September 13, 2020

Aussie missionary to UK, Josh Williamson, was free but unwise.

The Brisbane-born pastor who is facing calls for his deportation from the UK back to Australia, over his public comments praising the cancellation of the Cornwall Pride event on a public Facebook page event has acted unwisely.

If Josh Williamson is deported – which seems an unlikely scenario – then he should give some time back here in Oz to thinking about his engagement strategy with the non-Christian world, because his comments were foolish and incendiary.

And I say this as someone who is about to have a book published in the new year on the growing tension that Christians face in the public square over the “sexular” ethics that are the shibboleth of a progressive culture.

And I also say this as someone who has called out some on the evangelical wing for speaking up about matters of ethics that mainstream media will never crucify Christians over, but who go silent when it comes to defending a brother or sister who is being unfairly treated for holding to a Christian ethic in their work place.

So now that I have laid out my Hebrew of Hebrew credentials, then hear me out, for I believe that as a self-professed missionary to England, Josh Williamson dropped the ball on this one.

As Eternity newspaper reports, Williamson, who pastors a church in Newquay, Cornwall, has made it to the front page of the local paper for his comments. Here’s a section from Eternity‘s report:

The dispute began when Williamson responded to a local news service report that a Cornwall pride event, Rainbow Fest, had been cancelled with a comment “wonderful news!” on the “Cornwall Live” facebook page.

Asked by an online user why the news was wonderful, he responded saying ‘because I don’t think sin should be celebrated.’ Answering further questions on his views he quoted from the book of John, James, and 1 Corinthians 6:9-11,” Christian Concern reported.

I don’t need to go into how that escalated – or that it got ugly quickly, or even the contexts around it all – as you can read that in the Eternity piece, and beyond. But I do want to point out how, as a self-proclaimed missionary to the UK, WiIliamson could do with some contextualisation training!

First up, he posted his comment not on his private Facebook page, but on a public one. His comment sounds like a gloat and it’s shoving it into the face of the “pagans’ that he as a missionary should be attempting to reach.

Surely it’s obvious to him that the Christian framework that he as a missionary is trying to share with this unreached people group (the Cornwallians?) is completely lacking among them.

This “sexular age” is the Kool Aid that they have drunk for some time, and it comes with a whole narrative of sin and salvation, redemption and reconciliation, and a vision of the good life. In other words, Cornwall Pride’s Rainbow Fest is a gospel event. Another gospel perhaps, but a good news story nonetheless in the eyes of all who attend it and support it.

So when Williamson makes a statement like that – in the public square – he is doing so without the courtesy that Paul afforded the idolatrous Athenians. He is either unable to read the context into which he has landed, or he does not care about the people who inhabit that context.

There’s no sense from Williamson that he needed to create the space for a hearing, when putting something as “hot button” as that out there. Yes he can be blunt about what he believes, but there’s a context for every statement. Social media is a dangerous enough tool to have in your hand, it can jump around and bite you if you are not wise in how you use it.

A Newquay town councillor called on Williamson to be deported from the UK for breaking UK laws around hate speech. You can read that here.

While Williamson made this claim:

“By God’s grace we will keep proclaiming Christ even though this man engages in hate speech.”

It seems unclear that he was proclaiming Christ on the Facebook page, or that he can dismiss the charge so lightly that it’s not simply a case of one man’s hate speech is another man’s love speech. The Christian ethic comes after the Christian proclamation. You can’t proclaim the ethic first. It makes no sense and has no context. And even with that, he didn’t proclaim the ethic first, he just made a slightly gloating statement.

(The comment above about the Christian ethic does not mean that we don’t preach repentance in our gospel. It means we don’t expect a Christian ethic from the an unrepentant world.)

Which brings us to what the Scripture actually says about our actions and speech towards outsiders (and in a post Christian setting such as secular and progressive coastal town UK, both sides are definitely outsiders to the other):

Be wise in the way you act towards outsiders; make the most of every opportunity. Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.

Colossians 4:5-6

As a missionary to a pagan culture, if that is indeed what he is claiming, Williamson fails the wisdom test. Neither does he take seriously that an “outsider” is “outside” the church, but that as a Bible believing church in a progressive city in a Western nation, he too is an outsider. Outsiders need to adopt a certain stance towards the host community. One that begins with wisdom.

Secondly, did he make the most of every opportunity? No, he simply shut down any opportunity to say anything meaningful, or even do anything meaningful, but a gloating comment, followed by a non-contextualised series of Bible quotes. Nor did he particularly have a graceful conversation seasoned with salt.

In other words he didn’t know how to answer everyone, indeed he didn’t wait for questions, he gave a bald statement on a public community Facebook page and then sat and waited for the inevitable trouble it would bring.

“But wait,” you say “Why was such trouble inevitable?” Well why would Williamson not believe that such a response – threats to have sex outside the church, death threats etc, would not come his way, given his (right) understanding of the fallen human condition? Why should he be so shocked? Isn’t his theology of sin such that he would expect humans to behave exactly how Romans 1 points out that they do?

Why should he believe that the police view him as anything other than a troublemaker? He himself agrees that the police were helpful at first, and less helpful later. It would appear all he did was make work for them.

And get this: The organisers of the festival itself have distanced themselves from the hate-filled and sexually sick responses that have come his way because of his comments. They made the following statement:

We all have to be open to different opinions and views from many groups and many people. However when opinions and comments are as negative as the ones shared, they become both harmful and damaging to our community. We will not, and do not condone any behaviour that is negative or harmful towards any protected characteristic. We have not supported any other actions or comments other than this statement and those of the trustees and directors of Cornwall Pride CIC.

So who comes off looking irenic here? Who looks like the peacemaker in the community? More to the point who looks like a wise missionary dispensing good news to those in need of it? They do. He doesn’t.

I write all of this too after reading a long list of supportive comments on Eternity‘s facebook page for Josh Williamson and comments such as “So much for free speech.”

I don’t think that’s helpful. I actually don’t think speech is free. Speech is costly. Speech is theological at every level. That’s one reason I will stand firm against a push to force me to muddy the sexual ethics and gender distinctions of Scripture. It’s also one reason why I will act wisely towards outsiders and refuse to cast my pearls before swine, as Jesus says in Matthew 7.

While I believe that the Christian worldview cultivated and tended the soil in such a way that allowed the concept of free speech to flourish, the Bible itself never champions free speech in the way we are seeing it championed today.

And we will easily find ourselves guilty of hypocrisy if the freedom of speech is the basis of our public discourse as Christians. At one and the same time many Christians will find themselves championing WIlliamson’s right to free speech, and calling for the cancellation of the French movie Cuties, that sexualises young girls. How do we hold those two in tension if free speech is our foundation? Free speech for who and about what?

The free speech fight is a rabbit hole we should not go down. We no longer have a common vision of human flourishing in our culture, and we are going to have to figure out how to have conversations about these matters without calling for a privilege for ourselves that we won’t grant to others.

Does that mean I think Williamson’s theology is wrong? No. Does that mean I think Cuties is being by the progressive media to sell us a sexualised version of tweens they were horrified by when Target did it with its clothing line back in the early 2000s? Yes.

In other words we should not back Williamson unthinkingly, or buy into the victim culture, or even be astonished at how sin is being described as good, and how bondage is being presented as freedom. We are, after all, living in a missionary context, are we not?

But let’s start with what Scripture says about speech, how it is to be framed and who it is to be framed to. And that’s a lesson for us all. If you have a generous heart then it’s a commendation to act and speak wisely towards outsiders. And if not, then it’s a prohibition: a call to not cast your pearls before swine.

And when it comes to a Facebook post on a community page about a topic such as this one, in the current COVID-19 climate in which groups are cancelling all sorts of events for the sake of public safety, then at the very least Williamson failed the Colossians test of grace with his speech, and at the most failed the test of wisdom.

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There is no guarantee that Jesus will return in our desired timeframe. Yet we have no reason to be anxious, because even if the timeframe is not guaranteed, the outcome is! We don’t have to waste energy being anxious; we can put it to better use.

Stephen McAlpine – futureproof

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