Dave Landrum is the Director of Advocacy at the UK Evangelical Alliance. He is a frequent contributor in the national media on a range of political issues, and has an interest in the development of a culture of public leadership in the UK church.
In the Western democratic context, it’s not hard to argue that the contribution of the Bible to civic engagement is unparalleled. From the language we use to the process and institutions that we now take for granted, the Bible has been the slow-burning, consistent factor for many of the social goods of civil society. Building on successive historical waves of application of biblical principles to our social structures and relations, it could be argued that the last great wave of scriptural engagement came after the Whitfield and Wesley revivalism in the nineteenth century. Then, groups such as the Clapham Sect unpacked and applied the Bible to society in a way that envisioned and energised civil and political life. Against a backdrop of often faux Christianity, the objective of these public leaders was to ‘make goodness fashionable’.
From the language we use to the process and institutions that we now take for granted, the Bible has been the slow-burning, consistent factor for many of the social goods of civil society.
Though we should all be encouraged by the immense achievements of Wilberforce et al, we should all be aware of the way in which their legacy was unravelled in the twentieth century by another group of public leaders known as the Bloomsbury Group. Using the freedoms, securities and (considerable) wealth afforded them by their biblical antecedents, these social voices such as Virginian Woolf, Lytton Strachey, EM Forster and John Maynard Keynes set about dismantling the legacy of the Clapham Sect. This strategic secularism was every bit as successful as the strategic Christianity that preceded it. Today, we live in the debris of this project, and as liberalism continues to collapse into relativism our challenge may now be more akin to ‘making goodness possible’.
Notwithstanding the talents and timing of the Bloomsbury group, perhaps the most notable factor in this displacement could be said to be our human propensity to want to build the Kingdom of God (whether via Christendom or the ‘progress’ narrative of modernity) rather than demonstrating it as the ‘now, but not yet’ Kingdom. Even so, on the basis that real social change must start with the Church, there are two practical lessons we can learn from our journey from Clapham to Bloomsbury:
The biblical transformation of society is an ongoing struggle in which each generation must participate. Opting out is not an option, and easing up means losing ground.
Today, these lessons shape the advocacy work of the Evangelical Alliance. For 170 years the Alliance has been focussed on unity for the gospel. This mission continues today, and the task of advocacy is to both: present the voice of the church – to government, politics and media; and to enhance the voice of the church – locally and nationally. From an evangelical perspective, the biblical basis for this work relates overwhelmingly to the gospel – the saving work of Jesus Christ. Evangelicals have an illustrious history of social reform which endures today. A goal of advocacy is to encourage and highlight this amazing work, yet in order to secure the social conditions for the gospel to be maximally proclaimed and lived out (and to be accepted or rejected with equal respect) there is a need to prioritise the defence and promotion of freedom of religion.
Challenges and opportunities abound in this task. The main challenges relate to the default secularism that now characterises public and state discourse. In this context, Christian civil and political engagement today is generally met with indifference, illiteracy or hostility. This means the advocacy work needs to find innovative ways in which to: educate the church about the challenges and opportunities; educate the public about the value of Christianity – for all in a plural society; communicate complex issues simply; work relationally with non-Christians; and to expose and critique secularism.
On a public policy level, in the UK these challenges have been greatly exacerbated by the redefinition of marriage in 2013. This radical change to our social constitution has resulted in the creation of a new social orthodoxy in which the state is now legally and coercively set against all dissenting views regarding sexual ethics and family life. When combined with the coming gender fluidity/dysphoria phenomenon, the impact of the politics of identity on the struggle for the biblical transformation of society is likely to be profound.
As nominal Christianity dissipates and/or is acquiesced to compromise, for evangelicals this paradoxical new relationship with the state and society also presents new (or maybe old?) opportunities to provide our civic life with a more distinctive, more biblically faithful witness.
Yet, at a time when nominal Christianity is fading fast in the UK and evangelical Christianity is growing, this context is also paradoxical. On one hand, Christians who hold to traditional, theologically orthodox views, can expect to experience increasing pressure and marginalisation. On the other hand, with Christians being increasingly socially active in augmenting the dwindling provision of the state, we can expect to be increasingly valued and appreciated. Confusing!
As nominal Christianity dissipates and/or is acquiesced to compromise, for evangelicals this paradoxical new relationship with the state and society also presents new (or maybe old?) opportunities to provide our civic life with a more distinctive, more biblically faithful witness. In relation to the two key lessons learnt from the Clapham to Bloomsbury journey, these opportunities can be taken by the Church:
These points clearly suggest that the church needs to be far more intentional and strategic about the biblical transformation of society. That said, given that ‘culture eats strategy for breakfast’ it seems that the last point should be the first task. If we think this task is beyond us, we should be encouraged by Paul’s words to the fledgling church in Corinth:
‘Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But …’
For more information about the Evangelical Alliance’s Public Leadership work visit: www.thepublicleader.com
Although IBAC exists to foster conversations on Bible advocacy-related issues, the views or opinions represented in this blog are solely those of the author