30 August 2014

The churches and the referendum 1: What hath Holyrood to do with Canterbury?

[The first of a series of study notes I prepared for St Aidan's Clarkston church magazine]

This question was inspired by an early Christian theologian, Tertullian, who famously asked ‘What hath Athens to do with Jerusalem?’ The point of his rhetorical question was to imply that philosophy and culture had no place in the Christian life. He also, but less famously, argued that Christians should play no role in public affairs.

How should the Church relate to the political dimensions of society?

Several competing views:
  • One influential strand of thinking (of which Tertullian was an early example) set the church against politics: We are aliens and strangers. In its extreme forms this is represented by Christian groups who turn their backs entirely on modern society. It is also widely believed in modern society: religion belongs exclusively to the private sphere of home, family and personal relationships; it has no place in the public sphere of politics and business.
  • The Christendom model: The church gave secular rulers their legitimacy; it anointed them to rule but could also excommunicate them; the church was also a major agent for maintaining the status quo.
  • After the Reformation (a): Secular rulers were seen as appointed by God to protect the church. In some cases, the church effectively became the spiritual bureaucracy of the state (e.g. many Lutheran churches). This is reflected in their passive engagement in politics (and like the Christendom model essentially maintaining the status quo).
  • After the Reformation (b): Other Christians, particularly Calvinists and latterly Roman Catholics, saw the church as having a more active role in society – that of transforming society; not merely praying for the peace of the city, but actively resisting evil and pursuing social justice (in some cases through direct engagement in politics).

What does the Bible say about Christian engagement in society?
  • The Old Testament tells the story of the rise and fall of a political entity: the nation of Israel. Look at Jeremiah 29:4–7: What does God tell the Israelites to do in exile?
  • The New Testament is written from the perspective of a subject people governed by an absolute monarchy; there was little opportunity for direct involvement in politics; but it does have various things to say about our attitude to authority (including political authority). Look at Romans 13:1–7 (cf. 1 Peter 2:13–17): Why should we submit to the powers that be? Look at Ephesians 6:5–9 (cf. Colossians 3:22–4:1; these passages are actually about master/slave relationships but are often applied to employer/employee relationship and by extension to any authority relationships): Does this passage suggest any restrictions/conditions upon submission? What does submission actually mean?
  • But the New Testament also speaks of our responsible engagement in society (e.g. Matthew 5:13–16).

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