COVID-19 has obliged the church, both at the administration level and at the local level, to operate in ways that we would qualify as inadmissible had someone suggested the idea only five months back. Reflecting on the new normal, my mind went back to the statement that Jesus made — “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s…” — so unexpected that the synoptics recorded it word for word. Should the church consider new ways to operate, or go back to the safe and secure old ways that are so inefficient at times in terms of evangelism, as evidenced by the low number of converts worldwide? More about that in the conclusion.
The conversation with the Pharisees that led to the above statement made by Jesus is reported by Matthew, Mark, and Luke, and it shows the impact that Christ’s words had on the early believers. “They were amazed at his words.”
One might wonder what was so amazing with a statement that today does not seem to be so outlandish? Indeed, familiar that we are with the concept of the separation of Church and State, we may not really understand their being surprised. I would posit that not grasping the true significance of the statement has had an unexpected negative consequence on our own understanding of the church as an institution that has enormous authority on the membership. It also has a bearing on the way we think about evangelism. We shall come to that later.
Whereas the modern readers understand the expression “to Caesar” as meaning the political authorities, for the Jews the expression was closely associated with the concept of the world as a society and a culture that determined how one was to live. Luke 16:8 says, “For the people of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own kind…” and Romans 12:2 states, “Do not conform to the pattern of this world…” These are examples of such use of the word “world.”
“Caesar” was a concept that not only referred to the political power in place, but to society at large and its culture. To live in the world meant to be part of society, sharing the same values (André Gounelle, Parler de Dieu (Speaking of God), p. 149). Gounelle, a former Dean of Theology at the University of Montpellier, France, writes that Caesar was understood to mean the social order rather than merely the emperor in far distant Rome.
In Old Testament time, God had always related to the Jews in term of “Caesar” to be understood as the nation of Israel. The Old Testament does not know of a God who established relationships with individuals. God was the God of Abraham as the head of a multitude. Right from its beginning as a nation, God reached out to the individual Israelite through the voice of “Caesar” identified as the priesthood and the community. We in the west are very individualistic but that was not so back then. On returning from the exile in Babylon, the scribes, the Pharisees, and the Sadducees gradually took over the role of defining the rules.
The OT covenant was between God and a people (see Exodus 24). God acted through the election of a “collectivity” (from the French meaning a territorial administration), to which he gave a political/social/religious constitution on Mount Sinai. It is therefore not surprising that the people were amazed because Jesus suddenly reversed the established order and made individuals responsible for the direction that they gave to their lives. Of course the Pharisees were outraged by a statement that totally undermined their authority, in the sense that people were being invited to disregard a thousand-year-old culture whose present content the Pharisees often determined and always controlled.
All this changed in the New Testament. From then on, God would establish his covenant with individuals who responded to his invitation. The group as a responsive entity counted for nought. Gone was the time when the group called for and legislated necessary and relevant reforms. Jesus changed all that with a single statement.
At no time did Jesus suggest a reshaping of the old social construct. He did not formulate a collective legislation, nor did he define the institutional space that God or religion should occupy. Jesus spoke to people as individuals whose free choice would decide of the kind of relationship that they would have with the divine. This explains the doing away of specific rites and ceremonies prescribed for a whole community and replaced by a dynamic personal faith experienced as an interrelationship between the believer and God. “Caesar” valued authoritarianism and control. God valued freedom of choice.
What is extremely surprising to the modern reader is the fact that very few traces of the church as an institution exist in the New Testament, and whatever is there is very faint indeed. At the cross, three individuals who had no links, or at best a very tenuous link, with Israel are the first people who openly decide for Christ. Simon was from North Africa, the centurion was most likely from Italy, and the thief was a reject of Jewish society.
Individuals found God first, then looked for similar minded people to associate with in some sort of loose structure. Ekklesia, translated church, was more some sort of association of volunteers than a well-defined construct. André Gounelle expresses it this way: “Christianity is the community of those who choose, (those who have heard and have responded individually to God’s invitation), not a chosen community.” God, of course, prescribed that his people should be concerned for the welfare of each other.
Two applications can be drawn from the above. First, Christians have invested too much authority in the institution called the church (Seventh-day Adventists are no exception). In doing so we may have inadvertently reestablished the empire of Caesar in the shape of a hierarchical religious construct that believes it has the right to determine almost every aspect of the lives of its members, at least in matters of values and practices. Should I dare suggest that there is an unwritten belief (certainly not acknowledged but real all the same) that one is saved by belonging to the Seventh-day Adventist Church? Anyone who dares to act in a different mode is suspected of rebellion if not of actual heresy/apostasy.
The second application is that Christians are not called to establish a Christian society in the world. They are called to live the Christian principles in a society, which at best is neutral in matters of religion and spirituality. France is a good example of a country that legislated the concept of laicity (no involvement of any kind in matters of religion). It grants its citizen the freedom to practice their religion as they see fit — so long as they are not a threat to society.
Believers do not spurn society. They are concerned about what occurs in its midst. However, they should not be driven to Christianize the world. This is because people are converted individually not as belonging to some group. Society cannot be converted. Only individuals can. There is no such thing as a Christian nation, as many Evangelical Americans love to believe.
It follows from the above that Christians should make their voices heard in moral and ethical matters but never by lobbying governments to legislate in matters of morality. Many Adventists were concerned when the organization lobbied the government to legislate in a certain way in the matter of gay marriage. It has been said but probably not verified, that 93% of American Adventists voted for George W. Bush on the basis that he was against such unions. Yet, except for a voice or two, Adventists were strangely silent when the same President went to war on the flimsiest of reasons, a war the legacy of which is much suffering, tragedy, and hatred to this day.
History clearly shows that every time that Christians have tried to build a Christian society the result has been intolerance and persecution for the dissidents. The church has often gone as far as raising armies (the secular arm of the church) to enforce its position. What would we do if a powerful and popular religious denomination succeeded in getting a government to pass anti-Adventist legislation?
Jesus said forcefully that his kingdom was not in and of the world. God’s kingdom grows secretively in the hearts of his people like the leaven that works within the dough. Christians should neither ask nor expect the government to guarantee a place for God in its structure. It behooves the believers to incarnate their values and what they stand for while respecting the freedom of others, as well as the neutrality of the societies in which they live, relying on God to sustain them when they live in openly hostile environments (such as totalitarian states).
Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God. The union of Caesar and God always gives birth to monsters. Has the church, with its all invasive, top heavy administrative construct, turned into a Caesar that is taking away from the believer’s spontaneous adoration and grateful obedience in shapes and modes that reflect the individual’s personal relationship with God and not necessarily the institution’s view (case in point the administration’s suspicion of the One Project)?
The last six weeks have witnessed the church operating from the homes rather than from the office. This article will not try to determine whether the administration has suffered from the restrictions placed by the government. I suppose that in due time the administrators will review and assess. But I would dare say that from an individual perspective doing church online has had two benefits.
First, the weekly worship service has been more focused, doing away with a number of activities that have very little, if nothing, to do with the act of worship. Attending church from home has done some pruning in the sense that it has done away with formalism. Only the believers for whom the act of worship is essential and joyful take time to zoom in, watch, and participate, doing so without allowing anything to turn their minds away. Parents and children participate together without any concern about what and how to dress (too often church turns into a small fashion show). Also, it is easy for members to invite a friend who never considered going to a church on a Saturday morning.
Based on a number of reports, it seems that many members are engaging in one-on-one witnessing, COVID-19 providing the opportunity to chat with friends about spiritual realities and values. Before, they would look at evangelism as something structured, run by a committee. Now, many are catching the vision and experiencing the joy of individual witnessing.
A possible third area of membership involvement is the area of compassionate service. Before, compassionate service was mainly about providing some funds or some food to ADRA/Dorcas Society/Good Samaritans fund. There was little personal, one-on-one, involvement. Now, many are doing just that and experiencing the joy of giving, or of saying a word of encouragement to people that are scared and worried because of what is happening around them.
Sharing with my Conference President’s son, I observed that congregations should consider gathering once a month for a communion service followed by a fellowship meal. The other Sabbaths should follow the format that has been in place with so much success lately.
Overall, the new normal is making the members less dependent on the church and the ministers. Ministers now have more time to minister as shepherds of the flock rather than as once-a-week preachers.
It seems to me that COVID-19 is bringing back the first century church about which Scripture says “See how they love one another.” “And the Lord added to their number daily those that were being saved.”
May I add what may earn me the ire of many. Sell the multi-million-dollar church properties and pour the money into missionary and compassionate work. Or turn them into centers that will cater for the immediate felt needs of the community. Things like shelters for the homeless, refuges for women and children running from domestic violence, food distribution centers, etc. Doing that suddenly makes the church relevant to society which at this time is indifferent to the things of God and couldn’t care less about organized religion given a face by under-used church buildings.
Eddy Johnson is the director of the ADRA Community Centre in Blacktown, New South Wales, Australia, and a retired pastor.
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