An army does not exist for the soldiers who compose it, you ask them! An army exists for the sake of the nation to which the soldiers belong. It is not for their sake that there is an army;it is for the sake of the nation and the cause which it has espoused. So the church exists in the first place, not for those of us who are its members, but for the Kingdom of God. (William Temple, Issues of Faith, 1917, pp. 21-22)This is probably the quote closest to the mistaken meme that makes the Facebook rounds and is responsible for the tetchy emails I get. As I said earlier, it is more nuanced, complex, and generous than the little sound-byte with which most people are familiar. It deserves some thoughtful unpacking. First of all, it gives lie to the idea that Temple thought the only society that existed for others was the Church (or that the church exists only for those who are not its members). Reading across Temple’s thought, many societies and institutions–the military (as seen here), the government, even schools–have significant resonsibilities for people who are not its ‘members’. The government does not exist for itself, but for the nation. A school is a micro-society that exists for the wider world, because it has the responsibility of forming people who will have to interact productively and peaceably with people who have been formed in other micro-societies. Societies that don’t regard the wellbeing of those who are ‘other’ to them are usually considered barbaric and uncivilized. There’s a generosity in Temple’s idea here: a recognition that even the most secular institutions and groupings often come together for higher purposes than individual or group advantage. The nuance and complexity comes in the portion where Temple doesn’t say that the soldiers of the army should not benefit from its existence. Yes, they are the ones putting their lives on the line, and that means others who have not risked everything will benefit more. But once the peace is secured, there is no indication that the soldiers should not share in the benefits their effort has produced. As well, the purpose of an army is not to recruit more soldiers–that may be necessary from time to time (and sometimes, more necessary than others). But the army does not exist to make sure everybody becomes a soldier–its main task is to ensure that those who are not soldiers can carry on in safety with other necessary activities for the good of the nation the soldiers serve (and to which they, along with the civilians, belong). So, what happens when we tease out the parallel between army and church that Temple has put before us? Two things come to mind immediately, and I’m sure this rich comparison could evoke many more. First, it reminds us that ‘church’ exists for something much bigger than itself. Temple was fond of reminding people of that, with the following words:
no object is sufficient for the love of God, short of the world itself. Christianity is not one more religion of individual salvation. . . It is the one and only religion of world-redemption. (Readings in St. John’s Gospel. London: Macmillan, 1952 (originally 1939-40), 48.)Secondly, it doesn’t mean that ‘redemption’ will come by making people into good members of congregations–no more than protecting the nation depends on making everyone a soldier. This second may be what is most important–and attractive–for the Past-Christian. We can be loyal to the vision and purpose of the Kingdom of God, but not feel a need to make other people ‘like us’. We can have a certain confidence in our beliefs, and be ready to share with others. But we may not feel need to ‘make disciples’ that believe the same way we do. We may not feel a need to ‘preach the gospel’ in any way other than being ‘good news’ to those we encounter. It’s a slightly different way of following Jesus than conventional church participation, but I can see where it could help further the Kingdom of God.