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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


But Seriously (5)… The Divine Right – or Wrong – of Kings


I’m not sure how these things are taught in schools now, but I recall that when we were learning about the English Civil War, King Charles’ idea of his ‘divine right’ as king was presented as having been a key issue.  And in various forms this has been an issue ever since there began to be ‘Christian’ rulers of ‘Christian nations’, from Constantine through Charlemagne and down to modern kings and queens including Elizabeth II of the UK now, ‘supreme governor’ of a state-established church.  OK, the modern queen would not assert quite the same right against her subjects as Charles I, but she does still get crowned in a church ceremony.

BUT – does this idea of Christian kings in Christian states ‘stack up’ in New Testament terms? 

For insight into the kind of thinking involved, I’d like to quote from Martin Down’s 2008 book ‘The New Jerusalem’; Martin is not quite Anabaptist but still heavily critical of ‘Christendom’.  Here he discusses the start of the ‘Holy Roman Empire’ circa 800CE….

…it was now possible for the Popes to reinvent the Christian Nation, not on the Emperor’s but on their own terms.

On Christmas Day 800, Charlemagne was crowned as Emperor in Rome by Pope Leo III.  From this time, the subjects of Charlemagne, who had been referred to as “the Frankish people” were called “the people of God”.  Two other ideas had now been fused; the Christian state, empire or nation, and the nation of Israel as it had existed in the Old Testament.  It was not just that the nation of Israel might be a type of the Church.  Charlemagne’s empire had replaced the nation of Israel in the purposes of God, and the Church was now God’s nation in the same way that Israel had been God’s nation.  This opened the way for a whole world of Old Testament ideas and precedents to be applied to the Christian monarch and his people.  It was not just the Church but the Franks who had now become “the holy nation”.

Charlemagne was not anointed at his coronation in Rome, but his son and successor, Louis, was both crowned and anointed by the Pope in Rheims Cathedral in 816.  The Pope declared; “Blessed be our Lord who has granted us to see the second David”.  The kings of Christian Europe came to see themselves as the successors of the kings of Israel.  To this day, the kings and queens of England have been crowned to the strains of Handel’s anthem, Zadok the priest and Nathan the prophet anointed Solomon king.

Anointing with oil was the symbol of the conferring of kingship in Israel, whence references to the kings as ‘the Lord’s anointed’; David described Saul thus, and even when Saul was trying to kill him David would not harm the anointed king.  The Hebrew word for anointed is ‘Messiah’; the Greek word is ‘Christ’- you may already be getting a clue why it might be inappropriate to anoint a modern monarch as a successor to the kings of Israel….

Let’s take a step back to when Israel first had kings; I Samuel is very open about what happened.  The Israelites came to Samuel and said look, you’re getting older, your sons are not worthy successors to you; “…appoint a king over us to be our judge like all the nations”.   Samuel wasn’t happy; in his eyes, God himself was Israel’s king, and to ask for an earthly king was to reject God’s own kingship.  God agreed with this assessment, but nevertheless told Samuel to do as the people asked – ‘but solemnly warn them’ what it would be like to have such a king

So Samuel warned them

This will be the procedure of the king who shall reign over you; he will take your sons and employ them for his chariots and as his horsemen; they shall run in front of his chariots.  He will appoint some for himself in command of thousands and of hundreds; others to cultivate his acres and to harvest his crops; also to construct his weapons and chariot equipment.  Your daughters he will require for perfumers, for cooks, and for bakers.  Besides he will take your choicest fields, your vineyards and your olive yards and give them to his attendants.  He will besides take a tenth of your grain crops and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and to his servants.  Your male and female servants he will take from you and your choicest young men; also your donkeys and employ them for his business.  He will appropriate a tenth of your flocks too, and you yourselves will become his servants.  By that time you will cry out about the king you chose; but that day the Lord will not answer you”

But the people wouldn’t listen, so Samuel had to appoint a king.  God first led Samuel to Saul, but in due course Saul ‘blew it’ by disobedience to God.  Then God led Samuel to anoint David, and there followed an uneasy period till Saul was killed in battle and David could take over.  David was far from perfect, particularly of course in his adultery with Bathsheba and murder of her husband Uriah; he was nevertheless so much a man ‘after God’s heart’ that God promised to establish his ‘house’ in the kingship for ever.  Solomon succeeded David and was a fairly good king, but he too went astray in various ways.  On Solomon’s death it became clear that he had exploited his people a bit too much, as Samuel had prophesied, and when his son arrogantly threatened the people with even harder service, the northern tribes revolted and set up a separate kingdom under a non-Davidic king, while the southern tribes of Judah and Benjamin stayed with the Davidic line. 

As history developed, the Northern tribes (‘Israel’) set up a rival to the Jerusalem temple and had often less satisfactory kings and a usurpation or two until they were finally overwhelmed by invaders; many were deported into slavery, those who remained intermarried with the invaders and eventually became the ‘Samaritans’ of Jesus’ day.  The southern tribes (‘Judah’, whence eventually the term ‘Jews’) lasted a good while longer but they too were eventually overrun, exiled and enslaved.  Then the invaders were in turn invaded.  The ‘new management’ adopted a policy of letting slaves return to their lands, and the southern tribes returned in some quantity and with a faith strengthened by the experience of exile.  They built a new Temple in Jerusalem and gradually spread back throughout much of the original lands including into Galilee, though there remained a central area still predominantly Samaritan.

After the return from the Exile, the Jews remained a subject people for centuries except for a brief period when the Maccabees turned out Antiochus Epiphanes’ Greeks.  By the time of the New Testament, they had been a client kingdom of Rome for some time and Judaea in the south became a Roman province under a Roman governor, Pilate being the best known.  Even the kings they did have in this period were not of the Davidic line – Herod and his family were not even full Jews but Edomites.  So as they looked for national freedom their hopes focussed on that promise to David of a king of his house to rule forever, a king who would truly be the ‘Lord’s Anointed’ or Messiah/Christ.  Many men before and after Jesus led rebellions claiming to be such a messianic king.

Then came Jesus, the true fulfilment of the messianic promise, but also for many Jews an unexpected fulfilment because he was not a narrowly nationalistic king only for the land and people of Israel.  Instead he is a king for the whole world, Gentiles as well as Jews; and paradoxically, to best carry out that role, he is not a worldly king with the usual military trappings, but has a kingdom ‘not of this world’ whose subjects are those of every nation throughout the world who believe and follow the truth he brought.

Now realise that God achieved something extra here.  As we saw above, since the time of Saul there had been an undesirable division of kingship; God was ultimately king, but there was also a human king of God’s people, a king of variable quality to say the least.  Yet God had promised that the Messiah would be an everlasting king in the human line of David – how could this be worked out?  Would not the coming of the Messiah mean that the division of the kingship continued; that God would not be fully king?

If the Messiah had merely been a descendant of David, establishing a narrow kingdom of Israel, and setting up a normal kingly line through his descendants …. Well yes, a still divided kingship.  But Jesus came not only as descendant of David, but also as Son of God – God himself entering human history, yet also as heir of David.  He wins his kingdom not by brute force conquest, but by dying for his people’s sins; vindicated by resurrection, he is to be personally their eternal king.  In the person of Jesus, God has reunited His kingship with the kingship of the House of David, in a way that makes it truly eternal.

This has unavoidable implications for the claims of human kings, from Constantine and Charlemagne through Henry VIII, Charles I, and the present monarch of England.  Put bluntly, there is simply no vacancy in Christianity for a ‘second David’; the only and eternal second David is Jesus himself.  A human king in the present age who is anointed as a ‘king of God’s people’ is in principle setting up as a ‘rival anointed’ – or as the Greeks would say, an Antichrist!  Hmmm!

Now I am not suggesting that Queen Elizabeth II is personally a demonic monarch, or even that she is personally not a sincere Christian; indeed the evidence seems strongly otherwise.  Nevertheless she has innocently inherited an essentially false position, as has the Anglican Church of which she is nominally the earthly ‘supreme governor’, and it is surely long past time for that false position to be challenged.  As fellow-Christians we should not be encouraging that false situation, surely?

Really this comes down to the doctrine of being ‘born again’, which means that no country can be identified with the church, and of course no monarch can guarantee to be born again ‘ex officio’, to be a ‘second David’ just by being born king.  To try to make it so by laws and edicts really contradicts Christianity, disobeys Jesus, and distorts the Christian message.  The church itself is the only Christian nation, and it isn’t a regular ethnic or geographical nation that can have an earthly king.  Jesus is the Church’s only king.

This does not mean that Christians are to be rebels; as we’ll see from Romans 13, I Peter, and other passages, Christians are supposed to recognise the king or other ruler of their earthly country as God’s providential choice for the nation for the time being, and to be ‘subject to’ that ruler.  But that is far from the kind of ‘divine right of kings’ practiced by Henry, Elizabeth or Charles; indeed these texts assume that neither the ruler nor the country will be ‘Christian’.  We’ll be looking at this in future….

A Letter to the new Archbishop

Dear Archbishop

Welcome to your new job; you aren’t getting an easy start, are you?  Now really is the time to use the skills you acquired in business, and bring a fresh analysis to your church’s affairs.  May I suggest that the analysis will be inadequate unless you reconsider Anglicanism’s most distinctive feature, prepared to change it.

I put it to you that – The vast majority of the Church of England’s problems either derive from, or are exacerbated by, the Church’s position as an established state church.

You might also consider that problems related to establishment often constitute a considerable obstacle in the way of the Gospel for those who are not Christians; just read one of Richard Dawkins’ books, for example, and see how many of his objections to ‘religion’ are actually objections not to Christianity proper but to things done by established churches (or other ‘established’ religions such as Islam, whose would-be establishment is currently a global problem).

And of course, the problems arising from established churches including Anglicanism tend to cause difficulties for those of your fellow-Christians who do not seek to have established churches.  I actually think that such issues are the main obstacle to unity among Christians.  For example, how can other Christians be united to a body entangled in a particular state?

Now I understand, of course, that regardless of all the problems, if the original teaching of Jesus and his apostles was that Christians should seek to run state churches in ‘Christian countries’, then that’s how you must do it.

But – is that the original teaching of Jesus and the apostles in the New Testament?  Or does the New Testament in fact reject that solution and advocate a very different way for Christians to relate to the states they live in and their non-Christian neighbours in those states?  In that case, surely, regardless of any apparent ‘advantages’ of establishment either to church or state, obedience to God would require disestablishment (it being too late for the better option of not getting established in the first place!)  After all, it can hardly benefit either state or church to live in open disobedience to God!!

In my first version of this open letter I spent some time outlining the biblical case against establishment; but then I thought “Hang on!  That’s getting it wrong way round; the real issue is whether there is a biblical case for establishment in the first place.  Why should I do all the hard work?  Let’s put the Archbishop on the spot and ask him if he can prove his position”.  So basically, that’s what I’m now doing.  As this blog develops I will be setting out my position, both negatively by exposing the problems of establishment and positively by expounding the biblical better way; but for now I ask you, Archbishop – or any Anglican who reads this – to put the case for establishment … IF YOU CAN!!!

A few points;

First, I don’t want to read (again) a list of the supposed advantages of establishment; I’ve heard it all before, I think the disadvantages outweigh the advantages anyway, and the supposed advantages are irrelevant compared to the big question “What does the New Testament teach us to do in Jesus’ name?”

Secondly, yes ancient Israel was indeed a ‘sacral’ state with what amounted to an established religion; and it is all too easy to just assume that Christianity, growing out of Judaism, should and would follow a similar pattern.  But is that a valid assumption?  Many other aspects of Judaism, while recognised as important in leading up to the distinctive Christian revelation, have not carried over into Christianity, or have carried over only in a transformed version – is it necessarily true that establishment in the state should carry over?  At the very least, it should not be assumed, but checked thoroughly against the New Testament’s teaching – is a different scheme more appropriate for that New Covenant, as the concept of “God’s People” spread beyond Israel to become a global body of the ‘born again’?

Go to the 39 Articles of Anglicanism – do the proof texts quoted on behalf of establishment actually prove the case adequately?  Or are they in fact rather weak?  You may be surprised …

“We’ve come to exterminate the Crusaders….”

That’s what was reported by an Algerian worker at the gas plant where terrorists had taken hostages; “Don’t worry”, they told him, “As an Algerian Muslim we haven’t come to harm you – we’ve come to exterminate the crusaders!” And that statement says much about the messy situation between Muslims and the West at present.  The extremists, and many other Muslims, interpret the western armies currently in their lands as a renewal of the old Crusades, with Christians again attempting to destroy Islam by war.

We westerners don’t see it that way; to us, the western armies, including the Brits, are not Christian Crusaders at all, but the armies of pluralist democracies defending ourselves against terrorists and if anything defending the freedoms of Muslims.  But it’s understandable that Muslims misinterpret the situation.  Take the UK; we have a national established church whose earthly ‘supreme governor’ – the Queen – is also the head of our state and the effective Commander-in-Chief of our armies.  It is all too easy for Muslims to see the Queen as the equivalent of a Muslim ‘Caliph’ – a religious head of a religious state – and therefore see her country’s armies as Christian armies pursuing Christian aims.  America may not have an established church, but is nevertheless a largely ‘Christian’ nation, very vocally so among the Republican Right/Moral Majority wing of their politics, so again it can appear in Arab eyes that they are ‘Crusaders’.

So long as this mutual misunderstanding prevails, it’s hard to see how the West can win the various wars; our opponents cannot surrender what they see as Allah’s cause, and we can’t, compatibly with our own principles, just exterminate them.  And anyway, killing them tends just to confirm their view of us, and convinces more and more Muslims to join the extremists.

There is another serious consequence of this.  Many Muslim lands have Christian minorities.  In theory, Muslims should be tolerant of Christians as fellow monotheists, but – quite logically – this doesn’t fully apply during war with Christian states.  With Christian armies ‘crusading’ in Muslim lands, those Christian minorities can be seen as allies of the ‘crusaders’; and therefore as fit targets for persecution of all kinds.  We occasionally hear of that persecution; including cases where Christians have been forcibly circumcised, and are then in a terrible position – they have not freely chosen Islam, yet if they return to practising Christianity, they will be treated as ‘apostates’ and may be subjected to the Islamic death penalty for apostasy[i].

Many of the Christians involved – those belonging to the various ‘Anabaptist’ groups, for example – would reject the whole idea of ‘crusading/holy war’, and even the idea of a ‘Christian country’; they haven’t the slightest intention of being ‘allies’ of the supposed crusading armies.  Yet sadly they will still be persecuted, because the Muslims don’t understand that – Islamic thinking makes it difficult to understand a separation of religion and state.  It is also the case that others of these persecuted Christians belong to churches which support the idea of Christian states, or even, as in the case of Anglicanism, are ‘established’ in some way in the western country where their denomination originated.  I’m not going to say that such Christians therefore ‘deserve’ persecution – but I will say that it is understandable that Muslims interpret such Christian-country-minded groups as being allied with the ‘Christendom’ with whose ideas they agree.

Ironically, the supposedly ‘crusading’ West is also having trouble understanding the situation.  We are so accustomed to our pluralism and democracy, with its freedom of religion, that we don’t easily grasp the idea of a religion and state being effectively one entity, so we can’t see the problem the Muslims have with us.

Disentangling the mess

In disentangling it’s a good start to admit that there is a tangle!  Sadly neither politicians nor church people in the west seem to want to make that admission.  Many don’t even appreciate the real nature of Islam; they don’t seem to realise that the idea of a unity of religion and state is built into Islam from square one, as is the idea of holy war.  In the lifetime of Muhammad he both ordered and personally led military expeditions; exiled from Mecca he returned with an army big enough to scare the Meccans into surrender, to set up a Muslim state with himself as effectively king.  It is significant that in Islam the big division is not over creeds and beliefs; Shi’as and Sunnis are divided over who, at a certain time, should have succeeded Muhammad as the ruler of the Muslim state.  I will agree that many of the modern extremist Muslims are probably doing things Muhammad would reject; but the key ideas are deeply embedded in Islam and aren’t going to change.  Muslims who try to go ‘back to basics’ will find that the totalitarian religious state, and war both to defend and expand that state, are among the fundamentals of their faith.  It is a myth of political correctness that there are ‘good Muslims’ who have western values in such matters; such people do exist, but arguably they are not fully faithful Muslims, but Muslims failing to follow the original Islamic teaching.  Because this is so, extremist Islam is not going to go away in a hurry.

Christianity is different; in Christianity, the totalitarianism and warfare are an alien graft, not going back to the original but only to over 300 years after Jesus.  I once saw Nick Griffin in a party political broadcast for the BNP portraying the idea that Christianity started as a violent and intolerant religion like Islam but we wonderful British had changed it into the more tolerant body we know today; he couldn’t be more wrong!  Christians who go ‘back to the Bible’ will not find instructions on setting up a Christian state, but teaching that ‘our warfare is not with physical weapons’ (II Cor 10; 4), that Jesus’ kingdom is ‘not of this world’ (John 18; 36) and instructions to ‘be subject to’ the governments of the various non-Christian states they live in (Rom 13; 1ff, I Pet 2; 13ff).  They will find teaching that people become Christians by a spiritual rebirth beyond human power and legislation (John 1; 12-13), not simply by their natural birth in a supposedly Christian state.  They will find the Church itself described as “God’s holy nation” – yet not ruling this world but living humbly in exile from their real home in heaven  (I Pet 2; 9, 1; 1), and commanded indeed not to be ‘allotriepiskopoi – managers of other people’s affairs’ (I Pet 4; 15).

Nobody can be sure how things might have worked out if Muhammad had faced a Christianity still operating in that spirit; unfortunately he saw in Arabia only a somewhat heretical group whose ideas on the Trinity seemed pagan to him, and beyond Arabia a mainstream church which had changed drastically from the original after some 300 years of being nationalised into the Roman Empire and operating as the imperial state religion.   So he rejected Christianity, while in the end copying the idea of a state faith using military means – well, maybe not exactly copying, just that he never seems to have seen any other model of Christianity to inspire him to act differently from pagan national religions.

Christians let Muhammad down at that time (and let themselves down if you think about it!)  They continued to set Islam a bad example as they fought tooth and nail to hinder the advance of the Islamic empire, in Spain for example, and then actually attacked the ‘Holy Land’ in the era of the Crusades, whose atrocities are effectively coming home to roost as Islamic terrorism in the West.  More recently the interference of ‘Christian’ states in the Middle East as colonial powers stirred up much resentment, and caused many Muslims to go ‘back to the Quran’ to seek Allah’s favour by being more fundamentalist.  In particular arrogant handling of Palestine stirred things up.  Essentially Britain promised the land of Palestine to both the Arabs (as led by Lawrence of Arabia) and the Jews in order to gain their support in the First World War (1914-18) and then muddled through till a rather disgraceful abdication of responsibility in the aftermath of World War II as immigration of displaced Jews to Israel grew and friction between Arab and Jew increased.  The subsequent tendency for the US and UK to favour Israel stoked things up further.  Then we became dependent on Arab oil and the balance changed, leading to a Muslim resurgence.

What now?

We – and I mean Christians, rather than the various states we live in – need to set straight the issue of the Crusades; indeed we need to firmly disavow the Crusades.  We must also recognise that such disavowal won’t mean much unless we also disavow the ‘Christendom’ set up by Constantine, and all the subsequent variants – from Anglicanism and Lutheranism to Ian Paisley and his fellow Unionists in Ulster – which seek to give Christianity a special place in the state and inevitably lead to the idea that it is proper to set up ‘Christian’ states by force, defend them by force, and even use force to spread the faith.  The Roman Catholic Church particularly needs to rethink.  It was that church which actually sponsored the Crusades, and I seriously think that supporting the Crusades casts doubt on the fundamental Roman doctrine of papal infallibility; I mean, what real use is ‘infallibility’ which couldn’t recognise the total wrongness of the Crusades and of that warfare in the name of  Jesus??  Where indeed supposedly infallible Popes personally promoted the Crusades?  The RC version of ‘Christian country/establishment in the state’ is not quite like the Anglican or Orthodox or various other Protestant variants, but all lead to the same kind of position on the use of state power to defend religion.    Only a Christianity separated from the state can be an adequate disavowal of the Crusades.  And only a disavowal of the Crusades will enable us to counter Islam with a truly Christian alternative message.  So actually we, even more than the Islamists, need to ‘exterminate the Crusaders’!

What?!!  Are we to get an army together and start a civil war among Christians, killing those we disagree with?  No, very much NOT!  Our warfare, remember, is not with physical weapons.  But we do need to clear that Crusading spirit, and its holy war ethos, from our churches.

Consider this; I don’t know what language was used by the terrorists themselves in Algeria, but that Algerian being interviewed on TV in French used the word ‘exterminer’, in English ‘exterminate’.  Ironically this word originated in Christendom.  It is derived from the Latin ‘ex terminis’ – literally ‘beyond the borders’.  Originally that was what was supposed to happen to heretics – you exiled them beyond the borders, removing them from your ‘Christian’ society.  The trouble was that the borders of Christendom were continent-wide, making exile difficult in practice, and gradually ‘extermination’ came to mean sending the heretics ‘ex terminis’ in a more absolute way, by burning at the stake or other forms of death penalty (drowning was particularly favoured to deal with Anabaptists).   This was yet another way that Christendom distorts the original teaching, in which the Church was meant to live peaceably among their pagan neighbours, and those who were unacceptable to the church were simply excluded from the fellowship (and even then, with a hope of ultimate restoration); of course those excluded from the church would carry on living in the surrounding society.


And that is the kind of ‘extermination of the Crusaders’ that we need; not to kill them, but to simply exclude them from the church, to clear up the confusion that has existed since Constantine about the place of the church in the state and the association of the church with warfare.  It won’t happen overnight, and it needs to be done in a Christian way, by loving persuasion, that recognises the good intentions of those we disagree with.


I’ll leave it there for now; obviously there’s a major discussion to be had about ‘the next step’ … blog readers please contribute ….

[i] Yes, another practice which Islam seems to have shared with ‘Christendom’.  Jews or Muslims in Spain had often been coerced into accepting baptism, and then if they continued to practice their original faith, were treated as apostates to be burnt at the stake.  Or indeed, having been coerced, they were simply never trusted by the surrounding ‘Christians’.

But Seriously… (3) Worship in spirit and truth

When Jesus met the Samaritan woman she was impressed but also discomfited by his knowledge of the chequered relationships in her past; and she tried to turn the subject aside

“I perceive, sir, that you are a prophet.  Our fathers worshipped on this mountain, and you say Jerusalem is the proper place to worship”.

Jesus told her, “Believe me, woman, the time has come when you shall worship the Father neither merely in this mountain nor merely in Jerusalem.  You (the Samaritans) worship what you do not know; we (Jews) worship what we know, for salvation comes from among the Jews.  But the hour comes – and now is – when genuine worshippers shall worship the Father in spirit and truth; for the Father is looking for such as his worshippers.  God is a spirit and his worshippers must worship on spirit and truth”.

Now here’s a question; for a time (starting around 1700) England had what was called the ‘Test Act’.  Basically, in an attempt to secure loyalty to the state and discourage the nonconformist movement, this law said that to qualify for certain positions in the state and certain benefits, people would be required to partake of Anglican communion.  In other words, you had to formally worship as an Anglican.  Among things covered by this and similar rules was University attendance, whence the fact that the nonconformists had to found colleges of their own, often of a very high standard, some of which still exist now as full modern universities.

These laws obviously taxed the consciences of serious nonconformists.  Many would refuse to conform; others somehow managed to convince themselves it was allowable, and took university places or became mayors, councillors, etc.  But in some ways the effect was worse on the other side.  Serious nonconformists might not engage in this token worship; but of course cynical unbelievers would be quite happy to formally profess faith and make the token gesture of worship in return for power, social position and money.  Does this sound like ‘worship in spirit and truth’?  How can the fellowship of the Lord’s Supper be truly fellowship when people are attending for social and worldly advantage?  And how could serious Christians use the Lord’s Supper in such a way, or tolerate such use?

To be fair most – though not all – modern Anglicans reject such practices.  In his book ‘Anglicanism’, written in 1958, Bishop Stephen Neill quotes a description of the Test Act as ‘an insidious degradation to which the Anglican Church in its alarm submitted, and from which it was not reluctantly delivered until the nineteenth century was well on its course’.  But the question still remains; how can you have a state privileged faith, either compelling worship, or penalising and discriminating against the non-conformist, or encouraging superficial worship for all kinds of insincere motives – and expect to see much of the sincere worship Jesus talks about?  You don’t need a totalitarian set-up with an inquisition or similar to seriously compromise the worship.

In a way Jesus’ point was precisely that he was bringing a ‘new covenant’ going beyond old ways; future worship would no longer be based on your nation and its customs, but on being reborn through faith.  The externals of worship – this place or that, for example, would no longer matter; sacrifices and temples would be superceded, as would distinctions like Jew and Samaritan, Greek and Roman.  Those changed by the spiritual new birth will gather for worship in a new way, as citizens of the kingdom of heaven, people of every earthly nationality now incorporated into the people of God and praising God for their salvation through Jesus’ sacrifice.  And as we saw in the post about new birth (But Seriously) the state can’t properly have anything to do with this.  The state can’t legislate for new birth or for sincere worship; its worldly interference can only confuse and compromise the situation.

I will agree that there will still be some risk of insincerity even when the state is not involved; humans, being sinful, are always finding ways to get it wrong and either kid themselves that they are serving God or cynically act the part because it offers advantage even without the world’s power behind it.  But there is a great deal less risk when the church is as it should be, a ‘kingdom not of this world’:  a body where, if anything, belonging may risk persecution, discrimination, ridicule, and disadvantage within the state.  It is then far more likely that people will sincerely choose membership of the church, and participation in its worship, because they have been truly born again.  As sincere believers they will see spiritual rather than worldly advantage, even spiritual advantage despite material disadvantage.

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.