iDigress

Musings of an antipodean contrarian

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.


References

[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,” http://www.france24.com/en/print/4544520, 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.

Is casting lots a justification for gambling?

What were people in biblical times doing when they cast lots? Should Christians practice this in decision-making today? Is casting lots a justification for gambling?

Casting lots in biblical times

The practice of rolling dice or selecting the short straw to make important decisions was common in biblical times. The practice often appears to relate to inheritance or entitlement rather than fate.

  • The Israelites sometimes determined the will of God by casting lots (e.g. Exodus 28:30; Leviticus 8:8).
  • Special favours were granted by lot (e.g. Leviticus 16:8-10; Micah 2:5; Nehemiah 10:34; 11:1).
  • The tribes of Israel divided the promised land by casting lots (e.g. Numbers 26: 52-56; 33:54; 36:1f; Joshua 14:1-2; Ezekiel 45:1; 48:29).
  • Charges of guilt were confirmed by casting lots (Joshua 7:13-18).
  • Israelite kings were chosen and tactical military decisions decided by lot (e.g. 1 Samuel 10:20-23; 14:41f; Judges 20:9).
  • Saul determined that his son Jonathan had eaten honey by drawing lots (1 Kings 14:58).
  • Priests and administrators were assigned duties by lot (e.g. 1 Chronicles 24:5-7, 31; 26:14-16; Luke 1:9).
  • The practice of casting lots is commended as a reliable means of conflict resolution (Proverbs 18:18).
  • Pagan sailors used lots to identify Jonah as the source of ill fate and threw him overboard (Jonah 1:7).
  • God’s will is said to be revealed to pagan kings through lots (Ezekiel 21:21).
  • Lots were cast to determine the recipients captives and booty in wartime (Obadiah 11; Nahum 3:10; Psalm 22:18).
  • All four Gospels have the soldiers casting lots for the garments of Jesus at his crucifixion (Matthew 27:35; Mark 15:24; Luke 23:34; John 19:24) – and John sees this as the fulfilment of Psalm 22:18.
  • Apostles cast lots, following a time of prayer, to determine who should succeed Judas as one of the Twelve (Acts 1:23-26).
  • Paul teaches that Christians were chosen in Christ (lit. [Christ] “in whom our lot is cast” – Ephesians 1:11).

It appears that guidance by casting lots was permitted in ancient Israel only when carried out in obedience to God, who was free to refuse to give an answer (e.g. 1 Samuel 14:37; 28:6). Although lots may appear to be ruled by fate, or the randomness inherent in the universe, it seems that it was generally understood in ancient Israel that the sovereignty of God overrides this (Proverbs 16:33).

The book of Esther celebrates the Jewish festival of Purim, named after the pur, small clay cubes, similar to modern dice, used by ancient pagans to discover the will of the gods. Ironically, Haman, the main antagonist in the Esther narrative, used the pur to determine the date on which the Jewish people were to be annihilated, but it was actually the day of his own death by impalement. What appeared to be coincidence ultimately delivered extraordinary favour for the people of God, but there is no indication that they were required to use the pur to discover God’s will.

Christian philosopher Dallas Willard observes that God “spoke” to individuals or groups within the biblical record in six ways:

  • phenomenon plus voice
  • supernatural messenger or angel
  • dreams and visions
  • audible voice
  • the human voice
  • the “human spirit,” or the “still small voice.”[1]

To this list we could legitimately add the casting of lots.

Decision-making in the church today

Should our churches, then, reintroduce the practice of casting lots? Could decisions at Association meetings be made in this manner? Is the casting of lots, undergirded by the faithful prayers of God’s people, preferable to other reliable methods of discerning the will of God? Or is it merely arbitrary, capitulation to fate, an easy way out? Did the need for decision by lots pass away after the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, or when the canon of Scripture was completed or determined?

Throughout history, theologians and pastors have offered different answers to these questions, and this is not the place to assess the reasonableness of their thought or motives. However, it seems clear that, when accompanied by prayer, and by godly leadership and administration, the casting of lots is a legitimate means for decision-making.

The fact that the practice has fallen out of favour, or into disuse, in an era devoted to the exaltation of human agency and rational argument in church life (ironically despite the encouragements of postmodern ways of thinking), does not necessarily imply that it is careless, out-dated or ungodly. Perhaps we shall see a resurgence of the practice in church life. Perhaps we should cast lots to determine whether this is the way to go.

Casting lots and gambling

Is the biblical practice of casting lots a justification for gambling? There are analogies between the presumed randomness of the outcome of casting lots and modern gambling activities such as lotteries, pokies and other games of chance. However, there is no logical link between gambling and the biblical practice of casting lots. The detrimental impacts of gambling illustrate the substantive difference between gambling for monetary gain and casting lots for decision-making.

Gambling is a popular form of entertainment, but its addictive potential and capacity to subvert the common good leads many Christians to conclude that it should be avoided – especially when there are many other less harmful forms of entertainment available for consumption.


 

[1] Dallas Willard, In Search of Guidance: Developing a Conversational Relationship with God (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1993), pp. 93-105.

Reflections on ordination

A sermon by Rod Benson

Sunday 10 October 1999

The great nineteenth-century Christian leader, Charles Haddon Spurgeon, described by many as “the prince of preachers,” occupied the pulpit of London’s New Park Street Baptist Church and its successor, the renowned Metropolitan Tabernacle, from 1854 to 1892.

When asked if he were a Doctor of Divinity, he is said to have replied, “I was not aware that the Divinity was in need of a doctor!”

On another occasion, when asked if he was ordained, Spurgeon is reputed to have replied, “I cannot see what putting your empty hands on my empty head would accomplish!” Spurgeon was never ordained, never used the title “Reverend,” and remained Mr Spurgeon to the end of his life.[1]

Regardless of Spurgeon’s personal convictions and practical conventions – and, I should add, those of a number of prominent Baptist leaders today – ordination was practised and commended in the Bible, and some form of ordination is practised today by almost every Christian denomination.

Today I want to consider the biblical and theological foundations of ordination, and close with some personal reflections in view of my recent ordination to the ministry of the Word.

The words “ordain” and “ordination” derive from the Latin meaning “to set in order” and implying appointment to an office or function. The KJV uses the verb “to ordain” to render about 30 different Hebrew and Greek words. But general biblical principles and practices are not hard to identify.

In the Old Testament, for example, we read that God has “set in place” the moon and stars (Psalm 8:3). God “provided a place” for his people Israel to dwell (1 Chronicles 17:9).  Aaron and his sons were consecrated to serve as priests offering blood sacrifices to God on behalf of the people (Exodus 28-29).  Levites were appointed as servants of God (Numbers 3-8). The seventy elders were appointed to assist Moses (Numbers 11, 24-25). Joshua was commissioned as Moses’ successor (Numbers 27). Jeremiah was appointed by God as a prophet to the nations (Jeremiah 1:5). And so on.

In the New Testament we find a similar pattern. Jesus appointed the Twelve to serve in apostolic ministries (Mark 3:14). The Apostles appointed Matthias to replace Judas among the Twelve by casting lots (Acts 1:12-26).

God appointed Paul “as a servant and as a witness” (Acts 26:16). Paul and Barnabas appointed elders in the new congregations (Acts 14:23).

In a more general sense, the Lord commanded that those who preach the gospel should receive their living from the gospel (1 Corinthians 9:14); and the Great Commission effectively appoints every follower of Christ to specialised Christian ministry (Matthew 28:18-20).

The New Testament provides five passages of special significance for the practice and protocols of ordination. First, in Acts 6:1-6 we read how seven leaders of the early church were set apart to specialised ministry in order to allow the Twelve to concentrate on prayer and ministry of the Word.

They were all men of spiritual distinction, chosen by the church at Jerusalem to assume new roles. The original language of the text does not clarify whether it was the Apostles or the whole church who laid hands on them, but the practice may have followed the mass ordination of the Levites (Numbers 8:10).

Along with the laying on of hands, prayer was offered – probably that the Lord would bless the seven in their new sphere of Christian service.

Second, in Acts 13:1-3, we find Barnabas and Paul set apart for missionary service. Here the Holy Spirit spoke, presumably through a prophet, and again we find the church engaging in prayer and laying on of hands. Both candidates were already recognised leaders, commissioned for a new sphere of service.

Third, in Acts 14:23, while on their first missionary journey, Paul and Barnabas appointed elders in the churches at Derbe, Lystra and Iconium, committing these leaders of new churches to the Lord with prayer and fasting.  In a more established church, of course, it would have been appropriate for the congregation to identify and appoint their own leaders.

Fourth, in 1 Timothy 4:14, Paul advises his young ministry partner, and eventual successor, “Do not neglect your gift, which was given you through a prophetic message when the body of elders laid their hands on you.”

It is important to keep in mind that when Paul wrote to Timothy he was not writing a church handbook nor a theological treatise. He was writing a letter of encouragement and instruction to a friend.  But through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit and the providence of God such letters also inform our faith and practice.

Fifth, in 2 Timothy 1:6, Paul further instructs Timothy, “. . . fan into flame the gift of God, which is in you through the laying on of my hands” – probably a reference to 1 Timothy 4:14.

Why does Paul say “my hands” here? In 1 Timothy 4, Paul sought to authenticate Timothy’s spiritual leadership gifts, rather than have him quench the Spirit through natural timidity. Here, he focuses on his own involvement in Timothy’s ordination, and appeals to their close personal ties.[2]

We may conclude, then, that in the New Testament ordination usually has the sense of divine appointment, designated authority and (spiritual) ministry to people. Ordination recognises the personal character and leadership gifts, and the prior call of God, in the life of the ordinand.

In our Baptist churches, we usually only ordain men and women who have:

(a) sensed the subjective call of God to serve, usually full-time, in ministry;

(b) evidenced appropriate leadership gifts;

(c) evidenced a godly Christian character;

(d) been recognised by the people of God as appropriate ordinands;

(e) been tested by the wider church in a range of areas;

(f) received training to stretch and inform the mind, and learned practical ministry skills;

(g) had their call confirmed by receiving and accepting a pastoral call from a local congregation to exercise pastoral leadership among them.

The preconditions are significant, and the process of gaining ordination is rigorous – as it should be for such a high calling.

In New South Wales, for example, the testing by the wider church includes a series of interviews with the Committee for the Ministry on the candidate’s call and commitment, personality and pastoralia, doctrine and denominationalism, academic potential, gifts for ministry, and any area of speciality deemed appropriate, such as fitness for missionary service.

You can have every confidence in the people accredited and ordained by our Baptist family of churches. You are well served.

I want to make five brief theological comments about ordination as we practise it.

First, while we ordain our leaders, we recognise the biblical principle and Baptist distinctive of the priesthood of all believers. Ordination is not about privileged status but about particular function.  It does not change the candidate’s standing before God; it does not impart a special measure of grace to the ordinand; it does not signify apostolic succession, as implied in Roman Catholic and some Anglican churches.  And ordination is certainly not an initiation to priesthood, authorising the ordinand as a priest offering blood sacrifices and mediating between God and the church, as in Roman Catholic teaching. All the people of God are priests.

Nor does ordination convey special authority to preside at the Lord’s table, or to preach the Word of God, or to baptise. As Paul Beasley-Murray says,

Where the pastor baptizes or presides at the Lord’s Table, the pastor does so, not by virtue of being a priest mediating between God and his people, but by virtue of being the recognised and trusted leader of God’s flock. Indeed, there is no Scriptural reason why anyone may not perform either function provided it is at the initiation of the church.[3]

Second, ordination represents a person’s setting apart for ministry without denominational or geographical qualification, and without differentiation of roles and functions.

There are moves today to discontinue the practice of ordination entirely in Baptist church life, and replace it with denominational accreditation alone. In my opinion this seriously devalues Christian ministry and ignores our rich heritage as Baptists.

As I see it, ordination is about consecration, and accreditation (while absolutely necessary) fills a distinctly secondary function of certification. Ordination is universal and general, while accreditation is the recognition of a person by a particular body for a certain role or position.

Third, in a Baptist context ordination is to be viewed as indelible: it is for life and is not rescinded. Once ordained, always ordained. There is no need to be re-ordained when one moves to a new church or a new sphere of service.

Fourth, in ordination the church recognises God’s prior ordination and gifting of the candidate, and ratifies the candidate’s inner conviction, calling and fitness for ministry.

Fifth, ordination recognises the candidate’s new responsibility and sphere of service within the local church, and the wider fellowship of churches.  Christian ministry in general, and leadership in the local church in particular, is often a difficult, painful, exhausting and thankless task. That is why, as I said last week, the Chief Shepherd promises a crown of glory to pastors and elders who serve God faithfully and well (1 Peter 5:1-4).

I close with some personal remarks. Why was I ordained? Despite my strong Plymouth Brethren heritage, with its general eschewal of professional pastors and a “paid ministry,” I believe ordination and full-time Christian ministry, and effective spiritual leadership are absolutely vital to the health of the church. I sought ordination because I felt called and gifted by God to teach and preach his Word, and to lead the people of God according to his will.

My ordination service represented the end of a long process of training, equipping and accreditation. It represents the threshold of a new stage of life and ministry. And, importantly, it represents the formal recognition and affirmation of my call to ministry by the churches.

May we see many more young men and women of God counting the cost, preparing for ministry, and serving the Lord Jesus Christ with their whole lives. And may we see our churches grow and prosper under godly and excellent leadership, and thus reach out to others in evangelism and mission and social transformation. For that is why God calls and equips his people.

 


 

Copyright © 1999 Rod Benson. Sermon 275 presented at Blakehurst Baptist Church, Sydney, Australia, on Sunday 10 October 1999. Unless otherwise noted, Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible: New International Version (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1980).

[1] Peter Cotterell, “The ministry: Time for reformation,” in Paul Beasley-Murray (ed.), Anyone For Ordination? A Contribution to the Debate on Ordination (Tunbridge Wells: Monarch Publications, 1993) 35, 43.

[2] Gordon Fee, 1 & 2 Timothy and Titus (Massachusetts: Hendrickson, 1984) 226.

[3] Beasley-Murray, 168.

Justice for the unborn

A sermon by Rod Benson, 8 June 2014

Job 31:13-15

According to new Family Planning data, NSW teenagers have the highest abortion rates in the country, with more teens ending pregnancies than choosing to become parents.  Estimates suggest there were 4053 abortions among NSW teens aged 15-19 in 2009, roughly double the number in Victoria, Tasmania and Queensland.

Family Planning NSW Chief Executive Ann Brassil said a parent’s ability to give their child the “birds and bees” talk could be the key to combating “unwanted” pregnancy.

For many of us, this information raises more questions than it answers:

  • Why are abortion rates seemingly so high in NSW?
  • In what sense can a pregnancy be defined as “unwanted”?
  • Why are precise data not available for the number of abortions performed in Australia?
  • Surely there’s more to good sex education than a parent’s ability to explain copulation?

Those are important questions for another day, but they do get us thinking. Today I want to talk about abortion and social justice and God.  And I want to frame my sermon by taking some words out of the mouth of that great Old Testament patriarch Job, who suffered so terribly, and learned so painfully, and lived so faithfully, and in doing so discovered that God is transcendent but also trustworthy; he can be perplexing but he is always patient; he is great but he is good.

In Job 31:13-15, toward the end of his last speech, Job says to his companions, the well-meaning clowns who have tried their best to comfort him in his affliction and failed:

If I have denied justice to any of my servants, whether male or female,
when they had a grievance against me,what will I do when God confronts me?  

What will I answer when called to account?

Did not he who made me in the womb make them? Did not the same one form us both within our mothers?

Job lived in a traditional community where a slave was regarded as a chattel, as property. Job is a very rich man who has wielded enormous power and influence, but he recognises that claims to justice override ownership rights.  And he believes that if he withholds justice from anyone, God may well withhold mercy from him when he appears before God to be judged in the afterlife.

The reason for this conviction is clear: both he and the slave – any slave – started out as absolute equals in their respective wombs.  Social class and status do not matter. Nor do place of birth, or religious adherence, or cultural identity, or skin colour or other physical attributes. All are equal in conception and birth from the perspective of social justice.  Even a slave in the time of Job had rights at law, guaranteed by God, including the right to initiate a lawsuit against his or her master.

Our common humanity levels all, and elevates all, to a position of intrinsic worth as persons made in the image of God and therefore precious to God and deserving of justice and mercy and compassion (see Job 10:8-13; Eph 6:9).[1]

So too the unborn child.

This is the principle underlying the so-called Zoe Bill currently before the NSW Parliament. The bill was introduced by Member for The Entrance, Chris Spence, in 2013 to amend the Crimes Act to allow criminal liability for the death of a foetus at least 20 weeks old.

The bill was prompted after a baby was delivered stillborn when her mother was struck by a car in Mr Spence’s electorate in 2009. Under current law, the destruction of an unborn child constitutes grievous bodily harm to the mother only and does not recognise the unborn child in its own right.

Legal and medical experts have expressed concern that the bill might limit women’s access to late-term abortions, while others have questioned giving personhood to a foetus. But this is arguably a case of the law catching up with informed public sentiment, and I believe politicians should support the bill.

Let me be clear: the Zoe bill specifically excludes abortion from its reach. But the principle of protection and justice on the basis of intrinsic worth also applies to unborn children at risk of abortion.

If our society has denied justice to any child, whether male or female, when they were at risk of being killed by medical or chemical abortion,what will we do when God confronts us?  

What will we answer when called to account?

Did not he who made us in the womb make them? Did not the same one form us all within our mothers?

In what ways do we routinely deny justice to those not yet born?

In what ways do we deny justice to persons for whom God declares we have both a theological responsibility and a social obligation to uphold their rights, administer justice, and provide adequate care and protection?

We are all priceless gifts from God. Each of us is of equal value, possesses equal rights, and should have equal freedom to take their first breath, and to be loved, and to flourish and in time give back to the community that has nurtured them.

As Job recognised, each of us has ultimate and personal accountability to God, and to divine justice, the serious business of living before a holy and Almighty God, at once both blissful and terrifying if we care to think deeply about it.

Why do we believe all human life is sacred? Because God created us all in his image; because of the emphasis in Scripture on the serious consequences of murder; and because God in his wisdom and grace ordained for his eternal Son to be incarnated in Mary’s womb and be born in Bethlehem, just as you and I were born to our mothers.

God profoundly values the unborn child. The Bible speaks of God’s intimate knowledge of, and relation to, the person-yet-to-be-born.  The church follows God’s lead in affirming this intrinsic worth, and in defending the defenceless, the vulnerable, the least influential members of our community, one life and one breath and one heartbeat at a time.

In his commentary on the book of Job, and in particular what it was that made Job’s reputation as a just person, Mike Mason suggests that

what makes an act truly great is not its bigness, but the purity of heart of the one who performs it. Practically speaking, purity of heart is difficult to achieve on a grand scale. Rather it springs from one pure thought, one pure act, one thing done in perfect purity. Purity begins when our whole lives are narrowed to one fine focus, when the whole world falls away except for the one thing that stands before us needing to be done.

When the one thing that stands before us has to do with another person’s welfare, then we have the makings of social justice … The essence of social justice is the assumption of personal responsibility for the quality of others’ lives.[2]

So don’t let anyone silence your opposition to the practice of abortion by arguing that abortion is about the exercise of free personal choices and not a matter of social justice. It is.

And don’t let anyone pressure you into letting go of what the Bible teaches about the nature of personhood, and the responsibility of female and male parents, and the sheer joy of bringing a child into the world and raising him or her with the support of a vibrant community of faith and care and unconditional love.

And if you have had an abortion, or someone close to you has had an abortion, don’t let anyone convince you that you (or your friend) are evil, or worthless, or second-rate, or beyond forgiveness.

You too are made in God’s image, precious to him, and worthy of all his love and mercy and grace. God knows your heart, and he is gracious, and he is faithful – as Job discovered long ago in a similarly overwhelming and lonely context.


Sermon 619 copyright © 2014 Rod Benson. Preached at Christ Church Blacktown, Sydney, Australia, on Sunday 8 Jun 2014. Unless otherwise noted, Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, New International Version (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011).

 

[1] Francis I. Andersen, Job (Leicester: IVP, 1976), p. 241.

[2] Mike Mason, The Gospel According to Job (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 1994), p. 322.

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