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DOCTRINE SLOT 3: Conservatism

Third in series
CHRISTIANITY AND POLITICAL IDEOLOGIES
PART 3: CONSERVATISM
In Part 1 we saw that liberals, those seeking freedom for the individual, were admirable for opposing tyranny… but that they were wrong if thinking that freedom lies in treating all choices as equally ‘right’ or in trying to escape good authority – like the authority of God’s good rules. Seeking to go one’s own way is not freedom – but leads to slavery.
In Part 2 we saw that socialists perhaps had something to teach us in their heart for the poor and oppressed. But that we should consider carefully the wisdom of investing too much power in the hands of the secular state – or in assuming the wealthy are evil or that God desires total equality. The sovereign Lord entrusts different amounts to different people – it’s what we do with it that counts.
And so to conservatism. It is perhaps seen as the ‘natural home’ for many evangelicals. However, I recognise that frustrates some of the younger among us.
What is conservatism?
In a way, conservatism is an anti-ideology. An ideology is a visionary body of ideas with which one believes they can change things for the better. Conservatives, on the other hand, are naturally suspicious of change and of new ideas. They fear that sudden change leads to uncertainty and disorder. They have put great stock in tradition, in existing institutions and hierarchies and in what has been proven to work. This might mean family values, the Church of England, the City of London or even certain well established schools. Conservatives also tend to be patriotic – fearful of rapid immigration or a loss of power to the EU.
What does it look like?
It is easy to assume that conservatism is the same as what is endorsed by the Conservative party here in the UK. That has more been the case in the past. Tories have traditionally avoided major changes and have been seen as protecting the class system, the monarchy, private property and even the British Empire against the forces of revolution. And whilst the party did accept the creation of the welfare state after 1945, this is perhaps an example of them sticking with what seems to work and not being too ideological about it.
However, Conservatives have increasingly come to represent business interests and have showed themselves willing to make changes for their benefit. This was particularly the case under Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s. Whilst socially conservative, she made wholesale radical changes to the country in order to bring about free market capitalism. She was unusually strong in her ideological opinions – seeing socialism as a deadly enemy and aggressively cutting back the state.
In America too Republicans, traditionally the most conservative party, are no longer willing to sit back and let things happen gradually. Rather they are fiercely in favour of business and the military and are aggressive in standing against abortion or gay marriage.
What’s right about it?
Well it’s not co-incidence that Bible believing Christians have often seemed to support conservative parties above others. Where liberalism exists to grant individual freedom from rulers, conservatism upholds law and order – taking a more biblically correct view of human nature as flawed and in need of boundaries. Where socialists have urged the working classes to rise up in anger against the rich, conservatives have traditionally counselled respect and charity between the two.
Even nowadays, it is hard to see beyond the fact that it is most likely to be Conservative MPs who speak in favour of Christianity, of marriage, for pro-life issues. The Christian Institute keeps a record of how every MP has voted on issues it perceives as moral – recording their response by simple ticks and crosses. There is no getting away from the fact that, in most instances, Tory MPs have more ticks than non-Tory MPs. Yes there are Christian MPs in all three main parties but, for example, 12 newly elected MPs in 2010 were members of the Christian Conservative Fellowship, a Bible-believing Tory organisation including a member of the Cabinet, the Deputy Party Leader and the Attorney General. This proud Christian influence does not exist to anything like the same extent in the other parties.
Because conservatism is not a real ideology, it is hard to compare its core values against the Bible as I have done in my last two talks. However, in case we need reminding, Jesus, in Matthew 19, does preach the sanctity of heterosexual marriage:
at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female, For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’ ? So they are no longer two, but one. Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate.”
The Bible does lead us to oppose abortion, as God says to Jeremiah, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you”
And, where the world wants to change, water down or disregard our teaching, Paul writes that ‘Scripture is God-breathed’, Luke that ‘you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught’.
Therefore, if conservatism looks, even to some extent, to uphold these things where others want to move on from them; that is indeed a good thing.
What’s wrong about it?
However, we shouldn’t equate conservatism with good. The Pharisees were highly conservative, morally and politically. They wanted things done as they always had been and, in their eyes, Jesus was a dangerous radical – threatening to upset the balance of power and ferment an uprising. Therefore they wanted him gone by any means necessary.
In the same way, the High Church, whether Catholic or Anglican has generally placed too high a premium on the way things have always been done – considering the biblical demands of Christ as an inconvenient imposition and sometimes preferring to focus on the sanctity of old buildings and sacraments. We should not be too conservative to be able to stomach Christ’s New Wine.
And, in practice, neither should we spare conservative politicians the same scrutiny we would afford to others. For a start, many are not Christians. Moreover, here, and particularly in the USA, they may be keen to be seen going to church but it may not keep them from indulging in sharp business practise or in extra-marital infidelities.
Indeed we may have significant questions for conservatives if they lack compassion, or if they favour the wealthy or privileged, reminding them of the Sermon on the Mount, in which Jesus promised blessings to the meek and the merciful, the peacemakers and the persecuted. And where the right wing of conservatism tends towards xenophobia in its patriotism, we should remember the likes of Galatians 3, teaching that ‘there is neither Jew nor Greek, for you are all one in Christ Jesus’.
What should we do about it?
Well if one among us is TOO conservative, they may need a kick up the bum. If something can be done better and more profitably for the sake of the gospel – then we should be radical enough to change it! In truth, if we were bindingly conservative then we probably wouldn’t be here – in a church plant meeting in a school! Our very existence as a congregation is fairly radical in the eyes of some Anglicans.
Our danger is perhaps that sometimes we’re not respectful enough of our heritage, of elders, of hymns or prayers that have served us well and aren’t easily improved upon.
It’s important that the temptation in a young congregation to be seen as liberal, trendy and interesting by the world doesn’t tempt us against defending Christianity, morality or the sanctity of life – however old-fashioned or illiberally conservative those causes may seem.
The truth is, as this series ends, our ideology should be Bible-centred Christianity. That won’t chime exactly with any of the world’s ideas, so we shouldn’t ultimately be locked into or compromised by, any of them. We should endorse the good in all great ideas, but must never let ideals, parties or politicians become our idols.

Doctrine Slot 2: SOCIALISM

CHRISTIANITY AND POLITICAL IDEOLOGIES

PART 2: SOCIALISM

In Part 1 we saw that liberals, those seeking freedom for the individual via tolerance and reason, were perhaps working from good instincts in opposing tyranny… but that they were wrong if thinking that freedom lies in treating all things as equally ‘right’ or in trying to escape good authority – for instance the authority of God’s good rules. Seeking to go one’s own way is not freedom – but leads to slavery.

Now today we move onto another great political movement – Socialism.

What is socialism?

As a starting point, we can say that socialists are those who want redistribution of wealth, seeking greater equality. They have seen the world in terms of class differences and have opposed capitalism because it promotes inequality and exploits the poor. Whilst the end-dream of early socialists was a perfect stateless society, in the meantime they have supported a bigger state – one that provides services and runs industries for the common good, rather than leaving it to individuals seeking profit.

What does it look like?

The father of ideological socialism was Karl Marx. He believed all human history was explained by economic systems – each one brought to an end as its ruling class was displaced. He believed that industrialised Capitalism would bring about the greatest struggle yet; between the labourers – who did all the work for poor return – and the middle classes they worked for – who got rich without breaking a sweat. He felt it inevitable that the workers would rise up in violent revolution, bringing about true socialism and, ultimately, a perfect Communist world where each worked according to his ability and received according to his need.

In the UK, we have a less revolutionary mindset. Thus, UK socialism has taken a more democratic, gradual approach to class conflict – the idea being that workers will vote for Socialist governments, who can then redistribute wealth via taxing the rich, can help the poor via the welfare state and can take over major utilities like gas, steel or railways to run for the common good. This is the ideology of Old Labour, largely abandoned by New Labour since the 90s.

Meanwhile, some countries did have their revolution – but not the industrialised superpowers as Marx predicted, rather relatively backwards regimes like China and Russia. Here we saw redistribution of wealth and the abolishment of the old order but, as time went on, socialist dictators seizing ever greater power and becoming ever more corrupt.

What’s right about it?

Socialism has a very bad rap in the evangelical church, far more so than liberalism. However, a heart for the poor and oppressed is profoundly biblical – Christian Socialist movements and individuals have a proud and rich history we should respect. Indeed, Belgian socialist Henri de Man wrote how he founded his movement ‘in the name of all those spiritual values – the ideal of equality, the sentiment of human dignity, the desire for justice and caring – which Christianity has brought to the world’. It’s great then that people here are helping the homeless or visiting prisons. For a long time social justice was the neglected Evangelical ministry, but Jesus is crazy about it. To the man who loves wealth too much in Matthew 19 he says to sell all he has and give to the poor. To his disciples a few chapters later he says that if they help the ‘least of their brothers’ they help him. This is not a new idea but one found throughout the Old Testament:

Ps 140:12 – God gives ‘justice for the poor’

Prov 14:31 To help the poor is to honour God

And after the gospels it continues…

1 Tim 6:18 Command them to be generous and willing to share

1 John 3:17 – If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person?

This is how the early church lived. They shared all they had and lived in community.

However… it’s worth noting that in none of these cases does the Bible talk of Christians giving to the state in order to help the poor. It is the responsibility of the individual and of the church itself to help – first – brothers and sisters in Christ and then others in need. In doing so we model Christ and point towards him.

What’s wrong about it?

Well, to continue on that theme, whilst we must give taxes to the state as required – rendering unto Caesar what is Caesar’s – we are not necessarily seeing God’s will enacted in terms of where the money goes. The welfare state and NHS are admirable institutions… and our government – whoever leads it – is relatively upright… but the state does nevertheless endorse and fund organisations that the Bible opposes – eg other religious groups or those who carry out abortions. More power and money in the hands of a non-Christian state rarely serves to advance God’s glory; thus we might choose to question it. And we must not be satisfied to leave to the state those roles God means for us, whether caring for need in our community or providing for our families. It is good there is a safety net, particularly at the moment, but we are called to work and to look after one another and we should always try to do so.

There are other issues. Returning to Marx, as well as calling religion the ‘opium of the masses’, he believed that all wrongdoing and selfishness in the world was the result of Capitalism. He therefore believed that a post-revolutionary world could become perfect and selfless – an idea rather let down by attempts since. As Christians we have a different understanding – the reason for bad behaviour is sin, the only solution to it is Jesus’ death on the cross and we won’t know a world free from sin until he returns. Indeed, a revolution, certainly for such motives, would be a godless violation of 1 Peter 2:13’s command to ‘Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human authority’.

Some socialists have also been guilty of hating the rich. Yes, God issues plenty of warnings to those he entrusts with money… but bitterness is the wrong reaction. Abraham, Solomon and some among Jesus’ followers were certainly wealthy. 1 Samuel 2:7 states that ‘the Lord sends poverty and wealth’ – financial gifting, like spiritual gifting, is not equally distributed and we’re never told it should be – rather we’re told that for those given more there is greater responsibility – as shown in the Parable of the Talents.

What should we do about it?

To both the friends and critics of socialism I would say be careful. Be careful about endorsing too much power for the state and be vigilant in checking what they do with it – particularly given recent moves against public Christianity, of which we are perhaps seeing only the start.

But, to those who oppose Socialism, check your motives. If you want to hold onto wealth for your own comfort then perhaps it would be better that it was taken from you to do at least some good. But if you’re saying it is up to us, not the state, to care for the poor – then show that by doing the job better than them, according to your resources – or at least by supporting those who do. I certainly hope that those American Christians shown in the media as loudly opposing all taxation and state healthcare in the USA are, in their own lives and churches, quietly acting vigorously and sacrificially in order to care for the poor of their communities – we should expect so.

And to a socialist, we might congratulate them on their heart for the poor and oppressed, indeed show we share that instinct, but might then seek to convince them that true justice will be found in the coming kingdom… and that, unlike Lenin or Mao, there was one who didn’t let all the riches of heaven corrupt him, but rather gave his very life for poor and wretched humanity.

Doctrine Slot 1: LIBERALISM

Hello. The blog isn’t running again – it just seemed a good place to put these doctrine slots, recently aired at Christchurch Balham, for further scrutiny…

Please note – this one doesn’t have the clear structure of the others. That came about as a result of Perks’ very good feedback!

PART 1 – LIBERALISM

Some here will see liberalism as an inherently ‘good’ thing – ie it is good that we live in a ‘liberal democracy’ where people have rights. Some will see it as bad; ie in overly soft ‘liberal parenting’. Well I’m not up here to tell you one or the other is politically right – however, as liberalism is the key ideology of the modern West it’s worth knowing what the term means and how we as Christians might engage with it.

In fact, it’s harder to define than you might imagine, mainly because the original liberals of 200-odd years ago were so different from the liberals of the 20th Century. However, they each share a core desire by which they can be defined – to grant freedom for the individual – freedom from tyranny, freedom to pursue their own path in life.

The original liberals pursued freedom from the tyranny of harsh rulers and old ideas – their achievements include the US Constitution or French Revolution. Modern liberals have more seen freedom as being found in escape from poverty, or prejudice. Therefore, they are proud of the Liberal reforms that granted Old Age Pensions, or the Beveridge Report that led to the Welfare State.

If this all sounds great then that’s because much of it is. Freedom, tolerance, justice – meaning in this context a fair chance for all – well they are all things we would generally approve of.  Indeed, the Bible endorses much of it:

On Justice:

Give justice to the weak and the fatherless PSALM 82:3

On Freedom:

For freedom Christ has set us free (Gal 5:1)

For you were called to freedom, brothers GALATIANS 5:13

On Tolerance:

There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus GALATIANS 3:28

It is perhaps unsurprising then that there have been notable Christians among Liberal thinkers – for example, philosopher John Locke – who wrote a book called ‘The Reasonableness of Christianity’.

However, we must be aware that there is another side to this ideology that should make pause before lending our support.

Liberalism is very much the ideology of the Enlightenment – that was the 18th Century movement advancing science and debate across Europe. Its claim to ‘reason’ encouraged those who would challenge and ridicule Christianity in the name of supposed intellectual progress. Indeed, ‘reason’ is defined by many liberals as being the opposite of religious faith. One liberal famously called Locke’s idea of rights being God-given as ‘nonsense on stilts’. Others were as determined to escape the supposed ‘tyranny’ of God and the church just as much as they wanted to escape bad kings in Europe. The most influential critic of Christianity was perhaps John Stuart Mill. He believed that people would be free only once educated to make their own decisions, freeing them from the influence of the church. Like the Dawkins of the day, he effectively called God wicked, unholy and out-of-date.

But in fact, it shouldn’t unduly trouble us that clever people have seen Christianity as wrong, or even foolish. For the Bible says, in 1 Corinthians 1:18 that ‘the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing’. And, in case we need reminding, our faith is NOT unreasonable – we are not leaving reason behind us when we believe – hence the fact we have philosophers and scientists here at CCB… Even outside of God’s revealed and coherent Word, the Bible, it is NOT unreasonable to suppose that a vast, ordered creation out of nothing points to a purposeful creator, nor that the historical figure of Jesus Christ, his empty tomb and the witness and impact of his followers points us to a Saviour. Our reason rightly prompts us to consider those claims, like so many millions before us.

But ultimately, above our own reason, our evidence for following Christ comes in the assurance of God’s word and the change in us when we accept it. And if we can’t get our head around it all and win every argument… well in Isaiah 55:9 God reminds us that ‘As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts higher than your thoughts’. It’s therefore OK to accept that some things are hidden for now… we have the assurance of the Holy Spirit – something unknown by unbelievers – so can wait for full revelation beyond this life.

Besides this, we do not share the liberal ideal. Christians do NOT believe that people should be free to run their own lives. Nor that we, apart from God, know what is best for us. We don’t believe that is what freedom is. Galatians says that if we try to run our own lives we are in fact slaves. It says we are not meant to indulge ourselves but rather to ‘serve one another humbly in love’ as compatible parts of Christ’s body the church (4:8). Due to sin, the flesh and the Devil, our path, if left to our own devices, is one of destruction… not freedom.

And yes, tyranny is to be opposed, but God is not a tyrant. 1 John 4 tells us that God is love and Psalm 139 repeatedly tells us His rules are good. Therefore trying to run our own lives free of Him is a counter-productive and tragic rebellion – one that deprives us of living under God’s good rule.

The final thing that must be said regards tolerance – possibly the defining value of liberalism nowadays. Again, there is something good in it. We are on the side of tolerance where racism, sexism or homophobia leads to hatred or persecution. We don’t consider anyone beyond redemption, nor as beneath us in value. However, unlike liberals we cannot see tolerance as an absolute good. All views and lifestyles are not equally valid and commendable in the Bible. Some are godly and some are sinful. Returning to Galatians 5, those who serve idols or pursue sexual immorality – that is anything other than sex outside marriage – ‘will not inherit the kingdom of God’ (v 21); not unless they accept that Jesus died for these things and then repent from them.

We say that Christianity is right. That other religions are wrong. That men and women, alike in value and dignity, nonetheless have different roles in a family or church. That marriage is for a man and a woman. These things are offensive to liberals. When all’s said and done, God’s word is not liberal.

Thus, if a church is liberal, it has probably turned from God’s word. And if liberals find no problem with us at all, then it’s probably either because we have also turned from God’s word, or because we’re keeping quiet about our views.

So, in conclusion – acknowledge the good in liberalism, but don’t embrace it wholesale. God’s authority and law stands above the false ideal of individual freedom. And, if you end up discussing this with one who considers themselves a liberal, aim to be equipped to show that freedom, real freedom, actually comes, not from self-sufficiency, but through relationship with God through faith in His son Jesus Christ.