Two Ways News
Two Ways News
Tremble at his word in the heat of battle

Tremble at his word in the heat of battle

A walk through our recent history

Dear friends

Last Monday, Phillip and I were at the Nexus Conference here in Sydney—a one-day gathering that aims to stretch and encourage ministry workers and leaders in the task of reaching Sydney (and beyond) with the gospel. 

It was a very stimulating and encouraging day, built around the Isaianic theme of trembling at the word of God

Thus says the LORD:  “Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool;  what is the house that you would build for me, and what is the place of my rest?

All these things my hand has made, and so all these things came to be, declares the LORD.  But this is the one to whom I will look: he who is humble and contrite in spirit and trembles at my word. (Isa 66:1-2)

In the afternoon session, I interviewed Phillip about some of the ways that ‘trembling at the word of God’ had played out in his own ministry, particularly about how a determination to be driven by the Word had brought him into conflict—with his own sinfulness, with the world, and with other Christians. 

This week’s Two Ways News is an edited recording of that conversation, with some highlights in the text below.  (As with all our edited transcriptions of conversations, things often sound more stark and over-simplified in the text version than in the ebb-and-flow of the live conversation. Readers are encouraged to make allowances!)



Trembling at his Word in the heat of battle

TP: I want to start at the broadest level. In your experience, what teachings of God's Word have been hardest to “tremble at”, especially for us as evangelicals in Sydney over the past 50 years? Or in other words, what has most put us out of step with or into conflict with the world?

PJ: Materialism—that’s been the biggest problem we’ve faced. I mean philosophical materialism—the idea that “there's nothing in this world other than this world”—but also the consumerist materialism that flows out of that. 

It’s been taught to us in every level, including the material wealth that we have produced. Our forefathers who came back from the Second World War recreated the economy of Australia to be one of the wealthiest communities in the history of mankind. And so the philosophical materialism keeps on being demonstrated to be true in practice. Science is accepted because science gives us such terrific technology. Most people don't understand the philosophy of science, but they sure like their gadgets. And if that's what science has given us, then science must be true. 

In the 1960s, science ruled; everything was science. When I went to university in the early 60s, every subject had to be a science. We did History 1, which was the science of history. If it wasn’t ‘science’, it was not truth. 

And so how did that affect us as Christians? I had a big fight with the president of the Evangelical Union at Sydney University, which really got me removed from the evangelical union. The President did not believe that prayer could be answered, because for God to answer prayer, it would involve him interfering with the scientific natural processes of the world. And God can't do that. So you have a man who believes in prayer kicked out of the EU because the President doesn't believe in prayer, because he couldn't face the intellectual questions of the scientific era.

TP: Philosophical materialism was kind of the bedrock, opposing worldview that generated all kinds of things. One of them, of course, was a sexual revolution and a whole new way of thinking about men and women. How did that change our culture, and bring a new challenge to our churches? 

PJ: Well, again, it's tied up with money and wealth. New technologies like birth control and electronic labour-saving devices (like washing machines) meant that the nature of family life changed radically. Women could go to work in ways that they couldn't previously because of how households could now be run. 

That change was just huge. And once you started having two incomes in a family, then you had more intense competition for house prices. In a sense, feminism has created the housing problem of today, which is a very politically incorrect thing to say. But once everyone's got two incomes, then one income can no longer afford to buy a house. So then everybody has to have two incomes to be able to afford to buy houses. And so house prices have gone up for no good reason at all. 

TP: And you’re saying these ideas come into our fellowship, that we get washed along with the changes in society. One of those, which caused much subject of debate and conflict for many years, was the place of women in ministry, and especially the women's ordination debate. But many of those debates happened before some of us here today were even born. Can you tell us what was the nature of that battle? And why was it a battle over the Word?

PJ: Well, the problem with us as evangelicals is we do not tremble at the Word of God. So we do not start with the Word of God and work out what we want to do. We just do what we're doing until somebody opposes us. And then we become defensive; we have to fight just to maintain where we were before. It's like an Englishman batting against Shane Warne. You knew he was lost as soon as he stepped back instead of stepping forward. 

In the women’s ordination debates, we were on the defensive from the outset, because the issue we were forced to debate—who can be ordained—was a strange place to stand. The theology of ordination is hardly a huge theme in Scriptures. Who exactly gets ordained to do what? How are presbyters different from deacons? These are not straightforward questions.

All the same, it was where the debate came, and so it was where we needed to fight. We knew we could not continue just to take feminism on board because it is essentially anti-God. Feminism is an expression of human sinfulness. The whole analysis is completely non-Christian. It speaks of power imbalance, but that’s the language of Marxism not Christianity. Feminism doesn’t start with the biblical understanding of what is wrong with us—which is sin—it starts with an analysis of power relations and patriarchy. But it’s hard for Christians to believe the ‘all power corrupts’, because we worship the God of all power. And it’s hard for us to accept that patriarchy is inherently evil because our God is the great Father, from whom every fatherhood is named. We approach it quite differently, and that necessarily leads to a conflict of ideas. 

But it was very painful. The Diocese of Sydney fought huge battles all through the late 80s and 90s on these questions. It ripped us apart. Every session of Synod was dominated by the issue of whether we would ordain women—until Harry Goodhew declared a moratorium on the debate. But as soon as the moratorium was over, back came the debate. 

There was a constant push for accommodation. First there was an acceptance of women being deacons rather than deaconesses—I wasn’t in Synod at that time and I still don't understand what that debate was about. But steadily we kept being pushed to draw the line in a slightly different place. Women could now be deacons; well, why couldn’t be presbyters? If we thought that it was not right for a woman to be the rector of a parish, why could we not have a system where women could presbyters, but not rectors?  

Once you embark on a line-drawing exercise like this, you have joined an ancient club called the Pharisees, because that's how they dealt with the Word of God. The question is always “How far can I go, and still claim to be biblical?” 

But the person who trembles at the Word of God says the exact reverse: “What does God say? How can I push that out into every area of life?” That’s Matthew 5, and it's the opposite of the way in which we dealt with the issue. 

Mercifully, in those big debates we were able to hold the line, and the Diocese of Sydney now stands different from most of the rest of the world. Interestingly, we don't have the huge debates here in Sydney about the acceptance of homosexuality. Why don't we have that debate? Well, because we held the line on the question of women’s ordination. But if we'd given up on that, we would now be having that other debate—as churches who accepted women’s ordination are now having all over the world. 

Graham Goldsworthy once said to us that just as liberal theology was climbing out of the bog of JEDP, the evangelicals were jumping in. (JEDP is an academic theory about the composition of the Torah; Ed. ) It’s the same thing today: just as the non-Christians are climbing out of the bog of the feminist sexual revolution, evangelicals are jumping in. Mary Harrington has written a book Feminism Against Progress. Louise Perry has written The Case Against Sexual Revolution. These women are atheists and quite opposed to Christianity, but they have been looking at what's happened in the last 50-60 years. And they say that the worst thing that's ever happened to women was the sexual revolution and feminism, both of which has caused untold damage. And both of them are now saying that what we've got to go back to is marriage–marriage between a man and a woman where you raise children and stay together. 

And so here you get the non-Christian atheists who are finally waking up to the damage that has been done by feminism and the sexual revolution, while we Christians are still trying to accommodate to feminism and the sexual revolution. My brothers and sisters, do not go that way. Tremble at God's word, because we shouldn't need books like this. We've got the truth in the Word of God. Teach that, learn that, live that; don't get sucked into the way the world goes.

TP: You mentioned earlier that philosophical materialism is sort of underneath a lot of this. But of course, one of the big movements of the last 50-60 years has been a very anti-materialistic movement—the charismatic or Pentecostal movement. Tell us about the conflicts that this movement brought about. 

PJ: First, you need to remember that the Christianized culture of Australia collapsed in the 1960s. The easy marker is the contrast between 1959, when Billy Graham came and 150,000 came up to hear him, and 1963, when The Beatles came and 150,000 turned up to listen to them. That shift took place in the 60s, and in that time, church attendance collapsed. Youth groups collapsed. Everybody in Christian circles who wanted to continue then had to reinvent themselves. And they reinvented themselves in different ways. 

One of the great reinventions was the Charismatic movement. They came in the 60s, and were described as neo-pentecostals. Pentecostalism, of course, went back to the beginning of the 20th century. But this was a new Pentecostalism that didn't separate itself out from denominations, but called upon the mainstream denominations to embrace spiritual regeneration—in terms of the second blessing of being empowered by the Spirit and baptized by the Spirit, marked by speaking in tongues. They worked at undermining the mainstream churches. They would go into churches and call upon people to embrace the new wave of the Spirit. In one church I know, all those who had been baptized in the Spirit were asked to stand up and move over to one side of the building, and all those who hadn’t yet been speaking in tongues were to sit on the other side of the building. And then they called upon people to change sides. 

It was an evangelistic enterprise in that sense, but they were doing it because they thought we had conceded to materialism and atheism. And many liberal churches had conceded to materialism and atheism. They were right, but their solution was completely wrong. 

And so that continued into the late 1980s until it was decided that the mainstream churches were beyond redemption, and then they left the mainstream churches and set up new independent charismatic churches—Christian Life Centres, Christian City Churches, and so on. One of those Christian Life Centres became Hillsong. 

Then in the late 80s, another wave—the Third Wave of charismatic renewal as it was called—came along. 

TP: You’re speaking of John Wimber, and the Vineyard Movement.

PJ: Yes, Wimber accepted what John Stott had written—that there isn’t a second baptism in the Spirit, but that it actually refers to conversion. And that you don't have to speak in tongues. 

But Wimber insisted that you do need miracles. Without miracles, you haven't got God, which sounds like the opposite of materialism. And so he came with a theory of ‘power evangelism’—that you have to do powerful miraculous works in evangelism in order to show that God is real, and that the gospel is true. And again, it was the evangelical churches in particular that he targeted with conferences that he held out here. And again, we had to fight with this. 

TP: Speaking against the charismatic movement, and for the centrality of the word, was not an easy thing to do. In fact, I remember your criticisms of the charismatic movement being cast as a divisive and awful thing to do. How did you deal with that?

PJ: The Word of God is divisive; that is the nature of it. That is the gospel, as Paul says in 2 Corinthians 2: the sweet smell of life to those who are being saved and the stench of death to those who are perishing. You can't be a gospel preacher without being a divisive person. Jesus didn't come to bring peace, but to bring division. And you can't call upon people to repent, and at the same time affirm that this culture is right. 

So you will always be divisive. It's not good to desire it. It's not good to do things in order to divide. That, of course, is the work of the flesh in Galatians 5. But if you do abide by the word of God, and tremble at it, so that in your teaching you do nothing other than be held captive to the Word of God, then you will divide opinions and people. They don't like the message, so they shoot the messenger. Get used to it. 

When Jesus recruits disciples at the end of Mark 8, he doesn't promise them a good superannuation payout, does he? (Well, there’s eternal life, which is a good one.) But that's not what it's about. You’ve got to take up your cross and follow me, says Jesus. Unless we recruit people for gospel work with the promise of persecution, we're doing them a disservice. 

TP: In the context of often your opposition to the charismatic movement and speaking against charismatic theology, I remember that at one point, you were warned by a fellow clergyman here in Sydney that you were a false prophet, and that you would have your ministry taken from you within 12 months if you didn't stop preaching against the charismatic movement. How did you deal with that? 

PJ: If we’re going to tremble at the Word of God, when someone challenges you, you've got to look back and see whether what you've done is right. If people say, “No, Phillip, you're wrong”, then I owe it to them and to God and to myself to look back to see what is wrong. But what I was saying at that time, I didn't believe was wrong. 

And then the devil came to me for the next 12 months. You know, that was the first cancer scare I ever had. And then there was a particular fight that took place within the congregation. The devil is the great accuser, isn't he? He's a great liar. So you've just been given this great lie—that your life and ministry is going to be destroyed if you don’t stop preaching what you’re preaching—and you’ve got to have faith in the Word of God at this point, that in following it you've done and spoken what is right. 

TP: Now, as you came to the University of New South Wales in 1975, you did something quite strange and odd, something that nobody else was doing and that you were told wouldn't work and was a stupid idea. And that was: you started preaching the Bible on campus. Tell us about that.

PJ: When I got to UNSW in 1975, the pattern of university ministry (which had really been in place for decades) was a public lecture, and then small groups. The public lecture was usually ‘Christianity and something (e.g abortion, euthanasia, etc)’. Most of the lecture was about the ‘and’ rather than on Christianity. And they got experts from each field to talk. 

And then the Bible study groups had become ‘cell groups’ (another Marxist word). These cell groups actually were built out of social philosophy on the dynamics of interpersonal relationships, and so there was no Bible in the Bible study groups. That's why there were ‘cell groups’. 

And so a couple of students, when I first arrived, said to me, “Phillip, there's no Bible study on campus. Would you start one?” There were 300 people in the Christian Union, and no Bible study. So I started a Bible study, and that caused terrible ructions. From 1975 to 1983, I was not welcome in any Christian Union or any AFES group on the campuses of Australia. Because I'd done the thing that was not supposed to be done—I gave public lectures on the Bible. I was assured that no one could listen for more than 15 minutes. But I thought, “Well, they go to lectures all day, which go for 40-50 minutes. Why can't a Bible study go for 50 minutes? And I'm a better speaker than the lecturers because lecturers are not chosen on the basis of being able to give lectures; they're chosen on the basis of their research.”

Within a year or two, more people were coming to the Bible lectures than to the CU public lecture. And so I was accused of being disloyal and against the institution. There were all kinds of fights in those early years, until Andrew Reid became the AFES General Secretary in Australia in around 1983. And he brought about a big change to the whole emphasis. In 1983, I think there were three or perhaps four AFES staff workers for the whole of Australia, and none of them (apart from Andrew Reid) had a degree in theology. Now AFES has 300 staff workers around Australia, and they're nearly all graduates of theological college. I mean, the transformation has been enormous. 

Now, expounding the Bible at lunchtime is fairly normal. But where did I get that idea? It wasn't because I was clever or strategic or anything like that. It was because I believed in trembling at God's word. My job is to tell God's word. How will I best tell God's word? To open it and read it and teach it. 

TP: It also brought you into conflict with the authorities of the university at various points. I remember one famous incident where some students wanted to start a Greek New Testament class, and you were put up as the proposed lecturer for it.

PJ: Yes, that was around 1978. At that time, everyone had to do ‘General Studies’. And they tried to be inclusive, so you could nominate what General Studies course you wanted to do. And so some students nominated that they wanted to learn New Testament Greek. They were told no, because there was no one on the campus who was a good teacher for it. So they nominated me. In those days, I was still doing postgraduate work, both at London University and Sydney University, and so I had the qualifications to do it. So I said yes. 

Well. If I'd said “I'm going to kill my mother” I couldn't have gotten a much bigger reaction. For the whole year, the institution of the university went into overdrive to find reasons why I couldn't do it. They had people teaching General Studies courses on the history of spoons and forks; they had people teaching who had no academic qualifications at all. But I could not be allowed to teach. 

They kept inventing new criteria which would rule me out, but I kept passing each one. It was a terrible fight. They brought me in front of all the General Study lecturers and cross-examined me. It was an awful two hours or so. And in the end, one man got off his chair, walked over and looked right in my face and yelled at me. He said, “I'd rather have Adolf Hitler teach the history of Jews than you teach New Testament Greek.”

Then they set up a subcommittee to investigate whether it's possible to teach New Testament Greek, and they brought out a printed report saying that because I was biased, I couldn't teach it. Finally, I spoke to one of the professors, who was a Marxist teaching on alienation. And I said, “Well, if you’re a Marxist and can teach on Marxism, why can't I, as a Christian, teach New Testament Greek?”

And he said, “Because I've got tenure, and you haven't?” Which is a very Marxist answer (I’ve got the power and you haven’t). 

It was the best thing he could have said. It liberated. The scales from my eyes. Up to that point—I was about 30—I was committed to the educational system of our world. I thought going to university was important. I thought passing an exam was important. I thought getting qualifications was important. I thought that if you had the degrees and the qualification that you would gain a hearing. But when I saw that the whole Senate of the university was rattled by me, I realized that my university qualifications and degrees and learning were a ridiculous waste of time. 

And so I removed my university degrees from my CV because I've got the one qualification that they were most terrified of: that is teaching the Word of God. I stopped doing my postgraduate study, because they're not going to listen because of that and it’s not going to change any hearts. What is changing hearts is what they were really scared of, which is me teaching the Bible. So I just increased Bible teaching on the campus and gave up all academic pretensions. Because what people will listen to is what the Spirit of God moves in them, to tremble at God's word. That's got nothing to do with whether I've put ‘doctor’ in front of a name. If I can teach God's word faithfully, then God's people will tremble, and people will be converted. But if I can't teach it faithfully, if I don't live by it myself, nothing's going to happen.

TP: I want to finish with a more personal question. The battle to tremble at God’s word is a personal one, because we all have that sinful instinct to do the opposite—to harden ourselves against his word. At this point in your life, looking back, what's that personal battle been like for you, to tremble at the word of God? 

PJ: I'm not going to engage in a public confession. I'll keep it in the generalities. 

My sinfulness knows no end. And as I've got older, I am more conscious of my sinfulness than ever, not because I am more sinful, but because I'm having my eyes opened more and more to how sinful I am. And so I'm in battle on things that you would be horrified to hear. (That's why I'm not telling you.) 

So, if you think that down the track, you will have overcome sin, think again. I am more conscious and struggling as much, if not more, with my own personal sinfulness today than I ever have. There are circumstances and seasons of life that influence where the battle is fought—when I had young children, I had to battle with my temper. But always the battle is there. I was deluded to think that I'd made more progress than I have. Because the older I get, the more I realize the totality of human sinfulness that exists inside me.

TP: In itself, this is another aspect of course of trembling at his Word. It’s believing and applying the truth of what God says about us to ourselves. Thanks for talking with us today, Phillip. 


The other talks from the Nexus Conference will be republished in the forthcoming Easter edition of the Australian Church Record Journal.

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Gospel thinking for today, with Tony Payne and Phillip Jensen.
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