Christian Nationalism and Colossians

Christian Nationalism is a slippery term, which seems mainly to have been coined by the progressive left to implicate Christian support for Donald Trump (both amongst Evangelicals and traditional Catholics) in imaginary attempts to impose a theocratic tyranny. Pope Francis has condemned it as a desertion of the gospel for ideology, but it would seem that his own ideology aligns pretty closely with that of the secular left, supporting multiculturalism, mass immigration and liberal re-definition of the faith itself.

Closer to (UK) home, Archbishop Welby seems to be broadly sympathetic to the inclusivity-diversity agenda, whilst in typical Anglican style fence-sitting in recent comments about the evils of people-traffickers, though he has opposed all government moves that might actually discourage their inhuman trade.

But as a Spectator article, which at least in its theorising is pretty balanced, says (citing Ross Douthat):

[T]oday’s liberals are wrong to depict even banal forms of religious conservatism as theocratic. This requires a pretence that any kind of politics motivated by conservative evangelicalism or Catholicism is a threat to the First Amendment, that the Republic of Gilead from “The Handmaid’s Tale” is a plausible dystopia and that references to natural law and God-given rights are somehow an alien and illiberal ideology impinging on our secular tradition…

But he also points to strands of “Dominionist” theology that, he says, would impose such a theocratic regime, given the chance:

It’s fine to believe that there should be ‘Christian participation in politics’, not so fine to believe ‘that there should be Christian primacy in politics and law.’

It’s the “given the chance” idea that shows that the fear of a rigid theocracy from Dominionists is as fantastical as the idea that Intelligent Design Theory would bring one about. America’s religious spread has always been too wide for that to succeed – though it is relevant to note that historically the USA has always been broadly Christian, only the last decade or two seeing a serious decline in stated Christian commitments of one sort or another.

Contrast that foundational diversity with other countries accused of actual “theocratic dictatorships,” such as Hungary, which has always been overwhelmingly Catholic, and Russia, the great majority of whose people have recovered their historic Russian Orthodox faith since the fall of Communism. If a majority of such populations wish to see Christianity as the established ideology of their nations, is that really so wrong? Even England has had an established national church for half a millennium, and it does not seem that unreasonable should its people to wish to maintain such an enduring status quo.

The fact is that the liberalism which, like the author of the Spectator piece, wishes to deny Christian “primacy” is blind to the fact that there is always an ideological hegemony of some sort, that of Western nations being atheistic materialism, imposed on a non-atheist majority. Secularism is itself an ideology, which is increasingly militantly opposed to Christianity, as evidenced by Joe Biden’s deliberate hi-jacking of Easter Day as some sordid trans-sexual advertisement this year, and the dropping of an Easter service broadcast by the BBC in favour of wall-to-wall bank holiday tat. Except in failed states, some normative ideology always runs the show, and the question is really, “Which set of ideas is worthy of standing above the others?” In historical terms, liberal diversity hasn’t shown itself to be either tolerant of alternatives or stable on its own terms.

Behind the “me-too” liberalism of those like Pope Francis, though, lies a strength of Christianity that theological liberalism has turned into a self-destructive weak point. A mainstay of the “women priests” case over the years has been the statement in Galatians 3:28:

There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.

Likewise, in Colossians 3:11:

Here there is no Greek or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and in all.

Taking such passages (as we shall see) out of context, it seems clear that in Christ women should have equal, or even in view of the Patriarchical past, preferential opportunities to become Archbishops. With a sprinkling of generalisation the lack of distinction in Christ makes gay or transgender Archbishops seem equally plausible. And if we add a bit of liberal “brotherhood of man” thinking, then Paul’s use of Christian commitment as the criterion for unity can also be cut loose, and it then makes perfect sense for our borders to be open to all comers indiscriminately, if they want to build a better life, whilst (according to Justin Welby) we should “check our privilege” and probably keep silent before travelling abroad to “impose” the gospel on those who are quite content to be animists or Muslims.

The big problem here is complete lack of biblical context, inexcusable given the level at which these discussions have been conducted by the churches. The Galatians passage sets out to show that all believers spiritually united to Christ, who is the true seed of Abraham, are consequently also that seed, and so heirs of the promise to Abraham. But to be adopted into a family does not make a servant the head of the household, nor turn a boy into a girl, or vice versa.

The passage in Colossians is similar, in the setting of believers as one people – or even one body – in Christ. To say that all these formerly disparate groups are united in the body of Christ does not imply that a hand or an eye lose their distinctiveness when they are part of the human body.

In fact, the passage goes on to demonstrate this by teaching on the proper Christian behaviour of some of these very groups. Wives are told to submit to their husbands “as is fitting in the Lord,” and husbands to love their wives and not mistreat them. This is not, despite some commentators’ desperate attempts to sacralise feminism, “mutal submission,” but an asymetrical relationship based on biological and, because of that phrase “as is fitting in the Lord,” spiritual differences.

The fact that only fathers rather than mother are, next, urged not to exasperate their children (whilst the children are taught to be obedient) again shows clearly that Paul has not intended us to believe that all the distinctions he has subordinated to Christ are, in fact, completely dissolved. Nobody has, after all, yet proposed ordaining children as bishops.

The slave-master relationship, dealt with in last place, shows Paul’s limited intentions quite clearly, for here there is not even a biological underpinning to the distinctive roles he maintains. Indeed, this letter was originally accompanied by a personal communication with slave-owner Philemon, to receive back his runaway slave Onesimus.

Now we need not assume that Paul approved of slavery. It was so integral to the functioning of Roman society that it could not be avoided, but at that time only transformed by the Christian slave’s doing his work (and even undergoing unjust suffering) for Christ, whilst the Christian master had to reckon with the anomaly of legally owning a brother. Onesimus returned voluntarily as a brother to Philemon, but also still as a slave. Paul’s letter to Philemon rather rubs salt in Philemon’s brother-slave dilemma, and certainly acted as an incentive to find a way of giving him his freedom whilst not turning him on to the street to starve.

I have heard the “liberalisers” claim that Paul was inspired by the Spirit in his dissolution of all boundaries in Christ, but immediately reverted to human bigotry in specific instances. This is as crass a view as it is in any accusation that a competent writer directly contradicts himself on the same page. We need to understand biblical passages, not try to outsmart them.

And so in fact these instances enable us to see that all the distinctions, including the national distinctions, that Paul names are relativised in Christ, rather than being abolished. The most obvious example is the distinction between Jew and gentile, which issue occupies a significant space in the New Testament. Yet the event that leads to Paul’s final arrest before the unfolding drama that led him to Rome was his completion of a distinctively Jewish vow he had made, requiring his attendance at the temple.

To Paul, Jewish religious practices were no longer binding even for Jews, and yet they were not abolished, as even Paul followed them, when appropriate, as his own nation’s customs, honouring to God. And in fact the Acts of the Apostles make it clear that even the apostles attended the temple prayers, probably as long as that temple stood. And despite the Jews’ accusations, Paul made no attempt to take gentiles into the temple to make a theological point.

And so it is utterly appropriate, in Christ’s Church, that African worship music should have a local flavour rather than simply translating Western efforts. In fact, modern sensibilities against neo-colonialism make me slightly uneasy to hear Vietnamese believers singing Hillsongs music in tiếng Việt, but I need to remember that Christian internationalism is not the same as cultural imperialism. There is also a case for British churches singing mainly British hymns, rather than American songs.

It is good for French Christians to claim that their wine is superior to all others, and for British vintners to exult if their bubbles wins a prize over Champagne – if that national pride is subordinated to Christian unity. It is absurd to expect people seeing a World Cup Final not to cheer for their own nation, but wrong to curse the opposition for being Russian or Jewish, for that is not nationalism, but xenophobia.

It was even good for Flanders and Swann to sing, “The English, the English, the English are best – I wouldn’t give tuppence for all of the rest!” for their humour was actually self-deprecatory in a particularly English way. Paradoxically, Swann’s parents were Russian refugees, and as for Flanders’ ancestral origins – well, the clue is in the name.

It is even at least understandable for Christians to share some of their own nation’s prejudices. For example, I have missionary friends in Jordan who have absorbed their people’s tendency to side with Palestinians against Israel, whereas a majority of Evangelicals here, I suspect, tend towards an opposite stance. International politics being complex, we are unlikely all to take the same view, or to remain blindly neutral, especially if we ourselves are affected by hostility. To withdraw from the discussion is to allow our own country to succumb to the loudest voices, which are seldom the most righteous.

By extension, if a country has been Christian for a couple of millennia, as England has, so that all its culture, laws and institutions are a product of Christian thinking even when not always of Christian people, then in my view it is completely legitimate for Christians – and indeed those non-Christians steeped in that national history – to object politically to attempts to undermine it.

This is especially so because the Christian-liberal value of tolerance was hammered out in Christian sectarian conflict to enable both the old Roman Catholic faith, and the variants of the Protestant Reformation that had become the faith of the majority, to coexist. It was not considered applicable to minorities seeking to become dominant against the wishes of the majority. That is why Catholicism was suppressed until it no longer had ambitions or ability to oust the “heretics” and re-convert the country to Rome. Tolerance was certainly never intended as an absolute value that would allow Islamists to lever their way into a privileged position in which even the imposition of sharia law is no longer an outlandish idea.

And so it seems to me that, like so many progressive ideas, the label “Christian Nationalism” is primarily a political lever, rather than the description of a genuine danger. The real danger is that Christians who have not cottoned on to the political use of language by the progressives all too readily accept that it is a bad thing, and succumb willingly to destructive forces that they ought to be seriously opposing. It is certainly virtuous for Christians to endure under persecution, just as it is virtuous for slaves to endure under injustice. But it is no more virtuous to allow one’s nation to slip into godless ruin without resisting than it is to allow yourself to be sold into slavery without seeking to prevent it.

Paul says in 1 Corinthians 7:

Were you a slave when you were called? Don’t let it trouble you—although if you can gain your freedom, do so.

Similar counsel could be given to Christians forced to live in a society that officially despises them, and their Lord.

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About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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1 Response to Christian Nationalism and Colossians

  1. Robert Byers says:

    Yes christian nationalism does not exist and is not articulated by anyone who reach large audiences. YES its a term to deligitamize any defence of christian foundations in a nation.
    Indeed mass immigration or any is the agenda for the english speakinhg nations and therre is a great left wing agenda from those who lost commionism, socialism, of the past.
    tSo what are the rights and liberities of the people and citizens of our nations? Simple. Its our nation and home. We decide who comes in and who does not. We decide what laws are to be made and not made about any issue. Just like as if we were the boss. So its democracy that decides conclusions of what is to be national policy.
    if enough of us say Christian ideals are under attack then we defend them including keeping out non christians.
    Its simple. We were given by our forefathers, uniquely so in the lands of the English the complete right of self rule. there is no other rule, save Gods natural laws, above us.
    Today the left wing or any wing demand there is greater laws. such as the law to immigrate to others home and bank account. the law for wexual activity as they see fit and nobody has the right to govern against them. its simply about who has the moral, legal, political right to impose thier will. We wonn long ago. We forgot as we enjoyed the rewards of a superior, more in north america, civilization. now the barbarians are attacking again and we must relearn our weapons of self government and the indivudual, especially the man, in being the boss and then do a head count on issues which is called democracy. This blof does some sword sgarpening and I say most people would agree even if disagree on conclusions. however today the bad guys are fooling mankind about who is the moral and legal boss.

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