Have you ever wondered what the purpose of Church is? I don’t mean the spiritual purpose of Church. Quite obviously, the Church exists to build faith communities and serve her members. I am asking what the purpose of the Church is in the world that surrounds it. Assuming that our faith calls us to act in the world around us in a particular way, what can we say about the nature of that call?
Generally speaking, I suppose one could argue that the job of the Church is to evangelize the world. Not all Christians would agree with that being the job of the Church, but even if we accept for the moment that it might be, you would be hard pressed to find a Church that’s only intersection with the world, strictly speaking, was going around asking people to join their Church. Most of them, perhaps as a recruiting tool, are acting in the world around them.
I have watched the Church with some interest over the last twenty-five years, and it seems to me that there are essentially two answers to the question of what is the job of the Church in the world. The first, and in recent history the most popular by far, is that Church exists to identify and combat what it identifies as problems with the morality of the world around it and to attempt to coerce compliance with the Church’s vision of appropriate moral behavior. The attempted coercion takes place through proposed legislation, by supporting candidates for political office who support the Church’s vision, and through bring pressure to bear on those who do not comply. The primary issues that have occupied those who share this view of Church in the world over the last twenty-five years have been human sexuality and abortion.
The second answer, and least popular in recent history, is that the Church exists in the world to bring about social justice. Under this vision the Church exists to lift up the down trodden, the oppressed, the marginalized, the poor, all those whom we believe are “the least of these” that Jesus referred to in Matthew 25. This goal is accomplished in two steps. The first is that the Church attempts to meet the urgent and immediate needs of marginalized populations. The hungry are fed, the naked clothed, the sick and imprisoned are visited. The second step is working for change in the systems that create poverty, racism, sexism, oppression, violence, lack of access to services, and anything else that is life denying in the life of human beings.
One thing I find especially interesting about these two perspectives is that they seem to be mutually exclusive. It seems, in practice at least, very difficult to help people with essential needs if you can’t look beyond their behavior and whether it corresponds with your expectations or not. Conversely, if you are trying to feed, clothe, and shelter people you don’t have much time left for worrying about their sex lives and whether or not they have ever terminated a pregnancy. The first answer to Church seems to create a situation wherein I am responsible for your behavior in what we generally believe are the most private of moments – in your bedroom and in your doctor’s office. The second answer seeks to be responsible for keeping you alive, and other than hoping that you won’t do harm to anyone else isn’t terribly concerned about who you sleep with or whether you enjoy it when you do.
Interestingly, but not surprisingly, conservative believers tend to endorse the first understanding of Church in the world, while more progressive believers endorse the second understanding. Since conservative believers claim to be much more in touch with what the Bible has to say and claim that progressive folks don’t even believe in the Bible, it might be interesting to see what Jesus has to say about all of this.
Would it surprise you to know that the Pharisees were very concerned about the moral behavior of their day? In fact, in one notable encounter between Jesus and the Pharisees they bring to him a woman caught in adultery. The first question you might ask is how they caught this woman in adultery and whether or not they set her up – since a man could have sex with whomever he wanted, a confederate of the Pharisees could easily have been convinced to seduce this woman while the Pharisees themselves lurked outside the bedroom window to “catch” her. However it happened, they bring the woman to Jesus and point out that the Law of Moses states that they should stone her to death.
It would seem that most who favor Church as morality police stop reading the story here. In fact, if you drive around your town and look at the sign boards in front of conservative Churches, you will most likely find that most conservative pastors are preaching from the Old Testament this weekend, despite claiming to be Christian. They apparently have missed that Jesus is the fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets, and that the Law and the Prophets can be summed up in two commandments: Love God with all you heart, mind, and soul; and love your neighbor as yourself. I’m not sure how you lovingly throw stones at your neighbor.
Getting back to our story, Jesus answers that the man present who is without sin can cast the first stone. Not surprisingly, one by one, beginning with the oldest, they all walk away. Jesus then tells the woman that he does not condemn her, and that she should go and sin no more.
Regarding social justice, Jesus is very clear about our responsibility to care for one another. He himself fed the hungry masses not once but twice. How does that become less important that doing the very things he spoke out against? The truth is, short of a retreat to the Old Testament to the exclusion of the New Testament, it can’t be done biblically.
One of the things we can be sure of about the Church is that it has been in a state of steady decline since the 1960s. Today, despite 80% of Americans claiming to be Christian and 96 claiming to believe in God, less than 20% of Americans are in Church on a regular basis. The reasons for this are many, but I can’t help but wonder if a large part of the reason is that, after a period of feeling quite superior to we sinners, policing the behavior of others just isn’t that interesting. It may be, in a twisted sort of way, exciting to hear about all the forbidden things that people do in a sermon, but after a while cheap thrills aren’t enough to bring people back. Finally, it has become increasingly apparent over the last few decades that all of this focus on “appropriate” sexual behavior by conservative pastors hasn’t kept more than a few high-profile (and who knows how many lesser known) pastors from being found with their preaching gown around their ankles.
Every generation has been sure that the current generation is going to hell in a hand basket, just as their parents believed they were going to hell in a hand basket, no doubt all the way back to the beginning of time. Having as your religious focus the goal of controlling the behavior of others is a way of avoiding reality and the pain of the world by, in fact, creating more pain for those who are the target of your moral angst. Avoidance isn’t faith, however, and unless your relationship with God is moving you to make the world a better place in a way that decreases the amount of pain then it is nothing more than a kind of spiritual solitaire. Jesus didn’t look at the Pharisees, who had descended into a shallow legalism, and say, “carry on!” He rather insisted on change for the better, for the lifting up of the oppressed and the inclusion of the marginalized. The book of James tells us that true religion in the sight of God is to help widows and orphans in their distress. In fact, over three thousand verses of scripture speak of God’s wish that we care for the poor and marginalized. Since the Bible contains just over thirty thousand verses, that means that ten percent of the Bible asks us to care for the poor and marginalized. The Bible is silent on abortion, silent on birth control, has eight verses about straight men having sex with other men but none about gay or lesbian men and woman having sex with each other.
Do you suppose we have missed the point?