Saturday, 31 December 2011

A Christian nation?

Conrad Mbewe does not want Zambia to describe itself, in its constitution, as a Christian nation.

Jeremy Walker disagrees with David Cameron, for saying that he wants Britain to be a Christian country.

I used to agree with those two brethren, but now disagree with my older self.

There's much that they say that is good, and many dangers to avoid.

Good: Brother Mbewe doesn't want Zambia to be a secular nation, though this does beg the question of what he does want (he wants to just leave it be - which seems to mean, he wants the answer to the question left undefined; unsatisfactory). Good: he does not want us to confuse the state with the church. Good: he is not in favour of superstition, formalism or hypocrisy. He does not want us to confuse our nations with Old Testament Israel. He wants us to realise that the church is God's agent of regeneration and change, to not confuse the gospel with morality, etcetera, the first birth with the second, the nation from above with those below, the limited role of the state in regulating evil with the gospel's work in redeeming society, etcetera. He wants us to learn the historical lessons of the Constantinian settlement. Mere words in constitutions cannot replace, or supplement, or aid, the work of bringing in spiritual reality. Good, good, excellent, and so on!

And yet, and yet... I think I can agree with basically all of brother Mbewe's arguments, and brother Walker's commendations of them, and yet think that they've fallen short of supporting their conclusions. And I can do all this, as a Baptist, believing in a proper separation of church and state.

There's a fault-line that we can expose with the right questions:

1) Is Christ Lord of everything - including of the state?

2) Since the answer to that question is "of course he is", we then ask: "and should the state actually do anything in particular to acknowledge that Lordship, or does it have no practical effect?" Is the state meant to submit to Christ's Lordship, yet without admitting that it is doing so? Is it meant to be a secret?

Is the state meant to self-consciously reform itself in line with God's will, or not? If it is, then where does it get guidance concerning God's will from? There have been attempts in Christian history to derive a set of principles from nature/general revelation alone. The results have not been promising. The spectacle of a Christian theologian, self-consciously attempting to derive from the Bible principles about general revelation that will then allow the state to operate without the Bible, is absurd and should make us ask "how did we get here?"

Mbewe is exposing the fault-line when he realises but then tip-toes around the question: "so, what kind of state should it be?" It's all very well to say "not a secular one"; but the final answer "please, just leave us room to be Christians in our churches!" is unsatisfactory. The state is ordained by God, and under Christ's redemptive Lordship. His death and resurrection should have an impact on the state, as on everything else. Should that impact be an unspoken secret? Are hypocrisy/superstition etc. and "just leave us alone" the only two possible answers available to us?

I suspect that eschatology comes in here. If we expect Christ to bring all things into visible submission to himself and to complete the Adamic mandate before his final revealing, then you can believe as I do, that present and former incarnations of the "Christian state" leave much to be desired - and yet also believe that Caesar is intended to say "Christ is Lord" and not simply leave it as an open question. The question will be resolved as Christ exerts his all-authority more and more; the Christian state will in fact be a Christian state: in word and deed. Just because there are false starts and faulty settlements along the way is not a reason to abandon the whole idea, any more than the present faultiness of the church means that we need to throw our lot in with Harold Camping.


Ned Kelly said...

This is perhaps the most difficult question of our age - how can a Christian leader publicly declare a Christian nation? Democracy disallows it, particularly as countries become more multi-cultural and tolerant of any and all philosophies, ideologies, and religions. Christianity is not a democracy, it is in fact the antithesis. A leader cannot decide on the nature of a nation - at best he/she can only seek to influence through personal example, not legislation. I see no resolution without either a substantial grass-roots change, or the direct intervention of God.

David Anderson said...

Hi Ned,

I agree. Christocracy and democracy can only at best have an temporary truce. We see that as democrats pass laws that make Christian practice more difficult. As you say, the long-term solution is not an arbitrary declaration that 'this is a Christian country', but is the work of God to change peoples' hearts. Christians are taught in Romans 13 to accept to their rulers even when those rulers are not interested in serving Christ; but that does not mean the situation is hopeless.