Theological Controversies Influencing US and NZ Churches [1]

It’s very plain and has been for many years that churches in New Zealand are theologically influenced by viewpoints that originate from the USA. Whilst these ideas may be mainstream with the overall culture of society in America, they begin to look rather odd when imported into another country where cultural values are very different. This then in turn raises big questions about the origin of the theologies.

There are many examples which have been referred to elsewhere in this blog, notably dispensationalism; that is partly topical but another current aspect is the anti-campaigns referred to in the last post, specifically anti-mask, anti-vaccine and opposition to public health measures such as lockdowns. A small proportion of US churches (probably much less than 1%) have been quite militantly campaigning for their “rights” which supposedly are greater than those of other people anywhere in the community. The US Constitution does of course have a provision for “the free exercise of religion” which these churches are invoking, but the actual interpretation of that clause is doubtless going to have to be tested in the court system there and is not absolute. Generally, the values being expressed are of Christian superiority and elitism, which are subsets of the overall Christian nationalism theological theme. This viewpoint remains highly controversial within churches in the US.

In New Zealand the main churches influenced by such viewpoints and expressing them publicly are the two or three Auckland and Christchurch churches mentioned in the last post of this blog, which have all been actively campaigning for some time, but recently a coalition of smaller churches has sprung up under the banner of “Free To Be Church”. This outfit describes itself as “a nationwide effort by a group of New Zealand pastors, church leaders, and Christians to secure and protect the lawful, God-given freedoms to practice our faith”. The group’s web site state they are currently working on a legal challenge to the government’s use of lockdowns, most of which limit churches from physically meeting together. The group appears to be closely tied to small NZ denominations from Reformed traditions, but is likely to get backing from a wider range of churches. However, the position being taken by the group is, like that of the American churches, a distinctly minority perspective, just like the views of anti-campaigners overall in NZ, and it’s doubtful they will attract wider backing. The UK case was supported by a similar restricted cross section from which the mainline churches and major evangelical denominations were notably absent.

Part of the case being assembled for the purported legal challenge in NZ is based on a viewpoint expressed by a Dr Martin Parsons that churches must be able to meet together physically, in person. Material produced and assembled by Parsons for the UK case makes numerous references to the practices of the early NT church found in the Book of Acts and epistles. The case, however, for insisting that churches are unable to fulfill their full Biblical unction through internet meetings is pretty weak. Internet techology was of course unknown at the time the New Testament was written. Whilst it can be understood that this technology does have obvious limitations, claiming that it is impossible for the church to function without a physical meeting is quite weak, perhaps even legalistic. It mostly relies on particular theological interpretations that prevent an activity from being administered over the internet, for example Catholics cannot take communion privately but must always do so in the physical presence of a priest, a restriction that other denominations do not have. The case is mainly subjective rather than objective, relying on the assumption that there is no governmental superiority over churches, that churches have a superior status, etc. In other words, it is very much like the correct way to interpret the US Constitution as referred to above, but also with the rider that a case has to be made that the church is unable to fulfill its key functions without physically meeting together.

As noted above, the key aspects of this campaign are likely based on theologies that emphasise Christian superiority over government and implicitly over other religious faiths as well. The group, in addition to the government’s Covid response, also mentions the proposed conversion therapy and hate speech legislation as issues. However it is important to note that even in mainstream evangelicalism, these other issues are not treated with the same level of significance (this will be examined more fully in a soon to be published post on our afiliated blog “Christian Sexuality Focus“). The main consideration is that a relatively small group of people who are quite militant about these matters are campaigning vociferously in a public context regarding them. Although the debate is quite reasonable, the context of a campaign from highly conservative churches that are outside the theological mainstream in New Zealand is naturally going to be quite restrictive or limiting. Our observation is that most NZ churches all across the theological spectrum have been willing to work with the restrictions, understanding they are of a temporary nature. The basis for any legal challenge would have to be non-superiority to have any change of success; that is, that churches have not been treated fairly comparable to as any other type of similar organisation. Whereas the basis for this group is, they state, “government overreach”. It appears doubtful that an absolute case can be made out that churches in NZ are exempt from government health regulations. It is correct that the conversion therapy and hate speech measures presently being considered bring with them a considerable degree of uncertainty for Christian communities around NZ. Many existing churches however moved on from hate speech in particular many years ago and views relating to these are only strongly expressed in a very small percentage of congregations. So to conclude, the theological context of the issues raised is of considerable importance, and as it stands, appears to be derived from culturally charged US situations that are less relevant to NZ.