Thoughts for these days

Occasional comments on current events from a Christian perspective

Clergy told to take on ‘new atheists’

A report called Challenges for the New Quinquennium, was adopted at the recent General Synod of the Church of England. My attention was drawn to it by an article in the Sunday Telegraph (6 Feb.), which carried the headline above. Their Religious Affairs Correspondent explained, A report endorsed by Dr Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, warns that the Church faces a battle to prevent faith being seen as ‘a social problem’ and says the next five years are set to be a period of ‘exceptional challenge’”.

The report covers a wider range of issues than those highlighted in the article, but the section focussed on by the Telegraph (Point 23) is worthy of comment. This is primarily because the ongoing secularisation of society will no doubt continue to be the biggest challenge to British churches in the immediate future. A second reason for further consideration of this section is that most Christians need help and encouragement to stand for Christ in our rapidly changing society. As the report’s authors observed, “Church members look to their leaders to speak out on their behalf and to help them in their own understanding and witness.”. (Emphasis mine)

The move away from a society significantly influenced by the Christian Gospel began two to three hundred years ago (at least), but it is only in recent years that many Christians have become alarmed at the way in which it is now affecting their lives. Most of us are aware that recent changes in legislation have resulted in both the marginalisation of many Christians and the prosecution of others. The pressure on Christians not to speak openly about their faith, in the work place for example, has become intense. At times like this, Christians really do need clear leadership in knowing how to respond as the pressure continues to increase.

In their report, the two bishops quote Archbishop William Temple: “nine-tenths of the work of the Church in the world is done by Christian people fulfilling responsibilities and performing tasks which in themselves are not part of the official system of the Church at all”. (Christianity and Social Order) It is strange then that many focus their efforts in support of the witness of the church on organised aspects of church life. If Temple were correct, and I believe he was, then the most important work of Christian leaders is indeed to help those they guide “in their own understanding and witness.” This reflects Paul’s assertion that the gift to the Church of those with specific ministries is “for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry” (Eph. 4:12).

There is a danger that even Christian leaders, faced with the enormity of the wave of secularism now breaking before us, may not know how to stand against it for themselves, never mind know how to inspire their flocks to be confident in their God and Saviour. Perhaps this should not surprise us, because for many years some of those in church leadership have sought to accommodate the advance of humanism rather than to oppose it. Consequently, the Church has been dragged along in the wake of the secular agenda, when it should have been piloting society away from the rocks upon which it is now breaking up. I believe that before Christians can think of influencing society for God, leaders and people alike need to be equipped to recognise and resist secularism’s advance into our own thinking and choices.

Part of the problem is that secularism is already well embedded in the Church. Earlier this year the Evangelical Alliance published a report called 21st Century Evangelicals and its survey contained questions about assisted suicide and sex outside of marriage, amongst other things. Around 15% of respondents, who identified themselves as evangelical Christians, disagreed that assisted suicide was always wrong, and approximately 11% disagreed that sex outside of marriage was wrong. (These were the only two questions in a section entitled “right and wrong”.) There are many other ways in which the Church has wandered away from clear Biblical standards and of course these are not limited to those who would describe themselves as evangelicals.

The wider church has accommodated secular thinking in many ways. In part this is illustrated by the ongoing debate in the Church of England over women bishops and homosexual clergy, though these are merely the issues which interest today's media. Whilst many have been appalled by recent news reports about the opening up of churches and other religious buildings for conducting civil partnership ceremonies and, according to some, the re-branding of such as ‘marriage’ some church leaders have welcomed the proposals. Abortion, arguments in favour of euthanasia, abolition of the death penalty, the sexualisation of society and multiculturalism are amongst the list of issues through which humanism has advanced, and which “the Church” has been unable to oppose with a united voice. Today, whilst we are beginning to raise our voices against some aspects of secularism as Christians, many believers are embracing other aspects of it unawares.

Recently, I came across a telling definition of ‘secularism’; its meaning was said to be that the human race is sovereign. Could this be why those who promote it are so aggressive in attacking values which are associated with Biblical righteousness? Could it be that they are trying to convince themselves that The LORD is not sovereign? If so, then every Christian needs encouraging and equipping to stand with confidence against every human attempt to say that God is wrong and Man is right. Psalm 2 describes the kings of the earth setting themselves “Against the LORD and against His Anointed”, and it seems that the advance of secularism throughout the West is echoing their cry to “cast away Their cords from us.”

How then can I encourage you and others both to take your own stand against this wave of atheism, and to equip others to do so? First perhaps we should recognise that the problem is far greater than a few individuals such as Richard Dawkins and other ‘new atheists’. Secondly, I feel strongly that Christians should stop pretending that the problem doesn't exist – such an approach has got us to where we are today. Neither should we pin our hopes on revival happening - the New Testament makes clear that persecution is normal for Christians. Jesus himself said, “A servant is not greater than his master. If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you. If they kept My word, they will keep yours also.” (John 15:20)

The Church in the West desperately needs to face up to the fact that not only have we been moved to the margins of society, but because this is a spiritual conflict, that will not suffice, so we need to toughen up for what lies ahead. It is getting increasingly difficult for Christians to live with one foot in the Church and the other in the world, because the world is demanding our undivided loyalty. Christian leaders will eventually have to give an account of the souls they have watched over (Heb. 13:17), so it is important that they prepare the flock for the future. I am not sure of the speed at which society will continue to be secularised, but I do know there is an urgent need for every believer to gain a confidence in their God which will equip them to stand against the tide in their own thinking, in their homes, in their work places and in society at large.

Here I am simply wanting to make the appeal that you take the situation in society seriously, that none of us let it be pushed to the back of our minds because we do not know how to respond. Rather than trying to equip Christians to live in society past, or even teaching them how to respond to society present, perhaps we should be looking ahead and helping them to be prepared for society yet to come. I say this because I believe that if Christians discern and face up to the reality of the society we now live in, they can be prepared to confess Christ before men in more difficult times.

No city, town or village in Britain is different to any other town. Front-line soldiers of Christ are needed everywhere to resist the secularism which has taken hold of every aspect of society. I hope that by drawing your attention to this call, I can provoke you to consider how you can encourage and equip other believers not to be ashamed of the gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes.” (Rom. 1:16) Perhaps, as we all assess the battle before us, we can reassure all God’s people with the confidence that, God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind.” (2 Tim. 1:7)

Randall Hardy - February 2011

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