More on Martyn Lloyd-Jones and Christian relations to the State

As promised I’m listening to Lloyd-Jones’ sermons on Romans 13, although it’s taking a while – finding time to concentrate on sermons nearly an hour long can be tricky. From the latest one I picked up a few points where I again somewhat disagree with Lloyd-Jones (and I would remind you again that me disagreeing with Lloyd-Jones is rare).

First was a passage in which he spoke rather as if Paul’s Romans 13 was almost the only full expression of these ideas. But in Paul it’s just one chapter in a longer exposition of many basic Christian ideas.  So for me, though Romans 13 is certainly a key passage, Peter in his first epistle actually says much more, gives more detail, than Paul in Romans, and I think it’s a good idea to see the two passages together.

Apart from simply using as much of the biblical teaching as possible, getting the widest biblical view of the topic, Peter’s letter has a further key element for an issue that arose later; supposedly the Roman Catholic Church claims special authority as the ‘successor of Peter’. Yet ironically, if you follow Peter’s actual words, much of it contradicts the way the Catholic Church (and the Orthodox Church before the split between RC and Orthodox) dealt with the state through history. Which of course raises some questions on how much the Catholics can truly claim succession to Peter….

Secondly, though, Lloyd-Jones takes up the idea of ‘subjection to’ the state that Paul expresses, and he says rightly that this can’t mean we must always obey the state, the ‘powers that be’. And quite rightly Lloyd-Jones quotes Peter’s words from Acts 5, about how Christians must ‘obey God rather than man’. But he then I think makes a significant slip; he speaks in terms of being ‘subject to the state’ EXCEPT when we must ‘obey God rather than man’.

And I want to say no; we must actually as the text says ‘be subject’ full stop. NO EXCEPTIONS!! And I think the slip here is common, made by many; it is the slip of equating ‘be subject to’ with simply ‘obey’. As I see it, we are to be subject but in different ways – when we can, we obey; but when we find it impossible to obey, we still remain ‘subject’, we still don’t ‘resist’ in a sense of military rebellion or the like. We disobey, and if the state chooses to punish us for it, we accept the punishment – as Peter, Paul, and indeed Jesus himself did; Jesus in his unjust death, Peter and Paul later in their martyrdom for the faith….

The trouble with trying to make an ‘exception’ to subjection to the state is that although it sounds very reasonable, it’s hard to keep it as a minor exception. Ian Paisley and others in Ulster advocated a similar ‘exception’ and effectively it ‘ate up’ the rule it was supposed to be an exception to. It pretty much ended up as being subject to the state only if the state did what you wanted. Where Paul was ‘subject’ to the state of an emperor like Nero and willing to accept eventual martyrdom at the hands of Nero’s Rome, the Ulstermen ended up basically rebelling against a democratic state that simply wanted them to respect the rights of others who disagreed with them – and indeed compared that democratic state to Nero or Hitler…. And Ulster Catholics, also on the ‘Constantinian’ side of the argument, took similar views, making a bloody clash inevitable.

One common way to justify the exception at least in the days of kings and emperors was to try to distinguish between the ‘office’ of king which you had to respect, and the individual holding the office, who, in effect, didn’t have to be respected and obeyed if he wasn’t doing the job properly. That kind of reasoning leads to very hair-splitting legalism which basically comes to attempting to justify rebellion. The idea I’m advocating, of distinguishing between ‘subjection’ and ‘obedience’, allows the different option of being always subject and never rebelling, while still, when required, obeying God rather than man and so risking martyrdom. That avoids all the dubious legalism and also the essentially selfish and fractious attitudes which accompany such reasoning.

In the same sermon Lloyd-Jones dealt with questions about capital punishment – the death penalty. I’m going to have to go into that one sometime in future – for now I’ll shove it on the back burner and think it over.


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!

A modern case supporting ‘Christendom’

Some time back I came across a book called ‘A Higher Throne’, proceedings of sessions of the eleventh ‘Annual School of Theology’ of Oak Hill College, an Anglican institution in the UK.  Among the essays was one by David Field, in which he argued for a ‘Christendomite’ view of ‘confessional Christian states’, derived from the arguments of Samuel Rutherford’s book Lex Rex from the Stuart era.  Early in the essay he sets forth the kind of thing he has in mind, as seen in the following quotes

….Those who want … a Christian nation … could be identified as those who assert;

The first line (paragraph? SL) of the constitution of each and every nation on earth should include a statement such as ‘The triune God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, is the one true living God and he is the maker, ruler redeemer and judge of the world.  The Bible is his infallible and altogether authoritative Word.  Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is King of kings and Lord of lords and has all authority in heaven and on earth.’ 

And later

In summary then, Samuel Rutherford’s arguments in ‘Lex, Rex  are intended to provide a defence of taking up arms against the tyrant and are founded upon an exposition of the  purpose, origin, nature and raw materials of civil government.  That same exposition also shows how Rutherford would straightforwardly be a supporter of what might be called the covenanted Christian nation, or the confessional state. 

Three Questions may be asked about the relationship between the lordship of Jesus and the kings of the earth;

  1. 1.       Is Jesus Christ the ruler of the kings of the earth?
  2. 2.       Is it desirable that the kings of the earth should acknowledge this?
  3. 3.       Is it desirable that the kings of the earth qua kings should publicly confess this? 

Non-Christians and Christians are of course distinguished by their answers to the first two questions, but those who support and those who oppose the Christian confessional state are distinguished by their answer to the third.  Rutherford and the covenanting tradition answer the third question with no less a ringing and confident ‘yes’ than they give to the first two. 

Given the purpose, origin, nature and stuff of the human person, it is clear and important that each human being confess the triune God, recognise Jesus as Lord, and live with the Word of God as his or her supreme authority.  To Rutherford and the covenanting tradition it is no less clear and important, given the purpose, origin, nature and stuff of human government, that each human ruler also confess the triune God, recognise Jesus as Lord, and live with the Word of God as his or her supreme authority. 

In referring to ‘the kings of the earth’ Field means all kinds of human rulers, not just those who have the specific title ‘king’.  I must admit I’m not quite clear how he regards democracy; he does later describe ‘pluralist democracy’ as being a ‘tyranny’ – I kind of see why he says that (material for a future post perhaps), but I also think he is misconceiving how plural democracy is supposed to work and to think of itself.  I am guessing that he would find acceptable a democracy which was not pluralist but was limited by that specifically Christian opening to its constitution – but he doesn’t fully face some of the implications of that either. 

Looking at those ‘three questions’, yes, Christians believe that Jesus Christ IS the ruler of the ‘kings of the earth’ whether they acknowledge it or not, and overrules for ultimate good even their worst and most ungodly actions, which they can only do at all by divine permission anyway. 

Clearly it is desirable that everybody, king or not, should personally acknowledge Jesus’ rulership; after all those who don’t accept him as Lord are putting their souls at risk, and that is clearly undesirable.  However I’m not sure that this point is quite as clear-cut as Field seems to suggest; if a person who is a king or other ruler accepts Jesus as Lord, he will in many cases find it at least difficult to both follow Jesus and to be a regular-type worldly ruler.  There is quite a bit to be worked out here.  Following Field’s suggested path is an easy solution at first glance, but has its own problems as we will see!

In the third question the expression, rarely used nowadays, ‘qua kings’ means in this case the idea that the ruler doesn’t just as an individual person acknowledge Jesus’ authority; he also acknowledges it in his office as ruler, and so in the way he rules his subjects.  That is, he becomes an explicitly Christian ruler who rules the state as a Christian state based on a Christian constitution like the one quoted above, to which the subjects are expected to conform.  

The logic of these three questions seems impeccable; but it is actually severely flawed.  In the first place, it overlooks some issues about what is really desirable and really practical given the purpose, origin, nature and stuff of the human person and given the purpose, origin, nature and stuff of human government.  And in the second place and even more importantly, the New Testament doesn’t teach this Christian country solution at all, but proposes a very different way to bring people to acknowledge that “the triune God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, is the one true living God and He is the maker, ruler redeemer and judge of the world.  The Bible is his infallible and altogether authoritative Word.  Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is King of kings and Lord of lords and has all authority in heaven and on earth”.

Thing is, the only power that can make people Christians is the power of God himself.  Human power, be it king, emperor, president, or dictator, cannot achieve spiritual rebirth; the biggest army can’t make people Christian – not even with the threat of nukes – nor can threats of torture, or for that matter offers of worldly advantage for those who profess faith.  The most that such human power can achieve is a superficial conformity, an external acting out of Christian profession and rituals, from either fear or other worldly motives.  To compare it to education, it’s fairly straightforward to make and enforce the rule that all pupils must wear their school ties; but it needs a lot more than such rules and external conformity for children to actually learn their lessons, let alone learn willingly and joyfully!   

And part of the trouble is that the superficial conformity imposed in the ‘confessional state’ can actually work against people truly coming to faith.  It is all too easy for the status of ‘Christian country’ to be taken for granted so that everyone just assumes they are Christian, and they don’t see the need to be born again and truly personally reconciled to God; as Wesley found out, even bishops can fall into the error of thinking that preaching of the new birth is just unnecessary because ‘England has been a Christian country for centuries’.  Infant baptism and the idea of a magical ‘Christ-ening’ thereby can reinforce such assumptions.  At the other end those who realise the basic falseness of the situation may be put off faith altogether; they may continue external conformity through fear or desire for a quiet life, but again superficial conformity is all it will be.  In other cases this underlying dissatisfaction may eventually lead to open atheism and rebellion against the faith and the power structure of the state that upholds it.  Others will conform through fear of consequences, or hypocritically for the worldly advantages of it.  Desirable as it is for people to acknowledge Jesus as Lord, it is undesirable for that to be muddied by these false situations. 

Also important – the Church is supposed to be the fellowship of believers; but how real can that be when there are lots of people formally in the state church, even at ministry level, who haven’t been born again but are only conforming because the state is a ‘confessional Christian state’, people who are ministers because it’s a profitable and respected career?  OK, even the best church on earth will probably have a few hypocrites or other not-quite-Christians, but in a state privileged church those may be the majority, whereas when there is no special social benefit to a profession of faith it is much more likely that church attenders will be sincere.  Of course if the state actually compels church-going this situation will be even worse.  It is hypothetically possible to imagine a formally ‘Christian country’ that doesn’t contain a single true born-again Christian – indeed England got uncomfortably close to that situation just before the Wesleyan revival.

Then there’s an interesting point; Charles I, opposed by Rutherford and the Scots Covenanters as a ‘tyrant’ was not a bloodthirsty evil pagan like Nero, or the likes of Hitler and Stalin.  No, he would have seen himself as a Christian king, indeed a Protestant king; as far as I can discover, he too would have quite happily adopted Field’s suggested ‘first paragraph of the constitution’ as the position of the state, and would have given a rousing ‘Yes!’ in response to all three of Field’s questions.  He would have seen himself as a king, ‘qua king’, publicly confessing Christ as his ruler, and aiming in his rule to confess the triune God, recognise Jesus as Lord, and live with the Word of God as his supreme authority.  The only problem was that he wasn’t supporting the exact flavour of Christianity favoured by Rutherford and the Covenanter party, but was seeking to suppress their version – basically he saw himself as doing the will of God and the opponents as the tyrants!  Rutherford, it should be pointed out, actually wrote a book against the ‘pretended’ liberty of conscience and probably would have imposed a narrower version of the faith than Charles (though I grant slightly more biblical)….

One thing you can be sure of about the nature and stuff of humans, and so of their governments – “All have sinned and come short of the glory of God”, and even those who have become Christians face a lifetime of temptation and occasionally getting it wrong.  You simply can’t guarantee that the ruler will get Christian things right; you can’t guarantee that he will actually be the Christian he professes to be, let alone be himself a competent theologian.  You can’t guarantee that about the ruler’s advisers, and in the superficial conformity of the ‘confessional state’, you also can’t even guarantee that about church leaders.  What you can be pretty sure of is that the rulers of state and state church will be subject to the temptations of worldly power and also the spiritual temptations from believing that God is on their side in what they do, and that they are therefore entitled to use their powers to impose conformity on others – partly by bribes and influence offering benefits to those who conform, but ultimately by the state force of police and army.  And others who have the same kind of belief in state religion, but disagree with the particular ruler – well, whether they are right or wrong where they differ from the ruler’s beliefs, they too will think it’s all right to resist by force in order to impose their better version of the Christian state, to ‘take up arms against the tyrant’ as Field puts it.

In simple terms, the ‘Christian state’ though aiming at unity, is all too likely to lead to war and division between Christians in practice, even persecution of Christians by other Christians using the power of the state[i].  This started even in the time of Constantine, with the tragedy of the Donatist rebellion – classic case, as in modern Ulster, of both sides really being wrong, though as an Anabaptist I think the Donatists came out marginally better when they eventually challenged the state church by asking “Quid est imperator cum ecclesiae?” – in modern terms “since when is the Church the Emperor’s business?”  Being ‘Christian’ led to religious wars between and within nations; but it also didn’t stop ‘Christian’ nations warring against each other for the other traditional reasons of human greed, pride, etc. yet claiming often to do it in God’s name.  The claims on all sides in the First World War to have God on their side in the carnage was arguably a major cause of modern disillusionment with Christianity and ironically the decline of ‘Christendom’. 

And just there is the beginning of an argument why this whole approach is wrong in Christian terms; because Paul, for example, clearly said (II Corinthians 10; 3) “…we do not war with carnal weapons.  For the weapons of our warfare are not physical…”  And Jesus said his kingdom is not of this world, and ordered Peter to put up his sword, and Paul clearly said in Romans (and Peter in a parallel passage in I Peter) that Christians are not to rebel against the state authorities, even when in Paul’s and Peter’s day the ‘authorities’ meant Nero himself.   Yet neither the establishment nor defence of the ‘Christian state’ is practical without those ‘carnal weapons’!  Just from that text alone Field’s thesis seems to be unravelling….

I commented above that ‘the New Testament doesn’t teach this Christian country solution at all’.  Field’s lecture/paper/essay has just over 30 pages expounding his Christian confessional state – and yet offers very little biblical evidence.  It’s all logical argument and assumptions.  Now there is truth behind some of these assumptions, even biblical truth.  But as the saying has it, ‘assume’ makes an ‘ass’ out of ‘u’ and ‘me’; does the actual teaching of the NT about state and church match the assumptions in this case?

Specifically it is very obviously true that in preparing the first advent of Jesus, his coming into the world to make atonement for our sins, God used the nation of Israel and did indeed set it up as a ‘confessional state’.  It is an easy assumption that after Jesus came, the same pattern would continue, of God’s people manifesting in yet more earthly religious nations under earthly religious rulers, but Christian/Messianic rather than Jewish. 

It is also true that ultimately Jesus will be recognised as king of kings and Lord of lords – and ultimately every knee will indeed bow to him.  Again, it’s an easy assumption that God wants this to be realised in the here and now with Christian kings ensuring that their subjects bow the knee.

But if so, the New Testament is strikingly silent about these ‘obvious’ ideas, these easy assumptions.  If you check out doctrinal standards and statements of faith like the Anglican 39 Articles or the Westminster Confession, you’ll find that they don’t offer many ‘proof texts’ for the establishment/Christian country’ position, and most of what they do offer are Old Testament generalities, not the specific instructions of the NT for the Church.   Furthermore on close examination the texts generally don’t actually prove the Christian country idea; more a case of you can interpret them in line with that position if you already hold it for other reasons – which reasons don’t seem to be found in the NT!  I’d also suggest that if you check such texts out for yourself you’ll probably agree with me that they’re being, shall we say, stretched a bit; and that they can also be interpreted comfortably in line with the anti-establishment position, and in many cases more so!  In more recent times many Anglicans and other ‘Christian country’ types seem to have given up the idea that there is NT proof; for example, I’ve just been taking part in an online discussion forum in which a few of the participants seemed to think the Bible didn’t express an opinion either way.  Again a few years ago I found an essay from well-known Anglican evangelical JI Packer including the following (heavily but I hope fairly edited to isolate ‘establishment’ from four other issues in a long passage)….

“….one finds that the main theological issues that have divided Protestants who hold to sola Scriptura have been… (4) how the churches should be related to the state – the issue in debates about establishment throughout the world since the seventeenth century

What are we to say to these matters of debate?    … The fourth debate reflected the presupposition that Scripture must legislate on the issue in question, even though no biblical author addresses himself to (it).” 

I think Packer is wrong here; he is right in that no biblical author positively teaches the establishment of the Christian church, but wrong in that they do address the issue – to present a positive alternative view.  It is both surprising and sad that Packer, normally so acute, should have failed to notice this. 

What the New Testament positively teaches?  I’m only giving an outline here – and at that a sketchy one; for more details and (so far just the beginnings of) biblical exposition see various other posts on this blog and especially the ‘But Seriously’ strand which deals with this topic .

Starting with Jesus’ disciples, God has been calling people out from the nations of the world, not to the forced and grudging superficial conformity of an institutional state ‘church’, but to a loving relationship with Jesus based on a living faith, and also a loving relationship with others who have heard and followed Jesus’ call.  When the state and its coercive power isn’t involved, those who hear and freely follow that call join God’s real holy nation on earth, the Church itself, the worldwide community of their fellow-believers.  In turn by the power of God’s Word and Spirit these voluntary believers call others to repent and believe, and to worship God freely ‘in spirit and truth’, not just turn up to go through the motions of worship because the law says so or because they are offered worldly benefits to conform outwardly[ii].

Christians live in the state – even the state which is their native land – as ‘resident aliens’ whose primary citizenship is the kingdom of heaven.  To be sure they respect the state they live in, and they are ‘subject to the authorities’ as both Peter and Paul say; but in the last resort if there is conflict between the demands of state and kingdom of heaven, Christians will ‘obey God rather than man’.  Contrary to Field’s and Rutherford’s suggestion this disobedience does not lead to ‘taking up arms against the tyrant’, instead Christians follow the example of Paul, Peter, and indeed Jesus himself by submitting to the state’s punishment even though that punishment is ultimately unjust.  Christians do not need worldly power, Christendom as a ‘kingdom of this world’, to advance God’s agenda of true reconciliation between God and man; on the contrary worldly power can compromise God’s work.

 OK, I too think those two paragraphs are sketchy; but I want you to go back to the New Testament itself and check it out.  Over and over the NT speaks against worldly power and merely physical weapons, and in favour of that worldwide spiritual unity of Christians that the state is powerless to bring about, a church of those ‘called out’ from the world and ‘gathered together’ by God as Jesus’ disciples and friends.  (The Greek word for ‘Church’, ekklesia, combines those two ideas of ‘called’ and ‘gathered’)

Jesus’ kingdom is ‘not of this world’; we must resist people like Field and Rutherford who can’t see beyond the superficial conformity of state religion.

[i] There are also issues of all kinds between Christian states and states committed to other kinds of religion, particularly Islam at present, and often those issues are adverse to the spread of the gospel. For this post I’m not going there – this is already one of my longest essays – but hopefully you’ll see some of those aspects in other future posts.

[ii] These days with freedom of religion in most western countries even where there still is a state religion, we probably see most church members being such voluntary believers, in whatever denomination.  But in a country so long formally Christian, and still offering some respect and social status to churchgoers, there is still a confusing legacy of nominal Christianity for worldly and social reasons, not only in the state churches but among non-conformists as well.  Worryingly, seemingly in reaction to the challenge of Islam, I’m seeing increasing numbers of people who seem to have little understanding of biblical faith and whose profession of Christianity seems to be more an assertion of British/English national identity against ‘immigrants’.  This is particularly problematic when you realise that according to the New Testament Christianity is meant to be very anti-racist, a faith where ‘in Christ’ racial differences do not matter.   Another place where the notion of a ‘Christian country’ distorts Christianity itself….

As Peace in Ulster Flags….

This issue takes my blog right back to its roots.  I was at University in the late 60s when the previous (or arguably the still current) round of Ulster’s ‘Troubles’ kicked off, and up till then I had been rather vague about the specifics of church/state relations.  Watching Ian Paisley in action on TV news from Ulster, or denouncing Catholics in an Oxford Union debate forced me to think hard.  On the face of it, I agreed with way over 90% of Ian Paisley’s theology (though in Baptist Confession rather than Westminster Presbyterian form) but how he applied this to politics, and the behaviour of ‘Protestants’ in Ulster was – well, frankly, appalling.  Did the Bible really teach the kind of thing being practiced in the name of Jesus in Ulster?

Now I do accept that there is more to Ulster/Ireland than just the religious issue – particularly an English or originally Anglo-Norman colonialism that went back way before the Reformation and the Catholic/Protestant division.  But I also find it very clear that once the ‘religious card’ had been played by the various parties[i]  it considerably aggravated the other grievances and made the whole thing intractable.  It still does make things intractable and I am amazed that mainland UK politicians seem to think that they can just ignore the religious issues and try to solve things by political tinkering alone.

My investigations led me to a rather surprising conclusion (and please note that what follows is only a summary – to do full justice to the complexity of the situation would require something a lot longer than this blog; I nevertheless think I’ve got the basics right).  In the religious area the cause of the fighting and violence in Ulster was not the various things Protestants and Catholics disagree about; Mass or Communion, prayers to saints, etc.  The cause of the fighting was a point they agreed about!  Sounds weird, doesn’t it?

Except, of course, that point they agreed about, with only detail differences, was the concept that there should be ‘Christian countries’; which led in turn to the idea of ‘Protestant Christian countries’ or ‘Catholic Christian countries’, and inevitably to one form of Christian ruling and being favoured and privileged in their state, and the other being second-class citizens disadvantaged and discriminated against in various ways – jobs, council housing, even fair voting.  Unlike the theological issues, these are the kind of things which cause real grievances and which people might think worth fighting about.  When Irish ‘Home Rule’ came along, Ulstermen faced a possible change from being part of the ruling Protestant majority in Britain to being a minority discriminated against in a Catholic Ireland, and they weren’t willing to give up their dominance; whence their insistence on remaining part of the UK.  In contrast, setting up Ulster, the ‘six counties’ with a Protestant majority, to remain in the UK as a separate province, meant that Catholics in Ulster would not share the freedom of their fellow-believers in Eire but would remain victims of discrimination in the province.

[The Christian country notion has a further distorting effect on the situation.  Of course you find people who are truly and sincerely Christian but are misguided, through their belief in that notion, into doing terrible and un-Christian things.  I’d regard Ian Paisley as such a case, rather than the ogre many English people think, and though I couldn’t give names, I’m sure there are similar people on the Catholic side.  Many good men and women on both sides who believe they are doing right, but are misled by the belief that they should establish and defend ‘kingdoms of this world’ for the Lord Jesus.

But as well as these sincere but misguided folk, the doctrine also produces other problematic followers.  By the nature of the case, the ‘Christian’ country contains many people – many, many people – who are not genuinely Christian but think they are Christian because they are born in that ‘Christian country’.  They superficially conform, of course, but they are basically just worldly people.  This is not so good when we are talking of the thousands and thousands of nominal Christians in England who put themselves down as ‘C of E’ but have never been seriously challenged by the need to be ‘born again’ spiritually.  But it’s worse in Ulster, where there is a divided culture, with two parties in conflict over the kind of Christianity the country should favour, and with serious discrimination facing the un-favoured party.  In this mix are many thousands of people who count themselves on one side or other because they were born in either Protestant or Catholic culture; they are involved in the consequences – the effects in society of the divisions and discrimination, the fears on both sides, and so on.  But because they are not truly born again, they have an essentially worldly approach to their situation – and if they are discriminated against, they will respond in a worldly manner, by physically fighting back; or alternatively if they are the dominant culture but fear losing that dominance, again their response will be at a worldly warfare level.]

While I understand that there has been some discrimination against Protestants in Eire, they are a relatively small group that isn’t really threatening, much as the Catholic minority isn’t threatening to the mainland UK.  But it was – and still is – different in Ulster; there was a quite large Catholic minority in the ‘Six Counties’, encouraged by the existence of a Catholic majority over the border in a country to which they thought Ulster should belong anyway.  Ulster’s Protestants were more extreme than mainlanders; many had been deliberately ‘planted’ as part of an anti-Catholic movement by the English government, and in many cases they were of the Puritan faction, almost as much opposed to England’s established church as they were to the Roman church; for many of them moving to Ireland as government-supported ‘planters’ was similar to the more drastic emigration of groups like the Pilgrim Fathers, escaping from Anglican persecution on the mainland, while the government was quite happy to have dissenting nuisances from the mainland diverted to opposing Catholics in Ireland.  Not only were Ulster’s Protestants descended from those Puritan extremists, but the pressured situation of Ulster combined with the mistaken doctrine of the ‘Christian country’ kept that extremism alive.

Ulster’s ‘No surrender!’ sounds harsh to the average mainland Englishman; but in original intention it is the same as Peter’s declaration (Acts 5; 29) that ‘we must obey God rather than men’ – you cannot surrender about what you believe is the will of God.  Combine that with the idea that God’s will is for his people to rule in the nations of the world, and the enemies of the gospel to be discriminated against … the result is inevitable; I think the slogan was “Ulster will fight, and Ulster will be right!”  Catholics, Puritans and Anglicans all had similar doctrines and so a religiously based willingness to lord it over or actually fight those they disagree with.

Mentioning Peter helps to show why the ‘Christian country’ or ‘Christendom’ position is wrong.  When he said “We must obey God rather than men” he was not contemplating a dominant situation in defence of which he would fight to impose his will on any state; on the contrary, he was on trial before the government of his nation (the Jews) who wanted him to stop preaching the gospel and were threatening to imprison him if he didn’t.  Peter was saying they could threaten him all they liked; he would have to go on preaching the gospel, precisely in order to obey God.  Not “Do as I say or I will violently rebel against you and fight you in the name of God” but instead “I will peaceably accept martyrdom at your hands rather than disobey God as I would have to if I obey you”.

Peter in his first epistle portrays the church as God’s people living on earth as peaceable ‘resident aliens’ (one of his Greek words translates almost exactly to that), subject to the state authorities, not murdering, fighting and robbing like the ‘Zealots’ of Palestine or their modern paramilitary equivalents like the IRA or UVF of Ulster, not even being ‘allotriepiskopoi’, ‘managers of the affairs of others’. He had learned the lesson from his Lord who had said before Pilate ‘My kingdom is not of this world’, and who had instructed Peter personally to put up his sword because ‘they who take the sword shall perish by it’.  Paul gives similar teaching including that our warfare is not with worldly weapons and powers but by spiritual power.  In short, no Christian countries!

Apply that to Ulster, how does it work out?  Well, you may be a Roman Catholic who believes Peter to have been the first infallible Pope; or a Protestant who simply believes I Peter to be part of God’s infallible Word.  Either way, if you are setting up a Christian state, or defending such a state by force, or taking up arms in God’s name, or rioting and throwing petrol bombs in the cause of being a Christian ‘allotriepiskopos’, then you are disobeying Peter (and his Lord) and by that fact disobeying God; simples[ii]!!   The irony of the Protestant position is that in accepting the basic ‘Christian country’ idea, they are accepting an unbiblical Catholic belief which arose centuries after Jesus!  Arguably indeed, the fundamental Catholic belief, because there is a case for saying that the imperial church came before the development in a divided empire of a special place for Rome and the idea of a special authority supposedly derived from Peter as Rome’s bishop.

My title of course makes an ironic pun on the cause of the recent renewal of violence – the Belfast council Union Flag decision.  Why is this so important?  Basically, it’s about the ‘Unionist’ and ‘Loyalist’ aspect of Ulster; Ulster’s Protestants are ‘loyal’ to mainland Britain, and want continued ‘union’ with mainland Britain, because they see mainland Britain as a ‘Protestant country’ which will protect them in their privilege in Ulster and preserve them from neighbouring Catholic Eire.  That the politics of Ulster capital Belfast have so changed that the council don’t want to automatically everyday fly the symbol of that loyal union is a real blow to Protestants, threatening a slide away from the Union.

It is perhaps ironic that even as Eire received Home Rule and Ulster was separated from Eire, mainland Britain was already moving away from Protestantism of all varieties towards liberal pluralism, plus the churches themselves were often becoming theologically liberal and very different from the traditional Protestantism of Ulster.  Basically the Unionist/Loyalist/ Protestants had allied themselves to a country increasingly out of sympathy with their aims, and which often reacted with bewildered dismay to the late 1960s renewal in Ulster of a conflict almost forgotten on the mainland.  It didn’t help that the Catholics were now Post-Vatican II Catholics who actually looked a lot more politically liberal and democratic than the Protestants!

But the key point here is that the flag in question is ours – that is, the flag of the mainland UK.  It puts the ball rather in our court ….

A digression – has the ‘peace process’ really solved the problem?

While I was preparing this I happened to catch on the BBC Parliament Channel a programme in which a PSNI Police Federation leader was answering questions in a Stormont committee.  Basically he was complaining, obviously in light of the flag protests, but also more generally, that police provision was being changed (reduced!!) as if there already was peace in Ulster; no, he said, it’s not really so.  The ‘Good Friday’ peace process has secured a fairly wide ceasefire in terms of classic terrorism, but it hasn’t actually resolved the underlying issues; all the sectarianism, he said, is still seething away under the surface ready to emerge in response to provocations like the Union Flag issue.

To me this confirms something I’ve been thinking for a while.  The current peace process has indeed not resolved the issues.  It has however lasted better than some; in my opinion this is because of external factors which have made terrorism both harder to do and less desirable except to the hardest of hardliners.

First of these external factors was simply 9/11.  With Western states, including the US and UK, fighting a global ‘War on Terror’ there is no longer the same support from the US for the IRA; Ireland’s Republicans could seriously lose American support if it seemed that Irish-American money for Irish causes was funding terrorist activities rather than the peaceful Stormont process, and such activities would now attract much more attention from Federal US authorities.  Similar but generally lesser support for Protestant paramilitaries has been likewise reduced.  The international climate in the West no longer favours terrorism as a means in Ulster.

Secondly, there’s been a change in the nature of terrorism itself.  Most 20th Century terrorism was really a branch of the Cold War, in which the nuclear powers of the USA and USSR fought their battles by proxy in third world countries or occasionally in Europe through terrorist groups.  Much terrorism in the Arab world was less Islamist and was supported by the USSR or China.  Some at least of the Irish Republican cause was significantly left-wing socialist rather than Catholic as such, and fought for Irish liberation from the Imperialist/capitalist Brits rather than for Catholic Eire.  As part of this, Soviet-supported Arab states like Libya would smuggle arms and explosives to the IRA, and there were cases like a young soldier I knew who, while on service in Germany, was lucky to survive being shot up by a German left-wing group whose public statement claimed they had done it in support of the IRA.

This background has changed massively with the changes in Russia since Glasnost, and indeed in China since the death of Mao.  International left-wing terrorism is massively reduced and no longer much funded by the states which used to support it, while Arab terrorism has become almost entirely Islamist in nature; either way, the Irish Republican cause is no longer on anybody’s list of kindred causes to support.  Again, the international situation makes Irish terrorism for Irish causes harder to fund and supply.

But, as the PSNI spokesman pointed out, the underlying issues have not gone away at all, indeed have barely been meaningfully discussed let alone resolved!!  And gradually they seem to be bubbling back up; I keep some track on Ulster affairs via BBC Teletext, and bombs, gun attacks, protests etc. seem if anything to be slowly increasing….

And it’s our flag which is the centre of the new protests….

So as I said, this rather puts the ball into our mainland court.  And if my analysis above is correct, UK politicians are singularly ill-equipped to deal with it; they don’t even know how to ask the right questions.  They don’t know how to really resolve the issues, only how to superficially tinker.  The only way to resolve Ulster’s issues is to tackle head-on the issue of Church and State relationships, and this can’t be done by a mainland UK in which that issue is still distorted by the existence of an established Church and a general position of privilege for the Christian faith.  Therefore to resolve Ulster’s problems we need first to tackle and resolve the Church and State problems of the mainland.  UK groups which are not speaking against privileged Christianity on the mainland can’t consistently offer a better approach in Ulster.

A Specific Resolution

We aren’t simply after ‘disestablishment’ here.  We need to tackle the underlying theories and arguments, so that people both in and out[iii] of Christian churches understand that Christianity was never intended to be established.  We need a situation where the issue of establishment is so forcefully argued that the Anglicans actually accept that they shouldn’t be established and actually want to be free of their state entanglements.  And also a situation where other churches that have sought various kinds of privileged status for Christianity in the state recognise that Christian states are simply inappropriate, that the only ‘Christian nation’ the world has or needs is the international Church itself, Jesus’ followers throughout the world.

To achieve this, we here in Britain need to challenge all those who believe in the ‘Christian country’ idea to demonstrate that it actually is the teaching of the New Testament; and I have to tell you that there isn’t much teaching in the NT that can support that idea, and very much that contradicts it.  It is not so much a biblical doctrine as just a worldly assumption that ‘surely God must want it that way’; an assumption which ignores the much better way of doing things that the NT actually positively teaches!  Check it for yourselves….

As I said at the start, this idea of the ‘Christian country’ is the underlying religious problem of Ulster; challenge it, and they might finally be able to find their way to peace over there….

[i] Originally I understand by Anglo-Norman Irish nobility rebelling against Elizabeth I, to encourage support from their native Irish serfs.

[ii] (I’ll be dealing with Roman Catholic issues in other items on this blog-site, so apart from underlining the point that if Catholics really mean it about Peter’s special authority they should take his clear writings in the Bible seriously, I’ll leave that aside for now).

[iii] May I point out to any atheist readers I may have that fighting established Christianity head-on with atheist arguments tends simply to make the establishment dig in; you want disestablishment, your best chance is to convince the various ‘Christendom’ churches that establishment is contrary to the New Testament and so unChristian!

But Seriously….

But seriously….

After poking a little fun at the Church of England by likening it to Gollum enthralled by the ‘ring of power’ of state establishment, it seemed only fair to seriously discuss the biblical teaching on the subject; and also in the interests of fairness to make very clear that this isn’t just about the Anglicans – it’s also about any church seeking special power and privilege in the state, from the Orthodox and Roman Catholics down to the various Protestants of Ulster.  So what says the Bible?

Seriously, it doesn’t say much in favour of Christian establishment.  The subject is pretty much absent from the New Testament, and the few ‘proof texts’ quoted in the Anglican 39 Articles of faith or the Puritan Westminster Confession  are somewhat stretched to say the least!  But many Anglicans would probably point to the indisputable fact that Old Testament Israel had – or indeed was – an established religion, and say that surely that was meant to continue in the new age of Jesus the Messiah.  Is that a sound assumption, or does the NT suggest a different role for the church in the world?

For this first exploration I want to look at two passages from John’s Gospel; John 3; 3 and 1; 11-13.

Jesus answered (Nicodemus) “Truly I assure you, unless a person is born from above he cannot see the kingdom of God.”

He came to his own, and his own did not receive him.  But to those who did receive him, he granted ability to become God’s children, that is, to those who believe in his name; who owe their birth neither to human blood, nor to physical urge, nor to human design, but to God.

Being a Christian is about being born again; and this spiritual rebirth is ‘from above’ and owed ‘neither to human blood nor to physical urge, nor to human design….’  Or put simply, there is no way people can be made Christian by some government decree.  Nor can they be made Christians by being born to Christian parents in a Christian country.  Nor can this new birth be achieved by some quasi-magical ritual like infant baptism – it’s a matter of ‘believing in his name’ which an infant clearly can’t do.  A new birth related to faith has to happen over real time by a process as the sinner faces his sinfulness and the Holy Spirit works to change him – possibly right at the end of his life, possibly not at all.

And this basically means that the ‘Christian country’ is impossible.  A country dedicated to some more nominal and ritualistic pagan religion may work, but where Christianity is involved, the state must be religiously plural, composed of those who have been born again and those who, as yet, haven’t been.

Except … and here’s the rub.  That human decree for a ‘Christian state’ can’t produce true born again Christians; but it can in various ways produce superficial conformity.  Depending on the total circumstances, an individual may conform out of fear (of the proverbial Spanish Inquisition or its equivalent); or he may conform for advantage – because professing Christianity gets you a better job or something similar – possibly even a job in the church itself; or perhaps worst, he may simply take his Christian status for granted because he is ‘born only once’ in that supposedly ‘Christian’ society – he really believes he is a Christian, but has never truly been born again, never faced and repented of his sin.  There are also more than a few cases where there is evidence of ‘Christian’ rulers and/or their enforcers being personally cynical, exploiting the faith of others.  It’s not a satisfactory situation.  Where Christianity is allied to nationalism, the supposedly Christian state may end up being massively unChristian in conduct.  The superficial conformity may suit a government – but it is inimical to true Christianity and to the salvation of souls.  It can even end up with a cynical or fanatical ‘Christian country’ actually persecuting the true Christians – as, for example, modern Anglicanism admits it did in the case of John Bunyan.

It is possible to envisage a ‘legally Christian’ state in which there isn’t even one actually born-again Christian.  I don’t think England ever quite got that bad, but the indications are that it got uncomfortably close in the decades before Wesley started his mission.

Modern Anglicanism is not the totalitarian body that Henry VIII set up for the religious uniformity of his kingdom; but the legacy of that superficial conformity still affects Christianity in this country and how non-Christians see us.  I recall in my youth evangelical vicars and curates telling us how we needed to be born again and that it was not enough to be born English or to have been ‘christened’ as an infant – and failing to realise that they only needed to say that because of the confusion caused by their own church’s established position!

And – fairness again – it isn’t just the C of E; there are other ‘would-be-established’ groups like the Presbyterians, who still seek the ‘Christian country’ even though they believe in the new birth, and don’t realise the inconsistency.

Having a ‘Christian country’ is a tempting proposition; it is tempting for Christians as well as for governments looking for a binding[i] factor for their state – but it is a temptation to ignore the Bible even at this fundamental level of the nature of Christian conversion.

[i] ‘binding factor’ – the literal meaning of ‘religion’ is just that; it comes from the same root as ‘ligature’.