In Matthew 5, Jesus told his disciples that they are the salt of the earth and the light of the world. Although these metaphors have been subjected to different interpretations, most scholars agree that “salt” has to do with purification and preservation, while “light” points to illumination and guidance.
In describing his disciples (and, by extension, the Church) as “salt” and “light”, Jesus is claiming audaciously that they not only are to be witnesses of God’s truth and love in the world, He is insisting that their very presence is somehow integral to the well-being of society.
The churches in Singapore have contributed in countless ways to the flourishing of society and to nation building since Christianity arrived on our shores. They have been involved in public education and public health, and they have done much to reach out to society’s poorest and most vulnerable members.
The contribution of The Methodist Church of Singapore in this regard has been truly exemplary, the evidences of which are quite obvious in the history of our city-state.
But being the salt of the earth and the light of the world involves more than building schools, hospitals and hospices—important though they undoubtedly are in the service of the common good. It also has to do with the Church’s engagement with some of the most complex issues and challenges that confront modern society, where the only constant is change.
These issues include religious pluralism and tolerance, social cohesion and identity politics, biotechnology and science, the relationship between religion and politics, sexuality, marriage and family—the list can easily be expanded.
In a religiously plural and democratic society, the Church’s participation in public discourse on these issues must never be understood as merely optional. It is an important aspect of the Church’s witness in society, and one way in which she fulfils her calling to be salt and light.
For more than twenty years, the National Council of Churches of Singapore (NCCS) has been involved in precisely this form of engagement—sometimes quite publicly, but at other times, working quietly behind the scenes.
Contrary to the views of some people, the separation of religion and politics as delineated by the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Acts (MRHA) does not forbid faith communities from participating in public square conversations on issues that affect us all.
Although Singapore is a secular state, the Government is not anti-religion, but recognises and appreciates the input of the different faith communities on these issues. That the Government has actively sought the views of the leaders of the various faith communities on a wide range of issues is a clear testament to this fact.
Through the years, NCCS has issued statements and published papers on a wide range of issues, including: human stem cell research, euthanasia, social egg freezing, Section 377A of the Penal Code, the legalising of online gambling, mitochondrial replacement therapy, the amendments to the MRHA, etc.1
In addition, together with Trinity Theological College and Bible Society of Singapore, NCCS established the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity—the first official Christian think-tank in Singapore.2
Through its online articles, publications, conferences and seminars, Ethos Institute hopes not only to create awareness among members of the Christian community of the many issues that have arisen in our world. It also hopes to help Christians to understand them from the Christian perspective, informed by Scripture and tradition.
The statements that NCCS published on its website are mainly purposed to guide its member churches on how Christians ought to respond to these hot-button issues.
But NCCS has never shied away from participating in public consultations when it is invited to do so by the Government.
This is because it believes that the rich theological and spiritual traditions of the Church can truly contribute to discussions on these contemporary issues and offer unique insights that are not found in secular accounts.
In addition, the Council also believes that the Church can provide a responsible critique (for salt also possesses antiseptic properties), and call to question certain perspectives and trajectories that, in the long run, may be detrimental to the common good.
1 The full list of statements and papers published by the Council can be found on its website (https://nccs.org.sg).
Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor at the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity (http://ethosinstitute.sg).