Tuesday, 28 May 2013

Confusing testimony with control – follow up thoughts from Sunday

Two days ago, our series on the Sermon on the Mount arrived at the end of Matthew 5, and we reflected on Jesus’ deeply challenging words on the need for us to love our enemies, a theme which seemed especially poignant in light of last week’s horrific attack on Drummer Lee Rigby on the streets of Woolwich.

You can listen to the sermon here. After I preached, we had time for questions and answers, and I've been mulling over two of the points which were made from the floor. Alan spoke about the transition which is proving so painful to many of us at the moment, as the church finds itself losing the political power and influence to which it has become so accustomed in the history of Christendom. And then John, alluding to Romans 13, pointed out that while we’re called to love our enemies, it remains the role of those in civic authority to uphold law and order, which sometimes means withdrawing freedom from criminals, or imposing other penalties on them. In Paul’s words, the government is ‘the servant of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer’ (Romans 13:5).

Reflecting on this feedback yesterday, I remembered some words from Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon’s wonderful book, Resident Aliens. In it, they describe the Sermon on the Mount as, ‘A vision of the inbreaking of a new society. They are indicatives, promises, instances, imaginative examples of life in the kingdom of God. In Matthew 5, Jesus repeatedly cites an older command, already tough enough to keep in itself, and then radically deepens its significance, not to lay some gigantic ethical burden on the backs of potential ethical heroes, but rather to illustrate what is happening in our midst.’ (p84)

Offering the world a demonstration of the new work of God, of the values of the kingdom he is bringing to birth is a task which doesn’t sit easily with dictating terms to everyone. As soon as power is placed in the hands of the church, it’s only natural that we begin to feel a sense of presumption or entitlement about the level of control we feel we can exert on the lives of others, and we want to start playing the roles of judge, jury and executioner which scripture tells us to leave to others.

True love for enemies is something we don’t see often, which makes it so dazzling and compelling in the rare moments we encounter it, an unveiling of God’s love and mercy. Perhaps a key lesson we can take from Sunday’s reflection is a fresh awareness that demonstration of this love represents the prime calling of the church, with law and order a task best left to others.


  1. In Rom. 12:14-13:10 Paul contrasts what the church is to do with what the ruling authorities could do. In 12:14-21, Christians who are persecuted are not to seek revenge, punishing their persecutors, returning evil for evil. Instead, following Jesus' command to love enemies, they are to even help in feeding their enemies if they are hungry. As for punishment, they are to leave it to the wrath of God.

    In Rom. 13, Paul adds that God's wrath could be expressed through ruling authorities, who punish evil. In Paul's own experience, those authorities were usually the (non-Christian) Roman rulers, who stopped Jewish leaders from persecuting Paul. After Paul says in 12:18 to try and live peaceably with "everyone" (even enemies), he begins 13:1 by saying, Let "everyone" (especially enemies) be subject to the ruling authorities (rather than to the wrath of those persecuted). If Christians decide to get revenge (trying to overcome evil with evil), then the authorities might punish that evil as well.

  2. Hi Trevor...an interesting post. Following on from your closing sentence I feel compelled to ask the question of what happens when people who are part of the church are involved with the implementation of law and order as part of their life? For example people who work as police officers, solicitors or judges. Or even people who are called up for jury service or give evidence as a witness to a crime. In these situations, particularly where it is someone's vocation, it is surely not practically possible or appropriate to leave the law and order to others.

    It's a similar thought to the opinion that Christians shouldn't get involved with politics. Ultimately I suppose it's a question of how "involved in the world" Christians should be? Is it really the case that some areas of life in the world are actually off limits for the church and are to be dealt with only by "others"? Or is it actually the case that the church should always get stuck in, with the right motivations and a God-centredness which ensures that they are seeking to bring about God's love to situations where perhaps it is very difficult to see a way to reflect God's love?

  3. Hi Carsten,

    Thanks for taking the time to comment. A couple of thoughts came to me, as I reflected on the points you made.

    I agree, it’s not possible in cases where people feel a calling to work in the criminal justice system to ‘leave the law and order to others.’ But I do think faith can be worked out in particular ways within the system, a key question being whether or not we see the goal of the justice system as simply the punishment of the offender, or, hopefully, their rehabilitation? I’ve a good friend who’s spent the last couple of years pioneering the use of ‘Restorative Justice’ in the Devon and Cornwall Constabulary, which I think is a wonderful example of ministering for reconciliation within the system.

    And I agree with your point on Christians and politics. We need to be involved everywhere... light shining... salt seasoning... yeast working through the dough, though I do think it’s important that we develop a keen awareness of our own vested interests, being careful to speak of God’s love and justice, without playing the ‘God’ card to justify ourselves. Having grown with the politics of ‘For God and Ulster,’ I know how perspectives can become desperately skewed and warped.