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Has the left abandoned its prophetic role?


In 1974, a meeting of evangelical global leaders was held in Lausanne, Switzerland. It was convened by Dr Billy Graham in response to Church leaders who had been calling for a moratorium on mission. Dr Graham wanted to be sure that the global Church remained committed to Gospel ministry and called evangelical leaders across the world to this gathering.

One of the outcomes of the gathering was the creation and signing of the Lausanne Covenant, written by a team led by the late John Stott. While I was much too young to be there, I have heard many times the story of key Christian leaders—some from Australia—challenging the original draft because it did not represent the whole Gospel. The statement did not reflect the Bible’s concern for the poor, marginalised and dispossessed. In response to this criticism, it is my understanding that the first draft was changed to include these concerns.

The global evangelical Christian Church has come a long way since that meeting. While there were skirmishes during the 70s & 80s, by the 1990s it had become widely accepted that the Gospel and the prophetic word of the Church ought to reflect both word and deed. God’s concern is for the whole person—their eternal salvation, their present lives, their right to justice and freedom from oppression. The challenge of the Christian left to the Church was one that was rightly heard and heeded. It was a gift to the Church and one the Church desperately needed.

Now it’s time for the Christian left to consider the challenge of how they are prophetic to the present community.

Articles like Tim Costello’s (October 2013 edition of Eternity) rightly celebrate the continued prophetic call for justice, that this is a Biblical mandate for all Christians. As he states in the article, the prophetic call is possible from either a position of influence and power, or from the grassroots. Yet Costello’s article raises the issue of what it means to be prophetic. It seems in some circles, especially the Christian left, that we are called to be prophetic about justice and little else. We rightly speak up on issues of social justice yet remain mute in other areas. Where is the left-leaning Christian voice on issues of morality and Biblical ethics today? Why do they remain completely silent? How is it justifiable to use the Bible as a text to call for justice and yet fail to speak for what the Bible has to say about morality, the sanctity of life and the dignity of the individual? Where are the clear statements about issues such as abortion, euthanasia and same sex marriage?

We rightly speak up on issues of social justice yet remain mute in other areas.

This is not a call for some kind of “Christian state” which forces the community to abide by a biblical framework for ethics and behaviour. But it’s a challenge to those from the Christian left, who seek to be prophets into our age, to say you can’t be prophetic on issues of justice and turn a blind eye to what the Bible has to say about other areas of life. This is just as narrow as the criticism of the first draft of the Lausanne Covenant.

This position was clearly demonstrated by a social media interaction I had with a leading member of the Christian left around Pastor Matt Prater’s question to Kevin Rudd on Q&A before the last election. Prater asked the then Prime Minister why he was supporting same sex marriage and the re-definition of marriage, and many will remember the rude and aggressive way Rudd dealt with the question. The next day, a prominent member of the Christian left publically criticised Prater on social media for asking the question, suggesting it was not something Jesus was concerned about. Keep in mind that the question was asked in the context of an election where Rudd was campaigning on the issue. It was also asked of Rudd, who labels himself a Christian, and had only a couple of months before come out about his change of position on the topic. This was therefore a reasonable question to ask. The response of this Christian leader suggested this was not an area we should speak up on, that we should refrain from the discussion and be silent. It’s a view that leaders are hurting the cause of the Gospel to have views on morality. This is a position that must be challenged.

Like many Christians, there have been times I have cringed at the way Christian leaders have spoken publically about moral issues. They’ve been easy targets for the media and the community to lampoon. The enthusiastic and prolific quoting of the Bible in public forums that suggests the whole community must change their moral framework to fit into a Christian worldview comes across as naïve and proscriptive.

Over the past few years Christian groups or individuals who have publicly spoken against the shift to legitimatising and legalising same sex marriage have come in for fierce criticism. And there have been moments where Christian leaders have made public statements that would at best be described as unhelpful. To suggest though that the Church and Christian leaders should refrain from public comment is to acquiesce to the view that says we have no place arguing a moral or ethical position in the public square.

Richard John Neuhaus wrote in 1984, in The Naked Public Square, that political debate without a Christian voice is not secular and free but naked, missing the key prophetic voice of the Christian or religious world view.

It’s time for Christian leaders on the left of the theological spectrum, who believe the Bible and seek to live by its teaching, to be challenged to be true to all of Jesus’ teaching—to be true to his teaching on justice, salvation and morality. Just as it was right for the left to challenge the Christian community in the 1970s to have a holistic view of the Gospel that included salvation, they now need to hear the challenge for them to have a holistic view of the Bible and speak up on issues of morality. To stay silent is to fail to be true to our prophetic calling.

Image: Rembrandt’s painting depicts King Belshazzar from the book of Daniel, as he saw the prophetic word given by the Lord.