Thursday, August 4, 2016

Justice versus Catholicity? Church versus State?

A couple of comments here in recent days have provided some food for thought on issues which relate both to current movement in our church towards some kind of rapprochement on same-sex partnerships and generally to questions of what it means to be church in the world.

One question is whether justice and catholicity are bound together (as in "true catholicity is always just; true justice is coherent with catholicity") or may - in at least some circumstances - be opposed to one another.

Another question is whether the church is bound to recognise what the State decides.

Justice and Catholicity, Justice versus Catholicity?

If catholicity is the universally recognised truth that God has revealed to us, combined with universal recognition among Christian people of what is naturally right, appropriate, fair and proportionate, that is, agreed truth, then catholicity and justice are not at odds with each other. They are coherent.

If then I say (in brief summary): catholicity means marriage is between a man and a woman, and another says (in brief summary): justice means marriage equality, then, first, it looks like justice is contrary to catholicity. Secondly, it looks like (depending on perspective) one trumps the other. Certainly in my recall of various debates both within our church and within the Anglican Communion, I have heard and read assertions and arguments which look like one is to be discarded in favour of the other.

But if my starting supposition about catholicity, "agreed truth", is correct then justice is never opposed to catholicity and thus when it appears otherwise, either "justice" or "catholicity" is misunderstood.

In the present case it is inconceivable that catholicity misunderstands the core understanding of marriage. It is too much of a stretch to say that catholicity which, remember, is the universality of belief from past ages as well as in the present ages, does not and has not really meant by marriage that it is between a man and a woman but could be between any gendered couple. Catholicity understands with biblical support within the Judeo-Christian tradition that marriage is a one flesh union of two different genders, male and female. So justice (that is, justice understood as coherent with catholicity or agreed truth among Christians) does not and cannot claim that marriage equality is demanded by God (i.e. as an implication of God's revelation about the kingdom of God).

Justice may demand and appropriately claim, coherent with catholicity, that all people are treated with dignity and respect, and that in civil society, forming bonds of faithfulness, mutual love and covenanted commitment are respected and supported in law (because such things contribute to a just society). Hence churches for the most part in a country such as ours have not particularly organised against first, civil union legislation and then, secondly, against equal marriage legislation. There has been a recognition by the churches that justice understood to be coherent with catholicity is not a shared belief with all civil society about what constitutes justice. Justice in modern Western civil society has diverged from justice based on and framed by Christian revelation. To argue against same-sex marriage being enabled by civil legislation has been to expose the churches to the risk of appearing to be against justice, in a world which thinks its understanding of justice is the same as the churches'. The churches have rightly accepted that that risk could undermine its witness to the gospel more than the existence of legal same-sex marriage.

Nevertheless the Western churches are now in a fraught situation of wishing both to uphold a catholic understanding of marriage and a catholic understanding of justice while refusing to agree that justice as understood by the wider society should drive home a change to the catholic understanding of marriage.

Church versus State?

When Jesus warns his followers that they are likely to be arrested by civil authority, tried and tested for their testimony to him, he clearly and rightly makes a distinction between obligation to his kingdom and obligation to the kingdoms of this world.

When Paul, writing in Romans 13, warmly endorses the authority of the State in general (but including the particular Roman State to which he was subject as a citizen) as being an authority authorised by God, he speaks clearly and rightly to the situation in which most Christians most of the time find themselves: living in a State which orders the affairs of its citizens for the outcomes of order, justice and security.

Our problem as Christians is mostly not whether we obey the State or respect the State when it makes laws we do not agree with. But sometimes it is. Sometimes we have found ourselves in Hitler's Germany or Stalin's Russia or their equivalent. But the challenge we face in respect of same-sex marriage is not to be compared with such rogue States. We are in a more ambiguous situation. In NZ, for instance, we have found ourselves living in a State which has determined that parents may not smack their children. Objectionable though that may be to some (because against the Bible's teaching, because against a traditional method of discipline, because against common sense that a quick smack saves hours of negotiation ...:) ) we recognise both that the State has the right under God to make such decisions and also that in making such a decision some aspects of justice, especially for vulnerable children, are being served. Ditto, same-sex marriage.

So when I moot that the church might find ways to recognise relationships that the State recognises, I am simultaneously raising the question whether the State has exercised its divine authority appropriately or evilly. I do not accept the latter. I accept that not all may think it is the former. But there is another question lurking here. Mostly States such as our NZ one act via parliamentary democracy which, despite its many faults, tends to reflect not the will of the parliamentarians but the will of the people (who will de-elect them if unhappy). That is, same-sex marriage legislation is not simply "the State making a decision." It is our society expressing its views via legislation.

So talk here of the church recognising relationships provided for by the State is simultaneously talk about recognising relationships affirmed in our society (which often means affirmed within our own families as, e.g., a nephew marries his boyfriend and the extended family, perhaps slightly unsure about what to do, nevertheless, turns up to show aroha and commitment to being a family and all circumstances).

Of course, we may not think the church should do this recognising. We may think even considering doing so shows a lack of faithfulness to God's Word. We may have personally made a decision not to attend the aforementioned hypothetical nephew's wedding.

But is there not a question here, whatever our views, of how the church makes a communicative bridge to a society which thinks differently about relationships? Has the church (churches?) not found in times past (if not also in the present) that breaking the bridge by, e.g. imposing the strictest of laws (suicides may not be buried in holy ground, remarried divorcees may not receive communion, etc, has been detrimental rather than fruitful for the gospel? That on the question of intimate relationships society at large is not exactly queuing at the doors of the churches with the "most conservative" moral stance on relationships? That, in fact, society at large longs for the church to treat it like Jesus treated the Samaritan women at the well?

Again, comments welcomed, encouraged and sought ...


Andrei said...

Invoking "justice" in this debate is a non sequitur

In reality for two people to marry one another certain conditions must be met

(1) The gender requirement that causes all this angst One male and one Female

(2) Both of an age to enter into this state (which varies slightly from place to place)

(3) Both parties agree to this and willingly enter this union

(4) The parties are not closely related by blood

(5) Neither party is currently married to another

With all these requirements met then the marriage can take place.

In a free country you still can't establish a sexual relationship with whomever you choose

The age thing will see you behind bars if you violate it and potentially incest could as well

But for the most part we let Adults form whatever relationships with each other they choose and generally don't care and nor should we

We can disapprove of a man (or woman) who abandons their spouse and children for another partner but where nobody gets hurt then it should be none of our business and we should not judge

And in a conflict between the Church of Jesus Christ and the State we know to whom our allegiance must lie whatever the personal cost

Anonymous said...

"So when I moot that the church might find ways to recognise relationships that the State recognises, I am simultaneously raising the question whether the State has exercised its divine authority appropriately or evilly."

Evilly without a doubt. But it's a moot point anyway. Even if the State was acting in a manner consistent with justice, or consistent with it's God given authority, it is completely irrelevant to the issue. The Church is under no obligation to accept, recognise, or bless any relationships merely because the State does, and there is no good reason why it should do so.

Same sex blessings are just same sex marriage with a different name. It's proponents know this, and are using this naming shell game as a Trojan horse to get recognition of same sex marriage into the church.

As to the State and the Church, the State has it's role to play, but the role of the Church is to witness to the truth, regardless of how difficult or unpopular this makes it, and regardless of what the State does.

Andrei said...

You know Peter it is axiomatic in Western societies that we have "Separation of Church and State" and this has come to mean the Church should no voice in public debate.

And thus the State has become the ultimate authority not only of the bread and butter issues of running a modern State but also ipso facto those relating to matters of human morality as well.

Which is what has allowed this "gay marriage" thing to arise in the first place and something I take to be a rebellion against God

And I suddenly recalled a speech Vladimir Putin gave to religious leaders in Russia a few years ago, not just the Christian leaders but the Muslim, Jewish and Buddhist ones as well were all in the audience

And what he said roughly (I'll try and find the speech - if possible in translation though I doubt there is an official translation) was that they were a very important part of civil society and their role was to develop
moral citizens and to help inculcate in the young a moral sense which would lead to them being good citizens and neighbors

That was the gist of it I think

And I know the ardently secular might recoil in horror at the thought that Government might defer to the religious on some matters but to me this seems like common sense

craig Liken said...

Interesting and well written piece Peter. Some definite food for thought. I do think that a major stumbling block in any type of decision on this matter is the quite differing views on justice held by the opposing parties - not quite sure how you bridge that.

Andrei - not quite sure I agree re the separation of church and state. It might be sadly that it has come to mean for many that the church should have no say in public affairs, but I think that would be a very poor state of affairs. The church should be raising issues of concern in public affairs. Originally (in at least the American context) the separation was more about protecting individual religious freedoms, but unfortunately the secularist view now seems to have turned it completely on its head so we now have people who think that churches and church leaders have no business at all in making public moral stands or comments.

Andrei said...

We actually are on the same page on the separation of Church and State Craig

We don't want the Church creating legislation that would apply legal sanctions
to those who don't obey it dictates and we certainly don't want a religious police force the moral Police

A fundamental concept of Christianity is that of God given Free Will and this is a gift we can use wisely or not so wisely

You choose to follow God's Commandments or you choose to not follow them - nobody is saved at gunpoint and those that try to spread the Gospel that way are doing the Church a disservice

But that is not to say the Bishops can't speak with authority

And that is the problem, they don't!

In particular on this matter the Anglican Bishops have waffled for years

Jean said...

Is a definition of Justice as 'moral rightness' helpful or not to this discussion?

As in one of my favourity quotes: "We seek justice but in the course of justice none of us shall see salvation, therefore, we do pray for mercy" - Shakespeare.

Brendan McNeill said...


The role of the Church in civil society is to be a voice in the public square informing the State about the nature of justice and morality, not the other way round.