After poking a little fun at the Church of England by likening it to Gollum enthralled by the ‘ring of power’ of state establishment, it seemed only fair to seriously discuss the biblical teaching on the subject; and also in the interests of fairness to make very clear that this isn’t just about the Anglicans – it’s also about any church seeking special power and privilege in the state, from the Orthodox and Roman Catholics down to the various Protestants of Ulster. So what says the Bible?
Seriously, it doesn’t say much in favour of Christian establishment. The subject is pretty much absent from the New Testament, and the few ‘proof texts’ quoted in the Anglican 39 Articles of faith or the Puritan Westminster Confession are somewhat stretched to say the least! But many Anglicans would probably point to the indisputable fact that Old Testament Israel had – or indeed was – an established religion, and say that surely that was meant to continue in the new age of Jesus the Messiah. Is that a sound assumption, or does the NT suggest a different role for the church in the world?
For this first exploration I want to look at two passages from John’s Gospel; John 3; 3 and 1; 11-13.
Jesus answered (Nicodemus) “Truly I assure you, unless a person is born from above he cannot see the kingdom of God.”
He came to his own, and his own did not receive him. But to those who did receive him, he granted ability to become God’s children, that is, to those who believe in his name; who owe their birth neither to human blood, nor to physical urge, nor to human design, but to God.
Being a Christian is about being born again; and this spiritual rebirth is ‘from above’ and owed ‘neither to human blood nor to physical urge, nor to human design….’ Or put simply, there is no way people can be made Christian by some government decree. Nor can they be made Christians by being born to Christian parents in a Christian country. Nor can this new birth be achieved by some quasi-magical ritual like infant baptism – it’s a matter of ‘believing in his name’ which an infant clearly can’t do. A new birth related to faith has to happen over real time by a process as the sinner faces his sinfulness and the Holy Spirit works to change him – possibly right at the end of his life, possibly not at all.
And this basically means that the ‘Christian country’ is impossible. A country dedicated to some more nominal and ritualistic pagan religion may work, but where Christianity is involved, the state must be religiously plural, composed of those who have been born again and those who, as yet, haven’t been.
Except … and here’s the rub. That human decree for a ‘Christian state’ can’t produce true born again Christians; but it can in various ways produce superficial conformity. Depending on the total circumstances, an individual may conform out of fear (of the proverbial Spanish Inquisition or its equivalent); or he may conform for advantage – because professing Christianity gets you a better job or something similar – possibly even a job in the church itself; or perhaps worst, he may simply take his Christian status for granted because he is ‘born only once’ in that supposedly ‘Christian’ society – he really believes he is a Christian, but has never truly been born again, never faced and repented of his sin. There are also more than a few cases where there is evidence of ‘Christian’ rulers and/or their enforcers being personally cynical, exploiting the faith of others. It’s not a satisfactory situation. Where Christianity is allied to nationalism, the supposedly Christian state may end up being massively unChristian in conduct. The superficial conformity may suit a government – but it is inimical to true Christianity and to the salvation of souls. It can even end up with a cynical or fanatical ‘Christian country’ actually persecuting the true Christians – as, for example, modern Anglicanism admits it did in the case of John Bunyan.
It is possible to envisage a ‘legally Christian’ state in which there isn’t even one actually born-again Christian. I don’t think England ever quite got that bad, but the indications are that it got uncomfortably close in the decades before Wesley started his mission.
Modern Anglicanism is not the totalitarian body that Henry VIII set up for the religious uniformity of his kingdom; but the legacy of that superficial conformity still affects Christianity in this country and how non-Christians see us. I recall in my youth evangelical vicars and curates telling us how we needed to be born again and that it was not enough to be born English or to have been ‘christened’ as an infant – and failing to realise that they only needed to say that because of the confusion caused by their own church’s established position!
And – fairness again – it isn’t just the C of E; there are other ‘would-be-established’ groups like the Presbyterians, who still seek the ‘Christian country’ even though they believe in the new birth, and don’t realise the inconsistency.
Having a ‘Christian country’ is a tempting proposition; it is tempting for Christians as well as for governments looking for a binding[i] factor for their state – but it is a temptation to ignore the Bible even at this fundamental level of the nature of Christian conversion.
[i] ‘binding factor’ – the literal meaning of ‘religion’ is just that; it comes from the same root as ‘ligature’.