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.

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Jessi Mervyn-Jones
Jessi Mervyn-Jones
5 years ago

Scott, I really liked that you strongly made some very necessary points! Then I kept doing a double-take, wondering if you meant what the words said at ” to ask someone [to live in celibacy] is not to surrender their personhood” … Ok, well, I guess it’s arguable that our essential personhood is independent from our sexual-relational self. But then when you kind of express your vision of Christian community that would help “gay and lesbian members maintain celibacy” … well, I felt a bit confused and disappointed. Do you really believe that gay and lesbian believers are only ‘right… Read more »

Jessi Mervyn-Jones
Jessi Mervyn-Jones
5 years ago
Reply to  Scott

Thank you, Scott, for explaining that; and I’m glad!

5 years ago

Scott you make many valid points but I feel you characterise the term conservative unnecessarily . Am I conservative for saying that kindergarten children should not be forcibly taught about these issues. i do not think so .Our society has reached the stage where parents have in many cases abdictated their parental role and allowed the state to take it over . I am not sure the liberals (if that is the alternative term ) would be advocating this.We live today in a society where self must overide any values

A concerned observer
A concerned observer
5 years ago

While I agree with you to a certain point, I think it is important to raise that Christian schools (like any independent school) receive Government funding. I think the question then becomes, should any institution that receives public funding be able to discriminate on the basis of their religion? (that is not just Christian organisations, but organisations of all types that have a religious affiliation – i.e. Catholic hospitals). Where do you draw that line? In addition, I think you’ll find that the majority of parents sending their children to Christian schools do so because they are usually the most… Read more »

A concerned observer
A concerned observer
5 years ago

Also I would add, if you have the time to read this piece on the ABC: https://www.abc.net.au/news/2018-11-05/anglican-schools-right-to-discriminate-letter-opinion/10465276

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