The Church in the Public Square?

The Presbyterian Church in Ireland and Union Theological College put on this excellent event in Belfast today (30th January 2014). I am going to blog about it in a few parts. Screen shot 2014-01-30 at 19.14.56

Over 270 people turned up for this event, showing a real appetite for good thinking on this topic. There were quite a number of government ministers there- I found myself sitting beside David Ford the justice minster and I saw Nelson McCausland and Danny Kennedy. There were also theologians, church ministers, students and others.

photo-10The first speaker was Donald McLeod Professor of Systematic Theology at Free Church College Edinburgh. Perhaps the most impressive thing about his 40 minute presentation was that he spoke without a note. I have heard others try this, but few with such coherence and concision. Some notes on what he said:

Why should the church be in the public square?

For many years this was assumed, perhaps since Constantine. Things have changed in recent decades, with the church being pushed to the edge for a number of reasons:

  1. Many evangelicals have focused on the ‘gospel’ and stayed out of public policy. But we are to preach the whole counsel of God.
  2. Kuyper argued that the church was an organism and an institution. Organism refers to the informal way in which Christians function as salt and light – work, friendship and even within political parties. In contrast Kuyper felt the Institutional church should not meddle in public life. McLeod sees that as a false distinction – the church should be able to express its views formally on the issues of the day.
  3. The rise of secularism- this is less about withdrawal and more about exclusion from public life. Secularism seeks to exclude faith from the public domain, particularly were public funding is involved. ‘Forget God all who enter here’ is the banner many want to see over the public square.

Together these forces have pressured the church to withdraw from the public square.

In response Donald McLeod says:

God is the sovereign Lord of the public square. He assumes that God exists and notes Kuyper’s most famous quote, “there is not an inch in all of creation over which Jesus Christ as sovereign Lord does not exclaim ‘Mine’.” The death and resurrection of Christ is public fact. The teachings of the Bible have universal application to individuals and corporations.

All we have is the word of God. (He did not address the role of the Spirit). This is not a sword to be wielded in our own interests. We operate from the edge and from the edges- this is reality right now, but should always be the way.

We should speak of the integrity of the state – Romans 13 – it is ordained by God. The church should endorse the governance process and pray for it (1 Tim 2). It is difficult to combine endorsement of the process and critique of it, but that is the path we must walk.

Why does the state exist?

McLeod looked at this through the lens of 1 Tim 2. To ensure quiet enjoyment- that is internal security. It needs to balance retribution with the fact that everyone is a divine image bearer. We want a state that promotes peace. The third function of the state is to uphold honour and dignity. This is done through the provision of health and education. The final issue is godliness. This is not the direct business of the state, but it should ensure that the church can promote godliness. There is a public benefit in the state supporting Christian youth work etc. So the state should promote quiet enjoyment, peace, honour and godliness.

But the state has a tendency to divinise itself and safeguards are required to prevent this. At times the church must defy the state – for example the church would have to defy the state if, and when, it sought to force the church to conduct same sex marriages. Interestingly, McLeod can imagine that resistance may need to be violent in extreme circumstances (tyranny).

The voice of the ‘other’

The church must be in the public square because it is called upon to speak for those who cannot speak for themselves. The church must be wary of speaking for itself, lobbying for her own interests. The church is for others, and this must be so in the public domain. Jesus spoke for those at the edge, because he himself was at the edge. Bonhoeffer talked of speaking for those from below. General Booth spoke of the ‘submerged poor’ – who speaks for them?

In light of the need to represent the ‘other’, one of the key issues is justice. The church has spoken well of one sort of justice- punishing wrongs. But there is another aspect of justice- righting wrongs- which takes us into the area of rights. (I will blog more on my thoughts of reactive and proactive justice soon). Everyone is a divine image bearer, an icon of deity. Nothing in all of creation speaks so eloquently of God as a human being. The problem is that society sees people as homo economicus, only interested in what they produce. This has led to the unhealthy debate we have seen on benefits.

Dr McLeod finished with this – when someone asked Thomas Chalmers what he had done to help the poor in Glasgow the reply was, ‘he warmed it’. That is our role in the public square, not higher standards, but to warm it. A great challenge to end with.

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