A Dangerous Church? The Elephant in the Balliol College Freshers Fair

This article was first published on Christian Today

I return from a lovely break in Croatia to discover yet another one of those ‘snowflake/University bans Christians’ stories. But this is one with a difference. It involves one of the world’s top Universities, Oxford. The problem with Balliol College’s now retracted ban of the Christian Union is not that it shows up the flakiness of the snowflake students, or the censoriousness of the attempted ban, or even what Richard Dawkins called the ‘pompous idiocy’ of the decision.

Is contemporary Christianity indulging the rich at the expense of the poor?

No, the elephant in the room, the real problem is, who was attempting to make that ban. In my post holiday catch-up reading I’m not sure that I have come across anyone making this point so I suspect it may not be the most popular idea…but here goes. You will forgive the passion involved in this but I think this is a serious biblical issue, which Bible-believing churches often get wrong.

Are Oxford Students Oppressed?

There is something deliciously ironic about an Oxford college talking about oppression and neo-colonialism – as though it were the standard bearer for the poor and the oppressed. Of course when they speak of ‘the marginalised’, they don’t mean the poor or those on the edges of their society – they are pushing the narrative that marginalised is now about ‘social progressivism’. This allows them to retain their material and social privileges whilst claiming to be poor and marginalised.

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The defenders of the oppressed…Balliol College

The wealthy elites who largely run our culture, whether in the educational, media, legal, political or business spheres are far more likely to be in the vanguard of social progressivism. It is the Oxbridge, Eton, Edinburgh and Harvard elites who are desperate to be seen to be socially progressive. It’s a form of virtue signalling by the privileged that costs them nothing, and costs the poor everything. For example, the ‘A,B’s’ preach the sexual revolution but 75 per cent of them are bringing up their children in traditional marriages. The equivalent figure for the ‘D,E’s’ is 40 per cent. Bourgeois morality enables the wealthy to have their flings and mistresses…often at the expense of the poor.

Christianity is a Religion of and for the Poor

It has ever been thus, but the idea of a privileged elite attacking Christianity because it does harm is laughable. Christianity is a religion of and for the poor. But those who sought to make this ban and create a ‘safe space’ are of course not thinking about the poor – who have far less a chance of going to an elite University – not because they are less intelligent, but because they often don’t have the privileges of a private education, stable family or the connections afforded by living in a ‘nice’ area of town.

The aforesaid Richard Dawkins of course had his say. As well as criticising the decision Xi6Iibnhe couldn’t resist having his usual dig at Christianity, opining, ‘Oxford’s Christian Union is notoriously nasty and predatory’. The prophet of ‘rational and evidenced based thinking’ didn’t bother to offer any evidence for this particular juicy titbit of gossip. He was, as per usual, letting the world share the benefit of his irrational hatred and prejudice against Christians who actually believe the Bible. By definition, in Dawkins’ closed world, they must be nasty and predatory and so they are.

I expect that from Dawkins. But I wonder why the Church is so slow to recognise where this is coming from? Is it because we either belong, or want to belong to those same elites that are attacking us? As James asked, why do you show favouritism to the wealthy when it is ‘the rich who are exploiting you? Are they not the ones dragging you into court? Are they not the ones who are blaspheming the noble name of him to whom you belong?” (James 2:6-7). Have Bible-believing Christians given up believing what the Bible says about this? We think it is easier to reach the wealthy and the middle-class but Jesus says ‘It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God’ (Mark 10:25 NIV).

The Trickle Down Theorem

In the past few decades evangelicals in the UK and the US seems to be working on different church-planting and evangelism criteria than that of the Apostle Paul who told the Corinthians ‘Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential, not many were of noble birth’ (1 Corinthians 1:26). Too often the Church reflects the values and methodology of the materialistic culture around us. We talk about the poor. A lot. But what do we do? I have developed a principle – let’s call it the trickle-down theorem – the richer the church, the more they are likely to talk about the poor and marginalized. But in reality we prefer the millionaire’s tithe to the widow’s mite.

When we do a church plant we go for the wealthy areas, justifying ourselves by saying that once we are established then we will reach the poor. It almost never happens, but meanwhile we console ourselves by saying that at least we hand out soup. But the poor need the Gospel even more than they need soup. Biblical love that respects and sees all human beings as equally made in the image of God is needed. Not the 21st Century version of charity.

Church Planting in Dundee, Doncaster and Dartford?

I know the objections already. I know the charges of socialism, hypocrisy, literalism etc. I know that there are in the Bible examples of the Lord calling the wealthy, the elites, the powerful and the privileged. But these are the exceptions, the ‘not many’. The biblical strategy is not to reach the wealthy that we might reach the poor, it is to reach the poor that we might reach the wealthy (who in reality are the hardest to reach). But we don’t believe that. It’s why I can get any number of church groups from the US to come and church plant in central London, Oxford, Edinburgh and St Andrews…but ask them to come to, or finance work in Doncaster, Dartford or Dundee and they are not interested. Apparently these are not places of ‘influence’ (like Nazareth!). We have reversed the biblical criteria and then claim that we are doing so in order to be faithful to the Bible!

The Encouragement of the Dangerous Church

I am however encouraged in this. Those in Balliol College who saw Christianity as a threat and harmful, were in some senses right. We are a threat and we are harmful. But not to the marginalized and the poor. Acts 17:6 tells us that Paul and his companions were accused of being those ‘who have turned the world upside down’ (KJV). The last thing that those of the top of the pyramid want is to see that pyramid inverted! In a Western world which is increasingly dominated by an anti-Christ secularism it’s maybe not a bad thing when those in power seek to silence the church because we are too dangerous!

David Robertson is Associate Director of Solas CPC in Dundee and minister at St Peter’s Free Church. Follow him on Twitter @TheWeeFlea.

16 thoughts on “A Dangerous Church? The Elephant in the Balliol College Freshers Fair

  1. I get what you are saying, but I also understand why people like Ravi Zacharias go after the privileged – they are tomorrow’s decision makers.
    At the end of the day, anyone who is online is privileged.

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    1. But that is precisely what I was saying….we don’t use such worldly methodology…Jesus and the apostles did not aim for ‘the decision makers’ first. I don’t think fishermen, prostitutes and tax collectors came high on the decision makers list!

      And no- anyone who is online is not privileged. Thats like rich people in this country saying to the poor – ‘look at the poor in other countries, they are starving…so you are doing ok – you have food banks! you are privileged! In fact more than half the worlds population are online…

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      1. Okay, I understand more clearly, with your use of the word “first”. I guess para-church organisations (like rzim) are never the primary ministry of the church militant, but are nevertheless alongside?

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  2. My initial response was in agreement, but I think there are more factors involved. A few thoughts.

    There have always been social class and education divides in society and the church.

    I recall visiting an historic church in Cromarty, open to the public due to heritage funding. There was stark , the class divide, where the rich bought seats in the front row pews.

    Large landed estates had their own chapels and-easy on the ear – own ministers

    John Owen , by all accounts, was bit of a peacock, toff, in his attire, reputed to “think in Latin.” He was, however, robust in his defence of the non conformist, tinker and jailbird Bunyan and his preaching.

    Owen was greatly influential in Christianity and outwith, but from a position of priveledge, not poverty. It was not his priveledge that was important but his theology.

    It would be interesting to know how much the poor, and comparatively uneducated have bought into the transexual agenda, being foisted on them: whether homosexuality was a feature embraced more in public/private schools social classes than in blue collar, working/poor classes, with a snowball effect, now an avalanche, while the so called sexual revolution was widespread across class divides. Those ignorants did not buy into the Remain campaign, me included.

    Today, I’m not sure how much the poor would give any credence to those outside their own class, their own aspirations, own community when planting churches. The social deference which may have existed in times McCheyne, across and within societal strata, may no longer exist.
    A schoolfriend’s dad (in 1970’s) was robustly indignant at the idea educated clergy could tell him what to believe in a former coal mining village. He wasn’t an ignorant, bigotted, man.

    There have always been insiders and outsiders. And within the church. There always will be, even at the return of Christ.

    If there is one thing I admire about Corbyn, is his stickability, his commitment and perseverence, through years in the wilderness of Blair years, when he was ignored, had no influence, was a one trick pony.

    The book of Hebrews is of and for our time. We are cosseted today, and in the UK have not (yet) faced hostility, resentment, loss of liberty faced by those in earlier centuries and within living memory (Bonhoeffer) let alone in scripture, those converting from other faiths.

    By the way, didn’t Paul also “target” decision makers, the Council at Jerusalem, as well as Cities of influence, as well as getting an audience with rulers, as well as planting and teaching church leaders as well as financial concern for the poor? He was among the intellectual elite, hard to understand (Peter) as well as supernatually gifted.

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    1. Geoff – one of the things you are missing is this…its not that the poor have social deference to the wealthy – they don’t. Its that the wealthy control ‘civic society’ – the media, educational, legal, religious, political and business establishments.

      No – Paul did not target decision makers for evangelism. The Council of Jerusalem was the church – not the political authorities. He never described the places he went to as ‘cities of influence’ – it wasn’t some kind of grand political strategy…It was the Holy Spirit who compelled him. The cities were also then, as today, places full of the poor! And being poor does not mean that you cannot be intellectual! As for Paul being elite – he worked hard with his own hands. It seems to me that you (like me and most of the church in the West today) have fallen for the cultural narratives of our day more than the simple teaching of Scripture.

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  3. I have not read your posts for months as i have had no time. I’m glad i made time to read this article.
    Yes the world including the elites should be worried. For the gospel is a message of power that transforms the inner heart and mind which gloriously takes dead dry bones and restores them to life. It is wonderful, glorious, beautiful, full of grace and worth shouting from the rooftop no matter how much we suffer. Christ will judge the living and the dead therefore the universities should not only be worried but be in terror for no stone will be left unturned.

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  4. Thank you for your response David.
    Your original article was well made and aimed.
    I was aware that when I used the word “targetted” that it may stimulate an appropriate rejoinder.
    I accept what you say. Paul didn’t “target”. Through God’s providences, through the Holy Spirit, Paul “ministered” before Civic Authorities, in chains, with people of wealth, people in power, before church leaders, in prominent cities, in places and circumstances wherever he was, persecuted, beaten, run out of town. As you say, the world was turned upside down. In effect, in today’s parlance, God aimed Paul .at God’s targets.

    Was it not ever thus – “The wealthy elites who largely run our culture, whether in the educational, media, legal, political or business spheres are far more likely to be in the vanguard of social progressivism.”

    Again, within living memory, however, the law and church have had a somewhat symbiotic relationship, in interpreting statutes and wills and testamentary dispositions with similar “canons of construction” to those used in hermeneutics – see John Stotts, original copy of Basic Christianity. And also in the development of the rules of Equity. (Speaking here of England and Wales only).

    Within my lifetime, as a student, a legal hero of mine was law Lord, Lord Denning, a radical progressive of his era, not greatly appreciated by his fellow law Lords. His foundations were in christianity, and opposed to the abuse of power of civil authorities.

    And again, the bain and pain of legal aid lawyers, was the Thatcher appointed Lord Chancellor, Lord MacKay of Clashfern, widely derided as a Calvinist, before I ever knew what a Calvinist was.

    In Magistrates Courts, local criminal justice is dispensed by local voluntary member of the public from each geographical patch, by peers. But recently one Magistrate in ??? South England was withdrawn for his openly stated Christian stance.

    Having said all of that, I’d still not demur from the burden of your main argument. I’d be hard pressed to identify such figures today.

    My concern, as is yours, is how much the church cow-tows, worships, bows down to the spirit of the age. Just as the Old Covenant people looked back to God’s promise and looked forward to fulfilment,we too must fix our eyes on Jesus and His promised return, while looking back at His promise already fulfilled. To live in the present we must live backwards, from our secure, eternal position in Christ in the future, secured in the past by, in and through Him.

    Apologies. You have far more important stuff to deal with than even being troubled to read this.
    Why is it my concern as an ordinary Christian? It is because I am an ordinary Christian, that I am concerned. But it is no worse than it was in Noah’s time, or Babel. We have the Promised One. Know Him. His Day has and will come, as has and will ours.

    Thank you, for a pool without an outlet becomes stagnant. Or in the words of Steve Winwood “my rock and roll is putting on weight” (Arc of the Diver) And, doing this, for me, is exercise. Hope it doesn’t put others off reading your blog. The same old, same old names and all that.

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  5. Excellent post. We are specically told to follow Jesus in teaching the good news to the poor. The trickle down approach simply cannot work. For once I agree with you about the ‘elites’; they have no contact with the poor and in general very little sympathy with them. And it is very difficult to get well-off people to feel a need for God.

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  6. The increasingly prevalent view that we are ‘doing our evangelistic duty’ if we ‘aim’ for students and professionals in our cities is doing untold damage. For those who are not in either category there is an unspoken assumption that Church is not for you. The belief that God requires the ‘movers and shakers’ in our generation to advance the cause of the Gospel is simply human arrogance.

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