One week ago I got on a plane in Singapore to begin the 8 hour flight back home to Sydney. While I was in the air Australia went through the latest convulsion of what is an ongoing struggle to work out the place of Christians in our contemporary society. I say Christians, rather than the broader category of “religious people” because it does increasingly seem as though it is the Christian faith (and orthodox Christian faith, not the hopelessly compromised revisionist version that infests several mainline denominations) that is squarely in the sights of the more militant secularising activists.
So what happened? Andrew Thorburn, who had previously served as CEO of National Australia Bank (NAB), was nominated for the role of CEO of Essendon AFL Club (that obscure version of football played mostly in Victoria that, apparently, doesn’t need you to wear sleeves). AFL is religion in Victoria and the Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG) its high temple. Yes, the Cricket Ground. AFL came into being as something for cricketers to get into over the winter months. If you’re reading along in the US and, at this point, are totally confused then just contemplate the marvel of a country inventing a new game and then calling it “football” as though that name hadn’t already been taken. Let the reader understand.
So, back to Thorburn. An Essendon-diehard, he was on their selection committee as they searched for a CEO but was asked to apply and so he did. And was appointed. And then summarily constructively dismissed (well, “asked to resign”) because it was felt he could not “uphold the values of the club”. What values? I hear you ask. Fairness in playing? Upholding the spirit of the game? Activating community engagement? Wanting Essendon to actually win something for the first time in more than 20 years? No, none of the above. As we now know, there is one sacred cow above all others; “inclusion”. Thorburn, it was decided, could not uphold the club’s position on “inclusion”. By “inclusion”, of course, Essendon (along with so many others) don’t mean “everyone included”. The burning question for them is whether alternative sexualities and gender-expressions are “included”. By “included” they also don’t mean “included” – they mean “affirmed in every way and no alternate opinion countenanced”. Words are funny things and Humpty Dumpty (that great proto-Orwellian) rules the day. Thorburn, it was pronounced, was not “inclusive” since he was the chair of City on a Hill – an Anglican Church in Melbourne with a contemporary presentation but an orthodox conservative theology.
What aspect of City on a Hill so concerned Essendon? Was it their view of soteriology that made Thorburn a reprobate? Perhaps their insistence on the Chalcedonian Definition that meant they could not see how Thorburn the Christian and Thorburn the Footy-fanatic could co-exist? Of course I jest. The learned theologians of the wokerati have a much narrower field of interest. They’re obsessed with sex and so they scoured City on a Hill’s website to see what muck they could dig up. And they found some. From years before – more than a decade ago (but still more contemporary than Essendon’s last pennant) – they found a sermon where abortion was compared to the Holocaust and another where an orthodox position on human sexuality was set out.
Never mind that when Thorburn was CEO of the NAB he promoted and was acclaimed for promoting a full public “inclusion” campaign. Those two sermons from the past meant that he could not possibly be “inclusive”. The campaigners smelt blood and went for the kill. The board of Essendon collapsed like, well, like an Essendon defence in the first quarter. Thorburn was left in no doubt that he could not continue and so he did the honourable thing and resigned.
Now, I’m a little late to this conversation. Others have made many helpful contributions. But as the dust settles let me make a few of my own. They’re in no particular order and they’re informed and stimulated not just by the events but by that subsequent commentary. Here we go:
This is not going away
It’s no good wishing this kind of pressure away. Nor can we stick our heads in the sand and ignore it. Like it or not this kind of anti-religious (and particularly anti-Christian – I’ll come to that in a moment) pressure is only going to increase. That’s the trajectory that we’re on. The sooner some of us wake up to that reality, the better. It will get worse, not better. Which is why if action is to be taken it should be taken now. The future without intervention is easy to predict and it does us no good to be naïve about it.
It is a particularly anti-Christian pressure
Many have noted that the Christian faith (again, I mean proper orthodox Christianity) is the consistent target in these episodes. No-one is putting intense public pressure on Islamic schools to conform their employment practices. But why is that? It’s far too simplistic to simply point to “political correctness” and even to the hierarchy of victims in intersectionality. Something more fundamental is going on. The modern drive towards the absolute protection of the “therapeutic self” (as Carl Trueman so helpfully describes our modern psychosis of always needing to be affirmed) is in large part a deconstruction and rejection of previously held norms. In western society one of those dominant norms was a Christian world-view, not an Islamic one. It is Christianity, not Islam, that has promulgated our sexual norms for almost all our known history and so it is Christianity, not Islam, that must be toppled. Don’t be surprised that Muslims around us appear to get a much freer ride of it. At least for the time being. Jesus, not Mohammed, is the enemy of modern man since it is Jesus who dares to tell him/xhe that marriage is between one man and one woman and that’s the only place to have sex.
Christianity is rejected, but rarely understood
At the same time, the Christianity being rejected is a vacuous caricature of the real thing. Ask any of the loud voices calling for Thorburn to go what the Christian position on sex and babies is and you won’t get anything like an accurate description. Instead there is so much resorting to the quick rhetoric of “homophobia”, “hatred” and so on. There is no concept that Jesus might be capable of both welcoming the sinner and being clear about their sin at the same time. The Jesus of the Bible is a remarkable figure – it is those “sinners” who most clearly have failed to meet his moral requirements that run towards his open arms of confession in repentance and experience his love. Modern man, in such need of total and exclusive affirmation, cannot even conceive of such repentance. It is not necessary and so such a Jesus is unimaginable.
At this point it’s important to observe that the church holds some serious blame for itself at times not opening up its arms in the same manner that Jesus does. Moralism has always been the enemy of the gospel and pharisaism will never save nor (perhaps even more importantly) want to save others. We’re not innocent in this. Yet at the same time we need to understand that even if we got this perfectly right there would still be an enormous gulf – Jesus says “repent” to a world that no inkling of what that even means in its rush to be true to itself.
We won’t get a fair hearing
This whole affair more than demonstrates that the “inclusivists” are a close-minded bunch. The Essendon board took no account of the fact that Thorburn had more than demonstrated his “inclusive” credentials while at the NAB. His “inclusion” campaign was, perhaps, a model of how to do it. He had already more than straddled the apparently-uncrossable gulf between Christian belief and “inclusion” and demonstrated that upholding orthodoxy doesn’t mean you can’t welcome all manner of people. Or perhaps he’d simply shown us how empty the claim that his faith was incompatible with his role really was.
What he also, therefore, demonstrated was that the argument that the campaigners were prosecuting didn’t hold. But then that was only a mask for their real goal. The argument about “compatibility” was a canard as even a brief glance at Thorburn’s resumé made clear. No, the real argument being prosecuted was that orthodox Christian belief cannot be tolerated. To some it will never be compatible. It has no place in our modern world. How can it when it is so fundamentally opposed to the almost narcissistic requirement to have every aspect of my self affirmed in every way and at all times?
And so we arrived at the “interview” of City on a Hill’s pastor Guy Mason by Sunrise’s David Koch. Watch it for yourself. Channel 7 described it as Kochie going “head-to-head” with the leader of this “controversial” church. Less “head-to-head” than straight in with a headbutt. Kochie, learned theologian that he is, lectured Mason on what the Bible really did or didn’t say and then claimed “I’m not going to have a battle of the Bible” when Mason sought to explain what the Scriptures actually communicate on the topic. Sunrise, and countless other media outlets (including some more conservative commentators) all described City on a Hill as “controversial”. But, as Mason points out in his session sitting in the Sunrise stocks, to state that abortion is wrong and that homosexual behaviour is sinful is the orthodox 2000 year belief of the Christian church. It’s “controversial” only in that it is unacceptable to the copywriters.
Expect hypocrisy and ill motive
Before anyone even knew who Mason was, the Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews had weighed in on things declaring that orthodox Christian belief was “absolutely appalling”, “bigotry” and “intolerant”. Andrews, it turns out, is another renowned expert in these matters declaring that,
I’m not here to be having a debate with faith leaders but I will just say this: I am a Catholic. I send my kids to Catholic schools. My faith is important to me. It guides me every day…
It also guides me in my sense of what is right and what is wrong, and if I can just say with utmost respect, calling out homophobia is not the problem. Homophobia is the problem.
For me, that’s my Catholicism. That’s my faith.
Let’s just call that for what it is. Made-up religion. Here’s the official Roman Catholic position on these matters of contention:
2271 Since the first century the Church has affirmed the moral evil of every procured abortion.
This teaching has not changed and remains unchangeable.
Direct abortion, that is to say, abortion willed either as an end or a means, is gravely contrary to the moral law
2357 Homosexuality refers to relations between men or between women who experience an exclusive or predominant sexual attraction toward persons of the same sex. It has taken a great variety of forms through the centuries and in different cultures. Its psychological genesis remains largely unexplained. Basing itself on Sacred Scripture, which presents homosexual acts as acts of grave depravity, tradition has always declared that “homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered.” They are contrary to the natural law. They close the sexual act to the gift of life. They do not proceed from a genuine affective and sexual complementarity. Under no circumstances can they be approved.
Kochie and Andrews, ecumenical in their theological revisionism.
But it’s not just that Andrews is palpably wrong in his religious assertions (and not open to correction). He is, surely, manifestly responsible for this whole mess. When the activists raised their complaint and the journalists helped them out by feeding him the question he could have responded in a far different way. He could have promoted true pluralism, told us all that while he disagreed with the views expressed he recognised that this was an internal matter for Essendon. He might even have noted that Thorburn was a champion of inclusion in the past. He could have stayed out of it. Instead the leader of the State took sides but wouldn’t take prisoners. He stoked the flames and made sure that the lions were woken, giving a clear thumbs up to the kill that rapidly followed. If anyone was doing the hypocritical vilifying this past week it was Andrews.
None of this ought to catch us unawares.
1John 3:13 Do not be surprised, brothers, that the world hates you.
The need to be clear – learn the scripts
What to do in the face of all of this? We need to speak clearly and in two areas. First, and foremost, we need to keep being clear about the gospel itself. Mason worked hard during his interrogation. I might have done things a little differently (which I’ll come to) but I don’t think any of us can fault his desire to get to a presentation of the gospel. If there was any critique to make (and I’m hesitant to make one since I don’t want to be perceived as being anything other than generally supportive) it’s that there was still a sense that he was working hard to be liked; perhaps to be perceived as reasonable. I think we need to give that up. Wanting to be liked is never going to work. The gospel that we stand in is antithetical to the therapeutic self-image of so much of our western society. We simply won’t be liked. We need to stop trying to kick that goal. This is, of course, not the same as being insensitively obnoxious. As the Apostle reminds us (and I paraphrase), it’s not piety nor persecution when you’re hated for being a jerk (1Pet. 2:20).
We need to learn our script thoroughly. How can I clearly articulate the gospel so that it addresses the subject matter at hand?
But we also need to know our opponents’ script well. This is where I want to gently suggest that Mason didn’t quite get it right. His lead of “we’re about life and love” was well intentioned but it failed to read Kochie’s script. And Kochie was reading from a well-worn book. The problem, I would suggest, with the “life and love” line was two-fold. It felt a little like an attempt to soften the message. But it also failed to perceive that it was running straight into a brick wall. “Life” and “love” are understood very very differently nowadays. “Life” is my own self-centred existence and “Love” is that unchallenging acceptance and affirmation that accompanies it.
Now don’t get me wrong, by all means take those terms and subvert their popular understanding – but be more deliberately clear about that subversive challenge. And that means knowing the other script and pointing out why it’s wrong. Don’t just tell us that Jesus is about life and love. Tell us clearly that Jesus’ view of life and love is radically different and better for us than the shallow definition that our world has been duped by.
We need to get far better at pointing out this deception. At calling it out for what it is. At challenging the assumptions of those who would challenge us. Not in order to win any fights but so that those listening along can be persuaded. When Kochie says “I’m not going to have a battle of the Bible”, tell him and us that that’s exactly what he’s just engaged in and that he can’t have it both ways. Challenge him. Call out his hypocrisy for what it is so that those following along can see it. Kochie or Andrews might “not want to have a debate with faith leaders” (they much prefer their monologue) but the rest of those watching on should hear some of it. Jesus models it for us, even verging on the sarcastic at times:
John 10:31-32 The Jews picked up stones again to stone him. Jesus answered them, “I have shown you many good works from the Father; for which of them are you going to stone me?”
From time to time (and more often than we might suspect) we need to be pushing back a little or even a lot. Not out of defensiveness but because we have something far far better to offer people than the narrow destructive view being propagated in so many places. We have the real Jesus with all his goodness. And there are men and women all over Australia and beyond who need to hear how Jesus is far far better than what is currently on offer. It will require Christians to be courageous and be publicly hated for that is what will surely happen when we do push back. But someone has to do it. Otherwise we allow the current narrative to just continue unchallenged to do it’s terrible damage.
Don’t be overly dramatic about the situation
Yes it’s getting bad here in Australia, or at least in some places. Last week was one of those key moments that we shouldn’t ignore. But it could be far, far worse. This past weekend I heard from a returning missionary who had been labouring in France. Since the Revolution, France has pursued a policy of laïcité – an aggressive hard secularism that cannot countenance any public religious expression. We heard of Muslim teachers who have to remove their hijabs and veils before entering the school grounds and so on. This approach has had great success in marginalising religions of all sorts so that (for example) the notion that one might hold Christian beliefs is generally found ridiculous and is almost always viewed as something that should be kept very private. Evangelism is socially proscribed. There are, consequently, far fewer Christians per capita in France.
Even in France not many of us are being physically persecuted. That is not to say that the death of a thousand cuts is irrelevant, but still…
Heb. 12:3-4 Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted. In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood.
We’re nowhere near there yet. In many places they’ve been there for a long time. That doesn’t mean we ought not to seek to arrest the movement in the same direction. But let’s not lose our heads yet. Because, well, we’ve not lost our heads yet.
Don’t lose confidence in and realism about the gospel
This is the rule that I ultimately keep coming back to. I need to keep my confidence in God and his gospel. He will do his transforming work as the word is opened and the Spirit applies it to the hearts of those who read or hear. Which means I need to keep speaking the gospel clearly, applying it into the challenge of the day and calling upon and expecting God to do with it as he sees fit.
At the same time I need to keep recognising that the very same life-giving gospel will be the stench of death to some (2Cor. 2:16). I can’t expect to speak truthfully about Jesus without some people complaining about the smell – it’s all part of the same package. Our problem is that we think we can have one without the other and we invariably end up softening and compromising the gospel proclamation to minimise the opposition we experience. I think the apostles called that fearing man, not God.
That seems like a good place to finish up for now. I’m sure there is more (and better) to be said. You can do that in the comments below.