Posts Tagged ‘martyrdom’

William Penn, Conformity and the State

July 3, 2009

William Penn on why state-enforced Christianity is a bad idea, and the Civil and Ecclesiastical authorities ought to be separate:

There is not so ready a Way to Atheism, as this of extinguishing the Sense of Conscience for Worldly Ends; destroy that Internal Rule of Faith, Worship and Practice towards God, and the Reason of my Religion will be Civil Injunctions, and not Divine Convictions; consequently, I am to be of as many Religions as the Civil Authority shall impose, however untrue or contradictory; this Sacred Tye of Conscience thus broken, farewell to all heavenly Obligations in the Soul, Scripture-Authority and ancient Protestant Principles; Christ may at this Rate become what the Jews would have had him, and his Apostles be reputed Turners of the World upside down, as their Enemies represented them, and the godly Martyrs of all Ages so many Self-Murderers; for they might justly be esteemed Resisters of Worldly Authority, so far as that Authority concerns it self with the Imposition of Religion, because they refused the Conformity commanded, even to Death. And it may not be unworthy of Caesar’s Consideration, if from these Proceedings People are tempted to infer, there is nothing in Religion but Worldly Aims and Ends, because so much Power is abus’d under the Name of Religion, to vex and destroy Men for being of another Religion, that he hazards the best Hold and Obligation he hath to Obedience, which is Conscience; for where they are taught to obey for Interest, Duty and Conviction are out of Doors: By all Means let Conscience be sacred, and Virtue and Integrity (the under dissenting Principles) cherisht; Charity is more powerful then Severity, Perswasion then Penal Laws.

(The Continued Cry of the Oppressed for Justice…, 1675, pp.21-22)

Whether or not the American Revolution, commemorated tomorrow, was justifiable for North American Christians (John MacArthur famously teaches that it was a violation of Paul’s commands in Romans 13; David Barton defends the revolution as justified), I’ve found the discussions from the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century nonconformists about the Christian’s relation to Government really interesting. They lived in an age where the State, while looking remarkably modern (in comparison to earlier conceptions of the State in the Christian era) retained the Constantinian role of adjudicating in religious matters by the establishment of a national church and the requirement that subjects attend Sunday services at an “official” church. Penn here objects that this is a path to Atheism, since religious observance will no longer be founded on the work of faith of God’s word in a person’s heart, but on civil injunctions. Legislating that all must have faith leads in fact to the loss of that faith, because it becomes founded on the will of man rather than the will of God. It also can foster a cynical attitude to that religion, since it becomes possible to make the claim that it only exists to legitimate the state and its excesses.

Penn also objects that “Christ may at this rate become what the Jews would have had him” – I think he alludes to the concept of the Messiah as a political liberator and ruler, which many of Jesus’ disciples clearly expected him to fulfil. In a sense, perhaps linking the Church to political power does this – it certainly undermines the claim of Christ that his Kingdom is “not of this world” and obscures the true nature of his Messiahship.

Obedience to Government in Romans 13 cannot be unconditional, nor does a Christian have an obligation to adhere to the official religion of the State, even if it should be compulsory. If such an obligation did exist, then, as Penn writes, persecution of the Apostles by the authorities would be justified, and the martyrs of Christian history would become suicides, since they died as a result of disobeying the State’s commands to conform to an established religion.

Should swine flu close churches?

June 27, 2009

A large church here in Nottingham has taken the decision to suspend their Sunday meetings this week after a member of their office staff caught swine flu. There have been an increasing number of cases in the East Midlands over the past two weeks, though as far as I can gather there are still fewer than a hundred people in the region (population 4.2 million) affected. I have to say my initial reaction was disappointment – I don’t think that an outbreak of swine flu should close a church; though I can see why the church in question might have taken the decision they did.

At a stage where the health authorities are trying to quarantine cases of swine flu, as in the East Midlands (unlike in the West Midlands where containment is now impractical) it could be seen as selfish for Christians to put the community at risk by holding large public meetings when there is a known case of swine flu in the congregation. But I think it’s only really possible to see it as selfish if a church service is viewed as being a social gathering, like a social club meeting – but this is not what a church service is. A church service is somewhere where the word of God should be being preached and where people can worship him together in a visible expression of the Church’s unity in Christ. As such, the church service also serves the community by providing an opportunity for people to hear the gospel proclaimed. I don’t think this should be cancelled because of a comparatively mild virus. In fact, I don’t think it should be cancelled even in the case of an epidemic with a high mortality rate, because dying prematurely through disease is not the worst thing that can happen to people. Dying not right with God is the worst thing that can happen to people, and cancelling the most obvious public proclamation of Christ, who makes us right with God, would be perverse in a situation where mortality was increasing due to disease.

Perhaps suspending church services (even if done with the motive of appearing unselfish) gives the wrong impression to the community of what Christian priorities and attitudes to death are. Does it not say that spiritual health is less important than physical health; when this is not so? Does it not say that sin is a less serious illness than swine flu? And perhaps worst of all, does it not undermine the Christian claim that Jesus has defeated death and that those who trust in him have nothing to fear from it?


The sociologist of religion, Rodney Clark, put forward the view in his book The Rise of Christianity (Princeton: 1996) that Christianity flourished in the second and third centuriesAD partly because of the difference in the Christians’ response to the plagues of their day, as witnessed to in a letter of Dionysius, quoted by Eusebius here:

The most of our brethren were unsparing in their exceeding love and brotherly kindness. They held fast to each other and visited the sick fearlessly, and ministered to them continually, serving them in Christ. And they died with them most joyfully, taking the affliction of others, and drawing the sickness from their neighbors to themselves and willingly receiving their pains. And many who cared for the sick and gave strength to others died themselves having transferred to themselves their death. And the popular saying which always seems a mere expression of courtesy, they then made real in action, taking their departure as the others’ ‘offscouring’.

This response was due to the difference in the Christians’ theology, not any socio-economic factors. Stark writes (pp.79-81):

… let us imagine ourselves in their places, faced with one of these terrible epidemics. Here we are in a city stinking of death. All around us, our family and friends are dropping. We can never be sure if and when we will fall sick too. In the midst of such appalling circumstances, human beings are driven to ask Why? Why is this happening? Why them and not me? Will we all die? Why does the world exist anyway? What is going to happen next? What can we do?
If we are pagans, we probably already know that our priests profess ignorance. They do not know why the gods have sent such misery – or if, in fact, the gods are involved or even care. Worse yet, many of our priests have fled the city, as have the highest civil authorities and the wealthiest families, which adds to the disorder and suffering.
Suppose that instead of being pagans we are philosophers. Even if we reject the gods and profess one or another school of Greek philosophy, we still have no answers. Natural law is no help in saying why suffering abounds, at least not if we try to find
meaning in the reasons. […]
But if we are Christians, our faith does claim to have answers. McNeill summed them up this way:

Another advantage Christians enjoyed over pagans was that the teaching of their faith made life meaningful even amid sudden and surprising death … [E]ven a shattered remnant of survivors who had somehow made it through war or pestilence or both could find warm, immediate and healing consolation in the vision of a heavenly existence for those missing relatives and friends … Christianity was, therefore, a system of thought and feeling thoroughly adapted to a time of troubles in which hardship, disease, and violent death commonly prevailed.

Cyprian, bishop of Carthage, seems almost to have welcomed the great epidemic of his time. Writing in 251 he claimed that only non-Christians had anything to fear from the plague. Moreover, he noted that although

the just are dying with the unjust, it is not for you to think that the destruction is a common one for both the evil and the good. The just are called to refreshment, the unjust are carried off to torture … How suitable, how necessary it is that this plague and pestilence, which seems horrible and deadly, searches out the justice of each and every one and examines the minds of the human race; whether the well care for the sick, whether relatives dutifully love their kinsmen as they should, whether masters show compassion for their ailing slaves, whether physicians do not desert the afflicted … Although this mortality has contributed nothing else, it has especially accomplished this for Christians and servants of God, that we have begun gladly to seek martyrdom while we are learning not to fear death.

This kind of attitude is the one that the gospel fosters in Christians. Disease and death are not to be feared, but constitute an opportunity to prove both the genuineness of our faith and that the Christian way works. In response to the swine flu pandemic, we modern Christians have a choice of whether to “flee the city” and cancel church meetings as Roman pagans would have done, or to be as transformed by the gospel as these early Christians were, and to remain fearless of disease, knowing that our inheritance in heaven is secure and that God is in control – and to continue to proclaim the gospel to the community around us, and minister in Christ to the sick, even if it means we ourselves suffer as a result. May God grant us all the strength to witness faithfully to the gospel if swine flu does get severe, and may his perfect love cast out all fear.