Acceptance, societal change and Andrew Thorburn

It’s hard to have missed the outcry and debate of the past couple of weeks surrounding Essendon football club asking their newly appointed CEO, Andrew Thorburn, to choose: the club or the church? 

Like many other Christians, I have found myself shaking my head in wonder. I have been left with questions about the implications of the decision that Andrew Thorburn was forced to make. I was also shocked by the comments made by politicians and more broadly across both mainline and social media towards City on a Hill (the church Andrew Thorburn belongs to) at what would still be considered mainstream biblical teaching around issues of abortion and sexuality.

My questions and shock arose not because there is disagreement around these moral issues. That the church has thought differently to wider society around these issues has been clear for a long time. My questions and shock arose more from the seemingly new precedent set by these events that because of their beliefs, Christians may no longer be eligible to hold positions of leadership in secular organisations in our society.   

This is new ground.

I know many other Christians share similar concerns. We are not alone in this.

Former Prime Minister John Howard said last week

“The idea that because of a religious affiliation a person has he is disbarred from holding a non-religious position for which he is apparently eminently qualified is quite preposterous and I don’t think it can be condemned strongly enough.[1]

Deloitte Australia CEO, Adam Powick, similarly said

“For me, this shows a profound lack of understanding of what it truly means to live and work in a diverse, inclusive and tolerant society where people are judged by their demonstrated actions, behaviours and capabilities, rather than their personal characteristics and beliefs, [2]

So how can we prepare ourselves well to have healthy conservations around our concerns with others?

This is a big question that I am not going to try and fully answer. But one part of the answer must include growing in our understanding of why we and others hold the positions we do. PeaceWise teaches this concept by encouraging people to distinguish between:

  • the issue – that is the question we are seeking to answer
  • the position – our answer to the question, and
  • the underlying interests – the why behind our position.

To have healthy constructive discussion around our concerns, it is not productive to simply share what we see as being the issue or our positions. We also need to understand our interests, the reasons for our positions.

So, in the context of the Andrew Thorburn situation, it would break down this way:

  • The issue: Is Andrew Thorburn suitable to remain as Essendon CEO given he Chairs, and in doing so supports, a church which holds to the traditional Christian positions around abortion and sexuality?
  • The position: Some will answer “Yes!” and some will answer “No!”.
  • The underlying interests: Explain why people feel that yes or no is the correct answer. Each person will have different underlying interests that we can only understand by taking the time to listen to what they have to say, no matter how much we may want to disagree with them. Personal beliefs, family heritage, life experiences, cultural background, social networks, religious beliefs and more will all go into shaping our underlying interests. 

When thinking about this issue, one underlying interest that has been significant in informing people’s positions is their definition and understanding of what acceptance and tolerance means and looks like in today’s culture.

So, what does the research say about acceptance?

Some recent research released by Mainstreet Insights[3] helps us in understanding a key underlying interest that has informed people’s positions on the Andrew Thorburn issue in the way that they have.

The research looked at cancel culture and acceptance in Australian society. As part of the research, participants were asked their view of what acceptance means. What stood out from the results, and is supported by other research[4] and social commentary[5], is how our society’s definition of acceptance has shifted in recent years.

Tradition or classical views of acceptance flowed from enlightenment thought and is best summarised in Voltaire’s famous quote:

“I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to death your right to say it”.

This approach to the concept of acceptance means it is possible to respect and accept a person whilst at the same time recognising and allowing for difference in opinion or belief. What was interesting is that in Mainstreet’s research only 38% of respondents indicated this as their definition of acceptance.

Most respondents (55%) defined acceptance as both the acceptance of the person and their practice or worldview. For some, this acceptance also includes the person being willing to participate in or advocate for the other person’s worldview or belief.

This might seem like a subtle difference, but we have seen the powerful outworking of this difference in Andrew Thorburn being asked choose between the Essendon football club or the church.

Approached from this definition, acceptance demands suspending all differences and any judgment of the other. It doesn’t allow for divergent views on ethical or moral values, but says all views and choices are acceptable. To say otherwise is at the least disrespectful, and at its worst, bigoted and hateful. In this space, you can’t and don’t distinguish a person from their ideas, behaviours, values or beliefs.

I have found this helpful in understanding why people saw Andrew Thorburn’s personal beliefs as disqualifying him from a CEO role of a large football club that promotes diversity. In the mind of many, being the Chair of City of Hill church which holds to the traditional Christian positions on issues surrounding abortion and sexuality sees him as rejecting all who think differently.  As such it’s incompatible with an organisation promoting diversity.

Sydney Morning Heald journalist, Anthony Segaert picked up this thought in his opinion piece entitled, I’ve lost faith that Australia knows how to discuss religion,[6] writing:

I fear the question [about religious tolerance] stems from a growing intolerance of those who see the world through a religious lens. But I want to believe it is a lack of understanding.

Mainstreet’s research would suggest that Segaert’s fear is warranted, but not because society is intolerant of a religious world view per se. But rather, because society’s definition of tolerance and acceptance has shifted, and no longer allows for personal expressions of absolutes and judgements of right and wrong.

Segaert also wants to believe this is due of a lack of understanding about Christian faith.

This is quite possibly true, however…

the church needs to recognise we have played a big part in the reluctance of some to listen to Christians at all.

Sadly, church history is filled with stories where the church’s view has been enforced on those in society who think differently. Doing so has left deep, deep, scars and made people weary when they hear Christian leaders saying that they can love people despite thinking differently on moral issues. History would say that the church has not always been very good at this.

So how should we respond?

Firstly, we need to understand what it means that the definition of “acceptance and tolerance” has changed. And changed in part because the church has not always done a good job of loving those who think differently to us. For this we need to be ready to apologise. We need to hear the stories of those who the church has hurt and accept that there are consequences that includes distrust towards us.

Secondly, we need to show why it is possible for Christians to love a person genuinely and deeply even when they think differently. Christians believe that we are all created in the image of God. This means that every person has innate worth and is deserving of love, grace, kindness and acceptance. We also believe in a God who didn’t wait for us to think the same way as him before reaching out to have relationship with us. Romans 5:8 tells us that it was

while we were all still sinners that Christ died for us.”  (emphasis added)

Phrased another way, it was while we all were living and holding views and opinions different to God that he reached out to make relationship possible through Jesus Christ. As followers of Jesus, we are to do the same today.

In Matthew 5:9, Jesus said,

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

It is good to remind ourselves of this as we think about our response in this space. It is also good to remember that immediately after these words Jesus said

“Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me.”

We should not stand surprised that our views are not always accepted. Even when we get our response right, and live as peacemakers, it will not always be accepted.

But conversations and issues like the Andrew Thorburn situation give us an opportunity to listen deeply and engage well with those who think differently to us.  To try to genuinely understand their “why”, and the potential hurt and emotions which lie inside.  And to continue to hold out a hand of love and acceptance of them as people, even if we don’t agree with their view on an issue.

It is as we continue to model the graciousness of Jesus in the public square that we can best continue to present the claims of the loving God whom we follow and serve.

Wayne Forward, CEO                                     Bruce Burgess, Founding Director

[1] Cited in Clarke T. October 11 2022, John Howard condemns ‘disgraceful’ treatment of Andrew Thorburn and lashes Daniel Andrews’ ‘appalling’ comments, Sky News. Cited 14 October 2022

[2] Thorburn resignation ‘disturbing’: Delloite boss The Australia Newspaper

[3] Mainstreet, Jul 2022, Cancel Culture and acceptance in Australia. Accessed 14th October 2022

[4] Eg. Verkuyten M & Kollar R, March 2021, Tolerance and intolerance: Cultural meanings and discursive usage. SAGE Journals.    Accessed 14th October 2022

[5] Furdei F, 2012, On tolerance, Policy, Vol 28, No 2, p 30-37


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