Welcoming Pews

Scripture:  James 2:1-10;14-17

In a fast paced and even faster changing world, some churches feel the need to make adjustments to better appeal to the modern culture.  When churches want to communicate they are fully modern or contemporary, one of the ways to do this is to replace the pews with padded chairs.   For many, pews are a classic symbol of traditional church.    The concept of “old time religion” and the image of simple wooden pews seem to go hand in hand.   However, pews are not quite as ancient as we think and their history is far more complex.   Pews started to enter churches during the time of the Reformation, so the first 1,400+ years, almost 2/3rds of Christianity’s existence there were no pews.   Pews spread quickly throughout Europe, so they were popular.  However, they were expensive, so to offset the cost, they were sold.   Many of the first pews were bought by families (and to be clear, they were bought by the richest families), and they even came with deeds, like property, that were transferrable, inheritable, and saleable.   Other churches took a landlord approach, and leased their pews.   People would pay pew rent to guarantee they got to receive their pew, and they took this seriously.   In British and American colonial churches, you can still find evidence of this.   The best pews would have gates on them, and these gates would be locked.  Only the family who had paid the rent would be awarded the key.    This took root in England but it was also widespread in the United States during the colonial era and for a large portion of the 19th century.    By and large, pew rent faded away, but believe it or not to this day the practice is still ongoing in one location.  The Anglican Church on the Island of Stark still collects pew rent from a handful of families due to the terms of 19th century contract, and if you were to attend that church you would be unable to sit in the first nine pew because they are reserved.

For several decades pew rent was a fundraiser that a lot of churches utilized, but as you can imagine, it created some problems.   It became established that many churches had “free pews”, and congregations quickly became stratified between those who could afford pew rent and those who were relegated to the cheap seats.   One of the off-shoots of the Methodist church in the 19th century were the Free Methodists.   One of the disagreements that the free Methodists had with the Methodist Episcopal Church was the practice of pew rent.   The dissenters broke off and chose the name Free Methodists for a variety of reasons, and one of those reasons was to communicate that the Free Methodist church would be a church where all of the seats were free to everyone.    We probably would like to think that the practice of pew rent died out because by and large everyone came around to this more high minded thinking, but that probably is not the case.  John Charles Bennett wrote is 316 page doctrinal thesis on pew rent and he concluded that the practice declined because of a lack of profitability not because of a high moral standing.

It is honestly a bit of a head scratcher to me that the practice of pew rental ever came to being in the first place.  After all, calling out giving preferential seating to the rich while regulating the poor to the worst seats is literally what this morning’s scripture says not to do!   I have to wonder how an 18th century preacher could read this scripture on a Sunday morning and do anything else but point to the gated pews and say “do better.” We may not charge pew rent anymore, but this morning’s scripture challenges us to ask, do we show favoritism still and what should we be doing to prevent that?

As the history of pew rent shows, favoritism has long been a problem in the church, but in the first century it needed to be especially called out.  The culture of first century society was extremely stratified.   James was writing to a preliminary Jewish audience and this was very much an honor/shame culture.   Honor was, and still is, in many parts of the world an invisible social currency.   People seek to accrue more honor and avoid shame which lowers honor.   One of the impacts of this mindset, is it creates a natural honor pecking order.  Everyone is aware of roughly where they line up compared to everyone else.   Thus the person who was most honored always got the best seat, the first pick, the most deference and respect.   While honor was an invisible currency, real world visible currency had a very real impact on honor.   The rich were considered more honorable, while being poor was a mark of shame.

So this means the behavior described in this morning’s scripture would have been normal.   For the society of the day, if a person who was clearly wealthier than everyone else came into the church, it would have been natural to give them the best and most honored seat.   Likewise, if someone was present who was clearly poorer than everyone else, then the majority would naturally assume they get the worst position.    This was the common position in the culture of the day, but James wrote in no uncertain terms:  “Believers in our Lord Jesus Christ must not show favoritism.”   Full stop.    There is no contextual wiggle room, there are no corner cases, and there are no special exceptions.   Favoritism does not belong in the body of Christ.  Period.  James goes as far as to state, “If you show favoritism, you sin and are convicted by the law as lawbreakers.”

The reason why James is so strong in this opinion in this scripture is because showing favoritism under cuts the entirety of the gospel.   The gospel of Jesus Christ is God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son that all who believe in him will have eternal life.    The revolutionary truth of the gospel is that even though we all fall short of the glory of God, Christ died for all while we were still sinners.   The ground at the foot of the cross is level.   When it comes to our need for grace, none are more honored or shamed than anyone else.   The love of God and the forgiveness made available by Christ is for all no matter who they are or what they have done.   The church, the body of Christ, is meant to be the physical embodiment of that love on earth.   We are to love one another with the same sort of unconditional love God has for us.  The love found within these walls is to be a living testimony of what God’s love is like.  Picking favorites and not loving everyone absolutely destroys that message of an accepting, all encompassing, and all-consuming love.

In some ways we can read this morning’s scripture and feel like we are in the clear.  After all, we no longer charge pew rent.   We do not go out of our way to give the wealthy a seat of honor while intentionally making the poor sit in the worst places.   We do not show favoritism in the way this scripture mentions it, but this scripture causes us to ask, are there still ways that we end up practicing favoritism in the church?

It has been my experience that every church in the world believes they are friendly and every church says that everyone is welcome, but the truth of the matter is our actions do not always back up our words.  For instance we collectively say everyone is welcome, but to this day, Sunday morning is the most segregated time of the week in this country.  We say everyone is welcome, but surveys consistently show that we prefer to worship people who are similar to us.  For instance a 2018 Lifeway Research poll found that a majority, 57% of Methodists, prefer to attend a church where people share their political views.  How can a church truly be welcoming and not show favoritism, when over half of the people in any given Methodist church prefer it if everyone voted like they do?   We collectively might say everyone is welcome and that might even be officially true, but as individuals do we then back it up?   Does the way that we talk, the social media posts we share, or the way that we act convey that there are some people we consider to be “those people”?  Are there groups of people that we tend to be dismissive of, belittle, or speak poorly about?  Because if there is then we are likely practicing favoritism.   We would not be fully open to the idea that everyone, every single person regardless of racial identity, national identity, sexual identity, gender identity, or political identity is welcome and that God’s grace is freely available to them as well.  If any of our actions, words, or attitudes ever convey that someone is not welcome in the community of faith then we have shown favoritism in God’s church even if we claim all are welcome.

Friends in Christ, this is not how it should be, because favoritism in all of its forms does not belong in the church.   We should not try to decide or influence what the church, the body of Christ, looks like because the body of Christ is supposed to look like Jesus and love like Jesus.   If we agree with someone that Jesus is Lord and Savior then that is more important than what we disagree on.   If we agree with someone that Jesus is Lord and Savior then that means they are our brother or sister in Christ, and we are supposed to love them the way that God loves us.

This morning’s scripture rejected the cultural message that wealth gives honor, and in the same way we should reject the cultural message to hate those we disagree with.  In a polarized society we can go radically against the grain and take a stand for grace.  Even if we do not agree with someone, especially a fellow believer, we should still love them.  We should still recognize everyone as someone with an inherent sacred worth.  We should not make those who disagree with us feel like they are on the outside looking in.  Non-believers who are outside of the church should not pick up a message from us that churches are exclusive clubs for people who fit a certain mold. The message they should get is “you are welcome here, because this is a place that truly keeps the royal law found in scripture: love your neighbor as yourself.”

I really appreciate that James goes on to better define what it means for us to love one another.    The love that we are supposed to show to one another is not hypothetical.  It is not something that exists in thoughts only.  We are supposed to define that love by our actions.   We are supposed to care for one another by our actions.   Notice James specifically calls this out in verse 15:  “Supposed a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food.”   We are supposed to care for one another and the way we care for one another is a metric for a living and vibrant faith.  So when one of the people that we worship with is having a problem, then praying for them is a good start, but it should not be our stopping point.   We should ask “what can I do to help.”  Or better yet we respond with “May I help you in this way. . . “ and then freely volunteer to do something that is needed.  The good news is that many of you no doubt have a story or two of how when you needed support, help, or encouragement the most, a sibling in Christ was there for you.  It is a reason to celebrate that many of us can give testimony to the fact that members of our faith community treated us as a neighbor and loved us when we needed it the most.

However, we should also humbly confess that perhaps we are guilty of showing favoritism.   It may just be we have our group we are comfortable with, or perhaps we have not just been as open and accepting of someone like we know we should.   If we are being honest, we could probably all identify someone we worship with regularly that we have not truly taken the time to get to know or taken the time to show them that we care for them and love them the way God does.  May we be willing to take the steps to remedy that.

Our faith is based in the extravagant love of God made known to us by Jesus Christ.   Having a faith that works means that we live out that love in our day to day lives.   To do that we are to practice loving one another, the church is to be the body of Christ where the love of God is made known and is tangibly experienced.   May we not show favoritism along any lines, and may we reach to include others.   May we keep the royal law found in scripture, and may the world know we are Christians by our love.

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