The Starting Point

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

(‘But Seriously’ is a strand on this blog exploring the implications of biblical texts on ‘Church and State’.  Check other entries in the strand for a rounded picture of the issues)

So finally I get to interpreting Romans 13….

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

This ordering works out that

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

A Controversy Re-visited – Martyn Lloyd-Jones

(I’ve noticed that this is a post people frequently look at; I’d just like to draw attention to the fact that it’s one of a pair of connected posts, the other dealing with the position of the Anglican theologian J I Packer in that controversy.  You will get a broader and more  balanced view of the controversy, and of my estimate of it, if you consult the other post as well “A controversy revisited – J I Packer”.)

Those of my age (I have a bus-pass) will likely remember the controversy which followed a meeting of the Evangelical Alliance in 1966 when Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones issued a call to Evangelicals to secede from ‘doctrinally impure’ denominations infected by liberal theological ideas, and form a purer church to defend the gospel.  Some did respond, and among other results the Fellowship of Independent Evangelical Churches was founded.  However many, particularly among Anglicans, thought it was inappropriate to leave denominations which still held to evangelical creeds, and better to work within them and try to recall them to biblical belief.

At the time, as a student, I wasn’t very clear about the issues.  Since then my own ideas in various matters have expanded considerably, and I now feel able to comment; and much as I respect Lloyd-Jones as among the ‘giants on whose shoulders I stand’, in this case I believe he was very wrong, and that the heated controversy was unfortunately an argument about the wrong question.

Lloyd-Jones’ mistake I believe was to put the matter in terms of ‘doctrinally lax mainstream denominations’ and to seek a solution in terms of a doctrinally ‘pure-body’ church.

The obvious criticisms are

First, that it was to be expected that churches made up of sinful humans would have ups and downs in faithfulness and doctrinal purity,

and secondly, that the concept of a ‘pure body’ church was, shall we say, inadequately bounded and opened up the spectre of endless secessions over minor matters leading to total disunity and to proudly and bitterly exclusive groups like the ‘Exclusive Brethren’.

As regards the first of those points, I think it is significant that Christopher Catherwood reports, “Dr Lloyd-Jones knew that his grouping would not stay pure for ever, but he felt that each man had to do what was right in his own generation”.  Exactly… as generations change, you cannot guarantee the ongoing faith and doctrinal purity of any church, and so it would appear that seeking a pure grouping will indeed lead to just an endless process of separation and abandonment.   In addition at any time a church may contain people of many different degrees of Christian experience many of whom have far from worked everything out and may have all kinds of not-entirely orthodox views just through inexperience – and of course do not deserve to be excluded for that!    The alternative view of John Stott, Jim Packer and their Anglican colleagues, to not abandon a denomination unless it formally and credally abandoned the gospel, and to seek instead to work within it for revival, was basically correct[i], and had precedent in actual revival of which perhaps the 1740 ‘Great Awakening’ was the great example.  Reformers in the 1500s and Methodists in the 1700s did not abandon their original church, but had been thrown out, or at any rate squeezed out, after serious constructive efforts to improve that original church.  Of course, least of all can you secure the faith of future generations by secular legislation for a state church or privileged state religion – but that raises issues I’ve dealt with elsewhere.

As regards the second, separation over claimed doctrinal purity is potentially endless and gives all too much scope for human pride and exclusiveness, and for abusive leaderships to establish cult-like groups separated nominally for greater purity but in fact to serve the leader’s ego.  Of course Dr Lloyd-Jones didn’t intend any such limitless separation, nor do I think he was that kind of egotist; but the issue of doctrinal purity or of a ‘pure body’ church doesn’t have a clear objective limit to prevent it.  How do you decide when you are ‘pure enough’?  How do you make sure of separating only from the determinedly unorthodox and not casting aside the sincere but understandably ignorant or similar?

I think Lloyd-Jones made a further mistake – he didn’t properly realise that there was one issue which both really required separation and was actually significantly responsible for much of the doctrinal laxity that worried him; namely, the issue of establishment of churches in the state – not only in the strict legal way that Anglicanism is established, but also various other ways that people expect that a state should be ‘Christian’ and that our churches  and their beliefs and morality should be specially privileged in the state.  For example, Ian Paisley didn’t want to be the established church – but he still expected Ulster (and mainland Britain) to be a ‘Protestant country’ in which Protestant beliefs generally are favoured/protected/etc.

Separation from the state, whether from a formal establishment or a looser ‘Christian country’ kind of relationship, indirectly sorts out much of the doctrinal purity issue anyway.  It relieves the church of all kinds of pressures and temptations that might tend towards doctrinal impurity in various ways, both obvious and subtle.  Once separated from the state, for example,

  • You won’t get governments confusing the gospel of new birth by trying to define every citizen as belonging to the state Christian faith;
  • You won’t get citizens thinking they are Christian just by birth in a ‘Christian country’.
  • A large problem of people seeking membership or leadership in the churches for reasons of political power and influence is pretty much removed, leaving a church of voluntary members whose primary concerns are at least somewhat more likely to be spiritual rather than worldly
  • Likewise you will get fewer people seeking membership for mere social respectability, usually ending up playing a Pharisaic hypocritical role while sinners in real need may be made to feel unwanted by the very body that is supposed to save them;
  • If the church doesn’t offer a special privilege in the world and state, people are likely to join only if they are serious about salvation; and therefore the church is less encumbered with merely nominal believers who are likely to be doctrinally lax.
  • Without the state involvement, there is a good deal less temptation to tinker with doctrine to try to keep it acceptable to all in the state; a church which is non-conformist anyway will be more concerned to maintain pure doctrine.

Of course the church, being composed of sinful human beings, who are imperfect even when converted to Christ, will always in a way be a mixed body; but without the state link it will be so in a biblically expected way which can be coped with on biblical principles, not additionally confused by an dubious relationship with worldly power and the very different concerns of that power.

 

Ecumenically, most of the issues on which evangelicals differ are related to state churches – or their leftovers, as it were, in churches which aren’t established.  The state church issue itself obviously, but also many styles of church government and worship which, in free churches, would lose much of their importance.  For example, while I suspect the baptist/paedobaptist controversy will run a bit yet, one major aspect would be removed if baptism ceased to be a national rite of passage, carried on in a ‘national church’ for social and cultural reasons rather than simply as a Christian rite.  It might seem drastic to split from ‘Christian country’ denominations (and it must be done as charitably as possible!) but in the modern climate of declining attendance will it in fact make a great deal of difference? A separation on the state and church issue is also, of course, more easily limited than a separation over doctrinal laxity; there is a reasonably obvious stopping point which then if anything discourages further separation unless for major cause.

 

I repeat, I have huge respect for Dr Lloyd-Jones, own many of his books both in physical and Kindle form, and have benefited massively from his teaching.  I understand why he was concerned for doctrinal purity, especially when the late 1960s were seeing the outworking of the ‘Honest to God’ controversy started by Bishop John Robinson of Woolwich, and ideas like ‘God is Dead’ theology.  As a Welshman he didn’t believe in the Anglican style of established Church, but his Puritan and Welsh-Presbyterian/Calvinistic-Methodist background meant, I think, that he was unclear on the wider idea of a ‘Christian country’; he thought that in some sense a country could be ‘Christian’ and broadly support Christianity in general – for example with features like ‘RE in schools’.  Lloyd-Jones’ Independency/Congregationalism was more like Cromwell than the Anabaptist principle of separation of Church and State, and in Britain even our Baptists were ambiguous over this issue.  Anabaptism was at the time very much a minority matter; our native Anabaptist movement, the Open Brethren, was increasingly becoming just a group of independent churches.  I think he just didn’t realise the link between being, or trying to be, a Christian country and the temptations to worldliness including doctrinal laxity that result.

 

Thus sadly he raised the controversy over the wrong issue, and harmed evangelical witness at a time when we didn’t need that kind of division.  In the many issues of the 1960s a clear call to separation from the state would have been more useful, but nobody was thinking in such terms.

 


[i] The idea may have been correct – but applying it to the Anglican Church was problematic – see the second part of this discussion, “A Controversy Revisited – J I Packer “.

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

 

(‘But Seriously’ is a strand on this blog exploring the implications of biblical texts on ‘Church and State’.  Check other entries in the strand for a rounded picture of the issues)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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 …

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.