Once again the church is sinking into a chaos that makes it lose its focus. What are we to think when?
* Pastors spray their adherents with DOOM insecticide
* Church leaders walk into a police station at midnight and shoot police officers dead
* Government of Rwanda closes down 700 churches in Kigali this month, while tightening regulations – including that pastors must be qualified with a theology degree to congregate citizens
* Church leaders in KZN are among the “walking wounded” who openly showed support for Jacob Zuma when he finally got his day in court
* State employees who are “weekend pastors”, that is, they draw their monthly paycheque from the fiscus plus they frisk their congregations for additional income
* A prosperity doctrine so strong that pastors have their own aeroplanes not to mention the excessive perks on the ground
* Some churches make room for same-sex marriages
At the end of the Middle Ages in Christendom (i.e. Europe) the church had evolved into a similar kind of chaos:
* Priests could hold multiple parishes giving them several layers of personal income
* Itinerant friars were given permission to offer the sacraments anywhere in any parish
* Papal envoys went around selling “indulgences” (i.e. forgiveness for sins that you hadn’t committed yet) – sort of like a “Hall Pass” in today’s world
* Relics of the apostles and saints were put on display – for a small fee!
* Masses could be performed for the dead – a kind of “ex post repentance”
* Clergy exacted fees from probating wills, contracts and divorces
* The private lives of the clergy were scandalously free
* Church and state were united - Popes were sometimes even military commanders
Using fundraising techniques such as these, it is said that the Pope’s revenue from England alone was equivalent to that of the King. This is not a detailed history, just a sketch. But it explains why some genuine Reformers emerged who believed that the church needed to re-invent itself. One of their more radical themes was to separate the church from the state.
The key that unlocked the Reformation was “equipping the laity”. Starting with Bible translation so that everyone could read the sacred scriptures for themselves. Of course, this was boosted by technology, namely the invention of the printing press.
This unleashed a torrent of “religious liberation” from the imposters who called themselves Bishops, Cardinals and Popes. The Reformation opened a Pandora’s box that led on to state churches, other republics where the separation of church and state was entrenched in their constitutions, revivals and “great awakenings”.
In Africa today, there is not one single episcopal structure like Europe had in the Middle Ages. The legacy of the mighty Roman Empire as it faded away was that tall church hierarchy called Roman Catholicism. But it was not just organized into parishes and provinces – a cross-cutting structure of “mendicant orders” emerged - like the Franciscans and the Dominicans. In some ways, these competed with the clergy, in other ways they reinforced the institutional church. Rural communities would have both churches and monasteries. Cities would have cathedrals and universities.
Africa needs a Reformation. In South Africa, perhaps the Section 9 institution called the CRL Rights Commission can take its cue from Rwanda? Can it be the catalyst to change? Its intervention seems to have brought some imposters to book – like the pastor of DOOM.
You cannot have church leaders who synergize their esteem as pastors with their role in government. This leads to abuse of power – they can literally get away with murder. Separating church and state is radical to some Christians, but non-negotiable to others.
The medieval saying that “a holy man’s only possession is his begging bowl” is not the paradigm of church growth today. The African proverb that has replaced that is: “A goat eats where it is tethered”.
A former professor of ethics and religion called Martin Prozesky has written a novel called Warring Souls. Its setting is a fictional Anglican college. His characters are archetypical – they fall in love, they have adventures, they disagree. In their quarrels, they form cliques and counter-cliques.
In a college context, there is always freedom of speech and some space for individuals to follow their truth. But Christian belief in what truth is varies - from fundamentalism where the Bible is taken literally, to those who see God as remote and impersonal. They all call themselves Christian, and the novel illuminates how hard it can be for them to find one another.
So we end up with a kind of permissive, unregulated chaos. Rwanda is on the right track. South Africa should follow suit. Above all, let us keep individuals from holding posts simultaneously in both the church and the state. That does not mean that the church should be silent about politics – for example, SACC’s Unburdening Panel was exemplary. Scripture teaches Christians to respect and even pray for the public sector. But there is also the model of discontent converging around David, while he waited for God to remove King Saul.
* Stephens heads the UNEMBEZA Desk at the Desmond Tutu Centre for Leadership. He writes in his personal capacity.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.