You are right Rev Macrae, bad theology does kill

And now they’re all lining up to hand back their gongs. It’s a veritable gong conga line. And now the church is getting in on the act too. Or at least one part of the church here in Australia.

A senior cleric in the Uniting Church has handed back his Order of Australia in protest at the upgrading of Margaret Court’s national recognition to a Companion of the Order of Australia. And he writes an opinion piece in The Age newspaper to share his concerns (you can read it here).

The Reverend Alistair Macrae, a former president of the Uniting Church of Australia, has declared that bad theology kills. And he is right. It does kill. And he is right in citing several examples of really bad theology that has killed. He cites the bad theology around apartheid. He cites the bad theology around Hitler.

And then there is Margaret Court and her bad theology.

And her bad theology around sexuality.

Which is killing people.

Now I have said constantly that I do not particularly like Court’s tone when it comes to social matters, and her tin ear makes me wince. And as far as her theology around some dubious Pentecostal outlying ideas is concerned, I’m far from convinced by her. She got swayed big time by the whole Toronto blessing thing back in the day. So she’s not always been savvy in her choices.

Yet with all those caveats, and with a huge dollop of humility required in tackling the vexed issue of sexuality in our modern world, her theology of sexuality is not bad theology. It is unpopular theology in some circles. And it is sometimes poorly expressed theology by Margaret Court (or at least not savvily addressed), but it has been the biblical teaching of the church around sex right up until the Sexual Revolution. In other words right up until next to no time.

Cos here’s the thing. It was at that point – the point the Sexual Revolution kicked in – that denominations such as the Uniting Church (basically the Protestant mainlines who merged with each other because they were shrinking), signed up to the Sexual Revolution, and suddenly the theology of sex was up for grabs.

Yet here’s the thing. Do you know what has killed those mainline denominations? Do you know what has helped make the Reverend Macrae’s own denomination almost moribund today across Australia, with ageing attendees, shrinking numbers, little influence, precious little evangelism and next to no church planting, and theological colleges with more academics than students? Bad theology. And bad theology around sex being part of it.

If the mainline denominations had conducted a whiteboard vision session for their growth strategy in the late sixties (Beatles playing Why Don’t We Do It In the Road? in the background) in which they decided to roll out the Sexual Revolution at half-pace then it was a failed strategy indeed.

But that is what they have ostensibly done. The decision by the mainlines to follow the cultural trend on sex over the past six decades has been an abject failure. Everywhere. That decision has lost it the church. It has won it the politics and the culture, and perhaps that’s what they wanted in the first place. But the church? Fuggedaboutit.

Bad theology has played a huge part in killing off the mainlines. Yet the message they deliver constantly is that if only the church could more align with the culture on sexual mores, it will rediscover its vigour and people will start attending again. I mean, how long do you keep that failed strategy going? Until it’s times to turn off the lights?

Look, I read Macrae’s article, and he comes across as an irenic, gentle soul (I stand to be corrected if others know better), but his pastoral heart for those in the LGBTQI community harbours bad theology. And bad theology kills denominations. Experience across all Western nations proves it.

I also think that the Rev Macrae’s assertion that Court’s theology is killing people needs to be stared down. I do not think that the church has often gotten it right in how it has dealt pastorally with people who are gay or bi, or even the same-sex attracted celibate evangelical who finds their church either cold and indifferent to them, or somehow shocked by their struggle. We need to do far better, as the likes of Sam Allberry and Ed Shaw constantly say.

But the correlation with Hitler and South Africa rolls off the tongue way too easily. And for a seemingly measured man that was a calculated, measured comment. He knew what he was doing when he put Court in that same category. Not simply what he was doing to Court, but to all who may hold to that same theology, whether they espouse it the way she does. It’s a shot across the bows – we are here to shame you into silence, you and your bad – and lethal – theology.

But here’s another thing: Bad theology such as the Rev Macrae proffers also kills people. It kills them eternally. And Rev Macrae’s theology around sex, which sounds so life-affirming and life-giving, is actually eternally poisonous.

The Bible – Jesus in fact! – makes it clear that sexual practice outside of marriage between a man and a woman is “porneia” – and all forms of “porneia” left unchecked risk being cut off from the life that God offers to all who wish to live holy and wholly for Him. That’s straight porneia too – so let’s not forget that.

The Rev Macrae states:

Statistics relating to suicide and mental health issues among the LGBTI community are well known and should be of concern to the whole community, not least the community that claims to follow the teaching and life example of Jesus Christ. Jesus’ life was characterised by openness and welcome to all manner of people excluded from full participation in their communities, often on religious grounds.

And those statistics are a concern. Yet the Rev Macrae’s curiosity as to why the statistics are so high stops at his desire to see full acceptance in the church of all sexual lifestyles – to be celebrated.

And while he claims that denominations are navigating a pathway where both acceptance and non-acceptance of same-sex marriage can co-exist, on the basis of his own argument here, why would the Uniting Church tolerate the non-affirming position at all if many of its major leaders consider such a theological position so deathly? Surely the Uniting Church will soon be pushing hard to ensure that such bad theology is purged from its ranks for the sake of those who think and practise otherwise? To that I say, Watch this space.

Here’s something else that Jesus was concerned that we should know: Good theology kills. Good theology is supposed to kill. When believed and acted upon, it is supposed to kill off sin and our fleshly desires. Jesus said that if anyone would be his disciple he or she must take up their cross and follow him. And he signs that off with these words in Matthew 16:25-27

… For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it. What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul? For the Son of Man is going to come in his Father’s glory with his angels, and then he will reward each person according to what they have done.

This should at least sober us all and remind us that even Jesus himself was not “come one, come all” with no caveats. You have to be willing to lose the things that you consider essential to your idea of what life is all about if you want to follow Jesus. For some that is sexual expression, for others it is greed, or autonomy or whatever. But you have to die to something or there will be no life for you! Everyone signs a blank cheque and hands it over to Jesus to fill in. The alternative is death.

And St Paul, whom the Rev Macrae does not cite, yet whose ministry and writings form the foundational texts of the church in faith and practise, reiterates this in Romans 8:

For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the flesh, you will live.

And then later in Galatians 5 identifies what he means by the deeds of the flesh:

19 Now the deeds of the flesh are evident, which are: sexual immorality, impurity, indecent behavior, 20 idolatry, witchcraft, hostilities, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions, 21 envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these, of which I forewarn you, just as I have forewarned you, that those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.

And if that were not enough he says in 1 Corinthians 6:

Do you not know that the wicked will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who submit to or perform homosexual acts, 10nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor verbal abusers, nor swindlers, will inherit the kingdom of God. 11And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified, in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.

“And that is what some of you were”. In other words, Jesus accepts all who come to him. All. Just as the Rev Macrae desires. Just as I desire, otherwise I’d have no hope for myself! But we come as we are in order to be changed from what we are to what God desires us to be. And if we don’t do that – if I don’t do that – I risk trading eternal life for a short period of living according to the flesh.

This is going to involved an often painful death to self and our desires. Good theology enacted is going to have to kill something in everyone of us. And for some of us – in fact a good bunch of us in the modern West, in which our authentic self is so often tied to sexual autonomy – our right to doing sex the way we want to will be top of that list of things that needs to die. It’s kill or be killed.

So bad theology kills. The Rev Macrae is right. But so does good theology. Because unless we are willing to die to the things that the Bible warns us will lead to death, we have no certain hope of attaining the life that truly is life.

I’d like to have that sort of conversation with Rev Macrae, if he were willing. If you know him and you know me, then put me in touch!