The Church As We Have Known It is Ending, and That Might Be a Good Thing
Here at The Table, we are enjoying a weekly Bible Study on the Gospel of Mark (we meet at the church on Wednesday nights, gathering together downstairs in the Fellowship Hall starting at 6pm, bringing our own food, and eating together, before starting the study at 6:30pm: join us if you’d like! Okay, mandatory plug over.)
This last Wednesday, we covered Mark 11 and the beginning of chapter 12.
We are very reliant on Dr. Gene Boring’s fantastic “Mark: A Commentary” from Westminster John Knox Press (2006).
Some of what he wrote about Mark 11:12-25 (Jesus cursing the fig tree and over turning the tables in the Temple) really stood out to me.
From Dr. Boring:
“The destruction of the temple was a deeply traumatic event for both Judaism and the new Christian movement, especially its Jewish Christian segment. What could it mean that God had allowed the unthinkable to happen? Zealot defenders of the temple had to the very last proclaimed that God was testing the believers, that divine deliverance would come at the last moment, that they needed only to have faith. But the temple in flames meant that both temple and faith had to be rethought. Both Jews and Christians were refashioning their faith and theology in the light of the temple’s destruction. The ultimate curse on the fig tree, from which there could be no recovery, meant that whatever the future path for God’s people might be, to hope for a restoration of the temple was a vain hope.”
The loss of the temple for the Jewish faith especially, but for early Jewish Christians as well, was a powerful blow to their faith. How can our worship of God, our very understanding of church, go on now that the temple is destroyed? It was a real question that didn’t have an easy answer.
In many ways, we are facing the same question now today. Numbers are regularly released that show the declining numbers of worshipers at churches in all denominations, across all beliefs. Even churches and denominations that still have strong numbers are seeing the decline, and none of us are immune to this inevitable change.
The way we have known and done church for the past few generations is coming to an end. The church as we know it is dying.
And maybe that isn’t such a bad thing.
We have seen from our very own Scriptures that such change has necessarily happened and been survived before, and we will adapt and survive now, even if what “Church” becomes is something that is completely unrecognizable to us right now.
The beginning of Mark 12 (1-12) is Jesus telling the religious leaders of the temple a parable. He talks of a vineyard (using language very similarly to Isaiah 5:1-7, cluing us in to the fact that the Vineyard of the parable is Israel). He proceeds to tell a story that mirrors the relationship between Israel and God, as the vineyard’s owner sends servant after servant to try and get the tenants of the vineyard to give the owner his due. Just as Israel rejected and mistreated (even occasionally unto death) each and every prophet that God sent to Israel. Finally, the vineyard owner sends his only son, and the tenants kill him and toss him out of the vineyard.
Jesus concludes by saying that the vineyard owner will come and remove the vineyard from the hands of the tenants who ignored his wishes, who harmed those whom he had sent, and give it over to new hands.
We can see that in many cases the people in charge of the church today, or at least some of its most vocal and up front proponents, are misusing that power, much like the religious leaders Jesus deals with in Mark. They are ignoring and even blatantly causing harm to God’s own people, much like the tenants of the vineyard.
Just this week, we saw a church where a minister admitted to sexually abusing a high school girl while he was her youth minister. He received a standing ovation from his congregation. She wasn’t given a voice at that service, however. Why did he admit to this? Only because she came forward about it more than 20 years later in light of the “Me Too” movement. Right after forcing himself on her, using his position to abuse her, he forbid her to tell anyone. She, however, told another minister of the church about it at the time. The other minister also advised her just to keep quiet about it. After this abuse was made public, he told his congregation about it. He said he sinned, had apologized, had done everything biblical to move on. He was applauded by his congregation for a full 20 seconds.
Even worse, his senior minister in front of that congregation preached about the sin, making it seem like the victim, a 17 year old girl who had been abused by her youth minister, shared in that sin.
No comment was made on the fact that what occurred was statutory rape and illegal, and none of the authorities of the church where it occurred did anything about the illegal acts that had occurred.
And the victim herself was shocked by both her attackers speech about it at his current church and their response, calling it “disgusting.” She also reported the crime to police when it happened, although apparently nothing was done about it by police either.
The fact that a minister abused his position in this way with zero consequences, and in fact when talking about it received a standing ovation, is exactly the kind of thing that have driven people away from the church.
And we can’t think that this is a solitary incident either. The reputation of the minister and the reputation of the church were seen as more important than the victim. Both 20 years ago when the event happened and again this week despite being a different congregation in a different state!
The tenants of the vineyard aren’t upholding their end of the bargain – this fig tree can no longer bear any fruit.
Also this week, our president has shown again by his own words and actions, that he is a racist. This is another opportunity for the evangelical leaders that support him to disavow him. However, I’m sure no one is surprised that Robert Jeffress, senior pastor of First Baptist Dallas, has instead, again, come out in support of our racist president.
While Jeffress claims that perhaps the president shouldn’t have used the word he used, the sentiment is correct.
In other words, Jeffress gets it completely backwards. Honestly? I could care less if the president swears in the Oval Office. I can guarantee he’s not the first to do it. It isn’t the word “shithole” that any of us are objecting to, it is the racist sentiment behind it.
He questions why we allow people from “shithole” countries into the United States, pointing to countries where the majority of people are people of color. He follows this up with wondering why we can’t instead have people immigrate from Norway, a country where the majority of people are white. That’s the sentiment that Jeffress sees as a correct one. That only white people should be allowed to come to the United States.
It is a blatantly racist sentiment that stinks far worse than any offensive word or the literal fecal matter to which the offending word refers.
“Apart from the vocabulary attributed to him, President Trump is right on target in his sentiment.”
When these are the representatives of God’s church, defenders of sexual abusers and defenders of blatantly racist sentiment, is it any wonder that the church is losing numbers?
The tenants of the vineyard aren’t upholding their end of the bargain – this fig tree can no longer bear any fruit.
It should be pointed out that the church as we know it radically losing numbers is primarily an American and Western European phenomenon. In many of the places our president so vulgarly referred to as “shitholes,” the church is exploding.
Which brings me again to the parable of the vineyard from Mark 12 – it strikes me that the words the tenants speak when deciding to kill the son of the vineyard’s owner are identical to the words spoken by Joseph’s brothers, “Come on, let’s kill him,” (except, you know, in Greek) in the Septuagint version of Genesis 37:20 (the version of the Bible Mark would have been familiar with and used, a Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible).
A story that we, and Mark’s audience, know ends on a much more hopeful note. Joseph doesn’t die. In fact, after being sold into slavery, he ends up becoming a person of prominence in Egypt, a person of prestige and power, a person who happens to be in a position of power when those same brothers who tried to kill him come to try and secure food for their family when suffering from a drought. Joseph tells his brothers not to be dismayed. He basically tells them that what they did for evil, God has turned to good.
So yes, the church as we know it here may be dying. Many are doing and supporting evil in God’s name.
But what the world may do for evil, God can make good. And God will make good.
So the church as we know it here may be dying, but maybe that is a good thing, because it will allow what God has planned next room to grow.
Mark closes his section on the fig tree and the temple with a statement about faith and prayer
Jesus answered them, “Have faith in God. Truly I tell you, if you say to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea,’ and if you do not doubt in your heart, but believe that what you say will come to pass, it will be done for you.”
Dr. Boring in his commentary on Mark notes that for many, the mountain on which the temple resided was the eschatological, or end times, temple to which God’s promise of all nations united to God’s promise would finally come to pass. The destruction of the temple, of that very mountain, shook the faith of God’s people to its core.
Dr. Boring writes:
“The destruction [of the temple] was a severe test of faith for Mark’s church. ‘Faith that moves mountains’ is not a general hyperbolic proverb about the power of faith, but is related to ‘this mountain,’ which probably refers to the temple mountain – the subject of the whole section. The temple mountain is no longer the focus of the eschatological events, as pictured in Isaiah 2:2-4, when all people will come to it to worship at God’s house. It had not been ‘thrown into the sea,’ but razed by the Romans, a powerful reversal of the Zealots’ goal of ‘throwing the Romans into the sea.’ Yet the mountain’s ‘removal’ is not a meaningless tragedy or frustration of God’s plan, but in Mark’s interpretation makes way for the ultimate ‘house of prayer for all people,’ the Christian community. This should not be thought of as the church ‘replacing’ the temple in the sense of ‘Christianity superseding Judaism,’ for Mark is not dealing with two religions called Christianity and Judaism; instead it shows the role of the temple in God’s continuing plan. Analogous to those Jews who saw the synagogue as the ‘house of prayer’ in which the essential function of the temple was continued, Mark sees this function continuing in the church of the Jews and Gentiles. It may have seemed utterly impossible to the Christians of Mark’s day that the promises of God could still be realized after the temple’s destruction, but ‘nothing is impossible for God.'”
And so too for us today, the essential mission of God’s church will go on, whatever it looks like or whatever form it takes, just as it did after the destruction of the temple. As more and more churches close and the view we have always had of what constitutes the church finally ends, and it begins to seem utterly impossible to us that the promises of God can still be realized, we must remember two things:
Even with the evil acts of the world and those who claim to represent God, out of it all, God will somehow make something good.
Because for God, nothing is impossible.
- Rev. Josh