Thinking of the Church: Duane W.H. Arnold, PhD
It happens almost every year around this time. As I read about the development of the Christian calendar and the celebration of Christmas, it almost inevitably leads to Constantine and the relative freedom given to the Church in the fourth century.
Now, I don’t want to go into the the specifics of the Constantinian settlement, rather I have a few thoughts about the Church as it functions within secular society. Firstly, I should state that I believe that the Church is different from secular society as a whole. It is, I believe, to be a society that is “in the world, but not of the world”. If, however, we were to take that description seriously, I wonder what it might look like?
So, let me posit some “what ifs”.
What if, instead of arguing about same-sex marriages, we simply withdrew from being functionaries for the state? That is, we cease marrying people “by the power vested in me by the State of Indiana”. Instead, as in many other countries, the legal aspect of a marriage recognized by the state could be carried out by the state in the local courthouse. That would leave it to the Churches to simply decide what they considered a valid (or “sacramental”) marriage, according to their own understanding of Scripture, Tradition and Moral Theology.
What if, churches and denominations gave up their tax-free status? Currently the “parsonage allowance” whereby the value of a minister’s housing is excluded from their gross income is under litigation. Exactly why should our churches, properties and institutions be free from taxation? I know many will say, “because they are not for profits”. Yet, I see many examples of large churches and organizations that at least appear to be anything but “not for profits”. Yes, I know giving up such a privilege would cause massive disruption and the reordering of many small, marginal churches. Yet, perhaps that is exactly what needs to happen. If we are speaking of a church based educational institution, let it gain the same level of accreditation as secular counterparts. If it cannot achieve that accreditation, let us then call such an institution what it really is, simply an extension of church property.
What if, we held church leaders to a legal standard of behavior in which reporting abuse is not an option but a legally binding obligation? Much too much has been done behind the protective screen of being a church. If anything, our standards should be much higher than those of the society which surrounds us.
I’m sure you can come up with a list of your own “what ifs”, but the point I’m trying to make is that the path to the renewal of the Church might include us giving up the accumulated privileges that we have enjoyed in the past. Yes, we might have to retreat from buildings to houses. Yes, it would make us a society different from the society in which we live. Yes, it might remove us from much of the politics of the day. Yes, it might mean our religious organizations might have to become streamlined and focused on the core activities of what it means to be a church.
I’m not so sure that any of those results would be all that terrible.