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.

The Starting Point

Anabaptists and their Christendom opponents agree, of course, that being a Christian is very important.  It is, after all, no less than your choice whether you are going to live according to the ultimate truth of God’s world as it is – particularly the bit about it being God’s world – or whether you are going to choose, as far as is possible, to live against and in opposition to that ultimate reality.  The choice against God, as John 3; 19-21 points out, is a choice of terrible darkness.  It is far more important than a choice to join the Scouts, a football club, a chess club or a model railway club.

However, and here Anabaptism arguably takes a different view, it is very much part of the message itself that this choice is to be voluntary, a choice ‘in spirit and truth’.  In the context of this choice, the kind of coercive power and influence the state can exercise is wildly inappropriate, as are the kind of temptations and blandishments the state can offer.  Indeed, even when the state is not being exceedingly uncharitably coercive, its involvement can confuse issues; one of the worst ways this happens is when people assume that merely by being born in a ‘Christian country’ they are automatically Christian.  Another way is when the involvement of state with church leads to unChristian activities such as war and persecution, and narrow nationalism instead of the inherent internationalism of our faith.

So the position of the church in the state needs to preserve the voluntariness, and also, it should be said, to glorify God by having it clear than any power and influence is God’s power rather than the kind of power the state has.  Therefore, despite the enormous difference in importance involved, the appropriate position of church in state is to be like the voluntary/hobby organisations mentioned above – Scouts, football and other sports clubs, chess or model railway clubs.

With such clubs, joining is voluntary and they have to attract members by what they offer, not by government coercion or by favoured status in the state.  And leaving is also free; if you choose to leave the model railway club you don’t also have to plan to leave the country to avoid being imprisoned or worse.  Being thrown out – not the Inquisition threatening burning at the stake, but simply “Look mate, if you really won’t keep the rules you can’t be in the club any longer”.   You carry on living in the community, perhaps with slight embarrassment , and you can join other clubs, or even found your own alternative to the original club if enough people are interested.   It should be the same with churches; and thank God it mostly is, these days, but there are too many churches still hanging on to some remnants of a past when many churches did expect a more favoured or even totalitarian position.

It won’t be simply like the hobby clubs.  One major difference is to do with the importance and the distinction of religion.  The various sports and hobbies are not necessarily mutually exclusive – apart from the issue of just not having enough time and/or money for all of them, of course!  There is no ethical or philosophical inconsistency in going to Scouts on Friday night, playing soccer on Saturday, rugby on Sunday, model railway club Monday night, and racing in a stock car on Tuesday night, and so on.  There ARE some ethical and philosophical problems about being Muslim on Friday, Jewish on Saturday, Christian on Sunday, and Hindu during the week.

Another distinction is that there are going to be discussions, even arguments, with people who disagree with us.  And it is a major point about voluntariness that we do that in a loving spirit.  Read I Peter for some guidance about this.  We do have to recognise how important our message is.

A contributor to the forum conversation which inspired this post noted the sometimes oppressive conformity seen among ‘sectarians’ assorted – and I can get a bit fed up myself with Amish arguments about hairstyle or how many straps you’re allowed on your suspenders (in UK, ‘braces’ for trousers, belts being forbidden in many Amish groups as not ‘plain’).  It’s a real problem, though at least these things are not enforced on people outside the community; and, like it or not, any voluntary organisation is human and can get things wrong.  But think in terms of the ‘starting point’.  It may sound a bit trivial at first, but consider three situations involving conformity that a young teenager might face.

Friday night, he enthusiastically puts on his Scout uniform to go to the meeting.  Saturday morning, he enthusiastically puts on his football club’s shirt, and for purposes of this illustration, it doesn’t matter a lot whether that’s a Premier League club he’s going to support, or a junior league club where he is a player himself.  On Monday morning, he puts on his school tie – and you’ll notice I left out the word ‘enthusiastically’….

OK, the ‘free church’ may not always quite live up to its ideal that any conformity should be willingly chosen fellowship/togetherness; but it should never be the kind of compulsion involved in the school uniform, let alone the kind of compulsion seen in the Nazi Party or Hitler Youth.  And this is what I’m getting at with that title ‘the starting point’.   As things now stand we have two broad groups of Christians in the world with two ‘starting points’.  The Anabaptists and other “free church/believer’s church” groups start from that voluntariness, that reliance on God’s power rather than the world’s power, the refusal to coerce.  Others are at the end of a long history of having long ago been ‘Christendomite’ in attitude and though they are no longer the totalitarians they used to be, they still start from the idea that Christianity should somehow be privileged and special, that England is still a ‘Christian country’.   And so they often still think in terms of “We must have laws against gay marriages” and so on, which amount to pushing Christian ideas and practices INvoluntarily on our fellow citizens.  And that is beginning to have all kinds of negative effects….

So what I’m saying is that in facing the world and interacting with it, we are better starting from that ‘like a voluntary club’ position, than from the compromised rags of the old ‘Christendom position; both on grounds of it being closer to what God commands in the Bible, and on grounds of practicality and effectiveness.  It’s also quite likely that in the near future much of what’s left of ‘Christendom’ will be dismantled whether we like it or not.  And I think the world will be more impressed and better served by churches which honestly admit the mistake of Christendom and go willingly, preferably before they are forced to, than by churches which only go reluctantly and hang on grimly to what’s left of their former influence, and carry on afterwards being rebellious troublemakers about their position.

There is another issue.  The importance of our message in the world, not just in the afterlife, does raise questions about how far we can or should be involved in the world’s affairs, even if not in an actually coercive way.  Can we enter politics?  Can we seek to influence government policies?

I’ll hopefully be dealing with that kind of issues in future; but what I want to say for now is “Here’s the starting point.  We are a ‘kingdom not of this world’, a body which must in human terms be voluntary.  How far we may go from that starting point, I am not sure either – but at least it will hopefully be in the right direction.  We should also consider that things are different in a modern democracy; in most of the past, Christians will have had little opportunity at power in the world, but in democracy we do have the vote and other privilege as citizens.  How may we use that?  However it is, we must start our thoughts from the right place, the voluntary nature of the Church.

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!!

A Controversy Re-visited – Martyn Lloyd-Jones

(I’ve noticed that this is a post people frequently look at; I’d just like to draw attention to the fact that it’s one of a pair of connected posts, the other dealing with the position of the Anglican theologian J I Packer in that controversy.  You will get a broader and more  balanced view of the controversy, and of my estimate of it, if you consult the other post as well “A controversy revisited – J I Packer”.)

Those of my age (I have a bus-pass) will likely remember the controversy which followed a meeting of the Evangelical Alliance in 1966 when Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones issued a call to Evangelicals to secede from ‘doctrinally impure’ denominations infected by liberal theological ideas, and form a purer church to defend the gospel.  Some did respond, and among other results the Fellowship of Independent Evangelical Churches was founded.  However many, particularly among Anglicans, thought it was inappropriate to leave denominations which still held to evangelical creeds, and better to work within them and try to recall them to biblical belief.

At the time, as a student, I wasn’t very clear about the issues.  Since then my own ideas in various matters have expanded considerably, and I now feel able to comment; and much as I respect Lloyd-Jones as among the ‘giants on whose shoulders I stand’, in this case I believe he was very wrong, and that the heated controversy was unfortunately an argument about the wrong question.

Lloyd-Jones’ mistake I believe was to put the matter in terms of ‘doctrinally lax mainstream denominations’ and to seek a solution in terms of a doctrinally ‘pure-body’ church.

The obvious criticisms are

First, that it was to be expected that churches made up of sinful humans would have ups and downs in faithfulness and doctrinal purity,

and secondly, that the concept of a ‘pure body’ church was, shall we say, inadequately bounded and opened up the spectre of endless secessions over minor matters leading to total disunity and to proudly and bitterly exclusive groups like the ‘Exclusive Brethren’.

As regards the first of those points, I think it is significant that Christopher Catherwood reports, “Dr Lloyd-Jones knew that his grouping would not stay pure for ever, but he felt that each man had to do what was right in his own generation”.  Exactly… as generations change, you cannot guarantee the ongoing faith and doctrinal purity of any church, and so it would appear that seeking a pure grouping will indeed lead to just an endless process of separation and abandonment.   In addition at any time a church may contain people of many different degrees of Christian experience many of whom have far from worked everything out and may have all kinds of not-entirely orthodox views just through inexperience – and of course do not deserve to be excluded for that!    The alternative view of John Stott, Jim Packer and their Anglican colleagues, to not abandon a denomination unless it formally and credally abandoned the gospel, and to seek instead to work within it for revival, was basically correct[i], and had precedent in actual revival of which perhaps the 1740 ‘Great Awakening’ was the great example.  Reformers in the 1500s and Methodists in the 1700s did not abandon their original church, but had been thrown out, or at any rate squeezed out, after serious constructive efforts to improve that original church.  Of course, least of all can you secure the faith of future generations by secular legislation for a state church or privileged state religion – but that raises issues I’ve dealt with elsewhere.

As regards the second, separation over claimed doctrinal purity is potentially endless and gives all too much scope for human pride and exclusiveness, and for abusive leaderships to establish cult-like groups separated nominally for greater purity but in fact to serve the leader’s ego.  Of course Dr Lloyd-Jones didn’t intend any such limitless separation, nor do I think he was that kind of egotist; but the issue of doctrinal purity or of a ‘pure body’ church doesn’t have a clear objective limit to prevent it.  How do you decide when you are ‘pure enough’?  How do you make sure of separating only from the determinedly unorthodox and not casting aside the sincere but understandably ignorant or similar?

I think Lloyd-Jones made a further mistake – he didn’t properly realise that there was one issue which both really required separation and was actually significantly responsible for much of the doctrinal laxity that worried him; namely, the issue of establishment of churches in the state – not only in the strict legal way that Anglicanism is established, but also various other ways that people expect that a state should be ‘Christian’ and that our churches  and their beliefs and morality should be specially privileged in the state.  For example, Ian Paisley didn’t want to be the established church – but he still expected Ulster (and mainland Britain) to be a ‘Protestant country’ in which Protestant beliefs generally are favoured/protected/etc.

Separation from the state, whether from a formal establishment or a looser ‘Christian country’ kind of relationship, indirectly sorts out much of the doctrinal purity issue anyway.  It relieves the church of all kinds of pressures and temptations that might tend towards doctrinal impurity in various ways, both obvious and subtle.  Once separated from the state, for example,

  • You won’t get governments confusing the gospel of new birth by trying to define every citizen as belonging to the state Christian faith;
  • You won’t get citizens thinking they are Christian just by birth in a ‘Christian country’.
  • A large problem of people seeking membership or leadership in the churches for reasons of political power and influence is pretty much removed, leaving a church of voluntary members whose primary concerns are at least somewhat more likely to be spiritual rather than worldly
  • Likewise you will get fewer people seeking membership for mere social respectability, usually ending up playing a Pharisaic hypocritical role while sinners in real need may be made to feel unwanted by the very body that is supposed to save them;
  • If the church doesn’t offer a special privilege in the world and state, people are likely to join only if they are serious about salvation; and therefore the church is less encumbered with merely nominal believers who are likely to be doctrinally lax.
  • Without the state involvement, there is a good deal less temptation to tinker with doctrine to try to keep it acceptable to all in the state; a church which is non-conformist anyway will be more concerned to maintain pure doctrine.

Of course the church, being composed of sinful human beings, who are imperfect even when converted to Christ, will always in a way be a mixed body; but without the state link it will be so in a biblically expected way which can be coped with on biblical principles, not additionally confused by an dubious relationship with worldly power and the very different concerns of that power.

 

Ecumenically, most of the issues on which evangelicals differ are related to state churches – or their leftovers, as it were, in churches which aren’t established.  The state church issue itself obviously, but also many styles of church government and worship which, in free churches, would lose much of their importance.  For example, while I suspect the baptist/paedobaptist controversy will run a bit yet, one major aspect would be removed if baptism ceased to be a national rite of passage, carried on in a ‘national church’ for social and cultural reasons rather than simply as a Christian rite.  It might seem drastic to split from ‘Christian country’ denominations (and it must be done as charitably as possible!) but in the modern climate of declining attendance will it in fact make a great deal of difference? A separation on the state and church issue is also, of course, more easily limited than a separation over doctrinal laxity; there is a reasonably obvious stopping point which then if anything discourages further separation unless for major cause.

 

I repeat, I have huge respect for Dr Lloyd-Jones, own many of his books both in physical and Kindle form, and have benefited massively from his teaching.  I understand why he was concerned for doctrinal purity, especially when the late 1960s were seeing the outworking of the ‘Honest to God’ controversy started by Bishop John Robinson of Woolwich, and ideas like ‘God is Dead’ theology.  As a Welshman he didn’t believe in the Anglican style of established Church, but his Puritan and Welsh-Presbyterian/Calvinistic-Methodist background meant, I think, that he was unclear on the wider idea of a ‘Christian country’; he thought that in some sense a country could be ‘Christian’ and broadly support Christianity in general – for example with features like ‘RE in schools’.  Lloyd-Jones’ Independency/Congregationalism was more like Cromwell than the Anabaptist principle of separation of Church and State, and in Britain even our Baptists were ambiguous over this issue.  Anabaptism was at the time very much a minority matter; our native Anabaptist movement, the Open Brethren, was increasingly becoming just a group of independent churches.  I think he just didn’t realise the link between being, or trying to be, a Christian country and the temptations to worldliness including doctrinal laxity that result.

 

Thus sadly he raised the controversy over the wrong issue, and harmed evangelical witness at a time when we didn’t need that kind of division.  In the many issues of the 1960s a clear call to separation from the state would have been more useful, but nobody was thinking in such terms.

 


[i] The idea may have been correct – but applying it to the Anglican Church was problematic – see the second part of this discussion, “A Controversy Revisited – J I Packer “.

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….

Prophetic Wisdom from CS Lewis

 

Last year, being a bit of a railway nerd when not blogging, I took a long day out riding trains to Milford Haven in South Wales.  I knew that it would be dark for much of the return journey, so took a book with me – a Betty Rowlands detective story, as it happens.  All was well till somewhere near Craven Arms in Shropshire when we came to the proverbial ‘juddering halt’ – nowhere near a dead stop, but clearly something unusual.  Over an hour passed before the errant electronics in the brakes could be reset; beautiful as Shropshire is, I’d already read a fair chunk of my book before the train restarted.  Arriving two hours later than expected at Milford Haven, I just had time to shop for a hot pasty before joining my train home.  Instead of getting at least back into England before it went dark, we didn’t get much past Carmarthen.  Good as it was, my book barely lasted back to the English border; luckily another traveller discarded a ‘Guardian’ whose crossword occupied most of the remaining journey.  I did some serious thinking; being, courtesy of that Mr Asperger, decidedly hyperlexic, any book (indeed probably books) which would last such a long voyage would use a lot of space, and add a considerable weight for a back which is dodgy since a car accident a few years ago.  Much as I prefer real ink-and-paper books, this situation seemed to require that I entered the 21st Century and got one of those Kindle contraptions. 

My initial Kindle loading was not all exactly light reading for train journeys; Calvin’s Institutes, Matthew Henry’s Bible Commentary (which can occupy about two feet of library shelf in book form), and the NIV among others.  But I also found what called itself ‘The Complete CS Lewis’, (“Dear Trading Standards Officer; ‘complete’ it ain’t!”) a selection of the most popular Lewis non-fiction/apologetic titles at a reasonable price.  

For various reasons I’d not read much from my Lewis collection for a few years, but now I’ve started rereading.  It came as a bit of a shock to realise that later this year will be the fiftieth anniversary of Lewis’ death (an event obscured at the time by the supposedly more important Kennedy assassination).  Lewis fan though I am, it has to be admitted that while the basic ideas in the books still stand up very well, there’s a lot of stuff in them which is now showing its age a bit and might not seem very relevant to a modern young reader.  I would still basically strongly recommend them; even when I disagree with Lewis I know I’ve been in a serious argument, not just a trading of ‘sound-bites’.    And then, in chapter 2 of “The Four Loves”, I found the following, after a discussion of patriotism and love of country….

“…the sort of love I have been describing… can also be felt for bodies that claim more than a natural affection; for a Church or (alas) a party in a Church, or for a religious order.  This terrible subject would require a book to itself.  Here it will be enough to say that the Heavenly Society is also an earthly society.  Our (merely natural) patriotism towards the latter (i.e., the church as earthly society  SL) can very easily borrow the transcendent claims of the former (the church as Heavenly Society  SL) and use them to justify the most abominable actions.  If ever the book, which I am not going to write, is written it must be the full confession by Christendom of Christendom’s specific contribution to the sum of human cruelty and treachery.  Large areas of ‘the World’ will not hear us till we have publicly disowned much of our past. Why should they?  We have shouted the name of Christ and enacted the service of Moloch.”

Lewis it seems didn’t fully make the connection of Christendom itself, the attempt at having ‘Christian countries’, being the fundamental problem here.  Both from my own memories as a young teen in the 1960s and from my reading, I think I sort of understand why, in the circumstances back then, when such issues were shall we say quiescent, and with his desire to avoid denominational controversies and stick to ‘mere Christianity’ he didn’t easily see it.  He still saw more than most of his contemporaries and many of the things he said in various contexts helped prepare me so that when the troubles in Ulster (Lewis’ home province) kicked off in the late 60s, I was able to see the connections.  Lewis, if you like, was among the giants on whose shoulders I stood to get a view beyond their own; I can’t claim much credit for it, but I do want to invite the rest of you to get up here and appreciate the view.

I’ll repeat the key bit of the quote to hammer it home; we are still waiting for “the full confession by Christendom of Christendom’s specific contribution to the sum of human cruelty and treachery.”  It is proving increasingly true in the modern world that “Large areas of ‘the World’ will not hear us till we have publicly disowned much of our past.”  And I think it is really time to recognise, as Lewis sadly couldn’t quite, that it is not just the past we need to disown; we also need to disown and thoroughly repent our continuing temptation to keep trying at variations of Christendom and constantly wanting to build for Jesus the ‘kingdom of this world’ that He himself rejected.  It won’t make us perfect – we will still be sinful human beings – but at least we may remove ourselves from the worst of the destructive possibilities of “enacting the service of Moloch”.  As Lewis pointed out about a page earlier than the portion quoted, there is a terrible logic that “If our country’s cause is the cause of God, wars must be wars of annihilation”, annihilation which believers, Christian or others, may perform thinking they are entitled to a clear conscience. 

Until we disown Christendom we not only risk adding on our own account to “the sum of human cruelty and treachery”; we also set a terrible example to others such as the extremists of Islam.  We cannot counter their terrorism from a position almost indistinguishable from their own!!  Let us be “shouting the name of Christ” in a way that honours his actual teaching.