Andrew Thorburn Essendon FC

Essendon CEO Andrew Thorburn – A Reflection

6 October 2022

6.8 MINS

What does the Essendon Football Club debacle demonstrate about how the “virtue” of “tolerance” has changed in modern Western society?

There has been a great deal written in the past day or two by a number of Christian commentators on the “resignation” of the new Essendon Football Club CEO, Andrew Thorburn. Added to those now are my fellow contributors, Bill Muehlenberg and Cody Mitchell. And I have to say that together their various views have been, at least for me, a “multitude of counsellors” (Proverbs 15:22).

And I want to draw on some of that wisdom, but also look at the wider issue of “tolerance”.
First, to give credit to those commentators who have torn away the thin tissue of lies and excuses given by the parties involved, such as those in charge at Essendon, the media and their coverage, and the State Premier, Daniel Andrews, whose insidious influence as a supporter of Essendon cannot go without mention.

I think Karl Faase got it right when he wrote that it was “an appalling turn of events in Australian public life”. I agree. We need to see this event from that perspective. Thorburn is a public figure of note, and even more so in football-mad Melbourne. So if this can happen to such a high-profile public figure, simply because of his faith, and due to nothing he said or did himself, with hardly a flicker of protest beyond the Christian community, then who among us is safe? If this doesn’t signify a distinct turn of the tide, what does?

Avoid Capitulation

Two other articles which impressed me were by Stephen McAlpine and Murray Campbell.

McAlpine particularly targets those Christians who believe our primary method of appealing to the culture is by being “winsome”. I agree with his criticism: the time for assuming that you can by means of sweet reason explain your position to those who aren’t Christians is past, if it were ever the case at all.

Surely we first need to discern the attitude of those we encounter. If we’re being winsome with those who are expressing opposition or hostility to our views, then all we’re really doing is “casting pearls before swine” (Matthew 7:6).

Or as McAlpine wrote:

“Winsomeness is a failed strategy if you think that you will stave off the attack dogs by being so. Does that mean don’t be winsome? No, not at all. Winsomeness is not a failed stance. As Christians, we should always be winsome. But don’t expect it to be a strategy that will get you by in the increasingly hostile Sexular Age. Because it won’t.”

The Premier’s Troubling Remarks

Murray Campbell, on the other hand, lasered in on the utterly disgraceful comment by Premier Daniel Andrews:

“Those views are absolutely appalling. I don’t support those views; that kind of intolerance, that kind of hatred, bigotry is just wrong. All of you know my views on these things. Those sort of attitudes are simply wrong, and to dress that up as anything other than bigotry is just obviously false.”

Campbell takes Andrews’ statement to its logical and deeply disturbing dystopian conclusion:

“Let’s assume the Premier is serious about his stance against those most evil and terrible and dangerous Christians. He has just told the world that he thinks that AFL clubs shouldn’t appoint Christians. It raises the question, in what areas is the Premier okay with Christians finding employment?

Does the Premier believe Christians can stand for Parliament? What about working for the Government? Is he comfortable with corporations appointing Christians to senior management positions? What about Christians working in state schools, hospitals and the police force? Does he believe local councils should employ Christians as gardeners or garbage collectors?

Does Mr Andrews believe that there should be some kind of religious test before you can get a job? It’s only been a few months since his Government shredded religious freedom by no longer allowing religious schools and organisations to employ people who share their values. And yet, he can speak imperviously of there being no place for Bible-believing Christians in high-profile positions in the AFL…”


But as I said, I want to dive a bit deeper into the whole issue of what is being passed off as “tolerance” these days, because early this morning I dived back into possibly the most valuable book on what we’re now increasingly witnessing in the West, The Intolerance of Tolerance by D. A. Carson, published a decade ago, yet grasping in such a compelling way the situations we’re now facing.

In the Introduction, Carson points out the fact that the “notion of tolerance is changing”, and that “the sad reality is that this new, contemporary tolerance is intrinsically intolerant. It is blind to its own shortcomings because it erroneously thinks it holds the moral high ground.”

Hence Premier Andrews’ outburst claiming Thorburn’s orthodox Biblical views are “appalling… hatred, bigotry”, and therefore that it should be obvious to all that they are “wrong” and “false”.

Absolute Relativism

In relation to the change in how tolerance is defined, throughout the book he writes about the “old tolerance” and the “new tolerance”:

“The old tolerance is the willingness to put up with, allow, or endure people and ideas with whom we disagree; in its purest form, the new tolerance is the social commitment to treat all ideas and people as equally right, save for those people who disagree with this view of tolerance…

So those who uphold and practice the older tolerance, enmeshed as they inevitably are in some value system, are written off as intolerant. Thus banished, they no longer deserve a place at the table.”

The logical contradiction should be clear, but Carson explains how it comes from the relativism where “all ideas and people are equally right”, which he describes as “structures of thought”, which becomes the monolithic prevailing view either blindly adopted by the community or imposed from above. This is what serves to entrench the contradiction as the new orthodoxy:

“The problem is worse than mere inconsistency, for the new tolerance regularly smuggles into the culture massive structures of thought and imposes them on others who disagree, while insisting that the others are the intolerant people.”

Does the situation during the same-sex marriage debate come to mind here? The parallels I think should be obvious. And Carson also notes what we have witnessed once that issue was resolved in spite of the public claims that such an outcome as they achieved was their sole aim, and that those making “slippery slope” predictions were being overly pessimistic:

“One might have thought that the broad cultural triumph of (the new) tolerance would be limited in reach: it would dictate what is acceptable in the culture at large, but would not presume to reshape every private enclave within the culture.

After all, if this new tolerance can be enforced in the culture at large, there is little need to seek similar control within private institutions or within churches or denominations. These private groupings can proceed on their benighted way without threat to the broader culture.

Increasingly, however, that is precisely what is not happening. Especially when churches take a moral stance that runs counter to the dominant stance adopted by the media, the media feels no qualms about attacking the churches for their intolerance.”

Hence, in the case of Andrew Thorburn, his church, City on a Hill, is described as “controversial” for holding traditional, biblically orthodox views on sex and abortion held by millions, and I might add, plenty of non-Christians as well.

Carson concludes:

“Are not the media proving intolerant of the churches that they judge to be intolerant?…Only the most amazingly narrow reading of history warrants the view that citizens with moral values grounded in religious beliefs are forbidden to articulate those beliefs.”

Grasping for Control

Finally, it is the prevailing relativism in morality which, because truth itself is relative, becomes a grab for power, and those with power will dictate to everyone else what is to be regarded as truth.
In this respect Carson quotes a famous essay published in Time magazine in 1978 by David Aikman, writing on the horrors of the Cambodian “killing fields” orchestrated by Pol Pot:

“In the West today, there is a pervasive consent to the notion of moral relativism, a reluctance to admit that absolute evil can and does exist. This makes it especially difficult for some to accept the fact that the Cambodian experience is something far worse than a revolutionary aberration.

Rather, it is the deadly logical consequence of an atheistic, man-centred system of values, enforced by fallible human beings with total power, who believe, with Marx, that morality is whatever the powerful define it to be…”

And doesn’t that sum up those in power, Premier Andrews and the media, in this episode: “fallible human beings with total power” defining orthodox Christian beliefs as “views [which] are absolutely appalling… hatred, bigotry… wrong”?

But Aikman didn’t stop at Marx’s ideological musing. He took the ideology of power to its logical conclusion: “… and, with Mao, that power grows from gun barrels.”

But can we in Australia really believe that such an extreme situation could play out here? The words of Benjamin Disraeli come to mind here: “Prepare for the worst, but hope for the best.” Of course, we all hope and pray for a divine breakthrough in our circumstances, that revival would break out and transform the culture. And that is precisely the focus of this month of prayer and fasting, that “millions… find Christ”.

At the same time, though, we know that Scripture tells us all to expect the kind of treatment dished out to Andrew Thorburn. But we should also realise that both are possible outcomes. We need to accept the fact that there are times when God chooses to use the persecution of His children to bring about millions finding Christ.

In fact, He has been impressing on me for many months now that we should be looking to the persecuted church to learn how they respond to their persecution, because in there are the “hidden seeds” of the harvest.

Finally, and even in that context of persecution, we should be inspired by the grace under fire shown by Andrew Thorburn himself in his media release, and so to Andrew Thorburn belongs the last word in all of this, because I firmly believe that, if and when persecution comes to the rest of us, it is this grace, this inner strength and conviction under pressure, that will cause others to take notice of those qualities and inquire about the source of that grace and inner strength.


Photo: Essendon FC

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