Saturday, May 2, 2015

Secular State Church

The return of the Jews from their exile in Babylon would have been an emotionally fraught time for all concerned. The elderly would have remembered the former temple – not only how grand it was on the outside, but also how corrupt the whole political and religious system had become – and how it was on orders from God that Nebuchadnezzar had destroyed it, and how horrible the fall of Jerusalem had been.
Ezra left Babylon with items that Nebuchadnezzar had stolen from the first temple, intending to use them in the yet-unbuilt new temple, knowing that they would be tempting targets for bandits, but he refused to ask the king for an armed escort, choosing instead to trust that God wanted the temple built and would protect them (Ezra 8:22).
The operation began well enough.
In the first year of King Cyrus, the king issued a decree concerning the temple of God in Jerusalem: Let the temple be rebuilt as a place to present sacrifices, and let its foundations be laid. … The costs are to be paid by the royal treasury. Also, the gold and silver articles of the house of God, which Nebuchadnezzar took from the temple in Jerusalem and brought to Babylon, are to be returned to their places in the temple in Jerusalem; they are to be deposited in the house of God. (Ezra 6:3-5)
Cyrus quite properly took what he had plundered from the Babylon his Persia had conquered and restored to the Jews what the Babylonians had stolen from them. After a few years, however, “lesser magistrates” of the Persian empire stopped the work on the new temple. It was not until the reign of Darius that construction was able to start again. Unfortunately, Darius’ generosity got the better of godly justice:
Moreover, I [Darius] hereby decree what you are to do for these elders of the Jews in the construction of this house of God: The expenses of these men are to be fully paid out of the royal treasury, from the revenues of Trans-Euphrates, so that the work will not stop. Whatever is needed – young bulls, rams, male lambs for burnt offerings to the God of heaven, and wheat, salt, wine and oil, as requested by the priests in Jerusalem – must be given them daily without fail, so that they may offer sacrifices pleasing to the God of heaven and pray for the well-being of the king and his sons. (Ezra 6:8-10)
When Darius decreed that the worship at the temple was to be financed “from the revenues of Trans-Euphrates [i.e., what had once been Israel and Judah],” he thereby established what we today would call a state church. Those who would have provided “the revenues” would not have been Jews, at least not all of them, and they would have had no opportunity to refuse to pay for it. The Jews would have been offering sacrifices that cost them nothing, contra 2 Sam 24:24.
Historians tell us that Darius was happy to allow all people in his empire to worship their own gods, so it isn’t as though he had adopted the God of the Jews as his own: he was simply allowing all of his subjects to pray to their own gods “for the well-being of the king and his sons.”
This joint venture between the church and the state probably seemed like a great idea to the Jews of Ezra’s day. The temple worship system was expensive, and what better way to defray the expenses than to get help from the tax man! And as when Cyrus had supplied the returning exiles of his day with the items taken from the first temple, the Jews may have felt like they were getting back what had been stolen from them to begin with.
So how did it work out? I would suggest that just as the descendants of Jacob and his sons who lived privileged lives in Egypt were horribly enslaved by that same Egypt, the descendants of Ezra’s generation ended up being afflicted by the same system that plundered their neighbors for them. In fact, Ezra himself summarizes the situation well when he laments, “Today we are slaves here in the land of plenty that you gave to our ancestors! We are slaves among all this abundance!” (Neh 9:36).
He who pays the piper calls the tune, and the abundance didn’t last. The Jews never shed the yoke of bondage. After the Persians came the Greeks, then the Romans. Judah during the second temple period was in constant social upheaval. There was no time of which it could be said, as it was in the time of the Judges, that the land was at peace for forty years (Jdg 3:11; 5:31; 8:28), let alone eighty years (Jdg 3:30).
The state church didn’t work in Ezra’s day, and state churches don’t work today.
When World War II ended, almost all of the schools and hospitals in what is now Papua New Guinea were run by churches. The missions, for all their faults, had a credible witness, and even though their emphasis on externals and failure to understand the local languages and cultures resulted in heathen practices going underground rather than being repented of, missionized towns and villages tended to be just, peaceful, and prosperous, students were learning and hospitals were healing in the name of Christ, and the name of Christ was respected and spreading.
By the 1980s the churches had taken the bait of tax funding and almost all education and health care were done by state functionaries. Even “church-run” schools were financed by the state. There was “religious education” in the schools and probably chaplains in the hospitals (I never saw one), but the gospel was irrelevant at best in the daily lives of most Papua New Guinean students and medical workers, and indeed in the lives of the average Papua New Guinean. In the two decades that I was in PNG, the common lament was that schools and hospitals, even those run ostensibly by churches, were getting worse all the time. As one would expect, the church was losing ground, and towns and villages became increasingly violent and the people increasingly alienated from God, their families, and peaceable society. The last I knew, the entire country was on the way to becoming a slum.
The church in the United States has followed a similar path. It sold its birthright long ago to the Progressive ideal of tax-funded schools. While I never heard the Bible read in school growing up, many of my contemporaries tell me it was read in their schools, but now some schools forbid it to be carried openly, let alone read out loud. The church was slower to surrender health care, but once private property and free association walked into the ambush in the madness that was Prohibition, the adversary could wait until more targets came into the zone before pulling the trigger with Medicare; ObamaCare is simply another organ shutting down as the body dies. The gospel is at best irrelevant to US education and medical care.
I’ve spent thirty years losing friends by telling them the church needs to be known for education and health care; I’ve only been losing friends for a decade by expanding that mandate to peacekeeping. We’ve relied on the tax man to educate our kids; now we’re spending first-world money to give kids third-world educations. We’re spending first-world money on a medical establishment better known for abortions than for effective (let alone affordable) health care. We’re spending trillions of dollars on police and military whose success at bringing peace at home and abroad is modest at best.

It may be too late for us to Jacob (“supplant”) the Progressive Edomites by building our own networks of peace keeping, education, health care, and other forms of relief. (One example in the area of health care is Samaritan Ministries, which is doing a Jacob on ObamaCare.) But it wouldn’t hurt to do what we can while we can to give a vision of Christ-centered societies to our grandchildren. If they survive the disaster that awaits our present society, they will have the vision and skills to build a city on a hill that will lift Jesus up and draw all men to him.

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