An heretical Hymn

I vow to thee, my country, all earthly things above,

Entire and whole and perfect, the service of my love;

The love that asks no question, the love that stands the test,

That lays upon the altar the dearest and the best;

The love that never falters, the love that pays the price,

The love that makes undaunted the final sacrifice.

I heard my country calling, away across the sea,

Across the waste of waters she calls and calls to me.

Her sword is girded at her side, her helmet on her head,

And round her feet are lying the dying and the dead.

I hear the noise of battle, the thunder of her guns,

I haste to thee my mother, a son among thy sons.

And there’s another country, I’ve heard of long ago,

Most dear to them that love her, most great to them that know;

We may not count her armies, we may not see her King;

Her fortress is a faithful heart, her pride is suffering;

And soul by soul and silently her shining bounds increase,

And her ways are ways of gentleness, and all her paths are peace.

Words by Cecil Spring-Rice; Music by Gustav Holst, adapted from ‘Jupiter’ in the ‘Planets’ suite; this version is known as ‘Thaxted’.

I find this hymn deeply troubling, and almost more troubling is the rarity of Christian protest at it. It is frequently sung at Remembrance Day services, was sung at both the wedding and the funeral of Princess Diana, and of course recently was part of Margaret Thatcher’s funeral. That second verse is rarely sung, and I suppose we must be thankful for small mercies….

In its present form it apparently reflects the trauma in Britain of the massive losses in the First World War of 1914-18; In its original form it was called ‘Urbs Dei’, the City of God, and was somewhat re-written after WWI. That title of course links it back to Augustine whose book of that name was a massively influential exposition of the concept of ‘Christendom’, the Christian state that began under the Emperor Constantine and still goes on in various slightly different forms including England’s established church. It was that idea which influenced the writer of ‘I Vow to Thee my Country’ with its perspective of dual allegiance to nation and to God.

Vowing things to your country is perhaps not necessarily unChristian; I still find it a matter for concern that it is the first strong line of the verse. I would much have preferred to put God first and my duty to him, and only later say what duty I might owe the earthly country. It is one of the problems of thinking of a ‘Christian’ holy nation that it tends to deify the nation, to end up in practice putting the nation first; it is as Jesus said of God and another worldly temptation – you can’t serve God and Mammon (money), it’s all too likely that Mammon will win out, and it is the same with God and state. I recall seeing a documentary about the modern Russian Orthodox Church from which it was all too obvious that for some Orthodox priests God exists for Mother Russia rather than the other way round.

What is vowed to the country is really disturbing, starting with the fact that it is vowed ‘all earthly things above’. Apparently I am to vow ‘entire and whole and perfect, the service of my love’; no, even with the qualification ‘all earthly things above’ this is just too much. The country by implication comes before family, before friends, and before all the other human beings who don’t happen to be citizens of the country, and before lots of other things which also deserve my love. Further, this love ‘asks no question’; even God allows us to ask questions of Him in love – see the example of Job, of Paul about that thorn in his flesh, and of many of the prophets as they suffered in His service. Also though it’s not quite the same thing we are told to ‘test the spirits’ ( ) in church affairs, not just take things for granted. If the country wants no questions asked that’s a bit over the top; and in any case the whole of history tends to show that what countries want should be questioned, otherwise you end up not asking questions about things like the Holocaust.

The rest of verse one is a bit worrying even without knowing it’s related to the First World War; “the love that stands the test; that lays upon the altar the dearest and the best. … that never falters… that pays the price… that makes the final sacrifice” – the ‘final sacrifice’ being of course to die for the country. Hmmm – would I make that final sacrifice for ‘my country’? For the country in the abstract, no, I don’t think so; for any current whims of our government, no way!!! For the narrow racism and domineering wishes of the extreme right, again no, because there are heavenly values which should preclude that. But for the people and for the best of Britain, yes, possibly. But even at the earthly level there is plenty of the ‘dearest and best’ that wouldn’t, for me come second to the country, while precisely because the country itself is very much an earthly thing, there would be a lot of faltering to be sure that I was paying a price for good reason.

But there is a bigger problem, not quite so evident in verse 1 but made all too clear in verse 2; this ‘hymn’ doesn’t envisage just that I sacrifice myself for others, as Christians should be willing to do. All too clearly in verse 2, it expects that I will go to war on my country’s behalf, become a soldier fighting for my country. Although phrased in terms of dying for my country, it’s first about being willing to kill for my country – a soldier who won’t kill is not a great deal of use! And immediately, this is a conflict not with earthly things but with the heavenly, with my obligations to God himself. Like, I believe I shouldn’t kill for my faith, should follow the example of Jesus in ‘turning the other cheek’ and being willing to suffer death rather than inflict it – but according to this hymn, I am going to kill for ‘my country’, an entity far less than God, far inferior in every way! How does that add up??

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About Gay Marriage

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Starting Point

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rethinking Ecumenism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then we can be united God’s way….

Prince Charles and the Islamic Threat

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But Seriously ( ) Romans 13 – the ‘so crazy it must be true’[i] interpretation….

 

(‘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)

So finally I get to interpreting Romans 13….

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

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

And really it’s rather simple – it means what it says.  Of course, it means what it says in the context of the overall teaching of the New Testament, whereby Jesus’ kingdom is ‘not of this world’, and so doesn’t envisage a supposedly ‘Christian’ government.  Instead it envisages Christians basically in that situation of ‘resident aliens’ which is discussed at length elsewhere in this blog.  Clearly at some point we’ll have to look at the situation that arises when there is a ‘Christian state’; but for now let’s look at this from the perspective of the early Christians like Paul and Peter living in a pagan society….  When we have that clear we can look to other variations and whether they are biblically legitimate.

There is one feature of Paul’s Greek which is not brought out in most English translations; he uses a set of interrelated words with a common root, the verb tasso, ‘to order’.  First time I preached on Romans 13 I produced a paraphrase which does not purport to be a spot-on exact translation ( though it’s not so far out either), but does use a set of English words with the common root –ject to demonstrate in English how Paul’s chosen words ‘bind’ the text together.  Here it is….

“Everybody must be subject to the state authorities, because there is no authority except under God, and those that do exist are part of God’s project.  Whoever objects with violence to the existing authority opposes that divine project, and by opposing brings divine judgement upon himself.”

 

The version ‘be subject’ is actually used in some English translations, perhaps most notably the ‘King James’ version.  It’s considerably better than translating the word (‘hypotasso’ in the original) as ‘obey’.  Having said that I think it is slightly biased to James’ wishes by using the concept of being ‘subjects’ to an earthly ruler like James. 

The two places I’ve used the word ‘project’ are actually two different Greek words, tasso and diatasso, and are verbs which I’ve paraphrased into a noun because, used as a verb, ‘to project’ doesn’t quite have an appropriate meaning.  The implication is that all rulers are ‘ordered’ by God; as the Jewish historian Josephus wrote at around the same time, “No ruler attains his office save by the will of God”.  Note that this includes bad as well as good rulers.

‘…objects with violence…’ represents the Greek ‘antitasso’ , ‘to be disorderly’ or to ‘stand against order’, or even the military concept to ‘stand in array against’.  Again, ‘disobey’ is not quite right; ‘object violently’ would just about have worked, but I recalled the phrase being used in a somewhat ‘camp’ style by comedians, and I wanted to be clear that this is a word conveying the idea of military rebellion, not just somebody being querulous.

As I say, this isn’t a dead accurate translation anyway, but a device to bring out in English the relationship of the Greek words.  The overall meaning of the text is that we are to take our place in an orderly manner in an arrangement of the world ordered by God, and not take a disorderly position which may work against God’s purposes. 

For Christians, the government is ‘ordained’ or more accurately ‘ordered’ by God, it is his providential choice for our country for the time being.  It is not our responsibility to fight against it in a sense of rebellion, but to accept it.  However, note that this is not the ‘divine right of kings’ such as was claimed by, for example, England’s Stuart kings.  It absolutely does not give the king a right to do and demand whatever he pleases.  This is more like the instruction Jesus gave us to ‘turn the other cheek’; we are to react to being ‘smitten’ by turning the other cheek – but that doesn’t mean that the smiter can claim a right to smite us, or that he can demand as if it were a right that those smitten must turn the other cheek.  Likewise Christians are to accept and respect the ruler, even a Nero or Caligula such as Paul and Peter faced, or the likes of Hitler or Stalin in modern times; but they don’t therefore have any God-given rights they can explicitly claim against us as a result.

This ordering works out that

1)      We are ‘subject to the authorities’ – no exceptions.

2)      We must not ‘resist’ the authorities – no exceptions.

3)      We must ‘obey God rather than men’ – no exceptions.

Only it doesn’t seem to work out, does it?  How can we reconcile these requirements?  As we’ve seen, one common effort is to make ‘obeying God rather than men’ the exception to the other two, and further, the exception that means we stop being subject and start resisting.  You may recall I’ve quoted 19th Century Baptist Robert Haldane saying that ‘obeying God rather than men’ was ‘the only exception’ to ‘being subject’.  He was at least clear that ‘resisting’ was out of the question.  I believe however that he wasn’t quite right in construing ‘obeying God’ as an exception.   

If we understand the text to be dealing with ‘order’ rather than ‘obedience’, it works out consistently, because we are positioned in a line ‘ordered’ by God, deriving from His will, and trusting that He knows what He is doing in His providential management of the world.  We stand in order under the ‘authorities’, but also under God.  We ‘obey God rather than men’ as part of that order; and sometimes that means we can’t do what the earthly authorities want us to do.  BUT, as another part of obedience to God, we remain ‘subject to the authorities’, so we follow the example of Jesus and the apostles and the many martyrs of the early church; if the authorities choose to punish us, we accept the punishment.  And of course, if that obedience to God is our choice, we don’t ‘resist’ the authorities.  We also, by the way, don’t isolate this issue from general obedience to God – like ‘turning the other cheek’, and ‘our warfare is not with physical weapons’ and so on.  It’s a real tangle if we disobey God both by resisting the authorities and by ‘taking up the sword’ that Jesus told Peter to ‘put up’; yet that is what an awful lot of people do, in places like Ulster for example.

For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad.  Would you have no fear of him who is in authority?  Then do what is good and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good. 

It may seem that this doesn’t work out either; all very well for Paul to say rulers are only a terror to bad conduct, but of course Paul himself was to end up martyred under Nero….  And isn’t Paul forgetting the odd few episodes of imprisonment, floggings and so on, at the hands of those very authorities?  Again, I often feel that interpreters who so easily find ‘exceptions’ to Paul are forgetting that Paul knew all about persecution.  He had not only suffered it, he had been part of a Jewish equivalent of the Gestapo or KGB actively persecuting the early church.  Paul is not naïve about rulers and persecution, he knew it from both sides, and he wasn’t forgetting it when he wrote Romans!  So what is he saying here?

Very simple – do good.  The ruler, the authorities, the government, can’t criticise you for doing good, so in that respect you will have nothing to fear.  Of course, ‘if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain; he is the servant of God to execute his wrath on the wrongdoer’.  So if you follow such examples as Ulster paramilitaries who shoot and bomb, and finance themselves by bank robberies, or the various groups which riot and endanger the lives of their fellow-citizens and the police, in the ‘flag protests’ for example, the authorities will be after you and God will not be protecting you because you are disobeying Him….  And He will in the end be having some strong words with you over and above anything the authorities do to you, even if you haven’t quite gone so far that your actions ‘in the name of God’ have actually damned you!

Persecution is a different matter.  To suffer persecution is indeed part of the ‘war without physical weapons’ which we wage not only in God’s name but with God’s power.  We need not fear the ruler who persecutes because he ultimately cannot harm us, and the experience of martyrdom, whether to the death or a lesser suffering, is one of those ‘all things’ which ‘work together for good to those who love God’.   We should so behave that the only things the ruler can find against us are the good things we do in obedience to God, that is, the simple fact that we are Christians. 

That’s the outline.  I know that not every case will neatly fit, there will be grey areas; but this is our starting point, and we should be reluctant rather than eager to look for exceptions, because we trust God for consequences.


[i] ‘So crazy it must be true’ – there is a story that Einstein was once approached by colleagues who wanted him to ‘have a word’ with a younger colleague whose ideas were ‘crazy’.  Einstein is said to have replied something like “Certainly the ideas are crazy – the question is, are they crazy enough to be true?”  To many, a conclusion that we are to be subject to rulers and not defend ourselves seems crazy – but if it is the biblical teaching, it may nevertheless be true….

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.