What Do We Let Into Church?

In recent months we have seen two controversies arise around the apparent presence of non-Christian practices and teachings in Christian churches. Should a church facility host yoga classes, or Muslims gathered for prayer?

Part of the problem in answering this question is determining the issue at hand. Do such practices somehow defile sacred space? Do they amount to teaching heresy or false beliefs? Do they give succor and aid to a religious rival or even enemy? Do they lead good Christians astray? Why not have yoga and Muslims in church?

An authentically Christian answer will, as such, come from Christian scripture. In scripture we find that a concern with somehow polluting the space dedicated to worship is dealt with in terms of idols, items related to idolatrous worship, or immorality making their way into the Christian community as a human community. The Old Testament is appalled when either Israelites or non-Israelites set up idols in God’s holy places. Paul worries about immorality in worship, as James worries about hypocrisy. But these are hardly the questions being raised today. Neither yoga classes nor Muslims involve idols on the altar, obvious immorality, or hypocrisy. Nor has the current debate suggested that Paul’s warnings against participating in both “prostitutes” and the lord’s supper are relevant. More to the point are Paul’s writings concerning Christian use of and participation in meat offered to idols. (I Corinthians 8 to 10) Here we have a clear case of something that is intimately linked to non-Christian worship coming into Christian lives. What is Paul’s advice?

Well it isn’t monolithic. One one hand Paul says that all good things come from God, and are sanctified for Christian purposes by a blessing regardless of their origin. Thus yoga could be sanctified as a means of attaining Christian health, much as old pagan customs in Europe were sanctified for our celebration of Christmas and Easter. Sanctifying a Muslim presence seems harder, but might be possible. If Christians desire peace with their neighbors and mutual respect then blessing their presence for dialogue seems perfectly appropriate to Christian goals.

On the other hand Paul also warns that association with idolatry may be so close to participation in idolatry that weaker Christians may be further weakened in their faith. And this becomes the basis for his general rule: Christian decisions with regard to allowing non-Christian practice into Christian life should serve to strengthen and not weaken the faith of fellow Christians.

Paul’s criteria of serving the “weaker brother/sister” is very useful, yet rather obviously can be used only on a case by case basis. In fact this is what Paul envisions.  But can we come to any more general conclusions about excluding yoga and Islam from Christian churches? We can if the move to exclude yoga or Muslims is not a result of case by case decisions by pastors or church leaders, but is rather inspired by national movements to exclude anything that brings into the Christian community the reality of a religiously plural society.

Virtually none of our Christian churches have managed to include in their congregational lives the reality that we live in a multi-ethnic society, despite more than half a century of desegregating the rest of American social life. Our churches remain stubbornly monolithic with regard to race, economic class, and language. And the reasons for excluding yoga and Muslims have referred far more to keeping the church pure than to defending the weaker brother/sister. Thus it seems likely that the anti-yoga, anti-Islam movements are not efforts to protect the “weaker brother/sister” but are in fact an effort to defend the ongoing race and class isolation that it is the hallmark of American Christian congregations. Yes, we love mission. But only so long as those we serve keep their distance from our congregational life.

And this suggests a very different framework for analyzing the exclusion of yoga and Muslim speakers from congregational life. In this light it resembles more the efforts of early Jewish Christians to exclude anything of gentile origin, anything they regarded as unclean, from their society. Paul answered this decisively, as had Jesus, by his willingness to break out of such race based cultic identities to embrace the reality of ethnic and religious pluralism. Only by embracing diversity could the church engage it with the mission of Christ to the nations.

Ultimately the refusal of congregations to allow yoga as a form of exercise and the presence of Muslims for either prayer or even self-representation is a sign of our fear of actually engaging the world Jesus died to save. It is a fear of truly being faithful to Christ.


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