Recent news about local authorities in Tampa, Florida arresting a pastor continuing to hold services is gaining much attention and generating an ample amount of discourse amongst Christians. In the midst of a society turning to virtual means of holding community, these conversations cover topics concerning what the Church should look like and how the Church should move forward. Most responses to these topics are generally disagreements that fall into binary categories. Churches should continue meeting in church buildings and disregard the safer-at-home orders endorsed by the government or they ought to explore alternative means (e.g. live-streams and virtual mediums) for continuing church services. Although these conversations feel novel, heavy, and emotionally taxing, perhaps even divisive, we should come to realize these forms of discourse (evaluating together the nature of our identities and practices as Christians) as historically prevalent and critical.
Before continuing further, I celebrate that these conversations are had in community. As a community of faith, we rightly bring in our Christian ethic and tradition to inform conversations and decisions. Since the beginning of the Christian tradition, our faithful community has constantly internally deliberated concerning our identity as Jesus followers. What does it mean to be the body of Christ in the midst of changing and daunting times? Scripture itself offers pieces of these internal conversations happening amongst Jews – how did Jesus and Christ-followers fit into Judaism?
Digging Deeper – Our Tradition & Scripture
The setting behind the gospel of Matthew involved the Jewish community navigating their identity after the Temple destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. Prior to the Temple’s destruction, “the Temple, the land, and the Torah were the unifying factors in Palestinian Judaism that allowed a multiplicity of sects and movements to coexist together.”In this section, through a historical narrative method, I invite us to envision the crisis of what the Church should do today as bearing some semblance with the crisis Christ-followers faced after the Second Temple’s destruction. Like the Christ-followers in the late first century, Christians today are tasked with responsibility of deciding what our beloved community should look like. I believe our predecessors in our faith can offer wisdom to these troubling times.
In light of the catastrophic event, communities within Judaism proposed various ideas about the nature of Judaism itself and how it ought to continue. Matthew the evangelist and his community disagreed with decisions from other leaders and sects in Judaism about its identity and future after the Temple’s destruction.For example, the evangelist’s position opposed alternative sects viewing scribes and Pharisees as proper interpreters of the Torah or sects placing synagogues as the new centers for the life of faith.In Christian tradition and for the evangelist, following Jesus revealed the best way of continuing to live out the life of faith and trust in God in the absence of a Temple. This foundational conviction in the Christian tradition of turning to Jesus can continue to inform our conversations and decisions about the Church today.
Following Jesus revealed the best way of continuing to live out the life of faith and trust in God in the absence of a Temple.
The evangelist reveals in this gospel that the best way to respond to the crisis of the Temple’s destruction was by finding Jesus at the center of faith.Scriptural references of Jesus in Matthew (e.g. Messiah, Son of David, Son of God) exist in continuity with ancient Jewish tradition. In these ways, Jesus fulfilled that which was prophesied in the tradition.By establishing the harmony between the Hebrew Bible and Jesus’ life, the evangelist advocated for Jesus to become the Torah-interpreter and the center of faith after the destruction of the former center, the Temple.Although the Temple was gone, God’s abiding presence still remained with Israel through Jesus.
Similar to how Christians today must participate in conversations about how our communities of faith and practice must move onward, Jews in the first century participated in conversations about their own identity in the midst of a crisis.
For the Jewish community in the late first century, stakes were very high concerning the survival of their faith and tradition. It is amidst these conversations, through Matthew the evangelist encouraging Christ-followers to cling to Jesus, that Christianity endures today.In the way that the evangelist grounded the Christ-following community in Jesus after the Second Temple’s destruction, the Church today finds an example grounded in history, tradition, and Scripture for turning to Jesus in the midst of uncertain times.
Constitution or Christianity
In the previous section, we explored what wisdom the Christian tradition offered to Christ-followers facing a crisis of understanding the Church for today. Without a Temple in Jerusalem, Christ-followers in the late first century reimagined their identity as a community around the life and wisdom of Jesus. Without church buildings today, Christ-followers in the 21stcentury are invited to reimagine life as a community inspired by Jesus’ life and wisdom.
Christians who disagree about cancelling church services invoke the first amendment of the Constitution, claiming that the government intervening in churches’ decisions is a violation of their rights and freedoms.I raise the question of whether a Christian can invoke the first amendment as a basis for continuing to hold church services while still claiming the primacy of their Christian identity in their faith. At the foundation of disagreements among Christians about whether church buildings should remain open or close are the competing commitments of a Christian ethos grounded in tradition versus a Constitutional right. For Christians choosing to anchor their ethical framework on the basis of the first amendment, has the Constitution and its tradition of championing rights and liberty taken primacy over commitments to Christ and Scripture? In this disagreement about church buildings, if the Constitution and libertarian values are considered more sacred than Christ at the center of the Christian faith, then beyond the impasse of Church identity is the troubling question of faith commitments. For Christians, our center and hope lie in Christ.
I raise the question of whether a Christian can invoke the first amendment as a basis for continuing to hold church services while still claiming the primacy of their Christian identity in their faith.
When we look to the tradition of deliberation within Christianity, even as far back to its inception, we unearth incredible resources that can offer vitality to our decisions today about how to continue together as the Church. The vibrancy of the life and continuity of the Church is found in the creative ways we allow for the Spirit to move among us, and the way that we can look to and cling to Jesus, rather than the Temple, in these unprecedented times.
Daniel J. Harrington, Jr., The Gospel of Matthew, Sacra Pagina (Collegeville, Minnesota: The Liturgical Press, 1991), 14.
Harrington, Jr., 8.Lest this gospel be improperly taken, in its entirety, as an anti-Semitic passage, refer to A.J. Levine’s essay. AJ Levine, “With Friends Like These,” The Misunderstood Jew: The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus, 2006, 167–90.
Harrington, Jr., The Gospel of Matthew, 16.
In order to better understand this position, I recommend inquirers to Liberty Counsel’s public statement in defense of The River church. https://lc.org/newsroom/details/033020-fl-pastor-arrested-for-holding-church-service. For the purpose of the topic at hand, I will not direct attention to the reality that the government has not prohibited churches from holding live-streamed services or Bible studies online (Christians retain the ability to congregate in alternative spaces.)