Yes, Keep Them Separate … and Unequal

It seems to me that Church and State need not be separate if the people running them could be trusted to … well, could be trusted.

In other words, Church and State need to be separate so long as either seeks to control the people.

And since all too often both seek — sometimes in overt and sometimes in insidious ways — to control, to dominate, rather than to liberate the populace, they must be kept separate. It is bad enough to have two separate institutions seeking control, sometimes vying for it, but it would be orders of magnitude worse to have them acting in concert to control the citizenry.

Of course, each will claim to act in the people’s best interests. But do they? Consistently enough to be trusted to act without restraint or supervision? Well enough that, rather than paying them lip service (and, admit it: we quite often do), we should turn over our own agency and responsibility to them? In a word: No! Neither Church nor State may be trusted to act dependably in all our best interests.

To be clear, I do not believe that every single pastor, priest, elder, deacon, senator, representative, mayor, council member, and so forth is naturally untrustworthy. Some, no doubt, have unflappable integrity. But in service to their institutions, and when invested with the power of increasing authority, they may act more to benefit their organizations — and to secure their places within the organizations — than anything else. They may begin their service out of legitimate heartfelt concern for others, but the higher they rise in the hierarchy the more they may shift to self-interested service, if not outright service of self.

So it is in all our best interests — the best interests of those of us in the trenches of real life — to keep Church and State separate.

The Separation Of Church And State
(Image: “The Separation Of Church And State,” by Ian Sane, on Flickr under Creative Commons.)

And, in my view, it is in all our best interests to keep Church and State at least a little unequal, with the balance of power between them tilted in favor of the civil State. In our own lives we may place our thumb on the scale and pay more heed to the Church, but upsetting that balance for the nation at large would be a bad idea. The State at this time in our history seems to be leaning toward greater and greater centralization and ever more draconian and even tyrannical exercise of its power, but with a little wisdom and effort we may still check its excesses without open conflict. However, a State in service to a Church — no matter what brand or how well-meaning — would, by virtue of its finding its guidance in holy writ, be less likely to question either its motives or its actions and therefore more likely to stride into abuses that could only be corrected by bloody rebellion.

Speaking of bloody rebellions, think back for a moment to our Declaration of Independence. It posits that we institute governments to secure for citizens the rights they naturally have been endowed by their creator. That is as close as Church and State need to be: that the Church recognize the civil authority, and that the State recognize that it is the guarantor, not the provider, of the people’s rights.

And despite the name, it is good to remind ourselves that we do not establish a government in order that it will “govern” — i.e., control — our lives, but that it will use its power to prevent us and others from interfering with or damaging one another’s lives. Government is a necessary evil, as Thomas Paine wrote in Common Sense. Unfortunately, in our day it has grown so large that much of it is an unnecessary evil, but putting such an evil in too close proximity to the Church would sully the Church more than the Church would ever be able to sanctify the State.


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Putting Service into Worship?

I wonder what it would be like if a worship service were structured to emphasize actual community service?

That is, what if a Sunday service began with praise and prayer and worship, but instead of following that with a sermon it segued into a period of no-kidding, hands-on service directed toward some specific need(s) outside the congregation? Sometimes we learn best by doing, after all, and the activity could illustrate specific Scriptures or just general principles.

Maybe it’s been tried somewhere, but I don’t recall ever seeing it in any order of worship.

Don’t forget: the word translated as “charity” also means “love.” (Image: “Saint Vincent de Paul Catholic Church (Mount Vernon, Ohio) – stained glass, Charity,” by Nheyob, on Wikimedia Commons.)

Given how many evangelical churches seem to concentrate on offering entertainment value these days, I wonder: if a church were to institute such a thing, how well would we as congregants participate in it? Would we do it very often, or for very long?

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The Kingdom of God Doesn’t Look Like Your Fancy Building, Part II

In part one, which you can read here if you like (and I’d be grateful if you did), I discussed what I see as a sad and unfortunate occurrence in the modern evangelical Protestant church: the emphasis on the church building, even when put in terms of how it serves the church body, more than on the church working in the wider world to help those in need. I haven’t collected statistics, so I can’t call it a trend, but I’ve noticed it over just the last couple of years in a handful of churches in central North Carolina so I think it’s safe to deduce that it may be happening elsewhere as well.

I wrote in part one that

Of course, you don’t need my approval to step out in faith (or to take out that mortgage) and build whatever kind of building you want. And you can believe “where God guides, he provides” and believe that God is guiding you in that endeavor. After all, Isaiah 58:11 says, “the Lord will continually guide you, and satisfy your soul in scorched places,” does it not?

Now, let’s take a closer look at that “where God guides, he provides” idea.

Scripture offers us many examples of God providing for his people, from the ram in the thicket that Abraham could sacrifice in place of Isaac (for which Abraham named the place “The Lord will provide,” or in Hebrew, “YHWH-jireh”) to the triple provisions of water, manna, and meat as the newly-freed Jews traversed the desert. And we can find numerous references to God’s guidance, in the form of miraculous clouds and fire, angelic visitations, dreams, and so forth; in accounts of people heeding that guidance or struggling against it; in exhortations to guide others wisely and warnings against false guides; in expressions of hope, such as “You are my rock and my fortress; For Your name’s sake You will lead me and guide me” (Psalm 31:3); etc.

However, I haven’t found that pithy saying “where God guides, he provides” in Scripture. The closest match I’ve been able to find is that verse from Isaiah 58 quoted above, which mentions continuous guidance and follows that with the assurance that God will satisfy the soul (sometimes rendered “desire”). Looser translations go so far as to express that soul-satisfaction or that fulfilment of desire in the form of being given good food to eat, even when we are in deserted places.

But I learned long ago that we can lead ourselves into error when we look at individual Scripture verses out of context.

So what else does Isaiah 58 say? Let’s start in at verse six:

Is this not the fast which I choose: to loosen the bonds of wickedness, to undo the bands of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free and break every yoke? Is it not to divide your bread for the hungry and bring the homeless poor into the house; when you see the naked, to cover him; and not to hide yourself from your own flesh?

Then your light will break out like the dawn, and your recovery will speedily spring forth; and your righteousness will go before you. The glory of the Lord will be your rear guard.

Then you will call, and the Lord will answer; you will cry, and He will say, “Here I am.”

If you remove the yoke from your midst, the sending out and speaking wickedness, and if you furnish yourself to the hungry and satisfy the soul of the afflicted, then your light will rise in darkness and your gloom will become like midday.

And the Lord will continually guide you, and satisfy your soul in scorched places, and give strength to your bones. And you will be like a watered garden, like a spring of water whose waters do not deceive.

Those from among you will rebuild the ancient ruins; you will raise up the age-old foundations; and you will be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of the paths in which to dwell.

I suggest two takeaways here.

First, if the Lord continually guides us and satisfies our needs in hot, deserted places, then it must be that the Lord guided us into those hot, deserted places from the outset. Not into some cool, air-conditioned auditoriums where we can satisfy ourselves, where we can bask in the incandescent, fluorescent, and halogen glow of God’s love and enjoy the music of those angelic electric guitars, but into difficult places, dangerous places, where we might fear to tread were it not the Lord guiding us.

Second, the guidance and provision come after we have done what the Lord would have us do: after we have loosed the bonds of wickedness and oppression, shared our bread with the hungry and the poor, and so forth. Then our light will shine like the dawn — or as Jesus said, so that others may glorify our Father in heaven: not so that we may be glorified as individuals or as a church. Then the Lord will answer our calls and our cries and our prayers. The Lord will provide for us while we do those things because those are the things He would guide us to do.

Work Ethic (1 of 2)
(Image: “Work Ethic,” by brett jordan, on Flickr under Creative Commons.)

Which means to me that if we are not doing those things — if we are taking care of ourselves by building fancy facilities at the expense of doing the good works which are the purpose for which we are saved (Ephesians 2:10), and without which we are dead in our faith (James 2:26) — then our light will be dim and gloomy to the world that is watching us. We may convince ourselves that our churches are alive inside, but from the outside their fancy trappings look like whitewashed tombs.

I’ve been told, for more years than I can recall, that the church isn’t the building, it’s the people. I wonder if those pastors and congregations who put a lot of emphasis on (and pour most of their money into) big, impressive buildings still believe that. I think deep down they must, but I fear they’ve been seduced by spiritual scoreboards that tally baptisms and weekly attendance as if those are the measures by which Christ values their ministries.

I’ve been told also that the road to Hell is paved with good intentions. And I’m beginning to think it may be lined on both sides with massive, expensive church buildings that sit empty and unused 90% of the time — and may be empty of compassion and pure religion even when occupied.

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The Kingdom of God Doesn’t Look Like Your Fancy Building

Some months ago, at a church we were visiting, as part of his sermon the pastor presented a detailed design for a new multi-building campus. It was a “this is what we feel led to do” message, even though they had no land to build upon, and a prelude to asking the congregation to sign on to the ambitious vision.

More recently, another pastor posted plans on social media for his church’s grand new building, reminding his congregation that it was about time for them to get their pledges in so the renovations and construction could commence. From what I saw, it looked quite spiffy (as so many modern churches do): lots of seats in the fancy auditorium, plenty of classrooms and bathrooms, and of course a first-rate visitor’s center.

We’ve seen other churches propose equally bold schemes for expansion, all prefaced by the need to “step out in faith” — because “where God guides, he provides,” right?

Maybe, but this emphasis on buildings and this scraping for money to build them makes me profoundly sad. I find myself thinking that when they say “this is what we feel led by God to do” it’s really code (or a socially acceptable translation) for “this is what we want to do.”

They’d say it’s all for the glory of God, no doubt, and maybe they even believe it, but it sure looks as if it’s for the glory of that church, that congregation, that pastorate. The emphasis is on the building, the campus, the edifice — that’s where the bulk of their treasure is going, and we remember what Jesus said about where our treasure is, right? Way to keep the tithes in the storehouse, y’all.

After all, how much treasure does it take to build a building, pave a parking lot, renovate a fellowship hall? How much treasure is going to be locked away in cinder blocks and carpeting, heat pumps and flatscreen monitors, nurseries and offices and state-of-the-art sound systems? In comparison, how much treasure do they spend to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, or visit the lonely? That is, if we graphed it by amount spent (or by percentage), which column would be higher: facilities, or charity? And how great would be the difference?

Of course their church needs a building, some base of operations, some place where the congregation can congregate. But if a widow or orphan in distress showed up at the door of their building, could they do much more than treat them to a great concert, a stunning light show, and a thoughtful message about how much God loves them? They’ve spent their treasure on that welcome center with the coffee bar, so maybe they can give them a cup of coffee, and they’ve got a wonderful house band so maybe they can give them a CD or DVD. And of course they can pray for them. But would they have to cash in a spotlight or a microphone or a monitor to actually provide those needy people with something that would make a difference in their situation?

Maybe they’d say they’re most concerned with leading the lost to salvation, and that preaching takes precedence over reaching out a helping hand. But do they care so much about people’s souls that they don’t really care about them as people, or about addressing their physical, human needs? “And all Heaven just weeps,” sang Keith Green.

Maybe they think they can do it all — have the fancy building and the fog machine and the comfortable chairs, and still reach out a helping hand. But when weighed against the treasure they’ve spent on the church building, the help they offer looks like the scraps that fall from the rich man’s table. It reminds me of an old song,

“The poor you will always have with you,”
These are the words of our Lord.
I hope you’ll come to the service this Sunday
We got some brand-new mahogany doors

According to Wikipedia, a “megachurch” is “defined by the Hartford Institute as any Protestant Christian church having 2,000 or more people in average weekend attendance.” (Image: “Megachurch,” by Silly Deity, on Flickr under Creative Commons.)

Of course, they don’t need my approval to step out in faith (or to take out that mortgage) and build whatever kind of building they want. And they can believe that “where God guides, he provides,” and by extension they can believe that God is guiding them in that endeavor. After all, Isaiah 58:11 says, “the Lord will continually guide you, and satisfy your soul in scorched places,” does it not?

Yes, but there’s more to the Lord’s guiding and providing. We’ll look at that in part two.

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When Church is Less Like Home and More Like ‘a Home’

(Another sermonette, of sorts.)

We call it a “church home,” but sometimes it’s … not.

At least, not home like a family home: a somewhat secure and comfortable family place where we spend a portion of our time, sometimes relaxing and eating and pursuing interests that captivate us and other times doing housework and chores and routine maintenance. Not a home that is a central gathering place or a base of operations for the time when we’re not at school or the office or the gym or wherever.

No: too often it seems more like a “home,” a rest home, an assisted living facility where the good church people hang out with the good church people and do good-church-person things. At these rest-home churches, we don’t often look beyond the church walls to see what we can do to make the world a better place. (Stained-glass windows are hard to see through.)

We’re shut-ins, and too often we shut out the world.

That’s not universally true, of course (but so little is). Some churches function fairly effectively as temporary refuges, where believers can refresh themselves before going back out into work and life and service. Some churches, though, appear to be permanent refuges, strongholds against the world, as if Christ had said “take yourselves out of the world” instead of telling us to be “in the world, but not of it.”

Stained-glass windows can be beautiful, but they’re not easy to see through. (Image: The “Space Window” at the National Cathedral. NASA photo.)

In a similar vein, we may call it a church “family,” but sometimes it’s not. Many churches do have a family atmosphere in which believers support one another and help one another through crises — even if it is dysfunctional at times, it’s still a caring family that does the best it can. Sometimes, in some respects, it can be better than a real family; sometimes it can be far worse.

But we don’t often mean a family like real relations in a household, in which — if we do it right — we encourage one another to grow and reach for the dreams that drive us, in which we learn right and wrong and discover our talents in order to make our way out in the world. As a church, nurturing young believers into mature believers — making disciples — we don’t always do so with the intention of preparing them to serve and live out their faith outside the church, in the real world. Often our attention is turned inward, as if serving the church and the church family is the single most Holy-Spirit-approved way of glorifying God.

But Christ didn’t tell his Disciples to stay in Jerusalem and serve only each other. And Christ doesn’t tell us to stay in the church and serve only each other.

Lord, forgive me when I prefer to stay safe in the cloister instead of walking with you in the wider world.

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Putting ‘The Gift Church’ on Indefinite Hold

(This is the fifth, and possibly last, entry in an on-again, off-again series. Links to the first four are at the end.)

Scripture tells us to “wait upon the Lord” — in Psalms, in the Epistles, and famously in Isaiah 40 — but how long we have to wait is up to the Lord alone. That point occurred to me when I realized that I’ve been thinking about the “Gift Church” (or “Gift Fellowship”) idea — i.e., of starting a church that would practice radical generosity — for nearly three years.

Sure enough, when I went back to check I saw that my first notes on it were in early March 2015. Over a few feverish weeks I searched Scriptures and drafted guidelines to flesh out the idea before I shared it with my Bible study group. We discussed it a few times, off and on, and I thought doing so would get it out of my system — but the idea had me in thrall.

Eventually, that October, I first wrote about it here on the blog in a post entitled “The Church I’d Like to Start: A Church that GIVES.” That was akin, I think, to crying out in the wilderness, but I didn’t actually do anything about it: I didn’t recruit people or organize interest meetings or whatever. I did put together a Facebook page and posted on it a few times, but I’ve since deactivated it. And as of now I haven’t written about it for nearly two years, outside of occasional Facebook comments.

But I can’t shake the vision.

Every so often I return to the idea and ask the Lord if I’m supposed to do something with it. I don’t think I’ve ever gotten a clear “No” — at least I hope I haven’t just ignored it — but neither have I gotten a definite “Yes.”

I keep asking for a sign, and I think I finally looked in the right place to find one.

Your Family is Waiting for You
Wouldn’t it be great to have a single clear sign? Alas, it doesn’t always happen … so we wait. (Image: “Your Family is Waiting for You,” by Christian Senger, on Flickr under Creative Commons.)

What sign have I been given? Simply that the Lord has not prompted anyone to partner with me. A few people have expressed mild interest in the concept, but that’s about it. No one else has had the same or a similar vision, and unless someone does I’ve decided that I need to give up this thought, this dream, this notion. (From a practical standpoint, of course, I suppose you could say I gave up — or gave up on — the notion long ago.)

Partnership is important to me because as I was studying the Scriptures, thinking about how such a church might govern itself, I focused on the fact that Jesus sent out the Disciples in pairs (as recorded in Luke 10), and that Paul always traveled with a ministry partner. Partnership offers support when times are difficult; provides for accountability to ensure vital tasks get done; and makes it less likely that a ministry will serve the minister’s ego more than the people or cause at which it is directed. I’ve come to believe that no ministry should operate except in partnership, and so I’ve put this ministry idea on indefinite hold.

And I’ve come to accept that no one else may ever catch this vision.

I may be the only person dissatisfied with the state of the church these days. Not so much the trappings of church, the worship or preaching or fellowship: the various churches I’ve attended recently haven’t satisfied my spiritual hunger, but that may say more about me than it does about them. No, I remain disheartened by the operations of churches that spend so much money on themselves — even going into massive debt like so many of the rest of us — that they spend relatively little on helping people. I wonder if it ever bothers their congregants to spend more every year on church programming, or more on utilities and maintenance of buildings that stand empty and unused most of the time, than they spend to feed the hungry or clothe the naked. I wonder if they even think about it.

When I was young, the Moderator of the Church of Scotland came to my hometown and spoke at my church. I recall two things about that Sunday. First, before the offering he prayed: “Lord, forgive us when we come before You with empty hearts, and empty hands.” That admonishment affected me deeply, and still does today.

Second, he based his sermon on the text, “What does it profit a man, if he gains the whole world but loses his soul?” (Mark 8:36). That was the day I learned that Christ had first asked that question (until then, I had only associated it with the Beatles). But I bring it up because lately I have come to view many Scriptures as applying to the corporate church as much as they apply to us as individuals, which leads me to wonder: What does it profit a church, if it gains all manner of worldly appurtenances but loses the soul of the Gospel? And the soul of the Gospel is to serve, rather than to be served.

I don’t know if I will find a church that puts serving others ahead of serving itself. I don’t know if the idea for The Gift Church, which would do just that, will ever catch anyone else’s attention.

All I know is that I will continue to wait upon the Lord.

Previously in this series:
– 1: The Church I’d Like to Start: A Church that GIVES
– 2: The Gift Church: Its Guiding Principle
– 3: The Gift Church: How It Might Work
– 4: The Gift Church: Choir Loft, or Orchestra Pit?

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Self-Control, Worship, and Life

Those of us who are Christians rightly appreciate the characteristics that Paul described to the Galatians as “the fruit of the Spirit.” A few years ago, a friend of mine pointed out that they form something of a hierarchy with “self-control” as the base. I don’t know where he learned or came up with that idea, but I like it.

I also like what Douglas Wilson has to say on the subject in the latest installment of his “State of the Church” series, Church and Kingdom, Cathedral and Town:

… the Spirit moves throughout the earth, converting and restoring individuals, fashioning them into saints, into believers. As His fruit is manifested in them, one of those fruits is self-control, self-government, or self-mastery. This self-government is the basic building block for establishing non-tyrannical governments in the other spheres that God has established among men. Without self-government, families can become autocratic tribes…. Without self-government, the church can become a grasping and despotic monster…. Without self-government, the civil magistrate can become an overweening and covetous thug….

I love that he starts with the point that the Spirit is what “moves throughout the earth” to convert people. I cannot convert anyone; I cannot restore anyone; I cannot compel or convince anyone on my own. I don’t “preach” to my non-Christian friends for precisely that reason. What I try to do — and here I’m paraphrasing, because I don’t recall the quote or the original source — is to live a life that, if I succeed, may invite someone prompted by the Spirit to ask me about whom I follow, whom I serve, whom I worship.

And, speaking of worship, I love the metaphors in this excerpt:

The worship of God is central to all of life, but it does not devour all of life. The sun does not burn everything up, but it does give light to everything. The water does not flood the world, but it does irrigate the entire world. The anchor fastens the ship, the ship does not turn into a gigantic anchor. The cathedral is at the center of the town, but does not “take over” all the activities of the townspeople — their printing, their auto mechanics, their software designing, their lawn mowing. In one sense all of that is none of their business. But at the same time the church instructs the townspeople in the adverbs — how these things are to be done, meaning, honestly, before the Lord, with one eye always on the text, and with a hard work ethic.

Lord, help me govern myself well; help me worship You in all I do, whatever I do; and help me be about the business of my life in a way that pleases You, and points others to You.

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If Buttercups Can Do It, It Isn’t Ministry

Among the 21 Maxims for Discouraged Pastors — in fact, as part of the very first one — we find this gem:

In 2 Tim. 2:3-6, the apostle Paul compares the work of ministry to three vocations, and all of them involve a goodly amount of sweat — soldiers, athletes, and farmers. The calling of the ministry is not for buttercups, and if buttercups can do it, it isn’t ministry.

The entire post seems as if it would be valuable for every pastor, whether discouraged or not, to review periodically — and for every one of us who has ever thought of going into the ministry to bear in mind when listening for that call.

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Two Warring Spirits

We have two warring spirits inside us, of criticism and of discernment, and of late I have become acutely aware of their battle within me. Even in posting this, and admitting my own failures, I’m tempted toward criticism rather than discernment — tempted to point out the motes in others’ eyes (maybe even yours) rather than acknowledging the beam in my own.

What is this critical spirit I struggle against?

The critical spirit bites and devours. The critical spirit tears down and does not rebuild. The critical spirit speaks without thinking or reflecting. The critical spirit does not have equal weights and measures; it does not apply the same level of scrutiny to itself as it does to the other.

In contrast, what is the discerning spirit that I try — and all too often fail — to employ?

The discerning spirit wants to protect, not destroy. The discerning spirit warns; it does not push. The discerning spirit can speak hard words, and often does, but it is the scalpel of the surgeon, not the cudgel of the mugger.

Do you struggle with this, at all? Or am I the only one?

Lord, help us — help me — discern more than criticize, build more than demolish, and support more than undermine.

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Holding On

If I Had Been an Apostle on that terrible Holy Saturday,

… would I have gone into hiding? Yes, I would.
… would I have sunk into despair? Yes, I would.
… would I have wondered if it all had been for naught? Yes, I would.

Because I am fickle and uninspired and weak. Because all I had dreamed of and hoped for had been crushed. Because I would have known, with the surety that I knew the sun would rise, that I was bound for the same fate.

Sometimes all we can do is hold on. (Image: “Despair,” by Lloyd Morgan, on Flickr under Creative Commons.)

And yet, when the next day dawned for the Apostles, all was not as they feared it would be. The world was the same, but their lives were radically changed. They held on long enough to see the new dawn, and sometimes — when we are hiding, in despair, and wondering if what we’ve done is for naught — all we can do is hold on, as well.

Wherever you are, whatever you may be going through … hold on.

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