The Ministry of Education is trying to force Bethlehem College, a Christian school, to change its statement of belief – a statement that reflects Christian beliefs. Specifically, they are trying to compel the school to remove their statement that they believe marriage is the union of a man and a woman, on the grounds that this discriminates against those who do not share this view or who are in a relationship outside of this definition. On the face of it, this is a shocking thing for a Government agency to do and an obvious affront to the right of the school to freely state its belief on a matter that is hardly a surprise. This is, after all, the Christian view of marriage. But here’s the thing: The grounds on which the Ministry is trying to make the school change its statement of belief on the one hand, and the reason the ministry is being urged to do so on the other, are quite different animals.
It’s a situation, I think, where a government agency is fronting what seem like reasonable grounds for their demand, while serving a more sinister purpose. That’s how a slightly cynical person might read this situation (and cynicism is perhaps wise in this situation).
Some background: Bethlehem College is an integrated Christian school. This means they receive some funding from the government, but not as much as other schools, the difference being made up by fees paid by parents. Like other integrated schools, Bethlehem College is a special character school, which has a statement of special character setting out what that special character consists of. As noted by the Association of Integrated schools, “Types of special character include – Seventh-day Adventist, Anglican, Presbyterian, Methodist, Jewish, Muslim, Steiner, Montessori and non denominational Christian.”
Their statement of special character, including their statement of belief, can be read here. This the Statement of Belief, in its entirety:
- The Unity of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit in the Godhead.
- The Sovereignty of God in creation, revelation, redemption and final judgement.
- The divine inspiration and trustworthiness of Holy Scripture, as originally given, and its supreme authority in all matters of faith, practice and conduct.
- The universal sinfulness and guilt of human nature since the fall, rendering man subject to God’s judgement and condemnation.
- Redemption from the guilt, penalty, pollution and the power of sin only through the sacrificial death of the Lord Jesus Christ, the incarnate Son of God.
- The working of the Holy Spirit in the individual’s life to bring about justification and reconciliation to God by repentance and faith in Christ alone.
- The Deity and Humanity of Jesus Christ; His bodily resurrection from the dead; His ascension; His mediatorial work and His personal return in power and glory.
- The indwelling and sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit in the believer, developing each individual in their personal ministry to the Lord.
- The One, Holy, Universal Church, which is the Body of Christ, to which all true believers belong and in which they are united through the Holy Spirit; and the importance of each local church in the life of the individual.
- The bodily resurrection of the dead and life everlasting.
- Christ’s Commission as expressed in Matthew 28:18-20.
- That God continues to keep His covenant with His chosen people, the Jews, and has made salvation possible through the death and resurrection of Jesus for both Jew and Gentile alike; and that God continues to be faithful to His chosen people, to the land promised to their forefathers. Those who bless God’s chosen people will be blessed.
- In the beginning God created male and female. Marriage is an institution created by God in which one man and one woman enter into an exclusive relationship intended for life, and that marriage is the only form of partnership approved by God for sexual relations.
Parents, like students, are not asked to say that this is what they believe. They are not required to hold or adopt this statement of belief.
By its very nature, a statement of belief discriminates. When you say that you affirm the unity of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, you are saying that you do not affirm a number of anti-Trinitarian beliefs. When you affirm pretty much any of the beliefs here, you are saying that you do not affirm atheism. When you say that Jesus rose from the dead, you are denying any view according to which Jesus did not die and rise again (for example, Islam, Judaism, or atheism). Indeed, most Christians do not agree with point 12. That position on the nation of Israel is a decidedly minority view in historic Christianity. But it is the view of the Christian Education Trust (the Trust that owns this school). Nobody is asking the school to stop affirming these beliefs, in spite of the fact that they, too, demark the beliefs and character of the school from other belief systems. Affirming a Christian view of marriage, however, is apparently beyond the pale. Notice that the statement here is not just about the opposite-sex nature of a married union. Instead, the statement excludes all arrangements that fall outside of a Christian view of marriage: Relationships that are designed to be temporary or uncommitted (since marriage is said here to be for life), sex outside of marriage, and polyamory, where there is more than one man and one woman involved. It’s worth noting, too, that parents are not asked to say that this is what they believe. They are not required to hold or adopt this statement of belief. Instead, the statement of belief is prefaced as follows: “Please read and tick each box, confirming you acknowledge that these statements summarise key beliefs of the Christian Education Trust, and underpin the School’s Special Character” (emphasis added). The concern here is that by requiring that point 13 is removed, the Ministry of Education is saying that the Christian Education trust is not permitted to have and express this belief, and parents cannot be asked to agree that this is what the Christian Education trust believes. This is acknowledged in media coverage, noting “But Tauranga’s Bethlehem College says the statement is not intended to tell anyone what they are required to believe but to “transparently explain what we believe”.” This is clearly true.
What’s the Ministry’s real reason?
But, as I mentioned at the outset, there are two quite different rationales at play here. The Ministry’s stated grounds for their demand, before “intervention” is required, is that the Christian Education Trust updated its statement of belief more recently than the school was integrated. The story I have linked to is behind a paywall, so here’s the gist of it: When the school was integrated, there were only 12 items in this statement of belief. The 13th item, which mentions a Christian view of marriage, was added some time later without The Ministry of Education’s knowledge, after same-sex legal marriage came into existence in New Zealand. But why did this pop up on the Ministry’s radar as something in need of action? If they had learned that the statement of belief now included a statement like “We do not hold to exclusive opposite-sex views of marriage as upheld in historic Christianity, but we believe God is loving enough to allow for the inclusion of same-sex marriage,” this controversy would not be happening, and I doubt anyone thinks otherwise. Neither would anyone care if they learned that the schools statement on the nation of Israel had been removed. So what happened? Why is the school being targeted? This news story is dated 15 June, 2022. The reason this story arose, I submit, is found in a couple of earlier stories. Enter Shaneel Lal, an activist for “queer rights” (as the news story describes them). Lal drew attention to an incident in which students advocating for the LGBTQIA community were subject to bullying at Bethlehem College. Several students responded by making derogatory remarks, and two pieces of fruit were thrown. Lal alleges that in fact students began a chant of “kill the gays,” which seemed outrageous and unlikely on the face of it. Upon investigating, speaking to those present, and viewing video footage, the school determined that this simply never occurred.
The school has responded perfectly. Chairman of the Board of Trustees, Paul Shakes (who I realised, upon reading the article, is someone I went to youth group with in my teens!) notes: “We don’t tolerate bullying and expect our students to act in good faith and to show civility and tolerance for differing views, and students who breached our standards will face disciplinary action.” And:
We are happy to comply with any official investigation, though we would like to see evidence that one is needed…
To the very best of my knowledge, in the nine years I have been on the board we have never received any complaint relating to Shaneel’s claims.
If there are people with hurts or concerns our message is to please be in touch directly so we can address them with you. As per our publicly available complaints policy, our heart and desire is to deal with complaints in an open and honest manner, exercising care to preserve relationships, grace, forgiveness and love. We don’t discriminate, nor do we tolerate bullying, and we teach students to understand and respect people with differing views, faiths, and backgrounds.
We’re fully committed to providing a safe environment for everyone at Bethlehem College and we endeavour at all times to live out our beliefs in a loving and respectful manner, and encourage all our students to speak to our experienced and caring counsellors if they need any support in any area…
We’re focused on the wellbeing of the affected students and their families. Our school’s experienced and caring counsellors have been made available to support them. We have been in contact with them over the weekend and remain in contact with them today.
We appreciate that these can be difficult and sensitive issues and we strive to address them with care and respect…
Our board of trustees, including staff members and our student representative, have had their names and photos posted online in a context inviting harassment, and the school’s board chair has received offensive emails. Our message to those acting in this way is: we respect your rights to hold and express your beliefs, please respect ours.
It’s not an entirely unexpected turnaround. Paint the school as bullies, using claims whose truth is in question, and in response engage in targeted personal harassment, since all is fair in war. The fact that the threatening chants appear not to have happened didn’t stop media outlet Stuff from making reference to these alleged threats in their headline, adding fuel to the fire. Then, we read, both Lal and another local LGBTQIA advocate, Katerina Clark, took aim at the school’s statement of belief on marriage. This, in fact, was the goal of the coverage in the first place. Lal pointed to the school’s statement of belief, and the story then focuses on this belief (one that, surprise surprise, is what Christians have always held). Lal is promoting a petition to have the school investigated. That story was a couple of days ago, on the 13th of June.
Step back a couple of days, and the school is under fire from another “pride advocate,” Gordy Lockhart. Again, it is specifically the school’s statement of belief about marriage that is being attacked. Gordy makes an obvious legal error here, saying that the statement was against the Marriage Amendment Act, which allows same-sex couples to marry. Quite obviously this statement is not against any law, since it is an expression of the position of the school, which does not restrict anyone’s ability to be legally married. The statement is, as the board pointed out in that story, to “transparently explain what we believe.” The condemnation of the school and its policy here is that it is “discriminatory,” not that it was added after the school was integrated.
It is quite evidently not the case that the Ministry of Education’s legal radar beeped and they were drawn to look at Bethlehem College’s statement of belief and whether or not it had remained the same since the school was integrated. On the contrary, these complaints that were made against the school were the catalyst, and (I say this as someone who has worked at the Ministry of Education) the Ministry’s extremely liberal and very pro LGBTIA culture would have none of this. Going after the school on legal grounds was a bit like going after Al Capone for tax evasion. It was a reason you could use, sure, but nobody believes this was the real reason. To call this a chilling effect on Christian organisations, including schools, is to put it mildly, and it is surely indicative of how the Ministry would respond if any other Christian school wanted to make such a statement, before or after integration.