Help Support Religious Freedom Down Under

The name of Israel Folau is well-known in Australia, and perhaps is becoming somewhat known overseas too.  He’s the rugby player who got into trouble with Rugby Australia for an Instagram post.  He shared the love of Christ for sinners and the message of 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 that unrepentant sinners are heading for hell.  If you’re familiar with the passage, you know that several types of unrepentant sinners are mentioned:  the sexually immoral, idolaters, adulterers, thieves, greedy, drunkards, revilers, and swindlers.  But it was just the mention of homosexuals that made so many people irate and ended up costing Folau his job as a footballer.  Apparently the drunkards and adulterers are not so easily offended.

He’s challenging that decision in court as a matter of freedom of speech and freedom of religion.  A few days ago, he set up a GoFundMe page and it quickly raised a lot of cash for his case.  However, GoFundMe pulled the plug on it.  The Australian Christian Lobby has now taken over the fundraising.  They’re hoping to raise $3 million.

It’s important to realize what’s at stake here.  It’s the freedom to openly share biblical teaching about repentance and salvation.  If Israel Folau is not allowed to do that, it won’t be long before no one is allowed to do that in Australia, including me as a gospel preacher.  This is where the erosion of freedoms begins.  We don’t have to take it sitting down.  We’re allowed to fight for the freedom to share the gospel using the legitimate means available to us.  If something is important to us, why wouldn’t we fight for it?

I probably don’t see eye to eye with Israel Folau on any number of theological issues.  It doesn’t matter.  The world perceives him as a Christian and me as a Christian.  To them we’re on the same page and for that reason we’re shoulder to shoulder.  They’re going to treat us the same and the spread of the gospel is affected one way or another.  I’m reminded of something Bill Muehlenberg wrote yesterday on his blog, adapting from someone else from an earlier era:

In Australia they came first for Archbishop Julian Porteous, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a cleric.
Then they came for Bernard Gaynor, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Catholic.
Then they came for Margaret Court, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a tennis player.
Then they came for Lyle Shelton, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a lobbyist.
Then they came for Israel Folau, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a footballer.
Then they came for me, and by that time no one was left to speak up.

It’s time for us to speak up.  Whether you’re here in Australia or overseas, can you help?  See here for the ACL page where you can contribute to the legal costs to fight for religious freedom and freedom of speech in Australia.

By the way, don’t listen to the media on this issue.  They’re completely biassed against Folau.


Fighting Truth Decay

Truth has fallen on hard times.  As I read the headlines each day, I can’t help but wonder:  “What happened to truth?”  Then I think of all the ways God’s people are bombarded with lies every day.  They’re carefully crafted lies and they so easily deceive.  Satan, the head trafficker of lies, is doing booming business.  Though it comes from an entirely different context, Isaiah 59:14-15 seems to have been penned just this morning:

Justice is turned back, and righteousness stands far away; for truth has stumbled in the public squares, and uprightness cannot enter.  Truth is lacking, and he who departs from evil makes himself a prey.

How can we as Christians continue to stand in the face of this truth crisis?  How will the church survive?  It’s going to be like it always has:  on the basis of the public, objective truth of God’s Word.  Let me point out four ways we need to work with God’s Word to battle truth decay in our day.

The Preaching

When you come to worship each Lord’s Day, you’ll hear your pastor proclaim God’s Word as steadfast, eternal truth.  You can’t underestimate the impact that has.  When you hear a man himself firmly convicted of the truth he’s preaching, that’s going to be a boost for your own grasp on the truth.  Moreover, if that preaching is faithful to God’s Word, it’s not merely a man you’re hearing.  In fact, Scripture teaches that the preaching of God’s Word is God’s Word (1 Thess. 2:13).  It’s a word from him who will never lie (Titus 1:2).  Faithful preaching is the Word of Christ, who is not only the way and the life, but also the truth (John 14:6).  There’s a reason why the Holy Spirit tells believers not to forsaking gathering together (Heb. 10:25) — the Spirit of truth drives home the word of truth in our gatherings.  So come each Lord’s Day and get your truth supplement.

Regular Daily Family Worship

Imagine if every family in the church were to gather regularly for the reading of God’s truth.  Imagine the good that would do not only for our children, but also for parents.  To listen to the truth of God’s Word each day and then to reflect on it together is going to be powerfully reinforcing its message for us.  A super helpful resource for reflecting and discussing every chapter of the Bible together is the Family Worship Bible Guide.

Regular Daily Bible Reading

One of the biggest regrets of my pastoral ministry is that in my first congregation, I didn’t teach the importance of developing the discipline of reading through all the Scriptures — that was so foolish!  God taught me this in my second congregation through a godly elder in a home visit.  More than ever, we need to be imbibing the truth of Scripture for ourselves every day.  It’s not enough just to read a Bible devotional.  Bible devotionals are selective — they only give you a verse or two chosen by the author of the devotional.  Bible devotionals are sometimes defective — too many of them neglect the fact that the Bible is first of all about Jesus.  Bible devotionals are always subjective — as you read it you only get the limited viewpoint of that author.  Bible devotionals can be helpful, but it’s not the same as doing the hard work of reading and studying the Bible for yourself.  It’s through that hard work that you appropriate God’s truth for yourself.  Developing that habit means that every day we’re letting the Holy Spirit speak truth to our hearts through the Word.  There are all kinds of Bible reading plans out there — you just need to pick one and starting running with it.  It may be hard at first, but if you persevere for the long haul, you won’t regret it.

Studying the Bible with Others

Finally, the truth gets reinforced as we study the Scriptures with one another in the communion of saints.  We have brothers and sisters who have seen truths in the Bible that we have not yet seen.  We need them to share that with us.  Similarly, we may have grasped truths from the Scriptures that they haven’t yet.  They need us to bring those truths to them.  Getting a better handle on the truths of God’s Word needs to be a communal effort.  Together, we can see and grasp more of the truth we need for life in this world in the grip of lies.

Let me leave you with Phil. 4:8, where the Holy Spirit says, “Finally, brothers, whatever is true…think about these things.”  What is more true than God’s own Word?


Piper: No Desire to Read the Bible?

I’ve learned a lot from this book so far, as I usually do from John Piper.  This excerpt here is the best part I’ve read so far.  It touches on something I’ve experienced and I imagine you have too.  He’s discussing the prayer of the psalmist in Psalm 119:36, “Incline my heart to your testimonies, and not to selfish gain.”

Over the years in my pastoral ministry, many people have complained to me that they do not have motivation to read the Bible.  They have a sense of duty that they should, but the desire is not there.  It is remarkable how many of those people feel that the absence of the desire is the last nail in the coffin of joyful meditation on God’s word.

When I ask them to describe to me what they are doing about it, they look at me as if I had misunderstood the problem.  What can you do about the absence of desire, they wonder.  “It’s not a matter of doing.  It’s a matter of feeling,” they protest.  The problem with this response is that these folks have not just lost desire for God’s word, but they have lost sight of the sovereign power of God, who gives that desire.  They are acting like practical atheists.  They have adopted a kind of fatalism that ignores the way the psalmist prays.

Evidently, the psalmist too felt this terrible tendency to drift away from the word of God.  Evidently, he too knew the cooling of desire and the tendency of his heart to incline more to other things — especially money.  Otherwise why would he have cried out, “Incline my heart to your testimonies, and not to selfish gain.“?  He is pleading with God to give him desire for the word.  He knows that ultimately God is sovereign over the desires of the heart.  So he calls on God to cause what he cannot make happen on his own.  This is the answer to fatalism.  This is the answer to acting like an atheist — as if there were no God who rules the heart, and can restore what we have lost.  (p.255)

A little further on, Piper speaks about how to go about this:

Don’t wait until you have lost the desire before you start praying for this desire.  If the desire is present, give thanks and ask him to preserve it and intensify it.  If you sense that it is cooling, plead that he would kindle it.  And if it is gone, and you do not feel any desire to pray, do what you can.  Repent.  Tell him you are sorry that your desire for his word is dead.  Tell him just how you feel.  He knows already.  And ask him — this is possible without hypocrisy because of the “imperishable seed” (1 Pet. 1:23) that remains in his children — ask him to give you the desire that right now you can barely even muster the will to ask for.  He is merciful.  (p.256)

By the way, you can download this book for free right here.


DeYoung: Homework on Sunday?

I’m currently reading this great little book from Kevin DeYoung.  What he describes here resonates with me — I adopted the same practice.  Though I often did in high school, in university and seminary I never did homework on the Lord’s Day — and never regretted it either!

When I was in college and seminary, I made what was a bold decision at the time and committed, along with a friend, that we would not do homework on Sundays.  No reading assignments.  No papers.  No studying for tests.  It meant rethinking my Saturdays, which meant being more thoughtful about my Friday evenings.  I couldn’t sleep till noon on Saturday, watch football, hang out with my friends all day, and go out to a social event at night and then play catch-up on Sunday.  I had to make pretty drastic changes.  But I never regretted the commitment.  Setting aside Sunday was a habit that served me well throughout all my studies.  Sunday became my favorite day of the week.  I was freed up to go to church more than once.  I could go on a long walk or read a book or take a nap.  The day became an island of get-to in an ocean of have-to.

How many of us think, “You know what?  Life is a little underwhelming.  I’m not very busy.  I wish the days could be more crowded.  I wish life could be more hectic.”  Very few people think that way.  So don’t you want a day where you can say no to many of the oughts in your head?  Wouldn’t it be wonderful to have a day of freedom, one day in seven where the other six days have no claim on you?  (p. 75)


Don’t Antagonize, Instead Pursue Peace

Back in 1982, the Free Reformed Churches of Australia (FRCA) were one of the founding members of the International Conference of Reformed Churches (ICRC).  This organization has proved to be an instrument for fellowship amongst like-minded Reformed and Presbyterian churches for nearly 40 years.  However, in the FRCA it proved to be a massive bone of contention – the reasons for this really don’t matter in what I’m about to write.  The key fact is that membership in the ICRC threatened to pull the FRCA apart in the 1990s.  So, in 1996, an FRCA Synod decided to terminate membership in the ICRC.  This was done for the sake of harmony and unity in the federation.  The cost/benefit analysis indicated it wasn’t worth it to break apart the federation for the sake of continuing in the ICRC.

Although I lament the attitudes and perspectives which necessitated it, I can see the wisdom in the 1996 decision.  No one wants to be responsible for unnecessarily causing disharmony in the bond of churches.  Because we love them, we aim to be patient with our brothers and sisters who differ with us.  To preserve the peace, we may even have to make accommodations for them.  This is part of what it means to live in a federation of churches.

The Bible and Fraternal Peace

Indeed, the Bible teaches us to “strive for peace with everyone…” (Heb. 12:14).  In Romans 14:19, the Holy Spirit says, “So then let us pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding.”  Likewise, in 2 Cor. 13:11, he says, “Aim for restoration, comfort one another, agree with one another, live in peace…”  The apostles learned this as disciples of our Lord Jesus.  In Mark 9:50 he taught, “Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.”  This teaching is impressed not only upon all disciples of Christ, but also specifically upon church leaders.  Titus was exhorted, “But avoid foolish controversies, genealogies, dissensions, and quarrels about the law, for they are unprofitable and worthless” (Titus 3:9).  The pursuit of peace in the church is certainly a frequent topic in the New Testament.  It makes sense, since there are so many ways through which Satan and our own sinful hearts can break apart fraternal bonds.  There are many ways we can antagonize one another and drive a wedge in our fellowship.  When that happens, our gospel witness is impacted too.  We lose credibility as gospel witnesses when we can’t live at peace with one another.

That can happen within local congregations, but I want to focus on the way in which that can happen within church federations too.  Within a church federation, the decisions of a local congregation can antagonize the other churches and disrupt the peace.  Let me give a couple of generic examples.

Two Ways to Antagonize

I recently posted this article about the History and Character of Our Reformed Church Order.  I pointed out that the Church Order is our agreement for life together as churches in a federation.  We expect that the other churches in the federation will abide by what has been agreed upon.  A local church can make a decision or implement a practice which might be perceived as violating that agreement — we’ll leave aside the question of whether or not it is actually violating the agreement.  Such a situation can easily antagonize the other churches, particularly if no public clarification or explanation is provided.

There is another way that can antagonize and polarize.  In the aforementioned article, I also pointed out that there are unspoken assumptions and expectations in our Reformed church polity.  There are widespread consensual interpretations and applications of our Church Order.  These cannot be casually disregarded by a local church without causing dismay and concern to others.  You may technically still be following the letter of what’s agreed upon in the Church Order, but congratulations, you succeeded in jeopardizing the peace in your church federation.  What have you gained?

So, what is the way forward?  Just follow what Scripture says about the pursuit of peace.  If a church believes changes need to be made in local practice, we have to think about the consequences for our closest brethren elsewhere, for our federation.  We cannot afford to be independentistic.  Changes that fall under the two headings above need to be approached with extreme caution.  At the bare minimum, advice should be sought at a classis.  However, it could happen that a classical region contains a good number of like-minded people.  Then it would also be wise to seek advice from a wider pool of churches at another broader assembly.

There is one more angle to this.  I have often thought about the process of change, particularly changing a church culture, both locally and federatively.  There are different ways it can be approached.  It’s a question of leadership and persuasion.

Bad and Good Leadership

Bad leadership rams changes through and runs over all opposition in the process.  A good example of this is Mark Driscoll’s book, Confessions of a Reformission Rev.: Hard Lessons From an Emerging Missional Church.  He tells readers to ask whether they “have the guts to shoot their dogs.”  Dogs include “loser leaders” and “pathetic people.”  He writes, “…it is vital to name with brutal candor the people, programs, structures, and ministry philosophies that are dogs needing to be shot.  Be sure to make it count and shoot them only once so that they don’t come back and bite you” (34-35).  Elsewhere in the book he writes about how the church is a body and one of the most important parts is the colon:  “Like the human body, any church body without a colon is destined for sickness that leads to death” (131).  This is in the context of a discussion of getting rid of problem people in the missional church – “shooting the dogs” is the same thing as getting rid of waste from the body.  This is wicked, bad leadership – and one wonders whether it contributed to Mark Driscoll’s undoing at Mars Hill in Seattle.

Good leadership seeks to lead through timely, patient persuasion.  It’s not only leadership in the local church, but also leadership in the federation.  If we want to see cultural changes on a large scale, then we need to persuade our brothers and sisters of the need for such changes.  Try and dialogue.  Put the books out there, write the blog posts, send the articles into the church magazine, use social media – there’s no shortage of options.

You may have read this article, read between the lines, and imagined I had a particular situation or two in mind.  I did.  However, I especially wrote this for myself and my own local church.  Without going into details, we’re contemplating some changes falling under the second category of ways that might antagonize.  I’m sensitive to the possibility we could do that and I just don’t want to go there.  Instead, I want to “flee youthful passions and pursue righteousness, faith, love, and peace, along with those who call on the Lord from a pure heart” (2 Tim. 2:22).  Let’s do that together, shall we?