The world’s advice for churches
04/2004 Andrew Cameron and Tracy Gordon | Briefing #006
Are Australian churches too cowardly to suggest it is in the best interest of children to have married parents? ... [W]here are the Australian politicians, the church leaders prepared to take this message and run with it?
—Bettina Arndt, “Being dad is a job for marriage,” SMH April 17 2004 http://www.smh.com.au/text/articles/2004/04/16/1082055652176.html
The crisis of the established churches should be a matter of great concern to all of us. ... Without some kind of sustained spiritual input, [community ethics] will ultimately degenerate into a bleak utilitarian shell that debases us all. ... Fighting this new wave of individualism is where the opportunity, and the responsibility, of the churches lies. Although much of the contemporary work of the churches could be seen in this light, it is generally too narrow, too dogmatic and too negative.
—Lindsay Tanner, “The Churches could do much more to promote community engagement,” Online Opinion April 13 2004 http://www.onlineopinion.com.au/view.asp?article=2133
Think of Sydney and what springs to mind? A beautiful, cosmopolitan, liberal and laid-back city with a flourishing gay community? You would be only half-right. This wonderful Australian city now also plays host to the most narrow-minded, puritanical and zealous brand of Anglicanism, ... Sydney's militant Anglicanism is as exclusive as its political counterpart. Jensenism sees no role for the Church in society; it is there only for its members. And any straying from scriptural orthodoxy is swiftly stamped upon.
—Mary Ann Sieghart, “Anglicanism's new holy warriors,” The Times April 21, 2004, http://www.timesonline.co.uk/newspaper/0,,172-1081640,00.html
‘The Apologists’ are a group of thinkers from the early centuries of Christian history. We don't mean by this term that they spent their time ‘apologising’. Rather, they explained and defended the practices of Christians when pagan accusers taunted, mocked and attacked Christianity.
- Some taunts were way off-base, as when Christians were thought to be baby-eating cannibals. (People were confused about Christians ‘drinking the blood of God's Son’.)
- Others were closer to home, as when Christians were thought to be dangerous subversives, since they refused to worship the emperor. (A similar fear is finally what killed Jesus—John 19:12 & vv19-22.)
It is not a problem, of course, to have to answer such worries. Indeed when the Apologists did so, they rapidly moved from correcting the misunderstanding, to explaining what made Christians tick. They rapidly found themselves explaining sin, judgment, Jesus, forgiveness, and eternal life.
Not a lot has changed since then. Christianity remains under attack from people who have varying degrees of knowledge about it. The people quoted above all seem to have varying degrees of knowledge about Christianity (and anyone can be an apologist in response).
- Bettina Arndt is accurate to a degree. She argues that children need fathers, who are in a stable, loving marriage. She is right that many church leaders have failed to say what research now supports. The Bible records a long history of cowardice and compromise among the leaders of God's people, and this modern failure is no exception.
- Lindsay Tanner is right to observe that much in Christianity promotes relationships, not individualism. But he concludes that we should stop talking about “particular kinds of relationships, or particular activities that damage relationships”. He is particularly against Christian opposition to gay relationships (although he thinks that marriage is only for a man and a woman). What this misses, though, is the way Christian thought has always understood sexual activity as being only for marriages, and damaging beyond it.
- Mary Ann Seighart, in her attack on a particular group of Christians (Sydney Anglicans), has relied on much inaccurate hearsay. (E.g. Archbishop Jensen hardly “sees no role for the Church in society”—he chairs the Social Issues Executive, and has written in the press on Iraq, refugees, and other matters of concern in our society.) But her reports of our high standards of sexual morality, and of our evangelical teaching that men and women each have differing roles in marriage, have a bit of truth (even though she overstates the matter angrily and dismissively).
Each pundit has different advice for our churches.
- Bettina Arndt thinks that we should tell the world, more boldly, that there is no better alternative for family life than a stable marriage.
- Lindsay Tanner, “a largely agnostic Anglican”, thinks we should promote those parts of the Bible which enhance relationships, but leave behind whatever is “too narrow, too dogmatic and too negative.”
- Mary Ann Sieghart thinks we should stop opposing homosexuality, stop emphasising the Bible, and stop being ‘militant’ and ‘fundamentalist’.
There is not enough space in this briefing to answer the arguments of each pundit, as any good apologist should. (We will further address some of the matters raised here in future briefings, and in a forthcoming publication on marriage and family.) But these three writers illustrate the way modern liberals deeply appreciate—indeed desperately crave —the relational benefits that Christianity gives, while at the same time commanding us to say nothing about the route Christianity takes to give these benefits.
But there are no shortcuts. The route to good relationships is the same as for the Apologists:
- Sin: People sin when they ignore God and live out their individual desires.
- Judgment: God will not change his requirements upon people simply because they disagree with him. Our disagreements with God are many: we wish to be greedy, or promiscuous, or covetous, or whatever. But God will not let such assessments stand.
- Jesus: Not only does Jesus restate God's requirements upon people; his death makes it possible for us to relate to God again on God's terms, not on terms that we have invented. His death brings about forgiveness by God. His resurrection brings about new life with God, ‘in the Spirit’, by whom God nudges us away from sinful habits, toward new loves.
- Forgiveness: When this core relationship with God is restored through his forgiveness, people are freed to start again with each other—in faithful marriages, in celibate singleness (with an openness to marriage), and in various forms of loving cooperation. This is the only sure route to good relationships.
- Eternal life: People who share the prospect of ongoing relationship with God learn to care for others enough to invite them in. Whether or not others join in, we will still care for them, even the ones trapped in individualism, sexual disobedience, or angry hostility to us.
When Arndt, Tanner, and Sieghart tell us what we should do, they call attention to failures that we should have seen more clearly. Christians know they are forgiven sinners. It does not surprise us to hear we've failed again. We need that.
But conversely, the pro-family commentator, the pro-relationships ‘agnostic Anglican’, and the angry anti-fundamentalist cannot, with integrity, stop at this. They need to call us to embrace the whole Christian message, not just the parts they like, if they truly want to see the changes they long for. It follows that they would also need to consider their own personal participation in such change, for Christianity is not merely a useful tool for societal change. Truly fundamental social change occurs when each one of us acknowledges our sin, flees to Jesus for forgiveness by God, and lives to serve God and neighbour, with an eye on eternity.
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