Tuesday, April 02, 2013

Christians must put the gospel first, not social reform

Tim Montgomerie's piece in yesterday's Times, Christians must put families first, not politics got me thinking. (You'll need to be a subscriber to view the article). The writer takes issue with Lord Carey's recently expressed concerns about Christians being persecuted by Tories. Montgomerie makes a valid point that church leaders are much more likely to complain about the redefinition of marriage than speak out on the sobering fact that 200,000 abortions are performed in the UK each year.

He also questions whether Church groupings should be attacking the Government's program of welfare cuts, aimed as at least as some of them are at getting the workshy to earn their crust. Whatever happened to the Protestant work ethic, or are latter day Christians proposing a Protestant shirk ethic? Didn't the apostle Paul say something like, 'if anyone will not work, neither shall he eat'? (2 Thessalonians 3:10-14).

Benefits should provide a safety net for those too ill to work and give a helping hand for the temporarily unemployed as they seek new work, but that's about it. No one should be allowed to live on state handouts as a lifestyle choice. Saying that doesn't make me an enthusiastic cheerleader for all Government spending cuts. But there is certainly a place in the social teaching of the Church for a tough love that demands people grow up, get a job and take responsibility for their lives.  

However, rather than whingeing about Christians being oppressed, or protesting against welfare cuts, Montgomerie puts his finger on what he thinks should be the big issue for the church; the family. He says, 
If you want my theory as to why the West is in trouble I’d nominate the collapse of the family as a major contributory cause. Strong families are better carers of the young, the sick, the old and the disabled than the State. Strong families are essential to education, neighbourliness and civic participation.
I'd certainly agree that family breakdown is one of the key reasons why Western Civilisation is in trouble. Philip Blond argued as much in book Red Tory, which helped to set the agenda for David Cameron's (now-defunct?) 'Big Society' policy idea. According to Blond the traditional family unit, meaning a married man and woman and their offspring, is a force for good in society,
For the family offers the site of both sharing and nurture: it is where people learn to limit their desires and give to the greater good. It is the site of character formation and life orientation. In short, the family is a profoundly relational institution and, since it places individuals within a context of obligation and responsibility, it embodies the essence of mutuality. The fact that many now celebrate its destruction as somehow part of the liberation of women only testifies to the destruction of the chance for a real feminist founded on what most women want - marriage and children alongside creative work and social engagement. (Red Tory, p. 91).
Montgomerie doesn't quite see it like this, chastising Christians for trying to exclude gay people from family life. Excuse me, but as same-sex relationships aren't capable of creating families it's a matter of self-exclusion, dictated by the facts of biology, rather than a rule that has been arbitrarily imposed by meddlesome believers. Marriage as redefined to accommodate gay couples would include no requirement to consummate the relationship and could not be invalidated by same-sex infidelity. The proposal amounts a serious weakening of what is meant to be an exclusive, lifelong union. If family breakdown is the problem, it is hard to see how 'equal marriage' is part of the solution.

But I don't want to get sidetracked on that one. On the big point, Montgomerie is right, the love and commitment of parents to their children is the essential building block for a good society. He concludes that the 'celebration and sustenance [of family life] should be the Church’s primary social proclamation.' I would simply add that love and commitment are best expressed the union of a man and woman in marriage. But I guess you can't have everything.

But and it is a big 'but', the Church's main task isn't to preach about the family. While it might be arguable that the family should be the Church's primary social proclamation, the Church's proclamation isn't primarily one of social change. What were the Baptist Union, Methodists, United Reformed Churches and the Church of Scotland doing, issuing a joint-statement on welfare cuts, on Easter Sunday of all days? The Church of Jesus Christ is not a political pressure group, but a movement with a mission. And that mission is to proclaim salvation through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Yes, when that message is preached and believed, lives are changed and that often has a positive impact on society in general. The massive social reforms of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in the wake of the Evangelical Revival bear witness to that fact. But still, the horse of gospel proclamation must always go before the cart of social reform. What else can break the grasping selfishness of our 'because you're worth it' consumer society, where immediate personal gratification is put before all else? When that kind of attitude prevails it is little wonder that relationships founder when faced with the stresses and strains of family life.

The Christian gospel is about the power of love embodied in the Easter Story. Jesus Christ laid down his life for our sins and rose again from the dead to give those who believe in him the hope of everlasting life. The Spirit of Jesus transforms the lives of his followers and fills them with a love that drives them to serve other people and reach out to those who are in need. At the centre of Christian teaching on family life is the idea that marriage should be modeled on the Christ's self-giving love for his bride, the Church. It is a gospel-centred vision of family life. When the gospel has done its work individuals and families are transformed. Communities and even countries are changed for the better. But it is the gospel message, not the social teaching of the church that is the 'power of God to salvation'. That is why Christians must not put the family, but the gospel first. 

1 comment:

Dr Henry Tegner said...

I am in agreement on the matter of family breakdown. In my career I saw so much misery that resulted from it. And it leaves angry children in its wake whose lives can be permanently blighted. Unless there are problems like violence and addiction one wonders who really benefits. I would say 'lawyers' but risk being called a cynic.