Category Archives: Politics

That Other Preacher, That Other Religion

He was so passionate, so intense.  He had a conspicuous religious fervour.  The man was on fire; he was preaching.  His pulpit was a small lectern in Tasmania’s Legislative Council.  The topic of his sermon was his “End-of-Life Choices Bill.”

Last week as I watched Mike Gaffney present his bill, at first it merely seemed to me that he was preaching.  But reflecting on it further, I came to realize he was a genuine master of the homiletical arts.   And Gaffney was using his homiletical gifts in service of his religion.

Tasmania (our home for the last 5 years) has held the line when it comes to state-sanctioned suicide.  Australia’s smallest state has faced several attempts to introduce legislation which would allow it, but so far each time those efforts have been in vain.  There’s great concern that this time will be different.  There definitely seems to be a strong degree of public support for it.

Reading or hearing those expressions of support, you often come across the idea that opposition to state-sanctioned suicide comes from religious people, whereas non-religious people (like Mike Gaffney) support it.  It gets framed as a religion versus no-religion debate, often with a few “separation of church and state” sentiments sprinkled on.  But is that really what’s happening here?

It’s all going to depend on how you understand “religion.”  If you understand “religion” to refer to belonging to an organized church (or synagogue, mosque, temple, etc.), the debate could be framed in these terms.  Specifically, most opponents of state-sanctioned suicide belong to Christian churches, whereas many supporters don’t.

However, most dictionaries will tell you that “religion” has a broader frame of reference.  For example, it can refer to sincerely held beliefs about what’s ultimate in life.  From a Christian perspective, whatever is ultimate in your life functions as a god, even if you don’t refer to it as a deity.  If it’s ultimate and functions like a god in your life, then regardless of what you call it, it’s a god to you.  And you’re a religious person.

He’d probably disagree with me, but Mike Gaffney is a religious person.  He’s devout in his commitment to an ultimate belief.  His ultimate belief appears to be personal autonomy.  It’s the right to individual self-determination.  Nothing is above that.  This is the root religious belief driving so many cultural trends:  transgenderism/LGBTQ, abortion, and state-sanctioned suicide.  This belief says that the individual is ultimate – the individual is essentially an autonomous god.  So if “god” says he is now a she, no one may question “god.”  If “god” chooses death for the child in the womb, no one may question “god.”  When “god” says that life is too much and “god” wants to “die with dignity,” then no one should question what “god” says.  Gods are always ultimate in authority and power.

It’s no wonder then that, given a pulpit, devotees of this religion can be such powerful, passionate preachers.  They’re on fire for their religion and will do everything in their power to spread it.  I was going to write “evangelize,” but that would give the impression that this religion of individual autonomy has good news on offer.  It doesn’t.  There’s no good news in a religion promoting death.  Christians have a religion of life – a gospel which proclaims a Saviour who is the resurrection and the life. We have a gospel which leads us to protect and honour life.  So why aren’t we just as, if not more, zealous than Mike Gaffney?


Open Letter to All Tasmanian MLCs

The following letter was sent this morning to all Members of the Legislative Council in Tasmania.  This is related to the End-of-Life (Voluntary Assisted Dying) Bill in front of the Council.

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Dear MLCs,

I’m writing to you today concerning the End-of-Life Choices (Voluntary Assisted Dying) bill.  Let us peel away the political language and call it what it is:  state-sanctioned suicide.

I have experienced the pain of suicide in my life.  After suffering both physically and mentally, my mother took her own life in 2002.  This was the most painful thing I’ve ever endured.  She determined her own way to die, but it was a choice which caused enormous heartache to our entire family.

Because we recognize the pain it causes, our society invests so much time and energy in suicide prevention.  Just yesterday, the “R U OK?” campaign was in action.  When a celebrity like Robin Williams takes his own life, after suffering horribly with mental illness, the world laments his choice.  We’re told that “suicide is never the answer.”  When the TV news features a story about suicide or depression, they always include a mention of the Lifeline number.  It seems like society wants to prevent suicide, while this bill aims to allow it.  This is double-mindedness.

During the debate over same-sex marriage, proponents of SSM argued that a vote or plebiscite on it would lead to LGBTQ youth committing suicide.  This is significant for two reasons.  One is that the idea was that removing the cause of their suffering (i.e. a vote on SSM) would save their lives – which were worth saving.  The other is that this political activity was considered to be triggering to vulnerable individuals.  If this was true, does not consistency then demand that we focus on 1) alleviating suffering, and 2) avoiding triggering vulnerable individuals through political activity related to suicide?

Getting into the legislation itself, one of my chief concerns is the slippery slope.  It is a documented fact worldwide that legislation like this is only ever the beginning.  My native Canada adopted physician-assisted dying in 2016.  This year the Canadian parliament is debating (via Bill C-7) the expansion of provisions for physician-assisted dying.  In fact, Tasmania’s proposed legislation even has the slippery slope built into it.  Section 142 proposes a review in two years about expanding to include minors under 18 years old.  Where will it end?  In the Netherlands and Belgium, legislation has progressed past the point of doctors facilitating suicide for mental suffering.

In 2009, Dr. Philip Nitschke appeared before a Tasmania parliamentary inquiry.  Under oath, he admitted to breaking the short-lived Northern Territory legislation, the Rights of the Terminally Ill Act.  Dr. Nitschke euthanized Bob Dent.  Why?  Because he was socially isolated.  Dr. Nitschke was never charged.  NT police looked the other way.  If this legislation is enacted, can we have confidence that Tasmania Police would not do the same if this legislation is violated?

All these kinds of laws are fraught with problems.  I urge you to reject this bill and recognize the worth and value of all human life.  Human beings are not animals which can be euthanized when they’re suffering.  We have a conscience.  We have the capacity to love and be loved.  If there is suffering, we must seek to alleviate it, not to extinguish the life of the one suffering.

Rather than state-sanctioned suicide, I ask you to propose legislation which will expand palliative care in Tasmania.  We need a network of hospices for professional, compassionate end-of-life care.  Rather than state-sanctioned suicide, I ask you to invest more funds in suicide prevention programs.   We have to do more to prevent vulnerable people from hurting themselves and their loved ones.  Truly, suicide is never the answer.

Thank you for your time and attention.  I wish you God’s blessing as you serve our state.

Yours sincerely,

Rev. Dr. Wes Bredenhof

Pastor, Launceston Free Reformed Church


Book Review: ‘I Kid You Not’

‘I Kid You Not’: Notes from 20 Years in the Trenches of the Culture Wars, Lyle Shelton.  Redland Bay, Queensland: Connor Court Publishing, 2020.  Softcover, 273 pages.

I’m told that when you join an army combat unit, you’ll usually get a lesson on that unit’s battle history.  I came to Australia nearly five years ago with little knowledge of the battles that have been waged here for what’s good and true.  Since then, I’ve witnessed the fight for the preservation of marriage and a few other skirmishes.  However, reading Lyle Shelton’s new book opened my eyes to many of the battles that took place before we arrived in 2015.  It’s like reading the battle history of biblically-minded and politically-involved Christians in Australia for the last two decades.

For those who don’t know him, Lyle Shelton may be the most hated man in Australia.  I follow him on Twitter and the abuse his trolls heap on him is ghastly.  While he first started drawing fire as a city councillor in Toowoomba, Queensland, it was really as the Managing Director of the Australian Christian Lobby (ACL) that he became the target of intense animosity.  This book documents two decades of his Christian political activism, battles fought — both those won (a few) and lost (more).

From his time in city government in Toowoomba, we read of the fight against brothels in Queensland in chapter 2.  Chapter 3 describes the battle against pornography in Australia — a fight simply to introduce a mandatory filtering policy.  There are chapters on abortion and euthanasia.  The battle against same-sex “marriage” takes up three chapters.  For me, one of the most interesting sections was the chapter on aboriginal relations.  I took a keen interest in that area when I was serving as a missionary to a First Nations community in Canada, so naturally I wanted to hear Lyle’s take on the Australian situation.  I was impressed with how Lyle applies Christian principles of forgiveness, atonement, and reconciliation.  His balanced approach deserves a hearing.

As mentioned, there’s history in this book of which I was unaware, having come “late to the party.”  For example chapter 6 describes Guy Barnett’s move to defund second trimester and late-term abortion.  Today, Guy is a well-known figure in Tasmanian state politics.  But in 2008, he was serving in the Australian senate.  He made an effort to roll back some of the gruesome practices of Australian abortionists.  The ACL supported his effort and, as part of that, invited Gianna Jensen, a survivor of a late-term abortion to come to Australia to assist the campaign.  I’ll let Lyle pick up the story:

She is probably the only person alive today whose birth certificate was signed by her abortionist.  He arrived back on the scene when it was too late.

Gianna indefatigably limped alongside me through kilometers of corridors in Parliament House — her bright and sunny disposition disarming the pollies before she unleashed her killer opening line (pun intended).  [the opening line:  “If abortion is about women’s rights, where were mine?”]

I’ll never forget the afternoon we ran into the then Greens leader Bob Brown in the Senate corridors.  I hadn’t bothered seeking an appointment with him.  The Greens care about saving tiny critters but, perversely, baby humans at risk of violence in the womb are not on their endangered list.

“This is Gianna Jensen from America, Senator,” I awkwardly said as we bumped into Brown.  At that moment, I had no agenda apart from being polite.  Brown, who is one of the most genuinely charming men you will ever meet immediately engaged Gianna in some good-natured banter about her need to see the sights of his home state, Tasmania.

My mind began racing as the Senator continued with small talk.  I felt I had to say something.

“Gianna is a survivor of abortion,” I blurted.  At that Senator Brown excused himself, turned on his heel, and walked off down the corridor.  Some truths are more inconvenient than others.  I’ll never forget it.  It was one of the most profound interactions I had at Parliament in my 10 years as a lobbyist.  I’ll always be grateful to Gianna for coming to our nation and telling her inconvenient story, even though her plea on behalf of unborn babies was politely ignored by our politicians.  (page 108)

An unforgettable afternoon, indeed — one prays it was unforgettable for Bob Brown too.

‘I Kid You Not’ is a must-read for newcomers to Australian politics — it’s a great primer on how we got where we are.  I’d also recommend it to Christian young people and others who are beginning to understand our need to be involved in the struggle for truth and goodness in the public square.  Lyle Shelton not only provides the battle history, he also has some insights into battlefield tactics — those used against the truth, but also those that should be used for the truth.  I would say that, unlike Lyle, and more like the current ACL director Martyn Iles, I believe we need to bring Scripture to bear on the situation.  That point notwithstanding, this book makes a valuable contribution to reflecting on how to be engaged politically as Christians. If we love our nation, if our desire is to see the nation flourish, then this is a battle to which all Christians are called.  Sign up.


Book Review of Article 36 of the Belgic Confession Vindicated Against Dr. Abraham Kuyper

Article 36 of the Belgic Confession Vindicated Against Dr. Abraham Kuyper: A Critique of His Series on Church and State in Common Grace, Dr. P.J. Hoedemaker, trans. Ruben Alvarado.  Aalten: Wordbridge Publishing, 2019.

Anyone who has ever studied the Belgic Confession, even on a superficial level, is aware of an oddity in article 36. This is the only place in the Three Forms of Unity where we find a footnote in most versions of the Confession. Whether it is the United ReformedCanadian Reformed, or Protestant Reformed Churches in North America, or the Free Reformed Churches of Australia, all have an additional footnote.

Article 36 is titled “The Civil Government” or sometimes “Of Magistrates” and addresses what we confess about the role of the government. The relevant text in the body of the confession originally read:

[The government’s] task of restraining [evil] and sustaining [good] is not limited to the public order but includes the protection of the church and its ministry in order that all idolatry and false worship may be removed and prevented, the kingdom of antichrist may be destroyed, the kingdom of Christ may come, the Word of the gospel may be preached everywhere, and God may be honoured and served by everyone, as he requires in his Word. (Italics added)

But the clauses above that I’ve italicized were moved from the body, and relegated to footnote status a century ago, as is explained in the Canadian Reformed edition here:

The following words were deleted here by the General Synod 1905 of the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands (Gereformeerde Kerken in Nederland): all idolatry and false worship may be removed and prevented, the kingdom of antichrist may be destroyed.

I’ve been a pastor in both the Canadian Reformed Churches, and the Free Reformed Churches of Australia, and to my knowledge, neither federation has ever made an official decision about the status of this footnote. Do we confess this or not? It is an odd ambiguity in our Three Forms of Unity.  It is something I addressed briefly in my doctoral dissertation – you can read the relevant section here.

This little book comes from the controversy which led to the words being deleted in 1905.  It provides some of the historical background, illustrating that the deletion was not without its opponents.  This book also provides an occasion to reflect on whether it may be time to revisit the matter in an official, ecclesiastical way.

Philippus Jacobus Hoedemaker (1839-1910) was a curious figure.  While he grew up in a family with roots in the 1834 Secession (Afscheiding), he himself became a minister in the Nederlands Hervormde Kerk (NHK), the Dutch national church.  At one point, he was a professor at Abraham Kuyper’s Free University in Amsterdam, but after the Doleantie of 1886, their relationship deteriorated.  Hoedemaker was an opponent of the Doleantie – the movement out of the Dutch national church led by Kuyper and others.  However, unlike so many others in the NHK, Hoedemaker was a conservative and confessionally Reformed.

This book is a response to a series of articles written by Abraham Kuyper in his newspaper De Heraut (The Herald) in 1899-1900.  In these articles, Kuyper argued against the wording of article 36 about the responsibility of the civil government with regard to idolatry, false worship, and the kingdom of the antichrist.  In 1896, Kuyper went a step further.  Together with other notable theologians in the Gereformeerde Kerken (Reformed Churches), including Herman Bavinck, Kuyper put forward a gravamen against article 36.  A “gravamen” is an official objection to a point of doctrine.  These eight ministers alleged that article 36 did not conform to the Word of God and they asked the Synod of 1896 to make a judgment on the matter.  The Synod decided to appoint a committee to study the matter, a committee which bizarrely included Bavinck and Kuyper (!).  It was the work of this committee which would later result in Synod 1905 deleting the allegedly unbiblical words.

In this book, Hoedemaker argues for the original form of article 36.  More accurately, he argues against Kuyper’s objections to the original form of article 36.  He maintains that Kuyper was inconsistent.  On the one hand, he wants to honour King Jesus as the Lord of all of life.  But on the other hand, King Jesus has no crown rights over the responsibility of the civil government with regard to idolatry, false worship, and the kingdom of antichrist.  Hoedemaker alleges that this inconsistency is owing to political expediency.  Abraham Kuyper was getting into politics and BC 36 was an embarrassment in trying to build bridges with Roman Catholic politicians.

Hoedemaker makes two points I find especially compelling.  One is mentioned early in the book.  He alleges that the discovery of “the fatal defect” in article 36 is “not the result of the ongoing investigation of the Scripture; but exclusively causes which lie in the times, and in apostasy from the living God” (p.5).  He states repeatedly that Kuyper and others were not arguing from exegesis, but from pragmatic considerations and false inferences.  The pragmatic considerations had to do with Dutch politics.  The false inferences were along the lines of the Confession requiring the civil magistrate to persecute unbelievers and false believers.  Hoedemaker is especially persuasive in addressing that notion.

The other point is a procedural one.  Hoedemaker states that there is a dualism between Kuyper’s political theory and his theology.  Then he remarks:  “It allows him to lodge all manner of objections to the Confession without being called to account” (p.69).  This makes me wonder if Kuyper had ever lodged his disagreement with BC 36 with his consistory.  I have been unable to find an answer to that question.  It seems odd, from a Reformed church polity perspective, that Kuyper and seven other theologians could launch a gravamen at a synod without having discussed the matter with their consistories first.  If they had discussed it with their consistories, would not their consistories bring forward the matter for judgment?  I find it perplexing.

Now there are a few places where Hoedemaker has his own issues.  This book is not entirely about BC 36 – this book is something of a polemic against the Doleantie too.  Hoedemaker writes, “The first step on the road to Reformation is the recovery of the normal relations of church and state” (p.119).  He wants to undo the Doleantie and bring all Reformed believers back into the national church, despite its waywardness.  Elsewhere, Hoedemaker argues that BC 36 is not about the church strictly speaking, but about religion (p.30).  However, the text of the confession itself speaks about the church.  By the way, here Hoedemaker also seems to be ignorant of the textual history of article 36.  The original 1561 Belgic Confession had “things ecclesiastical,” a revision in 1566 adopted the expression “the sacred ministry.”  Either way, the Confession is speaking about the church.

Let me make a few comments about the translation.  There are a few idiosyncrasies that readers should be aware of.  Hoedemaker refers several times to the Heidelberg Catechism and various Lord’s Days.  The translator literally renders them “Sundays.”  Instead of the Secession of 1834 (Afscheiding), he uses the term “Separation.”  Elsewhere he uses the term “Nonconformity,” and I believe he is translating the term Doleantie.  Aside from those sorts of minor things, the book reads quite well in English.

Who should read this book?  I would especially commend it to those with an interest in politics.  When we have so little in our Three Forms of Unity about politics, what little there is should get our attention.  Is it time to revisit the formulation of article 36?  This is where I believe office bearers and especially ministers would do well to give this book a read too.  Perhaps we need a proposal to a synod to clarify the status of the footnote and perhaps even to restore it.  Note well:  we are not talking about changing the Confession or adding something to the Confession that was never there to begin with.  This is something completely different.  In a 1979 article for Clarion, Dr. J. Faber argued for completely rewriting that part of article 36.  That is a possibility.  But if the footnote can be re-examined from a biblical standpoint, perhaps it would be as simple as cutting and pasting the text back into place.

 


Honour the Emperor

Social media is both a blessing and a curse, and oftentimes I’m tempted to think it may be more of the latter.  One of those double-edged things about social media is that you get to see what people are really thinking.  It’s sort of like getting everybody drunk without the alcohol.  All their inhibitions are gone, they become impulsive, and start baring what’s really in their hearts.  That can be a blessing — when you see thoughts and words that clearly are fruit of the Holy Spirit.  It can also be a blessing for pastors and other church leaders as you get to understand the areas of growth that are still needed in the lives of those entrusted to our care.  But it can also be a curse when you get frustrated with seeing blatantly unbiblical behaviour amongst God’s people online.

Right now I’m thinking about especially about the way that Christians will sometimes speak about those set over them in positions of authority.  It’s one thing to disagree with the policies, principles or actions of our political leaders.  I disagree with a lot of those too.  But it is quite another thing to disrespect those leaders.  It’s another thing to mock them.  It’s another thing to call them names.  Sometimes it seems as if professing Christians regard politicians as not even being human beings created in the image of God.  It’s as if lawfully elected men and women suddenly lose their humanity and it’s open season on them.  Christians are free to attack them.

This is problematic on two levels.  The first level has to do with the Sixth Commandment, “You shall not kill.”  Reformed believers understand that this commandment is not just about the physical act of killing someone.  It also goes to our attitudes and the roots of murder.  In the words of the Heidelberg Catechism, “I am not to dishonour, hate, injure, or kill my neighbour by thoughts, words or gestures, and much less by deeds, whether personally or through another” (QA 105).  Positively speaking, we are “to love our neighbour as ourselves, to show patience, peace, gentleness, mercy, and friendliness toward him…” (QA 107).  Is the Prime Minister your neighbour?  How about the Minister of National Defence?  Even if you don’t appreciate their policies or their actions, at the bare minimum they are still human beings created in the image of God.  They are still our neighbours and therefore the Sixth Commandment applies.  Does mocking your neighbour honour him?  Does calling your neighbour names show “patience, peace, gentleness, mercy and friendliness toward him”?

The second level on which this is problematic is more specific.  The Fifth Commandment has to do with how we interact with authority.  It’s not just about honouring our father and mother, but also about honouring government.  We are to show “honour, love, and faithfulness” to all those in authority.  We’re also to be patient “with their weaknesses and shortcomings, since it is God’s will to govern us by their hand.” (HC QA 104).  God calls us in the Fifth Commandment to honour and love our government officials, even if they are difficult to love.

This receives further attention in the New Testament.  The era in which the New Testament was written saw many people living under a tyrannical foreign ruler — the Roman Emperor.  The Roman Emperors were corrupt and wicked in many ways.  They were oppressive and they persecuted Christians.  If one were to compare today’s Prime Minister (in Canada or Australia) with, say, Nero, the PM would come off looking relatively alright.  Has your PM burned down the capital and then blamed it on the Christians?  Has he used Christians as living torches for a garden party?  No, I didn’t think so.  That places the statements about the emperor in the New Testament in context.  Statements like what we find in 1 Peter 2:17, “Honour everyone.  Love the brotherhood.  Fear God.  Honour the emperor.”  Yes, that emperor.  Lest we miss the point, the Holy Spirit speaks along the same lines in Romans 13 and 1 Timothy 2.  Even if the Emperor is a wicked man with ungodly values, the Holy Spirit told believers to honour him and pray for him.  The Holy Spirit even went so far as to say that such a man is a “minister of God” (Rom. 13:6)!

I have the impression that many people underestimate the workload of our elected leaders.  Many of them work long hours in civic service.  Many of them put in these long hours out of a sense of commitment to their communities.  Even if they’re not Christians, they do want to make our communities better.  They want to serve.  Whatever their motives may be or how pure they are, we can be thankful that there are men and women willing to do this hard work.  Yes, we need more Christians to step up to the plate as well.  But, for all of us, the Scriptures are clear that those carrying the name of Christ are to respect those in this field.  The world mocks and dehumanizes politicians.  The world glories when they fall and say or do foolish things.  The world dishonours our leaders and treats them with contempt.  Do we see that Christians are called to be counter-cultural here?  Let’s find ways of disagreeing with our leaders, while at the same time loving them, respecting them, honouring them and their service, and praying for them.