The Sunday Times of April 8, 2012 carried an article by Candice Bailey on the place of worship for the Rhema West congregation. We are told that weekly church services are conducted in the Platinum Ballroom at the Silver Star Casino West of Johannesburg. As controversial as this may sound for those of us with a certain perspective of church, we must contend with the fact that the Rhema Church West congregation is on record for condemning gambling, and therefore we can ill afford to rush to our own judgmental conclusions. Very vocal in condemnation of the choice of place of worship is the SACC, which warrants consideration.
The SACC has slammed this practice by the Rhema West in words such as “unbecoming”,” immoral” and “unethical”. The SACC president Right Reverend Thomas Seoka is quoted as saying “there is no way you can associate faith an institution that has a gambling aspect”. He goes on and remonstrates, “while there is a commitment on the part of the Christian Church to be there where there are working communities….. I am not sure we can do it there. There are ethical and moral questions”.
Professor Thias Kgatla moderator of the Uniting Reformed Church of SA is of the view: ” the teaching of the Word is clear: you can’t serve God and mammon- The church has nothing to do with the casino; they do not go together. That is unacceptable. That place (the church) is a place of worship. There should be a lot of places they could have gone to”.
Let me in the beginning make it clear I am in no way associated with the Rhema Church; hence this is no defence of the particular church formation but a challenge of what the SACC leaders argue.
What the leaders of the SACC share as doctrine in my assessment constitutes stringed personal views with semblance of categorical dictatorial tendencies.
Firstly the learned friends would accept that the definition of church is intrinsically linked to people as opposed to infrastructure or buildings. The Christian church is constituted of people who embrace the teachings, identity, life, death, resurrection of Jesus Christ and His Lordship as the only means to salvation and reconciliation to God. It is the comprehensive redemptive work of Christ finalized on Calvary that holds sway in describing who the church is. It is innately a living being not trapped in a building to give it identity, purpose or meaning.
Secondly the church takes it queue from the Redeemer of Salvation who unequivocally instructs in what we deem the great commission as contained in Matthew 28: 18-20, ” All authority has been given unto Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teach them to observe all things that I have commanded you, and lo I am with you always, even to the end of the age” ( NKJV). The church is instructed to GO and make disciples, it therefore must reach out to people. This instruction makes emphatic that the focus of Jesus Christ was not a building but people. Not only is this the case but His very earthly ministry took place in diverse places; one would imagine the same our SACC leaders no different to the Pharisees and Sadducees would have struggled to reconcile with. Scriptures are replete with a Jesus fellowshipping with tax collectors, prostitutes, the poor, those that society rejected. He even associated with a place called Samaria (the scorn of the then Jewish religious mind). The text in John 4: 4 is clear “He ( Jesus Christ) had to go to Samaria”.
Thirdly, the idea of church buildings for places of worship in the Christian Faith is a much later development as church history dictates. It is clear that the initial gathering of believers assumed what is commonly called ‘oikos’ or ‘home based’ fellowships. The actual idea of buildings as a place of fellowship was a much later evolvement. This argument does not suggest places for worship is bad or not scriptural but merely seeks to contextualise the advent of the first church building as that as we commonly have come to accept as a second century phenomenon.
Reading the slamming on the part of the SACC leaders, one is not sure what to make of it, for they straddle between condemnation, judgment and dictate. The truth is the SACC never represented all Christians in South Africa and neither can any structure make this claim. The leaders quoted attempts to superimpose their personal views of church defined with infrastructure as base. They furthermore prove less sensitive for the reality of what we call the missio-dei (mission field). They attempted to conjoin the place of worship that Rhema West occupies with perhaps a veiled held view of independent churches as associated with a love for mammon.
Prof. Kgatla categorically assumes the church has nothing to do with the casino. May we help Professor Kgatla in saying the same ones who frequent casinos constitute the object of God’s love and the subject of his redemptive plan? Also throughout the known and unknown history of the Church (not a building – but people) secular buildings are transformed into places of worship, in fact ungodly places were made places of worship, this attests to the power of the Gospel to transform people regardless where they may find themselves or in what place they may gather. Prof. Kgatla also adopts the right to dictate that there is a correct place for the church to gather.
The condemning of any place where people find themselves, the same who is the object of God’s love and the subject of his redemptive grace appears to be in the case of the SACC leadership a subject of preference more than a theological sound defence. Those quoted in the interview conflate issues to share their personal views and preferences as doctrine. These personal views are given credence because of a historically powerful name of a SACC who played a significant role in our collective political liberation, but in post-apartheid context proved less leading and at times lost in parenting the proverbial child called liberation.
Let us hope the condemnation of the place of worship has little to do with the change of religious face under the Zuma administration which is a clear break from the hallowed position and place the SACC use to hold. I said in a previous article Zuma made his choice for the less liked Pentecostal and so- called Faithbased – Charismatic churches as opposed to the traditional so called ‘mainline churches’.
Perhaps we must applaud the Rhema West congregation leadership for taking the church where church truly belongs on the streets, in places of reject, in that which is considered immoral among those who are sick, needy addicted and those who need help regardless of economic or social standing. The traditional views parading as uncontested truth as to where and how the church must gather remains debateable any attempt at reaching people (the object of God’s love and the subject of His redemptive work) remains celebrated. For He (God) does not only meet his people in cathedrals, temples, church buildings or the places our learned friends advocate but He God is on the street corners, he has people in the dingy areas and He loves all gamblers.
So let us take His presence to the places where His loved ones dwell, with the explicit hope of transforming lives and ultimately closing down the very casino and putting up a ‘kerk – klok’ chiming bell that will ring harmony and music in the ears of our learned friends.
To the Rhema West leadership as an expression of the body of Christ, do what you believe you are led to do to reach those that God love and Christ died for, often in doing that you may offend others no different to how the Pharisees and Sadducees found Jesus Christ the eternal Head of the Christian Church offensive for associating in less religious places.
Bishop Clyde N. Ramalaine