The “Friendly” Elephant in the Room (Rethinking Church #14)

A church with any visibility at all will have a relationship to the state—as persecuted, free, free and privileged, or established. Every state claims the right to decide what behaviors and beliefs of individuals and groups within its jurisdiction support or threaten its interests. It reserves the exclusive power to dispossess, incarcerate, or kill anyone it deems a threat. Hence the church must always maintain awareness of this “elephant in the room” even if the elephant seems very friendly at the moment. How, then, should the church relate to states—like the United States and other Western democracies—that acknowledge its freedom and grant it certain privileges?

The Quest for Visibility

Many contemporary believers have never questioned the assumption that the church should seek maximum visibility in society and take full advantage of whatever freedom it has to get its message out. After all, Jesus told his disciples to proclaim the good news to the whole world (Matt 28:18-20; Luke 24:47; Acts 1:8). We’re supposed to “let our light shine”:

“You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven (Matt 5:14-16).

If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of them when he comes in his Father’s glory with the holy angels” (Mark 8:38).

I understand the desire for visibility, and I can see why people take Jesus’s statements as grounds for seeking it. But we need to ask what Jesus meant by “let your light shine.” I am pretty certain that Jesus did not intend to mandate building cathedrals and huge church buildings, wearing crosses and clerical dress, or getting a Christian tattoo and putting a fish bumper sticker on your car. Of course, Jesus did not forbid them either, and they can witness to the faith. But they also symbolize social power and wealth. Building an expensive church building is similar in some ways to planting a flag. It says, “We are here and are a force to be reckoned with.” Such visibility can be more intimidating than inviting to outsiders. Or, it can obscure the gospel by associating it with material advantages. I can understand wanting to be part of something big, powerful, and wealthy. It is a natural human desire. But I think Jesus had something else in mind.

It seems more likely, given its context in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5–7), that “let your light shine,” means taking seriously your responsibility to live every day and in every relationship in vivid awareness of the love of God flowing through you to others—even if some people hate you for it. Let constant awareness of your Father in heaven impart to you heightened sensitivity to the needs of others. The good you do will bring glory to the Father because it will be evident that your good works are inspired by the Father. The “light” Jesus speaks of is not that of the spotlight illuminating a 100 foot tall Cross on a hill above Interstate 405. It is not the light reflected off cathedrals, church buildings, and gold cross pendants. It is the lives of people that live, speak, and act in witness to the love of God revealed in face of Jesus. Nothing else is required.

Coming to see that the church can exercise fully its responsibility of witness without great social visibility can free us from the inordinate urge to seek social visibility and from incautious use of religious freedom granted by the “friendly elephant.” For what the state gives, it can take away.

To be continued…

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