Are We Relying on Mere Props?

January 26, 2013

A link in yesterday’s Presbyweb got me thinking about conditions within the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), particularly as experienced by the various parties involved in church dismissals. In “Army Removes Crosses, Steeple from Chapel”, it is noted that a U.S. Army chapel in Afghanistan has been required to remove permanent Christian symbols from the site, following a complaint of an atheist. The Army regulation enforced is quoted as follows:

The chapel environment will be religiously neutral when the facility is not being used for scheduled worship. Portable religious symbols, icons, or statues may be used within a chapel during times of religious worship.

Symbols are to be moved or covered when not in use during services. Distinctive religious symbols, such as crosses, crucifixes, the Star of David, Menorah, and other religious symbols will not be affixed or displayed permanently on the chapel interior, exterior, or grounds. Permanent or fixed chapel furnishings, such as the altar, pulpit, lectern, or communion rail will be devoid of distinctive religious symbols.

A U. S. Army spokesman states: “The primary purpose of making a chapel a neutral, multi-use facility is to accommodate the free exercise of religion for all faith groups using it.”

Personally, I have no problem with this regulation as I apply the Golden Rule to the matter, leaving it to others arguing church and state issues to parse the details. My purpose for bringing up the subject goes in a different direction, to address the inherent threat many of my readers feel.

Though outward symbols have great meaning, by definition, the symbols themselves are not the things (or persons) they point to. Removing the symbol does not erase the reality of its subject. The sin of the world was born by Jesus Christ on the cross of Calvary whether or not a cross is displayed on a building. Is the permanent, public display of a Christian cross a soul-strengthener for the believer? I should hope so! But is it necessary to gaze upon such a symbol in order to believe and profess one’s faith? No. Is a beautiful church building with custom-made stained glass windows and embroidered banners required to keep one’s faith alive? I hope not! Of course a meeting place encourages legitimate functions of the gathered people of God. The spiritual danger creeps in if it becomes a prop that steals the show from the Star. We do well to consider whether the physical trappings of “church” have overshadowed the real thing happening when Christians get together.

Presbyterians can dance dangerously close to the distinction between “the form of godliness” and “the power of godliness” Paul wrote about in 2 Timothy 3:5. We are not the first to deal with this spiritual issue. E. Stanley Jones, a life-long missionary to India, suffered a paralyzing stroke late in life. His immobility did not rob him of his faith, however. “I need no outer props to hold up my faith, for my faith holds me.” He related a poignant reminder in The Divine Yes (Abingdon, 1975), page 63:

I was talking to a bishop who had retired. He was frustrated. When he was no longer in the limelight of the bishopric, he was frustrated and told me so. He wanted to know the secret of victorious living. I told him it was in self-surrender. The difference was in giving up the innermost self to Jesus. The difference was in the texture of the things that held him. When the outer strands were broken by retirement, the inner strands were not enough to hold him. Apparently he had a case of “limelight-itis” instead of a case of surrender to Jesus. Fortunately, with me, surrender to Jesus was the primary thing, and when the outer strands were cut by this stroke, my life didn’t shake.

One’s issue may not be retirement but dismissal, and the loss may not be of the limelight but of a building. The lesson is the same: if we rely on outer props to sustain us— as individuals, congregations, or presbyteries—we will fall.

And sometimes, I think, we Presbyterians rely so heavily on the props provided by church property that we forget who we are. “We” may be presbytery officials or local session members; it makes no difference. But if we think the church is the same thing as the property, or that our identity is inextricably linked to buildings, may we all be stripped of our idolatry and required to foster our faith without props for a while. If this results in surrender to Jesus, we will be better persons and the PCUSA will be a better church.


2 Responses to “Are We Relying on Mere Props?”

  1. Brad Larson Says:

    This posting is very relevant to me. I have been teaching in a CALFIRE camp for more than two years. When I first began I was offered a classroom in which to teach. I actually got space in a dining commons where people were coming and going. I felt cheated but eventually came to love the arrangement. Several of our boys attended our bible study and eventually embraced Jesus Christ. All I had was the bible text and our adapting the material to a juvenile level. I discovered that the bible has a power all its own to draw our boys to Jesus Christ. I wonder if sometimes we get too “churchy” to recognize the power of God’s word to draw us together into His love.

  2. […] (U.S.A.), particularly as experienced by the various parties involved in church dismissals. In “Army Removes Crosses, Steeple from Chapel”, it is noted that a U.S. Army chapel in Afghanistan has been required to remove permanent Christian […]

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