Monday, October 31, 2011

So, the church is for what, exactly?

What's happening? Serious minded media types are giving attention to the true mission of the church. Usually it's like 'the church is so out of date' or 'the church is pointless' or 'the church is evil', but suddenly the church has an important task. It is actually for something. Nice, eh? Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger said so, here and Hugo Rifkind of The Times said so here (sadly you'll need to be a Times subscriber to follow the last link). Apparently, the mission of the church is to stick up for 'pious idealistic impracticalities'. At least according to Rifkind, a self-confessed 'contented agnostic'. 

You see, the argument runs,  if Jesus was around today (let's forget for a moment that according to the witness of Scripture he rose from the dead and therefore is still 'around today'), he would be on the side of the anti-capitalist protesters camped outside St. Paul's. That's what the church is for. I mean, didn't Jesus overthrow the tables of the money changers in the temple? They were the unacceptable face of first century capitalism and he sure showed them what for. And didn't Jesus say stuff like, "you cannot serve God and mammon"? So, What Would Jesus Do? He'd protest against the City fat cats with their obscene bonuses. He'd pitch his tent outside of St. Paul's with the rest of them - and probably spend the night there too.

I defend the right right to protest, but  since when did that include the right to set up camp in public places? Is camping now a radical antiestablishment act? That's news to me, and I was a boy Scout. Now, let's be honest and admit that the church authorities at St. Paul's haven't exactly covered themselves in glory in their response to the militants from Millets. It was silly to shut the doors of the cathedral for the first time since the Blitz for 'health and safety' reasons. Were they afraid that a worshipper, or worse, a paying tourist might trip over a guy rope or something? What would the real St Paul have thought of that? Health and safety. Have the assembled clergy never read 2 Corinthians 11, where Paul lists the dangers he faced in his apostolic ministry? He was flogged, mobbed, shipwrecked and stoned. Stumbling over a tent isn't included in his inventory of sufferings. Hardly being fed to the lions is it? The trouble is that if the ecclesiastics get tough and call in the cops to forcibly remove the tented agitants, that doesn't seem like a Christian thing to do. Whatever happened to "love thy neighbour" etc?

But in reality this whole debacle is a distraction from the main task of the church. As I noted earlier, Jesus' cleansing of the temple is often cited in favour of the anti-capitalist demonstrators. That is misguided. When Jesus drove the money changers from the temple courts, it wasn't because he was a kindly proto-Keynsian rather than a hard nosed lassiez faire capitalist. His motivation was rather different. The money changers were doing an OK thing in the wrong place. You see, they had set up their Bureau de Changes in the Court of the Gentiles. An area of the temple that was meant for non-Jews to come and worship the God of Israel had been turned into a busy shopping mall. That is what outraged Jesus. Look at Mark 11:15-19, especially Mark  11:17, where Jesus quotes a combination Isaiah 56:7 and Jeremiah 7:11.

The temple was meant to act as a magnet for the nations, to draw all people to call upon the name of Yahweh. Note Solomon's prayer at the dedication of the original temple, 1 Kings 8:41-43. The prophets looked forward to the day when the  nations would stream to Jerusalem to seek the Lord, Zechariah 8:20-23. What Jesus encountered in the temple was a travesty of this hope. Indeed in his judgement the temple and its ministry has become so irredeemably corrupt that it would be swept into oblivion, Mark 13:1-2. That's what happened in 70AD when it was destroyed by the Romans.

The new temple is the people of God, united to Christ and filled with the Holy Spirit, Ephesians 2:19-22, 1 Peter 2:4-5, 9-10. The task of the church is to proclaim the good news of salvation to the nations, Luke 24:46-49. The worldwide church of God  is not a commercial venture. It's calling is to be a house of prayer for all peoples. Admittedly St Paul's with its £14.50 entrance fee and gift shop probably isn't the best example of this. But still, the main mission of the church is not to act as a cheerleader for a band of well meaning protesters with their ill-defined anti-capitalist agenda. The church is not a political or economic pressure group. Its God-given purpose is to make disciples of Jesus, Matthew 28:18-20. 

Am I saying that the church doesn't give a fig about social justice? Hardly. There is something deeply wrong with our economic system when hedge funds are allowed to asset strip old folks' homes. Amos had a thing or two to say about the rich plundering the poor, (Amos 2:6-8), not to mention James, (James 5:1-6). Christians like William Wilberforce and Lord Shaftesbury worked tirelessly on behalf of the poor and the oppressed. They were not concerned with 'pious idealistic impracticalities', but made a real difference to the lives of ill used and vulnerable people. Christians are doing the same today.

The key task of the church is to preach the good news of Jesus Christ to all people and demonstrate the reality of Christian love by offering practical help to those in need. That's what the church is for. I'm afraid that championing the cause of anti-capitalist campers has very little to do with it. 


David Reimer said...

As I read your opening remarks, I had a sense of deja vu! They're highly resonant with the BBC Magazine article on this same subject.

Guy Davies said...

I didn't spot the BBC article until after I posted my two penn'orth. I suppose it's good that the protest has got people talking about the purpose and mission of the church.

Clare said...

Great post

Jonathan Hunt said...

Great post!

Guy Davies said...

Thanks, both.

Unknown said...

Thanks Guy, helpful post.

I can shed some light on your question of what the apostle Paul would've made of it...he'd have sold them new tents... :P

Guy Davies said...

Great to hear from you, Jon.

Paul: "Don't bother with Millets. Buy one of my bespoke organic canvas 'Tarsus Tents'. You know it makes sense."

Ben said...

I find it curious that the question "What would Jesus do?" (an unreliable and mistaken starting point for dealing with moral issues) which in other circumstances would be held up to public ridicule, is being put out as an obviously proper question to ask.

Does the fact that it's being put by anti-capitalists, rather than USA fundamentalists, make this OK with the BBC et al?

Great post, by the way.

Family Blogs said...

Fabulous post Guy...laugh out loud funny in place. 'The militants from Millets' - is that original to you? I fear that David Skye may have had a hand in it.

The main body of what you say is so important too...although reading the cleansing of the Temple in the context of Mark's Gospel made me wonder if your reference to figs and hedge funds was unintentional punning??

Thanks for sharing this Guy, a much needed biblical perspective on the church and her purpose in the world. This needs to be read more widely.

Guy Davies said...

Mea culpa on the Millets bit. But the best one I've heard is, "Now is the winter of our discount tents."