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The Secularisation of Worship and the End of Spiritual Independence? – AP

This weeks article in Australian Presbyterian (as with all other articles we are not able to share it on Facebook – so those of you who are not in Australia are welcome to do so!

There is a significant court case going on in Scotland just now, and it has important implications for the Presbyterian and other churches in Australia. 27 Scottish church leaders have taken the government to court over the lengthy church closures imposed upon them because of Covid. They argue that the closures are disproportionate, criminalise corporate worship, are a breach of human rights law, and harmful to the people who attend their congregations. Lord Baird has granted a judicial review on the 11th and 12th of March after the Scottish government refused to listen to the church leaders.

Not all Christian leaders agree with the approach of the 27 ministers – the Church of Scotland for example has dissociated itself from the court action and says it was ‘comfortable’ with the government actions. But leaving aside the arguments for or against the action it is the response of the Scottish government which should give us all cause for concern.

Is Public Worship a ‘secular activity’?

The Scottish Government has declared that the state has a right to ‘regulate the secular activities of Churches….for the purposes of protecting public health”, and that “churches are obliged to comply with secular law. “Why is that concerning? Because of what the government is defining as ‘secular’. They are stating that the gathering of the Lord’s people in public worship for prayer, preaching, praising God and administration of the sacraments is a ‘secular’ activity. This is a radical change – one that has not been seen in the West since the 17th Century.

The subordinate doctrinal standard of the Presbyterian churches throughout the world is the Westminster Confession. In Ch. 23, Of the Civil Magistrate it sets out the relationship between Church and State. One aspect of this is what has come to be called ‘spiritual independence’. “Civil magistrates may not assume to themselves the administration of the Word and sacraments.” But the Scottish government is now declaring that these activities are ‘secular’ activities – subject to their jurisdiction. The principle of spiritual independence is under severe threat.

Can the State tell the Church how to Pray?

Meanwhile in Victoria, as diligent readers of AP will know all too well, the government has decided that they can tell the Church who we can pray for and what we can say. Dominic Steele has an excellent discussion on this weeks The Pastor’s Heart with Neil Foster (Professor of Law), Heath Easton (Presbyterian minister) and AP’s very own Peter Barnes.

 

But it’s not just in Victoria. In NSW the government tells me that I can sing unmasked in sports stadiums to my heart’s content, but in a state which has not seen any community transmission for over a month, we are banned from singing the Lord’s praise in church.

From Christian Secularism to Totalitarian Secularism

In Western liberal democracies ‘secular’ just simply meant that there was a separation between Church and State. In that sense most Christians in Australia today would be ‘secular’. However, in the latter half of the 20th Century the more militant atheists managed to get their understanding of ‘secular’ to be the norm. They understand secular as being ‘without God’. So whilst they were in theory happy for you to believe what you want – they insisted that all religious belief should be kept out of public life – not just government but also education, healthcare, the media, the arts and business. In other words, they were happy for the Church to be the equivalent of a knitting club – it’s fine when you do it, as long as you don’t ‘disturb the horses’ ; that is affect anyone else.

But like the leech that never has enough, the devil never stops. He knows no rest. We are now moving onto a stage where the Government is God. We have gone from separation of Church and State, where they are ‘good neighbours and good friends’; to the complete side-lining of the Church; we are now moving on from that to a situation where the State is now replacing the Church. It is telling us what to believe, when to meet and what we can say.

A New Blasphemy Law

In Scotland the government are also proposing a ‘Hate Crime’ bill which is in effect a new Blasphemy Bill, which is so far reaching that you could be prosecuted for things you say in your own home to your own family. If you read Romans 1 to your family and your child reports what is said in school the next day – you could be prosecuted for ‘hate speech’.

Time for the Prophetic Church

The secular State only works as democracy if there is freedom of speech, freedom of thought, a free press, equality before the law and freedom of religion. When the State limits these, using a compliant media, a political judiciary and Big Tech, we are heading towards an authoritarian anti-democratic State. This is important for all citizens in Australia – but especially for the Church. There are those in the Church who, because they don’t believe in Christ as the Head of the Church, are quite happy to act as the secular prophets for the new State morality. But those of us who know our Lord, know our Bibles and know our history, know where this road is going. We are called to be prophetic, to wake up and strengthen what remains, and to plead with the Lord for our political leaders that ‘we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness.” (1 Timothy 2:2).

Scottish Hate Crime Bill

Dealing With Mainstream Media – AP

 

28 comments

  1. I still like what I wrote as a summary of the use of ‘secular’ a few years ago:
    What does ‘secular’ mean?
    The word ‘secular’ is an adjective that means ‘of this world’, or ‘of this age’. Charles Taylor in his book ‘A Secular Age’ speaks of three types of ‘secular’:
    Secular 1: The term ‘secular’ was applied to monks who lived in the world outside the monastery in mediaeval times, while ‘cloistered’ monks pursued ‘religious’ monastery-confined activities. It came to mean that cloistered monks conducted ‘sacred’ activities – even gardening or building – while similar activities outside the monastery were regarded as ‘secular. Such an outlook led to the ‘sacred-secular’ divide that was partly set aside by the 16th century Reformation.
    Secular 2: describes a ‘world’ or ‘realm’ where life is conducted within the bounds of our physical senses: the material world of scientific affirmation rather than ‘religious’ speculation. It need not connote an atheist view of life, but it regards ‘religious’ views as irrelevant to the way life should be lived. It is now used mainly to mean that the public sphere is – or should be – an ‘a-religious’ realm.
    Secular 3: describes a ‘world’ marked by a ‘neutral’ public square where all beliefs can be expressed and compete for acceptance as public policy. (E.g., constitutional democracies promote such a ‘world’).
    The fierce conflict between Secular 2 & Secular 3 understandings features in Australian society today. There should be no objections to using ‘secular’ to describe the material world. Using the Secular 3 understanding, we can claim that:
    • Australia is a ‘secular’ nation because its laws pertain to the way we live in the material world.
    • “The church is a ‘secular’ institution … as much as the state is.”
    • For Christians, “… the secular is that sphere of things which ought to be used and enjoyed to the ultimate end of serving God and man”.
    However, for many years, those who adhere to the ‘Secular 2’ definition have been trying to ‘secularise’ the people of Australia. That is, they aim to persuade people that the material world is all there is; that there is no transcendent reality to which we should aspire or give our allegiance; and that religious ideas and beliefs should play no part in the public life of our nation.

  2. What does-‘the whole counsel of God’-mean? Is it the simple credal message of the gospel, or a dense study of systematic theology (Westminster Confession)? One life per second is lost globally to abortion, said to account for over 40% of human deaths. The furore over GLBT issues is maybe a satanic bait to draw gullible Christians into pointless conflict. The great genocide of our time is abortion, and the gay or lesbian community are among those least responsible for it. The emphasis of the Catholic Church is arguably wiser, where the great primary menace is seen as abortion. Abortion attacks the message of the Cross very directly, because it denies the value of ensouled human life. If ever asked, my policy is to say the bible presents two lifestyle choices for Christians, celibacy or heterosexual marriage. No one has ever attacked me or condemned me for believing or saying this. Gay conversion therapy questions look like a trap, or a baited hook, and we have no reason to get ensnared on it. If churches desisted from conflict with the GLBT community, and vigorously opposed abortion, would we see revival immediately follow? Huffing and puffing against gay and lesbian rights has not achieved a lot. Provided churches have freedom around their own biblical definition of marriage, might we be wise to leave other people, especially those who vehemently disagree with us, very well alone to make their own choices?

    1. “providing churches have freedom around their own biblical definition of slavery, might we be wise to leave other people, especially those who vehemently disagree with us, very well alone to make their own choices?” – see the problem?

      1. Maybe that is, in reality, the best solution given the circumstances. The Churches are no longer in a position to tell society at large how to behave, as they once were – and maybe, unpalatable and regrettable as that may be in some ways, that is a good thing. I think the OP is correct.

        The Apostolic Church could not rely on Caesar to enforce its convictions upon society – after 380, in the Roman Empire, it was able to do so, and it did so. What attitudes and actions that lead to, before and after the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, everyone knows. It is very uncomfortable that what used to be Christendom and its relics is rapidly de-Christianising itself, to the point of allowing, preferring and praising attitudes and acts inimical to the flourishing and spread of Christianity – but when were such attitudes absent or unknown ?
        There is precious little to be gained these days by confessing Christ – that surely is a very good thing.

        IMHO, what “those outside” may think or do about slavery, or about any modern evil, is irrelevant to the Church’s duty to God. It should not trouble itself about what others do – its concern should be, to be faithful to Christ. Leave “those outside” alone. If they choose what is evil, and make it obligatory, the Church has the Christian freedom to disagree, and even to resist. What the Church does not have, is the right or duty to dictate to “those outside” what laws they should make or allow, or how they should act. Christians are meant to be lights in the world – not a corps of religious police, let alone dictators.

        The Kingdom of Christ which rules all events on Earth is not a totalitarian dictatorship – not even for righteousness’ sake. Christ did not compel those who rejected His doctrine, to accept it, nor did He force them to (continue to) follow Him – He let them leave off following Him; and (if the desertion and flight of the Disciples is any guide) return to follow Him. The Kingship of Christ is as real and effective in a thoroughly immoral secular or persecuting State, as in a State of Spirit-indwelt, obedient, converted Christian disciples, if such a thing were ever to exist. If Christ is Lord over all the Caesars, He is no less Lord both today and forever – not in name alone, but in reality. Including everyday reality.

      2. I’m afraid that I have to disagree with you….I think slavery, injustice, rape, abuse etc do matter to God. We should not bury our heads in the sand.

    2. Caffès,pubs,restaurants and cinemas have to shut,why should churches get special treatment?At least they pay tax,unlike churches,you don’t pay any tax on all that money gullible morons put on the collection plate.

      1. Churches do pay tax…and cafes and restaurants should be open. Shops and other essential services are. The fact that you think churches are not essential only indicates your prejudices not the reality for many people.

  3. A question about this statement, David, which follows on the partial quote from WCF on “word and sacraments”: “But the Scottish government is now declaring that these activities are ‘secular’ activities – subject to their jurisdiction. The principle of spiritual independence is under severe threat.”

    But Para 23.3 in full goes:

    The civil magistrate may not assume to himself the administration of the Word and sacraments, or the power of the keys of the kingdom of heaven; yet he hath authority, and it is his duty, to take order, that unity and peace be preserved in the Church, that the truth of God be kept pure and entire, that all blasphemies and heresies be suppressed, all corruptions and abuses in worship and discipline prevented or reformed, and all the ordinances of God duly settled, administered, and observed. For the better effecting whereof, he hath power to call synods, to be present at them, and to provide that whatsoever is transacted in them be according to the mind of God.

    It’s not at all clear (to me, at any rate) that the current restrictions in Scotland amount to the the government’s arrogating to itself administration of Word and sacraments — especially since that same section of the WCF also grants: “…yet he hath authority, and it is his duty, to take order, that unity and peace be preserved in the Church…”. Clearly there are some difficulties here (and I’m aware that commentaries on the WCF are alert to problems here, and seek to resolve them. (Some solutions more dramatic than others!)

    Aileen Nimmo, replying on behalf of the Scottish Government Legal Directorate, also noted that: “there has been special provision made to allow those leading worship to leave their homes and to use places of worship to lead remote services. The Scottish Ministers have provided support to enable worship to be conducted remotely.” I know of one Inverness church that received government assistance (a sum of five figures was mentioned) to put adequate streaming tech infrastructure in place to facilitate online services.

    It seems to me that the use of “secular” in that document has the sense of “non-ecclesiastical”, i.e., an effort to respect the independence of church government in the context of attempting to provide a safe environment in which churches, too, can continue to function. This is quite different from claiming that “Word and sacrament” are secular activities, is it not? It seems like there’s slippage in there somewhere.

    I’m as eager as anyone to gather again with my local expression of the body of Christ in the same physical space, in the same historical moment (we continue to gather virtually with regularity!), but Nimmo’s reply doesn’t look like a “severe threat” to “the principle of spiritual independence”.

    1. That part about order and unity was the view that the State has the right to call councils of the church to deal with doctrinal disputes – problematic in and of itself which is why the Free Church in 1846 passed a Declaratory Act disavowing any persecuting principles. . It absolutely does not give the State the right to determine when, if and how we should gather for public worship. I don’t accept that the government has the right either to define worship for us – or to tell us when to worship. Online is not the gathering of the church for public worship. The government has defined as secular the gathering of the church for public worship, the preaching of the word and the administration of the sacraments. It takes a remarkable degree of special pleading to try and say that it means something different! To my mind the Church is largely walking blindfold into a level of State control which will last long after Covid…

  4. “In Western liberal democracies ‘secular’ just simply meant that there was a separation between Church and State. In that sense most Christians in Australia today would be ‘secular’. However, in the latter half of the 20th Century the more militant atheists managed to get their understanding of ‘secular’ to be the norm. They understand secular as being ‘without God’. ”

    Yes, I have always used the term “secular” in the first sense when I talk about my views with people as I believe in separation of church and state but more and more people have become congilused thinking I mean “atheistic” so I have started switching to using the French term, “laicité”, instead. I’d encourage others to do the same!

    (I think part of the problem is people today assume “secular” is shorthand for “secular humanism”).

    “The secular State only works as democracy if there is freedom of speech, freedom of thought, a free press, equality before the law and freedom of religion. When the State limits these, using a compliant media, a political judiciary and Big Tech, we are heading towards an authoritarian anti-democratic State.”

    Pastor, I think the rot really started here in Australia when the Keating Government limited freedom of speech with Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act. Whatever its good intentions, it finally enshrined “political correctness” in law and contributed to the current atmosphere of fear anout inadvertently saying the right thing. See here:

    https://www.sbs.com.au/news/keating-acts-against-race-hate-speech

    Regarding the press, some people would argue we don’t have real freedom of press here in Australia because of the newspaper duopoly of Murdoch and Fairfax but obviously things have changed somewhat with the advent of the web.

    @Geoffrey Bullock, are you the Geoff Bullock who is the well-known Australian Christian songwriter or do I have the wrong person?

    God bless.

    1. Sorry for my typo:

      “the current atmosphere of fear anout inadvertently saying the right thing.”

      should of course read:

      “the current atmosphere of fear about inadvertently saying the wrong thing.”

    2. Jean – He and I are distantly related but we share a musical ability. He has developed his much more than I have mine.

      1. That’s great! We sang some of your relative’s songs quite often in my previous church. Good luck with developing your own talent.

  5. David, on what you have written, “Not all Christian leaders agree with the approach of the 27 ministers – the Church of Scotland for example has dissociated itself from the court action and says it was ‘comfortable’ with the government actions.” It should be mentioned that the Free Church of Scotland are as much against the legal claim by the ministers as the Church of Scotland. You must know this brother, therefore it is unfair to single out the Church of Scotland. I am one of the ministers who have signed the legal claim against the Scottish government, and as a Free Church of Scotland minister I was dismayed to get legal papers the other day stating that the Scottish government are leaning on the position of the Church of Scotland and the Free Church of Scotland, as well as the Episcopal Church, as part of their case to keep churches closed.

      1. Thank you for your reply David. My apologies if you were unaware of the Free Church of Scotland’s position. I suppose many would be unaware, and shocked and surprised, that a denomination founded on a principle of being free from state interference in matters relating to God, are content to be directed on matters relating to God, not by just any government, but by the most godless government in a generation, the Scottish National Party. What many are also unaware of is that while the Scottish government have made it illegal for churches to open, this only applies to worship/ fellowship/ spiritual matters. Churches can still open for addiction groups, weight-loss classes, and a variety of other groups, to meet in their premises, if the church so wishes to allow. The Scottish government considers all such groups “essential”. What is ‘non-essential’ is worship/ matters relating to God. Information on this can be found on the Scottish Government website: https://www.gov.scot/publications/coronavirus-covid-19-one-to-one-support-and-support-groups/
        This past week the Free Church of Scotland Moderator, a man you know and a post you are well familiar with, publicly distanced himself, and the whole denomination, from the legal claim being brought by church ministers against the Scottish Government. You can listen to the moderators comments on this here: https://freechurch.org/news/moderators-message-19feb21
        A Free Church elder contacted me after watching the moderators latest address, saying: “Who are the Covid Committee? They are not a General Assembly committee. To whom are they answerable? The latest Moderator’s talk was a disappointing distancing from the Judicial Review. They can state that they as a committee do not support the Judicial Review, but by what right can they say the Free Church of Scotland does not support the review. The FCS as a denomination has no expressed opinion as the General Assembly have never discussed this. Are they saying Christian’s have no legal right to question the Government’s action or even to seek clarification on what our legal rights actually are? I see the moderators statement as an implied personal attack on those who support on biblical grounds, the recourse to review. It will be deeply embarrassing if the judicial review finds the government has acted ultra vires.”

        The church in our beloved Scotland is far worse than anyone knows, David, and if the Scottish government’s proposed ‘Hate Crime Bill’ gets passed, I fear the nation once known as ‘land of the book’ will be near spiritually dead. Christians must wake-up to the perilous position we are in, but sadly many sleep-walk. Where John Knox once prayed “give me Scotland or I die”, the prayer of many Christians today is “give me Scottish Independence or I die”, and so they continue to vote for and support a government who have now made it a criminal offence to meet to worship God.
        Thank you for all that you write and post, David. I know I speak on behalf of many in saying your posts are very helpful, and very challenging.
        Every blessing,
        Garry Brotherston
        Minister at Bishopbriggs Free Church of Scotland

      2. Thanks Garry – I had not seen that message and it is indeed very disappointing. I am so glad that I am not in Scotland just now because I would get in so much trouble. For me it is shameful that a self appointed committee of the Church (not an Assembly one) has argued for a policy which at the very least is questionable and controversial. Given that we have all taken vows to defend the spiritual independence of the Church – we should be really reluctant to defend a government which is seeking to exercise more and more control over the church. I can understand the committee saying the Church is neutral on the governments position – but to go against our brothers who are taking the government to court is to my view shameful. I also found the talk unhelpful because it seems to set up objecting to the governments overreach as being opposed to praying. I’m afraid that the Free Church of today is more pietistic than it is the radical church of 1843.

  6. “ I’m afraid that I have to disagree with you….I think slavery, injustice, rape, abuse etc do matter to God. We should not bury our heads in the sand.”

    Of course these things matter to God. It does not follow, that the Church is equipped, empowered or competent to tell unbelievers what to do about these things. Teachers in the Church should tell those in the Church what is good and and what is not – that does not give teachers in the Church the right, duty or mission to set themselves up as authorities over anyone else.

    1. I don’t think campaigning against slavery, providing for the sick and poor, or seeking to protect marriage can fairly be classed as setting oneself as an authority over anyone else. The Church has a prophetic role to proclaim the authority of God’s Word. Unless you want to live in a pietistic community detached from the reality around.

  7. Hi David, I’m interested in the idea that Christians are called to be a prophetic voice in the world. What’s the theology behind that?

    1. God speaks to the world. He has not left himself without witness. His law and Gospel are to be proclaimed to all the nations, to the ends of the earth. Part of that is proclaiming his law to the nations…

  8. “His law and Gospel are to be proclaimed to all the nations” Is there a biblical reference(s) you’d particularly have in mind here?

    1. I don’t really do proof texting but you could try Matthew 24:14, Mark 13:10, Matthew 28:19….or more or less the whole Bible! The Kingdom is to be proclaimed!

    2. Andrew – Here are some excerpts from my message “How Do We Disciple Nations?” that may help explain:
      First we need to understand that God wants everyone to know Him:
      • Individuals (Jeremiah 9:23-24, 31:31-34) (Acts 17:26-27) (1 John 5:20); and
      • Nations (Genesis 12:3) (Psalm 22:27) (Psalm 72:17) There are at least 58 OT references to God’s desire for all the nations of the earth to know Him.

      ‘Nations’ is translated differently throughout the Bible. It can mean families; racially-defined people groups; language-defined people groups; clans; tribes; and politically-defined nations. It is also used frequently to indicate ‘Gentiles’ or ‘non-Jewish’ people.

      John Piper has done an excellent summary of the use of the Bible words for ‘nations’ in his article ‘The Supremacy of God Among all the Nations’. He confirms that the use of nations in Matthew 28:19 does not mean only non-Jews, but all the people groups of the world.

      The key thought is found in Genesis 12:3 – That God will so bless Abraham that through Abraham, God will bring his blessing to all the families of the earth. All through the Bible we can trace this thought. John Piper sums up thus: “What we may conclude from the wording of Gen. 12:3 and its use in the New Testament is that God’s purpose for the world is that the blessing of Abraham, namely, the salvation achieved through Jesus Christ, the seed of Abraham, would reach to all the ethnic people groups of the world.”

      I hope this provides an answer for you.

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