The Sexular Age just keeps rolling on. Rolling on like waves on a beach. Tsunami waves. Crashing into a church near you. Let me explain.
On a recent interstate trip at a conference I spoke at recently, I was chatting with a woman who attended a church in the Northern Beaches of Sydney. Now, the Northern Beaches of Sydney (yes capital letters all the way), have a specific flavour and tone to them. They’re what they sound like. They’re a series of bay-like beaches north of the CBD that are an idyllic location for life and lifestyle.
The Northern Beaches is the only part of the massive city that Sydney is, that does not have a train service. And of course the locals have been agitating for one for years, right? Wrong! The locals don’t want a train service because, well because, it would open up paradise too much. If you make it to the Northern Beaches, then it’s heaven on a stick and there might not be enough to go around.
An Affirming Church
Anyway, I digress. I asked her where she went to church and she told me. I asked her about other churches in the area. And she told me about the local Baptist Church. And then she said this, “It’s an affirming church.”
And I asked her what she meant, and yes she did mean that the local Baptist Church in her area, is affirming when it comes to marriage, meaning that they not only recognise same sex marriage as a reality in Australia, but they’re more than happy to celebrate it as part of God’s good gift of marriage. I’ve probably assumed that the Baptist Churches of the Australian states have stayed fairly orthodox on sexual matters, but in New South Wales in recent years, this issue has come up on a constant basis.
In the conversation that ensued, my interlocutor explained that the church had seen a bit of a spike in attendance. Why?
“There are people who are church attendees in the local area, and who have family members who have come out or been in gay relationships or gotten married, and other churches aren’t affirming, so they end up there.”
Now I gather that the church in question would think that this is an excellent growth strategy, and perhaps that, now that it is affirming on same sex marriage, the torturous decline of Aussie churches, particularly in recent years, will be arrested.
To which I would say, if you closed all the video stores in town except one, you’d expect a booming trade in the only one left, but I wouldn’t be planning a long term growth strategy pitched around asking the bank for finances to open another store to keep up with demand. A cursory glance at the mainline denominations across the West would tell you that digital killed the video store, digital killed the video store, digital killed the video store… (Thank you The Buggles and your one-hit wonder).
But back to that church. Perhaps they’re only affirming sotto voce. Perhaps they are keeping it on the downlow to ensure it’s not shouted from the rooftops, or because they want it to be a secondary issue. But no. I googled the church and there on the front page of their website was this:
A Sexular Church
Now I’ve blanked out the name of the church, but I am sure you can find it. But I don’t necessarily want to go around doing any sort of cancel culture thing, more to highlight what that statement says, what it doesn’t say and what it does and doesn’t do. In other words what the sexular gospel looks like when its mixed with the actual gospel. Cos here’s the thing, it doesn’t mix. It’s like oil and water.
It’s almost a head swivel moment as the gospel of Jesus car that’s careening along at 110kmh, does a 180 degree turn and speeds off in the opposite direction. Say what? Let me show you what I mean. There’s a seemingly good gospel statement right there (though more on that in a moment):
Our church has a long history and commitment to justice and theological diversity that is grounded in the gospel. We continue that journey with humility, led by the Spirit, and with a commitment to continue to be one body reconciling all peoples in Christ.
And that sounds pretty good, right? But then with a move designed to put your neck in a brace, we get this:
We are an affirming church. This refers particularly to marriage. Marriage has become a point of contention in both the wider society and the church, indeed there are a variety of views held by our church members. However, our church’s position is to encourage people when considering marriage to see it as a serious commitment. Marriage should aim to be a covenant relationship between two people where faithfulness, love and monogamy are valued.
Say what? Now at first level this sounds like a complete contradiction. But it’s not simply what the statements are saying that is important here, it’s what they are not saying that’s important. In there among a whole lot of good stuff about gospel and diversity and being led by the Spirit, there’s one thing that’s missing.
The Bible is Missing
What is it? It’s “the Bible” right? The level of theological diversity in this church is being celebrated, but not curtailed. Now that doesn’t make me a party pooper off the bat, but it does raise the point that the level of diversity in the New Testament letters, especially around theology and certainly around sexual practice, is pretty low.
In fact that’s why we have constant reminders about the same message and the same message and the same message and the same message, being handed on. And woe betide anyone who diversifies it. And, thank you Revelation 2 and 3, woe betide any church that celebrates sexuality that the churches were sworn off with threats of judgement from King Jesus.
Now at first, if you didn’t know how to read the signs that statement looks solid. But I’ve worked in a progressive, liberal church that was pretty big on “the Spirit” and pretty low on “the Bible”. Here’s what I found: the Spirit let you pretty much do anything! Particularly when it came to the zeitgeist of the day. Oh and generally that church didn’t speak of “the Spirit” as a “he”, but as an “it”. If you want to lean into the word “gospel” in your public statement, and never lean into where that gospel is to be found, and what provides its parameters, well that’s only going in one direction.
Misdirected Pastoral Care
Now I get why a church might want to affirm. And it has certainly created a sugar rush pastorally, if the woman I was speaking to is correct in her observation about who has started attending it. But here’s the thing: I’m a runner, (have I ever told you that?) and sugar rushes don’t last.
They don’t get you to the finish line of a marathon. Only a good carb and protein diet is going to do that. And this pastoral desire of the church – sincere though it may be – will not get you the line. In fact it will see you struggle to reach the finish, or even worse, see you disqualified by the judge on the Last Day.
I’ve been pastoral with lots of families at churches over the sexular age and its impact in their families. But that pastoral care has never been of the affirming type. It’s been affirming of the person’s pain and the family’s bewilderment at times. But not of the sexual sin that has drawn their loved one either away from the church, and painfully, sometimes – though less so than we are led to believe by the progressive media – from their families.
What about same-sex attracted people in the church? We are a church for sinners. None of us are perfect people. Can greedy people be involved in church? Can people who are tempted with adultery be involved in the church? If you are gay, lesbian, or same-sex attracted, you should be welcome in any gospel-centered church. All people are welcome and yet none are fully affirmed because we are all sinners in the process of being transformed by the grace of God. We only affirm Jesus, not any other human, because none of us are without sin. At our church we say “We welcome all and affirm none.”
What an “affirming church” is saying is that same-sex marriage is not a sin. It is not something to repent of, but something to celebrate. And this church will celebrate it! It’s not in the fine print, it’s front and centre. And of course, the fact that same-sex relationships are defined as sin according to orthodox theology, is the tension point in our culture. To hold such a view is seen as bigoted and reactionary.
Laws are being put in place across Australia – and other Western nations – to force churches to self-censor on this issue. The cultural pushback against churches that are orthodox is getting heavier and the language around such refusal to conform to the culture is getting hotter.
And for what’s its worth, as a fellow sinner, who needs to come before Jesus daily because of my greed, my lusts and my adulterous heart, I don’t say this to put a burden on people. I say it because if the non-revisionist reading of Scripture is right, then it is not only beckoning judgement on those who practice homosexual sex, it is beckoning judgement on oneself – or indeed ones church – when you celebrate it.
And it also raises the question of whether “affirming” is the pastoral thing to do in the long term for the cultural moment we are living in. My experience is that many orthodox Christian young people are committed to the non-revisionist position and are dismayed at the number of churches rolling over on it. Which brings us to the issue around humans and marriage.
A Lack of Biblical Anthropology
What is most startling about this statement is this part:
Marriage should aim to be a covenant relationship between two people where faithfulness, love and monogamy are valued.
Marriage should aim to be that, if that is all marriage is, and if that is all we knew about marriage from Scripture. But clearly that is not the case. That statement reads like the marriage almost akin to the rather trite statement by Justice Kennedy of the Supreme Court of the United States during the change of law in that country. Here’s what he said:
Marriage responds to the universal fear that a lonely person might call out only to find no one there. It offers the hope of companionship and understanding and assurance that while both still live there will be someone to care for the other.
That’s what I would call a “from below” view of marriage. Yet this statement by that church taps right into the sexular gospel that Kennedy himself seems to be espousing.
The biblical anthropology, what it means to view man and woman in relationship to God, and indeed marriage in relationship to God, and what it means to have been created complementarily as male and female is totally missing from the church’s framework. “Affirming” is the tip of a much bigger iceberg, one that will actually sink this church ship long before the Northern Beaches in which it is located are inundated by climate change.
Preachers and Preaching In A Sexular Church
And where are Jesus’ words on marriage? What about what he would say on marriage? Does that make it into the sermon series that this church presents? Which brings us to preaching and teaching. I did a bit of a search on the website because I was hoping that I would find that the staff were perhaps undertrained or misguided about theological matters around this topic. Misguided and undertrained enough to have such a statement mixing theological oil with cultural water on the front page of their website.
And that was worrying. I recognised several of the names of recent preachers, only because they are well known preachers, teachers and theological teachers in New South Wales. One of them at least works at the training college that is producing the pastors for the Baptists in that state. Has any of these well-known teachers expressed any concern about this? Or boycotted the pulpit in that church?
Why is this not an aberration? Because heterodoxy and heresy never moves from the edges of a denomination, it always, always emanates from the centre. In just the same way that the hard left has gone about capturing the secular institutions of our day (the radicals have never hated an institution so much that they won’t use it for themselves when they capture it), so too in our theological world.
Theological colleges are the breeding ground of much of what is either good – or bad – in a denomination’s theological health. if you want to trace the demise of a denomination, then follow the string back to the training institution. And, perversely, though ironically, if you want to trace the demise of a training institution, follow the string back to the poorly taught, enervated and dying churches that no longer send people to be trained to go into ministry.
I mean, why go to theological college, if all you’re going to learn is what the culture already is committed to in the first place? If you want a heterodox church, start with a heterodox, heretical college. The water will reach you eventually. You will be asking your thirsty sheep to drink water from a poisoned well.
Sex Will Become the Gospel
It’s just a fact. As a former gay man once told me about the church that he went to that was affirming, “I realised that the gospel in that church was the gospel of sex.” Slowly, over time, the focus of the church shifts away from the gospel of Jesus (if it was ever there in the first place), to the gospel of sex.
Now this church in question might reject that notion outright, but hey, I’m not the one putting that affirmation statement on the front page. The sexuality question is not a slippery slope question, but a precipice that tips you off the mountain altogether. It is the fulcrum about where, given time and conditions, your church will end up.
Which brings us to the most fatal flaw in the statement: the assumption that the sexular age has a safety brake. When that church, without reference to the Bible, says this is what marriage “should be”, the culture says “Hold my beer.”
I read recently of a gay man in a same-sex marriage who decries the increasingly confronting sexual expressions of our culture, all clamouring for full recognition. Why the surprise? The surprise is that it has taken so long to be surprised. This is not a slippery slope moment, it is a tipping point moment. And without any clear biblical anthropology, you don’t get to set the rules! Nothing is limited.
And sadly, this church will find that, if its aim is to be an affirming church, then if it wants to remain relevant and loved by the surrounding Northern Beaches, it’s going to have to keep affirming and affirming and affirming and affirming. If anything, the real question is not, “What will this church affirm?”, but more “What will this church not affirm?” Where will it draw the line? Will it draw the line, or be so addicted to affirmation, so in need of the approval of the sexular age, that it finds that the only thing it cannot affirm is the biblical gospel?
Sad day that would be. But such a day will come. The sexular age tsunami is looming on the horizon for a Northern Beaches church. I wonder if it will repent and seek higher ground?