Church in the court of the Gentiles

The analogy of the church as the temple of God is a familiar one (cf. 1 Cor.3:16-17; 1 Pet.2:5). It has usually been used, however, in an exclusivist sense: the church is the sanctuary at the heart of Herod’s temple, where legitimate Israel worships; everything outside the sanctuary is the world. 2 Cor.6:16-18 rather reinforces this position. It is worth recalling, however, that Herod’s temple included a large forecourt between the city and the sanctuary in which it was possible for Jews and Gentiles to mingle. This is not a new idea, but it may help us in our attempts to reconfigure the experience of being church for the purposes of emerging culture mission if we reintegrate the image of the Court of the Gentiles into our self-understanding. There would be a number of potential benefits.

1. This is a natural extension of the church’s self-understanding: it emerges from a well-established biblical image, and although the New Testament does not appear to make the inference explicitly, I do not think it greatly strains the analogy. A number of other biblical ideas could easily be incorporated into the model: the Old Testament vision of the nations coming to worship on mount Zion (eg. Is.56:6-7), Jesus’ concern that the temple should be a house of prayer for all the nations (eg. Mk.11:15-17), and the Gentile ‘God-fearers’ who attached themselves to the synagogues (cf. Acts 10:22).

2. This shared religious space is large but it has distinct boundaries. On the one hand, the court was an integral part of the temple complex and, therefore, differentiated from the rest of the city. This is highlighted by the stories in which Jesus drives out the animal-sellers and money-changers; there were also rules which prevented the use of the forecourt as a thoroughfare or short-cut (M. Berachoth 9.5; TB Berachoth 54a). On the other hand, the Court of the Gentiles was sharply distinguished from the inner courts, which were set aside exclusively for the people of God. Foreigners were forbidden to enter on pain of death (cf. Acts 21:28-29; Jos. War 5.193).

These boundaries are important. They protect the identity of the people of God - those who are called to be holy or set apart. Baptism would be the obvious equivalent to the low balustrade with its warning inscriptions, but the distinction should also be developed in relation to lifestyle and ministry. This is an aspect of emerging culture mission that is easily overlooked in our enthusiasm to become postmodern. But the boundaries also protect the Court of the Gentiles both from encroachment by the world (cf. Jesus expelling the money-changers) and from the zeal of believers.

3. The Court of the Gentiles was not a place of organized, official, programmed activity - other than the selling of sacrificial animals and the changing of money for the purpose of paying the temple tax, of which Jesus appears to have disapproved. We might think of it as essentially a place of presence, being, community, communion, congress, prayer, meditation, a place of proximity to God. The Court of the Gentiles is where the temple overlaps with the world. It is a place where people may safely approach the presence of God, but it could also be regarded, at least in our postmodern context, as a place of escape both from the world and from the sanctuary - a transitional arena, where people move between the secular and the sacred.

The church needs to recreate this sort of space for the sake of its mission to the emerging culture. The idea cannot be pressed as a strict biblical model, but it may help us imaginatively to restructure the life and activity of the temple of the living God.