How should Christians mould society?

- Monday, 2nd April 2001

 

In a secular age it might seem that Christians can have precious little impact on society.

In fact Christians often underestimate the capacity of the Church to exercise influence for good beyond our own rank.

There are three ways in which any group can influence society.

first, through political action;

second, through propagating values and beliefs directly to others;

and third, through creating the example of a distinctively Christian community within the broader society.

There is a certain amount of debate about which of these is the right or best strategy for Christians to adopt.

That is futile since they are not alternatives.

We need to adopt all three.

But we do need to be clear as to which is appropriate in which circumstances.

Political Power

In particular Christians should be very careful about seeking to achieve our aims through the exercise of political power and influence.

We must remember that all state power is coercive.

It is about compelling people to do things or not to do things.

It involves passing laws, imposing taxes and punishing those who do not obey.

Of course, some exercise of state power is necessary to govern society and make it work and, as such, it is ordained by God.

But above all, God gave man freedom of choice.

He wants mankind to exercise that choice freely and to respond to Him and to our fellow human beings through love rather than fear.

It would be a complete travesty of the Christian message to try to establish the Kingdom of God by the coercive power of the state.

Remember the final temptation of Christ in the wilderness [Matthew 4 v 8, Luke 4 v 5] "And the devil taking Him up into an high mountain, shewed him all the Kingdoms of the world in a moment of time. And the devil said unto him, All this power will I give thee and the glory of them?.?

Our Lord could have taken temporal power.

He could have exercised it for good.

He could have decreed that mankind behaved virtuously.

But He knew that that was not His destiny as the son of a Father who had given his creation free will and who wished to win fallen man back to Himself through sacrificial love.

So Christians and the Church should be wary of succumbing to any temptation to substitute temporal power for divine love.

Of course in the present age practising Christians are too few in number to dream of seizing control of the state let alone imposing our faith on others.

But that very weakness can lead to the temptation to opt for political action instead of evangelisation.

It is frankly daunting to think of converting 50 million people to accept the Christian position on a particular issue.

How much easier it seems to concentrate on persuading a handful of ministers and civil servants or a sufficient number of MPs to implement a policy by law.

The idea of state power is seductive.

What we as individuals and congregations can do ? for example to alleviate poverty in developing countries, to help the homeless, to create jobs for the unemployed ? seems puny compared with what a government can do on our behalf.

So instead of urging Christians to give sacrificially ? be it only their widows mites ? the preacher calls us to lobby our MPs or vote for those proposing the biggest spending programmes in those areas.

No need for a collection at the end of the sermon.

Just sign a petition.

I am amazed how rarely nowadays I hear a sermon calling on the congregation to do anything at their own personal expense or effort and how frequently we are urged to act vicariously via the state.

It is very tempting to mistake power for virtue.

If John?s vote or lobbying persuades a government to take money from Peter to give to Paul that does not make Peter virtuous.

Still less can John claim to have demonstrated Christian sacrificial love.

Above all, the politician who enacts this policy should not be credited with generosity or ?compassion?.

I remember a very wise MP warning that ?whenever we hear a politician claiming compassion we are listening to a bid for votes?.

The proof of that, he said, was that even the most sanctimonious politicians never waste their compassion on the two groups who have no votes and are consequently among the most neglected in society ? prisoners and the insane.

Remembering that chastening criticism I did try to get my own party to devote some attention to the callousness of our prison system and I am glad Ann Widdecombe has put some flesh on those bones.

None of this is to argue that the state should not tax us according to our means and redistribute those revenues to help people according to their needs.

Clearly this is the most effective way in a populous nation to organise our basic Christian obligations to help each other.

There are practical questions of how much the disincentive effect of taxes may depress the growth in the incomes available to be taxed.

Also how effective are state bureaucracies in identifying the varied needs of people in our complex society?

Christians will have differing views on where the balance lies.

We may well advocate more extensive state provision for certain needs requiring higher taxation.

The proof of our sincerity would be whether, in the event of failing to persuade the electorate to adopt that policy, we were prepared to contribute voluntarily our share of what we wished to impose compulsorily on others!

If not ? or if we are simply advocating higher taxes on people with incomes above our own ? we should not pretend to any great virtue.

To quote F E Smith, "we should resist the temptation of laying up treasure for ourselves in Heaven by the inexpensive method of calling for he confiscation of other people?s treasure on earth?.

So there are temptations to espouse political action as a substitute for the voluntary fulfilment of our own obligations to each other.

But Christians also face a temptation that is almost the reverse of this.

That is to say that Christianity is solely about personal salvation, about the individual?s relationship with Jesus Christ, and that the Church should steer clear of politics.

But Christianity is about the whole of human life.

And man is a political animal, living in society, requiring government.

So Christianity cannot be kept out of politics.

Political decisions like all human decisions have a moral and spiritual dimension.

For example, decisions have to be taken about who is responsible for children; about whether taxes and benefits should support or ignore marriage; about whether drugs should be controlled; about whether human life should be sacrosanct.

 

 

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