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Abortion Reform Needed in Queensland?

The Queensland Law Reform Commission will give its recommendations to the government this weekend about changes to state laws surrounding abortion. Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk has said that reforming abortion laws is a priority for her government. I agree that law reform is needed, but not the kind I fear the QLRC will recommend to the government. Below is my submission to the Commission’s review from earlier this year. 

Please pray for the protection of unborn lives in Queensland and consider contacting your State MP next week to communicate your concerns! 

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Submission to the Queensland Law Reform Commission: Review of termination of pregnancy laws.

Dear Mrs. Manthey (and Commission members),

The following submission addresses a number of issues pertinent to the consultation questions outlined by the Commission in your review of the State’s laws regarding the termination of pregnancies in Queensland.

I write as a concerned citizen who has long opposed our State’s drift towards the kind of culture of “abortion on demand” so forcefully condemned by McGuire DCJ in R v Bayliss & Cullen (1986).[1] I will outline my concerns about reform to abortion-related laws below and have included an appendix with my concise responses to the Commission’s consultation questionnaire.[2]

The substance of this submission is that:

a) The Queensland Law Reform Commission and the Queensland Parliament have a responsibility to ensure that the laws of Queensland protect the fundamental right to life of all Queenslanders, including the unborn.

b) procuring an abortion and/or acting in such a manner that intentionally causes an unnatural miscarriage should remain unlawful in Queensland (i.e. Sections 224-226 of the Criminal Code should not be abolished).

c) Section 292 of the Criminal Code is the section in urgent need of reform – as there is currently a severe inconsistency between the legal principles of this section and those enshrined in Section 313.

d) the person or persons who carry out an abortion (whether a licensed medial professional or another individual) should be held criminally responsible for this action (rather than a woman seeking an abortion).

e) in the event that the Commission or Parliament rejects the points in this submission, the adverse effects of liberalised abortion laws in Queensland ought to be mitigated by the Commission recommending:

i. the highest levels of accountability within the medical and health system in this State.

ii. mandatory referrals for counselling in the event of a termination being sought.

iii. no requirement of medical professionals to violate their consciences through participation in an abortion.

iv. no restrictions to free speech in Queensland regarding the right to protest against abortion and peacefully dissuade women from seeking a termination.

Addressing the fundamental principles underlying the Attorney-General’s ordering of this review

I am concerned that, despite Parliament’s recent refusal to decriminalise abortion in accordance with the coarse proposals of the Abortion Law Reform (Woman’s Right to Choose) Amendment Bill 2016, the Hon. Attorney General Ms. D’Ath appears to have referred this matter to the Commission (on behalf of the government) with the assumption that abortion should be decriminalised in Queensland.

I strongly agree with McGuire DCJ’s view in his ruling on R v Bayliss and Cullen (1988) that:

The law in this State has not abdicated its responsibility as guardian of the silent innocence of the unborn. It should rightly use its authority to see that abortion on whim or caprice does not insidiously filter into our society. There is no legal justification for abortion on demand.[3]

Commission members would likely be aware that McGuire DCJ cited – as a precedent underlying these remarks – the opinion of Macnaghten J in the case of Rex v Bourne (1938, UK) that:

The law of this land has always held human life to be sacred, and the protection that the law gives to human life it extends also to the unborn child in the womb.[4]

These are sound legal principles that should govern any legislation or legal rulings related to the termination of unborn human life. I am deeply concerned that subsequent interpretations and applications of Queensland law have weakened our State’s commitment to the fundamental principle of justice that demands full protection for all human life within our borders. Should the Commission or Parliament err in how reform is approached, there is a risk that “abortion on demand” might become a reality in Queensland.

Humanity, personhood and the right to life

Medically speaking, human life begins at conception. When an ovum is fertilised by a sperm cell, a new human being has been formed and the processes of human growth and development have begun.[5] It is disingenuous and medically unfounded to speak of an “embryo” or a “foetus” in a manner that implies that the entity in question is not a human being. The embryo or foetus is a “human embryo” or “human foetus” (rather than an unspecified entity, or a potential member of another species).

As genuine human beings, unborn children should be afforded full protection of their lives under Queensland law, just as all citizens and other residents are.

Many arguments against human rights and legal protections for the unborn are incredibly problematic. For instance, the suggestion that unborn children should not be afforded full legal rights and protections because they are dependent on their mother for survival is dubious. Newborn children are also completely dependent upon adults for survival and yet their lives are fully protected under Queensland law – in recognition of their personhood. Heavy criminal penalties are rightly imposed whenever someone is found guilty of killing a newborn child or causing their death through abandonment or similar negligence. For the law to be consistent, dependency cannot be used as grounds to exclude unborn children from legal protections. Either unborn children ought to have the same rights and protections as any infant, or – as certain, extremist ethicists have recently suggested – parents and medical professionals should have the option to legally end the lives of infants.[6]

The same principle covers any suggestions that a foetus is not sufficiently developed to be recognised as a human being with the legal right to life. Irrespective of whether the development in question is physical or psychological, this premise is flawed and dangerous. A six month old infant is manifestly less physically and psychologically developed than a 30 year old man or woman. Yet the infant is afforded the exact same protection of their life under Queensland law that every adult enjoys.

The assertion that the unborn (and perhaps even the newly born) do not possess sufficient self-awareness and fully developed consciousness to be considered a true “person” is a disturbing philosophical argument that has potentially horrific ramifications if applied consistently across the community. Philosophical arguments that classify unborn children and infants as “potential persons” – without an intrinsic right to life as a human being – could equally be used to classify elderly dementia patients as “former persons” without legal protections. Such a principle could exclude people with mental disabilities from legal personhood. Reclassification of some members of the community as “non-persons” is dangerous and should be rejected.

Philosopher Peter Kreeft (Boston University) provides a helpful illustration of the ethical and legal implications which apply if a foetus cannot be definitively determined to not be a ‘human’ or a ‘person.’

[We] know by formal logic alone…that either we do or do not know what a fetus is. Either there is “out there,” in objective fact, independent of our minds, a human life, or there is not; and either there is knowledge in our minds of this objective fact, or there is not.

So, there are four possibilities:

  1.  The fetus is a person, and we know that;
  2.  The fetus is a person, but we don’t know that;
  3.  The fetus isn’t a person, but we don’t know that;
  4.  The fetus isn’t a person, and we know that.

What is abortion in each of these four cases?

In Case 1, where the fetus is a person and you know that, abortion is murder… You deliberately kill an innocent human being. In Case 2, where the fetus is a person and you don’t know that, abortion is manslaughter. It’s like driving over a man-shaped overcoat in the street at night or shooting toxic chemicals into a building that you’re
not sure is fully evacuated. You’re not sure there is a person there, but you’re not sure there isn’t either, and it just so happens that there is a person there, and you kill him. You cannot plead ignorance. True, you didn’t know there was a person there, but you didn’t know there wasn’t either, so your act was literally the height of irresponsibility. . .

In Case 3, the fetus isn’t a person, but you don’t know that. So abortion is just as irresponsible as it is in the previous case. You ran over the overcoat or fumigated the building without knowing that there were no persons there. You were lucky; there weren’t. But you didn’t care; you didn’t take care; you were just as irresponsible. You cannot legally be charged with manslaughter, since no man was slaughtered, but you can and should be charged with criminal negligence.

Only in Case 4 is abortion a reasonable, permissible, and responsible choice. But note: What makes Case 4 permissible is not merely the fact that the fetus is not a person but also your knowledge that it is not, your overcoming of skepticism. So skepticism counts not for abortion but against it. Only if you are not a skeptic, only if you are a dogmatist, only if you are certain that there is no person in the fetus, no man in the coat, or no person in the building, may you abort, drive, or fumigate.[7]

The full weight of Kreeft’s argument must be felt when considering how abortion should be treated by the laws of Queensland. Members of this Commission and members of State Parliament must ensure the protection of the lives of those who are indisputably members of the human race. This responsibility is only negated if it can be definitively established that an unborn child is less a “person” than an adult citizen or even a premature baby delivered at 23 weeks – both of whom enjoy full protection under the law.

Decriminalising abortion in Queensland is the wrong kind of reform

Because philosophical or ideological arguments against the personhood of unborn children cannot be established beyond doubt as evidence-based, factual knowledge – they lack sufficient weight to support the decriminalisation of abortion. To decriminalise abortion would be to adopt the unfounded premise that  children who are conceived in Queensland are unworthy of legal protection under the law of the State. This amounts to an arbitrary exclusion of an entire section of our State’s population from their basic human rights. Furthermore it renders the Criminal Code inconsistent with respect to the value of unborn children.

Section 292 of the Criminal Code should be reformed in line with Section 313

There is a clear disparity between the legal principle expressed in Section 313 of the Criminal Code and the potential removal of abortion and the procurement of miscarriages from the Criminal Code. Section 313 rightly views the destruction of the life of an unborn child by a third party as a serious criminal offence – which makes the offender liable to a sentence of life imprisonment.

313 Killing unborn child

(1) Any person who, when a female is about to be delivered of a child, prevents  the child from being born alive by any act or omission of such a nature that, if the child had been born alive and had then died, the person would be deemed to have unlawfully killed the child, is guilty of a crime, and is liable to imprisonment for life.

(2) Any person who unlawfully assaults a female pregnant with a child and destroys the life of, or does grievous bodily harm to, or transmits a serious disease to, the child before its birth, commits a crime.

Maximum penalty—imprisonment for life.[8]

This article of the Criminal Code recognises the unborn human as a “child” and makes the destruction of the child’s life legally punishable by life imprisonment. The serious penalty for this crime is equal to that which would be imposed upon the murderer of an adult citizen. This would suggest that the Criminal Code is here recognising the equal value of postnatal and prenatal human life under the law of Queensland. As stated above, to remove abortion from the Criminal Code is to suggest that the life of an unborn child is not equal in value to that of other people living in Queensland. Thus, reform of Sections 224-226 risks creating a contradiction with Section 313, which would result in a serious inconsistency under the law.

If the Commission is to recommend positive reform to the laws pertaining to abortion in Queensland, this submission proposes that the appropriate place to start is Section 292.

As Commission members will be well aware, the section currently reads:

292 When a child becomes a human being

A child becomes a person capable of being killed when it has completely proceeded in a living state from the body of its mother, whether it has breathed or not, and whether it has an independent circulation or not, and whether the navel-string is severed or not.[9]

As contended above, an arbitrary recognition of the child’s humanity or personhood occurring only after their birth is severely deficient. I propose that Section 292 would better reflect the vital legal commitment to the dignity of human life enshrined in Section 313 if it were altered along the lines of:

292 The beginning of a human life

A child is a person capable of being killed from the time of conception, and he or she shall be regarded as a human being throughout the embryonic and foetal stages of their development.

Because Section 313 is the best expression of the unborn child’s rights and dignity within the Criminal Code, it follows that the deficiencies present in Section 292 should be rectified by conforming them to the principles expressed in the superior section.

The party responsible for carrying out an abortion – rather than the child’s mother – should be liable to suffer penal consequences for the killing of a child.

This submission argues that abortion should continue to be treated as a serious crime under the Queensland Criminal Code, but if there were to be any clarifications made in relation to Sections 224-226 they should pertain for who is criminally responsible for an abortion.

Along with many other opponents of liberalised abortion, I do not wish to see vulnerable women fined or imprisoned for seeking an abortion out of fear or desperation. However, as an act tantamount to murder is being committed it is necessary for Queensland’s Criminal Code and legal system to bring to account those who are chiefly responsible for the death of an innocent child.

In line with the superior legal principles reflected in Section 313, this submission recommends that the Commission consider advising the Government to reform the Criminal Code to make it clear that medical professionals, or other, unlicensed individuals who perform an abortion (or supply drugs with the intention of causing the unnatural miscarriage of a living child) are guilty of an offence and liable to imprisonment.

This is the most effective means of protecting the lives of unborn children in Queensland, as any given woman is only likely to seek 1-3 abortions during their lifetime, whereas a medical professional could potentially destroy the lives of scores of children throughout their career. Most doctors would not willingly choose to face criminal penalties and the permanent loss of their medical license to perform an illegal termination and thus many lives will be saved by such a reform.

Naturally, an objection to the above proposal will be made due to the apparent risk of increased “backyard abortions” by unqualified persons who would put the mother’s life at risk as well as that of the unborn child. This should not be used as grounds for condoning the medical termination of a child’s life in a sterile environment by a trained professional. Instead, a greater penalty could be implemented as a deterrent to such operators (e.g. a longer prison sentence than that administered to guilty medical professionals or a double charge if the woman is harmed or dies as a result of the procedure).

Should the Commission elect to recommend reform contrary to that suggested above, the following considerations should be made to mitigate what will already constitute an adverse change of our laws.

i. If abortions were to be decriminalised, the Parliament should at the very least make it difficult to obtain one outside a limited scope of circumstances (i.e. practically maintaining something similar to the status quo) and hold doctors conducting abortions to the highest standards of professional accountability.

ii. The Parliament should draft legislation that includes mandatory referrals for professional counselling by doctors who are consulted by a patient about the possibility of terminating their pregnancy before proceeding with any medical procedures that will end the life of their unborn child.

iii. No doctor or other medical professional should be required by their employer to carry out an abortion if participation in such a procedure violates their conscience or sincerely held religious beliefs. It is preferable that they also be excused from any requirement to refer the patient to another doctor if this also violates their conscience and constitutes, in their mind, participation in an unethical procedure.  

iv. There should be no undue restrictions placed upon the freedom of speech, expression, political communication and the manifestation of religion of Queenslanders who sincerely oppose abortion and seek to peacefully protest against it or dissuade women from terminating their pregnancies.

Conclusions

Abortion must remain prohibited by the Criminal Code if the genuine human life and value of unborn children is to be recognised and protected. If the law relating to abortion in Queensland is to be changed by Parliament, it should be altered to better reflect the basic right to life of all children within Queensland jurisdiction. One way of achieving this would be to reform Section 292 of the Criminal Code in line with the principles of Section 313. Rather than decriminalising abortion, the Commission should recommend that the Parliament act to remove ambiguity surrounding Sections 224-226 of the Code by making the general illegality of abortion more explicit. Heavy penalties should be applied to medical professionals who knowingly violate the rights of children in Queensland and treat them as though they are not human beings (e.g. permanent deregistration and criminal liability for those found guilty of the unwarranted destruction of a child’s life).

There are no solid ethical, philosophical or legal grounds for liberalising abortive practices in Queensland. It would be more fitting for Parliament to consider how the Criminal Code or other statutes might be amended to lower the number of abortions in Queensland every year and restrict the power of individuals to harm innocent unborn lives.

I thank Commission for taking time to consider this submission .

Sincerely,
Yarran Johnston

[1] R v Bayliss & Cullen [1986] QDC 011 ; (1986) 9 Qld Lawyer Reps 8 McGuire DCJ. 22 January 1986.

[2] I have prepared this submission to address the Commission’s specific terms of reference, while drawing upon my previous submission to the Parliamentary Committee considering the 2016 Abortion Law Reform bill. I recognise my status as a legal layperson and therefore request the Commission’s patience with any lack of finesse in jurisprudence as I outline my concerns about the matters at hand.

[3] Ibid.

[4] https://msu.edu/user/schwenkl/abtrbng/rvbourne.htm

[5] “Fertilization is the process by which male and female haploid gametes (sperm and egg) unite to produce a genetically distinct individual.” Signorelli et al., “Kinases, phosphatases and proteases during sperm capacitation” CELL TISSUE RES. 349(3):765 (Mar. 20, 2012). “[The zygote], formed by the union of an oocyte and a sperm, is the beginning of a new human being.” Keith L. Moore, Before We Are Born: Essentials of Embryology, 7th edition. Philadelphia, PA: Saunders, 2008. p. 2. “Although life is a continuous process, fertilization… is a critical landmark because, under ordinary circumstances, a new genetically distinct human organism is formed when the chromosomes of the male and female pronuclei blend in the oocyte.” Ronan O’Rahilly and Fabiola Miller, Human Embryology and Teratology, 3rd edition. New York: Wiley-Liss, 2001. p. 8. Quoted in http://www.lifenews.com/2015/01/08/41-quotes-from-medical-textbooks-prove-human-life-begins-at-conception/

[6] See Alberto GiubiliniFrancesca Minerva “After-birth abortion: why should the baby live?” Journal of Medical Ethics (2011) http://jme.bmj.com/content/early/2012/03/01/medethics-2011-100411.full

[7] Peter Kreeft, “The Apple Argument against Abortion” http://www.peterkreeft.com/topics-more/personhood_apple.htm

[8] http://www.austlii.edu.au/au/legis/qld/consol_act/cc189994/s313.html

[9] http://www.austlii.edu.au/au/legis/qld/consol_act/cc189994/s292.html

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Some reflexions on preaching (Pt. 1)

Reaching a personal preaching milestone recently has provided an occasion to reflect upon the opportunities God has granted me over the years to exercise the gift of preaching and engage in the privilege of teaching His people the truth of His Word.

Here are a few of my reflexions on preaching and the past decade of opportunities I’ve had to participate in it. They are not the thoughts of a seasoned pastor or skilled master-preacher, but some musings of a journeyman who hopes to have many more opportunities to learn and grow in the years ahead. So take them for what they’re worth…

1. Preaching God’s Word is an incredible privilege and honour.

If anyone speaks, let it be as one who speaks God’s words; if anyone serves, let it be from the strength God provides, so that God may be glorified through Jesus Christ in everything. To him be the glory and the power forever and ever. Amen (1 Peter 4:11, CSB).

This should go without saying and yet a preacher cannot afford to go without saying it.

That God should choose any of us to be His ambassadors and the communicators of the good news of Jesus is simply amazing. To have partnership with God in His mission to the nations is a greater blessing than anything else in this world could afford. All faithful Christians have that privilege, and yet those of us who preach God’s Word publicly are afforded a special opportunity to glorify God by speaking His words to the assembly of His people. There is nothing about me that makes me worthy to represent God in any way – apart from what Christ has done for me and what the Spirit has done in me.

2. Preaching is a mixture of science and art.

I’ve been saying this recently to a few people at the Bible College where I work and study. Preaching has a “science” component and an “art” component to it. Exegesis is very much like a science. You have a fixed data set (the actual content of the Holy Scriptures) and your task is to discover what the data says (the divinely-intended meaning of the text) and compile your findings into a format that is accessible to those you will convey the information to. But how you present the truths of Scripture in sermon-format is very much an art form. Illustrations and even application take a different kind of skill to that employed in exegesis. Piquing interest, highlighting key implications and persuading your hearers to respond in a certain way are all art forms.

Almost every Christian I know has listened to preachers who are skilled exegetes, but poor illustrators and appliers of their text and/or preachers who are skilled narrators and motivational speakers but abysmal handlers of God’s Word. Sadly, many of us have probably encountered more preachers who lacked in both areas than heard people who excel in both. I want to strive to do both aspects well.

3. Preaching over a number of years has seen me grow, but many of my natural strengths and weaknesses remain essentially the same.

Following on from the point above, I can see progress in my own preaching over the years, but I recognise that some things remain basically the same. Specifically, I have found that God has equipped me over the years to be reasonably adept at understanding the major points of a given biblical text and thus be able to explain it clearly to a congregation. But one piece of regular feedback I’d get as a student minister concerned my need to grow in engagement with my hearers, through pointed questions, helpful illustrations and specific (rather than general or superficial) application.

Several years on, I still find it easier to go into the pulpit with confidence that I’ve exegeted the passage well than be optimistic about my effectiveness in communicating the truths in an engaging, memorable and relevant manner. I believe I have grown, but need to grow more in the areas where I’ve struggled in the past.

4. Preaching expository sermons shouldn’t feel like a straitjacket. 

When I first preached it was in a context where topical sermons were the norm. There may have been a Bible reading at the beginning of the message, but the likelihood of the preacher remaining in that text throughout their time in the pulpit was minimal. Through online influences, I had become convinced that I should preach what a biblical text says, rather than say what I wanted to say and draw on various Scriptures to make the case. Thus, my first few sermons were expositions of biblical passages – albeit dry ones that sounded like a poorly-written Bible Commentary.

I remain committed to expository preaching as a ministry norm. But my understanding of what that entails has changed over the years. Thankfully for anyone who has had to listen to my preaching, I have been trained to expound a passage from the pulpit in a more helpfully-crafted way than merely giving an explanation of each verse and some exhortation at the end.

But I’ve also realised that I’m not bound to a rigid format of what some deem to be the only acceptable means of approaching biblical exposition. Some of the most enjoyable sermons I’ve prepared and delivered in the last 2-3 years have been thematic. These involve tracing a key theme through a particular biblical book, rather than moving through a whole book chapter by chapter. They were still thoroughly expository, because my task was to show what that particular biblical author wanted to convey about that specific theme.

Likewise, when I preach as a visiting appointee-missionary, my sermon is not stock-standard passage-exposition, but has usually been approached with some creativity to demonstrate the implications that a particular portion of the Bible has for thinking about mission.

5. Preaching in diverse contexts is a valuable means of stretching a preacher to grow.

All of my early preaching opportunities were in a multicultural (but predominantly white) Pentecostal church in the rugged, working class suburbs of Logan City. Then I became a student minister (and later a pastor) in a multicultural (but predominantly Asian) independent evangelical church in the professionalised, middle-class orbit of the University of Qld in Brisbane’s Inner-West.

Not only did I need to rethink how to approach sermon illustrations and relevant application to people’s live – but even my expectation of congregational engagement had to change. My Pentecostal brothers and sisters were used to nodding in agreement, laughing at jokes (even the droll ones), verbally responding to questions and even “amening” key points I made in a sermon. My new congregation was for the most part still, silent and expressionless during my sermons and getting them to laugh at a joke sometimes felt like trying to get blood out of a stone.*

Engaging a different kind of congregation stretched me to think, prepare and preach differently. Since then, I’ve preached in a range of demographical and denominational contexts and some of them have been quite different experiences to one another. I’ve also preached at bilingual services and a children’s service – both of which test the preachers ability to convey the truths of Scripture with simplicity and clarity!

Preaching
Preaching a bilingual sermon in Osaka, Japan 2012. Photo Credit: Winston Wong

I hope to share a few more reflexions next time, so please stay tuned!

 

*N.B. It wasn’t an Asian cultural issue per se, as I’ve had better success at getting laughter in other Asian congregations. They were just a tough crowd!

 

Honourable Citizens (Gospel Citizens #4)

So far in this series we have seen that Christians are citizens of heaven; fellow citizens with all the saints and aliens, exiles and sojourners in this world.

This raises an important question: Is there any room for citizens of heaven, who are outsiders on earth to be active citizens or participants in their earthly communities? How we answer this question communicates a certain message about God and Christianity to the world. So it’s vital that we get it right.

How to get it wrong: some historical examples

There was a group in the sixteenth century who took their status as citizens of heaven and outsiders on earth very seriously. Anabaptists lived separately from the State and refused to take oaths, hold public office and serve in the military.

Anabaptists_gmuend_1529
Anabaptists

From this group, others branched off and took things even further. The Amish are renowned for living simple lives under strict rules, in there own distinct and separate communities. This is one response – live out your identity outside of the world by withdrawing from wider society and creating your own community of God’s people.

 

9726186905_c3092719de_z.jpg
Amish family Photo: Curt Mills
20130902-D6A_8598.jpg (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Another off-shoot group had a more troubling idea. A bunch of Anabaptists led by Jan Matthys attempted to show the world their radical identity as those aligned with heaven, by overthrowing the local authorities in the German city of Munster and declaring it the New Jerusalem – from which they’d spread out to establish dominion over the world. All this ended in a spectacularly gruesome way. Jan Matthys, thought he was the second Gideon and was cut down in battle by a superior force sent by authorities to retake the city. His mutilated body was put on public display. Many in the city were starving and Jan’s successors were also killed and their bodies hung in public.

MuensterJohannVanLeydenTaufe.jpg
Militant Anabaptist preaching at Munster

Giving up the comforts and benefits of modern society or dying for what you believe in, can indeed be noble and justified. But the sad thing for the Amish and the Munster rebels is that both of their expressions of faith have failed to appreciate the biblical picture of how Christians are to live out their identity in the world.

You simply won’t find any New Testament encouragement to Christians to go and start their own private towns or to take one over by force. Not from Jesus. Not from Paul. Not from anyone. So the tragedy of these groups is that they not only reaped the adverse effects of lifestyles not ordained by God. They also communicated the wrong message about God and His people to society.

The biblical approach to civic involvement

1 Peter 2 assumes Christians will co-exist alongside non-Christians in mixed societies. And it helpfully shows us what our approach should be. Christians live well in society to glorify God. We’re not called to rebel or withdraw – but to behave as “good citizens” of our city and country, in order to honour God & promote an accurate understanding of the Christian faith to the world around us.   

Before Peter shows us how to do this, he helpfully reminds us of everything we’ve covered so far in this series. He reminds us we’re heavenly citizens, God’s people whose identity comes from Him. v. 9 You are a chosen race, royal priesthood, holy nation, people of His own possession.

v. 10 sounds a lot like Ephesians 2:11-19, which we looked at in part 2. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people. Once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. We had no common identity and were without God and His salvation, but Jesus brought us near through His blood on the cross, so that we could be reconciled to God and be united as one people.

Then v. 11 reminds us of what we looked at last time. Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul. We’re aliens in this world who must stand firm against things that would compromise us.
This is our identity as Gospel Citizens, as we’ve seen so far in the series.

Doing good for a Purpose

Peter turns his attention from this to how we can live out our identity the right way in society. Verse 12: Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honourable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation.

The goal of our engagement with the non-Christian community: is to glorify God. We’re to use honourable behaviour and good works to combat the world’s misrepresentations of God & the faith.

If you ever wonder what God’s will is for your life, here it is. For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people (v. 15)
God wants you to demolish ignorant misconceptions about Christianity through doing good. God’s will for you as a Christian worker is to conduct yourself in a way that changes or challenges your workmates view of Christianity. God’s will for you as a Christian student is to be so kind and good to others, that whenever someone bags out Christians it will seem rash and biased.

Honouring authority for Christ’s sake

One specific area we need to do well in and not provide ammunition for people’s prejudices is named in vv. 13-14. Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the king as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good.

A few years back I was into legal dramas like Law & Order. In an L&O episode entitled “Nullification” a militia group attacks a State building and is put on trial for killing two security guards. The group insisted they were in a state of combat with the authorities and should be treated as prisoners of war. They refused to recognise the authority of the court, but tried to persuade the jury to nullify the charges against them because the laws they had broken were morally unjust and should not be enforced.

Now of course most people outside such a movement would think “These guys are loony!” They think they are justified in their views and actions. But an objective outsider sees them as murderous and a danger to both themselves and the general public.

Christians can’t afford to think and act as if we’re somehow not under the civil authorities. Nor should we suit ourselves when it comes to obeying the laws of the land. This is for the sake of Christ’s name. Followers of Jesus are never to be seditious nutters, inconsistent hypocrites, criminals, law-breakers or threats to public security.

Australian Christians are not prone to insurrection or acts of terrorism. But we all know brothers and sisters who flout Copyright law and commit Piracy. Some of us are a little too willing to break road rules and speed limits when there’s little chance of getting caught.

You may think that some of these rules and others are stupid or stifling. But what message is it sending to others when a Christian only obeys the laws they agree with? It may seem inconsequential, but it’s actually quite a serious matter.

1 Peter 2:16 calls us to Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God. God doesn’t set you free so that you can advance your own sinful agenda, abuse what you’ve been given and flout the law when it suits you. You’re free so you can serve God and He’s left you in society for that purpose. To do good to many in the service of your True King.        

We mustn’t make theological excuses or clever justifications for why we can do something illegal or dishonour those in authority through our speech and actions. Instead we need to say: “What can I do to live well for God today with the freedom He’s given me?” “How can I live as a citizen of heaven who blesses Christians and non-Christians alike with my lifestyle?” “How can I be an outsider who’s life is constantly challenging those who speak ill of my people?”

Summary: Honour everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honour the King.

Live well in society by treating everyone with appropriate respect. Your decency should stretch from your neighbour to the Queen. From the PM to the local police officer. And in all that you do, show your love for God’s people. Respect your fellow-citizens. Display your reverent obedience to God the Supreme Ruler, as a witness to everyone in society of who and what you represent.

The most powerful way you and I can express both sides of our identity as Christians is to continue to actively seek the good of others in a world that’s rejected us and our King. That says something. It’s actually more confronting and much more positive than being Amish or a revolutionary. Because it has power to bring people an accurate picture of who God really is, in an up close and personal way. And it forces us to depend on God for the strength and grace to live in society the way He’s appointed for His people.

 

 

So ask yourself: is my conduct honourable? Are my actions, attitudes, habits broadcasting the right message about my God?

 

United Identity (Gospel Citizens #2)

Therefore remember that at one time you Gentiles in the flesh, called “the uncircumcision” by what is called the circumcision, which is made in the flesh by hands–remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world.

But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility. And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God… (Eph 2:11-19, ESV)

30118072626_9adfce4c66_k[1]

Last time we looked at our hope, identity and allegiance as citizens of heaven.
In Ephesians we find citizenship again employed as an image of unity and common identity amongst believers, based on central aspects of the Christian message.

However this time there is a significant difference. In the passage above, civic terms such as “commonwealth” and “fellow-citizens” are used to communicate a radical participation in God’s community. One that should annihilate racial barriers and distinctions of the perishing age. New Testament scholar Lynn Cohick comments that Paul is “hinting at the same truth” here as in Philippians: “citizenship within Israel is membership into God’s family.”[2]

Note that Paul speaks of the “commonwealth of Israel” rather than “the commonwealth of heaven.” The emphasis shifts from the higher identity of heavenly citizenship (that we looked at in Philippians) to the common, united identity between all people who have come into a covenant relationship with God through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

The recipients of this epistle were to understand the dramatic nature of the change in their relationship towards God. This in turn should alter the way they saw themselves in relation to others.

In the Christian “commonwealth” of Israel, both Jew and Gentile can now enjoy the full blessings and privileges of “full citizenship” in God’s city-state.

But the other unmissable emphasis of Ephesians must be the realisation that these two historically separate categories of people have had their dividing line radically removed through what Christ did to the place of the legal ordinances in God’s economy.[3]

The dividing wall of the “law of commandments” stood as a massive barrier between observant Jews and pagan Gentiles who hadn’t received the law – keeping the two groups divided for centuries. Whether it’s the Great Wall of China, the Berlin Wall or Donald Trump’s proposed wall – we’re all familiar with the kind of barrier that separates one group of people from another.

Jesus has brought down the division that kept Jews and Gentiles separated and entrenched hostility between the two groups. The law has been abolished as the way people relate to God. Now whether Jew or Gentile, everyone who wishes to belong to God and His people, must come through Jesus.

Now the future of ethnic Jews and Gentiles lies in their inseparable unification and they have been effectively predestined to inherit the fullness of God together as one people (cf. Eph 1:4-5, 9-12, 3:4-6).[4]

Thus, the citizenship motif in Ephesians needs to be appreciated in order to grasp Paul’s call to an essential unity of identity in Christ. This reaches beyond Jews and Greeks in the first century to encompass all manner of ethnic groups and traditional racial divisions.[5] It ultimately stands in the same biblical tradition as passages envisioning people from every nation united by Christ in the worship of God (e.g. Ps 22:27, 67:1-7; Rev 5:9, 15:3-4; cf. Matt 24:14, 28:19; Mk 11:17; Lk 24:47; Rom 1:5). All believers from all nations have the same eternal destiny as the household, temple and family of God.

For Christians, to live out the truth of our united identity as fellow-citizens is to reject all forms of racial discrimination towards other Christians and to refuse to “make much” of our ethnic or cultural background with a prideful attitude. We don’t get to erect our own barriers when Jesus has torn down the greatest division of all.

Regrettably, I have heard Christians in church contexts where one ethnic identity is privileged or preferred over others remark that this is “not a gospel issue.” But ethnic divisions in the body of Christ are indeed an implicit denial of the gospel. They suggest that Christ’s death to unite all believers as one people is less significant in practice than the commonalities of their shared racial identity or cultural preferences.

It is tragic when a church may subscribe firmly to evangelical doctrine but refuse to allow the gospel to touch this part of their souls.

Churches with one predominant ethnic group who maintain the attitude that others are welcome – so long as they accept they’re part of the minority and learn to do things “the way they’re done around here” – have missed an important gospel truth. In Christ, the things that divide us should be viewed as drastically less significant than the things that unite us. People from other ethnic backgrounds should not have to “conform” to a particular culture to “fit in” – because our culture should be shaped by the gospel and not our carnal, tribal preferences.

The call of Ephesians 2 is for all kinds of Christians to reach out to all kinds of Christians. We don’t just embrace people “like us,” but wholeheartedly celebrate every believer as co-citizens with us.

When we do this, we show our identity, allegiance and belonging are all tied to Jesus and we’re preparing to worship Him in an international society for all eternity. When we fail in this area we send the wrong message to the world about the glorious new people that Christ shed His blood to redeem.

 

 

Sources

[1] Helge V. Keitel “Multiethnic Diverse People in a Circle Holding Hands” (CC BY 2.0) flickr. 

[2] Lynn Cohick, Ephesians NCCS (Eugene, Oregon: Cascade, 2010): 72.

[3]    Lincoln, 150.

[4]    “The believers today are neither Jews nor Gentiles but are Christians who pray and give praise to God as all the saints in former generations.” Harold W. Hoehner, Ephesians: An Exegetical Commentary (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2002): 396.

[5]    Thielman, 150;

 

Gospel Citizens (overture)

Issues of citizenship seem to be in the news a lot in Australia. A number of prominent politicians have lost their place in parliament in the last few months when it was discovered that – in addition to being Australian – they were technically also citizens of “foreign” nations. Because our constitution doesn’t allow for divided loyalties, this is something forbidden for all federal parliamentarians. It’s been described as a “citizenship crisis.”

Whenever the government modifies requirements for the national citizenship test, which migrants are required to take if they wish to formally become Australians, there is public debate about whether the questions are too hard or too easy. And not long ago there was significant debate over whether Australians who fight with Australia’s enemies overseas should be stripped of their citizenship status (in the end, due to international law against making people ‘stateless,’ this only applies to dual citizens).

citizenship doc
[1]

I personally find issues around citizenship interesting, as they make us ask fundamental questions about belonging, loyalty and identity. Who am I? How do I describe myself? What bigger group or community am I a member of? Where do my allegiances lie?

As someone who is an Australian citizen by birth, a New Zealand citizen by descent, formerly a British subject (this status being subsequently abolished by the federal government) and the husband of a naturalised Australian and former Chinese citizen – I am well aware that for some people the answers to these questions are straight-forward, while for others they are more complex and interesting.

Have you ever wondered how Christians are supposed to think about citizenship?

There’s a fascinating little reference in Philippians that sets us up to consider the New Testament perspective on citizenship: “Only let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ…” (1:27a, ESV). The Greek for “manner of life” is πολιτεύεσθε which more specifically means something like “be a citizen” or “live out your citizenship.” So the phrase effectively tells Christians to be citizens in a way that’s worthy of the gospel.

So what does it actually mean to be a “Gospel Citizen” – someone whose identity, allegiance and sense of belonging ultimately comes from the gospel?

Paul has more to say about this topic in Philippians, declaring in 3:20 “our citizenship is in heaven.” In Ephesians he emphasises the common identity in Christ between Jewish and Gentile disciples – describing them as fellow-citizens together in God’s Kingdom.

Other New Testament authors draw out other aspects of our Christian identity using citizenship language. The author of Hebrews sees our citizenship in the heavenly city as something that makes us sojourning pilgrims, foreigners and temporary residents on earth. We live in earthly cities, but wait for a city that is to come. One with eternal foundations, which cannot be shaken. In 1 Peter, the apostle Peter makes it clear that Christians have a special dignity and place of belonging in God’s Kingdom. But he also emphasises the sense of Christians being aliens or exiles in this world. Peter highlights an additional aspect – that of living well in earthly society and being subject to the governing authorities for the sake of Christ.

Paul revisits this theme in his famous discourse on civil behaviour in Romans 13. He urges Christians to perform their civic duties: paying taxes, honouring leaders and obeying the law. Finally, Luke also shows us an interesting episode (in Acts) where Paul made use of his Roman citizenship to temporarily get out of trouble – a tactical move he hoped would gain him further opportunities to spread the gospel.

In the coming weeks, I’d like to explore these different aspects in a series of posts titled “Gospel Citizens.” We’ll explore the tension between being a citizen of heaven and a stranger in the world; the importance of our common Christian identity across the boundaries of human identity; and how we’re actually supposed to interact with non-Christian society as people who belong to another world while residing in this one.

I’ve done a lot of thinking about this topic, including writing a Master’s project on the subject and delivering two preaching series that looked at the passages mentioned above. It’s something I think is of great value for Christians in Australia to be thinking about amidst all the chatter in our society about issues surrounding citizenship.

So if you don’t know what Paul means when he talks about our Heavenly Citizenship in Philippians 3:20, join us next time as we dig into this rich biblical metaphor together!

 

[1] Adapted from Michael Coghlan “Australian Citizenship” flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)