Musings of an antipodean contrarian

Speech at Retail Trading Forum

Australian Technology Park, Sydney, 12 March 2014

I bring you greetings from the Baptist Churches of NSW and the ACT, and from the NSW Council of Churches. My name is Rod Benson. I am an ordained Baptist minister, ethicist, and Public Affairs Director for the NSW Council of Churches.
I was interested to read some time ago on the Take the Time website, that:

 The extension of retail trading hours into … unsociable working times over the last 30 years has facilitated [a serious] decline in our relationships and our capacity to do the things which make us truly human. Contrary to common belief, many retail and service industry workers do not freely choose to work at these times.

It is not a question of the market, or economics, or freedom for more shopping, but a question of quality relationships, and what it takes to be truly, fully, flourishingly human. The O’Farrell Government’s move to deregulate restricted retail trading hours in NSW is an attack on shared leisure time for all of us.

Why are the churches involved? Three years ago I wrote a submission on behalf of our Baptist Churches to the NSW Government’s Review into Shop Trading Provisions. The Baptist Churches of NSW and the ACT took the view then, and continue to take it now, that:

1. All persons are created equal, without exception, in the image of God, and must therefore be treated with dignity and respect, including in the workplace.
2. Workers are not to be considered as merely instrumental in the production of goods and services.
3. Work done should be justly remunerated.
4. Workers have a right to adequate rest from their employment.
5. A healthy work-life balance delivers benefits to workers, their families, their employers and the whole community, and employers should take care not to impose responsibilities on their employees which lead to a deterioration in work-life balance.

We believe the current restrictions on retail trading hours should be retained in NSW in order to support a healthy work-life balance and to allow workers to attend, and serve as volunteers, in religious services held on restricted trading days. Four and a half days out of 365 days in a year is not too great a burden for employers to carry in support of the common good.

We do not believe that the number of restricted trading days should be reduced.

The state has a responsibility to serve and protect the interests of its citizens with respect to employment conditions and entitlements. These are easily eroded or removed by commercial and corporate pressures, and once reduced are difficult to reinstate.

Last time I checked, Jesus Christ was not in the service of the Australian Retailers Association, or any other privileged group, nor any political party. But he was committed to the welfare and just entitlements of ordinary working women and men.

Christians who identify as Baptists in NSW stand in solidarity with you and many others in opposing the proposed deregulation of retail trading arrangements in NSW.

Rod Benson is an ordained Baptist minister, and works as Ethicist and Public Theologian at the Tinsley Institute, Morling College, Sydney.

Speech for service at Richard Johnson Memorial

Text of a short speech by Rev Rod Benson at the 226th Anniversary Service of the first Christian service of worship on Australian soil, at the Richard Johnson Memorial, cnr Bligh and Hunter Streets, Sydney, Monday 3 Feb 2014.

Your Excellency the Governor, fellow ministers and pastors, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen,

I bring you greetings from the NSW Council of Churches, which warmly endorses this annual celebration of the formal beginning of Australia’s Christian heritage. I am here today representing Council President, the Reverend Dr Ross Clifford AM.

Yesterday, Christians around Australia celebrated Christian Heritage Sunday, or Thanksgiving Day as it is now known – a public event launched last year, endorsed by the NSW Council of Churches.

The first Christian Service on Australian soil took place on Sunday 3 February 1788, conducted by the fleet’s Chaplain, the Reverend Richard Johnson, just days after the First Fleet arrived at Port Jackson. Today we remember that first service, and the first sermon, and the nation-building heritage to which it gave birth.

When I was a small boy, my grandmother, who lived all her life in Sydney, brought me to this monument. We stood on the stone steps behind where I am standing today, and she told me the story of the Reverend Richard Johnson, and that first sermon, and she read aloud the words of the Psalmist that inspired Johnson’s sermon that day:

What shall I render unto the Lord
for all his benefits toward me?
I will take up the cup of salvation,
and call upon the name of the Lord. (Psalm 116:12-13, KJV)

I have never forgotten that moment, or my sense of wonder that here, in the heart of this great secular city, stands a witness to the enduring grace and truth of God, and a monument to the faithfulness and courage of one man. Perhaps we are free to celebrate his memory today in part because of his example, and the example and influence of Christian women and men of similar faith and courage.

The Christian faith has profoundly shaped Australian society, has a central place in Australian life today, and will continue to shape this nation for generations to come. God bless Australia!

Publications by Rod Benson

“The emergence of the Coptic Orthodox Church: An evangelical perspective” (with Ross Clifford), in Ramy Tadros (ed.), Free the Copts: From Ancient Glory to Modern Oppression (Sydney: Australian Coptic Movement Association, 2013), pp. 69-75.

“Bioethics and Scripture in Catholic and evangelical perspective,” in Margaret Wesley (ed.), Loss and Discovery: Responding to Grief with the Compassion of Christ and the Skills of All of God’s People (Preston, Vic.: Mosaic Press, 2013), pp. 146-155.

Review of John Dickson, Humilitas: A Lost Key to Life, Love, and Leadership, Crucible 4 (1), April 2012, available at

“Considering euthanasia,” appendix in Ross Clifford, Apologetic Preaching and Teaching for the Church and the Marketplace (Macquarie Park, NSW: Morling Press, 2011), pp. 132-139.

“A short history of the Social Issues Committee,” The Baptist Recorder 113, May 2010, pp. 12-22.

“Religious perspectives on embryo donation and research” (co-authored with Rachel A. Ankeny, Ross Clifford, Christopher F.C. Jordens & Ian H. Kerridge), Clinical Ethics (Royal Society of Medicine) 5 (1), 2010, pp. 35-45.

“A biblical view of death,” CASE 25, 2010 (Centre for Apologetic Scholarship and Education, New College, UNSW).

“On moral mission: Evangelicalism, NSW Baptists and the question of social responsibility,” in Graeme Chatfield (ed.), Mission: The Heart of Baptist Identity (Macquarie Park, NSW: Morling Press, 2009), pp. 117-137.

“Black Moses and more: The preaching ministry of Martin Luther King, Jr.” Zadok Paper S165, Summer 2008.

“Religious perspectives on withdrawal of treatment from patients with multiple organ failure” (co-authored with Rachel A. Ankeny, Ross Clifford, Christopher F.C. Jordens & Ian H. Kerridge), Medical Journal of Australia, vol. 183, no. 11/12, 5/19 Dec 2005, pp. 616-621.

Here We Stand: NSW Baptists and Contemporary Social Issues (second edition; Glebe, NSW: Baptist Union of NSW, 2004).

“Grey care: Biblical, psychospiritual and pastoral perspectives,” Zadok Perspectives 83, Winter 2004, pp. 15-19.

“Dawn of a new era or recipe for disaster?  The rise and demise of Edward Roberts-Thomson as Principal of the Baptist Theological College of New South Wales,” The Baptist Recorder 87, May 2004, pp. 5-23.

“No ‘gilded path to heaven’: The Australian ministry of William Vickars Young,” Queensland Baptist Forum 55, Aug 2003, pp. 3-7.

Conference papers by Rod Benson

“Growth in grace as a control belief for theological method,” paper presented to the Commission on Christian Ethics, Baptist World Alliance, Ocho Rios, Jamaica, 2 Jul 2013.

“Challenges and opportunities facing Australian voters at the 2013 federal election,” keynote address to Christian Democratic Party National Conference, Merroo NSW, 11 Aug 2012.

“Bioethics and Scripture in Catholic and evangelical perspective,” address to the Christian Care Network of Australia Conference, Sydney, 29 Jun 2012.

“Cooperating to reverse the deterioration in work-life balance,” speech at the launch of the Take the Time campaign, Trades Hall, Sussex St, Sydney, 20 Apr 2012.

“Follow the wild goose,” response to a paper presented by William M. Tillman titled “The Spirit of Christ and Creation,” Commission on Christian Ethics, Baptist World Alliance, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, 7 Jul 2011.

“A short history of the Social Issues Committee,” address to the Baptist Historical Society of NSW, Sydney, 4 Nov 2010.

“Stewardship and hospitality: The ethics of tourism,” address to Focus Group 15, Baptist World Congress, Honolulu, Hawaii, 29 Jul 2010.

“A biblical view of death,” keynote address to the Christian Perspectives on End of Life Issues Conference, Centre for Apologetic Scholarship and Education, New College, University of NSW, Sydney, 27 Mar 2010.

“Cooperation and cobelligerence between NSW Baptists and other faith communities since 1970,” paper presented to the Interfaces: Baptists and Others ICOBS/ABRF Conference, Whitley College, Melbourne, 17 Jul 2009.

“Christian approaches to war in the light of the biblical command not to kill,” address to a meeting of the Council of Christians and Jews, Great Synagogue, Sydney, 12 Mar 2009.

“Sex, stereotypes and Scripture,” address at the launch of Beyond Stereotypes: Christians and Homosexuality (Australian Evangelical Alliance, 2009), Robert Menzies College, Sydney, 30 Apr 2009.

“Key principles for human flourishing,” keynote address at Can Christians Make a Difference? Conference, Family Voice Australia, Sydney, 20 Sep 2008.

“Sacred gift or secular commodity? Human trafficking and human rights,” paper presented to the Christian Ethics Commission, Baptist World Alliance General Council, Prague, Czech Republic, 24 Jul 2008.

“The professional and personal witness of the Reverend John Saunders in Sydney, 1834-1842,” Inaugural John Saunders Lecture, Baptist Churches of NSW & ACT, Morling College, Sydney, 1 May 2008.

“Corrupting technology: An integrity check on the organ transplant industry,” paper presented to the Christian Ethics Commission, Baptist World Alliance General Council, Accra, Ghana, 25 Jul 2007.

“Reading virtues and the virtues of reading: Negotiating fictional morality and narrative ethics in The Chronicles of Narnia,” paper presented to C.S. Lewis Today Conference, New College, University of NSW, Sydney, 5 May 2006.

How to be like God

Ephesians 4:32-5:2

New Year’s resolutions: one of those things that always looks better in prospect than in hindsight, like over-indulgent desserts, or mothers-in-law.

How many of you made resolutions this New Year’s Eve?  Last year?  Did you keep them?  I am reminded of a woman concerned about her weight:

  • Five years ago:  I will get my weight down below 80 kg.
  • Four years ago:  I’ll follow my new diet religiously until I’m under 90 kg.
  • Three years ago:  I’ll develop a realistic attitude about my weight.
  • Two years ago:  I’ll work out three days a week.
  • Last year:  I’ll drive past a gym at least once a week.

Resolutions to be better, or do better, are an important part of the good life, but they require wisdom, courage and tenacity to be realised.

Ephesians 5:1 offers the greatest possible New Year’s resolution, appealing to the highest possible standard, and yet it is achievable.  In Ephesians 4:1, Paul launches into the second half of this magnificent letter, moving from doctrinal to ethical teaching.  In verse 1, he urges readers “to live a life worthy of the calling you have received.”  In verse 17, he insists that they “no longer live as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their thinking.”  And in chapter 5:1-2, he says, “Follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved children, and walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.”

Throughout Ephesians 4-6, Paul gives detailed instruction in how he expects Christians to live; what they should do and not do; how they should relate to one another, and toward others in the community; and above all how to cultivate Christian virtues, empowered by the Spirit of Christ who indwells each of them – virtues that will prove reliable when they face temptations and challenges, or simply when they find themselves in close proximity to people who are not very nice or not very good.

In verse 31, Paul encourages readers to expunge anger from their lives; and in verse 32, he indicates what should replace anger: “Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other.”  Then, in 5:2, Paul gives the third of three comprehensive exhortations (cf 4:1; 4:17): “walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.”

He reiterates these exhortations in 5:15-16.

But I have skipped over the most awesome exhortation of all (5:1).  This is the only occurrence of such a command in the New Testament.  Elsewhere, Christians are urged to imitate other churches (1 Th 2:24); and to imitate Paul (1 Cor 4:16); and to imitate Christ (1 Th 1:6).

How do we imitate God?  In some ways this is impossible.  Some of God’s attributes are God’s alone, and cannot be imitated – such as self-existence, self-sufficiency, eternality, omnipotence, omnipresence, omniscience, and majesty.  It is logically impossible for humans to imitate God in these ways, try as we might in our own small ways.

But God possesses other essential attributes in which he calls us to share, such as wisdom, wrath, justice, faithfulness, goodness, love, mercy, compassion, and forgiveness.

In Ephesians 5:1, Paul says we are to imitate God as we would imitate a good father: “as dearly loved children.”  God has adopted us into his family (see 1:5); and he has poured his love into our hearts through the work of the Holy Spirit, whom he has freely given to us (Rom 5:5).

But specifically here in Ephesians 5:1, the idea of the imitation of God is defined by God’s activity in forgiving us (4:32), and by the practice of “walking in the way of love” (5:2), which is to follow the example of Jesus as it relates to our situation.

So the imitation of God turns out to be the imitation of Christ, a life saturated by sacrificial love for others, a life of balanced self-giving, attending to what threatens to render our relationships unhealthy, lacking goodness, lacking shalom.

To imitate God is to encourage the fruit of the Spirit to flourish in my life (Gal 5:22).  But we cannot cultivate and express the fruit of the Spirit, at least not consistently, unless the Spirit of Christ lives within us, and that is only possible after we surrender our lives to God through faith in Jesus Christ.

There are various spiritual practices that make the imitation of God easier and more rewarding for Christians.  Here are five such practices, which make good New Year’s resolutions for those of us who are still getting over the rush of the silly season and yet to make serious New Year’s resolutions:

  1. Regular contemplation of the nature, character and actions of God;
  2. Regular conversation with God (that is, prayer);
  3. Regular meditation and study of God’s written word (the Bible);
  4. Regular engagement in the lives of others who share a similar desire for the imitation of God;
  5. Regular experience in the art of forgiveness and love.

Some time ago [8 March 2003, to be precise], as I was walking to my car in the car park at Morling College, a middle-aged woman approached me.  She had just got out of her car, and she was distressed.  In halting English, she confessed she was unfamiliar with Sydney roads, she was lost, and she wanted to travel north to the F3 freeway and proceed to Newcastle.

She did not know the way, and she had no map.  How to get help?  Who to ask?  What to say?

Fortunately she had had the good sense to make for the nearest theological college, and ask the first Baptist pastor she found how to get to the F3.  So I explained as best I could how she could reach her destination.

As I drove home, I reflected on that brief and simple encounter.  It struck me that many of us find ourselves lost – not only on Sydney roads, but in our relationships, in our careers, on our spiritual journeys too.  We find ourselves lost, powerless, perhaps confused, and uncertain of where to find truth and wisdom.

The good news is that many of us have found our way, or found light for the journey, through the story of Jesus.  We find profound meaning in the life and teachings of Jesus.  We find deep wisdom in the Bible.  And we find ourselves following Jesus, emulating Jesus, imitating Jesus: the imitation of Christ, as Thomas à Kempis put it in his famous book.

And in doing so, astonishing and presumptuous though it may seem, we cannot fail to imitate God.


Sermon 598 copyright © 2011 Rod Benson. All rights reserved.  Preached at Pendle Hill Baptist Church, Sydney, Australia, on Sunday 9 January 2011. Unless otherwise noted, Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible: Today’s New International Version (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005).

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