The Final Stone – a response in defence of Bishop Rod Chiswell
This month The Australian Magazine had a great anti-Church story cleverly entitled The First Stone. It had everything – good writing, beautiful photographs, human drama, emotion, an evil bishop and the age-old story of loving humans vs the judgmental church. I say ‘great’ not because I liked it but rather because it is a great example of how the Father of lies undermines the truth in his guise as an angel of light.
Greg Bearup, the author, gave us a one-sided narrative of a beautiful romance spoiled by a Bible-believing bishop. The first page set the scene up nicely – two lonely male churchgoers both called Peter, who met through online dating had a civil ‘marriage’ in February 2020 at Coffs Harbour. They both attended the small Anglican church of St Mary’s in Armidale. Until ‘on a chilly April morning this year’, the new chilly bishop of Armidale, Rod Chiswell, preached a sermon that warned about opposition to the gospel, the danger of false teachers and how he expected faithful churches to be persecuted for adhering to scriptural teaching about issues such as gender fluidity and homosexuality.
After this sermon, the two Peters were called in to a series of meetings with church officials – the accounts of which differ. The bishop says that they were not asked to leave the church, but that they would have to end their ‘marriage’. This caused civil war within the church. The management committee resigned. ‘Attendance has plummeted, and a prominent Sydney silk has been retained to challenge the bishop.
Can they just get out of people’s bedrooms?
The rest of the article is taken up with giving the opinions of some in the congregation – (“Can they just get out of people’s bedrooms? The Christian teaching is about loving and caring – not condemning’, etc) and an analysis of the current political/religious situation in Australia. As regards the latter, warning is given that this case is an example of ‘the Americanisation of the religious right’ in Australia, the danger of the upcoming religious discrimination laws, and a further reminder that all right-thinking people support same-sex marriage and homosexuality. “God has moved on. I hope the churches can catch up”. We end by being reminded that the bishop and his followers are obsessed with rules and regulations, whereas the two Peters and all their supporters are just people of love, graciousness and faith.
It’s a damning indictment. How should biblical Christians respond to this rock thrown at us? Some will just shrug their shoulders and turn away. Others will be outraged and perhaps react personally and angrily. Many of us are just sad at the misrepresentation and the caricature of the Christian position given through the article. Personally, I felt depressed about it and sorry for many of those involved, including the two men and the bishop – who is on a hiding to nothing.
This kind of accusatory article is almost unanswerable. Responding to it is as difficult as responding to the question – why are you so proud? Anything you say will be taken as de facto proof of the accusation. If you do not accept the fundamental presuppositions of the story, then you are obviously one of the bad guys. But for the sake of the truth, for the love of people and for the glory of God, we cannot just allow this kind of accusation to go unanswered. Our friends, neighbours, families, workmates, and church members will read this – and most will just accept the narrative. It is after all ‘unloving’ to question anyone’s personal story (unless they happen to belong to an ‘unapproved’ group)!
How to respond?
Once you get over the emotional reaction to the story (oh, how horrible), read it again, and then think – you can soon come to see the major flaws in the arguments. For the sake of brevity let me just mention a few.
The narrator (the journalist) does not understand what either the church is – or the gospel. In the story, it is portrayed as a kind of public social club that exists for the personal comfort and benefit of those who attend. But the Church is the pillar and foundation of the truth. It exists to proclaim that truth and to call together all who follow Jesus Christ. Christ himself gave far stronger warnings about false teachers than Bishop Chiswell ever could! Maybe the narrator and some of the congregation think that Jesus was unChristlike?
Whilst it may not have been the wisest thing to include remarks about homosexuality in your first sermon (unlike the journalist I am not in a position to judge, although I tend to admire someone who is prepared to deal with the elephants in the room), it turns out that Bishop Chiswell’s sermon was somewhat prophetic. In it he quoted the US Catholic Cardinal, Francis George, “I expect to die in my bed, my successor will die in prison and his successor will die a martyr in the public square.” Given the article’s description of the bishop and his actions, and the call to the mob and the implied threat of the state, I suspect that the only victim of this story will be Bishop Chiswell – and any Bible-believing Christians who dare to speak up for what Jesus taught.
Because make no mistake. That is the choice. We can have the Gospel according to the Jesus made in the image of self-styled progressives – or we can have the Gospel of the Jesus who really is – the one revealed in the Bible. We can’t have both. It is not surprising nor alarming that those who reject Christ, also reject his teachings – however, what is alarming in the subtext of this article, is the implication that the media and the state get to tell the Church what our message should be. Or else…
Does the church have to catch up?
Another subtext in this is that if we don’t catch up with God the church will decline. Francis Sullivan, ‘a prominent Catholic’, tells us that God has apparently moved on. I wonder if the Pope and the Catholic Church – which still, at least officially, hold to Catholic doctrine – are as aware of this as Mr Sullivan claims to be. It is almost a modern-day miracle that God has apparently now caught up with our progressives and is fully on board with their agenda. Doubtless, Jesus should be thankful for their insights and corrections.
Forgive the somewhat cynical tone, but I blame Elijah who had no problem in mocking the unreality and absence of Baal from his prophets. Secular progressives who don’t believe and don’t go to church are quick to tell us that unless we catch up with them the Church will die. The amazing thing is that anyone in the Church goes along with this demonstrably false agenda. This is seen clearly in the article itself. We are told that the attendance has plummeted – from ‘about 40 regulars’ to 17. This was hardly a growing dynamic church. Experience all over the world has shown that churches which water down or reject the teaching of Jesus, decline. Quelle surprise!
The anonymous (such courage of conviction!) liberal Anglican who warned that this is an example of the ‘Americanisation of the religious Right in Australia’ was ironically demonstrating his own point. American church politics has come to Australia (and has far too much influence). The American liberal model is to take on board every liberal policy in the general society and then accuse anyone who dares to disagree with them as being ‘the religious Right’ – even if you are a socialist.
Fudging the issue
One member of the congregation, Thomas Fudge, a Professor of Medieval History at the University of New England, told the journalist; “I made the point to the Dean that there’s no place for the Church in the bedrooms of the parish”. That’s an interesting and somewhat unChristlike position. Would the professor say that there is no place for the church in the bedroom of the man who regularly beats his wife there? Before people start shouting about comparing same-sex marriage with domestic abuse, let me point out that I am doing no such thing. The Professor is stating a general principle. If it applies in one case it applies in all. Furthermore, Jesus is deeply interested in how we behave in our bedrooms – as well as our kitchens, living rooms and workplaces. Real Christianity is not just reserved for a building that we call ‘the church’ and where we meet with some of our pals on a Sunday morning for a short service to tell us all how wonderful we are and how the world needs to be more like us. In fact, I have even worse news for the Professor – Jesus is not just concerned with how we behave externally but what goes on in our minds and hearts. If we profess to be His followers then we will not conform to the pattern of this world, but instead, we will be transformed by the renewing of our minds (Romans 12:1-2).
The Professor also adds that the bishop is ‘obsessed about the divorced, the masturbators, the unwed, the gluttonous, the greedy, the slothful, the envious.”. This seems a somewhat sweeping judgmental statement. I have a suspicion that Bishop Chiswell is concerned about all sins, and about all sinners seeking salvation in Christ. If he singled out homosexuals for special treatment, he would indeed be wrong – but there is no evidence that that is the case at all.
Professor Fudge tells us that “as a historian of Christianity, what I can tell you is that the Church has long been obsessed with homosexuality.” I would love to see his sources for that. As a historian of Christianity, I rarely come across the subject in the church fathers, the medieval period, the reformers, the Puritans, etc – and I read them every day! The trouble is that the Professor understands neither his Bible nor his church history (perhaps as a Professor of Medieval history he should begin with Aquinas – who mentions homosexuality a little but shows no sign of an obsession with it in his voluminous writings).
The truth is that it is our society, not the church, that is obsessed with homosexuality (and now gender issues). That’s why we have ‘pride month’, rainbow flags at work and endless media, indoctrination of children and re-education of adults. Professor Fudge and his allies can choose to follow the sexual ethics of contemporary society if they wish. What they are not at liberty to do is claim with any degree of rationality, that these are also the sexual ethics of Jesus. A basic law of logic is that A cannot also be non-A.
Who is the most Christlike?
The title of the article is meant to be a clever play on Jesus’s words to those who were about to stone the woman at the well for adultery. Let him (or her) who is without sin cast the first stone. But they conveniently forget that Jesus told her ‘go, and sin no more’. Which is ironically exactly what Bishop Criswell told the two Peters. And for that he can expect a whole barrage of rocks from the cultural elites in our society who love nothing more than rules and regulations (theirs!) and are quick to condemn any who dare to question or differ.
Bishop Chiswell is standing up for the love of Jesus, in the midst of a culture which talks about love, but doesn’t know what it is. He is seeking the best for all humanity, whilst that same culture professes to be ‘humanist’ but has difficulty in defining what a human is. I hope that all Christians will pray for him, support him and encourage him. Let’s not join in with the mob, or even turn the other way.
The article is a great example of the Orwellian use of the word love – in the name of love it stirs up hatred. It is a hit piece on a decent man, seeking to denigrate, mock and intimidate. In this at least Bishop Chiswell is following in the steps of his Lord. I would rather stand with Bishop Chiswell on The Rock, than throw stones with the self-righteous mob.
PS. The thought also struck me that the first Christian martyr, Stephen, was also stoned to death – for preaching a sermon the authorities did not like.
PPS. And another aspect is this. Look at the photos in the article. On the one hand, we have a photographer sent to take nice glossy photos showing how loving everyone else is…on the other you get a screengrab of YouTube for the Bishop showing him in darkness!
David Robertson is a Scottish minister who came to Australia in 2019 to work with City Bible Forum (CBF) – as well as continuing to help with CBF he now directs the ASK project with ENC (Evangelism and New Churches) for Sydney Anglicans – helping churches with evangelism. You can contact him at [email protected]
This story first appeared on his website www.theweeflea.com and ap.org.au