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EFAC Australia

Essentials

Claire sat across the table from her friend, the leader of an evangelical Anglican church near the rapidly-changing inner ring suburb that God had been laying on her heart.Gathering her thoughts, Claire began to speak. She excitedly laid out her vision for a new church that would engage with the highly diverse mix of people moving into the suburb. She shared about how God had begun drawing together a team who were eagerly praying with her about this new endeavour. To top it all off, she spoke about the affirmation she’d received when she communicated her vision to another church planter from a different denomination who had launched his own church in the same suburb several years before. Although his view of women’s leadership differed from Claire’s, he had greeted her overture with enthusiasm: “Terrific! There are heaps of people in this area who need to be reached for Jesus. I can even think of a few people currently involved in our church who would probably get on board with what you would do.”

Claire paused to draw breath and hear from her friend. But rather than shared excitement, it was like a bucket of ice had been dumped on the conversation — and their relationship. What Claire had anticipated as a moment of collegiality and convergence around a new mission initiative turned out to be anything but. Far from an opportunity to be welcomed, her announcement was treated as a threat by her friend. Instead of joining her in dreaming and strategising, Claire’s friend was worried about the families from his church who lived in the suburb Claire wanted to plant in. He didn’t say it out loud, but she could tell what he was thinking: “Sheep stealer!”

Her heart sank. Well, it would have if this conversation — and Claire — was real. It’s not. It’s an amalgam. But the emotional trajectory of the conversation is only too real. The announcement of a intentions to church plant is greeted with fear and defensiveness at least as often as it is by joy and excitement. Church planting is regarded by many among the leadership of established churches as a foe — or at least as unwelcome competition in the already-challenging work of fishing for people in shrinking pond. This sense of competition or antagonism is not helped by the cheerleading of some who promote church planting. Much of the romance and rhetoric around planting overplays its superiority.

In his seminal article, “Why Plant Churches?”, Tim Keller — the founder and key thought leader of City to City, the church planting network I work with — claims that “the only way to significantly increase the overall number of Christians in a city is by significantly increasing the number of new churches.” The argument Keller makes in support of this is not without merit and nuance, and the evidence for it is not wholly lacking. But it risks underestimating the effectiveness of and potential for spiritual renewal through healthy, established churches.

Most church planters are concerned to avoid the label of “sheep stealer,” and church planting agencies like Geneva Push are rightly committed to “evangelising new churches into existence” rather than depending on transfer growth. But the stats tell a messier story. Transfer growth is involved with almost every new church plant in some way— whether in the original core/launch team, or as fringe members of other churches come to check out the new church on the block. And more than one church planter would be able to tell you about missteps they’ve made in recruiting such people — and even thrusting them into leadership — without adequately consulting the leaders of the churches they hail from.

What is more, well-intentioned as they often are, church planters sometimes speak and act in ways that undervalue the ministry of established churches. In fact, some church planting looks like the old-school Protestant tendency to fracture and divide, dressed up in glad rags. Tim Keller calls this “defiant church planting.” His observation about the motivation for this kind of planting rings true in an uncomfortable number of situations I’m familiar with: “Some people in the church get frustrated and split away and form a new church — because there is alienation over doctrine, or vision, or philosophy of ministry.”

Without a doubt, there can be a thin line between (i) someone whose burden for reaching new people combines with a resolution to give that a go by trying something new (resulting in a church plant), and (ii) a dissatisfied assistant pastor who feels that things aren’t being “done right” by the leadership of their current church and who therefore starts something new in reaction to it.

Even the most noble and other-person centred church planters acknowledge the possibility of mixed motives — the human heart is mysterious and has depths that can conceal unrecognised ugliness!

It has been said that God frequently uses church planting to do at least as much work on and in the planter/s as through them (in this sense it’s a lot like cross-cultural mission work). From my own experience walking alongside church planters, almost all of them sooner or later are led to face and, in God’s kindness, repent of their tendency to fashion ministry around their own preferences.

An example: a planter can act on the assumption that their preferred style and shape of church experience is automatically what will resonate most with those they’re trying to reach. Sadly, such “missiology by mirroring” is unlikely to be resoundingly successful (believe me — I’ve tried). Worse, it typically flows from a lack of personal maturity and failure to lead as an equipper and empowerer of others in God’s mission. Significantly, however, the simmering hostility between new and established churches is not reduced by treating church planting as an enemy rather than a partner in the work of reaching people.

On the planting side of the equation, the data about multiplying church movements tells us that good relationships with a sending church (or better yet a whole group of churches who partner in sending out a church plant) make a massive difference to the health and likely longevity of a new church. In a sense, this should hardly be surprising. The New Testament authors link Christian unity and partnership with mission effectiveness on more than one occasion — no doubt taking their cue from Jesus, who makes this connection in his “high priestly prayer” in John 17.

So planters beware! You trash talk the ministry of established churches at your own risk. Not only do you face the danger of alienating potential mission partners — or, more prosaically, preachers who could step into the pulpit when you need to take a vacation (and you’ll need to take a vacation!). You also risk having to eat your words if and when in God’s grace your church plant becomes an established church itself. Even more dangerously, you put your soul at risk. And that’s not me being overdramatic. It was Jesus himself who said (Matthew 5.22):

“I tell you, everyone who is angry with his brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Whoever insults his brother or sister, will be subject to the court. Whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be subject to hellfire.”

Nursing contempt, dismissiveness, and superiority in your heart is spiritually a very, very bad idea.

Equally, however, those who lead existing churches need to grapple with the fact that church planting is demonstrably good for the established church. There are well-documented benefits of church planting for existing ministries as well as the wider mission in an area. It’s not only church planters making this point (and believing their own hype). It’s also strategists and those who research trends in church life — both here and abroad. For instance, NCLS Research, who conduct the National Church Life Survey in Australia, have consistently found that newer churches (up to ten years old) have a higher than average proportion of “newcomers” — who are defined as people with no active connection to a church in the previous five years (so include both unchurched and dechurched people). According to their 2016 survey data, the nation-wide average across all types of churches is 6% newcomers. A 2015 study into church planting in the Diocese of Sydney, suggests that in newer churches that number jumps up to 13% — although the study notes that these numbers vary depending on the model of church planting adopted.

This may still feel like a relatively modest proportion of a church. Yet what would constitute a healthy proportion of newcomers is an interesting question to consider. Presumably not 100% (a church that was entirely “evangelised into existence” would have some very significant needs in terms of establishing and maturing all these new believers). It may not even be 50%. Those who study group psychology tell us that the dynamics of group cohesion mean that a fairly substantial majority who already “belong” is required in any group for it to be able to integrate new members well. As one church planter admits, “I don’t want transfer growth (but I probably need it in order for evangelism to lead to discipleship).”

Of course, it’s not the case that simply starting a new church is an ironclad guarantee of a solid showing of newcomers, let alone of fruitfulness in evangelism and disciple-making. The findings of a significant study undertaken by LifeWay in the US indicate that engagement in evangelistic activities — even simple and “old fashioned” activities like door-knocking — is strongly correlated with effective engagement with the unchurched. In other words, you’ve got to do something to engage and reach your community (and it may not matter so much what that something is).

Established and newer churches are on a level playing field here — with the odds possibly even slightly in favour of healthy, well-resourced established churches. Activating our congregations and mobilising their members in evangelism is a crucial task. It is a matter of both faithful discipleship and fruitfulness in mission - whether we’re in a new or an established church.

In this vein, there’s a strong case to be made that church plants contribute to the health and vitality of all the churches in an area.

On the one hand, the lessons new churches learn in seeking to reach and disciple people often find their way back to more established churches. Perhaps it’s the community-service strategy they stumble into as they scramble to secure a community grant or qualify to rent their preferred venue — without quite realising it, the new church’s credibility in the local community goes through the roof. Or maybe it’s the excellent kids program they run because they happen to have some gifted people in their launch team — families with young kids love it because they’re desperate for ways to break up their seemingly-endless weekend. Or maybe it’s the carefully-tracked social media campaign and letterbox drop ahead of the launch service — a deliberate attempt to experiment and learn what sort of community contact is most effective that can directly inform the strategies of established churches in the area. In all these ways and more, church plants can function as missional R&D departments.

This mirrors a lot of what leaders in the business world have observed about the transferability of lessons learned in a startup context. A recent Harvard Business Review report, for instance, argues that the agility, learning stance, and growth mindset that startups need for survival can benefit every type of business — especially given the rapid pace of change all companies are facing. In my view, little is different in the church. The incredibly rapid changes in the social position of the church in the wider culture prove potentially more disastrous if we fail to adapt, or adapt poorly.

On the other hand, churches that actively partner with new church plants frequently report significant benefits — even amidst the pain and grief of giving away people and resources. Whether it’s by becoming a “parent,” sending out a new church plant, or by some other kind of partnership — e.g., sending some members to join or temporarily serve in the plant — it hurts to let go of core, motivated leaders (or potential leaders). Things never feel the same in an established church after commissioning and sending off people. But the space it creates can allow new leadership to emerge, new things to be tried, and new connections to be forged. Even if it can never compensate for it perfectly, the new opportunities created by releasing people can be meaningful — and are never lost in God’s economy.

In conclusion, may I humbly suggest that those on both sides of the church planting vs existing ministry divide would find it worthwhile to meditate on the words of Nathan Campbell:

“The reason it’s scary to hear about a schmick new church plant led by cool people with great ideas is because we’re (and by we I mean me) often insecure about what we bring to the table, and to our city... focusing on the size of the mission field and trying to reach lost people, rather than the limited pool of human resources around, is the best way to get a bit of perspective about this insecurity.”

All of us need to cultivate a bigger vision for mission to overcome our sense of competitiveness and insecurity — whether about the prospect of a new church plant in our “patch” or about the existing churches that don’t seem to share our enthusiasm for what we’re talking about starting (and, reality check, no-one shares your enthusiasm for it to the extent that you do). Many of us enthusiastically preach on Jesus’s instruction to ask the Lord of the harvest to raise up workers. But if we’re honest we probably prefer to see them raised up within our ministry, where (as God knows!) the need is real and the resources always feel scarce. Nevertheless, the Father who sends his Son in the power of the Spirit for the sake of the world in the overflow of love, is not threatened by scarcity. Indeed, Jesus endured the ultimate scarcity and deprivation, crying out “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” on our behalf on the cross. The perfectly rich and free Lord of creation became poor and subject to death in order to bear the deprivation and judgement due us for turning from our Creator. And it is only to the degree that this fills our hearts that we’ll be able to lift our eyes from our apparent scarcity — as a planter or an established church leader — and see each other as collaborators rather than competitors.

You can check out a full interview with Chris here: https://youtu.be/HOcKBK1kVJE

JONAH BIBLE STUDY CO-AUTHORED BY BRIAN ROSNER & MARK JUERS

The Book of Jonah is about Jonah. That might be stating the obvious but it is easy to over-emphasise the other parts of such a fascinating episode of Scripture. In Jonah we have a range of human characters as well as the wind, the whale, the plant, the worm and the sun.

If we focus on the sailors, the main message might be... desperate times call for desperate praying. If we focus on the Ninevites, the main message might be... the importance of prompt and thorough repentance, cattle included. If we focus on the fish, the main message might be... well, not sure ... maybe God’s love for the animals of the world – animals as God’s servants?! Putting the emphasis anywhere else means Jonah would be a supporting character illustrating the folly of disobeying God. With this in mind what is the big message of the Book of Jonah?

In both Jewish and Christian interpretation commentators agree that there is much to like about Jonah. Without a doubt he gets off to a bad start and running away from the call of God is not to be recommended, but he is still held up as a model in three vital respects.

SOLID DOCTRINE

One thing that’s hard not to admire about Jonah is his doctrine. His knowledge of the Bible and theology seems pretty good. Look how he describes himself in 1:9, “I am a Hebrew and I worship the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.” So he knows the covenant name of God, he knows God’s abode and he knows that God made everything. Now look at his prayer from the belly of the fish in 2:8-9

“Those who cling to worthless idols turn away from God’s love for them.
But I, with shouts of grateful praise will sacrifice to you.
What I have vowed I will make good.
I will say, ‘Salvation comes from the Lord.’”

So he hates idolatry and he sees salvation by grace as a gift! He knows the most cherished doctrine of the church.

And then look at his prayer to God in 4:2b with its allusion to Ex 34:6-7, “I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity.” He seems to have covered the doctrine of creation, the doctrine of the one true God, the doctrine of salvation by grace, and the doctrine of God’s love pretty well. What we believe matters and we don’t want to be left to people’s personal preferences or feelings when it comes to what we know about God.

SOLID PREACHING

A second thing to admire is his preaching. If you like his doctrine, check out his sermon in 3:4b. It has to be the most economical and effective evangelistic sermon in history – just 5 words in Hebrew, “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overthrown.” Suddenly the whole city repents – from the king at the top to the beasts in the field at the bottom.

He even manages an allusion to another Old Testament reference when he uses the word “overthrown” which is the same as Deuteronomy 29:23 in describing what happened to Sodom, Gomorrah, Admah and Zeboyim.

SOLID REPENTANCE

The third thing to admire is the repentance we see in 3:1-3,

“Then the word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time: ‘Go to the great city of Nineveh and proclaim to it the message I give you.’ Jonah obeyed the word of the Lord and went to Nineveh.”

The Reformers mostly saw Jonah as an illustration of repentance. He fled in disobedience but then he turned around after being given a second chance and listened to God’s voice. Even when we’ve run far away from God, and Jonah had, we can still return to him. Jonah encourages us when we’ve blown it big time.

So, there is much to like about Jonah... or is there? Appearances can be deceiving and on closer inspection the book of Jonah contains some surprises that lead us to draw different conclusions about Jonah. If we are to go back over Jonah’s supposed positives in greater detail we find some disappointing flaws.

SOLID DOCTRINE?

Firstly, is his doctrine sufficient?

The reality of his self description in 1:9 as a Hebrew who worships God who made the sea and the dry land is dripping with irony. How does he think he is going to run away from the creator of the stuff he stands on and then floats on? Where does he think he can hide? His own behaviour undermines his confession.

The fish swallowing Jonah and Jonah praying from its belly is a tad surprising. He prays in 2:8-9 with a certainty of salvation that sounds entirely presumptuous. He takes God’s mercy to him entirely for granted. He doesn’t pray a confession but instead he assumes he’ll be saved and pre-emptively thanks God for it. To top it off, he’s not thankful that the pagan sailors did their best to save him but rather has a jab at those who cling to worthless idols.

Now look again at his prayer to God in 4:2b with the allusion to Ex 34:6-7. He admits to knowing how gracious, compassionate and abounding in love God is and yet he can’t stand the fact that God might have mercy on Ninevah.

We rightly put a premium on Christians knowing what they believe. We can know our doctrine and quote the Bible at length but if we undermine this with our own words and actions we make a mockery of precious truths. Christian maturity is not about what you know, but using what you know.

“But solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil” Heb 5:15

SOLID PREACHING?

Secondly, is his preaching something to emulate?

He might be efficient and effective in his preaching but his heart is not in it. He preaches pure judgement without any instruction for repentance nor any offer that God might relent.

Even if we assume that this opportunity for repentance is implied, there is no denying that Jonah is hoping and expecting that Ninevah is to be destroyed. After completing his task he sits safely outside the city but once he is aware that God’s mercy has arrived he has no thought for the newly repentant city taking a further step of faith. There is no hint of any desire to follow through on caring for those who hear and obey the voice of God.

SOLID REPENTANCE?

Thirdly, can we really admire his repentance?

Perhaps the biggest surprise is in 4:1 when Jonah becomes irate over the deliverance of the Ninevites. The fire and brimstone that he is waiting and hoping for does not arrive. He is overcome with a righteous anger but God questions if this anger is in fact right. By the end of the book there is no sign that Jonah has allowed his mind to bend to the will of God. Jonah may have turned from his outward disobedience and eventually followed the command of God but clearly his heart is not at peace with the plans of God.

Jonah says, “I’m so angry I wish I were dead” (4:9).

When it comes to repentance, it is the Ninevites, not Jonah, that are the ones to emulate!

Therefore, The Book of Jonah is a satirical debunking of the orthodox prophet who has no mercy. We must allow God to extend his mercy to whomever he wishes even when it violates our standards of justice, since absolute justice would mean destruction for all. We need to be careful not to exclude people who are different to us, especially those on the fringe. The whole book makes it clear that if you want to be in line with God’s purposes then we need to be willing to bless those who curse us.

But the truth is that the Book of Jonah is not about Jonah but about God. We learn that God is sovereign. That he gets done what he wants to get done. He has providence over nature. He can handle a disobedient prophet. He is the king of the cosmos and his will is unstoppable when he wants something to happen.

We also learn that God has a view to care for those who have turned their backs on him. There is a message of mercy for entire nations. There is no escaping his voice of compassion for others.

The smart thing to do, of course, is to trust and obey.

If it was good for the first disciples to hold up the teaching of the Apostles against the rule of Scripture, then how do we make sure we commend rather than condemn those who do the same today?

A vital part of growing in maturity as a Christian is learning how to be more discerning with the teaching we receive. If we lack discernment then we can be like spiritual infants “tossed back and forth by the waves and blown here and there by every wind of teaching.” (Ephesians 4:14).

A child hears and trusts implicitly what their parents tell them about life and the world, but as they grow into maturity, they begin to rightly question all that they have learnt and received. If the parents’ teaching is good and right, the child ought to grow into adulthood and find themselves believing and knowing the same things they did as a child, but now with the added conviction of having tested them and found them true in a deeper, richer and more personal way. So it is with healthy growth into spiritual adulthood.

When the Apostle Paul taught the Jews of Berea about the Christ, they were commended for not just accepting the teaching, but they “examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true.” (Acts 17:11) If that examination and testing is admirable when the one teaching is the Apostle Paul, how much more so when we hear the Word being taught today. They also tested this teaching, even though they had already “received the message with great eagerness.” They loved what they heard, it connected with them and the truth resonated in their hearts, but that was not enough. They would only be truly convinced if what was being taught by Paul was actually what the Word of God teaches.

It is only when the Word is faithfully taught that it is backed by the authority of God himself. Each word needs to be tested by the Word before it is received and applied to anyone else. A sermon, a book or a bible study can be true, wise and even helpful, but it only has the authority of God if God’s Word is being taught.

I recently heard a talk on 2 Corinthians 3 about the veil over Moses’ face after he had met with God and was bringing the people the Word. Paul’s point is that as new covenant believers we see and are transformed by the full glory of God in Christ in a way that was never true for Israel. The sermon however was all about the veils we put up to hide our true selves from each other in the way we talk, present ourselves and use social media. It was full of useful insights, but to claim the authority of God for those insights is dangerous and deceptive. A more honest approach would have been to simply present the content of the talk as a series of wise suggestions and make no implicit claim to the authority of God.

It is a dangerous thing to stand before the people of God and claim the authority of God. It is only safe to do so if you are speaking the words of God.

The way to safely navigate the path from spiritual infancy to maturity is through consistently hearing the truth spoken with loving authority within a church fellowship (Ephesians 4:15-16).

So as we encourage people to weigh truth of the teaching they hear urge them to pay attention to three F’s.

  • Foundation: is this word consistent with the foundation laid in God’s Word?
  • Fruit: will this word produce fruit consistent with the work of God’s Spirit?
  • Fellowship: seek the advice of wise saints in a healthy Christian fellowship.

Gavin Perkins

This article is adapted from a talk given at The New Marriage Era Conference on 28 August 2019. The Conference was a collaboration of EFAC Australia, St Hilary’s Anglican Church, and the Peter Corney Training Centre.

Natalie Rosner is an Associate Minister at St Hilary’s, Kew and the Director of the Peter Corney Training Centre.

I want to begin by indicating that the scope of this article is around who marriage is for, how sexual relationships are viewed in the New Testament and how therefore we should think as Christians about marriage and sex in our current cultural context. That context is one where the attitudes of Australians to marriage have been shifting significantly for some time. To take one small example. Prior to 1999, more weddings were conducted in churches than by civil celebrants. But since 1999, the majority of weddings have been conducted by celebrants rather than by churches. And in 2015, 75% of marriages were conducted by civil celebrants. Australians are increasingly rejecting the church’s involvement in their marriages. The change in the legal definition of marriage to include same-sex marriage also reflects a gradual change in attitudes to marriage that’s taken place over some time, but obviously only had a legal impact after the postal survey in 2017. Certainly that legal change in the definition of marriage has precipitated much conversation among Christians about how we should now think about marriage. Clearly the traditional Christian view that marriage is between a man and a woman is no longer shared by a majority of Australians. So does this change in popular attitudes and in the legal definition of marriage mean that our Christian view of marriage must change too?

TAKE A CLOSER LOOK

So first, let’s take a closer look at what we learn about marriage in the New Testament. We’re going to look at a number of key texts to help us here: one key text on marriage and then two others dealing with same-sex sexual activity. First, on marriage. Matthew 19, reading from verse 3.

“Some Pharisees came to him [Jesus] to test him. They asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?” “Haven’t you read,” he replied, “that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”

Here we see that Jesus goes back to Genesis 1 and 2, to the original nature and purpose of marriage in order to deal with the Pharisees’ question about divorce. Verse 8 makes it clear that divorce is a concession that came after sin entered the world in Genesis 3. Divorce was not part of God’s original design for marriage.

Rather, we see that God’s original design for marriage involved male and female in a monogamous, one flesh, life-long relationship.

Interestingly, Jesus quotes first from Genesis 1:27 to remind his listeners that God made humanity ‘male and female’. He then quotes from Genesis 2 and creates a logical consequence – God made humanity male and female and ‘for this reason’ a man and a woman are joined in marriage. The way Jesus puts these quotes from Genesis 1 and 2 together seems to indicate that the nature of marriage has a creational logic to it. The marriage relationship flows out of the nature of humanity as male and female. Because Jesus uses these creation texts from Genesis 1 and 2, it seems that they give a normative picture of what marriage is intended by God to be, rather than a descriptive picture that might then be open to variation. That is, one male and one female is an essential ingredient for a marriage. It’s helpful to notice that the ‘one flesh’ nature of marriage provides the only context for God-ordained sexual relationships in the Bible. The only positive context in the Bible for sexual relationships is within a male-female marriage relationship.

To test this statement, we’ll now look at the key texts in the New Testament that refer to same sex-sexual activity. First, Romans 1 and in particular verses 24-27. As well as looking at these verses in detail, I’ll also paint the flow of the passage from Romans 1:18 to 2:1. It’s an incredibly weighty passage. It begins with the assessment that all people have failed to give God the glory and thanks due to him as their creator. All have become fools and have worshipped idols rather than the immortal God. So God’s wrath is being made known to all people. The important point here is that everyone is in the same boat.

“Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. They exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised. Amen.”

Because all of us have failed to honour God appropriately, God lets us suffer the consequences of our choice. We serve created things rather than God – our lives are driven by love for money, power, ambition, and sex, among other things. Sexual impurity is part of our world because we have individually and collectively dishonoured God.

“Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural ones. In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed shameful acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their error.”

So we see that a particular example of the sexual impurity that is part of our world as a result of humanity dishonouring God is that both women and men have exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural ones. This description certainly refers to some kind of same-sex sexual activity and we’ll come back to this more fully in a moment.

But note that whatever the same-sex sins are understood to be here, Romans 1 gives no basis for singling these out as a special category of sin. Verses 28-32 go on to describe a wide range of sinful behaviour. This includes disobedience to parents, greed, envy and gossip as examples of humanity’s wickedness. When my husband Brian lived in Aberdeen for a number of years, he had a Christian friend who piloted helicopters for the North Sea oil rigs. This friend told Brian that if he had a co-pilot who was gay he would refuse to fly with him. This kind of homophobic attitude is completely ruled out by Romans 1 and 2. Romans 2:1 in particular makes it clear that there is no one among us who is in a position to judge others.

“You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge another, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things.”

It’s important to be very clear that no matter who we are, we’re all in the very same boat in terms of our situation before God without Christ. We are all sinners who deserve God’s judgment.

This may seem like a long introduction. But the flow of Paul’s argument in Romans 1 and into Romans 2 is a helpful starting point as we think about marriage and sexual relationships. With this flow of thought in mind, let’s go back now to verses 26 and 27 of Romans 1. The key question is: what does the text mean when it talks about exchanging natural sexual relations for unnatural ones in both verses 26 and 27? Furthermore, what does verse 27 mean when it talks about men committing shameful acts with other men? Some argue that unnatural sexual relations are those that have no potential for procreation. Some argue that these verses are about heterosexuals who act against their own natural sexual orientation by engaging in homosexual acts. Some say the problem here is just excessive passion. But through this passage in Romans 1, there are clear thematic echoes of Genesis 1 (See Claire Smith in Marriage, Same-Sex Marriage and the Anglican Church of Australia, Essays from the Doctrine Commission, 145-146). Because of the links in Romans 1 to the creation account in Genesis 1, it seems most likely that when Paul writes about nature here, what he has in mind is the natural created order – the way God designed his world to work. Claire Smith’s conclusion here is a good summary:

‘Accordingly, the sexual relations that are ‘contrary to nature’ are those that are contrary to the created order and God’s purposes for it as revealed in Scripture. It is men and women doing with their own sex what God intended only to be done with the opposite sex and that within marriage, as the rest of Scripture makes clear.’ (Essays from the Doctrine Commission, 145-6)

With this initial conclusion in mind, let’s look next at 1 Corinthians 6:9-11. This is one of the passages to which Israel Folau alluded in his infamous Instagram post.

“Or do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor men who have sex with men nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.”

There are two words that Paul uses here that refer to same-sex sexual activity. Both of these words translate the phrase ‘men who have sex with men’ in the NIV translation. The first is the Greek word ‘malakoi’ which referred to a ‘soft’ or ‘effeminate person’. Used in this way it referred to the passive male partner in a same-sex sexual act. The second word Paul uses is one that he coined – it had never been used before. It’s made up of two words used in the Greek Old Testament in Leviticus 20:13, where God prohibits same-sex sexual activity. Paul puts these two words together in 1 Corithians 6:9 in a term that refers

to the active partner in male same-sex consensual acts. This includes consensual acts between adults and can’t be limited to cultic settings or pederasty. A number of translations translate these two words that Paul uses separately while others are like the NIV and put them together into one phrase. Paul uses this new term again in 1 Timothy 1:10, where it is translated (in the NIV) as ‘those practicing homosexuality’. Both 1 Corinthians 6 and 1 Timothy 1:9-10 therefore include consensual same-sex sexual activity as being one of a number of different behaviours that are wrong according to God.

We’ve seen so far that Matthew 19 gives us a normative picture of marriage as a relationship between one male and one female. This relationship is the only positive context in which the Bible refers to sexual activity. When it comes to same-sex sexual activity, there is no positive affirmation of such activity in the Bible or in the New Testament and this section has covered the main verses that touch on this theme.

MIND THE GAP

Now that we’ve had an initial look at what the New Testament says about marriage, let’s Mind the Gap. I want to think for a short time about similarities and differences between the cultural context of the first century and our own world, with the implications those might have for our Christian understanding of marriage now.

Some argue that first century culture didn’t have the same experience that our culture now has of long term, consensual, loving and committed same-sex relationships. Hence Paul could not have been referring to such people in Romans 1, 1 Corinthians 6 and 1 Timothy 1. This reasoning then proposes that Paul was writing about same-sex sexual activity that was either pederast, or otherwise non-consensual as with a master and a slave, or else referred to uncontrolled promiscuity and licentiousness or to same-sex prostitution. However the historical evidence doesn’t seem to support these assertions. NT Wright refers in a podcast to the poet Juvenal and to Plato’s Symposium which is a discussion of love. Juvenal was a poet in the late first and early second centuries and he describes the gay scene in Rome. There was certainly evidence of powerful men exploiting boy slaves and other non-consensual same-sex sexual activity. But Juvenal’s descriptions are also very much a matter of some long term same-sex partnerships and also a description of men who take the female role in homosexual behaviour. Wright’s summary is that ‘there’s nothing that we know about actual behaviour that they didn’t know’. Plato’s Symposium was written a few hundred years before Paul and it also encompasses a range of same-sex relationships including long-term stable faithful partnerships. So the suggestion that same-sex sexual relationships in the first century were all exploitative and that now we have something different simply doesn’t work historically.

There are other writers who agree with NT Wright on the historical evidence that the ancient world was well aware of long term and faithful same-sex relationships, notions of same-sex marriage and same-sex sexual orientation. Both Claire Smith and Michael Stead refer to some of these writers in their chapters in the Essays from the Doctrine Commission. In this case, the cultural gap between the first century and ours seems to be less than we might first imagine. Paul was writing in a very similar context to our own when it comes to same-sex relationships. So it cannot then be argued that Paul wasn’t referring to long term stable same-sex relationships because first century culture was unaware of them.

Others argue that the Christian church has shifted since the first century on a number of other moral issues, and that we should follow suit on same-sex relationships and marriage. Classic examples of this argument are around slavery and roles of women in both marriage and ministry. Interestingly though, it’s not just cultural change between the first century and now that has provided the context for change in the church’s position on these two issues, but rather exegetical factors.

Slavery is never advocated in the New Testament, but rather described as an existing social institution in which both Christian slaves and masters are urged to behave in a godly manner so as to bring glory to Christ. In 1 Corinthians 7:21, slaves are urged: ‘Don’t let it trouble you – although if you can gain your freedom, do so.’ So in the case of slavery, there is justification in the New Testament to support slaves becoming free. As many of us know, it was William Wilberforce and other Christians who drove this cultural change, rather than the church responding to surrounding cultural change.

In the case of women, cultural change certainly seems to have been a catalyst for Christians to re-think their understanding of the Bible’s view of women’s roles in both marriage and ministry. Of course, there is no Christian consensus on these issues today however there is arguably biblical support for some shift from first century cultural attitudes when it comes to women. Let me give a quick example. In the first century, women were married at a very young age while they were virgins – in their early teens, and mostly married to much older and more experienced (including sexually experienced) men. In this context, Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 7:2-4

“But since sexual immorality is occurring, each man should have sexual relations with his own wife, and each woman with her own husband. The husband should fulfill his marital duty to his wife, and likewise the wife to her husband. The wife does not have authority over her own body but yields it to her husband. In the same way, the husband does not have authority over his own body but yields it to his wife.”

This is clearly an equal view of sexual relations between a wife and her husband that was completely at odds with the patriarchal culture of the first century. This is then a good exegetical reason for a shift in how the church views the marriage relationship between men and women. And this is just one example among other exegetical issues that have led to conversations among Christians about women’s roles in marriage and ministry and some changes from first century norms. This is in contrast to same sex-sexual relations, where there is no Biblical warrant or any indication of support for same-sex sexual relations or same-sex marriage.

Michael Stead in his concluding essay in the Essays from the Doctrine Commission refers to Professor William Loader, who is a world-recognised expert on homosexuality in the New Testament and ancient world.

“Loader is convinced that Paul condemns homosexual practice, but notwithstanding this, he believes that the modern church should now embrace homosexual practice, because Paul simply got it wrong at this point. His understanding of scriptural authority allows him to do this...” (Essays, 320-303).

Referring to those who support same-sex marriage but hold to a high view of Scriptural authority, Loader says this: ‘we can only stand and wonder at the extraordinary manoeuvres which have been undertaken to re-read Paul as not condemning homosexual relations at all.’ (Essays, 303). If we accept Loader’s comment, that puts any shift the Anglican Church might make on same-sex marriage in a completely different category to shifts that have happened on slavery and women’s roles in marriage and ministry. A change on same-sex marriage would be a shift driven by a different view of biblical authority and hermeneutics rather than by biblical exegesis. While I don’t agree with all his conclusions, William Webb’s book Slaves, Women & Homosexuals. Exploring the Hermeneutics of Cultural Analysis is a helpful resource in this respect on these three issues.

JOIN THE DOTS

Now I’d like to briefly join the dots, thinking about a few related themes in the New Testament that have some bearing on how we think about marriage. Each of these themes indicates that our secular culture, as well as our Christian culture put too much emphasis on marriage relationships. That is because, in the case of Christians, we neglect other important biblical themes.

The first is the New Testament’s affirmation of celibate singleness. Marriage is not the only life choice available to us. Clearly Jesus was single and Paul was too. This should be ample validation and confirmation of the single Christian life. In 1 Corinthians 7, Paul also reflects on singleness in a number of ways. In verses 8 and 9, Paul says to the unmarried and widows:

‘It is good for them to stay unmarried, as I do. But if they cannot control themselves, they should marry, for it is better to marry than to burn with passion.’

Paul clearly recommends celibate singleness here, with the concession that if a person isn’t able to remain celibate, then they should marry. Later in 1 Corinthians 7, Paul recommends that those who are single should stay single ‘because the time is short’ (v29) and because ‘this world in its present form is passing away’ (v31). Paul urges an eternal perspective when we think about singleness and marriage, rather than a temporal one. Finally in 1 Corinthians 7, Paul makes it clear that those who are single have a greater opportunity to live ‘in undivided devotion to the Lord’ (v35) than do those who are married.

So the New Testament offers a high view of the single life and I want to encourage us to have this same view. I also want to recognise very clearly that there are some real challenges that face those who are single. Many single people would say that they haven’t chosen singleness deliberately but would rather be married. For same-sex attracted believers who have chosen to remain single out of obedience to Christ, there can be a sense of rejection by other Christians. There can be challenges around loneliness for single people. There can also be practical challenges such as finances, aging, holidays and more. Given the Bible’s high view of singleness, and simply out of brotherly and sisterly love, our churches should be working to better support single people.

Secondly, the New Testament is clear that marriage does not last into the new creation (Mark 12). Marriage is a symbol of the relationship between Christ and the church, so it becomes redundant once Christ and the church are fully united after Jesus’ return. Our greatest human allegiance is to Christ himself. And unlike marriage roles, other relationships between believers do last into the new creation. Perhaps one of the weaknesses of the church is that we put too much pressure and emphasis on marriage because we minimise our brotherly and sisterly bonds.

Thirdly, we live in an age of sexual saturation. NT Wright describes it this way: ‘Our culture is absolutely soaked to the bone in Aphrodite worship.’ Aphrodite was the Ancient Greek goddess of erotic love. Wright continues: ‘The idea that life without regular active sexual relationships is not worth living, that’s a modern lie.’ 

The New Testament has an incredibly counter cultural attitude towards desire. Not just sexual desire, but other desires as well. The desires for money (greed) and honour (pride) spring to mind. Against our post-modern framework that urges the necessary satisfaction of desire, the New Testament doesn’t just say no to these desires but calls us to satisfy our desires by redirecting them towards God and his Kingdom.

So as we’ve joined the dots, I urge us to conduct our conversations about same-sex marriage with the knowledge that God offers us more resources to think about marriage, and to manage singleness and desire than we are currently making the most of.

Let me conclude by acknowledging that there is real heartache and difficulty for many, many people around this issue of same-sex marriage.

This isn’t a theoretical conversation but a conversation that impacts our own lives or the lives of people that many of us know and love. As we continue to have this conversation, my prayer is that, in the words of Ephesians 4:15, ‘speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ.

 

A Change of Heart 
Thomas Oden, IVP Academic, 2014

I’m getting tired of new books that pretend to be cutting edge Christian books and begin with Tom and Lucy looking out on their vegetable gardens and having some twee conversation. I’m also getting tired of books that have blurbs that give the impression this is the greatest book ever written but the content is empty and vacuous. Am I just getting old and grumpy – probably yes – but I’m also hungry for some substance.

One book that came as a pleasant weighty surprise is Sinclair Ferguson’s Some Pastors and Teachers. It’s a collection of many of Ferguson’s short articles linked to Owen, Calvin and others and since each chapter is about 6-8 pages long it can be read devotionally with great food for the mind and heart. If you have been waiting for something to fuel your faith this could be it.

Another Ferguson book worth reading is The Whole Christ which grapples with a moment in Scottish history when a young candidate for the ministry is asked if repentance is necessary to come to Christ. The young man said “yes” then changed his answer to “no” and was disqualified from entry. Men gathered around him to defend him and the book explains why. It introduces the knife-edge question as to whether people are hearing good news from us or not.

But another book that is a treat to read is A Change of Heart” by Thomas Oden. He was born in 1930 and died in 2016 – the first half of his life a liberal pastor and theologian – the second half a reformed academic. What makes the book so striking is that he exposes his own inner workings as he went down the liberal road – now writing as a repentant and orthodox man.

For example, he talks about reading his New Testament with the cross and resurrection deliberately pushed to the edge. His prayer life dried up and he found himself saying the creed in church with great difficulty. His new gospel became freedom from anxiety, guilt and boredom – the “theo” in theology had become a question mark.

“I loved the illusions… I imagined I was being critical and rational… I imagined I had a share in transforming human history… (but) I did not examine my own motives. The biblical words for this are egocentricity, arrogance and moral blindness” p.56.

The turning point came for Oden when an orthodox Jew accused him of being a lightweight – unfamiliar with the Founding Fathers of the Christian faith. He went back to the roots of the Church and found men with finer minds asking finer questions and giving finer answers. “I was amazed that the intergenerational wisdom of the ancient community of faith was completely accessible within modernity… I had been in love with modernity. Candidly I had been in love with heresy. Now I was waking up from this to meet a two thousand year stable memory… I came to trust the very orthodoxy I had once dismissed… I became even more relevant, not less relevant , to modern partners in dialogue… I found myself standing within the blessed presence of the communion of saints… the antiphonal choir with whom I was singing” p. 140.

Not only does Oden write humbly – but beautifully. It’s a delight to read how he expresses the faith in glorious terms.

The second half of his life takes him into many global opportunities – exposing the hypocrisy he knows so well but also building relationships across a wide spectrum of believers. I found his ecumenical spirit too generous for me but you can decide that one for yourself.

For those of us who have walked a pretty orthodox road most of our days and may find our doctrines getting familiar to the point of contempt this is a fresh set of eyes. For those who teach and toy with liberal scholarship – thinking your students cannot see the uselessness of your position – this is a devastatingly honest expose.

Simon Manchester, NSW

Making the gospels: Mystery or Conspiracy? 
Paul Barnett, Cascade, 2019

The question of how the four gospels came to be as they are is intriguing and important for Christians (well, for everyone, really, but certainly for Christians). Matthew, Mark, Luke and John present Jesus of Nazareth as the Son of God, the ransom for many, the one who suffers, dies and rises from the dead according to the scriptures. The man they introduce breaks many rules of ordinary humanity, and the question is whether they paint a fair and faithful portrait of Jesus, or whether some more modest Jewish figure been transformed into the miracle-working redeemer of the gospels by some innocent or not-so-innocent process of exaggeration, embellishment, and exaltation. This pressing question is complicated by the fact that we have only hints (compared to what we might like to have) as to the process by which the gospels came to be as they are.

Paul Barnett has spent a career researching, thinking and writing about the earliest Christianity, from the life of Jesus to the completion of the New Testament and the close of the apostolic age. He has taken on the hard task of discovering what we can know about matters demanding ingenious historical detective work to bring into some view. He has also taken on those who would undermine the integrity of the New Testament as a reliable testimony to the true nature of the events and people in its pages. He was this year on the Queen’s Birthday Honours List, being made a Member of the Order of Australia for significant service to the Anglican Church of Australia. He is a prolific author, who has this year added a new title to his list of publications, namely Making the gospels: Mystery or Conspiracy?

The burden of this book is to probe the mystery of the process by which we came to have the four gospels of the New Testament. In doing this, Barnett argues that although this process may remain in many ways a mystery, it is implausible and ungrounded to believe that it involved a conspiracy of any sort. The idea that the gospels present a figure confected by Paul, or Mark, or later editors of Q is not credible, given what the historical evidence makes likely about the production of the gospels. In summary, Barnett argues that the role of the disciples as witnesses of the ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus is to be taken seriously, and that we should respect the indications that the New Testament gives that its authors were committed to the faithful transmission of what the eyewitnesses had said. Neither the short period between Jesus and the gospels, nor the culture governing the transmission of the accounts of Jesus, make it plausible to suppose that great metamorphoses have been wrought upon the figure at the heart of these accounts.

One new conviction Barnett comes to in the writing of this book—a conclusion which takes him by surprise—is that Jesus most likely taught publicly in both Aramaic and Greek. In Chapter 19 he cites the work of Meyers and Strange who find that in the first century BC Aramaic declined and Greek gained ground even in country areas. The Twelve have Greek names among them (Philip, Simon and Andrew) and Jesus had conversations with Gentiles (the Syrophoenician women, the centurion, even Pilate) who probably had at best limited Aramaic. Jesus’ travels in the north and east of Galilee would make it natural for him to prefer speaking Greek in these places. Crowds came to him from Greek-speaking areas like the Decapolis, and the environs of Tyre and Sidon, and it would make sense for Jesus to teach in Greek for these hearers. The upshot of this is that Jesus’s teachings need not have existed originally only in Aramaic, and so they needed no subsequent process of translation into Greek for them to take the form they do in our gospels.

Barnett further notes the probable literacy (not illiteracy) of at least some of the disciples makes it plausible that accounts of Jesus’ teachings were ‘committed to writing in Greek from the earliest times’, beginning during the earthly ministry of Jesus itself (p. 93). This pair of conclusions relativises both the role of oral transmission of the accounts of Jesus, and of Aramaic as the medium of such transmission. This in turn means the written sources which underlie the gospels may be as close to the ministry of Jesus as any oral streams of transmission in Aramaic that may also have carried the knowledge of Jesus to the gospel writers. Barnett acknowledges this is a controversial conclusion, and somewhat out of step with the recent focus on modes of oral transmission by Kenneth Bailey and James Dunn, but he’s arguing for the substantial importance of individual eyewitness accounts in written Greek.

Barnett covers a great deal of ground, and touches on verbal parallels to gospel material in the New Testament epistles, on the provenance and theologies of Mark, Q, M and L, on the use of Mark by Matthew and Luke, on the audiences the individual gospels appear attuned towards and a host of other issues. Throughout it all his constant theme is that while there is indeed mystery surrounding the process by which the gospels came to be, this in no way licences conspiracy theories. It should not be accepted that Jesus— imagined as a Jewish rabbi of reformist, charismatic or sapiential character— has been dishonourably repackaged as a dying and rising redeemer. ‘The earliest “traditions” are focussed on the redemptive Jesus.’ (p. 235)

The whole is written in vintage Barnett style, exhibiting familiarity with current scholarship and an independent development of thought. Close attention to particular texts across the New Testament and their interconnections alternates with broad awareness of the history, geography and culture of the ancient Mediterranean world in its Jewish, Hellenistic and Roman modes. Barnett writes to communicate with the general reader but does not make his content ‘lite’. In this as in many previous works, he connects the general reader to the scholarly world and the historical scene in a way that few others have done, certainly amongst Australian scholars. Here is a concise, up-to-date account of the production of the gospels by a seasoned scholar and passionate student of the history and literature surrounding the central figure of the New Testament: Jesus, whom this Paul also serves.

Ben Underwood, WA

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