Luther – Trick or Treat? An Essay to Mark the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation


On the 31st of October 1517, the greatest Trick or Treat in history occurred. Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the doors of Wittenberg’s Castle Church, triggering a Reformation which reshaped the map of Europe, creating categories of ‘Protestant’ and ‘Catholic’ that would dominate Irish history for centuries to come.

We might expect this anniversary to see Catholics decrying the Reformation as a Trick, and Protestants celebrating it as a Treat – but reactions have been much more nuanced. Pope Francis kicked off the year of commemoration at Lutheran services in Sweden, praising Luther as “a great reformer”. The Catholic Archdiocese of Dublin, coordinating the Ecumenical Bible Week for 2017, chose to place a special emphasis on the 500th anniversary of Luther’s Reformation. Many Protestants and Evangelicals also see Luther’s role in history as being a bit of a mixed bag.

One problem is that the Reformation, in much of Europe, simply replaced Catholic Christendom with Protestant Christendom. It didn’t ask the hard questions of Christendom itself – whether the political alliance between Church and State really represented the New Testament Gospel of Christ.

Many Evangelicals see themselves as part of the Anabaptist tradition, where the Church should be a minority that speaks as society’s conscience from the margins, not occupying seats of wealth and power. Luther, of course, enthusiastically supported the persecution of Anabaptists in his day, suggesting that since they were so fond of baptism then they should all be drowned! A significant portion of Protestant Christians in Ireland today practise baptism for adults, not infants, and so would have been considered by Luther as similarly dangerous heretics who deserve to be suppressed.

Given the increasing incivility and name-calling of modern politics, all Christians should repudiate the invective and vitriol characteristic of Luther’s disputes with Catholicism. One of his hymns contained the line: “Lord, shield us with Thy Word, our Hope, And smite the Moslem and the Pope.”

Any consideration of Luther’s influence should also take into account his appalling antisemitism. His 65,000-word treatise ‘On the Jews and Their Lies’ was quoted extensively by the Nazis as moral justification for the Holocaust. It seems to me that an appropriate way for Evangelical Christians to mark Luther’s anniversary would be to repent for his antisemitism, and for those Christians who failed miserably to oppose Hitler and his policies. To be sure, there were notable exceptions such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Martin Niemöller. Yet the majority of German Protestants and Catholics either supported Hitler or remained silent, and Luther’s contribution to this should not be excused or minimised.

So, given all these negatives, should we celebrate Luther’s anniversary at all? I would argue that we should, because he emphasised one important principle – that each person should have the freedom to interpret the Bible for themselves, rather than unthinkingly accepting the dogma of any religious institution. This provided the impetus for religiously motivated human rights reformers such as the anti-slavery abolitionists, those who fought poverty and people trafficking in Victorian London, and Martin Luther King’s campaign against racial segregation.

Indeed, even those who reject all forms of religion have good reason to celebrate Luther’s 500th anniversary. When Galileo wanted to share his scientific research, revolutionising how we all think of the universe around us, the Inquisition prohibited its publication. Galileo’s friends smuggled the manuscripts to Holland where, due to the Reformation’s greater tolerance for new ideas, they could be published freely.

My atheist friends might also reflect on theologian Alister McGrath’s claim that Luther was partly responsible for the development of modern atheism! Once you allow the freedom to interpret the Bible for oneself, you inevitably pave the way for an environment where others can ultimately choose to reject the Bible altogether without fear of persecution.

Here is a good reason why we can view the Reformation, with some qualifications, as a Treat rather than a Trick. Despite Luther’s own personal intolerance, the core principle of his Reformation has helped shape a more tolerant society where those of all faiths, and those of none, have freedom of belief. And that, for all of us, is surely something worth celebrating.


Nick Park is Executive Director of Evangelical Alliance Ireland.

Fraser Hosford: God & the Cultures of Modern Ireland – Luke 15

On Saturday 4 November, Evangelical Alliance Ireland’s 2017 National Forum will focus on ‘Faith That Transforms Communities’.  You can view the Forum programme here: EAI 2017 National Forum Programme and can find more information, discover discounts, buy tickets, get a map for the venue etc. here: EAI Forum Eventbrite Page

In preparation for the National Forum, we asked several thinkers to contribute articles that help us see the big picture against which all our ministry activities are taking place. Today’s article, from Fraser Hosford, Pastor of Dublin West Community Church, ties Ireland’s current cultural divide in with the Parable of the Prodigal Son.


Ireland has changed enormously as a country over the last three decades. We have become a wealthy country, notwithstanding the recent economic crisis, and also an increasingly secular country with the Catholic Church losing its hegemony over society. These changes are not just tangential details about Ireland but defining issues that have dramatically changed the culture of Ireland, how life is lived, the values that are held and how the country feels. And while these changes are clear they have not been absolute and it can be said that there are two Irelands today, the old Ireland with its religious feel and a new Ireland more secular and notably materialistic. Furthermore, the sand is shifting as one culture continues to replace another one over time. Many people stand with a foot in either culture or would disassociate themselves from both and, of course, different subcultures exist within the broader culture providing its layers, subtleties and tensions. But two cultures do co-exist albeit not peacefully as demonstrated by the recurring culture wars over social issues like marriage, divorce and abortion. Neither culture is perfect, each containing its own blind spots. What is key from a faith perspective is that God continues to love people of both of these, and other, cultures, and that God has got good news for both of these cultures.

One of the favourite stories of Jesus is the story of the Prodigal Son recorded in Luke 15. It is better titled the parable of the two sons as it contains a message for both the parties which the sons represent. Intriguingly the two sons mirror the two Irelands outlined above, with the old Ireland similar to the older son and the new Ireland similar to the younger son.

The Older Son

While traditionally the focus is placed on the younger son, the prodigal, this story really is about the older son. Luke 15 begins with the grumbling of the religious leaders at Jesus’ interaction with those deemed sinners. Jesus’s three parables are told in response, and so the Pharisees are the intended audience.

The older son is presented as a religious person, religious in the bad sense of the word. He comes across as stern, anti-fun, and puritanical in terms of focus on behaviour. We are told that he was angry and refused to join in the celebrations. His attitude to his younger brother is judgmental, he has squandered the father’s property and that is not forgotten despite his return. This attitude is clearly portrayed as negative in Jesus’ story.

What is revealing is that his words to his father concentrate more on himself than his brother. His words evoke a tone of resentment as he focuses on his own work on the estate and his lack of reward, “not even a young goat”. His case is overstated because as the oldest son he would have been entitled to his inheritance and thus was ultimately working for himself, in a longer term perspective. The culture of the time was that he would receive two thirds of the estate, with the younger son having already taken one third as his “share”, hence why the father points out that “everything I have is yours”. This overstatement shows a self- righteousness where the older brother’s emotional reaction is driven by his own sense of deserving more. This is the brother who stayed with the father yet he too is far away despite his geographical proximity, distant relationally as his association with the father is characterised by “slaving” and “never disobeying”. When talking to his father he doesn’t call him by name or even by title, just by the impersonal pronoun “you”. Here is a son who does things for his father, rather than enjoying being with his father and sharing in his joy, such as at the party that is being thrown.

This view of himself and his work is presented in contrast to the profligacy of his younger brother. His work centred life distances him from both his brother and father. There is no fraternal excitement or hug, by not entering the party there isn’t even a personal reunion. He is called “this son of yours” almost eschewing all direct connection with his brother, they merely share the same father. This is contrasted with the attitude of the father who was searching for the son, even though his leaving was a more personal betrayal to the father than to the brother. Surely the eldest son should have been involved in the pursuit of his younger brother.

There is much of the old Ireland in the older son. The Irish state that evolved post- independence was an overtly religious nation. The 1937 constitution included a special place for the Catholic Church. The vast majority of the country belonged to this one religious tradition and mass going rates were amongst the highest in the world. This religiosity continued for well over half a century with the Pope’s visit to Ireland in 1979 attracting over 1,250,000 people, over one third of the population of the Republic of Ireland. Ireland’s nature as a religious nation was not just shown in spiritual observance but also in political power. The Catholic Church wielded unmatched influence over moral and social policy. This was best evidenced in the infamous ‘Mother and Child Scheme’ of 1951. The Catholic hierarchy opposed the introduction of the scheme for moral reasons and philosophical reasons, fearing it increased the power of the state too much. They wrote to the Taoiseach John A. Costello and, together with the support of the medical profession, succeeded in having the scheme abandoned and the minister responsible, Dr Noel Browne, resigned. In the 1980s as the culture wars developed the Catholic Church were the prime opponents against referendums to liberalise the laws on divorce and abortion.

The culture associated with this religious practice also has shades of the older brother and the Pharisees. The caricature of faith in the old Ireland fits with that of the older son: working for God became slaving, and living for God became obeying. With faith so embedded in the culture it was inevitable that people’s experience of faith was through ritual. Similarly, with faith so dominant numerically it was natural that its morality became a cultural norm. And so faith tended to focus on ones adherence to religious rituals and requirements rather than on the person of God. Anecdotally many Irish people’s dissatisfaction with faith, across denominations, revolves around an experience of law-keeping, and a theme of the culture wars is the danger of religion telling us what to do. Furthermore, only such an outward based faith, as opposed to an inward heart faith, could explain the dramatic falls in mass attendance in one generation.

Alongside this, many would testify to a sense of the judgementalism of the old Ireland with regard to the moral expression of faith. It is seen in the sad and dark parts of our history where those who didn’t live up to the standards of the church, the younger sons who broke the rules, were punished and hidden from society. In fact these tended to be our younger daughters, as young unmarried mothers were sent in great numbers to mother and baby homes, not allowed to keep and rear their own children in full view of the broader society. The 2009 Ryan Report detailed the lives of disadvantaged, neglected and abandoned children who were again hidden, sent to industrial and reformatory schools where they suffered neglect and physical, sexual, and emotional abuse. These events continue to cast a long shadow over the Irish church today.

The Younger Son 

The younger son lends his name to the traditional title of the story, the parable of the prodigal son. He is the first character in the story we meet properly, and we are introduced to him with his opening demand “Father, give me my share of the estate”. He asks for and receives his share of the family property and heads off far from home. It is this leaving of the Father, the God character in the story, that resembles the new Ireland. One of, if not the, key distinctive between the old and the new Ireland is the attitude to faith and religion. It seems that Ireland has abandoned God just as the younger son abandoned his father in the story of Jesus.

Ireland in the last few decades has gone quite far down the path of secularisation. This is seen most clearly in religious observance with mass attendance having decreased by two thirds. As recently as the 1970s, mass attendance in Ireland was above 90%. Recent research suggests that only 30% of Irish Catholics attend mass on a weekly basis. And in Dublin this figure has dropped to below 20%, according to Archbishop Diarmuid Martin.ii Census data shows that those who identify as Catholic has dropped form 94% in 1971 to 78% in 2016.

But in Ireland this secularisation is not just a drift away from the church, but a revolt against it. Nearly half of people view the Catholic Church in an (mostly or very) unfavourable light; and only amongst the over 55s does the church have a strong ‘favourable’ ranking. While these statistics don’t translate into a full rejection of the church, as it receives more favourable ratings on its teachings, it is still a dramatic change from the Ireland of old. These views are largely driven by the scandals, including child abuse, that have engulfed the church since the turn of the century.

Returning to Luke 15, it is clear that money plays a large part in the story. The younger son’s initial demand is for his share of the father’s wealth. Enjoying the lifestyle money brings was clearly part of the plan as He leaves when he receives the money, and squanders the wealth. The cultural background to this part of the story is very interesting. Ken Bailey shows us that in a Middle Eastern culture where an inheritance was only received on the death of a father, and elders were honoured and respected, asking to receive an inheritance now was akin to wishing that your father was dead.

This juxtaposition of the father and property makes clear that the son wanted wealth more than his relationship with father. And a large part of the secularisation of Ireland occurred alongside a ground-breaking decade of increasing prosperity. Ireland in the late 1990s and early 2000s became known globally as the Celtic Tiger as soaring economic growth helped it catch up with the income levels of Western Europe. This led to a great surge of materialism as what was once out of reach was now accessible. And coinciding with the loss of religious observance and trust in the church, the offer of prosperity, comfort and career success was on hand to fill the spiritual and moral gap that had emerged in many Irish hearts.

These Tiger years of course ended in an infamous property crash that brought a large scale recession to the country. Does this mirror the famine experienced by the younger son? That seems to be stretching the parallels too far. If anything the devastation of the crash years continued the focus on money, albeit with making ends meet as unemployment soared, wages were cut and taxes were increased.

The Father 

The final character in this story is the father who represented God to the original audience and still does today. And he paints a picture of a truly loving and graceful God.

This father assents to the wish of the younger son for his inheritance and so divides up his property; an act that grants freedom to the person of His son. Then after the son leaves we see a father who actively seeks for his lost son. We are told that “while he was still a long way off his father saw him” which speaks of a father who was out looking, scanning the horizon trying to find his son. Not only was there a longing for the son to return, but it was an active longing. The American preacher Tony Campolo uses the example of a parent who carries a picture in their wallet of their child to convey the heart of this father who misses his son.

Joy is the emotion which shines through this father. He acted in joyful abandon when he finally saw his lost son, “filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son …”. The word translated compassion here means ‘innards’ or insides and is telling us that the emotion the father experienced was uncontainable, it just rose up within him, instantaneously and he just had to run to his son. This run of the father went against what was culturally acceptable for a man in his position: to literally ‘race’ meant he had to hold up his gown at the front exposing his legs which was considered humiliating. But this father didn’t care, he wasn’t self-conscious in front of the rest of the village, he just wanted to be with his son. He was simply excited to see his son again and ran to him, hugged him, kissed him and threw a party for him. It evokes images of parents with their younger children where the joy and fun of the toddler years makes parents throw caution to the wind. I think of holding up my own little boy above my head and spinning him around when he was about 18 months, it was a dangerous game as the drool flowed freely but it was all worth it just to see his smile and his giggle.

This joy is expressed again when the father cuts short the son’s speech as he tries to apologise, in a desire just to get the party started. It is an extraordinary welcome. There is a kiss of reconciliation, which prevents the son from kissing the father’s hand or feet. The son is fully welcomed back in as a son given status and authority with a ring and a special robe, and a party is thrown for him. This would all be in stark contrast to the slander that the local village would have thrown at him (Bailey).

The importance of joy is further emphasized when we consider the three stories in Luke 15 together. In each story there is joy when the lost treasures are found; all three stories end in rejoicing; and the joy is over the individual in each story, there is one lost sheep, one lostcoin, and one lost son.

This joy is in the person of the son, simply in the fact that he returns and he is present. As such it overlooks his actions and indeed his betrayal in the past. The theological term for this is grace, a love and mercy that is undeserved, that the father seeks the son and then rejoices in the son despite his actions. The son only returns out of self-interest because there will be food to spare at home and he is starving to death. He is clearly aware of the manner in which he left and has a speech rehearsed and intends to work for his keep. But the father welcomes home back as a son and doesn’t even let him finish the speech, his joy overflows even before the apology can be finished. A full apology is not necessary for the son to experience the joy of the father.

Implications for Ireland

So where does this leave the church in Ireland today? Are people rejecting the older son, when it should have been the father who is on offer? Are they turning away from religion, and not necessarily the God of grace presented in this story? The contrast between the two is dramatic within the story, they represent entirely different types of faith and indeed different types of God.

If this parallel is true, or true for significant sections of society, then it changes the simple western narrative of a religious nation losing its faith as it modernises and becomes more progressive. First, it defines the nature of the initial faith and highlights its flaws. The older son in the parable didn’t have a right relationship with the father either. Second, it suggests another reason for the loss of faith: it was an inevitable reaction to a self-righteous expression of religion. A faith based on rules and the rituals is a faith based on human elements making it inherently unstable. It is no wonder that the new Ireland departed from the God that was presented by the old Ireland. A God interested in the external only can never capture the heart. Just as a baby smiles when their parent smiles at them, so an experience of heart faith has to be rooted in a God of the heart.

The good news for Ireland is that a loss of faith is never final, the father of this story continues to seek out the younger lost son. Grace means that the longing the father has for the son overrides the son’s leaving, and he will be welcomed back in with joy. The rest of the scriptures show us that God uses his church to reach those who are lost. And so the Irish church will be used to help find those who have moved away from faith, but the Irish church needs to move from the attitude of the older son to that of the father. Integrity will be paramount after the scandals of recent years; humility will be necessary in recognition of the this past; a non-judgemental attitude will be required and this will be sorely tested with a new abortion referendum on the horizon, but grace after all is about a disposition of love no matter how emotive our disagreement is with people. It will be costly, love always is: witness how the freedom the Father allowed the son led to huge loss for him. But the joy eventually came.

So a revival of faith in this country will not signal a return to the past, as the father’s conversation with the older son makes clear. Rather the nature of faith needs to change. This change cannot happen simply as a matter of how we present the faith, it has to be a genuine inward change. The contrast between the father and the older son is one of emotional reactions that flow from the heart.


Critically, the grace that flows from the father is on offer to us too. The father doesn’t rebuke the older son for the humiliation of not entering the party; instead of punishing him for his insolence, the father leaves the party to plead with him outside. He is still a son and one the father longs to join the celebration. It is sinners after all that Jesus welcomes and this parable shows that the religious son is as much a sinner as the irreligious son. For us, both Irelands are lost but God still loves and seeks out both Irelands.

And here the story ends unfinished with the listeners left hanging awaiting the older son’s response to his father’s words. And the readers of the Gospel are left wondering what the response of the Pharisees will ultimately be to the ministry of Jesus. And the story of Ireland remains unfinished for us today too. The door remains ajar, that is in the nature of grace.

Patrick Mitchel: Reflections on Evangelicals in Post-Christendom Ireland

On Saturday 4 November, Evangelical Alliance Ireland’s 2017 National Forum will focus on ‘Faith That Transforms Communities’.  You can view the Forum programme here: EAI 2017 National Forum Programme and can find more information, discover discounts, buy tickets, get a map for the venue etc. here: EAI Forum Eventbrite Page

In preparation for the National Forum, we asked several thinkers to contribute articles that help us see the big picture against which all our ministry activities are taking place. Today’s article, from Patrick Mitchel, reflects on how Evangelical Christians can bear faithful and effective witness to Christ in a post-Christendom context.



These notes are reflections and questions for Christians living in an increasingly post- Christendom Ireland.

By ‘post-Christendom’ I mean that the socio-political consensus that placed Christianity at the controlling centre of social, political, and religious affairs, is fast evaporating. Contemporary Ireland, as with most of Western Europe, is moving from a Christendom mode to a post-Christendom mode.

Christians in Ireland cannot avoid having to do business with the baleful legacy of Christendom ‘Irish style’. Such has been the horror associated with a church exercising freely given and virtually unlimited, religious, social and political power, that many people in modern Ireland are convinced that ‘religion is bad for you’ and are determined to construct a society free from its negative influence

There is a strong hermeneutic of suspicion’ regarding religion in Ireland today. As one author puts it, religion and theology are ‘viewed as a trivial, if not malign, influence in political life and are largely ignored in political deliberation.’ That’s an astonishing reversal from the days of ‘Catholic Ireland’.

So the shaping assumptions of a post-Christendom liberal secular democracy include a commitment to values which are optimistically understood as providing a path towards a healthier, fairer and more advanced society than that of the religious past. They include:

– Pluralism: where the reality of the plurality of cultures, religions, and beliefs within modern societies makes it a necessity for the state to accommodate all and privilege none. Political liberalism seeks to achieve this by making the state ‘neutral’ in terms of religious preference and therefore, in effect, intentionally non-religious.

– Tolerance: where all beliefs and behaviours within the law should be tolerated.

– Individual choice and human rights: Of critical importance here is the liberal belief that human freedom of choice is an ultimate right. Since individual choice is ‘a good thing’, the more individual freedom any society has, the better or freer or more advanced that society will become.

– Increasing separation of church and state: in the sense of dismantling the legacy of Christendom where churches had central and controlling positions

– Equality: where by law citizens must all be treated equally regardless of their beliefs or lifestyles.

So, if this is a reasonably fair description of affairs, some questions:

What expectations and ambitions should Christians have in terms of influence and impact within a post-Christendom culture? As a local church?



Some Christians seem to assume their job is simply to assert Christian truth and (somehow) expect society to order itself to Christian principles and all will be well. This is what Oliver O’Donovan calls (in the quote below) ‘abstract idealism’.

Other Christians appear afraid of speaking with a distinctly Christian perspective. What other voice does the church have but to witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ the living Lord? This failure of nerve leads to what O’Donovan calls ‘colourless assimilation.’

“The church will frame its political witness with authenticity, avoiding the characteristic evils of abstract idealism and colourless assimilation, when it stands self-consciously before that horizon and confesses that it looks for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.” (Desire of the Nations, 288)

So the question at the heart of any cultural engagement is how to be ‘in the world but not of it’. Or how to live out the tension between O’Donovan’s ‘colourless assimilation’ and ‘abstract idealism’.

Similarly, John Stackhouse, in his Making the Best of It: Following Christ in the Real World, talks about ‘cultural transformers‘ versus those advocating a form of ‘holy distinctness’ .

The ‘cultural transformers’ tend to have a ‘take it over’ approach. In other words, it is the pursuit of the goal of shaping society according to Christian values. Generally, more established Christian denominations have had this approach.

An opposite stance to cultural transformation is what John Stackhouse labels as ‘refuse all entanglements’. It leads to a vision of ‘holy distinctness’, of a definite Christian community living in contradistinction to the rest of society. Think some forms of Pentecostalism and older Anabaptist communities like the Mennonites, Hutterites and Amish. The Anabaptist tradition finds its most eloquent voices in the writings of John Howard Yoder and Stanley Hauerwas.

‘Holy distinctness’ thinkers criticise cultural transformers as pursuing a vision that is both unrealistic and undesirable.

It is unrealistic in that the cultural tide that swept the church into power and created over a millennium of Christendom culture in the West is fast receding. If Christians imagine that it can be stopped or reversed, they will be disappointed.

It is undesirable in that, while it is certainly a gross simplification to say that everything to do with Christendom since Constantine was a disaster, untold damage has been done to the authenticity of the church’s witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ by boundaries between church and state becoming blurred. Just look at the contemporary legacy of Catholic Ireland for an example.

What is your goal and dream for your area? What is your church’s attitude or ‘posture’ to Irish culture? To your local town or city?


REFLECTION 3: Five realities of life and witness in a post- Christendom Ireland

I’m suggesting that Christians need to engage with at least 5 political, cultural and spiritual realities as they engage with Irish culture. Here’s the first:

1.Realism about the ambiguity of faithful Christian discipleship in a post-Christendom culture

A challenge for Christians is how to deal realistically and faithfully with the ambiguity of life in a plural democracy. In The Bible in Politics, Richard Bauckham makes the following interesting observation

“… we need to recognize that the political material in the Bible consists largely of stories about and instructions addressed to political societies very different from our own … The adaptations needed to transfer biblical teaching on personal morality from its cultural situation to ours are comparatively easily made, but a more imaginative and creative hermeneutic is necessary for the Bible to speak to modern political life.’

An authentic theological engagement must have a dual nature as it negotiates the tension between an eschatologically orientated faith in the Lord Jesus Christ and a simultaneous active commitment, shaped by kingdom of God values, to working for the wellbeing and renewal of contemporary culture. In other words, walking between what O’Donovan called ‘abstract idealism’ and ‘colourless assimilation’.

2. Realism about the implications of Jesus’ command to ‘love your neighbour as yourself’

Jesus’ commanded his followers to ‘do to others as you would have them do to you’ and to love those that do not love in return (Luke 6:31-32). Yet, there is often little or no discussion of what it means in practice to love the ‘Other’ in many Christian responses to life within a plural democracy despite its absolutely central place in biblical ethics (Lev.19:18; Matt.19:19, 22:39; Mark 12:31-33; Luke 10:27; Rom.13:9; Gal. 5:14; Jas 2:8).

This is an important and complex question, but one that needs to be thought through and seriously engaged with by those who are following Jesus. Neighbour love isn’t an optional extra of less importance to ‘defending the truth’ or arguing for your own rights.

The whole point of Jesus’ parable in Luke 10:25-37 is that neighbour love is costly, radical and shocking since it is generously offers grace across deep gulfs of hatred, suspicion and alienation. ‘Neighbour love’ does not pretend profound differences do not exist but rather, in the face of such difference, says ‘I love you as I would wish to be loved’ or ‘The rights we desire for ourselves, we are glad to affirm for others.’

Christian love is not self-centred, fearful or defensive. Rather, since love is relational, it should also involve a sacrificial commitment to meet, talk with and listen to the ‘Other’.

Since love is not equivalent to mere toleration or unthinking acceptance, how it is expressed in different contexts will require significant wisdom and discernment.

What constitutes ‘neighbour love’ towards others who hold opposing political and ethical views to your own? How as a local church can you ‘love your neighbours’ – especially those radically different to you?

3. A realistically positive attitude to pluralism

Christians, I suggest, should not only be willing to live with difference but should actively support the construction of a plural society where difference is tolerated. Baptist theologian Steve Holmes writes

‘we have demanded too often that the law be brought into accord with our moral intuitions, without exception or reserve. Evangelicals have probably been worse at this than most.’ Yet, he continues, ‘The intuition … that it is the moral duty of government to maintain a studied neutrality on certain matters, and to offer space and protection for its people to live in the way that they might choose, is a natively evangelical one.’

Christians cannot construct the ‘New Jerusalem’ here on earth by law or coercion. There are biblical sins that it is not realistic or desirable to treat as crimes. For example homosexuality, heterosexual adultery; greed, anger, selfishness and so on should not be legislated against in the courts.

As Christians seek their own religious freedom within a plural democracy, they need to realise that tolerance works both ways: the ‘rights’ we seek for ourselves we should also seek for others.

Christians’ defence of religious liberty should not be narrowly self-centered and self- interested. Rather it should defend the right of others to use God-given freedom to make choices about spiritual matters, even when this leads to actions antithetical to the gospel. This form of tolerance is a civic virtue. Irish Christians should welcome some aspects of pluralism.

However, let me be clear that this does not mean Christians simply embrace relativism or endorse beliefs contrary to their conscience. Living with difference within a fallen sinful world is quite distinct from affirming that difference. Contemporary debates about sex and gender in society and within the church take us right into the heart of this tension.

What does it look like for your church to be seeking not only our own rights and freedoms, but the rights and freedoms of others in a plural democracy?

4. Realism about Ireland’s Christendom past: the need for humility and a listening ear

As Christians in Ireland, we need to be realistic about the baleful legacy of Ireland’s recent past as well as political liberalism’s associated fear of privileging any one voice (especially a religious one) in the public square.

In such a context there is a need for humility, listening and dialogue by Christians, given Christianity’s negative associations with self-interest and power in Ireland.

As Christianity moves to the margins of Irish public life, evangelical Christians cannot assume that their views will be either heard or understood, especially given their status as a tiny minority of under 1% of the population.

This raises questions for Christians in terms of how and where they are engaged in building relationships with government, politicians and with individuals and organisations across the spectrum of modern Irish society.

On this point John Stackhouse proposes,

… we should use what influence we have left to help construct the sort of society in which we ourselves would like to live once our power to effect it has disappeared … How unseemly it is for Christians to fight in the courts and legislatures for what remains of the dubious honors and advantages of Christendom. There is no more prudent time to do unto others as we would have them do unto us.

How can your local church ‘do to others as you would have them do unto you’? How can we be taking steps to build relationships and listen to voices and groups for whom Christianity is irrelevant or malign?

5. Realism about the need to defend and argue for religious liberty

Christian Realism should, by definition, not equal naivety. Certainly post-Christendom will be significantly (and probably increasingly) less ‘hospitable’ to Christianity than Christendom. It is perfectly possible that an absolutist secularism will progressively encroach on religious freedom. Christian Realists will be aware of the spiritual ‘powers’ behind fallen human systems of thought and action.

Christians should be forthright defenders of religious liberty since deep in the heart of the biblical narrative is the pursuit of justice for the oppressed and the marginalised. Christians can make the case that agreeing boundaries to human behaviour leads to freedom, not oppression. For in a plural democracy not everyone can ‘win’ and it is destructive if one group does so.

A realistic Christian response will therefore have a healthy distrust of the human propensity to seek control and impose one’s values on others. Christians should resist a ‘hard secularism’ that criminalises, marginalizes, denigrates or dismisses religious views as illegitimate and results in legal actions like suing people in court for holding Christian views or forcing Christians to retreat from religiously motivated service in the public square – especially if it threatens the rights and dignity of the weak, vulnerable and powerless by the assertion of competing ‘rights’ by the powerful.

One way of resisting is by coherent persistent articulation of the need for a truly inclusive pluralism and exposing the inherent flaws in an ‘illiberal liberalism’ that leads to the oxymoron of an enforced mono-pluralism.

What are the trends in Irish secular democracy that threaten religious freedom? When and how should local churches and organisations like EAI be speaking out to defend religious liberty and give a voice to those on the margins?


Dr Patrick Mitchel
Senior Lecturer in Theology
Irish Bible Institute