Some Christian thoughts on Isis

There was a time when Isis was the name of an Egyptian goddess or the posh Oxford name for the river Thames. However over the past few weeks the word has come into general usage as an acronym for the body which was formerly known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria and now calls itself the Islamic State.

This body is a strict Sunni Muslim organisation that emerged out of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and which aims to use the territory it now controls in Iraq and Syria as the basis for a development of an Islamic Caliphate stretching across the Middle East and North Africa. It regards the national boundaries that exist in these areas as artificial and wants to replace the various nations that currently exist with a single purified Islamic state.

In pursuit of these aims ISIS fighters have attacked government forces in both Iraq and Syria and have used horrific amounts of violence, deliberately publicised via social media, to persuade enemy troops to flee rather than resist. For example, a recently released Isis video has shown captured Iraqi soldiers being executed one by one, with their bodies being thrown into a river.

Isis is very hostile to Shiite Muslims, whom it regards as heretics, and it has offered Christians and Jews the choice between converting to Islam, accepting subservient ‘dhimmi’ status and paying a special tax, or being put to death.

What are we to make of all this from a Christian perspective?

The first thing we need to accept is that Isis is a body that is driven by theology. It does what it does because it believes that its version of Islam is one that is faithful to the teaching of the Quran and to the example of Mohammed as recorded in the Hadith, the authoritative traditions about his life and teaching. In its view what it is doing is being faithful to God by seeking to establish a unified Islamic state where people will lead their lives in accordance with God’s revealed will. Its military activities, the violence it engages in and the choices it offers to Christians and Jews are, in its view, all divinely sanctioned by the Quran or the Hadith.

Other Muslims, not only Shiites, but more moderate Sunnis, question Isis’ interpretation of the Quran and the Hadith, but from a Christian point of view the whole Isis project is necessarily theologically flawed precisely because it is an example of Islamic theology. This is because all forms of Islamic theology, from the most radical to the most moderate, involve a rejection of the truth about God and how he wants us to live that have been made known to us through Jesus Christ.

The core belief of Islam is that ‘there no God but Allah and Mohammed is his prophet.’ The one creator God has revealed his will finally and perfectly, primarily through the divinely inspired words of the Quran given to Mohammed and secondly through Mohammed’s own life and teaching. To live as God wants is to live in accordance with this revelation and Islamic teaching and Islamic law are attempts to codify and apply it. For Islam Jesus was one of a line of prophets leading up to Mohammed, but he was not the Son of God, since for Islam the idea that God has a son would compromise his oneness.

For Christian theology, by contrast, God is not only one, but also three. As Article I of the Thirty Nine Articles puts it:

‘There is but one living and true God, everlasting, without body, parts, or passions; of infinite power, wisdom, and goodness; the maker and preserver of all things both visible and invisible. And in unity of this Godhead there be three Persons, of one substance, power, and eternity; the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.’

Furthermore, God the Son is not only God, but also Man, since he has taken human nature upon himself as Jesus Christ for the sake of out salvation. To quote Article II:

‘The Son, which is the Word of the Father, begotten from everlasting of the Father, the very and eternal God, and of one substance with the Father, took man’s nature in the womb of the blessed Virgin, of her substance: so that two whole and perfect natures, that is to say, the Godhead and manhood, were joined together in one person, never to be divided, whereof is one Christ, very God and very man, who truly suffered, was crucified, dead, and buried, to reconcile His Father to us, and to be a sacrifice, not only for original guilt, but also for all actual sins of men.’

Jesus is therefore more than a prophet leading up to Mohammed. He is God incarnate and as such he is the one through whom we can know God and relate to him as our Father through the power of the Holy Spirit. As Jesus himself said ‘I am the way, and the truth and the life; no one comes to the Father, but by me.’ (John 14:6)

The written witness to Jesus can be found in the divinely inspired words of the Bible which promise in the Old Testament that Jesus will come and testify in the New Testament that he has come. To live as God wants us to live is to live in line with this twofold biblical witness within the community of the Church.

What all this means is that Islamic and Christian theology are in complete disagreement about who God is, how he has made himself known, and what it means to live rightly before him.

From a Christian perspective therefore, regardless of whether Isis’ version of Islam is more or less faithful to the Quran and the Hadith than other versions, because it is a form of Islamic theology it is fundamentally flawed from the outset. What it says about God and his will is quite simply misleading.

This would be true even if Isis was not a militant military organisation that practices horrific violence in an attempt to overthrow the existing governments of the countries in which it operates. However, this is, of course, what Isis is and that is something which from a Christian viewpoint makes it even less acceptable. The Christian faith teaches that governing authorities should be respected rather than rebelled against (Romans 13:1-7, 1 Peter 2:13-14) and that the way people are to be brought into subjection to God’s will is not through violent coercion, but through the peaceful witness of God’s people in word and deed, as can be seen throughout the Book of Acts. Isis is therefore clearly acting in an ungodly manner.

Finally, the choice that Isis offers Christians of apostasy, servitude, or death is clear proof that it is an organisation which, even if unknowingly, is fighting against God. He who persecutes God’s people persecutes God himself (Acts 9:5) and this is what Isis is doing.

How, then, should Christians respond to Isis?

First of all, they need to respond with steadfast witness to Christ and the truth of the Gospel. The Book of Revelation is concerned with how the powers of evil that assault God’s people are defeated and what it tells us is that this is achieved through Christians remaining faithful to Christ to the point of death. ‘And I heard a loud voice in heaven, saying, ‘Now the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God and the authority of his Christ have come, for the accuser of our brethren has been thrown down, who accuses them day and night before our God. And they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they loved not their lives even unto death’’ (Revelation 12:10-11).

Secondly, they need to pray. As Revelation also makes clear, it is ultimately God who sustains his Church and defeats its persecutors and so Christians need to take seriously Jesus’ injunction to ‘ask, seek and knock’ (Matthew 7:7-8) and pray hard for those who are suffering because of the activities of Isis. The charity Open Doors, for example, has asked for prayers:

  • for God to change the hearts of those who are persecuting Christians;
  • for God to uphold Christian refugees who are weary and exhausted through the support of the body of Christ;
  • for God to give wisdom and strength to the government in Baghdad to resolve this crisis.

Thirdly, they need to give to support those in need because of Isis’ activity, such as the Christians who have been forced to flee their homes in Mosul. ‘But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him? Little children, let us not love in word or speech but in deed and in truth’ (1 John 3:17-18). Donations can be made, for example, through the Barnabas Fund website at www.barnabasfund.org or throught the website of Iraqi Christians in Need at www.icin.org.uk.

Fourthly, they need to speak up for Christians and others in Iraq and Syria who are suffering because of Isis. It is the responsibility of those in authority to act on behalf of those who are needy and vulnerable and they must be urged to do so in this case. For starters there are various petitions that can be signed and social media campaigns that can be supported.

Finally, in line with the clear teaching of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:38-48), as private individuals Christians are called to practice love and non-retaliation in their relations with members of Isis. However, it is also legitimate for those who have been given governmental authority to exercise the power of the sword (Romans 13:4) by using force, including military force, against those such as Isis who are attacking the lives and property of innocent individuals and proper for Christians to take part in this kind of military activity if they are called to do so.

Isis will not succeed in its mission of creating a pure Islamic state and it will not succeed in doing permanent or terminal damage to the Church. Christ has built his Church on the rock and nothing, not even the gates of death, can overthrow it (Matthew 16:18). However, Isis can still do an appalling amount of damage on its path to inevitable failure and our duty as Christians is to work with God to limit this damage as much as possible.

 

Martin Davie’s commentary on the Thirty Nine Articles, Our Inheritance of Faith, is available from Gilead Books at www.gileadbookspublishing.com

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Living in the face of death

Anyone who has been watching or listening to the news this week cannot have avoided hearing about death. There has been continuing coverage of the fate of the 298 victims of the destruction of the flight of MH17, there has been report after report of the ever rising death toll in Israel and Gaza and there have been stories about the deaths of individuals such as Peaches Geldorf, Dora Bryan, and Joseph Wood, the American convict executed in Arizona.

In addition, last week saw extensive discussion in the media of the topic of assisted dying in the light of a debate in the House of Lords’ on a bill sponsored by Lord Falconer which would allow doctors to help terminally ill patients to end their own lives.

All these news reports remind us that death is an inescapable part of life. As the Prayer Book puts it, ‘in the midst of life we are in death.’ This being the case those of us who are Christians need to think theologically about death both so that we can understand it rightly ourselves and so that we can help others to do the same. A helpful resource for such thinking is provided by the homily ‘Against the Fear of Death’ in the First Book of Homilies, the collection of model sermons published by the Church of England in 1547.

As its title suggests, this homily is concerned with people’s fear of death. The Homily begins by suggesting that there are three reasons why what it calls ‘worldly men’ (by which it means those people whose lives are focussed on this world rather than on God) are afraid of death:

  1. ‘because they shall lose thereby, their worldly honours, riches, possessions, and all their heart’s desires;’
  2. ‘because of the painful diseases, and bitter pangs, which commonly men suffer, either before or at the time of death;’
  3. ‘the chief cause, above all other, is the dread of the miserable state of eternal damnation, both of body and soul, which they fear shall follow after their departing, out of the worldly pleasures of this present life.’

For these three causes, the homily says:

‘be all mortal men which be given to the love of this world, both in fear and state of death through sin, as the holy Apostle saith (Hebrews 2:15) , so long as they live here in this world.’

Because people in our culture increasingly choose to avoid thinking about what will happen to them in the world to come, and because medical treatments have improved since the sixteenth century, the weighting given to these causes of the fear of death by the homily is now inaccurate. It is not now the possibility of eternal damnation that worries people the most, but the loss of the good things of this life and concern that death will be painful and undignified. Nevertheless, all three reasons for fearing death do still exist today.

Having explained why non-Christians are afraid to die, the homily goes on to give thanks to God that the same is not true of those who are Christians:

‘But, everlasting thanks be to Almighty God for ever! there is never one of all these causes, no, nor yet they altogether, that can make a true Christian man afraid to die, which is a very member of Christ, the temple of the Holy Ghost (1 Corinthians 3:16), the son of God, and the very inheritor, of the everlasting kingdom of heaven; but, plainly contrary, he conceiveth many and great causes, undoubtedly grounded, upon the infallible and everlasting truth of the word of God, which move him, not only to put away the fear of bodily death, but also, for the manifold benefits, and singular commodities which ensue, unto every faithful person, by reason of the same, to wish, desire , and long heartily for it. For death shall be to him, no death at all, but a very deliverance from death, from all pains, cares, and sorrows, miseries, and wretchedness of this world, and the very entry into rest, and a beginning of everlasting joy, a tasting of heavenly pleasures, so great that neither tongue is able to express, neither eye to see, nor ear to hear them, no, nor for any earthly men’s heart to conceive them (1 Corinthians 2:9).’

The reason Christians can view death in this way is because of the resurrection of Christ which has transformed death into a period of sleep from which we shall awaken to a new and more perfect life:

‘And we ought to believe, that death being slain by Christ, cannot keep any man that steadfastly trusteth in Christ, under his perpetual tyranny and subjection, but that he shall rise from death again, unto glory at the last day, appointed by Almighty God, like as Christ our Head did rise again, according to God’s appointment, the third day. For St. Augustine saith, the Head going before, the members trust to follow and come after. And St. Paul saith, If Christ be risen from the dead, we shall rise also from the same (1 Corinthians 15:20-23). And to comfort all Christian persons herein, holy Scripture calleth this bodily death a sleep, wherein man’s senses be (as it were) taken from him for a season, and yet when he awaketh, he is more fresh then he was when he went to bed (John 11:11,13, Acts 7:60, 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18). So although we have our souls separated from our bodies for a season, yet at the general Resurrection we shall be more fresh, beautiful, and perfect then we be now. For now we be mortal, then shall we be immortal: now infected with divers infirmities, then clearly void of all mortal infirmities: now we be subject to all carnal desires, then we shall be all Spiritual, desiring nothing but God’ glory, and things eternal. Thus is this bodily death a door or entering unto life, and therefore not so much dreadful (if it be rightly considered) as it is comfortable, not a mischief, but a remedy for all mischief, no enemy, but a friend, not a cruel tyrant, but a gentle guide leading vs not to mortality, but to immortality, not to sorrow and pain, but to joy and pleasure, and that to endure for ever, if it be thankfully taken and accepted as God’s messenger, and patiently borne of us for Christ’s love, that suffered most painful death for our love, to redeem us from death eternal.’

The homily concludes, as all the homilies do, with a practical application. In this case the application is that it is true Christians, and true Christians only, who have no need to fear death. It therefore follows that if we want to not fear death we have to live as true Christians, having faith in Christ and showing forth that faith in a life of good works:

‘Therefore let us diligently foresee, that our faith and hope which we have conceived in Almighty God, and in our Saviour Christ wax not faint, nor that the love which we bear in hand to bear to him, wax not cold: but let us study daily and diligently to shew ourselves to be the true honourers and lovers of God, by keeping of his commandments, by doing of good deeds unto our needy neighbours, relieving by all means that we can their poverty with our abundance and plenty, their ignorance with our wisdom and learning, and comfort their weakness with our strength and authority, calling all men back from evil doing by godly counsel and good example, persevering still in well doing, so long as we live: so shall we not need to fear death for any of those three causes afore mentioned, nor yet for any other cause that can be imagined.’

The overall message of the homily can be summed up in the words of Jesus in Matthew 10:28 ‘And do not fear those who kill the body, but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.’

The worst that can happen to those who know and love God is that they will die physically. This may be distressing and painful, but the end result will be that we shall depart from this world and go and be eternally happy with God for ever in the world that is to come. However, in the case of those who do not know and love God the result of their dying will be that as a result of their own choice they will be subject to God’s wrath and condemnation (Romans 2:8), entering into eternal separation from God and all that is good and suffering not only the temporal death of the body, but the eternal death of the soul.

All this means that we need to re-think our current cultural priorities when it comes to death. Our chief priority needs to be neither to preserve people from physical death (important though that is), nor to ensure that their death is as painless and dignified as possible (important though this is also). Our chief priority needs to be to save people from eternal death, the only form of death that needs to be truly feared, by bringing them to a living faith in Christ.

 

Martin Davie’s commentary on the Thirty Nine Articles, Our Inheritance of Faith, is available from Gilead Books at www.gileadbookspublishing.com

 

Why disagreement is not good – Part 2

In this blog I shall respond to some of the interesting issues raised by my former Oak Hill colleague Dr Thomas Renz in response to what I wrote last week.

The first question he raises is whether our inability to grasp ‘a comprehensive knowledge of the truth on which we all agree’ is a result of sin or simply an inevitable result of how God has made human beings.

In response to this question I am happy to agree that as human beings we necessarily lack the fully comprehensive knowledge that belongs only to God. As finite creatures who exist at a particular point in space and time and who acquire knowledge by degrees over our lifetime we necessarily lack the absolute knowledge of the truth about all things that God possesses. It is not, and (in this world at least) never will be, true that any human being ‘sees to the ends of the earth and sees everything under heaven’ (Job 28:34) and this is a result of the way that God has made us rather than a result of the Fall.

Even Jesus, in his incarnate state, was limited in his knowledge. We are told in the Gospels that as he grew up he ‘increased in wisdom’ (Luke 2:52) and we are also told that there were things that he did not know, such as the time of the second coming (Mark 13:32). However, as John Wenham argues in his book Christ and the Bible, what the Gospels do not tell us is that Jesus was ever in error. As he puts it: ‘this is the testimony of the Gospels: God yet man; infallible yet limited in knowledge.’

The distinction between being limited in knowledge and being fallible is an important one for our purposes. Being limited in knowledge is simply part of being human. The same is not true of being in error. As I argued last week, being in error is a consequence of the Fall that will be corrected in the world to come. What precise degree of knowledge we will then have is something which we do not yet know. What we do know, however, is that whatever we do know we shall know as fully and truly as God currently knows us (1 Corinthians 13:12).

Dr Renz’s second question, building on the work of James Smith, is whether ‘the ineluctable plurality of interpretation, both of texts and of the world’ belongs ‘to creation in its goodness and not (merely) to the Fall.’ Here I would want to draw attention to the distinction that I made last week between ‘diversity’ and ‘disagreement.’ A diversity of different perspectives can be a very useful way of helping us to increase our knowledge of the truth. That is why, for instance, God gave us four Gospels rather than one. Our knowledge about Jesus is greater because we have four different accounts of who he was, and what he did and said, than would be the case if Matthew’s Gospel was the only one we had.

However, the Gospels only help us to know the truth about Jesus because they exhibit diversity rather than disagreement. If one or more of the Gospels disagreed with each other this could only mean that one or more of them was wrong and therefore did not assist us to know the truth about him.

What I take from this example is that plurality of interpretation is not always a good thing. It is a good thing when it is a result of people seeing and declaring different aspects of the truth. It is, however, a bad thing when it is a result of one or more people being in error. Where there is genuine disagreement, rather than simply diversity, it is the latter rather than the former that we are talking about.

For this reason I am happy to talk about ‘good diversity’, but I still don’t think that we can properly talk about ‘good disagreement.’

His third question is how what I have said about the need to focus on the proclamation of the truth and the refutation of error relates to the divisions that exist between and within churches.

Do we need to hold back from ‘resolute truth telling’ in order to work to overcome the divisions within the body of Christ and do we need to tolerate error as that price that has to be paid in order to benefit from a plurality of perspectives within and between the churches?

As I see it, the answer in both cases is ‘no’.

Jesus’ prayer for his disciples as recorded in John 17 is not only that ‘they may all be one’ (John 17:21) but ‘that they may be one even as we are one’ (John 17:22). In John’s Gospel the oneness that exists between Jesus and His Father involves complete agreement in the truth between them that means that everything that Jesus says and does is in agreement with His Father’s will. That is why He can say ‘I am the truth’ (John 14:6). It is that kind of unity in truth which Jesus prays for his disciples as the fruit of His coming death (John 17:19 ‘and for their sake I consecrate myself that they also may be consecrated in truth’).

It follows from this that overcoming the current divisions of the Church needs to go hand in hand with enabling the Church to be a community where the truth is known, accepted, celebrated and lived out. That is why the ecumenical movement at its best has insisted that the quest for institutional unity between the churches has to go hand in hand with faith and order work which seeks to overcome disagreements between the churches by enabling Christians to grow in their common understanding of the truth of the Gospel and how this should be manifested in the life of the Church. It is only as this happens that we can move forward towards the vision of unity set out, for example, in the seminal New Dehli Statement of the World Council of Churches of 1961:

‘We believe that the unity which is both God’s will and his gift to his Church is being made visible as all in each place who are baptized into Jesus Christ and confess him as Lord and Saviour are brought by the Holy Spirit into one fully committed fellowship, holding the one apostolic faith, preaching the one Gospel, breaking the one bread, joining in common prayer, and having a corporate life reaching out in witness and service to all and who at the same time are united with the whole Christian fellowship in all places and all ages in such wise that ministry and members are accepted by all, and that all can act and speak together as occasion requires for the tasks to which God calls his people.’

What this means is not that all we should ever talk about with Christians from other traditions is where we think they are wrong. It does mean that our engagement with them must include a serious joint search for truth. We cannot simply ‘agree to disagree.’

What is more, we do not have to tolerate error in order to benefit from the existence of a diversity of different perspectives within our churches. Unless it is ultimately impossible to separate truth from error we do not need to tolerate error in order to benefit from truth. If we were to weed out error we would still benefit from having a variety of truthful perspectives.

However, this having been said I would argue that we need to be cautious about seeking to purge the Church from error. As St. Augustine warns us, we must avoid trying to prematurely separate the wheat from the tares (Matthew 13:24-30). This is for two reasons.

First, because we are fallible it may be that we ourselves are in error and those who we initially think are in error who are teaching and living out the truth. The Church can only be perpetually reformed by God as it needs to be if we are open to correction from unexpected sources. In addition, because we are fallible we may simply have misunderstood someone else’s words or actions and so there may be no real cause for concern.

Secondly, the Church is meant to be like a hospital. It is meant to be a place where sin-sick people can be made better and if we exclude people who are in error we prevent this from happening in their case.

Nevertheless, the faithful do need to be protected from error and to this end, and particularly if an error is so serious that it can put people’s souls at risk (by, for example, teaching people to rely on anything other than Christ for their salvation, encouraging them to worship other gods alongside the one true God, or teaching them that they can be saved regardless of their sexual conduct) the leaders of the Church cannot simply disagree with it. They have to seek to counter it, using church discipline as a last resort where necessary (see 1 Corinthians 5:1-13, Galatians and Jude).

As Bonhoeffer explains, the purpose of such discipline:

‘…is not to establish a community of the perfect, but a community of men who really live under the forgiving mercy of God. Discipline in a congregation is a servant of the precious grace of God. If a member of the Church falls into sin, he must be admonished and punished, lest he forfeit his own salvation and the gospel be discredited.’

For all these reasons I remain unconvinced that the concept of ‘good disagreement’ has anything to commend it and continue to believe that it would be better if Archbishop Welby and the House of Bishops emphasised instead the need for the Church of England to be a community that knows the truth and lives by it.

Why disagreement is not good

In the new edition of his biography of Archbishop Justin Welby, Andrew Atherstone draws the following contrast between the approaches of Archbishop Welby and his predecessor:

‘Rowan Williams spent most of his archepiscopate seeking areas of core theological agreement around which Anglicans could coalesce, most notably in the failed Anglican Covenant. Welby’s project is different: not the pursuit of theological agreement but learning to live with theological disagreement.’

In this quotation Atherstone has put his finger on the heart of Archbishop Welby’s approach to the challenges facing the Church of England and the wider Anglican Communion. Rather than trying to get everyone to agree on issues such as women bishops or same-sex relationships the Archbishop is concerned instead with getting people to disagree well with each other, what he has called ‘good disagreement.’

The phrase ‘good disagreement’ is one that the Archbishop has used on several occasions and it has also been used by the Church of England’s House of Bishops, most recently in a statement about the facilitated conversations on issues of human sexuality that are due to take place across the Church of England in the next couple of years. This statement said that one of the objectives of these conversations is ‘to clarify the implications of what it means for the Church of England to live with what the Archbishop of Canterbury has called ‘good disagreement’ on these issues.’

Unfortunately, neither the Archbishop of Canterbury, nor the House of Bishops, nor anyone else, has produced a clear definition of what is meant by ‘good disagreement’ and no understanding of the term has ever been agreed by the Church of England. This is a problem because you cannot begin to think about whether good disagreement is a sensible idea unless and until you know what this term means. In this blog post I want to suggest that whole idea of ‘good disagreement’ is radically misconceived and that what we should be talking about instead is how to handle disagreement, which is in itself necessarily a bad thing, in the best way possible as part of our calling as Christians to be a community of truth.

To begin to think about this topic the first thing we have to be clear about is that ‘disagreement’ is not the same as ‘diversity’. To disagree is to have different convictions about how things are or should be. Thus there is a disagreement between those who think that unaccompanied psalmody is the only permissible form of music in church and those who think that other forms of hymnody can be equally legitimate. Diversity, on the other hand, just means difference. Thus there could be a church that had total agreement that there should be a variety of different styles of music in use in its services. That would be diversity but not disagreement.

The second thing I think we need to be clear about is that disagreement is a result of our fallen condition. God knows the truth about all things. This is what is meant when Job 28:24 tells us that God ‘looks to the ends of the earth and sees everything under heaven’ and Hebrews 4:13 declares ‘before him no creature is hidden, but all are open and laid bare to the eyes of him with whom we have to do.’ As creatures made in God’s image human beings are also created to know the truth. We can see this in the account of creation in Genesis in which we are told that ‘the LORD God formed every beast of the field and every bird of the air, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name’ (Genesis 2:19). What is described here is an act of truthful discernment. Adam is not just arbitrarily assigning names to the birds and the animals, he is discerning truthfully what they are. Like God he knows the true nature, ‘the name,’ of things.

If all human beings engaged in this kind of truthful discernment all of the time then there would never be any disagreement between them. We would all know the truth and we would all agree about the truth. Tragically, however, the result of the big lie told by the devil and accepted by the first human beings (Genesis 3) is that we have lost the ability to always see things as they really are and to always be honest about what we do see. It is for that reason that human beings disagree.

Fortunately, God has provided a remedy for this situation. Jesus is truth incarnate (John 14:6 ‘I am the truth’) and he has come to restore our ability to know the truth. In John 8:31-32 Jesus declares ‘if you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.’ This comes about through the work of the Holy Spirit who is sent by Jesus to ‘guide you into all the truth’ (John 16:13). Like the whole of our re-creation through Jesus, our ability to discern the truth is a work in progress. At the moment ‘our knowledge is imperfect’ (1 Corinthians 13:9) but in heaven we shall understand fully in the same way that we ourselves are fully understood by God (1 Corinthians 13:12). As C S Lewis puts it in his book The Great Divorce, human beings are created with an innate desire for truth and this desire will one day be satisfied. God will bring us to a place where we can taste truth ‘like honey and be embraced by it like a bridegroom. Your thirst shall be quenched’

What all this means is that the term ‘good disagreement’ is an oxymoron like ‘virtuous sin’. Disagreement can never in itself be good. We disagree because in our fallen condition we either don’t know the truth, or are unwilling to accept it when it is presented to us. The vocation of the Church is therefore not to practice ‘good disagreement.’ The vocation of the Church is to be a community where as far as possible disagreement does not exist because truth is known, accepted and celebrated.

The saints in glory presumably already fully practice this vocation. However, as already noted, those of us who are still on earth remain imperfect in knowledge and therefore don’t have a full knowledge of the truth. We are also still sinful and therefore unwilling to accept the truth when it challenges what we want to believe, makes us look bad, or involves having to admit we were wrong. For these reasons the potential for disagreement will always be present in the Church and we have to think about how to handle it in the best way possible. This means that while we can never sensibly talk about ‘good disagreement’ it does make sense to talk about better and worse ways of handling disagreement.

We have to begin by recognizing that our own knowledge of the truth and willingness to accept is limited. We therefore always need to be willing to accept correction from those with whom we disagree and change what we think or do providing that we that our reason for change is a greater perception of truth and not just a desire to please someone else or achieve some advantage for ourselves.

We also have to recognize that those with whom we disagree are people. This means that the prohibitions in the sixth and ninth commandments (Exodus 20: 13 and 16) apply. As the paraphrase of the commandments in the Prayer Book Catechism tells us, these commandments tell us that we are ‘to hurt nobody by word nor deed’, ‘to bear no malice in my heart’ and to keep our tongue ‘from evil-speaking, lying and slandering.’ However strongly we disagree with people, and however much this may lead us to want to attack them in word or deed, the commandments still apply and so we may not do so. We may legitimately criticize their beliefs or actions, but we may not attack them as people, but should instead pray that God will deliver them from error.

Finally we need to understand that the command to ‘you shall love your neighbor as yourself’ (Leviticus 19:18/Matthew 19:19) means that as far as we can we are called to lead people into truth and protect them from error. If we know that someone is in error, particularly when that error is about something serious, and especially when it has to do with their obedience to God, we cannot simply shrug our shoulders and say ‘Ok, go your own way then.’ That would be failure of love. Human beings are made not to live in error, but to live in the truth, and if we can help this to happen then we have an inescapable obligation to do so.

Equally, in so far as we able to do so we have an obligation to protect people from error. That is to say, when there are people who know the truth, but may potentially be tempted to depart from it we must do our best to prevent this happening. This is a particularly important part of the vocation of church leaders. That is what St Paul was getting at when he told the Ephesian elders at Miletus

‘Take heed to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God which he obtained with the blood of his own Son. I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves will arise men speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after them.’ (Acts 20:28)

Caring for the flock means seeking to prevent the sheep being led astray.

In the light of all this I suggest that Archbishop Welby and the House of Bishops should expunge the term ‘good disagreement’ from their vocabulary. They should talk instead about the importance of the Church of England being a truthful community, a community which aims at agreement in the truth and in which those with leadership roles take seriously their responsibility to encourage this search for truth and, as far as possible, to protect the faithful from error.