Over the past few months I have been trying to understand why there are so many things that, for the most part, evangelicals do not or will not talk about. We claim to be Biblical in our outlook and worldview, but seem all too willing to set aside so much of the Scriptures in favour of other parts. The Bible speaks much of poverty and care for the vulnerable, but we are almost silent in our pulpits on the ongoing painful saga of welfare reform. God’s people were strangers in a strange land, but the desperate plight of asylum seekers and refugees in Europe is a tragedy we are leaving to our politicians and the European Union to deal with. The labourer is worthy of his hire, but few of us are calling for the living wage to be made the baseline rate of pay. The silent list could go on and on, to include issues such as wealth, sexuality, the arts, identity and even family life.
I am not launching a broadside against any colleagues or any church grouping. I am simply acknowledging that any claim we may make of proclaiming the whole counsel of God needs to be tempered by the reality of what we actually do – and even more by a large dose of humility for what we have consistently failed to do.
The reason why I am so concerned about our evangelical silence is that so many of these issues are highly contentious in the public square, often demand urgent or definitive political action, yet seem to catch churches and much of the faith sector flat-footed and unable to offer much in the way of practical wisdom or solutions. Having said that, I am well aware that there is a plethora of Christian groups, Christian charities and Christian people who are deeply concerned by and involved with these and other issues, and they need our active support to continue their work. My angst however lies with the fact that they are often left to carry out their ministries without the general support they both need and deserve.
There seems no simple reason as to why this is so, for the problem is clearly not only confined to us here in Ireland (North or South). My only substantive suggestion is that as more and more people are adopting a secular mindset and worldview, a key Christian response has been to default to ‘safe’ mode either through increasing pietism and / or an over developed emphasis on individualistic faith. This comes at the expense of a proper understanding of either fellowship or our Biblical responsibility to the wider world. Pietism, with its quite proper emphasis on intimate fellowship with God, has often been a cultural norm within Christianity; individualism is the current cultural norm embedded in the society around us and in which we live and move and have our being.
A generation ago, the Rev John Stott spoke and wrote much about authentic Biblical Christianity being ‘counter cultural’. His call is as relevant and challenging today as it was then – maybe even more so. By definition this will mean that Christians will usually be in a minority, and their views may well have little appeal in the corridors of power.
Yet it also means that if our minds have been transformed by the work of the Holy Spirit and are no longer conformed to the prevailing culture and thinking, we will not be too upset if our views are marginalised or our patterns of living do not fit the contemporary mould very well.
Personally I long for a more biblically coherent set of values and way of life, even though I know that would take me into some very uncomfortable yet deeply satisfying places. If this were more of a norm amongst us, it would both encourage and enable a genuinely prophetic Christian voice to be heard in the public square. No subject would be off limits, and more Biblically informed wisdom would and could be heard. And surely the church of Jesus Christ would be in a much better place and in a much healthier state!
Rev Norman Hamilton OBE is a retired Presbyterian minister and is currently chair of the Public Affairs Council of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland.
Thanks for a thought provoking post. However I think there are significant problems with the project of seeking a Christian moral consensus on the issues you have mentioned.
(a) There is often disagreement among Christians as to what the proper moral response should be to social issues.
(b) Often Christians fail to take account of the complexities of social and economic problems and come with solutions that can be dismissed as naive and simplistic.
(c) There is he danger that we can be persuaded by the emotive language of parties and groups that are really campaigning for their own political or ideological interests.
One example is the ‘Bedroom Tax’ which in itself is a phrase designed to evoke an emotive response. What is the objection that we should be making. Is it that the principal of applying some mechanism to encourage people who live in houses that are larger than they need, in situations where there is a housing shortage, to move to smaller homes is in itself unjust? Or is it that the legislation designed to do this is badly designed and leads to unjust consequences? Again, is the principle of applying legislation to encourage people to look for work instead of seeking benefits in itself unjust, or is a case of challenging the unintended consequences of legislation?
Maybe the problem is the failure of contemporary evangelicalism to put the resources into assembling a coherent view of what we consider the political and social responsibilities of a modern state should be.
Comment on “Don’t Talk
Rev Hamilton raises a very important issue not only for evangelical Christians but for Christians generally. I have been struggling all through my Christian life to make my Christian faith relevant to the contemporary economic, moral, political and social problems and, whenever necessary, to be “counter cultural”. Like Rev Hamilton, I too have been wondering at the lack of distinctively Christian input on most public issues and would like to suggest the following reasons for this state of affairs.
Firstly, most Christians, especially evangelical Christians, have privatized their faith: faith has to do with one’s personal spiritual life. In consequence all their studying and thinking is primarily concerned with their “spiritual welbeing” by getting their personal life straight and their input on isues in the public sphere being guided by the prevailing secular view. I know of manyChristian professional economists, for example, who are totally committed to free market capitalist economic ideology and whose contributions to the economic issues, as a result, are not much different from those of non-Christian liberal free-marketrs.
Secondly, in most churches current economic, moral, political, and social issues are only mentioned in intercessory prayers or cursorily referred to in occasional sermons. In my local church, for exaple, I do not remember, over more than thirty years’ of church attendance, one sermon in which one current issue was analysed and discussed depth from the distinctively Chrisdtian perspective. Some members attend a mid-week Bible study where sole empasis is on reading and discussing the biblical texts purely from the perspective of one’s spiritual adancement.
Thirdly, Christains I encounter seek to avoid like a plague any topic which leads to disagreement and controversy. I am able to have vigorous discussion s on any topic with non-Christians but not with Christian friends and acquaintances because they very stronly believe that Christians ought not to disagree with each other. This mind-set, as Rev. Hamilton aluudes, is the result of “increasing pietim” and of the sole, rather than just “overdeveloped,” emphasis on “individualistic faith.”
Fourthly, most Christian tend to live two types of life; a Christian life which manifest itself on Sunday worship and on occasional other “Christian” occasions and a normal life (a Monday to-Saturday life ) whih is no different from the kinds of life lived by the rest of the human race. When qusetioned, for example, abuot the certain prevailing current business values and practices, Christians, who work in businesses environment, normally respond, sometimes explicitly but most of the time implicitly, as follows: this is the normal business practice and I am just following it. If I did not, I would not be able to survive. If, for example, I try to pay more than the minimum wage, how would I be able to compete? Would not my business soon go bust? And so on. Does not the Bible say: Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s?
Most human beings prefer to live in a consensual environment rather than as a minority. Christians are no exception, especially in the West where one can practice one’s faith peacefully as long as one does not question the prevailing intellectual and cultural trends. This state of affiars would not change unless (i) Christians in leadership positions and in professional situations consciously seek to be “counter cultural”, (ii) there are forums available in which Christians can develop uch a mind-set. Institutions asuch as Contemporary Chritianity act as such a forum but they are very few and far between. Further, their activities attract a small number of devoted followers many of whom attend their lectures and seminars to voice and to reinforce their pre-conceived views rather than examining them in the light of different points of views.
Individuals like Rev Hamilton and me thus face an uphill task. But is that not the normal lot of those who want to be “counter cultural”? If Christians like us are to make any impact, however, we must persevere and seek to lay the ground work, which I find lacking on many current issues, by thinking distinctively biblically on such issues. I am therefore looking for a discussion group which seeks to do such thinking in a systematic way.
Alan Russell rightly highlights one serious problem, that of CXhristians disagreeing as to the nature and the solution of many issues. His examples of Bedroom Tax and benefit dependency are good exampoles where Chrsitains may hold very different views. But the issue is whether whatever view one holds hass some biblical basis or just an expression of some prevailing ‘secular’ view. One can support bed-room tax, for example, simply on the ground that, given the shoirtage of accomodation, those who occupy houses with spare rooms must either move to a smaller house or make some financial contribution towards the problem of housing-shortage. But this is, as Alan seems to mply, too simplistic and ignores questions such who is the most like beneficiary and who is most likely to loose. Fuerther,, how many rooms are just sufficient for a single individual and whether, even if an individual were willing to move to smaller house, how practical that is. No wonder, the proposal only applies to those occuping council and other ‘social’ accomodation rather than to privately owned accomodation. Why? Because according to the prevailing free-market capitalist economic and poltical ‘ideology’ private ownrership is sacrosanct and the state has no right to inter in such a matter. Is there a biblical perspective on thgis? Surely,the sharing of one’s resources with others who would otherwise be deprived of them is a cardinal biblical principle. So I would support Bedroom Tax provided it is universal. But if I were to bear bear in mind the practical difficulties.,I would oppose iit and seek some other solutions to the housing crisis asking question such as why are not enough houses built,what to do, if any thing, about the rampant house-price inflation, and a means of voluntary persuasion of those who live in houses with spare rooms to share those rooms in some way, e.g. renting them.
My problem with Christian-inputs on such isssues is that, most of the time, they are expressions of prevailing secular economic and political views (on both sides) without any reference to what the bible, if anything, has to say on such issdues.And the main reason for such a lack is that most preople have not done the biblical ‘ground -work’ for the reasons stated in my contribution above.
May I end by inviting opposite points of views to mine?