What the church needs more than freedom of religion

What the church needs more than freedom of religion

Freedom of religion, conscience and speech are at the heart of a free society. They protect us from an ideological totalitarianism which demands everyone believe, speak and act in the same way. The price of any of us enjoying these freedoms is that we respect the freedom of others to believe things we find unreasonable, to hold morals we find objectionable, and to say things we find offensive.

Religious conscience and behaviour extend beyond what happens during the rituals and liturgies that take place inside churches, mosques and temples. Religion goes to identity, belonging, and lifestyle. It is to belong to a community who seek to live out the values of their faith in all of life and encourage their fellow congregants to do the same. The faith to which I belong, Christianity, calls me to live all of life in response to the grace, wisdom and love of God.

When churches establish schools it is usually an extension of their understanding of themselves as communities of faith. Religious schools are not simply places where children learn mathematics, science and the humanities, but faith communities seeking to cultivate a particular way of life, faith and being. Parents send their children knowing this to be the case, and for many, because they want their children to be raised as members of their faith community. In this context, the right to hire teachers who cultivate the values and lifestyle of the school and to fire those that don’t may be harsh but it is part and parcel of the operation of the school as a conservative religious community, and should, in my opinion, be protected.

Yet having said this, we must remember that freedom can be abused, and it is here I believe Christian conservatives need to ask hard questions. We abuse our freedom when when we don’t extend the same freedom to others that we demand for ourselves. The vocal opposition of certain parts of the Christian church to the marriage equality legislation seemed to me a prime example of this, as is the continued campaign of hysteria, misinformation and fear around gender identity, as is the insistence that secular schools allow Christians to proselytise their students by teaching Scripture.

And freedom is abused when it becomes a cloak to injure and harm others. My more conservative Christian friends often tell me they seek to “hate the sin, but love the sinner”. They are good people who genuinely mean it. But they are failing spectacularly to implement.

Moral discipline is essential to any well-lived life. We insist a person must not use their phone while driving; that no matter how fiercely someone angers me I must not surrender to the desire to hit them; that a husband remain sexually faithful to his wife. Conservative expressions of Christianity likewise argue that those who are not in an opposite sex marriage are called to be celibate. The road for the unmarried believer who longs to be in a lifelong sexually and emotionally intimate relationship can be very difficult, but to ask someone to live this way is not a surrender of their personhood.

Yet conservative churches, schools and other religious parachurch organisations have not, on the whole, disentangled themselves from a long history that declared LGBTIQA+ people broken at the very core of their being, depraved in character, and an abomination to their God. LGBTIQA+ people in conservative churches and religious schools are continuallyrejected, marginalised and alienated not because they have behaved in a way that violates Christian values but because their very existence is perceived as a threat. And so, LGBTIQA+ people who grow up in conservative churches commonly tell stories of being psychologically destroyed and socially isolated.

We must hear this. Harm is not the exception for LGBTIQA+ people in conservative churches. It is the norm. Conservative churches and schools are very rarely places which affirm and celebrate diverse sexual orientation, while at the same time helping their LGBITQA+ members walk a path of sexual self-denial that conservative theology demands, find their worth in God and experience deep and meaningful community.

And when LGBTIQA+ people are suffering so awfully at the hands of churches it is abusive to ignore and/or glibly dismiss the challenge to conservative readings of Scripture that are coming thick and fast. As I noted in a previous blog, the theology of sexuality is now an intra-evangelical debate. Yet the reflex I observe in most conservative churches is to pretend it doesn’t exist.

So I say to my conservative brothers and sisters in Christ, yes you have a right to religious freedom and I’ll stand with you in asserting that, but in the absence of a deep sorrow and repentance over the damage your churches are doing to LGBTIQA+ people, your claims are hollow.  Silence in the face of ongoing marginalisation, rejection and abuse is not enough.  If pastors and church leaders are not willing to patiently, courageously and systematically challenge the awful weight of spoken and unspoken bigotry in their own congregations, they expose a church committed to its own narrow interests but not the interest of it’s most vulnerable.

The public defence of religious freedom without public repentance over the harm perpetrated against LGBTIQA+ people reveals a hypocrisy that is bleedingly obvious to those outside our churches but to which those inside conservative churches are blind. And the tragic irony is that it may well be our own unrepentant hearts that exhaust the patience of our society to the point that religious freedoms will be stripped away and we find ourselves inside an ideologically totalitarian secularism.

If ever there was a time to heed Christ’s call to remove the log from our own eyes that we might be able to remove a speck of dust from the eyes of another it is now. NOTE: On Nov 5 references in this article to “gay and lesbian” people were changed to a reference to LGBITQA+ in recognition of the broad range of sexualities that have been marginalised. A few minor changes have been made to other sentences for the purpose of clarity.

Why You Should Not Obey Everything Commanded in the Bible

Why You Should Not Obey Everything Commanded in the Bible

As a follower of Jesus it is my ambition to live in a Jesus-shaped way. In seeking to do this the Bible is one my key resources. Yet understanding how it applies to me can be difficult, for while I have grown up believing that what the Bible says, God says, it is clear that there are things the Bible commands or permits that are not what God says to me today – eg the permission to take a wife as part of the bounty of war; the requirement to return land to its original owners every fifty years; the permission to keep slaves; and the encouragement to wives to call their husbands ‘lord’ and be fully submissive and obedient to them.

I have found it helpful to recognise that the Bible speak to our ethics in two ways:

First, by painting a picture of the world as it should be and one day will be.  The  movement of both history and Scripture is towards a time all creation will  be brought fully under God’s reign. It is a time of shalom, which Christopher Marshall summarises like this

The positive presence of harmony and wholeness, of health and prosperity, of integration and balance. It is a state of soundless or flourishing in all dimensions of existence – in our relationship with God, our relationships with each other, our relationship with nature, and our relationship with ourselves. Shalom is when when everything is as it ought to be. In this sense, Shalom encapsulates God’s basic intention for humanity – that people live in a condition of “all rightness” in every department of life.

(Chris Marshall, Little Book of Biblical Justice, pages 12-13).


Biblical ethics fills me with this vision of the world as it will be and calls me to live out its values in the present. This is what gives Christianity its reformist tendencies. The vision of the reign of God causes us to be discontent with cultural, political, economic, and social systems that impede the experience of shalom.

Second, the Scriptures show us how people worked out their faith in the world as it was.  At the same time that the vision of the future creates a reformist streak within us, the reality is that we live within the world as it is, a world that falls far short of the vision of the future. In the Bible this sets up a delicate interplay between seeking to live out the values of the world as it will be and the realities of the world as it was. No-one can escape the cultural, economic, political and religious systems within which they live, so biblical ethics always consisted of an attempt to determine how the values and vision of the world as it will be could be lived out in the world as it was.

At times this worked itself out as resistance – seen for example in the refusal of Christians to worship any God other than the God revealed in Jesus and in the determination to defy social conventions that divided people on grounds of ethnicity, gender, or social status and instead embrace one another as brothers and sisters in Christ.

On other occasions we see an effort to infuse the values of the future into social,  cultural and political systems that fell far short of the vision of the future. The household codes of the New Testament are a good example of this. They recognised that first century Christians lived in societies in which the household was organised along patriarchal lines – with a male at the head of the household and wife/wives, slaves and children subservant and subordinate to the male head. Held up against the vision of the world to come this was an ugly structure that diminished people and left them exposed to abuse. Yet it was also the reality in which people lived. The strategy of the household codes was to urge people to infuse the system with love, grace, compassion and kindness.  As an ethic for all time it is clearly compromised and inadequate, but it was an ethic that moved first century Christians closer toward the biblical vision.  Similarly, the permission given to the Israelites to take wives as part of the bounty of war seems designed not to offer approval of the practise, but, knowing it will happen, to regulate it so as to minimise the harm.

Recognising this pattern in the Bible has helped me move beyond a simple equation of biblical commands with the will of God for all people and all times, or the assumption that some biblical instructions are culturally shaped while others transcend culture.  It encourages me to see that “being biblical” does not mean replicating the life of the first Christians, but following the pattern of the Scriptures which is to allow the vision and values of the future reign of God, so vividly and profoundly incarnated in Christ, to shape the way I live in my place and time.

Why White, Middle Class Guys Like Me Struggle to Hear God

Why White, Middle Class Guys Like Me Struggle to Hear God

Many years ago I was a regular attender at the “Baptists Today” conferences, held annually in Canberra. The rather unimaginatively titled conferences were focused on social justice issues, which at that time were commonly neglected by the wider Baptist movement. I was a young pastor, eager to do justice, love mercy & walk humbly with my God (Micah 6:8). At these conferences, under the tutelage of people such as Tim Costello and Thorwald Lorenzon, I learned that if I was to theologise well on any justice issue I needed to begin by listening to those experiencing injustice. Before I could pontificate about the meaning of biblical texts that spoke of wives submitting and men leading in church and home, I needed to hear the stories of women and their experiences of life and their reading of the biblical material; before I offered my opinion on indigenous questions, I needed to sit and listen to indigenous peoples tell their stories; before I could pronounce on questions of sexuality, I needed to listen to gay, lesbian, transgender and other people with alternative sexualities, to hear their stories and their experiences.

I must confess that at first I was impatient with this. I wanted to go straight to the Scriptures and find out “what God said”. But the Baptists Today conferences taught me that there can be no shortcuts. The only way I could hear what God said was to first listen to those on the margins. When I listened to their stories I was invited to see my world very differently. I had never before reflected on the fact that I was extraordinarily privileged as a white male. How different the world looked when it was viewed through the eyes of those without the privilege I enjoyed. I discovered they were asking questions that I had never thought to ask; that they were seeing things in the Scriptures that I had never imagined; and that they were subject to discrimination and disenfranchisement that I simply didn’t see, but weighed heavily upon them and eroded their sense of human dignity.

I wonder if this is not the Achilles heel of the Western evangelical movement. In our rush to find out what God says on any given issue we under-appreciate the significance of our social location. We delude ourselves with the notion that the application of the proper exegetical and hermeneutical techniques will lead us to God’s will. I have discovered that reading the Bible is an inherently social task and that one of the key interpretive skills we need is the capacity to listen and empathise.

A month ago I wrote a post in which I asked why it was that evangelical believers were found opposing the major social justice movements of our time. Somehow, large numbers of us managed to oppose the abolition of slavery; the enfranchisement of women; civil rights for “coloured” people; interracial marriages; the liberalisation of divorce laws; the equality of women in church and marriage; and now find ourselves opposing marriage equality and fulminating about gender fluidity. The problem was not a lack of exegetical capacity. Our history is replete with scholars who sought to “carefully divide the word of truth”. The problem seems to be that those who held the reins of power within the evangelical movement lacked the ability to hear the voices of the other and, deaf to their voices, interpreted the biblical texts in ways that endorsed the existing power relations of their time and perpetuated the mythologies that supported the existing power systems.

I recall the powerful letter written by Martin Luther King when he was imprisoned in Birmingham, Alabama. The leaders of the white churches had condemned this “outsider” who had interfered in their community and demanded that he withdraw in order to allow gradual change. This was part of King’s reply:

We have waited for more than three hundred and forty years for our God-given and constitutional rights. The nations of Asia and Africa are moving with jetlike speed toward the goal of political independence, and we still creep at horse-and-buggy pace toward the gaining of a cup of coffee at a lunch counter. I guess it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say “wait.” But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate-filled policemen curse, kick, brutalize, and even kill your black brothers and sisters with impunity; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six-year-old daughter why she cannot go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her little eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see the depressing clouds of inferiority begin to form in her little mental sky, and see her begin to distort her little personality by unconsciously developing a bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five-year-old son asking in agonizing pathos, “Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?”; when you take a cross-country drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you; when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading “white” and “colored”; when your first name becomes “nigger” and your middle name becomes “boy” (however old you are) and your last name becomes “John,” and when your wife and mother are never given the respected title “Mrs.”; when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of “nobodyness”–then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait. There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over and men are no longer willing to be plunged into an abyss of injustice where they experience the bleakness of corroding despair. I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience …

Listening and empathy are as important to good biblical interpretation as the technical exegetical skills I learned at theological college. And perhaps even more important, is the creation of communities where decision-making, participation and leadership do not privilege one particular social group, but are inclusive of the diverse voices and experiences of our people.

The King, Sheep, Goats & Salvation.

The King, Sheep, Goats & Salvation.

One of the most confronting parables Jesus told was his account of the sheep and goats (found in Matthew 25). The end of the age has come and humanity is gathered before Christ for judgement. Humankind is sorted into two groups: sheep, who the king claims fed him when he was hungry, gave him a drink when he was thirsty, provided hospitality when he was a stranger, clothed him when he needed clothes, looked after him while he was sick, and visited him while he was imprisoned; and goats, whom the king says failed to do these things.

Both groups are bewildered. They cannot recall ever seeing the king in a state of need, to which the king replies “whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did it for me.” The sheep are then welcomed into eternal life, while the goats are condemned to eternal punishment.

The story is difficult on a number of levels. First, it seems to set a standard for belonging to God’s kingdom that is impossible to meet. Who among us cannot recall a time we walked past a homeless person in the street; expended money on truly discretionary pursuits when we could have donated more to a charity helping people living in poverty; or let an opportunity pass to care for somebody who we know needed it at the time? If we are honest with ourselves it would seem that pretty much all of humankind would be goats.

Second, there are divided interpretations on whom Jesus is referring to when he speaks of “the least of these brothers and sisters of mine”. Some interpreters believe the phrase identifies followers of Christ, with the parable then speaking of the community of believers caring for one another at the same time that they are vilified and rejected by those outside the community of faith, or to itinerant missionaries who travel from town to town depending upon the goodwill and hospitality of those who embrace their message. Others argue that the least of these is a reference to all people in a state of homelessness, hunger, poverty, or victims of unjust treatment.

Here’s my take.

First, in telling this parable Jesus buys into a debate taking place during his time. As best we can tell, in the day of Jesus almost all Jews affirmed the notion that the time would come when the nations would be gathered judgement. The debate was on what grounds judgement would occur. Some argued that the sheep would be the Israelites and the goats the Gentiles. Others argued that the sheep were Israelites who were faithful to the law, and the goats were all others. Some allowed that there may be gentiles who were faithful to the law and so were part of the kingdom. Jesus subverts all of these interpretations, suggesting that the key issue is how they were related to him, the king.

Second, it seems to me almost certain that “the least of these brothers and sisters of mine” should be understood as a reference to human beings in general and not to the followers of Jesus in particular. The reason for this is that the one who speaks is identified as “the King”. He is clearly king over both the sheep and the goats, that is over all humankind. In the biblical tradition of kingship it was the sacred duty of kings to secure the rights of the poor and vulnerable groups such as widows and orphans (see Proverbs 30:1-9; Jeremiah 22:1-24; Daniel 7). The king is not to see his subjects as people to be exploited and oppressed, but as neighbours to be loved. The parable sets Jesus up as King over all humankind, so that “the least of these brothers and sisters of mine” are those subjects of low status who were pushed to the fringes of society and left hungry, homeless, exploited, and oppressed.

The point of the parable is not to suggest that entry into the kingdom of God is a reward merited by a life of virtuous behaviour, but to point out that those who belong to the kingdom are those who have identified themselves with the King and the King’s mission to bring kindness, justice, and mercy to those commonly denied it.

Moreover the parable calls us to much more than serendipitous responses to those we meet who are in need. In the culture of the biblical eras and particularly of Israel, people were hungry, homeless, physically weak, and imprisoned because the political and economic systems were designed to exploit them and the rich and powerful colluded to appropriate their wealth and labour. Read the Old Testament prophets and they don’t identify hunger, homelessness, and disadvantage as bad luck, an inevitable part of life in a broken world, or because of the laziness of poor. They consistently sheet the issue home to a failure of the rich and powerful to recognise the claim of the poor to land, to loans, and to debt relief.

The parable is a call for us who know the King to see ourselves as the king’s hands and feet in creating a world in which our fellow human beings are freed from violence, greed, exploitation, oppression and the evils these bring.

Finally, we need to be careful to read this parable in the light of the whole corpus of Jesus’s teaching. It would be a mistake to see this as suggesting any single failure to love those in need disqualifies us from belonging to the kingdom of God. Jesus speaks about the patterns of our lives as an indicator of the direction of our hearts and the nature of our faith (e.g. Matthew 7:15-23). This informs how we read the meaning of his parable of the sheep and goats. He is not suggesting that the sheep have never failed to love the hungry, the naked, the weak or the imprisoned, but that the pattern of their life is one of investing in those who are disadvantaged and oppressed. A comparison would be how we think of our parents. My parents were extraordinarily good parents to me because the pattern of their life was one of grace, love and generosity. This did not mean they were perfect. There were times of course when they failed to act with wisdom, grace or generosity, but these were not the pattern. Moreover Jesus’s relationship with his disciples was one of extraordinary grace as they learned to take the journey with him. Indeed in the Gospels are seen to stuff up more than they get it right, but the overall direction of their lives was one towards the way of Christ rather than away from it.

The parable and is not designed to induce anxiety over some lapse we may recall from our past, but to shape us as people who identify with the mission of King Jesus to bring hope, healing and deliverance to all human beings who are suffering exploitation, oppression and persecution.

The problem with conservatism

I guess in the end, protecting what we cherish is why I am a conservative. The Left like to portray conservatives as doddery old fools opposed to modernity. But as its very heart, conservatism believes there are things in life, values and institutions, worth conserving.

Conservatives don’t oppose change; they just don’t believe in change for change’s sake.

If there’s a good case made for change, they will support it but aren’t afraid to stand up for things that have stood the test of time.

Conservatives don’t always get it right. Sometimes they’re far too slow to accept change but they’re mindful that once things have changed, it’s hard to change them back.

Peta Credlin, Daily Telegraph, January 29, 2017

Those are the words of Peta Credlin, chief-of-staff to Tony Abbott while he was Prime Minister. On Peta’s description who would have a problem with conservatism? Who doesn’t believe that there are things in life, values and institutions worth conserving?

The problem with conservatism is not that “sometimes they’re far too slow to accept change” but that on the great moral issues of our time they’re nearly always far too slow to accept change. When the abolitionist movement emerged in the United States of America, calling for an end to slavery, conservatives eventually agreed the institution needed to be abolished but pleaded for a long and slow phasing out; when Martin Luther King and the African-American church were leading the civil rights movement the leaders of the white church begged him to slow down, to avoid radical change; when the feminist movement called for an end to the abuse and oppression of women, pastors all over the western world raced to their bible’s to show that male “headship” was God’s good intention; when Eddie Mabo won his famous court case John Howard went on national television with a map of Australia, declaring that almost every square inch of the country was now at risk of being transferred to native title; when the global scientific community demonstrated that climate change was anthropocentrically induced and that the future of humankind would be shaped by our response, it was conservatives that refused to accept the science and rolled out conspiracy theories.

It is difficult to think of any area of moral progress in which conservatives have led the way. I think the reason for this is the social location of conservatism and its tendency toward uncritical analysis of power. Conservatives tend to be those who have benefited most from the institutions and the power structures of society, are predisposed to emphasising the merits of the existing order and minimise the ways social institutions privilege one group while excluding others. Yet moral progress in Western society has come by being attentive to the voices of those who are marginalised, exploited and oppressed. It is only by leaving the centres of power and control and moving to the margins that these voices are ever heard. And when they are, empathy creates a holy dissatisfaction with the present order that demands change. And once you’re there you’re no longer a Conservative.

Rather than hearing the voices of the oppressed, conservatives all too often portray them as radicals who aim to bring down everything that is good about our society. How often growing up did I hear mutterings about Nelson Mandela being a dangerous Communist terrorist; of aboriginal activist Michael Mansell being an angry ideologue; and all kinds of hysterical claims about “the feminist lobby” and the “gay lobby” and what they wanted to foist upon us.

So please, spare me the “we don’t believe in change for change’s sake” line. I don’t know anybody who does. My friends on the progressive side of theology and politics believe in change for the sake of people who are being bullied, oppressed, marginalised and exploited. And yes, I agree that progressives have their flaws. Bucket loads of empathy can never substitute for well thought through policy  and Progressives can all too easily demonise Conservatives  as people who don’t give a damn about anything but themselves.  And yes, there are some things I want to hold onto and value and leave fundamentally untouched, but in my basic orientation to life I want to be an intelligent, well thought through progressive, because this is the only way moral progress is ever made.

The New Pharisaism

One of the most beautiful passages in Scripture is the apostle Paul’s discourse on love in 1 Corinthians 13

If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.

Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.

As I heard these words read in church a couple of weeks back, for the first time it struck me just how remarkable it is that they come from the pen of Paul. A former Pharisee of Pharisees, he had once made purity the centre of his living. He and his colleagues had learned the lesson from Israel’s history that neglect of the law of God incurred the judgement of God. With an admirable zeal they sought to understand the law, agonised over its application to every conceivable situation in life, and gave themselves over to observing it. It is almost unthinkable that Paul could have penned the chapter on love while he was a Pharisee. He would rather have spoken of the importance of holiness, obedience, and separation from all that is impure.

His encounter with the risen Christ led to a dramatic transformation in his view of godliness. No longer was it to be conformed to the dictates of the Mosaic law. Rather it was to be conformed to the character of Jesus. It is difficult to underestimate just how dramatic this shift was. The law, he says in Galatians, was but a temporary measure to guide behaviour until the arrival of Christ. “Now that faith has come, we are no longer under the supervision of the law.” (Galatians 3:25). Rather, “the only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love” (Galatians 5:6). I find it impossible to imagine a more complete and decisive break with his Pharisaism!

How ironic then that modern evangelicalism is so often characterised by a return to Pharisaism. We treat the New Testament documents as though they are a new law; we look for rules to govern every conceivable ethical dilemma; and we give ourselves over to obeying the set of rules we manage to extract from the New Testament documents. We love the apostle Paul but spectacularly fail to understand his ethical system.

We will do greater honour to the revelation of God in Christ if we stop trying to be the new Pharisees and instead set about cultivating Jesus shaped love, grace and goodness in our lives and our communities.

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