My Grenadian Christian friends wanted to know what my thoughts on the Church were. Do I view the “Church” as a waste of time, I was asked, in a recent conversation. Here is my attempt to answer this question. First, however, let’s find out what is a Church.
What my friends actually meant by “Church”, I do not know. Thus, my answer will be based upon what I understands the common theological usage of the word Church to be, and, keep in mind, that this also depends. The meaning of the word Church normally depends on the context of use. As a result, this question, I believe, cannot simply be given a yes or no answer. It depends on what my friends meant to denote by the use of this word, and since I have no idea, I will put forth a long answer, but hopefully a lucid one.
Here are some meanings Webster assigns to the word Church.
(Webster’s II New Riverside Dictionary – Revised Edition).
There are two features to the word Church presented by Webster. Only one, however, I think really speaks to what my friends may have been referring to by posing this question. First, the word Church is sometimes defined as the building where Christians congregate for worship. This common held definition, however, has its opponents amongst the believers. It is normally criticized as not truly capitalizing the accurate essence of what a Church is. The critics argue that a building is not and cannot be the Church, nor can the Church be a location. On the other hand, the definition that all believers appear to affirm as speaking to the true essence of the word Church is embodied in what Webster termed, ‘a congregation’. What then does this means? It means that the believers are speaking about people, human beings; a community of people who share the same faith and/or worship together. This community of people is often described as an assembly of believers called out from the world by God to live under his laws; or simple, the “Body of Christ”, as stated in Ephesians 1:3
Now that we have an understanding of what I believe my friends meant by the word Church, one must ask, what is the purpose of the Church. Indeed, understanding the Church’s purpose is essential to answering the question posed. We are told that the “Body of Christ”, which I will use interchangeable for the word Church, does have a purpose. One that is twofold. We are told that one aspect of the Church is to bring together people of the same beliefs to experience religious ecstasy. In other words, it brings them together for worship. The other is to spread the teachings of the Church; ministering to the message of the “Body of Christ”, not only to the adherents of the faith, but more so, to nonbelievers. As the Christian God (Jesus) commands them, “follow me, and I will make you become fishers of men”, (in other words, Jesus is sending them into the world to make believers of those who aren’t) – Mark 1:17.
This twofold purpose of the Church open up, I believe, a window into which one can take a better look at the Church. The twofold purpose tells us that the Church is made-up of two layers merged together, but is distinct from each other, as will be demonstrated. There is the theistic layer. This is the ideological part of the “Body of Christ”; the dogma. This is the layer that designs the Church’s worldview, and influences how it relates to the wider world. Then there is the community; the societal comradeship experienced by people coming together. The important factor we must understand concerning these two layers is that, despite making up one body, they both flow from very different sources or stream. Thus, separating and identifying these two sources is another essential aspect to answering this question.
With this in mind, I am arguing that, in the context of community, the social comradeship aspect of the Church is not a waste of time. It certainly help meets the social needs of the people making up that congregation; family, community, and this aspect of Church, contrary to what many believers may think, does not flow from its theistic source. Instead, it most certainly comes from the human being’s own humanity; our natural need to socialize.
On the other hand, it is indeed the theistic aspect of the Church these human beings found common and thus, gather around it. Therefore, the idea that community is an aspect of religion, from which unbelievers should learn, is certainly misleading, I believe. Think about it, if the there is a devil (the concept of a being called a devil is also mythology), and there are people who adhered to its ideology; then the devil and his buddies will certainly have something in common to rally around, thus creating a community; a community of like-minded people, in which they will also be looking out for the benefit of each other. Thus, we will no doubt also see a humanistic layer as a characteristic of this group. This means that we are looking at something natural to the human being. We are social beings and minus the religion, social comradeship will still be part of humanity. Humans will always find something in common to socialize around. Even though we act in our individual interest, humans do have that need to socialize for many reasons – ensuring his/her gens lives on, for instance. In fact, being a part of a larger community enhances the individual odds of surviving. As a consequence, humans tend to be inherently kind to each other, hence, the humanistic aspect of the “Body of Christ”. The question, however, is, can this humanistic aspect of the Church be extended outside of itself?
This, I think not. Of course, there are some individuals who normally break the cycle of fear and venture across borders engaging in humanist work. This indeed gives me hope that we can build a better society, inclusive of all. However, I am speaking not of individuals but of the Church, as a whole. You know, the “Body of Christ”. As I have shown, because religion is a human construct, the humanistic aspect of it becomes evident. However, it only serves the clan and most often does not cross cross-pollinate. It remains hedged in within the particular faith. As the “Body of Christ” began to internalize its theistic doctrine, it normally suppresses this natural humanist nature. In fact, the believers, operating under the dictates of their God, often recoils at whoever refuses to accept their worldview, typically becoming verbally and/or physically abusive towards them.
The theistic aspect of the Church generates an Us vs. Them environment. Those who refuse to conform to the worldview of “Body of Christ” become the other; the enemy; the devil. Religion creates fallacious competition for space, and other resources, etc. Not unlike politics. It suppresses the innate nature, in most cases, for the human being to be good. It takes otherwise good people and makes them bad. For these reasons, I am arguing the Church to be a waste of time.
In fact, the trouble with the Church doesn’t stop there. The Church stifles the communities of economic growth. For example, the Church operates tax free and normally occupy the best real-estate locations, killing the prospect for start-up business and tax revenue. In the United States, for instance, the house (storefront churches) in which the “Body of Christ” meets, literally litters each block. These storefront churches are everywhere; three or four per block, yet the socioeconomic maladies in these locations are chronic and are becoming ever more so (Read the book, Moral Combat – Black Atheists, Gender Politics, and the Values Wars – by Sikivu Hutchinson). “Some debate whether having so many nonprofit, tax-exempt entities on commercial properties is hurting the tax base and standing in the way of job creation” (Moral Combat: Hutchinson, Sikivu, p. 71). In fact, “some storefront churches adamantly oppose development that would lead to job creation because it might jeopardize their low rent” (Moral Combat: Hutchinson, Sikivu, p. 71). In addition, the power holders, who normally do not live in these dilapidated communities, of the “Body of Christ”, operate much like vacuums, sucking the last cent from the people’s pocket. This is true of both storefront churches and the mega churches that teach the doctrine of prosperity. Only the power structure really prospers. Not the people, nor the community.
As I conclude, I must note that the “Body of Christ” does sometimes have common goals with the larger community. There are indeed shortcomings that affect the society at large, around which the Church and the community both rally. Slavery, for instance, comes to mind. The Civil Rights Movement in the United States is another. However, I must say that these are mere flashes of an aspect of the “Body of Christ” we would all like to be permanently displayed on the surface. However, the Church is normally more interested in its dogmas, and will often suppress its humanistic characteristic in favor for these dogmatic teachings. Doing this then alienates those that is different, but are willing to work together to help build a better community, inclusive of all. In fact, nowhere else is this alienation pervasive and overt than in the black community. Dr. Pinn writes that, “Humanism has been viewed as a hostile adversary, intent to exterminating religion in general and black Christian’s theism in particular, and it becomes clear why the black church would not be anxious to nurture a potential serpent in its own household” (Pinn, Anthony, 2001. p.33).