What use is the church to society? You might think that’s an odd question to ask. For one thing, we are not accustomed to thinking much about the ways in which the church benefits the society in which it is placed. Aren’t we here to do God’s will, to carry out his mandate, to seek his glory? To ask what ‘use’ we are to society seems to be asking the wrong question. Whether or not society can see any purpose that the church serves, we have work to be getting on with in obedience to the Lord’s command.
Fair enough. But there are people asking just such a question. The matter is of considerable interest to the Charity Commission which makes crucial decisions about the charitable status of churches and other Christian ministries. In general there has been little problem with questions of charitable status for churches, and the benefits in terms of, for example, receiving Gift Aid refunds, are very considerable. Of late, however, the Charity Commission have been much more interested in asking whether religion, Christianity included, can be said to be ‘for the public benefit’. It moreover cannot be assumed that the answer will be in favour of religion.
Attention is being focused on this issue by the case of a Brethren assembly in Devon. In a dispute that has been running for some seven years the Charity Commission has refused to register the fellowship because its Communion services are open only to members. Now if that is the sole reason, there is cause for considerable concern since most church bodies expect to be able to set the terms on which they administer Communion. Anything less would rightly be regarded as improper interference by the state in the spiritual affairs of the church. If admission to the Lord’s Table is taken out of church control, what will be next?
When elders from the Brethren assembly appeared recently to give evidence to a parliamentary select committee, a letter was produced from the Charity Commission’s head of legal services in which it was stated that churches cannot be assumed to be acting for the public good. The letter included the statement that, ‘This decision makes it clear that there was no presumption that religion generally, or at any more specific level, is for the public benefit, even in the case of Christianity or the Church of England.’ Leaving aside the interesting phrasing at the end of the quotation, the implications of this outlook, should it become standard practice on the part of the Charity Commission or of other government agencies, are deeply worrying.
In what ways could a church be considered to be of ‘public benefit’? It would be hard to prove that the spiritual ministries of the church (or of some other religious body) are of benefit if those making the judgment do not share the spiritual perspective of the church. There is no doubt that true conversion is a life transforming experience that in the course of a lifetime will bring about immense changes in every aspect and relationship of a person’s life. How can that be measured or even demonstrated to be the result of a church’s ministry? Certainly not easy.
Some ministries carried on by various churches may lend themselves to the kind of evaluation which the Charity Commission may favour. Diaconal ‘ministries of mercy’ to the poor and those suffering in various ways might be demonstrably ‘for public benefit’. Other means used to offer assistance to different groups in the community might also come under this heading. Some churches will of course take the approach that their work is entirely spiritual, having nothing to do with meeting material or physical needs, but that is a position hard to square with the ministry of Jesus who healed the sick as well as preaching the Good News, and with the exhortation of Galatians 6:10 ‘Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers.’
Whether bodies such as the Charity Commission accept this view is, however, a very different question. The church may have to face the prospect of losing its privileged position in an increasingly secularised society and be prepared to live, as it so often has done during its history, ‘under the cross’, paying the price for faithfulness to its King and Head.