In messages to their districts, LCA bishops have reflected on how Christians can respond to questions about freedom of speech, particularly involving matters of faith.
‘As Christians, we value the right to speak our faith; in fact, it is imperative that we do this as disciples of Jesus Christ’, Bishop David Altus wrote in a website post on 1 June. To speak of Jesus ‘is a freedom we have enjoyed in this country, but we can’t take that for granted anymore’.
The bishops were responding to a number of recent media stories that have caused a stir among Christians and non-Christians alike, prompting many to raise questions about freedom of speech and religion in Australia.
Commenting specifically on the social media post of Australian Rugby League player Israel Folau, Queensland District Bishop Paul Smith said that ‘a public figure has accentuated responsibilities and accountabilities’.
‘It is important to consider what Israel’s alternatives could have been to make the same point about “loving the sinner, hating the sin”. This is not a matter of “law” but it is certainly relevant for you and me to consider how we proclaim the word of the Lord publicly beyond our church.’
In his June message to the New South Wales District titled ‘When biblical words convey the wrong message’, Bishop Robert Bartholomaeus echoed similar sentiments to Bishop Smith’s, noting the importance of context.
‘Folau quoted Galatians 5:19–21 with some change of words, and then added his own additional warning, that all this list of sinners in this passage will go to hell if they do not repent … To quote scripture carelessly without regard to whom the original words were addressed, and without regard to our audience, is reckless and counterproductive.’
Yesterday, speaking to LCA Communications, Victoria Bishop Lester Priebbenow supported that view. ‘The question was not whether the statement is correct, or scriptural, or whether [Folau] was well-meaning in making it, but rather the wisdom of how he said it (without context, as far as we know, and on social media) to a predominantly non-Christian audience’.
Bishop Priebbenow noted that the biblical texts Folau quoted were originally written to Christians who had experienced God’s grace, warning them of the dangers of falling (or falling back) into the practices common in the world around them. ‘But in a non-Christian culture, where people reject Christ as the Son of God, and therefore reject any authority he has to speak into their lives, there needs to be a different starting point when speaking to them.’
The bishops’ messages also stressed the importance of being sensitive and gracious when we speak up for what we believe.
‘Freedom is never absolute’, Bishop Altus said. ‘We need to ensure that if people are offended by our speech, it is not because of the way we speak or because the law is drowning out the sound of the gospel in how we go about sharing our faith. We need to think sensitively about how, when and where we speak law and gospel into the lives of people around us.
‘My encouragement to you is not to shy away from speaking your faith for fear of reaction, but to always consider and ask how you might hear and read your own words if you were standing in the shoes of someone listening to you.’
Read the full messages from the bishops here: