Thursday, November 10, 2016

The Alternative Society

I don't really want to comment on the Donald, except to point out that it's no huge surprise (even if it is a tragedy) that a culture (not American culture uniquely, but perhaps particularly) which insists that human beings are gods chooses a leader who appears to believe that he is God.  Friends across the pond: I sympathise.  I don't know which way I would have jumped.  Appalling policies on the left, an appalling person on the right.  Into the valley of death...

But enough of this pessimism.  I want to think about the church.  What are we to do?  What are we to be?

In a sort-of follow up to this post, I want to suggest that the answer is pretty clear.  We need to be an alternative society, a society in waiting.

I suspect that the church in the West has re-entered (or perhaps in the USA is in the process of re-entering) a state of normality vis a vis culture and society at large.  There are basically three ways the church can exist.  Sometimes it is the martyr church, bearing witness with its blood and life to the resurrection of Christ in the midst of an actively hostile and aggressive culture.  On the other hand, the church is sometimes the Constantinian church, having a huge influence on culture and society and becoming in many ways the arbiter of morality and social mores as the majority at least outwardly acknowledge the lordship of Christ and accept Christian ethics.

We have to be ready at any time to be either of those churches again.  But that's not where we are now.  No, despite the slightly hysterical Daily Mail-esque concern of various Christian pressure groups, we are not being actively persecuted.  We are not (now, or yet) called to be the martyr church in the West.  But we have been the Constantinian church for so long that we have forgotten that there is a third, more normal mode of existence of the church, which is to be the marginalised church, the church outside the camp.  This is the church which is rejected by society but not actively persecuted; which finds itself with its norms and values barely tolerated but certainly outside the mainstream.  I say this is 'normal' because this is the church of the NT.  1 Peter is a classic example.  Mocked, but not martyred.  That's where we are.

Now things could get worse, and we do have to be ready to become the martyr church.  It might happen.  But can I suggest that we also need to be ready to be the Constantinian church again?  I don't mean the state church.  I just mean that, believing as we do in the omnipotence of the gospel, we have to be ready for people to be persuaded, to bow the knee to Christ, to join his people - and not in the trickles that we see now, but in torrents.  We need to be ready for that.  We need to balance our awareness that the future may be the martyr church with the knowledge that in God's grace it could also be revival.

I think that affects our stance towards wider society.  I think we need to offer a genuine alternative.  We need to be a society where, for example, left and right are welcomed as they submit to Christ, but where some of the things which left and right typically hold dear - let's say, for example, the right to murder our own children in the womb, or the right to exploit people and the earth purely for profit - will have to be left at the door.  We'll need to provide the community that serves as a plausibility structure for a different kind of sexual ethics, a different kind of economics, a different kind of leadership.  We'll have to do it whilst remaining genuinely open, and open to a world which will mock and malign us.  We're going to need to look like a society in waiting.

Church is political.  It's the society of the Lord.  It's not souls and clouds, it's people and policies and a new creation in the midst of the chaos.  It's the society of the gospel and the law, which says yes and no, but always the no for the sake of the yes.

O Church arise...


  1. This is excellent. Your best post yet. And I may well be speaking from ignorance, but dare I say it's not a particularly Barthian approach...?

    For me, the task appears gargantuan. If anything the church seems to be trying to become even more like our wider society, with all the talk of seeking 'social justice', for example - the transformation into another social work wing of the state. Even when not pursuing this, it's hard to see that the church's life and aspirations are particularly different from non-Christian middle class life in family size, lifestyle, use of money, education, etc. Any attempt to establish a church economy would be met with general bafflement - aren't there are state benefits and mortgages to cover our needs?... A stumbling-block to both the left and right, surely.

    So I think it begins with individuals and individual families living differently and sharing the vision with other Christians. And regardless of whether the church sees reform or not, at least our own lives can be a witness to truth and goodness.

    Not that I've got everything worked out or anything!

    1. I'm not sure it's Barthian in detail, but then again it may be. Barth was a very political theologian (as Hunsinger is currently reminding me in his rather splendid book "Disruptive Grace"). He had more socialist leanings than I would be happy with.

      The task does indeed seem huge. My sense is that it requires imagination first and foremost - it's just really difficult to envision a different way of doing things, or to think what it would be like if the church community made a practical commitment to the gospel. We need to help each other to think a different reality.

      It's surely going to be difficult, but if it's necessary...

  2. Great post Dan. Both encouraging, and a challenge.

    1. Thanks Adam! Hope all is well up in't north.

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  4. Funnily enough, I had a stab at some suggestions towards such a project yesterday morning based on Jeremiah's letter to the exiles. Take a look if you want.

    1. I saw that earlier, actually - thanks. I'm mulling it over. I'm not sure I'd read Jeremiah in terms of some sort of ecclesiastical autarky, but I'm thinking about it. I also think it's far from clear that children play the role you ascribe to them in these last days (or that we can straightforwardly assume that if we raise them right they will become Christians). But I do think one of the implications of Jeremiah is that Christians are to be involved in their own culture building in their equivalent of Babylon.

  5. No, I don't envision complete autarky - just trying to push the envelope a bit beyond what we would normally consider mutual material care in the church to look like, in light of the general scriptural witness.

    Proverbs 22:6 may or may not be a promise (although I'd certainly hope it is), but regardless, it's pretty clear that Christians raised in Christian families do make up the bulk of the church. So God does seem to use Christian families in a particular way - which should cause concern when the church loses its children, as is fairly common even among evangelicals these days.

    However, my point was not about getting numbers up or anything, but more about the witness that fruitfulness has - what it communicates about how we see the creation of new life and so on.

    It's this that I think is the Achilles heel of evangelicalism: the failure to consider what systems, technologies, and practices 'communicate' in their implicit metaphysics, and how they therefore shape how we live, worship, and witness for better and for worse. Until this is done, as Alastair does so well in the essay I link to, I'm not sure that anyone will be too concerned about living in a greatly distinct way as a community.

    But that's why your post is heartening to me, in that it points in a better direction.

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