably refers to the scapegoat, who carries our sin away and in doing so cleanses us.
By using these metaphors the Bible writers pointed to some important realities: that we need to be liberated from those things that have mastery over us in order to become the people God created us to be, and that in the death of Jesus God provided a way for us to be cleansed so that we might begin being those people were created to be; and that God’s heart is to fully and freely forgive.
I wrote a blog piece earlier this week in which I suggested that the good news of the gospel cannot and should not be reduced to the declaration that Jesus died to pay the penalty for our sins. In the process I questioned whether the doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement (PSA), which is a fairly detailed elaboration of how it is Christ’s death saves us from the consequences of sin, is in fact an accurate representation of the teaching of the New Testament. My piece was denounced by a few of my fellow Baptist pastors, who boldly declared that not only is PSA the correct way to interpret the New Testament statements about Christ’s death, but that it constitutes the heart of the Christian gospel.
Really? Somebody had better tell that to the apostle Paul. Given he is the writer most closely associated with PSA, it would be reasonable to assume that if PSA is the heart of the gospel it would stand out boldly in his summaries of the gospel. Likewise, one might expect it would feature heavily in his evangelistic preaching. Now he discusses dimensions of the gospel right throughout his letters, but on three occasions he pauses to define the content of his gospel: in Romans 1, in 1 Corinthians 15, and in 2 Timothy 2. I have reproduced the texts below (NRSV translation). I also tracked down and include below the two sermons of Paul’s that are recorded in the book of Acts. Not a single one of Paul’s gospel summaries nor his Acts sermons comes close to describing the gospel in terms of PSA. There’s no discussion of propitiation or expiation, no mention of Christ bearing the wrath of God upon the cross, no elaboration of how it is that his death serves to save.
Did Paul understand that PSA is the mechanism by which God saves us? That’s a debate for another day. Even if I for the moment grant that it is, surely Paul’s own summaries of the gospel and his preaching of the gospel should relieve us of the notion that PSA is the heart of gospel. For Paul the gospel seems to focus on the glorious news that God raised Jesus from the dead, with a myriad of spin-off implications for us today. That we are deeply and truly loved. That even the deepest pits of despair cannot extinguish the possibilities of hope. That life has purpose and meaning. That death, disease, violence, and all those things that plague our lives and our world are not the final word, That injustice will finally be overturned. And on and on it goes.
From Romans 1
Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, 2 which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy scriptures, 3 the gospel concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh 4 and was declared to be Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord, 5 through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles for the sake of his name, 6 including yourselves who are called to belong to Jesus Christ.
From 1 Corinthians 15
Now I would remind you, brothers and sisters, of the good news that I proclaimed to you, which you in turn received, in which also you stand, 2 through which also you are being saved, if you hold firmly to the message that I proclaimed to you-unless you have come to believe in vain.
3 For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, 4 and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, 5 and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. 6 Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. 7 Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. 8 Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.
From 2 Timothy 2
Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, a descendant of David-that is my gospel, 9 for which I suffer hardship, even to the point of being chained like a criminal.
From Acts 13
So Paul stood up and with a gesture began to speak:
“You Israelites, and others who fear God, listen. 17 The God of this people Israel chose our ancestors and made the people great during their stay in the land of Egypt, and with uplifted arm he led them out of it. 18 For about forty years he put up with them in the wilderness. 19 After he had destroyed seven nations in the land of Canaan, he gave them their land as an inheritance 20 for about four hundred fifty years. After that he gave them judges until the time of the prophet Samuel. 21 Then they asked for a king; and God gave them Saul son of Kish, a man of the tribe of Benjamin, who reigned for forty years. 22 When he had removed him, he made David their king. In his testimony about him he said, ‘I have found David, son of Jesse, to be a man after my heart, who will carry out all my wishes.’ 23 Of this man’s posterity God has brought to Israel a Savior, Jesus, as he promised; 24 before his coming John had already proclaimed a baptism of repentance to all the people of Israel. 25 And as John was finishing his work, he said, ‘What do you suppose that I am? I am not he. No, but one is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of the sandals on his feet.’
26 “My brothers, you descendants of Abraham’s family, and others who fear God, to us the message of this salvation has been sent. 27 Because the residents of Jerusalem and their leaders did not recognize him or understand the words of the prophets that are read every sabbath, they fulfilled those words by condemning him. 28 Even though they found no cause for a sentence of death, they asked Pilate to have him killed. 29 When they had carried out everything that was written about him, they took him down from the tree and laid him in a tomb. 30 But God raised him from the dead; 31 and for many days he appeared to those who came up with him from Galilee to Jerusalem, and they are now his witnesses to the people. 32 And we bring you the good news that what God promised to our ancestors 33 he has fulfilled for us, their children, by raising Jesus; as also it is written in the second psalm,
‘You are my Son;
today I have begotten you.’
34 As to his raising him from the dead, no more to return to corruption, he has spoken in this way,
‘I will give you the holy promises made to David.’
35 Therefore he has also said in another psalm,
‘You will not let your Holy One experience corruption.’
36 For David, after he had served the purpose of God in his own generation, died,was laid beside his ancestors, and experienced corruption; 37 but he whom God raised up experienced no corruption. 38 Let it be known to you therefore, my brothers, that through this man forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you; 39 by this Jesus everyone who believes is set free from all those sins from which you could not be freed by the law of Moses. 40 Beware, therefore, that what the prophets said does not happen to you:
41 ‘Look, you scoffers!
Be amazed and perish,
for in your days I am doing a work,
a work that you will never believe, even if someone tells you.’
From Acts 17
22 Then Paul stood in front of the Areopagus and said, “Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. 23 For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, ‘To an unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. 24 The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, 25 nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things. 26 From one ancestor he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, 27 so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him-though indeed he is not far from each one of us. 28 For ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said,
‘For we too are his offspring.’
29 Since we are God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the deity is like gold, or silver, or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals. 30 While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent, 31 because he has fixed a day on which he will have the world judged in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.”
When Jesus burst into the Galilee the Gospels tell us that he came with the news that “the reign of God was near” and called people to “repent and believe the good news”. The Old Testament prophets had spoken of a time when God would deliver humankind from those things that robbed them of life. The poor would be delivered from poverty; the hungry would have full bellies; the blind would see; the outcast would be made welcome; the sinner would be forgiven; communities would be places of welcome, generosity, grace and welcome; the creation would be healed; and the universe would be bathed in the knowledge and love of the Creator. The good news Jesus declared was that this time was beginning in and through him.
The call to repentance was for every person to get on side with what God was doing. The rich should stop ignoring the rights of the poor; the powerful should stop co-opting social institutions in order to satiate their lust for power; the soldier should stop using violence to extort money from those who were powerless to resist; those who held grudges against their neighbour or a family member should forgive and be reconciled; and every person should start aligning themselves with the values of God: loving their neighbour; sharing their wealth; binding up the wounded; forgiving debt; trusting God.
Unsurprisingly, Jesus’s message gained him followers and opponents. He was talking about a dramatic transformation of society that demanded the privileged and the powerful lay aside their privilege and power for the sake of the poor and the vulnerable. It was not a message well received. The powerful conspired together to crush Jesus. Their rage was poured out upon him in crucifixion. And as people observed what appeared to be the inevitability of the powerful violently crushing any who dared to challenge the system, many fell back in with the seeming inviolability of what it is and joined in the ridicule of the One who had misled them. Here on the wheels of history it appeared that Jesus was just another deluded prophet.
Yet there was something deeper going on. God was refusing to play by the rules of violence and power. God’s reign would not be achieved through the triumph of violence. God would absorb every vindictive blow, every greedy grasp for power, every hateful curse and meet it with love and forgiveness. Incredibly, Jesus’s prayer was “Father forgive them”.
This did not mean a capitulation to the inevitability of violence, for beyond the violence and hate came the resurrection. God raised Jesus to new life. He would be the one who would lead humankind into the new era of God’s reign, the one who modelled for them the pathway of love and grace, and the one who would someday return to bring history to it’s conclusion. On that day time would be up for all those who refused to abandon violence; who refused to cease exploiting and oppressing poor; who ignored the hungry, the wounded, the hurt, the broken; who could not bring themselves to embrace justice, love and peace.
Walk into any evangelical church today and this is not what you are likely to hear when people declare the “good news”. You’re much more likely to hear that God is a loving but holy king who is deeply distressed at our refusal to worship him, and who is bound by the demands of justice to punish all human beings for their wrongdoing. So grievous is our offence that that God will condemn us to live eternally in hell, a place so void of goodness, so utterly and excruciatingly painful, it is beyond our worst nightmares. Yet because loves us, God has found a way out of this terrible destiny. God became incarnate in Jesus Christ and took the penalty we deserved, meaning all of who choose to follow Jesus will be considered as if we had never sinned and will be welcomed into heaven.
Most evangelicals think this is the gospel taught in the letters of the apostle Paul and one that can be overlaid on the Gospels. Many scholars believe it is a distortion of what Paul argued, and that it arose in late mediaeval times to address the terror people experienced who believed they lived in a universe governed by a holy and furious deity who was ready to explode in violence against them. Rather than challenging the vision of God, it accepted that vision and augmented it with the notion that through a demanding but clever legal ruse God’s love found a way to meet the demands of God’s justice.
I suspect that there is a lot more mediaeval in the articulation of the gospel we proclaim today then we would like to admit. Go back to the preaching of the apostles in the book of Acts and you will not hear the gospel described this way. The emphasis is placed firmly on the resurrection as a sign that God had done something extraordinary in the world and that all people should follow Jesus. Was the notion that Christ paid the penalty for our sin part of the follow-on teaching that people received after they converted? Maybe. Maybe not.
Either way, it is clear that neither Jesus nor the Apostles equated “the gospel” with the doctrine of “penal substitution”.
It seems to me we need to return to the sort of articulation of the good news that we find in Jesus. We don’t live in an age in which people have a duty ethic that leaves them overwhelmed with a sense of guilt about the duties they have failed to perform. Nor do people possess a deeply held fear that God will punish them for their sins with an unimaginably horrific fate. The gospel of Jesus paying the penalty for our sin may have resonated powerfully in mediaeval times through to the enormous upheaval in thinking, values and attitudes that emerged in Western society in the 1960s. In our era it has lost resonance.
If the church is to have a future surely it lies taking on board the framework provided in the Gospels and applying it in ways that resonate with the deep longings of our time? I think this would lie in the direction of bringing the good news that in Jesus God has signalled the hope of a world in which every living creature flourishes; that God invites us to turn away from those things that rob us, others and creation of the opportunity to flourish; and that God invites us to join in the remaking our lives and our world. To my way of thinking, that is very good news.
The Australian church is not in good shape. Over the last century regular church attendance has declined from around 50% of the population to around 15% today and our younger generations are dropping out an alarming rate. The large decline suggests the issue is not lifestage (i.e. people leave as young adults and return to church when they have families) but generational (i.e. succeeding generations are less religious across all stages of life).
Why is this happening? There are factors that are external to the church and factors that are internal. It seems to me that at least four external factors are in play. First, since the Enlightenment it has been common to argue that religions are systems of meaning but not systems of truth. For a long time this was predominantly an argument of the Academy, but with the rise of cheap international travel and expansion of Australia’s migration to include people of non-Christian faiths, ordinary Australians are exposed to a multiplicity of religions, each with their claim to be the truth. In this context the truth claims of any religion appear problematic.
Second, the rising affluence of our society and the capacity of science and technology to resolve many of our challenges, have eroded people’s sense of need for God. Faith simply doesn’t seem necessary to a good life.
Third, we live in a society that is increasingly impatient with institutions. Every movement must eventually become institutionalised if it is to survive, which means rules and constitutions and budgets and rosters. Everybody likes the services institutions provide, but fewer and fewer people seem to be willing to deal with the mundane realities of maintaining those institutions.
Finally there is the power of the group. As fewer and fewer people participate in religious institutions and our public institutions became thoroughly secular the sense that religious faith and religious practice are a normal part of life has died away.
But it is not external factors alone that are responsible for people leaving the church. More people are leaving our faith than are embracing it, and while the external factors I’ve described provide a context within which we can make sense of this, it is usually personal encounter and personal experiences that are the catalyst for people making a decisive break with faith. When I speak to people and read stories of those who have left the church a number of themes commonly appear.
First, many find the morality of the church inadequate. The two great ethical developments of Western society have been movements for freedom and equality and the rise of environmentalism, yet many churches are oblivious to both. Over the past few hundred years we have shifted from a society that privileged white heterosexual males and repressed all others to one that has championed the freedoms and rights of women, slaves, people of different cultures, and people of different sexualities. Yet the church, which was once a champion of freedoms, has become the largest social institution in the West that stands in the way of equality for women and freedom for people of alternate sexualities. Similarly, many are concerned for the environment and increasingly extend their ethics into areas such as vegetarianism and avoidance of animal cruelty, yet find their churches silent on these issues. It would appear that increasing numbers, particularly those of the younger generations, simply don’t want to belong to such an institution.
Second, many find the institutional demands of church can overwhelm their relational aspirations. My father held a senior role in commercial law with a major Australian bank, yet he was home at a reasonable hour every night, his weekends were mostly free, and he was not expected to complete a Masters degree or other postgrad study. Most people entering professions today work longer hours, often work weekends, and are expected to engage in ongoing education. Similarly, when my father was a younger man not many shops were open on Sundays and organised sporting events rarely occurred on Sundays. Today we work longer hours than ever, and Sundays are filled with activities, yet our churches still operate their ministries in the fashion they did during my father’s generation. We expect people to devote huge amounts of time to running ministries, which they often do, but then find themselves stretched and missing out on experiences of community they crave. It doesn’t take much for them to give up.
Third, a number of people have mentioned to me their frustration with a system in which a trained clergy person stands up and delivers a weekly monologue telling them how to live. We are the most highly educated generation in history, yet at the centre of our weekly gatherings is a form of communication that treats people as though they know nothing and need to be told what to.
Fourth, some simply find the church and the faith it proclaims irrelevant to the challenges they face in life. Church gatherings don’t address the questions they’re asking, and when answers are given they are often a simplistic regurgitating of church dogma. Those who long for the opportunity to engage thoughtfully with their faith all too often find there is little room to do this.
Fifth, just as some people find the church and its leaders are there for them in beautifully graceful ways during times of crisis, others find they are not. They feel let down, hurt, and leave.
Sixth, our understanding of the gospel has not progressed past the 16th century. Jesus described the gospel in terms of the in-breaking reign of God which creates a new community of generosity, grace, and love. Read the preaching of the apostles in the book of Acts and they highlight the resurrection of Jesus as the signal that God is at work in the world. Yet enter an evangelical church and the gospel is almost exclusively described in terms of Christ dying to pay the penalty for our sin. The metaphor is legal rather than relational; God is depicted as an offended monarch torn between the demands of love and the demands of justice; humankind is depicted as essentially corrupt; and godliness is depicted in terms of blind obedience to the commands of God. This may have spoken to people in the mediaeval and Reformation eras, but it lacks potency in ours.
While it may all sound rather sombre and bleak, these all seem to me to be resolvable issues. But we cannot continue to do more of the same in the vain hope that things will change. We can however reframe our faith and our church life in ways that will connect with the questions and aspirations of our age. I hope to make some suggestions around this in the coming few weeks, but would welcome your comments and thoughts on what I have argued here. Most of my observations attempt to bring together what I have heard anecdotally with what I observe theologically and in the practice of our churches. It may well be wide of the mark or have glaring holes. What do you think?
No Margaret you’re not being bullied
This week former tennis great Margaret Court became the focus of media attention when she published an open letter in the West Australian newspaper declaring she would be boycotting Qantas because of statements by the company CEO in favour of gay marriage. The backlash was swift, from tweets by other tennis greats, to Tennis Australia distancing itself from Margaret Court’s position, to calls for the Margaret Court Arena to be renamed.
I watched an interview on The Project in which Margaret Court claimed that Christians were being persecuted for their views on same-sex marriage and that calls for a change of the name of the Margaret Court Arena amounted to bullying. I think it is certainly true that increasing numbers of Australians are losing patience with the delay in the legalisation of same-sex marriage and have little respect for the arguments against same-sex marriage. The tone of the interviewers on the Project was smug, condescending and at times bordered on mockery.
But the suggestion that Christians face persecution, that they no longer have freedom of speech, and that they are being bullied is ridiculous. Margaret Court published an open letter in one of Australia’s major newspapers invoking her status as a tennis great (“as you will know, I’ve represented Australia many times and have the proud record of never having lost a tennis match while playing for my country”) declaring her intention to boycott Qantas. It is disingenuous to claim she is being bullied when people respond in exactly the same fashion by calling for a boycott of her name on the arena and offering public commentary on her open letter. This is not persecution. No one is suggesting she be thrown in prison. This is not a silencing. For goodness sake she was published in a major Australian newspaper! This is simply a public of which the majority favour same-sex marriage making its views felt as forcefully as Margaret made hers.
A couple of weeks ago the Anglican church in Sydney distributed thousands of copies of a booklet opposing same-sex marriage to every one of its churches; the ACL regularly publishes arguments against same-sex marriage on its website and is part of an alliance that has legal recognition and its own website advocating for traditional view of marriage; Lyle Shelton is regularly interviewed in popular media; senior political figures such as the treasurer of our country articulate the case against same-sex marriage. No one is being silenced. No one’s freedom of speech is under attack. And before people rush to cite the complaint that was brought against the Tasmanian Catholic Archbishop distributing a booklet opposing same-sex marriage, let’s remember that the argument was not that the Church had no right to oppose same-sex marriage, but that the booklet suggested that homosexual people were paedophiles.
Are people discourteous on this issue? Yes, I think they are. I think it happens on both sides of the argument and I think it’s not helpful. Do people perpetuate stereotypes? Yes they do, from my Christian friends who speak with venom about the “gay lobby” and its conspiracy to subvert society, to my gay-rights friends who like to paint every person who opposes same-sex marriage as homophobic. Again such stereotyping is unhelpful.We shouldn’t however be surprised. This is an issue on which people feel strongly and at times people will overstep the mark of civility.
But please let us stop with this nonsense of persecution and loss of freedom of speech. Christians who hold to the traditional view of marriage need to get used to the fact that they hold a view that is considered repugnant by large sections of our society. And when you go into the public arena with a view that is repugnant you should expect to get strong opposition. But you’re not persecuted and you’re not being silenced. Tragically there is horrendous persecution of Christians in parts of the world today, but it’s not happening in Australia. We live in a liberal democratic state that guarantees its citizens the freedom to speak and when Christians speak out on marriage they are taking full advantage of that freedom. Yes it is difficult to take a public stance that is unpopular. But that doesn’t make you persecuted. It just makes you unpopular.
(A longer article than normal)
The centuries from the Enlightenment until the present have seen the decline of Christendom and the rise of liberal, secular, pluralist democracies. They are “liberal” in that individuals possess rights that their fellow citizens and the state are obligated to respect; “secular” in that no religion is preferred by government nor is legislation formed on the basis of religious views; and “pluralist” in that citizens, organisations, and social institutions are free to pursue their own interests and values. This has dramatically reshaped the place of the church in society and societal expectations around virtue.
James Davison Hunter notes that
pluralism in its most basic expression is nothing more than a simultaneous presence of multiple cultures and those who inhabit those cultures… In most times and places in human history, pluralism was the exception to the rule; where it existed, it operated within the framework of a strong dominant culture. If one were part of a minority community, one understood the governing assumptions, conventions, and practices of social life and learned how to operate within them.… But pluralism today – at least in America – exists without a dominant culture, at least not one of overwhelming credibility or one that is beyond challenge… For the foreseeable future, the likelihood that any one culture could become dominant in the way that Protestantism in Christianity did in the past is not great.
Hunter (2010) To Change the World. The Irony, Tragedy, & Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World. Oxford University Press
The shift to pluralism is represented in the diagram below.
The small circles represent the citizens that make up a community. In a homogenous society there is a dominant culture, represented in the diagram on the left by the thick circle that surrounds the smaller circles. It is the role of social institutions such as churches, schools, and government to embody the values of the dominant culture and to ensure people do not stray outside its boundaries. In a pluralist society the strong boundaries have evaporated, members of the society have different value sets and interests (represented by the arrows inside the circles) and the role of social institutions is not to keep people within particular cultural boundaries, but to facilitate the possibility for members of society to live their own values and interests. This can be a disorienting situation. We want to find the cultural centre, but there is not one.
In a pluralist democracy the role of government is not to dictate values and behaviours, but to coordinate society such that: 1) the various actors are free to determine their own values and pursue their own interests without infringing upon the freedoms of others; 2) the various actors in society can work cooperatively towards a common good.
Hunter identifies four possible responses to this new state of affairs. First, those who see pluralism as a threat and seek to make the culture Christian once more. Second, those who seek to make the church relevant to the concerns of contemporary pluralistic culture, more often than not by getting involved in social justice issues. Third, those who seek to withdraw into an ideal/pure community. Fourth, his own prescription, which he refers to as “faithful presence”, by which he means a commitment to the biblical vision of shalom that is enacted by being fully present to God, to others, to our tasks (in which we join with others in our culture in fulfilling the creation mandate to be world-making), and to our spheres of influence.
Though there is no biblically mandated form of government, a Christian response to Australia’s polity is well accommodated by Baptist theologies of church and state. In a Baptist understanding, the conscience can be governed by no one but God. This limits the role of the state, for it should never seek to command conscience, that is, the religious beliefs and values of its citizens, but has a far more limited role of maintaining public order so that citizens can live by the dictates of their conscience.
Consistent with this, the reformed understanding in the Kuyperian tradition argues that within any society there are multiple spheres of responsibility, including the individual, the household, social institutions, and government. These are each accountable to God for their behaviours and values, and neither the state nor the church should position themselves as the representatives of God to whom others must answer.
In light of this Miroslav Volf’s reflections on engagement in the public sphere in a pluralist society are helpful.
1. Christ is God’s word and God’s lamb, come into the world for the good of all people, who are all God’s creatures and loved by God. Christian faith is therefore a “prophetic” faith that seeks to mend the world. An idle or redundant faith – a faith that does not seek to mend the world – is a seriously malfunctioning faith. Faith should be active in all spheres of life: education and arts, business and politics, communication and entertainment, and more.
2. Christ came to redeem the world by preaching, actively helping people, and dying a criminal’s death on behalf of the ungodly. In all aspects of his work, he was a bringer of grace. A coercive faith – a faith that seeks to impose itself and its wildlife on others through any form of coercion – is also seriously malfunctioning faith.
3. When it comes to life in the world, to follow Christ means to care for others (as well as for oneself) and work toward their flourishing, so that life should go well for all and that all would learn how to lead their lives well. A vision of human flourishing and the common good is the main thing the Christian faith brings into the public debate.
4. Since the world is God’s creation and since the Word came to his own even if his own do not accept him (John 1:1), the proper stance of Christians toward the larger culture cannot that be that of unmitigated opposition or whole-scale transformation. A much more complex attitude is required – that of accepting, rejecting, learning from, transforming and subverting or putting to better uses various elements of an internally differentiated and rapidly changing culture.
5. Jesus Christ is described in the New Testament as a “faithful witness” (Rev 1:5) and his followers understood themselves as witnesses (e.g. Acts 5: 32). The way Christians work toward human flourishing is not by imposing on others their vision of human flourishing and the common good but by bearing witness to Christ, who embodies the good life.
6. Christ has not come with a blueprint for political arrangements; many kinds of political arrangements are compatible with the Christian faith, from monarchy to democracy. But in a pluralistic context, Christ’s command “in everything do to others as you would have them do to you” (Matt 7:12) entails that Christians grant to other religious communities the same religious and political freedoms that they claim for themselves. Put differently, Christians, even those who in their own religious views are exclusivists, ought to embrace pluralism as a political project
Volf (2011), A Public Faith. How Followers of Christ Should Serve the Common Good, Brazos Press
Points 1 rules out withdrawal from the public space, points 2, 4, 5 and 6 rule out the attempt to coerce Christian values through legislation (ie the reChristianising project), while points 3 and 4 point us in the direction of Hunter’s concept of “faithful presence”.
What the Church Can Expect from the State
In a liberal, secular, pluralist democracy the state should ensure freedom of religion, that is, it should ensure that every religious group and their members are free to believe and practice their faith. To be a secular society does not mean the state makes no place for religion, but that it does not preference one religion over another or religion over no religion. In a healthy liberal, secular, pluralist society we would expect to see many expressions of religious faith.
The corollary of this, is that the church should not expect the state to discriminate favourably towards it or unfavourably against it.
What the State Can Expect From the Church
The church is called to seek the flourishing of its community and does so on the understanding that the values of God’s kingdom represent the best way for humankind to flourish. In a secular, liberal, plural democracy this leaves the church with two instruments for engaging in the public space. First, the church has its public witness, in which by its words and deeds it encourages people toward the values of the kingdom of God. Secondly, the church has public advocacy, in which it calls on government to execute justice.
These two dimensions, advocacy and witness, should not be confused or conflated. The primary arena of the church’s contribution to a flourishing society will normally be through its witness in its words and deeds. Advocacy can play a critical and decisive role in securing flourishing, as the civil rights movement led by Baptist pastor Martin Luther King Jr. demonstrated, but we must be careful that in our advocacy we do not ask government to do that which is not its responsibility. It is not the role of government to coerce conscience and the church should not ask the government to do this. Advocacy therefore should focus upon justice while witness is the vehicle by which we promote virtue.