A strange conversation can be heard in most church parking lots on most Sundays. It goes like this; “Did you get fed this week?”
“Yes I did, I loved what the pastor had to say.”
Or perhaps; “Did you get fed this week?”
“No not really, if it carries on like this we may have to go to another church.”
These startling expressions of dependence upon the pastor represent a deep malady in the American church. I call it Spiritual Feudalism because of the ‘peasant talk’ it uses and the ‘serf mentality’ it reveals. Ordinary Christians don’t appear to be confident they can find their own spiritual nourishment. Surely if we believe in one who said ‘come to me’ and called himself ‘the Bread of Life’ we also believe in a different way?
But how do we find this different way?
This is what Jesus said to the future leaders of his movement just before he went to the cross:
‘The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those who exercise authority over them call themselves Benefactors. But you are not to be like that. Instead, the greatest among you should be like the youngest, and the one who rules like the one who serves. (Luke 22:25 – 26)
Leadership in his day operated with the dual levers of power and provision. Leaders would ‘lord it over’ (power) and call themselves ‘benefactors’ (provision). The social fabric of Jesus’ day was entirely controlled by leaders who exercised power and who provided for others. Caesar was usually drawn from the Roman nobility and this small group of families owned pretty much everything. If you were anywhere in the Roman Empire you were under ‘Caesar’s Peace’ and if you prospered it was believed it was because of him. Coins held his image because the currency was considered to be his. The Senate – those at the top of the Roman hierarchy – vied for ‘rights’ over the territories of the Empire so that they could employ tax collectors – like those despised in the time of Jesus – to gather taxes that were due to them as ‘owners’ and conquerors. At the bottom of the social ladder was ‘the mobility’ – better known as ‘the mob’ – and they owned nothing.
After the collapse of the Empire at the beginning of the fifth century this system slowly modified into what we now call European Feudalism. The nobility, who owned everything, exercised extraordinary power and were expected to provide for their peasants. The peasantry lived on land owned by their feudal lords and paid their way by growing enough crops and livestock to feed their families and pay their rents. The principal metrics of the feudal system were ‘how many peasants do you have and how much tax do they pay?’ This system, in one form or another, lasted for more than 1,000 years. In fact it was so stable it only broke down in the face of famine or war.
Those who have watched Les Miserables or Downton Abbey know how the lower classes of Europe began to demand change in times of hunger or strife.
But there was another way – something called revolution – occurring first in the hearts and minds of the people and then in their actions. If we are to see any liberation from spiritual feudalism it will happen first in our hearts and minds.
The Americas were colonized by the great European powers— particularly Britain. Each successive monarch claimed the colonized territory by giving it his or her name. Hence Virginia, Maryland, Georgia and the Carolinas. But the newly arriving peasantry had different ideas. They believed in the ‘dignity of the individual’ and that ‘taxation without representation’ was inherently wrong. On American soil, things began to turn around – ordinary people began to think, talk and eventually, act differently.
The American Revolution began the slow process of changing everything.
Except in the churches. Here the hidden virus of feudalism remained. Pastors continued to function as feudal lords. They were given power to lead and are expected to provide spiritual nourishment every week.
We can see this in the metrics we still use. Instead of, “How many peasants do you have and how much tax they pay?” We ask, “How many people do you have in your church and how much do they give?”
‘Attendance and Tithe’ are the measurements we’re interested in.
This would be all right except that Jesus said, “You are not to be like this.”
Such feudal thinking undermines the dignity of each disciple of Jesus. It subverts the call for every Christian to live a spiritually productive life and prevents the church from becoming a movement capable of changing society.
The church began as a movement that transformed the world. Movements by their very nature have lots of people taking responsibility. You could hardly say that about the average local church.
We need to turn around— we need what Jesus called, ‘repentance’.
We need an American Church Revolution!
What about you? Do you put your pastor in the role of a feudal lord?
Do you function with the a ‘serf mentality’?
Do you use ‘peasant talk’?