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.

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!!

Ian Paisley is a Catholic….

…though obviously not a papist!  Anyone expecting me to reveal that Dr Paisley has been secretly attending Masses and/or negotiating with the Pope for a cardinal’s red hat, buzz off and wait for some tabloid to discover/hack/invent that story.  This item is a serious discussion of how the word ‘catholic’ is to be interpreted.

The word ‘catholic’ is derived from the Greek phrase ‘kata holos’, meaning something like ‘according to the whole’, as in the New Age buzz words ‘holistic/holism/etc.’  (The ‘holic’ bit is nothing to do with ‘alcoholic/ workaholic/ chocoholic/etc’ which are derived from the Arabic ‘al cohol’ meaning, well, alcohol)  ‘Catholic’ can fairly be translated as ‘universal’.

Way back, the word ‘catholic’ is used in early creeds like the Apostle’s Creed to describe the Church – ‘We believe in the holy catholic Church….’  At that time of course the Church was not entangled with the state but had voluntary membership, so ‘kata holos’ meant on the one hand that as God’s Church it was universal as God himself is, but with voluntary membership meant more like ‘for everybody’, ‘applicable to everybody’, or ‘open to everybody’ without distinction – ‘As many of you as have been baptised into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.  No Jew or Greek there, no slave or freeman, no male or female, because you are all one in Christ Jesus’  In that kind of sense I’ve no objection to saying the word ‘catholic’ in the creed myself, though I admit I prefer, to avoid unhelpful associations, the English translation ‘universal’.

Things changed after Constantine, and even more so after his successor who made Christianity compulsory in the Roman Empire.  With everybody in ‘Christendom’ assumed to be ‘Christian’ following their infant baptism (apart from Jews whose status was grudged and under threat), ‘catholic’ ended up meaning something a great deal more like our word ‘totalitarian’, similar to Nazism and Stalinism, and ended up with the biblically dubious practices of Inquisitions and Crusades to enforce the faith.  With the splitting of the Roman Empire ‘Christendom’ was divided between ‘Eastern Orthodox’ and western ‘Roman Catholic’, but the state church principle remained, and both sides of the split were ‘Catholic’ in the totalitarian sense.  The Eastern Orthodox can still be pretty totalitarian – see ‘ethnic cleansing’ in Serbia and attitudes too often seen in Russian Orthodoxy.

At the Reformation the western church split between Catholic and Protestant, but both continued the practice of being totalitarian state churches; Protestants vary between the established national Anglican and Lutheran Churches and some Presbyterian/Reformed churches with varying degrees of connection with the state.  Even Cromwell, an ‘Independent’ in church government terms, nevertheless believed that the state should be ‘Christian’ in some sense.  The ‘Pilgrim Fathers’ might have sought freedom from Anglican tyranny  this side of the Atlantic, but the Puritan state they initially set up in the New World was – let’s say it wasn’t so free if you weren’t a Puritan…!

In the modern world few churches are as intolerant as used to be the case; a non-Catholic won’t have the Inquisition set on him if he goes on holiday to a Catholic country.  But the idea of a ‘Christian state’ in which the Christianity is generally privileged and assumed to be the norm still exists, and with different versions of Christianity so, sadly, does the idea that ‘our’ version be privileged and others ‘second-class citizens’ still exist.  And this, essentially, is the post-Constantine version of the ‘catholic’ idea still running and still causing damage.

I recall seeing Ian Paisley giving a speech somewhere circa 1970 and he said “This is a Protestant country!”  It is this belief in a Christian country that makes him ‘Catholic’ in the bad sense of the word; and it is that kind of Catholicism on both sides there which leads to the fighting and terrorism and the current marches, riots and protests.  As I’ve said before on this blog, it is not the theological disagreements but ironically the point the two sides are agreed about which causes the trouble. 

In contrast were the Anabaptists.  They realised that Christianity required a voluntary spiritual new birth that couldn’t be imposed by worldly legislation, and so any state including Christians must be pluralist, consisting of the born again and the still unconverted.  They realised too that therefore church and state should be separate – it wasn’t the church’s job to ‘Christianise’ worldly states, but to spread the gospel and bring people into the kingdom of God.  That kingdom consists of those who follow Jesus because they hear and believe him (i.e., not merely because some earthly ruler passes a law declaring his people to be Christian), and so instead of existing in this world as a regular geographical state, or as an ethnic entity like the Kurds or the Basques, Jesus’ kingdom exists as a worldwide body of ‘resident aliens’ – citizens of the kingdom of heaven living as ‘expats’.  

For Anabaptists and anyone else who accepts that basic idea, ‘catholic’ means what it meant in the first centuries of Christianity; universal in a sense of suitable for everyone, freely offered to everyone, open to all regardless of race, gender, or nationality in this world[i].  Such a church does not need a conventional worldly state based on worldly physical power and so does not need worldly warfare such as we see in Northern Ireland. 

It is ironic that this central value of Ian Paisley is also the key value of the Roman and Orthodox Churches; it is not the Bible teaching that Protestantism is supposed to stand for, but an unbiblical tradition going back only to nearly 400 years after Jesus, and actually actively contradicting the Bible itself.  But note that although the two sides in Ulster have slightly different formulations of the ‘Christian state’ idea, they still have that idea in common, and the resulting implication that they can engage in warfare for their version of a Christian state and so against each other.  Both sides need to do some serious thinking about this, including that Catholics need to recognise that their ‘totalitarian’ past, until such time as they disavow it, gives some valid reason for Protestant opposition. 


[i] Because Anabaptists rejected the ‘totalitarian’ interpretation of ‘catholic’, apparently many of them would refuse to use that word or its German/Dutch equivalent ‘gemeinde’ when saying the creed; the Inquisition would use that to identify Anabaptists.  The Anabaptists would not reject the word in its original sense, but probably didn’t realise in those days that the meaning had changed over the years.  Likewise the Inquisition; for them also the ‘Catholic Church’ meant their totalitarian body.   

But Seriously (10) – Peter on murder, theft and ‘meddling’

I Peter 4 contains a passage which in my schooldays I found a bit confusing.  I had no problem with the first bit, about being prepared to suffer for the name of Christ, but the next bit – well, here is the passage…

Be not surprised, dear friends, at the fiery test that is being applied to you, as if you were experiencing something odd.  Instead be cheerful for sharing to some degree the sufferings of Christ, so that at the revealing of his glory you may be triumphantly cheerful.  If you are defamed for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory, yes, the Spirit of God, is resting on you.

Of course none of you should suffer as a murderer or a thief or a criminal or a meddler in other’s affairs; but if you suffer as a Christian, do not feel ashamed; but honour God with that name.

My reaction to this was “How could that be?  How would Christians be suffering for being murderers, or thieves, or criminals?”  After all, to Christians those things would be sinful.  The bit about ‘meddlers’ was confusing in a slightly different way – it just wasn’t clear what was meant, what would be the limits of ‘meddling’, the difference between that and other legitimate concerns?  Like many other things that puzzled me as a teenager, things got clearer as the explosion of violence in Ulster led me to look into ‘Church and State’ issues.

Because there in Ulster people were effectively committing murder and theft and other criminality in the name of Jesus, as paramilitaries threw bombs, shot people, and stole and extorted (including intimidation of their own ‘side’) to finance supposedly Christian campaigns for either a Catholic or a Protestant cause.  That is, they didn’t see the murder, theft and criminality as just ordinary crimes of personal greed or whatever; they thought they had the justification of fighting for God’s people in God’s name.   Peter, I realised, in a letter to a church facing imminent persecution, was almost certainly referring to that kind of thing, and saying “That’s not the Christian way!”  In Peter’s day, he probably had in mind the ‘Zealots’ and ‘Sicarii (daggermen)’ of the Jewish resistance against Rome.  About ten years later movements like that would lead to the Jewish Revolt, so there would be a live possibility of that kind of Christian reaction to persecution unless Peter made things clear.

Once I’d made that link I could see many episodes in Christian history where Christians who would not have committed ‘private’ crimes did commit rebellion and other crimes for supposedly Christian causes; the English Civil war is just one of the bigger examples, starting in lesser resistance to the authorities and ending in full warfare.  This in turn was a consequence of the ‘establishment’ of the Church in the Roman Empire and the development of the idea of the ‘Christian country’.  Having or trying to achieve a ‘Christian state’ appeared to justify such conduct.  This general issue I’ve explored elsewhere in the blog and will probably keep coming back to.

‘Meddling’ – well now I’d revised my interpretation of the background ideas, could I find a better and clearer meaning for the ‘meddling’ as well?  Going back to the Greek was an obvious starting point, and the Greek is ‘allotriepiskopoi’.  ‘Allos’ is ‘other’, ‘Allotria’ is ‘other people’s affairs’ and ‘episkopos’ is the same word as ‘bishop’ though in those days it hadn’t acquired a distinctively church meaning and just meant a ‘manager’ or ‘overseer’ (‘epi’ is ‘over/above’ as in epidermis, ‘skopos’ is ‘seeing’ as in the far-seeing ‘telescope’).  Peter doesn’t just mean ‘meddling’ in general; this is being a ‘manager of other people’s business’ and I don’t think it would be wrong to suggest an implication of ‘self-appointed manager’.  We might also informally use the phrase ‘bossy-boots’.

One risk in thinking you’re ‘on God’s side’ is the risk of becoming a Zealot, or a member of the UVF or similar bodies, thinking that killing and coercion in God’s name is justified, even mandated and praiseworthy; another risk is to become a busy-body, an interferer, pushing your views and standards on others in God’s name.  But Peter is saying that being such a ‘meddler’ is also inappropriate conduct, conduct which will get you into trouble with the non-Christians around you and bring disrepute on the faith; even get Christians persecuted.  As Peter sees it, Christians aren’t entitled to that management role; we are humble resident aliens, people who must be prepared to follow Jesus’ example of suffering unjustly.  In our dealings with our fellow-men we show self-sacrificing love and care, not self-righteous domineering.  This is arguably Peter’s version of Jesus’ words about how the princes of the gentiles ‘lord it over’ others – ‘but it shall not be so with you’.  Not only Christians won’t lord it over each other – they also won’t treat non-Christians that way!  Of course we care about other people’s affairs; but we are also careful to respect them and to offer humble help that doesn’t demean our neighbour or act self-righteous and haughty.

Another side to this; of course when there is a ‘Christian country’ it will appear to Christians that there are, in a way, no ‘other people’s affairs’ to improperly manage.  Everyone’s a Christian by being born in that country and baptised as an infant, so their affairs are also the church’s affairs and interfering with them can’t be meddling ….  This is a great idea if you’re an inquisitor, or just a ruler looking to Christianity to unify his realm.  The problem is, of course, that the New Testament doesn’t teach the Christian state in the first place, and actually rejects the idea that spiritual rebirth as a Christian can be achieved by human will/legislation etc.  Nice as it sounds to the would-be busy-body, this situation is simply not supposed to happen.  And if ever there was a case of ‘allotriepiskopy writ large’, it’s the bishops, the ‘episkopoi’ of a state church; their very existence in that role, defies NT teaching.  Think it through….

Finally, Peter wrote this to a church which wasn’t running anybody’s country, to advise them against this inappropriate bossy-boots stuff; I can’t believe that he intended the church to actually end up as an institutionalised bossy-boots by becoming ‘established’!

Northern Ireland; the cost of ‘abnormal policing’.

An item on teletext tells me that the policing of protests and riots in Northern Ireland is costing £3m per month; just one ongoing incident – which appears to be protests about that banned march in the Ardoyne area of Belfast – is costing £300,000 per week (£1,200,000 a month on its own!!), and has done so since ‘the Twelfth’.  That six-figure sum – weekly – because a band and their supporters want to stage a provocative and offensive march.  There’s a further difficulty shown by comparing arrest rates in the province to previous years; policing all these protests has massively cut the number of arrests for ‘normal’ crimes and presumably the province must be suffering considerably from this failure to deal with the regular crimes.

The problem for me is that the people responsible for this disorder, for the expense and the obstruction to ordinary policing, claim to be my fellow-Christians and to be defending a strongly Bible-believing form of the faith at that.  But I also take the Bible seriously, and in the New Testament I can find text after text after text that says Christians shouldn’t be behaving like that, and/or presents emphatically a different course of behaviour.  And these are not obscure texts, they’re very plain and straightforward; simple stuff like ‘in no case paying back evil for evil’ or ‘love your enemy’ or ‘our warfare is not with physical weapons’ whether those weapons be swords, guns, tanks – or thrown bottles and stones. 

In contrast, texts justifying these marches, riots and protests are to say the least thin on the ground.   And those which are sometimes produced do not seem to be plain and straightforward either.  Indeed I often find that the texts don’t say anything that supports such conduct at all, it’s just that those quoting the texts aren’t happy with what the text actually says and have produced a rationalisation that says, without biblical grounds, “surely there must be an exception….”

Much of the justification for the marches, riots and protests seems to depend on first believing that Northern Ireland is or should be a ‘Christian country’ (whether ‘Catholic’ or ‘Protestant’) which these actions are defending.  Again, I’m still waiting for someone to produce actual texts supporting that proposition, either for Northern Ireland or any other country; and those texts would need to be very clear and emphatic to counter or be a legitimate exception to the large number of rather explicit texts rejecting the Christian state and commanding a somewhat different course of action – I’ve quoted lots of these texts in the blog already and more to come, so I’m not going to repeat them all here….

To justify harming your country (and mine, while NI is part of the UK!) on a scale of £millions a month, Christians don’t just need a ‘good excuse’ – they need an extremely good reason.  Excuses about ‘defending our culture’ really won’t do, especially for a ‘culture’ which is rather obviously not about God’s values of ‘loving your enemies’ etc.; you have to be able to say you are positively obeying God, yet clearly you aren’t.  On the contrary there is clear disobedience. 

Even accepting that ‘being subject to the authorities’ doesn’t mean unqualified obedience to them, there is no biblical authority to disobey the state when all they have said is you mustn’t stage a provocative and intimidating march offensive to your neighbours of other beliefs.  It’s not like they are forbidding you to preach the gospel, and even then a violent response would be biblically inappropriate!!  To set yourself against the authorities in the attempt, by repeated demonstrations, to force your march through after all… that fits almost exactly the literal meaning of Paul’s words in Romans 13 – “Do not ‘set yourselves in array against’ the authorities”; and Paul warns that if you disobey that word you are setting yourself against God’s purposes, against God himself, and that God will respond in judgement against you.  Indeed, from where I’m standing, it looks very much as if God actually has responded in judgement, as Northern Ireland is ‘given over’ (to use a Pauline concept) to suffer the natural consequences that follow such disobedience.   Among those judgemental consequences, though far from the worst as we have seen over the years, is the hurt when the acts of misguided Christians cost the nation and its people a needless loss of millions of pounds that could be much better spent!! 

PS; since I originally posted this I’ve seen a further news item suggesting that the ‘flag protests’ have cost Belfast’s shops about £50million in trade. Again I can’t see any justification for Christians to be involved in such damaging activity at the expense of their community; yet these protests seem only to make sense on a supposedly ‘Christian’ basis. This has to be wrong!

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….