The classic definition of the Church is found in the writings of Paul who proclaims “You are the body of Christ.” Most interpreters understand “You” to mean the Church. I understand the statement to mean, metaphorically, that the Church (however you definite it in terms of composition) is the physical presence of Christ in the world today. What the Church does, how the Church presents itself to the world is how the world regards Christ. If any part of the Church acts hatefully, violently, exclusively toward others then Christ and the Church as a whole are perceived as exclusive, violent, and insensitive. By the same token, when the Church reflects the love of Christ, both the Church and Christ are seen as compassionate and accepting.
As I see it, the Church’s task (and the task of every member) is to live out the teachings of Jesus. In that way, Jesus continues to live in the world today. Only those who attempt to reflect the acts and teachings of Jesus (including compassion, concern for those on the fringes of society, support for the poor, inclusiveness, forgiveness, etc.) can legitimately claim the name of “Christian” or use the title “Christian Church.” Others are merely “pretenders” who muddy the waters, confuse the world and are less than worthy of these titles.
Integral to living out the deeds and teachings of Christ, the Church is called to exercise a prophetic function in today’s world. The Old Testament prophets, despite some notable blind spots, acted as the conscience of both the religious and political institutions (leaders) of their time. The prophets constantly “called out” both groups when they considered either or both to be straying from the intent and purposes of YHWH. Like Jesus they stood on the side of the disenfranchised and oppressed, whoever and wherever they might be, and openly acted on their behalf.
This function as “conscience” is woefully missing in the modern Christian Church. We are not even able to exercise any degree of self-assessment or self-discipline — we rarely publicly “call out” any part of the Church body that is blatantly ignoring or denying the compassion, acceptance and love exhibited in the life and teachings of Christ.
Equally as important, the Church in America rarely performs the prophetic function, rarely acts as a “conscience,” in relation to the government. Performing that function is especially difficult in the United States because the Church — while giving lip service to the idea of “the separation of church and state” — has essentially “sold out” to the government by accepting, even demanding, the tax-exempt status offered to charitable institutions. In exchange for this “privilege,” the Church must remain politically neutral and refrain from publicly, openly taking political positions as such. Although there are covert ways to circumvent some of the restrictions imposed by this arrangement the Church, largely, has been politically neutralized in this country. (Note: I do not regard the so-called “religious right” as a church but see it as a political movement — a “wanna be,” if you will.) The Church is afraid to openly oppose or support the government or its policies and, in particular, support or oppose individual candidates for fear of losing its tax-exempt status which, for most Churches, would be a financial disaster. The United Church of Christ experienced anxiety over this issue a few years ago in connection with a speech given at its national conference by Barack Obama before he became a candidate for President; a potential IRS investigation and unfavorable ruling was quite worrisome to many.
By and large, the organized Church in America has chosen financial security over prophetic responsibility.
I recognize that the content of this “prophetic function” may be the subject of significant discussion and inevitable disagreement. (Although it seems clear to me that, consistent with the Old Testament prophets and with Christ himself, such prophetic content would minimally involve identification with the poor, the oppressed, the outcasts, and the marginalized in society.) I, for one, would rather have a spirited discussion about the content of such prophesy than forfeit the prophetic function, as the American Church for all intents and purposes has done.
(Guest contributor, Rev. Raymond Luber, is a minister in the United Church of Christ, a retired pastor, and former Editor-in-Chief of International Journal of Partial Hospitalization.)