When Jesus drove the money changers (Mt.21.12-17) and those who were selling animals for sacrifice from the Court of the Gentiles, He justified His action by a comparison of two Old Testament phrases. In the first, Isaiah referred to the temple as a “house of prayer” (Isaiah 56.7). In the second, Jeremiah says that the hypocritical worshipers of his day had caused the temple to become “a den of robbers” (7.11). Jeremiah was writing about hypocrisy. Jesus used the word robbers to describe the unjust extortion that was going on. But hypocrisy must also have been on His mind, as the story about the barren fig tree that follows shows.
Some have argued that “robbers” may mean something like “nationalist rebels” and that the accusation means the temple had been turned into a “nationalist stronghold,” but I think this is unlikely. The real problem was the commercializing of religion. This is also a problem today, especially since we live in a highly commercial age and the ethos of buying and selling impacts the Church as much as any other part of modern life.
I was a teenager when I first read excerpts of a famous graduation speech at Harvard University by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. Solzhenitsyn stated that practical Western materialism is as bad and perhaps even worse than the philosophical materialism of communist countries. Communism claims that matter is all that is. But Western materialism believes that matter is all that matters. John White states, “No Christian would agree (that is, if the matter were put to him or her as an abstract proposition) that matter is all that matters, for our very faith negates the assertion. Yet if our behavior (as distinct from our verbal profession) is examined, many of us who call ourselves Christians begin to look more like materialists. We talk of heaven, but we strive for things.”
We see this in denominations in which the only “unforgivable sin” is for a congregation to attempt to leave the denomination with its property. The minister can preach outright heresy and be ignored, sometimes even praised. But if the Church tries to leave, the denomination comes down on it with all the legal force at its disposal. One minister describes denominations as “nothing but real estate holding companies.”
But it is not just the older liberal denominations that are enslaved to things. So are countless evangelicals. What else can explain the fact that so many can talk at length about their Church building or the budget but have little to offer in a Bible study or a discussion even of such basic Christian doctrines as grace, the atonement, holiness, or serving Christ?
Again, because so many Churches and organizations are property centered, their programs become property bound. The problem here is not the property itself. It is useful to have a building in which to meet, and buildings need to be maintained. But instead of assessing the needs of the community and developing plans (including the purchase and use of property) to meet those needs, the work of the Church is often confined to the building, and potential ministries are excluded because the building might be harmed.
I have heard of Churches that have wonderful opportunities for ministry to nearby universities, or specific people groups, but will not get involved because the people do not treat the building with the same respect as the Church’s shrinking number of elderly members.
We not only live in a materialistic age, we also live in an age of sophisticated marketing and advertising, and the two go hand in hand. We understand how that works with secular companies, though we groan at the sheer volume of emails, and other solicitations that come to us on a daily basis. But what about “Christian junk mail,” which is what much of the evangelical literature is?
This is not an easy subject to address, for the majority of people will not give to Christian work unless they are asked to do so, and the intent of much Christian advertising is to present the work and ask for money honestly. But are we trusting God or our motivational techniques? We talk about Hudson Taylor and admire the way he built his mission by prayer alone, not asking for money directly. But we don’t believe we can do that today. “We trust in mass advertising more than we trust in God. We corrode the term prayer support to mean ‘financial support.’ And while we say we are trusting God to work through the means we are using to ‘acquaint the Christian public,’ we would feel rather frightened if the means were taken away. Poor old God would be left to stumble along without His crutches.”
The problem isn’t asking for money, of course. Christian works need money, and Christian workers do not need to be ashamed to request financial help. The problem lies rather in misrepresenting the work that is being done, employing words such as “faith in God alone” to mask requests for money and using secular techniques to manipulate people into giving. Why don’t we ask for money honestly? One radio Bible teacher would often say, “Grace is free; radio time is not. We need your gifts to stay on this station.”
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn saw that the human spirit longs for things higher and purer than a materialistic culture provides and that if we sell out to a lust for mere things, a new Dark Age will have come upon us. Forty years ago, John White suggested that “the final Dark Ages are beginning.” Judgment is falling on the West. As for the Church, the best thing that could possibly happen to it is that Jesus should come again and cleanse it as He intimated He would do one day when He cleansed the Jerusalem temple.
Pastor Steve can be reached at PastorSteve@MaranathaBibleChurch.org