On July 17th this year, the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act became law. It is now legal in this country for two people of the same gender to marry. Bible believing Christians obviously have a problem with that- God’s pattern for marriage revealed in creation is between a man and a woman. So how should we respond?
In part we need to remember that this is nothing new. Our Governments have been passing non-Christian legislation for a number of years- not least on issues such as abortion. We also need to remember that the recent legislation is a symptom of a deeper problem rather than the main problem itself- it reflects the way in which we as a country have rejected the authority of God over our lives. Romans 1 speaks of the acceptance of homosexual practice as a result of the prior rejection of God.
There are pastoral issues to grapple with here on the subject of human sexuality- handled admirably, for instance, in this seminar. But in this series of posts I want to focus on the broader question- how should the Christian engage with a non-Christian state? What should be our expectations? Should we protest at legislation with which we disapprove or not? And, if so, how?
These questions were thrown into sharp focus for me by the differing responses amongst evangelicals to the Coalition for Marriage campaign which argued against the redefinition of marriage. Within the FIEC there was a difference of opinion on the blogosphere- you can read the discussion between Andrew Evans and John Stevens here and here. As it happens, I know that some of the elders here at WRBC signed the petition and others didn’t, despite the fact that we would have similar views on the ethics of homosexual practice. At one level the disagreement is reflective of a difference of opinion down through church history- should Christians argue for biblical morality to be put into law or not? This is a particularly relevant question for the Christian at this time when our country’s ethics slip further away from the will of God. The response of a number of Christian organisations has been to campaign on a number of issues- with requests for church members to sign petitions and write to MPs and so on. Is that what we should be doing?
When I read the contrasting blogs about the Coalition for Marriage my main thought was that I needed to grapple with the wider issue- how should the Christian respond to the non-Christian state? So I accepted an invitation to teach a couple of seminars on the theme of church and state as I only really grapple with an issue if I know I have to teach on it! The second of these seminars was on our church weekend. My plan now is to write up these seminars in a series of four posts.
In the two subsequent posts I will outline two different approaches to the question- what I will call an interventionist approach (with high expectations being placed on Christian engagement in the political realm) and a non-interventionist approach before writing some concluding comments. I will try to express both positions fairly- though it will probably be possible to guess which position I take. (In the first seminar I tried to conceal my own opinion and failed miserably!)
To conclude this first post, though, I want to state some points that are clear biblically and would be accepted by either side of the debate.
1. Government has a role instituted by God (Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-17)
In no sense at all could the Governments of the first century be described as Christian. Nevertheless Paul insists they have been established by God and Peter describes rulers as having been sent by God. So we are to submit to, honour and pay taxes to the Government. Culturally, our politicians our held in low esteem and it is easy to join in the general sense of mockery. I’m not sure that is appropriate for the Christian- we are to respect the leaders of our land as they have been put there by God.
2. We must obey God rather than men (Daniel 1,3,6; Acts 4:19-20)
We are to honour the Government but ultimate obedience belongs to God. So evangelicals might disagree as to the best way to campaign about same sex marriage but they must agree that they could not carry out a same sex marriage. I want to be very clear on that- it would be my responsibility to face criminal sanctions rather than allow a same sex wedding to happen at WRBC.
3. We are to pray for Government especially for freedom of religion (1 Tim 2:1-4)
I suspect we don’t do this to the extent that we should. It is a command- we are to pray for those in authority. The reason that Paul gives is so that we may lead quiet and peaceful lives and because God wants all people to be saved. I think Paul is saying that we should pray that the Government would allow us to be free to proclaim the Gospel- because he wants all people to be saved. To be fair, a number of those who supported the Coalition for Marriage did so not because they thought it right to limit the sexual freedom of the non-Christian world but because they feared Christian teachers and churches being forced to do things against their conscience. It is certainly an issue that we need to pray about.
4. We are to do good. (Galatians 6:10; 1 Peter 2:12)
Any non-interventionist conclusion cannot lead us to a sense that the non-Christian world is not our concern. We cannot withdraw from it: we are to seek to do good in the midst of it. And, of course, there are the examples of the likes of William Wilberforce who did great good for people through his political engagement.
We will debate in the next few posts as to how much the Christian should do in the political arena. But the minimum is clear- we are to respect but not unconditionally obey the Government, pray for them and seek to live for the good of our society.