Musings of an antipodean contrarian

Rock the boats

Address at a forum on asylum seeker policy,

Lake Joondalup Baptist Church, Perth, 21 September 2014

The Bible and refugees

In debates about asylum seekers, Christians are often caught up in the groundswell of public opinion, and face the danger of allowing popular fears or political allegiances, rather than biblical principles, to shape their perspective.

So what does the Bible teach?  Ancient Israel possessed laws designed to ensure the just treatment of “strangers” and “aliens.” And, despite Israel’s commitment to racial and religious purity, these foreigners were able to share in Israel’s cultural and religious life.

There were also designated places of sanctuary – not places of detention – where refugees could live in peace and safety while their claims were processed. They were called “cities of refuge.” As the prophet Micah taught, what God desired was a life of justice, mercy and humility.

The New Testament portrays Jesus as the ultimate immigrant, coming from heaven to point the way back to God. And Jesus and the early church exemplified the values of grace, compassion and fairness that lie at the heart of biblical social teaching.

In many places, especially the parable of the Good Samaritan, the Bible shows how Christians should treat asylum seekers and all who are treated unjustly. The question is: why don’t we?

Recent trends

For many people, our world is a cruel and unjust place. According to UNHCR Global Trends 2013, by the end of last year:

  • 2 million people were living in forcibly displaced situations as a result of persecution, conflict, generalized violence, or human rights violations.
  • Some 17 million of these were refugees, and close to 1.2 million were asylum seekers.
  • Some 25,300 asylum applications were lodged on behalf of unaccompanied children in 77 countries in 2013.
  • Developing countries hosted 86 per cent of the world’s refugees, compared to 70 per cent ten years ago.
  • It is estimated that at least ten million displaced persons are stateless.
  • Children below 18 years constituted 50 per cent of the refugee population.

The 2013 figures represent the highest level of displaced persons on record since comprehensive statistics on global forced displacement have been collected (in 1989).

As at 30 June 2014, according to there were:

  • 2,358 persons in Australian immigration detention, including 1,189 on Manus Island and 1,169 on Nauru.
  • 24,500 living in the community on bridging visas
  • 3,007 living in the community and approved for residence determination
  • seven on-shore immigration detention centres operating (Christmas Island, Curtin, Yongah Hill, Perth, Wickham Point (Darwin), Inverbrackie (Adelaide), MITA (Melbourne), Maribayong (Melbourne), and Villawood (Sydney).

I am indebted to my friend and fellow refugee advocate Graeme Swincer who, in an article in July 2013, set forth the important challenges and opportunities we face as Australians:

Most Australian citizens [he said] are only remotely aware of what is happening, although it would be hard to miss the idea that the various “solutions” imply some sort of cruelty which is supposed to produce a deterrent effect.

But awareness of the reality does not seem to produce widespread abhorrence and anger; Australian animals must not suffer, but non-Australian people can be allowed to suffer – even be made to suffer – for a “good” cause.

Part of the problem is a history of misinformation, perpetrated by politicians and a substantial section of the media, which has built up a false picture in the minds of most Australians.

To overturn this state of affairs and question policies and procedures that condone cruelty towards innocent people will be a long and difficult task. But we must start somewhere.

Underlying Australia’s response to asylum seekers over the past decade and a half has been application of harsh measures aimed at “deterrence.” Most of these focus on “boat people” (“Irregular Maritime Arrivals” or IMAs).

The strategies include:

  • excision of certain offshore territories (and now the whole of Australia) from Australia’s migration zone
  • isolation of refugee status assessment processes from Australia’s legal system
  • reintroduction of “the Pacific solution,” whereby IMAs are sent to remote Pacific islands for processing of their claims, and suffer punishment by way of harsh living conditions
  • application of “the no advantage principle” whereby waiting times for processing of claims are set by an estimate of waiting times for UNHCR processing in such countries as Indonesia and Malaysia (about five years)
  • mandatory detention of asylum seekers, in centres surrounded by razor wire, run by private prison operators for profit, and often isolated from major cities or located thousands of kilometres offshore – at a cost of about $130,000 per person per year
  • Incarceration of large numbers of people, including hundreds of children, for prolonged periods, often more than two years; sometimes even three or four years [and up to seven]
  • attempted justification of deterrence policies in terms of saving lives (from possible drowning in leaky boats) and “smashing the people smuggler model”
  • rejection of warnings and expert advice relating to the tragic mental health consequences of mandatory detention and prolonged uncertainty
  • release of increasing numbers of people into the community under impossible conditions: without support, without permission to work and without short-term prospects of their asylum claims being processed (a relatively new phenomenon, numbers now around 10,000, putting great pressure on charities such as the Salvation Army, and creating incentives for crime)
  • failing to adequately address Australia’s international treaty obligations in relation to asylum seekers and refugees
  • applying flawed processes for assessing and reviewing the claims of asylum seekers, demonstrably deficient in terms of professionalism, transparency, consistency and accountability
  • allowing political considerations to play a dominating role in the formulation and implementation of laws and policies
  • accepting inadequate standards of government communication about refugee issues, in terms of both quality and accuracy.

But that is not all. Dr Swincer then outlined six forms of official dishonesty practiced by our politicians and government officials:

  1. Downplaying the reasons people become refugees. Targeted persecution and violence, and real or feared imprisonment or torture, or worse, result in such desperation that people are forced to leave their own countries or suffer the consequences of staying. But this reality is general overlooked (either deliberately or in inadvertent ignorance). Instead, the notion that asylum seekers who come by boat are generally undesirable and undeserving fortune hunters is widely promulgated, without any substantiation.
  2. Unwarranted denigration, even vilification, of “boat people” began in 2000 with the “children overboard” scandal. Since then they have been consistently referred to as illegals, irregulars, undesirables, queue jumpers, economic refugees, potential terrorists, opportunists, welfare shoppers, and threats to our way of life.
  3. A third form of dishonesty is the system of refugee status determination. This is a combination of (a) an official notion that a large proportion of asylum seekers are not genuine, and (b) the unprofessional process by which this is reinforced. The Department of Immigration and Citizenship seems to set out to fail as many asylum seekers as possible, using every possible means to find a reason to do so.
  4. A fourth matter of dishonesty is the shallow analysis of the “success” of the Howard Pacific Solution in deterring would-be boat people. Careful research has shown that the slowing flow of boat people between 2004 and 2007 was largely due to a dramatic reduction in “push factors.”
  5. The justification of deterrence policies in terms of saving lives (from possible drowning in leaky boats) and “smashing the people smuggler model.” To market cruelty as “saving lives” is surely the worst kind of Orwellian doublespeak.
  6. A sixth form of dishonesty used frequently by the Australian government is never to admit a mistake.

In addition to institutionalized dishonesty, a second key strategy of current Australian asylum seeker policy is the resort to punishment for those fleeing persecution. It has been widely and repeatedly condemned – by advocates, academics, lawyers, politicians, a former Prime Minister, church and community leaders, inquiries, UNHCR and many more.

Yet it is evident to me that Australia repeatedly returns with dogged determination to the rhetoric that we need to be “cruel to be kind.”

In response to the recommendations of the Expert Panel, Uniting Church Justice national director Rev Eleni Poulos said, “What they’re recommending is a short-term, quick-fix policy response that actually punishes one group of vulnerable people in order to send a message to other people.”

In his paper Dr Swincer concluded that as Australians and world citizens we must expect better than we have been given in recent years:

  • In a world of spin we must seek the truth, dispel the myths and insist on honesty and disciplined research.
  • Honesty is essential at all levels, including all dealings and deliberations; dishonesty deserves to be exposed and addressed wherever it occurs.
  • Deliberate cruelty can never be condoned – for any reason; punishment of the innocent is intolerable.
  • Positive and proactive guidelines are required: act with understanding, compassion, generosity and justice.
  • We must campaign relentlessly for specific and effective attention to mental health issues; we dare not ignore and quietly condone a system that literally destroys innocent people.

People sometimes ask me what is wrong with offshore processing of asylum seekers. Here are 20 reasons:

  1. It is unnecessary. There are no valid reasons to send people who come to Australia seeking asylum to other countries to have their claims for refugee status assessed.
  2. It is a cruel and inhumane way to treat persons seeking asylum for their own very good reasons.
  3. It places men, women and children in clear and present danger of preventable disease, psychological trauma and injury, and at risk of abuse (including sexual abuse) at the hands of immigration detention staff and others who have access to detainees.
  4. It diminishes Australia’s reputation as a good citizen in the international community.
  5. It treats asylum seekers as a different and subordinate class of persons, deprived of human rights and regarded with fear and loathing by sections of the Australian community.
  6. It removes asylum seekers from Australian human rights protection.
  7. It removes asylum seekers from the protection provided by proper independent scrutiny.
  8. It isolates asylum seekers from legal representation, legal advice pastoral support, visitation by community groups such as the Blue Mountains Refugee Support Group, and access to education, employment, language classes and other cultural activities.
  9. It ignores the fact that host nations are not equipped to adequately care for the general needs of those in their care.
  10. It contributes to a culture that encourages women detainees to abort their babies rather than carry a child to full term who will be born stateless and live in extremely poor conditions.
  11. It does not effectively “stop the boats” or stem the tide of asylum seekers arriving in Indonesia and other countries on their way to Australia.
  12. It falsely implies (not least to family members in countries of origin) that asylum seekers are bad people who have committed illegal acts.
  13. It implies that asylum seekers are potential terrorists.
  14. It achieves nothing in the legitimate fight against terrorism.
  15. It risks turning asylum seekers against the Australian government and people
  16. It is extremely expensive per capita in comparison to onshore detention or community placement.
  17. It can result in long-term detention of large numbers of people, with decisions to wind back such detention being politically dangerous.
  18. It is not a permanent solution to the problems it seeks to address; it is only ever a stop-gap or delay mechanism in the management of asylum seekers and political pressure.
  19. It polarises community debate and fuels xenophobia.
  20. It is the complete opposite of the Christian imperative to offer hospitality and care to those who are suffering, fleeing persecution, vulnerable and marginalised.

In my role as a consultant ethicist for Australian Baptist Ministries, I drafted a policy on immigration and asylum seekers, which was unanimously approved by our National Council in November 2011.

The policy includes a call to the Australian government to process claims for refugee status expeditiously, abolish the practice of mandatory detention, and to cease the practice of sending unaccompanied minors to third countries.

The ABM policy also encourages Australian Baptist churches, groups, families and individuals to consider how they may further:

  • promote quality teaching and learning on immigration and refugees;
  • act as advocates for asylum seekers, refugees and migrants;
  • oppose offshore detention of asylum seekers and refugees;
  • oppose mandatory detention of asylum seekers and refugees;
  • develop ministries of welcoming, reconciliation and social integration;
  • extend hospitality through intentional friendships and relationships;
  • freely share resources with those in need.

If Australia possessed a Statue of Liberty, she would be set not in Sydney or Melbourne but somewhere on the coastline between Perth and Darwin, on land once erroneously called Terra Nullius,

gazing out over the Indian Ocean from shores that have felt the imprint of millions of immigrants, with her face set toward Christmas Island.

If Jesus were here this afternoon, he might say:

  • Tell me about the people who live in your street.
  • Where did your family come from?
  • What do the Scriptures say about border crossings?

The biblical witness is crystal clear when it comes to how Christians should feel and act toward immigrants.

There is a coherent vision of community wellbeing, and a consistent emphasis on justice, grace and neighbour-love toward all who are in need, summed up most profoundly in the biblical concept of shalom, “a picture of community, of life in relationships, in which things are as they are supposed to be [and where people] live in harmony and delight with God, each other, and the world.”[1]

Individual Christians and local churches must reach out to such people with compassion and costly love, possessing no ulterior motive or political agenda, and showing no favouritism toward particular groups.

The church is collectively described as “foreigners and exiles” (1 Peter 2:11). We’re supposed to know what it’s like to be outsiders. What better group of people to welcome immigrants, to assist them, and help them integrate with other Australians!

What is Jesus saying to us today?



[1] Andrew Sloane, At Home in a Strange Land: Using the Old Testament in Christian Ethics (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2008), p. 28.

Living counter-culturally in the world

A sermon by Rod Benson, Perth, 21 September 2014

Matthew 3:1-3; 4:12-13, 17-19

Then Jesus took his disciples up a mountain and, gathering them unto himself, he taught them, saying:

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
     for they will be filled.

Then Simon Peter said to him, “Do we have to write this down?”

And Andrew said, “Are we supposed to know all this?”

And James said, “Will there be a test?”

And John said, “The other disciples don’t have to learn this.”

And Philip said, “Is there a handout?”

And Thomas said, “I’m uncomfortable with his bias against the rich, the happy, the proud and the status quo.”

And Matthew said, “When do we get out of here?”

And Thaddeus said, “Look at that funny shaped cloud!”

And Matthias said, “Why doesn’t he use PowerPoint?”

And Bartholemew said, “Do we have to hand this in?”

And Judas said, “What does this have to do with real life?”

Then one of the Pharisees who stood by asked to see Jesus’ lesson plan. And the scribes, desiring to find fault with him, inquired of Jesus regarding his terminal objectives in the cognitive domain.

And Jesus wept.[1]

Yes, I know. You’ve heard that there are people like that in other churches.

When we read the Gospels, God invites us to view the world as Jesus saw it, and take action in response to the priorities Jesus defined. He calls us to embrace a comprehensive view of the world, to feel with God’s heart, to get mud on our boots, to love the unlovable, to live counter-culturally, to seek peace with justice.

The first disciples discovered there was so much more to life than they had imagined. And Jesus invites all who follow him to the same new way of being and doing.

As Matthew records it, in the famous Sermon on the Mount preached by Jesus (Mt 4:23-7:29), the “good news of the kingdom” to which Jesus introduces us includes healing the sick, practicing courageous virtues, the promise of real social transformation, high standards for interpersonal relationships and marriage, simplicity with words, extravagant generosity, love for my enemies, giving to those in need, radical counter-cultural prayer, private fasting for spiritual breakthrough, strategic spiritual investments, farewell to worry about material possessions, cultivating a non-judgmental attitude, the Golden Rule (7:12), a focus on making wise decisions, and whole-hearted sacrificial obedience to God’s word.

If we took just one of these awesome kingdom priorities, and applied it for a month, our lives would change – and perhaps our world would also begin to change.

We all know how much our world needs redemption and renewal: think of the ebola epidemic sweeping West Africa today, the atrocities of Islamic State militants and the violent response by their enemies (including Australia), apparently home-grown terrorist cells uncovered in Sydney and Brisbane this week, family failure, ecological devastation, the Indigenous health crisis, global financial uncertainty, random street violence, drug addiction, porn addiction, workaholism, corporate greed, abortion, euthanasia, the unravelling of marriage as we know it, political corruption, fracturing the moral foundations of society, rampant narcissism, the idolatry of nationalism, the cruel treatment of asylum seekers.

Does allegiance to the kingdom of God really speak to these issues? Does the gospel of the kingdom call us to change our priorities? Does it require courage and demand action? Yes, it does.

Scot McKnight is Professor of New Testament at Northern Baptist Theological Seminary in Lombard, Illinois, and author of The Jesus Creed, A Community Called Atonement, and The King Jesus Gospel. Several years ago, McKnight wrote an article, “The eight marks of a robust gospel,”[2] in which he argues we have domesticated the gospel Jesus preached to suit our individualism and middle-class sentiment.

He says the biblical gospel is much bigger than many of us have dared to believe:

The gospel is the work of the triune God (Father, Son, and Spirit) to completely restore broken image-bearers (Gen. 1:26-27) in the context of the community of faith (Israel, Kingdom, and Church) through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and the gift of the Pentecostal Spirit, to union with God and communion with others for the good of the world.[3]

McKnight goes on to show that the gospel Jesus preached and demonstrated had a personal emphasis, and a universal vision. In the New Testament, the gospel is often linked explicitly to a person. It is “the gospel of Christ” or “the gospel of God. Jesus calls people to surrender their life “for my sake” (Mk 8:35, 10:29; cf 2 Cor 3:18-4:6).

This same gospel promises not only personal transformation but a new community and a new creation! McKnight again:

When Jesus stood up to read Isaiah 61 in the Synagogue at Nazareth, then sat down and declared that this prophetic vision was now coming to pass through him, there was more than personal redemption at work. God’s kingdom … was now officially at work in his followers. That society was overturning the injustices and exclusions of the empire and establishing an inclusive and just alternative … Any gospel that is not announcing a new society at work in the world, what the apostle Paul called the church, is simply not a robust gospel.[4]

He concludes:

The Bible is about God’s people, the community of faith. The church is not an institution that provides benefits for individual Christians so they can carry on their personal relationship with God until that church can no longer provide what they need. Instead, the church is the focus of God’s redemptive work on earth in the present age.[5]

If God has called you, this is what he called you to.

If Jesus has saved you, this is what he saved you for.

If the Spirit is at work within you, sanctifying you, this is the fruit he desires for you, the blessing he wants you to be, the mission on which he sends you into the world.

Far away there is a place called Flatland, where different geometric forms all lived in a two-dimensional universe, like a giant sheet of poster paper until, one day, Flatlanders were visited by a sphere.

Imagine a ball sliced into 100 slices that you could only observe one slice at a time. The Flatlanders could only see the sphere in two dimensions; to them the sphere seemed to grow larger, then smaller, and then completely disappear as the ball passed by.

Sphere-ness was beyond their comprehension, unimaginable.

“How did you change sizes?” asked a circle from Flatland, “And where did you go?”

“I didn’t change sizes at all. It’s a matter of perspective,” the sphere answered. “I did not disappear; I just went up.”

“What’s up?” asked the Flatlander. The sphere picked up the flat circle and stood it on its side. “This is up,” he said.

“Wheeeee!” said the Flatlander. ‘Up’ was the most wonderful experience the flat circle had ever had. So with excitement and rejoicing, he ran to tell his friends the squares and triangles about ‘up.’

But they refused to believe him and instead put him to death for false teachings.

That’s how Jesus came to us, a sphere to our Flatland, helping us see beyond the level of our ordinary existence, to seek new horizons.

Jesus gave us a new way of seeing the world, and he called it the kingdom of God, and he invites you to join him in his kingly rule, for the good of the world.


Sermon 621 copyright © 2014 Rod Benson. Preached at Lake Joondalup Baptist Church, Perth, Australia, on Sunday 21 September 2014. Unless otherwise noted, Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, New International Version (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011).



[1] Original source unknown. This version copyright (c) 2001 Rod Benson.

[2] Scot McKnight, “The 8 marks of a robust gospel,” Christianity Today, March 2008, available at

[3] Ibid., my emphasis.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

A pastoral response to same sex marriage

A sermon preached at Toongabbie Baptist Church, Sydney, 28 September 2014

Genesis 1:27-2:1; Romans 12:18-21

 In an episode of The Simpsons, Springfield’s mayor calls for ideas to promote tourism, and Lisa Simpson suggests allowing same-sex marriages. The idea is approved and Springfield becomes the place to be for same-sex nuptials.

When Rev Lovejoy refuses to perform the ceremonies, Homer Simpson becomes a certified minister via the Internet. He marries all the gay couples in town and then starts to marry anything to anything else.[1]

As Christian ethicist David Gushee observes, [2] there are three kinds of response to the LGBT issue:

Traditionalists want to hold onto what they understand to be traditional Christian and/or cultural attitudes and practices toward aspects of the LGBT debate, including biblical interpretations, church practices, cultural attitudes, and state/national laws.

Revisionists advocate for change in biblical interpretations, church practices, cultural attitudes, and state/national laws, in search of at least a more humane context for gay and lesbian people to live their lives.

Avoiders want to avoid talking about this issue for as long as possible, for a wide variety of reasons, including genuine convictional uncertainty, fear of hurting people, and fear of conflict and schism.

We have all three kinds of people in our families, and in our Baptist churches. How did we get here? What is right and wrong when it comes to sexual diversity, and in particular same sex marriage? What does the future hold?

I want to say three things. First, we need to be clear about what marriage is, and what it isn’t. Our Commonwealth Marriage Act 1961 (amended 2004) provides a good summary of the biblical ideal for marriage: “the union of a man and a woman to the exclusion of all others, voluntarily entered into for life.”

There are two basic views of marriage.[3] The conjugal view sees marriage as a bodily, emotional and spiritual bond distinguished by its comprehensiveness, “flowing out into the wide sharing of family life and ahead to lifelong fidelity.” This view is reflected in the law, art, literature, philosophy, religion and social practice of Western civilization. “In marriage, so understood, the world rests its hope and finds ultimate renewal.”

The revisionist view sees marriage as a loving, emotional bond distinguished by its intensity, a bond that need not point beyond the partners in the here and now, where fidelity is subject to personal desire. This is the view that has informed marriage law reform since the 1970s. “In marriage, so understood, partners seek emotional fulfilment, and remain as long as they find it.”

In saying this, I am not suggesting that there are not sound reasons for separation, divorce and remarriage. I am merely pointing out that what we witness today in marriage policy debate is the clash of opposing worldviews.

I uphold the conjugal view of marriage – “a natural bond that society or religion can only ‘solemnise’.”[4] It is a natural bond that God has ordained and Christ has blessed, and the church seeks to protect and proclaim.

Second, we need to try to understand why there is strong pressure to widen the legal definition of marriage to include same sex couples.

  • sentiment: an emphasis on romantic/emotional feelings as the basis for couple
  • selfishness: the triumph of individualism and human autonomy
  • secularism: the severing of society from its traditional moral and spiritual moorings
  • subversion: organised attempts to undermine and degrade Christian institutions and ways of ordering society

Third, we need to act on our convictions about marriage, and about our public responsibility as Christians, both within the church and in the wider society. And we need to cultivate civility, respect and goodwill toward everyone.

The parable of the Good Samaritan (Lk 10:25-37) teaches several important ethical lessons. Consider just one. As I read the story, I imagine the priest and the Levite walking by the person in need, and asking the question: “If I stop and help, what will happen to me?”

And I imagine the Samaritan stopping, and observing the injured man, perhaps close to death, bleeding and groaning into the dust, and asking the question, “If I don’t stop and help, what will happen to him?”

We need to be less isolationist, less exclusive, and shape our communities and networks into places of inclusiveness and hospitality where people feel safe and welcome, and where their real and felt needs are met with genuine compassion.

We need to have the courage to offer genuine hospitality to those who are different from us, to welcome all people into our church life, and our family life, regardless of sexual orientation and practice. I believe that is the way of Jesus, that is what Jesus calls his church to be and do.

And we need to have the courage to hold fast to what we believe about sex and marriage, regardless of the strong pressures to be silent or to modify our views. I believe that too is what Jesus calls us to. Jesus stands for the truth, for a godly counter-cultural worldview, for the “old paths” necessary for human flourishing.

But what do we do when the issue of same sex marriage goes local, and the clash of worldviews invades our denomination, or our church, or our family, or threatens to destroy important friendships? The people around us have a greater need to see and feel the grace and mercy of God than to be convinced that we are right and they are wrong. Showing love is more important than being right.

We also celebrate the human right to freedom of conscience as a Baptist distinctive, accepting that there will be a measure of diversity in belief and practice among us, expressed within mutually agreed boundaries of orthodoxy.

And yet, the church also plays a vital social role in preserving established traditions that are shaped by justice and mercy, and that deliver security and stability to the wider community and facilitate human flourishing. Faith communities have a legitimate interest in ensuring that such social traditions are reflected in civil law.

But we also need to recognise that law is a human construct. Laws do not descend, fully-formed, from heaven to our parliaments and judiciaries. Law is not always a good guide. Law tends to shape beliefs, beliefs shape behaviour, and beliefs and behaviour affect human interests and wellbeing. Therefore bad marriage laws will lead to mistaken views (of marriage, friendship, parenting, and moral and religious beliefs) that will, perhaps unintentionally, harm the human interests affected by beliefs and behaviour.[5]

This is why Baptists in Australia, in concert with an affirmation of the clear biblical teaching about marriage and family, overwhelmingly oppose moves to introduce same sex marriage laws.

If the Australian Parliament or one of the States or Territories enacts same sex marriage laws, it may be preferable for Baptists to advocate the formal separation of the legal and religious aspects of marriage, as is already done in many countries. This would help to reduce the constant war of words between those for and against same sex marriage.

It would also allow Christians and others whose religious faith shapes their understanding of marriage to emphasise those values in a ceremony in which the state does not intrude.

There are strong and conflicting arguments surrounding the appropriateness of homosexual orientation, homosexual genital sex, same-sex marriage, and the stance of the church. For some, the biblical teaching alone is sufficient to decide the issue; for others, history and experience must also be considered in reaching justified conclusions; for still others, homosexuality is a justice or human rights issue similar to those of race and gender, and the church must change to accommodate a new understanding of human freedom and justice.

These differences, and the underlying theological and philosophical principles that underlie them, are not likely to be reconciled any time soon. Traditionalists, revisionists and avoiders alike need to be respected and understood, and we all need to learn to live together well, especially within the church.

I close with some wise and hopeful words from Stanley Grenz:

Christians are compelled to accept and acknowledge persons, regardless of lifestyle, as objects of God’s compassion, concern, and love … For Christians of either sexual orientation, the call to live out one’s sexuality in ways that bring honor to God is a difficult challenge, especially in the midst of our permissive society. Yet, the resources of the Holy Spirit are greater than the difficulty of the calling, and obedience to the divine design is the path of greater joy.”[6]

And this from the Apostle Paul, in Romans 12:18-21:

If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.  Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. On the contrary: “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.”
In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head. Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.



Sermon 622 copyright © 2014 Rod Benson. Preached at Toongabbie Baptist Church, Sydney, Australia, on Sunday 28 September 2014. Unless otherwise noted, Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, New International Version (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011).


[1] Episode 345, “There’s something about marrying,” written by J. Stewart Burns, first aired 20 Feb 2005.

[2], accessed 27 Sep 2014.

[3] Sherif Girgis, Ryan T. Anderson & Robert P. George, What is Marriage? Man and Woman: A Defense (New York: Encounter Books, 2012), pp. 1-2.

[4] Ibid., p. 2.

[5] Girgis et al, op. cit., p. 54.

[6] Stanley J. Grenz, Sexual Ethics: An Evangelical Perspective (second edn; Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1997), p. 246.

John Saunders: Baptist pastor and activist

Speech at the Sydney launch of Ken R. Manley & Barbara Coe (eds), John Saunders: Baptist Pastor and Activist 1834-1848 (Sydney: Greenwood Press, 2014).

Rod Benson, 9 August 2014

When Dr Michael Frost addressed a meeting of the Baptist Historical Society two decades ago, on the evangelistic ministry of the Reverend C. J. Tinsley, he commended Tinsley to our members as an “inspiring” leader from whom we could all learn.

One could say the same of the Reverend John Saunders, and arguably with greater warrant. Indeed, the Tinsley Institute might have been named after John Saunders were it not for certain practical considerations and the distance in years between Saunders’ ministry and our own time.

Ken Manley and Barbara Coe have done our churches, and historians of Australian colonial life, a great service in collating and editing the Saunders letters and related documents, and shaping them along with lively commentary into a splendid “documentary biography” published in this handsome volume by Greenwood Press and the Baptist Historical Society of NSW.

As the Reverend Tim Costello observes in his foreword, Saunders was “effectively the founder of Baptists in Australia.” He continues:

If our denomination had known and told his story and, more importantly, followed his theological instincts, then we may have had a profoundly clearer voice and seen a greater impact of the gospel shaping our public life … Instead we Baptists have been ‘bit’ players in the major debates without a clear gospel anchor that was compelling and persuasive (p. v.)

Saunders was an outstanding preacher, wise pastor, strategic church planter, supporter of world mission, and exemplar of Christian social responsibility.

In spiritual and temporal fields, he excelled amid difficulty and privation, and achieved lasting positive change for the glory of God, the development of the Baptist denomination, and the betterment of colonial society.

On social issues his robust evangelical faith and enlightened social conscience united in vigorous pursuit of temperance, Aboriginal justice, an end to the convict system, increased European immigration, the alleviation of poverty and disease, and the education of children and adults.

Saunders maintained a balance between evangelical distinctives (such as they were in the second quarter of the nineteenth century) and the social expression of those convictions, which led him to engage in various forms of social responsibility.  He also recognised the importance of individual effort if the whole gospel and all its fruit were to be fully manifest. Yet he invested supreme confidence in the power of the Christian gospel to change hearts and to transform societies.

An excellent example of this confidence is the address which Saunders presented at the Annual Meeting of the London Missionary Society’s Australian Auxiliary in August 1842, meeting in the Reverend John Dunmore Lang’s church.

Saunders described the work of the LMS as “supremely good,” and observed that, if the church had worked to preserve herself from selfishness from the beginning,

we should not have heard in the present day of missions; for the work of evangelization would have been completed. But after the Gospel was first propagated, men seem to have forgotten their high responsibility, political ambition usurped the place of piety, and a desire for ecclesiastical rule stood in the stead of a regard for the salvation of men and the propagation of the Gospel.[1]

Saunders then gave an account of the rise of modern missions in England, and their progress throughout the world, acknowledging that, while “we cannot expect fruit from a tree just planted – yet how much has been effected by the instrumentality of these societies.

He went on to mention the abolition of slavery, the cessation of the widespread practices of widow-burning and infanticide, and ascribed these advances to “the power of God, for we have learnt that it is not by might nor by power, but by the Spirit of the living God that these things have been accomplished.”[2]

His convictions about the need for social transformation clearly flowed from his evangelical understanding of Scripture, theology and ethics.  His convictions on the mission of the church, and pastoral ministry, flowed from the same spring. In many ways, he is both an inspiration and an exemplar of what we hold to be true and vital in religious belief and practice as Baptists in 2014.

This book, the culmination of some thirty years of painstaking labour by the editors and others, provides a significant and detailed contribution to the primary and secondary sources for the life and ministry of John Saunders.

I am convinced that it is no exaggeration to claim that this volume will become the standard work on the effective founder of colonial Baptist work in Sydney and more widely in Australia.  It is an honour to commend the book to you today, in the hope that you will all buy a copy, dip into its rich pages, discover more of the man and his work, and be inspired by the example of one of the greats of our Baptist heritage.


[1] The Sydney Herald, 26 August 1842, p. 2.

[2] Ibid, pp. 2-3.

Christian approaches to war in the light of the biblical command not to kill

A public address by Rod Benson, 12 March 2009

Thank you for the kind invitation to address this gathering of the Council of Christians and Jews in what is a very beautiful Sydney building, the Great Synagogue.

It has not escaped my notice that, two days after the Rudd Government reversed the previous Government’s policy and allowed Australian foreign aid to be used to fund overseas abortions, and two days after five of the world’s most notorious terrorists declared in court documents that the tragic events of 9/11, in which approximately 3,000 innocent civilians died, were “the great legitimate duty in our religion … our offerings to God,”[1] we have come to discuss the practice of war in the light of the biblical command “You shall not kill.” I shall be speaking as a Christian.

Is it ever right to engage in a war, or a legitimate armed intervention? A Christian is a citizen of this world and of the world to come (Php 3:20; 1:27). When these two commitments are in conflict, as occurs from time to time, which one takes precedence? Do I follow conscience or country? Scripture or state? Christ or Caesar?

In his book, Living By the Sword? Anglican bishop Tom Frame declares that there is

a wide range of circumstances in which force can and must be used, and that the ends for which this force is used impart to military service a certain nobility and morality that is not discounted by the regrettable and tragic circumstances that prompt it …

War can never be abolished, or armies be made redundant, while there is human sinfulness – and the obligation to resist evil remains. To say that there will be times when force is needed does not discredit or cancel out the call to work for the transformation of unjust structures or the responsibility to chastise those who resort to force without adequate justification, or who justifiably resort to force but use excessive amounts, or who apply it for the wrong reasons. Knowing the time and the place in which the ‘sword’ can or ought be drawn will continue to determine whether its use will bring humanity nearer to heaven or to hell.[2]

Christians in general, Protestants in particular, and perhaps especially Baptists such as myself, have a high regard for Holy Scripture. We listen to what we understand God to be saying to us through “the Word of God written,” including the Torah, including the Decalogue. And we place this witness, these truths and rumours of Truth in the context of the whole of Scripture and of our tradition and experience.

But our attitude toward war – toward armed conflict – is not usually primarily shaped by biblical principles but by our family history, our parents’ religious and moral views, our own sense of national pride or patriotism, our sense of debt or duty to our country, or even by a desire to engage in military combat in order to gain experience of the world, or personal status or glory, or to relieve what we perceive to be the boredom and meaningless of modern living.

How Christians think about war is also related to our views about philosophy and politics, regardless of how well informed or ill-defined or carefully weighed those views may be. It is linked to our perspective on whether a Christian may use force to bring about just changes.

Or we simply do not think critically about ethical issues like war.

While the Bible never glorifies warfare, armed conflict features regularly in its pages. We may think of the Old Testament as celebrating war and the New Testament as celebrating peace; or the Old Testament God as vengeful and vindictive and the New Testament God as gracious and genial.

Or we may identify war in the Old Testament as holy war, while we feel the New Testament supports pacifism, and church history after Constantine and Augustine advocates the higher good of just war.

Or within Old Testament history we may discern an early warlike ideology that gradually gives way to the more progressive and pacifist views of the eighth century prophets.

But the reality is more complex. For example, Ex 20:13 declares “you shall not murder”; but Gen 9:6 seems to give clear justification for murder. Ex 14:13 articulates a preference for pacifism, but Ex 17:8-13 describes divinely approved warfare.

In Lk 3:14 John the Baptist receives some soldiers as converts to his movement. He asks them not to misuse their military power.

In Mt 10:34 Jesus says, “Do not suppose I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.” Yet in Mt 26:47-52 Peter uses a sword to wound an opponent who is trying to arrest Jesus, and Jesus orders Peter to put his sword away.

In Romans 12:17-21 Paul teaches that a Christian should not repay evil for evil, should live at peace with everyone, and when confronted by an enemy should offer him food and drink.

Yet the next seven verses (13:1-7) provide the strongest biblical support for the submission of the individual citizen to government.

The Old Testament presents a complex perspective on war. Narrative and propositional passages often appear to support militarism and pacifism. The New Testament presents a somewhat different perspective. Jesus is the Prince of Peace (cf Isa 9:6) who came to establish a society and commend a lifestyle characterised by shalom.

Jesus chose as his weapon not a sword but a cross. He fulfilled his God-given mission not through war against the Romans, nor through violent overthrow of religious opponents, but through pacifist teaching, nonviolence and martyrdom.

Consider Matthew 26:47-52. Jesus has just celebrated the Last Supper, knowing that Judas has left to betray him. He walks to Gethsemane to pray. Judas arrives to do his business, to betray his Master, accompanied by a mob armed with swords and clubs.

Peter steps forward, swings his sword, and severs the ear of the nearest thug. Jesus heals the wounded man, and says to Peter, “Put your sword back in its place, for all who draw the sword will die by the sword” (v 52).

Is Jesus advocating pacifism? Is he endorsing a lifestyle of complete nonviolence? When Tertullian declared in relation to Matthew 26:52, that “The Lord, in subsequently disarming Peter, disarmed every soldier,” he was arguing on philosophical or moral grounds, not on biblical grounds.[3]

As Matthew has it, Jesus did not disapprove of Peter carrying a sword. He disapproved of its unjust use. The moral question of using a sword (or catapult, or gun, or tank, or long-range bomber, or ICBM) in order to kill people on behalf of the state is of central importance to an ethics that is Christian, and to the moral formation of those who choose to follow the teaching and example of Jesus.

Historically Christians have made six responses to the issue of militarism, or armed intervention, or war:

  1. crusade: “this is God’s holy war!” (i.e. religious zeal)
  2. national interest war: “my nation, right or wrong!” (i.e. patriotism)
  3. just war: military conflict justified on a case-by-case basis according to predetermined ethical criteria.
  4. non-resistance: participation in military conflict as a non-combatant (e.g. ambulance, chaplaincy)
  5. pacifism: nonviolence based on the general principle that all war is wrong and should not be supported by a Christian.

Many sound reasons can be given as to why these views have persisted so strongly over such a long period. I would suggest that most thoughtful Christians today, perhaps uncritically, support the just war position. They distinguish the biblical teaching that a Christian should be an advocate of peace from the God-given duty of government to restrain and punish evil. At the same time, many would want to promote, or at least consider, a sixth response – that of just peacemaking.

Just peacemaking is viewed by Baptist ethicist Glenn Stassen as an alternative to the common choice made by many people of faith between pacifism and just-war theory. It is a multi-disciplinary approach to peace which includes practices such as:

  • sustainable economic development
  • advancement of human rights, democracy and religious liberty
  • working with emerging cooperative forces in the international system
  • cooperative conflict resolution

Just peacemaking seeks effective ways to restore a just and enduring peace before opposing parties (whether individuals, tribal groups or nation states) resort to the last resort and begin killing each other. In my view, this approach needs wider publicity and more practical support at every level.

At the end of the day, Christians do not agree on the best approach to war. The just war approach seems to me to provide a close fit with the range of biblical teaching on peace and conflict, while taking seriously the ethical issues of modern combat and defence.

But the just war approach does not adequately speak to the new challenges of nuclear war, or religiously based terrorism of the kind we have seen since September 11, 2001.

We do not live in an ideal world but in the real world. There needs to be a place reserved within Christian ethics for hard-nosed realism and pragmatism as we approach sensitive discussions and ethical responses to issues of armed intervention and conflict.

I want to conclude with a quote from the book, Christianity and Power Politics, published in 1948 by Christian realist theologian and ethicist Reinhold Niebuhr:

It is a terrible thing to take human life. The conflict between man and man and nation and nation is tragic. If there are men who declare that, no matter what the consequences, they cannot bring themselves to participate in this slaughter, the Church ought to be able to say to the general community: We quite understand this scruple and we respect it. It proceeds from the conviction that the true end of man is brotherhood, and that love is the law of life.

We who allow ourselves to become engaged in war need this testimony of the absolutist against us, lest we accept the warfare of the world as normative, lest we become callous to the horror of war, and lest we forget the ambiguity of our own actions and motives and the risk we run of achieving no permanent good from this momentary anarchy in which we are involved.[4]

Thank you.

[1] “We are terrorists to the bone,”, 10 Mar 2009.

[2] Tom Frame, Living By the Sword? The Ethics of Armed Intervention (Sydney: University of NSW Press, 2004), pp. 23, 243.

[3] Tertullian, “Treatise on Idolatry,” in J. Helgeland et al., Christians and the Military: The Early Experience (London: SCM Press, 1987) 23.

[4] Reinhold Niebuhr, “Why the Christian Church is not pacifist,” in Arthur F. Holmes (ed.), War and Christian Ethics: Classic and Contemporary Readings on the Morality of War (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2005), p. 313.

Post Navigation


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 50 other followers

%d bloggers like this: