Foundations: No.80 Spring 2021

Editorial

“Jesus said to them, ‘Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's.’ And they marvelled at him” (Mark 12:17, ESV).

The impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic continue to reverberate in society and the church. While, as I write, it seems that cases are declining and the vaccination programme is going well, the impact of the pandemic will be felt for years to come. The effects will last not just in general society, but in the church as well. Clearly there will be a heightened need for pastoral care as we face the financial and mental health challenges that will follow Covid (both for pastors and congregations). There is also need for relatively immediate practical reflection: for example, how has the nature of gathered worship been affected by online lockdown experiences; how has outreach/evangelism changed in a post-Covid world? But there are also specific theological areas that need careful thought.

One obvious point is the complex relationship between church and state, and in particular the role of the state relative to gathered public worship. It is fair to say that the pressures and challenges of the past year have exposed a number of fault lines in our theological understanding of government power, particularly in relation to church activity in unusual times. In a sense, this is nothing new. The protestant church has always had a variety of views over how church and state relate – from Erastianism, to varying degrees of “two kingdom” articulations of the freedom of the church from state interference. But Covid has brought differences which had been largely theoretical, at least outside of the established churches, quickly and sharply into the realm of church practice. For example, we have had to face questions such as the following: Does the state in times of health emergencies have a right to impose restrictions on gathered worship, and even “ban” it? Can the state dictate what level of fellowship (social distancing etc.) can happen in church? Can the state control the “elements” of worship, i.e., that we must not sing?

For myself, when facing into these questions I find it important to recognise that we do not become disembodied spirits when we meet for worship. Whilst we are engaged in the activity of a kingdom that is “not of this world” (John 18:36), we remain citizens of an earthly realm, and the practical consequences of our meeting is not affected by the fact that it is for worship as opposed to hearing a lecture on the philosophy of David Hume. In one sense we are simply a group of people coming together, which is surely a “circumstance concerning the worship of God” which is “common to human actions and societies” (Westminster Confession of Faith 1:6) and so is not a priori exempt from government laws tasked with curbing infectious disease.

This makes answering the questions posed by government responses to Covid fraught with difficulty. However, for me at least, the compliance of churches with the requirements of the civil authorities over the past twelve months has been absolutely right (Rom. 13:1), and an important witness to the world. It is, after all, by being “subject for the Lord's sake to every human institution” that we “by doing good… put to silence the ignorance of foolish people” (1 Peter 2:13-15).[1] The article by Mark Lawson “The Christian and the Civil Magistrate” makes a case along these lines, and I think is a helpful window into the theological discussions we need to continue to have on church and state relations post-Covid.

However, I recognise there will be differing responses to our current position, and that there are many shades of grey. Indeed, differences are almost inevitable (though tragic when they lead to division as they have in some churches). I say inevitable, because it has ever been this way. One of the things I have enjoyed through the past year is working through the wonderful new edition of Richard Baxter’s Reliquiæ Baxterianæ. In his autobiography Baxter outlined various responses to the “Great Ejection” of 1662 where 2,000 or so ministers were forced to leave the Church of England. Baxter comments as follows:

And the [ejected] ministers themselves were thus also divided, who before seemed all one; for some would go to Church, to Common Prayer, to Sacraments, and others would not: Some of them thought it was their duty to preach publicly, in the streets or fields while the people desired it, and not to cease their work through fear of men, till they lay in jails, or were all banished: Others thought that a continued endeavour to benefit their people privately, would be more serviceable to the church, than one or two sermons and jail… Some thought... bound to separate from Common Prayer, and Prelates, and Parish Communion… others… thought… bound… to this communion and worship in case they could get no better: and that to teach from house to house in private… was the most righteous and edifying way.[2]

And so, as we work through the implications of Covid on church life, different responses are going to emerge (just as they did in the seventeenth and other centuries). Therefore, my main plea is for us to be “eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph. 4:3). Recognising how deeply we all love and care about gathered worship, what is needed is a calm working through of the theological issues with a true spirit of love, even where we end up differing from one another. I would very much welcome further articles in this spirit, on how we, as churches, should reflect on church and state, either supporting the article by Mark Lawson, or offering alternative views.

Another area raised by the pandemic is the apologetic approach the church should take in response to the questions that our current crisis raises. What can we say when confronted with the questions raised by the deaths, economic hardship, mental health deterioration and so on that have been caused or exacerbated by the experience of the past twelve months? The second article on Covid touches on this, reviewing a number of books which have outlined potential Christian responses to these questions. I am grateful to Stephen Lloyd for his thoughtful approach to this, but again, would welcome further reflections on this area.

Away from Covid, this issue opens with an article by Sharon James which speaks to the culture of the days in which we live, “‘It’s All About Me!’ Ministry In A Therapeutic Culture”. This is such an important topic, and Sharon very helpfully outlines the context in which Christian evangelism and ministry occurs today. It is undoubtedly true that we are now in a cultural moment where we have seen a loss of transcendence, absolute truth and the collapse of a shared culture. How has this impacted the church? What challenges and opportunities does this place before us? Read and find out!

Another article on reaching out into our culture today comes from Ivor MacDonald. This article considers the specific context of rural culture and what that means for mission. Ivor helpfully outlines that the “rural context remains quite different from the urban context for mission, despite many cultural changes”. As someone whose roots are in the Highlands of Scotland, I am passionate that the church does not neglect rural ministry.

The final article is from Alasdair Macleod and reflects on the sad history of mainstream Presbyterianism in Scotland in the twentieth century. There are many lessons from the broader societal trends in the twentieth century, how these impacted the church, and how the mainline church ultimately failed to see these trends, and its own theological liberalism, would lead to a catastrophic collapse in church attendance and influence. While I wish it was otherwise, it is hard to disagree with Alasdair that “The future of mainline Presbyterianism is difficult to foresee”.

I hope the variety of these articles, and the book reviews in this issue, give much food for thought.

Dr Donald John MacLean.
Elder, Cambridge Presbyterian Church,
Trustee, The Banner of Truth & Tyndale House, Cambridge

April 2021

 

Next article >>   Back to contents page >>