The article in the Fairfax-owned Canberra times by one of the ‘hard men’ of the media world is nothing new. It’s exaggerated polemic vitriol suggests either extreme arrogance or some lingering bad experience with church. There is nothing fair about this opinion piece, and I doubt that any reasonable person would argue that it is balanced. It is state-of-the-art secular fundamentalism that we have become familiar with in recent times. Freedom of speech being a high value for any society demands that such views be aired.
One of the idealistic ‘holy grail’ quests of the anti-religious part of the political left within our society has been to wrest one of the few remaining benefits afforded people whose work is deemed to be religious as well as charitable. I am talking about the fringe-benefits allowance. People like me who are employed by churches and religious organisations are able to allocate the portion of our income that is used toward our living allowance as being non-taxable. It is a non-specific percentage that needs only to be justified because it is used for living expenses – not entertainment, nor holidays, nor luxuries. Just living expenses.
I place rants like this in the Shimei category (2 Samuel 16). If you read the story you will see that Shimei was a supporter of Saul, who, when David’s son wrested the throne from his father, cursed David and threw stones at him as he left the city in defeat. It was David’s reply that makes this story special and creates the connection with Garry Linnell. When Joab asks David for permission to go and kill Shimei for his rant, David says,
“No!” the king said. “Who asked your opinion, you sons of Zeruiah! If the Lord has told him to curse me, who are you to stop him?” ……. Leave him alone and let him curse, for the Lord has told him to do it.”
Linnell has justification in his rant, not because of the fringe-benefit allowance to people who work in Christian organisations, but because many Christian organisations buy and sell without having to pay the same tax as everyone else does. Some organisations make literal millions of dollars simply because they can legally claim this exemption. Even though they are actually running businesses in competition with other businesses who do have to pay tax. It may be legal, but it is unrighteous. The ‘world’ picks this up quickly and can see the hypocrisy. There are any number of reasons why the name of Jesus is shamed among the community and this happens to be one of them.
Sadly this abuse of privilege by larger organisations taints the innocent ones with the same guilt. The FBT allowance for individual employees is fair and reasonable. It is there because the government of a former day recognised the fact that many Christian people were working for small incomes and were doing much to help and heal the community. It is still the case. But we need to get used to this kind of criticism. I think God is allowing it for the same reason as he allowed the Babylonians to come a destroy the city of Jerusalem and its temple. If the people of God who are supposed to represent the nature and purpose of God to the wider community set aside this calling and abuse their primary calling for the sake of personal or collective gain, then it leaves God without a genuine witness. His testimony will come in the form of allowing all of this greed, wickedness and self-serving to be exposed and ridiculed.
Garry Linnell ought to be seen like David saw Shimei: as an unlikely voice from heaven against corruption that has been going on for a long time and has more recently been exposed. We should take it as a call to repent and search our own hearts and lament the error in the hearts of our brothers and sisters who have brought this shame upon all of us.
Having said that, it is also true that Linnell is also exposed as having an irrational antagonism for all things Christian (perhaps religious as well). His passion is more religious than some of the sections of society he has been criticising. He demeans his trade because he presumes that such a use of free speech will help build a better community. If he is waiting for the time when Christianity is laughed from existence I fear he will not live long enough. He needs to be reminded of the names of some of the famous people who have made fools of themselves in similar manner: Voltaire, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Bertrand Russell are among the notables. To presume that an atheistic world will be a better place will put him in league with people who have been responsible for the deaths of more of their fellow citizens than any other- Stalin and Mao Tse Tung for starters.
So we need to quietly thank Garry Linnell and others with the selfsame voice as we quietly repent, commit again to love our enemies and lay down our lives for the good news of redemptive love.