Friday, July 23, 2010

The State has no right to act as if it were the head of the Church (1)


The Pharisees were out to ambush Jesus. The killer questions was, “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or nor?” The dilemma for Jesus was this. If he said, “Of course not, Caesar is a tyrannical Gentile dog.” Then the Pharisees would have reported him to Pilate as a dangerous subversive. However, if he said, “Yes, of course, Israel is part of the Roman Empire and we should pay our dues.” then they would have denounced him as unpatriotic and disloyal to God’s own people, the Jews. Famously Jesus answered their question by saying, Matthew 22:21. The trouble is that Caesar can sometimes demand that which belongs to God. Early Christians were thrown to the lions for not confessing that Caesar is Lord. Obviously we are not in a situation where the head of state demands our worship. Ours is a different and more subtle challenge. Recent decades have witnessed systematic dismantling of the Christian heritage of our country. We are living in an increasingly secular society where the authorities have little patience with faith-based values. But we cannot give to Caesar that which belongs to God alone

Christian adoption agencies have been forced to close because they refuse to place children with homosexual couples. Christian registrars have been sacked for declining to officiate at Civil Partnerships. Gary McFarlane, a Christian marriage guidance counsellor was dismissed because he asked to be exempted from counselling homosexual couples. His appeal against his dismissal was rejected by Lord Justice Laws because his views were "held purely on religious grounds". They therefore could not be justified and would be "irrational, as preferring the subjective over the objective ... divisive, capricious and arbitrary". The cases I’ve mentioned have affected individual believers, but the Church itself has recently faced challenges in this area. It was only with some difficulty that amendments were made to the Equality Bill that otherwise would have forced Churches to hire people whose beliefs and lifestyle are not on accordance with the teaching of Scripture. That happened under the previous government. But before the General Election David Cameron said in an interview,

I don't want to get into a huge row with the Archbishop here... but the Church has to do some of the things that the Conservative Party has been through – sorting this issue out and recognising that full equality is a bottom-line, full essential… if our Lord Jesus was around today he would very much be backing a strong agenda on equality and equal rights, and not judging people on their sexuality.
Recently David Cameron signalled his support for the appointment openly homosexual Jeffrey John as Bishop of Southwark, although the appointment was rejected in the end.

Once again the issue is: Who is the head of the Church? Can the Church simply change its beliefs and practices and undergo a process of reinvention something like a political party in order to adapt to perceived public opinion? The challenge of intolerant secularism is akin to the challenge faced by the German Churches in the 1930’s. In their Barmen Declaration the Confessing Church stated,

8.11 Jesus Christ, as he is attested for us in Holy Scripture, is the one Word of God which we have to hear and which we have to trust and obey in life and in death.
And
8.17 The Christian Church is the congregation of the brethren in which Jesus Christ acts presently as the Lord in Word and sacrament through the Holy Spirit. As the Church of pardoned sinners, it has to testify in the midst of a sinful world, with its faith as with its obedience, with its message as with its order, that it is solely his property, and that it lives and wants to live solely from his comfort and from his direction in the expectation of his appearance.
The State has no right to try and impose its secular values on the Church and we must be prepared to resist this trend. As far as our beliefs and conduct are concerned the Church is subject to the sole headship of Christ. In the seventeenth century James VI of Scotland (who later became James I of England) attempted to impose his will on the Scottish Kirk. Andrew Melville told him where to get off in no uncertain terms,

Sirrah, ye are God's silly vassal; there are two kings and two kingdoms in Scotland: there is king James, the head of the commonwealth; and there is Christ Jesus, the king of the Church, whose subject James the Sixth is, and of whose kingdom he is not a king, not a lord, not a head, but a member.
Knowing what we do of James, if anything Melville was being a little generous in describing the king as a member of the Church in any meaningful sense. But similar sentiments might be aimed at our present Prime Minister in his attempt to tell the Church what she should teach and believe. Quoting the Barmen Declaration once more,

8.18 We reject the false doctrine, as though the Church were permitted to abandon the form of its message and order to its own pleasure or to changes in prevailing ideological and political convictions.
Jesus is our head and the Church is subject to his voice as expressed in Holy Scripture, which is our sufficient and authoritative guide in all matters of faith and conduct, 2 Timothy 3:16-17.

4 comments:

David said...

I think that both church and state are in very tricky positions regarding the drive towards equality. As you say, ultimately the church is subject only to Christ, so secular laws are not absolutley binding if and when they contradict the Church's own understanding of Christ's will. But, as a tax paying organisation (or even a business from the state's point of view) the Church cannot be made excempt from certain anti-discriminatory laws on religious grounds - which if it were would (theoretically)open up all sorts of objectionable practices in society on the grounds of religious conviction, such as racism, sexism, and homophobia. For the state (as opposed to individual government officials and/or governments) its laws are binding in a socially and historically constructed secular space, a space not claiming absolute authority on a metaphysical level. To the state discrimination on racist grounds, say, is equal to discrimination on "homophobic" grounds - even though for the Church race is not a moral issue, whereas sexuality is. The problem here is that the state isn't particularly interested in ontologically grounded moral issues, being instead busy with negotiating a way through the morass of conflicting rights and responsibilities of the citizen/subjects. If someone wants to believe that homosexuality is a sin, they are free to do so; but if that belief leads them to treat a homosexual as someone stripped of the state's protection (and as tax-payers homosexuals earn their right to that protection) by refusing employment or whatever on sexual grounds, then the state will intervene on their behalf, just as it would were a Christian openly discriminated against because of their beliefs.
The problem is that the state's view is a levelling view: that is, the only reason to discriminate regarding employment is in a person's capacity to do a job. That being homosexual does not interfere with being a good employee means to the state that there can be no other grounds for discrimination. (Ironically, it reminds me of the medieval Roman Catholic view of the priest and the sacrament, in that the moral worthiness of the priest was irrelevant to his serving of the eucharist, the words uttered by a priest had efficacy in themselves). That one might object to a potential employee on moral grounds does not occur as possible or relevant to the state, especially so since it makes no absolute claim to moral certainty itself.
That's my two-pence worth. Sorry to go on!

David said...

One other point, the fact that the church has already conceded so much voluntarily with regard to contraception, divorce and women priests would easily lead one to conclude that it is only a matter of time beofre it concedes to homosexuality. The state is merely hurrying on a process that the Church of it's own volition began.

Ben said...

"Ironically, it reminds me of the medieval Roman Catholic view of the priest and the sacrament, in that the moral worthiness of the priest was irrelevant to his serving of the eucharist, the words uttered by a priest had efficacy in themselves."

Not sure where the irony comes in. Surely, the mediaeval RC teaching at this point was neither morally nor scripturally justifiable, and the reference undermines rather than supports the case.

Viola Larson said...

Thank you for your posting. As I was reading I was thinking Barmen. And then you quoted it. I am in the Presbyterian Church (USA) and we have that confession in our Book of Confessions.

We do not have the same problems as you as I am sure you know. We do not pay a tax to our goverment. But nonetheless we are struggling in several states with same sex marriage.(I live in California.) And our church is in the middle of a battle to ordain homosexuals and accept same gender marriage. When the two come together we will have the same problem. Barmen is a good answer. Of course Scripture is the best. Anyway, thank you.