Memo to Australian Christians.

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.

The Times They Are A-Changing…Being the Church in a Secular, Liberal, Pluralist Democracy.

(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.

The end of Scripture classes in school

The Victorian State government this weekend announced that special religious instruction in state schools will no longer be taught during class time, effectively killing off scripture classes in Victoria. I assume it is only a matter of time until this is the case across the nation.

Special religious instruction is one of the last vestiges of the era of Christendom. Although many religions now provide SRI, the model as I understand it is still one where students are enrolled in the study of a single religion taught by proponents of that religion, and in the case of Christianity a large part of the motivation for Scripture teachers is that children will come to faith in Christ. I certainly want to see children, youth, and adults come the faith in Christ, but I agree with those who argue that SRI does not belong in secular schools.

But this does not mean we should banish the teaching of religion from our schools. Religion is an important part of how people both past and present construct meaning and form values, and as a result it should be part of the school curriculum. The caveat I would place on this is that religion is not simply a set of beliefs, but something that is a lived experience. It therefore makes sense for the curriculum to include guests who share what their faith means in their life and how it functions. In this way children will learn about Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism, and will be better equipped to understand those who hold to faith traditions other than their own.

I suspect this is probably what we should be arguing for now. Attempts to defend special religious instruction may see the practice of prolonged for a few years, but will almost certainly lose the argument in the long run. The danger then will be that the baby will be thrown out with the bathwater, religion won’t be taught at all, and our society will be the worse for it.

The Greek means… No it does not!

When I was at theological college I was at a gathering of young adults from my church when the discussion focused on the consumption of alcohol. This was a big taboo for Christians in my church tradition. One of the young adults had recently started attending a different church and confidently declared that when the Bible says Jesus turned water into wine it was non-alcoholic. “It’s all in the Greek”, he said. “We learned about that in church tonight”.

There it was. “The Greek says”. It’s the ultimate tool in the preachers toolkit, the piece of knowledge that puts the preacher’s opinion beyond dispute. Who can argue with “the Greek”? Well, someone who can read biblical Greek. The young adult who insisted that the Greek word for wine in John chapter 2 means “non-alcoholic wine” was somewhat stumped when I pointed out that the very same Greek word is used in Ephesians 5 to tell us “not to get drunk on wine”.

Preaching is a pretty hard gig. Each week a pastor stands up and is expected to deliver something that reflects sound research and rigourous cross disciplinary thinking, to appreciate a text in its original historical context and then consider how to bridge the gap between the original setting and ours with meaningful life application. And all this is to be delivered in a rhetorical style that is simple without being simplistic as it engages the heart and the mind and the will. That’s no easy task. So I’m loathe to be critical of any preacher.

But if I hear another preacher say “the meaning of the Greek is…” I’ll be tempted to scream “no it’s not”.

The Old Testament was written predominantly in Hebrew and the New Testament in Greek. Because no two languages are structured identically and because words have a fluidity of meaning, translators often have to choose between two, three or more possible ways of rendering a text in English. For example, in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus famously says “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of God.” In English “righteousness” is often understood in a fairly narrow way as indicating personal integrity, but in biblical tradition the concept can be far broader and include the notion of social justice, that is, doing what is right in our relationships with each other. It can also refer to God’s righteousness, which in their biblical tradition often speaks of God being faithful to his promise to save, bring peace and justice, and so on. So when we come to this saying of Jesus we need to ask ourselves what type of righteousness does he have in mind? Is he speaking of personal integrity, a strict private moral code, social justice, God’s righteousness, or some combination of these? Knowing the Greek term translated as “righteousness” will not help us answer this question. What we need to do is to weigh up the context, both the broader biblical concepts of righteousness, the way Jesus uses the concepts, and our understanding of Jesus’s broader mission and see what we think this suggests about Jesus’s meaning in the sermon on the Mount.

What a preacher can say is “this verse could be translated as ‘Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice’ or ‘Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for God’s salvation’ or ‘blessed are those who hunger and thirst to live right’”. That’s as far as the Greek will take you. Then it’s a matter of dialogue as we grapple with the story of Jesus and what righteousness means in light of that story. The moment the preacher says “the Greek word means…” and equates that with one of the possible options we’ve explored s/he is not explaining the Greek, s/he is opting for one of the possible interpretations.

My beef with this is that it takes the Bible out of the hands of the congregation and makes the preacher the authorised interpreter.

The ability to read the Bible in its original languages is a wonderful gift. It helps you get inside the thought forms of the biblical world and to see things that you might otherwise miss. Used well it can help you to see the possible range of meanings that might not be as obvious within the English translation. But that’s as far as it will get you. Greek words no more have a singular meaning that English words do. So let’s dispense with sentences that begin with “the Greek means…” in favour of “there is more than one way we could translate this verse. Here are the possibilities… Now what do you think?”

I’m still here and loving It. Where did everyone else go? Why do so many drop out of church?

Belonging to church has always been and continues to be a really important part of my life. Yet according to the 2008-09 International Social Science Survey, seven out of every 10 Australians who attended church monthly or more when aged 11 drop out of church life once they become adults. Why is it that we retain so small a proportion of childhood attenders?

The question is quite pointed for those of us in Australia for our dropout rates are much higher than the UK or the United States (71% of childhood attenders in Australia versus 57% in the UK and 47% in the USA) and young people who drop out in Australia are much more likely to say they no longer see themselves as Christians (46% young people in Australia versus 29% in the UK 25% in the USA).

The problem is long-standing. Across each ten year age cohort from 20 to 69 the dropout rate was between 69% and 83%. So it’s not a case of churches suddenly starting to lose all their young people when they retained them in the past. Rather it seems that for the last 70 years at least we’ve been losing people at pretty much the same rate. And nearly all of them are dropping out in the transition from childhood to adulthood.

There is then something about the way we are doing faith together that is failing to convince 7 out of every 10 people that it’s worthwhile sticking around. The challenge seems to be twofold. On the one hand half of those who drop out still consider themselves to be people of faith. For this group belonging to church simply doesn’t provide sufficient utility to make it worthwhile to continue belonging. The other half of those who drop out no longer consider themselves Christian. Despite belonging to our faith communities as children as they move into adulthood they are not convinced that Jesus is worth following.

This suggests we need to do some hard rethinking about how we help children transition to adulthood as people of faith and who find the church worth belonging to. If you’re one of the three in 10 of us who has stayed, I’d be interested to know why it is you stay. If you’re one of the seven in 10 who have left, I’d be keen to hear why you have done so.

How to change the world

Sociologist turned historian Rodney Stark has written a number of volumes devoted to the rise of Christianity. He points out that Christianity took off not because we got people into churches and preached Jesus to them, but because we got out of our churches into the community and showed Jesus to them. In fact Stark notes that most churches were closed to non-believers in the first three centuries of the Christian era. Yet Christianity grew to the point where it dominated the Roman Empire. Stark suggests the reason for this:

Christianity revitalized life in Greco-Roman cities by providing new norms and new kinds of social relationships able to cope with many urgent urban problems. To cities filled with the homeless and the impoverished, Christianity offered charity as well as hope. To cities filled with newcomers and strangers, Christianity offered an immediate basis for attachments. To cities filled with orphans and widows, Christianity provided a new and expanded sense of family. To cities torn by violent ethnic strife, Christianity offered a new basis for social solidarity. And to cities faced with epidemics, fires, and earthquakes, Christianity offered effective nursing services.

The Rise of Christianity: A Sociologist Reconsiders History

It makes me wonder what it is we offer our society? What are the deep needs that Jesus shaped living answers to today?

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