Comments on Syria…

.I’m relieved by the decision of our Parliament not to intervene in Syria.  Of course I’m appalled by the gas attack of which we saw the terrible pictures, and I want every reasonable thing done to hinder anyone in Syria taking such actions.  But I’m not sure that military action on our part is a ‘reasonable thing’; indeed I’m almost certain that it’s an unreasonable thing in the current circumstances.

Part of my concern is just how practical military intervention can be; as seen in my student days in the Vietnam war, and more recently in Iraq, civil wars are notoriously difficult even to work out properly who is on whose side and to be sure what and where your targets are.  They’re also not entirely suitable for superpower style weapons wielded by outsiders; one of the horrendous statistics of Vietnam was that US helicopter ‘gunships’ could be firing off a million or so bullets per confirmed kill; and the victim might still not be Vietcong but a person actually on the US side or just a peasant trying to get through the war alive.  Yes, modern drones and ‘smart bombs’ can minimise what is euphemistically called ‘collateral damage’; but neither the bombs nor our intelligence are infallible, and it only needs one misplaced bomb or one failure of intelligence about targets and we could easily be guilty of atrocity as great as the gas attack we’re protesting against.  Is that risk acceptable, especially as it could also compromise our authority in dealing with the issues in a non-military way?

My other concern is one I’ve mentioned before which has been affecting almost all our interventions in Muslim states.  We are a ‘Christian country’ whose head of state is also the head of the state Church, and that means that any intervention by us in Muslim countries is open to all kinds of misunderstandings, misinterpretations and misrepresentations, on our side as well as whoever we’re opposing.  One of the biggest of these misunderstandings is the notion that our army in a Muslim state is necessarily a ‘Crusading’ anti-Muslim army, even though we ourselves may think we’re defending Muslims; this not only makes the conflict intractable, it also endangers native Christians in states throughout the Muslim world, who have often been persecuted, officially and unofficially, as supposed allies of the ‘crusaders’.  As one who believes Christians shouldn’t be having ‘Christian countries’ anyway, I see this as extra tragic.  America is also perceived by Muslims as a Christian state, and despite its lack of a formally established church like our Anglicans it pretty much is such a state in practice, especially among the so-called ‘religious Right’ of their politics.

Our democracy also presents a problem to Muslims, especially to the fundamentalists who seek very emphatically Muslim states rather than our kind of pluralism.  Trying to impose democracy on a culture that really isn’t ready for it is another factor making things intractable.

We just about got away with Gulf War 1, the liberation of Kuwait from Iraq, because we went in invited by Arab states, did the job they wanted us to do, and got out, resisting the temptation to go further and topple Saddam.  Even so the mere presence of ‘infidel’ troops on the ‘sacred’ land of Saudi Arabia was a major factor in radicalising Bin Laden and leading to the 9/11 Twin Towers attack.  Gulf War 2 and our continued presence in Afghanistan long after its original purpose had departed with Bin Laden himself  was for many Arabs a different matter, as we were then intervening on our own behalf and seen as trying to impose anti-Muslim ways on these states.

We ourselves made a major mistake in the invasion of Iraq; though sold in the West as part of the ‘War on Terror’, Saddam was not a supporter of Al Qaida; he belonged to the other major Muslim faction to Bin Laden, and though he attempted to ‘play the Muslim card’ to get Arab support was anyway unacceptably theologically liberal and secular in Al Qaida’s eyes.  Toppling him actually, if anything, benefited the extremists and fundamentalists whose struggle to take over after Saddam is perpetuating conflict and death and mayhem under and against our occupation.  We may well be making a similar mistake in Syria; Assad likewise belongs to a faction opposed by Al Qaida, who are part of the loose coalition fighting to oust him.  How can we fight Assad without risking helping our extremist enemies in the internal Islamic conflicts?

It is being suggested that we are somehow diminished, and ‘losing authority’ by not taking military action at this point.  I think we would have been more truly diminished had we carried on along the simplistic route of posturing, waving big sticks and bossing people around in a situation which we don’t understand and which our existing interventions haven’t helped much if at all.   And when I say ‘our interventions’ that isn’t just the recent efforts; much of the problems in the Middle East, and the growth of extremism in Islam, goes back to our manipulation of these lands and peoples in colonialist times, including our support for Zionism in Israel (another very messy can of worms which most westerners don’t understand as much as we think we do….).

We need to put our own affairs in order before intervening dubiously in Muslim lands; and that includes a need to finally recognise that Christianity was never intended to be a state religion, and so remove that factor from this and other conflicts (among others, Ireland).  Agreed as a plural secular state we’d still be the enemy for many Muslims; but Christianity being itself and demonstrating a better pattern for ‘religion-and-state’ is a better answer to Muslim religious totalitarianism, while retaining the rags of a dubiously Christian past both provokes the Muslims and causes us misunderstandings as well.   At present in Syria we have most to offer by not intervening militarily.

 

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But Seriously (9)… Romans 13 – General Thoughts about the Epistle.

 

(‘But Seriously’ is a strand on this blog exploring the implications of biblical texts on ‘Church and State’.  Check other entries in the strand for a rounded picture of the issues)

Romans 13 is regarded as a prime text for ‘state-and-church’ issues; but of course it is important to deal with the chapter in context, not in ‘splendid isolation’.  I’ve already pointed out that the chapter is continuous with chapter 12 and should be interpreted accordingly; but as I thought through my main post interpreting it I increasingly realised that we need a grasp also of the wider context in the epistle – what’s the purpose of Romans as a whole, why was it written.

Contrary to one long-standing tradition, the Christian church in Rome was almost certainly not founded by the apostle Peter, and he probably wasn’t even the first ‘bishop of Rome’; at least one list of Roman bishops has Peter preceded by a guy called Linus (yes, like the Peanuts character!) and apparently there’s a tradition that Linus (or ‘Llyn’) was actually a Celtic Briton possibly connected with or even related to the exiled king ‘Caractacus’.  In fact the church was probably founded quite soon after Pentecost when ‘visitors from Rome’ (Acts 2; 10) returned home, while merchants and others from the eastern Empire who had become Christians found their way to the imperial capital.  So the situation was that a growing church in the most important city in the Empire consisted of just ordinary people with no apostle or similar to guide them.  It was clearly important that the church in Rome got things right and knew what they were talking about; if they gave the wrong impression to the Roman authorities it could have serious repercussions for the church throughout the Empire.

So Paul wrote to them a letter unlike most of his others.  It contains far less personal references than other epistles, and it’s not called forth by some urgent specific problem like the issue over circumcision that led to the Galatian letter, or the misunderstandings about the Second Coming which needed sorting out for the Thessalonians.  Instead it is almost a basic theological textbook, a guide to some of the basic ideas of Christianity.  The early chapters deal with the Christian view of the human plight as sinners, Gentile or Jewish, facing a God who cares, then move on to explain the way God has dealt with sin ‘through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe’, a Christ who ‘at the right time died for the ungodly’, a section which concludes with the wonderful statement ‘I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord’. (ch 8; 38-39)

Then come chapters 9-11, dealing with the relationship between the Jewish and Christian faiths, establishing that the Christian community, as heirs of the promises to Abraham, is in continuity as God’s people with the Jews of the old covenant, and what Paul clearly sees as a tragedy that so many of the Jews have rejected their Messiah Jesus and the way of salvation through faith in his atoning sacrifice.  These are chapters that modern Christians should consider deeply.  The era of ‘Christendom’ resulted in terrible and unChristian treatment of the Jews in the nominally Christian states of Europe; as we disentangle ourselves from that way of thinking we need to seek reconciliation with the Jewish people, and to find ways of communicating the gospel to them in love.  Paul said that if it were possible he would give up his own salvation to save his fellow Jews and bring them back to their Lord and Messiah; even if not ourselves Jewish, we need his deep concern and care for Israel.

Next our particular concern for the moment, chapters 12-13, dealing with how Christians are to live in the world, how we are to relate to the non-Christians among whom we live, and the governments we live under.  The important point to make here is that Paul is not putting forward a theory of ‘Christian states’ – in line with Jesus and other NT teaching he didn’t believe in such a thing; for him the world’s only ‘Christian nation’ was the Church itself, the worldwide body of believers.  Rather he is giving guidance on how Christians should live under pagan and potentially hostile governments.

Chapter 14 deals with some of the problems of living between pagan society and Judaism; how seriously do you take pagan idols, how do we deal with different views on diet, or on observing special days etc.  Paul seems to advocate a robust but also loving approach, on the one hand not being needlessly bound and restricted by these issues but on the other hand being sensitive towards those with tender consciences; former pagans who worry about eating meat that had been dedicated to pagan gods, former Jews who still worry about kosher legislation or Jewish festivals, for example.

Chapter 15 moves towards the end, and mentions Paul’s own future intentions such as going eventually to preach in Spain, in line with his desire to break new ground for the gospel; we don’t know for sure whether that intention was fulfilled.  Chapter 16 has all the personal greetings to the people at Rome who Paul knew.

This quick survey brings out one point for me; too often we read Paul’s epistles – and other biblical texts – as if they were academic study texts.  We chop them up into small sections and then discuss them in enormous depth.  I won’t deny that there is a place for such study; but we can I think forget that these were first of all letters written to churches of quite ordinary Christians, and they would have been read out to those congregations as such, not dissected and in small bits, but as a whole.  A few years ago, in the era of cassette recordings, I had a recording of Romans just read out loud by an actor called Max something-or-other, and hearing it like that was quite a revelation.  Now I’m in the CD era I’m afraid I disposed of that cassette, and I’m wishing I hadn’t. 

I seriously recommend that you should quite often read Romans, and other biblical texts, complete or in large chunks – whole epistles or several chapters of gospels, OT historical books, or the longer prophets like Isaiah – and get a feel for how they may have come across to those who first heard them.  Also even on your own, read them aloud.  It’s worth saying that reading aloud can really help understanding – if you haven’t understood it properly that is likely be revealed because your tongue will probably stumble over the words.  And as a congregation, churches should occasionally make time to hear Romans and other books of the Bible as a whole read aloud and again get as near as you can to that original fresh experience – just listen instead of analysing!

Principles of Interpretation

First thought here is that if Paul’s purpose in writing Romans is to equip the Roman church to live in the pagan society, I mustn’t interpret it in a way that would instead create unnecessary conflict between the church and the state.  Obviously there will be occasions of “We must obey God rather than men”, but we need to be careful to get that right both ways!  And if we are indeed to live at peace with all men so far as it’s up to us, we must be at least somewhat reluctant to choose interpretations that threaten to break that peace. 

Second thought, we must not interpret Paul in such a way that we make him contradict himself.  If in chapter 12 we are ‘in no case’ to repay evil with evil, then surely there is a ‘prima facie’ case that we shouldn’t interpret chapter 13 in a way that allows us to do just that!  Likewise if Paul says (II Corinthians 10; 4) ‘our warfare is not with physical weapons’ it surely can’t be right to interpret Romans 13 to justify a war with weapons… and so on….  We should also not interpret Paul to clash with other New Testament teaching, particularly not with the teaching of Jesus.  So for instance when Jesus tells Peter to put up his sword and teaches that they who take the sword will perish by it, perhaps we should not interpret Paul as teaching us to use a sword!

Third, because of its place in Paul’s theological treatise, Romans 13 has perhaps been regarded as too primary in church and state issues.  Actually because of its place in Romans it is quite a short and summary account of the principles.  I’d suggest that in many ways Peter says more in his first epistle (again well worth reading as a whole) and goes deeper and wider in instructing us not only about governments but society in general as well.  I’ve already said that you mustn’t read Romans 13 in isolation from the rest of Romans and chapter 12 in particular; you should also read it in the context of I Peter for an even more rounded view.

We should also be aware of the historical context.  Paul was well aware that the ‘authorities’ he wrote about were the likes of Caligula and Nero, and he was writing to help the church cope with that reality, not just with some abstract cosy ideal government.  As we know from Acts and various references in his epistles, Paul was no stranger to imprisonment, flogging and other persecution, and in the end would suffer a martyr’s death.  Our interpretation of Romans 13 must be consistent with that reality, and more.  Because of course Paul was massively aware that in the past those ‘authorities’ had included one Saul of Tarsus – that is, Paul was himself a former persecutor…!!!!  He knew all about ‘church-and-state’ from the other side as well.  Again, an interpretation which cosily and academically ignores that is likely to be wrong!!

I should now be able to tackle directly interpreting Romans 13 – it probably won’t be my next post, but it should turn up in the next few weeks, subject to those pesky workmen in the flat and my involvement in the charity model railway show at Romiley Methodist Church near Stockport on Saturday 7th September….

But Seriously (8) – Romans 13, use and misuse

(‘But Seriously’ is a strand on this blog exploring the implications of biblical texts on ‘Church and State’.  Check other entries in the strand for a rounded picture of the issues)

Romans 13 is a key passage for ‘Church-and-State’ issues; before expounding what it does mean, I want in this post to consider some things it doesn’t mean, some ways it has been misinterpreted.  First, the text itself, in RSV

Let every person be subject to the governing authorities.  For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God.  Therefore he who resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgement.  For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad.  Would you have no fear of him who is in authority?  Then do what is good and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good.  But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain; he is the servant of God to execute his wrath on the wrongdoer.  Therefore one must be subject, not only to avoid God’s wrath, but also for the sake of conscience.

For the same reason you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God attending to this very thing.  Pay all of them their dues….

Tax we’ll do another day.  Obviously how we interpret that obligation will depend on how we interpret the earlier verses.

One misinterpretation I call the ‘Verwoerd version’ after a former leader in the days of ‘apartheid’ in South Africa.  John Stott has related how a South African friend of his, an active opponent of apartheid, was one day called in to some government office, where an official confronted him with a bible open to Romans 13 and challenged him with it.  Why wasn’t he obeying the government as this text taught??  We’ll be looking later at the rounded biblical perspective, but I think it is clear that interpreting the text so simplistically would raise considerable ethical dilemmas for the Christian.  Consider how that would have affected Christians in Nazi Germany, for example, if called to obey a government sending Jews to the extermination camps.  It is surely clear that such obedience to the authorities can’t be right…. 

At least part of the solution lies in Peter’s response to the Jewish authorities in Acts 5; 29, when the disciples had been arrested for preaching the gospel – ‘We must obey God rather than men.’  But we must be careful how we use that text, in case we twist it and end up going too far the other way.

Another misinterpretation, I believe, does just that; I call it the ‘Paisley Pattern’ because I found a clear statement of it in Rev Dr Ian Paisley’s commentary on Romans (written while in prison after a demonstration; I would accept that this imprisonment was probably unjust).  Paisley’s start is perfectly correct – “It must be said clearly at the outset that these verses do not apply to laws contrary to the laws of God.  Robert Haldane said once, preaching from the first verse, ‘There is but one exception and that is when anything is required contrary to the laws of God’”.  Haldane by the way was a Baptist who in the early 19th Century led a revival in Geneva, preaching from Romans in Calvin’s pulpit, and his teaching on Romans including that quote is to be found in his Commentary on Romans – the edition I’ve got was published some fifty years ago by Banner of Truth publishers; it’s about the size of the later Harry Potter books and contains even more content as it is in quite small print on fine paper.  In so much space Haldane said a lot more about Romans 13; 1 than just that quote, and I would suggest if you read it you’ll find his interpretation doesn’t go in the same direction as Dr Paisley….

Paisley goes on

Certain people who wish to bolster up a rotten government and the persecuting laws of the same, condemn the resistance of the martyrs, reformers, confessors, non-conformists, puritans and covenanters to the evil laws of their day…. take the line of least resistance …{and} wrest this and other scriptures to their own destruction….

It is clear from these verses that God has ordained and delegated powers to various departments of society.  For example, the father is the divinely ordained power in the family, the basic unit of society.  This does not mean that God ordains and approves every wicked, immoral, murderous brute of a father who is a tyrant in his home.  The office of father, the power of the father, is divinely ordained but the abuse of the office is not divinely ordained…. In society… the authorities are ordained of God in regard to their office or powers, but not in regard to their characters.  The chief magistrate is divinely ordained, the office is sacred, but a Hitler who usurps and abuses the office is not divinely ordained neither are the laws of such a tyrant to be obeyed when they oppose the law of God.  Paul speaks clearly on the nature of the laws he has in mind when he says, “For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil.  Wilt thou then not be afraid of the power?  Do that which is good, and thou shalt have praise of the same”.

 This is soooo nearly right, but…!  First, some explanations….

‘The chief magistrate’ – in modern UK usage ‘magistrates’ means a panel of minor local judges.  Back in the Reformation/Puritan era, and in statements of faith like the Presbyterian ‘Westminster Confession’, and so in ‘church-and-state’ discussions in such traditions, ‘magistrate’ meant any person at a great/ruling level in society, including kings and emperors and as in this case a dictator like Hitler.

‘Covenanters’ – the Covenanters were 17th Century Scots who basically fought a civil war with the Stuart monarchy, objecting to the Stuarts imposing Anglicanism in place of the Scots Presbyterianism going back to John Knox.  By mentioning the Covenanters, Dr Paisley shows that he accepts the possibility of a violent resistance to a government.

Essentially the ‘Paisley pattern’ interpretation of Romans 13 is that you obey the authorities until you think they’ve commanded something against God’s law – but then you rebel and take up the sword, the gun, the pipe bomb….  If you believe that you are supposed to have a ‘Christian country’, a non-Christian government will almost inevitably be considered a suitable target for rebellion (or abroad, crusading warfare) ; as will a government whose ‘Christian state’ is the wrong kind of Christianity – Catholic rather than Protestant for example, or Anglican rather than Puritan.  In Northern Ireland, it wasn’t that the Protestants were being commanded to disobey God themselves – they were just being asked to treat their Catholic neighbours fairly; Protestant violence against the Catholic civil rights movement escalated into the counter-violence by the IRA. 

As Haldane pointed out in his commentary, one of the problems with this is that the apparently reasonable exception ends up taking over from the original rule and nullifying it in practice.  Paul’s teaching of ‘be subject to the authorities’ and ‘do not rebel’ and ‘in no case paying back evil for evil’ and ‘do not revenge yourselves’ is rewritten to an actual practice of “We’ll obey so long as it suits us and when we don’t like it we’ll fight back”.  Paul’s teaching of an unusual godly and spiritually-empowered response to persecution is replaced by a position effectively identical to the ordinary worldly position on such matters.

Dr Paisley and the many others who adopt this interpretation of Romans 13 have, I believe, got confused.  They interpret ‘be subject to’ as if it was simply equivalent to ‘obey’ as in the ‘Verwoerd version’ above; and they think that ‘obeying God rather than men’ is a legitimate exception to ‘do not resist’.  The long tradition of the Christian state going back to Constantine means that they interpret the text within that tradition (a Roman Catholic tradition, please note, Dr Paisley), rather than letting the New Testament mean what it actually says.  I’ll be examining the positive interpretation of Romans 13 in a future post, but for now….

First, yes, I accept that ‘We must obey God rather than men’ is the point where Christian ‘subjection to the authorities’ differs from the unqualified obedience that the state would prefer.  But….

Secondly, We must very much indeed OBEY GOD… and that means we must follow the New Testament teaching, not our worldly desires, on how to deal with a government such as Nero, Caligula, Hitler or Stalin, or of course our own.  That NT teaching includes the implications of Romans 12 for Romans 13, as per the previous blog (‘But Seriously (6)’), and also includes Jesus’ forbidding of the sword, Paul’s insistence that our warfare is not with weapons, and Peter’s clear teaching that Christians must be prepared to follow the example of Jesus (and Peter and Paul) in being willing to suffer unjustly rather than resist/rebel violently against the government.

But Seriously (7)… Separate or ‘Unequally yoked’?

 

(‘But Seriously’ is a strand on this blog exploring the implications of biblical texts on ‘Church and State’.  Check other entries in the strand for a rounded picture of the issues)

Our topic this time is the passage II Corinthians 6;14 – 7;1.

Be not unequally yoked up with unbelievers; for what common ground is there between righteousness and lawlessness or what association between light and darkness?  Or what harmony between Christ and Belial, or what partnership between a believer and an unbeliever?   What agreement has God’s temple with idols?  For we are a temple of the living God, as God has said, “I will dwell in them and walk around among them, and I will be their God and they shall be my people”.  For that reason, “Come out from their midst and be separate, says the Lord, and do not touch anything unclean.  Then I will receive you and I will be a Father to you, and to Me you shall be sons and daughters.  The Lord Omnipotent speaks”.

In possession of these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from every defilement of flesh and spirit, and complete our dedication by reverence of God

‘Belial’ is a Jewish name for Satan.  The two Old Testament passages quoted are Lev. 26; 12 and what seems to be a free ‘portmanteau’ quote including Isaiah 52; 11 and other passages.  The Leviticus passage is promises of good to the Israelites ‘If you walk by My laws and obey My orders so as to practice them….’ – which are followed by promises of ill consequences ‘if you will not listen to Me and will not practice all these commandments; if you despise My laws, if your soul abhors My injunctions….’   The Isaiah passage in its immediate context refers to the liberation of Israel from Babylon and of course leads into the fantastic Isaiah 53 with its prophecy of Jesus’ sacrifice for our sins.  Paul almost certainly intended his readers to take account of that context as well as just the words he quotes.

I don’t know about you but as a teenager in a 1960s Christian youth group I heard ‘be not unequally yoked with unbelievers’ quite often – always in the narrow sense “Don’t have a non-Christian girlfriend or marry an unbeliever!”  That is clearly part of what Paul meant, but eventually I realised that he intended something much wider, as seen from that further instruction to ‘come out and be separate’.

Most discussion focuses on how separate we should be….  For me we are clearly wrong if we are ‘separate’ in an ugly way as has been seen with some of the ‘Exclusive Brethren’, or otherwise smugly, proudly, and self-righteously separate, gloating over how we are OK while those around us go to hell; and also if, as seems to be the case with some (though not all) Amish and Hutterites, we are so separate from ‘the world’ that we never preach the gospel to our pagan neighbours, and never or almost never see people coming into the church from ‘outside’.  How can we claim to represent the love of God if we aren’t letting people know about it as Jesus commanded us to do?  At the other end we are also wrong if we are so like the pagans around us that nobody can tell the difference, like the pigs at the end of ‘Animal Farm’ who, having at first led the revolution against the exploiting humans, have turned into exploiting humans themselves.

However, in this post I want to ask how this ‘separateness’ and ‘unequal yoking’ relates to my ‘church-and-state’ concerns.  Start with the obvious – once you’ve gone to a lot of trouble, maybe even fought a war or two, to make yourself a ‘Christian country’, how can you then meaningfully ‘come out and be separate’?  The text here presumes that Christians are living in a state/nation of non-Christians from whom they need to be distinct, to glorify God by living life His way among all their neighbours who live without God, and to challenge the pagan neighbours by the different life that flows from Christian faith.  It’s hard to live that way in a country where everybody is superficially ‘Christian’.

And surely a ‘Christian country’ will in fact mean ‘unequal yoking with unbelievers’ more or less by definition.  As pointed out elsewhere in this blog, you can claim to have such a state all you like, pass as many laws about it as you like, but you can’t thereby cause people to be truly born again; the best you can achieve is superficial conformity.  In an old-style Christian state of the medieval or Reformation era, and down to even the 19th century, the really born-again Christians would have to share the fellowship of the church with large numbers of people who are hypocrites, or scared of persecution, or who just take their Christian status for granted because they have been born in a ‘Christian’ nation – and that rather makes a nonsense of the Christian fellowship[i].  Furthermore it is not unlikely that the hypocrites and worldly among these nominal Christians will seek to end up as the bishops and inquisitors and the like thus distorting the government of the church and its relations with the state.  And the unequally yoked state connection will inevitably involve the church and its genuinely born again members in the state’s wars, and in persecution of dissenters and other New-Testamently-dubious conduct. Unequal yoking results in disobedience to God.  Among the possible and all too often actual consequences has been Christians fighting each other in the armies of warring Christian states; being yoked with the state has separated them from and set them against their fellow-Christians ….

In the modern situation with an established church in a nominally Christian but increasingly secular state, the Church doesn’t even get the benefit of much influence, but comes under pressure to ‘be conformed with the world’ – as a short time ago when we saw David Cameron lecturing the Anglican Church about ‘getting with the programme’ on women bishops.  Again over gay marriage we saw the Church of England (and its disestablished companion the ‘Church in Wales’) being forbidden by law to have same-sex marriages, the decision apparently being taken without actually consulting the Church.  And again, the Church is massively involved in the state education system but it seems clear that political correctness will increasingly prevent the Church’s schools being even distinctively Christian, let alone distinctively Anglican.  Other Christian groups going into the Academy business seem to have had similar experiences of finding their distinctive beliefs muted.  That religious schools should be truly private and not involved in the state system is something I’ll hopefully deal with another time….

In short, the attempt to have a Christian state both nullifies the proper implications of Christian separation from the unbelieving world, and it results in Christians being harmfully ‘unequally yoked’ with that unbelieving world.  It also creates difficulties for those who realise the problem and try to set up churches properly separate from the state; a clear separation from unbelievers is fairly straightforward, but to put clear water between born again Christians and a superficially Christian state and its culture is a good deal harder and is likely to result in an exaggerated and unhelpful separateness which may become unbiblical in other ways.


[i] Of course even where church and state are separate there will be some church members who aren’t truly born again; but where state church membership offers worldly advantage there will be an unnaturally large number of such members.

Gay Marriage Issues

 

Currently suffering workmen in the flat, I haven’t been able to prepare much for a few weeks, I’ve resorted to re-using something I originally wrote in response to someone else’s blog; his topic was the then headlining ‘gay marriage’ issue.  I’ve slightly edited for its role on my blog….

What many people haven’t realised is that there is a constitutional issue because of our established church in England which means that the gay marriage/civil partnership thing is rather more than just playing with words.

People in society make all kinds of legal relationships of varying degrees of formality, including business deals of all kinds, family affairs, etc.  Some kinds of relationship are so common, and often affect others, that the state provides legal ‘templates’ to facilitate and regulate those relationships/contracts/covenants/ wills, etc.  In some cases, these relationships are so valued by the state, and considered worthy of encouragement, that the state offers various kinds of benefit to those in the relationships, such as tax breaks.  Family agreements – some private, some state recognised – may confer inheritance rights, next of kin rights, and so on.  Marriage has been such a relationship until recently, though there have been some changes.

In a pluralist society, such legal templates of relationships should be largely neutral – that is, they should be about what is convenient in the state, not what one or other religion believes; and they should be available on an equal basis.   In a specifically religious society some such situations will be defined by the religion in question and the state’s support of the relationships may be biased by that priority. 

Exactly how these provisions might best be changed for an equitable settlement in a plural society is probably too complicated to discuss here.  The key for us is to be clear on the Christian position, which is that we don’t expect a privileged position for ourselves in society.  We are citizens of the kingdom of heaven living on earth as ‘resident aliens’; we do marriage voluntarily because we obey God, not because we get tax breaks or because it’s the law of the land.  If society provides an acceptable framework for our marriages in some sort of civil partnership, we can of course use it. 

The current position in our society is that though we are very nearly a fully pluralist democracy, technically we are still a ‘Christian state’ with an established church of which the monarch is earthly ‘supreme governor’.  Therefore in England other beliefs and practices – even though now realistically the majority – are still only ‘tolerated’ rather than fully and equally accepted.   Marriage in the Church of England is therefore still technically slightly privileged and separate in some ways from the system under which civil and non-conformist marriages are conducted.   For gay people, if the Church of England, the state church, continues to see gay life as inferior and refuses to ‘marry’ them in that church, this is essentially still discrimination not just in but by the state itself, whose church the C of E is.  They will not be satisfied that they are equal until the state church gives them the full recognition they seek – in this case, equality in the state’s Anglican church including marriage by its rites.

Equally, so long as the state refuses to tackle this issue of the established church, any debate we have on marriage is going to be confused by the special privileged status of Anglicanism and to a lesser extent of Christianity in general, and therefore the debate will be unsatisfactory.  The Anglicans themselves will be facing serious conflict between on the one hand the desire to continue their special place in the state, and on the other hand the desire to uphold the moral teaching of Christianity on gay issues. 

There is really no way out of this conflict so long as Anglicanism remains a state church.   Which might be OK if that was what the New Testament itself teaches; but my reading is precisely that the NT does not teach that, but teaches a very different way for God’s people to live in the various states throughout the world.  In the NT, it is the Church itself which is God’s holy nation, and no earthly nation can properly make itself a ‘Christian country’.  This doesn’t just affect the gay issues; I was first drawn to consider the ‘Christian country’ issue by seeing its effects in Ulster when the ‘Troubles’ kicked off while I was a student in the late 60s, and it’s also very relevant to all the current problems with Islam.

If Christianity does not have a privileged position in society, the whole issue becomes different; including the proposition that in a truly plural democracy we are entitled to disagree with the gay lobby and others so long as we don’t want our disagreement to be expressed by discrimination by the law.  Again, working that out in detail will need a separate post in future….

Republicans also marching….

 

We hear so much of the Orange Order’s marches and parades we tend to forget that Northern Ireland’s Republicans also do it; currently a controversial parade, backed by Sinn Fein, is proposed in Castlederg, County Tyrone.  What makes it controversial is that it will honour “Tyrone’s republican dead, including two IRA members killed by their own bomb in 1973” (BBC Teletext).  Already the proposed parade has been re-routed by the organisers to avoid “the town’s war memorial and Methodist church”.  Despite that Unionists are still describing the parade as ‘grossly insensitive’ and wanted it prevented by the Parades Commission.  In fact the Commission gave a ‘restricted go-ahead’.

Also, flashing onto teletext literally while I was writing that first paragraph, a DUP councillor was having to apologise over Facebook comments about the parade.  Apparently someone else posted about an ‘imaginary attack’ on the parade in which Sinn Fein figures would be killed, and the councillor appeared to approve. 

As you may have gathered I actually regard both sides as equally problematic.  In recent history, as the group opposing the government the IRA have been ‘terrorists’ – but there has clearly also been terrorism from Unionists as well as their nominally lawful responses.  This is pretty much a case of “One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter”.  Going back in history things get horrendously tangled and I really don’t want to go too deeply into it.  Ultimately one can just about argue that the fault lies with Anglo-Norman freebooters in the medieval period, conquering bits of Ireland at a time when ‘Catholic and Protestant’ didn’t exist as such; indeed at that time, if anything the Anglo-Normans were fighting for the papal version of Christianity against the on-going remnants of a native dissenting ‘Celtic’ Christianity.  This may have some relevance to rights and wrongs in terms of English ‘colonialism’, but for Christians the ‘Christian country’ aspect is wrong anyway, as explained elsewhere in my blog.

Of course the republican parade is ‘insensitive’ – you’d need to be naïve to think it’s intended otherwise!  Loyalist parades are also insensitive and intended to be so; they’re clearly not intending just to entertain their Republican/Catholic neighbours.  A marching band in such divided circumstances is pretty much a weapon.  An Irish blogger tells me that the area in question sees some twenty Loyalist parades in a year; this will be the only parade by the republican faction.

On either side, these parades are not about ‘loving your neighbour as yourself’ in the way Jesus taught, but very much the contrary.  Nor are they fulfilling Paul’s wish in Romans 12 that ‘So far as it’s up to us, we’ll live in peace with you’.  No, these parades are very much ‘so far as it’s up to us we will antagonise, provoke, annoy, and as near declare war as we dare’.  And if anything they probably hope for a violent response, to confirm to themselves and the world the villainy and hatred of whichever is the other side in each case. 

For this reason, churches and individual Christians on either side should avoid taking part in these parades, and should condemn them.  The Orange Order should decide whether it is a Bible-believing Christian organisation – in which case it should give up the clearly provocative parades and pursue its goals by less antagonistic means – or whether it is merely a political body about union with the UK, perhaps including a secular anti-Catholic agenda.  The Orange Order should also look deeper at its goals anyway, and reconsider whether a ‘Protestant country’ is a truly biblical idea, or whether it is actually a ‘Romanist’ heresy from the 4th Century which Bible-believing Protestants should reject.  The Catholic Church perhaps has a bigger problem here; they are the descendants of the original imperial Roman state church and even after last century’s ‘Vatican II’ Council still look for a special place in a state.

For us on the mainland – what goes on in Ireland has in my lifetime been one of the major things putting people off the Christian faith this side of the Irish Sea, and it’s time we stop just watching from the sidelines and make some effort to put things right.  Some of those involved are genuine but misguided Christians who we need to engage with and help them to free themselves from a terrible and all too often lethal mistake.  Others are only nominal Christians who in a situation of conflict simply support in a worldly way the ‘tribe’ they happen to have been born in; they perhaps need our help and prayers even more.  Whether genuine or nominal, the simple fact that they claim to follow Jesus makes them our business.

And here on the mainland some Christians actually support the violence in Ulster (often without realising they are doing so) by supporting here the same kind of ‘Christian country’ idea which is the root of the problem over there; such churches need to change.  The Anglicans are an obvious example; but other denominations and many independent churches have similar ideas and need to rethink their position.  UK Christians attending to these issues and becoming more biblical about them could be a major factor in preventing Ulster sliding back into a repeat of its bloody past.  Evil may triumph if we don’t make the effort….