This is an article which was published in the last ever edition of The Australian Presbyterian. It is a transcribed interview with Mark Powell which in the light of yesterdays post – A Bittersweet Day helps explain my thinking. We contrast the situations in the UK and Australia.
On the Precipice
Australian churches, 10 years behind Scotland’s decline, must return to basics.
David Robertson talks to Mark Powell
David Robertson is a Reformed Scottish minister, blogger and podcaster. He has been minister of St. Peter’s Free Church in Dundee, Scotland, since October 1992, and was Moderator of the Free Church of Scotland for 2015-2016. You can follow him online at theweeflea.com
Here, he is interviewed by Mark Powell.
David, you’ve been very influential in the Scottish scene by engaging in what is referred to as “public theology”. What have you observed from your time in Australia about some of the various approaches we have regarding the issue?
Well, I don’t think we should use the methodology of the world, and this is where I would disagree with those who think that we should play the world’s game. I don’t think the “salt and light” thing is essentially about being nice to people. Like the church father Tertullian, I think we need to stand out as being different – to be “salt and light”. When you are different, many people will not like you. In his Apology, written in the 3rd century AD, Tertullian writes: “If the Tiber floods the city, or if the Nile refuses to rise, or if the sky withholds its rain, if there is an earthquake, a famine, a pestilence, at once the cry is raised: ‘Christians to the lions’.” Clearly, standing for the gospel in the early church didn’t make you popular, but it did make you significant. So, a lot of what I do is motivate people to speak up and show how we are offering something very, very different.
The University of Western Sydney had a course for teachers on gender, and they were told that they couldn’t reference any outside sources or they would be marked down. What do you think about some of the changes coming into tertiary education that control our thoughts?
Well, the scariest thing that I’ve seen since I’ve been here is the University of NSW and their Sexual Ethics Committee. It’s comprised of two students and two members of staff. One of the stated rules of this committee is that “We do not accept normal rules of evidence”. They actually have that in writing! This is nothing less than Chairman Mao’s red brigades! It proves, I think, that when you remove the Christian foundations of society you lose important principles of justice like “people are innocent until proven guilty”.
Do you think we’re seeing a parallel to that in the #MeToo movement?
The #MeToo movement is both right and wrong. I think it’s right when it claims that we shouldn’t have sexual harassment. However, I think it’s also an overreaction because sexual harassment occurs in many different ways that are not mentioned by the movement. For example, I’ve been sexually harassed as a white male. Further, we have the appalling situation where children are being groomed by an education system which tells them that they can choose their sexuality or gender as they please. And whether we like it or not, that is “grooming”. It’s got nothing to do about health; it’s really about sexualising children. Then, on the other hand, we’ve got people saying, “Oh, it’s terrible, he gave me a hug!” There’s a shocking inconsistency here.
You have said that Australia is culturally 10 years behind Scotland. Can you describe what might be ahead for us?
Well, unfortunately, our “progressive” politicians are the same as yours. But it’s very important for us to understand that progressive actually means “regressive”. We are regressing into a Greco-Roman pagan view of the world that focuses on the worship of the body, abortion, infanticide, sexual exploitation and a growing gap between rich and poor. Our culture in not getting better; it’s getting worse.
What do you think are some of the main factors in the Church of Scotland’s spiritual collapse in regards to this?
It is important to understand that the church where I serve, St Peter’s, Dundee, had been at the centre of a great spiritual revival. This was the church of Robert Murray McCheyne, through whose preaching the Holy Spirit used to attract over 1000 people to Sunday worship. In the 1851 census at least 50% of the population of Dundee were linked to the Free Church – the denomination St Peters had helped form. Nevertheless, within 30 years this denomination went into a death spiral in the 19th century when it introduced a really destructive form of teaching into Scottish society. It was called Higher Criticism. Higher Criticism did more than anything else to undermine faith in the Bible.
And in my book on Robert Murray McCheyne I said, “The church allowed a falsehood to take hold within itself that took until the 1950s to really manifest itself.” So, in the 1960s when the sexual revolution hit us, the church folded like a pack of cards because it had lost its back-bone which was its faith in Scripture as the Word of God. Since it no longer believed the teaching of the Bible, it was powerless to resist the advance of the new sexual morality.
So, what tendencies among their leaders should people be concerned about, especially as the generation that refused to enter church union with theological liberals is now coming to an end?
We always have to careful about legalism. Our tendency is to overreact. So often you’ll find that as the culture goes down, the church becomes more and more inward-looking. So I think we need to be outward-looking. But this is also where the danger lies. We tend to think that in order to be outward-looking what we need to do is sit at the table – to be influencing society by reaching people at the top of it. It’s called the “top-down” approach. We are convinced that if we can reach people at the top of society then we will reach the rest of the community. It’s like the trickle-down theory in economics – I am not convinced it works in economics – and I don’t think it finds support in the New Testament either. The New Testament does not suggest that we select one particular group, for example, the poor or rich. Instead, it tells us to take the gospel to everyone.
Interestingly, when I first went to St Peter’s, Dundee, I was asked, “Well, what’s your strategy?” And I said, “To preach the Word and see what happens.” And they said, “No, no, no! What’s your strategy?” And I said, “That IS the strategy.” Frankly, I haven’t a clue what’s going to happen when I do this, but God will make something happen. I think a lot of churches say, we’ll preach the word but we will determine what’s going to happen. So, they say, “We’re going to reach the Chinese, we’re going to do this, we’re going to reach the rich, we’re going to reach the middle class, we’re going to reach the student body,” and I say, “No, preach the Word and see what happens.”
So, in our church it was largely young people who came through the ministry of the Word and this was really unusual for a Psalms-singing church, which is what we were then. We’re not now, but we were then. We still do sing Psalms by the way! But we never dumbed it down. That was the one thing we didn’t do…
What do you mean when you say that you didn’t dumb it down?
Well, for example, we had a man converted who had been the leader of the Scottish National Party. He walked into my church one day, when we were about 70 or 80 people and I recognised him. I said to him afterwards, “How did you find it?” And he said, “That was interesting”. I said, “Interesting is an ‘interesting’ word. What do you mean by it?” And he said, “Well, I’m not used to someone speaking for more than 10 minutes for a start.” I said, “OK”. (I preach for about 30 – 40 minutes). But he and his wife came back and they both professed their faith and became members with us.
But he asked to see me one day. And this may be helpful for you to know. He said, “David, this is unbelievable the message you’ve got. At Stirling University in the 1950s I was in the Scottish National Party when it was very small. We planned in 100 years to have a Scottish government. We got it in 50 years and I’m absolutely delighted. However, your message is way more important and you need to train more people to share it.” That’s how we founded our Centre for Public Christianity. He also said this, “Churches never think long-term.” And I think that’s true, generally. We have to think carefully about training our people to be evangelists and apologists for the true gospel.
What are some of the things we can do in Australia in this regard?
First, we need to understand that there are factors that explain why Australia has not gone as quickly down the road as we have (in Scotland). One of the key ones is this: I think the Billy Graham mission in 1959 had a long-term impact. In the sovereignty of God, a number of people were converted there.
The second point to remember is that Australia is essentially eight city states – rather than one big state that is centralised. Take Sydney, for example. I spoke to one bishop here and he has 60 parishes and every single one is low church, reformed, and evangelical. Every single one! That’s inconceivable to me in the UK. So, there’s been a lot of good stuff happening that Australians should stop and praise God for. The emphasis on theological education has also been fantastic, as I have discovered since I’ve been here. And that’s the key by the way. Sound theological training and a solid preparation for future ministers is absolutely key for the advance of the Christian faith in Australia.
One of the things I’ve also come across and discovered here is that the young people who were in some cases from very, very good families didn’t know what to do with the same-sex marriage debate. And I’ll tell you why. They didn’t understand underlying theological principles like the supreme authority of the Bible. They were told what to do, but I don’t think they’ve been taught how to think things through biblically, and so it was a political issue for them. But this is not a political issue. It’s expressed in politics but it is a theological issue. And this misunderstanding came as a shock to me.
If you could ‘prophetically’ say to God’s Church in Australia, ‘This is what you need to do’, what would you say?
Go back to the roots; get back to the basics. The Christian doctor who is told, “Unless you take part in this you will lose your job”, should say, “OK, then I need to practise somewhere else”. In my city, if you took all the Christians out of youth work there would be no youth work left. And if they come to us and say, “You have got to teach LGBTIQ stuff ”, then I think we should say, “No, we’re not doing it!” The trouble is we’re always being played by society. Society brings up an issue and we respond. So, the church is always following. But we shouldn’t be following. We should be leading! What I mean by that is, we should be saying, “We should be seeking to help refugees”.
My wife is in Lakemba right now and, yes, Islam is a threat. However, Muslims also present a tremendous opportunity for us to share the gospel. However, we cannot communicate the gospel if we think that Islam and Christianity are fundamentally the same. That’s not loving. They’re not fundamentally the same. They’re radically different. And we must recognise that.
What does Christian leadership, in particular, look like?
For me the church is really important. If you do not have really good Bible churches all around the nation you haven’t got national Christianity. In Scotland, what’s happened is that as the number of Christians has declined, the number of Christian organisations has increased. It’s a paradox. But it’s also a mistake. We need lots of good Bible churches where the gospel is clearly preached in every state of the nation.
Apart from the Bible, what books or authors would you suggest we read? Who are the people who feed you?
I actually read quite a lot of non- Christian books. One book that I have enjoyed in recent times is by Douglas Murray, who is a gay atheist. His book, The Strange Death of Europe, is absolutely fabulous. Why? Because he recognises that without Christianity, Europe is finished. And I’m sad to say that there are too many middle-class Christians wandering around and saying, “Oh wouldn’t it be good if we had a time of persecution.” I think that’s utterly wrong-headed. Perhaps the Lord may bring a time of persecution on the church. However, anyone who longs for persecution doesn’t know what persecution is. I just think it’s such a foolish thing to say. We may be called to suffer for Christ but ordinarily the gospel spreads when there is freedom of religion.
What principles guide you in your own ministry?
People said to me that my refusal to dumb down the gospel will affect evangelism and outreach, and we won’t reach people. Well, our church has grown and developed. People have been converted. So, I think we have to stop compromising on the Bible. Don’t be afraid. Don’t be ashamed of Jesus and His words. If we are practising the marks of the church – the preaching of the Word, the sacraments, and proper discipline, along with mercy ministries – we will have healthy churches.
Any other final words of advice you’d like to give to us?
Yes, we should not think that we have to have all these big mega-churches in city centres. It’s a fallacy. The Anglican bishop of Wollongong said to me recently that he oversees about 60 churches in his diocese – and I’m sure that they’re all in varying degrees of spiritual health – but that means that he’s now got 15,000 worshipping on a Sunday! If you had 5000 in a stadium in Sydney, you’d be famous all over the world. No one knows about this. Not really. But I’m thinking, “This is what we need!” I’m not against mega- churches, by the way. God can do anything. He can do it in the city, but he also does it in the towns and suburbs – and he is doing it in the Diocese of Wollongong.
Mark Powell is associate pastor at Cornerstone Presbyterian Church, Sydney.