The Church, the Clergy and Political Power

The Church, the Clergy and Political Power

 I write the following because many people either take the view that there should be a separation of religion and state, as in America or France,or that they should be one as in some Muslim nations. Actually I believe both these opposite views are mistaken as I hope will eventually become clear, in this article.

A Widespread Complaint

It is common to hear grumbles about the Church combining religion with politics instead of getting on with what is perceived to be its real business. It is not only politicians in government – bearing as they do the brunt of the Church’s censure – but ordinary church members who constantly complain about this.

The response from those clergy who let their political opinions be known is also familiar. They tell us that the Christian message pertains to the whole of life and certainly is concerned with issues of justice which should also be the concern of politicians. Well there seems no answer to that! However the feeling of unease continues. I confess that I am one of those who feel ill at ease. Let us consider the matter more carefully.

The reason for a Christian concern for politics

Theologically our concern for the world comes from the continuity and discontinuity between this earth and the kingdom of God. Both the Biblical testimony to the Virgin Birth and the Resurrection of the Body, confirm both God’s love for ourphysicalworld – a love that we must share – and also the truth that it is only frombeyondthis world that its salvation comes. This means that the Christian is bound to be profoundly interested in the state of politics in his nation and world. At the same time he recognises that merely reforming this world is never going to solve its problems – God’s kingdom must break in from outside. He must never give the impression that hismainmessage to the world is political.

The Church the Clergy and Politics

Could it be that what people are really complaining about is not the Church- in its full sense – getting involved in politics butclergymaking political statements and claiming that they are doing so in the name of Christ? Now that is a different matter.

Of course the Church should be involved in the political life of the nation. It is our hope and prayer that many lay Christians will be involved in parliament, local councils etc., and bring their understanding of the gospel to bear upon the political life of the nation.

It is not at all clear though that the pulpit or the General Assembly or General Synod is the place for political pronouncements.

In the British constitution, the clergy of the two national churches are forbidden from standing for election to parliament. In the Bible the Priests and Kings were not allowed to combine their functions. When king Saul and later king Uzziah broke this rule they faced serious consequences. Only He who would be free from sin – and therefore free from a tendency to corruption – could combine the roles of Priest and King. That Person is the Messiah. The reason for this, I believe, is that it is recognised that political power, though necessary for the life of any nation, tends to corrupt and the Church’s role as the bearer of the gospel to the nation must not be compromised in this way.

However the State recognises that the Church’s message and the behaviour of the leaders of the nation are intertwined. It does this by explicitly putting the power of the monarch under the authority of God in the coronation, by giving certain bishops seats in the House of Lords, and by the Sovereign always sending a representative to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland.

The true basis for the welfare of the community – grace not law

There is often a big unspoken assumption in much Church contribution to political debate. It is the theory that governments have it in their power to be the great providers of freedom, happiness, employment and prosperity for all. This is to make the fundamental theological error of giving priority to law over grace. Surely it should be the other way round. Apart from external defence (armed forces) and internal security (police, courts etc.) governments are also in the business of legislating to keep us from harming and exploiting one another. This also pertains to the business of taxation and spending to provide for the most needy in society, endeavouring to supply education, health care, etc. for all.

In any human society there has to be, on the one hand, personal trust, generosity etc. (i.e. grace and faith) and also, on the other hand, legislation and state sponsored welfare (i.e. law). However grace is supreme and eternal. Law and nation states are temporary expedients to restrain the chaos caused by human selfishness and sinfulness.

The more trust and generosity there is, the less need there will be for law and taxation. Conversely the less personal trust there is the more law will be needed to hold the community together. If there were no trust between us, an infinite number of laws would be needed to provide the necessary cohesion. Of course this is impossible.

Therefore a society without any trust is bound to fall apart no matter how well meaning and wise is its government. Governments can only make laws. They do not have the power to make us trust and love one another.

When a needy person goes to the DSS to collect benefit, he does not feel grateful to the taxpayer for the benefit given. The person who is on the other side of the counter and the taxpayer whose money is being used are not giving out of love for the needy but only because they are compelled by the law of the land. Although we cannot avoid the need for such a system it does tend to breed resentment on the part of the taxpayer, and dependency on the part of the recipient. Enormous corruption and inefficiency – involving clever avoidance of tax by the rich and also the bleeding of the system by those on the receiving end – are bound to be endemic to such a system.

So much Church criticism of government makes the assumption that governments have it in their power to bring prosperity and welfare to all.

It is only the spiritual fabric of society that provides the necessary love and trust between human beings. Although law is essential the Church, in its comments about politics, must not give the impression that legislation and taxation-benefits policies have the power to save society from disintegration. In all Church statements to government the priority of grace over law must be absolutely clear. If we do not make that clear we give the impression that we don’t actually believe the gospel and we simply degenerate into just one more political pressure group.

The Church should be in the business of providing the spiritual fabric necessary for a real caring society to exist. The government, dependent as it is on the power of law and coercion, cannot provide that spiritual dimension to society and therefore rightly looks to the churches for that provision. When the Church responds by merely blaming the government for social deprivation it is putting its faith in law rather than grace. In so doing it is failing the nation. It makes its guilt even worse by denouncing politicians for the state of the nation when it is its own lack of spiritual leadership that is to blame.

I believe that it is the hazy appreciation of this failure that leads so many people to complain about the Church mixing religion with politics.

The distinctive contribution of the Church to national life

Does the above mean that the Church should have nothing to say about tyranny and injustice perpetrated by so many governments in the world? What about Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Karl Barth, and the Confessing Church that made such a courageous witness against Hitler and the Nazis? Certainly if theology were to withdraw from the public arena it would be impoverished.

Yet also its contribution should be distinctive, not merely duplicating what all well meaning people say. That was the problem with the so- called `middle axiom’ so loved by William Temple – one of the best known of the 20th Century Archbishops of Canterbury. Obviously, William Temple believed, the Church could not be giving its opinions on every area of government policy – but it should not, either, be restricted to the mere teaching of doctrine.

Temple believed that from its doctrine it could make a link between its teaching and public policy. For example it could tell the government that it was its duty to do its best to make sure that everyone had decent housing, education etc. It could not dictate to the government how these aims might best be realised. This seems reasonable. However the problem with this `middle axiom’ between doctrine and actual legislation was precisely that already alluded to, namely that it does not need a theologian to say that housing, education and health for all are good aims for any government.

So what about Karl Barth and the Confessing Church? According to Barth himself his Church Dogmatics did more to challenge Nazism than his political pronouncements. I am sure that that is right. The root of the evil of Nazism (and indeed Communism) is to elevate the state into the position of God, not accountable to the true God and the Lordship of Christ. It was the belief that the State could solve the world’s problems and bring heaven to earth that in fact brought the world nearer to hell than it had ever been in all its history.

Isn’t this the ultimate irony of a good deal of Church’s political comment? So much of it is based on the assumption that the government has the ability and the duty to be the great provider of good community for all. It is this false assumption that has been behind the worst tyrannies that the world has known.

What is the distinctive message the Church has for national life?

Over against the terrible distortion of the role of government by the Nazis, the Confessing Church proclaimed the Lordship of Christ. Is that not the clear message that the Churches should be making known today? It does not need complicated research and long reports to keep reminding peoples and leaders what is necessary.

The heart of the Public Message of the Church for nations and governments must surely contain the following:

  1. There is a God before whom all nations, peoples and governments are eternally accountable.
  2. He has made His will for us known in the Ten Commandments and the Sermon on the Mount.
  3. Nations ignore these to their peril.
  4. There is in human beings a tendency to corrupt themselves. Government policy in regard to censorship and freedom must take
  5. this into account.
  6. God loves all peoples and at infinite cost to Himself has given us – ordinary people and politicians – a way of forgiveness in Christ.

It is in the exposition of these principles – as they are given to us in the great story in the Bible – that human beings and national governments can get a sense of purpose. It is from a sense of purpose that we understand the value of anything. Without a publicly agreed purpose and value for human life no morality including social morality can survive. It is in this area most of all that the Church must not fail the nation and world. If the `salt of the earth’ loses it distinctive savour what hope is there for the world it is called upon to preserve?

When our Lord began His Sermon on the Mount, there were many different opinions represented among His hearers. These differing political views were bitterly dividing the people of 1st Century Israel.

Many would have been wondering which sides in the many controversies Jesus would align Himself with. However, throughout the sermon He didn’t even mention the controversies. Did that mean that His message was irrelevant to these disputes? Not at all! His message went right to the heart of his hearers and therefore challenged the deepest motives behind their arguments and struggles.

All sections of the population eventually rejected Him, but in His dying He made atonement for our sins and in His resurrection renewed His promise that He would come again at the end of the age to renew all things and save those who humbly look to Him.

Brief Biography:
Before his retirement Howard Taylor was full time Chaplain to Heriot-Watt University and lectured with Thomas S. Torrance in Moral and Social Philosophy. He also lectured on the subject ‘Science and Religion’. In the 1960s Howard was on the staff of the University of Malawi, teaching Maths. Until recently he lectured in the Shanghai University of Finance and Economics on science-philosophy and religion related subjects.