Facing the questions that will shape the church in the 21st century
Community, Part C
How can the church be a community instead of a religious institution?
The Kingdom Opposed
The mission of Jesus in Luke 1-10 was to set the course to change the world. However, like every good story, there is a conflict. There is a villain; there is a tension that builds to a climax. Such a revolution of kingdom and community did not go unopposed. The current establishment naturally resisted the message of Jesus which brought them to an equal or lower station than the poor, oppressed common man, as we saw in Luke 6:24-26 and will see again in Luke 11. As a sign that Jesus was on the right track, and as if confirming that the religious establishment cared more about their own power than about their mission to be God’s people, the group of pious elite people set their faces to evil and became obsessed with bringing a violent end to the ministry of Jesus.
As we follow this story in Luke 11-24, Jesus continues his ministry and adds more in-depth teaching. Meanwhile the sinister side of the religious establishment begins to show, leading to a final showdown in Luke 22 that Jesus seems to lose.
I will cover many of the teachings of Jesus in other chapters below, but for now I will stay on a linear path to discuss how Jesus taught about kingdom and community, in opposition to the established religious practices. So checking back on the original question of this chapter,
How can the church be a community instead of a religious institution?
I have discussed how Jesus modeled for us a community that would grow into the peaceful and humble kingdom of God. A community that thrives and expands, sharing contagious kindness and compassion with the world. But, as the kingdom grows, we face this question yet again -- how can the kingdom thrive without becoming something else? The dark side of success is that we can become the very thing we sought to avoid. So how do we avoid falling into the pitfalls of becoming a religious institution?
When we seek to understand this from the gospel of Luke, first we notice from the beginning that John the Baptist and then Jesus fought the religious status quo, in order to start something new. The revolutionary teaching of the kingdom would indeed supersede the current religious system.
But, possibly more importantly, Jesus also fought the current system because he wanted to teach us how to CONTINUE fighting against this tendency, and wanted to teach us how to avoid the same pitfalls. When you consider the teachings of Jesus along with the drama unfolding, you can see the pattern jump out -- Jesus was teaching us how to become a kingdom and community INSTEAD OF becoming another religious institution. As we all search our hearts on this - which one have we become? Let’s get back to the story in Luke 11…
We start with a beautiful moment. Jesus speaks to the disciples in an intimate setting, teaching them how to talk to their Father in simplicity and sincerity:
2 Jesus told them, “When you pray, say:
‘Father, uphold the holiness of your name.
Bring in your kingdom.
3 Give us the bread we need for today.
4 Forgive us our sins,
for we also forgive everyone who has wronged us.
And don’t lead us into temptation.’” [Luke 11, CEB]
We see the key elements of the peaceful kingdom in this simple prayer:
- All authority and respect goes to God, the king of this kingdom
- The kingdom is here among us, the work of God on Earth
- God is our provision, our daily source of both physical well-being and spiritual renewal and protection
- With that provision from our generous God, we can carry generosity to others, being generous of spirit with grace for the failings of others.
Or to sum up the prayer in a single sentence:
- God you are God, and we are just humans who need you.
Jesus reinforces the point about God providing for his children in the illustrations of 11:5-13, including these famous verses that teach us to ask God for what we need:
9 And I tell you: Ask and you will receive. Seek and you will find. Knock and the door will be opened to you. 10 Everyone who asks, receives. Whoever seeks, finds. To everyone who knocks, the door is opened. [Luke 11, CEB]
Jesus teaches us that in order to understand generosity, we just need to look at how God treats us. This will be our model for our own transformation of heart. It will also remind us to always ask God for what we need so that he can demonstrate over and over again his love for us, and help us build his kingdom on Earth. In general, Jesus teaches that “right behavior” is “God behavior”. When we act like God we will be doing what’s right. Jesus also taught us about God’s nature of kindness and generosity towards his enemies, giving to anyone who asks, God’s hospitality to open the door to anyone who knocks. It was vital that Jesus teach us about God’s nature, since he was asking us to imitate that nature.
We are to adopt the God-nature that we see Jesus teaching and demonstrating.
Next, in 11:14-26, Jesus faces a controversy about whether he comes from God or the devil, since he seems to talk to demons and command them what to do. In this passage I find a startlingly clear statement of how Jesus sees the kingdom of God.
20 But if I throw out demons by the power of God, then God’s kingdom has already overtaken you. 21 When a strong man, fully armed, guards his own palace, his possessions are secure. 22 But as soon as a stronger one attacks and overpowers him, the stronger one takes away the armor he had trusted and divides the stolen goods. [Luke 11, CEB]
Do you see how this is true? If Jesus came to take the world by force, setting forth a new spiritual order - the kingdom would be OPPOSITE in nature to what Jesus taught, namely peace and compassion. He couldn’t have it both ways. Even with all the authority in the universe to rule over mankind, Jesus could not teach us about love and compassion by overthrowing the power structure on Earth by force. He could only do it through a different way -- first of all a revolution of thought, taking a humble role rather than a powerful one, and eventually by offering himself sacrificially. Jesus didn’t want to be the strong man that took over the world, setting it up to defend against every other strong opposing force. He wanted to be the source of a grassroots, heart-level, change in the world that could not be squelched by ANY force of man or spirit. We can call this the Peaceable Kingdom.
Moving to Luke 11:27-36, the passage reiterates the teachings of the sermon on the mount, in response to what those in the crowds were saying. Jesus again challenges the crowds to actually listen and be transformed by what he is teaching. When the Old-Testament prophet Jonah went to Nineveh, even though they were evil the people listened to Jonah’s warning and turned their hearts to God. Jesus is so much greater than Jonah (and as we know, Jonah had many character flaws), but many in the crowds of Israel are not interested in turning their hearts to God! They are more interested in arguing about the devil and claiming that Jesus is one! As Jesus teaches this, the tension grows, and Jesus doesn’t do anything to avoid it.
In the next scene, Jesus is invited to dinner at the home of one of the religious elite. Even though it seems like a setup for Jesus to be questioned, I tend to think that it was a sincerely hospitable invitation. Some of the religious had a hunger to hear Jesus and to understand his message, but just like the parable of the seeds and soils, they had many obstacles competing with true understanding. In 11:37-39, the Pharisee who invited Jesus to dinner is astonished because Jesus doesn’t follow the ritual hand purification process (by the way, this doesn’t mean that Jesus hands were dirty - the purification ritual was an additional requirement than just showing up to dinner without dirt on your hands or clothing). Jesus doesn’t need to be ritually purified. In fact, he is probably making a statement that he opposes the notion of such a ritual bringing any purification value. He responds to the Pharisee accordingly:
39 The Lord said to him, “Now, you Pharisees clean the outside of the cup and platter, but your insides are stuffed with greed and wickedness.40 Foolish people! Didn’t the one who made the outside also make the inside? 41 Therefore, give to those in need from the core of who you are and you will be clean all over. [Luke 11, CEB]
Again, Jesus states the concept that purity is heart transformation leading to generosity; this is being like God, who is also generous. What the Pharisees were doing is wrong; they are showing off their outward purity, while protecting their lack of compassion and their evil intentions which fill their hearts. If they could let go of the need to show off their purity on the outside, then they could truly transform the wickedness in their hearts into kindness.
Jesus doesn’t stop there. Perhaps incensed by the Pharisee’s notion of purity, he lists more “woes” similar to Luke 6, and applies them directly to the Pharisees. Then the “legal experts” get offended and he lists several woes for them as well. The exchange is also reminiscent of John the Baptist’s message in Luke 3:7-9.
As Jesus points out truth after truth in 11:37-53, the religious elite that were present at the dinner just became more and more inflamed, and in the end decided to plot against Jesus. Doesn’t this show even more how true Jesus’ statements were? When Jesus shined a light on their corruption, they could have, should have, responded with some level of humility, acknowledging that their hearts were not aligned with God’s. That was their opportunity to change. I believe that Jesus confronted them so directly for exactly this reason. Their last chance to change would be to hear the truth about their hearts, and respond with some willingness to correct the problem. Isn’t that how Jesus, how God’s word and the voice of the Holy Spirit work on our hearts at times? When we see the truth, do we respond with humility and willingness to change? Those of us that already recognize our spiritual poverty are more likely to submit to the truth. Those of us that have lost our humility will only become more resistant when the truth is exposed. Jesus gave these spiritual leaders every chance to change, and they chose the way of opposition.
As I review these truths that Jesus showed in Luke 11, what do they say about the pitfalls facing us? What are the problems with growing too religious, too organized, too institutional? Keep in mind that none of these things are wrong in themselves -- I am extremely grateful for the freedom to organize and practice religion in the United States, and I am not recommending that we abandon that freedom. But what are the pitfalls of putting power, piousness, or pride before people? Of putting the human institution before God’s will? Jesus describes them poignantly here:
- You give a tenth of your mint, rue, and garden herbs of all kinds, while neglecting justice and love for God. These you ought to have done without neglecting the others [from 11:42, CEB].
- You love the most prominent seats in the synagogues and respectful greetings in the marketplaces [from 11:43,CEB].
- You are like unmarked graves, and people walk on them without recognizing it [from 11:44, CEB]
- You load people down with impossible burdens and you refuse to lift a single finger to help them [from 11:46, CEB]
- You built memorials to the prophets, whom your ancestors killed [from 11:47, CEB]
- 48 In this way, you testify that you approve of your ancestors’ deeds. They killed the prophets, and you build memorials!49 Therefore, God’s wisdom has said, ‘I will send prophets and apostles to them and they will harass and kill some of them.’ 50 As a result, this generation will be charged with the murder of all the prophets since the beginning of time. 51 This includes the murder of every prophet—from Abel to Zechariah—who was killed between the altar and the holy place. Yes, I’m telling you, this generation will be charged with it. [Luke 11, CEB]
- You snatched away the key of knowledge. You didn’t enter yourselves, and you stood in the way of those who were entering [from 11:52, CEB].
These are all elements of corruption that were happening in the context of service to God. Jesus was incensed! When dealing with this type of sin, Jesus assertively pointed out every error they were making and brought it directly to a point of crisis. Jesus’ anger was tangible on this subject -- because it represented the corruption of the perfect law of God, which Jesus repeatedly affirmed to uphold, into a law of oppression of God’s children. To make it worse, they were carrying out this oppression in God’s name, claiming it was under the authority and grace of God that there were doing it. If someone is picking on your children, and claiming that you told them to do it, what would your reaction be? I think Jesus controlled himself quite well given the intensity of the offense.
As we look at these poignant truths about the errors of the Pharisees and legal experts, do we see any similarity with things we do in our own religious practices?
- Do we take pride in our piousness, seeing ourselves as better than others or any other group? Do we excuse elitism out of pride for our way of doing things? Does our religion create a social hierarchy?
- Do we foster greed in our hearts while hypocritically speaking of love and compassion? Do we allow selfishness to corrupt our religion?
- Do we hold on to unkind intentions toward those that could join us as brothers and sisters? Do we protect our religion by looking down on outsiders?
- Do we show hypocrisy in how we give to God? Meticulous in how we offer our sacrifices, but grossly overlooking giving to those in need?
- Do we love things that show off our wealth and social standing, or love to pat each other on the back and congratulate each other’s accomplishments? In this way reinforcing that the social system rewards those that show their outward righteousness, regardless of what fruit they produce?
- Are our contributions meaningless and worthless to the world around us, like unmarked graves that people walk on? Or do we make a contribution that outside people would admire, regardless of their beliefs?
- Do we burden others with our own understanding of how to appear pleasing to God? Do we show off outwardly, criticizing others when they step out of line or when they make a fool of themselves? Do we make it all too easy for people to stumble socially or religiously so that others will see them and laugh at their clumsiness? How hard is it to get approval in our religion? How easy is it to say or do the wrong thing?
- Do we establish rules, laws and systems that stop people from doing things, but establish no system to help them in the situation they have found themselves in, the situation that made them need to break the rules in the first place? Like the bread thief in Les Miserables or a pregnant teenager in today’s time, do we stop at the rules? What about offering a hand to help? Does our religion promote helping or criticizing?
- Do we memorialize our crimes, honoring the atrocities of the past? Do we praise our forefathers and in a sense approve of how previous generations treated people that were different or of lower station? Do we celebrate wars of Protestant vs. Catholic, or Christian vs. Muslim? Do we honor the genocidal atrocities of colonialism with holidays and statues? Do we ignore how our forefathers claimed in the name of God that they were right to enslave others and discriminate against women and people of other ethnicities or ideologies? We need to repent of these actions; do we have too much pride in what we’ve built to openly acknowledge its many failings?
- Do we STOP KNOWLEDGE by teaching lies and distractions, so that the truth about our own corruption remains hidden away? When it comes to our religion, it’s history, and its current policies, do we cover over the mistakes we’ve made and our continued challenges in treating people equally? Or do we face the truth with open eyes and then enable progress fixing them for the future?
52 “How terrible for you legal experts! You snatched away the key of knowledge. You didn’t enter yourselves, and you stood in the way of those who were entering.” [Luke 11, CEB]
At this point I would like to try to answer some of these questions I listed above, and I apologize at the great difficulty I will have in speaking to a general audience when each of your backgrounds will be so different. So, please regard these comments as being an evaluation of “my” church history - the broad evangelical (Protestant) Bible-based churches of the United States, and the Christian movements in our American and European history which led us to the modern-day church. This modern church is a large, multi-faceted establishment with organized hierarchical denominations as well as a large non-denominational membership of independent churches. I have been a part of the modern-day church establishment my whole life (and I’m in my 40’s). Its history is my history. Clearly, there are many types of Christians with very different histories. You can use my analysis to consider your own situation which may be quite different.
Due to moving many times in my life, I’ve been a member of several evangelical denominations, as well as several non-denominational churches including new church plants and large established churches. The culture represented in today’s non-denominational evangelical churches is fairly well-defined and common around the country, with differing levels of conservatism, and mostly a disdain for fundamentalism. Christians in these churches believe in the Bible and in treating people well, and they participate in their church in order to honor God with their worship and join with others in community. So, what’s wrong with all of that? I want to say “Nothing!”, but when I evaluate the points made by Jesus above, I see that there are issues we need to address, which I will discuss in five broad categories:
Protectionism [Luke 6: 24-26, 11:38-41, 11:43, 12:13-21, 11:39-41]
Selfishness and greed takes many forms. It is human nature to want to protect ourselves, our families and our communities, but Jesus saw it necessary to critique our self-centered perspective when it comes to the kingdom of God. In Luke 6:24-26 and 11:43, Jesus warned about comfort, riches and good reputations (not in themselves being bad things) often being in opposition to the kingdom of God. They create complacency, pride in our situation and resistance to taking risks that may be crucial for kingdom progress. He warned about overly isolating and protecting ourselves, hiding our bright light, which should shine to show the world God’s grace, under a bucket where no one can see it.
He recognized that our tendencies toward self-preservation would undermine everything the kingdom stood for! The kingdom is to be an outwardly expanding source of positive change in the world. A light on a hill. Any behavior which keeps that light to ourselves goes counter to the purpose of that light, which is to brighten dark places. What if Jesus had followed this tendency? What if he had stayed home and trained a few close friends? The light would have never reached to you and me.
Beyond this type of complacency and isolationism, Jesus fought outright greed, selfishness and corruption of the heart, as in 11:39-41. If we make decisions based on our own comfort or protection, we risk becoming greedy enough to make shady decisions that we justify based on protecting the status quo. In the name of preservation of all that is good, corruption of our soul can take place. Selfishness and greed are the human condition, but it has no place in the kingdom of God. God loves humans, humanity and even human nature -- he’s the one that created it. But for God to bring his kingdom -- the place where God reigns on Earth -- our own selfishness and greed must give way to God’s will. It’s God’s kingdom and he is the king! It’s our kingdom to belong to, but not to rule!
But interestingly, God does let us rule our kingdoms - if we choose not to hand over the control to him. Due to free will and God’s grace for us, he lets us establish our own kingdoms any time we want, to rule in selfishness and greed or as we see fit. How often has God acted to topple the corrupt establishment because of this? Not many times. Throughout our history, God simply lets us proceed to build our institutions and selfishly protect them. God worked through people regardless of this, through genuine kindness and selflessness in his children from every generation. But, we see in history how often these institutions mistreated people both inside and out, in the name of and in contrast to, the God they claimed to serve. God allowed it. God worked through his people, regardless of the ill intentions of some others who were busy protecting their own kingdoms. But God always has a bigger picture in mind than we can fathom. Freedom is a part of this bigger picture.
So what symptoms of the selfish complaceny Jesus described do I see in the modern church? In today’s church I see an immobilizing isolationism. The church positions itself as a silent observer of the outside world, a spectator to what happens in our communities, our country, and the needs around the world. We partition some of our resources, and efforts, for outreach, which I discuss in the next chapter. We also generally assign some resources, such as staff members time, volunteer time and contributions to missionaries, to care for members of the church and support other projects in the community and abroad. We also at times see our expanding global mission as being to build more churches similar to ourselves, more places where the light can shine around the world; but for that to be effective we must correctly model to those new churches what they should be doing to continue the work of the kingdom of God. We don’t need to build more isolated kingdoms. That won’t change the world.
The problem is, sometimes we as a church do not see our role as being a light in all the dark places; instead, we tend to see our role as preservers of the light, the place where God is worshipped and where God can be found in the world. Come in our doors on a Sunday morning, and the light will be seen. We protect that role as the highest priority, and often the outward focus takes a back seat. In the notion of “tithe” which means “a tenth”, it seems the church tithes its resources to give about 10% to the community. What happens to the other 90%? It keeps the lights on. It maintains the status quo. It offers a light shining to glorify God, in a well-controlled container made of walls. Inside our walls, we can laugh or cry at the happenings outside, but we are not taught to go out and face the inequity in the world and be a loud voice. No, instead, we teach that:
- the church is to be separate from the world, so as not to be corrupted by it;
- we are not of this world, instead we belong to a heavenly world;
- we should focus upward, meaning reflecting on heaven, and inward, meaning reflecting on our own spiritual station.
We also teach love and are encouraged to look around us in our own church, encouraging and caring for one another, and to look for our neighbors in need -- this is on the right track but even this can lead us to remain too isolated, if our view of our “neighbors” never extends beyond those present with us in the church, in our families, or in our inner social circles. Jesus had expanding circles of influence from his closest disciples, to his larger group of disciples, to the crowds of believers, and then to the crowds of seekers that surrounded him. He also had a perspective of how to influence the entire nation of Israel and planned his ministry around the country. And though he was focused on his home country, through Israel he was also granted access to influential leaders in the Roman world. Through the seed he planted in his disciples, his message would soon reach the entire known world.
Unlike Jesus, our circles of influence are limited by the walls around us. I believe we are content and comfortable with these walls, to the point that we are afraid of losing them. We prefer the status quo rather than embracing change, because we like the way things are and don’t want to lose the comfort that we currently enjoy.
Like the happy, content people that Jesus warned in Luke 6, we need to look at such comfort in the status quo as a dangerous source of temptation:
24 But how terrible for you who are rich,
because you have already received your comfort.
25 How terrible for you who have plenty now,
because you will be hungry.
How terrible for you who laugh now,
because you will mourn and weep.
26 How terrible for you when all speak well of you.
Their ancestors did the same things to the false prophets.
27 “But I say to you who are willing to hear: Love your enemies. Do good to those who hate you. 28 Bless those who curse you. Pray for those who mistreat you. [Luke 6, CEB]
Please use these verses from Luke 6 as a solemn reminder that we need to pro-actively address these issues, owning up to our own comfort, and changing our posture toward other people.
What should we do about these symptoms? We need to open our eyes to the world around us, open our arms to embrace others and to embrace change, and open our doors to let the light out. Our church does not need the walls we’ve built. In fact the walls do more harm than good.
How could we correct this? What should we do then? Perhaps we should just continue as we are: we might respond that the overhead of maintaining status quo, the huge 90% portion of our resources, is all worth it to keep the lights on and provide the inwardly focused support of our community through the established infrastructure. We might point to the 10% portion of outreach as being the “light” that we share outside our walls, as an effective way to sustain the influence of the church in world. We might say that overall this is a good balance, and that it has worked for generations and will continue to work for generations to come. In this sense, we argue that the end justifies the means. And that the “means”, the status quo we carry on with, is doing a lot of good, such as giving the community a comfortable place to call home, so we should not reduce the portion of effort required to maintain it. But, as Jesus pointed out many times, the kingdom of God is not to be contained. It is not designed to be gently protected under a bucket from one generation to the next. It is not just a family, protected inside it’s home. It is a force to change the world!
Or we can propose solutions. What if we inverted the portions? What if we allocated a maximum of 10% to keeping the lights on and maintaining our structure, so that our community would have a place to call home. This would leave 90% of our effort and resources allocated to activities outside of the wall. What could we do with that type of investment and that type of focus? Like Jesus’ disciples we would see the world change before our eyes.
To do this, we need to be a church without walls. A church without limits. A community that grows by the actions we take together, not just by association of coming together in the same room. We need to OPEN the church. We need to open ourselves to what God wants to do in the world around us, and we need to apply our resources (time and money) in the direction of our hearts. Yes, we need a new vision and mission for the church, and I will attempt to create a practical, complete, picture of how that vision could look in this book.
Elitism [Luke 11:38-41,46]
The second category of concern for Jesus was elitism. He saw that religious infrastructure degenerated into power structure. He looked around and saw pride and oppression. The common person around him looked at Jesus with eyes hungry for acceptance, looking for rescue from a society that continually pushed him or her down. This society was the Jewish religious state, governed loosely by Rome through a network of governors who sought to maintain order and had Roman garrisons at hand. The religious elite included a class called “scribes”, because education to read and write was only available for a very few people in the wealthier classes in those days. This education was used as a form of elitism -- those that could read and write maintained themselves in situations of power over the lower classes. As Jesus clearly described: “How terrible for you legal experts too! You load people down with impossible burdens and you refuse to lift a single finger to help them” [from 11:46, CEB]. The legal experts used their power to place restrictive burdens on worshippers, barriers to being accepted by God, and oppressed them with impossible requirements, making themselves look better. When you read the narrative of Jesus reacting to the money-changers and treatment of the poor in the temple (see Matthew 21:12-17), you see that Jesus fought the unjust treatment of worshippers, who were required to exchange their money, replace their sacrifices with more unblemished ones and probably buy other supplies they needed, on the temple grounds at inflated rates. It was a scam akin to charging $6 for popcorn at the movie theater, but even worse, legally requiring people to do it in order to retain proper standing in the religious community. Jesus showed that elitism leads to oppression, and he fought that oppression, throwing the money-changers out of the temple..
Elitism also leads to pride and showing off. Jesus hated pride. He saw it as a set of blinders that caused a person not to see anything but their own greatness. He told the Pharisees, “You love the most prominent seats in the synagogues and respectful greetings in the marketplaces” [11:43, CEB]. They loved themselves, and they loved it when others admired them. In contrast, Jesus praised the humble, the child-like, the impoverished and people of low station. In their hungry eyes he could see a certain openness, an ability to see the kingdom, a humility that led to teachability. In the eyes of the commoner Jesus saw the potential for greatness, and great love. In the haughty eyes of the religious elite, Jesus simply saw blind self-promotion and love for self. This selfishness was maintained through power. Elitism is any power structure that keeps the social order by elevating certain classes and oppressing others. Power can come in the form of real advantages like education, abilities, or money; or arbitrary social categorizations like ethnicity, gender or your family name. Elitism is a disease. It corrupts the kingdom with ill intentions. Jesus warned it to be like bad yeast in the bread, which could corrupt the whole loaf [e.g., Luke 12:1].
What is the cure for elitism? The cure is a painful one. It requires letting go of privilege, and elevating the commoner to equal status. We are all the same. If we can put this truth into practice, we will have to give up all the ways we hold onto our own power. If we see inequity between us and anyone else, we will see ways that the system and our social norms enable us to remain comfortable at the expense of others that do not enjoy that comfort. As difficult as it is for humans to see their own pride, humans have an even harder time seeing elitism. We believe in FAIRNESS, but we don’t see the inequity that proves that fairness has not been achieved. We (many of us in the church) are the rich, the privileged class, the highly educated. How can we understand the power that gives us over others that have less than we do?
In the modern church, elitism in the kingdom is even more subtle and harder to see than in society as a whole. I am sure that when Jesus called out the elitism of the Pharisees as “yeast”, they completely scoffed at the idea, perhaps thinking of themselves as the most humble and gracious of God’s children. When we do things in the name of God, we have such trouble seeing our power over others. What does this power base look like in the church? It looks like social hierarchy, educated Bible-speak, and religious rightness. We show who’s-who in the church by honoring people that look a certain way, speak a certain way, and act religious.
We also honor the rich and those of high social standing, a fact that James criticized in James 2:
1 My brothers and sisters, when you show favoritism you deny the faithfulness of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has been resurrected in glory.2 Imagine two people coming into your meeting. One has a gold ring and fine clothes, while the other is poor, dressed in filthy rags. 3 Then suppose that you were to take special notice of the one wearing fine clothes, saying, “Here’s an excellent place. Sit here.” But to the poor person you say, “Stand over there”; or, “Here, sit at my feet.” 4 Wouldn’t you have shown favoritism among yourselves and become evil-minded judges?
5 My dear brothers and sisters, listen! Hasn’t God chosen those who are poor by worldly standards to be rich in terms of faith? Hasn’t God chosen the poor as heirs of the kingdom he has promised to those who love him? 6 But you have dishonored the poor. …
8 You do well when you really fulfill the royal law found in scripture, Love your neighbor as yourself. 9 But when you show favoritism, you are committing a sin.... 12 In every way, then, speak and act as people who will be judged by the law of freedom. [excerpts from James 2:1-12, CEB]
We may be blind to this in our church, but look for proof that I’m wrong -- look for proof that James’s criticism is not equally valid today. What poor person or person of low social class is a prominent leader in the church? How many more men are in influential positions than women? What about other minorities -- does the church make extra effort to bring them into positions of equal or greater responsibility than the majority group? What about education -- do those at the top speak the most eloquently and with the most Bible knowledge or general educational status? Ask your church leaders to show you the church’s Equal Opportunity policy for people attending the church, and for hiring staff. Is there one? Does it proactively invite people of all types to join the church or to apply for a job there? What proof does the church offer that it invites all people equally, without discrimination?
I must admit that I am all of these things - a privileged, well-educated, white male with a long history in the church and an upper-middle station in the economic pecking order of society. I am the elite compared to many others in the city I live in (Boston, MA). But it never felt that way. I never saw it or saw myself as feeling any greater than anyone else -- but I looked down on others that didn’t look right, talk right, smell right, or have everything together… I didn’t make extra effort to walk in the shoes of the unwed mother who could barely make ends meet, much less keep her children in control. I didn’t have any respect for the outspoken man with the funny hair that just didn’t seem to fit in. I didn’t see the kingdom of God as made of these people of lower social standing. I saw the kingdom as a clean and proper place, where these other people would struggle to fit in; they would need to either assimilate or else leave out of frustration. How many nameless faces contain eyes hungry for acceptance, wishing for someone to notice them? How many of these nameless faces tried to gain acceptance in the church but found none, and didn’t stick around to face the rejection. Did we mind when they didn’t come back? How many of these people are Jesus longing to reach out to, but there is no one available to extend a hand to them? Church people - we are blind to these masses! We don’t know their names and we don’t see their faces. We don’t mind if they stay home. We are too focused on looking up the social ladder, seeing only those with more power and privilege than us. We compare ourselves to those we respect, and we see our own shortcomings. Jesus looked the OTHER way on the social ladder. He looked down it and found eyes of humility looking back at him. If you are looking for a revival of the church, look THE OTHER WAY. Look for the humble and I have no doubt you will find them. The price is steep. As many authors have written, it’s a slippery slope when you start accepting people the way they are. If you start doing this, your heart will never be the same, and it may never stop breaking. Can you dare to open your eyes to these people, and then open your heart to love them?
What am I recommending? A church without walls. But this time I speak of walls in our own hearts and minds that lead us to not see the world around us. We must open ourselves up, and slide down the slippery slope of accepting people of humble station. We must establish equality, and topple privilege. We must end elitism in God’s kingdom. We must let it go. We must open the church.
Pride in the Past [Luke 11:47-51]
In Luke 11:47, Jesus launches into an aside about how the religious establishment honors past prophets by building statues. I’m sure that this critique seems a bit foreign to us at first, and it may be difficult to understand how this relates to us today. But step back and look again at what Jesus is saying we should do with respect to our past, to the history that brought us here. As I mentioned above, many atrocities were committed through the years, in the name of God and Christ, meaning, by Christians and the Christian establishment. At the time, this behavior may have been considered normal or acceptable. But in time we as a society have learned that behavior which oppresses people that are different than us is wrong and should be outlawed; behaviors like genocide, religious persecution, slavery, oppression and repression of women, and ethnic discrimination, all of which the church openly condoned or actively participated in through the various events in our history; we now fully realize that these behaviors were wrong and they are even illegal in the United States, with peoples’ rights protected by our laws and constitution.
What is our attitude toward those atrocities? We know from history that the Jewish people had similar atrocities in their past. I think the simple question Jesus raises is this: do we repent? Do we acknowledge that mistakes made in the past were wrong, even egregious? Do we admit that this behavior, carried out in the name of God, was entirely mistaken and we would now behave oppositely? Repentance doesn’t mean to live in a state of regret about the past, or in fear of reprisal; repentance simply means to turn the right way, admit that we were wrong, and make a commitment to positive change. When Jesus saw the way that the religious institution memorialized the past, he was mortified, and saw fit to set them straight in his list of “woes”. Jesus is saying - you do not repent of these wrong-doings! You are proud of them! Woe to you, who honor your history to the point of being blind to your past mistakes. Instead, repent of them and lead the way toward a better future.
I am calling for the church to admit all the things that we have done wrong and take a posture of humility and repentance. It’s the right thing to do. We can be extremely grateful for our heritage, the church that brought the knowledge of Christ to the current generation, and yet still be humble about our past failures and repent of them. We should commit to proper treatment of all people, regardless of their background and regardless of any categorization you can think of. We should promote equality and justice inside the church, and then fight inequity and injustice in the world around us. Sins I listed above -- genocide, religious persecution, slavery, oppression and repression of women, and ethnic discrimination -- are still happening today in the world in staggering numbers. In a growing global population of more than 7 billion people, there is more than enough opportunity for oppression by those that commit evil acts, and there are more slaves today in the world than at any time in human history. Does the church acknowledge this? Does the church take a stand? In order to do so, we need to acknowledge and repent of our past mistakes, when we endorsed slavery and discrimination in the name of God (in America not that long ago). We need to make clear statements that the church does NOT support this type of behavior in any form. Think of the Fair Trade movement, in which companies are able to certify that their products are made ethically across the entire supply chain, meaning that no slaves or unethical business practices are allowed. The dictionary defines fair trade as:
a movement whose goal is to help producers in developing countries to get a fair price for their products so as to reduce poverty, provide for the ethical treatment of workers and farmers, and promote environmentally sustainable practices [Merriam Webster]
The church should be fully behind this movement, as an example and statement that the church stands behind fair treatment of people around the world and is actively working to make a positive difference. We should be willing to pay more for products that adhere to this. What is stopping our churches from taking this kind of simple action? I hope the answer is “nothing”, or could be in the future. The mission of the open church expands to the oppressed children in third world countries who farm cocoa beans, sugar cane or coffee, or who work in sweatshops to manufacture clothing, or who are trafficked to our own country and forced to work in the sex trade, or work without proper wages in the corner shop right under our noses. We are the church! We stand for something. We stand for God’s view of humanity. We do not stand for injustice. What will we do? Can we open the church to face our past with repentance and our future with determination?
Not Enough Focus on Community, Generosity, Justice and Love [Luke 11:41,42, 44, 12:1-3]
Jesus contrasts the selfishness and pride I discussed above with generosity, justice and love. See such passages as Luke 6:9, 6:27-38 and 10:25-37. In Luke 11:41-42 talks about neglecting both justice and love for God.
41 Therefore, give to those in need from the core of who you are and you will be clean all over.
42 “How terrible for you Pharisees! You give a tenth of your mint, rue, and garden herbs of all kinds, while neglecting justice and love for God. … [from Luke 11, CEB]
Jesus connects in many instances our love for God to our love for others. Jesus sees it as a clear consequence -- if you love God, you will show justice and have compassion. If you neglect justice, you also neglect your love for God. Even if you do every last bit of some commandments, in the name of pleasing God, if you neglect people you are not loving God but neglecting him.
We also have this commandment. We should love God by showing justice and compassion. Sometimes we get our priorities backwards. We think we should love God, first, by doing every last bit of some commandments (which I won’t list right now). Then, we should love others. We may honestly think that by focusing mainly inward on our spiritual connection to God that we will then be empowered in the future to love others all the better. While this is certainly true that our relationship with God will enable love for others, why do we use our time together in community largely for inner reflection? I see most of our traditional activities in the church as isolating. We are encouraged to close our eyes in prayer, search our hearts introspectively, sing a song upward to God, focus on God and be mindful of his presence. I fully endorse individual spirituality, but I am wondering why we utilize our time together almost solely for these individual practices? In the teaching and Bible-reading portions of a church service, we are also pointed inward -- learning, thinking, reminding ourselves of God’s word. Even though we are doing it together with other believers, the actions we take could also be done in front of a television or in a concert hall. They don’t really require the presence of other people, except for the encouragement that may be had by hearing other voices nearby as people pray or sing. Some portion of our time in community (maybe 10%) is spent on social connections such as shaking hands, chatting and catching up, or enjoying a coffee or meal together. In terms of priorities, we place God first, at 90% allocation of all time and effort, and we place other people second, at 10% allocation. What if we reversed this? What if we changed our priorities, due to a better understanding of what Jesus taught? What if we understood that we love God BY loving other people? Would we set aside just 10% of our time and effort during our community gatherings, to make sure our hearts are in the right place, and then spend the other 90% of the time loving each other, or taking constructive action together? In the process of teaching and learning, could we spend this time more interactively? Wrestling with a Bible passage or new concept through more discussion and sharing? How can we undo the organizational limitations we have placed ourselves in, which isolate us as individuals and limit our community interactions?
We need to lower the priority on loving God through individual action, and increase the priority on loving God through interaction.
This is one of the key ideas of community. In our modern structure, we have defined community as a gathering together for a common purpose, but that common purpose is very introspective. I challenge us to open our eyes and look around us. Do you see that the same bright light of Christ that shines in you, also shines in all of the many people around you, singing to God together? Like many small candle flames in an otherwise unlit room, the expanse of the room is filled with bright dancing light due to the many individual lights. We can appreciate what God is doing in each person, and truly come together, as a much brighter light when we combine our strength. I realize that this is a similar view to how other people think about the body of Christ, but I am suggesting that much more sharing and caring are more needed, in order to capture the potential strength of coming together and joining our spirits with one another. If we let go of the structure of church - we will be left with one another, and then we can turn our eyes outward from our own spirits to look around at those around us. We can ask what we are ready and equipped to do to love our neighbors, and then get to the beneficial work of doing that.
I will follow this theme in other chapters as I talk about the potential of what we can do together to make a difference in our community in the areas of compassion and justice -- through outreach and a positive message to share with the world outside of our community. But change starts within. As we strengthen each other and engage in true community, we help and encourage one another through sharing our common experiences and love for God. Through cooperative action, such as performing acts of services in the community, we grow even closer as a team, as a community, through the partnership of working together.
We do a better job of teaching our children to be compassionate, when we work as a group to show compassion. We do a better job of putting into quick practice, what we learned in our Bible study. We bring Bible concepts to life through action. What I am suggesting looks like a thriving growing community. By focusing more on people than we do currently, we can fulfil our calling to be the community and kingdom of God.
Lack of Exploration of Knowledge [Luke 11:52, 11:14-20, 27-36]
What is Jesus referring to when he says the legal experts are stealing knowledge, in 11:52?
52 “How terrible for you legal experts! You snatched away the key of knowledge. You didn’t enter yourselves, and you stood in the way of those who were entering.” [Luke 11, CEB]
Jesus also follows a similar theme in 11:14-20 and 27-36, claiming that the religious elite are making false arguments, or deliberately ignoring truth when presented to them, also ways they are stealing knowledge.
Jesus is saying that the system of religious power and oppression does not allow people to learn the right concepts about God. For instance, by oppressing people in the name of God, the religious leaders teach believers that God is oppressive. The number one way that we hide knowledge of the truth about God, is by acting in a way that is counter to God’s nature, and then claiming we are doing it out of obedience to God. In this way, the misinformation propagates from those of high power to those of low standing, and from generation to generation, maintaining the power structure.
If we look at the core question of this chapter -- how do we be a community instead of a religious institution -- it helps to ask why we have this tendency to develop into a religious institution and miss out on community. Here I will follow the question of “why” through several stages:
We have a tendency to miss out on community.
Because we want to use our time and effort on something else.
We are doing it out of obedience to God.
Because we think God wants us to do this.
Because that is how we understand God.
Because that is what we were taught.
Because that is how we teach others (and our own children) to understand God, so naturally we were taught that ourselves when we were young or new in the church.
Because we think it’s right.
Because we think Jesus taught that or the Bible says it.
In the end, our structure, our decisions and our way of thinking are determined by knowledge -- our understanding of the truth. If we think it’s the right thing to do to neglect community, we will continue to do so and teach others to do the same.
But what if we look at Jesus’ words and we start to understand that truth is not what we thought it was? What if we look again, and we see the commandment to “Love God, and love your neighbor as yourself” in a more active sense, where we must engage in loving our neighbor in order to love God better. What if we start to understand that God wants that interaction, as a result of personal growth. What if we understand that God wants worship and discipleship to expand beyond personal spirituality into shared spirituality with our community. What if we describe obedience as being an active participant instead of a spectator?
If we can better understand God, what God is asking, and what Jesus taught, we can change the way we think and therefore change the way we act.
Isn’t this called repentance? Changing the way we think and act? If we find ourselves building a religious institution instead of the community and kingdom of God, we need to repent. We need to change it, starting with how we think, and leading to a major change in how we act.
What will happen if we do this? If you follow the “why” questions above, you see that if we change our fundamental understanding of what Jesus and the Bible teach, it will feed upward through each question, and change the outcome. We will act as a community because we believe that’s what God is calling us to do, and we will teach this understanding of God and God’s will to those around us and to our children. If we change what we think, the rest of the structure will also change, because we will want it to! You might think that the church is too large, too monolithic, too established, to be changed by simple ideas. But the church is in effect a democracy! Just follow the money trail. It is structured the way we want it to be, the way we believe it should be. We organize ourselves, write our founding documents, appoint leaders and hire staff members in order to achieve what we believe the church should be. We build it like we see it. We are what we think. We invest our money in what we like. Fundamentally, if we change what we think, we will change what we are, and put our money where it matters. Repentance leads to transformation.
We need to open the church. We need to change the way we think about our calling from God, by opening our minds and hearts to what Jesus taught about our true purpose and mission as the community and kingdom of God. In this new understanding, if we can change our own hearts and minds, we can change the church, and change the world!
On the other hand, if we in the name of God, structure our religion so that knowledge is not explored in our community, deeper truths are not sought, and understanding of God’s word does not grow, then we, like the Pharisees, are snatching away the keys to learning, keeping it all for ourselves. We need to take a more humble position -- a position that says God will reveal truth to people, irrespective of how great or simple that person is. God is active and dynamic, and can still do new things even 2000 years after the Bible was written. Lest we forget, Jesus is still alive today! When we read the Gospels, doesn’t it feel like Jesus is talking to us? What is he saying? Is he saying “good work, just carry on?” Or does some of his teaching wake up something new in our spirits, making us rethink our inner motivations, our inner purpose, and challenging our actions? If Jesus’ words are saying something new to you, they can lead to a new understanding, which can lead to transformation of everything else. We should all seek knowledge. We should also listen to knowledge, wherever, and from whomever it may come. We should encourage and facilitate the exploration of knowledge, by taking a position of humility in our own hearts that will allow us to hear the truth from others. Sharing and discussing truth is one way for us to dig deeper into what God is saying.
The church should open it’s door to knowledge. We should explore what it means to be God’s kingdom in the 21st century. As the world changes, and our understanding grows, maybe God will want to do something new and amazing, instead of protecting the status quo in the kingdom. If we open our eyes, what will God show us?