It didn’t take long, but we can now say that Aaron Renn and James Wood have been vindicated. Their recent analyses of our cultural moment and strategies for Christian cultural engagement have been proven right by recent events in Australia. I refer, here, to Andrew Thorburn and his rapid departure from a high-profile role at one of Australia’s most prestigious professional sporting clubs.

This incident is a harbinger of the times and illustrates the wisdom of Wood’s and Renn’s claims about the church’s relationship to the culture. Renn argues that we are in “Negative World,” a cultural climate where Christianity is on-the-nose and increasingly marginal. Conservative Christianity has a particularly bad brand in a world where traditional social mores are passé.

Wood, by interacting with the example of Presbyterian minister Tim Keller, asserted that the age of “winsome” evangelical cultural engagement is over. Whether or not Wood has properly framed Keller’s ministry style, his wider point remains prescient. Many churches, especially the “seeker-sensitive” and those who aim for cultural relevance, have tended to avoid conflict whilst maintaining a stance of relevance and cultural politeness.

Perhaps “winsome” is not the right word in this instance. But there is a mode of cultural engagement, which Wood has put his finger on, that political theologian Jonathan Cole has called the “apologetic” approach. This apologetic approach, or what I am calling the “conciliatory” approach, to cultural engagement shapes up with a defensive stance and concedes ground wherever possible. It does so with the laudable aim of maintaining relationship and credibility with a secular audience. This conciliatory approach could sustain Christianity’s credibility in a neutral-world culture, but it cannot do so in a hostile one.

In case anyone was unconvinced about either Wood’s or Renn’s analysis, one of Australia’s biggest football clubs, the Melbourne-based Essendon Bombers, has served up a lesson in Negative World cultural dynamics. One day, they were announcing the appointment of a new Chief Executive Officer, Andrew Thorburn. The appointment was a high-profile one, with Thorburn having led one of Australia’s biggest banks for many years. He was an accomplished and credible appointment.

The very next day, Thorburn resigned. Why? He was found guilty of involvement in a church whose minister preached a sermon in 2013 arguing that abortion is evil and, in a further sermon, homosexuality is a sin. The Essendon board were made aware of these unsavory utterances, and one thing rapidly led to another.

The Essendon Board Chairman said that once they found out about this apparently sordid connection between Thorburn and a bible-believing church, they “acted.” The train of events, as it was made public, suggests that Thorburn was asked to choose between his new job or his church affiliation. Thorburn chose his church and resigned.

This was a watershed cultural moment for Australia, and possibly for the West. A man with outstanding credentials was told that, because of some sermons preached by someone else from almost a decade ago, he needed to reconsider his fit for the role he had just been appointed to. For all we know, Thorburn may disagree with these sermons. He may never have been aware of them or listened to them.

The bottom line here was guilt-by-association. In Australia, things have reached a point where someone can be pressured to leave their job because of their association with a group that is out of step with the moral orthodoxy of the day. Conservative Christians are evidently no longer welcome in positions of public prominence.

The question remains as to why the Essendon board felt it necessary to confront Thorburn and force a decision on his role at the Club. Do the board truly believe that the values of inclusiveness and tolerance require no dissent on the question of sexual morality? This is possible. But it seems likely that other dynamics were at play.

Christianity, particularly the conservative variety which resists the politically correct regime, was deemed damaging for the Essendon Bombers’ brand and bottom line. Professional sport is big business. Just as supporting the LGBT cause is good for profits, so dissent from this adversely affects revenue. The Thorburn Saga shows that Negative World dynamics are not only driven by purely moral motives. Political correctness is profitable.

The media frenzy that surrounded Thorburn’s appointment and exit from the Bombers turned the spotlight on Thorburn’s church, City on a Hill. Led by Guy Mason, and located in the inner suburbs of Australia’s most progressive city, City on a Hill could be described as a culturally hip Acts 29 church combined with the inner-city cultural sensitivity of Tim Keller’s Redeemer Presbyterian.

Mason has been a leading Antipodean example of the style of ministry and cultural engagement that Wood recently criticized in First Things. It is perhaps fitting that he suddenly became the avant-garde example of why Wood is dead right. In an interview on national television with one of Australia’s leading media personalities, Mason and his interlocutor produced a performance that proved the age of the conciliatory method of cultural engagement is over.

Mason’s interviewer was David Koch, who proceeded to barrage Mason with straightforward questions about his church’s teachings about sexuality and abortion. Nothing was surprising about Koch’s line of questioning, which could be summed up as seeking an explanation as to why City on a Hill is a haven for bigotry.

The troubling thing about the interview, particularly for the culturally engaged, “gospel-centered,” missional, evangelical church, was Mason’s inability to cut through with his message of “life and love.” It made no difference how carefully he explained that his church is welcoming to differing perspectives on these issues. It made no difference how non-abrasive his approach to the interview was.

Mason, who has a public relations background and is a talented communicator, came across as bewildered and toothless. The culturally hip pastor never got to show the national audience he was addressing why his church is loving and life-giving. He never found a way to defend his friend, Andrew Thorburn. Mason served up gentle and concessional public Christianity. Koch, the secular interlocutor, was having none of it.

Is Mason at fault, here? It may depend on what he was aiming to do. If Mason was primarily intending to talk to “his people,” his congregations and those they are trying to reach in the inner suburbs of Melbourne, then he could be excused. Perhaps he was not aiming to win public points for the faith but rather wanted to present a pastoral face for City on a Hill.

Nevertheless, the reality is that Mason was acting as a “Public Christian,” whether he intended to or not. He was representing Christianity on national television. That being the case, the interview was a tactical error. National television is not a pastoral space anymore. In aiming to be pastoral, Mason possibly made things harder for himself, for Thorburn, and for his congregations.

What Mason and others need to realize is that in this Negative World public Christianity will by definition be abrasive and possibly combative. It can still be “winsome,” whilst simultaneously being ready to stand firm. If Mason and others aren’t prepared for that, it may be better to not do the interview because the message of “life and love” won’t be heard.

Thorburn’s resignation and Mason’s interview demonstrate that the church needs to face this hard truth: the world has shifted and therefore the age of conciliatory cultural engagement is over. No longer will being nice and relevant cut it. No amount of “life and love” will change the fact that, in Australia at least, we’ve entered Negative World proper.

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Posted by Simon Kennedy

Simon Kennedy is a Research Fellow at the University of Queensland. He also teaches at Queensland Theological College and the Lachlan Macquarie Institute.

19 Comments

  1. […] an important piece from Mere Orthodoxy written by Simon Kennedy. It discusses a horrible sign for non-conforming Christians living in Australia. Andrew Thorburn, […]

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  2. Thanks Simon. Are you saying that Mason should have actively argued with Kochie in the interview? Because to me that would have just fed into the narrative that he was trying to make that orthodox Christians are bigoted – a lose lose.

    I agree that winsome evangelism is not the way in the public square anymore. But I’m not sure being combative is either. ‘Let your conversation be full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone’ – Col 4:6.

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  3. […] Negative World Arrives in Australia (Simon Kennedy, Mere Orthodoxy): “This was a watershed cultural moment for Australia, and possibly for the West. A man with outstanding credentials was told that, because of some sermons preached by someone else from almost a decade ago, he needed to reconsider his fit for the role he had just been appointed to. For all we know, Thorburn may disagree with these sermons. He may never have been aware of them or listened to them. The bottom line here was guilt-by-association.” […]

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  4. I don’t think he should have argued. He should have plainly stated homosexuality is a sin, abortion is wrong and God offers anyone guilty of those sins and many others Aussies are fond of the possibility to escape from the wrath of God by turning from their sins and accepting the salvation Jesus purchased for them on the Cross.

    No argument. Just preaching the Gospel without apology. If you want to see a chap do a good job of this, look up John MacArthur on Larry King live. Not obnoxious, not aggressive, but not holding back on plain, soul saving truth.

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  5. This piece leaves out some key facts, and fails to capture the fact that this church’s position on homosexuality lies well outside of the mainstream.

    First, it is notable that Thorburn holds a fiduciary role with the church in question. Thus, he has a legal duty not to engage in any activity that would undermine the positions held by the church. He’s not just a guy in the pews. He’s a leader in the organization, and is under a legal obligation to promote its views.

    Second, the church holds that homosexuality—namely, one’s sexual orientation—is a sin. Thus, is is saying that gay people are inherent embodiments of sinfulness apart from engaging in any sinful activity. This is not the historic position of the Christian church, and it finds no biblical support. Rather, this position is grounded in the work of a crackpot psychologist named Elizabeth Moberly, who invented the notion that sexual orientation is a choice and that gay people can be made straight via reparative therapy. Moberly’s work is universally rejected today by psychologists, including nearly all evangelical Christian psychologists. So, it is curious that City of Hope is clinging to such debunked and damaging notions of homosexuality.

    I don’t see this as an instance of “negative world,” unless one somehow sees Moberly’s discredited theories as central to Christian orthodoxy. It’s evident that Moberly’s theories are central to the identity of City of Hope. And Thorburn has elected to take on a leadership role in this organization and accept a fiduciary duty to it. That would seem to preclude him from accepting an executive role with an organization that rejects such views.

    Of course, the elephant in the room here is the Moberly thesis. Despite its lack of merit, the thesis lives on in the white evangelical subculture because it upholds the John Wayne fetish that pervades much of the subculture. Simply look at the barrage of attacks that Kristin Du Mez endures on a daily basis for compiling an historical survey of white evangelicalism’s obsession with gender-role performance, particularly male gender-role performance. Within the white evangelical subculture this all functions as a kind of noble lie. This is a noble lie that our culture once embraced. After all, white evangelicals adopted it from secular sources. But our culture has mostly rejected the lie for the lie that it is, even as white evangelicals cling to it more tightly. But this isn’t a concern for Christianity. Rather, it’s a concern for a particular embodiment of Christianity that arose in the late 1940s in the Anglosphere and that continues to valorize the social order of that era as a kind of biblical touchstone.

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  6. Yup, the ethics of Jesus no longer apply – the world is more dangerous for Christians than ever before. No Christians in history could possibly understand the intense and violent verbal persecution we are enduring. It is high time we jettison those unrealistic ideas about loving our enemies and we really take the gloves off.

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    1. I like you, Todd!

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    2. Thank you. Thank for reminding us all thos particular hot topic for the Christian blogosphere is a waste of our time and resources.

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  7. […] that Thorburn’s sacking demonstrates the “futility of Christian winsomeness”. Agreeing with an article by Dr Simon Kennedy in Mere Orthodoxy, Dreher argues that Christians are now experiencing a “Negative […]

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  8. And it’s not that long ago that being pro-gay would have disqualified him from running a professional sports organization. When conservative Christian values were the dominant ones, they weren’t terribly tolerant either.

    In my view, this kind of intolerance is wrong when it’s done to Andrew Thorburn, and it was wrong when those of Thorburn’s persuasion were in a position to do it to people they disagreed with. In general, in a free society, everyone should be entitled to his or her views, so long as they don’t interfere with the ability to do one’s job. Unfortunately, humans don’t seem to operate like that. Suppression of unpopular views has always been the way. The only thing that changes is which views are unpopular from one generation to another.

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    1. This is a good point. I suspect that a key reason why dissent from the pro-gay position is treated with such intolerance is precisely because dissent from the once-prevalent anti-gay position was treated with brutal intolerance.

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  9. […] a very important piece from Mere Orthodoxy by Simon Kennedy, writing about a terrible sign for non-conforming Christians in Australia. It’s about the […]

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  10. I havent signed in to the Christian blogosphere in like 3 months and we are still on this hot topic? *If this pastor was being evasive merely because he didn’t want to offend anyone, we don’t need fancy new categories like “third way” and “winsome” to describe this. The old-fashioned biblical phrase is “fear of man”.

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  11. I think part of the problem is far too many Christians, including Christian leaders, are so used to riding the tide of cultural, middle class Christianity that they have forgotten exactly *why* Christians believe what we believe about sexuality and life and *how radical* it is.

    Now that the tide has rolled back and we are standing on the same bare, naked sand, exposed to the natural hostility of the fallen human race again, like we were 2000 years ago, we need to remember the following:

    We as Christians believe radically in the dignity of the human person, body and soul, because it is created by God as good and it was incarnated by God in the person of Jesus.

    We believe that the purpose of the human body is to witness to the life giving love of the Trinity and the union of Christ and his Church.

    We believe that the human body is the sacred ikon of the human soul, and that both will be united in heaven forever in a nuptial relationship with God.

    For this reason, we believe that the following things are sinful and damaging to human dignity: using a human body for pure raw sexual pleasure that is disconnected from life and love, murder of any kind, bodily mutilation, and oppression and deprivation of the poor.

    We oppose all the human values of this world which for all of human history have allowed the powerful, particularly men, to rape, use others, cast aside their wives, expose, sacrifice, or otherwise murder children and the disabled, defraud the poor and the laborer, keep men as slaves, etc etc etc.

    We believe no human is a “burden,” no life is not worth living, and we provide radical care for the most inconvenient, despised, sick, disabled, and vulnerable among us.

    We know, as members of the Crucified One, that our opposition to the powers and pleasures of this world will cost us, in both our personal ascetic struggle and our public martyrdom before the same crowds which, we should all remember, cried out for Barabbas.

    We believe, on this foundation, that there are two paths for Christian sexuality:

    a) the path of Christian Marriage, between a man and woman who reflect the wedding of the Eternal Bridegroom and his Bride, in a union that is permanent for life and must be open to the possibility of children.

    b) the path of Celibacy for the Sake of the Kingdom, by which a man or woman witnesses here on earth to the glorious state of all in heaven, where we will not marry or be given in marriage, but be united in bliss to God Alone.

    Both paths require sacrifice.

    Both paths require asceticism.

    Both paths bring happiness and sorrow.

    But the second path is, according to both Jesus and Paul, the most glorious and highest.

    Celibacy is not a consolation prize, but a gift of grace.

    And if you are not attracted to the opposite sex and Christian Matrimony, this is the gift God is bestowing on you: to be His alone, to be as Jesus and Paul were, and as they encouraged men and women to remain, if they could accept it.

    “Being gay” isn’t a sin. It is a calling to Celibacy (though not the only one), and the calling to Celibacy is a gift and a grace.

    Christians need to just state the blunt truth, in all its radicalness.

    And if we get persecuted for it? Were the martyrs in Rome afraid of the lions?

    Christianity is not the same as “Middle Class Morality” or being “Respectable” (unless you are an Episcopalian, I guess LOL).

    Real Christianity is RADICAL.

    If it doesn’t anger coorporations, activists, celebrities, and all the other powerful people of our age who want to exploit, use, enjoy, and discard of other humans for profit and pleasure, it’s not Christianity.

    This is the time to recognize and reclaim the radicalism at the heart of the Gospel again.

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  12. A little addendum to the above:

    We need to not just proclaim, but live our truth and support each other in living it, especially when it is hard.

    We need to support strong community life and “found families” of like minded Christians for gay men and lesbians who have committed to chastity. This should not involve any kind of “conversion” therapy, stigma, or denial, but should openly acknowledge and affirm the reality and givenness of their sexual orientation while directing it’s expression spiritually towards God.

    We need to do more to help women and families who struggle to keep their babies and the poor in general, starting in our families. Every Christian young woman should know that her community will help her without shame or judgement if she finds herself in a situation where she cannot support a child. We will never, ever “end abortion” in this world with laws and politics, but we can witness to life in our own communities and actions.

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  13. […] Kennedy, an Aussie academic who isn’t a culture warrior with no fact checking capacity, wrote a piece for Mere Orthodoxy — one that echoed Aaron Renn’s ‘The Three Worlds of Evangelicalism’ from First Things back […]

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