Wednesday, November 25, 2020

Outstanding questions

 As the Covid crisis enters what I guess we all hope will be its final act, I have various outstanding questions which I think need answering or at least exploring fairly urgently.  Here are some of the questions relating to churches and Christians in particular.

1. How should we think of our relationship with the state?  The big question is to what extent the state has a right to intervene in various areas of life, including the corporate worship of the church.  The acute version of the question is about when it becomes right to disobey or actively resist the instructions of the state.  To my mind, a great deal of the interaction on the big question has been naive about the state and its role, assuming that the state is basically and normally a force for good.  I am no libertarian - I believe in the necessity of a strong state - but biblically and theologically I think we need to consider the vision of the beastly state in Revelation 13, or the animalistic states of Daniel, or just the basic fact that the climactic encounter between God and the human state ends up with a weak Pilate signing off on the execution of the Messiah.  It is no coincidence, incidentally, that many passages to do with the state belong to the apocalyptic genre, where the human world is unmasked and its deeper spiritual dynamics are exposed (and is not Pilate the very picture of the unmasked state as he stands face to face with the Lord?)  In the big picture, the state is at best an ambiguous force.

How we answer the big-picture version of the question has, of course, an impact on how we view the acute version.  It has been depressing to me to see how often Christian leaders have reached instantly to Romans 13 as if the few verses there on obedience to the state constituted everything that Holy Scripture had to say on the subject; as if thinking theologically about the role of government just meant reiterating the content of these verses.  It isn't so.  Of course it has been generally recognised that there are instances where we ought to disobey: the two most commonly cited would be if the state asks us to sin, and if the state becomes a persecutor of the church.  But this is so narrow.  To me this represents the interests of a sect, not of a group of people who see themselves as the firstfruits of a new humanity.  It basically winds up being 'I'm all right, Jack', on a grand ecclesiastical scale.  The church should always stand up for the human over against the merely political.

2. What is gathered worship all about?  The general impression I've got is that the majority of us don't know.  We can get sermons online, we can meet up with fellow Christians for encouragement in the park; what are we really missing?  It seems clear that for the majority of Christians in the UK right now there is a view of the Christian life which begins with the individual, and sees church as a helpful add on.  This is not the historic Christian vision.  For historic Christianity (whether Roman, Orthodox, Lutheran, or Reformed) the corporate and sacramental life of the church comes first, and the individual enters into that life.  Viewed from that perspective, the suspension of corporate worship and of the sacraments becomes rather more tragic.  I wonder whether opposition to lockdown - especially the prolongation of lockdown - has been stiffer amongst those who hold to the historic Christian orthodoxy than it has amongst the majority of evangelicals.  I think so.

Coupled to this, I've noticed that Christians who disapprove of churches meeting illegally (on which, see question 3) often start their criticism with some variation of the phrase 'I'm looking forward to being with my church community as much as the next person...' as if church were essentially about human community.  Don't get me wrong, clearly a church is a human community, and the relational aspect is important.  But do we really just gather on a Sunday to be with people, to share common interests, to participate in shared traditions on a purely human level?  The vertical dimension in all this seems to have gone missing completely, and instead of the church, where Christ is offered from pulpit and table and his people are lifted up in the Spirit to be together with him as they offer their praises, we're left with a club, the Jesus Club.  I am not keen to be a member.

3. How can we disagree well?  I realise I've been rather strident above, and that might cut against my third point.  Oh well.  I am not one of those who thinks that disagreeing well means endless fudge and a desperate effort not to offend anyone.  There are those who can speak in mild tones about things they think are crucially important; I'm afraid I am not one of those people.  But there is one particular instance of disagreement which I have in mind: the public critique of people who are trying to follow their Lord.  If a church in good conscience, and after due consideration, thinks that the dominical command to gather together trumps the current regulations from HMG - by all means argue with them, by all means say they are wrong.  But at the same time, you ought to be saying: I commend these brothers and sisters for seeking to be faithful.  Rather too much of the response I have seen seems to have been intended to distance ourselves from those we fear the world may look on with disapprobation.  That's not right, surely?  Shouldn't we disagree robustly with orthodox believers whilst still being clear that we are with them, even if it damages our reputation in the eyes of the world?

4.  Speaking of reputation, I believe there is an ongoing question along the lines of: how do we bear witness?  My suspicion is that we have got used to a model of commending the gospel by being good neighbours and good citizens; I think that lies behind a lot of the critique levelled against churches meeting despite regulation to the contrary.  And of course, this is a genuine strand in the New Testament.  We are to be good neighbours and good citizens.  But the NT also points to the fact that no matter how good we are in this regard, we will still have a poor reputation, because we follow Christ.  It wasn't possible in the ancient world to decline to worship the pagan gods and still be regarded as a good citizen.  You had to choose.  I think the time of choice is upon us.  You can't be regarded as a good neighbour or good citizen and hold orthodox Christian teaching on sexuality, for example, or a host of other ethical issues.  But more fundamentally than that, you can't bear witness without being weird, without pointing to a whole different value system.  I was trying to express something about that in this post about worship.  I've tried to sum it up on Twitter: the difference between reputation management and witness is that the former requires us to do what the world expects, whilst the latter requires us to expect a new world.

Those are my big four questions.  I don't think we've collectively got answers to them.  As Covid-tide draws to a close over the next six months, I wonder whether we shouldn't pay some attention before the next crisis hits.


  1. This is brilliant, Daniel. So helpful and, as you say, on the beginning of much necessary soul-searching and recovery of lost ideas.

  2. Thanks for the article. Some food for thought especially around points two, three and four which I think hits a few nails on the head that have been issues long before C19. However I think the debate on the relationship between the church and the state in point one is oversimplified. We have accepted state intervention on mnay levels particularly in terms of health and safety regulations etc for a long time. There is more in the New Testament about submission to human institutions as part of our greater loyalty to Christ than merely Romans 13... thanks though

    1. Cheers! To be clear, I wasn't setting out a full position in point 1 (or any of the others) - just trying to draw attention to the fact that there is much more to say on the matter than seems to be featuring at the moment. I think there is plenty in the NT to make us suspicious of the state at the very least!

  3. Richard5:32 pm

    Daniel, I think a lot of what you describe really comes down to who you've been listening to. Where you've heard people reflexively reach for Romans 13, I've seen people do the same for Revelation 13. Where you see people who have submitted to the state as having an 'I'm all right Jack' attitude, I've seen those opposed to the state doing likewise. When you've seen those who have taken a stand in good conscience being criticised, I have for sure, many times, seen the same done to those who take a contrary view.

    It's not the one-way street you paint it as.

    Nor is it simply the case that those who have being willing to work within the restrictions take a less than orthodox view of church and worship. Of course some do, but there are also imbalances and distortions among those who take umbrage with the restrictions. To suggest that those who disagree with meeting illegally treat church as a 'Jesus club' is a blanket condemnation that is neither charitable nor true.

    In terms of how we talk together about all these things, when you simply shrug and say, 'Oh well...I'm just not one of those people' (who are able to speak mildly) aren't you thereby abdicating a biblical responsibility to speak as well as you can in discussion with others? Debate, yes most definitely, and robustly, but to say that those who are trying to speak helpfully and take account of different viewpoints, who are trying to make sure their tone encourages and fosters engagement with fellow Christians, are simply fudging things is not good, at all.

    1. Thanks for engaging Richard, appreciate it. I think you've misread me at a couple of points, or (which is at least as likely) I've not been as clear as I could have been. So let me try to respond to your points.

      Of course I am just responding to what I see. I try to follow a wide-ish range of evangelical and other Christian folk, but my perspective is naturally limited. If there are people who are reaching for Rev 13 without taking seriously the commands in Rom 13, then that's no better than vice versa. I just haven't seen much of that.

      I don't think I implied that all those who are submitting to the state (and you've perhaps assumed, incorrectly, that I am not amongst them, albeit somewhat reluctantly) have an 'I'm all right Jack' attitude; I said that if you take the theological view that we ought always to submit until our own interests are directly threatened then you may be displaying that attitude. I think the church ought to have a wider perspective than that. I can, by the way, readily imagine that people who are more 'state-sceptical' might have the same sort of attitude; I think many people with that perspective are coming from a position of individualism and libertarianism which are hard to sustain from Scripture.

      Nor did I say or imply that people observing the restrictions all have a less than orthodox view of church and worship. I would, however, stand by my observation that significant confusion on this issue has been brought to the fore by the current crisis. Nor was my talk of 'Jesus Club' a blanket condemnation; it was an attempt to show the logical conclusion of the deficient view of worship which I've observed.

      On your last para, I have endeavoured to speak as well as I can. Again, I don't think I've said quite what you think I have; certainly I haven't dismissed everyone who would approach these issues differently as fudging things. There is, however, a particular approach to 'good disagreement' in some Christian circles in which it has become almost a code for never stating any conclusions. I would rather have robust, open debate here. If I've over-stepped the mark here, and that is far from impossible, then I'd only say that it comes from a desire to see Christ's church reformed and refined, and that I hope any sins of communication on my part don't entirely take away from the main points I'm trying to make.

      Thanks again; appreciate you taking the time to read and comment.

    2. Richard4:49 pm

      Thanks, Daniel, those are helpful comments and responses, I appreciate them. I'm sure you expressed yourself more cogently than I perhaps did.

      I happen to agree that the issues you've highlighted are significant ones, and mostly the right ones to be asking now. But I think it unfortunate that your extension or illustration of them (in the first 3 questions) was via those who fall on one side of the debate. That tends to erase the nuance I'm sure you were trying to give in the article. It makes it read like you think only one side of the debate is getting the answers wrong (or not seeing that there are questions to ask). I'm sure from what you've said in response that you don't think like that. I'm simply observing how that then makes the whole piece feel.

      I do have questions about your 4th point, too, but I'll forego asking them because we've both got other things to do! God bless you in your ministry and fill you with joy in knowing him. Thanks again for the interaction.

  4. Thanks for this. I share your feelings of frustration at the monochrome lense Romans 13 seems to be read through. I highly recommend this series of 10 lectures on ‘Christianity, the law and resistance’ when thinking through this all. It covers texts like Lex Rex, Calvins Institute’s and many others. Crucial listening at this time.