Category: Contemporary Church Issues

The Fall of the West & “The City of God”

donald_trump_august_19_2015_cropped
The next President of the United States of America [1]
It’s the day after Donald Trump’s historic election victory in the U.S. Presidential contest and the sun has still come up, the world continues much the way it has since the dawn of time and one would think this will equally be the case on 21st January 2017 – the day after President Trump is sworn in as “POTUS.”

But while the rise of Trump itself is not necessarily the cataclysmic, Armageddon, nuclear-meltdown scenario that some of his critics have predicted, it is symptomatic of trends that do have concerning, world-altering implications.

In a repugnant failure of democracy, the American people chose one of two very poor candidates offered to them as the main – and perhaps only viable – contenders for the top office of the land. The fact that Democrat and Republican voters selected Clinton and Trump in the first place, thus setting us up for a contest that seemed best described as King Kong vs. Godzilla (Kong won, just like in the movie), was an appalling state of affairs.

Similarly tragic is the willingness of both major parties to endorse such terrible nominees and the compliance of millions of Americans who voted for one or the other, as though they truly had no other option. Nothing seemed able to fix the Trump v. Clinton debacle from eventuating and that fact itself suggests American democracy is broken.

America and its Western allies – particularly kindred nations in Europe and across the Anglosphere – are facing uncertain times. The political climate across these nations is volatile, restless and even enraged with the failures of the status quo. The deterioration of our collective cultural atmosphere should concern us to the same extent that many are concerned about the health of the physical atmosphere – perhaps even more. The West appears to be possibly years, rather than decades, away from degenerating into a putrid mess, where the healthy tension between competing and conflicting interests is no longer maintained through the mechanisms of pluralistic, liberal democratic societies.

Rather than worry about a “Clash of Civilisations” between Western and non-Western powers – which may still be the eventual outcome – we must first find ourselves gravely concerned with the seemingly unavoidable collision course of ideologies, values and claimed rights and freedoms that threatens to irreparably tear apart Western, post-Christian societies from within.

If and when this occurs, the American-led West may find itself a house divided to the point of being unable to stand in any meaningfully “united” way. Other powers will begin to encroach into what has traditionally been the Western sphere of dominion and influence and eventually, Western nations may find themselves in economic and even military decline in much the same way we presently are culturally, religiously, morally and politically.

Augustine’s City of God  

While many Protestants are excited about the 500th anniversary of the Reformation next year, there’s another – less notable – anniversary of a nonetheless highly significant event in Christian history, that might do us some service in the closing months of 2016 and beyond.

1590 years ago, one of the most significant Christian theologians of all time published a work he had begun many years earlier, as he sought to deal with the decline and eventual fall of the world power of his day: Rome. Augustine’s reflections in City of God offer a detailed defense of Christianity with respect to Rome’s downfall, in the face of accusations and criticisms from disgruntled pagans who blamed the Empire’s decline on her change of religion and gods.

But he also seeks to help Christians have the right perspective in a situation when the world was in massive upheaval, as the imperial stability offered by Rome was crumbling. Here are just a few of his thoughts which might help us deal with both the present political realities and the possible further decline of the U.S. and the Western world.

#1 “The Times of All Kings and Kingdoms are Ordained by the Judgment and Power of the True God.”

“Therefore that God, the author and giver of felicity, because He alone is the true God, Himself gives earthly kingdoms both to good and bad.  Neither does He do this rashly, and, as it were, fortuitously,—because He is God not fortune,—but according to the order of things and times, which is hidden from us, but thoroughly known to Himself; which same order of times, however, He does not serve as subject to it, but Himself rules as lord and appoints as governor.  Felicity He gives only to the good.  Whether a man be a subject or a king makes no difference; he may equally either possess or not possess it.  And it shall be full in that life where kings and subjects exist no longer.  And therefore earthly kingdoms are given by Him both to the good and the bad; lest His worshippers, still under the conduct of a very weak mind, should covet these gifts from Him as some great things…”
– 
City of God, Book IV, Chapter 33.

#2 Bad rulers hurt themselves more than they do their subjects and they can’t affect true freedom

“In this world, therefore, the dominion of good men is profitable, not so much for themselves as for human affairs.  But the dominion of bad men is hurtful chiefly to themselves who rule, for they destroy their own souls by greater license in wickedness; while those who are put under them in service are not hurt except by their own iniquity.  For to the just all the evils imposed on them by unjust rulers are not the punishment of crime, but the test of virtue.  Therefore the good man, although he is a slave, is free; but the bad man, even if he reigns, is a slave, and that not of one man, but, what is far more grievous, of as many masters as he has vices; of which vices when the divine Scripture treats, it says, “For of whom any man is overcome, to the same he is also the bond-slave.””
– City of God, Book IV, Chapter 3.

#3 It is tragically possible for nations and empires to fall or decline as a result of divine judgement, and yet not learn from their sins and punishment

“O infatuated men, what is this blindness, or rather madness, which possesses you?  How is it that while, as we hear, even the eastern nations are bewailing your ruin, and while powerful states in the most remote parts of the earth are mourning your fall as a public calamity, ye yourselves should be crowding to the theatres, should be pouring into them and filling them; and, in short, be playing a madder part now than ever before?  

…Depraved by good fortune, and not chastened by adversity, what you desire in the restoration of a peaceful and secure state, is not the tranquility of the commonwealth, but the impunity of your own vicious luxury…”

– City of God, Book I, Chapter 33.

#4 We have hope in the face of fading earthly powers, because the City of God excels every city, nation & empire! But Christians ought to exceed the pagan patriot’s love for his country with a greater love for God’s City. 

“But the reward of the saints is far different, who even here endured reproaches for that city of God which is hateful to the lovers of this world.  That city is eternal.  There none are born, for none die.  There is true and full felicity,—not a goddess, but a gift of God.  Thence we receive the pledge of faith whilst on our pilgrimage we sigh for its beauty.  There rises not the sun on the good and the evil, but the Sun of Righteousness protects the good alone.  There no great industry shall be expended to enrich the public treasury by suffering privations at home, for there is the common treasury of truth.  And, therefore, it was not only for the sake of recompensing the citizens of Rome that her empire and glory had been so signally extended, but also that the citizens of that eternal city, during their pilgrimage here, might diligently and soberly contemplate these examples, and see what a love they owe to the supernal country on account of life eternal, if the terrestrial country was so much beloved by its citizens on account of human glory.”

– City of God, Book V, Chapter 16.

[1] Michael Vadon “Donald Trump” CC BY-SA 2.0 wikimedia commons.

Looking Forward, Looking Back: Brisbane and the Gospel 3 decades on (1987-2017)

No doubt churches across the city have begun discussing and planning out what 2017 will look like for their ministry. Well I picked up a very interesting study from the Brisbane School of Theology Library this afternoon, which considers the state of religion across Brisbane and suggests strategies for reaching people in each of the city’s many suburbs with the gospel…

castlemaine_perkins_brewery[1]

The problem is, Brisbane: Resistant or Neglected? was compiled almost 30 years ago – meaning that of course the statistics are outdated and many of the proposed strategies are of limited contemporary use. And yet reading through the study’s account of some of the suburbs provides a great insight into where things were at in the city 30 years ago – allowing for fruitful reflections on what has changed and what remains the same.

I wanted to provide a sample from the profile for St. Lucia (where I attend church).

“St. Lucia

The home of Queensland University, St. Lucia’s population pyramid reflects student residents. 39% are in professional employment, while 7.5% make $26 000 per year. The university and golf course and club are unique to St. Lucia. This strongly rejuvenating suburb has a substantial Asian and Malaysian population. Strategy to reach students and these two ethnic groups should be carefully mapped out.

What Could be Done?

…The characteristic population decline has reversed, and is currently on the increase. The majority of these people are professional and have not declared a religion. The Asian population needs to be evangelized. Coordinating church outreach with campus ministries would strengthen the existing work here. Drugs and immorality are prevalent problems in such an area and need to be dealt with aggressively.

Older age groups are concentrated here, as well as young adults 20-29 years of age. Therefore effective evangelism strategies must include outreach to both of these predominant age groups. The housing stock of this area has been through more than one cycle of ownership. Single persons or childless couples occupy rental accommodation in old houses or multiple dwellings. The majority of residents are lower middle class…Evangelism strategies for young adults need to include the development of friendship and interest groups. From these, share groups may emerge in which the Gospel may be effectively presented.

Outreach to the elderly population may include yard and home maintenance, social activities and home visitation to build relationships. “Meals on Wheels” and home nursing care could provide vital inroads into the lives of the families. The elderly population in this area must not be neglected at the cost of outreach solely to the young. Evangelism strategies for young adults needs (sic) to include the development of friendship and interest groups. From these, share groups may emerge in which the Gospel may be effectively presented.”[2]

 

Significantly, many of the general observations here still ring true. The presence of the university means the age demographics and population of international students have remained a constant feature (though we can allow for shifts within broader categories over the decades). Then there’s what I nickname the “landed gentry” of the area – the (often elderly) non-student population whose families have owned houses in the area for some time – perhaps pre-dating the dominance of the university over the suburb. The suburb is still significantly irreligious. And while the assertion that “Drugs and immorality are prevalent problems in such an area and need to be dealt with aggressively”, may raise an eyebrow in 2016, the problem certainly remains real, even if one hesitates to speak of “aggressive” engagement with it.

uq_bus_station
The University of Queensland dominates the suburb of St. Lucia [3]

My feeling, having been involved with churches in this suburb for the past 5 years is that the target groups for evangelistic engagement probably remain very similar 30 years on, but no one church is attempting to effectively reach them all.

The churches I’ve been involved with directly, more or less have the Asian demographic covered, and certainly attract a great number of university students. But there’s limited on-campus or residential community engagement and we gain most of our new members through (pre-existent or newly established) friendship connections; being seen by newcomers to the area who are passing by; word-of-mouth/reputation (eg; as a predominantly “Asian”, “Chinese” or “Singaporean/Malaysian” church or a solid evangelical church with expository preaching); and the internet.

Other churches in the area have greater campus involvement, including co-operation with para-church student ministries or running their own student outreach in the residential colleges. But I’m not aware of their strategies for reaching the wider, non-student and/or elderly community members – or how effective any such initiatives may be.

My suspicion is that the churches in the area which service and engage the most with the long-term residents and elderly population are those which we would not typically identify as evangelical in their theological outlook. These more traditional and long-established churches are reaching out to the older and equally established community members, but perhaps not with the good news of Jesus. Those of us of the evangelical persuasion should also not under-estimate the potential capacity of these churches to “out-outreach” us when it comes to migrant and minority communities in the area, through social programs, English classes and friendly community engagement.

Significantly, the study doesn’t mention anything about strategies for building relationships and gospel opportunities through local schools and community clubs and organisations. I know that some of the best engagement with the local St. Lucia community – from members of churches I’m reasonably acquainted with – has been through making the most of the opportunities that come from being a parent at a local school, or serving as a chaplain or volunteer RI teacher. English classes have also been a more recent innovation that allow great relationship building opportunities for international students and residents from diverse ethnic backgrounds, who may be lonely and isolated by their poor grasp of English.

Reflections

Looking at Brisbane: Resistant or Neglected provides us with food for thought:

I wonder what’s changed in the suburb where you live, work, study or minister over the past few decades?

What was the ministry outlook and evangelistic goals of your church when it began ministering in your area?

Are we addressing yesterday’s trends and issues? Or are we well-acquainted with the changing face of our communities and the contemporary challenges and needs in our area?

Is your church ministry team working hard to ensure your whole congregation is making the most of opportunities they have to advance the gospel in your local area?

Is there a group or subculture in your suburb that’s not actively being engaged with the gospel? What kind of ministry could be started to ensure they have the opportunity to connect with Jesus and His people?

Can we co-operate more effectively amongst evangelical churches to ensure we are reaching out to everyone with the gospel and not just one group or another?

These are questions that churches and their leaders must consider and re-visit from time to time to ensure we’re being faithful in the place God has placed us. More work can be done on ensuring there are local and city-wide strategies for reaching the maximal amount of people with the gospel. And I think a 2017 revision of Brisbane: Resistant or Neglected 30 years on would be a wonderful endeavour for someone to take up!  

 

[1] Kelly Hunter “Castlemaine Perkins Brewery” flickr/wikimedia CC BY 2.0

[2] Ralph W. Neighbour & Lorna Jenkins [eds.] No Room in the Inn…Brisbane: Resistant or Neglected (Brisbane: Touch International Ministries, 1987): pp. 268-269

[3] Bilious “University of Queensland Bus Station” CC BY 2.5 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/University_of_Queensland#/media/File:UQ_Bus_Station.jpg

6 things Jesus said about homosexuality (pt. 2)

In part one, we looked at several things Jesus did say, which have implications for questions about sexuality and marriage (homosexuality in particular). In this piece, we continue with 3 more. 

4. The Law: Jesus took the Law given by YHWH in the Old Testament very seriously. Consider:

Do not think that I have come to destroy the law or the prophets. I have not come to destroy them but to fulfill them. For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one tiny letter or one stroke of a letter will pass away from the law until all takes place. Therefore whoever abolishes one of the least of these commandments and teaches people to do so will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever keeps them and teaches them, this person will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:17-19).

3370859327_ca39731af9_z                        [1]

Christians for centuries have needed to wrestle with the fact that Jesus’ fulfillment of the Law included Him upholding or reinforcing many of the precepts and principles that were already familiar to the Jews of His day – while also revolutionising the way people related to YHWH and recasting our framework for ethical living in numerous ways.

In what is perhaps the key Old Testament text on YHWH’s boundaries for human sexuality, Leviticus 18, we find the command: “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination.” (18:22). It’s right there, nestled amongst commands forbidding incest, adultery and even bestiality. When God spoke to His people concerning acceptable, sexual behaviour He forbade men engaging in sexual acts with men (as though it were the same as the sexual norm: a man sleeping with a woman).

According to Jesus’ statement above in Matthew 5, He didn’t come to abolish or destroy Leviticus 18. Its outline of what is sexually unacceptable still stands as a good and true command of God. In fulfilling the Law, it is possible that Jesus may have recast the way we understand this prohibition against homosexual sex – but if He didn’t, it remains legitimate to think of the act as an abomination in the sight of God.

In this case, Jesus’ silence on homosexuality works against those who attempt to use it as an argument in their favour. His ‘failure’ to speak specifically and directly about homosexual sex – in a manner that would lead his followers to view it in a new light – strongly suggests that He allowed the force of the Law’s condemnation of it to stand.

Significantly, when Jesus goes on in Matthew 5 to engage with the Old Testament Law which He came to fulfill, and deals with issues of sexuality and marriage – He recasts them in a more comprehensive (dare I say stricter) way than the original law. For example the commandment “You shall not commit adultery” is recast to include not only sleeping with another man’s wife – but sexually fantasizing about any woman other than one’s spouse.
Likewise, Jesus tightens the legitimate grounds for divorce so that they only cover cases of “sexual immorality” by a guilty spouse.

Jesus does not tighten or extend the prohibition against homosexual sex (although condemning homosexual lust would be a completely legitimate application of His extension of the seventh commandment against adultery), but He does not mitigate it either. It remains an abomination within the framework of His Jewish sexual ethic, based on the foundation of God’s law.

In fact, there’s every reason to believe that Leviticus 18 is the biblical background that informs Jesus’ use of porneia as a catch-all phrase for sexual immorality (which we discussed in part 1). When a first-century Jew heard “sexual immorality”, their minds would have gone to the sexual prohibitions in this well-known passage of the Law.

Therefore, Jesus didn’t need to use a “special” word to condemn homosexual sex in particular, because His hearers would have already  known that it was included in the term He did use. Much the same as “(all kinds of) theft” could refer to a range of specific acts that all involve the unlawful acquisition of someone’s property or resources.

5. Sodom & Gomorrah: Jesus very readily employs the example of God’s condemnation and utter destruction of these two ancient cities by the Dead Sea as an illustration of how great God’s judgement will be upon those who reject His disciples’ preaching of the gospel.

And if anyone will not receive you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet when you leave that house or town. Truly, I say to you, it will be more bearable on the day of judgement for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah than for that town. (Matthew 10:14-15, ESV)

John Martin's terrifying rendition of the destruction of Sodom & Gomorrah
John Martin’s terrifying rendition of the destruction of Sodom & Gomorrah

Sodom and Gomorrah function as one of the most severe displays of divine wrath in the Old Testament. But what were they judged for? While there have been numerous, recent attempts to suggest they were condemned for other sins like pride or inhospitality, the weight of the Genesis 19 account points towards their aggressive homosexual desire for the two (angelic) visitors to their city. Certainly that was how Jews and Christians understood the story of Sodom and Gomorrah in the first century – we see this clearly in the writings of Peter (one of Jesus’ closest followers) and Jude (Jesus’ younger brother)  [see Jude vv.6-7; 2 Peter 2:6-10].

Jesus appears to not only hold to the fact that these cities were destroyed – His words seem to suggest they will yet face God’s intense wrath at the final judgement. Thus it’s no comfort to anyone that Jesus doesn’t mention homosexual sex specifically, when He forecasts eternal judgement for two cities that were chiefly known for it.

6. Paul: [Ok, this one is the trickiest, but bear with me…]

Jesus appeared to Paul on the road to Damascus and commissioned Him to be His messenger to the non-Jewish peoples of the Mediterranean. This is the best biographical explanation for Paul’s turn-around from persecuting Christians to embracing their faith and propagating it more than probably anyone else in the First Century. Jesus really spoke to Paul.

6800520620_552fbe6fd3_bSaul (later known as Paul the Apostle) meets Jesus en route to Damascus to persecute Christians [3]

And Paul heard Jesus say the following words to him: “…because for this reason I have appeared to you, to appoint you a servant and witness both to the things in which you saw me and to the things in which I will appear to you, rescuing you from the people and from the Gentiles to whom I am sending you, to open their eyes so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, so that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a share among those who are sanctified by faith in me.‘” Acts 26:16-18.

Because Paul really did see Jesus, what Jesus said to Paul during that encounter has relevance to Jesus’ teaching concerning homosexuality. Because Paul – speaking as Jesus’ handpicked representative to share the gospel with the Gentiles – condemns homosexual behaviour very clearly.

For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error. And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done(Romans 1:26-28)

Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God. (1 Corinthians 6:9-11)

Now we know that the law is good, if one uses it lawfully, understanding this, that the law is not laid down for the just but for the lawless and disobedient, for the ungodly and sinners, for the unholy and profane, for those who strike their fathers and mothers, for murderers, the sexually immoral, men who practice homosexuality, enslavers, liars, perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to sound doctrine… (1 Timothy 1:8-10)

Because Jesus essentially says, “Paul will speak for me”, we could say that Jesus’ most direct statements about homosexuality, genuinely come through one of the spokesmen He appointed.

Part of Paul’s ministry of seeing people turned from darkness to light, from the power of Satan to God and receiving forgiveness of sins was to call them to repentance for their sexual immorality: including the homosexual variety. Without this, they could never have their share among those who are sanctified by faith in Jesus – the very thing He sought by commissioning Paul to be His apostle.

If Paul doesn’t speak as an authentic representative of Jesus, Christians have much bigger problems than whatever issues people might take with our understanding of sexuality. But if he is, advocates of homosexuality and “same-sex marriage” would do well to take note of what Paul said on this issue, on behalf of Jesus Himself.

Summary

So if you encounter this shallow claim that Jesus was silent on homosexuality, here’s what you might want to remember and respond with…

1. Jesus affirmed a biblical perspective on Creation, which emphasised humanity being made by God as sexually complementary creatures: “male and female.”

2. Jesus advanced an understanding of marriage based on the above premise.
Marriage, for Jesus, is foundationally based on a heterosexual union: it doesn’t leave any room for a homosexual (per)version of marriage.

3. Jesus condemned “sexually immoral” behaviour. This includes any expression of sexuality that deviates from the above pattern of sexual intercourse within a marriage relationship. Thus Jesus opposed homosexual sex.

4. Jesus said He didn’t come to destroy or abolish the Law. He gives no indication that “lying with a man as one would with a woman” (i.e. homosexual intercourse) is no longer to be considered abominable (as per Leviticus 18).
In fact, His use of porneia (see #3) would have been understood by the Jews in line with these perimeter for human sexuality.

5. Jesus refers negatively to the two cities, Sodom and Gomorrah, which were famously condemned for their exhibition of homosexual lasciviousness. He upholds the fact they were judged by God and seems to anticipate further judgement of their sins at the end of time.

6. Jesus commissions Paul to be His representative and messenger to the non-Jewish world. Paul speaks for Jesus, when he explicitly condemns homosexual behaviour as ungodly and deserving of God’s wrath, while instructing Christians from a Greco-Roman background.

Other articles like this one

https://gotquestions.org/Jesus-homosexuality.html [Got Questions?]

https://carm.org/did-jesus-talk-about-homosexuality [Christian Apologetics Research Ministries]

http://www.tms.edu/preachersandpreaching/jesus-never-address-homosexuality/ [Master’s Seminary]

http://www.patheos.com/blogs/jesuscreed/2015/04/06/did-jesus-talk-about-homosexuality/ [Scot McKnight]

Picture Credits

[1] Lawrie Cate “Torah” flickr (CC BY 2.0)

[2] John Martin “Sodom and Gomorrah” Public Domain

[3] Sabdiasep Mercado “The Conversion of Saul circa 1986” flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

6 things Jesus said about homosexuality (pt. 1)

Straight to the point, here they are:

1.
2.
3.
4.
5.
6. Plenty of things that have definite relevance to any claims about human sexuality (but which are conveniently ignored by shallow interlocutors who seem to think “One punch can kill” is an effective debating ethos, rather than an anti-violence campaign slogan).

That’s right, Jesus said nothing about homosexuality, except for a bunch of stuff He did say that have fairly clear implications when it comes to various approaches to sexuality.

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A picture of Jesus saying nothing about homosexuality… [1]

I’m sure you’ve encountered some variation of the above list by now (unspoilt by my #6 of course). The numbering varies, or sometimes the claim is just made outright (eg; “Jesus never said anything about homosexuality, therefore…), but the substance of the assertion is the same. Because Jesus either didn’t have an Aramaic or Greek synonym for “gay” in His vocabulary, or did but chose never to use it in His extensive teaching ministry – we’re to believe that homosexuality can’t have been a big deal in His eyes.

The problem is that the biblical evidence suggests that Jesus was not only well aware of the existence of homosexual sex, but He was in fact against it. That He chose not to name it exclusively on any number of occasions (or that, perhaps, the Gospel writers simply did not include what He did teach on this issue for unknown reasons), was probably largely to do with the demographic make-up of His usual audience. Or perhaps it has something to do with “queer” sexualities not being viewed as “special” then in the manner they are now (instead they were just one of several ways a person could conduct their sexual urges in rebellion to God). But more on those points later.

Here are six things Jesus said that really have an awful lot to say when applied to questions surrounding homosexuality. [Most of these points have been made by others at different times, but I’m seeking here to collate them in a way that presents a clear picture on the issue. I’ll include links to several similar articles at the end of part 2].

1. Sexuality: Jesus spoke of human sexuality in terms of exclusively binary sex/gender categories: “Have you not read that the One who created them from the beginning made them male and female…” (Matt 19:4, LEB).

In context, Jesus is responding to marital relationships between men and women. He begins His answer with the above statement of complementary sexuality. God’s original creation involved a male human and a female human, with complementary sexual organs, capable of being joined together to bring about pleasure and procreation.

book_of_genesis_chapter_2-10_bible_illustrations_by_sweet_media
Jesus saw significance in Adam and Eve as male and female [2]

While the old “Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve” slogan is trite (and guilty of attempting the same throwaway-line debating tactics I’m criticising here), the point behind the poor framing is valid. Jesus had no theological notion of humans of the same sex being created to enjoy each other’s bodies in a sexual way. He approached all questions of sexuality and marriage from the starting point of Man and Woman being specially created by God as sexually distinct from one another.

2. Marriage: Jesus’ teaching on marriage and sexual union naturally flowed on from this framework. “And [Jesus] answered and said, “Have you not read that the one who created them from the beginning made them male and female and said, ‘On account of this a man will leave his father and his mother and will be joined to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’? So then, they are no longer two but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, man must not separate.” (Matthew 19:4-6).

Jesus moves from his opening statement of binary human sexuality to a consequential picture of human marriage and sexual union. Marriage and sex (which are properly inseparable in Jesus’ mind, teaching and social/religious context) take place when an adult male leaves the familial arrangement founded by his parents (the very sexual/marital relationship that resulted in his own existence) and enters into his own, new, familial and sexual relationship with a woman. When the man and woman are “joined together” in matrimony as husband and wife, their social identities become inseparably linked and their bodies come to share in a oneness as a result of natural, sexual intercourse.

2607861005_9c667a9ef6_b                                                      Marriage between Man and Woman [3]

It’s at this point that Jesus’ silence on homosexuality should trouble LGBTetc; advocates, rather than buoy them. Because the manner in which Jesus has framed human marriage and sexuality makes the idea of male-male sex or female-female marriage a completely foreign concept. Jesus need not go through every possible example of what wouldn’t constitute a legitimate marriage or sexual relationship, as He has stated very clearly (using Creation as His theological foundation) what the genuine article looks like and it doesn’t leave room for innovation or clever redefinition.

3. “Sexual immorality”: Jesus spoke disapprovingly of porneia, which is a catch-all Greek term for immoral sexual practices, i.e. those which do not conform to the moral standards of what is held to constitute legitimate sexuality by the speaker/author.  “For from the heart come evil plans, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, abusive speech.” Matt 15:19

I’ve already attempted to show above (and will continue to do so in the next post), that homosexual intercourse was very much beyond the pale of Jesus’ binary understanding of human sexuality and complementary, heterosexual view of marriage. For Jesus, sexual immorality was any expression of sexuality that deviated from the picture of male-female marital intimacy we’ve seen described already.

While Christian(ish) and non-Christian proponents of gay and lesbian relationships have long sought to emphasise the similarity between committed, loving, homosexual couples and monogamous heterosexual relationships – this is not a relevant objection at this point, as Jesus seems to place the sexual complementarity as the foundational element of marriage – not monogamous exclusivity (this goes a-ways toward explaining the higher level of biblical tolerance for polygamy – as an albeit far-less-than-ideal arrangement in the Old Testament – than homosexual relationships. But that’s one for another day!).

There are three more things Jesus said that help us grasp His “position” on homosexual sex, but they’ll have to wait until part 2.

[1] Carl Bloch, “Sermon on the Mount” Public Domain.

[2] Distant Shores Media/Sweet Publishing “Book of Genesis Chapter 2” wikimedia CC BY-SA 3.0

[3] Peter Kenjerski “Wedding” flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Religious Scandals – Thomas Watson

A special guest post from my good friend Thomas Watson (c. 1620-1686)

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I acknowledge the luster of religion has been much eclipsed and sullied by the scandals of men. This is an age of scandals. Many have made the pretense of religion, to be a key to open the door to all ungodliness. Never was God’s name more taken in vain. This is that [which] our Saviour has foretold. ‘It must needs be that offences come’ (Matthew 18:7). But to take off this prejudice, consider: scandals are not from true religion—but for lack of true religion. True religion is not the worse, though some abuse it. To dislike piety because some of the professors of it are scandalous, is as if one should say, ‘Because the servant is dishonest, therefore he will not have a good opinion of his master.’ Is Christ the less glorious because some who wear his livery are scandalous? Is true religion the worse—because some of her followers are bad? Is wine the worse—because some are drunkards? Shall a woman dislike chastity because some of her neighbors are unchaste? Let us argue soberly. ‘Judge righteous judgment’ (John 7:24).

God sometimes permits scandals to fall out in the church out of a design:

(1) As a just judgment upon hypocrites. These squint-eyed devotionists who serve God for their own ends, the Lord in justice allows them to fall into horrid debauched practices, that he may lay open their baseness to the world, and that all may see they were but pretend Christians, but painted devils! Judas was first a sly hypocrite, afterwards a visible traitor!

(2) Scandals are for hardening of the profane. Some desperate sinners who would not be won by piety—they shall be wounded by it. God lets scandals occur, to be a break neck to men and to engulf them more in sin. Jesus Christ (‘God blessed forever’) is to some a ‘rock of offence’ (Romans 9:33). His blood, which is to some balm, is to others poison. If the beauty of piety does not allure—the scandals of some of its followers shall spur men to hell.

(3) Scandals in the church are for the caution of the godly. The Lord would have his people walk tremblingly. ‘Be not high-minded—but fear’ (Romans 11:20). When cedars fall, let the ‘bruised reed’ tremble. The scandals of professors are not to discourage us—but to warn us. Let us tread more warily. The scandals of others are sea-marks for the saints to avoid.

Let all this serve to take off these prejudices from true religion. Though Satan may endeavor by false disguises to render the gospel odious—yet there is a beauty and a glory in it. God’s ‘commandments are not grievous’.

Let me persuade all men cordially to embrace the ways of God. ‘His commandments are not grievous’. God never burdens us—but that he may unburden us of our sins. His commands are our privileges. There is joy in the way of duty (Psalm 19:11)—and heaven at the end!

An excerpt from the closing paragraphs of Watson’s Beatitudes (1660). Available here.

How do Christians decide who to vote for? (A political triage proposal) Pt. 2

This is the second post in a two-part piece on how Christians might approach voting – you can read part 1 here.

Secondary issues of considerable importance

Secondary issues are those that are significant in nature and should have an impact upon your decision as to who you should vote for. Given that, if you accept my previous outline of the fundamental issues, there will likely be some candidates and parties who will be excluded from your consideration altogether – thinking through some of these secondary issues should help you decide who the best candidate or party is out of the remaining options.

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While these issues are not necessarily questions of fundamental principles, their importance is largely derived from the fact that they have a significant impact on the well-being of real people. The Christian’s imperative to love her neighbour as herself should affect how she votes to a large degree.

Sometimes a party’s position on an issue that would normally fall in this category could be so bad that it violates one of the fundamental principles I discussed in the last post. This would naturally mean you need to consider it one of those “single issues” that disqualifies a candidate from your consideration. However, as a general rule the following policy areas are quite complex and require something of a balancing act to get right. Therefore parties and candidates who address these issues can easily elevate one set of principles that are important to them at the expense of other important factors when articulating their position. Amongst Christians, there would be a great deal of unity on some of the important, basic principles a party’s platform should cover in these areas, but many of us will have different ideas about how exactly the policies should be fleshed out in practice to bring about the best outcomes.

Here are some examples:

Immigration/Border Protection and Refugees

The issue many Christians will feel most strongly about from this category, has been an issue at virtually every federal election since 2001. How the federal government manages immigration, controls Australia’s borders and treats asylum seekers is an incredibly complex policy area and is one of the most vexed issues in Australian society.

I recognise that for some Christians, how a party treats asylum seekers easily becomes a “single issue” for them and they will choose not to vote for a party with harsh policies in this area. I understand and respect that – however I believe this issue should not be one of the primary issues that determines how Christians vote at this election (or future federal polls). This is because:
a) I believe the issues discussed in the first section are of more fundamental importance and should be considered before getting to this one.
b) Opposing a party’s policy on this issue is not necessarily the same as having a viable alternative.
c) The two major parties have equally hard-line approaches and thus the election must be decided on other matters.

Let me focus on point b) for a moment. Many Christians in Australia are rightly concerned with current government policies related to the processing of asylum seekers in offshore detention. The problem is, many of our responses are simplistic and do not take seriously the range of complex issues at hand. If you have an alternative it must provide appropriate preventative measures to stop deaths at sea and halt people smuggling. It must also address the processing inequality that arises from giving any priority to the claims of asylum seekers who arrive by boat over those who languish for years in UN refugee camps while they wait to hear whether countries like Australia will take them in.

I hate the way that politicians and the media use the lives of asylum seekers as a cheap campaign token or sensational news story. I wholeheartedly agree that they all need to be held to account for the way they handle these vulnerable human beings. I believe there is considerable goodwill towards asylum seekers and refugees amongst Christians and that we should keep encouraging the government to increase the national annual refugee intake significantly and ensure asylum seekers are well treated. But I fear there is no easy solution to this issue and we are potentially playing into the hands of the opportunists if we treat it as an election-deciding issue in any significant way.

Social Welfare

For the Christian voter, social welfare isn’t about propping up dole bludgers and wasting government resources through careless spending. How the party or candidate you vote for proposes to treat the disadvantaged, disabled and disempowered in society will impact the lives of many real people. We will never all agree on the nitty gritty of who gets what payment under what conditions, nor whether everyone is getting the support who needs it vs. too many people getting benefits they don’t really need. But any party or candidate that shows a lack of concern for struggling Australians – like the homeless, the destitute, the poorly educated, the mentally ill, the children affected by gambling, drug and alcohol addiction or domestic violence – should have a proportionate lack of our support.

Health

Healthcare will always be a significant issue in every election. Like the above, we should recognise that the quality of health services in Australia affects the quality of life for hundreds of thousands of people every year. We should think particularly of our elderly neighbours and those in regional or neglected areas that may be severely impacted by a lack of relevant funding. Again, there will likely be disagreement on the various details of any proposed health program, but a party’s commitment to improving health services may lift its standing in our considerations.

Education

How a party approaches education is not usually a life and death issue, but education does play an enormous part in determining the life opportunities of our young and future generations. Christian voters should want Australian children from wealthy, “average,” or economically disadvantaged families to at least have access to the educational opportunities we ourselves have received.
We should want to see educational opportunities that equip young people to enter society and the workforce as well-informed, civic-minded adults with the skills to contribute positively to the community.

How a party prioritises education funding is important, but so is its ideological vision for education. At this election, federal support for the “Safe Schools” program is rightly an issue of concern, as are any other attempts by one brand of politics to indoctrinate the young people of Australia with a slanted social perspective. Christians should take an interest in what parties propose to teach the nation’s children and what the desired outcomes of these programs are.

Economic Policy

Managing the economy is important, because the health of the economy affects millions of people for better or worse. I personally don’t think Christian voters should be wed to the neo-liberal, free-market, economic rationalism of the Liberal Party or the naïve, ideological socialism held by some on the Left of politics. Instead, out of the options available to us, we should cast a vote for a party or candidate that will manage the economy responsibly while seeking the best interests of all Australians. No party, major or minor has a perfect economic philosophy, so this will mean weighing up how a particular party’s policies might affect people positively or negatively (both short-term and long-term). Contrary to popular presentation, the particulars of economic policy should not be at the top of your list when deciding who to vote for!

Indigenous policy

Last, but definitely not least, Christian voters ought to take the welfare of Indigenous Australians seriously and it may be necessary to listen closely for where this fits into someone’s political priorities. Indigenous affairs is an area almost as controversial as immigration policy, so I would expect a degree of disagreement between Christian voters as to what policies and approaches are appropriate and which are unhelpful. But I know many of my brothers and sisters will agree that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people must not be neglected, marginalised or denied opportunities that many of us take for granted. Initiatives such as Closing the Gap and addressing areas of indigenous disadvantage are things we should be behind.

Tertiary issues of lesser importance

These issues are not necessarily unimportant – some of them relate directly to things that affect our daily lives and benefit our communities. But in keeping with a triage model, I think there are a range of policies and promises that shouldn’t affect how we vote at an election, unless you’re down to an evenly balanced shortlist of otherwise good candidates and one of them is better than the others when it comes to some of these areas. There are areas in politics that have a considerably lower negative impact on people if someone gets them wrong and which don’t significantly improve people’s quality of life if the issues in the above section are insufficiently addressed.

Here are some examples on things that should be lower on the list of priorities when it comes to determining your vote as a Christian.

Infrastructure (eg; NBN, stadiums, roads, bridges etc;)

We need government to be on the ball when it comes to infrastructure projects. The country would be a mess if successive governments neglected important infrastructure like roads, telecommunications and public facilities.
But when it comes to a party’s promise to deliver faster internet speeds, road upgrades, new sports stadiums etc; there are just so many factors we should be considering before these ones. The NBN issue is the classic example at this election. It does matter if Australians get the best possible internet speeds in the coming years, because reliable and fast broadband does affect things like business and education. But the difference between two party’s policies on this issue pales in comparison to many of the issues highlighted above.

Arts, Sport and Entertainment

At the risk of inviting the criticism that I’m reinforcing the tendency for Christians to under-appreciate the arts – I’m more than happy to defend including this policy area in the category of third-order issues. It’s nice when parties find a way to fund arts, sport and entertainment for the enjoyment of the community, as they each have the capacity to contribute to the flourishing of society. But none of them are essential in comparison to other matters and should therefore be pretty low on our list of determining criteria.

Conclusion

I hope that even if readers have some different ideas about how to approach some of these issues, the triage model will lead to fruitful considerations of party policies this election. What I’ve written isn’t comprehensive, but hopefully I’ve surveyed enough of the issues to be of some help.

[1] Douglas Miller ballot_box_1.jpg (CC BY-ND 2.0)

 

 

 

 

More convinced by hell (than you or I)

In my last post I suggested that you and I are probably less convinced by hell, than many of our Christian forbears were (as demonstrated by their life, preaching and ministry). In this follow-up I’m sharing some examples of what some significant Christian ministers have expressed with regard to the realness of hell and how it affected their outlook. Of course, what is provided below by no means establishes how much of an emphasis these men put on hell across their life and ministry (that would be too enormous a task) – but it does give us a taste of how generations before us have regarded the truth of hell, which will be useful for comparison with our own emphasis or lack thereof.

Biblical

Our Lord Jesus was more convinced by the reality of hell than we are:

And if your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life crippled than with two hands to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life lame than with two feet to be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into hell, ‘where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched.’ (Mark 9:43-48, ESV)

I tell you, my friends, do not fear those who kill the body, and after that have nothing more that they can do. But I will warn you whom to fear: fear him who, after he has killed, has authority to cast into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him!”  (Luke 12:4-5, ESV)

Paul was convinced enough by hell to use it as an encouragement for those suffering persecution:

This is evidence of the righteous judgment of God, that you may be considered worthy of the kingdom of God, for which you are also suffering– since indeed God considers it just to repay with affliction those who afflict you, and to grant relief to you who are afflicted as well as to us, when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might, when he comes on that day to be glorified in his saints, and to be marveled at among all who have believed, because our testimony to you was believed. (2 Thessalonians 1:5-10)

Peter convinced enough by hell to warn Christians that false teachers were headed there:

But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing upon themselves swift destruction…
Their condemnation from long ago is not idle, and their destruction is not asleep. For if God did not spare angels when they sinned, but cast them into hell and committed them to chains of gloomy darkness to be kept until the judgment; if he did not spare the ancient world…if by turning the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah to ashes he condemned them to extinction, making them an example of what is going to happen to the ungodly…then the Lord knows how to rescue the godly from trials, and to keep the unrighteous under punishment until the day of judgment, and especially those who indulge in the lust of defiling passion and despise authority
…(2 Peter 2:1-10)

John was convinced by hell because God showed him a vision of what it would be like:

And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Then another book was opened, which is the book of life. And the dead were judged by what was written in the books, according to what they had done. And the sea gave up the dead who were in it, Death and Hades gave up the dead who were in them, and they were judged, each one of them, according to what they had done. Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire. And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire. (Revelation 20:12-15)

Early Church 

Early Christian bishop and martyr Polycarp was convinced enough by hell to tell his persecutors how much worse it would be than anything they could do to him:

You threaten me with fire that burns for one hour and then cools, not knowing the judgment to come, nor the perpetual torment of eternal fire to the ungodly.”

Tertullian was convinced of eternal punishment for the unrepentant:

But the godless and those who have not turned wholly to God will be punished in fire equally unending, and they shall have from the very nature of this fire, divine as it were, a supply of incorruptibility.

Augustine was so convinced by the reality of hell, he thought it should make us shudder:

“So then what God by His prophet has said of the everlasting punishment of the damned shall come to pass—shall without fail come to pass,—“their worm shall not die, neither shall their fire be quenched…”  [Jesus] did not shrink from using the[se] same words three times over in one passage.  And who is not terrified by this repetition, and by the threat of that punishment uttered so vehemently by the lips of the Lord Himself?”

Likewise Chrysostom, who thought it was better to tremble at the thought of hell than end up there through lack of due consideration:

For indeed my heart is troubled and throbs, and the more I see the account of hell confirmed, the more do I tremble and shrink through fear, but it is necessary to say these things, lest we fall into hell.”

Reformers

Luther was convinced that hell was an unending experience of God’s judgement:

The fiery oven is ignited merely by the unbearable appearance of God and endures eternally. For the Day of Judgment will not last for a moment only but will stand throughout eternity and will thereafter never come to an end. Constantly the damned will be judged, constantly they will suffer pain, and constantly they will be a fiery oven, that is, they will be tortured within by supreme distress and tribulation.”

Calvin was convinced that hell was absolutely necessary if we have a right understanding of God and sin:

“…but then the majesty of God, and also the justice which they have violated by their sins, are eternal. Justly, therefore, the memory of their iniquity does not perish. But in this way the punishment will exceed the measure of the fault. It is intolerable blasphemy to hold the majesty of God in so little estimation, as not to regard the contempt of it as of greater consequence than the destruction of a single soul.”
Puritans

John Owen was convinced that hell would be intensified for those who have been offered forgiveness and yet rejected it:

…of this sure I am, that none shall have their portion so low in the nethermost hell, none shall drink so deep of the cup of God’s indignation, as they who have refused Christ in the gospel. Men will curse the day to all eternity wherein the blessed name of Jesus Christ was made known unto them, if they continue to despise it. He that abuseth the choicest of mercies, shall have judgment without mercy.”

Thomas Watson was convinced by the sheer incomprehensibility of the eternal nature of hell:

“The fire of hell is such, as multitudes of tears will not quench it, length of time will not finish it; the vial of God’s wrath will be always dropping upon a sinner. As long as God is eternal, He lives to be avenged upon the wicked. Oh eternity! eternity! who can fathom it? Mariners have their plummets to measure the depths of the sea; but what line or plummet shall we use to fathom the depth of eternity? The breath of the Lord kindles the infernal lake, (Isa. 30:33), and where shall we have engines or buckets to quench that fire?” 

Evangelical Evangelists, Missionaries and Preachers

Wesley was convinced by the terrible miseries of hell:

There is no grandeur in the infernal regions; there is nothing beautiful in those dark abodes; no light but that of livid flames. And nothing new, but one unvaried scene of horror upon horror! There is no music but that of groans and shrieks; of weeping, wailing, and gnashing of teeth; of curses and blasphemies against God, or cutting reproaches of one another. Nor is there anything to gratify the sense of honour: No; they are the heirs of shame and everlasting contempt.”

Whitefield was convinced that anyone confronted with hell as it really is, should scarcely need persuading to avoid anything that would lead them there:

You have heard, brethren, the eternity of hell-torments plainly proved, from the express declarations of holy scriptures, and consequences naturally drawn from them. And now there seems to need no great art of rhetoric to persuade any understanding person to avoid and abhor those sins, which without repentance will certainly plunge him into this eternal gulf.”

Jonathan Edwards was convinced that the eternal destruction of those who refused to trust in Christ was so certain that they might as well already be in hell:

Yea God is a great deal more angry with great Numbers that are now on Earth, yea doubtless with many that are now in this Congregation, that it may be are at Ease and Quiet – than he is with many of those that are now in the Flames of Hell. So that it is not because God is unmindful of their Wickedness, and don’t resent it, that he don’t let loose his Hand and cut them off. God is not altogether such an one as themselves, tho’ they may imagine him to be so. The Wrath of God burns against them, their Damnation don’t slumber, the Pit is prepared, the Fire is made ready, the Furnace is now hot, ready to receive them, the Flames do now rage and glow. The glittering Sword is whet, and held over them, and the Pit hath opened her Mouth under them.

Hudson Taylor was convinced that a right perspective on hell would motivate us to seek the salvation of others without rest:

Would that God would make hell so real to us that we cannot rest; heaven so real that we must have men there; Christ so real that our supreme motive and aim shall be to make the Man of Sorrows the Man of Joy by the conversion to Him of many concerning whom He prayed, “Father, I long that those whom Thou hast given Me be with Me where I am, that they may behold My glory.””

Spurgeon was convinced of hell and urged his students not to allow themselves to be less convinced of its terrible nature:

Meditate with deep solemnity upon the fate of the lost sinner, and, like Abraham, when you get up early to go to the place where you commune with God, cast an eye towards Sodom and see the smoke thereof going up like the smoke of a furnace. Shun all views of future punishment which would make it appear less terrible, and so take off the edge of your anxiety to save immortals from the quenchless flame. If men are indeed only a nobler kind of ape, and expire as the beasts, you may well enough let them die unpitied; but if their creation in the image of God involves immortality, and there is any fear that through their unbelief they will bring upon themselves endless woe, arouse yourselves to the agonies of the occasion, and be ashamed at the bare suspicion of unconcern.”

J.C. Ryle was convinced that hell was part of God’s revelation, which he must urge others to think properly about:

 Who would desire to speak of hell-fire if God has not spoken of it? When God has spoken of it so plainly, who can safely hold his peace? I dare not shut my eyes to the fact, that a deep rooted infidelity lurks in men’s minds on the subject of hell. I see it oozing out in the utter apathy of some: they eat, and drink, and sleep, as if there was no wrath to come. I see it creeping forth in the coldness others about their neighbor’s souls: they show little anxiety to awaken the unconverted, and pluck brands from the fire.”

Martyn Lloyd-Jones was convinced by hell – to the point that it shaped the goal and approach of his preaching and pastoral ministry:

“We spend most of our time rendering people fit to go back to their sin! I want to heal souls. If a man has a diseased body and his soul is all right, he is all right to the end; but a man with a healthy body and a distressed soul is all right for sixty years or so and then he has to face eternity in Hell.”