10th October 2022 Jubilee 10 …a government distinct from the government of the state…
Acts 5. 27-32.
When they had brought them, they had them stand before the council. The high priest questioned them, saying, We gave you strict orders not to teach in his name, yet here you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and you are determined to bring this man’s blood on us.” But Peter and the apostles answered, “We must obey God rather than any human authority.” The God of our ancestors raised up Jesus, whom you had killed by hanging him on a tree. God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Saviour that he might give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins. And we are witnesses to these things, and so is the Holy Spirit whom God has given to those who obey him.”
This is a collective witness to Christ’s authority. Peter and John had already affirmed that they were constrained to obey God above human authorities – now all the apostles testify in the Holy Spirit to the power of the Resurrection.
We are reminded of this every time we attend an ordination service. As the Statement of the Nature, Faith and Order of the United Reformed Church is read, we affirm these words: We believe that the government of the church is distinct from the government of the State, and the Church is not subordinate to the State in things that affect obedience to God.
The statement has historical significance.
When the Presbyterian Church of England came into being in 1876 it brought together many strains of Scottish Presbyterianism (in England) with different attitudes to the relationship between Church and State. A significant number of these proclaimed the spiritual independence of the Church with evangelical fervour and emotional intensity, opposing the encroachment by civil authorities into Scottish Church affairs, whereas in England this was not a live issue for Presbyterians. Yet 50 years ago, the URC included this statement as a vital element of our core beliefs
So what substance can we give these words today? In an imperfect world, we are conscious of times when the Church is challenged to confess, often at great cost, where its true allegiance lies. The brave stance taken by the Confessing Church in Germany against the Reich is a prime example. Today’s devastating war in Ukraine cannot be justified by any Christian spirit. In repentance and in hope, in war and in peace, we are reminded of our calling to place above all earthly powers our loyalty to Jesus Christ in whom alone “all authority in heaven and on earth has been given.” Mt 28. 18.
Ever-living and ever-loving God, You sent your Son to bring us truth And your Spirit to make us holy May we be faithful witnesses to Jesus Christ, That your name may be great among the nations. Amen
The Rev’d Fleur Houston is a retired minister, and member of Macclesfield and Bollington United Reformed church.