Governmental Authority and the (Un)Acceptability of Secularism – Follow-up to Conversation with John Stevens on Unbelievable

I wanted to follow up on a couple of things from the recent episode of ‘Unbelievable?’ that I was on with John Stevens, the director of the Fellowship of Independent Evangelical Churches (FIEC). Just to say that I thoroughly enjoyed this interaction and found John to be a perfectly reasonably and decent man. Justin Brierley did a great job hosting the conversation and I was very pleased to be able to contribute. As is normal with these sorts of things – and especially with a subject this massive – time was limited and so there wasn’t the opportunity to say everything that one might have wanted to on every topic. So, here are a couple of things.

Government: The Limits of Authority?

During our conversation, John said something to the effect that he rejected the language of a government exceeding its authority. From a biblical perspective, John said, Christians are under obligation to obey the government, regardless of what it says, unless it tells us explicitly to do something that God has commanded us not to do. I gave the example of arbitrary commands from the government, such as hopping on one leg every Thursday, and John implied that, yes, even that is something that we should do if the government told us to. He said that the context of the New Testament – a very unreasonable and undemocratic, authoritarian Roman Empire – implied much worse for the first century believers. If they did it in their circumstances, so should we.

John also strongly rejected the notion of sphere sovereignty, which is, broadly-speaking, the view that there are God-given spheres of authority within society which have their own integrity and autonomy – the family, the church, the government etc. His view, if I have it right, is that the government has authority over all of these spheres to command them to do its bidding unless it is explicitly contrary to the will of God.

I think that this is a strange view to take and I can’t imagine it was the view of the writers of the New Testament. As I said at the time, it seems to me that Romans 13 concerns the government’s acting as a servant of God, exercising its God-given authority to enact a ministry of justice for the good ordering of society.

But consider, for example, an analogy with what Scripture says about wives submitting to their husbands (Ephesians 5:22). I am told that John Knox also made a similar point about Ephesians 6:1 in which children are told to obey their parents. Surely we should all recognise that there are legitimate and illegitimate ways of exercising that authority. If a husband were to tell his wife to hop on one leg every Thursday for an hour that would be considered to be a humiliating and therefore abusive use of his authority. If a father physically abused his child, he should be restrained. And so on. The point is that we don’t need to be told in these instances that this authority is not a total authority but a God-given authority that should be exercised legitimately in the context of the specific relationship. The husband is to love the wife and to lead her so as to help her to become holy. If he were to do something else with his authority then that would be wrong and the wife would, under many circumstances, be justified in disobeying him. Similarly, the God-given role of the civil authority, as described in Romans 13, is to enact justice.

What happens when the government starts to issue commands that have nothing to do with its legitimate God-given role? What happens when the government starts to behave unjustly? It seems far too restrictive to say that, only when a direct command from God is violated, should we disobey. Disobedience could be legitimate in many other areas too.

During the conversation we had, John mentioned (I think with approval) the British government mandating of inoculations for children in the nineteenth century. Presumably he thinks that for Christian parents to disobey such a governmental command would be ungodly. But I wonder would he apply the same logic to a one-child policy or to mandatory sterilisation of all women over thirty-five? If the vaccines under question had a track record of serious side-effects, would it still be ungodly to refuse to give them to your children just because God had not specifically forbidden parents from doing so?

I choose these examples from medicine and reproduction precisely because they are so pertinent to the discussion around Covid-19. It seems to me that any government attempting to force medical procedures upon its citizens is exceeding the limits of its God-given authority. Indeed, it is not even operating within its legitimate sphere of God-given authority. It is simply not the role of the government to force people to do things like that.

Let’s imagine that the Covid-19 restrictions were totally arbitrary and pointless. I’m not saying that you have to believe that, but imagine it’s true. Would a Christian be right to disobey the government and go and visit his mother who lay dying in her bed? Or is the authority of the government so absolute that that Christian would be sinning by disobedience?

You could call John’s view “totalitarianism with a caveat”. That is, he believes that the government has total power over all areas of society unless it contradicts the explicitly apprehended command of God. This seems to me, far from being a biblical viewpoint, to be a radically secular one. God’s kingdom is relegated to a particular sphere of society in which obedience is commanded. In every other area, the government has the absolute authority.

This view places other spheres of authority described in Scripture (such as the marriage relationship, the parent-child relationship and the Church) underneath the civil government. In our conversation I said that I am not an apologist for sphere-sovereignty and the reason I said that is because I am hesitant to sign-up to something that I don’t know all the details about. I am an Anglican and not a Dutch Reformed Protestant. I have never read Abraham Kuyper although I have read other people’s writings about him. That said, it seems to me that sphere sovereignty, in the minimal way in which I understand it, is a far better interpretation of what the Bible says about authority within society than the view that John outlined in our conversation. The civil government is one sphere, whose God-given authority sits alongside that of the family, the Church and so on. And its remit is different to, rather than above, those other spheres.

Is secularism something that we should simply accept?

And this relates to another comment John made about secularism which I found quite interesting. John said that the secular society in which we live doesn’t consider Christian worship to be essential and considers the provision of goods such as food to be more important. He also said that the secular society considers other forms of religious worship to be essentially equivalent in importance.

I am not sure of the point he was making here. It might have been that he meant that this was simply his experience of dealing with the government and that it was not evaluative. But it sounded like he was implying that this is a legitimate arrangement for fairness in society.

That may be a misinterpretation but it would not sit outside of a stream of thought that I have often come across in contemporary Christian views on politics. I would dissent from this view because it seems to me a departure from the notion of the Lordship of Christ over all of creation. The fact that the secular government doesn’t consider Christian worship important doesn’t make it so. If we really are Christians, surely we should think this governmental opinion radically unsatisfactory and should work to promote a normative political view which says that Christian worship must be prioritised and promoted because of its centrality to the wellbeing of society. And the latter because it calls down the blessing of God upon a nation. This is not to say that there should not be toleration of dissent or freedom of religion. Of course there should. But this toleration and freedom should not commit the government to the view that all religious viewpoints are of equal value and equally to be promoted. It sounds very radical to the thoroughly secularised modern mind but the ideal political situation involves the government promoting Christianity as the religion of the nation.

It is worth saying that the secular notion of equal treatment of religion and neutrality is based on a lie anyway. The secular government does not promote neutrality but inculcates the people in the worldview of its leaders. That which is honoured or dishonoured by the leaders of a nation will be honoured or dishonoured by the people.

Back to Covid. What should Christian leaders have done about this particular issue? I don’t know. I wasn’t involved. But it is certainly not an acceptable answer to say that the closure of the churches was justified and that we should accept it because the government considers supermarkets to be of more value than the worship of God. It may be an impractical thing to say but the church needs to develop a prophetic voice to speak to the leaders of the nation – as the prophet Jonah did to the King of Nineveh – and call them to repentance and faith in Christ. Or, at the very least, to explain to them in such circumstances why it is that the worship of the Church has been considered to be so important in years gone by – to warn them that they are calling down the judgment of God by forcibly closing the churches, to ensure them that the spiritual mood of the nation will be lifted and the blessing of God obtained if we keep the worship of God going and even engage in national days of fasting, prayer and repentance.

I am afraid that I am reminded of Rocky III. Rocky gets absolutely smashed by Mr T’s Clubber Lang and Mickey, Rocky’s trainer, is reluctant to let Rocky get back into the ring with him. In explaining why he will not train for for the rematch, Mickey squares up to Rocky and snarls, “Ya got civilised!” That is what has happened to the Christian church in our nation. We are too civilised. We need to realise that secularism is a competing religious ideology. It is not our friend. It is not something to be accepted. It is not “fair”, as it claims to be. Yes, it has permeated our governments, our schools, our universities, our theology departments and, tragically, our churches. But the fact that it has done does not mean that it should have done. And so we need to roll it back. Let us hope that the closure of churches during the Covid crisis shocks us into waking up to that reality.

2 responses to “Governmental Authority and the (Un)Acceptability of Secularism – Follow-up to Conversation with John Stevens on Unbelievable”

  1. Very interesting discussion and comments. Balanced too but a Complicated issue!
    Re Covid and the government shutting down the churches…it also shut down the nightclubs, pubs/bars, gambling casinos etc. But where 2 or 3 are gathered…”Thanks be to God, otherwise the church couldn’t exist under totalitarian regimes.

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    1. Thanks Sara. Yes that is true but it shouldn’t make us drop our vigilance when faced with an overreaching state. Nor should we ignore the enormous impairments to the church of being forbidden to meet by the government.

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