Jonathan Bartley

How will they know we are Christians?

By Jonathan Bartley
February 1, 2007

The announcement that there will be no opt-out for Catholic adoption agencies from the Sexual Orientation Regulations, has been interpreted as posing a threat to the involvement of churches in public life.

The controversy is indeed part of a much bigger picture – but one that is perhaps not quite so clearly defined.

In the Second Century a Pagan famously asked what it meant to be a Christian. The response – now well known amongst scholars as the Epistle to Diognetus – was not so much a statement of doctrine as a simple description of what Christians did.

Parts of the early church believed that they were following what they termed 'The Way' – a lifestyle based on the author of their faith, who ate with the disreputable, healed the sick, urged unconditional love of enemies, and even forgave those who killed him. It was their behaviour that made them stand out from the society around them.

What is particularly striking is that the Epistle was written at a time when the church faced intense restrictions. Yet even persecution did not stop the expression of their love. Indeed, it was said that those who oppressed Christians could find no reason for their hatred, because the church surpassed the requirements of the law through its good deeds.

The controversy over gay adoption is being taken by some as further evidence that the religious writing is once again on the wall for Christians. The BA cross row, blasphemy, marginalisation, and 'bans' in universities are all cited. Some have even coined the term "Christianophobia" to describe their lot.

But how might a modern-day Epistle to Diognetus read? Christians today, it might be said, stand out because they insist on discriminating in favour of their own children in admissions to schools. They lobby Government for the right to withhold accommodation from gays and lesbians. They defend their own rights to criticise different religions and lifestyles, whilst calling for restrictions on the freedom of others.

It all seems a long way from the unconditional love of the Second Century. But such an account would only be half the story. It would fail to mention the sacrificial work that many Christians still undertake, both as individuals, and through their organisations, charities and, of course, adoption agencies.

Emerging from centuries of privilege and power, Christians in Britain today are having to come to terms with a society willing to accept their loving intent, but unprepared to tolerate the conditions that have often accompanied it.

However, the new situation of the churches doesn't have to be between a compromise of conscience on the one hand, and complete withdrawal from public life on the other. But it does involve a decision which increasingly appears to mean choosing either to love unconditionally – or not love at all.

At a time when the medium is the message, this is a golden opportunity for the churches to show that Christians can, once again, be known by their love - not the opt-outs they attempt to negotiate.


This article was originally written for, and delivered on, BBC Radio 4's Thought for the Day. With acknowledgements to the BBC.

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