The Church: Hazard or Witness

Posted by on Sep 4, 2015 in Blog | 4 comments

Hear the word ‘church’ and are you more inclined to think, ‘Now that’s why I can’t believe’ or ‘yup, it sure is another of those niggling little signs that belief in God is warranted’? Given the bad press the church has experienced in recent decades, I imagine that many will select the first option. Some would boldly say that the church is hazardous and exposure to it is likely to leave you less inclined to believe in the existence of a good God. But I’d like to suggest that such thinking is blinkered and biased, and that deeper reflection on the question is more likely to lead to faith than to cynicism.

‘Why?’, I hear you ask.

First let’s face the bad news. Why does the Christian faith, and more particularly the Christian Church, currently face a torrent of abuse? Ten common accusations against the Christian faith (in no particular order), include its complicity in:

  1. Religious warfare
  2. Colonial exploitation
  3. Racial bigotry
  4. The subjugation of women
  5. Homophobia
  6. The abuse of the environment
  7. Retarding the progress of science – especially medical science
  8. Academic censorship
  9. Intolerance of anything new
  10. Sexual abuse, especially of children

Clearly there is nothing attractive about this list, especially as it find further support in David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons’s study of the attitude of 16-29 year old Americans towards Christianity. They note six recurring and unflattering images of Christians as:

  1. Hypocritical
  2. Interested in ‘saving’ people rather than in relating to them
  3. Antihomosexual
  4. Sheltered
  5. Too political
  6. Judgemental

Again, the list is far from winsome. But lists are easy to draw up. Countering the suggestion that the church duck for cover when her record is surveyed, Alvin Schmidt in his book Under the Influence: How Christianity Transformed Civilization reminds us of a far more impressive contribution, and convincingly argues that without the influence of the church we would not have seen:

  1. The sanctification of human life. Schmidt argues that it is the Christian belief that every person has been made in the image of God that has led to the conviction that every human life is of immense value. A point of difference between Jews and their pagan neighbours was the Jewish refusal to participate in child sacrifices. The early Christians, shocked by the low value attached to life in the Roman Empire, opposed infanticide, infant abandonment, abortion and the gladiatorial games. The latter had seen hundreds of thousands of gladiators mauled, mangled and gored to death – and had been popular in Rome for over 3oo years. All were stopped after Christianity became the religion of the empire. Schmidt validly writes: ‘People who today see murder and mass atrocities as immoral may not realize that their beliefs in this regard are largely the result of their having internalized the Christian ethic that holds human life to be sacred.’ (p74)
  2. The elevation of sexual morality. The world in which the early church found itself was highly promiscuous. The Christian contention that sex should be an expression of mutual love and respect and that it should only be practiced within marriage, was seen as radical. This was a time when paedophilia, incest and bestiality were widely practiced and condoned. While church critics rightly denounce the church every time it violates its own code of sexual ethics, they sometimes forget that it was the church that was instrumental in outlawing practices such as paedophilia.
  3. The championing of the rights of women. Never overlook how radical Paul’s sentiment in Galatians 3:28 is, that in Christ ‘there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.’ Even a cursory glance at the status of women in countries deeply impacted by the Christian faith as opposed to those where the impact has been slight, reveals a very obvious difference. The world in which the early church was birthed was one where the  infanticide rate of female babies was dramatically higher than of males – a reflection of the low value attached to the birth of a baby girl. While a husband could divorce his wife, a wife could not divorce her husband. Table 4 of the Twelve Tables of Roman law that originate from the 5th century BCE spelled out the law of patria potestas, which conferred the right of paterfamilias on the married man, given him absolute power over both his wife and children. He could kill his wife for adultery, and in the absence of adultery, could murder her with the consent of the extended family. Women were without rights and freedoms. Child brides were common – often only 11 or 12 years of age. Given this context, the attitude of Jesus to women was stunning. He showed them respect, taught Mary and commended her willingness to learn to Martha (in contrast to the Jewish Sotah 3:4 ‘Let the words of the Torah be burned rather than taught to women’) and allowed women to be the first witnesses of the empty tomb – and thus bearers of the most significant news ever delivered to the human race. Examples could be multiplied. The impact of Christianity can be clearly seen when, in 374CE Emperor Valentinian I, moved by the example of Christ and the teaching of Paul on women, revoked the patria potestas that had so limited the freedom of women. In other words, within about half a century of Christianity having been legalized, it was cleaning up society by revoking laws that had stood for almost a thousand years and which had legitimized the oppression of women throughout the Roman empire.
  4. The birth of charity and compassion. We so take the parable of the Good Samaritan for granted that we have forgotten that its teaching was not self evident in its time, and even less so in the broader context of the Greco-Roman world that dominated the landscape of Jesus’ world. The early Christians practiced caritas – giving to relieve the plight of another without any expectation of the gift being returned. By contrast, the Romans practiced liberalitas – gift giving to the priviledged to please them, in the hope that they would later bestow a favour on the giver.  There was no instinctive drive to help the needy. Plato (427-347BCE) advised that a poor man no longer able to work should be left to die. Roman philosopher Plautus (254-184BCE) wrote: ‘You do a beggar bad service by giving him food and drink; you lose what you give and prolong his life for more misery.’ (Trinummus 2:338-39). Schmidt writes, ‘When modern secularists show compassion today upon seeing or hearing of some human tragedy… they show that they have unknowingly internalized Christianity’s concept of compassion…[if they had not] grown up under the two-thousand-year-old umbrella of Christianity’s compassionate influence, they would probably be without much compassion, similar to the ancient Greeks, Romans, and others.’ (p131)

I am told that people don’t usually read blog posts if they go beyond 1000 words, and I am already over that limit, so I won’t develop the remaining 6 points, but they are that the Christian Church and Christian faith should be directly credited for the

  1. Development of hospitals and health care
  2. The opening of education (to be sure, Christianity cannot claim the sole credit for this, but gave it an enormous impetus and opened its embrace to all. The original Sunday Schools were to educate children from impoverished homes who were working on every other day of the week, potentially empowering them to break out of the cycle of poverty)
  3. Labour movements and economic protection
  4. Progress in science (because belief in a God who has made laws by which the world is governed, legitimizes the scientific endeavour. There is something certain to be discovered.)
  5. Liberty and justice for all (and the conviction that no one is above the law, first dramatically enacted in 390CE when Bishop Ambrose of Milan excommunicated Roman Emperor Theodosius the Great for his complicity in the slaughter of 7000 people. In the past the Emperor had been viewed as a god. Now even the Emperor had to answer to a higher law.)
  6. The abolition of slavery. You cannot tell the story of William Wilberforce’s successful struggle against slavery without repeatedly pointing back to his strong Christian faith and his conviction that this was the path God had led him on.

All this makes for a pretty compelling case. Incidentally, if you want some additional material, track down John Dickson’s 2011 Smith Lecture ‘Would we be better off without religion?’ Heaps of thoughtful material there.

The bottom line. Has Christianity and the Christian church in particular, always got things right? No. But it has got them more right than any other significant group, and that by more than a little bit. There are no close challengers. The world would be inconceivably worse off without the gift of the church. Imperfect though she is, she is another niggling little sign that there is a God working in the world and that for its good.

Nice chatting…

4 Comments

  1. The Bible does say “For the preaching of the cross is to them that perish foolishness; but unto us which are saved it is the power of God”. I think to a large extent, people often just aren’t interested in Church because they see Christian beliefs as foolishness (unfortunately).

    Jesus did say “No man can come to me, except the Father which hath sent me draw him”, so I guess once God has you in His sights and draws you, then the light comes on, and lives are changed. All we can do is present the Gospel and leave the rest to the Holy Spirit.

    Certainly Brian, as you have intimated, the Church has often been, and maybe continues to be, her own worst enemy.

  2. Thanks Brian. In these days when the Church is not only constantly under attach and seems to be digging more and more holes for herself, we need reminding that she still has a role and has made a huge difference in the world.

  3. Thanks Brian, now more than ever we need a modern approach to apologetics and I believe you Sir are on the right path. Well done, let’s hear more of this!

    • Thanks Lance. I appreciate your encouragement.

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