Caveat: I do not write this post lightly, however a number of friends who are not Christian have used the Prime Minister’s comments as proof, (do we need more?) that Christianity is both illogical and unsavoury. This won’t change their opinions, but it may encourage Christians to reflect on the sobering responsibility of public Christianity.
If one thing has struck me forcefully about the Prime Minister’s “milk an applause” comment that the Bible condones slavery, last night on the ABC’s Q and A program, it is this: the standard for leadership in the church is far higher than in the political sphere. It hurts me that a self-confessed Christian leader could be so flippant, and it raises all sorts of questions about what he actually believes.
What I mean is this: The PM – in both of his incarnations of that role – would not even be considered qualified to serve as a leader (either elder or a deacon) in our small, fledgling church plant here in the back blocks of Perth’s working class suburbs, on both the character and doctrine tests that are basic to leadership in the Bible.
Why do I say that? Because of partisanship? No! Tony Abbott would just as likely not meet those criteria, but then again, despite all the shock-horror fears of people who are suspicious of Christianity, he’s not the one coming out swinging the Bible in this election campaign.
So why do I say that Mr Rudd could well win an election and lead the country, but never make it onto the leadership of our church? Because of what the Bible requires of an elder – a shepherd of the church. If all that is required is to run Australia, then he’s probably as good as the other bloke. But “the church of the living God – the pillar and buttress of the truth?” – God doesn’t just don’t let anyone do that, and neither should we. Now, this is not to say the PM is angling for a church leadership position, but his very position as PM makes his public comments on Christianity “fair game” to both proponents and opponents of Christianity.
If the Prime Minister were an atheist (and a number have been) I would not care in the slightest – not even if he publicly dissed the Bible. Two of our best PMs ever – Hawke and Keating were first rate leaders, with no concern for God. That both, in light of the common grace they had, sought justice and equity in the community, spoke well for them and their legacy remains rock solid. But our current PM has spread himself too thinly. I find it ironic that both Howard and Abbott, having been vilified for courting the Christian vote, were and are so strangely silent in comparison on religious issues. There was even a book written about Howard’s so-called evangelical Right wing agenda – a throwback to the failed Religious Right movement of the USA in the 80s/90s. How will history judge Kevin Rudd’s appropriation of Christianity in the public square?
Our Prime Minister not only claims to be a Christian, he spent his first election campaign courting the so-called evangelical “right” with his conservative Christian credentials, and is seemingly courting the so called Christian”left” with his liberal Christian credentials. So, if he claims to be a Christian, and he makes big public statements about the nature and focus of Christianity then the question is free to be asked: Should Christians – or anyone for that matter – take what he says about Christianity seriously? I know very little about the way in which the economy runs or how to sort out diplomatic matters, so that’s why I don’t make public statements about it. What about the PM and Christianity?
Let’s cross to the videotape and in so doing examine the PM’s credentials to make such statements in light of the Bible’s view of public (“public”, as it being common knowledge and open to scrutiny) Christian leadership. Paul’s letter to Timothy in which he calls for Timothy to sort out the leadership issues in the church he is pastoring by appointing men worthy to do so, is instructive. He states about elders in chapter 3:
3 The saying is trustworthy: If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task. 2 Therefore an overseer must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, 3 not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money.
And of deacons he states:
8 Deacons likewise must be dignified, not double-tongued, not addicted to much wine, not greedy for dishonest gain. 9 They must hold the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience.10 And let them also be tested first; then let them serve as deacons if they prove themselves blameless.
What Paul says to another church leader charged with the same task as Timothy – Titus – is equally clear:
5 This is why I left you in Crete, so that you might put what remained into order, and appoint elders in every town as I directed you— 6 if anyone is above reproach, the husband of one wife, and his children are believers and not open to the charge of debauchery or insubordination. 7 For an overseer, as God’s steward, must be above reproach. He must not be arrogant or quick-tempered or a drunkard or violent or greedy for gain, 8 but hospitable, a lover of good, self-controlled, upright, holy, and disciplined. 9 He must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it.
Forget the drunkenness thing for a moment (though I would stand down a leader in church who ended up in a stripper’s bar with no memory of how he got there). But let’s examine character issues such as being “above reproach”. It’s fair to say that many Christians who were initially encouraged about such a publicly Christian PM, started to have doubts in this area not long into his first gig. By all accounts our Prime Minister has a difficult personality that is quick-tempered, prone to arrogance and lacking in self-control (of his tongue especially). A verse I left out of the Timothy passage says he (a church leader) must be thought well of by outsiders, so that he may not fall into disgrace. Sorry Mr Rudd, if you were in our church we would be meeting with you to work through some of these issues. Leadership would be a long way off.
It’s not just about character, it’s about truth. The PM, in his public role, stated things last night about the Bible that are simply not true – and are in fact the opposite of what the Bible narrative states openly and the agenda it drives underneath. He has not held firm to “the trustworthy word as taught”, but instead has used the ignorance of people who do not know that much about the Bible to push his own credentials. That would be a red flag to any leadership aspirations down here in little ol’ Midland town. The Prime Minister’s hero, Bonhoeffer, had a life of ease and establishment approval beckoning, if only he’d just do the simple thing of twisting the Bible to say what the German government wanted him to say. He refused. Now that is not to say that the PM does not sincerely believe what he is saying about the issue of gay marriage, but please, has he even read the Bible on slavery? The ABC’s The Drum published this pertinent piece by an Anglican rector from Sydney asking for the PM to back up his claims. At a time when all sorts of angry rhetoric – unguided by any actual knowledge of the biblical text – is flying around, it seems intemperate in the extreme for the PM to be so flippant and intellectually lazy. Again, he would never get a gig at the front in our church because I’d probably be putting out fires for a few days afterwards if that was his exegetical approach.
Again, let me be clear: I don’t need the PM to be a Christian and I am under no illusions that this is a Christian country or ever was one, and I am deeply suspicious of Christian groups that rewrite Australian history to say it was, and equally suspicious of any coercive Christian political agendas (left and right). And the PM isn’t even putting his hand up to be a church leader. But when a self-confessed Christian public leader throws fuel on the fire amongst an audience that, by and large, ignores the Christian faith at best, and despises and hates it at worst, then he has to asked: whose approval do you need more, the audience’s or God’s? Bonhoeffer had the answer to that locked away long before things got tight. The PM bottled it, and all for the sake of a few votes.
So what will I do? Get angry about the PM? Get out there and placard? No. I will do what Paul requires of Timothy just a couple of paragraphs before the ones I quoted:
First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, 2 for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way. 3 This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, 4 who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.
What will I do? I will pray for our PM. I will pray for Kevin Rudd that he will, with common grace, lead the country well, should that be for another five days or another five years. I want him to do his job well for all Australians. Christians are to lead “peaceful, quiet, godly and dignified” lives, and that even includes when intemperate statements are made in public by someone who should know better. And if he should lose the election, I won’t be crowing about it, but will pray that God humbles him and enables him to use his extraordinary gifts to continue to serve the country. For even if he never gets a gig in our little ol’ church in little ol’ Midland God has gifted Kevin Rudd to serve the common good.
Over to you….