Conference Noster June 2000

Connie Aarsbergen-Ligtvoet, Free University, Amsterdam

I Introduction

The draft church order of the merging reformed (protestant) churches in the Netherlands makes it possible for the church to make public statements and give public witness on social issues:[1] 

Ord.1, Art. 4 Speaking of the church

  1.  By confessing Jesus Christ as Lord of the world, the church calls for renewal of life in culture, society and state. 2. On basis of this confession, the church advances that within the congregations opinions are formed about social issues, local and world-wide. 3. Aiming at the renewal of life in culture, society and state, the church can deliver statements about social issues.
  2.  In complying with her task to witness of Gods promises and commandments, the church can give a (public) witness on social issues.  5. When giving a witness to government and people, as a rule, the General Synod will ask for assistance by the church organisations that work on the specific field in question. For this witness she looks for possibilities to do this together with other churches.

(Translation of Dutch original and italics are mine)

In the past years, the Dutch churches have experienced some serious drawbacks of issuing political statements. In 1984, the public witness rejecting nuclear armament caused polarisation within the church because not all members shared the political view of their synod. Also a lot of grief was caused because the opponents of public witness of the synod felt that their integrity as Christian was (thought to be) put into question. The internal conflict became public knowledge and political opponents used it to undermine the public witness. Furthermore, a public witness or public statement can be combined with a call for “civil disobedience”. For example, in the recent past, Dutch churches have made calls for not paying specific taxes or hiding illegal persons. In a well functioning pluralistic and democratic society as the Netherlands, it does not show respect for democratic decisions and churches can even be accused of having a hidden theocratic agenda.[2] 

There are also (liberal) theological objections against public witness when a moral point of view is justified by referring to the Will of God. In the above mentioned case on nuclear armament, the public witness of the Synod of the Reformed Churches of the Netherlands made to the Dutch government and Dutch people was based upon biblical notions referring to the Will of God. The argumentation was as follows:[3]“mass destruction weapons and –methods and the arms race are contrary to God’s salvation for this world and are therefore wrong” and the conviction that “God gives this world a merciful delay”, so that putting one’s trust on weapons is contrary to “a life of following Christ” and is contrary to the biblical vision that “swords will be changed into ploughshares”.

When political decisions are condemned because they are “contrary to God’s salvation for this world”, the churches presuppose that they have special knowledge with regard to God’s plans for this world, i.e. that they know the Will of God. With their special epistemological “entrance” to the Will of God, churches feel that they are in a position to criticise government policy and democratically taken political decisions.

The ability for human beings to know the Will of God in order to justify moral points of view, however, has been seriously questioned, not only by agnostics and atheists, but also by modern Christian thinkers such as the Dutch reformed theologian Harry Kuitert (born 1925). For Kuitert, all speaking of Above, comes via beneath so we cannot know the Will of God without our own interpretation of it. Some (important) moral views can have the special status of being the Will of God, but before we accept these moral views, we first judge – from our present point of (moral) view -  whether they are good or bad. When they do not pass the test, we feel that they cannot possibly be the Will of God, (for instance discrimination of women and of homosexuals). So for Kuitert, moral judgement is our own responsibility and cannot be delegated to the Bible or the Will of God. Morality is autonomous. 

The central question in this paper is:

If the Will of God cannot be (unanimously) known and if morality is really autonomous, should the church not stop making public statements (prophetic witness) with regard to political, moral and social issues?

II Kuitert’s arguments

With the help of the famous Euthyphroo-dilemma,[4] Kuitert shows (logically) that morality is autonomous. In this dilemma, Socrates puts the question: “Is an act good because the gods want it or do the gods want it because it is good?” The positive answering of the first question will lead to is/ought-fallacies. When people feel that certain moral or political guidelines are very important, they can present them as being the (eternal) Will of God. However, when time and circumstances change, these so-called divine guidelines can also change, especially when they cannot pass the test of the newly arisen common morality (which according to Kuitert is grounded in the community). Kuitert has a strong ethical motivation to disconnect the moral code of a community from what is held as being the Will of God, as the latter can be misused by people in charge to do their own will[5]. Reference to the Bible is also not very helpful to establish the Will of God because the Bible contains many different and conflicting ethical ideas.

For Kuitert, Christians do not have a special epistemological “entrance” to morality. Christian ethics is still possible, but only as reflection on the moral guidelines for Christians as a group.[6] 

For Kuitert, the church should not play a political role in the public domain.[7]

The theological ground for his restraint is the concept of the Two Kingdoms, the Kingdom of the World and the Kingdom of the Spirit. These two realms should not be mixed, as is the case in certain forms of liberation theology. For Kuitert, the welfare within the Kingdom of the World is different from the eternal salvation of the Kingdom of the Spirit. Human beings do not become new creations when a new political (just) order is reached. Furthermore, the Kingdom of the World makes it necessary to apply the (political) means of the Old World, which will force the church to do things which are contrary to the Christian love for one’s neighbour and the Christian love for the truth.

For Kuitert, the Sermon on the Mount cannot give political guidelines. Politics is concerned with power, and sometimes violence is necessary to protect the sheep from the wolves. The Sermon on the Mount can only give guidelines for a life in a Christian community. Against forms of theology of Hope, Kuitert claims that no political guidelines can be derived from the eschaton. The future is unknown and our dreams of the future are simply reflections of the (imperfect) context we live in. The realisation of the Kingdom of God is purely in Gods hand. For Kuitert, there is no need for the church to play a political role. She may trust upon the common grace of God. In Gods good creation, His common grace can still be found. In the Kingdom of the World both Christians and non-Christians can find the principles of good acting. Kuitert is afraid that if much stress is laid upon the political role of the church, Christian faith will be reduced to ethics. In the end this will damage the church because any organisation can fight for a just cause but only churches can help people to find God. Churches should therefore restrict themselves to their “core business”.

Kuitert insists that the government should remain neutral. For him, freedom, autonomy and pluralism are core values.[8] He insists on a strict separation between the private and public domain and between broad and narrow morality. His motivation is not only liberal but also religious: to protect the freedom of consciousness. The rules of the public domain (such as not damaging, not killing, not steeling, not hurting, etc.) belong to the narrow morality. They are as limited as possible to ensure a maximum of autonomy and freedom. The broad morality consists of the norms and values of a worldview, religion, or personal view of life. The narrow morality is considered to be politically neutral. For Kuitert, in a pluralistic society the narrow morality forms the common element of all other views of the good life. People are free to subject themselves under the rules of a broad morality. Good governments should be as neutral as possible and not paternalise and force the moral guidelines of one of the religions or worldviews on its citizens.

In summary, these are the arguments Kuitert has against public witness or statements of the churches.

III Recent history of public witness in the reformed churches

The church order of the Reformed churches leaves the possibility open for public witness and public statements. Certain developments in society can make it necessary to witness publicly – whatever the consequences. Such witness is justified when the centre of the Gospel and the Christian life are endangered. The most well known example are the Barmer Thesen (1934), when Karl Barth and his colleagues were asked to sign the “Arierparagraf”. Because church-ministers were paid by the state, the 3 or 4 Jewish ministers of the protestant churches could lose their office. The church had to deal with the question whether baptism or birth (and race) would be decisive for church-membership and offices. The Barmer Thesen confessed the Lordship of Jesus Christ over all human powers and authorities, in all aspects of life. The Barmer Thesen have been “declared” by a church meeting which did not have an official status, although the gathering included many representative members of German churches. Since then many protestant churches have accepted the Barmer Thesen as a real Christian confession. 

Within the World Alliance of Reformed Churches (WARC) a very serious issue can get the status confessionis. According to the WARC General Assembly of 1982[9] this means that “we regard this as an issue on which it is not possible to differ without seriously jeopardising the integrity of our common confession as reformed churches”. The status confessionis is primarily meant as an internal disciplinary measure but its clear condemnation has also an external and political effect and can therefore be regarded as a form of public (prophetic) witness. In that same meeting the General Assembly declared the theological justification of apartheid a heresy and its practice a sin and gave this issue the status confessionis. At that time, the decision was taken unanimously.

In the 1984 case of public witness against nuclear armament, the synod of the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands wrote an open letter to the Dutch Prime Minister, in which they declared themselves against the stationing of cruise missiles. This time it was not an unanimous synodical decision (pro 45, contra 28). It brought about a painful polarisation in the churches especially because opponents of the letter to the Government understood this issue to be a status confessionis, which implied the judgement that they were no good Christians anymore.

As a result of these painful developments, the procedure to issue public witness of the churches was tightened: a nearly full agreement in the synod would be needed and the use of it should be reserved for only special circumstances. Also a distinction in importance was made between “status confessionis” (WARC), “public witness” and “public statements”. A public statement allows different opinions among members. The Acta-minutes[10] at that time show that most members of the synod admitted that it is not possible to proof the “truth” of an ethical statement by referring to a certain Biblical text only. However, it was generally felt that the central message of the Bible (as a whole) could serve as a “guideline” for ethical statements. The synod made a difference between “a biblical proof” (referring to a Biblical text) and “a biblical foundation” (referring to central notions in the Bible as a whole).

But what is the central message of the Bible as a whole? Which parts are central and which are peripheral? How can abstract central notions such as “Following Jesus Christ”, “God’s salvation for the world” and “God’s promises and commandments” whether or not in combination with the “Life of the Christian Community” help knowing the precise Will of God on specific moral issues? How can this give enough authority to criticise democratically taken political decisions?

In the draft for the Church Order of the merging protestant churches in the Netherlands, the churches can make political statements; but on what authority? Apart from the above-mentioned difficulties in referring to biblical texts and central notions, also the sociological circumstances, in which the churches operate, have changed dramatically. The Christian churches only represent a minority of the population in the Netherlands. Furthermore, the church members themselves are pluralistic and have different views on political and social issues. With the same Bible in his hand, a Christian can hold either the view that it is right to defend a country against aggression or that the other cheek should be offered to the enemy. 

IV Role for the church? 

Does this mean that churches should refrain from giving public witness and making political statements and that the above-mentioned article 4 in the draft order should be rejected?

But what about the prophetic role churches should play? Art. 4.1 of the draft church order emphasises this role in the need to confess Jesus Christ as Lord of the world and renew life in culture, society and state. Following Max Weber, this role need not be in danger. He makes a difference between ethical prophecy  (the proclamation of Gods Will and the ethical duty to obey this) and exemplary prophecy. So the church can be prophetic by being a good example to others.

But does Weber’s suggestion really help? Suppose that churches would decide to being active only in the diaconal field (for instance by being a last resort for refugees, the homeless, drug addicts or prostitutes when there is no government help), would this solve our problem? Most likely not: working in the diaconal field will inevitably lead to the desire to change the structures that cause the human misery that is combated. I don’t think that churches really can avoid politics. But being active in the ethical and political field does not mean that this task should be performed by proclaiming the Will of God. A simple reference to the desire to relief human misery will also do.

But when churches are active in politics, they are confronted with different opinions among its members. Churches are not unique in this problem. Any non-governmental organisation (NGO) is faced with internal pluralism. Solutions are usually found by applying sound democratic procedures. When decisions are taken by majority votes, the outcome is usually considered as legitimate. The combined synod will (like the synod of the Reformed Churches) function democratically so in formal sense, delivering statements about social issues (art. 4.3) should not be a problem.

However, churches are not equal to ‘ordinary’ NGO’s that are active in promoting a specific political or social goal. The main goal of a church is religious: trying to help people in finding or maintaining their relationship with God. Religious believers also want to live according to their beliefs. So closely connected with this main goal is the ethical wish for ‘renewal of life in culture, society and state’. Churches have a different ontological status for their members. Churches are more than just a ‘single issue’ organisation dealing with one of the social or political topics. They represent something deeper, something that effects their whole being and gives meaning to their lives. So emotionally and religiously for church members there is more at stake when churches issue public statements. Whether being an ordinary public statement or a public witness, they are both connected with the question of being a good Christian.

This means that for churches internal pluralism is a more complex problem than for ‘ordinary’ NGO’s. (In addition to this, there are also feelings of ‘guilt’ that churches do not manage to live up to Jesus’ prayer for unity among His followers.) In any organisation there are divergent views on the good life but in churches these are connected with the right relationship with God. Churches should therefore be extremely careful when issuing public statements with regard to the ‘renewal of life in culture, society and state’. The religious well-being of church members is put at stake for social and political issues for which the Bible in most cases does not offer a blueprint.

Are there alternative ways in which churches can be involved in politics?

In his article elsewhere in this book, Professor De Kruijff gives the suggestion that individual Christians instead of churches should actively participate in the democratic political debate.[11] In that case internal pluralism is not such a big problem anymore as divergent views find their way in left wing, middle-of-the road or conservative political standpoints.

In addition to this, I should like to stress that participating in the democratic political debate also includes the possibility for individual church members to join (or found) ‘single issue’ organisations. These individual Christians are motivated or inspired by their personal interpretation how the Biblical stories and Christian beliefs should be applied in their historical, social and political context. The desired moral action can be done together with similar thinking Christians or coalitions can be built with secularly motivated persons. Examples are groups to save the whales, to fight against abortion, or to lobby pro euthanasia out of mercifulness for suffering patients, or to give shelter to ’illegal’ rejected asylum seekers, or to give language lessons to legal immigrants. These ‘single issue’ groups are more powerful in their political lobby function than individuals. Making use of the possibilities within civil society has the additional advantage that democratically elected politicians (and not the churches) bear the responsibility to weigh these single issues against other public interests. Churches can no longer be accused of being blind for the negative side effects of their political standpoints or of taking decisions that also affects non-members. Churches can help founding or supporting such ‘single issue’ groups, but this cannot be done with the public pretension that these groups represent the opinion of all church members. 

V Conclusion

Returning to the original question of this paper, my conclusion is that – in a well functioning democratic society as the Netherlands – churches should be very reluctant to make public statements or prophetic witness with regard to political, moral and social issues. Harry Kuitert has shown the autonomous character of morality and that no authority can be found by referring to the Will of God. References to the so-called ‘central message’ in the Bible are usually too abstract to be translated into concrete political statements. Furthermore the authority of the church is problematic because (due to secularisation) churches represent fewer people and (due to individualisation and emancipation) there is more internal pluralism.

The main problem of article 4 of the draft church order is the ‘easy’ connection between the relationship with God and the ethical call to ‘renew life in culture, society and state’. Churches have another ontological status for their members. Their statements on political or social issues have a great ‘existential’ impact on religious believers. This article is not specific enough how to deal with different opinions among church members and the problem that in most cases the Bible does not offer a blueprints on specific social and political matters.

In my opinion, churches should be extremely careful and reluctant to issue public statements and public witness on social or political issues. “The speaking of the church” should therefore be restricted to cases in which the right relationship with God is really at stake, such as with fundamental violations of human rights and Apartheid. In pluralist countries where there is democracy and a sound civil society, ‘the renewal of culture, society and state’ should be left to individual Christians with all their different views how society should be improved.

Connie Aarsbergen-Ligtvoet
PhD candidate Philosophy of Religion / Free University, Amsterdam  

Print version

[1] S. Ridder-van Meggelen, Recht van spreken….? Over art. 1.6 van de kerkorde van de VPKN en de rol van deze kerk t.o.v. de samenleving (doctoraalscriptie Kerkrecht), Kampen: Th.U. 1996 and Ontwerp-Ordinanties behorende bij de ontwerp-kerkorde van de Verenigde Protestantse Kerk in Nederland, Zoetermeer Boekencentrum 1997

[2] G.G. de Kruijff, “The Christian in the Crowded Public Square”, in: The Annual of the Society of Christian Ethics, Washington 1991

[3] Acta (Minutes) Gereformeerde Synode 7 maart 1984 (art. 117)

[4] H.M. Kuitert, “De wil van God doen”, In: Ad Interim. Opstellen aangeboden aan prof. dr. R. Schippers, Kampen 1975

[5] H.M. Kuitert, Het algemeen betwijfeld Christelijk geloof, Baarn: Ten Have 1992, 264. An English version of Kuitert’s views: I have my doubts. How te become a Christian without being a Fundamentalist, SCM Press 1993

[6] H.M. Kuitert, “Ethik”, In: Evangelisches Soziallexikon, Stuttgart Berlin: Kreuz Verlag 1980, 372

[7] H.M. Kuitert, Everything Is Politics but Politics Is Not Everything : A Theological Perspective on Faith and Politics (Alles is politiek, maar politiek is niet alles. Een theologisch perspectief op geloof en politiek), Baarn: Ten Have 1986 

[8] H.M. Kuitert, Autonomie, een lastige laatkomer in de ethiek. Een kapitteltje mensbeeld en moraal, Amsterdam: VU Uitgeverij 1989

[9] Ottawa General Council, Proceedings of the 21st General Council of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, 1982

[10] Acta (minutes) Gereformeerde Synode, 8 September 1986

[11] G.G. de Kruijff, The challenge of a public theology, in this book