“Let not anyone pacify his conscience by the delusion that he can do no harm if he takes no part, and forms no opinion. Bad men need nothing more to compass their ends, than that good men should look on and do nothing. He is not a good man who, without a protest, allows wrong to be committed in his name, and with the means which he helps to supply, because he will not trouble himself to use his mind on the subject.” John Stuart Mill
I sat in a room full of pastors once and the discussion made me more furious than perhaps any other discussion I have had with a group of leaders in my life. This was a room filled with pastors of all ages, young ones like myself and older pastors too, but most of the men were older and experienced pastors, men who had been around in life and ministry for some time.
They were talking about the National Redress Scheme and how it would work, and why it was better for Churches to sign on to the program offered, rather than go it alone. The National Redress Scheme is a system set up to compensate the victims of institutional abuse. It is an attempt to reassert justice for the victims of abuse and it is necessary. So, it was not this which angered me.
What angered me was something the pastors said. I asked a question about why so many pastors did not report abuse to the police at the time. One of the worst aspects of these abuse scandals is not that the laws at the time did not have the ability to punish offenders, it was that the laws at the time were often not applied because things were kept, hush-hush, on the down low, quiet. One of the older pastors said to me, “You have to understand Matt, it was not the done thing at the time to report this sort of thing.” Other pastors in the room nodded as if to say this settled the issue.
This is what made me furious and I let them know it. I asked them why did they need to be told that they should seek justice for harmed children. There was no excuse for not taking this stuff to the police. This is part of a shepherd’s role; when made aware of danger, we need to protect the littlest lambs from wolves and devouring lions. Why did the government need to make a law for mandatory reporting? Should not pastors have led the way in this?
I was furious at those men, and they were rightly chagrined. But their reason stuck with me: it wasn’t the done thing. In other words, they couldn’t bring themselves to go against the culture of the society in that day.
Society is now punishing the Church for this neglect and complicity in many ways. There is financial compensation, which is the least that the victims deserve. There is a decline of the Church in Australia. And there is a social denigration of the Church’s reputation. Even though some of the secular authorities were just as culpable in many abuse situations themselves, many people, rightly, hold the Church to a higher standard.
Christians and non-Christians alike in Australia believe the Church should be a place of justice that seeks to advocate for true justice in society as well. They are right to hate the Church’s failure in this regard and to wave it in the Church’s face.
But God in his grace gave the Church a chance to redeem itself: Covid. In the last two years, society was faced with a time of rampant anxiety, and as people do when they are anxious they lose sight of what is right and find themselves willing to do or support things they would not normally do or support.
Out of fear of a virus that was shown from very early to have a very mild effect on the majority of people, a malady hyped up around the world by terrified and often dishonest leaders and media personalities, the nations of the West began to employ unjust mandates in an attempt to control the virus – mandates which really controlled the populations who had been terrified by what their leaders said about the virus.
These mandates required Western people to override long-held views on human rights, and just basic decency, all in an effort to cajole the population to accept certain measures; like coerced vaccination. Fear was propagated at every level of society, and voices of reason were quashed and labelled as trouble-makers, anti-vaxxers and worse.
This situation handed an easy win to the Church. All the Church had to do was step up and say clearly that mandated medical care is evil and no one should lose their job or be coerced to have a vaccine. They should be free to choose and freedom to choose requires that they are not pressured in any way. To help it stand in such a way, the Church simply had to draw on its deep tradition of advocating for liberty of conscience, its long tradition of standing in the way of tyranny, and simply say: we do not agree with mandatory vaccines.
In the height of the hysteria secular leaders and media personalities would have attacked the Church, but eventually, once people calmed down, they would have appreciated the fact that the Church did not lose its cool in a moment of anxiety. It was a softball throw, an easy win for the church. Take the momentary unpopularity but do the right thing for the nation in the long term.
The response was a no-brainer: mandates must be condemned. And yet, the Church dropped the ball utterly. Very few spoke up, and those that did were rebuked by loud voices in the Church’s media arms. Why didn’t many speak up? Well as they may say in the future, “You have to understand Matt, it was not the done thing at the time to speak up about this sort of thing.”
Now the narrative is breaking and secular authorities are starting to say the right thing:
According to the Australian Human Rights Commission, it can be unlawful to require an employee to be vaccinated and that ‘the need for vaccination should be assessed on a case-by-case basis, taking into account the nature of the workplace and the individual circumstances of each employee’.
It goes on to say that the Commonwealth Sex Discrimination Act 1984, the Disability Discrimination Act 1992, and Age Discrimination Act 2004 makes it unlawful to discriminate on the grounds of pregnancy, disability, and age, including employment – with disability broadly defined as including past, present, and future disabilities. Strict rules or conditions that impose mandates on these groups may result in ‘indirect discrimination’.
One key test to reasonableness about imposing mandates is whether alternative methods can be used to achieve the same goal. It also seeks to determine whether an ‘unjustifiable hardship’ would be placed on the employer.”Christin Carney 2022, “Queensland Human Rights Commission claims vaccine mandate outside CHO’s power”, Australian Free and Independent Press Network
This is what those of us who have been opposing the mandates have said all along. The same article notes:
“The Courier Mail has reported that the Human Rights Commission (Commission) has sensationally intervened in the Supreme Court challenge brought by educators – believing the CHO has gone too far. According to reports, the Commission claimed the vaccine mandate for teachers and childcare workers was outside the Chief Health Officer (CHO) John Gerrard’s powers under the Public Health Act 2005. The Commission further stated that the right of the CHO to give such directions was conditional based on reasonable and demonstrably justifiable limits upon human rights and that based on the present evidence, the CHO’s mandates were not justified.”
This has been obvious to many of us for a long time now, but finally, the narrative is breaking and secular authorities are starting to admit that things have gone way too far.
Where was the Human Rights Commission all along? Doing the same thing Church leaders were doing: hiding from the obvious truth that the mandates were unjust, wicked, and needed to be opposed. But at least now the Human Rights Commission has spoken up.
The majority of Church leaders in Australia are still silent. Instead of being at the front of this issue, having roundly condemned evil from the start, the Church sat on its haunches and cuddled up to the world, submitted itself to the mandates, stayed quiet about their injustice, and in some instances even enforced them in their spheres of influence.
The Church did what it had done in the past with the abuse scandals: shown it was no better than the culture of society around it. And the saddest thing is this did not have to be.
It was the Church that taught the concepts of liberty of conscience to the West. Early Anabaptists and Baptists had already fought the battle for freedom of conscience on disputable matters and won. Hence such Christian teachings can be found in secular Australian laws, such as this example from the Queensland Human Rights Act 2019:
20 Freedom of thought, conscience, religion and belief
(1)Every person has the right to freedom of thought, conscience, religion and belief, including—
(a)the freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of the person’s choice; and
(b)the freedom to demonstrate the person’s religion or belief in worship, observance, practice and teaching, either individually or as part of a community, in public or in private.
(2)A person must not be coerced or restrained in a way that limits the person’s freedom to have or adopt a religion or belief.Queensland Legislation, Human Rights Act 2019
This has also had an impact on medical human rights laws, the same act tells us:
“17 Protection from torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment
A person must not be—
(a) subjected to torture; or
(b) treated or punished in a cruel, inhuman or degrading way; or
(c) subjected to medical or scientific experimentation or treatment without the person’s full, free and informed consent.”Queensland Legislation, Human Rights Act 2019
This was not rocket science. There were clear injustices being perpetrated on society, and the Church already had a grand tradition of having stood against similar injustices in the past.
The Church of the past had opposed slavery, spoken out against one man owning the body of another, worked for safer working environments, spoken against child labour and more. Early Baptists paved the way in the English speaking world for the liberty of conscience; they had influenced and taught other denominations to take up the cause, and such teachings were eventually set into the laws of countries like Australia.
This was a battle that had already been fought, won and settled on the right side; no one has to right to coerce another on matters of conscience. History had already chosen the side of liberty of conscience on disputable issues, and all the Church had to do was remind people that this was the case and stand firm against mandates. The government likely would have still gone too far, but at least we would have had clean hands. And there is the likelihood that the unified voice of the Church would have had an amazing chilling effect on tyranny.
The Church failed on this issue massively. But not all of the Church. There were voices that spoke up. Writers at Caldron Pool, The Canberra Declaration, Bill Muehlenberg at Culture Watch, Bob Cotton at Maitland Christian Church in NSW and others were speaking. They were marginalized, attacked by the majority of Christian media, and called all sorts of names, but there were people who did not forget the Church’s role in a time of crisis is partly to challenge authoritarians from going too far.
Because of these bold Christian leaders, no one will be able to seriously say in the future that “it just wasn’t the done thing to speak up about it at that time” because brave men and women did speak up.
God gives kings authority to rule and he gives the Church the authority to call kings, that go too far, to account. It has been the balance of these two biblical teachings that have helped make the West so great in the past. A balance of powers. The Church and State both taking an active role in society are necessary for a just land.
The Church was given a softball on this issue and on the whole, it failed utterly. For many reasons, but partly because it has forgotten its own legacy. This is why myself and Tim Grant wrote Defending Conscience: How Baptists Reminded the Church to Defy Tyranny. We want to remind the Church in Australia of how the concept of liberty of conscience was developed, and the great things it achieved in Western society. The Baptists were central in this history, but it was not until they convinced other denominations to take up the cause that liberty of conscience started to become enshrined in Western law.
You can buy this book here. It can be pre-ordered now and should be released soon. This book is part of our efforts to remind the Church of this legacy.
In my view, the Church is largely to blame for what is happening in society, because the Church forgot its great calling: to command nations, including national leaders, to obey the teachings of Jesus, and these include not coercing people’s bodies to accept something they do not want.
For Christians we are taught in the Bible that Christ bought those bodies with a price, they are his, they are not Caesar’s, and they are not the Premiers. And for all people, the human body carries the image of God, not the image of Caesar, so still, it is owned by God and not the state.
The Church failed on this issue, as it had failed on the abuse issue. It better soon start lifting its game or God and society will have no need of it, because it will just fade into the society around it and become irrelevant.
The Church is at its best when it fearlessly stands against the culture’s sin, whatever it is, even when it is unpopular — especially when it is unpopular because that is exactly the legacy our own Lord displays for us in the gospels.