Unacceptable

Many wonderful things happened at my church today, but as we all know the First Rule of Blogging is that one should always focus on the negatives.

Admittedly this Rule is in direct conflict with the Christian rule, "Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen." (Ephesians 4:29)  Perhaps some Christian bloggers think that the Rule for what goes into their keyboard, is different from the Rule for what comes out of their mouths.  Still, there is a time and a place for criticism in "building others up"; I pray that the Lord would give me the right spirit and tone.

What bothered me didn't have anything to do with the church service itself; it was a flyer for another event.  It was a Methodist organized "Good Friday breakfast", with some speaker talking, and the fateful line was something like the following:

Individual tickets—$35.  Sponsor a table of eight: Bronze Circle: $250, Silver Circle, $500, Gold Circle, $1000.

There would be nothing particularly remarkable about seeing this sentence in an advertisement for a political rally, a theatre meet-and-greet, or a fundraiser for some other type of secular non-profit corporation.  Yet I couldn't help but feel like there was a contrast between the point of the event—which one presumes has something to do with Christ's Crucifixion—and the means chosen to finance the event and make it available to the public.  Perhaps, before mediating on Jesus' Passion, the organizers of this event should meditate on the following Bible passages:

In the following directives I have no praise for you, for your meetings do more harm than good.  In the first place, I hear that when you come together as a church, there are divisions among you, and to some extent I believe it.  No doubt there have to be differences among you to show which of you have God’s approval.  When you come together, it is not the Lord’s Supper you eat, for as you eat, each of you goes ahead without waiting for anybody else.  One remains hungry, another gets drunk.  Don’t you have homes to eat and drink in?  Or do you despise the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing?  What shall I say to you?  Shall I praise you for this? Certainly not!  (1 Corinthians 11:17-22)

While this breakfast probably does not include a specific Communion ceremony celebrating the Lord's Supper, its purpose is still centered around remembering the same event.  We do not come to the Cross as "Bronze" or "Gold" circle members, we come as sinners saved by grace.  Nor is anyone excluded from the Cross because they cannot afford to pay $35 for a meal.  As it is written:

Since you call on a Father who judges each man’s work impartially, live your lives as strangers here in reverent fear.  For you know that it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your forefathers, but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect.  (1 Peter 1:17-19)

God will judge us all impartially, so we ought to be afraid to draw wicked distinctions between those who have the silver and gold, and those who do not.  The "reverent fear" has to do with the fact that God is zealous for his holy Name and will not leave people unpunished who discriminate in this way.

If the organizers of this event suddenly decide to fear God and respect the poor, there is an easy solution.  Try the phrase "suggested donation", and make explicit the fact that those who cannot pay are still allowed to attend.  Remove the silliness about different levels of prestige associated with different contribution levels.  And then maybe you will understand what happened at the Cross better.

It turns out that there is an explicit rule about this in the New Testament:

My brothers, as believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ, don’t show favoritism.   Suppose a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and fine clothes, and a poor man in shabby clothes also comes in.   If you show special attention to the man wearing fine clothes and say, “Here’s a good seat for you,” but say to the poor man, “You stand there” or “Sit on the floor by my feet,”have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?  (James 2:1-4)

This passage of Scripture was instrumental in the formation of the Free Methodist denomination.  The other Methodists were literally charging people money in order to sit in reserved pews.  I saw some of these myself when I visited an old Anglican church in Williamsburg, Virginia (a sort of colonial "living history" tourist attraction), which has been in continuous operation since 1711.  It's rather charming to sit in the Pews reserved for "George Washington" and "Thomas Jefferson", but less charming to think of poor people being unable to sit down in the church because of their lack of funds.

That's what makes Free Methodists "free"—you're free to sit wherever you want, although it was also associated with their political activism to end slavery, unfortunately still necessary.  "Freely you have received, freely give" (Matthew 10:8).  Who will put the Free back into these Methodists?

(If you're curious, the "method" part of Methodism was basically small group Bible studies, with literacy training for poor workers who needed it.  This was also politically subversive back in the day, since workers who could read demanded better treatment from their employers...)

Now the Church is the manifestation of the Kingdom of God here on earth.  Its King is Jesus Christ, and we do the things that we do in order to please him, not the world.  A lot of the things that Christians bicker about, Jesus might not care one way or another.  "Man, who appointed me a judge or an arbiter between you?" (Luke 12:14).  But if there's one thing that made Jesus flip out, it was contaminating God's holy place with commercialism:

When it was almost time for the Jewish Passover, Jesus went up to Jerusalem.  In the temple courts he found men selling cattle, sheep and doves, and others sitting at tables exchanging money.   So he made a whip out of cords, and drove all from the temple area, both sheep and cattle; he scattered the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables.  To those who sold doves he said, “Get these out of here!  How dare you turn my Father’s house into a market!”   His disciples remembered that it is written: “Zeal for your house will consume me.” (John 2:13-17)

When I see things like the flyer I mentioned, or church bazaars, I wonder what Jesus would do today.  Possibly something that would get him arrested.  (According to the synoptic Gospels, he was indeed arrested just a few days after making a similar scene.)  Presumably if I were holier—if I had more zeal for God's house—I would also fly into a rage and turn over tables, instead of simply noticing the inconsistency and calmly writing a blog post about it.

The bottom line is this.  The Church belongs to Jesus, and we are not at liberty to run it like a business.  Not even like a non-profit business.  True, a shrewd Christian leader with business experience might well be able to extract valuable life lessons from how the business world works.  But this cannot include the lesson that status and privilege is distributed on the basis of money.  The Church is an anticipation of the New Jerusalem, the home of righteousness, in which the only kind of riches that counts is being rich towards God.

Update: upon returning to church the next week, I found that I was mistaken about the Good Friday breakfast being sponsored by a Methodist organization.  It was actually being sponsored by the YMCA, the speaker being the CEO of some Christian organization.  The event was clearly explicitly Christian, so my criticisms still apply, except for the remark about putting the "free" back into the Free Methodists.

About Aron Wall

I am a postdoctoral researcher studying quantum gravity and black hole thermodynamics at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. Before that, I read Great Books at St. John's College (Santa Fe), got my physics Ph.D. from U Maryland, and did my first postdoc at UC Santa Barbara.
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2 Responses to Unacceptable

  1. Martin Kochanski says:

    Well done. Fraternal correction is always needed or we'll never get anywhere.

    There are all sorts of possible fixes of a commercial kind, but I surely the one that would have amused Solomon the most if he'd been faced with the problem is this: arrange the seating so that all the seats on the table with the speaker are free, the $35 seats are on tables near the speaker, the $500 tables towards the back of the room, and the $1000 tables outdoors next to a loudspeaker relaying the talk. Because after all, it's nowhere actually said what the differences between the different grades of table are.

  2. Aron Wall says:

    Welcome to my blog, Martin.

    Yes, the trouble is that most people are convinced that they are the ones who need to do the fraternal correction, and their brother is the one who needs to be corrected. Plank, meet eye. Although, regardless of my other sins, I know that I don't charge people money to make them feel more spiritual.

    Your Solomonic solution is amusing. Technically, it also discriminates between the rich and the poor, though perhaps in a less pernicious way. Still, people should probably also be allowed to give money without being relegated to the 2nd class.

    For all I know, at the actual event there is no distinction between the tables, and it's just a way to encourage people to give more. Regardless, it still connects status to money in a way which doesn't make much sense in God's kingdom.

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