Christmas Message: What do we want the Church to be?

At the end of the year, we pray that the Church, despite her shortcomings, may be increasingly recognizable as Christ’s dwelling place

Benedict XVI ‏@Pontifex

Thus tweeted the Bishop of Rome earlier this week.   Leaving aside all the many, many areas where the Jedirev disagrees with Roman Catholic doctrine and dogma, this isn’t a bad prayer.   And I share the concern.  At Christmas many will celebrate Christ’s coming – but this Christmas, I want to reflect on Jesus’ gift to the world (see John 17:18 or Hebrews 11:38) – it is a precious thing.

I hope not only for the sake of Roman Catholics the world over, but for every man, woman and child on Earth, that this prayer is answered – because there is no salvation outside the Church, but without Christ being recognisably present, there’s no salvation inside the Church either.

But what do we want the Church to be, when we pray we might be more “recognizable as Christ’s dwelling place”?

For me, three things:

1.            I want the Church to be doctrinally recognizable as Christ’s dwelling place.

Our age seems to be characterised by very little affection for real doctrine – schism and mergers tend focus on what we do, asking, “In what style do we worship?”   But doctrine matters – it matters a very great deal.   For example, it’s a doctrinal question to ask, “Who am I worshipping?”   It’s not satisfactory to arrive at a service on Sunday without asking yourself this question.   The dangers are many – we may worship ourselves, some may worship a building, some a tradition – and we might get bogged down in all these dangers, and finding interesting, dare I say it, legalistic, extra-biblical formulas that ensure our worship is “pure”.   But a real doctrinal answer to this question is far more satisfactory.   We worship a holy Triune God – but what are the implications of that?   Being doctrinally recognisable as Christ’s dwelling place means we ask questions, not firstly about ourselves, but firstly about our God.   Doctrine matters because it is actually our doctrine that defines us – not the practical conclusions about what we do.   What we do is shaped by what we believe.   If we marginalise doctrine in our identity as Christ’s body, the Church, then our identity itself is in jeopardy.   (See Titus 2:1)

2.            I want the Church to be practically recognizable as Christ’s dwelling place.

Having right doctrine is good; coupling that with right practice is better.   But there is a danger the Church can express this in all sorts of wrong ways.   There are, for example, many believers in Scotland concerned Presbyterian Religion’s “place at the heart of the nation” might be lost should Scotland become independent – not recognising that this Establishment exists in ink only, no longer a practical reality in Scotland.   It’s the same sort of concern now being expressed in America, where Christians seem to have lost the power to influence the outcome their nation’s presidential election.   But I just don’t buy the argument that a healthy Church must intrinsically have temporal, political influence and power.   Jesus didn’t.   The apostles didn’t.   Yet they did tremendous practical good – alongside the spiritual good – without political influence.   And at no point did they gripe about this.   The Church, Christians even, do not need earthly power to exert godly influence.   In fact, my suspicion is that political influence of this sort only comes as a happy consequence of exerting gracious effort in the first place.   I’m not sure we should long to restore, or even just harp on about, the influence we’ve lost.   But we must be willing to serve our communities with grace (not just spiritually, but practically and sacrificially) so that we will be recognizable as Christ’s dwelling place.   (See James 1:27)

3.            I want the Church to be functionally recognizable as Christ’s dwelling place.

I want the Church to be what the Church is for; using the means God has given us.   What I mean by that is that I want the Church to function as the Church.   I suspect part of the Western Church’s problems today stem from the liberalising agenda of decades ago, where people forgot what the Church is for.   In Scotland, that was a full on social gospel, that turned the Church into a community organiser.   In the more conservative communities, including the Highlands sadly, the Church became for some a means to preserve only empty tradition.    Another danger, this one more distinctly American, is the rise of mega-churches.   But the Church is not just about gathering people, or gelling communities, or harking back to the old days.   To steal Stott’s analysis: the Church exists to Worship God; to convey Teaching from God; to Fellowship together, but also, with God; and to share the Evangel, to preach Christ crucified.   We do this through right use of the Word, Sacraments and Discipline.   Christ is at the centre of all these things.   To be functionally recognisable as Christ’s dwelling place, everything we do, and how we do it, has to be Christo-centric. (See, well… start with Ephesians and see where that takes you!)

Some questions for the Christian gun-owning lobby

R. Scott Clark has written here about the hermeneutics of the US 2nd Amendment right to bear arms.   In this blog I am not setting out to dismantle his line of reasoning, in fact I don’t doubt it.   The case he makes is probably entirely what the American founding fathers envisaged in drafting this amendment.   The line of argument is simple: the right of civilians to bear arms is a firm check against tyranny, but particularly government sponsored tyranny.

But after interacting with him, and others, on social media I’ve a few questions for how Reformed believers in American can really support this part of their constitution.   I accept most application sees this in terms of small scale tyranny – the thug across town, who comes to rob my home.   But to really test the implications of this, you have to follow it through its most extreme context: keeping government tyranny in check.

I have to remember that these brothers I’ve interacted with over the last few days share with me a Reformed perspective.   This means we agree on Just War Theory, where one principle is the use of force as last resort.   So I understand the argument is that civilian arms are the final domestic check on government tyranny – the ballot box, peaceful protest, and legitimate appeal to the international (or outside) community having all failed.

These questions are:

1.            Where do you draw a line in arming a civilian population against their government?

This is a serious question because, as recent history is showing us, governments can expect to be better armed than their civilian populations.   Much better armed.   If you are serious about facing down government tyranny, you need a means to dispose of soldiers in body armour, tanks, helicopter gunships, and emplaced crew served heavy weapons.   The small arms that you assert the 2nd Amendment entitles you to are not sufficient to face down a modern military.   The development of body armour makes armour piercing anti personnel rounds essential.   In an American context, this implies you are asking for “cop killer” rounds to be commonly available.    Or, what about anti-tank weapons?   Or even automatic cannon capable of anti-aircraft fire?   These are weapons already, and rightly, illegal.   The only reason they are even available in Syria or Libya to assist in civilian uprisings was the prevailing lawlessness in these regions.   But if the gun lobby in America is serious about gun ownership as a check against tyranny, what type of weapons do you think ought to actually be available, because the small arms you already have are not enough to achieve your stated aim?

2.            How do you stop escalation to indiscriminate killing?

I appreciate the goal of keeping the government in check, but in the absence of a well armed militia (being a militia with access to AP, AT, AA and HE weapons well in excess of common domestic small arms) the alternative is to rely on asymmetrical warfare to achieve one’s goals.   The Americas I’ve asked about this highlight the success of Insurgency tactics, and perhaps feel a romantic notion that this is in some way paralleled in their own history with the Minutemen, etc.    But unfortunately, Insurgency tactics rely on indiscriminate killing.   Insurgents do not rely on small arms, but more frequently use roadside bombs, with basic trigger mechanisms that are just as easily detonated by playing children as they are aggressive tyrannical opponents.   This is, incidentally, why civilized nations avoid the use of indiscriminate landmines and cluster munitions – they are inhumane devices.   But in the eventuality of an asymmetrical conflict with a better armed tyrannical government, how does this supposed right to bear arms prevent or deter the use of indiscriminate weapons?

3.            Is the “check” you envisage in the 2nd Amendment complicit with Just War Theory?

In asking this, I am assuming that my American Christian brothers are neither advocating the serious up-armament demanded in question 1, nor the resort to indiscriminate Insurgency tactics demanded in question 2.   But this leaves the problem of likelihood of success.   Just War Theory not only demands war be a last resort, but also that it hold a reasonable expectation of success.   Any military tactic (for military tactic is exactly what this 2nd Amendment understanding is) lacking a reasonable expectation of success is clearly unjust.   In fact, there have been groups who have thought their 2nd Amendment right gave them the means to resist the government – but every such situation has ended in tragic loss of life, mostly on the side of those resisting authority.   The government wins, unless heavy weapons are brought to bear, or indiscriminate means are used.   So, without heavy weapons, and indiscriminate tactics, what reasonable chance is there of success?

4.            Is the cost of maintaining, but never using, this supposed “check” a just price to pay?

I appreciate Freedom is an emotive subject, particularly for Americans, but I observe two simple truths.   The 2nd Amendment means there are many, many guns readily available in your country.   And you country has a horrific level of gun crime, for a civilised nation.   It seems undeniable that fewer guns, under at least stricter ownership and storage laws, would result in fewer gun-related deaths each and every day.   Given the daily blood price of your apparent “freedom” from tyranny, and the unlikely success your “check” actually provides should these freedoms be threatened, surely the price of about 30 lives each day is simply too high, not to mention the growing roll-call of massacres?

5.            Does violent force really trump democracy, and underpin liberty?

I ask this question with your own history in mind.   If we call to mind the civil liberties movements of the 1960s, was not violent force on the side of oppressors – wicked men who sought to dehumanise their black fellows, denying them what today we agree are universal rights?   The struggle of black Americans was in the main a peaceful struggle, certainly not a struggled where violent force triumphed.   Curiously, young black Americans are today far more likely to die violent deaths in gun-related incidents, despite the peaceful protest movement that purchased for them the same right to bear arms.   Does not your own history prove that lasting liberty is not won through armed civilians, but rather through peaceful protest, against the masses?   In fact, look beyond your own shores – was it armed uprising that finally toppled Communism across Eastern Europe?   Are there in fact many armed uprisings where armed civilian militias have yielded stable, long-term, just, good outcomes?   (I would add; your own Revolution is not a story of glorious civilian uprising – but one where a civilian militia played a part alongside well equipped and trained professional armies.)

Conclusion

Allow me one Biblical observation we agree on.  The right to wield the sword of justice is a God-given right that carries huge responsibility.   I believe it is a right vested primarily in the state, but we can at least agree it is a solemn responsibility.   When I look at photos of young, civilian (and I stress that word!), Christian Americans proudly displaying their lovely military grade rifles, what do I see?   I can’t judge hearts, but I have to confess, I have never for one second imagined these young men see themselves engaged in a solemn undertaking: bearing arms to provide a check against tyranny.

What I think I see in your young, civilian, Christian men displaying their lovely military grade rifles are young men who seem to overly cherish their guns, and perhaps the feeling of power and masculinity they are afforded through these experiences.   Young men do this with cars too, and many other things.   But it strikes me to be cherishing a worldly thing.   Perhaps you do teach your sons what the 2nd Amendment meant, but it alarms me that if that is the case, there are still so very many gun related deaths in your country, where gun ownership is such a solemn thing.   Sin so easily corrupts.

But is it possible that your hearts are deceived in this?   Is that deceit assisted by what I can only assume to be huge financial interests in maintaining what are now about 300 million privately owned firearms?

Guns, Apartheid and American Christian Attitudes

The Jedirev was thinking about South African apartheid today – and how bravely and humbly, most Christians in South Africa came to realise it was a great moral evil, they repented of it, and lo, terrifying though it was, the sky did not collapse, but apartheid did.   In truth, history is replete with examples of Christians leading the trend in identifying moral evils common-place in our societies, repenting of them, and change coming – the West African slave trade being just one other example.

Today, around 30 people were probably killed with the help of hand guns in America. With 5% of the world’s population, they have 50% of the world’s privately owned guns – one for just about each of their citizens. Like apartheid in South Africa, America’s problem with gun crime is not going to disappear until most Christians there realise owning a killing tool, and keeping it in your home is a great moral evil, it must be repented of, and that while their second amendment does not hold the sky up, it is holding gun deaths up at an unacceptably high level.

The American Christians I know are brave, and capable of tremendous humility. My question is, when are they going to exercise these Christ-like characteristics in connection to gun ownership?

Church & State: Guarantees of orthodoxy

Watching events played out in the Tron over the last week, and a breakfast meeting with our local MSP, have helped assure me of one thing: it is not possible to legislate today to ensure God-honouring orthodoxy tomorrow – neither in the State, nor in the Church.

The problems in the Tron are really problems of Trust law in Scotland.   When you are a trustee, holding assets in trust, the terms of the trust alone determine ownership.   In a Church context, when the trust was established, the assumption was that the body or bodies these assets were entrusted to would remain faithful to the vision and goals originally shared by the congregation.   The sad thing is this assumption is fatally flawed – humans are sinners, and drift from orthodoxy is inevitable.   The only guarantee is constant vigilance and action to protect the spiritual witness of the Church from the wolves who would destroy it from within.   This is part of what the Reformers meant by semper reformada.   You can’t stop the tide, so you must always be reformed, always restate your confession, to boldly contend for the truth.   It is part of what John Piper calls “a wartime mentality”.   Sadly for the Tron, the Church of Scotland dropped that ball a long time ago.

But today Scotland is facing the same sort of problem at a State level.   Our State fore-fathers long ago adopted Presbyterianism as the religion to be cherished at the heart of the nation.   But Establishment is virtually irrelevant in modern Scotland, and it seems as if it will be hard to even persuade the State of a looser “sphere-sovereignty” these days.   It is only now that Churchmen in Scotland are wakening to the reality that this erosion is nearly complete.   But many are not yet awake to the truth that it can’t be restored by mere appeals to aged Acts of Parliaments, or “Covenants” of long ago.   The only guarantee is constant vigilance and action to protect the spiritual witness of the Church from the wolves who would destroy it from without.   (The terrifying Erastian cry of David Cameron that the Church of England “get with the programme” is just as much a threat to liberty as outright secularism.)

Our local MSP was commenting on Saturday morning that for 30 years or more, Christians have themselves silenced their witness in the public square, the workplace, or where ever people discuss ideas (the pub on a Tuesday night?).   It is little wonder that it was so easy for the Scottish Parliament to be reinstated with no formal statement of Church-State relation in the largely secular Scotland Act (1998).   Sadly for Scotland, it seems we, the Church in Scotland, dropped the ball a long time ago.

It is not possible to legislate today to ensure God-honouring orthodoxy tomorrow – neither in the State, nor in the Church.   Only a program of constant vigilance, and the hardships that wartime mentality will demand, can secure our Reformation.