Christian Converser

NZ Church is dominated by simplistic short-term theological focuses

This week the NZ Parliament introduced the Abortion Legislation Bill and it also passed the Misuse of Drugs Amendment Bill. Both issues are attracting understandable controversy in the NZ Christian community. However the responses to it from a Christian perspective are, as usual, dominated by conservative viewpoints, with Family First rushing out numerous releases and statements criticising both measures. The measures are also receiving considerable discussion by the New Conservative political party.

Whilst organisations like Family First do perform a useful role in keeping some of these controversial issues in public consciousness, they also highlight that most of the debate in the church in NZ tends to be polarised around conservative theologies that largely follow right-wing political themes. These overwhelmingly emphasise a black and white simplistic approach to just about every issue of a moral nature.

Issues like crime, drug use and abortion are much more complex than the simplistic perspectives espoused by organisations like Family First and New Conservatives. The latter for example has claimed that an expanded welfare payments system is responsible for many of our social ills. They simply fail to recognise that the government did not decide one day to create a much larger welfare system. The changes in welfare were caused by other government policies that resulted in large increases in unemployment. Many conservatives also highlight the breakup of families as a key factor in many of our social ills. This is quite true, or close to true, but there are causatives factors that aren’t just down to the availability of the domestic purposes benefit and so anti-welfare commentators like Lindsay Mitchell (formerly an Act party MP) are creating simplistic perspectives that are lapped up by right-wing  commentators who then spread them with their loud voices.

The usual reason we have such a dominance of conservative perspectives is that they are the ones with all the finance. Conservatism is generally the political viewpoint most espoused by the wealthy because it gives them a means to oppose change to protect their financial base. The Church unfortunately follows this trend. Much of our theology is subject to the same risk of ideological corruption as political belief systems when it is influenced by the interests of the rich and powerful members of society. Fortunately for us, we have just this week discovered that there is a community out there of people like us who can be morally conservative and socially or economically progressive. It is difficult to hold that type of viewpoint in churches where the majority of the members are completely conservative in their thinking, but we are sticking around our current church regardless because of other factors. The Church at large is not limited to the boundaries of individual fellowships. It is possible to have such viewpoints regardless of where we choose to attend and it is totally worthwhile networking across the physical boundaries of particular church fellowships.

In New Zealand the dismantling of key aspects of government social programmes that recognised the huge benefits to society of full employment, equitable housing costs and economic equality has largely been glossed over and sidelined by the church. The simplistic ideology and theology based around individual responsibility peddled by right-wing political parties and churches that support them fails to recognise that this type of thinking overwhelmingly favours the elite who have a lot of money, power or intelligence. This small percentage end up with all the gains they can extract from their enhanced opportunities and the majority end up with relatively little. In the Church we say people are blessed but we fail to recognise that there is a lot more at stake than just a person’s spiritual state in their relationship with God. It is true that people can be placed in a situation where they are being supernaturally provided for but that does still involve physical money that is in most cases being gifted by wealthier members. Some church members are in the position of being able to earn a lot of money because they are exceptionally good at their line of business, but there are a lot more who are merely self employed sole traders who have a moderately comfortable living but aren’t exactly rolling in the loot. So the ideology of individual responsibility inevitably does not live up to its claims as those who are favoured by it are a small elite and the vast majority do not gain a great deal. These ideologies when promoted to the extremes that have been prevalent during certain periods of government in NZ, most notably 1984-1999 but also more recently in 2008-17, have generated major economic inequality that has further driven deprivation in society. This in turn drives more breakdown and moral failure.

At the top of this thread we talked about misuse of drugs and abortion as current moral issues being highlighted in the Christian community. Misuse of drugs is an example of a social issue created out of the breakdown of family life driven by various factors associated with economic inequality. Abortion is associated with a number of issues such as casual sex, solo parenting and family breakdown. The problem for the Church is these issues can’t be solely characterised as personal moral failures. Many MPs who are supporting these measures aren’t drawn from liberal political perspectives as commonly they are receiving support across the political spectrum. Hence, conservative Christians have fewer friends on the right of politics than they once did. This is a key that the evangelical NZ church should actually be willing to take a hard look at its prevailing adherence to conservative political ideologies. The reason these theologies dominate is partly because evangelicals tend to shun higher learning and intellectual knowledge, and many of them receive all of their theological learning from a pulpit. Another reason is that the US Church is also dominated by a right wing group who are strongly involved in campaigning for and supporting Republican party presidents. The theology that this group champions, which emphasises US domination and rule of the “New Jerusalem”, is thus attractive to NZ Christian believers who are unaware of its shaky theological bases. This is one of the reasons we don’t believe in Christian politics or support parties like New Conservatives who have a Christian base because of our concerns that the Church should not seek political dominance or power. Abortion is an issue that is not just about unborn children. It is really part of reproductive rights, and the problem in the church is the way in which women are marginalised in some conservative theological circles.

The answer to many of these problems is a society that is more equal and that irons out many of the rich and poor extremes and contrasts that have developed in NZ society over the past 35 years, and the NZ church should be at the forefront of this cause.