Australia News & Commentary

Sheep Without a Shepherd?

"The Conforming has lost the confidence of a significant bloc of ordinary, lay-Christians. When lockdowns and other severe rules were imposed in 2020, and most churches dutifully followed the edicts of governments and closed their doors, those of a Non-conforming mindset—often suffering severely under economic, emotional, and spiritual hardship—found themselves 'like sheep without a shepherd'."
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The last month has seen an unpleasant squabble unfold in the Australian church.

On one side has been a group of clergy and laypeople who we could describe as the “Non-conforming”—those who object to harsh government-imposed lockdowns, strict rules which stifle “social intercourse” (as older generations called it), mask-wearing, coercive vaccination measures, and above all, the segregation of society via “vaccine passports”.

On the other side are the “Conforming”—those who have raised minimal protest against these things either because they consider such measures justified to combat the threat of Covid, or because they believe that government authority must be yielded to, or both.1

The friction between the Conforming and Non-conforming simmered along from the early days of the pandemic, but finally came to a head in August 2021 with the publication of the “Non-conforming” Ezekiel Declaration, authored by three Baptist pastors and signed by some twenty-five thousand clergy and laypeople from across Australia’s States and Territories.

From this point, it is fair to say that open, public warfare erupted.

It is also fair to say that there will not be a quick, painless resolution to this warfare. This dispute has uncovered what seem to be deep-seated differences in theology, philosophy, and political ideology in the Australian church.

These differences include:

Something striking about the conflict is its apparent asymmetry. I am referring to the fact that the Conforming side contains most of the people who have come to be seen as “public spokesmen” for the Australian church over the years—particularly those who are embedded in denominational structures and para-church ministries.

On the other hand, the Non-conforming side appears to be made up of a rag-tag bunch of less well-known clergy, opinion writers, and conservative commentators.

It is important not to over-state the asymmetry. It is an apparent asymmetry. It should be noted that the Australian Christian Lobby and its managing director Martyn Iles has fairly consistently taken a Non-conforming stance. If one looks through the signatories of the Ezekiel Declaration, the current Moderator-General of the Presbyterian Church appears at number two.

Recently, the senior pastor of one of the largest churches in Australia, Brian Houston, wrote to his members about “a hidden pandemic sweeping our world – anxiety, stress, financial hardship, family separation, loneliness, and other mental health issues.” Houston declared “I strongly believe that no government has any right to dictate who can attend church. Everyone – irrespective of their vaccination status – should be free to worship, pray and seek spiritual guidance and support. It’s not only a fundamental human right but it’s even more important at this time of such great anguish and need.”

Similarly, the Anglican Archbishop of Sydney, Kanishka Raffel, in a letter to clergy acknowledged “the [government-imposed Covid] restrictions are taking a toll on many people at a time when the comfort and assistance of their faith and faith community is most in need, and worship should be considered an ‘essential’ service.” He asserted that “mandating vaccination for attendance at Christian places of worship was something we could not support. In my view, such a step would be contrary to the nature of the gospel, the church, and our mission.” Further, “there [is] a real risk of entrenching inequity and creating deep discontent by widespread or enduring practices of mandated vaccination.”

Looking at the words they have written, it could be inferred that Houston and Raffel are genuinely sympathetic towards Non-conforming believers, and for this they must be warmly thanked.

Still, the Conforming camp seems to have a fairly firm grip on the levers of Australian church institutions and media organs. They appear to view themselves as having greater legitimacy, and greater authority in terms of deciding and policing the “correct” position of the church.

What has happened?

I believe that Conforming Christians need to confront some difficult realities. I fear that their behaviour is entrenching a deep and enduring divide in the Australian church which will become more obvious as time goes on.

The Conforming has lost the confidence of a significant bloc of ordinary, lay-Christians. When lockdowns and other severe rules were imposed in 2020, and most churches dutifully followed the edicts of governments and closed their doors, those of a Non-conforming mindset—often suffering severely under economic, emotional, and spiritual hardship—found themselves “like sheep without a shepherd”.

Having been told time and again that online church is an adequate substitute for the physically gathered church, people took on board this advice and went looking for spiritual shepherds online. They tuned into Martyn Iles and his “Truth of It” podcasts. They found their way to Kurt Mahlburg and Warwick Marsh’s Daily Declaration. They went overseas and started consuming the teachings of reformed Christian leaders with whom they found themselves theologically aligned, such as John MacArthur, James White,  Doug Wilson, and Owen Strachan.

As the months of churchlessness, joblessness and friendlessness dragged on, the Non-conforming asked themselves whether their local, Australian church leaders were really in their corner. They became increasingly bewildered that the solid theology and reasoning of men such as Wilson and White could be ignored or brushed off by Australian leaders—along with the courageous practical example of men such as James Coates.

Then came the vaccines, produced with novel technology in record time, and the intense pressure brought to bear on those who had strong personal reasons, including principled ones, to avoid being vaccinated.

But rather than listen and empathise, many Conforming church leaders seemed to double down, delivering messages which, to the ears of Non-conformers, unfairly described their concerns as “selfish” and “individualistic”, and based on “misinformation”.

If this wasn’t disheartening enough, they felt patronised by the repeated suggestions that vaccine hesitancy must be rectified by “education” and “reassurance” from church leaders. It was impossible not to perceive such messaging as implying that vaccine hesitancy can only arise out of irrationality and stupidity. (Indeed, some Christians openly and unashamedly said such things in the brutal to-and-fro of social media.) Non-conforming folk also questioned the propriety of clergymen dispensing “education” on scientific and medical matters.

When at long last the Ezekiel Declaration came along, it was like an oasis in a desert for the Non-conforming—or, indeed, like a shepherd finally arriving to tend to sheep who had been left alone for more than a year. Finally, here was concrete evidence that some church leaders in Australia were on their side, taking their anguish seriously, and willing to fight for them. Relief and deliverance had arisen from another place! So they signed up in droves.

But then, to their horror and dismay, the Conforming church piled on to the Ezekiel Declaration and those who had dared to sign it. The lifeboat which they had just clambered aboard was being overturned, even by godly men who they had formerly trusted and respected. From the perspective of the Non-conforming, most of the criticisms levelled at the Ezekiel Declaration were relatively trivial; ideological rather than substantial.

And then, scarcely two weeks later, vaccine passports became a political reality in Australia, including for churches. Messaging from the government turned to one which encourages fear of and derision towards the unvaccinated. The Ezekiel Declaration suddenly appeared stunningly prophetic; the warning sounded by its authors accurate and timely.

But yet again, to their despair, the sheep have found themselves shepherd-less, as the Conforming church dithers in its response to vaccine passports, and in some cases outright defends vaccine-based segregation as a public good.

And this time, people are really going over the edge. Although the Conforming in their online echo-chambers cannot see it, Non-conforming social media, emails, and phone calls are full of heart-wrenching stories of people in utter desperation—facing job loss and career loss. Terrified that they will be turned away from their own churches. Finding themselves disowned by family, or disinvited from future family events. Agonising over a long future in which they will suffer economic deprivation and social marginalisation.

Are you beginning now to see what is happening, and why it is quite serious?

Where to next?

I don’t pretend to know a route out of this mess. What follows here just are my own tentative musings, and I dearly hope other voices will join in this crucial conversation.

One certainty is that the trust of the Non-conforming in Conforming leaders has been so thoroughly shattered that nothing they say or do now is likely to win that trust back in the short term.

At the same time, Conforming leaders cannot hold out much of an olive branch to the Non-conforming without angering those in Conforming ranks for whom Conformism has become a matter of deep, theological, and personal investment. 

Given the deep theological and philosophical differences involved, it is very doubtful a stable “middle ground” between the Conforming and Non-conforming can be found. This may turn out to be an issue like infant baptism, where it is impossible for two views to be accommodated under one ecclesiastical roof. Any forcibly imposed “unity” will alienate a substantial group of people, resulting in further disenchantment, hostility, and eventual schism.

In my opinion, it would therefore be far better for denominations and churches to abandon attempts at top-down engineering and crafting of a “consensus” or “unity position”. A square peg cannot be squeezed into a round hole. The unity of the church in the longer run is better served by carving out spaces within denominations for the two different viewpoints, Conforming and Non-conforming, to exist in parallel.

When both sides of this dispute are able to freely live out their convictions, the temperature can eventually come down, and a process of rebuilding respect and trust can hopefully begin.

References:

  1. As with many disputes, there are polar ends which are the most vocal, and others in between. This article focuses on the main opposing positions.

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