European Union

Salt & Light: the gospel, the EU, and the misappropriation of God's word


Steve Thomas is the International Team Leader of Salt & Light – “an international family of churches together on mission“. Their core commitments are impeccably orthodox and undeniably evangelical, and they wisely distinguish between primary and secondary matters of theology, morality and ecclesiology: “We recognise significant differences of perspective in relation to matters of, for example, eschatology or the place of Israel in God’s future plans. We want to live in an atmosphere of respect, and do not want to take issue over such matters!”

But when it comes to the European Union, Steve Thomas isn’t so recognising of different perspectives (or if he is, he doesn’t acknowledge them). In his blog The Gospel, the EU and Me, he sets out his personal “random thoughts” about why he is voting to remain in the EU, explaining that he is doing so in response to a question posed to him by several people over the last few weeks: “So, is there a Biblical view of how we think about the European Union?” He says his biblical view “may or may not help anyone trying to decide how to vote”, but the fact that it may do so means that it merits a little light expository fisking, if only because this International Leader’s “biblical view” inculcates a particular political morality and undoubtedly influences his many church leaders and members into voting Remain, for ‘influence’ is what church leaders do. He writes:

I love Europe. God told the Salt & Light family prophetically to be involved with taking the message of the Kingdom.

Loving Europe (that is, the continent, culture, history, people) may be the necessary starting point of all Christians, whether they are in favour of leaving or remaining in the EU. But the next sentence is interesting. God told Salt & light “prophetically” to take “the message of the Kingdom” presumably to Europe, since that is the context and region made explicit in the first three words. How did God say this to Salt & Light? Is it not the calling of a Christians everywhere to take the message of the Kingdom? Is it not simply written down in Scripture? What is this special prophetic vocation and how was it confirmed?

The Great Commission (Mt 28:18ff) does not stop at Europe. Did God tell Salt & Light “prophetically” to stop at the borders of Europe? If so, where do they place these borders? From the Atlantic to the Urals? Does it include Turkey? Curiously, Salt & Light is “international“: they have churches in North America, New Zealand, Kenya, Uganda… all of which appear to have been possible to establish (and grow) without free movement of peoples and political union. But then we get:

I am not in love with the European Union! I don’t like large political conglomerates, which are largely unaccountable to the people they are influencing, and I perceive many humanistic agendas that run counter to Biblical ways of thinking. However, that is also true of many governments in many nations. I think that we have more chance of changing it from within than outside. I know there are some Christians who think that the EU is a manifestation of the Beast of Revelation 13, but that wouldn’t be my view. Any government that takes an atheistic anti-Christian position is Beastly, for sure, and will be defeated by the Kingdom of Christ in the end (Hallelujah!); the EU is more of a pragmatic co-operative union of nations.

Not being in love with the European Union also appears to be the starting point of all Christians, whether they are in favour of leaving or remaining. Leavers loathe its anti-democratic opacity and coercive bureaucracy, and Remainers opine vaguely that it is “isn’t perfect” and needs some sort of hazy reform. But Steve Thomas is persuaded: “I think that we have more chance of changing it from within than outside.”

The EU is irredeemably (and constitutionally) secular: its “humanistic agenda” is incompatible with the UK’s traditional and historic Christian polity: indeed, it has become distinctly anti-Christian and is becoming increasingly antithetical to freedom of religion. It is incredible (literally) how intelligent Christians can observe David Cameron’s manifest failure even to secure a trivial welfare reform and yet still insist that the EU behemoth is reformable. Lord Carey is persuaded that it is un-reformable: “The structures of the European Union are hardened against reform,” he writes. And what form should any reformation take? Which committee has to agree the programme? Is it then decided by unanimity or QMV? Steve Thomas’s observation is that the EU is “largely unaccountable to the people they are influencing”. How does he propose that the UK (with 3.5% of the vote in the Council of Ministers and 9% of the parliamentary vote) might influence the EU’s structures toward accountability (ie democracy)? How long should we give the collaborative diplomacy? A year? A decade? A century?

The ECSC/EEC was designed to be anti-democratic (and so unaccountable) at the outset. Every time the people are consulted on a matter in a referendum and the outcome doesn’t cohere with “ever closer union”, the result is conveniently ignored or circumvented, and the Commission carries on merrily with its teleological vision. But if Steve Thomas believes it is better to remain part of a deficient and corrupt organisation in order to effect change, why does he lead his own separate ministry? Why doesn’t he place his mission under the aegis of the Worldwide Anglican Communion or (better still) the Roman Catholic Church and its universal pastor? Or did God, by any chance, call Steve Thomas prophetically to his mission and anoint him for his apostolic role?

Perhaps the answer to that question is foregone. But if he believes “the EU is more of a pragmatic co-operative union of nations”, he needs to talk to a few more Greeks, Italians, Spanish and Portuguese about how that pragmatic cooperation is working for them. The EU is not a benign cultural pen of free-range chicks: it is an inhumane battery cage where ducklings and goslings are force-fed corn boiled with fat. Their welfare simply isn’t an issue compared with the imperative political objective.

Aren’t mass unemployment, poverty, despair, suicides and civil unrest matters of injustice crying out for relief and righteousness? The suffering and oppressed weep day and night: the aloof kings are indifferent. The people’s pain is apparently a price worth paying for the immutable doctrine of economic and monetary union, promulgated by an infallible oligarchy called the Commission who are co-charged with guardianship of the sacred scriptures known as the Treaties.

I don’t think the argument should be won or lost on whether the European Union benefits us economically. (Not that we seem to have any agreement on whether this is the case or not – it depends how you play the figures!) But that sounds like a largely selfish approach.

It is indeed “selfish” to make a leave/remain decision on the basis of national GDP (notwithstanding that personal monetary matters are invariably preeminent in any election). But there is no economic event – positive or negative; known or unknown – which is worth the permanent surrender of democracy and the dissipation of national sovereignty, not least because economic success (and so societal benefit) is inextricably linked to freedom. It is primarily the free-trading democracies of the free world which bestow $billions in overseas aid and lift the poor out of poverty. Dictatorships and fascist empires tend not to be so altruistic and virtuous.

But let us be less insular and more catholic, and ask whether the Brexit argument shouldn’t be won or lost on whether the EU benefits the poorer nations of southern Europe. Are we not exhorted to love our brothers and sisters in Greece, where pensioners are searching for food in dustbins; mothers are abandoning their children in the streets, unable to feed or clothe them; and husbands are killing themselves, out of shame and desperation? Do they not all struggle for justice and freedom against a coercive, bullying political power? Remember, they voted against the economic ‘austerity’ now imposed upon them. What should be the prophetic response to this? Might not our departure from the EU offer a glimmer of hope that the whole political vanity project might fall like the Tower of Babel, and the peoples might once again become sovereign and free in their own nations?

I don’t think immigration or fear of immigrant “takeover” should be a criterion for making a decision either. God’s word tells us to have a heart for the homeless and the aliens amongst us. The history of Israel is the story of a whole people group who were homeless slaves in Egypt, whom God gave a home to in their own land. Having God’s heart is a requirement for God’s people.

God’s word does indeed tell us “to have a heart for the homeless and the aliens amongst us”. But it doesn’t exhort uncontrollable mass immigration, not least because God appears to be cognisant of the associated problems of inculturation, adaptation and idolatry (Ex 12:48; Ezek 14:7). It is impotrant to consider the Sitz im Leben, but if Steve Thomas wants to be biblically literal about this, there is a specific exhortation to defend aliens, widows and orphans, principally because they had no advocate or easy access to justice. That simply isn’t the case with EU free movement of persons, each one of whom is fully protected by an entire corpus of European human rights legislation (which transcends the EU). EU economic migrants are not refugees escaping the war zones of Syria and Iraq. They are not “homeless slaves”, but free peoples who voluntarily choose to leave Poland, Romania, Bulgaria (etc.) and make their homes in the UK, often attracted by a minimum wage and the generous welfare regime. It isn’t necessarily the fear of “takeover” which concerns people (though it may justifiably be), but the practical questions of housing shortages, GP appointments, dentist waiting lists, the lack of school places, shortages of teachers and LSAs, A&E waiting times… God’s word encourages believers to have a heart for the poor and homeless, so we should give generously and show them hospitality. God’s word does not encourage nations to exacerbate poverty and facilitate homelessness by enacting policies which worsen both. Does Steve Thomas really believe that the UK should feed, house and heal the entire world? If the world is our neighbour, why not?

I do think that the endless petty rules that come from the EU are tiresome and unnecessary. But again, bureaucracy cannot be tackled from outside, but from inside. We need a few sensible (Christian?) European MPs and movers and shakers who can challenge silliness and help to establish righteousness.

The rules are by no means all “petty”: ask the 96% of UK businesses who do no trade at all with the EU and yet are obliged by statute to ensure adherence to and compliance with the jot and tittle of every EU directive, often at enormous cost. And there are hundreds of Christian MEPs, many of whom would believe the EU to be the temporal design of God and fully in accordance with the kingdom pursuit of peace and reconciliation. One wonders where Salt & Light might be if Luther had taken the view that clericalism and doctrinal error cannot be tackled from the outside. There comes a point where reformation is only possible by schism and separation. Every point that Steve Thomas makes for remaining in the EU applies a fortiori to Church unity. He calls for (Christian) “movers and shakers” to enter the fray, seemingly oblivious to the fact that the UK’s most formidable handbag-swinging mover and shaker patently failed to reform the EU’s institutions toward greater transparency and accountability. Her charges of EU “silliness” were met with contempt, which ultimately led to her demise. And it is worth noting that EU-dissonant “movers and shakers” (such as those in Ukip) tend not to have much support from Christian leaders.

My overwhelming desire, as a Christian, is to see the gospel of the Kingdom of Jesus run freely throughout the nations, and to proclaim Christ where Christ is not known. I have a right to do that across Europe now. I can go and live as a Christian in any of the participating nations.

Having distinguished between Europe and the EU at the outset, it’s a pity that the two now become conflated. Is having to produce a passport (or apply for a visa [which probably wouldn’t be a requirement]) such an insurmountable hurdle to the Great Commission? How on earth did British Christian missionaries ever manage to evangelise Europe before 1973?

I want to maintain that right and opportunity. I might have to be careful. There may be local sensibilities. But I have the right to do it, and this right is backed by the full weight of the European Union. This is an incredible opportunity, and I want to maintain it as long as possible. That’s why I’m voting to stay in!

The “right” to preach the gospel across the EU would not be hindered by Brexit: Europe is not the EU, and the EU is not Christendom. Our vocation of fellowship and sharing with other Europeans extends to compassion and mutual support through servanthood. But it is error to conflate a man-made political union with the redeemed community of Christ. To be ‘one in Christ Jesus‘ (Gal 3:28) is not a command to be one in temporal-cultural construct. Disunity in the Church is contrary to the word of the cross (1Cor 1:18-2:5). If Salt & Light tolerate and justify such separation on categorical soteriological grounds, it is bemusing that its International Leader advocates that we ought not to divide from that where God’s Spirit does not dwell, for the sake of the kingdom.