Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Our Confusion About Christianity

Recent events in Australasia show how confused we are about religion and Christianity. First, the terror attack in Christchurch caused an outpouring of compassion. Rightly, we cried, we prayed, we laid flowers, we reached out. And so we should have. We even put on hijabs and joined in Muslim calls to prayer (although some Christians were uncomfortable with this).

Then, Israel Folau dared to say on social media what Christianity has always believed, even if clumsily and inappropriately in my view: that those who are sinners who refuse to repent will not be included in God’s world to come. This is indeed what Islam believes, through the lens of faith in Allah and Mohamad as his prophet. This is what Christians believe based on our view that Jesus is Savior and Lord. Yet, our society turns from approval to condemnation. We cry foul! Much umbrage is taken. Then, Notre Dame burned down. It is a tragedy, absolutely. We should be grieved. Yet, remember that this is a building built by people who believe what Israel Folau believes.

There are ironies everywhere in this. How is it that we can be so grieved about a shooting and a building (which we should be), and yet hang this young man out to dry for daring to express the views held in those buildings where these tragedies occurred. Can we really have it both ways?  

The truth is we tolerate Christianity and religion if it tows the line, shows love and mercy and never expresses its full theology. We love its cathedrals (one can think of the public furore over the Christchurch cathedral). We love its works of service (the Salvation Army and so on). In fact, our societies ideology is to a large degree based on its premises. But we are so selective. We have picked the bones off its carcass and woe-betide the person that dares to tell the world around the full story. If someone dares to speak publicly concerning its belief system, we are up at arms. Irony! We are indeed completely confused about religion and Christianity. On the one hand, we embrace it and reach out with compassion to its people. Yet, we condemn their beliefs when one dares to say it publicly. Our confusion and duplicity is palpable.


Is Israel Folau Right?

Israel Folau claims that a range of sinners will go to hell unless they do not repent. How does this stack up in terms of what the Bible teaches? This is not an easy question to answer in a few words, but in my capacity as a Biblical scholar, let me have a go.

It is true that the teaching of Jesus and the authors of the NT reject a range of sins as less than God’s ideal. This includes any sexual activity outside of monogamous, heterosexual, marriage. So this would include masturbation (this is debated, forgive the pun), sex before marriage, sex with someone other than your marital partner, sex with another being (e.g. an animal), and so on. These fall short of God’s ideal.

It is equally true that Jesus and the NT writers rejected a whole raft of other attitudes and behaviors, especially those that cause injustice and oppression. Materialistic greed was especially singled out. Similarly, bad attitudes like envy, arrogance, hatred, destructive speech, anger, violence, are all rejected. While the NT was not explicit on matters like sexism and slavery, many texts point to the end of patriarchy and the enslavement of the other. Jesus was opposed to anything that is unloving toward others and is destructive of relationships. This is why Christians were at the forefront of women getting the vote (e.g. Kate Shepherd) and ending slavery (e.g. William Wilberforce).

Now the NT is also clear that everyone is a sinner before God. God is articulated as holy, perfect, and pure, without any corruption. Humankind are all flawed, and stand before him as imperfect. So, we are all guilty of sin before God.

The end-game in the NT is that the final outcome of history is that from humankind, those who want an ongoing relationship with God and place their trust in him, will be with him forever. He will accept them into the age to come. He will remove their sinfulness from them once and for all. Only those who have been transformed in this way will enter into eternity with God.

The NT uses a range of terms to describe what is required to have God forgive us of our wrongs and accept us into eternity. Israel Folau picks up the term "repentance" or "repent." The Greek means "to change one’s mind." In a religious sense, it means turning from a desire and propensity to sin to an intention to no longer do so. In that the NT makes it clear that Christians are still sinners, this is about intention and desire as much as outcome. We seek to live the life God wants for us.

Yet, the main term the NT uses for qualifying for eternal life is not “repent” or “repentance.” Rather, it is “believe, have faith.” It is those who believe or place their trust in God and Jesus who will experience eternal life. Repentance language dies out through Acts, although it is there on and off, and there is a move to belief language as seen through John’s and Paul’s writings (also Peter and James). Paul in Acts is nicely summarised: “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved.”

The emphasis in faith is not what one turns from, but what one orientates their life toward: God and his Son. It also holds an implicit recognition that none of us are perfect even after coming to believe in Jesus. We do repent, but our repent is inadequate. Indeed, Christians are no or little better than other people who do not believe. In some cases, we are worse. What differentiates us should be our trust in God and his Son and our desire to be repentant (even if we are imperfect).

By choosing repentance language, Israel amplifies the negative rather than accentuates the positive. I would urge him to think about shifting his language to “repent and believe” or “believe.” E.g. “Those who do not believe in God will go to hell.” Yet, I would not use the latter phrase.

This brings me to the last part of that statement: “go to hell.” Hell is a complex idea among Christians and what it entails is far from agreed. Popular ideas of Christians believing that everyone goes to burn forever are actually increasingly rare. These owe their origins to Greek myth, Dante’s Inferno, and literal interpretations of texts that are metaphorical. To put it plainly, “fire” and “burning” in the NT is figurative language. We can see this in texts where fire and darkness are impossibly juxtaposed (e.g. Jude 6–7). Indeed, across the Bible, fire speaks of God’s judgment, and should not be read literally.

However, hell language is used, so what does it entail? This is uncertain. Some argue it points to an actual place where people live on but experience eternal suffering. Some think it merely points to living on with eternal separation from God and all that is good. Some go as far as speaking of eternal solitary confinement. Catholics hold to purgatory, a kind of middle ground, a temporary time of purification before eternal life. Some protestants hold a similar view; that, the gates of hell and heaven are always open and one can move from one place to the other. Others hold that hell is essentially a metaphor for being dead forever. Either, one is judged and then destroyed forever. Or, that when one dies, one stays dead forever (which is what secular people think happens to us all).

So, to use going to hell language is very unhelpful as it brings up a whole range of ideas that most Christians are uncertain of. It needs to be unpacked so much that is just breeds uncertainty. I don’t think we are meant to have a perfect and complete understanding of hell. All we need to know is that it will suck compared to the wonders of living on with God forever.

If we take a traditional view of hell, are all homosexuals going there? Even Israel does not fully answer the question. He says they must repent. What does that mean? Never do it again? If so, most of us are stuffed because we all tend to sin in our areas of weakness repeatedly. I do. Is perfect repentance required? Can one repent, muck up, repent again, muck up, and do this repeatedly and be saved? The language is not the best way to speak of what is required, and this is why the passages Israel quotes don’t use it. The language of faith and trust and a consequent intention to please God in all we do is what is required. We will stuff up, I do, but we seek God’s forgiveness, accept it, and go on, trusting in him, and praying that we have the strength not to do it again.

The Bible never says that those who are adulterers, gay, lesbian, greedy, prone to anger, who are jealous, patriarchal, arrogant, are definitely going to hell. It speaks of them not entering the kingdom of God. The same writer who says this, Paul, says clearly that entry into the kingdom is by believing. When we enter, we remain sinners, but declared righteous by faith. This includes all manner of sin. So we can't simply say that those who do such things are going to hell unless we rip the passages out of the context of Paul's whole theology. The truth of the gospel for Paul is that we are all sinners. If we believe, our sins are dealt with. We should seek not to sin, but if we do, God's grace will deal with it, if we truly believe. There are plenty of adulterers, idolaters, and heterosexual sinners who are trusting in this grace. The same goes for homosexuals as much as any group.

Furthermore, hell may not be a place. We all do these things. Let those of us who are not sinners, cast the first stone. We all do the things God does not want of us, to some degree, some of the time. It does not mean we go to hell, whatever hell is.

The wonder of the Christian message is not so much our propensity to sin (all guilty as charged), but that God still loves us and wants to be our friend. He extends grace to us. It is not so much that he is offended by our sin, but that he weeps over us being sinned against and broken. He wants us to realize he is there, come to recognize that Jesus is Him, injected into the world to show us what he is like. He yearns for us to come to him, broken and sinful, and ask his forgiveness and believe in him. If we do, he fills us with his Spirit and we live with him forever. First, in this life, him in us, strengthening us to face the challenges of life that come at us day after day. Second, on the other side of death, we will be with him forever. This offer is the same for rich and poor, male and female, slave and free, gay and straight. 

This offer is open to all humankind. It is not so much that people who do the things in the lists of Israel and the NT are “going to hell,” it is that we all do these things, yet, our God still wants to be our friend and walks with us through them.

Jesus was the friend of sinners. Sure, he warned them of eternal destruction in some form. This is necessary to rid the world of evil (to me, hell is just God ridding the world of evil). But more importantly, he offers another way. It is the way of faith in God and his Son, love of all people no matter who they are and what they have done, and hope in the eternal future we have with this God.

I would humbly suggest that all of us who are Christians are very careful with the way we attempt to articulate this message. Bald statements that all sinners are going to hell unless they repent are likely to offend more than invite. They are full of associations, many of which are unhelpful. They are in actual fact wrong, as it is not that simple. 

Interestingly, hell does not feature in any of the sermons of the first Christians recorded in Acts. Repentance is, but not eternal destruction. Rather, they painted a picture of Jesus as God’s presence in the world and invited people into this world.

As Jesus says in John 3:17, he did not come to condemn the world, but to offer himself to the world as its salvation and prime example. As the previous verse says, if we believe in him, we will not perish but have eternal life. We are all sinners. We all sexually sin. We cannot stop ourselves. This is our “orientation.”  This is where God stepped in. Knowing this, he entered history, showed us what love looks like, invites us into his life, urges us to go out and share this with the world with grace and mercy, and then to live with him forever freed from all the crap that fills our hearts. In this life, we should seek to stop sinning, whatever our predilection. But lets not pretend that we are not all in the same boat. 

I would urge all Christians to think very deeply how we articulate our message to the world. Otherwise, many will be reinforced in their rejection of it. In a world coming apart at the seams, it is our hope.




  

Should Israel Folau Lose His Job?

The previous two blogs have asked whether Israel Folau is a homophobe and guilty of hate speech. Of course he is not. This misrepresents him and his views completely.

Should he lose his job? On the face of it, he has brought his sport into disrepute. He has gone public saying that God is going to send a whole range of people, including homosexuals, to hell, unless they repent.

Yet, if we stop and think about it, should he lose his job for this? Really. Imagine if he had tweeted that God loves everyone and they are all going to heaven. Or, he had tweeted that he is praying for people that they enjoy wealth, health, and fruitfulness. Or more daringly, he tweeted that God loves all people and all those who have done anything wrong will face God in judgment after death. Should he lose his job for these comments?

These comments would barely raise a whimper and would likely go unnoticed. Yet, they are all religious comments involving what happens to people when they die.

Imagine if he had tweeted something like: “my heart goes out to all Muslim people after the horrific shooting in Christchurch.” Or, “prayers and thoughts for them.” This is religious speech in the public arena. It is very appropriate, and these two things I would agree with totally! They would widely be accepted.

Why then would we single out a religious tweet that does not advocate violence, includes no abuse by a person or incites it, is about a religious worldview many do not hold, and then say, “you’re fired!” to that person?

To fire Israel Folau for this is in my view, bordering on religious persecution. It is silencing a person who wishes to express to enquirers on Twitter his answer to their questions. 

Is it that the real issue is that sponsors are unhappy. Why is that a concern? Because sponsors pay for the game. Down here in NZ and Australia, we desperately need their money for the game as we try and keep our players here.

Mmmm, sponsors, money, mmmm. Sounds like materialism to me. In the teaching of Jesus, he mentioned a god called Mammon (it is the Sermon on the Mount I mentioned in my last blog—“you cannot worship God and Money [Mammon]” Matt 6:24). So, the good of the game is not really what is threatened, it is our god, Mammon. Indeed, sport itself is a god here as is the money that lubricates our society and keeps us entertained. The real issues of our cultures are not sexual immorality, a tweet about eternal destruction, but the love of money. We are embedded in consumption, imprisoned in a society that feeds our desires through advertising and demands we consume (or the economy crashes).

Israel Folau has expressed his personal religious view in response to questions on social media. He did so with comments that appeared homophobic and hate-filled. As shown in the previous blogs, they are not. He simply has a belief system and expresses it. Surely, as he advocates no harm to others, his human right to speak his mind cannot be suppressed by an employer in this way? That is religious persecution.

Michael Chieka was interviewed on Aussie TV last night (I write from Melbourne) (https://www.news.com.au/sport/rugby/wallabies-coach-michael-cheika-speaks-out-on-israel-folau-drama/news-story/ae41fcb096c6e81abec677282d86c781). His only argument seems to be that while he agrees that Israel Folau can hold this view, it is now distracting the team. So, he must go. Well, I don’t think that will fly in court.

When someone has the stupidity or courage (depending on your view) to speak out against the mainstream worldview, they should not lose their job unless they are inciting violence, reviling their employer, hating people, threatening them, or abusing them. He did none of these. In fact, he was alluding to the apostle Paul, many of whose ideas form foundational pillars of western civilization.

We go into dangerous territory when we terminate contracts for people going against the norm. One thinks of Colin Kaepernick and the refusal of a whole raft of American athletes to stand for the National Anthem. What he and others did was to push back at the excessive nationalism and racism they perceive in the USA. Good on them.

Whatever our nations believe, when they move in the direction of stifling religious and ideological viewpoints which do not advocate violence in the present context but speak of things on the other side of this world, we go into dangerous territory. We become totalitarian. We all know where totalitarianism led us last century. In one direction we ended up with right-wing nationalist socialist Nazism with the attempted eradication of large portions of Europe’s diverse people. On the other hand, we saw the rise of Communism and the similar eradication of different groups including Christians the Soviet Bloc and other nations.

We sit in a dangerous world now. Both trends are at play. We see it in the clash of values around Brexit, in the USA represented by Trump and Sanders (not that I am calling them Nazis or Communists, I am making my point). They represent trends. Europe is a battleground for these ideas.

In my view, leave Israel Folau alone. If you disagree, speak out, exercise your right of free speech. Don’t threaten violence. Don’t abuse. Say your piece. Fair enough. If you agree with him, support him, speak out. Don’t threaten violence. Don’t abuse. 

What we mustn’t do is let “The Man” overstep the mark and suppress speech simply because we don’t like it.

I would urge Australian Rugby not to sack Israel Folau but work through all these issues and come up with a way of allowing people to hold their beliefs and express them, even in the public realm. Why not? What’s the problem if it is not inciting violence and abusive? I would urge them to back the player’s right to do so. There should be vibrant discussion concerning how to do this. That is a better path in my view. We cannot force the world around us to agree with our point of view and fire them when they don't. That is persecution.



Israel Folau, Hate Speech, and Religious Persecution

In my previous blog, I argued that Israel Folau is not a homophobe. Such a term is not appropriate to describe a Christian who holds his views. He advocates the love of all people, not fear of them, as the term homophobe implies. He is a homophile, even if his words are not received this way when abstracted from context.

Now I want to ask these questions. Is Israel Folau guilty of hate-speech? Then again, is he now the victim of hate-speech? Do we have a case of religious persecution in the way some people are responding to Israel?

First, is what Israel Folau has said “hate-speech?” The answer to me is clearly “no.” According to Google, hate speech is defined as “abusive or threatening speech or writing that expresses prejudice against a particular group, especially on the basis of race, religion, or sexual orientation.”

Did Israel Folau abuse or threaten people on the basis of race? No. Did he abuse or threaten people on the basis of religion? No. Did he abuse or threaten people on the basis of sexual orientation? No. Is he guilty of prejudice? Perhaps. Yet, it is not abusive and it is not threatening. 

As far as I can see, he said nothing abusive and threatening from a human perspective. He spoke of a God, who, after death, he believes, will send people to hell who are not repentant. There was no threat from a human source or in this world. He did not advocate mistreatment of any of those named. He did not urge hate toward them. He is not even prejudiced as he acknowledges his own sinfulness.

How then can this be “hate-speech?” 

Indeed, as noted in the previous blog, he loves all people and recognizes his own sin. If this is hate-speech, he hates himself. Which of course he doesn’t, because he repents.  

Further, if Israel Folau is a victim of hate speech, then so are people who have responded all over the media. Both the first time he tweeted and this time, I have listened to hours of NZ's radiosport, bits of other stations, and observed a range of other responses. Israel is the victim of a great deal of hate, and he is a victim of this on the basis of his religion. It is he who is the victim of hate-speech, and not the homosexual community (nor the atheists, drunkards, and so on). He has been mocked all over the place and people parody his view. Yet, he is not in fact a victim of hate-speech. I have not heard anyone advocate him being hurt or threatended. Yet, one might say that demanding he lose his job on the basis of his religion pushes into dangerous territory.

Yes, I will go further, and ask whether Israel Folau is now a victim of religious persecution? For decades, Christianity and Christians have been mocked in western nations. Celebrated TV programs mock us, e.g. Father Ted, the Vicar of Dibley. Our views are mocked and parodied. In the last weeks, I have heard many celebrating the idea of hell as they think it will be a hell of a party. This all in a society that is founded to a large degree on Christian views. 

Not to mention the enormous social work and good done by the church across NZ and Australia. 
Indeed, one wonders what would happen if the many NGOs, Social Justice groups, and local church ministries went away from NZ. Perhaps the streets would be overrun with the poor and mentally ill? We never complain that we are not appreciated. 

About half of NZ still adhere to the faith. Half a million or more go to church every Sunday in NZ. We sit quietly and do not hit back at the mockery of our nation and society. Even though we are constantly misrepresented and misunderstood. We receive little gratitude for the enormous amount of social work we do. 

Israel Folau hates no one. He loves all. So does his God. He believes we will all be held to account in the afterlife. He advocates no violence. He leaves that to a God he believes in. Is that a crime? Is he guilty of hate-speech. Hell no, or should I say, heaven no! He expresses his view and he should be free to, if it does not involve abuse and threat. Should he be so harshly treated as a result? No. That is bordering on religious persecution.

I ponder what would happen if a devout Muslim sportsperson had made this tweet in the wake of the Terror Attacks. I understand some Muslims would hold a similar view to Israel, from the perspective of Islam. I believe NZers and Australians would hesitate before condemning them. This would be a good idea. That is because it can easily cross the line into religious persecution to respond as many have to Israel Folau.  

I think we need to think very quickly before we jump the gun and react to things that annoy us, as this has done to so many. We do not want to be guilty of the very thing we are condemning as we do so. Reminds me of Jesus saying something about specks and logs in eyes. You can find that in Matthew 7:1–5. While at it, read the whole of Matt 5 to 7—that is the heart of Christianity. 



Israel Folau: Is he homophobic?

As is now well known, Israel Folau is in the news for his recent post as per below.




This comes after his earlier statements concerning this.



What to make of all this as a Christian? 

First, in this blog, is Israel Folau homophobic? I argue to call him homophobic is incorrect for a range of reasons.

First, homophobia combines two Greek terms: homo which means “same;” and phobos, “fear.” Rightly used, homophobia would be “fear of the same,” or if we locate it in a sexual arena, “fear of people of the same sexuality,” or as it is used today, “fear of people in same-sex relationships.”

Aside from extremists like those who disgustingly stand outside church’s with placards repudiating homosexuality and those who want the death penalty (which Christ did not endorse and so no follower of Christ would advocate), no Christian is afraid of people in same-sex relationships. Rather, the opposite is the case. The command of Christ is not to be afraid of people who hold a different worldview is to love them, and indeed, love all people. This is the case even with an enemy who hurts us, and people who disagree with us or live a life that differs from the life we believe is endorsed by God.

As will be shown further below, Israel Folau loves all people. He, like all true Christians, practices "homophilia," a term that compounds homo (same) and philia (love), i.e., the love of those who are in same-sex relationships. Christ and those who truly follow him are not homophobes, they are homophiliacs. He is not afraid. Neither should anyone be. All people are to be loved with a love that wants the very best for them.

Second, Israel Folau’s comments do not call for any violence against homosexuals or any on the list that is given above. In fact, he advocates no actions. He is merely stating his view on what happens after death, not in this world. He is also not stating that he is the agent of this, the actor is God and this after death, not in this world. He is not a crusader urging Christians to take up arms to rid the world of sinners. He is speaking of after-death. He is stating what a person must believe and do on this side of death to avoid his view of what happens to people after death. His words cannot be defined as hate speech as there is no hate involved. It is not homophobia. Indeed, I am not sure why people other than those who believe in the afterlife would be even interested in his view. 

Third, why single out homosexuality and homophobia? Homosexuality is now normalized in many parts of the west including Australia where it was passed in December 2017. Gays and Lesbians can marry. They can raise a family. Gay relationships punctuate mainstream media. Israel picks out a list of other people who punctuate our nations: alcoholics, liars, fornicators (people who engage in sexual relationships outside of a heterosexual monogamous marriage), thieves, atheists, and idolaters. He quotes Galatians 5:19–21 which has an even greater list. He could add a lot more. Such people are everywhere. They are all over the churches of Australia and NZ.

So, why is the media, social and mainstream, picking out so-called homophobia and condemn him for this? Yes, there has been a sad history of maltreatment of homosexuals in wider society including many Christians who have sadly been involved in this (violating the clear teachings of Jesus). For this, with many, I ask forgiveness. Yet, why single it out in this statement? 

What about those with problems with alcohol like my dear sister who died through a drinking binge? Why am I not going on the media and slamming him for his condemnation of “drunks?”

This is because this is not homophobia any more than it is adulterer-phobia, liar-phobia, atheist-phobia, and so on (not that it is phobia at all, above). It is none of these; it is one clip of his view which is framed by his clear understanding that all are sinners, God loves all sinners, God wants Christians to love all people, and that in orthodox Christianity, all must place their faith in God and Christ for salvation.

Fourth, Folau is being misrepresented. Even if we consider that he is not doing it that well (see further in another forthcoming blog), he is speaking out of love, recognizes that it is not up to him to judge a particular person, and acknowledges his own sin.

On the 8 May, he placed a tweet in which he says, “with great love I wanted to share this video in the hope that people watch it and think about it. Jesus is coming back soon and he wants us to turn to him through repentance and baptism in the name of Jesus Christ (Acts 2:38) please don’t harden your heart.” This is where he comes from. I didn't hear an outcry against him over this. Why not? 

Folau has already expressed his opinion on his attitude in “Player’s Voice” (April 16, 2018: https://www.playersvoice.com.au/israel-folau-im-a-sinner-too/#2u85P5u1TWKiAqxt.97). Here are some of the things he said:

“People’s lives are not for me to judge. Only God can do that. I have sinned many times in my life. I take responsibility for those sins and ask for forgiveness through repentance daily.”

 “I believe that it is a loving gesture to share passages from the Bible with others. I do it all the time when people ask me questions about my faith or things relating to their lives, whether that’s in-person or on my social media accounts.”

“There are many sins outlined in that passage from 1 Corinthians [6:9–11] and I have been guilty of committing some of them myself.”

It is easy to take a clip from a tweet conversation and turn it into a basis to condemn someone. The media are brilliant at this, plucking one comment out of context, and using it for their ends—to get people to engage so that they can make more money (more on this in forthcoming blogs).

Yet, this is just one man expressing his view to the world. He is not homophobic. He believes all people are sinners and must repent to be saved.

Condemnation of him for this comment can easily become Christian-phobia (although that is the wrong word of course) or Christian-bashing. It can quickly become religious intolerance and religious persecution. Indeed, one may argue that this is now happening (more on this to come).

We have recently had a group of religious people in this nation attacked violently in a repugnant attack on their religion and persons. Allowing people to hold diverse views and express them without excessive over-reactions and labelling should be part of who we are. 

Let Israel tweet his tweets, after all, the American president does it and some of his tweets are ridiculous. They are not homophobic. They are annoying as they single out groups. They also annoy many Christians who are not into the way he is expressing himself. But let's don't over-react.


Friday, December 14, 2018

When the Church Was Only Women!

Scholars debate when the church proper began. Many would say at Pentecost, others would trace it back through the righteous of Israel in the OT, while another possibility is the empty tomb. If we take the resurrection as the launch of the renewed people of God with Jesus as the first of a new humanity, then the church began then. I am somewhat drawn to the latter view, Jesus the firstborn of resurrection, the first fruits, and then believers men and women were added to his people. They were empowered for life at Pentecost, but for the forty days from the Resurrection, they were his people, building to 120 or so, gathered in prayer, as God's newly formed community of the ekklesia of God, waiting in obedience for God's power to be unleashed into them (Luke 24:46-52; Acts 1:8-14). 

Assuming this is so, aside from Jesus who is the head of the church in any decent ecclesiology (Col 1:18), the first church was entirely made up of women! This is confirmed in all four Gospels even if we are a little unsure of how many and exactly was there. Mark tells us that the group included Mary Magdalene, Mary mother of James, and Salome (Mark 16:1). They are told Jesus is risen and to go and tell his disciples and Peter to meet him in Galilee. Hence, one can argue that the first church service at which an angel preached was held at that moment, and they were commissioned to take the good news to the others (evangelists). Matthew confirms that at least Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were there and Mark’s account is renarrated. We hear that they did go and the church had its second meeting in which the women leaders preached to the others and they then met Jesus in Galilee (Matt 28:1-20). Luke’s version confirms that the two Mary’s were there as was Joanna. Luke tells us that they went and told the apostles and others of their encounter (Luke 24:11). John too narrates that Mary Magdalene went to the tomb, and then ran to tell the others (John 20:1–2).

From this, we can trust that there was at least Mary Magdalene, almost certainly the other Mary (not the mother of Jesus or Mary of Martha's sister's fame), and possibly Joanna and Salome. Incidentally, by cross-referencing the accounts of the women across the Gospels, it is likely that Salome is the mother of James and John. Mary Magdalene had seven demons cast out of her, but she is not the woman who anoints Jesus in Luke 7 and is not a prostitute. Nevertheless, Mary Magdalene is an astonishing choice of the one who is the pioneer of God's church across all four Gospels. She is its leader, first preacher, apostle, and evangelist--one could argue.

All this tells me that the genesis of the church is women. They were planted as such by God through his angels. They are the first church planters. Obediently, as must all church planters, they went and did evangelism, announcing the good news. Others were only added as these first women told the men and they joined them. Hence, the whole structure of that church including its leaders and first preachers were women. Jesus, of course, is head, amen. So, not only was Mary the apostle to the apostles, she and others including Joanna, Salome, and the other Mary were the church. They are the “mothers of the living,” in an eternal sense so to speak (Gen 3:20)—the Eves from which the new creation was formed. They are the “mothers of Israel,” around whom the first church was formed (cf. Judg 5:7).

To this, I can add that the agreed head of the 
church, Jesus, came from Mary in his human form in which he heads God’s people. Her womb was the home of the head for nine months or so. The man came from women (1 Cor 11:12). He was utterly dependent on her, his life in her hands. She then mothered him to age. Indeed, we will celebrate this in the next weeks. What a joy! So while the church finds its origins in the Triune God, it also finds its genesis in women through whom God planted his Son and people, and who led that movement, even if for a short time.

The more I read Scriptures the more I find it implausible to deny women roles in church leadership and preaching ministries. Here, they are church planters and so apostles, evangelists and preachers, and the genesis of the new humanity in Christ. They were the first Jesus-formed church. They were the first Jesus-direct evangelists. They mother the church as they mothered Jesus and the new creation of God's people. May the Lord bless all people this Christmas, and especially blessed women. 



Tuesday, October 30, 2018

The Removal of Jesus from the Parliamentary Prayer

I see a group of Christians is going to the NZ parliament to protest the removal of the phrase “Jesus Christ” from the parliamentary prayer. Back in 2017, mentions of Jesus and the Queen were removed from the prayer by Trevor Mallard, the incoming speaker of the house when the Labour/NZ First coalition took the reins of the NZ government. He did so without any real consultation, which is strange considering the long-held traditions of Parliament (https://www.stuff.co.nz/national/politics/98742522/parliament-prayer-changes--no-more-queen-or-jesus).

In a Stuff online poll at the time, 50% said they didn’t like the removal. 17% liked the removal of the references to Jesus and the Queen, while 33% wanted the prayer removed altogether. So, it is fair to say, NZ is split down the middle. A majority of around two-thirds want a prayer, and half want Jesus and the Queen referenced.

The previous prayer went like this:

Almighty God,
Humbly acknowledging our need for Thy guidance in all things, and laying aside all private and personal interests, we beseech Thee to grant that we may conduct the affairs of this House and of our country to the glory of Thy holy name, the maintenance of true religion and justice, the honour of the Queen, and the public welfare, peace, and tranquillity of New Zealand, through Jesus Christ our Lord.
Amen.

The replacement is this:
Almighty God, we give thanks for the blessings which have been bestowed on New Zealand.
Laying aside all personal interests, we pray for guidance in our deliberations, that we may conduct the affairs of this House with wisdom and humility, for the public welfare and peace of New Zealand.
Amen.

I admire the Christians who are going to Parliament today to take on the Speaker on this. I heard a representative on the AM Show this morning, and he was humble and gracious. Good on them. I honour their desire to see Jesus Christ retained in the prayer. I want all New Zealanders praying to God through Jesus and so applaud them.

However, for a range of reasons, if it doesn’t go the way our blessed brothers and sisters want today, I suggest to Christians that we don’t need to get too worried about it either way.

First, there is still a prayer thanking God for his blessings, that the Parliament acts with wisdom and humility, and for the welfare and peace of the nation. Some of the things removed are good, e.g. the language is updated, and is less elevated and “holier than thou.” I am disappointed that God’s guidance is removed. I am also a bit sad that justice is not included in the replacement; surely, a left-wing government with a passion for social justice would include this. I wonder if it is removed because of the left’s concern that some are focussed on punitive justice? Restorative and social justice are great ideas. Still, it is a good prayer, and Christians can pray it heartily.

The second reason not to be worried is that it is not the Parliament which is commanded by God to pray for the nation in Scripture, believers are. In 1 Timothy 2:1–2, Paul urges that “supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions.” Hence, it is our responsibility to pray for Parliament. This we can do, whether they pray or do not.

So, perhaps it is a better use of our time to gather in prayer for Parliament rather than march on the said place to get a whole lot of people, many of whom don’t agree with the prayer, to hypocritically pray something they don’t believe in, or to stand in silence as it is done? By compelling people to pray this prayer, are we not demeaning the freedom of the gospel for them not to. Then again, I suppose they don’t have to join in. Still, it seems a bit rich to me—what divine right do we have to demand it? The new prayer might get more participation, as there may be more seekers and acknowledgers of some kind of divine being out there than we think.

Third, those Christians in Parliament and other Christian staff can continue to gather and pray together for their work as I am sure they do. This should spur them on to do so, as Christians in all work locations can gather and pray and should.

Fourth, the National Anthem is a sufficient prayer for the nation. We have an amazingly Christian anthem and while a number of NZers sing it without any real faith in it or as a prayer, we Christians can and do. Still, one day I am sure efforts will be made to change this too. If so, we should resist with grace, gentleness, and respect. However, if it is changed, again it is not the end of the world. We can sing it with gusto in our churches for the nation; that is our calling.

The final reason I think we should not kick up too much of a fuss on this is that the whole thing is that it is a relic of Christendom. We Christians claim that Christianity is the heritage of the nation whether we like it or not and that Christianity has shaped NZ more than anything else, and so we should keep praying it. I would agree that Christian ideals have shaped our culture hugely and I am hugely glad it has. Yet, Christian ideas are not the only ones that have formed us. There is Greek philosophy, paganism that covered Europe before Christianity, the philosophies and ideologies of Europe since the Enlightenment, Maori culture and religion that pre-existed the coming of the Pakeha, the many religions and ideas of the many immigrants who are now among us. These are all influential to some degree. We need to watch that we do not arrogantly demand that the world around us live as we live and pray as we pray. We do not want them to feel compelled into hypocrisy by our zealous expectations.

Why would we expect the world of people around who have not yielded to Christ the King and received his Spirit to do what we want? The early church was not seen standing on the steps of the Forum in Rome demanding the Roman rulers pray prayers to Jesus and God. They got on with being the people of God and changed the Roman world from the inside out with their passionate faith, refusal to use violence, social work, love, and worship. This is our call.

Christendom was a period where Church and State were aligned and supposedly nations lived out of the Christian faith. Anyone with a moderate knowledge of European history knows that this period was not a golden age of glorious holiness and honor of God. It was an up and down period, where the church was often fatally compromised as it became harnessed too closely to the State. Indeed, the establishment of the modern nation of NZ is a flawed story of Christianity and Colonialism. While the missionaries in many cases did their level best to moderate the colonial overwhelming of the Maori people in this nation, we are culpable to a great degree for the oppression of a culture. Thanks to the graciousness of the Maori people and ongoing efforts to bring justice, we live at peace and harmony as one people. We must not threaten this by demanding that our religion brought from Europe to NZ be given dominion. That is not the Jesus way. His way is the path of humble service, washing feet, and honouring the other.

It is not our divine right to run the nation. Indeed, when we have got into positions of running nations, we have proved little better than those who are not Christians. It is great that some Christians are working in the upper echelons of power, and God bless them that they be truly salt and light in those places, bringing the justice and compassion of Jesus with humility and service. Yet, we have no divine right to govern this nation, demand that they pray prayers we like, etc. We are right to partake in the democratic process, but with humility and graciousness and not demanding things our way.
Our call is to work in and from our local churches, going into the world, doing our God-ordained vocations, building the nation, doing it well, praying for it, honouring God, caring for the poor, inviting people to submit to the reign of God, forming communities that show the world what it looks like when males and females of all ages, cultures, stages, and social positions come together in love. We are to model the ideals of the Kingdom. As we do, we will find more and more people drawn to it, because God’s ways are great!

Our posture toward the government must be one of respect, submission, and humility. We will resist if they oppress and persecute us, but not with violent retaliation. We will challenge the government to do its work well of making this country one that is egalitarian, humanitarian, secure, fair, and just. We will model what Jesus came to establish—a kingdom in which grace, mercy, compassion, and love of God and others are lived and experience. We do not demand that they name our God in their prayers. We will pray for them.

I like the idea of us asking Parliament not to remove Jesus Christ from the prayer and reconsidering its reintroduction. It is good to ask, as long as we do so with grace and respect where respect is due. But if they say no, that is no big deal. We get on praying for them and being the people of God as we are called to be.

We can acknowledge that faith in Jesus and God in this country has waned to a degree. Yet, it is still much stronger than people think, even if many churches are not as full as they once were. Where there are people in churches, the waning of the faith around us means that there is a more active, committed group than there used to be in church. We are there not because it is cool and the done thing, but because we want to be. If we be the people of God well, more and more people will realise again that we need its ideals and power to keep NZ such a great place to be and live.

So, while I think Trevor Mallard should not have removed Jesus and the Queen without some decent consultation and while I wish they were still there, I am not concerned. Let us continue to pray for the government and all in authority, as Paul urged. Let us be people under God’s rule who really embrace the challenge to show love, compassion, mercy, and grace to all around us, respecting their freedom to reject or embrace God and Jesus. We continue to issue the invitation with gentleness and respect. We continue to sing our National Anthem as a prayer. We know God is with us and that the NZ government is his servant to govern on his behalf (e.g. Rom 13; Tit 3:1; 1 Pet 2:13–17). He will deal with them if they don’t. That is not up to us. Shalom.