Rebuilding in the ruins of the Church

By Peter Corney

(The title for this address was inspired by Reno Elms book “In the Ruins of the Church” (1)

In the book of Nehemiah chapters 1 and 2, when Nehemiah, who is in exile, learns of the ruined state of Jerusalem he is deeply distressed and calls out: “Jerusalem lies in ruins and its gates have been burned with fire.” (Neh 2:17 & 1:3). He is moved to two responses: a profound prayer of repentance and a decision to return and rebuild the city and its walls.

This is a metaphor for the contemporary Australian Church. We find ourselves at this point in our history in a serious crisis. Unless this crisis is confronted and dealt with then the ruin of the church will continue and our crucial and unique contribution to the Nation will be so weakened that we will become almost completely ineffective.

The future and the relevance of the Australian Church lie in our response to the following crises:

  1. The erosion of our integrity and credibility by the toleration of sexual abuse and disordered sexuality – a crisis of holiness.
  2. The betrayal of historic Christianity. The faith of our people and the strength of our congregations have been ruined by a theology that has reduced and revised away the heritage of classical Christianity by a relentless accommodation to the contemporary culture – a crisis of truth and faith.
  3. A failure to focus on our core values and purposes. The failure to submit our denominational cultures and agendas to our primary evangelistic and mission directive– a crisis of purpose and mission.
  4. The need for a whole new generation of young leaders with ability, integrity, creativity, and a passion for the Gospel – a crisis of leadership.

If we are to rebuild the Australian Church so it is once again a credible and effective witness to Christ then, like Nehemiah, we need to begin with repentance and then commit ourselves to the decisions and actions that are necessary to rebuild.

Let me begin with the first crisis of integrity and credibility.

Much is currently being done around the Australian Church to put in place protocols and structures for reporting and dealing with sexual abuse.

In my own denomination in the Diocese of Melbourne, in addition to new protocols and structures, all licensed clergy have participated in a series of excellent seminars entitled, “Power and Trust”. Regular police checks are now mandatory and commitments are required to new professional codes of conduct, including regular assessment. All of this is commendable, necessary and long overdue.

But there are other matters that must also be faced. The toleration of abuse and the justification of immoral and disordered sexuality can only be deeply and radically challenged by the recovery of the Biblical vision of God’s holy love. The call to the distinctive Christian lifestyle originates in the vision of God’s holiness and that vision is found in God’s word. That is why I believe that the first crisis is a crisis of holiness.

With regard to relationships and sexuality between adults the following predictable pattern has emerged. When certain sections of the Church have arrived at a view that is inconsistent with God’s Word and the historic belief of the Church, they then pursue the following approach to justify their view. First they construct a creative hermeneutic that alters or circumvents the clear meaning of the text. They do this, I believe, not because they themselves feel overtly constrained by Scripture, but because they know the majority of the church still does. Then there are those who think that the texts are so ambiguous that the matter is not settled by the Bible. They of course conveniently exclude the discussion of the wider context of the Bibles teaching on sexuality such as the creation account in chapters 1and 2. of Genesis.

Second, they then create a false contrast between the orthodox view and the new view. The orthodox view is caricatured as excluding, intolerant, rejecting, and therefore unlike the Gospel of grace and loving acceptance. On the other hand, the new view is portrayed as inclusive, tolerant, accepting and loving. This is of course a deeply flawed and deceptive approach. Acceptance, tolerance and inclusion when applied appropriately are good and godly. But not everything should be tolerated and accepted, indeed when applied inappropriately these attitudes can be deeply destructive. It would take only a short time for any of us to compile a list of attitudes and actions that ought to be rejected, excluded and never tolerated.

We must not accept within God’s people relationships and behaviours that God has declared as unholy. The call of God to us in all our relationships is to holy love. Love and truth cannot be separated without the distortion of one or the other.

A great Syrian Christian, St Ephraim wrote: “Truth and love are wings that cannot be separated, for truth cannot fly without love, nor can love soar aloft without truth, their yoke is one of friendship.”

The ancient baptismal questions and promises make it perfectly clear that while all are invited to the feast in the Kingdom of Heaven there are decisions to be made, things to be rejected and things to be embraced when we accept the invitation (1 Cor 6:9-20)

The parables of Jesus and the apostolic preaching make it very clear that inclusion in the people of God is not unqualified. (Acts 2: 37-39)

A community without boundaries is destined to disappear. As Thomas Oden has written of the circle of faith, “A centre without a circumference is just a dot, nothing more … to eliminate the boundary is to eliminate the circle itself.” (2)

In the Old Testament immorality is frequently the bi-product of idolatry. When the gaze of the people of God is distracted from the vision of God we become vulnerable to the temptation to turn our gaze toward unholy things. (1 Cor 10:1-12)

We need to re-establish in our hearts and minds the Biblical vision of God’s blazing purity.

“Lord … your eyes are too pure to look upon evil, you cannot tolerate wrong.” (Hab 1:13).

“Worship God acceptably with reverence and awe for our God is a consuming fire.” (Heb 12:29)

We need to soak our imaginations again in visions from God’s Word, like:

  • Exodus 19: Where God’s awesome presence descends on Mt Sinai with the giving of the law.
  • We need to prostrate ourselves with Isaiah before the vision of the King of Kings “high and lifted up” in Isaiah 6.
  • We need to stand amazed with the Apostle John before the staggering vision of worship around the throne of God and the Lamb in Rev 4&5.

We need to relearn and memorise these exhortations from Scripture:

  • “Worship the Lord in the splendour of his holiness; tremble before him, all the earth.” (Ps 96:9)
  • “Oh Lord, who is like you? – majestic in holiness, awesome in glory … “ (Exodus 15:11)
  • “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and knowledge of the holy one is understanding.” (Prov 9:10)
  • “The Lord Almighty is the one you are to regard as holy; he is the one you are to fear and dread.” (Isaiah 8:13).
  • “Stand in awe of the God of Israel.” (Isaiah 29:23)

So many of us in the contemporary church are like the man in Plato’s story who was chained to the back of a cave. He was so manacled that he could only face the rear wall, condemned to live out his life seeing on that stone wall only dim reflections and shadows produced by the brilliant light outside that sometimes filtered through the entrance of his cave – his understanding of reality, his imagination, his knowledge of himself, hardly touched by the light, the beauty, the seasons and the vast landscape outside.

We need to unshackle our minds from our contemporary accommodation to the Spirit of this age. Turn around and go the entrance of our cave and look out on the Biblical vision of the glorious and holy God.

When our minds and imaginations are gripped once again by this vision we will find ourselves rediscovering not only the foundation and the motivation for Godly sexual ethics but also, and perhaps surprisingly to some, the true motivation for social justice and a renewed passion for preaching the cross. Let me explain:

The essential motivation for Christians to work for social justice is not some political ideology but the Biblical vision of God in his absolute righteousness and justice. This vision may indeed influence a political agenda but it always stands above them.

There is an intimate link in Scripture between God’s holiness, righteousness, and justice, and the ethical demands he makes on his people, especially in their social relations.

The command “Be holy for I am holy” occurs in Lev 19:1-37, Isaiah 5:16, and 1 Peter 1:15-2:1. In each case it is followed by ethical and moral directions focussed on our social relations.

The moral source of social ethics lies in God’s holiness. It is located in the heart of God who hates injustice, who defends the poor and exploited who is repelled by immorality and deceit, and loves truthfulness and goodness. (Ps 146:7-9; Prov 6:16).

As we rehabilitate the vision of God’s holy love the other priority that will re-emerge is the preaching of the Cross. Once again we will see that the cross is the pre-eminent place of access to God’s grace.

The reasons are as follows:

First, when we reassert God’s holiness, in contrast we begin to feel and see the ‘heart of darkness’ with greater clarity. The pervasive monstrosity of evil and its immense destructiveness is pressed in upon us again.

Second, we see the absolute necessity for its judgement and defeat.

Third, we see the desperate need for redemption and grace by those caught up in its corrupting and destroying power.

Fourth, we realise afresh that the only point at which we can meet God in our unholiness is in judgement and grace, and the place where judgement and grace meet is in the cross. Here is the heart of holy love (1 John 4:10).

In Exodus 33:18 when Moses was personally trying to come to grips with the shattering apostasy of the people of God in their manufacture and worship of the Golden Calf, he cries out to God: “Show me your glory”. God’s gracious answer to Moses’ desperate prayer enables him to find the courage and confidence to go on and to lead the people out of their crisis of faith and disobedience. That must now be our prayer – “Lord, show me your glory.”

The second crisis is the betrayal of historic Christianity – a crisis of truth and faith.

The future of the Church lies in the recovery of a vital orthodoxy, the recovery of biblical and credal faith, the recovery of classical Christian belief.

Let me be very clear that I am not calling for a retreat into fundamentalism. Fundamentalism is not the only alternative to theological liberalism. There is a third alternative – ‘intelligent orthodoxy’.

The other side of the action to recover classical Christian belief is the rejection of much of what liberal-reductionist theology has constructed by its relentless accommodation to modernity and the Spirit of the age.

By ‘liberal-reductionist theology’ I mean an approach to Christian truth that critiques the Gospel with the prevailing worldview rather than other way around.

Liberal-reductionism allows the Spirit of the age to over influence its interpretation of the Gospel. It then seeks to reduce and revise the Gospel to fit what the surrounding culture finds plausible or implausible.

It claims to be broad and open but it is frequently intellectually narrow and provincial, trapped in the immediate landscape of current thought.

It is frequently reactive rather than proactive. Having lost its confidence in orthodoxy it then fails to offer, from the perspective of classical Christian belief, an intelligent critique of the prevailing intellectual fashion. It rolls over to the pressure of the Spirit of the age. This can have devastating results as in the accommodation of large parts of the German Church to Hitler and fascism in the late 1930’s. (3) Karl Bath sounded the warning, predicting the tragic direction in which liberal theology would take the German protestant Church. The stakes are high in this matter.

Thomas Oden, whom I quoted before, describes himself as a “recovered liberal theologian”. He is from the liberal American Methodist tradition. He explains his past captivity in this way, “We sought to be inclusive but managed to be so only within the strict limits of modern ideologies trapped in secular premises. In this captivity we systematically excluded most premodern wisdom.” (4)

Let me list some of the touchstones of classical Christianity that liberal-reductionists are most uncomfortable with and equivocal about. These are frequent targets for their relentless revisionism:

  • The Virgin birth and the incarnation – that Jesus was God incarnate.
  • The divinity of Christ and his supreme Lordship – the one to whom, as Phil 2:9-11 says, “Every knee will bow”.
  • That salvation is through Christ alone.
  • The atonement and Christ’s substitutionary sacrifice for our sins – as clearly expressed, for example, in the letter to the Hebrews.
  • The bodily resurrection of Jesus
  • The return of Christ to judge the world and fully consummate the Kingdom of God.
  • The fallen nature of humanity.
  • The supreme authority of Scripture as God’s living word to us.
  • The unity of the Old and New Testaments and the centrality of Christ to both.
  • That the NT Gospels tell us clearly about Jesus – rather than the idea that the Gospels tell us a lot about their writers and the community of faith in which they emerged and relatively little about the real Jesus.
  • The Biblical description of God as “Father, Son and Holy Spirit”.
  • The Biblical norms and boundaries for sexual ethics.

The paradigm for orthodoxy is Moses and the burning bush. The revelation of God to Moses in that extraordinary and unexpected event creates the response of faith and obedience in Moses. It is not Moses’ faith that creates the burning bush!

Orthodoxy begins with God’s revelation of himself to us. In this encounter, God is at the centre, God has the initiative, God is challenging and disturbing our fallen human categories and perspectives, God is calling for our submission and our obedience.

Our task as Christian teachers, preachers, apologists, and conversationalists is not to revise and reduce the Gospel to make it credible to the contemporary world but to challenge the most precious assumptions of the contemporary world with the Gospel.

Certainly we must find every possible point of contact, tap into every human longing expressed in literature, art, music and popular culture. We must learn the language of contemporary people so we can communicate the Gospel intelligibly and intelligently – but we fail the world if we revise and reduce the Gospel so it fits the landscape of contemporary belief.

Alister McGrath in his systematic theology, Christian Truth, defines heterodoxy as: “That which preserves the appearance of Christianity but contradicts its essence.” (5)

This tendency in the contemporary church has had a devastating impact. Because liberal theology retains the language and the symbols of faith but changes their original meaning the damage to the faith of ordinary church members is subtle and devastating. The heritage of classical meaning is stolen away by stealth. But worse – the power of the Gospel is also destroyed because the power lies in the original meaning. Once evacuated of their first order meaning the words and symbols are emptied of their spiritual power because they are emptied of truth. So the people are robbed and the church rendered powerless.

These first two crises are leading a number of people in the Australian Church to seriously consider the formation of a ‘confessing church’ within the mainstream denominations that would cross denominational boundaries. Recent events in the Uniting Church in Australia have sharpened this discussion as have events overseas in the Anglican Communion. In North America we now have a large new province created that has broken away from the Episcopal Church but is seeking to be in communion with continuing Anglican diocese in other parts of the Anglican Communion. (6)

The third crisis is our failure to focus on our core values and purposes – a crisis of purpose and mission.

Each denomination and tradition has in its own way allowed its own denominational culture and preoccupations to deflect it from our prime mission directive.

In Anglicanism, my own tradition, our emotional attachment to an anglophile and sentimental 19th Century ethos of the English village church and cathedral culture has trapped too many of our congregations in a quaint cul de sac of irrelevance to Australian culture.

The whole Vicar of Dibley Syndrome, through which the watching world can say “how eccentric, harmless and amusing” and by which the Gospel is trivialised, marginalised, and dismissed.

Our polite discomfort with enthusiasm and evangelism has left us powerless and ineffective in communicating the Gospel in our generation.

The unstated cultural snobbery frequently reflected in precious liturgy and music that appeals to an almost invisible percentage of Australians.

The failure of large numbers of Anglican clergy and their leaders to understand, learn or even be open to the wealth of insights and skills available today for leading and growing effective churches is a sad fact of ignorance and sometimes just plain arrogance.

As someone once observed, too many Anglican clergy fit the description of the ‘bland leading the bland’!

I will risk just one anecdote from another tradition. I have been privileged to be involved in a number of consultations and training events with the Salvation Army. I remember one corps where they were involved in a knock down drag out over the wearing of bonnets in the choir!

Here is a movement that in the 19th Century was a radical force for mission and evangelism. The Army metaphor, the uniforms, the brass bands were up to the minute culturally contextualised tools for mission in the 19th Century British Empire. Now, what was a radical methodology has become a tradition locked down in a time warp with all the force that a military organization can bring to bear. The Army is currently engaged in a battle to recover the radical passion for mission in which it was born. I deeply admire the Salvation Army and pray they will rediscover their heritage.

In a period when socially and culturally everything is in dynamic and rapid change, where we have to largely reinvent the way we do ministry, church and mission, we have to be clear about what is essential and non-negotiable and what can be left behind.

Much of the denominational baggage we have carried with us into the 21st Century is frankly non-essential, indeed much of it is a weight and a hindrance. The mission is primary. The mission is more important than the denominational culture. The mission has priority!

The irony is that the very “tradition” we should have preserved – the tradition of the faith – large sections of the church have been busily revising, reducing or jettisoning. On the other hand, the traditions we should be leaving behind we cling to desperately.

Perhaps this is what happens when you empty the signs and symbols of faith of their content. You are left clinging to the outward trappings of belief.

Our prime mission directive was given on a mountaintop.

Matthew 28:16-20

16Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. 17When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. 18Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

Mountaintops are magical places; they give you perspectives and inspiration, they fill you with awe and a sense of majesty. They are also exciting, scary, dangerous, and unforgettable places.

We need leaders who have received and heard the prime mission directive on the mountaintop. Who have been to the mountaintop with Jesus? Who have experienced the spiritual awe and majesty of that place. Who have seen the vast panorama of need and opportunity. Who have seen a perspective that’s larger and bigger and more noble than the limited outlooks of their denominations and individual congregations.

On the mountain top the distance between heaven and earth seems thin. The possibility and the hope of drawing the nation to God seem possible.

There has never been a time in this nation when we needed Christian leaders more who have been to the mountaintop and heard the prime directive from Jesus, “go and make disciples … baptising them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”

I said earlier that without boundaries the Christian community is destined to disappear. It is also true that a Christian community that is not focussed beyond its boundaries is equally destined to disappear. Our future lies in our obedience to both imperatives, to distinctiveness and mission. We must live and work in the creative tension between the two commandments – “Be holy for I am holy” and “go and make disciples.”

The fourth and final crisis we face is the need for a whole new generation of young leaders with ability, integrity, creativity, and a passion for the Gospel – a crisis of leadership.

In 1913 and 1914 two Polar expeditions were launched, one to the North Pole and one to the South Pole.

The 1913 expedition to the North Pole was mounted by the Canadians and led by a man called Steffanson in a boat called the “Kaluk”.

But it was an unusually cold winter and their boat was trapped in the ice and crushed. The expedition ended in tragedy, the team disintegrated into a rabble, men turned on each other in the extreme conditions, stealing food and fighting, eleven of them died in the ice.

The next year, in 1914, a British expedition led by Ernest Shackleton with a team of 28, including one Australian, set out for the South Pole. Almost the identical circumstances befell them. Their boat “The Endurance” was also trapped by the ice and eventually crushed and sunk. Twenty-eight men found themselves camped on the ice in the most extreme survival conditions.

But from there on the two stories are completely different. In fact, the Shackleton Expedition is probably one of the most inspiring and amazing stories of survival ever recorded. Alfred Lansing tells the story in his gripping account entitled, Endurance. (7)

Shackleton led his party across the ice to Elephant Island on the edge of the arctic land mass. There they survived under upturned lifeboats. Shackleton then took five men and sailed a 20-foot open lifeboat 800 miles to the Island of South Georgia to a whaling station to organise a rescue party.

For the sailors among us – this is one of the most treacherous and storm lashed pieces of open sea in the world. They had to constantly knock the ice from the boat with a hammer to stop it weighing them down and sinking them. The temperature was below freezing and the conditions appalling.

The feat of navigation alone in those conditions was extraordinary. But they made it! It took two attempts to rescue the men left on Elephant Island but they finally succeeded – this whole process took over 18 months.

Every man was rescued and no one was badly injured or became critically sick.

And here is a significant fact – when sometime later Shackleton raised a new expedition almost every man volunteered again!

What was the difference between the two expeditions? LEADERSHIP!

In a situation of great danger and in extreme conditions Shackleton’s leadership was outstanding. It is no surprise that in today’s world this leadership example has become the focus of much attention by students of leadership.

The difference between the Australian Church having a creative and effective future or drifting further to the margins of Australian life is leadership – leadership that responds decisively to the crises I have described.

I want to suggest 6 principles that should guide our strategy for leadership development:

  1. We must recruit on the basis of demonstrated giftedness and leadership capacity.
  2. Local churches that are centres of ministry growth, excellence, passion and excitement should be the focus of our recruiting strategy. In spite of large areas of decline there are many outstanding, healthy, growing and creative churches around the country. When people are recruited from these places they carry with them into training two vital attitudes that cannot be “trained in” – an excellent model of ministry and a belief that the Church can grow and make an impact.
  3. These growing churches should be encouraged to develop ‘gap’ programs that enable young adults to experiment with ministry at the local level. These are programs where young people are encouraged to take a year off as a volunteer to work in ministry in their local church. The church provides some training and supervision. Many large churches already have these programs.
  4. Every person currently in full-time ministry should have as one of their top personal priorities the recruiting and mentoring of at least one person of above average potential every two years.
  5. In the mentoring of young leaders we must pay as much attention to character development as to theology, ministry and leadership skills. The cultural climate that has nurtured the attitudes of the next generation is deeply infected with the notion of personal fulfilment and individual rights rather than servant hood and holiness.
  6. When recruiting potential leaders we must look for a commitment to those things the contemporary church is desperately weak in:
    a. A commitment to holiness of life that arises from the Biblical vision of God’s holy love.
    b. A commitment to a vital theological orthodoxy.
    c. A commitment to our prime directive – evangelism and mission.

Let me conclude with this quotation from David Wells:

“What has most been lost needs most to be recovered – namely, the unsettling, disconcerting fact that God is holy and we place ourselves in great peril if we seek to render him a plaything of our piety, an ornamental decoration on the religious life, a product to answer our inward dissatisfactions. God offers himself on his own terms or not at all. The deity who now appears to lie so limply upon the church is, in fact, the living and glorious God. His hand may be stayed by patience and grace, but it is certain that he will eventually pass judgement on the world. It is this holy God, glorious in his being, doing wonders, who beckons his people to a deeper working knowledge of himself, and it is he who breaks the power of modernity.” (8)

A prayer:

Dear Lord, lead us to:
A holiness without legalism,
A discipline with celebration,
An unworldliness that is life affirming
A simplicity of life that is aesthetically aware,
A frugality that is not mean,
A distinctiveness that is hospitable,
A clarity of belief that is gracious,
We ask this through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Peter Corney

November 2003. Revised May 2009


  1. Reno Elms, In the Ruins of the Church, Baker Books 2002.
  2. Thomas Oden, The Rebirth of Orthodoxy, Harper Collins, 2003, P. 131
  3. Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon, Resident Aliens, Abingdon Press, 1989, p. 24-25. See also Theologians Under Hitler R.P. Ericson, Yale University Press 1985
  4. ibid., p.87
  5. Alister McGrath, Christian Truth, Blackwell. 1994,p.147
  6. The new North American Anglican Province (ACNA), made up of 693 congregations and approx. 81,000 worshippers. (Feb 09) See also GAFCON, The Fellowship of Confessing Anglicans.
  7. Alfred Lansing, Endurance, McGraw Hill, 1959
  8. David Wells, God in the Wasteland, Eerdmans, 1994, p.145

All Biblical references from the NIV.

  • Dougmcintyre

    I think we need to go to the root of the problem here.

    In the 1500’s we Protestants departed from the teaching church which Christ established, and which Christ promised would teach his truth untill the end. We replaced this with ‘supremacy of individual interpretaion of the written tradition’.

    We ignored the fact that all written tradition is originally oral tradition, and that the writtten tradition is simply oral tradition which has become recorded in written form. We ignored the fact that all oral tradition was seen by the Apostles as guaranteed by Christ and fully binding on the believers. We ignored the fact that through the oral tradition thousands were converted, before one word of NT Scripture was even produced.

    We ignored the fact that in NT times there weren’t individuals running around interpreting the Scriptures and forming seperate groups, but rather believers remained in communion with the authority of the teaching church.

    How Christ must weep when he sees 60,000 (and growing) seperate groups all claiming to have arrived at the truth through private interpetation of Holy Scripture.

    Our problem is our departure from what Christ established and guaranteed would teach his truth. Our problem is that we have departed from Christ’s body- his church.

    This has caused us to follow OUR OWN ideas about Christian belief and the meaning of Scripture, rather that the ACTUAL belief of the early church and their knowledge of the NT writings.

    It frieghtened me when I first thought it, but I think (despite what has been drummed into me) that the Catholic Church is that church of Christ, and we have departed from it to our peril.
    It is certainly one in official teaching, holy in the heroic individuals over the centuries, catholic in it’s membership, and apostolic in belief and succession.

    I am seriously moving toward a “return home”


    Doug McIntyre

  • Peter Corney

    Hi Doug,
    Sorry for the late reply, been away. There will always be a tension between authority and freedom in the Church. Even in the more authoratarian R C Church there are a variety of voices. Luther pointed out that he would prefer “the hurricane of contoversy to the pestilence of an authoratative error” My own view is that ‘interpretation of the Word’ is the role of the Christian community and by that I mean the church gathered in conversation with each other (ordinary christians) and the historical tradition of interpretation and those who have been given the charge to study and teach and the written word, all controlled by the primary framework of our mission. Regards, Peter Corney