Christadelphians have a responsibility to preach the word of God: “Preach the word; be instant in season, out of season” (2 Tim 4:2) are words which, in their context, have particular application to the last days in which we live. Paul tells us we must be ready to preach when it is convenient and also when it is inconvenient. The inconvenience could be our own, or it could be that of the hearer. We must be prepared to “Cry aloud, spare not” (Isaiah 58:1), albeit “If it be possible, as much as lieth in you, live peaceably with all men” (Rom 12:18).

Preaching is done individually by brothers and sisters and corporately by ecclesias, groups of ecclesias or ecclesially sponsored bodies such as the Bible Missions. Sometimes active or direct methods such as doorknocking and open air evangelising are adopted; at other times we use more passive preaching forms such as websites and the placement in public libraries of suitable books.

Since our inception as a separate community there has been a strong emphasis in our preaching on the signs of the times, the return of Christ and the re-establishment of God’s kingdom on earth. This is especially relevant given the imminence of our Master’s return and the relatively scant attention paid by the mainstream churches to these matters. Our seminal written work, Elpis Israel, was written after Brother Thomas had conducted a preaching tour of Great Britain in which these very themes predominated. In the author’s preface to that work Brother Thomas made this point:

“The future movements of Russia are notable signs of the times, because they are predicted in the Scriptures of truth. The Russian Autocracy in its plenitude, and on the verge of dissolution, is the Image of Nebuchadnezzar standing upon the Mountains of Israel, ready to be smitten by the Stone. When Russia makes its grand move for the building-up of its Image-empire then let the reader know that the end of all things, as at present constituted, is at hand. The long expected, but stealthy, advent of the King of Israel will be on the eve of becoming a fact; and salvation will be to those who not only looked for it, but have trimmed their lamps by believing the gospel of the kingdom unto the obedience of faith, and the perfection thereof in ‘fruits meet for repentance’.” (15th Edition, page viii)

Brother Thomas prepared a copy of the first edition of Elpis Israel for presentation to the Russian Czar in what he admitted was a forlorn hope that the prophetic matters relating to Russia might be of interest to him. It is clear, therefore, that in identifying Russia and other nations as the subjects of certain prophecies, Brother Thomas never intended to slander or malign the people who lived in, or were ethnically connected to, those lands.

Ever since Brother Thomas’ day Christadelphian preaching has sought to warn men and women that the prophetic plan of God is rapidly drawing to a climax in the return of Christ. Prophecies about the nations, in particular the remarkable record of Ezekiel 38 and 39 (and related passages), have long been a feature of that preaching. The interest taken in these matters by those to whom we preach justifies these activities. Not everyone who is exposed to such preaching, however, responds in a positive manner or understands our intentions.

In May 2009 the Australian Human Rights Commission initiated an inquiry into Christadelphian preaching in response to a complaint received from a group of forty people of Russian descent who took exception to references to Russia in a lecture title, in a brochure and on an ecclesial website. The complainants provided the Commission with photographs of an ecclesial noticeboard in Queensland advertising a lecture entitled “Russia – A Threat to World Peace” and a copy of a brochure distributed in Adelaide entitled “The Bible Explains Why Russia Will Invade Israel”. They also quoted comments from a website about the anticipated Russian-led invasion of Israel.

The complainants argued that such statements were offensive, humiliating and might incite racial vilification of people of Russian origin. They took up with the relevant ecclesia their concerns about the lecture title displayed on the ecclesial noticeboard and acknowledged that the ecclesia, no doubt in the spirit of 2 Corinthians 6:3 (“Giving no offence in any thing, that the ministry be not blamed”), had altered the title to read “Russia in Bible Prophecy”. The complainants did not, however, believe that we should be allowed to promote interpretations of Bible prophecy that refer to Russia.

The nature of our community, having no central body with authority to speak on behalf of the brotherhood, made it difficult for the Human Rights Commission to investigate the complaint. One of the addresses supplied by the complainants was that of the Adelaide Ecclesia. The Commission therefore wrote to the Adelaide Ecclesia and invited it to respond to the complaint. The Adelaide Ecclesia was not directly responsible for any of the material cited but an appropriate reply was forwarded nonetheless. Relevant extracts from the reply are set out below:

“Christadelphians are found in over 100 countries around the world, including Russia. It is a fundamental tenet of the Christadelphian faith that the salvation offered by the Bible is available to all people regardless of their race, status or gender (Gal 3:28). Christadelphians do not condone or promote racial hatred or vilification and we regret the fact that [the complainant] is under the impression that we have sought to incite racial hatred against Russians. All Christadelphian congregations (ecclesias), however, are completely autonomous. For this reason the Adelaide Ecclesia is unable to comment on behalf of any other ecclesia, including the ecclesias to which the complainant refers. I can, however, provide comments in relation to the allegations made regarding the Adelaide Ecclesia. I can also provide some general comments in relation to the issues raised which may assist the Commission.

“I can advise the Commission that many Christadelphians believe that Bible prophecy predicts that Russia will lead a confederacy of nations in an invasion of the Middle East at the time of the end. This is based on their interpretation of several prophecies, the most significant of which is Ezekiel chapter 38. The view that Ezekiel 38 refers to Russia as the leader of a confederacy of nations that invade the Middle East has been promulgated by some Christadelphians for over 150 years.

“Bible prophecy includes predictions about the future actions of many nations, and these prophecies are often referred to in Christadelphian preaching. I would point out, however, that regardless of how Ezekiel chapter 38 is interpreted the prophecy speaks about the actions of the nations concerned rather than the actions or character of individual citizens of that nation or people connected ethnically to that nation.

“In 2008 when Russia invaded Georgia a number of political commentators made comments suggesting that Russia posed a threat to world peace. Similar comments have been made in recent weeks about North Korea following its testing of a nuclear weapon and ballistic missiles. It would not be reasonable to assume that these comments are intended as a slur against Russians or North Koreans nor would it be reasonable to assume that such commentators are seeking to incite racial hatred or vilify individuals either living in or associated with those nations. On the same basis it is not reasonable to assume that Christadelphians who sincerely believe that Bible prophecy refers to future actions by Russia are in any way seeking to incite racial hatred or vilify Russian citizens (some of whom are Christadelphians) or people of Russian descent. In any case, I note that Section 18D of the Racial Discrimination Act specifically makes allowance for views which are ‘an expression of a genuine belief held by the person making the comment’.”

That reply was sent in June. In August 2009 the Commission wrote to the Adelaide Ecclesia to advise that the complainants had withdrawn their complaint. This brought the investigation to a close.

What can we learn from this experience? In the western world at least there is a trend towards limiting freedom of expression which might be regarded as offensive or might incite a hostile response. There is also a growing acceptance of lifestyles that are at odds with the clear teaching of the Bible. This does not mean, however, that we are unable to proclaim God’s word and to challenge men and women to consider their ways and the urgency of the times in which we live.

In this particular case the Human Rights Commission was not required to make a ruling as to whether the statements about Russia were in breach of the racial discrimination legislation. On balance it would seem unlikely that a reasonable person would conclude that the statements were offensive. There is a case, however, for us to consider carefully how we express ourselves in these matters to ensure that we clearly present the Bible’s teaching and minimise the risk of misunderstanding. Our desire is to attract men and women to hear the gospel, not to alienate them. In our preaching and advertising, therefore, we must be prepared to “cry aloud, spare not” while striving to “live peaceably with all men”, “giving no offence in any thing, that the ministry be not blamed”.