By Arthur Brown
I have just come back from a week in Romania where I had the privilege of visiting a number of Orthodox monasteries in the beautiful Northern region of the country. Within each monastery were countless icons and images depicting deep theological beliefs, in line with the tradition of the Orthodox faith. It was indeed an inspiring and uplifting experience.
And yet there was one image, similarly depicted in each of the churches we entered, that has stayed with me, more than most. It would show the person responsible for the construction of the church building, family and friends in tow, presenting the church to Christ. Within the context I understood this to be a means of dedicating the specific church to the King of the Kingdom, for His use. However, the question that has troubled me since has been, ‘do we need to give the church back to Christ?’
Have we become so far detached, as the church both universal and local, from the social and ethical teachings of Jesus, that we would be almost unrecognizable to the God we claim to follow, were He to walk into out churches today?
As we have been observing the lead up to the US elections, the animosity and unveiled distain for either Obama or Romney – take your pick – has been a central feature of much media reporting. Negative advertising and personal attacks seem to be ‘winning the day’ when it comes to political election strategy. Whilst this is obviously not new, it seems that new levels are being reached. At what point will the church have the courage to stand up and say enough? ‘Let’s be clear’ as Jim Wallis says, ‘On Nov. 6, neither a Republican nor Democratic victory will bring in the Kingdom of God. And yet often times it would appear that what is a political election process becomes a battle ground for different religious or sectarian positions. At what point will we, as members of an electorate, be willing to step beyond ‘our party’, in order to align with the moral and ethical teachings of Jesus? ‘Are our concerns really about religion and biblical values, or do they just reflect our ideological political preferences’ Do we ‘hang our religion’ onto the political hat stand that suits our own, individual best interests? True, no party will ever fully model such high standards, but surely, if we have come to the point whereby we align religious and theological significance to a particular political party, in the way we have seen in the US, in Lebanon and elsewhere, we could be accused of political idolatry.
Is it possible for the church, any church, to be truly prophetic when it is so caught up in party politics? Whilst the separation of church and state is a laudable principle in the US, the reality is that the religious lobby makes this little more than a pipe dream. Abraham Lincoln is often quoted as saying, “Sir, my concern is not whether God is on our side; my greatest concern is to be on God’s side, for God is always right”. Whether he said this or not, the point is clear. It seems that for this to happen, at every level, we need to reflect deeply, and with an attitude of repentance on the words of St. Paul in his letter to the Romans.
“Do not be conformed to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is; God’s good, pleasing and perfect will.” (Romans 12:2)
If the church is to be the church, it must, I would argue, continually seek to be conformed to the will of God, rather than to the political patterns of this world. Have we come to the point whereby we start with a political position and twist the Bible to fit it, or do we start with the principles of Jesus, and act accordingly. As Miroslav Volf suggests, ‘When people disregard God’s commands – especially the commands that concern justice for the powerless – and serve their own interests at the expense of others, they are not worshipping God. They can pray to the right God, they can fast as instructed, they can participate in prescribed religious rituals – and still not worship God.
In Romania I met a number of monks and nuns, all of whom had made various vows of chastity, obedience and poverty. Within the vow of poverty was an understanding of simplicity, of holding on to wealth or possessions lightly.
St. Paul states clearly in 1 Timothy 6:10 that the love of money, and with it presumably power, ‘is a root of all kinds of evil’. Can the church be accused of this? And if so, how might we go about giving ourselves back to the Christ we say we follow?
So what might it mean to give the church back to Christ? Maybe the church is at its best when it does not hold on to political power, influence and wealth, but aligns itself with those who are marginalised, excluded, despised and rejected. Those whose voices have been silenced by others who’s voices have become deafening. Maybe we give our church back to Christ when we give our wealth and political influence away, and replace it with the humility, poverty and weakness of the cross. Has the wealthy, powerful and dominant church prostituted herself in order to retain positions of wealth and power?
To say this within the Middle Eastern context is difficult. In an region where the church is shrinking and often marginalised, this post may seem unwelcome. I understand that. However, maybe now is the time for the MENA church, as Christ’s representative, to hold on to the power that is in Christ Himself, and to embrace the opportunity to re-discover itself at the margins, and be a prophetic voice that does not ‘cling to the advantages of that status no matter what,’ when that power is a human political construct, but who, like Jesus, takes on the role of the prophetic servant who confronts the systems of the day, be they political, social or religious, to pronounce the coming of the Kingdom of God. After-all Colossians 2:8 implores us not to be taken captive ‘through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the elemental spiritual forces of this world rather than on Christ’. When we draw the church into acrimonious political rhetoric, we draw it away from Christ. When this happens there is a need to give the church back to its Head.
 Jim Wallis Religious Consistency and Hypocrisy: Election 2012. http://sojo.net/blogs/2012/11/01/religious-consistency-and-hypocrisy-election-2012
 Jim Wallis Religious Consistency and Hypocrisy.
 Miroslav Volf Allah: A Christian Response (New York: Harper Collins, 2011), p.116
 Phillipians 2:6. The Message Version of the Bible