Time to Reform?

In recent decades, for many reasons, it has become unfashionable for churches to enter into discussion about matters of social reform.

There has been a great desire to keep ‘church’ and state’ separate, for good historical reasons. Furthermore, there is indeed the risk that such matters divert us from our focus, which is making known the name of Jesus so that all can be saved from their sins.

On the other hand, the lack of interest in political matters from Christians has made it harder to enter the more recent debates.

Aware of this tension, I recently attended a briefing about the proposed poker machine reforms.

Contrary to some newspaper reports, it was not a secret conspiracy meeting.

It was simply an opportunity to find out more about the reform process, and what exactly was being and was not being proposed. 

Such reform has been placed on our national agenda in the aftermath of our hung Federal election in August 2010.

The motivation is to protect problem gamblers by forcing poker machine operators to introduce ‘mandatory pre-commitment’ technology. Even clubs admit to problem gamblers losing at least $800m annually.

Breaking the cycle

While the exact details are currently being worked out in consultation with the industry (several different options exist), essentially it would mean that poker machine users must choose a maximum they are willing to lose before they are locked out of any further use of any machine.

It forces a break in the addiction cycle, allowing an opportunity for common sense to be restored.

The clubs have managed to find $20m to fund an advertising campaign against these measures.

As the mood of our parliaments becomes more ‘progressive’, more and more legislation is coming before Parliaments that flies in the face of ‘Christian values’.

In the past 12 months these issues include euthanasia, gay marriage, the introduction of secular philosophical humanism classes under the title of ethics, adoption policies, and the list goes on.

While the gradual secular shift in our society makes it easier for some to see the distinctives of the Jesus’ forgiveness, the reality is that for many it becomes more difficult.

First step

We must be clear, social action itself is not the Gospel of Jesus – many groups have lost their focus over the years. And at the same time, Jesus came to serve and defend those who could not stand up for themselves.

Ultimately and most importantly this means forgiveness and salvation.

But showing care for those who suffer can be an important first step.

But coming back to where we started, has the pendulum swung too far? Is it time for Christians to re-engage in political matters?


The Rev Raj Gupta is the senior minister of Toongabbie Anglican Church, member of Standing Committee, and Mission Area Leader of the Parramatta Mission Area. He is also a partner with the 'Exploring Effective Ministry under God' team, and currently undertaking a Doctor of Ministry at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (TEDs).

Comments (18)

Please sign in or register to add a comment.

  • Pete Sholl
    February 22, 11 - 10:47pm
    Sometimes our poets and songwriters get it just right.

    And I wish I, wish I knew the right words
    To blow up the pokies and drag them away
    'Cause they're taking the food off your table
    So they can say that the trains run on time

    Tim Freedman 'The Whitlams'
  • Robert James Elliott
    February 22, 11 - 11:44pm
    I agree that the church should take a stronger stand against gambling (in any form). People should learn to work to win earthly rewards, not depend on chance. Similarly in respect of other self-destructive behaviours, the church should promote lifestyles that do not include alcoholism, drug addiction, porn addiction etc.

    However, I disagree that the church should get all social justice and start to advocate a socialistic model. This is where the church loses perspective. Charity is one thing and is usually individualised but the socialist model has failed here and has also bred a dependency culture, ie addicts to public money. That is not Christian in any way.
  • Dianne Howard
    February 23, 11 - 3:06am
    There’s an interesting article referred to on this site in breaking news (‘How Timothy Keller Spreads the Gospel in New York City, and Beyond) that includes, amongst other things, a brief discussion of politics and church in the US context.

    ......Part of the reason why Redeemer has done well is because we've always said, "We're about Christianity, not politics. And we know that your Christian faith is going to affect your political views. We know that—we're not saying that won't happen. But we also don't think that your Gospel faith necessarily throws you into one party or the other. " And because we've had that stance, it's one of the reasons I think we haven't had a backlash here.
  • James Ramsay
    February 23, 11 - 4:28am
    I think Matthew 25:35-36 and similar makes it clear that Christians are to engage in social reform. The argument is whether this is through the actions of the members of the Church or via the Church influencing the State.

    I think the problem today is that the Church has gotten in bed too deeply with the State. Which not only makes it hard to fulfil this mission, but also makes churches less likely to speak out about other areas for fear of retaliation against their charitable agencies*.

    However in this particular instance I doubt whether this legislation is the right solution. It is likely to just bring back the bad old days of underground gambling.

    * And the secularists have already started attacking these agencies for receiving State funding.
  • Sandy Grant
    February 23, 11 - 7:07am
    Thanks for raising this issue, Raj. It's an issue that has concerned me. You are right that the current federal political situation gives a unique window of opportunity for reform for harm minimisation via pokie reform. Christians must help stiffen the spine of our politicians.

    I have written a briefing for people in my congregations and others interested here, which outlines the findings and recommendations of the Productivity Commission on this matter.

    Clubs lobby are really pushing voluntary pre-commitment. It would be useless in that problem gamblers are notorious for hiding and even denying the problem. Compulsory pre-commitment would make everyone ask themselves what they are willing to lose, in advance, before another spiralling episode of problem gambling commences.

    My imperfect analogy for voluntary pre-commitment is that it would be like asking people to voluntarily set a limit for how much alcohol they drink before they drive. Sensible people without problems might voluntarily do so. Those who really need the limit would not bother because they don't see the problem, or they decide they are immune and don't really have a problem. So we set compulsory limits for drink driving. Not a perfect analogy, but I think people can see what I am saying.
  • Robert James Elliott
    February 24, 11 - 4:45am
    I restate my view that the Church should focus on individual behaviour, as society is ultimately made up of each of us, and if each of us did more to resist temptations and behave in a more sober and godly fashion, then all of us would be better off. I guess what I am saying is that a bottom-up approach is more in line with Judeo-Christian morality and also has a better chance of delivering long term benefits. Can anyone say that public behaviour and morality has improved with the welfare state???
  • Sean Heslehurst
    February 25, 11 - 2:41am
    hi Raj, I wonder is your line better said social action alone is not the Gospel. I also wonder, does the responsibility belong to the church i.e. the denomination and their functional heads who do not always speak for those who belong to that denomination or is the responsibility clearly laid at the feet of the people who collectively we call the church. Would clear action and decisions by people working together to make change be more effective than a simple "other voice" in the political spectrum know as the church. Would we as individuals be willing to make the sacrifices that come from standing against gambling if it truly affected us. Would we no longer go to the shows that are supported by gambling moneys, would we no longer eat in the clubs because the meals are cheap, why are they cheap, gambling money, would we fork out much more monies for our sporting clubs to survive who benefit once again from our clubs profits, would we choose not to use there venues for evangelistic events even though they are so good, would we counsel our people not to be complicit in the problem by supporting the system in gainful employment. The real action I believe will happen when we mobilize our people to stand for what they believe in, which of course is often the problem because we struggle to put theology into practice, we personalize our faith and often we struggle to see the relevance of doing good in our society as a christian endeavor. I am just wondering?
  • Allan Patterson
    February 25, 11 - 11:53pm
    Surely part of the gospel is to look after the poor and down-trodden in our society. Timothy Keller's book "Generous Justice" gives great balance on this. And Ez 16:49-50, speaking of Sodom's sin, says " She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy. They were haughty and did detestable things before me. Therefore I did away with them as you have seen." As christians we must be concerned for the moral, material, and spiritual welfare of all our citizens. We must be engaged in politics!
  • Robert James Elliott
    February 28, 11 - 1:39am
    Yes, but is the means of engagement and the end. Is the end one of charity, in order to help individuals and families? Or is it a society-wide upheavel, to make everyone the same in some drab, conformist, socialist model? I am for Christian charity to actual people but against "social justice" which is often a facade for a socialist order.
  • Philip Charles Gerber
    February 28, 11 - 2:54am
    The NSW Council of Churches [www.nswchurches.org] has been "fighting the good fight" of putting forward a Christian perspective on "social" issues/problems for decades i.e. since 1889 in one form or another! The social evils of alcohol and gambling have been at the forefront of their concerns for the whole of that time. And in my opinion they are still THE major societal problems. You young turk Sydney clergy (and others) need to get onto the Council and give it a new lease of life.
  • Philip Charles Gerber
    February 28, 11 - 2:58am
    The NSW Council of Churches [www.nswchurches.org] is the Sydney Anglican Diocese, NSW Baptists, NSW Presbyterian, Christian Reformed Church NSW, Salvation Army Eastern Region, Churches of Christ NSW and Congreagtional Fellowship NSW. Not the same as the World Council of Churches which is represented in NSW by the NSW Eucumenical Council.
  • Philip Charles Gerber
    February 28, 11 - 3:04am
    In the NT there are comprehensive proposals before parliament to limit mis-use of alcohol. The Aus Hoteliers Association are spending big time and money lobbying politicians to try and stop or water down the legislation.
  • Sean Heslehurst
    February 28, 11 - 3:05am
    I am flattered at being called a young turk however I believe that phillip has made my point for me. It is not organizations that will carry the day but grass root people working together to achieve a combined goal. This goal needs individual christians to make serious decisions about what they believe then act in view of their beliefs. While ever we create lobby groups to do our work we will sideline the true effectiveness of Gospel work in our society
  • Philip Charles Gerber
    February 28, 11 - 3:49am
    Sean, "young turk" was referring to Raj and his cohort. Though you do seem young to me too. It's not "either or" but "both and". The "institutional" church (through bodies like NSWCoC) needs to be in the public debates/struggles because they play out at a mega-political level but with serious consequences for individuals. ALSO, individual Christians need to consider the implications of their choices and actions. There was a time in my living memory when a believeing Christian would not be seen dead in a pub or club as a matter of principle and the only Australian casinos were illegal ones. Back a bit further (not in my living memory) a Christian wouldn't be seen dead in a dance hall or pool room. (Snooker/billiards, not swimming). Crikey, we were not even allowed to shop on Sundays at the few shops that might be open.
  • Sean Heslehurst
    February 28, 11 - 4:45am
    is the mega-political level actually undoing the grass roots because as i speak with the general christian populace they seem to think that the church (mega political) has that in hand and are really divorced from their responsibility. I am just wondering if we gave up playing politics would the world change that much. Does the institution make much of a difference or impact on the world. Do we so place a veneer of respectability that the true predicament of humanity is actually ignored, coupled with our inability to mobalise our supposive masses that we need to rethink our strategy. As to your other points I am actually really excited that christians feel comfortabe to enter in and engage with our world and not hide in their holy huddles.
  • Philip Charles Gerber
    February 28, 11 - 5:19am
    I wasn't completely endorsing historical and quaint "wowser" type behaviour, simply commenting on its genesis in principled personal behaviour decisions. If we are in the pubs and clubs (and of course we should be) have we the fortitude to be there on our terms, CHOOSING to not drink alcohol, for example, or do we act and look just like everyone else there.
    It is interesting to note that the Salvation Army is currently the most "wowserish" of all the churches in its specific restrictions on members' conduct yet it has one of the best community reputations of all the Churches.
    The battle on specific issues is fought in the mega-political/media world and the institutional Church orgainsations must be in there with a Christian perspective, surely. We shouldn't "play politics". We should be outspokenly, uncompromisingly prophetic.
  • Sandy Grant
    February 28, 11 - 8:15am
    Sean, thanks for raising the issue of the need to make costly personal decisions, such as not eating at restaurants where prices are subsidised by pokie losses, and reconsidering if venues with pokies are suitable venues to hire for church activities...

    And for all of us, please read this telling article on the addictive nature of poker machines published in the SMH last Saturday... Feeding the Hungry Beast.

    Key comments include the memorable but telling line that the
    humble pokie really is the "crack cocaine of gambling".

    It quotes Malcolm Battersby, a professor of psychiatry at Flinders University in Adelaide and an internationally recognised expert in problem gambling, as saying...
    "But what really was not understood was that the machine design specifically facilitates people becoming addicted to the machine – and you can say this about other forms of gambling – in exactly the way that a person becomes addicted to heroin or alcohol"
  • Sandy Grant
    February 28, 11 - 8:16am
    Here's another quote from the article...
    "Machines are designed around conditioning – simple as that," says Battersby. "They are designed to increase a behaviour – in this case, putting money in a machine."

    Decades of research has shown that response to the conditioning will be that much stronger if you don't know when you will be rewarded and by how much.

    Battersby describes the feeling of excitement when people first start using poker machines and win.

    "The sympathetic nervous system is activated, your heart rate goes up, your breathing gets a little bit faster and maybe there is a little bit of sweat".

    But after a while it becomes a very negative experience from which people get only temporary relief by playing further.

    "What they do not realise is that it actually reinforces the urge for the next time they might have a gambling trigger. That is the oldest bit of psychology research in the world," Battersby says.