Theme; Christianity and Commercialism
In this week’s lesson we see Jesus’ approach to commercialism and materialism in his church.
And Jesus entered the temple and drove out all who sold and bought in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold pigeons. He said to them, “It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer,’ but you make it a den of robbers.”
When Jesus drove the money changers 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” (Jeremiah 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 in his mind, as the story about the barren fig tree which follows shows.
Some have argued that “robbers” may mean something like “nationalist rebels” and that the accusation may be that the temple had been turned into a “nationalist stronghold,” but I think this is unlikely. The real problem was the commercializing of religion.
The commercializing of religion is clearly a problem today. Especially today, 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. Some years ago the Canadian author John White wrote a devastating book about the commercialization of today’s church, called The Golden Cow: Materialism in the Twentieth-Century Church. It was published in 1979, but I have not seen it around much lately, which is usually the case with books that address today’s sins directly.
Here are three areas of abuse that White addresses.
1. Attachment to things. I have often made the point, drawing on a famous graduation speech at Harvard University by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, 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. White notes this, writing, “No Christian would agree (that is, if the matter were put to him or her as an abstract proposition} lhal 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.”1
We see this in denominations where 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. A minister friend of mine from Australia says, “The denominations are 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 know of a church in our city which has a wonderful opportunity for ministry to a nearby university but will not get involved with the school because the students do not treat the building with the same respect as the church’s shrinking number of elderly members.
There are other areas of abuse that White addresses: evangelical advertising and crass commercialism. We will discuss these in tomorrow’s lesson.
1 John White, The Golden Cow: Materialism in the Twentieth-Century Church (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1979), p. 38.
In what ways have we fallen into the same trap as the money changers of Jesus’ day?
How is this materialism manifest in the church?
Ask God to Forgive you for your attachment to things. Ask God also to protect your church From becoming hardened like the church in town described by Dr. Boice.
The real problem was the commercializing of religion.