I was involved in some conversations on Facebook recently which began with what I took to be the suggestion that Christian belief was incompatible with support for the policies of the current UK government especially as regards its reforms of the benefits system. Although I am not myself supportive of those policies the suggestion that commitment to the gospel required rejection of them seemed to me alarming and wrongheaded for a number of reasons. I feel myself moved, to help myself clarify what I think more than for any other reason, to try to articulate those reasons.
First (and most importantly) it flies in the face that large numbers of people are both Christian and Conservative. To say that these two are incompatible requires us to give an account of how it is possible that this should happen. Roughly this will require us to say one of the following things:
- these people have misunderstood the gospel in its essence, that we understand what it means to be a Christian and they don’t, in effect we have to deny that they are really Christians at all, whatever they might think
- these people are in fact hypocrites, that they distort the meaning of Christianity in order to fit it to their political agenda (this is rather similar to the above except for saying that the meaning of the gospel is clear and nobody could honestly mistake it
- their view of the actual content of the policies they support is inadequate in ways that prevent them recognising the conflict between them and the gospel
The problem with the first two is that they seek, in effect, to declare unilaterally a new set of absolute truths about the content of the Christian faith. Deciding what things you either must or must not believe in order actually to be a Christian has been a longstanding concern of the Church, and rightly so. The most universal and absolute statement of this probably remains the Nicene creed, as supplemented by the Council of Chalcedon. The technical terms used in the Church are “dogma” (for the things one must believe, like the divinity of Christ and God’s being one in three and three in one) and “heresy” for the things one must not believe (like the subordination of the Son to the Father).
Personally I think we should continue to acknowledge and beware of the possibility of straying into heretical views and should recognise the authority of the early church councils but should be very careful about the declaration of new heresies. I am very uneasy. for example, about the decision of the World Alliance of Reformed Church to declare apartheid a heresy in 1982. To declare a heresy seems to me something only the Church catholic can do and in the absence of any mechanism to do so it seems to me to overstep the limits of what a narrowly confessional body like the WARC can claim for authority for. This is not to say that the suspension of the churches that supported apartheid was a bad thing, just that the use of the term heresy in justifying it seems to me to be a mistake.
In making any belief or behaviour a condition of claiming the name “Christian” requires, in my view, the authority of the whole Church, and without that authority this should not be attempted. Anything not already heretical is acceptable within the Church until such time as the Church is sufficiently reunited to begin to make authoritative pronouncements again.
This is not to say that we cannot express, forcefully if necessary, our disagreements about the implications of the doctrines and ethics through which we express the gospel message but that we should be modest and careful about our confidence in our understanding of those implications. If someone says that Jesus is not God then we can say that this is incompatible with the gospel (the ecumenical councils established that) if that say that the current welfare reforms are justified and necessary we can say that we think they’re wrong but we cannot be sure that they have not grasped the ethico-political implications of the gospel better than we have, since there is no authoritative statement that can establish who is right.
This begins to shade into my second source of unease. I think that politics, the art of shaping and guiding the direction of the modern civil authority, is simply too complex and uncertain for anyone to speak about it with any great certainty. One is always in a process of attempting to judge what is possible and what outcomes would flow from any possible set of actions. Anything done by the state and its agents emerges from a hard to comprehend chain of decision and influence and acts into a social world only very partially apprehended and understood. What will happen as a result and what the possible alternative outcomes would have been is impossible to be sure about.
This means, for me, that the apparent certainty about the rights and wrongs of any issue is based on very little and has little value. This does not mean we don’t have the responsibility to try to form the best judgements we can, we do have this responsibility. It does mean that these judgements are mostly very doubtful and should be offered tentatively rather than definitively. In secular politics there is no source of Christian authority and we should not speak as if there were.
Within the Church there are some things that are well established on the basis of apostolic authority. In my denomination, the United Reformed Church, a very good attempt was made at the time of its coming into being in 1972, to state the (rather few) things that were held to be absolutely non-negotiable in its Statement of Nature Faith and Order. Those ordained in the URC, as ministers or elders, have to express their agreement with those statements. That is a good things and guarantees our apostolic and catholic character as part of the one universal Church of Christ.
To speak as if anything else were believed by the Church (rather than by individuals within it) is a grave error, in my view, and this includes all matters of contemporary politics, about which the denomination would be better not to speak (although there is no reason why individuals within it should not do so).