During the last twenty years, a number of Christian churches and institutions have closed in the developed world. In countries like England, France and Germany, historic churches have been transformed into malls, banks, restaurants and shopping centers. This reality is also true for the Seventh-day Adventist denomination. Scores of churches in North American have closed its doors, not to mention important educational and health institutions like New England Memorial Hospital in Boston, Mount Vernon Academy in Ohio and Atlantic Union College in Massachussets, to name only a few.
The people of Judah were reminded of the transient nature of institutions when God, through the prophet Jeremiah, said, “Go now to my place that was in Shiloh, where I made my name dwell at first, and see what I did to it because of the evil of my people Israel” (Jer 7:12). While I don’t believe the closure of all religious entities are caused by the same “evils” which precipitated the demisre of the Jewish nation in Jeremiah’s day, what the prophet said to God’s people about the transient nature of religious establishments is still true today. And the timeless lesson to be remembered is as relevant as ever—that our faith should rest on God alone and never on institutions.
After the conquest of Canaan under the leadership of Joshua, “the people of Israel assembled at Shiloh and set up the tent of meeting there” (Josh 18:1). It was located about twenty miles northeast of Jerusalem. Shiloh was the center of religious life for Israel until the time of Samuel. His father Elkanah took his family there year by year to worship Yahweh. Eli and his two sons, Hophni and Phinehas served at priests in Shiloh. At the temple in Shiloh, Hannah prayed for a child and there she brought Samuel to be dedicated to Yahweh. Shiloh was the place where God’s people offered sacrifices to Yahweh, worshipped him, and prayed (1 Sam. 1:3). At Shiloh stood the Yahweh’s sanctuary (hêḵāl) (1 Sam 1:9), the “house of the Lord” (1 Sam 1:24).
Eli’s sons used their position of power at Shiloh to make forceful sexual advances on women who came to worship at Shiloh (1 Sam 2:22). After the ark of God was captured and Israel defeated at the hands of the Philistines, Shiloh lost its relevance (1 Sam 4:3-4, 12). As he stood at the temple gates, Jeremiah appealed to the people of Judah to change their wicked ways (Jer 7:6). He pointed to the destruction of Shiloh (the original home of the temple’s predecessor, the tabernacle) by the Philistines (Jer 7:12) and the Assyrians’ deportation of Israel —the northern kingdom—(Jer 7:15) as evidence that God’s previously manifested presence didn’t somehow guarantee the immunity of Jerusalem or the indestructibility of Solmon’s temple.
Jeremiah predicted that Jerusalem would suffer a similiar fate to Shiloh because of Judah’s moral and religious corruption. Jeremiah predicted that God would dispense with the Jerusalem temple in the same way he dispensed with the Shiloh temple. The Ark, temple, sacrifices and physical structures were established to serve as aids to worship. They were never intended to serve as substitutes for God’s image reproduced in his people.
Jeremiah 7 teaches that God is not bound to a particular locality, particular structure or institution. Jeremiah’s message undermined the false assumption that the temple in Jerusalem guaranteed God’s perpetual, unconditional protection. Wickedness (rāʾâ) among God's people was visible proof that God’s appointed “aids to worship” had failed to reproduce his character in his people. They thus became meaningless and obsolete.
Religious organizations, structures, systems and process are all good in so far as they facilitate God’s mission through his people. However, these means are never to be confused with the end goal—the revelation of God’s character to a broken world. Nor are they to be elevated to an undue place of importance. One day, every human structure will be swepted away, but God’s mission will continue trimphantly forward towared the day when God will put everything in our fallen world right again.