Deror Books, 2023.
The Australian churches and sexual ethics:
Australian pastor, social commentator, and Islam expert Rev. Dr. Mark Durie has a new book out which is brief but informative. The subtitle tells us what it is about, but before going further, let me mention what this book does not set out to do.
This is not a detailed look at the sexual revolution, nor issues like homosexual marriage, nor a history of the culture wars in Australia, nor where the churches should stand on these matters. Indeed, at one point Durie says he is not making his views known on these matters (although as a conservative, biblical Christian we know where he does stand on this).
What this slim volume does set out to do is look at the major church bodies in Australia, exploring where they stand on these pressing issues, especially things like same-sex marriage. He examines both historical matters as well as sociological findings on this. He draws on recent census findings and church surveys, although noting that these may not tell us the whole story.
Early on he notes that “the worldview of Christians is so different from, and indeed alien to, the dominant way of thinking in the surrounding culture, particularly in relation to the nature of the human person. To this lack of understanding can be added hostility towards the church’s moral teachings.” (p. 4)
The long and short of things is this: the more liberal churches are far more comfortable with the secular culture around them, and so are much more likely to embrace its views on most things, including sexual morality. This should come as no surprise: theologically liberal believers tend also to be politically, culturally and socially liberal as well.
So the real issue boils down to the matter of biblical authority. If we accept the Scriptural teachings on things like sex, marriage and family, then we will not blindly go along with whatever are the latest trendy secular left agenda items of the world around us.
Thus the main division in churches is between those who primarily take their marching orders from the Bible, and those who are more than happy to cozy up to the world and its amoral and immoral value systems. One liberal denomination after another has been fully supporting things like the homosexual agenda – and now the trans agenda.
Durie shows how this works out in practice on a larger scale. He reminds us that the Global Anglican Future Conference (GAFCON) movement arose in response to the liberal North American Anglicans and their support of homosexual marriage. This is part of the bigger picture. He says all this is being fought out on two levels:
On the one level, there are theologians and religious teachers slugging it out to establish the rightness of their views. On another level, deep cultural shifts are affecting church members, manifested in changing attitudes to sexual expressions as well as changing patterns of behaviour. In a sense, the theologians are trying to sort things out after the sexual revolution cultural tsunami has already swept through the churches. (p. 23)
As mentioned, those believers who have been following all this will not be surprised at the findings presented in the book. Groups like the Uniting Church in Australia have primarily caved in on these sorts of issues, although there still are vocal minorities within seeking to turn things around.
In his chapter on the UCA (which was formed in 1977 when the Australian Methodist, Congregationalist, and Presbyterian churches merged), he looks in more detail at what is happening there. In the area of sexual ethics, it has evolved into “the most progressive of major Australian Christian denominations.”
It authorised homosexual marriage in 2018, but it allows individual clergy and congregations to decide whether they run with this. However, it also still has traditional marriage ceremonies. As such, “the UCA has recognised two mutually incompatible doctrines on human sexuality and marriage.”
His chapter on Pentecostal churches notes that Australian Census data is unreliable, given that there is no “Pentecostal” box for them to click. Still, it is now the largest Christian body in the country following the Catholics. He examines two main groups: The Australian Christian Churches and the smaller Acts Global Churches.
All up the Pentecostals and charismatics tend to be the most conservative (biblically faithful) groups when it comes to matters of sexual ethics. This may seem surprising, given that they have a younger demographic than the other older denominations. Although Durie goes on to say (p. 104), that while the ACC had the most conservative views on sexual morality, they tended to keep rather quiet in public, as in the SSM debate.
As in the West as a whole, church attendance is declining and religious observance is waning in Australia and the gospel of secularism is on the rise. But also as in many countries, there is a mixed bag here. Durie looks at the latest census figures and finds both growth and decline. He says this:
The story of Australian Christianity has not been one of uniform decline. While the “Catholic” and “Mainstream Protestant” churches have been declining, the “Other Protestant” and “Pentecostal” churches have been growing, and the net effect of these trends is an increase in overall Protestant church attendance despite mainstream Protestant decline. (p. 60)
In his chapter on looking to the future, he reminds us of how churches need to be aware of the legal pressures that are increasingly being brought to bear on them:
Protections for churches to discriminate on the basis of sexual ethics will only be available when a church can show that this is done to conform to church doctrine. This protection will not be available if the official doctrine of the church does not offer this protection, or if a denomination or movement is inconsistent in applying discipline in relation to sexual ethics.
The increasing anti-discrimination pressure on churches will surely put pressure on then to have clearly defined positions on sexual ethics, and to apply discipline consistently to enforce these positions. Tolerance expressed as vagueness and inconsistency in church discipline will be increasingly untenable. Turning a blind eye to code of conduct violation will no longer be an option. (p. 140)
Yes quite right. I recall even decades ago speaking at churches and warning them that they better be ready for all this. Keeping their heads in the sand and hoping none of the sexual revolution – including the radical homosexual agenda – would impact them is just living in dreamland. Some took notice of our warnings – some did not, and they are now paying the price.
Durie says that we are now in a time of transition, with key divisions emerging among the churches concerning the issue of sexual morality and the biblical position. It may seem like the progressives are the wave of the future and will eventually win out. Not so says Durie:
It would be a mistake to see the emerging divisions in Christian churches over sexual ethics as the last throes of failing, rusted-on religious conservatism. While some Christians have been embracing the outcomes of the sexual revolution, they represent the dying fringes of Christianity, not its beating heart. (p. 148).