Obadiah Slope: On portraits, COVID vaccinations and freestyle preachers


Of having portraits of you and your wife newly painted:

It is decidedly odd to hang a painting of your spouse on your wall, Obadiah has decided. Why odd? You ask.

Obadiah Slope

This column is named “Obadiah Slope”, which the elect will recognise as the name of the “odious evangelical” in the Victorian novelist Anthony Trollope’s six-part Chronicles of Barsetshire …

It’s odd because it is an excellent painting by a daughter who still lives with us, racking up even more years of study than I managed – so she knows Mrs Slope’s features very well.

And so you get to see someone close to you, through someone else’s eyes. I can see a mix of compassion and a sense of alertness in Mrs Slope that I always knew was there but in a visually-compelling way.

Can I say our family portraitist’s painting of me – “with your Eyore look,” as my twin uncharitably described it, is even more unsettling. Do I really look like that? Yes, I do, Obadiah is forced to admit.

In my picture, the cat sitting next to me captures who spends a lot of time with me.

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The number of readers regarding this writer as a pretentious twit has just skyrocketed.

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Donatism: Without naming names, Obadiah is aware of well-known Aussie Christian leaders who believe that churches that abided by Covid rules that required vaccinated-people-only meetings were “apostate”. And churches that fail to support people who lost jobs because they did not wish to be vaccinated are sinful. Some people have left churches as a result.

It occurs to Obadiah this is somewhat of a replay of ancient church controversy over a doctrine called “Donatism.” We have to journey to North Africa in the fourth century, where we discover schism in the church after great persecution set off by Roman Emperor Diocletian.

In North Africa, in common with other fringes of the empire, the persecution was relatively mild: the local governor accepted Christians handing over Scriptures as sufficient compliance.

But in the aftermath – the persecution ended a few years later when Constantine came to power – there were two camps in the North African church. It helps to think of North Africa as a Bible belt in the early church.

The ” Rigorists” had held out, but the “Traditores” had handed over their scriptures. The Donatists wanted to cast the Traditores out of the church, requiring a long penance if they were ever to return.

A hero of Slope’s, Augustine of Hippo, argued that the sacraments were valid by both sorts of priests.

It does not escape Obadiah that the Donatists were likely right at first. Handing over Scriptures was a bad thing to do. So you can understand those who took risks during the great persecution would resent those who gave in.

But the Donatists became self-righteous. Agreeing with them on this issue became the hallmark of Christianity, of who should be in church.

Today’s Donatists are upset that the church, in unison, did not rise up to support them, either on vaccination or to back teachers, health workers, police and others who lost their jobs for refusing to get vaccinated.

They want to separate from churches that did not come out in support.

Like the Donatists of old, they wish to cast out those who disagree with them. When you label a church “apostate,” you are saying you want to separate from them.

Many people with strong anti-vax opinions are not Donatists – they are still in church with “Traditores.” Their strong opinions don’t lead them to separate. This column gives them credit for that.

Slope, being a “Traditore” – my church held meetings in the two weeks church meetings had been restarted while non-vaxxed people were not allowed in public meetings – does not want a fight with the modern Rigorists.

Is anyone’s opinion about pandemic mandates something Christians should divide over? Obadiah Slope thinks not.

The pandemic crisis recedes (Obadiah hopes). Can we leave the church division behind? And let’s spare a thought for the immuno-compromised who still have to contend with the virus.

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Preaching notes: A shout out to Steve Chong of the RICE movement, who scored the preacher’s versions of a golfer’s hole in one, twice in the one talk.

Hole in One number one: he emptied rows of seats while preaching a Revive Church in Sydney with an altar call. Praise God.

Hole in One two: his laptop died as he got up to preach, so – as he put it in a Facebook post –”I had to go freestyle.”

“I believe it was God reminding me that it’s NOT my words but HIS words “that will never return empty” (Isaiah 55.11) and that clearly the Lord didn’t need my carefully constructed pre-prepared phrases to move people in response.”

His wife Naomi said the night before – the first time in 20 years – ” I feel like you should get up with no notes tomorrow.”

Naomi was right. But Obadiah thinks, having heard Chong a few times, that his preaching is pretty freestyle all the time!