Holiness in Exile
Posted by Ros Clarke, 6 Mar 2018
In his chapters in The Effective Anglican, Bishop Keith Sinclair examines what it means for us to live as Christians in exile.
Witness to the Public Authorities
1 Peter 2:13-17
How we are Christians in the public sphere with the specific challenges of the public authorities and public enslavement will reveal who is at work in us, among us, and through us.
I am sure we are all acutely aware of the suffering at this time of our brothers and sisters in Iraq, Syria, Pakistan, Nigeria, and many other places in the world where hostility to the name of Jesus has lethal consequences, compared to which our trials indeed look slight and momentary.
The call to submit comes for one reason and one reason only—for the Lord’s sake. But the Lord tells us why submission is for his sake: first, because the Lord has established these authorities as a first sign of his righteous judgement on evil doers (verse 14); and second, because the Lord proposes through the goodness of his people to silence ignorant folly (verse 15)—presumably the ignorant folly of those who either recognise no authority anywhere other than their own, or wrongly attribute divine or absolute authority to these Emperors or Governors and not recognise whose authority they have.
Either way, to those who deify human authority to which we must surely add human ideologies, political, military, economic or cultural, or to those who refuse to recognise the validity of any human authority but their own (you will know better than I how far that spirit reigns in the social media)—the holy life of believers, the holy nation in submission is a witness to the Lord.
We are witnessing to the true source of all authority, witnessing to the purpose for which authority is given, and in the godly cooperation with that authority (not imagining for a moment that these other authorities supplant the gospel in the overcoming of evil and sin) the church blesses in her submission, the restraint of evil and the establishment of God’s wisdom in the earth.
We could summarise this by saying in her submission the church is witnessing so that the authorities see their need to submit to the one who is Lord of all.
And not just to the authorities—in our western democracies, to the ones electing and appointing. See what verse 16 says about freedom—this submission to the authorities is an expression of true freedom, the freedom to live in this world as the Lord our creator and saviour wants us and has regenerated us so we may live. Our freedom is in his service. How different a notion of
freedom from that which is current in the West, and how vital that in exile we live in this way so that the foolishness of contemporary expressions of freedom, recognising “freedom” only in relation to the self, may be revealed.
The key to this submission is in verse 17. Honour, he says, as we honour our mother and fathers, so we give the same honour to the public authorities. And remember, Peter is writing in the time when the Roman Emperor is Nero! To say this call to holiness is difficult is an understatement. And of course we don’t have to go to Iraq or Pakistan or Nigeria. Registrars and those in the
civil service required to administer and enable same-sex marriage is but the latest; teachers and those in education required to cover a syllabus that explicitly ignores the wisdom and commandments of God’s law; now there are no conscience clauses and no recognition of what verse 19 literally describes as conscience towards God.
What this submission will mean will test believers in every age and culture. We must say immediately that submission does not mean collusion; like Daniel in the court of Nebuchadnezzar we have to find a way of fearing God first and then the king; that this must be so we will see in verses 18—25 as Jesus was ready to suffer rather than collude with the authorities. He was ready to antagonise and then take the consequences. Jesus shows us that submission in the face of sin or evil is not about shutting up or abandoning the reason he was sent into the world. Rather, it is a willingness to take the consequences of being faithful. As we shall see when we follow Christ in his suffering, even what others intend for our harm becomes, in the economy of God, something he works for our good and the good of the world.
Now is not the time to discuss the ethics of a Bonhoeffer and those who believe, out of love, in a war, that the church may ally herself with those under the authority of God who oppose evil. Bonhoeffer like other confessing Christians in Germany went as far as they could in submission and many like him paid the ultimate price; but we need great care. How damaging was it we
may wonder in this 100th anniversary year of the Great War for the Church of England to be so unquestionably behind the war effort? Submission, yes. Collusion, no? But then they did not think they were called to holiness in exile.
Forgive me for labouring the point. I confess to the shock as the Pilling process was underway that same-sex marriage went from an idea for consultation to full blown legislative approval in the teeth of opposition from the C of E and all the major faiths. I believe it is right to be angry with Parliament for its abuse of the authority God has given it, and which in their public prayers they still recognise. More than two years ago, Paul Butler, the Bishop of Durham, took me to Psalm 50:17. God says there, “You have cast my words behind you”. He said this describes the problem and the challenge which faces the church at this time. We do not collude, but we are not permitted to say Parliament has no authority to legislate and that we are under no obligation to obey. No, we submit, or if we cannot obey we say we are ready to take the consequences.
This will be crucial for us if we want to remain as effective Anglicans. Since the Reformation until now we have not really known what it is to be in exile. Now we are and so now more than ever we need to hear this plea to be a holy church in our witness before the public authorities.
The Effective Anglican, pp44-46.
Listen to the whole of Bishop Keith’s talk here or purchase The Effective Anglican.
Ros Clarke is Associate Director of Church Society
Add your comment
Let us know what you think on our Facebook page