Churches Need to be More Like the World?

Over the weekend, I read Nikki Gemmell’s latest contribution to The Weekend Australian, “Why the Anglican church must evolve or die”. At first, I assumed it must be satire, for the essence of her argument is that, for churches to succeed, they need to become more like majority culture!

… the majority of Australians do support same-sex marriage. It feels like the archbishop is damaging his church and Jesus’s teachings of tolerance, gentleness and inclusivity.

The church has been on the wrong side of public opinion recently on abortion as well as same-sex marriage. It’s slowly killing itself by refusing to open its heart to others.

Gemmell’s call to the Anglican Church sounds almost identical to what Jesus says … in a dystopian Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy kind of way.

If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first (John 15:18)

If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you. (John 15:19)

When he comes, he will prove the world to be in the wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment. (John 16:8)

What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? (Mark 8:36)

It’s almost as though Jesus is saying the precise opposite of Nikki Gemmell. Jesus doesn’t think the world is always the best measure for what is good and true. Indeed, it’s pretty obvious that Jesus is telling us that the world’s understanding of life is frequently at odds with God’s.

Jesus doesn’t think the world is always the best measure for what is good and true. The world’s understanding of life is frequently at odds with God’s.

The wonderful paradox that is Christianity is that, while the world’s beliefs oppose those of God in his word—and while God stands in judgment over a world that subverts his creational purposes—God still loves: “for God so loved the world …”.

But this love is not a sign of moral alignment with our culture. Far from it. Look at what comes after that famous phrase:

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son. This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. (John 3:16-19)

Being like Jesus—loving the world—doesn’t mean endorsing same-sex marriage, abortion, or whatever else of-the-moment moral cause the world insists on. It means loving those who are different and seeking—even when we vehemently disagree about what that good involves.

Lightweight Argument

Gemmell’s offering is so lightweight: right and wrong is decided by what most people think. Surely, only someone in the majority would ever be naïve enough to believe that. Neither being the majority nor the minority position says anything about an opinion’s moral correctness. It could be that both sides are misguided.

Christian belief isn’t decided that way either. It comes from the Christian Bible—understood through the lens of Jesus Christ. Jesus and the Apostles didn’t seek to please the majority with what they said—indeed sometimes that used pretty strong language toward leaders who were attempting to make Christian doctrine fit with popular expectations.

Faithful leaders, such as Bishop Glenn Davies understand this. They let the Bible do the correcting. Even when it causes discomfort. Even when it  sounds intolerant.

But Nikki Gemmell can’t see it. She thinks church success means supporting what the majority of Australians believe. She also lumps everything she doesn’t like about churches under the same umbrella of “bigotry”.  This reflects an ignorance about the nuances of Christian difference. Some principles (such as the the Catholic opposition to mandatory reporting) come from longstanding tradition. Other’s (such as the Anglican resistance to same-sex marriage) derive directly from biblical principles. As an Anglican, Gemmell should know better.

Popular Confusion

Nikki Gemmell is correct about one point, however. She notes how Australians are confused about Christianity when they see…

… a riven and confused church that doesn’t quite know what it stands for but is pushing people away in the process. Not only members of the congregation but non-churchgoing parents with children in Anglican schools.

She’s right. Aussies are confused because some church leaders are taking her advice and mixing the Christian message with the dominant moral posturing of the day. They are confused because they see ‘Christians’ moulding Jesus to fit their agenda of sexual revisionism.

We need our churches to be more biblical, not less. We need our Churches to be more like the Lord Jesus, not less. What will we have to offer Australian society if all we do is preach its own values back to it? Could it not be the case, that Christian churches are convinced that God’s design for human life is better and more satisfying than some of the alternatives that have currently captured the imagination of pop culture?

We need our Churches to be more like the Lord Jesus, not less. What will we have to offer Australian society if all we do is preach its own values back to it?

Like many liberals, Nikki Gemmell thinks she is helping the church with her advice. In reality, churches that align with the values of majority culture are those most likely to witness decline. It’s churches which believe, teach and practice good old-fashioned Christianity that more likely to experience growth. History demonstrates that people are persuaded by the truth and goodness of Jesus Christ when churches stand out as distinct from the surrounding culture.

I’m still not convinced that Nikki Gemmell’s piece isn’t satire. Maybe I’m just slow to see the humour.


First published at murraycampbell.net

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