Margaret Court and Australia Day Honours

Frustratingly, Christianity is in the headlines again, and it’s anything but a good news story. MargaretCourt is awarded Australia’s highest medal (AC) for her services to tennis. She still holds the record for winning the most Grand Slams in tennis, more than any other male or female.

In response, a Doctor (who has herself undergone gender transition) returned her medal. Prominent ABC journalist Kerry O’Brien rejected his medal. Two state premiers also objected. They believe that awarding Margaret Court condones her hurtful views, and divides the community.

What exactly has Margaret Court said?

It is useful to highlight three statements. This past week, in response to the award and commentary, she said “I teach the Bible, what God says in the Bible, and I think that is my right and privilege…. the bible has been around for thousands of years…. it’s very important for freedom of speech that we can say our beliefs….”

In 2017 Margaret Court called homosexuality “an abominable sexual practice”. In 2013, regarding fellow tennis player Casey Dellacqua’s child born within a lesbian relationship, she said "It is with sadness that I see that this baby has seemingly been deprived of a father".

At the centre of this fracas is the question of how, and on what topics, Christians participate in social debates in the public domain. Simply put, there are three responses.

1. The Bible is God’s Truth that we announce

The Bible is God’s truth, it is good for any society (whether or not they believe it), and it is our task to proclaim it – be the message in or out of fashion.

Of course I agree that the bible is God’s eternal word, instructive for life and doctrine. When our culture was broadly speaking Christian (from about 400 – 1970AD, often called Christendom) the Bible was widely accepted as the authoritative moral text. In that context it was appropriate to share biblical principles within ‘Christian’ nations like Australia, England, and the USA.

But Australia has, or is becoming, very recently and quickly, post-Christian in many of its values. The Bible is no longer esteemed as a shared authority. While the Bible remains true for everyone and every situation, is it prudent to suggest a post-Christian nation ought to follow Christian values?

2. Christians ought to bring biblical wisdom to the public debate

Some will say – to require non-Christians to follow Christian ethics is moralism, or legalism. We do not wish to be legalistic. Having said that, Biblical principles are sound, and we have a right and responsibility within a democracy to participate in the public discourse. To bless our culture by bringing God’s wisdom to bear. To stand up for the rights of not just individuals to make choices, but of children to be raised, where possible, with a mother and a father.

Personally, I find this view compelling. We have an amazing history of contributions to celebrate. Mass education, public health care, opposing slavery etc. But this approach is fraught with a complexity. The public discourse presently focuses on many topics. Our culture is most concerned by domestic abuse, by human trafficking and slavery, and racial discrimination. Biblically informed Christians will be opposed to all of these. And when we speak up, we will be heard (as but one voice in a chorus), received and applauded.

But our culture is also concerned about other causes – such as the right of those with gender dysphoria to access gender reassignment; or the rights of same sex couples to have or adopt children. When Christians join the public debate on these topics we are inevitably criticised. Social progressives like Daniel Andrews and Kerry O’Brien believe it is their place to shut us down. They do so, deeming our views to be hurtful, divisive, and discriminatory.

Ironically, social progressives are contending for an ‘inclusive’ society that ‘excludes’ people who do not think like they do. That this position is obviously inconsistent appears not to matter.

This leads us to the third position. If Christians are only permitted to comment on causes that everyone else is already passionate about, what difference are we making? At best, only a little. Is it strategic to try participate in a debate where the rules are stacked against us? Where we can only speak and certain topics? Where we are lampooned when we stray into other topics?

3. Christians as an alternative

Instead, a third approach suggests Christians step back from the public debate, and focus our efforts into being counter cultural. Into being a vibrant viable alternative. Into being a sub-culture who is salt and light by the fact that we are different. Internally, we are a people who stand up for the abused, or those discriminated against, for those with additional needs, for the poor, AND for the rights of children within our community to have both a mother and father figure in their life.

This approach also has its detractors. Some will say, are you not withdrawing from the public space? Are we not abrogating our responsibility to contribute, in debate and action, to the common good?

Margaret Court is clearly not of this last view. She has elements of the middle view, but primarily the first view. In the present climate, Margaret Courts ventures into public debate do not play out well.

My own conclusions

When Jesus sends his disciples out on mission, he says “I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.” (Matthew 10:16) In my view, while Margaret Court’s statements might reflect biblical morals, they lack shrewdness.

As our culture increasingly abandons its Christian heritage – as “they exchange the truth about God [and life in his creation] for a lie” – is it occasion for us to increasingly hand “them over” to “the sinful desires of their hearts”? (Romans 1:24-25) To use a sailing analogy, while our destination may not have changed, the winds have changed, and so we ought to, I suggest, change tact.

I see truth and biblical support for each of the above three positions. When Christians are in Jerusalem (that is, in a place where we are aligned with the dominant views) the first response fits best. When Christians are in Athens (where there is open debate in the market place about beliefs and values), majoring on the second approach suits the context. When Christians are in Babylon (as is say Daniel, or 1 Peter, where the dominant views persecute Christian views), the third response is shrewd.

For what it’s worth, I interpret Australian culture as becoming increasingly post-Christian – more Babylon than Athens, let alone Jerusalem. In this setting, I find myself in transition. I see insight in each of the three views. But I am shifting to regarding the third approach as most shrewd for this season.

Rev David Rietveld

Senior Minister

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