An open letter to the Rt Hon Justine Greening MP

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I have today sent the following letter to the Rt Hon Justine Greening MP.

 

The Right Honourable Justine Greening MP

Secretary of State for Education and Minister for Women and Equalities

27th July 2017

 

Dear Ms Greening

In your recent speech to Pink News you said that there are ‘too many pockets in our country where LGBT rights are seen as something that are a mistake.’ Your military metaphor implies both that you wish to identify these ‘pockets’ and, having done so, to eliminate them. As a Christian minister, serving at a Presbyterian church in York, I would like to offer our assistance in the first, while it is my duty to dash your hopes of the second. Let me explain.

The Church of Jesus Christ is certainly opposed to LGBT rights (please do not be misled by the General Synod of the Church of England on this, which is entirely out of step with global and historic Christianity on this and many other matters). But we are far from being a secretive ‘pocket’. We are not hard to locate. We remain the largest group of people on earth who share an understanding of reality. We do not operate in secret; We are a visible and public presence in every town and city in the country. We are committed to the welfare of all around us, Christian or not. We work tirelessly for the good of individuals, society and the nation. Moreover, we absolutely welcome scrutiny of everything we do. Our services are open to all and there is nothing that delights us more when anyone wishes to visit us to observe or enquire into what it is we believe and why. Finding us should not prove a problem for you. I personally would like to extend an invitation for you to visit our church in York whenever you like, and I am quite confident that any of my fellow-ministers (of whatever denomination) would say the same.

But as to your hopes of eliminating us – for you believe that we are a ‘pocket’ of which there are ‘too many’ – I’m afraid that I must disappoint you. Yes, we do believe that LGBT rights are a mistake. And we are not going to change our minds, for at least three reasons.

First, because we have a greater view of history than you. You told Sky News on 24th July that ‘It is important that the church, in a way, keeps up and is part of a modern country’. You clearly believe, along with many secular people, that trends in ‘modern’ society have a universal moral force which all people must submit to. To us, giving such significance to trends in public opinion in one part of the world in one tiny period of history is tragically narrow-minded. We serve the Son of God, whose arrival on earth in human flesh was planned from before the foundation of the world; towards whose return to judge the world history is inexorably moving, as God has proved by raising him from the dead; and who is right now calling all people to join the Kingdom of God, in which we are saved from our corrupt hearts and transformed by the Holy Spirit into people fit to serve the living God. That being the case, we are hardly going to abandon God’s standards to fit in with the whims of this or any other human society.

Second, because we have a greater view of love than you. ‘Greater love has no man’, said our Lord, ‘than that he lay down his life for his friends.’ And that is exactly what he did. He laid down his life on the cross in order to save us from the twisted loves of our own hearts and the judgment that we deserve from God as a result. By his death he set us free, to know God and to love him and each other. And in so doing he defined for us what true love is: giving up ourselves for the sake of others. That includes, though it is far from limited to, giving up on following our sexual desires. That is why sexual love for Christians can only ever be in the context of the unbreakable vows of marriage, in which a man seeks not his own pleasure but the good of his wife and children, and a woman seeks not her own pleasure but the good of her husband and children, unconditionally, for life. Indeed, biblical law is an interconnected working-out of what sacrificing self in the service of others is all about. It is about what true love means in every area of life. In contrast, the secular (which includes LGBT) view of love is one which demands others lay down everything and anything for the sake of my sexual pleasure. It reduces love to following the urgings of our genitals, no matter what the social cost to those around us, and especially to our children. When it speaks of love for others, it appears to extend to no more than encouraging them to do the same. Forgive us, but it is from that miserable view of love and all its horrible consequences that our Lord Jesus died to save us. We are hardly going to abandon his infinite love for the sake of your version.

And third, because we worship a greater God than you. The entire LGBT movement – indeed, much of the ‘modern’ society you want us to ‘keep up’ with – and to which we are a ‘pocket’ of unwelcome resistance – treats ‘freedom’ as a sort of deity which demands our unconditional obeisance. Thus you believe that there is no value higher than the freedom of each individual to do, and to be, whatever he or she wants to do and to be. You even ascribe this idea of ‘freedom’ a quasi-creative power to define reality, as we now see in the matter of ‘Transgender rights’, the next area in which you are intending to ‘keep on pushing’, to quote your speech to Pink News. Apparently the freedom to define ourselves now trumps physical facts, and a person’s mental state or act of will has a power to determine reality itself. But of course it does not, and to expect us to acquiesce in this nonsense is simply asking us tell lies about a person’s sex purely on the basis of that person’s supposed freedom to think it. That is also called bearing false witness. Forgive us, but we have it on a much higher authority that we are not to do that.

For we serve not an imagined deity of personal autonomy but the living and true God, the Holy Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit who has made himself known through Jesus Christ. He is not a faceless principle who demands obedience no matter what the cost, but he is infinite, eternal, wise, powerful, holy, just, good and true. He is a Trinity of persons eternally united in love. He made us in his image and he made us for himself. He has acted in unfathomable love towards us in the Son becoming flesh and suffering, dying and rising in order to save us. He has united us to his Son by his Spirit so that we have become his children and call him our Father. This is the one true God. This is our God. It is to him we owe our lives. It is he who saved us from our destructive desires. It is he who has forgiven us all our sins. It is in his service that we live. It is his laws he has taught us to love. We are hardly going to abandon him for the sake of the blind, faceless and destructive principles of secularism.

And so, there are I’m afraid no circumstances whatsoever in which you will be able to eliminate this ‘pocket’ of resistance to LGBT rights and the agenda of secularism. Call us bigots, legislate against us, deprive us of our jobs, throw us to the lions if you wish. But you will never make us embrace your view of history, accept your version of love, or serve your secular deities. The church of Jesus Christ is not so easily overcome. You would therefore do well to form policies that recognise both our continued existence and, more importantly, the reality of what God has made known in his Son. It is that reality on which Britain itself as we know it was founded. You serve as a minister of a Monarch who affirmed all the Christian truths I have outlined above at her coronation. It is therefore not us who are out of step with what it means to be British, but you.

I urge you to come and visit one, perhaps many of our churches, to find out what Christianity is, who our Lord and Saviour is, and why we love, trust and follow our God in the way we do. We will be delighted to welcome you.

Yours sincerely

 

Rev. Dr. Matthew PW Roberts

Minister, Trinity Church York

A congregation of the International Presbyterian Church

 

Why Pelagianism matters (including for the Church of England)

Pelagius CofE

At last week’s C of E General Synod, Synod member Jayne Ozanne presented an argument for her motion for the C of E to ban ‘gay conversion therapy’ which began with these remarkable words:

‘The Bible teaches us that we are each fearfully and wonderfully made (Ps.139.14), and that we should praise God’s gift of our creation. Thus, our diversity as human beings is a reflection of God’s creativity and something to celebrate. The biblical concern is not with what we are but how we choose to live our lives, meaning that differing sexual orientations and gender identities are not inherently sinful, nor mental health disorders to be “cured”.’

What is remarkable about these words is that they identify her position openly and unequivocally as Pelagianism, an ancient heresy of the church. What is even more remarkable is not that the motion at General Synod carried (with some significant amendments), but that the bishops of the Church of England – which still claims to be part of the church catholic – ever allowed it to be presented at all. But it was presented, and it did carry, so all who are concerned for Christian Orthodoxy in England need to be aware of what happened here. And to understand that, it is necessary to understand what Pelagianism is and why it matters.

In many ways the Pelagian controversy of the 5th century AD is the defining controversy of the Western church. The church’s condemnation of Pelagius and his doctrine set the course for the entire understanding of salvation for Latin Christianity, and furthermore the Reformation 1000 years later was in large measure reacting against a resurgence in Pelagianism in the mediaeval church. For 1500 years then, Christian orthodoxy has seen the teaching of Pelagius to be entirely antithetical to the gospel. It is not too much to say that it is in the contrast with Pelagianism that the true nature of the Christian gospel is most clearly seen.

What was the controversy about?

The controversy started because Pelagius, a British monk, read the ‘Confessions’ of Augustine, Bishop of Hippo in North Africa, and was alarmed. He was alarmed because Augustine taught that God not only gives moral commands to us, but he gives us the ability to keep those commands, which we could not have done otherwise. And, reasoned Pelagius, that would mean that by nature we are unable to keep God’s commands; in which case why bother? And so, he began to teach, we are born entirely able to keep God’s commands. The issue is whether we decide to do so or not.

In other words, the controversy was about human nature. It boiled down to, what is the status of human nature at birth? Pelagius taught that we are born innocent, entirely capable of keeping God’s laws. Augustine, in contrast, insisted that we are born with ‘original sin’. That is, sin is at birth already hard-wired into us, because we have inherited the corruption of nature that Adam brought upon us. So Pelagius said that we are born with nothing wrong with us; Augustine that we already desire to sin at birth. Pelagius said men become condemned through their free choices, because we are only condemned for what we do; Augustine said that we are born condemned, because we are condemned for what we are. Pelagius’ position was neatly summarised by his phrase ‘Evil is not born with us, and we are procreated without fault; and the only thing in men at their birth is what God has formed.’[1]. Augustine’s position is that ‘the fault of our nature remains in our offspring so deeply impressed as to make it guilty.’[2]

Why did this matter?

Because Augustine saw what Pelagius did not: that Pelagius’ teaching utterly changes the nature of Christianity. For Pelagius, Christianity is a religion of moral self-improvement. Since there is nothing wrong with our nature, the gospel is merely a message about how to improve our behaviour. To that end God provides a law in the Bible and a wonderful example in Christ. And that is all he provides, because it is all we need. With some solid encouragement, some moral direction, and a model to follow, we can all get on with being good as God requires. And of course God will reward us if we do.

But the problem with this is, as Augustine laboured to point out, is that this is not the gospel found in the Bible at all. The Biblical gospel from beginning to end is not about self-improvement of what we do but redemption of what we are. The law kills, says Paul, precisely because moral self-improvement is entirely beyond us. We are corrupt creatures in need of rescue. God’s grace does not consist in calling for us to run faster from the side of the track, for we are prone on the ground with crippled legs, entirely incapable of leaving the blocks. God’s grace consists of lifting us to our feet, remaking our useless muscles and sinews, and causing us to run a race we never could have run left to ourselves.

So Augustine says things like,

‘For that which God promises we do not ourselves bring about by our own choice or natural power, but he himself effects it by grace.’[3]

‘In order, indeed, that we might receive that love whereby we might love, we were loved while as yet we had no love ourselves.’[4]

‘By such grace it is effected, not only that we discover what ought to be done, but also that we do what we have discovered, – not only that we believe what ought to be loved, but also that we love what we have believed.’

Before we can do any good, we must want to do good. And since only deeds done out of love for God are genuinely good, we must love God before we can do any good. But we do not naturally love God. We are born loving self and that self-love expresses itself in any number of godless lusts. What we naturally are is incapable of good.

And so God by his grace, through the redeeming work of Christ applied to us by the Holy Spirit, transforms our hearts so that we love him and so are able to begin to do the things that he commands. In the words of the Confessions that offended Pelagius so much, Augustine prayed ‘You command continence; grant what you command, and command what you will.’[5] The gospel of Christ is that he transforms the hopeless mass of corrupt desires which is the human heart so that not only is the guilt of our nature and our deeds forgiven through our faith in Christ, but our very nature is changed. This message is so much at the heart of the entire Apostolic witness to Christ’s gospel that it is hard to find anywhere in the New Testament where it is not either right at or only just below the surface. But John 3, Romans 6-8, Galatians 5, Ephesians 2, 1 Peter 1-2, 1 John 4 would be good starting points.

And that, of course, is a gloriously better gospel than Pelagius’. Because the heart of man is very corrupt. All sorts of dark desires lurk within me. I sin because I want to, and as long as I want to I will keep on sinning. That is the problem with mankind from beginning to end. That is why we are born and live under the condemnation of God. And Pelagius’ gospel offers no help with this situation at all. Being told that I’m capable of good is no help at all if I know that, deep down, I am not. If you do have a natural desire for a particular evil thing – say, drunkenness, or riches at the expense of others, or popular admiration, or illicit sexual pleasure, or revenge or anything else  – then heaven help you. Except that heaven will not help you. You’re on your own.

And of course, nor is it any help if my love for evil is such that I don’t even realise how evil I am. We have all met people who see nothing at all wrong with the utterly odious attitudes, habits and appetites they live by. Pelagianism can do no more than advertise to them a product that they will never in a lifetime have any desire to buy. What is more, every true Christian knows that that is exactly what we once were. If it weren’t for the grace of Christ I would never have seen myself for what I really am. I was a slave to the world, the flesh and the devil, until God in Christ made me alive (Eph 2:1-5).

Pelagianism, the C of E, and LGBT

Now, back to the Church of England General Synod. Consider Jayne Ozanne’s statement that ‘The biblical concern is not with what we are but how we choose to live our lives’. That sums up Pelagius’ position perfectly. Then consider Ozanne’s claim that because we are fearfully and wonderfully made (which we are) therefore ‘our diversity as human beings is a reflection of God’s creativity and something to celebrate… meaning that differing sexual orientations and gender identities are not inherently sinful.’ She might as well have quoted Pelagius: ‘Evil is not born with us, and we are procreated without fault; and the only thing in men at their birth is what God has formed.’  She assumes, along with the whole LGBT movement, that the natural desires of our hearts are pure and good. That nothing found in human nature can be wrong. God must have put it there. So it must be good.

But the Biblical concern absolutely is with what we are. And the biblical diagnosis of the human condition – the problem that God sent his Son to save us from – is exactly the corruption of human nature which we are born with. If being born again, as Jesus says we must be, is not about what we are, then what is? If it is not a description of the hopeless condition in which we are born naturally, then what could be? So all Jesus’ apostles bear witness to the same thing.  ‘O wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?’, cries Paul (Romans 7:24). ‘According to his great mercy he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead’, says Peter (1 Peter 1:3). ‘If anyone is in Christ’, says Paul, ‘he is a new creation. Behold, the old has gone, the new has come’ (2 Corinthians 5:17). The gospel from beginning to end is about resurrection: God raised Christ from the dead so that he would raise all those who are his from the dead to. So that what we are would be made new, both on the inside (now) and on the outside (when Christ returns) (2 Corinthians 4:14-16).

Being a thoroughly Pelagian argument, those LGBT campaigners who claim to be Christians must therefore assume a Pelagian gospel. They assume we are capable of moral self-improvement. They believe the function of Christianity is to help us see what is good so that we can get on and do it. That is why Church of England liberals see what they are doing as a moral crusade; they are implementing their version of the gospel. Of course Theological liberalism has always been Pelagian since its 19th Century inception. What we are seeing now is the fruit of that.

It’s worth seeing that today’s Liberals are working out Pelagius’ principle in a way neither he nor the older Liberals did. Pelagius looked at God’s laws and said that we must be born capable of doing them. Today’s neo-Pelagians argue that because certain desires are present in people naturally, therefore they can’t be against God’s law. It is a logically demanded consequence of Pelagius’ views.

Some Conclusions

  1. The issue before the Church of England – and all denominations deciding where to stand on LGBT issues – is not a matter of ‘how to interpret a small number of specific texts’, as the Anglican Bishop of Manchester wrote last week. It is a matter that goes to the heart of what the gospel is. Thankfully that decision and its implications was pretty well mapped out in the controversy of 1500 years ago. If the C of E wishes to decide, after 1500 years of church condemnation, that Pelagius was right after all, then it both needs to say so honestly and it needs to recognise that it is adopting a fundamentally different gospel to that which it has subscribed to up till now.
  2. The Pelagian controversy shows us that a gospel which denies Original Sin is a gospel that offers absolutely zero help from God with the desires of our hearts. So we must see that, for all its talk of love, tolerance and inclusion, those who advocate for acceptance of LGBT lifestyles in the church hold to a gospel that has no power to save sinners. It would have left David a slave of his lusts, Zaccheus a slave of his money, and Paul still breathing murderous threats against the church. It is a gospel that has nothing to offer the man addicted to pornography, the married couple who cannot stop arguing, the alcoholic who cannot make himself sober, the proud man who loves attention, the broken teenager who just wants to hurt herself.
  3. Orthodox Christians engaging with this issue in their denominations need to make quite explicit that this is what it is all about. It is not merely about failing to call sins sins, nor simply about ignoring parts of Scripture, serious though those things are. It is about replacing the gospel of salvation from the guilt and power of sin with another, miserably inferior one. That needs to be stated and spelt out at every opportunity.
  4. The neo-Pelagian move is one which has some frightening consequences. If the discovery that a desire is naturally present in some human beings means that it cannot be sinful, then an awful lot of other evil things are going to have to be declared not to be sinful as well. Sexual immorality, theft, murder are only the first three of the list of things Jesus said come out of the heart of man (Mark 7:20-23). They originate inside us; which means that they were there are our birth. If the neo-Pelagians are right, they are ‘a reflection of God’s creativity and something to celebrate’. It’s not hard to see where that will lead. There is no perversion of human desire – sexual or otherwise – that is not ultimately justified by this argument.
  5. British Evangelicals need to examine our own history for how deeply Pelagian we have often been ourselves. Far too often we have assumed that the gospel is merely about forgiveness of our guilt and forgotten that it is also about redemption from slavery to our sinful desires. This is shown most clearly in how easily we accepted the idea that somehow those who are tempted by homosexual lusts have a different identity to the rest of us; that the category of ‘sexual orientation’ is in itself a valid one. But at root this corrupt desire is no different to any other. Sin is a natural condition of our hearts, and it merely manifests itself in different sorts of desires; greed in some of us, sexual lusts in most of us, pride in all of us. We have proudly assumed that others are slaves to sins while we ourselves never were.
  6. And British Evangelicals need urgently to re-acquaint ourselves with the past engagement of godly theologians with Pelagianism. What we are facing here is nothing new. The church confronted fundamentally the same error before. Augustine is clearly the most important figure here, although the Reformed writers of the 17th Century (John Owen’s Mortification of Sin would be a classic example) deal with many of the same issues in a more pastoral vein. We will see our way much more clearly if we stand on the shoulders of our forefathers.

We were dead in our transgressions and sins. God raised us up with Christ made us alive in him. He has delivered us both from the guilt of sin and from its power. That is the Christian gospel. Let us see the Pelagian alternative for what it is, and oppose it with all our might.

 

 

 

[1] Augustine, On Original Sin, ch. 14

[2] On Original Sin, ch. 44

[3] On the Grace of Christ, ch. 31

[4] On the Grace of Christ, ch. 27

[5] Confessions 10.29

Time to start thinking seriously about Church and State

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I remember being puzzled as a student about why law undergraduates were required to study Roman law. Apparently the reason was that it was of historical interest, and a valuable intellectual exercise for honing their abilities in applying legal logic. But it had no relationship at all to the actual practice of law in Britain today.

I think that is how most students of theology, and most ministers, see the theological question of the relationship of church and state. Historically interesting, and a valuable test of theological logic, but since 1689 (in Britain) and 1776 (in America) surely of no actual relevance.

Whether or not that is a correct historical assessment, the extended period within which churches have been able safely to ignore the issue is almost certainly drawing to a close. We do not know the government’s precise plans, but the continued themes of enforcing ‘British Values’ in government policy (clearly repeated in the recent Queen’s Speech), a stated aim to ‘stamp out extremism in all its forms’ without ever defining what it is that is being taken to extremes, and talk of regulation of church youth and children’s work by Ofsted (the government body that regulates standards in schools) all suggest that it is a question of when, not if, the government seeks formally to regulate, assess or control the teaching of churches.

So how should we respond to this? Surely it is time for us to think seriously again about our theological understanding of the church and the state. The application of our doctrine here will be very different to what it would have been in the days of a Christian consensus in the governments of Europe. But we must still think through and apply our doctrine. We must here, as everywhere, obey God and not men.

I want to submit that this is a far more serious issue than one of ‘freedom of religion’, which is a rather more problematic concept than is often assumed. There is a basic issue here of what the church is, and the faithful fulfilling of her commission from Christ to preach the gospel. I want to argue that no faithful Christian ministers can tolerate a requirement to submit our teaching to the approval of the state, for in that we are answerable to Christ alone. And I will end with some proposals for how we are to respond practically if (or when) we are asked to do so.

I shall start with some biblical principles, then set out some historical positions based on them, before considering some implications.

Biblical Principles

Here are some principles more or less universally held among orthodox Protestant churches since the Reformation.

  1. The Church holds a direct commission from Christ to go and make disciples, baptising them in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey all Christ has commanded (Matthew 28:18-20)
  2. The Church has a real power over people’s lives, which Jesus refers to as the ‘keys of the kingdom’ (Matt 16:19). It is a power delegated from Christ himself. But this is a Spiritual power; to proclaim judgment and salvation in preaching and teaching, and to admit to and exclude from the membership of the church, as marked by the sacraments and as applied and made effective in people’s hearts by the Holy Spirit. The church has no power of coercion by violent or economic means.
  3. The State (‘governing authorities’) has been instituted by God to approve what is good and carry out God’s wrath on wrongdoers (Romans 13:1-7). Note that this is not conditional upon the godliness of those in government, nor on their recognition that their authority is a delegated one from God. Given Jesus’ ascension and enthronement at God’s right hand, and his identity as the ‘Son of Man’ to whom all of God’s authority has been given (Daniel 7:13-14; Matt 28:18; Eph 1:20-22) in the age of the gospel it is right to say that governing authorities, like the church, hold a delegated authority from Christ. This is the basic reason why Reformation theologians rejected Anabaptism, which denied any valid authority to the state at all. Thus the state and the church both derive their authority from Christ but through separate commissions.
  4. The state has a real power over people’s lives, also delegated from Christ, referred to as ‘bearing the sword’ in Romans 13:4. So the State’s power is one of the legitimate use of violence and economic coercion. Put simply, the state may run an army, a police force, prisons, and a taxation system; which of course the church may not.
  5. The church’s power includes the proclamation to the world of the gospel of Jesus Christ, as King of kings, Lord of lords, and Saviour of sinners who repent and believe. She has no other gospel to proclaim. She does not have the power to control the state or attempt to wield its sword (this is a basic protestant objection to the position of the Church of Rome).
  6. The state has no power to oppose the teaching of the gospel of Christ or instruct or limit the church in the exercise of her Spiritual power. If the civil authorities oppose the preaching of the gospel, the church’s response is always ‘we must obey God rather than men’ (Acts 5:29)

So far, most Protestants would agree. However, it leads to four (historically-speaking, at least) widely-held views about the ideal relation of church and state.

  1. The Anglican position. Historically this has been known by the rather vague and possibly inaccurate term ‘Erastianism’. While affirming all the above, Richard Hooker argued that the state has the power to make ecclesiastical appointments. That is, God has given the King the power to appoint the Bishops. The power of the keys remained with the church, which alone (not the King or Parliament) may define and teach doctrine and apply church discipline. But the persons who hold and wield those keys are chosen by the state. The Lutheran churches adopted a somewhat similar position.
  2. The Classic Reformed position. This holds that church and state hold separate commissions directly from Christ, and therefore must be distinct. The state has no power over the church’s use of the keys nor of church appointments, ie. who hold the keys. Indeed, the choosing and ordaining of ministers is part of the church’s Spiritual power which must not be arrogated by the state. Meanwhile, the state holds its commission from Christ, and so must endeavour to shape the laws of the land according to the law of God (for what other standard could it hold people to?). The church therefore rightly instructs the state in the laws of God and calls her to submit to them and enforce them. The state has the power to call synods of the church to resolve doctrinal issues, and to ensure that their proceedings are guided by the word of God, but beyond that no power to influence the decisions of those synods. And the state has the duty to oppose false religion when it arises in the land. Put simply, the state is to preach and apply the law of God, the church is to preach and apply the gospel of God. Therefore a single recognised Reformed church should coexist alongside a confessionally Christian state, without either transgressing the bounds of the other. This is the position of the Westminster Confession and Catechisms.
  3. A ‘modified Reformed’ position. This attempts to recognise that state-imposed conformity to a single established church is extremely difficult in practice. It therefore extends a degree of state toleration to all Christian (or sometimes all Protestant) churches, while the state itself remains Christian in its self-understanding. The separate authority of church and state as distinct delegated authorities from Christ is retained. This is the position of the 1658 Savoy Declaration.
  4. The ‘Secular State’ position. Historically first advocated by Roger Williams, an English Baptist who founded the Rhode Island colony in 1636, this is often confused with the classic and modified Reformed positions. But while it agrees with them that church and state are to be distinct, it radically departs from them in asserting that that they are to be entirely separate. That is, the state is not to be Christian at all, but is to occupy a position of neutrality with reference to all religions. This entails an assumption that it is possible to frame laws by the use of human reason apart from the revelation of Scripture, and holds that this is desirable for the purpose of avoiding persecution on the grounds of religion.

The fourth of these, the ‘secular state’ position, is that adopted by the American constitution of 1787 and clarified in the first amendment of 1789 (though some American Christians argue that the intention was closer to the ‘modified Reformed’ position). It has been the de facto position of the British government since the Second World War, and arguably for a considerable time before that, despite the clearly Anglican wording of the Monarch’s coronation service. Today it is the most widely-held view among conservative Christians in Britain and America. In my opinion it is fatally flawed and fails to apply the Biblical principles outlined above, but I shall not argue that here.

So then, would any of these positions be happy to accept the monitoring and approval of the church’s teaching with the state? The answer is clearly no. Even those who are convinced Anglicans in the tradition of Hooker, and who therefore recognise a strong power of the State over the Church, understand this power to be mediated purely via the bishops. No consistent Anglicans have ever envisaged a situation wherein extra-ecclesiastical powers appointed by the state may directly regulate the teaching of individual churches.

What about those who hold to a Classic Reformed position? The Westminster Confession says that the civil magistrate has a duty ‘to take order… that the truth of God be kept pure and entire’ in the church (chapter 23.3). What the church teaches is a matter for state concern, but there are two caveats to this. First, his authority is only to ensure conformity to the word of God. The fact that he may oppose teaching that denies the gospel does not give him an authority to oppose teaching that affirms it. And second, the only means allowed to him to do this is through the calling of synods and requiring their conformity to the word of God. What is specifically excluded is that he ‘assume to himself the administration of the Word and Sacraments, or the power of the keys of the kingdom of heaven’. He may call a synod of the church to resolve a doctrinal dispute, and intervene to ensure that the business of the synod is conducted according to the word of God consistently with Christian orthodoxy. That is, he may dismiss heretics and those not wishing to submit to the word of God from participation in such synods. What he may not do is steer a synod away from the word of God. Moreover, he has no power whatsoever to interfere in the ministries of word and sacrament as they are exercised in churches. The idea of submitting teaching programmes to the approval of an arm of the state is absolutely ruled out.

Given that adherents to a Modified Reformed or Secular State position do not allow even the limited power to the state that the Classic Reformed position does, it should go without saying that neither of them allow this either. Those who believe the state should be either generically Christian or entirely secular clearly cannot allow that the state should regulate the teaching of the church.

The conclusion of the above is this: none of the historic Protestant understandings of Church and State, despite their wide variation, allows to the state the authority directly to regulate the teaching and pastoral ministry of the church. Indeed, since neither the Roman Catholic nor Eastern Orthodox churches allow that either, it is not too much to say that there is no Christian understanding of Church and State which allows to the state the authority directly to regulate the teaching and pastoral ministry of the church.

The heart of the issue is this. Ministers of the church hold a commission from Christ, which is in no way mediated by the civil government. At our ordinations we were charged by Christ to preach the word. No civil power, not even the Queen herself, had any part in that. How much less any of her lower officials. We are answerable to Christ alone for that commission, via the church authorities he has established.

To state the point succinctly: the Church does not preach the gospel by permission of the State. We preach it in obedience to the charge of the Lord Jesus. Presbyterians will understand that authority to be mediated via the ordained elders of the church, Congregationalists via the collective will of the gathered saints. Anglicans believe it mediated by royally-appointed bishops. But all will agree that in no sense whatsoever is the preaching of the gospel subject to the approval of the government. We will always render to Caesar what is Caesar’s (which is why we are no threat to the wellbeing of the state, but on the contrary are the best citizens any state could have), but this ministry of the Church is God’s alone and we will render it to none but him.

And all of this would be true even if the state were as Christian as could be. Even in Calvin’s Geneva, where the civil magistrates supported thoroughgoing Reformed Christianity to the hilt, the Company of Pastors (who allowed to the state far more authority than would almost any modern Protestants) would not tolerate their intrusion into matters of preaching, teaching, doctrine or church discipline. How much more, then, in 2017 when our governments have not the remotest allegiance to the Christian Scriptures.

So then, what should be our reaction to attempts by the British state to regulate the teaching of churches? If, for example, we are told that we must register our church’s youth work with Ofsted, how should we react?

Well, this would be a straightforward attempt by the state directly to monitor and regulate the teaching of the church, in exactly the manner in which I have argued above that no Protestant Christians have ever allowed. It would be an instruction from government to surrender to the state the commission that Christ gave to us as ministers of the church. And as such I suggest that we must not countenance doing so. Our ordination vows and our ordination charge demand that we do not. Our loyalty to Christ our chief shepherd demands that we do not.

So then, let me recommend the following as a course of action, if and when we are told to register our church teaching and pastoral activities with the state – whether that relates to our children or anyone else.

  1. We must make clear that all the ministries of the church are entirely open. We have nothing to hide; on the contrary, we welcome anyone coming to view the work of our church. We can invite anyone, whether employed by the government or not, to come and see anything we do. This includes Sunday Schools and Holiday Clubs, youth groups, student groups, home groups, and of course principally our worship on the Lord’s Day. Indeed, this is a great opportunity to get others to hear the gospel. Likewise, we should make all of our policies, our doctrinal statements, and our teaching syllabi available to any who should ask for them. Whatever church government structures we have, whether congregational meetings, elders’ meetings, or anything else, we invite and welcome people to observe. All we do in our churches should be a display of God’s glory. There is nothing we want more than for people – whether government officials or anyone else – to see it.
  2. And we must make clear that we will not under any circumstances register any of these activities for the approval of the state, whether that is Ofsted or any other state body. We should tell the inspectors that they may come to anything and everything (with the exception of confidential pastoral meetings of course) but that we will sign nothing. We should explain that this is because the Church of Jesus Christ does not operate by permission of the State. Both the State and the Church operate by permission of Jesus Christ. We welcome them to see all that we do, but they need to know that we will do it whether they approve of us or not.
  3. And we must be clear in our own minds, to our congregations, and to any relevant government bodies, that we will happily go to prison or face any other sanctions rather than back down on this. As ordained ministers of Jesus Christ we would rather face the sword of man than the disapproval of the Chief Shepherd, whose undershepherds we are.

This may seem radical and dangerous, but it is as far as I can see the consistent position that our forefathers in the faith have taken, both under the pagan Roman empire and in the various bursts of state oppression that the church has endured since, particularly in the Reformation and post-Reformation periods. And it is only when the church has stood firm like this that, under God, and after often great cost to her ministers and other Christians, that in time the claims of Christ upon the world have come to be heard again and governments have relented and the church has come to flourish and multiply. But even if, in the wisdom and providence of God, that should not happen, and we and the church should simply suffer to no benefit that is obvious to us, we should still be delighted to do so as we follow our suffering Lord.