About Gay Marriage

Why, you might ask, have gay people insisted on ‘marriage’ rather than ‘civil partnership’? Is the word itself really so important, so long as you’ve got equivalent rights? There is a quirk of our constitution, because England has an established church, which makes the issue significant.

Back to basics; people make all kinds of legal arrangements for both their personal and their business lives. In some cases these arrangements are so common that for convenience the law provides what might be called ‘templates’ of these, standardising them, bringing them under common legal procedures. Partnerships are an example in commerce, adoption in personal affairs. In some cases these arrangements may be considered so beneficial to society in general, beyond those directly involved, that they come with tax breaks, next-of-kin rights and other benefits. Marriage is one such example.

In religious states like Muslim countries with their Shari’a law, the marriage laws will reflect the beliefs of the religion in question – though they may allow some latitude to foreigners’ marriages. In the countries of ‘Christendom’ the marriage laws have generally reflected the teachings of the Christian Church, though most Western states have long allowed secular (‘registry office’) marriages, divorce, and other features not quite according to Christianity. Until comparatively recently it was pretty much taken for granted that marriage was between a man and a woman, especially since homosexuality, being a sin, was illegal anyway in such ‘Christian’ states. Now that homosexuality is legal, and indeed many other sexual practices between consenting adults have been decriminalised, things have changed and the formerly persecuted gay community now seeks to be as equal as possible – or at least a very vocal segment of it does.

If you were designing from scratch a plural society which respects many different beliefs and unbeliefs, you would I think include a ‘civil partnership’ which in a way would not need a sexual implication, a deal for companionship and shared life which might be very flexible. It need not, for example, be ‘monogamous’, given the number of religions which accept polygamy, though if tax breaks and the like were involved it might not be unlimited in terms of the number of such partnerships one person could form. The various religions existing in the state could use the ‘civil partnerships’ as a legal foundation for religious marriages but would also have internal disciplines for their members in the matter (as sporting bodies have their own internal rules for various things).

Unfortunately in the UK we aren’t designing an ideal pluralistic system from scratch. Indeed although in so many ways we do act like a pluralistic democracy, we are still technically a Christian country with an established Church. Technically the Church of England is still the legal norm and everyone else, including other forms of Christianity, are only ‘tolerated’ in an impliedly ‘second-class’ way. Anglican marriage is still significantly privileged in small ways.

If you are a gay person seeking equality, this is basically unacceptable. A church which is technically part of and deeply entangled with the state refuses to treat the gay community as equal; this is not just “there are some people around who disagree with us”; this is effectively continued discrimination against the gay community in and by the state itself. For now we have ‘same-sex marriage’ equally for all – except still the state church is allowed to refuse it – indeed has been positively banned by law from doing it, as has the connected but disestablished ‘Church in Wales’! I think it unlikely that this compromise will endure. I think in the end one of two things must happen; either the ‘Church of England’ will have to accept gay marriage, to keep their established privilege but not be discriminatory, or they will have to accept being disestablished. And they may face similar arguments in other areas as well.

Churches which are not established, and have no special privileged position in the state would be a different matter; it would be reasonable for them to disagree with homosexuality and choose not to do same-sex marriages for their own members – interestingly they might nevertheless use the neutral civil partnership for non-sexual relationships….

The tragedy of this is that the present bitter controversy need never have happened, at any rate as a dispute between an established church and the gay community. Christianity was never intended to be established, as I’ve been saying elsewhere in this blog, and so should never have been involved as it was in the criminalisation and effective persecution of gay people. Ideally, Christianity should have remained a voluntary religion, of those who humanly speaking choose to join the church; and they would not be seeking to rule society at large, so everyone else would be free to do – well, not quite whatever they liked, but whatever the state and/or its alternate state religion might allow. I’m not saying the situation would be friction-free; but the whole dynamics would be very different.

As it is, the imposition of Christian behaviour on everybody in a ‘Christian’ country has created all kinds of problems. These included persecution of other religions and of variant forms of Christianity; and legal intervention in all kinds of sexual issues, of which homosexuality is pretty much the last one outstanding – the others beyond that being things like paedophilia and rape which are unlikely ever to have wide social acceptance…. This inappropriate imposition beyond Christian ranks has also created all kinds of attitude problems.

Put bluntly, the only way there can be a resolution is for Christians to abandon the notion of ‘Christian states’ which seek to impose Christian morality on all citizens, and return to the New Testament notion of being an independent voluntary organisation within the earthly state. Only then will we be able to work out a ‘modus vivendi’ with people whose morality in this matter we disagree with. As I say above, this makes the Church of England’s position untenable one way or the other; they must sacrifice either Christian sexual morality or their favoured position and influence in the state – they cannot continue to uphold both.

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Rethinking Ecumenism

It was a good sermon from a guy who is a hospital chaplain, based on Acts 15.  That’s the episode now rather grandly known as the ‘Council of Jerusalem’ though it can’t in reality have been much like the later Nicaea or Vatican II; in this council the mostly Jewish early Christians tried to work out how to accommodate an influx of Gentile Christians, and decide how much Jewish customs they needed to impose on these new recruits – circumcision, kosher diet, and so forth.  I’ll leave you to read the details of the ‘Council’ for yourselves, I want to focus on the principles the preacher drew from the passage and consider their implications for the ecumenical/church unity project.

One principle was “Talk about it”.  Now I recall the ecumenism of the 1960s when everyone was really keen to resolve the differences between Christians by discussing them; but that doesn’t seem to happen much now.  Rather, we seem to have decided that where we differ, we won’t talk about it, just each denomination carry on as before and, well, just not discuss differences.  Now of course in a lot of cases the differences really don’t matter all that much and the churches can just carry on with their different customs; but the trouble is that this silence is also meaning that the important differences don’t get discussed – and one very important one in particular, the relationship of the Church to the world or the ‘Christian country’ issue.  

This issue is particularly important just now because of the difficulties the world is having with Islam.  It really matters, at a life and death/possibility of warfare level, whether Christianity is a religion which expects the kind of dominance in the state that Islam aspires to, with Sharia law to be imposed on all, or some lesser kind of privilege or favour in the state compared to other religions/faiths, or perhaps Christianity doesn’t work that way at all but the NT teaches us some other way to relate to the world around us….  We need to be talking about it, and in talking about it, other ideas from that sermon seem relevant.

Two of the points were actually almost the same thing from different angles – “Stick to basics/essentials” and “No ‘Jesus AND… some other thing’ such as the circumcision and kosher food issues of the original council”. 

The case for ‘Jesus AND circumcision’ or ‘Jesus AND kosher diet’ was plausible in a faith which had grown out of Jewish roots and Old Testament promises, but the apostles and church were able to see that these things were no longer essential in the new covenant.  It might be thought that as Israel not so much had a state church as was a state church, there would be a plausible case for the ‘Christian country’ too.  But interestingly that doesn’t seem to have been considered in the early church.  Partly because the issue wouldn’t arise anyway while the church was only just starting, but more importantly because Jesus had ruled it out.  The Church knew of his trial before Pilate and the implications of his declaration that his kingdom was not of this world, and of his rejection of the sword because those who take it up perish by it, and so on.  They knew they were trying to set up a different kind of kingdom to either the Roman Empire or the old ethnic Jewish kingdom, a kingdom of those who heard and followed Jesus rather than those who were forced by worldly power, those spiritually re-born rather than just born once. 

In line with that they positively set up, and taught as the ideal, a church which was not connected to particular nations, but was itself God’s holy nation throughout the earth, not confused with the surrounding society but called out from it as a witness to God’s ways.  In the context of that kind of thinking, ‘Jesus AND Christian states’ is really impossible, not just non-essential.

“Don’t make things difficult” was another principle our preacher highlighted.  The idea of ‘Christian countries’ makes things difficult for ecumenism and also in many other directions – indeed the other things it makes difficult are a difficulty for ecumenism too, as in how much are you willing to be united with churches that make things difficult for both non-Christians and for other Christians?

As a fairly simple example – obviously I want to be united with my fellow-Christians who are Anglicans, and informally I very much am, in fact.  Not only in religious terms either, a couple of months ago I was showing off one of my model railways at a ‘Model Railway Extravaganza’ at a local parish church, letting the visitors to the show actually drive my trains.  Again, the Baptist church I go to is currently involved with several other local churches, including the Anglicans, in setting up a ‘community café’ in the local high street.  But while the Anglican church is deeply constitutionally entangled with the state, and the head of state is its earthly ‘supreme governor’ and so on, formal union is going to be a bit difficult – union with my fellow Christians, fine; union with England as a supposed ‘Christian country’ carries a lot of real difficulties, just starting with the fact that Christian states are a Bible-defying concept anyway!  

There are also issues of warfare; even if I didn’t anyway believe the Bible teaches pacifism, what am I to make of all the past situations when Christians fought one another – for example WWI, with the Kaiser’s ‘Gott mit uns’ (“God is on our side”) set against similar slogans from the nations allied against Germany, and Christians shooting at each other not even in a properly religious cause (though I’d regard Christians fighting for their religion as worse, actually!).  The Church is God’s holy nation worldwide; are the members of that body to end up killing each other because some local churches have got themselves entangled with the world?  How can we have it that our unity as Christians can depend on the rivalries of worldly states?

How are English Anglicans and, say, Swedish Lutherans to achieve a formal unity while both are deeply embedded in the constitutions of countries which in worldly terms may have all kinds of competing interests?  I’m not even going to try and work that one out…!

Much of the concern in the Council of Jerusalem is with difficulties caused for unbelievers/other-believers/potential believers/ new converts; in a particular form then, related to the Jewish origins of our faith, in slightly different ways today.  .  These issues also have implications for our unity, because they cause confusion about the gospel, they interfere with the work of evangelism.   Remember that Jesus’ prayer for the unity of his people applies to their relations to the world!  Also the difficulties can reflect on Christians who don’t practice them as well as on those who do.  And in some cases that actually risks the lives of fellow-Christians for inappropriate reasons, especially when dealing with adherents of other state religions.

For the difficulties posed to atheists and agnostics by the state church kind of set-up, just look at the writings of people like Richard Dawkins.  Huge areas of their objections to ‘religion’ are not about the theology/philosophy but about the antics of various state religions and the warfare, discrimination and so forth not only of the past but still continuing in places like Northern Ireland, and of course also in Islam and other non-Christian religions.  Also I often these days find myself talking to people worried by the state-religion/Sharia-law aspect of Islam and also saying that they don’t want a Christian equivalent.  The shenanigans of the Anglicans about issues like women priests and gay marriage are a major problem precisely because they remain a state church and it can appear that they are therefore the state still discriminating in those areas, and their past conduct, like it or not, has kept such issues unnecessarily heated.  For church unity the issue is whether it is really practical for the rest of us to even work with such bodies, let alone be formally and organisationally united with them, when their position about the state can needlessly hinder our mission to the assorted non-believers around us?

With other religions, the problem is often that like Islam, they are themselves national or state religions in one way or another, and have theologies about warfare which ‘free church’ Christians may find unacceptable.  This brings many issues.  Just for starters, it’s not easy to complain about other religions practising things like national Sharia law enforced on non-Muslims if Christians themselves appear to want something similar.  Unfortunately the argument that it’s all right for us because “We have the true religion” isn’t going to impress anyone else!!  That way round it’s not the difference that poses the difficulty, it’s that some Christians are agreeing with them about the religious state issue and setting a bad example when they shouldn’t!

War is another problem.  Biblically, according to the New Testament, Christians don’t have ‘Christian countries’ with armies to threaten others, we ‘turn the other cheek’ rather than defending ourselves, so we just aren’t in the warfare business – well, shouldn’t be, anyway!  Christian countries fighting wars are a fairly obvious problem to the states adhering to other religions in which the wars take place, and by reflection to adherents of those religions who live in the UK.  A great deal of the difficulty in recent wars has been, as I’ve pointed out elsewhere, the perception of the West as ‘Christian countries’ and therefore of our armies in the Middle East being ‘Crusading Christian armies’ rather than the liberal democratic armies we perceive.

This is bad enough for the British and other western armies who find themselves fighting a war made intractable by such perceptions and the resulting cross-purposes, and for Britons at home facing terrorism.   But it is even worse for native Christians in Muslim lands throughout the East and Africa, because they are seen as allies of those ‘crusading’ armies of those ‘Christian countries’ and are persecuted for it.  It isn’t easy at best to be a Christian in a Muslim country, there are considerable discriminations and restrictions under Sharia law, but there is supposed to be some basic tolerance.  That tolerance doesn’t work when there are ‘Christians’ at war with Islamic countries.

So there’s the thing; how great an idea is it to be united with Christians whose ambitions for a Christian state are not only unbiblical but put our fellow Christians in unnecessary mortal danger?  Christians being persecuted for being Christians, despite being peaceable, is bad enough; but being persecuted because of unbiblical worldly power and influence seeking by other Christians is surely unacceptable, and the said worldly power-seekers and their unbiblical ideas should themselves be unacceptable in turn.

Also, many of those eastern Christians derive from western missions – missions often by those state churches in their state’s colonies.  This means that they have often inherited those same ‘Christian country’ ideas from the parent churches; and that in turn adds to their problems from the Muslims (or other religions) around them.  In many former Western colonies, Christians and Muslims are effectively at war – real shooting war – because the Christian country idea legitimates that kind of conduct in the same way that the Muslim equivalent does.  You could sort of argue that such Christians ‘deserve’ their problems – but of course they’re just following what they’ve learned from the Western missions.  The whole situation is a mess.

If we take Christian unity seriously, shouldn’t we be trying – REALLY HARD – to get rid of this whole problem??  Shouldn’t we be challenging those who hold this bad idea – seeking to persuade them that it isn’t at all essential, but very much the reverse??  That a comfortable situation in a Western country bought at the price of unnecessarily persecuted brethren overseas is a disgrace, not a benefit.

Another big problem state churches bring to ecumenism is in the history; essentially, most of the things that divide mainstream denominations are things that arose not from the Bible but as traditions in the ‘Christian countries’ back to the Roman Imperial church.  For purposes of this essay I’ll take for granted the Reformation view that over the thousand years since Constantine the Roman Catholic Church had gradually become more corrupted.  As I see it, much of this corruption arose from being a state church, first as part of the wider body that included the later ‘Eastern Orthodox’, and then as the surviving authority of the old Empire in the mixed states that arose in the west from the barbarian invasions. 

Things like monarchical bishops, which had only been trends, became fixed because they suited an imperial church.  Infant baptism was another such trend – before Constantine, this had been sporadic and generally about infants not expected to survive to exercise adult faith, but obviously it suited the Imperial church that everybody was automatically ‘christened’ soon after birth.  Once Theodosius made it a rule that ‘Everybody in my Empire is a Christian or else’, the church necessarily became a mixed body with many members who were just ‘once-born’ rather than spiritually reborn, and whose approach to Christianity was really worldly, including that often people would be seeking high church office because it had become a worldly advantage, and that all kinds of pagan superstitions infiltrated the church with these rather nominal members – and so on….

Come the Reformation, a raft of traditional accretions which had been added to the simple gospel over the centuries were challenged.  Unfortunately the link between church and state wasn’t challenged in far too many places; people had just got too used to thinking of the church in such terms, or if it was raised, there was fear because the state authorities wouldn’t support an independent church and they thought such an independent church couldn’t stand up against the worldly power of the Catholics.  (In honesty they were kind of right about this; at this time Anabaptists were able to grow in a way previously almost impossible in the ‘space’ created by the rivalry of Catholic and Protestant states)  But with a secular authority to satisfy as the new Reformed churches were integrated into their states, there wasn’t freedom to be fully biblical in other areas either, so instead of full reform the state churches ‘settled out’ in various semi-reformed conditions as reformers and governments accommodated to each other.  Some went further than others, but the continued ‘Christian country’ thinking was a hindrance.

Looking at the major things that divide the mainstream churches, there is the link between church and state, there is the style of government/ ministry, and there is baptism, infants vs believers’ (‘Paedobaptism’ vs ‘Credobaptism’).  Most of the other differences are pretty insignificant.

The Church/State link is the main subject of ‘stevesfreechurchblog’ anyway, so not too much detail in this post.  Just to point out that this can range from full establishment of a church as with the Church of England  to various other ways a particular church or Christianity in general can be favoured or privileged in the state and expect the state to conform to our faith.  Ian Paisley, for example, wouldn’t want a fully established church, but he still wants a ‘Protestant country’, with the resulting ‘Troubles’.

Church government; basically most of the state churches have a ‘top-down’ government of some kind and elaborate bureaucracies – the kind of thing you’d expect of a state religion.  The Anglicans and some others have preserved the episcopalian structure of the former Catholic Church, and many would believe in some kind of ‘apostolic succession’ in which clergy appoint clergy and ordination is considered quasi-magical rather than any democratic appointment.  While the NT is arguably fairly free about church government, some of these systems are unhelpful and certainly are ‘non-essentials’.

It is fairly simple fact that when people start from the NT and do ministry as that suggests they all tend to produce very similar patterns, while so many of the other patterns are clearly ‘hangovers’ from the age of state churches.  So again the state church poses a seemingly unnecessary difficulty for unity among Christians.

Baptism; obviously all churches practice believer’s baptism for converts old enough to do their own believing (which can be surprisingly young, though I’d hesitate to follow Spurgeon who I think once baptised an 8-year-old).  Baptising babies is a very different thing and needs some dubious biblical interpretation to justify it.  I think the practice originally arose from two factors, the baptism of children not expected to survive and an understanding of baptism as a quasi-magical washing away of sin rather than a response of faith to God.  But again, the state church with the desire to ‘christen’ everybody for social conformity, and the social ‘rite of passage’ angle (in state not just the church) distorts the argument.

On these ‘big’ differences and also other smaller differences which have arisen in and from the Christendom era, the need is to recognise them as such later developments and to apply to them the tests implied by the Council of Jerusalem and the sermon that triggered this blog – tests of how essential/basic are they, and of the difficulties they may make and whether those are inherent difficulties of the faith or unnecessary difficulties arising from illegitimate traditions. 

At five pages this is about enough.  Our preacher’s message about not making difficulties in the church or with potential converts and so on applies very much to this situation.  This whole Christian country is no part of ‘Mere Christianity’, of the real basics, the real essentials.  Over the centuries it has caused massive distress and mayhem in the name of Christ, and it still does.

LET’S START THINKING OF CHRISTIAN UNITY IN TERMS OF GETTING RID OF IT.

Then we can be united God’s way….

Prince Charles and the Islamic Threat

I picked up a newspaper item about Prince Charles being very concerned at deteriorating Christian/Muslim relations, persecution of Christians in Muslim countries, and so on, particularly that Christianity is now threatened with extinction in the Middle East where it originated.  He was complaining that problems were being deliberately exacerbated by people with an interest in conflict.  He seemed totally oblivious that he – or at least, his family’s relationship to England’s established church – is a major part of the problem

The Prince seemed to hold the view that there’s a ‘nice’ form of Islam which doesn’t do wars and persecutions.  Indeed there is – sort of.  The problem is that any Muslim who goes back to the fundamentals and the origin of the religion will find that during Muhammad’s lifetime he was leading armies himself, ordering followers to conduct military raids, having people put to death, establishing Islam in Mecca by force (as in, a massive battle was only avoided by the Meccans’ surrender), and clearly setting up Islam as an ‘established’ state religion with a clear intent to become the global religion by conquest if necessary.  There are traces of an early period when Muhammad seems to have thought he might spread Islam purely peaceably, but this didn’t last long, though it does leave anomalies like that text often quoted about ‘let there be no compulsion in religion’.  A ‘nice’ war-and-persecution-free Islam is not the authentic original, and Muslims wanting to be authentic will reject that ‘nice’ version.  There isn’t going to be an easy answer to that one….

Having said that, Muslims are supposed to be tolerant of Christians, Jews, and other monotheistic ‘peoples of a/the book’ – though in an Islamic state, that toleration is by Western standards quite severe discrimination.  However, that tolerance understandably does not extend to when those others are actually at war with Islam.

The other part of the problem is that Muslims perceive Christianity as the same kind of religion as Islam; that is, a religion which aims to be established in the state and is willing to extend and defend itself by war, and which in Christian states persecutes dissenters.  And of course by the time of Muhammad that was indeed the case, with the Roman Empire’s ‘Catholic’ church which eventually split into western ‘Roman Catholic’ and ‘Eastern Orthodox’, while later an alliance of the churches fought the Crusades which are still ingrained in Muslim memory.  And, which is where Prince Charles comes in, there are still various churches to this day which are either fully ‘established’ as state churches or in various ways privileged in western states, and which still teach the ideal of a ‘Christian state’ even if perhaps a bit tenuous and nominal.  [The churches concerned include Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Anglican, Lutheran in various states, and again in various states Presbyterian/Reformed churches.  Many nominally independent churches may nevertheless teach that the state should be broadly Christian and should give Christianity in general a privileged position.  The USA has a strange position of emphatically not having a single favoured church but nevertheless being assumed to be ‘Christian’ by most of its citizens, a perception which as a result is shared by most Muslims.]

With that perception of Christianity it has been all too easy for Muslims to interpret recent western intervention in the east as a renewal of the Crusades, a Christian war against Islam itself.  Even for Muslims who live here in the UK, such is their own faith’s doctrine of ‘taw’hid’ (I think I got that right) or ‘oneness’ that they have serious difficulty with the concept of ‘separation of state and church’ and can’t understand that Britain isn’t that much of a Christian country any more.  The West more or less got way with ‘Gulf War I’, the liberation of Kuwait, because we went in at the invitation of Arab states and stopped when we had achieved what they wanted, rather than carrying on to do further things that we might have wished.  Even so, the mere presence of troops of infidels in holy Saudi Arabia was apparently a major factor for bin Laden, leading to the rise of Al Qaida and it’s targeting of the west.

Afghanistan again we might have got away with had we limited our aims to an attempt to destroy Al Qaida and catch or kill Osama bin Laden, and had we withdrawn when it was clear that Osama wasn’t there anymore.  Other Arab states would probably have accepted such limited aims.  By carrying on and trying to impose western ideas in a country not really ready for them, we have looked more and more like Crusaders against Islam itself, and we have paid the price. 

‘Gulf War II’ against Iraq was a bad idea not least because Saddam was not in league with bin Laden but a different and almost opposed faction in Islam,  and many Muslims considered him a marginal Muslim who only ‘played the Muslim card’ to get support as his gambles got him into trouble.  Again, our continued occupation and attempts to ‘democratise’ Iraq in western style have been provocative to many Muslims.

The perception of the West as ‘Christian’ has made these wars intractable for our soldiers – indeed in realistic terms unwinnable, though we may be near to a withdrawal leaving a messy situation with lots of unresolved issues – and it’s also been a major reason for the persecution of native Christians in the Middle East that worries the Prince.  Why so?  Simply because they are seen as ‘allies’ of the ‘Christian Crusading armies’ of the US and UK and other western states that have become involved.  And how will we convince Muslims that this isn’t true when our state has an established Christian Church, the Church of England, whose supreme earthly governor is our monarch, head of state and ultimate commander of those ‘Christian Crusading armies’?  She is also, of course, Prince Charles’ mother, and when he inherits the monarchy he will also inherit her role in the Church…!

The tragedy and irony of the situation is that Christianity was never meant to be the same kind of state religion as Islam, entangled with earthly governments, but something rather different.  There’s even a reasonably plausible argument that had Muhammad been faced with the original form of Christianity rather than the Roman Imperial version, Islam might never have developed, or could have been significantly different.  The bad example of the Imperial church in Muhammad’s time, and the later wars with ‘Christendom’, both Islamic conquests and the western ‘Crusades’ and other wars, have left a terrible legacy, and it is past time to sort this out.  If Charles really wants to help persecuted Christians, the most useful thing he could do would be to disclaim the established Church of England, and play what limited role he can as a constitutional monarch to free Christianity from the state in the UK so it can be the faith it was designed to be, and set Islam a very different example of how God’s people should live in the world.

In the same week as Charles’ comments, the Sunday Telegraph carried a headline “Labour; We must now ‘do God’”, and two related internal articles in which Labour MP Douglas Alexander said we must do more to ‘address the threat to Christians abroad’, and challenges the way ‘political correctness’ has made politicians unwilling to speak out to defend Christianity.  An editorial piece said much the same.  I was actually quite happy about this – I’d feared on seeing the headline that Labour might be about to reassert the notion of England as a ‘Christian country’, which wouldn’t have been helpful.  Nevertheless Mr Alexander, like the Prince, seemed oblivious to his own part in the problem as a member of the Church of Scotland.  The Church of Scotland is not formally established in quite the same sense as the Anglicans in England, but it is nevertheless formally the national church of Scotland, and the church in which the royals worship when they are in Scotland, and so is part of the same ‘Christian state’ issue which leads Muslims to see Christians as a proper target for persecution.  Again, if Mr Alexander wants to help the foreign Christians, he needs to start by changing the status of his own church in the UK.

And again, just before Christmas the Daily Telegraph carried another front page story about the former Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey, concerned that Christians here in the UK are cowed and fearful of talking about their faith.  Again, he doesn’t seem to see that the onslaught of political correctness here is a backlash against the former improper dominance of Christianity in the UK, particularly in the ‘established’ status of his own church.   While a few have responded by trying to reassert that old dominance and insist on the UK being a ‘Christian country’, many more can see that that isn’t possible or proper; but unfortunately haven’t yet been able to formulate or work out a better idea about their status in the UK.  Consequently they are diffident and don’t have a sound confident biblical response to the PC brigade, and therefore have difficulty in speaking out.  Again the Archbishop needs to realise that he and his church are part of the problem and must change. 

A final thought – if I were to go by those I talk to or meet in internet forums, and most of the others I hear about elsewhere, the Church of England doesn’t have any members who really believe in the establishment, and the only reason they don’t do anything about it is because they don’t believe it matters any more.  Mostly they are comfortable where they are and haven’t realised their establishment is taken more seriously by extremist Muslims, and indeed in this country by extremist ‘Loyalists’ and ‘Unionists’ in Ulster for whom the Protestant establishment is what they are loyal to and want to be united with.  I’m working on a separate blog about this phenomenon, but it’s a bit worrying that a major factor in Christians abroad being persecuted is an establishment here that its own members don’t take seriously.

PS – since writing the above, Christmas saw both the current Archbishop of Canterbury and a leading Roman Catholic also speaking out about the persecution of Christians.  About the Archbishop, see above; for the Roman Catholic, I’m not sure that Muslims will be very convinced by a representative of the Church which basically ran the original Crusades now complaining that Christians are being persecuted by Muslims.  Hmmm!!

Update plus Anglicans and youth….

A bit of a quick update; I’ve just been spending a month mainly involved in my hobby as a railway modeller, and a few other assorted activities, and haven’t had a lot of time for the blog.  I’m at the coming ‘National Model Railway Exhibition’ at the Birmingham NEC this weekend (23-4 November) helping to exhibit a layout from the Romiley Club – ‘Romiley Methodist Railway Modellers’ as we grew out of a charity show being run for the Methodist national children’s charity ‘Action for Children’.  Once that’s out of the way I hope to get back to the ‘But Seriously’ strand exploring Romans 13.  A smaller model show on Dec 14 where we are helping a group based at St Andrew’s Anglican church, Cheadle Hulme, shouldn’t distract me too much….

Did you see the newspaper headline about decline of the Anglicans?  No less than former Archbishop George Carey was worrying that the Church wasn’t attracting young people.  I have to say that Anglicanism’s establishment gives it problems there, as it isn’t offering a challenge to youngsters but, well, establishment – that is, conformity in society.  As such youngsters are going to be much more interested in rebellion; the snag being it’s all too easy to end up as an aimless, negative and destructive ‘rebel without a cause’ as per James Dean, or to end up in a more exciting but still harmful kind of rebellion as a revolutionary or, say, an Islamic Jihadist.

Biblical Christianity, in contrast to Anglicanism, offers neither conformity nor a reaction into violent rebellion but a challenging non-conformity ‘with a cause’, living for God in a sinful and hostile world, seeking to make a positive mark in God’s name.  Now that might offer a real challenge to teenagers….

A Controversy Revisited (2) – Jim Packer

(I’d wish to emphasise this post should be read in conjunction with the previous post on Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones’ part in the controversy; actually I’ve noticed the Lloyd-Jones post seems to be consulted quite often, and I feel people aren’t getting a fully balanced view without this other aspect of the controversy.  I’ve edited the Lloyd-Jones post to draw attention to this one, and correspondingly, if you’ve come here first I encourage you to read the other post too…. )

I described in the first of these posts the controversy raised by Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones’ call in 1966 for evangelicals to withdraw from doctrinally lax denominations, particularly the Anglicans and Methodists.  Leading Evangelical Anglicans like John Stott and Jim Packer resisted this call, and there was a particularly painful breach between Lloyd-Jones and Packer who previously had worked closely together in various Puritan-related projects.  I now want to look at Packer’s position.  As with Lloyd-Jones, Packer is one of my heroes, I’ve learned much from him and I own quite a few of his works.  Nevertheless in this case I think he was wrong….

As I said, Packer was broadly right in the general idea that one should not abandon doctrinally lax churches/ denominations but seek to reform and revive them from inside; provided, that is, that they remain formally evangelical in doctrine.  But what he seems to have failed to recognise is that the Anglican Church’s position as a state church is itself a serious contradiction of biblical doctrine and compromises the very nature of the church;  thus by Packer’s own criteria evangelicals should come out of Anglicanism.  Not perhaps precipitately, especially at present when change seems more likely than it ever has, and a peaceable disestablishment might be achieved in a reasonable time; I would accept that evangelicals who are already Anglican might at present see their duty in staying in Anglicanism to help the church through disestablishment and then reform it as a non-state church.  But I can’t see a case for evangelicals staying within the church while accepting its established status, because as far as I can see, that would not be biblically faithful and so not evangelical.  Nor can I see a case for staying in a deeply unbiblical church forever once aware of the defect.

Why doesn’t Packer see that point?  Knowing Packer’s usually incisive mind, I was puzzled when I first started reconsidering the controversy, and then I found in a charity shop a copy of the symposium “God’s Inerrant Word” to which Packer was a contributor.  In his essay on “Sola Scriptura” I found the following assertions (omitting, I hope fairly, points not relevant to the current argument and on which I broadly agree with Packer – check the full argument on pp55-57 1974 edition);

“….one finds that the main theological issues that have divided Protestants who hold to sola Scriptura have been these;….(4) how the churches should be related to the state – the issue in debates about establishment throughout the world since the seventeenth century; (5) whether churchmen’s children may properly be baptised in infancy or not – the issue between Baptist and all other Protestant churches; …..[i]

What are we to say to these matters of debate?  First, that whatever divisions they may have occasioned in the past it is very arguable that, being in reality secondary questions, they need not and ideally would not have this (divisive) effect.  Second, that it is also very arguable that in each of these cases unexamined assumptions brought to the task of exegesis, rather than any obscurities arising from it, were really at the root of the cleavage.  The trouble was that presuppositions were read into Scripture rather than read out of it, as follows; ….(4,5) The fourth and fifth debates reflected the presupposition that Scripture must legislate on the issues in question, even though no biblical author addresses himself to either. ….  (My underlining – SL)

It is a confusion to blame the principle of sola Scriptura for conflicts which sprang from insufficient circumspection in exegesis”.

On finding these words of Packer’s I was just a bit gobsmacked!  For starters how could the issue of establishment not be divisive in all kinds of ways especially when in the past it has led to Christians persecuting one another or fighting outright wars?  But even more, that comment about ‘…the presupposition that Scripture must legislate on the issues in question even though no biblical author addresses himself to either’ is simply wrong – there’s no need of any ‘presupposition’ because lots of biblical authors actually do address the issue of establishment, and that includes places in the Gospels recording the words of Jesus himself!  Of course they do not address the problem in the modern form that has developed since Constantine – why should they address something which hadn’t happened yet and which they clearly didn’t expect or believe should happen[ii]?  The NT authors simply expound how the church is supposed to normally work – as a non-established body – and make lots of statements which to say the least are hard to reconcile with the idea of an established church.

I’m not going to go into great detail on those scriptures here – I either have covered or will cover many such cases as this blog goes on – but just a few comments.  The whole idea of being ‘born again’ through faith speaks against ‘Christian countries’ because while you can legislate for superficial conformity and threaten people into it, you can’t by legislation achieve real genuine new spiritual birth.  Wesley had somewhat to say about this (though it seems he never quite saw the full implications for the establishment).  Asked by a bishop “Why do you talk of the success of the gospel in England, which was a Christian country before you were born?” Wesley responded “Was it indeed?  Is it so at this day?  – If men are not Christians till they are renewed after the image of Christ, and if the people of England, in general, are not so renewed, why do we term them so?  ‘The god of this world hath’ long ‘blinded their hearts’.  Let us do nothing to increase their blindness; but rather recover them from that strong delusion, that they may no longer believe a lie”.

Quickly a few others – Jesus before Pilate saying among other things, ‘My kingdom is not of this world’; Peter describing his hearers as ‘resident aliens’ (there is a word in I Peter which appears to translate as exactly that) and not expecting that to change before the Second Coming, and far from telling his readers to take the state over, telling them to be ‘subject to’ the state authorities and not to be ‘allotriepiskopoi’ – managers of other people’s affairs;  Paul saying ‘Come out and be ye separate’ and ‘our warfare is not with physical weapons’ (unlike umpteen religious wars in Jesus’ name including the English Civil War and the Ulster Troubles)… there are many more….

I’m still a bit puzzled (understatement!) that Packer could be so wrong; but I also remember that at the time in the 1960s evangelicals felt embattled and saw it as important to maintain evangelical unity.  I certainly valued groups like the Crusaders Union (nowadays ‘Urban Saints’) and the University Christian Unions where it was possible to ignore differences to a large extent precisely because of the large extent of our Bible-based agreements[iii].  Also the long custom of toleration in England seemed to have made establishment comparatively irrelevant at a practical level, and the ecumenical movement had us all looking for ways to work together between the churches.  Issues over Ulster and non-Christian religions including Islam, which brought the question of religious establishment back to the top of both British and global concerns, were still in the future in 1966, and even now far too many people, in and out of the churches, haven’t fully realised the implications.

One obvious comment is that if Anglican Jim Packer couldn’t find support for establishment in the New Testament, there certainly can’t be any clear teaching in favour of it.

But essentially, all the leaders in the 1966 controversy were arguing over the wrong thing, and failed to realise that the issues around state churches were very relevant to the doctrinal laxity issue and that they were also more important on a far wider scale.  It’s perhaps understandable that they got things wrong in the then climate of British religious affairs; for us now, after over 40 years of the Ulster troubles and decades of problems around Islam and the Middle East, it’s a great deal less understandable that we mostly continue to ignore the issue.  Let’s repair that error ASAP!!


[i]  I don’t really want to consider the baptism issue in detail here; I only included it because as you see, Packer’s lumping baptism together with establishment in the second paragraph meant I had to include both bits of the first section for clarity.  I do by the way object slightly to the implication that it is only the one Baptist denomination which disagrees with all other churches on that point.  The practice of believer’s baptism (‘credo-baptism’?) is far wider than just the Baptists as such, and significantly is usually adopted by churches founded from the Bible alone without awareness of other traditions!

[ii] There is an argument that the evil effects of establishment are shown in ‘coded’ form in some of the prophecies in Revelation about false religion in the end-times.  But there is certainly no teaching favouring ‘Christian states’, and much to say otherwise.

[iii] In contrast the various denominational societies at our university, mostly of liberal theological leanings, had so attenuated a ‘gospel’ to agree on that their denominational distinctives and disagreements were almost all they had to uphold, so they couldn’t easily agree….

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….

But Seriously (5)… The Divine Right – or Wrong – of Kings

 

I’m not sure how these things are taught in schools now, but I recall that when we were learning about the English Civil War, King Charles’ idea of his ‘divine right’ as king was presented as having been a key issue.  And in various forms this has been an issue ever since there began to be ‘Christian’ rulers of ‘Christian nations’, from Constantine through Charlemagne and down to modern kings and queens including Elizabeth II of the UK now, ‘supreme governor’ of a state-established church.  OK, the modern queen would not assert quite the same right against her subjects as Charles I, but she does still get crowned in a church ceremony.

BUT – does this idea of Christian kings in Christian states ‘stack up’ in New Testament terms? 

For insight into the kind of thinking involved, I’d like to quote from Martin Down’s 2008 book ‘The New Jerusalem’; Martin is not quite Anabaptist but still heavily critical of ‘Christendom’.  Here he discusses the start of the ‘Holy Roman Empire’ circa 800CE….

…it was now possible for the Popes to reinvent the Christian Nation, not on the Emperor’s but on their own terms.

On Christmas Day 800, Charlemagne was crowned as Emperor in Rome by Pope Leo III.  From this time, the subjects of Charlemagne, who had been referred to as “the Frankish people” were called “the people of God”.  Two other ideas had now been fused; the Christian state, empire or nation, and the nation of Israel as it had existed in the Old Testament.  It was not just that the nation of Israel might be a type of the Church.  Charlemagne’s empire had replaced the nation of Israel in the purposes of God, and the Church was now God’s nation in the same way that Israel had been God’s nation.  This opened the way for a whole world of Old Testament ideas and precedents to be applied to the Christian monarch and his people.  It was not just the Church but the Franks who had now become “the holy nation”.

Charlemagne was not anointed at his coronation in Rome, but his son and successor, Louis, was both crowned and anointed by the Pope in Rheims Cathedral in 816.  The Pope declared; “Blessed be our Lord who has granted us to see the second David”.  The kings of Christian Europe came to see themselves as the successors of the kings of Israel.  To this day, the kings and queens of England have been crowned to the strains of Handel’s anthem, Zadok the priest and Nathan the prophet anointed Solomon king.

Anointing with oil was the symbol of the conferring of kingship in Israel, whence references to the kings as ‘the Lord’s anointed’; David described Saul thus, and even when Saul was trying to kill him David would not harm the anointed king.  The Hebrew word for anointed is ‘Messiah’; the Greek word is ‘Christ’- you may already be getting a clue why it might be inappropriate to anoint a modern monarch as a successor to the kings of Israel….

Let’s take a step back to when Israel first had kings; I Samuel is very open about what happened.  The Israelites came to Samuel and said look, you’re getting older, your sons are not worthy successors to you; “…appoint a king over us to be our judge like all the nations”.   Samuel wasn’t happy; in his eyes, God himself was Israel’s king, and to ask for an earthly king was to reject God’s own kingship.  God agreed with this assessment, but nevertheless told Samuel to do as the people asked – ‘but solemnly warn them’ what it would be like to have such a king

So Samuel warned them

This will be the procedure of the king who shall reign over you; he will take your sons and employ them for his chariots and as his horsemen; they shall run in front of his chariots.  He will appoint some for himself in command of thousands and of hundreds; others to cultivate his acres and to harvest his crops; also to construct his weapons and chariot equipment.  Your daughters he will require for perfumers, for cooks, and for bakers.  Besides he will take your choicest fields, your vineyards and your olive yards and give them to his attendants.  He will besides take a tenth of your grain crops and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and to his servants.  Your male and female servants he will take from you and your choicest young men; also your donkeys and employ them for his business.  He will appropriate a tenth of your flocks too, and you yourselves will become his servants.  By that time you will cry out about the king you chose; but that day the Lord will not answer you”

But the people wouldn’t listen, so Samuel had to appoint a king.  God first led Samuel to Saul, but in due course Saul ‘blew it’ by disobedience to God.  Then God led Samuel to anoint David, and there followed an uneasy period till Saul was killed in battle and David could take over.  David was far from perfect, particularly of course in his adultery with Bathsheba and murder of her husband Uriah; he was nevertheless so much a man ‘after God’s heart’ that God promised to establish his ‘house’ in the kingship for ever.  Solomon succeeded David and was a fairly good king, but he too went astray in various ways.  On Solomon’s death it became clear that he had exploited his people a bit too much, as Samuel had prophesied, and when his son arrogantly threatened the people with even harder service, the northern tribes revolted and set up a separate kingdom under a non-Davidic king, while the southern tribes of Judah and Benjamin stayed with the Davidic line. 

As history developed, the Northern tribes (‘Israel’) set up a rival to the Jerusalem temple and had often less satisfactory kings and a usurpation or two until they were finally overwhelmed by invaders; many were deported into slavery, those who remained intermarried with the invaders and eventually became the ‘Samaritans’ of Jesus’ day.  The southern tribes (‘Judah’, whence eventually the term ‘Jews’) lasted a good while longer but they too were eventually overrun, exiled and enslaved.  Then the invaders were in turn invaded.  The ‘new management’ adopted a policy of letting slaves return to their lands, and the southern tribes returned in some quantity and with a faith strengthened by the experience of exile.  They built a new Temple in Jerusalem and gradually spread back throughout much of the original lands including into Galilee, though there remained a central area still predominantly Samaritan.

After the return from the Exile, the Jews remained a subject people for centuries except for a brief period when the Maccabees turned out Antiochus Epiphanes’ Greeks.  By the time of the New Testament, they had been a client kingdom of Rome for some time and Judaea in the south became a Roman province under a Roman governor, Pilate being the best known.  Even the kings they did have in this period were not of the Davidic line – Herod and his family were not even full Jews but Edomites.  So as they looked for national freedom their hopes focussed on that promise to David of a king of his house to rule forever, a king who would truly be the ‘Lord’s Anointed’ or Messiah/Christ.  Many men before and after Jesus led rebellions claiming to be such a messianic king.

Then came Jesus, the true fulfilment of the messianic promise, but also for many Jews an unexpected fulfilment because he was not a narrowly nationalistic king only for the land and people of Israel.  Instead he is a king for the whole world, Gentiles as well as Jews; and paradoxically, to best carry out that role, he is not a worldly king with the usual military trappings, but has a kingdom ‘not of this world’ whose subjects are those of every nation throughout the world who believe and follow the truth he brought.

Now realise that God achieved something extra here.  As we saw above, since the time of Saul there had been an undesirable division of kingship; God was ultimately king, but there was also a human king of God’s people, a king of variable quality to say the least.  Yet God had promised that the Messiah would be an everlasting king in the human line of David – how could this be worked out?  Would not the coming of the Messiah mean that the division of the kingship continued; that God would not be fully king?

If the Messiah had merely been a descendant of David, establishing a narrow kingdom of Israel, and setting up a normal kingly line through his descendants …. Well yes, a still divided kingship.  But Jesus came not only as descendant of David, but also as Son of God – God himself entering human history, yet also as heir of David.  He wins his kingdom not by brute force conquest, but by dying for his people’s sins; vindicated by resurrection, he is to be personally their eternal king.  In the person of Jesus, God has reunited His kingship with the kingship of the House of David, in a way that makes it truly eternal.

This has unavoidable implications for the claims of human kings, from Constantine and Charlemagne through Henry VIII, Charles I, and the present monarch of England.  Put bluntly, there is simply no vacancy in Christianity for a ‘second David’; the only and eternal second David is Jesus himself.  A human king in the present age who is anointed as a ‘king of God’s people’ is in principle setting up as a ‘rival anointed’ – or as the Greeks would say, an Antichrist!  Hmmm!

Now I am not suggesting that Queen Elizabeth II is personally a demonic monarch, or even that she is personally not a sincere Christian; indeed the evidence seems strongly otherwise.  Nevertheless she has innocently inherited an essentially false position, as has the Anglican Church of which she is nominally the earthly ‘supreme governor’, and it is surely long past time for that false position to be challenged.  As fellow-Christians we should not be encouraging that false situation, surely?

Really this comes down to the doctrine of being ‘born again’, which means that no country can be identified with the church, and of course no monarch can guarantee to be born again ‘ex officio’, to be a ‘second David’ just by being born king.  To try to make it so by laws and edicts really contradicts Christianity, disobeys Jesus, and distorts the Christian message.  The church itself is the only Christian nation, and it isn’t a regular ethnic or geographical nation that can have an earthly king.  Jesus is the Church’s only king.

This does not mean that Christians are to be rebels; as we’ll see from Romans 13, I Peter, and other passages, Christians are supposed to recognise the king or other ruler of their earthly country as God’s providential choice for the nation for the time being, and to be ‘subject to’ that ruler.  But that is far from the kind of ‘divine right of kings’ practiced by Henry, Elizabeth or Charles; indeed these texts assume that neither the ruler nor the country will be ‘Christian’.  We’ll be looking at this in future….