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.
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.
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 he 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.