Our response is simply to reflect the culture and identity where we are based, and once this point is made then we simply get on with ministering to people in a relevant manner without the need to focus so much on addressing cultural matters. This is why people from outside the Nationalist community happily worship with us too.
While we have this low-key strategy in place to address this issue within the Nationalist community, there is nevertheless a need to provide clarity, particularly to avoid misunderstanding for some in the Protestant community. Our succinct comments in the past regarding living out a Bible-based Christian faith within the culture of West Belfast should not be interpreted as promoting a 'Nationalist' church agenda, as some have mistakenly viewed them. Because of such persistent misunderstanding, we find it necessary to state our position more clearly - hence this article.
[In fact, we would actually prefer not to have to focus so much on these issues at all. But due to the scale and importance of the problem, we have increasingly come to the conclusion that we must not simply work away quietly and take a low profile on such matters, but instead we realise that public comment is needed to address a major stumbling block to the Bible-based gospel, and provide clarity on our approach.]
Instead of promoting a cultural agenda, our emphasis or intention has been simply to show that, in our context, we are trying to dispel the myth that having a Bible-based Christian faith also de facto 'requires' adopting varying degrees of 'Unionist' or British culture/politics. This link between culture/politics and faith, which has often been seen through the media, has also been experienced in churches and through other organisations or individuals. It has been, and still is, a stumbling block to many, which alienates them from listening, hearing, and accepting the gospel message from any Bible-based church.
Again, to be clear, we are not adding a Nationalist culture onto the gospel, as a mirror image of what we are critiquing. Instead, we are simply trying to provide an opportunity for people to hear the Bible-based gospel and experience church life, without having to take on board a Unionist or British cultural/political outlook or identity. The values we positively promote are Christian values, which can be displayed in different cultures in a variety of ways. Our focus is to live out and share our Bible-based Christian faith in its local context (contextualisation is the standard modus operandi for mission worldwide, see 1 Corinthians 9:19-22), without the stumbling-block of any culture/politics interfering with the cause of the gospel.
We are not seeking cultural relevance above gospel-centredness – we instead try to avoid cultural irrelevance in the pursuit of gospel-centredness. As followers of Jesus, our identity is above all else in Christ, and our nationality is primarily as citizens of heaven.
Religion and politics
Nevertheless, while it is equally justifiable to hold to Nationalist or Republican culture/politics as it is Unionist or Loyalist (or any other culture/politics around the world), so long as each is subject to the reforming and transforming Lordship of Christ, such matters should have decreasing importance as we draw closer to Christ.
At the same time, we respect the freedom of other individuals, churches, and organisations to express a Unionist/British culture within their contexts, insofar as in doing so they clearly respect their neighbour and don't 'impose' such culture etc. on others as an essential element of Christian faith or life, or otherwise bring disrepute on the cause of the gospel.
We hope that many churches and individuals will increasingly take a public stand 'for God and the gospel', and not 'for God and Ulster' (the latter also persists due to good men and women remaining silent). Insofar as this path is taken, in both words and deeds, we hope that we can not only further increase our experience of cross-community fellowship, and where necessary reconciliation, but also stand together with all whose identity is in Christ above all else: whose mission is to serve God and others, whose teaching is from Scripture alone, and whose focus is to promote the gospel of salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone, to God's glory alone.
It is worth noting that on the one hand the more common ecumenical unity between some Protestant and Catholic churches has already broken down some historic ethnic barriers, as well as religious ones. In doing so, this has contributed significantly to the peace process locally. On the other hand, our focus is to seek faithful cross-community unity between Bible-based churches.
Looking forward, as the Bible-based gospel becomes more and more part of the life and faith of 'both' main communities, we joyfully anticipate a much wider unity in Christ between Bible-based churches, with fellowship and ministry increasingly transcending natural barriers of culture and history, as the focus becomes more and more on Christ Jesus.
What the Bible says
“After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. And they cried out in a loud voice: ‘Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.’” (Revelation 7:9–10, NIV)
“Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some.” (1 Corinthians 9:19–22, NIV)
“There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28, NIV)
“Then Peter began to speak: ‘I now realise how true it is that God does not show favouritism but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right.” (Acts 10:34–35, NIV)
“The apostles and the believers throughout Judea heard that the Gentiles also had received the word of God. So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticised him” (Acts 11:1–2, NIV)
“God, who knows the heart, showed that he accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as he did to us. He did not discriminate between us and them, for he purified their hearts by faith. Now then, why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of Gentiles a yoke that neither we nor our ancestors have been able to bear? No! We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are.’” (Acts 15:8–11, NIV)
“‘My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me.” (John 17:20–21, NIV)
“Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism” (Ephesians 4:2–5, NIV)
If you would like to discuss these matters further, please don't hesitate to contact us.