Where does the church belong?
During my four-plus decades as a Christian, and a member of the church, I have heard many declarations of who and what the church is and its rightful place:
We are to be “the head, not the tail.”
We are to rule and reign on the earth.
And take dominion.
Dominion theology is a politically-oriented doctrine that seeks to found a nation governed by Christians, Christian “values,” and understandings of Biblical law. In other words, the church rules society through the government.
But are any of these legitimate statements that describe the church’s role as laid out by Jesus? Let’s find out.
Holy Week, beginning with Palm Sunday is an excellent time to explore the question of the church’s rightful place.
Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey’s colt on the first Palm Sunday, making an unmissable statement to first-century people. If Jesus were on government business, seeking to take control (dominion), he would have ridden the adult donkey, not the colt. If he had sought to overthrow Rome’s regime and found a new kingdom, horses and chariots would have been Jesus’ choice. But Jesus chose a colt, a donkey under four years old. What a statement!
The people treated him as royalty that day, spreading their garments and waving palm branches as they would for a king. A few days later, they demanded the release of Jesus Bar-Abbas (Jesus, son of god, abba) instead of the actual Jesus, Son of God. The crowd is fickle. Nothing has changed.
Imagine a grown man riding a small animal. No doubt Jesus looked anything but kingly that day, but he was making a point. The people, including his followers, expected a king to take charge, overthrow Rome, and establish his kingdom with Israel in control. When they didn’t get their way, they killed him.
Even after the resurrection, his disciples asked, “Are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” They still didn’t get it.
Jesus did not come to be served but to serve. He taught and demonstrated this throughout his ministry. The night before his death, Jesus assumed the position of the lowest household servant and washed his disciples’ feet, saying, “I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you.
On one occasion, two of Jesus’ followers talked their mum into asking Jesus if her boys could sit at Jesus’ “right and the other at your left in your kingdom.” The other disciples were miffed. Jesus used this amusing incident to get his point across. He spoke about how earthly rulers exercise authority by lording it over people. You know, taking dominion, being the head and not the tail. Jesus said, “Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave.”
The theme of servanthood then resonates throughout the New Testament.
Getting it Right
The centuries following Jesus’ resurrection have demonstrated what it looks like when the church gets it right – and when it forgets its rightful place and seeks to dominate. Christians and churches are to serve others, not control them. God doesn’t DO control, and neither should his people. Consider all the good in this world as a result of Christians taking their rightful place of servanthood.
“Over the centuries, the church has founded schools, hospitals and orphanages; Christians have campaigned for prison reform, better housing and an end to the slave trade; they have helped to establish a huge number of charities to support the poor, the underprivileged, prisoners and their families, the homeless and those seeking justice. Christians were involved in setting up many of the best-known charities, including Oxfam, the Salvation Army, the Samaritans and the RSPCA.”
Wherever there is poverty and injustice, you will find Christian people who behave like Jesus—serving others amid disasters and advocating for the voiceless in the corridors of power.
But, then …
But, when we forget Jesus’ example and take control instead of serving, we get it dreadfully wrong. Consider the Crusades, the Inquisition, and the witch trials as glaring examples. One of the worst things that ever happened to the church was Constantine declaring Christianity the Roman Empire’s official religion. The church took charge and became wealthy and powerful. And the world entered the Dark Ages.
More recently, “Christians” have committed child sexual abuse, and churches have covered it up to protect their power and reputation. We’ve sought to dictate and control what others can and can’t do and lobbied against the rights of people we disagree with. When we act this way, we cease to follow the example of Jesus, the servant, and society at large thinks less of Christians and the church. They take a step away from Jesus. The gospel suffers, and the church declines.
The Real Gospel
I want to be understood here. I am not saying that the Christian message is all about good works. But people deserve to see the genuine gospel in action. It is a message of God’s love for people and a desire for reconciliation without “counting people’s sins against them.” When we behave like we’re in charge, when we domineer and always want our way, when we seek to protect OUR rights above the rights of others, we cease to be like Jesus.
Let’s take up the towel and the basin of water and wash others’ feet. That’s the church’s rightful place.