Last year an 18-year-old Australian Christian named Madeline was dismissed from Capital Kids Parties after putting an “It’s OK to Vote No” filter on her Facebook profile.
In April this year, the ACT Fair Work Ombudsman upheld Madeline’s dismissal from Capital Kids’ Parties, and said that it would “pursue no further action.” There was no outcry against this decision. In fact, there was hardly any response at all.
In 2018 marriage stands redefined at its roots, and there is nothing remarkable about dismissing an Christian employee who can’t agree with this change.
This is just one small example of how the Australian Church now teeters on a social earthquake. We live and worship within a hostile, alien environment. How are we going to go? How must we respond to this change?
I would like to put forward a prognostication, a promise, and a plea for preparation.
The Ruddock Religious Freedom Review was created by former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull in the midst of the marriage plebiscite. It was meant to defuse the argument that a change to marriage law would – as already seen in Scandinavia, Britain, Canada, and the United States – bring a wave of prosecution against religious organisations and individuals who could not work and speak in conformity with redefined marriage. This was Turnbull’s lullaby: “Hush, little ones. We’ll care for you when marriage is changed.”
Ruddock’s recommendations included certain legislative protections for so-called “religious people.” (Doesn’t everyone have a world-view?) Laws will likely be made to guarantee certain rights to worship, to publicly communicate one’s religious beliefs, and to work and educate our children according to one’s religious convictions. I expect that many in the church will pop the Bolly when such legal protections are made.
Here, however, is my prognostication, which I extrapolate from a parallel event in France some four centuries ago.
In 1598, after two generations of religious civil war and the brutal persecution of Protestant Christians, Henri IV (1553–1610) signed the Edict of Nantes: granting certain defined religious freedoms to France’s 1.5 million Protestants, about ten percent of the population. Henri himself had been born and raised Protestant, but had converted to Catholicism in order to secure the crown of France, supposedly arguing that “Paris is worth a Mass.” His Edict freed his former coreligionnaires to build temples and to assemble for worship in certain regions and cities. They were freed to baptise, marry, educate their children, and bury their dead according to their beliefs. They were freed to defend themselves against violent persecution. There was even a secret provision of 45,000 gold écus – a vast sum – to pay Huguenot pastors.
This brought relief and jubilation: “At last we may live according to our faith. The state gives us this right!”
However, subsequent events proved that the Edict of Nantes, probably unexpectedly, created the framework and means for the state to crush the Huguenot church.
Henri’s son Louis XIII (1601–43) felt no allegiance towards the Huguenots and felt far less confident than his father ruling a nation with a substantial minority who held different convictions to himself. Encouraged by Cardinal Richelieu he steadily repealed and constrained the 92 articles of Henri’s Edict. And Henri’s grandson Louis XIV (1638–1715), who, when not in the bedchambers of his mistresses, was a deeply pious Catholic, finished the task of dismantling the Edict. He destroyed Protestant temples. He banned the distribution of Huguenot literature. He made it impossible for Protestants to serve in the civil service.
Eventually he unleashed the Dragonnades, the forced billeting of violent French soldiers in Protestant homes, where they were under orders to steal, harass, and make life unbearable for their hosts. Relief from this ordeal was found only in conversion to Catholicism.
Mass exodus from the French Protestant Church ensued, either by conversion, or by flight to other countries, to the point that by 1685 Louis decided that there was no viable Protestant Church left, and that the Edict of Nantes was a dead letter.
Le Roi Soleil revoked the Edict of Nantes, Protestantism was declared illegal. Huguenot men were condemned to the living death of the royal galleys. Huguenot women were interred in dungeons until they abjured. (Most never did.) Huguenot pastors were hunted down and hanged.
The moral of the story is crystal clear: once a government deigns to grant religious freedom, the government can take away religious freedom.
In Australia right now our freedom of religion, conscience, and assembly are considered natural rights – rights that a government can no more grant or restrict than our right to eat, sleep, and breathe. Article 18 of the 1948 United Nations Declaration of Human Rights expresses this:
“Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.”
If our government grants religious freedom: then natural rights will be transmogrified into state rights. And my prophecy is this: that these state-granted rights, given the anti-Christian mindset and trajectory of our society, will in future be steadily restricted and repealed. The native forest of religious freedom will be gazetted and fenced, and the chainsaws will begin to buzz.
I expect, within the remainder of my lifetime, that Christians will be legally restricted in their ability to speak out and live out their faith in the public sphere. Abortion centre “exclusion zones” and recent anti-discrimination actions are the thin end of the wedge here.
I expect, within the remainder of my lifetime, that Christians will be forbidden to educate their children the way they want to. Recent changes to the Education Act in Tasmania (where I live) have already cleared the way to enforce a certain curriculum within Christian private-schools and even our home schools.
I expect, within the remainder of my lifetime, that professing Christians will begin to be barred from such professions as law, education, healthcare, the academy, and the civil service. We received a foretaste of this earlier this year, when the Supreme Court of Canada upheld the decision of the Law Societies of British Columbia and Ontario to refuse to licence law-graduates from the private Christian Trinity Western University in B.C.
In brief, Christians who live out their lives of Christians will soon be punished and prosecuted.
For those who read and believe the Bible this persecution will not be at all surprising or alarming. Thus from personal prognostication I move to my second point, the very certain, severe, and precious promise of Jesus in Matthew 10:17-20.
“Be on your guard against men; they will hand you over to the local councils and flog you in their synagogues. On my account you will be brought before governors and kings as witnesses to them and to the Gentiles. But when they arrest you, do not worry about what to say or how to say it. At that time you will be given what to say, for it will not be you speaking, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you.”
Jesus promises persecution to his followers. “You will be arrested. You will be flogged. You will have to explain your Christian convictions and behaviour before governing authorities.”
Up until now, Australian Christians have enjoyed persecution-free liberty to speak and live out their faith. According to Jesus this is strange. We are about to face normal.
But persecution is not to be feared. In fact it is God’s surprising plan to get out the Christian message. We live and speak as Christians; we upset our world who has never willingly recognised nor received the Christ; we are called to explain and defend and be punished for our convictions; and as we do so many more people hear about Christ.
This was Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego before Nebuchadnezzar. This was Peter and John before the Sanhedrin in Acts 4. This was Paul before Felix and Festus, and then Caesar himself.
And Jesus promises, that in these situations, that we will “be given what to say, for it will not be you speaking, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you.” It is our Lord’s will that we be persecuted, “I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves.” And he will reveal himself to a fallen world through our trusting demeanour and patience under punishment, and he will preach to a fallen world though our mouths.
Church history confirms the effectiveness of his plan.
The second century Epistle to Diognetus asks, “Do you not see Christians flung to the wild beasts, to make them deny their Lord, and yet unconquered? Do you not see that the more of them are punished the more their numbers increase?”
And in the same century Justin wrote, “Though we are beheaded, and crucified, and exposed to beasts and chains and fire and all other forms of torture, it is plain that we do not forsake the confession of our faith, but the more things of this kind happen to us so much the more are there many others who become believers and truly religious through the name of Jesus.”
Thus Tertullian’s third century aphorism, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.”
A corrupted text claims that when John’s disciple Polycarp was martyred, the executioner pierced his burning body with a dagger, “And there came forth a dove, and a great quantity of blood, so that the fire was extinguished; and all the people wondered that there should be such a difference between the unbelievers and the elect.”
The dove symbolised the Holy Spirit, and so the corrupted legend symbolises the New Testament’s beautiful truth: that on the patient martyr rests the Spirit of Glory, and that when Christ’s own suffer, the Spirit of our Father preaches the Gospel.
This brings me, thirdly, to my plea for preparation, addressed directly to pastors, elders, Christian parents and educators, youth leaders and any Christian who has any influence over Christian young people. Prepare them for hardship and persecution!
I learned the importance of preparation for hardship the hard way. For six years my wife Amanda-Sue and I ran short-term mission trips for young people to the Aboriginal town of Roebourne, in the Pilbara. Roebourne is dirty and blazing hot. Feral dogs roam the streets and people live in squalor. The mission team was billeted in a old mechanical workshop – dusty, greasy, no air-conditioning, and crowned with spider-infested showers and toilets. On the first morning of our first trip a team member called her mother and arranged a bus back to Perth that same afternoon. The second day another team member caught a flight back to Perth out of nearby Karratha.
Thereafter, in subsequent pre-mission training sessions, we laboured the hardships of Roebourne. We waxed eloquent about the heat, the grime, and the spiders. We made Colditz seem luxurious by comparison. We never thereafter lost a single team-member. In fact most participants would later say to us, “Roebourne isn’t that bad!”
It’s all about correcting expectations, and I use the same tactic in pre-marriage counselling. I reinforce that “the first year of marriage is the hardest,” and recount newlywed horror stories. (There are many.) Thereafter I get the same kind of feedback: “We had a good year! We like being married!”
If our young people walk into the future thinking that the Christian life is going to be easy – that they will never face abuse, ostracism, restrictions and threats to their study, work, and career – then they are not going to be mown down like the British at the Somme.
Thus the New Testament incessantly warns believers to expect persecution, and shows us how to handle it. “In fact,” Paul said, “everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Ti 3:12). The final verb is not in the subjunctive mood.
In my own church I have been explicitly warning our young people about persecution for some five years now. This is not about creating a victim mentality, but the opposite. “Expect persecution. It links you with Christ. Rejoice when you are ‘counted worthy to suffer dishonour for the name.’ Rejoice when you’re made to explain your faith and life, for the Holy Spirit will preach through you! And in any case there are Christians who are suffering far worse across the world right now.” This is the victor mentality, that “we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.”
But are we ready to suffer more? So far I have not had to pay a big fine. I might be able to scrape together enough liquide to pay a $10,000 penalty. A second or third would mean selling my home. Am I ready for that? Am I willing to do that? Am I willing to go to jail? Terrible things can happen to people in jail.
What about when our children and grandchildren face some very difficult choices? When they are told that they can only practice law and medicine when they sign certain diversity policies? When they are told they can only be a teacher if they agree to certain ethical statements regarding homosexuality and marriage? (The kinds of policy a person must already sign if they want to use Airbnb.) Will they be ready to suffer for their convictions? Will their churches be ready to step in to help them with help and resources?
The parable of the sheep and goats in Matthew 25 presupposes that our brothers and sisters will be naked, hungry, thirsty, and imprisoned. Are we ready to give up our own comfort and resources to help them? Are we giving up our comforts right now for our suffering brothers and sisters in Syria, Iraq, Nigeria, the Sudan, and North Korea?
Prepare your churches for persecution, and particularly your young people. You have no time to lose. And give them the priceless gift of gospel clarity. No Christian will survive persecution if they do not have a very clear, comprehensive, and precise understanding and conviction about the gospel. Only the gospel will hold us up upright under the hail of persecution’s arrows.
I conclude by returning to the example of the Huguenots. I would love to say that when the Bourbon kings started to excise Christian freedoms that the whole Protestant Church community stood firm and stood as one. In fact the response was depressingly complex.
Thousands of Huguenot nobles converted to Catholicism in order to protect their privileges and careers. When the Dragonnades commenced, entire Huguenot communities abjured to protect their womenfolk and property. (Can we blame them?) When Louis XIV revoked the Edict of Nantes there were about 600 pastors. Some 500 fled France, and a large number of the remaining 100 abjured, so that by 1745 there were only 33 Protestant pastors on French soil.
The academic question is: “Was the Church ready for persecution?” The highly practical and pressing non-academic question for Australian church leaders right now is, “Will you make the Church ready for persecution?”
Before long our Federal Government will make laws to regulate Australian Christianity. First these laws will protect the church, then they will be screwed tight to tame and restrict and muzzle the church. Social media, workplaces, classrooms, lecture theatres and civil institutions will labour concurrently to the same end. Young Madeline will be only the first of many to lose their livelihood.
Church leaders, prepare your people for this. Be a good and wise shepherd and prepare your flock for the wolves’ attacks! Don’t gloss over the copious New Testament warnings. Model calm determination, and courage when necessary. Above all, rejoice that the Holy Spirit, through our persecution, will powerfully preach the life-giving gospel to a world that so desperately needs to hear it.
Campbell Markham is a Presbyterian pastor in Hobart, Tasmania.