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….

American ‘Separation of Church and State’ – or is it?

Steve’s Free Church Blog

Bit of a gap since my last post; all sorts of reasons including a bit of a dearth of web access opportunities since mid-December.  I now have much better access via a ‘dongle’ so as soon as I can wean myself off the excellent but addictive ‘Ship of Fools’ Christian forums….

In another forum where I chat about Christian matters, my advocacy of an Anabaptist approach was challenged by one guy who pointed out that America has ‘separation of Church and State’ and is still all gung-ho patriotic etc. and arguably a more ‘Christian’ state than many with established churches; how, he asked, did that square with my opposition to ‘Constantinianism’?  What follows is a lightly edited version of my response to that,

American ‘separation of Church and state’ – hmmm!  American Anabaptists would tell you that the American version of that separation is not much like the Anabaptist version, though it does have the merit of allowing Anabaptists to exist (mostly) un-persecuted.  As I understand it what happened is something like this….

The original English colonies in America were supposed to be Anglican like England itself; however because the distance across the Atlantic made enforcement harder, many non-conformists and Puritans sought refuge in the New World – the classic example being the Pilgrim Fathers, who by the way didn’t exactly allow religious freedom in their own colony.  Quakers as is well known founded Pennsylvania, and Rhode Island was a Baptist foundation.  After 1688 I assume that the English colonies also benefited from the Act of Toleration, so the colonies of the War of Independence were a considerable mix but mostly Protestant.  Whitfield I understand preached and ‘fellowshipped’ with Presbyterians, Congregationalists and Baptists as well as Anglicans, and towards the end of Wesley’s life American Methodism (and the English version in consequence) formally split from Anglicanism after Anglican indolence led Wesley to ordain clergy (bishops?) to look after the growing Methodist flock.

In the War of Independence the former colonies chose obviously to reject Anglicanism, and instead of adopting a particular alternative establishment opted for a constitutional rule of no establishment of religion.  While some of the leaders seem to have favoured Deism or Unitarianism, this was generally interpreted that the USA would be a Christian land, just that no particular version of Christianity would be privileged over others.  (I’m letting this stand as I originally wrote it, but on the forum it was challenged, with a suggestion that the Founding Fathers really intended full religious liberty – but also an admission that this may have been subverted in practice along the lines I suggested)  As the growing USA absorbed the former colonies of other European countries, French and Spanish, Catholics were also included, and the general freedom allowed oddities and nonChristian groups also to exist so long as they didn’t cause too much trouble/scandal.

However – you still see the basic ‘Christian state’ assumption in many things.  For example, in the 1800s Native American children were forcibly taken from their parents and sent to emphatically Christian schools, while Mormons were forced West to Utah and when ‘The Frontier’ caught up with them there was a war which forced them to abandon their polygamy.  The 1920s saw the infamous Daytona ‘Monkey Trial’ over evolutionary teaching (doubly scandalous now it has been revealed to have been pretty much a set-up for the benefit of the local tourist industry!), but atheists were also generally unpopular – see for example Cecil B de Mille’s horribly sentimental late silent film ‘The Godless Girl’.  With Communism emphatically atheist, that distaste continued in the Cold War era.  Catholics remained objects of suspicion even as late as the JFK election in the 1960s.  The USA motto ‘In God we trust’ is a very late apparition, though I don’t have the exact date handy.  More recent shenanigans, e.g., under Bush, have been all over the press in recent years so I’ll not go into details.

In other words, not the Anabaptist version of separation of Church and State; more like a practical compromise between assorted ‘Constantinianisms’ which had realised that in the New World they couldn’t impose their particular version.  Anabaptists across the pond tend to refer to this as ‘Neo-Constantinian’ – the same problem in a slightly different form.  I doubt the ‘Founding Fathers’ of the USA even realised, let alone intended, the use their wording would sometimes be put to in the late 20th Century by nonChristian forces.  (the ‘no establishment of religion’ wording has been used in the 20th Century to, among other things, exclude religious instruction from schools and even prevent students setting up ‘Christian clubs’ in schools; I’m not sure of the current state of play on these issues, but I still see occasional references to it)  The Northern Ireland version is somewhat similar to the USA – a collection of Constantinians willing to sink their differences and forego a fully established position for their own denominations to keep NI a broadly Protestant province.  (This sentence is there because in the original forum I was mainly contributing to a discussion of Northern Ireland)

I was going to add a summary of the Anabaptist version of things, but as this is going on the blog, I’ll just refer you to the rest of the blog….

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.   

A Beast Revealed – an update

Unfortunately I’m withdrawing this post, though I will be returning to the basic idea of it in future.  Trouble is that since I posted the item I’ve become aware that there is more than one Facebook page representing the ‘Protestant Coalition’ and at least one is being denounced by another as ‘fake’ – and it’s probably the ‘fake’ one that I’d hung my comments on!  In view of this it seems both wise and fair to withdraw the comments I made.  As I hint above, there is nothing wrong with the principle I was stating and I’ll come back to it – just that through no fault of mine (except a bit of naivety) I’d made the comments on a dubious foundation….

Northern Ireland; the cost of ‘abnormal policing’.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But Seriously (6) – Romans 13… starts in Romans 12….

 

The chapter and verse divisions in our Bibles are quite handy for finding references; but they weren’t put in till centuries after the texts were originally written, and sometimes they can be a bit misleading.  The division between Romans 12 and 13 is just such a case – all too often we start with Romans 13 as if it were the start of a new bit of the epistle not directly connected to what went before, whereas in reality it is part of a longer exposition which begins… well, really at the start of Romans 12, though it does shift focus significantly partway through that chapter. 

In Chs 9-11 Paul has dealt with the relationship between Israel and the Gentile Church as represented by the Romans, and has also taught a great deal about God’s sovereignty, ending in a paean of praise to God’s wisdom and rich grace.  Then he moves on; “I beg you therefore (i.e. in light of that teaching, appreciating the wonder of God’s grace to you as Gentiles now incorporated into his people)… present your bodies a living sacrifice… do not conform to the present world scheme, but be transformed by a complete renewal of mind, so as to sense for yourselves what is the… perfect will of God”. (I really like the JB Philips translation in v2, “Don’t let the world squeeze you into its mould”!)  Then Paul expounds how this will work out in various areas….

He warns them not to value themselves higher than they should, but to be humble.  Then he looks at how to apply this in the Church, among your fellow-Christians….

For precisely as in one body we have many members, but not all the members have the same function, so the many of us form one body in Christ, while each is related to all the others as a member, but possessed of varied talents according to the grace bestowed on us

Though this is true of the local congregation, Paul clearly also has a wider meaning; this one body is the worldwide church – ‘the many of us’ throughout the world ‘form one body in Christ’, on the one hand united in our Lord, on the other hand very practically acting as his body in the world, his feet to go to people, his hands to do his work.  The state we live in may well try to claim our primary loyalty – but as citizens of the kingdom of heaven, our first loyalty must be to God, to Jesus as Lord, and to the body of Christ the church.  We must not let the world divide us from our fellow Christians, or set us against one another.  Paul spells out the ‘church-and-state’ issues more specifically in chapter 13, but when we get there, remember that this point about the body of Christ must be part of that context.

Paul then briefly refers to various gifts including prophecy, teaching, charity work, then shows how we must love one another….

Let your love be perfectly sincere, clinging to the right with abhorrence of evil; joined together in a brotherhood of mutual love; allowing one another to enjoy preference of honour; never slacking in interest; as the Lord’s servants keeping spiritually aglow; joyfully hoping as you endure affliction; persistent in prayer; contributing to the needs of the saints; practising hospitality.

Much of this also applies to or affects our relationships with people outside the Church; now in v14 and to the end of the chapter he moves on to consider those external relations, which is why these verses are part of the context of the teaching that continues in chapter 13…

Bless your persecutors; yes, bless and do not curse.

‘Bless’ is ‘eulogeite’; the same basic word as ‘eulogy’ or ‘eulogise’, though presumably in this context it means ‘good speaking’ to and for the persecutors rather than merely about them as in a funeral eulogy, and so means ‘wish them well’.  I think, though my NT Greek skills are limited, that this is not just that we individually bless our persecutors – the church is to work together in this, supporting one another in avoiding the temptations to hatred and ill-wishing which arise from persecution, together in wishing well to the persecutors (though not wishing them ultimate success, of course!), together in loving the enemy as Jesus taught.   

Share the joy of those who are glad, and share the grief of those who grieve.  Harmonise with others in your thinking; do not aspire to eminence but humbly adjust yourselves to humble situations; do not become wise in your own conceits.

Sharing the grief and joy of others; Paul may have written elsewhere that Christians are to ‘come out from among the pagans and be separate’ but it seems he is not advocating that Christians be totally separate from the surrounding society

In no case paying back evil for evil, determine on the noblest ways of dealing with all people; if possible, so far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.

This is basic; it looks back to Jesus’ teaching and example of ‘turning the other cheek’.  ‘Living in peace with everyone’ constantly comes to my mind when I’m hearing news from Ulster of those parades and the civil disturbance which so often attends them.  There is no New Testament command or requirement to stage these triumphalist and intimidating events, and much including this passage that says we shouldn’t.  How is it ‘living in peace with everyone’ to have hundreds, occasionally thousands of Protestants marching noisily through a Catholic neighbourhood celebrating, in effect, that Protestants won the 17th century wars and now dominate over their Catholic fellow-citizens?  Neither the marches nor the massive protests when they are refused sound to me like ‘providing for good things before all men’ (as my ‘interlinear’ Greek/English version literally renders the phrase about ‘noblest ways’), even when the protests are peaceful, which too often they aren’t! 

Of course, if Christians are following the idea of a ‘Christian country’ it seems natural to do such things; that’s how ‘kingdoms of this world’ operate!  Those who thus break peace with their neighbours think that in asserting their ‘Protestant country’ they’ve got a legitimate exception to passages like Romans 12; but all they’re actually doing is contradicting the Lord who said explicitly that His kingdom is ‘not of this world’!

Do not revenge yourselves, dear friends, but leave room for divine retribution, for it is written “It is Mine to punish; I will pay them back, the Lord says.”

Instead, if your enemy is hungry, feed him; in case he is thirsty, give him drink; for doing so you will pile burning coals on his head.  Be not overpowered with evil, but master evil with good.

I don’t really need to add much to that!  The ‘burning coals’ refer to the shame that should be induced when the enemy finds his evil met with such generosity; though it may also refer to the ultimate judgement awaiting an unrepentant persecutor.  We should remember that as a former persecutor Paul will have felt that shame when Jesus met him on the Damascus road, and would understand better than most the effect on the persecutor of victims who love in return.  In this context ‘Be not overpowered with evil’ seems to me to mean not letting the evil of revenge overpower us and make us as evil as the enemy.

This seems an appropriate place to tell one of the classic stories of Anabaptism.  The Anabaptist leader Dirk Willems was on the run in wintry Holland; with pursuers close behind, he ran across a frozen river on the ice.  One of the pursuers fell through the ice and was at risk of drowning.  While the man’s colleagues were fearful and hung back,  Dirk Willems rescued the man and hauled him out – and the rescued man then arrested Dirk, who eventually suffered martyrdom!  That is the way of Christ; holy wars, riots, the bombs and guns of paramilitaries, are the exact opposite.  As Paul said elsewhere, ‘Our warfare is not with physical weapons’, and as Jesus said and showed by example we are to love our enemies even to the point of dying for them.  Theories of ‘Church-and-State’ which lead us to other courses of action should be regarded with extreme suspicion….

And when we come to Romans 13, this chapter is its context; we must be careful that we do not interpret Chapter 13 in ways which contradict chapter 12.  That in turn means don’t isolate chapter 13, don’t treat it as a separate subject. 

Marching as to War

Another night of riots over parades in Ulster.  As near as I can work out, what has happened is that last year a ‘Loyalist’ parade provoked considerable disorder in a ‘Republican’ area.  As a result, the authorities (The Parades Commission?) revised the route of this year’s march.  Loyalists complained that this was ‘rewarding’ the Republicans for the previous year’s violence so they called for a protest which more or less inevitably descended into violence and riot despite calls for peace from the Orange Order and various politicians.

Now the democratic right of protest/demonstration I’m quite happy with.  But this particular cause of violent protest I’m very unhappy about.  Why?  Because these people purport to be ‘Bible-believing Christians’, and their conduct doesn’t fit with biblical teaching.

The basic purpose of these parades is to commemorate the ‘Protestant’ victory of the 17th Century.  The practical effect in modern terms is that the Orange Order and similar bodies stage triumphalist marches whose message is that we won and you Catholics and Republicans lost and are second-class citizens in our state.  Obviously there is no major disorder problem when these events take place in ‘Protestant’ areas; but there are places where the routes run through ‘Catholic’ areas.  I don’t know how much this is original intention – i.e. that the routes always ran through Catholic enclaves with provocative intent – or how much it may be because populations have shifted over the years; but clearly staging such triumphalist parades in Catholic areas is provocative in itself.  Complaining at the Catholics for being provoked is … not really a fair complaint, is it?  Staging your own riot and bomb-throwing in response, at great cost to the public purse and great risk to the police (most of whom are still as individuals Protestants and theoretically on the same side as the rioters), seems a rather strange reaction.

Worse, it’s an unbiblical reaction in all kinds of ways.  Two straightforward quotes just to start with, one from Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, one from Paul in Romans 12.

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called God’s sons.

In no case paying back evil for evil, determine on the noblest ways of dealing with all people.  If possible, so far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.

Now can someone please explain to me how staging these provocative triumphalist parades can possibly be interpreted as ‘peace-making’?  Simply on that ground, Bible-believing Christians should have nothing to do with them in the first place, let alone be claiming that they are for a ‘Bible-believing Christian’ cause!!  Should they not be seeking to receive the blessing as peacemakers, rather than risking the implicit judgement upon those who break the peace?

In no case paying back evil for evil” – even if you are unhappy at having your parade shortened, the rioting looks to me remarkably like paying back evil for evil.  It certainly doesn’t look like what Paul says about following the noblest ways in dealing with people, or ‘living at peace with everyone so far as it depends on you’ ; still less does it look like what he says at the end of that chapter…

Do not revenge yourselves, dear friends… instead, if your enemy is hungry, feed him; in case he is thirsty, give him drink.  For by doing so you will pile burning coals on his head (i.e. you will make him feel guilt and shame for his evil at your expense).  Be not overpowered by evil, but master evil with good.

Furthermore, defying the Parades Commission and other authorities brings this conduct under Paul’s words in the next chapter, Romans 13.

Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities.  For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been appointed by God.  Therefore he who resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgement.

So the authorities curtailed your parade – be subject to them and let it go!  Now I am aware of ‘the one exception’ to this, which is Peter’s statement in Acts 5; 29 that “We must obey God rather than men”.  I have on my bookshelves Robert Haldane’s massive tome on Romans in which he clearly states that one exception; and I also have on my shelves Ian Paisley’s commentary in which he quotes Haldane on that point.  Or rather, misquotes him, for the one thing Haldane makes clear is that Peter’s words still do not justify ‘resisting the authorities’ by military or other force.  If you have access to a copy of Haldane, check that out for yourself.

Let me explain; it isn’t fully obvious in the English, but Paul in fact is using Greek semi-puns here, words which have a common root.  A bit ago for a sermon I paraphrased the text to bring this out, losing I grant a bit of accuracy but showing the common roots

“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.”

I phrased it ‘object with violence’ because I recall a querulous ‘I violently object ’ as being a somewhat comic or even ‘camp’ phrase not giving quite the right impression.  Paul’s actual word means something on the lines of ‘stand in array against’ like an army, whether a formal army of a state or the less formal forceful opposition of rioters.  It is precisely about resisting the state by force.  Of course Paul recognised the idea of ‘obeying God rather than men’ and in instructing us to ‘be subject’ he is not advocating a servile obedience to whatever wrong the state might require us to do.  But our obeying God does not justify a forceful or violent response; hey, this is the same Paul who clearly told us that “…we do not war with carnal weapons.  For the weapons of our warfare are not physical weapons, but they are powerful with God’s help for the tearing down of fortresses.”

Peter has the same basic position as is clearly shown both by the context of his statement in Acts and by the teaching of his First Epistle.  In Acts, Peter is not raising a rebellion, or gathering Christian paramilitaries to oppose the authorities; he and his fellow apostles were simply preaching the gospel!  When they were arrested, they did not fight back – Peter had learned better on the night of Jesus’ arrest – they peaceably allowed themselves to be arrested and would have clearly submitted to/‘been subject to’ any penalty the authorities might have inflicted.  And Peter teaches the same in his epistle.

Read for yourself the sequence starting in I Peter 2; 12 through to 3; 17 (and echoed in much of the rest of the epistle).  Peter repeats Paul’s admonition to ‘be subject’ to the authorities, and then not only with the authorities of government but also with the lesser authorities of slave-owners and unbelieving husbands, he instructs his readers to be willing, following the example of Jesus, to suffer unjustly.  Again, not to rebel, not to riot – not even to be ‘allotriepiskopoi’ or ‘self-appointed managers of other people’s business’ (4; 15), but to be peaceable ‘parepidemoi’ which almost literally translates to our modern phrase ‘resident aliens’ (i.e. citizens of the kingdom of heaven living on earth).

Applying this to the parade situation; well, stop the inflammatory parades!  They aren’t ‘obeying God rather than men’; there is no biblical command or other requirement for Christians to conduct themselves that way, and much to say we shouldn’t.  And likewise, no riots about the authorities limiting the parades; because in addition to the parades being wrong in themselves, the protests are far from obeying the teaching to be ‘subject to the authorities’, and the riots even further from what Paul and Peter instruct us to do.

What might we do?  Well, Christians could obey God by getting out there and preaching the gospel.  Peaceably, humbly and respectfully, and with no retaliation if they meet hostility.  If the authorities intervene, preaching the gospel would be a properly biblical case for saying ‘we must obey God rather than men’.   And if then the authorities decide to imprison or otherwise penalise you – well, the Bible says suffer unjustly following the example of Jesus, Peter, and Paul.  And beyond preaching the gospel, how about some of that turning the other cheek, feeding the hungry enemy, giving the thirsty enemy a drink, going an extra mile.  At simplest, just free your enemy of the fear and aggravation of your noisy provocative parades – show your enemy followers of Jesus who themselves follow the self-sacrificing example of their Lord.

Of course for this preaching and this practical love of the enemy to be credible, you’ll have to give up the idea of Ulster being a ‘Protestant country’, and of needing to defend that country by any kind of force.  It may take a long time, and a great deal of gentleness, to convince Catholics/Republicans that you represent the biblical loving Jesus rather than an enemy who hates them and wants to dominate them and have them as second-class citizens.  You will have to follow Jesus in rejecting a ‘kingdom of this world’ for your party, for your ‘Protestant culture’.

But I submit that if you start on such a road you will be even more ‘Bible-believing Christians’ than you already are; you will be fighting the Christian fight as Paul said you should, not with ‘carnal’ or ‘physical’ weapons, but with the Sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God.  The worst damage you can do with that weapon is to raise guilt and shame in your ‘enemy’; and if you love him as Jesus said you should, you won’t take glee or satisfaction in piling those ‘burning coals’ on his head – you’ll be too busy bringing Jesus’ healing to him.

PS; As I prepared this for final posting, the news was that the Orange Order had actually applied for a fresh march down the contested streets.  It has been refused and I suppose we will have to wait and see whether that provokes yet more riots.  But seriously – by what twisted logic could that possibly be considered compatible with Jesus’ teaching to ‘love your neighbour as yourself’?  Teaching which Jesus backed up with a parable, ‘The Good Samaritan’, set against the equivalent in Israel in his day of the sectarian divide in Ulster….

PPS; The Orange Order apparently did march but no further than was allowed; three lodges had been accompanied by some 1000 supporters who eventually dispersed peacefully in the late afternoon.  I’m obviously glad there was no further violence; but a radio news item showed that one leader had been concerned there would be such a result.  And in any case, how does a march with 1000 supporters square with showing love to your opponents or ‘living at peace so far as it’s up to you’?

And even since then they’ve applied again to do the march next week.  Of course nothing has changed and the Parades Commission are unlikely to allow it, so presumably there will be another march to the brink with the attendant risk of further violence – which of course the march organisers will blame on everything but ourselves.  How can they believe this is biblically justifiable????

PPPS; Though still short of full coverage, these issues are further discussed elsewhere on ‘Steve’s Free Church Blog’, particularly the item ‘As Peace in Ulster Flags’.  Detailed discussion of Romans 12 and 13, and of much of I Peter, is also in preparation.