­
EFAC Australia

Theology

Tolerance or a Contest of Power?

How todays ‘tolerance’ has become repressive.      

By Peter Corney

The Catholic Archbishop of Hobart has recently been taken to Tasmania’s anti-discrimination commission for distributing a pastoral letter on the doctrine of marriage to the church's members! The complainant also seeks to have all church schools forced to promote LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex) awareness, tolerance and behaviour. This is a misguided, repressive use of the law and a suppression of free speech and freedom of religion.  

As well as the many serious concerns this raises about our democratic values, it also highlights the unsatisfactory drafting of our anti-discrimination laws that generally are far too broad and do not have sufficient protection of freedom of speech.
It is becoming increasingly difficult to conduct an intelligent, reasoned, respectful and open public debate on issues of values, morality, ethics and religion without fear of legal action and the resulting suppression of free speech.
Behind this repressive and dangerous atmosphere lies a radical change in the way we understand tolerance and intolerance.

The traditional or liberal view of tolerance is based on the following two key ideas which can be expressed in the following way: (1) it has an egalitarian view of people. Every person is equal and has an equal right to their views and beliefs and a right to express them respectfully. (2) It has an elitist view of ideas. Not all ideas, views and beliefs are equally valid or sensible, some are true, some are false, some are just, some are unjust, some are dangerous and some are just plain silly. So while everyone has a right to speak not all views and beliefs are right. This is what we might call ‘principled tolerance.’
The current view of tolerance and intolerance turns this on its head. (1) It has an egalitarian view of ideas and beliefs. All ideas, views and beliefs are equally valid (a relativist view) and therefore should not be critiqued. (2) It has an elitist view of persons. Only persons with this relativist view about ideas have a right to speak in the public forum. All others with a different understanding about ideas and truth and who wish to contest people’s views and critique them, no matter how respectfully, may not speak! If they do they will be branded intolerant and discriminatory.

There is also another more sinister force at work here. Some lobby groups have worked out this change that has taken place in people’s view of tolerance and intolerance and exploit it very skilfully in the media and public forums to suppress criticism and reasoned argument about the particular ideas they are promoting. Many in the media are easily drawn into this strategy.  For a diverse society sensitive to any ethnic, religious or cultural divisions that might create disharmony or public disorder this sensitivity is a very easy but cynical button to press for strategic campaign reasons.

The new view of tolerance and intolerance owes a great deal to Post Modern thinking and its anti- foundationalism and rejection of objective truth which has reinforced the relativist position. The English philosopher Roger Scruton has a very apt and ironic comment on this trend in contemporary thought; the very reasoning that sets out to destroy ideas of objective truth and absolute value imposes a political correctness as absolutely binding and a cultural relativism as ‘objectively true’

In the end all this leads to the death of the contest of ideas and the emergence of our very destructive default position, the contest of power. In the battle of “the will to power” eventually one side imposes by force their will on the other by unethically suppressing their right to dissent by either ridicule and closing down discussion or by the force of laws like our current anti vilification legislation that while well intended were poorly drafted and while never intended to restrict the right of free speech can be used to do just that. This ‘violence’ to the other is the beginning of the destruction of our liberal society.

 

Mark Thompson argues for the propriety of taking a stand in theological controversy. Indeed he argues that it is not merely permitted to Christians, but that in times of sore need it is a mark of great Christian leadership.

Dr Mark Thompson is the Principal of Moore College, Newtown NSW.

1. Three great stands

In the mid-fourth century the bishop of Alexandria looked increasingly isolated as a supporter of the decisions of the Council of Nicaea in 325.

As a young man, Athanasius had been present at the Council and he was committed to its view that Scripture teaches the Son is as much God as the Father is. One little word captured the sentiment, though for twenty-five years or so Athanasius avoided debating that word. It was the word homoousion, ‘of the same substance’. The Son is of the same substance as the Father — not another substance, not a derived substance, not a created substance — and because he is of the same substance, he is worthy of the same honour and obedience and worship as the Father. Because he is of the same substance, he is able to save us. That was the confession of the 318 bishops who gathered at Nicaea. It was Athanasius’ confession (he only became a bishop three years later). But following the council, one by one the bishops of the ancient church were persuaded to abandon the term and the Emperor himself spoke against it. In what is most probably an apocryphal tale, Athanasius’ servant is supposed to have come into his room one morning agitated and exclaiming ‘Athansius, do you not know the whole world is against you?’ And Athanasius is reported to have said ‘Well then, is Athanasius against the world’. Athanasius contra mundum — it is a Latin slogan that has become synonymous with integrity, with a willingness to stand up and confess the truth no matter what the odds. It meant having the courage to stand alone. It is one of the stirring stories of church history. It energises people even today. And one of the reasons for that is that in the end, at the Council of Constantinople in 381 (eight years after Athanasius’ death), he was vindicated.

In August David Peterson gave the Mathew Hale Public Lecture for 2015 entitled “Holy Book and Holy Living” at the Mathew Hale Library in Brisbane. This is his abridgement of his lecture.  Copies of the full text of the lecture may be purchased from the Library.

Rev Dr David Peterson is a New Testament scholar, formerly Principal of Oak Hill Theological College in the U.K., now back at Moore College in Sydney.

In the debates that have taken place about homosexuality and gay marriage, many Christians have sold out to secular values. Critical to the whole matter is the question of biblical interpretation and authority.  It is clear from Paul's broader teaching about marriage and sexuality that he was one with Jesus in endorsing the principles of the Mosaic Law and applying them to believers under the New Covenant. A good example is found in 1 Thessalonians 4:1-12.

Discerning the will of God

When Paul first shared the message of the gospel with his predominantly pagan converts (1:9-10), he gave them specific ethical guidelines (4:1, 'how to live in order to please God'). And he did this 'by the authority of the Lord Jesus' (4:2), as his commissioned representative.

The apostle regarded the will of God as the ultimate guide to human behaviour. In line with biblical teaching, he therefore declared that the essential will of God is that his people should be holy in all their conduct (cf. Leviticus 11:44-5; 19:2; 20:7; 1 Peter 1:15-16). But what that means in practical terms needed to be explained, since the apostle did not regard Christians as being under the written code of the Mosaic law (cf. Romans 7:1-6; 2 Corinthians 3:1-18). Paul endorsed and re-presented Old Testament ethical teaching in ways that are relevant and applicable to Christians living in the Gentile world.

Bodies devoted to God's service

Paul's first point is that holiness must be exhibited in the sexual realm. This is consistent with Leviticus 18, where regulations about unlawful sexual relations come first in a section about ethical holiness (Leviticus 18-20). The command that a man should not  'have sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman' is found in 18:22.  'Chastity is not the whole of sanctification, but it is an important element in it, and one which had to be specially stressed in the Greco-Roman world of that day.'1

Various forms of extra-marital sexual union were widely tolerated and some were even encouraged. Sexual indulgence was often associated with the practice of religious cults and there was no widespread public opinion to discourage immorality.  It hardly needs to be pointed out that contemporary Christians find themselves in a similar ethical environment. But when the gospel is introduced into a culture it demands a new way of life in those who believe it.

Paul's claim that holiness must be expressed by abstaining from sexual immorality (1 Thessalonians 4:3, Greek porneia) is explained in vv. 4-7, where it appears that any form of sexual relationship outside marriage is covered by the term.2 If our bodies belong to the Lord, we are no longer free to use them selfishly or in accordance with the accepted values of the time. They must be kept or controlled 'in holiness and honour' (ESV, cf. 1 Corinthians 6:20; Romans 12:1).3 Those who have come to know God in Jesus Christ will treat their bodies as his property.

Love and holiness

Paul warns against the social consequences of sexual indulgence in v. 6.  Christians must beware of trespassing against brothers and sisters in Christ by behaving covetously. This theme is developed in vv. 9-10, where a close link between holiness and love is made.  By crossing forbidden sexual boundaries, we may enrich ourselves at someone else's expense. Husbands, parents, and other family members are all hurt when someone is seduced into an improper relationship.  The Lord Jesus himself is 'an avenger in all these things' and will inflict the appropriate judgment on those who disregard his will (v. 6b; cf. 2 Thessalonians 1:6-10).

Love of neighbour was central to the demand for holiness in the Mosaic Law (Leviticus 19:18). As in Leviticus 18-19, love and sexual purity come together in 1 Thessalonians 4. Love for those who are struggling with sexual temptation does not mean lowering the standards that God has set for his people. As a fellowship of believers we are bound to support and help those who struggle with sexual temptation or failure.

Conclusion

In current debates among Christians about sexuality, holiness hardly ever surfaces as the controlling idea. Fundamental to this notion is the challenge to be different from the culture around us in values and behaviour. Biblical authority is also dangerously challenged and undermined in these debates. If, in our desire to show love to those who are same-sex attracted, we abandon the biblical teaching about marriage and sexuality, we dishonour God, obscure his best intentions for humanity, and show the world that the Bible is no longer to be taken seriously. It is merely the play-thing from which to formulate a new version of Christianity suitable for the people of the 21st century.

 

1 Frederick F. Bruce, 1 & 2 Thessalonians (Waco: Word, 1982), 82. He discusses the sexual mores of the Greek world more fully on pp.86-87.

 

2 Cf. Horst Reisser, New International Dictionary of New TestamentTheology Vol. 1 (Exeter: Paternoster, 1975): 497-501. The word group can describe various modes of extra-marital sex 'insofar as they deviate from accepted social and religious norms (e.g. homosexuality, promiscuity, paedophilia, and especially prostitution)' (p. 497).

3  'To control his own body'(ESV, NIV) is a more appropriate rendering of the Greek in this context than 'to take a wife for himself' (ESV margin) or 'to live with his own wife' (NIV margin).

Rhys Bezzant reports on the recent international congress on Jonathan Edwards at Ridley College, Melbourne.

In our quest for relevance, we easily neglect our roots, but it doesn’t take an arborist to tell us that neglect of roots jeopardises health and vitality, or that a tree without roots is dead. Evangelical Christians need to study history, and to understand our story, otherwise our fruit will wither on the vine. It is that important, though honoured chiefly in the breach. Not all evangelical colleges teach church history after first year, and few teach the history of modern evangelicalism at all.

Perhaps, in a small way, the Jonathan Edwards Congress, hosted recently at Ridley, can help to set an agenda.

There are about eight Jonathan Edwards Centers around the world, and Ridley is privileged to host one. These centres are satellites of the JEC at Yale University, which is charged with cultivating the study of the texts and teachings of Edwards. And every four years one of those centres convenes a conference. This year was our turn. After four years of planning, I was pleased to welcome to Melbourne delegates from every continent (except Antarctica!), and from every state in Australia. Eight of the world’s leading Edwards scholars presented keynote addresses, and pastors and academics led parallel sessions. I attend history conferences overseas, and few of them are overtly Christian, but at Ridley we began the day with the morning office, and affirmed the contribution of pastors and junior academics in the programme. There was a clear sense of the importance of fellowship amongst the participants – after all, we were talking about revivals, preaching, missions, doctrine and piety, so encouraging a Christian mood ought not to have been out of place. We ran an MA unit as part of the conference, in which seven pastors took part. This was a global conference.

And it is indeed quite extraordinary how scholarship on Edwards is booming in every corner of the globe. South Africans are looking for a way to be Reformed after the compromises of apartheid, Poles are investigating the way the revivalists used rhetoric to communicate their message, Brazilians want depth after the expansive but shallow growth of Pentecostalism in South America, and Australians are discovering how Reformed faith provides a sense of beauty and cohesion, which together provide deep satisfaction in a fragmented post-modern world. Of particular note amongst the keynotes was Stuart Piggin’s presentation of the role of Edwards in praying for Terra Australis long before it was settled by Europeans, and in motivating world missions through his writings, which encouraged and equipped our earliest chaplains and later pastors.

As part of my own long-term project in writing about the ministry of mentoring, I was able to present a paper on David Brainerd, the sometime mentee of Edwards, who ministered amongst the Indians on the frontier and provided a model for future cross-cultural workers. Though often heroically portrayed as an individual fighting the elements and facing the howling wilderness at great personal cost, demonstrated in his untimely death, it was time to argue instead for the importance of the church in his ministry, his reliance on the means of grace, and his desire to place the weakness of his ministry in the context of God’s eschatological power, which was making significant advances despite Brainerd’s sin and fragility. His own agency was a function of the church’s authority – a great reminder of the high place God has for the church in his own gospel purposes.

We need more reflection on the roots of our tradition, not less. We need to give more attention to the global dimensions of the evangelical movement, not less.

We need more appreciation of the church not merely as a means of outreach, but as an exalted and permanent gift of the Father to the Son. We are the bride of Christ. And how wonderful that Edwards can still serve as a midwife, delivering to us such wonderful riches.
Rhys Bezzant, Ridley, Vic.

At the Anglican Future Conference, Brian Rosner led a workshop called Disputable Matters: What to Do When Christians Disagree. This is a lightly edited outline of the content of his workshop.

Rev Dr Brian Rosner is Principal of Ridley College and President of EFAC Victoria.

Summary

With respect to disputable matters, in Romans 14-15 Paul stresses the need for personal convictions, flexibility, not judging or despising those who disagree, and the goal of peace and edification.  As it turns out, the theological foundations of his teaching on disputable matters are remarkably profound.

Disputable matters in Romans 14:1-15:7

Some matters are beyond dispute, of “first importance” (1 Corinthians 15:1). Other matters are “disputable” (Romans 14:1)

1. Weak and Strong: Mosaic laws to do with diet (14:2, 21) and calendar (14:5).

Two groups are mentioned: ‘the weak’ and ‘the strong’. Whereas “the weak” in the church (probably mainly Christians from a Jewish background) kept Jewish kosher laws and observed the Sabbath, “the strong” (mainly Gentile Christians) did not. Paul actually counts himself among the strong (15:1) and is convinced that the Christian believer may “eat anything” (14:2). Peter Adam says: “If I had been writing Romans 14, I would have told those who were weak in faith, and still kept special days, to sort themselves out, and to know that they are justified by grace through faith, not by keeping special days of Jewish practice.  Paul, on the other hand, told the strong in faith to accept the weak in faith, and the weak in faith to accept the strong in faith.  Both the strong and the weak are answerable to God, not to each other.  So we must allow people to act differently in matters that don’t contradict the gospel.”

2. How were the two groups behaving?

“The one who eats everything [the strong] must not despise [exoutheneō] the one who does not [the weak], and the one who does not eat everything [the weak] must not judge [krinō] the one who does [the strong], for God has accepted that person” (14:3). In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus also warns about judging and despising other believers. “Do not judge, or you too will be judged” (Matt. 7:1).  In his application of the commandment not to murder, he states: “whoever says to his brother, ‘Fool!’ will be subject to the Sanhedrin. But whoever says, ‘You moron!’ will be subject to hellfire” (Matt. 5:22, HCSB).

3. Paul’s instructions and his reasons

Paul’s basic instruction is to accept, rather than judge or despise one another:  “Accept those whose faith is weak, without quarrelling over disputable matters” (14:1). “Accept one another, just as Christ has accepted you” (15:7). In response to Christians judging and despising each other, Paul reasons that each person is responsible directly to God, an accountability based on the status of all believers as belonging to the Lord Jesus Christ: “Who are you to judge someone else’s servant? To their own master, servants stand or fall” (14:4a). Paul explains that personal convictions are needed, for “those who have doubts are condemned if they eat, because their eating is not from faith; and everything that does not come from faith is sin” (14:23). “Everyone should be fully convinced in their own mind” (Romans 14:5b).

Christian leaders may teach a position on a disputable matter: “I know and am persuaded by the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself” (14:14a), but not insistently: “Still to someone who considers a thing unclean, to that one it is unclean” (14:14b). In Paul’s view, at least in the case of the strong, some flexibility may be needed.  Speaking to the strong, and including himself, Paul reasons that we may need to vary our practice in certain settings. We are not just “to please ourselves” (15:1).  Rather, “each of us should please our neighbours for their good, to build them up” (15:2).  In doing so we act in imitation of Christ, who “did not please himself” (15:3).

4. What was at stake?

Firstly, the health and happiness of the church: “For the kingdom of God is not food and drink but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (14:17).

Secondly, the progress of the gospel. For Paul’s mission to succeed he needs the Roman Christians, both Jews and Gentiles, to accept one another, and not to squabble, so that with one mind and voice they might glorify God (15:6).  

Thirdly, the glory of God. Paul’s ultimate purpose in dealing with the quarrels in the churches in Rome is not to ‘smooth things over’; it is that “the Gentiles might glorify God” (15.9; cf. 15.6, 7).

Conclusion

With respect to disputable matters, in Romans 14-15 Paul stresses the need for personal convictions, flexibility, not judging or despising those who disagree, and the goal of peace and edification.  As it turns out, the theological foundations of his teaching on disputable matters are remarkably profound.  Doctrine matters.  Paul appeals to the lordship of Christ, the imitation of Christ, justification by faith, and the work of the Spirit in the Kingdom of God.  To behave badly will damage the health and happiness of the church, impede the progress of the gospel and diminish the glory of God.

­