Margaret Court Vs Sensible Evangelicals

Aptly named Aussie tennis legend Margaret Court’s outspoken public comments today against same sex marriage may have her opponents on the other side of the net seething. But it’s her doubles partner that I most concerned with – her fellow Christians who don’t necessarily want to be seen on the same side of the court as her.

You see, one of the biggest fears among evangelical middle class Christians in these increasingly confusing and hostile times in the public square, is the fear of not being considered sensible. And Margaret Court is proving anything but sensible.

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I would go as far as to say that for many of us – and I include myself in that self-considered sensible set – the need to be considered sensible by our non-Christian peers borders on idolatrous.  Take away being considered sensible and middle class evangelicals run for the covers faster than the Wimbledon groundsmen when the dark clouds build over south London.

There’s nothing quite so intoxicating, quite so adulating, as hearing those beautiful words in the office, the academy, the clinic or the boardroom: “I know you’re a Christian, but you seem, you know, so sensible compared to, compared to….”

And then you help them by filling in a few names of nonsensical Christians. It’s enough to make one’s heart swell with, er, pride.

If that has happened to you – and it’s happened to me and I have fudged it on more than one occasion – it’s simply the culture’s way of domesticating the issue.  The culture’s way of alleviating any of its concerns.  It’s a way to say “You’re safe, you’re not aligned with all that craziness we associate with Christianity, in fact you’re pretty much one of us, you just have a few minor beliefs we don’t go along with. Nothing to worry about here.”

In other words you’re not upsetting the apple cart. You’re not a threat to the status quo. You’re not confronting the world’s life and practices with your life and practices.  You’re not raising questions.

So when a supposedly crazy Christian such as Perth’s very own global tennis legend, who is also a Pentecostal pastor of a large church, scandalously called Victory Life instead of some funky Greek word, throws a spanner in the works and says something eminently unsensible in the public square, then we sensible middle class evangelicals suddenly get nervous.

We suddenly fear being outed.  And that may give us pause for thought as to how many gay people fear being outed.  We suddenly fear we could be tarred with the same brush as Margaret.  We suddenly fear being considered nonsensical, the ultimate purgatory for sensible types such as ourselves.

And then, after than initial fear,  we relax,  comforting ourselves with the fact that, after all, Margaret Court is not of our tribe, so we are nothing like her.  We are of sensible stock. And we move quickly to put distance between her and us, just in case someone asks.

And then we line up our defences like ducks in a row.

She is of that crazy Pentecostal tribe.  She’s of that tribe that did the laughing stuff in church. She’s of that type that do tongues and dubious healings. She is not theologically aligned with our understanding of the doctrines of grace. She is a woman pastor.

Here’s part of what Margaret is quoted as saying, as reported in The Australian newspaper this morning:

I am disappointed that Qantas has become an active promoter for same-sex marriage. I believe in marriage as a union between a man and a woman as stated in the Bible.

She did state that she would be happy to have a conversation with the QANTAS board about the matter, just not in their business lounge.

Cue outrage.

Fellow tennis legend, Martina Navratilova has weighed in, saying the Margaret Court Arena, where the Australian Open is played, should be renamed because of Court’s public position.  And the inevitable Twitter storm has erupted too, as one would expect. I’m pretty sure the owners of the arena are meeting with their PR people as we speak. Probably going to rebrand it the Fosters Arena.   Coopers Stadium anyone?

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None of Margaret Court’s perspectives are new or should come as a surprise.  She has been affirming them in public for years.  She’s been on national TV and categorically giving her position when asked, alongside a line up of besuited and be-collared religious men who demurred, ahemed and deferred.

So her boldness in the face of hostile critique is not new.  What is new is that the cultural milieu has swung harder against her than her backhand once did towards her tennis opponents.

I don’t feel completely comfortable with Margaret’s public statements on the issue. But then again, I’m sensible.

I don’t think the public square is capable of public discourse on this issue any longer, so she’s delivering a second serve at less than ideal pace.  She should expect a battering in the public square. Sad, but true.  And perhaps it’s time to rethink ourselves on how to approach this matter publicly, because the narrative has been and will continue to be hijacked. Not to be silent, but to at least be a little more subversive in our approach. I actually do think that’s the sensible approach in the current clime, and it will serve us well to think hard about how we come across in the public square.

There’s a double standard of course.  We’re getting served aces left right and centre, and we’re ducking for cover.  It’s a different sent of rules on the other side of the court. Yet that should come as no surprise.  Why, as God’s people, should we expect less than that from our godless culture, especially when, according to it, our individuated sexual self is now our primary identity?  Idols don’t like being rocked, and that is our culture’s biggest idol at the moment.

Here’s what is interesting. This idolatry has outworked itself in strange ways and has encouraged blind spots among those who should be champions of true equality, especially among those who have been advocating social justice.  The CEOs of this country, for several decades once the powerful villains of the piece for their nefarious influence over public policy, are now the well-considered heroes of the piece due to their glorious and liberating influence over public policy.  That is just too ludicrous to be contemplated.

Our business elites must hardly be able to believe their luck.  Now they can ignore the major financial and social discrepancies they have helped create. Now they can get patted on the back and feted around the country by progressives for their role in championing the marginalised.

With nary a blush they are now espoused as agents for social change, even as they outsource, downsize and shift jobs overseas, with incomes one hundred times that of their employees.  As long as the one per cent is now seen championing a different one per cent, all is forgiven.  It’s all proof that it pays to be the right kind of marginalised these days.  Pity the poor, Christian, for soon no one else will.

And the sports hero – the lady of the common people?  Well she is now the villain who must be scrubbed from tennis history. Yet Margaret Court – as a public figure –  has earned as much right as they have surely.  And, incidentally, she earned peanuts in winning her 24 Majors.  The average annual wage of a CEO would dwarf her life-time winnings, even when price indexing is considered.

Another thing. Unlike Margaret I don’t assume a Christian framework in the culture hence I have no sense that the orthodox Christian view should be privileged. Increasingly she is going to find that she gets shut down as soon as she opens her mouth.  Her threat to boycott QANTAS is scooped up gleefully by the twitterati who simply mock her.  I’d like to have a coffee with her and chat about this, but I’m sure she’s pretty busy.

I don’t expect the culture to agree with me on just about most things now, and pretty much feel no tension when it doesn’t, and I certainly don’t get angry or upset about it. Christianity can no longer assume a seat at the cultural table, at least not as close to the top of the table as we once experienced in the West.  And that may be no bad thing. Being a creative minority in the next few decades will be good for us.  Might teach us a lesson or two.

Hence I think Christians need to be very careful how we frame the issues of sexual ethics in a hostile culture in which sexual freedom and individual choice are the highest good. And we should, at the very least, have regard for those struggling with their sexuality, not least of all those who would consider it amazing if they actually did find grace in church.

Margaret Court’s mistaken assumption, from what I can see, is that she talks to the world  as if it should know better.  It doesn’t and can’t, not because it doesn’t know better, but because it doesn’t know the one who is better – the Lord Jesus.

And that sums up my cultural engagement policy right there.  Knowing Jesus will change everything else, not the other way around.  The fruit of the gospel that our culture enjoys cannot exist for long without the root of the gospel that our church proclaims.

Margaret is permitted to protest, but she shouldn’t be shocked by the incredulous, outraged response.  The Bible tells her to expect it.  And that’s true – or should be –  as much for our public attitude to money, family, forgiveness, asylum seekers, social order, and what it means to flourish, as it does for our sexual ethics.  Social change does not preclude spiritual change.  When we make public statements in an increasingly hostile culture, we should no longer expect a gracious hearing.

But here’s where I do agree with Margaret Court.  The Bible does state that marriage is a union between a man and a woman.  Categorically.

Christians have believed that since day dot. In fact the first Christians upset the sexual applecart of the pagan empire so spectacularly back in the day that the old pagan sexual practices and views are only now just recovering and gaining their lost ground in the West.  And in doing so, they’re making up for lost time, repaganising sexuality at a pace and to an extent that even those who naively assume we’re heading towards utopia, will one day be horrified by.

The early Christians looked to Jesus’ teachings on sexuality that confirmed the Old Testament. They were embedded in the Christian community on the basis of the teachings of the apostles.  It was no accident that the Christian communities broke hard against paganism when it came to sex.  And being people of the Incarnation and Resurrection, they knew that our bodies mattered  to God – a lot.  They knew that the gospel wasn’t about sex, but they knew that the gospel changed sex.  Christians who try to divorce the two on the grounds of being “incarnational” clearly don’t understand the ramifications of the Incarnation.  A cursory read of 1Corinthians would show that.

Any denomination or church grouping that has broken with that biblical perspective has died a slow painful death.  Post-evangelicals can maintain all they like that the future of the church must change on this issue if the church is to survive in the culture of individualism and sexual identity.  The bald facts speak otherwise. Mainline Protestantism is over, not primarily because of its perspective on sex, but because of its perspective on the locus of final authority in the church.  Margaret Court states what she does about sex because of what she believes the Bible to be – God’s breathed out words (2Tim3:16).

Now sensible evangelicals such as ourselves like to poo-poo her use of the Bible in many other areas, but she’s pretty much down the line on this one, and she acknowledges Scriptural authority in making that statement.

Margaret Court believes that marriage itself is a picture of God’s redeeming, covenantal, exclusive relationship to his people; a visible gospel so to speak, in which difference is celebrated: God to human, Creator to creature, man to woman in covenant relationship. And in which sameness is a sign of idolatry and to be shunned: human to human, creature to creature, man to man  and woman to woman in covenant relationship.

And that’s where Margaret Court and sensible come apart in the eyes of this age. That’s where we should come apart from sensible in the eyes of this age. We should at least affirm Margaret Court’s perspective privately, even if we have neither the cultural naivety nor the gospel bravery to say so in the public square. And if we do say it in the public square maybe we should not react so shocked and angry when we are shouted down.

On Channel 7’s Sunrise show in Australia today the usual celebs were brought on to comment about Court’s statements, with the most magnanimous of them stating that Court should be allowed to hold that position, even though – and this is a given now in the public square – it is “abhorrent”.

And another article in The Australian today praised Court’s right to free speech on this matter, ending with these words:

Good luck to Margaret Court. Her Arena, whenever I walk into it, still reminds me of her shot-making and not her shocking views.

And if were just a free-speech advocate I would say “right on.”  But it’s interesting that both commentators ended their statements with the assumption that Court’s views are both “abhorrent” and “shocking”.

That was the given. In other words those views are as far from sensible as you can get in our culture, and are indeed could be dangerous to hold. Yet we’re so enlightened, so progressive, that we can cope with her right to hold them. So we’re not going to shut her down publicly, but we are going to label her views as outrageous.

Which all presumes that somehow Margaret Court is out on a limb in holding such views, and that there’s no possible way any sensible person could hold them, without at least having something dark and troublesome germinating inside them.

And here’s where “sensible” fits in.  I hope that somewhere along the line middle class evangelicals have the balls  – tennis or otherwise – to say thoughtfully to any friends who ask, that although they don’t agree with Margaret’s methods, they do agree with her theology and practice, even if it doesn’t sound sensible.

And then I hope that they’ll find some time to explain it all in the context of what it means for humans to truly flourish.  That our ideas of flourishing in the West are withered and broken and idolatrous. And that God’s design for sexuality is both right, true and good, and that it’s not actually abhorrent, but truly liberating in a way the culture’s idea of sex is not and can not be.  And I hope they explain that all in light of the resurrection of Jesus. And if so inclined they could invite their friends to “come and see” what that right, true and good community looks like.

Because, let’s face it, the most nonsensical thing that Christians believe is not to do with sex – it’s to do with Jesus and the fact he was resurrected. That changes everything about how we live – or at least it should.  We believe God raised Jesus from the dead, that Jesus rules and reigns over the universe;  that he is coming back one day to judge the living and the dead, before setting up an eternal kingdom, having made the whole creation new.  Everything we believe about life, sex and death is wrapped up in the reality of the resurrection.

That is the most nonsensical thing to believe in the entire universe if it is not true. And if it is true it is the most unsettling thing to believe in the entire universe.  If all you ever did at work were to simply tell your work colleagues what your views were about Jesus – in toto – there would be stunned silence. You would hear babies crying in neighbouring suburbs, car alarms going off three streets away, and the chirping of crickets stuck in the wall cavity.  You would become, in an instant, a nonsensical outsider.

And that is exactly where sensible evangelicalism is going to struggle in the coming years.  As the Christian perspective on many ethical issues is increasingly seen as “abhorrent” and “shocking”, we will reflexively run towards the safety of “sensible”, and either mute ourselves completely, or fudge it when it counts.

This is where we can learn from our Pentecostal brothers and sisters. Many revel in being nonsensical outsiders, because many of them were nonsensical outsiders in the first place.  Pentecostalism has, historically, been a magnet for all sorts of oddballs and misfits.

Nonsensical is not a nothing for them, it is a badge of honour. Many talk unabashedly to all and sundry about the signs and wonders they have seen Jesus doing, and do stupid things like sharing their miraculous stories with their skeptical work colleagues. Us on the other hand?  We would never stoop so low.

I guarantee that a good few conservative evangelicals in workplaces just cringe and duck their heads when their Pentecostal work colleague opens their mouth and proves to the office just how nonsensical they are. We’d never do that after all.  It would ruin our witness to the great and glorious Jesus. We’re keeping our powder dry for the “right occasion”.  And how dry that powder can be.

We love it when the sensible Christian acquits themselves sensibly on the ABC’s QandA. We hate it when the nonsensical Christian acquits themselves nonsensically on the ABC’s QandA.  If I were a betting man I reckon the ABC is on the phone to Margaret Court right now, lining her up for a future slot on the program.  Nothing better than having a wacky Christian to scorn, right?  To make us feel better about our secular or religious sensibility.

In a timely move, this morning, a church planting friend sent me this quote from the stupendous and stunning Stanley Hauerwas:

Being a Christian should just scare the hell out of us. It’s like on Sunday you need to rush to gather for protection. That we believe that God was in Christ reconciling the world is craziness, it’s going to make your life really weird, and you need to get together on Sunday to be pulled back into the reality of God’s kingdom. It’s there in baptism, the proclamation of the Word, and eucharistic celebration.

Did you get that?  That your belief that God was in Christ reconciling the world is craziness!  It’s not sensible at all.  As Hauerwas says, “it’s weird”. The reality of God’s kingdom gets sucked away by the unreality of the kingdom of this age; the powerful cultural agenda-setting agents in the media, the government and powerful boardrooms.

And the views and life practices that spring out of that “weird” are, by extension, equally weird. It’s only when we recalibrate as God’s people together to do baptism, Word and communion that we realise, in light of the resurrection, this nonsense is the most sensible thing we could ever do or believe.

So, sensible evangelical, spare a thought for, and pray for, Margaret Court.  Maybe she is less adept at covering such matters in the media as she was at covering the court.  Maybe she is guilty of a few double faults in the public square.  Maybe she has less understanding of how to negotiate the culture as you do.  That’s okay.  She will get things wrong and she will get things right.  We all do. She will probably have her name scrubbed from the tennis arena in Melbourne for her statements on same sex marriage.

But for all her wackiness, her name won’t be scrubbed from the Lamb’s book of Life.  For all of the public statements that she utters that make sensible evangelicals cringe, Margaret Court is on our side of the court.  For all of the scorn she receives from the culture, she will hear “well done good and faithful servant” from the only Judge who matters.

For despite what Martina Navratilova said in her tweet this morning, it’s Court that is on the right side of history, not Navratilova, and that’s simply down to the fact that Jesus rose from the dead.

16 Comments

  1. I wonder too, that not all of us as Christians hold the same view, so it’s not just the world, there are those like myself who don’t by her stuff, nor the oppositional stuff that is more about moralising, rather than supporting sparks of faith.

  2. Interesting write, Stephen, even if I don’t agree with it. You always have a nice turn of words that make me think and examine my soul, the skill of a surgeon with a sharp scalpel. Thanks you for that and for writing with your usual honesty, even (as I already said) if I don’t agree with your or Margaret’s comments…..

  3. Mark 10:32 Jesus is ‘leading the way’ towards Jerusalem and his disciples followed him – they were ‘astonished’ and others with them ‘were afraid’. That is remarkable. He knows what awaits him, the full horror – and the rejection of the people is not a touch on what he will bear when he is “made sin for us”. I am amazed that his disciples followed him – noting their fearful astonishment; yet they followed. Such was this man. It did not matter what the future held, as long as they could be with him. Yes, I want to know Jesus like that. Thank you for your incisive comments and highlighting our (my) attraction for acceptance by those around me. Thank you for pointing out that Jesus is the centre, and that we have nothing if we don’t have him, and with him, we have everything. Come, Lord Jesus, come!

  4. Hi Stephen,

    Just came upon your writing and i wanted to commend you for your approach to the issues that we as Christians in the West now face. I’ve really appreciated and connected strongly with much you have written.

    It amazes me though the lack of self awareness that pervades modern secular society. Decrying bullying behaviors whilst at the same time engaging in them.

    The issue i took with Margaret’s comments is more to do with her so called boycot of Qantas. There is nothing more pointless and petty than advertising a righteous action to punish behaviors you don’t like.

    Is it no surprise that they respond with pettiness in return, with wanting to remove her name from the arena. Although i consider myself a sensible conservative Christian like yourself, I’m not uncomfortable with my nonsensical brethren. Even if i lament their occasional misfired attempts at communicating truth, they often have bravery that I sadly lack

    The core issue for me is when they channel their righteous fervour in ways that undermine the gospel message and further diminish society’s patience to listen. Righteous Boycotts, Pies in the Face, vilifying ideological opponents as evil. These are things i cannot stand beside, as i don’t believe Christ would either.

    Thanks,

    Glenn.

    1. Thanks Glenn. Yes it’s such a torturous process at the moment and easy to get it wrong. I truly believe that as we build a better story among the Christian community that will, in the end, prove to be far more attractive than the secular stories (as Charles Taylor notes so well in A Secular Age). Blessings brother

      1. I’ve increasingly come back to the thought that much of the culture has a very poor understanding of what christianity actually is as a faith journey, and has been left with a hallmark card level of knowledge about it

        The culture treats other faiths, beliefs and lifestyles with a certain exotic amusement, mostly due i think to tge awareness of that which it doesn’t understand.

        Christianity on the other hand is almost assumed knowledge by the culture. I.e. we know the Christmas and Easter story, or at least the ABC version of it, and there isn’t anything the culture doesn’t already get about the faith.

        This couldn’t be further from the truth. I consistently see our faith journey misunderstood by the wider culture, but it is blinded to what it assumes it doesn’t need to know.

        I’m not sure if you would share this view Stephen, but i see it fundamental to the issues the church has when it assumes itself to be so embedded. When as you’ve said, the West has never actually been God’s kingdom. That kingdom has always been set apart from it.

        Glenn

      2. Hi Glenn – what you just said nails it. It’s exactly the issue. I noted in the recent McCrindle Report on Religion that about half of the population said that they knew something about the church and Christianity, but the qualitative questions are not in there: What is they know? What do they think they know that they actually don’t know? What of what they do know is merely a caricature of the church? As a traditionally low-church evangelical I am finding I need to keep raising my view of church and liturgy and embedded practice among the community of faith. You’re right – the church is not really that embedded at all.

  5. Here is what I have learned about a majority-evangelical state since I moved here: they believe in Jesus and are saved. Beyond that, I’m not so sure. They get divorced A LOT, so it’s kinda hard to see where marriage is a sacred covenant. (We are always in the top 5). We even have common-law marriage, so you can be married without doing anything but living together. You know the Bible says that divorced and remarried people are adulterers, but clearly that’s an old-fashioned idea. And no one seems any too fussed about adultery or fornication. Somehow, problems are the fault of the liberals.

    Gays appear to be the only true sinners and the only issue people, as Christians, are willing to take a stand on. Greed? Covetousness? Gluttony? Ignoring the needy? Has everything else been solved? — because that’s about all I ever hear. Everything else — and I mean everything — seems to be waved away with ‘we’re all sinners.’ You’d think Christians here would be embarrassed, but no. When did their faith turn into a convenience?

    1. That’s a broad brush stroke. Plenty of Christians denounce greed and covetousness etc, and plenty indeed do NOT ignore the needy. And a big call that “divorced and remarried” are not considered adulterers by many Christians today. Very fussed about adultery and fornication, in fact one of my friends was just “defrocked” this very day from his role in ministry for that very thing. Mind you that would not happen in the “liberal” wing of the church, as it’s pretty much not viewed as a barrier to either ministry and not seen as something to bring under church discipline.
      So homosexuality not the only sin by any means, but we are all sexually broken in a variety of ways. The issue is do we confess that our sexual sin IS indeed that and repent of it and leave it behind, or do we say “Well actually, it’s something we celebrate”. That’s the issue.

  6. Thanks for your considerate thoughts about this. The first I heard about this was from some radio DJs while I shopped. Honestly the way they made her sound made me laugh and devalue her statement. This has made me think about how seriously I should consider an opinion just because it came across my radar first. Your challenging response makes me think more deeply and personally about how I ought to speak about Jesus and His call on Christians to live differently.

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