Issues Facing Missions Today: 16 The Robber Church—A Blessing?
The Robber Church consists of those groups that have gained control of oldline denominations in order to change the fundamental doctrines and practices of those denominations. A butterfly may have once been a caterpillar, but it is not any longer a caterpillar. The Robber Church finds acceptable the denial of the doctrine of the Trinity or the Deity of Christ, or it accepts sexual immorality and even champions same-sex unions. The Robber Church has stolen truth and morality from its members, and many of the faithful people of God have had no choice but to leave these oldline groups that were once orthodox to form new fellowships. Whereas once these denominations were Biblically faithful, they are now the champions of falsehood. (The weasels have taken over Toad Hall!)
The Robber Church has not only stolen truth and morality from what used to be orthodox denominations; they are also stealing church real estate. When local churches find the apostasy of the Robber Church unbearable and decide to leave their denominations, the Robber Church unashamedly (cf. 1 Cor. 6.1-8) goes to court to take their property from them. They may be able to do this legally, in many cases, because the Robber Church often ends up holding the deeds to the property. Yet this is merely a legal matter, not a moral one. These local churches have paid for their own church property, built their own buildings, and occupied the property for years—sometimes for centuries. If the law says that those who own the deed own the property, so much for the law versus justice. Even if legal, this action is theft and stems from greed. Congregation after congregation is put out of its property and forced to meet elsewhere. The Robber Church, losing members by the hundreds of thousands each year, greedily collects its properties. Covetousness, says Paul, is idolatry (Col. 3.5). The Robber Church worships Mammon, preferring its ownership of properties to orthodox faith or faithful Christians.
God’s Instrument for Renewal of His Church
The Robber Church, however, may be an instrument of God for true Christians. Several reasons come to mind. (1) Persecution: We live in a day of increasing persecution of believers, and the Robber Church may be helping believers prepare for worse things to come. The theft of church property by the Robber Church removes from true believers the cost and worry of being property owners. If Paul could encourage believers in a time of persecution to consider celibacy so as not to bear the burden of worry for a family (1 Cor. 7.26), might we not rejoice in being spared the worry of costly properties in a time of increasing persecution of Christians?
(2) Mission: Unencumbered by their properties and the need to maintain them, believers can focus on the mission they have during increasingly dark days. Finances need no longer go to the upkeep of expensive buildings but may be used to do the work of the Church in the world. Jesus told his disciples to make more disciples (Mt. 28.19), not build expensive edifices.
(3) Ecclesiology (What is the Church?): The Robber Church’s theft of large church buildings from true believers also releases them from the confused idea that gatherings of believers in large structures to sing songs and hear sermons somehow constitutes a church. The Biblical metaphors for ‘church’ include temple, bride, body, and family. ‘Temple’ does not refer to a building but the holy people of God. ‘Bride’ refers to the purity of God’s people. ‘Body’ refers to the fact that a church’s meeting together is not a performance with a stage and an audience but people contributing their Spirit-endowed gifts to build each other up in unity (1 Cor. 12) and to the mature stature of Christ’s fulness (Eph. 4.11-13). ‘Family’ terms (e.g., Paul is a father, mother, or nurse; believers are ‘brothers’) suggest intimacy and caring for one another. Believers typically met in homes in New Testament times. Oversized gatherings in oversized buildings do not churches make. The Robber Church is, in some cases, through its theft of property, releasing true believers from their mistaken understanding of what it means to ‘gather as the church’ (1 Cor. 11.18). Pray that these churches, having been relieved of their large buildings, do not build large edifices yet again.
(4) Church, Society, and Households: The Robber Church is helping the true Church return to both public spaces and homes. Churches are meeting at YMCA facilities, hotels, or in schools, and they are meeting in peoples’ houses. Thus the Church is not so separated from society on the one hand or family life on the other. ‘Church’ means ‘assembly’; it is not a stone structure with stained glass windows for people with fancy clothes, an institution separated from the everyday lives of normal people.
(5) Purification: The Robber Church, with its devotion to property and money, will use its wealth to try to purchase loyalty from the unfaithful. It will threaten to take away a priest’s pension. It will remove the minister from his manse. It will buy the loyalty of a bishop. Thus the Robber Church plays an important role in purifying the Church, in helping to sift true believers from false believers, the wheat from the chaff.
Believers rightly decry the heresies and injustices of the Robber Church, which steals truth as well as properties from the faithful people of God. It speaks peace to its neighbours while harbouring mischief in its heart (Ps. 28.3). It cares more for properties than people as its lawyers wrestle church buildings away from the faithful who built them. This is similar to what God says to land-grabbers in Israel in Isaiah’s day:
Ah, you who join house to house, who add field to field, until there is room for no one but you, and you are left to live alone in the midst of the land! 9 The LORD of hosts has sworn in my hearing: Surely many houses shall be desolate, large and beautiful houses, without inhabitant (Is. 5.8-9).
Yet this may be a blessing from God. I have suggested five possible blessings for believers. The Robber Church is relieving the faithful from the cares of property ownership in a time of increasing persecution. Through this, it releases believers to focus on the mission of the Church. It is helping believers to rethink what it means to be a church and what the church’s relationship to society and households should be. And the Robber Church’s use of money to purchase loyalty is helping to sift true believers from false believers.