The ABC Religion and Ethics site has posted some of my thoughts around Australia’s same-sex marriage debate [sic] here.
‘There really is no such thing as “Christian marriage” as the term is commonly used. “Christian marriage” is a vain, romantic, unbiblical conception. “Christian marriage” is a fiction. There is no more an institution of “Christian marriage” than there is a “Christian nation” or a “Christian lawyer” or a “Christian athlete.” Even where such terms are invoked as a matter of careless formulation and imprecise speech, they are symptoms of a desire to separate Christians from the common life of the world, whereas Christians are called into radical involvement in the common life of the world. To be sure, there are Christians who are athletes and those who practice law, and there are Christians who are citizens of this and the other nations. But none of these or similar activities or institutions are in any respect essentially Christian, nor can they be changed or reconstituted in order to become Christian. They are, on the contrary, realities of the fallen life of the world. They are inherently secular and worldly; they are subject to the power of death; they are aspects of the present, transient, perishing existence of the world.
It is the same with marriage. Marriage is a fallen estate. That does not mean that it is not an honorable estate, but only that it is a relationship subject to death. It is a relationship established in and appropriate for the present age, but not known or, more precisely, radically transcended and transfigured in both the Creation and the Eschaton – in both the beginning and the end of human history.
As with any other reality of secular life, the Christian takes marriage seriously for what it is, but for no more or less than that. The Christian does not suffer illusions about marriage, but recognizes that marriage is a civil contract in which two parties promise to exchange certain services and responsibilities with respect to each other and to assume certain obligations for offspring of the marriage. At the same time, marriage is no merely private contract, for society at large has a particular interest in the honoring and enforcement of this contract. If the marriage contract is observed and performed with reasonable diligence, society, as well as the married couple and their children, benefits since an enduring marriage contributes to the economic, social, and psychological stability of the whole of society.
The fiction that there is some ideal of marriage for Christians which is better than or essentially different from an ordinary secular marriage is not only fostered by most Sunday School curriculum materials on the subject, but also by the practice of authorizing the clergy to act for the state in the execution of the marriage contract. Clergymen [sic] are licensed by the state to perform the functions of a civil magistrate, in spite of the supposed separation of church and state in this country. This both lends weight to the confusion about “Christian marriage,” and greatly compromises the discretion of the clergy as to whom they shall marry. In the office and function of a civil magistrate, no clergyman really has the grounds to refuse to marry any two people who present themselves to him, whether they are Christians or not, whether they are temperamentally or otherwise ready to marry, as long as they meet the civil requirements for marriage; that is, are of a certain age, have had blood tests, meet any residence requirements, have a valid license, and pay the fee.
A more theologically responsible practice, I suggest, would be to divest the clergy of this civil office and require that all who will be married present themselves to the civil magistrate to be married. Then, if those who are so married are Christians, they will go to their congregation to offer, within the company of the Church, their marriage to be blessed, to seek the intercessions of the whole Church for the marriage, and to celebrate their marriage in the Church as a sacrament. A similar practice is followed in many parts of Europe and Latin America.
To restore such a practice would go a long way toward recovering the sacramental integrity of marriage between Christians. For to discard the fiction of “Christian marriage” and to understand that marriage is an ordinary, secular, and fallen estate in no way denigrates marriage for Christians. On the contrary, in marriage and all else the Christian is fully participant in secular life; but at the same time he [or she] is constantly engaged in offering his [or her] involvement in secular life for the glory of God. In such an offering, that which is ordinary is rendered extraordinary, that which is merely worldly is transfigured, that which is most common becomes the means of worship, and each act or event of everyday life becomes sacramental – a sign and celebration of God’s care for every act and event of everyday life in this world. Rather than demean or downgrade marriage, to restore such a practice would again give to the marriages of Christians the dignity of that which is secular made holy, of that which is a sign of death become a witness to redemption to all those, married or not, who are not Christian’.
– William Stringfellow, Instead of Death (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2004), 40–43.
‘Once one says that a homosexual orientation is no more culpable or disordered than a heterosexual orientation, and once one observes that Scripture does not teach that God says that homosexual activity is always wrong, I think we’re left to conclude that justice requires that the church offer the great good of marriage both to heterosexual couples committed to a loving, covenantal relationship, and to homosexual couples so committed’.
So stated Nicholas Wolterstorff, a conservative Christian philosopher, in a recent lecture (which you can listen to below) given at Neland Avenue Christian Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan. It’s not, as far as the Christian community can be concerned, what one would call a knock-down argument in support of same-sex marriage — the nearest we have to such, I think, has already been offered elsewhere; in Rowan Williams’s essay ‘The Body’s Grace’, and in Eugene Rogers’s Sexuality and the Christian Body: Their Way Into the Triune God, for example — but it is consistent with and builds upon Wolterstorff’s highly-regarded and mature body of work on the nature and implications of divinely-ordained justice for God’s world, and for the flourishing of its life, and so goes some way towards supporting the argument for why the state should champion such action, and for why the church can and should support the state in this its work. Clearly, the church has its own work to do on this matter, as does the state. The twain should stay out of each other’s way more often.
While some might lament the fact that Wolterstorff didn’t give this lecture many moons ago, perhaps to the board of Calvin College where he is, rightly enough, revered; and while some (although not I) may have considered this a missed opportunity to decimate more directly Richard Swinburne’s recent nonsense about homosexuality being a ‘disorder’; and while some may prefer that the argument for state support of same-sex marriage be defended on lines more Senecan, Grotian, or Hobbesian, and that any argument for church support of same-sex marriage be grounded on more explicitly christological and trinitarian grounds; and while some may charge that his argument would have been better served had Wolterstorff stayed in his more-traversed paddocks of philosophy rather than wandered off into the territory of biblical exegesis; his words here make a constructive and clear contribution to what is typically and lamentably an unconstructive (and very often a de-structive) and muddled discussion. I’ve learnt a lot from Wolterstorff over the years, for all of which I’m grateful. I’m grateful too for his gentle witness here this time, and for the conversations that it might open up.
Here’s my brilliant colleague, Mark Brett, talking about settler colonialism, the freedom of religion, and the witness-invitation of Roger Williams:
Last week, I was again in Geneva participating in a colloquium on religion and state. The meeting had a particular focus on the ways in which Christianity and Islam conceive and negotiate their relationship with the state. It was, as I anticipated, a stimulating event. I was invited to give a response to a very fine paper by Simone Sinn of the Lutheran World Federation. I enjoy doing such things. The tricky bit about doing it this time, however, was that I first heard the paper at the same time as did everyone else; i.e., I never received a copy of the paper in advance. But like one of Alexander Pope’s fools, I braved upon ground where angels might think a couple of times before venturing, and hazarding a guess (which was pretty accurate, as it happens) at where Simone’s paper might go – and in a desperate state ripping shamelessly from Rowan Williams (especially his wonderful collection of essays in Faith in the Public Square) – I tentatively offered the following words (and some good discussion ensued):
–––––––––––– ℘℘℘℘℘℘ ––––––––––––
Taking some bearings
Ongoing deliberations about Turkey’s admission to the EU and, of course, what is being called ‘Europe’s refugee crisis’, have exposed even further all manner of concerns about what we might call Europe’s historic Christian identity and indeed about the idea of ‘Europe’ itself. As we speak, in my own country (which remains, in many ways, an outpost of Europe), there is widespread anxiety regarding the arrival of refugees, especially those from Muslim-majority lands, and concentrated protests going on regarding the building of mosques and the recent granting of a visa to a certain Dutch politician with a very interesting hair style who plans to launch a new political party in Australia. So, what a time to be thinking about these things!
The one thing that is certain in this current climate is that things are ‘deeply uncertain and fluid’. ‘There is’, as Rowan Williams has noted, ‘widespread impatience with transnational institutions, from the EU to the UN, yet equally widespread anxiety about the dominance of a single power. We are increasingly aware of the issues that cannot be solved by single sovereign states on their own – ecological crisis, terrorism, migrancy – yet are uncomfortable with any notion of global jurisdictions’. The global north is increasingly conscious of facing a highly critical, if internally diverse, Islamic world and is struggling to know how best to respond to its presence outside and inside its own borders. ‘Enlightenment liberalism, the self-evident creed of reasonable people, now appears as simply one cultural and historical phenomenon among others. Its supposed right to set the agenda for the rest of the world is no longer beyond question, however much the American Right or the European Left assume that their positions are the natural default beliefs of intelligent human beings, and that cultural and religious variety are superficial matters of choice or chance’.
As Williams also notes, the narrative, standard just a few decades ago, of a universal drift towards so-called secularization has had to undergo radical modification, a challenge severely hindered by the fact that so much of Europe seems to have developed a severe case of amnesia regarding its own complex history dating back at least as far as the Germanic, Turkic and Slavonic migrations that destroyed the Roman Empire between 376 and 800 CE. This is not a situation, in other words, that was birthed in the Enlightenment. Rediscovering this story, it seems to me, is critical if current challenges are to be responded to responsibly and constructively. I am grateful, therefore, for Simone’s paper and her efforts to locate more recent public discourse in some larger historical frames, with her two twentieth-century examples from Germany and Indonesia. This kind of work is important if we are to avoid the unhistorical and facile optimism that characterizes so much contemporary debate on all fronts.
Some theological commitments
Simone is equally concerned to bring other resources – explicitly, theological resources – to this task. This is highly proper, not least because the central and foundational convictions of political liberalism in Europe are an explicit fruit of its Christian history. Particularly, ‘the distinctively European style of political argument and debate is made possible by the Church’s persistent witness to the fact that states do not have ultimate religious claims on their citizens’.
Simone focuses on two theological commitments that, in her words, ‘enable an affirmative understanding of civil society’. She names here anthropology and political ethics. As important and fruitful and these two fields of enquiry might be, uprooted from some even more basic theological commitments I’m not convinced that they provide for the Christian community the robust ‘theological motives’ (to use Simone’s phrase) or theological muscle that the opportunities and challenges before us call for. More germane and fertile enquiry might be had by attending more explicitly to implications perhaps yet unearthed or unapplied to this new context in the following five areas:
- Incarnation. There are questions to be asked, for example about the character of Christ’s body as ‘extendible’ and ‘transposable’ and ‘unstable’, a body that can expand itself, for example, to incorporate other bodies and ‘make them extensions of his own’, as Graham Ward argues. What might be some implications for the church of its own claim that in Christ the world has been given a body that ‘can cross [all] boundaries, ethnic boundaries, gender boundaries, socio-economic boundaries’, and religious boundaries, for example, boundaries unpoliced by the church?
- Trinity. Recent decades have witnessed significant interest among theologians – both Roman Catholic (e.g., Karl Rahner, Jacques Dupuis, Gavin D’Costa, Raimundo Panikkar) and Protestant (e.g., Karl Barth, Wolfhart Pannenberg, Clark Pinnock, S. Mark Heim, John Hick) – to explore more intentionally ways in which the revelation of God’s triune mode of being might constitute a constructive basis or ‘roadmap’ for a positive interpretation of religious diversity and even religious pluralism from the standpoint of Christian theology. I understand that there has been a formal dialogue between French Muslims and Roman Catholics around this very question.
- Pneumatology. There are also questions to revisit here regarding the implications of the claim that the church has no monopoly on God’s Spirit but that the Spirit belongs to everybody, and to nobody; questions constructively explored some decades ago in the work of John V. Taylor.
- Soteriology. What bearing might faith’s claim that there can be no salvation apart from my neighbour, for example, have to our discussion on life together in changing territories?
- Ecclesiology. Are there not pressing questions also to be asked here about the strangely eschatological and provisional nature of the Christian community’s place in the world (something exposed, thank God, through the erosion of the Constantinian arrangements)? And then there are critical questions too about the alternative citizenship of the church and its sharing a common life with those who do not share that citizenship.
On the public commons
Simone champions the widely-held view that the notion of a ‘“civil society” presupposes a space … where citizens can organize themselves voluntarily around common interests or common goals’, a space, she says, where ‘active citizenship is experienced and exercised’, and, we might add (drawing on the work on John de Gruchy), a space ‘in constant need of broadening and deepening, and therefore of debate and [of] clarification’. Such a commitment need not, of course, be grounded in any consensus about what constitutes ultimate truth, or even agreement that such an oddity may exist. It requires only that citizens seek to meet in such a space, and a just state that will regulate its chaotically pluralist character. (I was at this point in Simone’s paper reminded of that pioneering Scottish architect and architectural theorist Alexander Thomson who, in the middle of the nineteenth century, championed a vision of public space that is both open and horizontal, and whose work was informed by a deep conviction that the so-called private life of the home be not divorced from the public space of the street where the community gathers to make and to carry out ideas together.)
Lest the liberal state loses its essential liberalism, that public space and ‘active citizenship’ of which Simone rightly speaks must engage also in a continuing dialogue with religious communities, and those with each other. Failure to do so would mean that the state would become ‘simply dogmatically secular, insisting that religious faith be publicly invisible; or … chaotically pluralist, with no proper account of its legitimacy’ except that ‘the state is the agency that happens to have the monopoly of force’ (Williams). Luke Bretherton, in his book Christianity and Contemporary Politics, argues much the same – that it is the state’s responsibility to ensure that ‘there is an increasingly constructive engagement between [itself] and minority religious groups’. To be sure, the source of our common life does not itself rest in the state any more than it rests in any other intermediate institution, guild, religious or civil association, each of which ought, in Williams’ words, to ‘have a natural liberty to exist and [to] organize themselves’. But the state is given a unique vocation to, to some degree, regulate this social variety and ‘chaotic pluralism’, a role that is an implicit outworking of any political philosophy that rejects a sacralized sovereignty. The challenge, therefore, is for the apparatus of the state to become what Williams calls ‘a reliable and creative “broker” of the concerns of the communities that make it up’.
The history of Islam, particularly outside of its historic-majority cultures, is a history characterised by the experience of negotiating and renegotiating its way in a great variety of settings. This is indeed the character of all living faith. Some Muslim scholars, such as the Swiss academic Tariq Ramadan (who teaches at the University of Oxford) insist that there is in Islam no absolute theological commitment to an imposition of specifically Muslim law even in majority contexts. In his book Western Muslims and the Future of Islam, he contends that Muslim identity need only be at odds with Western cultural identity where certain cultural habits are in direct conflict with Islamic precepts. This means, he argues, not only that there is no single ‘homeland’ for Muslims, but also that Muslims can be at home, can adapt in truly integrated rather than in ‘hodgepodge’ ways, in any geographical and political environment. And so they must, he insists, avoid ‘self-ghettoization’, avoid becoming ‘spectators in a society where they were once marginalized’, avoid retreat from the public commons and what Ramadan calls ‘the service of all, for the good of all’. ‘The “way of faithfulness”’, writes Ramadan, ‘compels [Muslims] not only to respect plurality but also to step outside the [intellectual, religious, and social] ghettos, [and to] know each other better’, to be constantly renegotiating the new public spaces, as must the church, and to act together to ‘ensure the fullest possible statement of shared moral goals and anxieties’ (Williams) in the public commons.
I share Simone’s conviction that viable civil societies in religiously plural contexts presuppose viable interreligious relations, with a high priority given to efforts at the local level where the freedom to engage in ‘convivial and cooperative relations’, however difficult and unstable, and to do so in ways that avoid what Luke Bretherton calls ‘religious vandalism’, yields – dare I say it – signs of the Spirit’s work, signs indeed that ‘the earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world, and all those who live in it’ (Ps 24.1). All this, for me, is an outworking of an implicit christology which resists existing in a vacuum, which rejoices in the fact that ‘dialogue among the religions is no longer a luxury but a theological necessity’ (David Tracy), and which welcomes the encounters, challenges, and fresh questions that a rapidly-changing Europe (and Australia) occasions.
The Indian theologian Stanley Jedidiah Samartha (incidentally, I suspect that we could learn a great deal from the Indian experience vis-à-vis religious plurality) sees in the coming of Jesus part of ‘God’s dialogue with humanity’. Our dialogue with people of other faiths, he argues, is part of our participation in God’s dialogue with humanity, and this, as Karl Barth insisted, is grounded in God’s own intratrinitarian dialogue. Of course, as Williams has suggested elsewhere, part of what happens in a good dialogue between people of different faiths is, one hopes, learning to see what the other person’s face looks like when it is turned towards God. To shut out that possibility is to reject the invitation to grow up, and it is to abandon the difficult gift of ‘hard silence – a stepping-back from the urge to solve things prematurely’.
Some concluding thoughts
Simone’s paper is a welcome invitation to imagine a space less threatened by the ignorance that engenders and nourishes fear, and to embrace the unforeseen possibilities that a future which must not neglect its past – lest Europeans (and Australians too, for that matter) become a thriftless people – ought neither to be yoked to it.
In 2005, Rowan Williams delivered a speech not too far from here at the Palais de Congrès de Lyon. His speech was entitled ‘Is Europe at its End?’, and he concluded, as will I, with these words:
In short, my hopes for the future of Europe are that it will continue to be a culture of question and negotiation – because I believe that this is the way it is truest to its Christian roots. But given the enormous dangers of a dominant secularism, a denial of the public visibility of religious commitment and its role in managing and moulding social identity, I hope for a political climate in Europe that is open to co-operation between state and religious enterprise. If this does not happen, the state becomes unselfcritical in its godlessness and religious communities become isolated and defensive; they too lose the capacity for critical awareness.
A couple of years ago, the Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand (the denomination in which I was serving at the time) asked the church’s Doctrine Core Group to provide the church with a discussion paper on marriage. That group decided to approach the task by inviting a select and representative number to write a brief response to the following question:
‘What do you believe lies at the heart of a Christian doctrine of marriage, and what are the key biblical and theological considerations that inform your position?’
The full discussion paper can be downloaded here. It was offered in the hope that the statements therein might provoke deeper engagement with the complex issues about marriage in church and society. The contributions – of which there are seven – were published anonymously to encourage readers to hear and judge each case on its own merits. I reproduce them here, in part because the denomination in which I currently serve, the Baptist Union of Victoria, is engaged – or at least ought to be engaged! – in some theological reflection on the questions (one assumption here, among others, is that the Church, including its Baptist tribe, might have some unique things to say about marriage, things which the State can’t say) and I hope that these contributions might assist to that end.
We believe the Presbyterian Church’s approach to marriage must faithfully reflect the teachings of Jesus and the Scriptures, regardless of whatever society or the State may do. The Church is not at liberty to put aside the teachings of its Head. As a denomination derived from the Reformation, we are meant to be subject not to human ideas but to Scripture. Constitutionally, the Presbyterian Church recognises the Word of God in the Scriptures as the ‘supreme rule of faith and life’. We need to take that seriously. We shouldn’t try to reinterpret the teachings of Jesus and Scripture to make them mean something else.
The 2012 General Assembly of our Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand strongly declared “that it upholds the historic Christian understanding of marriage as the loving, faithful union of a man and a woman (reflecting the complementarity of male and female created in God’s image), which is grounded in nature and in Scripture, is supremely revealed in Jesus’ teaching about marriage, and is given by God for the well-being of human society…”. General Assembly also resolved that it “does not support same-sex ‘marriage’”.
We believe the 2012 General Assembly got it right. Christian understanding of marriage reflects the profound truth that God made us both male and female in God’s own image (Genesis 1:27) – with both genders necessary to reflect the image of God. Marriage is grounded in God-given nature, in basic male-female physiology. Marriage is the good and purposeful gift of God (Genesis 2:18, 24). In marriage, God intends that male and female come together in love and mutuality, trust and faithfulness, and the two became one – physically, emotionally, and spiritually. No other type of contractual, covenantal or legal sexual relationship – no matter how loving, stable or sincere – can ever be regarded by the Christian Church as marriage in the true biblical sense.
Out of that unique male-female union, God brings new life (Genesis 1:28). We are to “be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth”. Male-female complementarity is therefore foundational – not only to bearing the image of God, but to human flourishing. It is at the heart of what it means to be human. Right across the biblical narrative, marriage is endorsed – and is central to human life.
Jesus’ teaching on marriage reinforces the indispensable core of the Bible’s understanding of marriage: “Have you not read that he who made them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one flesh” (Matthew 19:4–5). Jesus also rejects sexual immorality (Mark 7:21–22) and lust (Matthew 5:28).
Some claim there is no one model of marriage in the Scriptures. In the Old Testament, for instance, we see many examples of polygamy, a defective form of marriage which was common in Ancient Near Eastern culture. But while polygamy is tolerated in the Old Testament, it is never endorsed by God or by Scripture, and it plays no part in the teaching of Jesus or the New Testament.
The reality of marriage, in Scripture and in human experience generally, includes not only blessing but also an inevitable falling short of what God intended – sometimes in major ways such as cruelty, adultery, neglect or divorce. In our sinfulness, we all need God’s forgiveness and grace.
Some argue that marriage is just a human arrangement, a largely secular matter. Certainly, marriage is a “civil contract”, but it is also much more than that. For followers of Christ, prayerfully entering into a marital covenant and making solemn promises before God, marriage is also sacred. The sexual union of a husband and wife in marriage is more than just physical, and can also have something of a “sacramental” character.
The idea of recognising homosexual relationships as “marriage” is completely foreign to Scripture. While some disagree with what the Bible teaches, there can be no question that the Bible consistently forbids the practice of homosexuality (eg Romans 1:22–28, 1 Corinthians 6:9, 1 Timothy 1:10, Jude 7). Like all other sexual immorality, homosexuality reflects humanity’s fallenness.
Same-sex “marriage” finds no place in the historic Christian doctrine of marriage, or in the teaching of our Subordinate Standards. The Church’s classic Reformed standard, the Westminster Confession, devotes a whole chapter to marriage. This begins: “Marriage is to be between one man and one woman …for the mutual help of husband and wife [and] for the increase of mankind.” The Presbyterian Church’s Directory of Worship (1995) states that Christian marriage is “a commitment for life made by a woman and a man to each other, publicly witnessed before God and acknowledged by the community of faith”.
We must be guided by the resolutions of General Assembly that “God’s intention for sexual relationships, as affirmed by Jesus Christ, is loving, mutual and faithful marriage between a man and a woman, and that intimate sexual expressions outside of that context fall short of God’s standard” (1991), and that marriage is “the loving, faithful union of a man and a woman” (2012).
The Bible’s teaching on marriage is not the absolute core of the Gospel, like the Cross and Resurrection, but it is still very important. It is not optional. Three of the Ten Commandments, for instance, are related to marriage.
The Word of God is the “supreme rule” of both “faith and life”. Some argue that the Church should just proclaim salvation in Christ, and allow freedom (diversity) in all other matters of belief and life – including matters relating to marriage and morality. But such a view is a distortion of New Testament teaching. Christ is both Saviour and Lord. The gospel is not just about salvation. It is also about following Christ, and about transformation. Having received salvation by grace, we should then honour God in how we live (eg Matthew 7:17–23, Romans 6:13, 1 Corinthians 6:19–20, Ephesians 4:1, Colossians 1:10). Grace does not abrogate truth, or the call to holiness.
The Church is not able to dictate the beliefs and laws of society at large. But we must also insist that the Church cannot be dictated to by society. In all matters, including marriage, we believe the Holy Spirit calls the Church to remain authentically faithful to the teachings of Jesus and Scripture.
Whatever else marriage may be, it is at its most fundamental level a relationship between two parties. It is a relationship established in virtue of God’s pronouncement that it is not good that man should be alone (Genesis 2:18). We human beings have need of companionship. According to the Genesis account (Genesis 2:18–25), marriage is a divinely instituted provision for that need. While the Genesis text indicates a complementarity in the companionship of male and female, it becomes clear as the biblical story unfolds that the need for companionship may also be met by other means, above all in the fellowship of the Body of Christ. The Church, in fact, is set forth in the New Testament as the paramount form of community in which all should expect to find, whether married or not, the unconditional love, forgiveness, and companionship to which the marriage relationship also aspires.
A secondary feature of marriage occurring between a man and a woman is the procreation of children. Genesis 1:28 and 3:16 are commonly taken as biblical warrant for this procreative function of marriage. The Old Testament, however, records numerous instances in which the fathering of children is thought to be more important than the maintenance of a monogamous relationship (eg Genesis 16:1–2, Deuteronomy 25:5–6). A husband may take additional wives or engage the childbearing services of a slave in the household in order to secure progeny. Adultery, however, is condemned (Exodus 20:14, Deuteronomy 22:22). Whether or not the arrangements seen in the Old Testament for the procreation of children outside of marriage should be approved of, they do suggest that procreation is a secondary good associated with marriage rather than its primary purpose. In accordance with the view that procreation does not belong to the essence of marriage, the absence of offspring does not undermine the good of marriage and so provides no justification for divorce (Matthew 5:32, Mark 10:6–9).
What then does constitute the good of marriage? In formulating a response to this question, it is helpful to attend to the fact that the language of marital relationships is often used in the Bible to speak of the relationship that God has established, first with Israel (eg Ezekiel 16: 8–14, Jeremiah 2:2, 31:32, Isaiah 54:5), and then with the Church (eg John 3:29, Matthew 9:15, 2 Corinthians 11:2, Revelation 19:7–9). Although it is commonly supposed that the term “marriage” applies primarily to the covenant commitment made between a man and a woman and only secondarily, by way of analogy, to the relationship God establishes with Israel and the Church, we may learn better about the essence of marriage by attending first to the marriage God establishes with his people, before then considering what this may imply for our understanding of human marriage.
The first thing to notice about the relationship between God and Israel, and between Christ and the Church is that it is a covenant not a contract. Talk of marriage as a covenant rather than a contract is derived from this divine precedent. A covenant is “a promise binding two people or two parties to love one another unconditionally.” This accounts for the steadfastness of God’s commitment to Israel in spite of Israel’s unfaithfulness (Leviticus 26:44). We observe, secondly, that the covenant God makes is grounded in love. Again, we learn best what love is by attending to the divine love, especially as it is revealed to us in and through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Because the true nature of love is revealed in Christ, Paul enjoins husbands to love their wives “just as Christ loved the Church and gave himself up for her” (Ephesians 5:25). It is in this context too, that Paul speaks of a man and his wife becoming one flesh just as Christ unites the Church in his body and tenderly nourishes and cares for it (Ephesians 5:28–32).
Further explanation of what love consists of is found 1 Corinthians 13. A third characteristic of the divine covenant is that it operates according to grace rather on the basis of deserts. God loves Israel and Christ loves the Church, not because they deserve to be loved, but simply because it is love’s way to embrace the other in spite of the other’s weakness and imperfection — even in spite of the other’s sin. Marriage is an act of gracious hospitality, of unconditional openness to the other, and of self-giving. The operations of divine grace in the marriage God establishes with his people should discourage us, I think, from conceiving the marriage relationship in terms of rights. Marriage is established in virtue of the unconditional gift of oneself to the other, not on the basis of rights held over against one another.
These theological observations suggest that marriage is a covenant relationship that is motivated by love and operates according to grace. It is, furthermore, a form of human relationship that mirrors, however imperfectly, the relationship that God desires to have with us.
We should take note, however, that spousal relationships are listed in Luke 14:26 among various forms of kinship that take second place to the disciples’ relationships with Christ. Marriage between one human being and another is good, but it is not the ultimate good. The ultimate good is the fellowship with God and neighbour that is being perfected by the Spirit in the Body of Christ. Marriage, and, by extension, the life of the family, is an important and divinely instituted means by which people may be formed for the kind of relationship that is ultimately to be perfected in the communion that Christ establishes with his people. Despite their many failings, and despite the tragic dysfunction that sometimes afflicts them, marriage and family relationships remain the place, subordinate only to the Church, where we are most likely to learn the gestures of unconditional love, of forgiveness, and of grace that, under divine command and enabling, are to be extended to all.
With respect to the question of whether marriage may be entered into by partners of the same gender, it seems to me that the precedent of God’s relationship to Israel and of Christ to the Church yields insight into the nature of marriage that does not preclude such a relationship being established between partners of the same gender. It remains an open question however, whether the complementarity of male and female indicated in Genesis, should be taken as normative for the marriage relationship between two human partners. That is the question that is now before the Church.
In the following paper I offer my reflections on what I believe lies at the heart of a doctrine of Christian marriage. As a woman in her mid-fifties who recently married for the first time, I have found myself engaging with this question on a very personal level. Marriage, as revealed in both Scripture and Jesus’ teaching, is initiated by God as an expression of love in community. Sacred and permanent, it offers protection and exclusivity for the expression of fidelity and conjugal love between a man and a woman. It is fundamental to my understanding of Christian marriage that it be a union between a man and a woman, as both are made in God’s image, therefore it is their complementary, but different natures, that reflect most authentically the mystery of the divine nature.
The divine nature is presented in the Scriptures as both feminine and masculine. God speaks of her conception, nurture, and birth in the continuing story of Israel. Yet God is also warrior, king, and father. God’s nature transcends gender, but by creating both male and female and joining them together as one God’s nature is “captured”, so to speak. Therefore when man and woman become one, it is their union (their becoming one) that reflects the complete/divine nature.
The physical/biological differences of men and women are obvious, but there is also a spiritual/emotional difference between them that is well attested in our churches, marriages, and relationships in general.
The “complete” nature of God, as expressed by both man and woman becoming one, finds its roots in the Genesis account of creation: Man (Adam) was created in the image of God, but finding him incomplete in/by himself, God created a specific helper/companion (ezer; Eve). Out of the one species, but creating a separate, distinctive and complementary being, God created the ideal reflection of the divine nature. Creativity, procreation, and abiding companionship all find their expression on the two beings becoming one. My reading of the creation account is that humanity was the pinnacle of creation. When the two complementary beings become one, their unity creates and perpetuates the image of the divine. I believe that it was God’s desire for the creative, spiritual and physical cycle of creation to continue through the mystery and sanctity of marriage.
Jesus also affirmed marriage as a divine institution laid down by God at the very beginning of creation. United by God two (man and woman) become one, and remain so until death (Mark 10.6–7, 9; Genesis 1.27; 2.24). The mystery of this sacred union between man and woman is that it offers a reflection of the image of God in community; Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. By this I mean that God is more than one, yet the same essence. The three persons of the trinity are separate, yet one. Each person of the trinity has a different expression, but they are the same! For me that means that in the Genesis account of creation the trinity was already present, and reflected in the creation of man and woman. Therefore marriage, at its heart, is an expression of God’s love/nature lived out in action for creation to be witness to, and benefit from.
The starting point for my position on a Christian doctrine of marriage is the concept of covenant. Biblically the marriage relationship was used as a distinctive metaphor for the covenantal relationship God had with Israel (Ezekiel 16.8). Permanence, faithfulness and self-sacrificing love are the pillars of God’s covenant relationship. Marriage, as a covenant relationship between two complementary natures made in God’s image, reflects the ideal of God’s relationship of love and fidelity with his/her people.
Pauline material develops this tradition by proclaiming that the sacred and permanent status of marriage is an analogy for the relationship between Christ and the Church (Ephesians 5.32). Marriage, in New Testament terms, is portrayed as the perfect example of covenantal oneness; a union created between a man and a woman by the unifying power of love.
The commitment to love unconditionally, as Christ loved the Church, implies self-sacrifice. Christ’s love led him to the cross, so biblically marriage becomes a vehicle for living out Christ’s self-sacrificing love. For me the concepts of obedience and discipleship are fundamental to my understanding of Christian marriage. God’s covenant love and Christ’s self-sacrificing love fit within a context of relationship. Marriage cannot be removed from this setting; it finds its expression only in relationship with God’s revelation (Jesus and Scripture).
The biblical vision for marriage, as a reflection of God’s love and unbreakable faithfulness, lies at the heart of my understanding of Christian marriage. Creator God created two complementary beings in his/her image to become one flesh. The purpose for such a union is, I believe, not only to offer human companionship, or produce children, but also to reveal the divine nature and character of an unseen God. Love by its very nature can only be authentically expressed in community, therefore marriage becomes the most complete expression of divine love.
Being both Māori and Christian my starting point on any subject is always my beloved wharenui, Te Maungarongo. On the taraiti side of the whare is our cultural side that captures our histories, genealogies, stories, songs, proverbs and everything that constitutes being Māori. On the opposite tarawhanui side of the whare are the biblical equivalents of those same stories. The backbone of the whare is the tahuhu where both culture and Scripture come together under watchful eye of God. Neither side of the whare can be separated as they interpret and inform each other. To separate the two would divide the whare and result in cultural and biblical amnesia.
The second pair of poupou in Te Maungarongo depict Rangi and Papatuanuku the primodial parents. Opposite is the biblical equivalent of Adam and Eve. This theme of cultural and biblical equivalents facing each other is consistent throughout the whare. The tenth poupou depicts the celebrated love story of Tutanekai and Hinemoa. The Biblical equivalent opposite is the Book of Psalms as the story focuses at this level upon the sweet music of the Putourino that encouraged Hinemoa to swim Lake Rotorua to Tutanekai upon Mokoia Island. At other levels the story deals with issues of politically arranged marriage, social status, tribal responsibility of procreation and of male affection and relationship towards another male. These are real stories that we still encounter today and are not simple fables or myths.
The back and front walls of the whare tell the story of the early church. At the apex of the exterior of the whare is the ancestor, in this case Jesus, holding the cross inviting you to take up the cross. On the interior of the inside back wall is the cross of Calvary. Both crosses challenge us to view those same stories through the cross of Christ and gain a new understanding of how things are done consistent with how they are lived in the Kingdom of God.
The hermeneutical question is not which side of the whare we start from, but how do both sides of Te Maungarongo come together in us, the living embodiment of those stories. The hermeneutical starting point is me, the mokopuna. Whakapapa works backwards. It starts with me and what I bring to this story.
Marriage was a stumbling block to Māori being baptised by the early Presbyterian Māori missions with their doctrine of one man and one woman in marriage. Iwi practised polgamy and this was non-negotiable to the missionaries. The pressures of government and Church eventually saw the demise of polygamy. Today polygamy has been replaced with defacto relationships and solo-parenting that has lead to a fatherless generation of children. These people are unfairly sterotyped as beneficiaries who spend their benefit on alcohol, smokes and drugs and substitute their income with illegal activities. Yet for the majority this is totally untrue. The Bible gives the imperative to look after the least in society and names them as the widow, the orphan and the unemployed. In my context that is about 80 percent of my whanau.
The context above is the taraiti side of the whare which is brought into conversation with the biblical that has many similar stories of political arranged marriages, marriage and social status, affairs, liasons, incest, rape, unemployment, poverty, adoption and single parenting. This conversation gives me a further reference point, and what new insights I may have are lifted up to be viewed through the cross of Jesus at Calvary. Jesus dealt with similar issues of human existence and gives new understandings and insights into how things are lived in the Kingdom of God. This is Te Maungarongo that moves me in the direction of the cross where I am given a new blueprint for the future.
No story is complete without the architects of my Presbyterian whare: Rua Kenana, prophet of Maungapohatu; Tu Rakuraku of Waimana; the Rt Rev Eru Tumutara; Bishop of the Ringatu Church; and the Presbyterian missionary the Very Rev J G Laughton CMG or Hoani. These architects of Te Maungarongo provide the overarching hermeneutical princple with their covenanted relationships with Hoani providing a safe and sound Christian future for their children and grandchildren.
Rua Kenana said to Hoani: “There is your Church, the children. You have the children, leave the old people to me.”
In a similar fashion, Tu Rakuraku said to Hoani: “Leave the old world to us, you have the children so they may have a better life than what we have experienced”.
The Rt Rev Eru Tumutara said to Hoani: “Teach my children the wisdom of the world but most importantly teach them the wisdom of God.”
These covenants are translated as Ōhākī, a gift that arises from within you and is binding on all future generations and can never be broken. All three gentlemen had experienced at a personal level the poverty of the New Zealand Wars, but they saw in the Presbyterian Church an opportunity for their children to have a better life, safe from what they witnessed.
In conclusion, the hermeutical process begins with me, the mokopuna, the blueprint of the future. The hermeneutical reference points are a conversation between the pillars of Te Maungarongo, cultural, context, Scripture and Christian tradition. These are held up to the apex of the whare where I view them through the cross of Jesus Christ. The overarching principle in the hermeneutical process is Te Ōhākī, the gift that is my salvation in the new world free from anything that separates me from the love of God.
The question of marriage, as with any theological reflection, does not come to the Church in a vacuum. Society now understands marriage as a relationship between two people, committed to each other, irrespective of sex, sexual orientation or gender identity. Marriage is seen as an intimate and yet public commitment between two adults that is recognised in law. The theological issue has arisen because on the one hand we have Assembly decisions that restrict marriage to opposite-sex couples and, on the other hand, ministers and congregations who wish to be able to celebrate marriage in the full, inclusive sense in which it is now understood.
From an ethical perspective, an evolving theology of marriage must include the voices of same-sex couples and transgendered people who wish to marry, because it is the lives of these people who will be directly affected by
the Church’s decision-making. Christian same-sex couples speak about their desire to express their love and commitment to one another in the context of their faith community. They want to belong to each other in love and to their congregations in ministry. Like couples who access civil marriage, they value the social recognition and support that comes with marriage. They also acknowledge the spiritual aspect of marriage to which law and secular society pay little attention. They are “claiming the blessing” that the Church has come to understand that marriage can be, a blessing of communion and community. And they wish to teach their children about the social and spiritual value of deep commitment to a life partner in a loving and just relationship.
Children of gay and lesbian parents are expressing the hope that their parents could marry. Approximately 24 percent of same-sex couples are raising children. Social research has overwhelmingly established that these children have outcomes that are as good or better than children raised by opposite-sex couples. The one thing that makes their lives difficult is discrimination against their families. In changing the marriage law, society has removed one source of discrimination, but the Church continues to perpetuate it.
The Bible on its own cannot provide the answers to the question of whether the Church should allow ministers to marry same sex couples because it is simply not a question that the Bible addresses. The Biblical writers had no knowledge of the continuum of human sexual orientation. Throughout the biblical record, different kinds of unions are accepted in different places and times, evolving and changing with culture and circumstance.
New Testament teachings about marriage are included with other teachings which are generally accepted as being time and culture bound. For example prohibitions against women teaching, or braiding their hair, are found alongside the imperative that a church leader should be “the husband of one wife”. (1 Timothy 2:9 – 3:2).
Biblical marriage includes polygamy, marriage within the family, reproduction with a deceased husband’s closest relative and prohibitions against marriage with people of other faiths or ethnicities. At times these patterns were normative and at other times they were considered less relevant.
The Genesis story of Adam and Eve is often cited as evidence that marriage can only be heterosexual because Jesus cited it in Mark 10:1–12. Context is crucial. Jesus was asked a question about the lawfulness of divorce. He responded by referencing the Genesis story and saying that “what God has joined together, let no one separate”. He concluded unequivocally that remarriage after divorce is adultery. It is disingenuous to extrapolate this teaching addressed to heterosexual couples to exclude same-sex marriage. Especially when the Church has significantly reinterpreted Jesus’s clear teaching on divorce.
The History of Marriage
It is impossible to give adequate consideration here to the way marriage has evolved over the past two millennia except to note that it has changed dramatically. Until the modern period, marriage was primarily based on political alliances for the elite and economic survival for the masses. Women were regarded as property transferred from father to husband, thus connecting families for political or economic benefits.
The diverse forms of familial relationships that many people think are unprecedented changes in family life, are mostly not new at all. Human beings have been creatively constructing families for a very long time. There have been times in the past when it was more common for children to be born out of wedlock than it is now. Step-families were very common in the past because of the high rates of death and remarriage. And even same-sex marriage, though relatively rare, has been sanctioned in some cultures.
Similarly, arrangements that are presented as “traditional marriage” in popular culture have a relatively recent history. The involvement of Church or state in marriage is a more recent “tradition” in human history. For centuries of Christian tradition, a couple were considered married when privately they said to each other the words of intent: “I take you to be my husband or wife”. Neither judge nor clergy were involved.
Marriage, shaped by political or economic considerations, began to change in the 18th century, five thousand years after it first took shape in the ancient tribes and kingdoms of the Middle East. Only then did love begin to dominate marriage discourse. Marriage began to be seen as a private relationship between two people rather than as part of a system of political or economic alliances. While there have always been loving marriages, the purpose of marriage for much of human history was more mundane.
What marks us as humans is our capacity for intelligent moral judgement. We cannot base our decisions about marriage solely on appeals to Scripture, tradition/history or on an unexamined understanding of biological or psychological complementarity of the sexes. The idea of male and female duality is frequently an unexamined assumption in theological conversation about marriage. It must be considered in light of contemporary science and social theory.
The freedom given to us in Christ includes the freedom to discern God’s will and the ways that God continues to speak to us through the Spirit. In limiting human sexual expression to heterosexual marriage, the Church has lost its place in the human community of ethical discernment. The public has heard us say that heterosexual intercourse within marriage is the requirement for God’s blessing. They have not heard us say that relationships that are mutual, equal, loving, committed and grounded, are relationships that reflect God’s faithfulness and grace. Moving beyond requiring humans to choose between heterosexual marriage and celibacy would create a space for the Church to talk about what makes a relationship good and therefore to invite people into the spiritual depth and commitment that good marriage can provide.
It has taken some time to canvas the views of members of the Pacific community that I am involved with, however I present a view that is shared in common by every person that has contributed to the question: “What is the Pacific Christian’s perspective of the doctrine of marriage?”
Primarily, we strongly believe that marriage is the bond between a man and a woman as blessed by Jesus Christ the head of the Church. The general belief is a call for the Presbyterian Church to hold strictly to biblical teachings about Christian marriage as a necessary step to the formation and beginning of a family.
I would like to also include extracts from the Vatican’s International Theological Commission entitled Statements on the Doctrine of Marriage which reflect the thinking of the Pacific community I am representing in this statement.
Marriage in Christ
As is easily shown in the New Testament, Jesus confirmed this institution which existed “from the very beginning”, and cured it of its previous defects (Mark 10:2–9, 10–12) by restoring all its dignity and its original requirements. He sanctified this state of life (Gaudium et Spes 48, 2) by including it within the mystery of love, which unites him as Redeemer to his Church. This is the reason why the task of regulating Christian marriage (1 Corinthians 7:10) has been entrusted to the Church.
The Epistles of the New Testament say that marriage should be honoured in every way (Hebrews 13:4) and, in response to certain attacks, they present it as a good work of the Creator (1 Timothy 4:1–5). Rather, they exalt matrimony among the faithful because it is included in the mystery of Covenant and love that unites Christ and the Church (Ephesians 5:22–23; Gaudium et Spes 48, 2).
They ask, therefore, that marriage be contracted “in the Lord” (1 Corinthians 7:39) and that matrimonial life be lived in accordance with the dignity of a new creatures (2 Corinthians 5:17), “in Christ” (Ephesians 5:21–33), putting Christians on guard against the pagans’ habits (1 Corinthians 6:12–20; 6:9–10).
On the basis of a “right deriving from faith” and in their desire to assure its permanence, the Churches of apostolic times formulated certain moral orientations (Colossians 3:18; Titus 2:3–5; 1 Peter 3:1–7) and juridical dispositions that would help people live matrimony “according to the faith” in different human situations and conditions.
Real Symbol and Sacramental Sign
Jesus Christ disclosed in a prophetic way the reality of matrimony as it was intended by God at man’s beginnings (Genesis 1:27; 2:24; Mark 10:6, 7–8; Matthew 19:4, 5) and restored it through his death and Resurrection. For this reason Christian marriage is lived “in the Lord” (1 Corinthians 7:39) and is also determined by elements of the saving action performed by Christ.
Already in the Old Testament the matrimonial union was a figure of the Covenant between God and the people of Israel (Hosea 2; Jeremiah 3:6–13; Ezekiel 16 and 23; Isaiah 54). In the New Testament, Christian marriage rises to a new dignity as a representation of the mystery that unites Christ and the Church (Ephesians 5:21–33). Theological interpretation illuminates this analogy more profoundly: the supreme love and gift of the Lord who shed his blood and the faithful and irrevocable attachment of his Spouse the Church, become models and examples for Christian matrimony.
This resemblance is a relationship of real sharing in the Covenant of love between Christ and the Church. From its own standpoint, Christian marriage, as a real symbol and sacramental sign, represents the Church of Christ concretely in the world and, especially under its family aspect, it is called rightly the “domestic Church” (Lumen Gentium 11).
Sacrament in a Real Sense
In such a way matrimony takes on the likeness of the mystery of the union between Jesus Christ and his Church. This inclusion of Christian marriage in the economy of salvation is enough to justify the title “sacrament” in a broad sense.
But it is also at once the concrete condensation and the real actualization of this primordial sacrament. It follows from this that Christian marriage is in itself a real and true sign of salvation, which confers the grace of God. For this reason the Catholic Church numbers it among the seven sacraments (Denzinger-A Schönmetzer, 1327, 1801).
A unique bond exists between the indissolubility of marriage and its sacramentality, that is, a reciprocal, constitutive relationship. Indissolubility makes one’s grasp of the sacramental nature of Christian matrimony easier, and from the theological point of view, its sacramental nature constitutes the final grounds, although not the only grounds, for its indissolubility.
It is fair to say that all of the above points of view resonate with the thinking of Pacific Christians in the Presbyterian Church. However the question that is in the news items lately has been the same-sex marriage question. There is a strong “No” from the Pacific community that have responded to me on this point.
I pass on the blessings from those I represent to the doctrine committee for this important task you are charged with.
I. Foundation. “For … all things have been created through him and for him” (Colossians 1.16). Jesus Christ is the one Word of God in, by and for whom humanity is constituted. He alone reveals God’s will for human life and flourishing. Consequently, marriage ought primarily to be understood christologically. The Church therefore rejects as false all efforts to ground its doctrine and ethics in sources apart from and besides this one Word of God. Such efforts threaten to turn an institution or relationship into an idol, an anti-Christ.
II. Eschatology. “ ‘… and the two will become one flesh’. This is a profound mystery – but I am talking about Christ and the church” (Ephesians 5.31–32). Like every gift from God, marriage is good and fitting – not only for individual persons and families, but also for the flourishing of human society. But its goodness is closely associated with its provisionality – with its being bound to the creation which is passing away (eg. Luke 18.29; Matthew 19.12; 22.30) – and with it, as with celibacy, bearing prophetic witness to the coming new creation. Its ultimate meaning is eschatological and so it is called to be characterised by the transforming of old markers and the reconstituting of human relationality in the light of God’s coming. The Church therefore rejects efforts to explain the mystery of marriage solely in terms of the old creation. Furthermore, because Holy Scripture speaks of marriage in terms of Christ’s relation to the Church unbound by gender, we reject the claim that marriage’s signalling of Christ’s relationship with his bride must be gender specific.
III. Discipleship. “Then he said to them all, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me’” (Luke 9.23). Jesus Christ calls and the Holy Spirit empowers persons to leave behind all that has the appearance of certainty, and to become his disciples. This call precedes and exists uncompetitively with all other claims that may be made. God’s provision (marriage is a “gift” rather than a “right”) of marriage during this time-between-the-times is a particular vocation given to some so that they might be trained in the way of discipleship; learn how to recognise the otherness of the other (i.e., as a being not under their power); be taught love of neighbour; celebrate the mystery of friendship; be schooled in embodied witness, repentance and virtue; practice the meaning of sacrifice, the risk of hospitality and the formation of community and be ready to accept the challenges of new life which love creates – the disciplines of denial and restraint that liberate human persons for sanctification. The Church therefore rejects as false all efforts to understand marriage (and all other human relationships) independently of the call to discipleship.
IV. Desire. “This is my body, which is given for you” (Luke 22.19). Marriage occasions a social context to commit oneself to being where one’s body is, to make one’s body available for the other – “for better, for worse … for as long as you live” (Book of Common Order) – and for desire to mean more than meeting emotional and physical needs. While it is beyond the creature’s power to make sex spiritually or sacramentally significant (indeed, all such attempts are idolatrous), it is entirely commensurate with God’s character to do so; ie. to make good on the promise that human beings are more than material. “The moral question, at this point, ought to be how much we want our sexual activity to communicate, how much we want it to display a breadth of human possibility and a sense of the body’s capacity to heal and enlarge the life of other subjects,” says Rowan Williams. The Church therefore rejects as illegitimate all expressions of desire for other persons unbridled and undirected by commitment to the relationship in which the blessing of the other is not a foremost concern.
V. Election and covenant. “How can I give you up, Ephraim?” (Hosea 11.8). Marriage serves as an analogue to, and a reflection of the electing love of God (however imperfect). Marriage exists because God loves Israel, in whom God also makes space for gentiles. This is God’s counter word to the fear many couples experience; namely, the threat to the security of their own marriages from the “other”. The Word of God brings persons into covenant communion with God and with each other, the character of which is holy, loving, and unbreakable. The Church therefore rejects all theological justification for divorce. That said, lest we turn God’s gracious provision into an ideology, the Church equally rejects all notions of indissolubility which smuggle in a metaphysic whereby divorce and remarriage are made authentic impossibilities. “Indeed, if one purpose of marriage is to serve as a sign of God’s love in the world … how can we reject the possibility that a second marriage after a divorce could serve as a sign of grace and redemption from the sin and brokenness of the past?” (Richard Hays).
VI. Responsible freedom. “You were called to freedom; do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another” (Galatians 5.13). Marriage is an expression of the freedom granted to God’s human creatures and to the societies they form. So, “It is lawful for all sorts of people to marry, who are able with judgement to give their consent” (The Westminster Confession of Faith). Marriage, in other words, is created not by a ceremony per se but by an act of responsible freedom. Where possible, a public ceremony – wherein the “I do” confessed by the couple and heard by a public serves as both creative and performative utterance – might also represent such an act and so ought to be the norm. Still, “there are many marriages, true though incomplete, which the Church has never blessed or the State ratified” (James K. Baxter). If a couple “cannot or will not have one another in this freedom, it is far better for them not to want to have one another at all” (Karl Barth). The Church therefore rejects all pre-determined images (whether understood in terms of roles, or contractual obligations, or any other matters decided in advance) of what any particular marriage might look like as being fundamentally at odds with the loving promise of covenant freedom in God. “Gratuitous, beyond our fathom, both binding and freeing, this love re-invades us, shifts the boundaries of our being” (Micheal O’Siadhail).
Last night’s edition of the ABC program Sunday Nights, hosted by John Cleary, included an interview with the Rev Dr Kerry Enright, the outgoing National Director of UnitingWorld, and a friend of mine. During the interview, Kerry reflects upon two of his favorite topics – the catholic nature of the church as gift from God and as sign to the world, and on the role of the church in civil society (here the discussion is focused particularly on Fiji, Australia and New Zealand). He also talks a bit about his forthcoming appointment as minister of Knox Church (Presbyterian) in Dunedin. I’m looking forward to welcoming Kerry back to Dunedin, and back to the PCANZ, soon. You can listen to the interview here.
And while I’m mentioning Kerry, there’s also an older interview in which he talks about God’s mission and about the significance of partnerships that UnitingWorld enjoys:
Perhaps no dominical injunction has been rendered by christological elaboration more difficult in Christian practice, personal and corporate, than Jesus’ supposedly simple distinction between the proper claims of Caesar and God. (G. H. Williams)
Amid pressure from Nazi defenders for a ‘positive Christianity’, Erik Peterson, in his essay ‘Kaiser Augustus im Urteil des antiken Christentums’ (1933), argues that despite the persecutions in the early centuries of the Christian community, there was – from Luke through Quadratus, Melito of Sardis, Justin Martyr, Theophilus of Antioch, Origen, Eusebius of Caesarea, and Orosius – a somewhat positive evaluation of the Empire. And in his book Der Monotheismus als politisches Problem. Ein Beitrag zur Geschichte der politischen Theologie im Imperium Romanum (1935), Peterson further develops the claim that there existed something of a convergence of interests between pagan and Christian monotheism, a convergence which illustrates how positive evaluations of the Empire in terms of the Logos, and related notions in the Ante-Nicene period, ill-prepared the Christian bishops for handling the vastly enlarged risks and opportunities that lay before them. As G. H. Williams (who was, of all the odd creatures to be, a Unitarian) has noted in a fine article on ‘Christology and Church-State Relations in the Fourth Century’, this meeting of interests at first betrayed the bishops into championing ‘an uncritical acceptance of political support, until at length a fully understood Trinitarianism proved itself capable of resisting the exploitation of Christian monotheism as a means of sanctioning political unity and securing social cohesion’.
At the centre of this discussion lies the question of christology; more particularly, an ancient debate, as Williams has shown, between first ‘the Catholic insistence upon the consubstantiality of the Son and the championship of the independence of the Church of which he is the Head’, and second, ‘between the Arian preference for Christological subordination and the Arian disposition to subordinate the Church to the State’, correlations much obscured by the fact that Christological orthodoxy was at first defined under the presidency of a sole emperor and following a half century of controversy manufactured by another. Yet, as Williams proceeds to note, ‘all who have worked through the fourth century have sensed some affinity between Arianism and Caesaropapism on the one hand and on the other between Nicene orthodoxy and the recovery of a measure of ecclesiastical independence’. He continues:
In insisting that the God of Creation, of Redemption, and the Final Assize is essentially one God, the Catholics were contending that the Lord of Calvary is also the Lord of the Capitol. But for this very reason the typical Nicenes were unwilling to accommodate revelation to reason purely in the interest of enhancing the cohesive value of Christianity for the Empire. In contrast, the Arians, having a comparatively low Christology were pleased to find in their emperor a divine epiphany or instrument or indeed a demigod like Christ himself. Thus the Arians were more disposed than the Nicenes to accept the will of an emperor as a canon and to defer to him as bishops, because the canons, tradition, and scriptural law centering in the historical Christ could not possibly in their eyes take precedence over the living law (nomos empsuchos) of the emperor ordained by the eternal Logos.
In October last year, I participated in a very stimulating three-day symposium on ‘Churches and the Rule of Law’, held at the lovely John Knox International Reformed Centre in Geneva. I was there invited to be a respondent to a paper by James Skillen (the former executive director and president of the Center for Public Justice), the subject of which was the Bible and the State. I am pleased to report that the main papers from the symposium have now been published as part of the John Knox Series of books, and are available by contacting the secretariat of the Centre via email, or by snail mail at
Centre international réformé John Knox, Secrétariat
27, chemin des Crêts de Pregny
1218 Grand-Saconnex / Ge – Suisse
For those who may be interested, you can download a copy of my (somewhat undercooked) response to Dr Skillen’s paper here.
- Scott Stephens on being Christian, government funding and chaplaincy in schools.
- When Did Girls Start Wearing Pink?
- J. Scott Jackson reviews David Haddorff’s Christian Ethics as Witness: Barth’s Ethics for a World at Risk.
- What Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart owes to his big sister, Maria Anna Mozart.
- Michael Jensen on ‘Is God a bloke?’, or on why ‘a Christianity that refuses to call God “Father” is something other than Christianity’.
- The future, according to Google search results.
- John Pilger on Anzac Day and Australia’s role as ‘deputy sheriff’.
- Scott Hamilton on New Zealand’s ‘endangered life form’ – the literary critic – and reviews on Private Bestiary.
- Garry Deverell posts on Holy Week and the Great Three Days of Easter – an introduction for the uninitiated.
- Halden Doerge details a Call for Papers for an AAR session on Jacob Taubes and Christian Theology.
- An excerpt from Žižek’s Living in the End Times.
- An Easter Message from Ricky Gervais.
The latest edition of One the Road, the journal of the Anabaptist Association of Australia and New Zealand, includes a helpful piece by Michael Buttrey titled ‘12 ways to prematurely write off Yoder: Some common misconceptions about Yoder’s ‘Neo-Anabaptist’ vision’. Buttrey identifies the twelve ‘misconceptions’ as:
1. Yoder believes Constantine corrupted the church.
2. Yoder thinks that there was no salt or light in the medieval church.
3. Yoder hates Luther, Calvin and the other magisterial Reformers.
4. Yoder has a low view of God’s sovereignty over history. Or:
5. He idolizes the early church.
6. Yoder inappropriately sees Jesus’ earthly life as normative.
7. Yoder fails to deal with the Old Testament, especially the wars of Joshua.
8. Yoder’s pacifism inhibits any effective witness to the state, especially regarding war.
9. Even for Christians, Yoder’s pacifism is impossible, or at least irresponsible.
10. Yoder advocates separation from the world that ‘God so loved.’ And:
11. Isn’t Yoder a ‘fideistic sectarian tribalist’ like Stanley Hauerwas?
Here, Buttrey writes:
These common accusations seriously misunderstand Yoder.
First, Yoder’s context was one where he was urging traditionally quietist Anabaptists to realize they had a social ethic and witness to society, while simultaneously calling activist Christians to realize they need not abandon the gospel and take up the methods of the world in their impatience to get things done. Ironically, Yoder has often been taken more seriously by theologians and political philosophers outside his tradition – such as Stanley Hauerwas and Romand Coles – than those on the ‘inside.’
Second, Yoder has no desire to divide the church further. Indeed, in “The Kingdom As Social Ethic” he deeply objects to the labelling of radically obedient groups as sectarian, for they had no intentions of separating themselves:
[Such groups] have called upon all Christians to return to the ethic to which they themselves were called. They did not agree that their position was only for heroes, or only possible for those who would withdraw from wider society. They did not agree to separate themselves as more righteous from the church at large. (85)
Third, Yoder is fundamentally not interested in withdrawal or separation from society. In “The Paradigmatic Public Role of God’s People,” Yoder agrees with Karl Barth that ‘what believers are called to is no different from what all humanity is called to. … To confess that Jesus Christ is Lord makes it inconceivable that there should be any realm where his writ would not run.’ (25) Of course, those who seriously see Christ’s commands as normative for all tend to be called fideists or theocrats. Yoder is neither.
Yoder is not a fideist because, unlike most realists, he sees the gospel as having a truly universal appeal. Christian realists typically assume that the gospel is inaccessible and incomprehensible to all other groups, and so it is necessary to use a neutral, ‘public’ language to oblige non-Christians ‘to assent to our views on other grounds than that they are our views.’ (16–7) Indeed, it is not Yoder but his critics who tend to think that their faith is fundamentally irrational and its public demands must be set aside for that reason. This reverse fideism is not surprising, however, given how modern liberal democracies understand religious groups and language.
Further, Yoder is not a theocrat, because he does not call for the violent imposition of the gospel, which would be an oxymoron. Rather, the challenge for the church is to purify its witness so ‘the world can perceive it to be good news without having to learn a foreign language.’ (24) Christ’s universal lordship obliges the church to make great demands of the world, but by definition, the gospel witness is a process of public dialogue, not coercion.
In short, the best word for Yoder’s understanding of the church’s witness to society is that of model. Consider some of these potential imperatives for civil society Yoder derives theologically in that same essay:
- egalitarianism, not because it is self-evident (history suggests that it is clearly not!) but because baptism into one body breaks down ethnic and cultural barriers;
- forgiveness as commanded by Christ (he agrees with Hannah Arendt that a religious origin and articulation for forgiveness is no reason to discount it in secular contexts);
- radical sharing and hospitality, even voluntary socialism, as implied in the Eucharist; and
- open public meetings and dialogue, as Paul instructed the Corinthians.
This sketch is almost a political “platform,” and hardly separatist. But for Christians with typical approaches to politics, Yoder’s call for the church to be where God’s vision for society is first implemented and practiced is an enormous stumbling block. It is yet another irony that realists are so often closet quietists: they see the only choice as being between transforming society and letting it go its own way. Yoder, however, asks us to obey Christ even if no one else is interested – although he trusts that the Kingdom will advance if the word of God is faithfully witnessed and embodied amid the powers and principalities of the world.
12. Yoder and Stanley Hauerwas are the same.
You can read the full piece here.
Bruce Hamill and I have spent the last 10 days or so in Grand Rapids, Michigan, serving as delegates of the Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand at the United General Council of the newly-formed World Communion of Reformed Churches (WCRC). The Council has been involved in the bringing together of two former bodies – the World Alliance of Reformed Churches (WARC) and the Reformed Ecumenical Council (REC) – into one World Communion that represents over 80 million Reformed Christians worldwide. It has been a very exciting meeting to attend, and I have felt a deep sense of privilege in being here as a participant.
It has been a rich time of worship, of meeting delegates and visitors from all over the world, of catching up with old friends and making new ones, of sharing resources and ideas about ministry, theological education and mission, of attending to administrative matters (there was no shortage of this), of hearing about what God and God’s people are doing – and are not doing – in different parts of the globe, and of reflecting on both the catholicity and the reformed identity of this branch of the Church, among other things. And, as is typically the case at these ecumenical gatherings, there has been no shortage of talk about ‘justice’, ‘peace’, ‘mission, ‘unity’, and about addressing the powers of empire. The spirit of Accra abides.
One of the issues that I was keen to ‘place on the table’ at this gathering concerned the relationship between Reformed Churches and the State. It seems to me that a tradition like mine which is so heavily imbedded in what is now a rapidly-disappearing Christendom has well and truly entered (in most parts of the world) a time in which our relationship with the State is overdue for a rethink. Put differently, is it time for Reformed Churches who have long been in bed with the State to start thinking about wearing an ecclesiastical condom, at least at more ‘risky’ times of the month? Conversely, is it time for Reformed Churches who have long sidelined themselves from their societies to re-think their bed etiquette? One place that I thought that such a rethink may be encouraged is in the teasing out of a few implications of being a ‘communion’, as opposed to a being a mere ‘alliance’ (Bruce has more to say about this distinction here). So I trundled along to a section called ‘Reformed Identity, Theology and Communion’, naïvely thinking that the topic of conversation at such a group might have at least something to do with Reformed identity, theology and/or communion.
After what felt like countless hours of talking around in circles about neither Reformed identity, nor theology, nor communion – hours made all the more painful by an incompetent section moderator – I offered the following proposal:
‘The World Communion of Reformed Churches acknowledges that the affirmation of communion has implications for our life together. The shape of this life together is fashioned upon the Gospel, that is, upon the gracious economy of the Triune God who makes us one.
Our identity and communion is created, sustained and fleshed out by Jesus Christ. This reality, which the Bible calls ‘life in Christ Jesus’ (Rom 6.23; 1 Cor 1.30; 2 Tim 3.12), redefines and reconstitutes our identity thus making all other identify-forming relationships secondary.
Therefore, as one of the many concrete expressions of this communion:
- We will not kill one another.
- We will make disciples in our congregations who might learn to resist participation in the State’s machinery of violence and thereby offer a distinctive Christian witness to an alternative way of living that is determined to not perpetuate the practices of that world which is passing away but which is formed by the new creation inaugurated in the resurrection of Jesus from the dead.
- We will communicate – in word and in action – to our respective states and governments that our principle allegiance is to Jesus Christ.
- We will offer our full support to all those in our communion for whom this commitment will come at great cost.
We are a people who confess to follow one who puts himself in the way of evil, who intervenes on behalf of the oppressed and the weak and the downtrodden, and who does so not with swords and spears, but by bearing on his body the blows and resisting retaliation. Jesus confronts the cycle of violence and declares that ‘The violence stops with me’. He suffers in his own person the wrong that is done, and trusts the outcome to God. That is the pattern of obedient life that Christians are called to follow and into which they are incorporated through baptism. Forgiveness, compassion, prayer and sacrifice are the tools that Christ takes up in his war against evil and sin. When those who bear his name take up arms to wage war, and insist that such action is necessary, unavoidable and a last resort, they are resorting to a logic other than that of the Logos incarnate. It must be confessed therefore that they have failed in the call to inhabit God’s new creation, a call which allows for no exceptions when it comes to loving even our enemies’.
Unsurprisingly, the proposal received very little support (something like 15% I guess). That it received so little support was less disappointing to me, however, than the fact that here was a group of intelligent and articulate reformed thinkers and church leaders who – because of an incompetent moderator – were not afforded the opportunity to even discuss the issue/s being raised. It was, sadly, a wasted opportunity and I can only thank God for the many informal discussions that arose after my presentation. It was also a learning opportunity for me in ecumenical diplomacy (something that I hope never to be too good at) and at the importance of having well-moderated meetings.
After dusting myself off, I decided to give my modest proposal another (if even-more modest) crack in a session the following day, and that via the addition of a single sentence to a report of the Policy Committee. The Report serves as the guide for the future work of the Executive Committee of the WCRC. To the recommendation that ‘WCRC, working with appropriate member churches and other organizations, seek ways to accompany member churches through prophetic solidarity, education and advocacy’, I suggested the following addition: ‘This will include a commitment to not participate in violence against one another’. This time, the proposal was enthusiastically received, but again there was no discussion. And perhaps just as well, for a body of this size (around 1000) to engage in a meaningful conversation about the implications of such a statement would have us stuck here in Grand Rapids for many more moons, and while Calvin College is a extraordinarily-beautiful setting to be hanging out in for a few weeks, I’m looking forward to getting home and to doing some further thinking myself about reformed identity and about the shape of reformed ecclesiology in post-Christendom states.
[Photo by Erick Coll/UGC]
‘The Church is born and lives … in the gift of Pentecost’ (p. 101). It is Pentecost, Stringfellow reminds us in Free in Obedience, that births the Church into the ‘awful freedom’ of Christ’s victory, a freedom from death, a freedom which empowers the people of God to live jubilantly ‘during the remaining time of death’s apparent reign, without escaping or hiding or withdrawing from the full reality of death’s presence … It is the freedom to live anywhere, any day, in such a way as to expose and confound the works of death and at the same time to declare and honor the work of Christ’ (pp. 75–6). This freedom is not given for God’s sake, or for the sake of the Church, but in order that the world may ‘recover wholeness and completion of life’ (p. 76). It represents, therefore, an act of divine generosity which gathers up in its ek-static movement a people called to witness to the grace, truth and power of Christ’s resurrection. Those so gathered are called into an ‘ethics of obedience’ (p. 76), a calling which involves a loosening of the grip on the principalities of race, class, ideology, commerce, status, etc., that hold the Church captive:
‘The principality of the nation is served by the silence of the Church on issues confronting society; the nation willingly tolerates a silent, uncritical, uninterfering Church concerned only with such esoteric things of religion as public worship’. (p. 85)
On the whole, the Church – largely confused about the freedom given in the gospel and ‘in which it was constituted at Pentecost’ (p. 88) – has been a faithful chaplain and ‘handmaiden’ (p. 95) to the State, dutifully blessing the State’s causes and idolatrous claims with a ‘dignity of allegiance that ought to be given only to God’ (p. 86). Those already familiar with Yoder’s and Kerr’s critiques of Constantinianism’s project of the politicisation of the church according to the terms of the state, the civil sovereigns, powers and principalities of this world, will find echoes here in Stringfellow.
After a discussion on the legitimacy and necessity of civil disobedience (though the Church is never to engage in civil disobedience as anarchists but only in order to affirm the nation’s true vocation), Stringfellow brilliantly outlines the proper relation between church and state (neither of which are ‘exempt from the fall’ (p. 98)) under God’s authority. He argues that ‘the Church vis a vis the nation is always in the position of standing against the nation in the nation’s bondage to death; at the same time, the Church is always in the position of standing for the nation in a most profound way that recalls the vocation for the nation in the service of God … The Church reminds the nation, as it is does any other principality, of the origin of its life, of the service it owes to God, and of the accountability of the nation to God in ruling the common life of men in society’ (pp. 92, 93). He also identifies the void in Protestant moral theology which fails to account for the way that those church bureaucrats who think that they control the institution are themselves slaves to the principalities of death.
‘This does not mean that Christians should be loath to work in churchly institutions, but it does mean that those who do should be aware of the reality which confronts them and should not be romantic about it because the principality bears the name “church.” Above all, they should be prepared to stomach the conflict which will surely accompany their use of the freedom from idolatry of even churchly principalities which Christ himself has secured’. (p. 99)
Stringfellow then engages with a wonderfully-helpful reflection of the ongoing power and significance of Pentecost (and of the authority present in Christian baptism) for shaping and determining Christian witness in a world in which King Jesus, possessed of the Holy Spirit, triumphantly encounters the powers and principalities of death – and death itself. ‘The Church, in the gratuity of Pentecost, is enabled to witness to God’s authority over the principalities in his victory over death by its knowledge of death, its discernment of the powers of death, and by unveiling and laying bare the works of death in this world’ (p. 102).
Don’t forget Wipf & Stock’s offer to readers of Per Crucem ad Lucem of 40% off the retail price of any of the Stringfellow volumes. To obtain the 40% discount, just include the coupon code STRINGFELLOW with your order.
‘The greatest tragedy of the church and of our people I see, at this moment in time, lies in the fact that in the powerful popular movement a purified, glowing, national feeling is linked up with a new paganism, whose unmasking and attacking is more difficult than with free-thinking religion, not only on emotional grounds, but because it goes around in Christian clothing’. So penned Dietrich Bonhoeffer in 1931 during his first trip to North America, and published in No Rusty Swords (p. 69). This temptation, so powerfully resisted in Bonhoeffer’s own person, is also identified by Joe Jones in his exciting book On Being the Church of Jesus Christ in Tumultuous Times (reviewed here). In the Introduction, Jones recalls how throughout the church’s life there has been a ‘constant temptation to Christians to regard their national cultural identity as more basic than their Christian identity’ (p. xxi). This too is my concern, a concern nicely echoed in Ben Myers’ recent post on Anzac Day and the god of war, a subject which I too posted on last year under the name Aliens in the Church: A Reflection on ANZAC Day, National Flags and the Church as an Alternative Society. This shared concern seeks to speak into the confusion about the most basic self-understanding of the people of God, about our identity in the world and about which ‘mythology’ we choose to have our minds and lives most shaped by. Jones rightly, to my mind, contends that one symptom of the disarray in the church today is that most of us are more decisively formed and informed by our national identity than by our identity as disciples of an-other kingdom.
Jones proposes that the decisive identity for the church is an identity grounded in affirming Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour. Without some clarity about the priority among our various socially-conferred and socially-constructed identities, the church will, he contests, be utterly incapacitated to think pertinently about much at all, including issues about war and peace, and about its own unique identity, as well as its own theologically-determined political and economic life. He writes: ‘In the absence of a vigorous self-understanding grounded in the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the church devolves into being no more than a mirror image of the values – the discourses and practices – that shape the world in which it lives. Hence, being the church of Jesus Christ in tumultuous times at least involves understanding what it means simply in all times and places to be that community that is the Body of Christ in the world’. He continues: ‘This problem is most acute for the so-called ‘liberals’ and the so-called ‘conservatives’ among the church, for both seem determined to think about the war and terror simply according to the their liberal or conservative political dispositions. Completely lost in this is how to think and act, first and foremost, from the perspective of being a confessing and disciplined member of the Body of Christ in the world. Put another way: the discourses of the church should be the means by which Christians come to construe the world of the nation-states, with their internal and external politics, as the world over which Jesus Christ reigns’ (p. xxii).
We ought to thank God for those ministers and churches who on this recent Anzac Day refused to baptise a pagan ‘mythology’ but instead embraced the opportunity to engage creatively, graciously and prophetically with the soul of the community around them, to identify points of contact with that wider community, to encourage public discourse about the deepest realities of human being, and to hold up a new imagining of human community grounded in Jesus alone. That next year’s ANZAC Day falls on Easter Monday, only helps – one hopes – to make that conversation even more arresting, the clash of ‘mythologies’ even more striking, and the choice before us even more stark.
Over at The Jesus Manifesto, Mark Van Steenwyk is beginning a four-part series examining the ‘intrinisically oppressive nature of much of traditional Christianity’. Here’s a snippert from his first post – Christianity is Empire, Part 1:
‘The argument that Christianity is intrinsically oppressive is nothing new, but it persists. That’s because it is true. Christianity, at least as it is understood by the majority of Christians throughout the ages is inherently oppressive and will inevitably lead to Empire. A Christianity that is willing to use the Sword will always nurture Empire.
This may not always be the case with all Christians everywhere, and it certainly wasn’t true for the earliest followers of Jesus, but it is such a well-worn pattern of Christian practice that it would be foolish to simply dismiss those who argue that Christianity is inherently oppressive.
Traditional readings of Genesis (about subduing the land) mixed with traditional views of the Lordship of Christ (which gives his followers socio-religious superiority) mixed with the evangelistic impulse of the Great Commission (which gives us a mandate to extend Christ’s rule to the ends of the earth) are problematic enough as they stand. But if you add the willingness to use violence to accomplish these ends, you are creating the perfect empire cocktail.
If we are going to have a faith that resists domination, we need to re-examine our willingness to use the Sword to accomplish any Gospel-inspired goals. If a Christianity that is willing to use the Sword will always nurture Empire, we need to put away the sword’.
Material to evoke some good conversation, not least for those in my part of the world thinking about stuff to do with Anzac Day (a subject which birthed this post of mine last year on Aliens in the Church: A Reflection on ANZAC Day, National Flags and the Church as an Alternative Society).
‘There is no agreement between the divine and the human sacrament, the standard of Christ and the standard of the devil, the camp of light and the camp of darkness. One soul cannot be due to two masters — God and Cæsar’. So was Tertullian’s response (in On Idolatry 19) to a question he posed of ‘whether a believer may turn himself unto military service, and whether the military may be admitted unto the faith, even the rank and file, or each inferior grade, to whom there is no necessity for taking part in sacrifices or capital punishments’.
My recent return to the Antipodes (after only 3 years) has been met with something of a shock at what I observe to be a distinct revival of patriotism in this part of the world symbolised not least in the hoisting of national flags. I can only interpret this as a public confession that the soul of the nation is distressed. Holding this thought, I remember once hearing (on tape) the great Welsh preacher Martyn Lloyd-Jones lamenting that the saddest day in ecclesiastical history was when Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity. (Of course, it may been different if Constantine had turned out to be a different kind of Emperor, but that’s not my point here). At the time, I wondered if this was a bit of an overstatement (a brilliant preacher’s rhetoric beclouding more constrained reflection on what is only one of millions of possible ‘saddest day’ candidates), but he was certainly onto something: that the Church’s jumping into bed with and baptising nationhood with its programs and events – such as Anzac Day – serves to highlight yet again that there is literally all the difference in the world between discipleship and citizenship, that with or without the third verse the Church cannot in good conscience sing the hymn ‘I vow to thee, my country’, words which were rung out at many a recent Anzac Day service. (And while I’m on Anzac Day services, let me tout that the Church can only faithfully recall the deaths that war has claimed if she does so as part of her proclamation against all war.)
The Church betrays its witness to the one Word of God when she includes a national flag among – or alongside – her emblems of worship. Nationalism and patriotism are always idolatrous enemies of a jealous Lord who tolerates no rivals. To see a national flag displayed in a place of Christian worship is to witness a message as scandalous and confusing as to see an ATM machine in a ‘church foyer’. Moreover, to witness (or to participate in) what Lesslie Newbigin described as ‘the Constantinian trap’ is to observe (and/or to participate in) the greatest of public failures – the denial of the Church’s font, table and pulpit, its raison d’être and its catholicity in the world. It is to preach that the greatest thing in the world – the Church – has become a chaplain of the State and its violent machinery. Paul Fromont recently gave voice to similar concerns by drawing upon Stanley Hauerwas’ writing as that concerned with ‘liberation’. For Hauerwas, he writes, this typically centres on a two-fold dynamic: (1) The liberation of the church from its captivity to agendas, values and practices intrinsically alien to its character and calling; and (2) liberation (in order to) restore the church to be and act as what [Hauerwas] terms a ‘free agent’ of the Kingdom appropriate to God’s agenda of the salvation of the cosmos and its re-creation (cf. Rev 21:1; Rom 8:22). I recall Hauerwas’ words from another context: to ‘worship in a church with an American flag’ means that ‘your salvation is in doubt’. Patriotism is no Christian virtue. (See Hauerwas’ Dissent from the Homeland, p. 184). The problem in Germany during the 1930s and 40s wasn’t that German Christians draped the cross with a Nazi flag; it was that they draped the cross with a flag full stop. Christian communities ought remove all national flags from their places of worship, and to do so at least as publicly as when they were first placed there. The removal should be accompanied by a public prayer of confession for despoiling the Church’s witness to its Lord, and to its own catholicity.
Against those who contend that the Church’s role is to baptise those creations of common good that the State concerns itself with, William Cavanaugh, in his brilliant essay, ‘Killing for the Telephone Company: Why the Nation-State is not the Keeper of the Common Good’ (Modern Theology 20/2, 2004), observes that Christian social ethics more often than not proceed on the false assumption that the responsibility for promoting and protecting the common good falls to the State. He avers:
The nation-state is neither community writ large nor the protector of smaller communal spaces, but rather originates and grows over against truly common forms of life. This is not necessarily to say that the nation-state cannot and does not promote and protect some goods, or that any nation-state is entirely devoid of civic virtue, or that some forms of ad hoc cooperation with the government cannot be useful. It is to suggest that the nation-state is simply not in the common good business. At its most benign, the nation-state is most realistically likened, as in MacIntyre’s apt metaphor, to the telephone company, a large bureaucratic provider of goods and services that never quite provides value for money. The problem, as MacIntyre notes, is that the nation-state presents itself as so much more; namely, as the keeper of the common good and repository of sacred values that demands sacrifice on its behalf. The longing for genuine communion that Christians recognize at the heart of any truly common life is transferred onto the nation-state. Civic virtue and the goods of common life do not simply disappear; as Augustine saw, the earthly city flourishes by producing a distorted image of the heavenly city. The nation-state is a simulacrum of common life, where false order is parasitical on true order. In a bureaucratic order whose main function is to adjudicate struggles for power between various factions, a sense of unity is produced by the only means possible: sacrifice to false gods in war. The nation-state may be understood theologically as a kind of parody of the Church, meant to save us from division. The urgent task of the Church, then, is to demystify the nation-state and to treat it like the telephone company. At its best, the nation-state may provide goods and services that contribute to a certain limited order – mail delivery is a positive good. The state is not the keeper of the common good, however, and we need to adjust our expectations accordingly. The Church must break its imagination out of captivity to the nation-state. The Church must constitute itself as an alternative social space, and not simply rely on the nation-state to be its social presence. The Church needs, at every opportunity, to “complexify” space, that is, to promote the creation of spaces in which alternative economies and authorities flourish. (pp. 266–7)
Cavanaugh contends that by regarding the nation-state as responsible for the common good, ‘the Church’s voice in such crucial moral matters as war becomes muted, pushed to the margins. Just war reasoning becomes a tool of statecraft, most commonly used by the state to justify war, rather than a moral discipline for the Church to grapple with questions of violence. The Church itself becomes one more withering “intermediate association”, whose moral reasoning and moral formation are increasingly colonized by the nation-state and the market. To resist, the Church must at the very least reclaim its authority to judge if and when Christians can kill, and not abdicate that authority to the nation-state. To do so would be to create an alternative authority and space that does not simply mediate between state and individual’ (p. 268). That is why one appropriate Christian witness might be the refusal of those who reside in States where funding goes to pay for the machinery of aggressive war to withhold a percentage of their income tax commensurate with the State’s war budget. (Here I have in mind Yoder’s essay ‘Why I Don’t Pay All My Income Tax’).
While the Church shares some cultural space with the world, it is not an institution alongside others, and it exists for the propping up of none. The Church, as Peter Leithart argues in Against Christianity, is both ‘an alternative world unto herself’, and a participant in the Spirit’s ‘subversive mission of converting whatever culture she finds herself in’. And the Church participates in the second only as she lives authentically as the first – i.e. as she embodies an alternative Societas determined by its own jealous Servant-Lord and shaped by its own unique narrative. Christendom can never undertake this mission because it can only propose ideas or offer the Church as a ‘new sort of religious association’, essentially no different to a local lawn bowls club. It does not form an alternative city, a ‘new, eschatological ordering of human life’. ‘Constantinianism … is a theological and missiological mistake’ (Rodney Clapp).
If Leithart is right that the mission of the Church involves the converting of culture then, as I intimated above, this can only happen as the congregation of Jesus lives uncompromisingly under a different economy and politic. The consequence of such living will inevitably provoke a declaration of war by the gods. History is indeed the battle for worship, as the Book of the Revelation bears witness to.
Anyway, back to the issue of the flag. Few have named the stakes as cogently and as carefully as Karl Barth, with whose words I bring this post to a close:
[The] combining of the Word of Jesus Christ with the authority and contents of other supposed revelations and truths of God has been and is the weak point, revealed already in the gnosis attacked in the New Testament, at almost every stage in the history of the Christian Church. The prophecy of Jesus Christ has never been flatly denied, but fresh attempts have continually been made to list it with other principles, ideas and forces (and their prophecy) which are also regarded and lauded as divine, restricting its authority to what it can signify in co-ordination with them, and therefore to what remains when their authority is also granted. Nor is this trend characteristic only of early and mediaeval Catholicism. It is seen in Protestantism too, from the very outset in certain circles, even in the Reformers themselves, and then with increasing vigour and weight, until the fatal little word “and” threatened to become the predominant word of theology even in this sphere where we might have hoped for better things in view of what seemed to be the strong enough doctrine of justification. It needed the rise of the strange but temporarily powerful sect of the German Christians of 1933 to call us back to reflection, and at least the beginning of a return, when the more zealous among them, in addition to their other abominations, awarded cultic honour to the portrait of the Führer. The overthrow of this whole attitude, and its provisional reversal, was accomplished in the first thesis of Barmen which is the theme of the present exposition. But there are other Christian nations in which it is customary to find a prominent place in the church for national flags as well as the pulpit and the Lord’s table, just as there are evangelical churches which substitute for the Lord’s table a meaningfully furnished apparatus for the accomplishment of baptism by immersion [or, one might add, that most holy of contemporary ecclesiastical furniture – the data projector and its accompanying screen]. These externals, of course, are trivial in themselves. But as such they may well be symptoms of the attempt which is possible in so many forms to incorporate that which is alien in other prophecies into what is proper to that of Jesus Christ. If these prophecies are prepared for this – and sooner or later they will make an open bid for sole dominion – the prophecy of Jesus Christ asks to be excused and avoids any such incorporation. If it is subjected to such combinations, the living Lord Jesus and His Word depart, and all that usually remains is the suspiciously loud but empty utterance of the familiar name of this Prophet. “No man can serve two masters” (Mt. 6:24). No man can serve both the one Word of God called Jesus Christ and other divine words’. – Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics IV.3.1 (ed. G.W. Bromiley and T.F. Torrance; trans. G.W. Bromiley; Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1999), 101–2.
- A new essay by Cavanaugh: ‘Telling the Truth about Ourselves: Torture and Eucharist in the U.S. Popular Imagination’
- Ben draws attention to some new Bultmann and Heidegger books
- Peter Leithart posts on the Dangers of Anti-Constantinianism
- John Pilger on Obama’s 100 days
- Robin Parry on the violence of Christendom
Regular readers of Per Crucem ad Lucem can gear themselves up for some more Forsyth in the next few posts. Here’s a few nuggets from his 1914 essay, ‘Christianity and Society’ (Methodist Review Quarterly):
‘The Church’s true attitude and action in the world is Christ’s. It is that of him whose indwelling makes it a Church The question, therefore, of the Church’s relation to Society is really the whole question of Christology’. (pp. 3-4)
‘Christ is God by his eternal personal relation to the divine holiness, rather than by his essential relation to the divine substance’. (p. 4)
‘The Church is not simply the superlative of religious society. It is not spiritual Humanity coming to its own. Christianity is not the republication of the lex naturæ with supreme éclat. Grace is not a mere reēnforcement of nature. There is a new Creation. That is the vital thing’. (p. 5)
‘The principle of the Church is thus the antithesis of the world; and yet it is in constant and positive relation with it. They co-exist in a vital paradox which is the essence of all active religion. The Gospel can neither humor human nature nor let it alone. That is the grand collision of history, however its form may vary … Hence the first business of the Church is not to influence man but to worship and glorify God, and to act on man only in that interest. All its doctrine, preaching, culture, and conduct is a confession and glorification of the Saviour. The Church does not save; it only bears living witness and makes humble confession, in manifold ways, of a God who does. It is not a company for the promotion of goodness, but a society for the honor of God’. (p. 6)
‘The evil neglect of the theologian by the public today is in a measure his own fault. His truth has not kept pace with the growth of social interest. It has been too idealogical, and not enough social. His doctrine has not remained a living expression even of his own society of the Church. He has failed to show how necessary it is for the social interest itself. And he has not so construed the Gospel as to force a social regeneration on the Christian conscience. He has been often occupied with a God of substance, process, or ideas, instead of a God of act, life, and the Kingdom’. (p. 7)
‘Christianity has more and more to face a dechurched civilization. The circumstances are thus quite different from the mediæval state of things. The traditional civilization is turned more and more upon its own resources. Can they save it from anarchy? It is on its trial’. (p. 14)
‘… our eyes are being purged today to see many things. We feel the effects of a modernized Pelagianism, the effect of worshiping (if it is worship) a God whose revelation is too little of a moral crisis and re-creation of human nature, and too much of its glorification. We inherit a Christianity which allows too much to human nature, and therefore is conquered by it’. (p. 17)
Alan P. F. Sell and Anthony R. Cross (eds.), Protestant Nonconformity in the Twentieth Century (Milton Keynes: Paternoster, 2003). x + 398 pages. ISBN: 978 1 84227 221 3. Review copy courtesy of Paternoster/Authentic Books.
This book, edited by Alan Sell and Anthony Cross, is another worthy addition to what is an excellent series of Studies in Christian History and Thought, a series comprising monographs, revised dissertations, and collections of papers which explore the church’s witness through history. The series includes some important contributions to scholarship, among which is David Wright’s Infant Baptism In Historical Perspective, Byung Ho Moon’s Christ the Mediator of the Law: Calvin’s Christological Understanding of the Law as the Rule of Living and Life-giving, and David Bebbington’s brilliant 1998 Didsbury Lectures, Holiness In Nineteenth-Century England.
Protestant Nonconformity in the Twentieth Century is a collection of papers presented at the second conference of The Association of Denominational Historical Societies and Cognate Libraries, held at Westhill College, Birmingham, in July 2000. The result is twelve papers from scholars representing a number of Nonconformist traditions which invite reflection on Nonconformist contributions to biblical studies, theology, worship, evangelism, spirituality, and ecumenism during the twentieth century.
Sell’s own contribution, ‘The Theological Contribution of Protestant Nonconformists in the Twentieth Century: Some Soundings’, is an embryonic version of his 2006 Didsbury Lectures, published as Nonconformist Theology in the Twentieth Century and reviewed here (I wish I’d noticed this before I was near the end of the chapter, although it was great to read over this material again). He again reminds us that Nonconformists are nothing if not diverse. Employing Dale’s summary on the question of the final fate of the impenitent, Sell writes:
The twentieth century provided Nonconformist theologians with both inner-family and external stimuli to theological endeavour. As the century opened the Wesleyans were earnestly debating the question of eternal life. The particular question at issue was the final fate of the impenitent. Discussion of this topic had been rumbling on at least since the eighteenth century, and R.W. Dale had specified the options in 1877. There are, he said, those who cannot make up their minds on the subject: ‘They cannot warn men against eternal condemnation, because they are not sure that any man will be eternally condemned.’ There are those who hold that the impenitent are to be condemned to suffering, whilst hoping that ‘there may be some transcendent manifestation of the Divine grace in reserve, of which as yet we have no hint.’ There are those who believe that the Christ who came to seek and to save the lost will persist in this effort even though, because of the invincibility of human freedom, it cannot be affirmed that all will in fact be saved. There are those who believe that God’s love cannot finally be thwarted, and hence all will finally be saved; those who hold that the impenitent will nevertheless enjoy an eternal life on a lower plane than the saved; and those who deny that the impenitent can finally be restored. (p. 36)
While all the studies are certainly erudite and deserving of comment, I wish here to identify a few for special mention. Norman Wallwork’s piece, ‘Developments in Liturgy and Worship in Twentieth-Century Protestant Nonconformity’ is a helpful survey of the general issues and particular contributions that concern Nonconformist worship. The contributions of Unitarians, Free Catholics, Presbyterians, Congregationalists, the United Reformed Church, Congregational Federation, Baptists and are all attended too with care, and the Quakers, Methodists, Independent Methodists and Salvation Army are also considered. Wallwork writes:
Of all the Free Churches the Unitarians were the most given to textual revision of the Book of Common Prayer [no surprises here], but their demise included their destruction of the Trinitarian theology which undergirded the Anglican tradition. However, Martineau’s love of good liturgical language passed over into all the Free Churches not least into Congregationalism. The Free Church Catholic and ritualistic revival under Lloyd Thomas and Orchard was short-lived, but the prayers in Orchard’s Divine Service furnished other service books for over fifty years. The movement for liturgical renewal which hit the Free Churches in the 1960’s and created the Joint Liturgical Group produced some fine liturgical texts and created new service books centred on classical eucharistic texts, an increase in the frequency of communion, a shift to morning all-age celebrations, and a much greater emphasis on the Christian year. In the end, only the Methodists and the United Reformed Church would place a eucharistic rite in the hands of their congregations. In all the traditions worship leaders and preachers turned to a variety of available resources, often without the approval of any recognizable magisterium. The memory of revival songs from the Sankey and Moody era helped to secure a place for lively and spontaneous worship revived among the Free Churches, as in Anglicanism, by a new wave of charismatic prayer and praise and the new tradition of heavy ‘biblical teaching’ in Sunday worship. This movement had its strongest support among the Baptists and many of the original ‘Plymouth’ Brethren congregations who now renamed themselves ‘Evangelical Churches’. The influence of the High Genevan school of the English Reformed tradition was still seen in the liturgical texts of the United Reformed Church but much of its worship was dominated by the twin calls to inclusive all-age worship and to be relevant and engaged in issues of local and international justice. Several babies went out with the bath water. (pp. 130-1)
Other essays I particularly valued were David Bebbington’s, ‘Evangelism and Spirituality in Twentieth-Century Protestant Nonconformity’, and ‘Protestant Nonconformist Attitudes towards the First World War’, by Alan Ruston. Ruston, who is editor of the Transactions of the Unitarian Historical Society, surveys how WWI witnessed Nonconformist churches becoming increasingly part of the establishment, particularly in attitude. They became, he writes, ‘an integral element within the political machine in almost the same terms as the established church. But flying into the sun in this way burnt their wings and like Icarus they fell to the sea. They did not drown like Icarus but the weakness engendered by the war remained with them for the rest of the century’ (p. 240). Ruston’s contribution to this volume is a powerful reminder of how voluntaryist assumptions about church, state and society inform Nonconformist contributions to religious, social and political life.
Those who identify themselves with the Nonconformist family, and those with an interest in (particularly early) Twentieth Century theology and history would be well served by reading this book.