Atonement and the Japanese (Pt. 2)

[Please start with part 1 here]

In the previous post, I made some introductory remarks about the doctrine of atonement, the importance of getting it right and the difficulties in communicating the vital biblical truths about atonement to those who come from a very different cultural background to us. I would like to elaborate further in this post and go into some further detail.

The way we express atonement in Western evangelicalism along with the way we talk about sin (and the relationship between the two) seems heavily shaped by a Western legal framework we’ve inherited from Roman culture and Roman Christianity. Penal Substitutionary Atonement addresses the common notion of sins as a legal transgressions: offences against God’s law; crimes which must be punished. We break the law, disobey God’s commands and commit unrighteous actions and each one adds to the list of indictments that will lead to our eternal condemnation for our sins. Jesus perfectly obeyed the Law, embodied what it meant to be righteous in God’s sight and died in our place “the just for the unjust” (1 Pet 3:18). He “cancel[ed] the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross.” (Col 2:14). And the Scriptures clearly testify that Christ’s death directly addressed the issue of our trespasses and transgressions against God and His commands (see for instance, Isaiah 53, Rom 4:25, Eph 1:7, Col 2:13,  Heb 9:15). There is no denying that this emphasis is biblical and vital to our understanding of atonement.  However, the proclivity some of us evangelicals have for focusing almost exclusively on the legal aspects of the atonement is probably still linked to Protestantism’s emergence out of the legal Roman cultural and religious traditions.

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There is some evidence from church history that suggests this might be the case. In Eastern Orthodoxy, which had a different cultural milieu to Western Christianity and was less influenced by Roman culture, sin is thought of more as “falling short” of one’s divinely-intended human potential (suggested by the Greek hamartia, translated as sin in English, which was originally an archery term) and therefore the work of Christ was largely understood to be a restoring of humanity to their full potential (namely theosis, or participation in the divine nature). The Eastern omission of the penal element of atonement makes their view grossly defective from the perspective of an evangelical like myself, however it allows us to see how different aspects of sin and atonement might be emphasised in non-Western forms of Christianity.

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In expressing the atonement in a non-Christian religious climate and non-Western cultural environment like Japan, evangelicals should never be satisfied by an understanding like that of Eastern Orthodoxy that omits essential truths we know to be biblical. However, we should also not be satisfied by expressing Christ’s work in terms that are more apt at addressing a Catholic religious context or a Western cultural mindset. This means that while it is never acceptable to downplay or omit the legal aspect of the atonement, it may be necessary to appreciate other aspects of the atonement more deeply in a complementary way, in order to communicate the biblical truths effectively to people of different cultures.

In the Japanese evangelistic context, the word most commonly used to translate sin/hamartia is tsume. This has long caused difficulties for foreign evangelists and Japanese Christians when sharing the gospel, as the word is most commonly used for criminal acts and many Japanese are conscientious citizens who find it difficult to accept the notion that they have committed a “crime” against a God they have never known. While I believe that Japanese must accept the truth that they have violated God’s standards of righteousness (and acknowledge that many people in other societies find the notion that they are “sinners” or “transgressors” offensive!) – I have come to wonder if we must help them get to that point by presenting aspects of the atonement that are more relatable to the Japanese mindset as the first point of contact.

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Missiologists, along with other students of Japanese culture, have identified the concept of wa  (和) as essential to Japanese culture. Wa is difficult to translate precisely, but it is in many ways analogous to harmony. Social conformity is a highly valued virtue in Japanese society, because it preserves the wa between people within small groups and the nation. Participation in community religious festivals is also largely driven by a commitment to social harmony, but naturally a sense of harmony with nature and the Shinto gods is also a feature of Japanese society and religion.

Relevant questions to ask at this point are: “Does the biblical presentation of Christ’s atoning work have something to say to the core Japanese values system?” and “Does the Japanese emphasis on wa have potential as an idea Christians can engage with in a biblically faithful way that will help Japanese understand the gospel?”

While I don’t think I’ve arrived at a fully-formed perspective on these questions, after some early thinking, my tentative answer is yes to both. In the remainder of this post, I’ll give a brief explanation as to why.

I suspect the biblical worldview and the Japanese worldview can intersect if the transgression of Adam and Eve is explained (at least partially) as a violation or disruption of the perfect harmony that existed in Creation prior to the fall. The everything of creation that God saw and declared to be good included the reality that absolute wa existed between Creator and his creatures. This understanding of creation is closely related to the biblical ideas of shalom as the peace available under God’s perfect rule and the Kingship of God over His creation (as presented, for example, as the starting point of the 2 Ways to Live gospel presentation). When humanity chose to “go their own way”, we became the original destroyers of divine harmony; we dishonoured God instead of giving Him the honour He deserved as our Great King and although we have attempted to create our own societies and live together independently of God – our wa is always a broken one, our peace always fragile and we are unable to restore the divine harmony we breached.

Death, disease, destruction, despair, frustration, fragility, fear and fighting are all reminders that we are not at harmony with the divine, that God’s anger is directed towards us due to the way we have dishonoured His name and rejected His rule. Hell is a place of eternal disharmony and discord, where God consigns us to feel the weight of our rejection of Him, our inability to repair the dishonour we have done Him and to experience an everlasting existence without hope of seeing our lives restored to a harmonious relationship with our Creator.

When Christ’s work of salvation is understood through the grand lenses of atonement (i.e. “at-one-ment” as described earlier) and reconciliation, I believe the reality of our severe disharmony with God is powerfully addressed at the cross. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross. (Col 1:19-20, ESV)

In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace, which he lavished upon us, in all wisdom and insight making known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth. (Eph 1:7-10, ESV)

Christ’s incarnation, death, resurrection, ascension and second coming all work together to reconcile corrupt humanity and the fallen universe to God, His perfect rule, order, plan and blessing. The harmony that Japanese culture extols as the greatest value can only be realised in Christ. And the attempts of the Japanese to form harmonious societies independently of God and irrespective of the broken relationship between humanity and their rightful king, is part of their rebellion. Because I don’t think the death of Jesus can be explained without delving into issues of guilt and culpability, penalties and consequences, at this stage I think I would try to demonstrate how our violation of God’s created harmony is simultaneously disobedience to His rule and commands that made such a peace possible. The notion of sin as treason may work well in communicating this.

While I still have a fair bit of fine tuning to do (which I anticipate will come through further interaction with Japanese Christians, Japanese non-Christians and missionaries serving in Japan), I expect a gospel presentation like 2 Ways to Live can work quite well as a tool for communicating the good news to Jesus, so long as the wa aspect is adequately communicated throughout the presentation.

Do you have any experience communicating the truths of the gospel and Christ’s atoning work to people from non-Western cultures that lack a Catholic/Christian heritage? What have you found helpful or challenging as you seek to be faithful to the unchanging gospel, whilst being understandable to your audience?

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Atonement and the Japanese (Pt. 1)

If you’ve done some exploring regarding the work of Christ on the cross, you’ll likely have come across several different “theories” of how to understand what we call the atonement. What you believe about the atonement; the words and images you use to describe it; and how you think it affects our relationship with God usually says a lot about where you sit on the theological spectrum. Correct views about Christ’s work of redemption are crucial to healthy Christian thought and spiritual development, while erroneous teachings about the atonement may be significant cause for concern about the biblical faithfulness of a person’s views on Christianity.

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The understanding of atonement that I hold and consider to be vital to Christian understanding of the cross is commonly referred to as penal substitutionary atonement. “Penal” refers to Christ bearing the penalty of our sin upon the cross, the way a criminal might bear the just punishment for their crimes. It is inseparable from the idea that the wrath of God against human sin was poured out upon the crucified Christ and that this was necessary for sinners to be reconciled to God. “Substitutionary” communicates the idea that everything Christ endured on the cross was done for us and for our salvation: in other words, Jesus died in our place, the sinless Saviour representing sinners – as God executed judgement upon His Son as though it were us on the cross receiving our due for rebelling against Him. Atonement itself was said to have been invented by English Bible Translator William Tyndale to communicate in English the idea of God and humanity being “at one” again, as a result of the person and work of Christ.

Penal Substitutionary Atonement is fiercely defended in many evangelical circles and many theologians, pastors and church leaders are greatly troubled when differing aspects of the atonement are elevated to a position that takes precedence over the above understanding of Christ’s work. Some of the other proposed atonement paradigms include: Christus Victor (the atonement is about Christ’s triumph over the evil spiritual forces of the world); Moral Influence theory (Christ died as an example to humanity of what love and ethics we should strive for); and Ransom to Satan (Christ’s death was payment to Satan to “buy back” sinful humans, rather than a sacrifice that dealt with sin in the sight of God). I find the latter view completely unacceptable and regard the essence of the other two views as aspects of Christ’s death that need to be appreciated as elements of His work that are subordinate in importance to the penal substitutionary aspect.

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A problem arises though when it comes to maintaining faithfulness to what one sincerely believes that the Scriptures teach and emphasise, and contextualising the gospel so that people from diverse backgrounds understand what Jesus did for them in ways that address the fundamental concerns of their culture and beliefs. I simultaneously recognise one particular view of the atonement as valid above all the other proposed models, yet at the same time I can see how our articulation of it predominantly addresses the Western mindset we’ve inherited from Roman civilisation and Roman Catholicism. In nations like Australia, the UK and the USA, the way I am used to expressing the atonement over and against the inherent legalism of Roman culture and Roman Christianity and the modernist heresies of liberal Christian groups is, I believe, the necessary way to communicate the biblical truths concerning Christ’s work on the Cross to Christians and non-Christians alike (whether its in the context of discipleship or evangelism).

But in thinking about how to communicate these truths in a very different culture, specifically Japanese culture, I’ve been forced to think carefully about how I can emphasise what the Bible emphasises and not concoct “new truths” to share with the Japanese, whilst at the same time not falling into the trap of delivering a pre-packaged, Westernised presentation of the gospel to people who have a very different cultural and religious starting point to the once Christianised societies of the Western world.

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Francis Xavier – bringer of Catholicism to Japan

Let me spell out some of the obvious differences. The Greco-Roman cultural and philosophical values that have always been part of the Western mindset are not the same as the Far-Eastern, Confucian values that characterise societies like Japan. Despite coming to Japan via Jesuit missions in the 1600s, Roman Catholicism has never been the dominant religious force in Japanese society and in fact it was outlawed and brutally oppressed for many years – severely limiting its impact upon national life. As a natural result, while Protestantism “naturally” arose in European countries like Germany, Switzerland, Holland, Scotland and England, when people turned to Scripture as a higher authority than the papacy and the Church – Protestantism in Japan has never arisen as a response to Catholic teaching, cultural dominance and abuses of power. It has come from other parts of the world as a pre-packaged response to somewhere else’s ecclesiastical problems. And naturally, while Japan has been enormously influenced by the modern West in the last 150 years, it has not directly had cultural movements like the Renaissance and Enlightenment, which were arguably only possible in the Western-Christian context in which they occurred.

On one level, evangelical Protestantism and its understanding and articulation of the gospel is completely valid and even needed in relation to the Japanese context. For one, it’s goal is to be thoroughly biblical and therefore the discoveries it has made from the Word of God in relation to core principles of Christianity are universally applicable. They have something to say to every culture on Earth. Furthermore, they are legitimate because Catholicism is in Japan and chances are that what little the average Japanese man or woman knows about Christianity will come from Catholicism. Since Catholics are committed to promoting Roman dogma to the four corners of the globe, we must be ready to counter it by clarifying what the Bible teaches on a range of issues and our experience in the historical controversies within Western Christianity will offer us many of the tools for doing that. Western cults like JWs and Mormons are also present and promote their own corruptions of orthodox teaching on topics such as the atonement. The resources for dealing with these aberrant movements will also come from the Western experience.

But my concern is that in order to be faithful evangelicals in Japan, we must not simply recycle pre-packaged Western Protestant methods of communicating Jesus and articulating the faith, if they do not take seriously the fact that Japan is less like 16th century Catholic Germany or 21st century post-Christian Australia and perhaps more like the pagan frontiers of non-Roman Europe in the early centuries of the church. Our gospel will be the same, our basic understanding of the atonement will not change. But how we introduce, explain, illustrate and apply this core aspect of the gospel may need to look different to what we’re used to in our Western contexts.

I’ll share more about what I’ve been thinking in regards to this issue in the next post…

[1] Rumble Press “3D_Judges_Gavel” (CC BY 2.0) flickr

[2] Yu Tung Brian Chan “Peace!” (CC BY-NC 2.0) flickr.

[3] György Soponyai “St. Peter’s Basilica, Vatican City” (CC BY-NC 2.0) flickr.

[4] Billertl – “Statue of Saint Francis Xavier, at St. Francis Xavier Catholic Church, in Superior, Wisconsin” CC BY-SA 4.0 wikimedia commons

 

Crosstide Reflexions: Propitiation

Theological words can be used as jargon. We all know those times when someone busts out a word with too many syllables and assumes others know what it means. Or even worse, when someone uses an obscure scholastic term or a borrowed Latin phrase that they know others won’t understand to demonstrate their superior intellect. That’s these kind of words at their worst. But at their best, a carefully chosen theological term, if properly explained or widely understood, can be an incredibly effective means of communicating rich, deep and perhaps complex theological truth with a single word.

On that note, I wanted to share a few thoughts on what is probably my favourite single-word theological term: Propitiation. Some of our English Bibles use this word in the following passages:

But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it— the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.” (Rom 3:21-26, ESV)

My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world. (1 John 2:1-2, ESV)

In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.(1 John 4:9-10, ESV)   

Even just reading the above verses should convey the fact that this is a rich word, with a very special relevance to our understanding of the Cross.

The dictionary definition of propitiate is “to make (someone) favourably inclined; appease; conciliate.” The Greek word used in the NT, which is translated as “propitiation” is ἱλασμός (hilasmos) or ἱλαστήριον (hilastērion), which has the idea of placating or appeasing an offended party or expiating (a term which itself means making atonement or amends for wrongs committed).

Propitiation then is an expression of what was happening at the cross. When Christians say that Jesus’s death on the cross was an “atoning sacrifice” (as indeed the NIV chooses to translate the above Greek words in Rom 3:25, 1 John 2:2 and 1 John 4:10), we are saying that his substitutionary death for our sins was both appeasing or placating the divine attitude of wrath towards our rebellion and reconciling us to God so we would instead experience His divine love and favour as children instead of enemies. My way of bringing these two aspects of propitiation together has been to express it as thus: Propitiation is the process by which Christ deals with God’s wrath against our sin (through His death on the cross) and invites divine favour to be shown in place of it.

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This kind of idea is actually quite unpopular today, even among some who call themselves evangelical Christians. The substitutionary, wrath-bearing aspect of Christ’s atoning death has been dismissed as “cosmic child abuse” or a troubling placing of divine violence at the centre of our faith – depending on who you read. But propitiation remains central to the historic, biblical understanding of what Jesus did for us and how God Himself was the one who needed to be satisfied when it came to the problem of human sin.

Of course, my definition above could be misconstrued or misunderstood. Propitiation should not communicate the idea that “merciful Jesus” was doing us a favour by dealing with the “angry Father,” nor that God was primarily disposed to show us wrath, but Jesus ensured mercy triumphed instead. A proper, biblical understanding will always promote the truth that the Triune God wished to show mercy to His fallen creatures, in a way that would uphold His perfect righteousness and not lessen His righteous anger against human sin. The very fact that Paul teaches in Romans: “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith” demonstrates that God did this so that grace and mercy might be shown to many instead of wrath. That God (which we can understand both as referring to the Father representatively or the Trinity generally) sent Jesus to achieve this purpose is clearly reinforced in 1 John 4:10: “In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.” Mercy to those who believe in Christ was the Father’s goal all along.

And the end of the Romans passage cited above communicates why Christ had to die a death that specifically bore the punishment for our sins, in order for divine grace and mercy to be shown freely to us all: “It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.”

God showed his absolute, unmitigated abhorrence for sin by pouring out His wrath on Christ – the willing substitute who voluntarily endured the fullness of divine anger so that it would no longer play a factor in our relationship with God. This showed that He was just – sin would never go unpunished. But it’s great news for you and I, because He also became the justifier of those who have faith in Jesus.

Jesus endures the wrath that you and I could never bear – whether we were to face it now or throughout an eternity of experiencing God’s judgement. We get the favour of a gracious God poured out abundantly on us instead in a new, restored, reconciled relationship. That’s propitiation. And it’s great news.

Crosstide – Reflecting on the Cross of Christ

A couple of years ago, I encouraged members of my church to join me in a season of reflection on the cross in the lead up to Good Friday. I like to call it “Crosstide” – which means “the season of (reflection on) the cross” (compare Christmastide/Yuletide and Eastertide in older English usage). My wife and I have decided to do it again this year, through a special focus in our Bible reading and using specific devotional material that looks at the crucifixion and redemptive work of Christ in more detail. We plan to do this for the 5 weeks or so leading up to Easter.

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If, after my recent post that included my personal disinclination towards Lenten observance, this sounds to you like my attempt at an alternative – you wouldn’t be far from the truth. The difference in my mind is that our focus will simply be on the different aspects of the cross revealed in God’s Word and how our understanding of them affects our lives. Like our celebration of the 12 days of Christmas – Crosstide partly arises from our feeling that one day in a year is often not sufficient time to get the most out of deep reflection and celebration of a particular truth of the gospel. We know that some of our brothers and sisters don’t see the value in “special days” at all and we acknowledge and respect the validity of that approach, as per Romans 14:1-6 and Colossian 2:16. But since we will join many Christians around the world in celebrating Good Friday anyway, we feel that an extended period of intentional, specific meditation upon the wonders of the cross will enrich our Paschal (Easter) celebrations.

Rather than any special fasting, rituals or traditions, the whole period will be marked only by what we read and reflect on, along with appropriate personal prayer and perhaps singing or listening to some of the great songs penned about the atoning death of the Son of God, our Saviour. Our plan is to read through Romans, divided up into manageable chunks and read a short chapter each day individually or together from John Piper’s 50 Reasons Why Jesus came to Die. I also hope to revisit a book I worked through during the same period 2 years ago – CJ Mahaney’s Living the Cross Centered Life – a helpful guide to keeping the cross at the forefront of our minds in shaping how we live our daily lives.

50 reasonsLiving the Cross centered life

I will allow this season to shape some of what I post here in the coming weeks and I look forward to sharing some of our reflections on the Cross of Christ with you.

For now I’d love to hear from you – do you do anything special before or during Easter that helps you meaningfully focus on the glorious truths at the centre of the gospel? If you plan on reading anything in the lead up to Easter or over the long weekend that will help you reconnect with the amazingness of the death or resurrection of Christ, I’d also love to hear what’s on your reading list!

[1] Kris Williams ‘Weathering The Storm’ – Llanddwyn Island, Anglesey  (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

An Open Letter to Australians who support same-sex marriage

Dear fellow citizens,

I am writing to you to address perhaps the most vexed societal issue in Australia in 2016. That is the question of whether the Australian Marriage Act should be changed to allow two people of the same sex to have their relationship legally and socially recognised as a marriage.

I understand that you may feel strongly about this issue. I also recognise that your support for this cause is probably based on a strong desire to see the values of equality, fairness and non-discrimination prevail in our society.
Furthermore, I acknowledge – not least because of my own views on other important matters of social justice (eg; infanticide) – that it can be difficult to have a civil and respectful discussion about an issue like this with people you perceive to be advocates of oppression, discrimination, bigotry or hatred.

When I see people whose desire is for justice, fairness and dignity in our nation, these are qualities and values I wish to affirm. I too want to live in a land where the law reflects what is good and right, where people do not suffer unfair discrimination and where every human being and citizen is treated with the appropriate respect and courtesy.

While for many of us today, our inclination might be to promote such values by allowing people the freedom to express themselves in whatever way they choose to (so long as it does not have a significantly detrimental impact on the lives of others), when it comes to changing the legal definition of marriage in Australia we’re actually inescapably delving into deeper issues of what we fundamentally regard as right or wrong.

For many Australians, one of the most problematic instances of wrongdoing in our society today is when someone attempts to restrict someone else’s self-expression by suggesting their behaviour is unacceptable or wrong. In some areas of life this simply is not an issue.
For instance we do not tolerate the abusive man’s violence towards his partner and his children as freedom of expression. We vocally condemn the drunken antics of rugby league players as unacceptable and even disgraceful behaviour. We decry broadcasters when they make racially insensitive comments on air. We applaud when people such as these are penalised for their socially unacceptable behaviour. It’s not only fine, but easy to tell them that what they did is morally wrong.

But increasingly, speaking publicly about certain issues – notably those involving human sexuality and relationships – as anything but morally positive or neutral, has become something many regard far more wrong than the matter being called into question.

Every Australian would instinctively know in 2016 that to place the sexual activities of two consenting adults in a similar moral category to any of the above examples would be a grave cause of offence to many people.
That’s because for the most part, our society accepts that violence, drunken public indecency or nuisance and racism are either objectively wrong or at least condemned by societal consensus. Because consensual sexual acts and relationships seem to have limited detrimental impact on third parties, many Australians are willing to adopt an each-to-their own approach. This is why many (perhaps most if certain polling is correct) Australians would reject the idea that a certain variety of sexuality or a loving relationship between two adults can be considered morally wrong to the point that they should be restricted by the law.

However, there are some Australians, myself included, that do believe in an objective standard of right or wrong when it comes to sexual behaviour and a predetermined definition of marriage. The difficulty we find ourselves in when publicly discussing an issue such as same-sex marriage with a passionate advocate for full relational equality (such as yourself) is not so much that people are now unwilling to accept our position that certain consensual expressions of sexuality may be morally problematic and socially undesirable. It’s actually more so the fact that many see it as their moral and social duty to prevent us from expressing the alternative view on sexuality.

Some of us believe it’s wrong to practice and promote homosexual activities. Many of us have stopped saying that publicly, because the tide of public opinion has turned against us. It seems the view that once enjoyed a clear societal consensus has recently become something of a minority report. And so now in the present debate on whether to legally redefine marriage, you’ll hear virtual silence on the morality or desirability of particular sexual lifestyles and more focus on other matters. Certain lobby groups oppose same-sex marriage by appealing to the impact on children, the potential of further redefinitions of marriage or the potential for punitive legal actions against groups who do not openly endorse the LGBT movement’s philosophies and recognise lawfully wedded gay couples as “married.” Because they’re afraid of being labelled homophobic and run out of town by a mob with torches and pitchforks, they remain silent on the actual issue of homosexuality, but instead point out how successive state and federal governments have removed all forms of legal discrimination against gay and lesbian couples.

My friends, I share your noble desire to protect homosexual people from violence, vilification and unnecessary, unfair discrimination. I don’t believe that my beliefs regarding sexuality and marriage automatically promote any of those things. And while you might disagree even on that point, I am nevertheless writing to you to ask you not to support the suppression of people’s voices who believe that this type of sexual expression is wrong and that celebrating it in marriage is unhelpful to all involved.

I ask this because you like me hold the belief that certain expressions of sexuality are indeed wrong. Don’t misunderstand what I’m saying here. I know that LGBT people get very upset when their sexuality and relationships are compared to forms of sexual deviancy that are uniformly condemned by most sections of society. I am not equating homosexual relationships with other acts you and I would agree are grotesque and have no place in society: such as bestiality, incest and paedophilia. I am saying that in a pluralistic society, there needs to be freedom for people to define the rightness and wrongness of human sexuality differently. For you, consensuality and privacy may determine the vindication or condemnation of a sexual act. But surely it is unhelpful to attempt to silence or legally suppress those whose understanding of divine; cultural; or natural laws requires them to use a different criteria in evaluating the legitimacy of a relationship or sexual activity?

I respect your right as a citizen in this country to hold your own personal beliefs about this issue and others and to advocate for what you believe to be the best social outcome for all Australians. But I’m asking first of all that you would not join in the attempts of certain forces in the media and the political arena to prevent those who sincerely believe differently from openly expressing what they belief to be true. It is not helpful for social goodwill and does not promote the freedom of speech that is essential to our society; the freedom of expression that many would cite in support of same-sex marriage; nor the freedom of religion that has been a cornerstone of the best societies for many years.

But I don’t want to write to you about this issue without making it clear why I won’t support any changes to the Marriage Act in Australia as it currently stands. I am a Christian and while I don’t wish to force my views onto others through coercion, revolution or heavy-handed legislation, I find myself in a democratic, pluralistic society where – at least theoretically – my vote, voice and opinions are of equal standing to those of each of the 16.5 million citizens who are eligible to vote in state and federal elections. In cases where a large majority of Australians do not hold my particular views on any given issue, I am content in most instances not to attempt to force radical change on them through legislation that many would find completely unpalatable. However, I will not support any changes to the status quo that I believe would be detrimental or unbeneficial to the health of Australian society.

I have sincerely held views concerning sexuality, which I don’t see as any less valid than many other areas of conviction that are held by voters and people holding public office.
My sincerely held view about homosexual sex is that it does not promote a healthy, natural or commendable view of human sexuality; nor is it beneficial for those involved; nor does it have a positive impact on our society. There is one authentic, natural, God-ordained expression of human sexuality, which takes place in the context of marriage as it is presently defined in Federal law, through sexual intimacy between one man and one woman who are exclusively committed to each other “as long as they both shall live.”

I have no plans to push for the recriminalisation of sodomy or to attempt to make life more difficult for LGBT people. My agenda as a Christian is not to implement policy and legislation in Australia that are based solely on religious convictions. While I believe some sexual acts are sinful and express a rejection of God’s will for human sexuality – I hold the sober belief that each man and woman (straight, gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered or other) will have to give a personal account for how they’ve used their bodies to glorify or dishonour God while on earth and to benefit or negatively impact others. Ultimately these questions will be resolved in a higher court than those available within the Australian justice system and evaluated by a higher standard than the laws enacted by our Federal Parliament.

Instead of pouring my energy into some kind of heterosexual activism, I’d much rather my fellow Australians know that heterosexual members of society are just as guilty of rebellion against God as their homosexual neighbours are. Whether it’s how we’ve expressed our sexual desires or how we’ve spoken to others, used our money, respected others’ property, treated the poor or expressed ourselves in relation to the God who graciously gave us life – we’ll all have a case to answer before God when we come before Him in His glory.

The God I strive to honour with my life does not accept me because of some claim I have to sexual purity, superior morality, or ethical perfection. I deserve immediate relegation to the eternal scrap-heap – the place that burns hot with God’s wrath against all kinds of evil – including the evil found deep within my heart. The reason I have something to celebrate today is because God is gracious and provided a way for people who have rebelled against Him to be forgiven. While the good news of Jesus has become increasingly less understood in our society, His death on the cross was a sacrificial act of love and He became a substitute for sinners – willingly enduring our punishment as though He was us, so that we might receive mercy instead of judgement.

Out of my love for God and for my neighbours, I want everyone to hear that message of forgiveness and reconciliation with God through Jesus. I want every Australian to have the opportunity to enjoy God and the eternal life He offers through the good news. And out of love for God and for my neighbours, I cannot promote any kind of sexual expression (whether heterosexual, homosexual or other) that constitutes an act of rebellion against God. An act that Jesus had to die for, in order for people to have any hope of life with God.

I understand that in the sphere of politics, many people would wish I would keep these views to myself. That I would live and let live. I acknowledge that many Christians and non-Christians might feel that the message of Jesus is less attractive when those who promote it also publicly confront issues of sexuality and that this often leads to offense and derision. But love means I must speak – even when the truth is unpopular. And while I refuse to coerce others into accepting my position on sexuality, I feel that love compels me to use my voice and my vote to promote the view of sexuality and marriage I believe is most beneficial to individual people and wider society.

I often hear it said that this issue is all about love. And I have come to understand that you and I probably have different understandings of what love is. For many Australians “love” – defined as affection for another person, that leads to a desire for private intimacy and public expression of permanent commitment – is the main factor that should determine whether consenting adults should be able to have their relationship recognised as a marriage. This affection and consequent desire for intimacy and commitment is real and I don’t deny for a moment that it exists in non-marital and non-heterosexual contexts.

But “love” as I and others like me understand it is not primarily romantic or sexual nor necessarily marital. Love is a genuine concern for the well-being and best interests of others that translates into concrete expressions like how we act, speak and use our time and energy in the pursuit of the welfare of others. Christian love is defined in relation to Jesus’ own sacrificial expression of love and therefore, my expressions of love must be prepared for the possibility of sacrifice or suffering when promoting the good of others.

To believe what I believe about sexuality and affirm same-sex marriage as good, acceptable or even morally neutral would simply be unloving towards everyone involved. I earnestly don’t believe it’s helpful to individual gay and lesbian people to encourage them to think of themselves as married or to believe that homosexual sex is morally innocuous or even healthy and positive. I know that when I say my opposition to this issue is consistent with a view of love that seeks what is best for the people who are the object of that love that LGBT people may find this attitude condescending. That is not my intention. You must make your own decisions about your life and what you promote in seeking the good of others. I have done and will do nothing to restrict your ability to make your own sexual choices and hold your own beliefs about what marriage should be. I simply won’t encourage you to take any course of action I don’t believe will benefit you or others.

On another note, yes there are religious bigots who vilify LGBT out of hatred, rather than seeking their interests in love. Let me take this opportunity to repudiate them and ask that you do not mistake every opponent of same-sex marriage for the worst examples of self-righteous prejudice. I am sorry that people in religious communities, including my own, have made their opposition to homosexuality heard much more loudly than their love for all people created in the image of God – irrespective of sexuality.

So as we head toward a probable plebiscite on this issue in 2017, I want to be encouraging my Christian brothers and sisters to be getting on with our primary business of sharing the love, grace and forgiveness available in Christ with all members of our community. But when I’m asked about issues of marriage and sexuality or there’s a particular time that seems appropriate to say more – I will endeavour to “speak the truth in love” as our Scriptures require and promote what I sincerely believe is the best understanding of these issues.

I’d love it if you’d give consideration to what I’ve said above and what I might say in those future moments. And I want to be willing to listen and participate in civil discussion with you when you share your perspective on these issues with me. Thank you for being willing to read such a long letter – especially one that is written by someone who many suggest you shouldn’t waste any of your time listening to on these issues.

Sincerely,
Yarran

Valentine’s or “Vale Lent Time”?

This Sunday is the perhaps the peak of “cultural Catholicism” in 2016. For one thing, it will be the most widely observed Saint’s Day in Australia and the West – St. Valentine’s Day. It’s amusing how many people who wouldn’t have a clue when the ancient feast days of the great apostles fall in the liturgical church calendar will get in on the act of celebrating a day commemorating the martyrdom of an obscure Italian bishop. But then Valentinius has an advantage over Peter, Paul and John in the 21st century, since medieval Catholicism did him the favour of venerating him as the patron saint of the part of life that enjoys perhaps even more idealisation today than ever before: romantic love.

St-Valentine-Kneeling-In-Supplication
St. Valentine

Now of course in 2016, Hallmark and the advertising industry have a lot more clout in shaping how you’re supposed to think about this day and celebrate it than the Vatican does. But nevertheless, I simply want to point out the anomaly of this day – the one time a year that the staunch atheist and decidedly unceremonial “low church” Christians embrace some vestigial martyrology now unrecognisable beneath the garb of cultural commercialism and modern notions of romantic love.

On the other hand, it’s the first weekend of the season of Lent – observed by Catholics worldwide in the lead-up to Easter and present in the traditions of certain Protestant churches that have retained the Catholic liturgical calendar and some of its ceremonial practices. Evangelical Christians, particularly those of the non-liturgical, less-ritualistic “low church” variety have often viewed Lent as an extra-biblical (or even unbiblical) season and eschewed the fasting and other observances that go along with this period. But as Christians of this variety grow increasingly open to considering the value of practices and traditions from outside their own denominational background or “camp” – experimenting with Lent appears more common amongst evangelicals than in the past.

But as the first Sunday of Lent draws near, I’m more inclined to enjoy some meat instead of fasting and commemorate “Vale Lent Time” than Valentine’s. This is not just an effort to be snarky towards traditions with Catholic trappings that I dislike. My anti-fasting commemorates one of the most important events in the Protestant Reformation: one which was inseparably linked to questions of Lenten observance.

While many Christians will be aware of the event nearly 500 years ago that is often spoken of as the flashpoint that started the Reformation – Luther’s nailing of his 95 theses to the Wittenberg Door – fewer are aware of the event that escalated tensions between the Catholic church and those who would become the Reformers of Switzerland. In 1522, a few years after Luther’s infamous challenge to Catholic practice, the “Affair of Sausages” caused a storm in Zurich, which led to a chain of events that were pivotal to the Swiss Reformation.

On the first Sunday of Lent, Christoph Froschauer, a Swiss printer, violated the fast from meat that was officially sanctioned by the Church for the period leading up to Easter, by serving his employees and friends sausages for supper. He was subsequently arrested for this act of defiance against the authority of the church’s teachings concerning Lent.

Tray-of-sausages

Ulrich Zwingli, the premiere Swiss Reformer was present that evening (as were many of the figures who would later play a significant role in the Swiss Reformation) and defended the breaking of Lenten rules in his subsequent church sermons by appealing to the Scriptures and noting the lack of a biblical warrant for enforcing fasting during this period and the New Testament’s emphasis instead on freedom in the gospel. What many of us take for granted nearly 500 years later was revolutionary preaching in 1522 in the face of the often unbiblical, artificially constructed religious regulations of the Roman ecclesiastical hierarchy. Evangelical freedom to practice one’s faith according to the clear teaching of Scripture and to follow one’s conscience when the Bible was silent was one of the important emphases recovered during the Reformation and made an enormous difference in the daily lives of Christians and the power of church officials.

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Ulrich Zwingli

Zwingli essentially made Lent a matter of conscience or preference. If you wanted to fast you were free to do so. If you didn’t desire to abstain from certain foods in the lead up to Easter, men with ecclesiastical titles did not have the power to compel you to forego the almost absolute freedom to partake of any kind of food granted by the New Testament.

So while many of my Christian brothers and sisters will use their freedom in the gospel to observe some form of Lenten fasting or abstaining, or to enjoy the commercial/cultural/Catholic celebration of romantic love with their significant other, I’ll be endeavouring to celebrate the freedom itself.

There is nothing wrong with fasting (as long as it’s practiced in accordance with Christ’s instructions) or spiritual preparation for reflection on the deeper truths of the gospel. If you find giving something up in the lead up to Easter to be helpful to you spiritual life – nothing and no one (other than the Bible or Jesus Himself) should restrict your freedom to abstain. If you find celebrating February 14th with roses, candlelight dinners and love poems nourishes intimacy within your relationship – again only Scripture should curb the way you express your participation in this cultural celebration of romance.

But as for me, I look forward to celebrating Sunday with a sausage or a steak as I rejoice in the liberty God gave me from man-made rules through the gospel of Christ – which was revealed in the New Testament and recovered in the Reformation.

God and the politicians

Yesterday, the federal parliament of Australia opened for business for the first time in 2016. This was preceded by a customary ecumenical church service (held this year at Canberra’s Wesley Uniting Church), attended by members from both sides of the House. Parliament also recommenced with the Speaker reading the Lord’s Prayer, as is part of convention and procedure.

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It is an interesting time to reflect on the role of God and Christianity in our nation’s political life and the life of our leaders. With an election campaign simultaneously taking place in our trans-Pacific “big brother” the USA – a place where God is more frequently invoked in political campaigning – some of that rhetoric (and the heated responses) is sure to also be reported in our media and receive a mixed response.

While infinite ink could be spilled (or pixels generated) on the issues relating to God and political life, I’m interested here in a question that often generates public interest and/or ire. That is, to what extent are our leaders in particular (and parties more generally) influenced and/or motivated by their conception of God and religious ideas, when it comes to their political principles and actions?

Assessing the genuineness of political figures when it comes to their faith is notoriously difficult. Some would suggest we abandon such attempts altogether. This indeed is tempting if we consider how often Machiavelli’s political advice to his prince might be heeded by political players today.

Therefore it is unnecessary for a prince to have all the good qualities I have enumerated, but it is very necessary to appear to have them. And I shall dare to say this also, that to have them and always to observe them is injurious, and that to appear to have them is useful; to appear merciful, faithful, humane, religious, upright, and to be so, but with a mind so framed that should you require not to be so, you may be able and know how to change to the opposite…For this reason a prince ought to take care that he never lets anything slip from his lips that is not replete with the above-named five qualities, that he may appear to him who sees and hears him altogether merciful, faithful, humane, upright, and religious. There is nothing more necessary to appear to have than this last quality, inasmuch as men judge generally more by the eye than by the hand, because it belongs to everybody to see you, to few to come in touch with you. Every one sees what you appear to be, few really know what you are...

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Machiavelli [2]

Voters in nations with significant generically Christian populations are constantly serenaded with religious charlatanry and pious posers during electioneering. Sometimes it might be better to get a political leader honest enough not to play the game of pretended faith than one who takes a multitude of spiritually sincere but politically naive voters along for a ride.

Roy Williams has attempted to make the case for a serious, sustained influence of God and Christianity upon nearly all of our nation’s prime ministers from Barton to Gillard (his book came out just before Rudd’s return and Abbott’s election victory). I find some of his conclusions regarding the biographical evidence he cites rather forced, in order to support the thesis of his book (I reviewed the book here). But nevertheless, many of our leaders have at least made a show of religion or Christianity when it suits their purposes.

If Barnaby Joyce succeeds Warren Truss sometime in the next few months (as is widely predicted), the four main political parties in Australian parliament will be led by Catholics of the not-particularly-religious variety. While their politics are quite different on multiple fronts, their religious dispositions seem remarkably similar – and in a way that likely resonates with many “ordinary Australian” voters.

SD and Australia's PM Malcolm Turnbull pose for a photo togetherBill_Shorten_DSC_3004Richard_Di_Natale_Portrait_2010Barnaby_Joyce_Portrait_2010
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Turnbull, Shorten and (Greens leader) Richard Di Natale’s views on vexed moral and social issues, such as abortion and same-sex marriage, demonstrate that while they may believe in God in some way, they do not consider the teachings of Scripture or their Church to speak authoritatively for Him when it comes to how they should live and govern. Joyce’s politics are far more consistent with the Bible and his Church, but he would balk at being portrayed as a religiously motivated politician and his views may also have a lot to do with the more socially conservative milieu of rural Australia.

While I wish for something better, I consider the current state of affairs is probably a sign that representative democracy is working in Australian parliament. Many Aussies believe it’s good to have a bit of religion, but not too much. Faith is better expressed in private devotion or religious gatherings – that are neatly confined to a particular building and time of week – than it is in public discourse. And while it seems that well over half of the population still believes in the existence of God, for many of them this is a god of their own conceptualisation – not one revealed authoritatively through Scripture or the Church.

Should Christians respond to the present situation with despair, frustration or  passionate activism? I propose there are three things we can do in response to the way our present leaders interact with God and faith.

  1. Pray that our leaders will humbly acknowledge God’s authority as being over and above their own. And pray that God may even grant them genuine faith to know, love and serve Him with their lives.
  2. Get on with the church’s main business of evangelism and discipleship. Leaders who take God and his Word seriously should come as a by-product of seeing a revival of sincere, biblical Christianity in our nation.Lobbying, manoeuvring, advertising and even legislating has limited and secondary (or even tertiary) value compared to seeing people change the way they think and behave through the power of the gospel.
  3. In the meantime, look for substantial alignment with Christian principles in the policy of political leaders, rather than their religious appearance or affiliation. If a candidate or party pursues bad policy that harms the country and contravenes what God has revealed to us to be good – it doesn’t matter whether a member or leader identifies with Anglicanism, Pentecostalism, Wicca or Pastafarianism.The apostle’s instruction in 1 Thessalonians 5:21-22 may apply primarily to messages we hear from people in the church, but it has some relevance with respect to political messages too (particularly if the candidates cultivate a religious profile to woo Christian voters): “but test everything; hold fast what is good. Abstain from every form of evil.” (ESV).

[1] Gouldy99 “House of Representatives: New Parliament House – Canberra10” CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
[2] Crashworks “Uffizi Statue: Niccolo Machiavelli” CC BY-ND 2.0
[3] DoD photo by U.S. Army Sgt. First Class Clydell Kinchen Malcolm Turnbull, Prime Minister of Australia, visiting the Pentagon on 18 January 2016.CC BY 2.0
[4] Peter Campbell “Bill Shorten MP” CC BY-SA 3.0
[5] Victorian Greens from Melbourne “Richard Di Natale at his farm in the Otway Ranges, Victoria” CC BY 2.0
[6] Bidgee “Barnaby Joyce being interviewed by local media” CC BY-SA 3.0