Ground Zero: Orthodoxy and Evangelism in a Post-Pell World

There is September 10th 2001.  There is September 12th 2001.  And an awful lot changed in the middle.  Things could not, and patently have not, gone back to the way they were before those Twin Towers came tumbling down.

So too here in Australia there is the day before the lifting of the suppression order against the conviction of Cardinal George Pell, and the day after.   The twin towers of institutional religion and cultural/political power crumbled to the ground once Pell’s conviction was announced.  And if not once it was announced, then as the details of the case began to emerge over the following days.

Things will not go back to the way they were before for the church.  And acutely not for those of us committed to both orthodoxy and orthopraxy in sexual ethics, and the important task of evangelism.

The pr-Pell days are over.  The post-Pell days have arrived.  We now need to deal with it. This is now Ground Zero for the church.

And that won’t change should Pell win the appeal and be released from prison.  Released he may be, but guilty or not, he is now effectively sidelined from public life in Australia. Indeed any overturning of the conviction could make things worse.

The only winner, should the conviction be overturned, will be Pell himself.  The losers will include past victims and, sadly, future victims who may fall under the wheels of those further emboldened by a successful appeal.  A pyrrhic victory indeed for the wider church.  And a great defeat for the victims of the church.  Like it or not, that’s the way it would play out.

Should Pell win the appeal do we really think that the world will look on and concede:  “That’s okay church, continue as you were.  We got that one wrong, so barleese.”  Indeed such an acquittal would merely confirm the view that the system serves the entrenched powerful.

And do non-conformists really think this does not apply to us when there are 700 reported sexual abuse victims in the US Southern Baptist probe?  700 and climbing? The average Australian does not see the shades and nuances between the Catholic Church and any other denomination.  The Christian church has got a problem: An image problem and a reality problem.

The words of justified outrage from victims and watchers-on that have overflowed in the public square since Tuesday all tell us one thing: the dam wall has burst.

The world is watching the church so closely now that any indiscretion will be called out. It’s had enough, and no amount of “yes but’s” will pass muster, and neither should they. The short rope the church was on prior to Pell’s conviction is surely shorter now.

But in a sense if the world’s stern gaze is the church’s biggest worry then it is in a  more perilous condition than we feared.

King Jesus has been watching the church far more closely than the world could ever do, yet that didn’t seem to stay the wandering hands of sin.  Every time we sin in secret we are virtual atheists; we firmly believe that no one else is watching us.

It’s as foolish as Adam in the Garden assuming that the first time God knew anything about the forbidden fruit being eaten was when God came looking for him in the cool of the evening.  Did Adam not truly believe that God was as close to he and Eve as the snake was at that very time?  There is nowhere God is not, whether it be Garden or sacristy.

Can the church still maintain a commitment to non-revisionist biblical sexual ethics in light of all of this?  Yes, but perhaps with a softer voice.  It was instructive watching the ABC current affair program The Drum on the night the Pell conviction was announced.

Gay, progressive gadfly journalist David Marr could barely contain his glee at pointing out how the church is all about sex, sex, sex and how it was not living up to its self-proclaimed lofty goals.

And besides Jesus hardly said anything about sex, did he?  At that point fellow guest on the show, erudite Anglican rector Michael Jensen, was caught between a rock and a hard place. What should he say? Sure you might have been sitting there putting words in his mouth, but then again when your favourite player missed that open goal in the big game you were sure if you had been on the pitch you would have put it in the back of the net, right?

Jensen did his best, and it was a wise move. He pointed out that, contrary to Marr’s pompous assertions, Jesus did in fact have some very clear things to say about sexuality that countered what Marr claimed.  But that’s a dangerous tack to take, and in the hands of someone less irenic and less knowledgable than Michael Jensen, could have ended very badly indeed.

Marr of course played along, asking for chapter and verse, and making a great demonstration at writing down what Michael told him.  Which incidentally does raise the question of why Marr, who is so loud about what Jesus didn’t say about sex, hadn’t got a clue as to what Jesus actually did say.  Clearly he hasn’t done his homework.

But who cares if you don’t hand in your homework if, when you get to school the next morning, the teacher has been fired for sleeping with a Year 11 student?  All bets are off.

For the foreseeable future all bets are off. The Australian church will have to announce its sexual orthodoxy sotto voce, and live its sexual orthopraxy with a megaphone.  As it should have been doing all along.

I don’t think that means we can’t say anything about sexuality in the public square, but we’re going to have to say it from the perspective of September 12th not September 10th, and that’s going to take some getting used to.  We’ve got some ground to make up.

And what about evangelism?  Well as we know already one of the primary turn offs for Millennials is what the gospel says about sex.  And once again Marr and his ilk on The Drum were on to this.  The standard line was that young people are never going to return to a church that does not accept the cultural line on sexuality.

Of course, under different circumstances that’s the very place to point out that the youth attendance in the average rainbow-flagged mainline church in Australia has completely collapsed.

In fact all attendance at such places has collapsed.  As someone has observed, if the mainlines decided that the best strategy to keep the culture onside, and keep attending their buildings, was to run the Sexual Revolution at half-pace, then the evidence is in: that strategy has been disastrous.  Yet the myth continues.

But of course we are not under different circumstances.  We are in post-Pell circumstances, and the task of the church when proclaiming the gospel is going to have to be navigated clearly and carefully.  Not to excise sexuality out of the proclamation, but to place it as one of many aspects of human life that must come under the lordship of King Jesus.

We all bring a blank cheque to Jesus and he gets to fill in the amount.  Sure, let people walk away because of the sex.  But don’t run after them for the sake of a sale if they’re “merely” affronted by the gospel’s claim on their money, their career, their self-righteous pride, or their desire to live a deeply individualistic life in which they are their own final authority.

I counsel evangelical denominations flirting with the strategy of the mainlines, edging towards it slyly like a recalcitrant puppy edging towards the carpet, to refuse the siren call of giving sex a hall pass because of this.

Learn from history.  Learn from the current collapse of the mainlines  Sure it would win you the culture, but it would lose you the church.  And it would provide no place of refuge and balm for those fleeing the wreckage of the Sexular Culture’s failed experiments.

But I would also counsel churches that are maintaining a biblical sexual ethic to take a long hard look at how easy – and how undermining of the diversity of the church – has been the subtle and not so subtle championing of heterosexual marriage as the ideal state for the Christian person.   In so doing, this has, unwittingly or not,  ensured that many people have ended up on the fringe of church, isolated and lonely.

I would point out how often the “ideal” becomes “gospel plus” and has led us away from caring for the singles, divorced, and the same-sex-attracted people in our midst.  So often these groups have not had a seat at the table.  The good news of the gospel has to look as good as it sounds amidst all of our brokenness.

If some good does come of this whole wretched affair – and to be honest if it’s meant justice for the victims then some good has already come, then let’s make it a long term good.  In this post-Pell/September 12th world it’s time to listen to the anger of the world and not simply react in either anger ourselves (which is self-justifying) or in fear (which is self-loathing).

Let’s instead be humble before the One who sees and knows all, and respond with humility, repentance, and a doubling down on godliness in places that we think no one can see us.  And let’s continue to proclaim the gospel in season and out of season, and do so with a love for people that is evident in both how we talk to them and how we treat them regardless of how they respond.

Yes, in a post-Pell world the task seems all that much the harder, but we have an opportunity to make it a turning point for God’s people in this nation.  Yes it is Ground Zero, but new life can even spring up from earth as scorched as that.