It’s strange how recently a whole new area opened up to me - like taking a turning down an unexpected street and finding a stately home you never knew was there. Just before Christmas I bought a book from the bargain bin of discards in the Dunedin Library. When I looked at the title page it gave among other books by the author, God’s Name in Vain: the wrongs and rights of religion in politics. Coming back home I discovered the book in our library. It talks of the danger to religion from being identified with politics. What’s so dangerous about politics? The first and greatest danger is theological: the loss of prophetic power when one chooses the path of coercion... Some preachers who insist that God is on their side nevertheless seem to think that their side cannot prevail except through coercion. Stephen Carter is talking about the tendency of some churches and congregations to be bossy, to bully. I picked up a recent Listener, Jane Clifton is writing about local bodies - Councils are constantly doing things in the teeth of what locals have demonstrated they want and need... and councils are used to getting their way. Their way, not necessarily our way. That’s how $24 million plus gets spent on the Square. In other words Councils are bossy, even bullies. Then in the Church Times a columnist wrote: good riddance to John Bolton - the recent US ambassador to the UN: abrasive, brusque, combative, arrogant, bullying, rude - and he finished, The people of the US need a policy that allows co-operation rather than confrontation to be the model of international relations. Again you see, the message is - being bossy, even bullying is neither welcome nor productive. There are limits to interference.
The trouble is that this is a piece of good news that the church has either forgotten or ignored. I am amazed at how bossy church has become. A while ago I went to take a service at a church within a day’s drive from here. There was a big sheet fastened to the front of the communion table: We will be this. We will be that. This church will jump over the moon. I found it offensive - partly because it was put where it should not have been put, that is on the communion table; but that kind of bossiness gets my back up. These days, having some say in the matter, I would not go to a bossy, bullying kind of church. Sadly, it’s an Achilles heel of being Presbyterian. For part of my bossy, bullying sequence was going to Burns Night with the Scottish Society. We had Holy Willie’s Prayer recited to us in broad Scottish. I dinna ken a word except the finish: Amen! I didn’t need to understand it, I could hear Holy Willie laying down the law about this and that, about this person and that one. Bossing, bullying. Sometimes I think that those who do it don’t realise what they are up to or how it comes across. Sit in the front seats. Sing up. Sing faster. Do it again and do it louder. Or some bossy instruction finds its way onto the church notices - one way or another these folk make valiant attempts to guard and control the way we worship, the way we think, what we ought to do. I’m a member of the Moderator’s Arrangements Work Group, and I noticed with interest that one of the duties of the Moderator is to meet with the retired clergy and ministerial widows. Pamela said they all liked the old days better - but maybe one of the reasons is there’s a hard nosed edge to the contemporary church. For the liberals it’s in being politically correct, for the conservatives it’s in bashing gays, freemasons, and the traditional church. Bossing and bullying.
The followup question is inescapable: why is it like this? Where has all this come from? My rough estimate is that there are two reasons. One is that certain people with aggressive personalities find a home in the church. Every parish has one or two. It comes quickly to mind because the same Church Times has an article on The Darker Side in which the author, a psychologist at Cambridge, talks about these difficult people. But the more serious reason for the bossiness in today’s church is that with the retreat of God humans have felt they needed to take over and manage the church, that is, control it. Look at the bossiness in this light and the reasons for it will be plain. Good intentions. Well meaning. We want to be faithful stewards of God, and by hook or by crook we’ll have the church a touch of heaven: not racist, not ageist, not sexist, not homophobic; we don’t have to be inclusive, we have to demand to be inclusive; and we’ll have the church modern, even if we have to bash your heads together to do it. Doesn’t the end justify the means?
And who says Yeah, right but Isaiah. He goes to the Temple expecting it to be a proper, all welcome, inclusive, good morning, we just love to see you here, we manage services superbly, kind of Temple. It turns out to be not like that at all. It’s weird, mysterious, dangerous. God is present. Isaiah forgot whether he was welcome in that fellowship for he was afraid, scared stiff. Woe is me! I am lost for I am a man of unclean lips and I live among a people of unclean lips. Religion was never Isaiah’s to manage, religion was God’s. Faith was God’s and worship was God’s. And all of Isaiah’s bossing and bullying gave him no moral right or superiority but unclean lips. Church is not ours, church is God’s.
And who says Yeah, right but Paul. He had vast experience as a Pharisee, at attempting to manage and control the people of God. He knew exactly what a Jew was and what a Jew ought to be, and he was determined to get all Jews to toe the line. But into his life burst the resurrected Christ; more specifically, I should say the risen Jesus who was crucified. That was not the way Paul thought it should have been. But Jesus was there in front of him and in the light of Christ Paul was blind, all he thought he had seen was darkness. Lofty in his own estimation, he was flung to the ground. Judaism was never Paul’s to manage. The community of faith was God’s community of faith, worship was God’s. And all of Paul’s bossing and bullying proved to be in vain. Church is not ours, church is God’s. The risen Jesus is not ours, he is God’s word to the world.
And who says Yeah, right but Peter. Peter was a fisherman and he knew exactly what should be done, and being that kind of person he knew how everything should be done; he had an opinion on everything, mainly negative. You can hear him telling his brother Andrew off: what did you do that for? Why didn’t you do it like this? Why didn’t you do it like I told you? But this day, unaccountably, he says little with Jesus in the boat. After all he knew in that spot there were no fish, there were never any fish. Perhaps he thought he’d show up Jesus for what he was - not a fisherman. Yet the fish were there all right, 100's of them, two boats full. In the face of that, like Paul and Isaiah, Peter knew when to give in. Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man. Peter is not now the controller, the know-all. He is scared, afraid. Bossing, bullying, telling people how to run their lives was not to be Peter’s vocation. Life was God’s. Religion was God’s. Faith was God’s. Worship was God’s. A fisherman is wise and clever in many things but in the face of Jesus, those things are as nothing. Depart from me, for I am a sinful man. Church is not ours, church is God’s. Jesus is not ours, Jesus is God’s word. Life is not ours, life is God’s.
Isaiah, Paul, Peter discover the truth they were not in control, and for each of them it was their big day out - life changing, redeeming, liberating; and for us - a truth to be set aside at our peril.
Church, life, Jesus is not ours to manage our way; church is God’s, Jesus is God’s word, life is God’s.