Disbelieving Church: Ministry

Disbelieving Church: Ministry

[This post is the last (bar conclusions) of a series of reflections on Disbelieving Church. If you have not already done so, please check out the Introduction for a little background and a few disclaimers.]

On a Sunday night more than twenty years ago, I sat in the balcony of the large church in which I grew up listening to a missionary give a talk about her experiences working in Mexico. Her words were powerful, but it was her passion that made a deep impression on me. This woman loved the people she had been working with. Her love was clear as she spoke, and I was moved in ways I didn’t understand.

It is this experience that I identify as the first stirrings of what I came to understand as my call to ministry – to love people as God loves them, to serve people, to help them discover a more full and healthy life. For nearly two decades I searched for the right expression of this calling, eight years ago, I thought I had found it.

Every day Facebook reminds me of my “memories” – the things I have posted about, or others posted on my virtual wall, “on this day” over all the years in which I have had an active account. Recently I found a post about my nerves prior to an interview about my desire to train for ministry in the Baptist Union of Great Britain. I had been asked to give a brief presentation on the topic “What is the role of a Baptist minister in the 21st century.” In the comments on this post, a friend had asked for clarification on how “Baptist” would change my answer. In response, I wrote a post on my then-blog entitled “the role of a minister.”

Looking over this blog post (and if you choose to click through and read it, please understand this blog represents a different “me” than I now am) I can see the same core ideal of ministry that I internalised all those years ago. For me to be a minister is, first and foremost, “to walk with people through all the joy and pain of life.” I believed that ministry “in the 21st century” could be played out differently:

We seek to spread the message of Jesus as a contagious disease rather than an exclusive club. We seek to preach in how we live, attempting to cultivate integrity, humility and solidarity with others, avoiding violence in our words about and towards others as well as our actions.

As is frequently the case with my brain, my ideas about “being a minister” were big and general – love, encouragement, teaching, walking alongside – rather than detailed and structured. In my head, the minister is the one who loves as Jesus loves, who is, to borrow a phrase from my past “Jesus with skin on.” There are many songs about being Jesus’ body – his hands reaching, touching, healing; his feet going to places of need; etc. In my heart, ministry was modelling this and encouraging others to join in the process of spreading love and peace.

Although I have been a Baptist all my life, it is only in recent years that I have began to wonder what is the theological basis for the role of “minister” within the free churches. In other, older traditions the minister is the priest, the representative of Christ, the mediator between the people and God, the administrator of the sacraments, the one who hears confession and offers absolution.

In these traditions, priesthood has a clearly necessary, theological role, connecting humanity to God in important, not to say indispensable, ways. In such a context, ordination is a sacrament which initiates an “ontological change” in the ordinand. He (usually) is fundamentally different in his being after undergoing ordination and becoming a priest. He is set apart and consecrated to carry out his indispensable divine task.

In a tradition that believes in the priesthood of all believers – the freedom of all to approach God through Jesus with no other mediator – the traditional theological content of the priesthood of ministry should be subsumed. There is no need for someone consecrated to serve communion. There is no need for someone ordained to pray or absolve. The role of “priest” belongs to everyone, and, therefore, logically should not belong to any one, particular person.

If this is the case, why do the free churches still invest so much in ministry and ministers? I have yet to discover a convincing theological explanation of the need for a minister in a free church context or what his or her role is meant to be. This is particularly complicated among Baptists, who have a principle of the freedom of conscience – meaning that there are probably as many opinions about any given topic of debate as there are Baptists in the room. Indeed, there’s an old joke that between two Baptists there will be three opinions.

The inevitable result, it seems to me, is that ministry becomes purely functional, and that function, as with all other matters of faith and practice among Baptist churches, is subject to the opinions of all interested parties. (That is to say, is subject to the will of Jesus through the leading of the Holy Spirit as discerned by the community in a Church Meeting.)

Practically, this leads to an exponential multiplication of roles for “the minister.” He or she is a pastor who cares for the needs of the flock, a teacher who believes and expounds correct doctrine, an administrator who sees the business of church gets done, a leader who identifies a vision and inspires others to follow it, a “priest” who performs rituals, the individual personification of “the church” or God or Jesus, and the one person in the church of whom it is acceptable to make unreasonable demands or to undermine and contradict with no reference to his or her feelings, needs or personal life.

In short, the lack of clarity on any theological basis for or definition of the role of “minister” within free church (or at least Baptist) tradition has created a vacuum of understanding that is filled by the individual needs, experiences, beliefs and cultural backgrounds of the various members of the church congregation all of whom desire, expect or demand different things of “their” minister.

The reality is that no one person has the gifting (or the time and personal resources) to meet all these expectations. A church/ministry relationship can work reasonably well when the diaconate or “leadership team” of a church recognises this, enables the gifts of their minister, and quietly sees to the other needs for ministry in their midst without trying to force him/her to meet them. Unfortunately too many churches are occupied by people who think a minister can and should be all these things. There are also still many who have a priestly view of Baptist ministers and complain that “no one” from the church has visited/spoken to/helped them merely because the minister hasn’t been available to do so.

As can be seen in several of the other topics I have visited in this series, my experience as a minister’s wife and a minister-in-training taught me to be wary of people in churches. Although there will always be some who support their minister and see the minister and his or her family firstly just as people and as someone filling a role, there will always be others (often the majority) to whom the minister is an object and the ministerial family are props. These people inevitably become angry or hurt when the minister fails to meet their uncommunicated (and often unacknowledged) expectations, and will take this out on those in ministry without humanity, decency or honesty.

I had high ideals of ‘being a minister’ – to help, to serve, to love. What I found instead were expectations that I should obey, surrender my intellectual integrity, alter my personality, and submit myself to the needs and desires of others without considering my own. My definition of my role and the ways I felt I could fill it were irrelevant to the institutionalised “church” which forced its own definitions and expectations onto me, as it does to so many others who desire to serve Christ and his body in this way. In many ways the death of my ideals about ordained ministry was the catalyst that forced me to confront the reality that I don’t believe in the church anymore.


Disbelieving Church: Answers

Disbelieving Church: Answers

[This post is part of a series of reflections on Disbelieving Church. If you have not already done so, please check out the Introduction for a little background and a few disclaimers.]

When I was a teenager there was a popular song among the Christian set that began “Jesus is the answer for the world today.” I think I may have even attended a youth retreat with the title “Jesus is the Answer” and a matching t-shirt. I cannot remember for certain, but I do remember one of the female chaperones singing the song passionately while she filled the vehicle with fuel before we headed back to Northern Virginia. Even then, I felt a little niggle of doubt. Jesus is the answer? Sounds nice and pat. How does it work?

Several years later I was sat on the steps of a church in Cardiff talking to a fellow aspirant to ordination (albeit in the Anglican Church) when we were approached by a woman who had just come out of the pub across the street. “If anyone asks, I was here talking to you,” said the woman. She was clearly unkempt and not quite right, whether under the influence of a substance or mentally ill or merely distressed, I was (and am) not qualified to say. My companion was kind to the woman, and I tried to do my part, though I felt oceans out of my depth. We kept her calm and talking until the uniformed services came to deal with her.

Eventually she was removed, and I was left wondering what possible “good news” the church behind me had to offer this woman. “Jesus loves you” wasn’t going to change her life. Praying “the prayer” wasn’t going to instantly change her into a healthy, sober, peaceful individual. Even then, I instinctively knew that what this woman needed was radical love, deep sacrifice, and, above all, expert care, probably lasting for many years if not the rest of her life. The congregation of which I was then a part had next to nothing to offer her. Many of the members would have looked askance at her if she had entered the building and, possibly, even shunned her.

Here was I, a Christian, with access to the holy power of God and able to call on Jesus – the answer to every question and problem – helpless in the face of the abject need and helplessness of a stranger on the street. I could not offer the answers of faith to the problems of life. I felt frustrated, small, and confused.

It is possible that this post is more a reaction to the embedded theologies of my childhood, than my adult experience of church. The langauge of “having the answers” is less prevalent in churches these days than it was 20 years ago. Perhaps the church is beginning to catch up to the idea that the answers it is offering are answers to questions fewer and fewer people are actually asking.

However that may be, there still seem to be churches where the question and answer motif is favoured – perhaps through the use of the Alpha Course – or similar Christianity 101 type programmes. I remember hearing a story about a children’s talk in church in which the speaker clearly described a squirrel, but the child that raise a hand gave the answer as “Jesus.” Even that young, that child had been indoctrinated to give “Jesus” as the answer to every question, without engaging the brain and considering whether that answer made any logical sense.

Churches seem to be geared towards answering the big questions “why am I here?” or “Is there a God/who is God?” or “what’s my purpose in life?” It doesn’t seem to me that these are the questions that most people are actually asking. Hanging out with other mothers in mother and baby play groups, I hear concerns about the sleeping or eating habits of the children, domestic relationships, money and holidays.

Friends with chronic ill-health or other disabilities are concerned about how much they will be able to accomplish today while feeling so poorly, whether the government will erroneously judge them “fit to work” at the next assessment, when a new seeing-eye-dog will become available, or helping their deaf friends to access the services they so desperately need but are excluded from because of poor English skills.

My husband comes home from work talking about colleagues, and their concerns are similar – money, relationships, children, health, holidays. Everyone is stuck on the same treadmill, and we are all trying to practically make our lives work, to find people with whom to share love, to help those we love to live the healthiest and happiest lives possible.

These aren’t the traditional “big questions,” but they dominate lives in our society. The closest attempt to a Christian response to such concerns is to invent “biblical” answers to these every day questions, and teach people exactly how to live their lives, down to the most intimate detail, in order for God to bless them.

I don’t believe church has the answers. It isn’t even asking the right questions.

Instead of trying to get people to ask the questions to which we have ready-made answers based on what a questionable concept of “biblical truth,” I think it is time for the church to leave its truths on the shelf somewhere and spend some time discovering and sharing in the questions people are actually dealing with every day.

What has the church to say to the rural community whose doctors’ surgery is closing and the local people, particularly the elderly, who are concerned about where they can go for help? What does the church have to say to the homeless, mentally ill or addicted person who wanders onto their steps while seeking to escape an awkward situation? What does the church have to say to the LGBTQ individuals walking past its doors or sitting in its pews, afraid to be honest about their own identity for fear of abuse and rejection? What does the church have to say to Muslim communities who face racial and religious persecution in the streets around her buildings?

This is a sample of some of the questions I think churches should be thinking about. Nothing to do with immortal souls. Nothing to do with proof texting. Nothing to do with being right (or proving anyone else wrong). Everything to do with helping, loving, sacrificing, spending more time with “sinners” and “outsiders,” and building a more positive world.

And if the church building has to close for lack of attention because Jesus’ followers are out doing good and helping people; well, would that really be so bad?

Terrorist Sympathiser

Some months ago in among the flurry of events surrounding the birth of my son, I remember seeing the news that (then-Prime Minister) David Cameron had accused (leader of the opposition) Jeremy Corbyn of being a “terrorist sympathiser” because Corbyn had commented negatively on the illegal raid that lead to the murder of Osama Bin Ladin. I remember wondering at the time how a leader of the “free world” could get away with labelling his rival with such an inflammatory title simply because that rival preferred due process of international law above covert operations targeting and killing in another country’s sovereign territory without so much as a by-your-leave.

Recently an American tourist was tragically killed in a knife attack on the streets of London. In a radio interview for a national Christian radio station, a local Baptist minister was asked for his thoughts on the event. One of the questions asked by the woman doing the interview was along the lines of asking how Christians can love or forgive people who carry out such horrible attacks.

I confess to being baffled by this question.

As an aside, I can understand victims of horrible attacks struggling with anger and the inability to forgive – if they or their loved ones have been badly injured or killed in such an attack. The trauma of such an experience can well take a lifetime to recover from. Christianity has too often been culpable for guilting people who do not “forgive and forget.” We all deal with trauma and grief differently and forced “forgiveness” should not interrupt the process.

For the rest of us, who hear news almost daily of another death by violence, tragedy or terrorism, surely we should have the objective distance to understand that all the people involved in violent crimes are human beings, including the perpetrators. Acknowledging the humanity of perpetrators should not be insulting to victims. Of course, criminals should be held to account for their crimes, but that is the business of the justice system, not of every man or woman on the street.

Some years ago I happened to be attending a lecture given by a tutor in biblical studies to two dozen or so prospective candidates for Baptist ministry. He was talking about life balance and accountability in ministry. In the course of the lecture he touched on issues of misconduct including financial misconduct and affairs with members of the congregation. One phrase I remember quite clearly: never think it could never be you; that’s when you open the door to it being you.

Others have used the phrase “There, but for the grace of God, go I,” a phrase that some object to as condescending, but both these phrases can point to a single truth. As human beings, we are all capable of both great good and great evil. The things that drive us to act as we do are learned behaviours, what we have been taught, how we have understood the world, what we believe is true, etc. In another world, a different family, a different economic background, I could easily have become alcoholic, homeless, perhaps even violent. I understand anger and feelings of helplessness. I understand disorientation. In a small way, I can understand what would drive a person to violence, even terror.

Does this mean I condone such actions? Certainly not. It means that I seek to understand the brokenness behind the destructive actions of humanity, however it expresses itself. It means that I understand that I have my own brokenness and destructive behaviours. It means that when I hear the story of a person who has been killed, I am sad for the victim and his or her family, but I am also sad for the perpetrator. I wonder what drove him (or her) to such a desperate and terrible act, I wonder if s/he was mentally ill, alone, paranoid, deluded. I wonder what lies, threats or desperation drove him (or her) into extreme/fundamentalist religion.

This is how we see others as human, by knowing the darkness in ourselves, by understanding that so many things contribute to the building of a murderer, by mourning the brokenness of our world that leads to such things happening. Those who commit crimes live in the same society and world as we who do not. They did not wake up one morning and decide they would rather be “bad” than “good.” We ought not to distance ourselves from their crimes as if the dark sides of our society and our world have nothing to do with us.

We are all in this together, and until we can learn to sympathise with the terrorists, the violence will only get worse.

Disbelieving Church: Prayer

Disbelieving Church: Prayer

[This post is part of a series of reflections on Disbelieving Church. If you have not already done so, please check out the Introduction for a little background and a few disclaimers.]

When I was a child, my family regularly attended a large Southern Baptist church. In that church,  every Sunday morning service had a special section when the Senior Pastor (there were about a dozen ‘pastors’ on staff) would invite all the children present to come to the front and sit on the steps. He would sit among us and give a child-level talk. The only one I remember was the yearly Easter story about the caterpillar becoming a butterfly complete with clever soft toy to illustrate the change.

Somewhere in a scrapbook from my childhood is a newspaper clipping sent to me by someone from that church of the pastor on the steps with all the children praying at the end of his kids talk on a Sunday morning. I am there, among the other children, perhaps about 10 or 12 years old. I have put my hands together as I was taught to pray, but it seems I was bored because my hands are bent to one side, supporting my cheek, almost in a sleeping posture. I don’t remember why this picture ended up in the local paper. I do remember being acutely embarrassed that the camera had caught me looking so un-holy during a prayer.

In our front garden growing up there were two apple trees and two round flower beds which roughly marked out the corners of a square. I remember many an hour spent walking in figures of eight around these four objects in front of our house, thinking, reflecting, praying. It was during just such activity that I decided to offer for baptism when I was 7 years old. At that time in my life prayer was just an extension of my thought processes; God was always a part of the conversations in my head. When I was a child, that was enough.

In church we are taught “how to pray” with clever acrostics such as ACTS (adoration, confession, thanksgiving, supplication). More appropriately, we are taught the Lord’s Prayer in whatever form prevails in our local congregation or denomination – sins, trespasses, debts, etc.

We are also exposed to numerous styles of and purposes for praying. There are the pray-ers who use “Father” or “Father God” or “Lord” as commas or in place of “um” while praying. There are those who constantly repeat a mantra like “Jesus, Jesus” under their breath during communal prayer times, distracting their fellows. There are those who use prayers to share information: “Lord, we pray for Mildred, in the Memorial hospital, Ward 31, bed 10, who has just been diagnosed with.  . .” There are those who seem to think that no prayer is acceptable without a large helping of buttering God up and thanking God for things God may or may not have actually done – or be. There are liturgical prayers that act as a centring, communal devotion or serve to dull the brains of the masses with repetition. There are prayer requests as an excuse for gossip: “They’re having problems, you know. We should pray.” There are the silent prayer requests – “please pray for me but I can’t or won’t tell you why.” The list goes on.

Then there are the people who flood social media for calls to prayer after the latest tragedy, sharing digital “candles” and comforting themselves with the belief that prayer is powerful so they don’t need to do anything practical or engage with the problems in the world that cause such tragedies. Too often prayer becomes our excuse – reminding me of James 2 – saying “go be warm and well fed” or, dare I suggest, “I’ll pray for you,” but doing nothing practical to help is not a demonstration of true faith. Too often, it’s an excuse, something to soothe worry and guilt – I prayed, so I did something.

There are, of course, many tales about miracles happening when people have been praying. I believe there have even been scientific double blind studies done on the ‘effectiveness’ of prayer on hospital patients. All I can say is, if God sometimes responds to such prayers and sometimes does not do so, it is totally insufficient to explain it away with some lame reference to God’s plan or God’s higher ways. Such a god is arbitrary, untrustworthy, and cruel.

In worship we pray week after week for the peace of the world, for the peace of our hearts,  for help, for healing, for so many things, yet week after week we see death and destruction, wars and murders, despair and depression. It is hard not to conclude that prayer makes very little difference to what happens in the world. Equally, it is seriously disturbing to imagine a God that waits for enough people to ask before intervening to save a life, stop a tsunami, or quell a terror attack.

Some say that prayer is about connection to God – that each person who is turned towards God in prayer helps to align the world more closely to divine purposes. If this is true, it is because that person, with his or her thoughts turned towards God, is more likely to act in keeping with divine purposes. If prayer changes anything, it changes us, but that kind of prayer is down and dirty, honest, wrestling prayer. Such prayers can be found in the Psalms.

Apart from that type of prayer, I am forced to say that I simply can’t believe that prayer changes anything. Especially the popular “prayer makes me feel good” type prayers mentioned above. In closing I offer an original poem by Rob Atkins recently published here:

God must be a stupid god:
He busied himself about the parking space for Charlene,
He kindly alleviated the pain of Archie’s sprained wrist
And got Dan a job.

In the meantime

Two teens lost a mother to cancer,
And a suicide man swaggered down the boulevard
With eighty-four staggering companions,
And a nation burned.

Glory to god
For the job, the wrist and the space.

To Keep and Bear Arms

To Keep and Bear Arms

Last Sunday morning I happened to wander into the lounge where the 24-hour news channel was playing on the television. The newsreader began with “this just in” or a similar phrase as he prepared to read out the breaking news that had just been handed him. Great, I thought, is it another shooting in America or another terrorist attack in Europe? The newsreader continued, “From the US. . . ” Ah, it is another shooting then. It was.

This is what it has come to, I hear the announcement of breaking news, and I immediately suspect it is a shooting in the States.

Others have written about the “epidemic” of gun violence in the States. There are graphics circulating Facebook and other social media sources similar to the one below showing “Homicides per 100,000 in G-8 Countries.” The US at 3.2 is far ahead of the next highest, Italy at 0.71 deaths per 100,000.

[other countries are Canada, 0.5; UK, 0.1; Japan 0; Germany 0.2; France 0.1, Russia, no data]

Image 1.png


Or this image:

Image 2.png

[Image, published on 2 October 2015: graph showing Terrorism deaths in the United States in 2014, 18; Terrorism deaths in the United States, 1970-2014, 3,521; Gun violence deaths in the Unites States, 2015 to date, 8,512]

Although the data may be from last year, the trend of gun violence in American continues.

And then there is this image, a map of the US showing a red dot for every shooting in 2015. It looks like America got a bad case of the chicken pox:

Image 3.png

All this to say that you can find the statistical arguments and comparisons between the US and other countries all over the web. You can find arguments about the effectiveness of gun control. You can find other images that point out that those who own guns are more likely to die in a shooting (echos of Jesus, anyone?). Then, of course, there is the other side.

Statements like this:

Image 4

[Image: black background with bold white letters saying: “GUNS DON’T KILL PEOPLE. PEOPLE KILL PEOPLE.”]

or this one, which I find much more offensive:

Image 5

[Image: a Christian fish symbol altered slightly to look a bit like a shark with the following words: Guns don’t kill people, sin kills people (like the sin of disarming good people) Romans 6:23]

As an aside I fail to see how a reference to Romans 6:23 (For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.) has any connection with the issue of gun control. How anyone can make the claim that it is a sin to disarm good people is miles beyond my comprehension. (Surely good people are peaceful people, and therefore are not armed to begin with?) I can’t think of any verse in scripture with the slightest connection to this issue. Apart from all the ones about not killing people, of course. 

My concern with this post is less to provide detailed information on gun violence in America, and more to talk about the second amendment. This second of the 10 amendments in the original Bill of Rights appended to the US Constitution in the 18th century is supported religiously by those who are desperate to hold on to the right to own firearms. They even go so far as to claim that “the Second protects the First,” that is, my right to own a gun protects my right to free speech.

This would appear to mean something like “if you don’t let me say whatever I want, I can shoot you.” I suspect, however, that gun enthusiasts think it means that they hold the government to account for their own freedom because an armed population can more easily overthrow a government. Either way the implications are appalling.

For anyone who might not be familiar with the Second Amendment of the United States Constitution. It reads as follows:

“A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”

The first half of this statement is crucial. The right to keep and bear arms is directly related to the need of securing a free State. At the time the local Militia and “minute men” were crucial in the protection of local people against military threats from indigenous peoples or foreigners. This was easiest to accomplish if each man owned and cared for his own weapon, ready to be called upon at need to defend home, town or country.

In a country that maintains a powerful military force, the core purpose of the second amendment is void. Without that need to have a local military force on call at a moment’s notice, the right to keep and bear arms should at least be examined and modified.

And, oh, by the way. Guns may not kill people without people to fire them, but guns are built, designed, made to kill (people or animals) or to simulate killing (shooting ranges, clay pigeons). Cars don’t kill people without people driving them either, but rarely (with the recent attack in Nice a tragic exception) are they used as weapons. They have other much more practical everyday uses.

These are my thoughts on the subject. I’ll close with this rather powerful poem:

American is a Gun

England is a cup of tea.

France, a wheel of ripened brie.

Greece, a short, squat olive tree.

America is a gun.

Brazil is football on the sand.

Argentina, Maradona’s hand.

Germany, an oompah band.

America is a gun.

Holland is a wooden shoe.

Hungary, a goulash stew.

Australia, a kangaroo.

America is a gun.

Japan is a thermal spring.

Scotland is a highland fling.

Oh, better to be anything.

than America as a gun.

Brian Bilston

Disbelieving Church: Structures

Disbelieving Church: Structures

In my Introduction to this series on Disbelieving Church, I offered this disclaimer about the meaning of the word “church”:

“I am well aware that the word “church” in many people’s minds should refer to a community of believers/Jesus followers, not an institution or a building. Unfortunately church as it exists today, at least in my experience, is firmly grounded in institutions and buildings, and the communities of believers that occupy these structures are shaped by these buildings and the larger institutions of which they are a part. With the culture of church we have inherited, the connection and resultant influence is inevitable.”

In this post I wish to reflect on the structures and assumptions around which the popular “Western” construct of “church” is built. My thoughts are clearly coloured by my Baptist background, but I suspect some of these reflections will have wider applications.

In various forums, but usually on Facebook, I have occasionally posted or participated in threads that seek to critique church and challenge some of the basic thinking associated with the way churches operate. In these forums, generally inhabited by those who are deeply invested in church, I always attempt to measure my words and speak sense, with the hope that those who are participating in the thread will be not feel threatened and so be able to engage with the critiques and other ideas being discussed. Inevitably, this care does not always have the desired effect. There is invariably someone who automatically reacts badly to any comment about church that is not overtly positive. One comment that I have heard more than once is some variation on the question “how can you criticise church, Jesus himself established it?”

Once the conversation reaches this point, I tend to bow out. It’s fairly clear that my comments and point of view are not going to be heard or understood. However, in this post, I want to take this opportunity to address this particular objection. As reflected in the image I found to illustrate this post, I assume this comment is based on the famous passage Matthew 16:18 “you are Peter and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it” (NIV). In fact the only times I can find the word “church” (ekklesia) attributed to Jesus is in Matthew’s gospel, three times in two verses. It is also worth noting that before the Christian movement established itself in structures ekklesia was a gathering or assembly of people without a necessarily religious connotation or structure, not the “Christian Church” as we know it today.

When these church-o-philes in their arrogant incredulity ask how anyone can possibly critque the church that Jesus established, they are missing the fact that they are reading their understanding and experience of “church” back into the two verses where Jesus mentions “church,” an understanding that has resulted from nearly two millenia of growth and change in both structures and beliefs among those who call themselves Christians. What such people call “church” now likely bears little or no resemblance to the believers gathered in early Antioch, where they were first called Christians; or Nero’s Rome, where they were persecuted; or fourth century Constantinople, where church was about beauty and power; or Medieval Europe, where the language of church was Latin and the walls were covered in illustrations; or sixteenth century Moscow, which thought of itself as the seat of the true Church and the “third Rome.”

It’s arguable whether Jesus meant to found a new religion or even a “movement,” and we have no recorded guidance directly from him about church structure or organisation. In the beginning Christianity was just a sect within Judaism. As it grew into a separate faith, the apostles and other key leaders of the Christian sect began to give instructions about how to function in communities together. Some of these have been canonised in scripture, as they were deemed highly useful by the early churches. All this has led, by degrees, to what we have today: a global, diverse movement that has splintered into countless sects many of which would (or indeed, sometimes do) disagree violently about the particulars of Christian faith. Even if Jesus founded the church, which church? and if only one of them is the true church, how could Jesus allow such confusion to grow?

As a child I remember being taught to be sceptical of those Christians who believed they could be followers of Jesus without coming to church every week. Even those who came occasionally were questionable in their allegiance to their faith. Yet I don’t remember ever reading that Jesus said “if you truly believe in me you will attend church every Sunday.” Jesus seemed more concerned that his followers demonstrate love – for God, self and others – stay close to him in spirit, work for liberation, demonstrate patience, live in humility, and practice peace.

It is possible to build a case from the epistles for the importance of church attendance. “Do not forsake the assembly” (Heb 10:25), or “speak to each other with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs” (Eph 5:19, Col 3:16)  could apply here among others. There is certainly an argument to make that community and sharing is an important part of being a Christ-follower. Again, however, this doesn’t necessarily mean “church” as we know it today.

In her song Deliver Us From Evil, Grace Petrie lampoons “church” as not in keeping with the message of Jesus. In the caustic bridge she parodies a popular praise song with the lyric “It’s ‘hallelujah, hallelujah, hallelujah,’ but when the chips are down, you can count on us to screw ya!” When I first heard this song, I was slightly offended by this bridge and its extreme impiety, but I tried to take her point regardless. Recently, I have begun to see a deeper truth in the words.

At its most basic, church is an institution (yes, even independent, congregational, free churches). As is typical with institutions, church believes in the absolute importance, even necessity, of its own existence. This remains true whether it is applied to a local congregation, a cooperative denominational body, or a hierarchical ecclesiastical structure. Since the continued existence of church is a vital presumption, “when the chips are down,” when the church is forced to choose between acting like Jesus (i.e. showing love a love that requires sacrifice) and ensuring its own survival, it, almost without exception, will choose the latter. The closer a given congregation or ecclesiastical structure is to decay, decline or death, the less likely they are to put the needs of those outside their walls (real or metaphorical) ahead of their own urgent need and desire to survive.

History shows us the rise and fall of empires and civilizations across many millenia of human existence. No great power survives forever. No world religion survives unchanged. The great temple in Jerusalem was, in time, replaced by a mosque. The great church, the Hagia Sophia, the glory and beauty of Byzantium, became, in time, the central mosque of Istanbul and is now a cultural landmark with no regular religious use. Ages pass and new ages come, but humanity continues with all its fears and loves and hates and beliefs. Followers of Jesus are found around the world, each with his or her own understanding of what that means. The message of Jesus will continue to be heard and live on with or without any given church structure or congregation.

When Christians value the preservation of their ecclesiastical structures above the embodiment of the values of Jesus, they have sold their souls to perpetuate their bodies. Any number of Jesus’ references to the Pharisees comes to mind. If our religious structures become more important than imitating Jesus and loving our neighbours, perhaps it is time to let those structures die and look for other ways to serve, love and follow.

You keep using that word: “biblical”

There is a scene in the film “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets” in which the sleek and wealthy Lucius Malfoy insults the Weasley family, sneering at their lack of wealth and disparaging their friendship with “muggles” (non-wizards). In summary, Mr. Malfoy asks, “What is the use of being a disgrace to the name of ‘wizard’ if they don’t even pay you well for it?” To which Mr. Weasley responds, “We have a very different idea of what disgraces the name of ‘wizard,’ Malfoy.”

I was reminded of this scene this morning after reading a few things on the internet about the US Presidential election, and having a chat with my husband about a YouTube channel run by Todd Friel. The crux of the matter is the word “biblical.” In two separate internet spaces I encountered an individual (identifying himself as American and Christian) who was describing certain views or values as “biblical” and offering no explanation of the term or even reference to relevant verses.

For example, a certain poster on Facebook would appear to think that voting for Mr. Trump is “more in line with the Constitution promoting religious freedom, the value of human life, and Biblical values.” (I’ll pass over the question of what the Constitution has to do with “Biblical values,” although I think it is a highly pertinent one for US Christians to think through.) This man clearly feels that Trump is the lesser of two evils because a government under Hilary Clinton “would be the most pro-abortion, immoral, anti-Evangelical, anti-capitalist, pro-terrorist group of leaders in American History.” Given my roots in conservative Christian America, what I read here is a man who is determined not to vote for Hilary because her government would allow abortion and equal marriage to continue to be the law of the land. As an aside, how on earth this man can think that Mr. Trump’s platform will “promote religious freedom” in ANY way is utterly beyond me. This is a man who has called for the exclusion and registration of Muslims based on nothing more than their religion. If anything, the man is a threat to religious freedom. I’m not pro-Clinton, but the argument here in favour of Mr. Trump is laughable.

And what is the definition of “biblical” in this context? Constitutional? anti-abortion? Christian hegemony? anti-gay? I’m struggling to see a viable connection.

In the other instance Mr. Friel is presenting a piece to camera about the “biblical” guidance about owning a home in response to the rise of the “Tiny House Movement.” He says there are 21 biblical principles about owning a home, but only shares five of them. He uses no direct references to the Bible in any form, but spends a lot of time talking about how the outward actions are unimportant because it is what is in the heart that matters. Perhaps he is thinking of 1 Samuel 16:7 here: “the Lord looks upon the heart,” or perhaps Matthew 23:27 which emphasises that it is more important what is the inner reality rather than the outward appearance.

However he does not appear to consider those scriptures that remind us of the importance of actions and words as indicators of what is going on in our hearts: (Matt 12:34, Luke 6:45, James 2:14-26, Galatians 6: 7-8). Perhaps it is true that we shouldn’t expect one change in our outer lives to change our inner reality, but it is certainly true that making outward changes can, and will, effect our inner reality in some way.

The point is, just as Mr. Malfoy and Mr. Weasley had profoundly different ideas about “what disgraces the name of wizard,” those who identify as Christian also have profoundly different ideas of what is “biblical” and what is not. The internet allows us to encounter more and more ideas and interpretations of faith, and it is sad, not to say disingenuous, that there are people out there who still think it is acceptable to present their particular tradition’s interpretation of Christianity as truly “biblical” without so much as explaining what it is or where it came from!

The truth is that the Bible can be made to support almost any point of view or doctrine if certain parts are emphasised over other parts. The parts you emphasise determine the beliefs you see as central, and the method of interpretation (contextual, historical/critical, “literal”) effects the meaning of the words. Also your objective or subjective beliefs about the Bible will effect what amount of authority you give scriptures and why.

All of these things feed into the meaning of the word “biblical,” and it is naive at best and severely arrogant at worst to use the word with no context or explanation as some kind of proof-stamp that the writer/speaker has the “truth” all sown up.

There are some who have a very different idea of what “biblical” means, so much so as to make it seem we are worshiping different gods – or at least reading different Bibles. Don’t underestimate the importance of context, point of view and assumptions, and please don’t dismiss the differing opinions of others as ‘unbiblical’ just because they aren’t the same as yours.