So it made a bit of a splash the last few days in Perth – the West Australian newspaper’s coverage of Scarborough Baptist Church’s non-compliance with local government rules pertaining to use of their building.

If you want to see what all the fuss was about read about it here.

Two comments from the article stand out as key. City of Stirling Health and Compliance Officer Peter Morrison (childhood dream realised? – Ed) who stated:

Any organisation, church or not, needs to make an application to their local government authority to conduct activities on premises. This is State law and the church is not above this law.

Senior Pastor Andre van Oudtshoorn countered with a pretty convincing:

We cannot ask the City of Stirling what is a religious activity – that would just mean becoming an arm of the State.

Now before this becomes the latest battle cry for Christians to complain that “we wuz robbed!”, or seen as evidence that Australia is going down the pan as far as a Christian nation is concerned, or even seen by hard secularists as the church abusing its supposed power, let me make a series of observations.

1. Do Christians have to comply with the law?  The obvious answer is yes. Both Paul in Romans 13:1-7 and Peter in 1Peter2:13-17 say they do, to say nothing of Jesus’s “render unto Caesar”.  The equally obvious riposte to that is that this is speaking in the days before official recognition of the church, and therefore church property ownership, denominations and compliance to local laws.  However the principle at work in both Romans and 1Peter is that because God is truly sovereign then submission to earthly authorities is a sign of submission to God. Not very funky and hip, but true nonetheless in a culture which abhors the idea of submission. Already churches have to comply with all sorts of OSH laws and the drive to ensure everyone working with minors has a Working With Children Check is a welcome one. Indeed without such compliances issues such as insurance become problematic for churches.

2. The word “worship” gained its current thin definition not because of shires and councils, but because of us. What is perhaps surprising is that after all this time that the church (in general, not Scarborough Baptist in particular) has been wrestling with what worship actually is, there seems to be a clear enough definition of it in the eyes of the council.  The church has been sanctioned to conduct weekly worship and run a day care centre – the rest of what happens falls outside the parameters of what the word worship means.  Now, despite the fact that Scarborough Baptist has a well documented history of social concern and practical, neighbourly involvement, perhaps the church in general has only itself to blame when it comes to how the word worship is defined.  It would be safe to assume that the only time that the word appears in a City or Shire’s paperwork is in regards to the activities that take place in a building primarily on a Sunday morning and night.  In other words they would only have gotten the definition of worship from us!  21st century Western Christianity is very keen to define “all of life as worship”, but so often the bulk of time and energy in a traditional church setting is concentrated on those two time slots.  Neighbours are understandably upset when the noise and activity is not confined to their definition of worship and unless we are able to demonstrate otherwise we may find that the laws will be tightened.  The neighbours are mistaken of course, but since when was it their job to determine what worship is?  As I say, they can only get that from us.

3. Will this curtail what churches can do?  Not at all. When the Chinese church found itself on the (very) wrong side of the law after the Cultural Revolution they made the decision to “delete all that is not necessary.”  They seem to have done okay in the past sixty years or so.  A slimmer, more manoeuvrable church resulted, and the gospel spread like it should – under the radar and exponentially.  If household church were thrust upon us because of a cataclysmic political event we would soon find out what was necessary for church in a wealthy western country. I think there would be a lot of fat to trim.

4. The real people to win over are the neighbours, not the City of Stirling.  I am sure Scarborough Baptist is ahead of me on this, but the council’s statement is impassive, impersonal and implacable.  It is a matter of signing off on paperwork.  The neighbours who have complained are the people to win over, regardless of what paperwork is signed.  We should pray for wisdom for Andres and God’s people at Scarborough as they determine the best approach to this issue and seek gospel opportunities with the neighbours.  The meal time is obviously a great outreach to people in the community who the neighbours may not particularly want hanging around, and that is a great beacon to the gospel.  1Peter also reminds us that we will abused/suffer for doing good! 

5. The real challenge in the next twenty years for the church is not minor local government compliance issues, but major shifts in cultural and political understandings and definitions on ethical and sociological matters.  Will churches/church schools/para-church organisations be able to access government money and services without compliance to anti-discrimination laws pertaining to matters of sexual and religious preference that are in opposition to the Bible?  Will the government be brave enough to allow – even encourage – communities who hold a different ethic to the prevailing culture?  Those are the real issues that churches face as we move into the middle of the 20th century. If parents sending children to Christian schools suddenly found fees had doubled because the government withdrew significant subsidies on the basis of those schools maintaining discriminatory employment practices, would a whole sector of the education industry shut down?  Could we envisage a day when, in having to delete all that is not necessary, we find ourselves  returning to “Church Unplugged” as the norm, rather than the exception?