I would like to comment on some of the events following England’s recent general election, because I believe we have here a high-profile case study of how many professing Christians and Christian leaders have been duped into adopting an anti-Christian attitude toward how we ought to live in the world. Most Christians in the UK are by now aware that the former leader of the Liberal Democrats, the professing evangelical Christian Tim Farron, resigned his position after the election, citing the radical intolerance of elite political and media culture as the primary reason for his departure.
Mr. Farron claimed he could not see his way clear to remaining in his role because he believed leading the party in the current cultural climate had become incompatible with being a faithful Christian. Without getting into the whys and wherefores of liberal democratic policy, all Christians of good faith will no doubt feel genuine sympathy for Mr. Farron in light of the veritable heresy trail he endured in Parliament and the media regarding his personal view on homosexuality – simply because it was known he professed an evangelical faith with an orthodox view of marriage and sexual practice.
Whilst it is true that Mr. Farron partially brought this situation upon himself – first by equivocation and then by foolishly caving in under pressure – Christians should be less employed in condemning him for weakness and more concerned with asking why he was so badly prepared by the church to answer such deceptive and hypocritical questioning in the public forum. Farron’s incompetence in this area is a damning commentary on the church’s ability or willingness to equip its members to cogently defend the truth of the gospel. Moreover, we should equally be asking why, in the wake of his resignation, Christian leaders who should have helped him and those like him with the apologetic task (a task given to all Christians in such situations), are using the opportunity to support the ubiquitous emergence of a pluralist secular social order– indeed attacking the remnants of Christendom and the magisterial reformation amongst Christians! These things are all evidence of the radical politicization of a modern church, unwilling for the light of God’s Word to shine on its humanistic views of cultural, social and political life.
It is particularly discouraging to find that one such well-intentioned leader is John Stevens of the FIEC.[i] His recent piece on Farron’s resignation, which is the subject of this article, is clearly from the mind of a capable lawyer educated in and committed to a contemporary version of liberalism, not from a theologian or philosopher directed by a consistently scriptural vision of the scope of the gospel or the nature of culture. As such, his good intentions should not make him immune from public criticism, especially since he represents many free evangelicals across the UK.
In my view, Mr. Stevens demonstrates no adequate comprehension here of the biblical idea of social order (in fact no scriptural defence or even a reference is offered in support of his perspective), nor of the intrinsic impossibility of achieving stability for any society rooted in polytheism – the correct term for the kind of radical religious, moral and even legal pluralism (given the place of Islam in Britain) apparently advocated by Stevens, which Scripture calls idolatry. In short, Stevens’ piece is presumptuously dismissive of the legacy of Christendom and the Reformation (and so of Christian social order), remarkably naïve in its foggy vision of pluralism, and damaging to the cause of Christ and the gospel.
Pluralism, plurality and Christianity
In view of his theological and philosophical assumptions, Stevens regularly calls upon Christians to heartily pursue a truly plural society. The question immediately arises, what does this mean, and what does it entail? The pagan Greco-Roman world was in many respects a pluralistic society with an innumerable array of cults licenced for freedom of worship. It indulged expansive and shocking liberties for debauched sexual vice and considerable freedom of thought and expression – just think of Paul’s freedom of speech at Mars Hill and the protection he enjoyed as a Roman citizen! But was ancient Rome a better and more God-glorifying culture than nineteenth-century England after the evangelical awakening in the time of William Wilberforce and the emerging Victorian age, with its Christianized social order and culture of manners, self-restraint and propriety? Though nineteenth-century England was far from consistently Christian or ideal, to ask that question is to answer it. Yet nineteenth-century England was not a plural society like that of polytheistic Rome.
Christianity does advocate a kind of pluralism; a structural pluralism. First, it recognises that there is a plurality of creational spheres of life enjoying a distinct area of authority ordained by God for the social order – the family, the church and state being three prominent examples found clearly in the Bible. God created everything after its own nature in Genesis so in this plurality of life-spheres each has its own particular nature and guiding structural principle. In other words, at the level of human society, the spheres of family, church and state each have their own internal directing principle so, for example, any man who ordered his home like a church or state would be violating God’s norm for the family and vice versa.
Moreover, Scripture makes plain that each of these spheres does not function independent of God but is directly accountable to God and his Word (See: Eph. 1:20-23; Rom. 13:1-7; Eph. 5:22-6:9). Because each distinct area is created by, ordered by and accountable to God, Scripture does not allow one sphere of life and authority to swallow the others in a lower-to-higher or parts-to-whole relationship, as found in the thought of Aristotle and Aquinas. This scriptural principle of distinction has been called sphere sovereignty. It means that the family and church are not departments of state, nor can the church institute rule for political life. When any social sphere of life overreaches its God-ordained boundary it inevitably becomes tyrannical.
The greatest danger of our age, which Stevens’ statist and pluralist vision does not appear to adequately take into account, is the overreach of the modern pluralist state. The state increasingly seeks to take the place of God by interfering with the preaching of the gospel; the teaching of the church; the nature and structure of marriage, family and human sexuality. Thus Stevens does not see that by sanctioning and thereby emboldening the state to pass anti-Christian laws about marriage and human sexuality in the name of civil rights and pluralism, he is not only encouraging the violation of God’s creational norm for human society, but abetting the state’s transgression of its sphere of authority and competence, thereby producing tyranny – the totalitarian drift of modern statism.
Tim Farron experienced the fruit of this transgression. The state has no God-ordained right to re-order God’s order. It has a delegated authority to recognise and protect God’s order for the political sphere – that is its function (Rom. 13:4). Because Stevens does not define the nature and character of the political sphere of the state in a scripturally directed way, he is not able to call it to order in the name of Christ – our prophet, priest and king. And if we fail to recognise Christ’s status over all power and authority, we will certainly fail to take hold of our office as prophets, priests and king, in him (1 Pt. 2:9-10).
Secondly, genuine structural pluralism (which actually presupposes the existence of a Christian social order) does not regulate the details of people’s lives as the modern “pluralist” state does. A Christian structural pluralism allows for a truly competitive public space because God’s word does not authorise the Christian family, church or even a Christian state (as spheres of delegated sovereignty) to go beyond their jurisdiction and dictate with force of sanction what should happen in a given family’s daily life or education; what they should believe by creed; how they should spend or invest their money; what they should think or say; where and how they get medical treatment; or whom and with whom they should worship. This is because in a Christian law-order, creational distinctions must be maintained and true worship can never be a matter of coercion.
As such a biblical vision for the public space allows for dissent, multiple political parties and elections. It should provide maximal freedom from regulation, supervision and state interference in the other spheres of life. It is no coincidence that Parliamentary democracy arose in a broadly Christian political order. Christianized states in the West have, to a large degree (certainly more than any other kind of state), allowed the free exchange of ideas, freedom of worship, and a vast plethora of freedoms within and under a broadly Christian constitution and law. This kind of social order holds so long as there is a Christian consensus. Crisis emerges when the religious consensus of the people is lost, which is why the West is facing a great social crisis today.
Idolatry, sins and crimes
This structural pluralism however, does not imply that a directional pluralism is plausible as the foundation for a cohesive society. Indeed a structural pluralism which maintains creational distinctions between spheres of life already presupposes a clear directional principle toward honoring the Lordship of Christ and sovereignty of God over creation. Any kingdom divided against itself cannot stand so that if multiple directions are introduced at the foundations of a society its days are numbered. It is for this reason that God not only gave laws to preserve Israel’s distinctiveness, he also called the prophets to warn Israel against syncretism, and judged them for their harlotry – unless he had done so, Israel would either have been absorbed by the pagan nations or might have vanished from history like the Hittites.
Returning to the Victorian social order of England, we observe that it was in large measure structurally pluralistic. The state was smaller and far less intrusive than the modern state. The flavour of evangelicalism in the era can be seen in the writing and preaching of Charles Haddon Spurgeon. He often boasted in the freedoms of England over against those of France and opposed the early efforts at the control of education by the state. The family and church enjoyed true independence. There were broad political freedoms, multiple parties (even powerful independents in the House), and expansive freedoms of speech and worship. However, it was not a directionally plural society. England did not honour multiple gods and thereby nurture multiple law-orders, as modern Britain is doing with Islamic sharia. The constitutional arrangements of England were not directionally pluralistic. There was no confusion over the fact that England was a Christian land, with a Christian social order (not that everyone was a regenerate Christian believer). It is exactly this directional pluralism that John Stevens seems to be supporting, but like anything that gets pulled in several directions at once, something will have to give.
[i] John Stevens, Tim Farron's Resignation: How Should Evangelicals Respond To The Illiberalism Of Progressive Secular Liberalism?” John Stevens, last modified June 20, 2017, http://www.john-stevens.com/2017/06/tim-farrons-resignation-how-should.html?m=1.
Christianity advocates a structural pluralism which maintains the creational distinctions between spheres of life, but it does not advocate a directional pluralism; in fact, what it presupposes is a clear directional principle toward honoring the Lordship of Christ and God's sovereignty over creation.