What on earth is the Church for?

The thing about having been on restricted duties due to ill health is that it allows much more time for reflection. In many ways the past few months have been an extended experience of grace, an opportunity to explore what I think, feel and believe.

I have for a while being rethinking the nature and purpose of the institutional Church. The words of the Nineteenth century theologian Alfred Loisy are drilled into my brain:

Jesus announced the coming of God’s kingdom, but what we got was the Church.

Don’t misunderstand me! There are many people of goodwill and diligent followers of Christ’s Way in the Church. I just cannot square the organisation we have come to accept as what he intended. It seems out of kilter with the whole thrust of his message and manner. Where the word for ‘church’ is referred to in the New Testament, scholars generally agree it is a word placed upon the lips of Jesus to help speak to a new context where the peripatetic nature of the original Jesus movement has settled into more gathered communities. Even then, what is meant by ‘church’ seems more of a gathering of disciples and a flexible network that binds them rather than some monolithic organisation.

Two thousand years, and a million miles from the Middle Eastern and the particular Rabbinical setting of Jesus, have resulted in the theology of the organisation being too often divorced from the man himself. Instead we base what we think, do and say upon our skewed picture of him – a picture that all too often has not required of us the hard work of understanding Jesus the Jew, and a Jew of First Century Palestine at that. We have laid veneer after veneer over him – neo-Platonic and Aristotelian philosophy, Feudalism, Sixties Flower Power and so forth. It is not that these contexts can’t be useful tools in asking what Jesus means for us in every generation but when they become the defining image we have of him it becomes a question of asking “Will the real Jesus please stand up?”. Certainly when you see Jesus equated with White Supremacy you know something has gone radically wrong!

Now, I hope my Jewish friends will forgive me for using terminology that is so much a part of that tradition. It is meant out of respect for attempting to relocate Jesus back into a context we, who claim to be his followers, have all but forgotten for the most part. They are also not meant to be used in the sense in which much of modern Judaism uses them but to draw observations from a First Century context that my studies over the years seems to indicate are appropriate – though I would be delighted to be gently corrected by those with greater knowledge and understanding than me!

To start, let’s take the word ‘disciple’. We’ve come to use that too often to mean someone who goes to Church, takes part in its activities and pays their dues. Now gathering for worship, seeking to do good and contributing to a common purse to help the needy and provide for the community is not a bad thing but too often it ends there or gets turned into a membership scheme. ‘Disciple’, for Jesus’ own context, meant a form of apprenticeship – gathering together to discuss, debate, investigate, share, under the tutelage of the Master.

The commitment was to learning the things of God and the Ways of God’s Righteousness. Often this apprenticeship required intense debates, challenges to thinking and the commitment to giving one’s all to this path. Rabbis had their yeshivas – their gathering of disciples who sought over years to carry on the school of thought and practice of their teacher. It required an all-or-nothing commitment, with the Rabbi taking the place of the genetic father (indeed an early rabbinic saying was that if both father and teacher were kidnapped, the teacher of wisdom must be ransomed first!). It is in this context that Jesus’ words of ‘leaving family’, ‘leave the dead to bury their dead’ and all those hard sayings find their original meaning. When Jesus is reported  to have said (although most likely it is the early dispersed Christian community reflecting on his words and placing their thoughts on his lips), “go and make disciples of all nations” it means precisely that – grow the tradition, students become teachers and form new yeshivas in the School of Jesus – committed to the hard work of exploring God, the depth of relationship that comes through prayer and the outworking of the teaching through a life of Righteous Living.

This doesn’t devalue the listeners – those who came to hear and briefly learn from Jesus and his yeshiva. They could explore something of God and, taking that back into their context, lay another brick of the Kingdom of Heaven. Only a relative few are ready, willing and indeed able to be invited and accepted into the yeshiva. This isn’t elitism – it’s true of any commitment to study. A few might go deep into studying a subject or developing a skill. Others may benefit from it and sometimes that learning and skill are placed at the feet of a wider community in service.

Yet Jesus sat light in some ways to the traditional ways of doing things. Judging by the reaction of his home synagogue and others, family included, he had no formal authorisation and ordination to the rabbinate: smicha lerabbanut. “This is a new kind of authority” is mentioned. “Who is this?” is asked. This would have devalued him in the eyes of many but in the eyes of those for whom his prophetic witness rang true that seemed to be all the authority they needed. Dangerous, as it can lead to cultic personality worship. It requires someone of real integrity, humility and eschewing of power to carry that off. Fortunately history and tradition bear out that Jesus embodied those qualities to the nth degree; a Jewish Mystic and Prophet whose authority comes through authenticity and integrity.

Perhaps this is a metaphorical clip round the back of the head for those of us who wear our formal ordination heavily over our shoulders! If ‘ordination’ still means anything (and for me that is a question to explore) then surely we need to revisit the concept of someone ready to give a provisional word of decision over disputed points, carry on the discussion until the next provisional decision and, most importantly train and encourage others, students, to take on that mantle. The student body, with the teacher in the Jesus school, is our yeshiva.

For me, that is what ‘the church’ is for, to be a yeshiva; to learn, to discuss, to debate, to discover, to be excited over the things of God and to practice the Righteous Living that Jesus himself called the Kingdom of God. Yet there is no elitism here – all are God’s children in different contexts. For some, those of the Church, that means discipleship. We learn, grow and share and we never stop learning and growing and sharing. From that, those who aren’t ready or able to give that dedicated focus can still apply what they hear in their own lives. So, if anything, it is the opposite of elitism. It is a body that refuses to accept there is nothing left to learn or discover. All answers are provisional and open to dialogue and discussion. Those not within the Church are every bit a child of God, loved and accepted but it is the Church of Christ who is called to inspire and encourage all with the person and teaching of the Master.

In turn, the Christian yeshiva has to engage and learn from the wider community. That’s how it works. No ‘hell if you don’t believe the doctrines’. No ‘we are right, you are wrong’. No ‘we have the answers’. Instead, we have a commitment to learn and to love. That’s all. From that commitment something of God’s Kingdom may get built beyond the confines of ourselves.

This is, of course, a very different model to the one we buy into. In many ways it is far more challenging – it requires a commitment to learn, not simply be consumers of a ‘Jesus Religion’. In fact the whole religion thing becomes questionable. If the ritual helps us to go deeper in study and prayer, and glimpse the glory of God, it serves a purpose. Yet the moment it becomes a club of which we are members, the point is lost. For those of us wearing a clerical collar it also raises an uncomfortable, though necessary question – should there be a clerical caste apart from the rest of the church, the yeshiva of Jesus?

But don’t take my word on any of this. I could be wrong.