When it comes to responding to Stephen McAlpine on matters in which there are disagreement, I often find myself tempted to employ a similar level of sarcastic wit, before (I think) wisely relenting to avoid a form of intellectual hubris. Yet, I hope you will bear with my dullness.
I too could also likewise lay out my bona fides as to the engagement I’ve had with, and on, the LGBT ‘movement'1)inc. giving multiple talks on gender, sexuality, and transgenderism at conferences and churches and have spoken with a vast array of people who are within the LGBTIQ+ lettering; How this has been received by the World can be sampled here: Queer Officer’s Report – Week 1, Sem 2, 2016, http://srcusyd.net.au/queer-officers-report-week-2-sem-2-2016/ which also include a forthcoming book in works, but I don’t believe that such is necessary.
The (Mistaken) Evangelical Rule of Engagement for Public Discourse
However that said, I am becoming increasingly perturbed by what I have noticed is fast becoming the established general evangelical understanding of cultural engagement in the public sphere. Specifically, that we need to earn a place on the so-called platform, or in the square, before we can speak up on God’s Word.
Often Paul in Athens (Acts 17:16-34) is fronted as the example for this understanding, but to utilise this passage exclusively for Post-Christian discourse is not only woefully inadequate, it is, ultimately, nonsensical. You see Roman Greece was not only a multifaith society where people held many religions, but they openly wanted to hear new philosophies and spiritual ideas. Greek society at that time platformed not only ideas ranging back to the twelve Olympians and classical Greek thought, but openly incorporated ideologies and deities from the orient and elsewhere, and allowed for these conflicting beliefs to debate each other in the public square (As also evidenced in Acts 17:21).
Thus, to exclusively conflate this context in which Paul spoke with modern society is novel. Indeed, to base or establish the singular, or even the chief, model of public Christian discourse on this text is to give it an undue weight it was never intended to carry. Instead, when you look at the common pattern of New Testament public engagement, the disciples did not generally spend time attempting to build up social capital before speaking. They took every opportunity to proclaim the unadulterated gospel of Christ to people they quite often did not previously know. Indeed, the longer documented public discourses in the New Testament often happened when the speaker was brought forward in chains, whether literal or proverbial. Think of Stephen before the Sanhedrin (Acts 7), Paul before Felix (Acts 24) as well as before Agrippa (Acts 26).
To simply think then that the building of social capital is a requirement before one can speak God’s Word not only goes against the general witness evidenced within Scripture (as it was unfolding in a Pre-Christian society), but it also undermines two foundational Christian, or at least reformed, principles: Firstly, it demonstrates a lax, or anemic, understanding of human depravity, as revealed in Romans 1:18-32 and elsewhere, by believing that simply by cultivating good relationships through our conduct, we’ll be provided a public platform in to which to speak on God’s Word. I am sure we would agree that it is not so easy. Good speech and conduct absolutely have a place in the Christian witness (1 Peter 2:12), and indeed by reflecting Christ, it will, Lord-willing, open up gospel opportunities. Yet, the main point of living such lives is not only because we ought to do so as living sacrifices to God but in order that we are be charged with no other ‘wrong‘ than simply standing on, and speaking, the Word of God. So that our ethos (credibility) does not betray our logos (message).
But a Christian cannot simply only reflect Christ through their lives, they must speak Christ too by proclaiming Him audibly2)regardless of that terrible quote, often mis-attributed to Francis of Assisi—and that’s the kicker, the world hates that. The world hates anything, no matter how small, which goes against what it wants and like a rebellious child throwing a tantrum for not getting candy when they’re in the supermarket, the world throws a tantrum when the pronouncement of the parent (viz, God) is made known. All that credit that one has built up is lost in but a simple moment when the demands, or opinion, of God is pronounced. Certainly, if anything, the reality of the modern, polarised, public discourse, which is devoid of logic and sober-mindedness, should be enough of a wake-up call to Christians to demonstrate the folly of this approach.
Indeed, this is why this methodology of engagement, which can sometimes be denoted in McAlpine’s thoughts3)i.e. “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.”, is ultimately flawed. In a very postmodern way, it focuses too much on the subjective, granting elevated onus to the ability of Christian witness and the role of good speech and good conduct as the primary means of conversional action, as opposed to being a reinforcement to the actual primary means of pronouncement (Romans 10:14). This also, I believe, explains much as to why personal evangelism has, in some Christians circles, become the preferred, if not exclusive, evangelistic technique. Other approaches, such as open air proclamation, becoming relegated to a thing of the past.
Please do not confuse what I am saying here: There absolutely is a role for good conduct and gracious dialogue in gospel proclamation. We are called to do gracious and kind in our speech and conduct, but by God’s definition of those terms—not ours. We ought only follow what is deemed as acceptable public discourse, both in speech and engagement, in as far as the world’s own definition correlates with God.
However, secondly, and perhaps most problematic, this engagement approach fails to understand that God, by the very virtue of being the Creator, already has the right to the creatures’ platform, which Christians, as God’s prophetic mouthpiece, access to proclaim the reality of sin and grace. To argue and say that a Christian needs to ‘gain’, or ‘build’, access before they can speak is to not only deny God his rightful place, but is to also imply that Christians and non-Christians are on an even footing. We’re not. We proclaim an authoritative message, as regenerated Christians, to a society which is commanded to repent.
Additionally, when the phraseology of contextualisation is wheeled out in conjunction to this approach, it often builds on the notion that the Word has been to be applied and digested as to its social context. Like a gourmet chef, the proclaimer disseminates Scripture in a fine verbal dégustative assemblage catering to the hearers. The hearers dictating how the message should be heard, as opposed to how it was designed to be heard. Yet, and remembering that Christianity is by no means a Western religion, you’d be hard-pressed finding this missional methodology in the late antiquity/early postclassical era. I still remember Peter Bolt once teaching me that we in modern society are all very big on contextualisation, but we always forget to contextualise ourselves.4)I am not saying all contextualisation is bad, mind you. After all, we contextualise when we translate and speak Scripture in different languages than the originals. However, I think we need to be absolutely wary about much which is peddled under this phrase, especially when it regards as to how the message is conveyed.
Now, saying all this, I want to put in a qualifier. While I think this method of engagement is both confused and generally erroneous for the two points already stated, there is laudable aim here—they want the gospel to be heard. Yet, by simply focusing on how they believe society would most likely hear the gospel as opposed to how it was, I believe, designed to be proclaimed, they embrace an anthropocentric model of proclamation (whilst, and this is important, still staying committed to heart of Scripture, as opposed to liberalism), as opposed to a theocentric one. Arguably, by recognising the timeless methods of verbal gospel pronouncement as taken from Scripture, the latter better recognises not only God’s authority but better accounts for man’s fallen nature; whereas the former believes that it needs to be adapted and contextualised to the specific audience.5)Further on the point I raised in the last note, I am not even denying the need to ‘know your audience’. Sometimes our messages may appear unbalanced as we address specific issues, but the reality is the whole gospel must be taught and not shied away from in general. Sin and Mercy; Law and Grace; Condemnation and Forgiveness; Justification and Sanctification; and on it goes.
My perturbation predominately lays with the fact that by an overzealous attempt to be winsome, proponents of this model of engagement not only concede too much to a (pagan) society but they do not fully appreciate the authority on which they speak. By attempting to be too nuanced and narrow, by attempting to continuously contextualise their message, they paint themselves into a corner, where they are only heard by their own echo chamber and where, the danger is, they will never fully grasp (or be given) an opportunity to proclaim the full unadulterated and unpopular truth. Presently, there are two ways to be granted access to a platform, one is by cultivating relationships and building a space in which to have a platform, the other is by simply having a message which is counter-cultural to what the world hears. Sometimes these two correlate, quite often they don’t. However, when they do, speakers who proclaim the (full) message face the same outcome: they will be ridiculed. And as cancellation culture further becomes ingrained, the efficacy of investing to build social capital before proclamation is questionable.
Perhaps, we need to remember once again the very real prophetic role the church has been assigned to proclaim God’s full and arrant truth into the public sphere. Certainly, on the topic of abortion, there was but a murmur from the Australian church; on the topic of same-sex marriage, there was not a little condemnation reserved for the Sydney Anglicans for attempting to put their money where their mouth was. During the current pandemic, when generally the Church historically has proclaimed repentance and a turn to Christ—crickets. Perhaps, we need to recognise that, very much like the prophet Jonah, the Western church has, over the last century, often run away from one of its core responsibilities that it is to perform into the society that it has been sent—to proclaim God’s pronouncement to a society where it has no social credit, where it has no friends, but where it does have God’s authoritative Word. It just requires the trust and obedience to speak on it. Perhaps, we need to realise that we’re less in Babylon and more in Nineveh after all.
…but what about Josh (the Aussie Missionary)?
If it’s not obvious from the above, Josh’s approach to missional engagement differs foundationally from Stephen’s. This provides much of the reason as to why there is such overwhelming criticism against Josh in his article. Particularly charges of being ‘unwise’, being blind to context, or just being uncaring.6)“So when Williamson makes a statement like that … 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.”
Evidently, attempting to engage the culture differently than McAlpine’s view on how it should be done, would be sufficient grounds for him to charge you as unwise, even though I suspect that many examples within Scripture would fall afoul of McAlpine’s own standard of cultural engagement. Indeed, while Josh’s own exuberance was understandable as it was a cancellation of a event which truly epitomised the words of Romans 1, perhaps the simple two words: “Wonderful News” left on a Facebook news post by Cornwall Live announcing the cancellation should have better better phrased. In this way, perhaps Josh was unwise.
Yet, we cannot deny that anything which was said to that same intent would have been met with condemnation. Should nothing have been said then? Arguably, perhaps it was a good thing something was, because at least this led to God’s perspective being front and centre as opposed to everyone being silent on the matter, the event’s cancellation being simply passed by with no comment, and the Cornish public moving further toward destruction, imbibing the world’s narrative, without hearing any message to the contrary.7)One would be simply grieved by the sheer number of so-called ‘Ministers’, notably Baptists, Anglicans, and Methodists, from the area who have condemned Josh’s take on homosexuality.
Yet, to charge Josh with simply being contextually-blind or uncaring is a grossly unfair charge because arguably, Josh loved them enough to be a point of resistance to the overwhelming conformist narrative, likely knowing what would occur when he said it, but was ready to give an answer to what arose. I can say, as someone who is both a friend and a supporter of Josh, that he has had a number of opportunities to share the gospel and make God’s position on this, and a number of other topics, known by the grace of God.8)Before my thoughts are simply discarded because I am fairly good friends with Josh, please know that just because I am friends with someone does not I will not rebuke them if I think they were unwise or in error. I love my friends enough to do that. However, Josh’s real heart, as opposed to being uncaring, is truly reflected in comments he made, almost simultaneously to the above ‘Wonderful News’, to his own Facebook page:
“Hallelujah!! We prayed at our prayer meeting on Tuesday night that this event would be cancelled. We also prayed that the Lord would save the organisers. One prayer answered, now we wait for the second prayer to be answered.”9)https://christianconcern.com/news/pastor-told-not-to-offend-gay-pride-as-mob-threaten-to-burn-down-his-church/
These are not the words of someone who ‘does not care for the people’.
One thing that I did find quizzical from McAlpine’s take, though, is this comment:
“The Christian ethic comes after the Christian proclamation. You can’t proclaim the ethic first. It makes no sense and has no context.
(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.)“
Firstly, the Christian proclamation is one that also includes the pronouncement of sin. It presupposes not only an ethic, but a violation of that very ethic, and without the proclamation of the breaking of that ethic, then repentance simply can’t be proclaimed. It becomes good news in a moral vacuum. McAlpine clarifies what he means in the brackets, but this further comment begs the question—where and how did Josh exactly expect a “Christian ethic from the an unrepentant world”?
For the most part, the reality is that Christian engagement is much more complicated and multifaceted than McAlpine allows. Grace extended is not always grace received, and likewise grace received is not always grace extended. There are too many presumptions—Who are the swine? Those who non-Christians that we speak to overall? Or those specifically we talk to, time and time again, but have a hard-heart? Again, throw-away biblical lines may sound compelling, but speaking of context…(Sorry, I couldn’t help myself.)
Granted, Josh’s speech could have been ‘wiser’, but at the very least he spoke on what he, and all Christians, have been called to speak on—God’s take on sin.
Lastly, a small rejoinder, but it is probably helpful to do a bit more research before writing an article about someone. Josh is not a Queenslander nor is he a “self-professed” missionary. He is a recognised missionary with a sending church. To claim twice, no-less, that he is “self-professed” or “self-proclaimed” can easily be perceived as an attempt to undermine this brother. I hope this was not Stephen’s intention—especially as we are talking of speaking gracefully(!)—but this proves exactly why we need to be careful with our speech (both verbally and written!).
References [ + ]
|1.||↑||inc. giving multiple talks on gender, sexuality, and transgenderism at conferences and churches and have spoken with a vast array of people who are within the LGBTIQ+ lettering; How this has been received by the World can be sampled here: Queer Officer’s Report – Week 1, Sem 2, 2016, http://srcusyd.net.au/queer-officers-report-week-2-sem-2-2016/|
|2.||↑||regardless of that terrible quote, often mis-attributed to Francis of Assisi|
|3.||↑||i.e. “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.”|
|4.||↑||I am not saying all contextualisation is bad, mind you. After all, we contextualise when we translate and speak Scripture in different languages than the originals. However, I think we need to be absolutely wary about much which is peddled under this phrase, especially when it regards as to how the message is conveyed.|
|5.||↑||Further on the point I raised in the last note, I am not even denying the need to ‘know your audience’. Sometimes our messages may appear unbalanced as we address specific issues, but the reality is the whole gospel must be taught and not shied away from in general. Sin and Mercy; Law and Grace; Condemnation and Forgiveness; Justification and Sanctification; and on it goes.|
|6.||↑||“So when Williamson makes a statement like that … 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.”|
|7.||↑||One would be simply grieved by the sheer number of so-called ‘Ministers’, notably Baptists, Anglicans, and Methodists, from the area who have condemned Josh’s take on homosexuality.|
|8.||↑||Before my thoughts are simply discarded because I am fairly good friends with Josh, please know that just because I am friends with someone does not I will not rebuke them if I think they were unwise or in error. I love my friends enough to do that.|