On Tuesday this week (Shrove Tuesday), Teresa May hosted a reception for a wide range of Christian leaders. The incoming President of the Baptist Union of Great Britain was there, as was the Moderator of the Irish Presbyterian Church.
In the course of the reception the Prime Minister said this:
I … believe it is right that we should celebrate the role of Christianity in our country. We have a very strong tradition in this country of religious tolerance and freedom of speech, and our Christian heritage is something we can all be proud of. We must continue to ensure that people feel able to speak about their faith, and that absolutely includes their faith in Christ.
Some spotted a seemingly unusual juxtaposition when within a day a couple of street preachers in Bristol fell foul of a court ruling after the police intervened when an open-air preaching session became heated. These things are not always as clear cut as we’d sometimes like them to be (some of the language used may have been unnecessarily aggressive), but it was clear that truth claims based on the New Testament don’t carry much weight in a secular court.
Meantime, this week in Northern Ireland, we’ve been back at the polls, seeking to elect a new assembly to govern us. Among the issues on some voters’ minds are issues that relate to traditional Christian morality. Winds of change appear to be blowing.
All of which raises some interesting questions – like the one at the top of the page. Do the mission and witness of your church depend on having the favour of the government?
I think the Church in parts of the Western world has grown so used to a position of privilege in society that it’s easily taken for granted. Here in Northern Ireland you can switch on your radio on Sunday morning and listen to a live broadcast from one of the country’s many churches. You can watch some hymn-singing on Sunday afternoon. Members of the clergy get their turn to address the nation on Thought for the Day. Christmas and Easter are public holidays. No one stops you going to church and – for the most part – preachers are free to preach what they believe without challenge. And the Prime Minister invites some of them to eat pancakes in Downing Street.
Which means that when there is a story like that of the Bristol street preachers, people get nervous. Or angry. Time to batten down the hatches.
It seems to me that Paul, the great pioneering evangelist and apostle, knew how to make the law of his day work for him. Take the hiding dished out to him and to his friend Silas in Philippi. When the authorities realised their mistake (beating up people whose singing was powerful enough to tear down the local prison), they wanted Paul and Silas to avoid making a scene. That’s when Paul played the Roman citizen card. You don’t dish out thrashings to Roman citizens. Christians may have been a small minority, and persecution was ahead of them, but if there is protection to be had in the law, make it work for you.
Nonetheless it appears that the gospel spread, and the early church grew without requiring much government favour.
One of the great nemeses of the people of God in the Old Testament was Babylon. The Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem and the accompanying exile of many of its inhabitants marks a low point in OT history. Yet God never stopped being God and there were still faithful people working out what it meant to be part of the people of God, facing the challenge of singing the Lord’s song, in a strange land.
Interesting that part of the burden of Jeremiah in writing to the exiles was not just to remind them that God had not given up on them (his plan was to prosper them, give them a hope and a future), but to tell them how to live in exile. Seek the welfare of the city, he said, for if the city prospers, so will you.
Interesting too to think of Daniel. He knew what it was to live as an exile in Babylon, all the while remaining faithful to God. He served Babylonian kings, but there was no doubt where his first loyalty lay.
It must have been quite different to live as the people of God in Babylon, compared with living as the people of God in Jerusalem. No temple. How do you manage sabbath? Where can you get acceptable food? What do you do if your culture and religion no longer occupy the place of privilege? Babylon was not the city of God. Yet God was not disinterested or uninvolved. In fact he was still sovereign.
Interesting too then that when Peter writes his first letter in the early 60s he uses ‘Babylon’ as a code name for Rome. And that he describes his readers as ‘exiles’. Seemingly he had more in mind than that they were scattered around a few of the cities of Asia Minor: there was a sense in which they didn’t quite belong in the world. ‘Strangers and aliens’ he called them.
They would live differently from their neighbours. In fact some of their neighbours would be surprised that these folk wouldn’t join in some of the wilder aspects of their lifestyle. These Christian communities were different. Holiness is what Peter called it. Part of their identity as the people of God and the outworking of the costly price that had been paid for their redemption.
And they were communities where people loved one another with a sincere and earnest love. They would demonstrate hospitality to one another and serve one another.
They would be respectful as citizens and people who would do good. Doing good might not keep them out of trouble (suffering for righteousness is a theme in Peter’s letter), but their good lives and good deeds had the potential to silence the people who didn’t like them. And point to God, as Jesus had said when he talked about his disciples letting their light shine.
So, what if the Church can no longer call on the favour of the state? Which – as you know – is the case for plenty of Christians around the world. Someone sent me a photo the other day from SE Asia: it showed a makeshift tent in a field: home to persecuted Christians who have had to leave their village.
Could we still be the people of God? Could we still point to God and give a reason for the hope within us?