Wednesday, November 18, 2020

Standing on our own ground

There has been a bit of mostly good-natured debate amongst Christians around how churches ought to react to lockdown restrictions recently.  There are those who feel very strongly that churches should be open, and have lobbied for this; there are those who feel very strongly that churches should be acting for the common good and closing for the sake of public health.  I guess I've made it clear I'm with the former, but that's not what this particular post is about.  I want to make some wider observations about how we make these sorts of arguments and what that means for our engagement with the world.

A line which I've seen a number of variations on is this: 'of course, I believe that church services are more important than pubs or shops, but I don't expect the Government or society at large to agree with me'.  Sometimes this line comes from a place of resignation - we simply cannot expect people who do not acknowledge Christ to take Christian positions, so why bother?  But more often I think it is driven by strategy - it doesn't make sense, strategically, to advance arguments and positions which are so thoroughly grounded in a uniquely Christian perspective that they will simply be rejected out of hand by those who don't share that perspective.

Evidence that this strategy is being pursued can be found in the sorts of public presentations church leaders make.  In general, there is a great effort to persuade people that we are good for society - that we do a lot of social work, that we are essential to support people's spiritual and emotional health, and even that we contribute indirectly to the economy.  This is all a strategic effort to set out the worth of churches and Christianity in terms which the non-Christian world is more likely to understand and accept.

I have two concerns about this approach.  The first is that I think it is disingenuous.  The reason Christians value churches and Christianity is not because these things are beneficial to society.  We value Christianity because we think it is the absolute truth about the universe and the way of redemption.  We value church because here is the gathered community of the redeemed, here is the preached Word which gives us life, and here is the Table at which we feed on Christ.  I think we are in danger of presenting an untruth, or at least performing a bait and switch: trying to persuade society to let us meet or whatever on the grounds that we run food banks, and then when given freedom putting most of our efforts into preaching sermons.

The second, and deeper, concern is that we divide ourselves.  In general, people think they're just moving on to this ground - this perceived shared ground of common values - in order to make a strategic argument, whilst in our hearts maintaining the priority of Christian truth.  But I don't think we can internally stand on the ground of the gospel whilst externally occupying a different position for strategic reasons - or at least I don't think we can keep it up.  A stance taken up for reasons of strategic engagement is likely to become our ultimate stance before long.  It seems to me, for example, that we can trace the descent of someone like Steve Chalke into heresy from an initial commitment to a place of strategic engagement - certainly the first hint I saw of his declension revolved around changing our doctrine of sin to fit better with an understanding of human nature which played better in development circles.

I think we are better to stand on our own ground, even if it means not being understood; better to lose the argument than to lose our souls.  This is not an argument for obscurantism - we ought to try to translate and contextualise our message, but at the end of the day we still need to be sure that it still is our message.  In the public sphere, we ought not to be scrambling to occupy come sort of common ground; we ought to be saying with the Psalmist 'pay homage to the Son or he will be angry'.

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