10th August 2020
He was amazed that a short letter written in the first century could still be of such vital importance today. This was John Stott’s response as he prepared to preach on the Epistle to the Galatians. This recognised biblical scholar of many years went on to explain in his introduction to a commentary on the biblical text how he was left more deeply convinced than ever of the divine inspiration and relevance of the Scriptures.
The early churches of the New Testament founded by Paul were soon troubled by false teachers who undermined his divine authorization as an apostle. Today the never-ending story continues around the world as churches contest not only with secular ideologies but with people of influence within the church who want to modify and adjust essential core doctrines of the Christianity.
False Teaching Continues
On a global, international front, the United Methodist Church and also the Methodist Church in England both face conferences this year that similar to the Uniting Church in Australia could leave them bitterly divided to the point of setting up alternative expressions of the church. While the Uniting Church has largely attempted to smother any objections to its new direction by creating its own contradictory doctrine of ‘two integrities,’ the Anglican church in New Zealand has since divided and the Anglican Church in Australia now also faces serious division.
In September 2019 a regional Anglican Synod in Victoria followed Bishop Parkes in authorising a service to allow a blessing of same-sex unions. This occurred although the General Synod of the Church had repeatedly affirmed the biblical view of marriage as the doctrine of the Anglican Church. This is similar to the actions of the Diocese of New Westminster in Canada in 2002 and it is now acknowledged that those events marked the “beginning of tearing the fabric” of the universal Anglican Communion.
Discerning the Times
Several Synods have now approved services of blessings of same-sex marriage and in the words of Archbishop Glen Davies, the Anglican Church in Australia has, “---witnessed the gradual decline in orthodox adherence to Anglican doctrine as we have received it, not only in the areas of sexual identity and practice but also in the teaching of Scripture more broadly.” As a result and in response to this developing trend, as part of the informal world-wide Confessing movement, GAFCON, the Global Anglican Futures Conference has flourished and now embraces approximately 50 million of the 70 million Anglicans around the world.
Made up of many third world countries, for this part of the Church the issue of authority and sexuality is not a matter of tolerance and permissiveness, it is a subtle wickedness. It is a serious salvation issue that undermines the gospel itself and similar to the crisis faced by the early church it could leave to many being on a road to destruction.
Facing current secularist opposition in Australia to religious education, religious freedom, changing life identity and sexual ethics within the church an Anglican Bishop, the Rev Peter Peter Lin has suggested that behind these issues and the sense of Christians being marginalised, even persecuted, that there could be on the part of some, a touch of panic, a fear of the church itself being out of touch with reality and popular cultural trends. This could well explain and be true of the ‘progressive’ leadership of the Uniting Church where, in a desperate attempt to be socially compassionate and relevant, it exhorts its members to believe and preach what is more palatable, to conform to the social norm so that people will listen to the gospel. This view says that if the church can change its old conservative views then people will come back and start being pew-sitters again.
Trying to be relevant
Behind this thinking evident in the Uniting Church there is a hard-hearted arrogance that suggests that we know better than God’s written word when it comes to matters of faith and doctrine. As John Stott has noted this same sort of doubt about God’s will, wisdom and purpose has a long pedigree and it showed its ugly face in the false teachers who attacked the early church.
Rev Dr Mark Thompson says, “Perhaps we’ve become more sophisticated in the way we sidestep God’s word. We can even convince ourselves that this is not what we are doing at all. We are being more careful about the historical context, taking responsible note of the remarkable advances we have made since biblical times, acting with compassion in the midst of a broken world. We have moved ‘beyond the Bible’ as one writer put it, despite the fact that Paul warned the Corinthians that they should ‘not go beyond what is written.’ (1 Cor.4:6).
Thompson concludes that in many cases ‘conservatives’ are considered less generous, less truthful and less kind than those who offer a more ‘progressive’ take on human sexuality and gender relations. The question we must ask ourselves is, “Am I just an opponent of so-called contemporary enlightenment or perhaps a narrow person just given to stubborn obscurantism?”
A Living Gospel
One thing is sure, no matter what happens God is sovereign, and the living gospel cannot be suppressed. God’s word shall not return to Him void (Isaiah 55:11)
Again Lin says, “The gospel will not be thwarted if we don’t have same of the things we have had in the past. God will find another way for people to hear the message of Jesus.” He makes the point that he is not saying we shouldn’t contend for the faith. We should and we must but graciously, lovingly, firmly and relentlessly. Lin makes a lot of sense in pointing the church beyond the current heat and hidden fears facing the Western church in the twenty first century.
“Whatever the outcome, God is in control. We should stand up for religious freedom but it’s not as though the lack of it can contain the work of the Holy Spirit.—The gospel is not the power of religious freedom, nor the power of conforming views on marriage, nor the power of social acceptability. The power of the gospel is in God, through his Son, by his Spirit. No human hindrance can stand against God.
There will always be a way. Some may be riskier and some simply more creative. There may even come a time when to live and preach Christ means you are breaking the law and you get locked up.----So keep preaching Christ, with or without persecution, with or without panic."
Lin concludes by saying that sometimes he thinks we fight for the right to preach Jesus more than we actually do it. We fight for the “right” but he concludes if we are prevented and it does not come to pass, while there are consequences,---- the gospel will still ring out.
There is no doubt that the Uniting Church needs to recover a clear prophetic voice in Australia but in the long run, as important as winning social/theological battles are, they are not the main game. While they are important, behind them is the truth that ultimately one day we will all give an account of our stewardship and all people will need to know Jesus as Lord and Saviour.
Rev E.A. Curnow
(1) Do we really want to Pray, “Your will be Done”? Mark D. Thompson, Southern Cross Oct.2019.p24.
(2) “Regional synod vote ignores ‘clear words of Scripture,” Pastors Heart, Rev Dominic Steele, Dean Kanishka Raffel. 2019.
(3) “Solidarity in standing for Jesus.” Dr Glenn Davies, Southern Cross.2019
(4) “Are we persecuted’? Rt Rev Peter Lin, Southern Cross Oct.2019 p27.