The question is how we understand the purity of the Church for which we are bound to strive in prayer, in self-criticism and self-examination, first, before we venture onto critique of actions and structures. I understand the purity of the Church to be a prophetic notion, first of all concerned with the purity of the Church’s speech. It has to do with the Church’s willingness to be a vehicle of the speech of God to all men and women. And the issue of obedience in the realm of pure speech comes down to our willingness to muffle, to compromise, to evade what God may be saying to us because it’s too uncomfortable for ourselves, too uncomfortable for our society, or to speak it would threaten our cause or whatever.
The notion of prophetic purity is explored, it seems to me, in the Scriptures in very classic ways through the great narratives of the prophets that associated with the figures Elisha and Elijah, 1 Kings and 2 Kings, in which the task of the prophet is not in any sense to withdraw. These prophets are deeply interwoven with their society both in its economic day by day aspects and also in political aspects. They have ongoing relations with the kings of Israel, and indeed other kings, the kings of Judah, the kings of Aram, the kings of Syria.
But they exercise the sovereignty of God’s word and will not be compromised, and the nature of prophetic compromise itself is explored in one or two of these stories, for example, the incredibly beautiful story about the prophet who confronted Jeroboam and having carried off his mighty confrontation with wonderful aplomb is then seduced by the urgent desire for fellowship with other prophets into betraying his mission.
Now the question, are we betraying our mission? – how may we avoid betraying our mission – is surely the starting point, and there’s one answer that can be given that seems to me to be essentially a false turn. And that is that we betray our mission because something in our circumstances isn’t right. Something needs adjusting in the set of presuppositions from which we come to it, the social setting from which we come to it and that if we can doctor that, then we can turn from being cowardly, compromised and ineffective, into being effective, brave and spirited. And it seems to me that that is a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of purity.
The nature of purity is not having no connections, ties, obligations. It doesn’t consist in not having relationships with the world and the Church. It consists in that purity of heart which is to will one thing. Everyone who has dealt with the way the Church interacts with government in this country has at some stage come away grinding their teeth over what look like cowardly, evasive, altogether unsatisfactory postures that the Church is inclined to strike. And it’s very easy in England if we don’t lift our eyes from the local scene, simply to attribute all these to the set of relationships we have with government and law. But as soon as one lives and works in the Church in other countries, one finds one is facing a universal problem. This is a matter of moral and spiritual obedience, not of structure.
Oliver O’Donovan to the Evangelical Alliance Faith and Nation enquiry 2003