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.


But Seriously (7)… Separate or ‘Unequally yoked’?


(‘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)

Our topic this time is the passage II Corinthians 6;14 – 7;1.

Be not unequally yoked up with unbelievers; for what common ground is there between righteousness and lawlessness or what association between light and darkness?  Or what harmony between Christ and Belial, or what partnership between a believer and an unbeliever?   What agreement has God’s temple with idols?  For we are a temple of the living God, as God has said, “I will dwell in them and walk around among them, and I will be their God and they shall be my people”.  For that reason, “Come out from their midst and be separate, says the Lord, and do not touch anything unclean.  Then I will receive you and I will be a Father to you, and to Me you shall be sons and daughters.  The Lord Omnipotent speaks”.

In possession of these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from every defilement of flesh and spirit, and complete our dedication by reverence of God

‘Belial’ is a Jewish name for Satan.  The two Old Testament passages quoted are Lev. 26; 12 and what seems to be a free ‘portmanteau’ quote including Isaiah 52; 11 and other passages.  The Leviticus passage is promises of good to the Israelites ‘If you walk by My laws and obey My orders so as to practice them….’ – which are followed by promises of ill consequences ‘if you will not listen to Me and will not practice all these commandments; if you despise My laws, if your soul abhors My injunctions….’   The Isaiah passage in its immediate context refers to the liberation of Israel from Babylon and of course leads into the fantastic Isaiah 53 with its prophecy of Jesus’ sacrifice for our sins.  Paul almost certainly intended his readers to take account of that context as well as just the words he quotes.

I don’t know about you but as a teenager in a 1960s Christian youth group I heard ‘be not unequally yoked with unbelievers’ quite often – always in the narrow sense “Don’t have a non-Christian girlfriend or marry an unbeliever!”  That is clearly part of what Paul meant, but eventually I realised that he intended something much wider, as seen from that further instruction to ‘come out and be separate’.

Most discussion focuses on how separate we should be….  For me we are clearly wrong if we are ‘separate’ in an ugly way as has been seen with some of the ‘Exclusive Brethren’, or otherwise smugly, proudly, and self-righteously separate, gloating over how we are OK while those around us go to hell; and also if, as seems to be the case with some (though not all) Amish and Hutterites, we are so separate from ‘the world’ that we never preach the gospel to our pagan neighbours, and never or almost never see people coming into the church from ‘outside’.  How can we claim to represent the love of God if we aren’t letting people know about it as Jesus commanded us to do?  At the other end we are also wrong if we are so like the pagans around us that nobody can tell the difference, like the pigs at the end of ‘Animal Farm’ who, having at first led the revolution against the exploiting humans, have turned into exploiting humans themselves.

However, in this post I want to ask how this ‘separateness’ and ‘unequal yoking’ relates to my ‘church-and-state’ concerns.  Start with the obvious – once you’ve gone to a lot of trouble, maybe even fought a war or two, to make yourself a ‘Christian country’, how can you then meaningfully ‘come out and be separate’?  The text here presumes that Christians are living in a state/nation of non-Christians from whom they need to be distinct, to glorify God by living life His way among all their neighbours who live without God, and to challenge the pagan neighbours by the different life that flows from Christian faith.  It’s hard to live that way in a country where everybody is superficially ‘Christian’.

And surely a ‘Christian country’ will in fact mean ‘unequal yoking with unbelievers’ more or less by definition.  As pointed out elsewhere in this blog, you can claim to have such a state all you like, pass as many laws about it as you like, but you can’t thereby cause people to be truly born again; the best you can achieve is superficial conformity.  In an old-style Christian state of the medieval or Reformation era, and down to even the 19th century, the really born-again Christians would have to share the fellowship of the church with large numbers of people who are hypocrites, or scared of persecution, or who just take their Christian status for granted because they have been born in a ‘Christian’ nation – and that rather makes a nonsense of the Christian fellowship[i].  Furthermore it is not unlikely that the hypocrites and worldly among these nominal Christians will seek to end up as the bishops and inquisitors and the like thus distorting the government of the church and its relations with the state.  And the unequally yoked state connection will inevitably involve the church and its genuinely born again members in the state’s wars, and in persecution of dissenters and other New-Testamently-dubious conduct. Unequal yoking results in disobedience to God.  Among the possible and all too often actual consequences has been Christians fighting each other in the armies of warring Christian states; being yoked with the state has separated them from and set them against their fellow-Christians ….

In the modern situation with an established church in a nominally Christian but increasingly secular state, the Church doesn’t even get the benefit of much influence, but comes under pressure to ‘be conformed with the world’ – as a short time ago when we saw David Cameron lecturing the Anglican Church about ‘getting with the programme’ on women bishops.  Again over gay marriage we saw the Church of England (and its disestablished companion the ‘Church in Wales’) being forbidden by law to have same-sex marriages, the decision apparently being taken without actually consulting the Church.  And again, the Church is massively involved in the state education system but it seems clear that political correctness will increasingly prevent the Church’s schools being even distinctively Christian, let alone distinctively Anglican.  Other Christian groups going into the Academy business seem to have had similar experiences of finding their distinctive beliefs muted.  That religious schools should be truly private and not involved in the state system is something I’ll hopefully deal with another time….

In short, the attempt to have a Christian state both nullifies the proper implications of Christian separation from the unbelieving world, and it results in Christians being harmfully ‘unequally yoked’ with that unbelieving world.  It also creates difficulties for those who realise the problem and try to set up churches properly separate from the state; a clear separation from unbelievers is fairly straightforward, but to put clear water between born again Christians and a superficially Christian state and its culture is a good deal harder and is likely to result in an exaggerated and unhelpful separateness which may become unbiblical in other ways.

[i] Of course even where church and state are separate there will be some church members who aren’t truly born again; but where state church membership offers worldly advantage there will be an unnaturally large number of such members.

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’.

Gollum and the Ring of Power

[This post has now been followed up by a loose series labelled ‘But Seriously’ in which I explore the biblical texts on the relation of Church and state.  For now just check other posts under the ‘But Seriously’ heading; I’ll try and get some better indexing or whatever as my blogging skills improve]

I frequently look at the website ‘Ship of Fools’, which is Christianity with a sense of humour.  As well as forums and news it has the ‘Secret Worshipper’ feature where people in effect review church services and comment on them, and some pure fun bits like ‘Signs and Blunders’ – an assortment of usually unintentional ‘gaffes’ from posters, noticeboards, church newsletters etc. (One intentional one I liked was the American church noticeboard saying “Will whoever is praying for snow please stop”!)  One of these features is ‘Born Again’ which amusingly suggests, on the basis of a resemblance, that some well-known figure is a reincarnation of someone (or occasionally something!) else; Ian Paisley of Christopher (Dracula/Saruman) Lee, for instance.  Recently this feature suggested that the new Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Wellby, might be a reincarnation of Gollum, the Andy Serkis CGI-generated character from the Lord of the Rings.  I sort of saw what they were getting at; but at first I did feel that for once the suggestion was a bit cruel, that ‘Born Again’ had gone too far….

But later I realised that while it might be rather cruel as a personal comment on the Archbishop’s appearance, it might actually be quite relevant as a comment on the reality of the Anglican Church.  Gollum of course starts life as ‘Smeagol’,  an imperfect but not particularly evil hobbit-like person who comes into contact with the One Ring and is led to murder his brother Deagol and ends up as the Gollum we meet in The Hobbit and then in the LOTR saga.  Not a bad person underneath, but corrupted by his addiction to his ‘Precious’, the evil, deceptive and destructive Ring of Power which in the end he simply will not let go of even when this means he casts himself into the fiery Crack of Doom in Mordor.  For the Church of England, the corrupting Ring of Power is the Church’s ‘Precious’ established status….

OK, historically the Church of England didn’t start relatively innocent like Smeagol; it grew out of a Catholic Church already corrupted by being tangled with the state since the days of Constantine, so it started already addicted to its ‘Precious’ in the hands of Henry VIII who wanted religious uniformity and control of his subjects.  Indeed despite a pretty good attempt under Edward and Elizabeth at restoring the Biblical gospel, one could argue that the narrowly national establishment of Anglicanism was a slightly worse form of establishment than the Roman version.  (I should mention here for the record that though currently Anabaptistic much of my early education in Christianity came from Anglicans and I still really appreciate many Anglican scholars like Stott and Packer and other clergy and laity I’ve known myself.)

Right from square one under Henry, the Anglicans persecuted dissenters; not only the Roman Catholics, but also at the other end a party of Dutch Anabaptists were executed by them.  Persecution (such as the imprisonment of John Bunyan) continued till the Act of Toleration under William III, and all manner of petty discrimination carried on even beyond that – exclusion of dissenters from the universities for many years, for example.  However, as will be a major theme of this blog in many of its posts, the big issue is not the obvious problems like wars and persecutions but the simple fact that being an established church is disobeying the Word of God and confusing the gospel teaching in all kinds of ways.  It is particularly frustrating to us serious non-conformists that when one reads books by the like of Richard Dawkins; generally more than half of his criticism of our faith is not dealing with real biblical issues (which he’s usually misunderstood anyway!), but with the completely unnecessary faults and problems of the various established churches, and of others like Ian Paisley who want unbiblical favour and privilege in the state.  We find ourselves having to fight through all that unnecessary stuff – where, let’s be blunt, we agree with Dawkins that it’s wrong – before we can get a hearing for the real biblical teaching.

As things currently stand, the Anglican establishment no longer means the totalitarian uniformity it started as under Henry and Elizabeth; it no longer even means that Anglicans (albeit often nominal) are the majority of the population – partly of course because much of Anglicanism has put people off religion generally.  But still the Church clings resolutely to its destructive ‘Precious’, still the good it does is undermined by the contradictions and practical problems of establishment; still establishment is probably the biggest bar to Christian unity simply because it is impossible to be united with Anglicanism without accepting their entanglement with the state, their position as precisely the kind of ‘kingdom of this world’ that Jesus rejected when he defended himself before Pilate.

So, on the one hand, yes, it’s cruel and wrong to compare Archbishop Justin’s appearance to Gollum – Ship of Fools please repent in sackcloth and ashes; but on the other hand, yes, Gollum with his split personality and his destructive addiction to his ‘Precious’ is a pretty good symbol of the Archbishop’s church and its contradictory personality with its unbiblical clinging to the rags that remain of the tempting power and influence of establishment.