Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The Body of Christ vs. the Church Corporation


"The elders have decided that your days at [this] Church have come to an end...please have your office cleared out by the end of the week."

After the initial shock of hearing these words spoken to me by my fellow pastors, which was after having poured ten years of heart, soul, and professional life into this particular church, I was left wondering how "the Body of Christ" could so abruptly dispose of one of its own with all the grace of a scene from Dilbert or Office Space.

Since then, I have learned that I am far from alone in this sort of experience. I continue to meet "former pastors" all the time. Some, like me, found themselves on the receiving end of a wave of office politics. Others have stepped down willingly (I consider these the wiser ones), because they discovered that working in a church had less to do with actual ministry and more to do with power moves, finances, and image management.

I can't help but wonder how this continues to happen so often in churches, and along the way have made some observations in this blog about what’s really going on beneath the surface. Predictably, I've been told by Christians that "the church is full of imperfect people" and that I should just "forgive and let God deal with it." And believe it or not, this is what I have done. It hasn't been easy, but nonetheless this is what I continue to do.

However, I still think we as co-workers in God's Kingdom are responsible to learn from things like this and make changes--lest we continue to plod along in our ignorance, repeating our mistakes and letting more and more people get abused in the process.

What I have learned over this time is that there really is a difference between the Body of Christ and a Church Corporation--and that it is not only possible, but vitally important for God's people to recognize the difference. It’s easy to miss this.

The Latin word corpus means “body”. The Church of Jesus Christ is a “body”, made up of many parts, created by God for the purpose of continuing Jesus’ ministry on earth. A Corporation is also a “body”, but of a different kind--created by people for the purpose of financial strength and influence in the community; whether the corporation is “for profit” or “non-profit”, it thrives on finances and growth. And in many churches, the body of Christ has taken on the form of a corporation.

Many believers never give this a thought. It is assumed that the “church” they attend is in fact “the body of Christ”, when in fact there are two bodies at work—the body of Christ (the believers themselves), and the church corporation (the business structure). These two entities co-exist in almost all local churches, thus creating one of the most basic problems in the Christianity of our day.

Does your church have a budget, staff, and/or facility? If so, there is a strong pull to become less like the body of Christ and more like a corporation.

Of course this is nothing new. The church has taken on worldly forms of organization ever since the days of Constantine (if this is new information for you, I recommend Pagan Christianity by Viola and Barna). What’s different now is that many members of the body of Christ are abandoning those forms in favor of less structured ones, which is creating a real crisis in the world of corporate Christianity.

More and more believers are discovering that what they thought was the body of Christ in their church is, in fact, a corporation--sustained by money and power politics. And while there are still many wonderful members of the body of Christ existing in these environments, the financial and power cravings inherent in a corporation are increasingly at odds with the community of love and grace that is the body of Christ.

Many believers intuitively feel this war going on—resulting in the large-scale disillusionment we see within Christianity—but have a hard time identifying or naming the problem. They’ve been taught that the church corporation IS the body of Christ, and although it may be “imperfect”, we should not criticize or find fault; because, after all “it is the body of Christ” and you shouldn’t “tear it down” or be “divisive”. This misunderstanding has kept many believers from standing up for the body of Christ in the midst of corporate takeovers in their own churches.

I think that to understand the conflict between these two “bodies” is to understand a lot of what’s gone wrong in many churches.

It can be difficult to discern at times: When things go wrong, such as abuse, condemnation, manipulation, corruption, secrecy, guilt tactics, pressure, obligation, or punishment for nonconformity in a church, where does that come from? Is this just the effects of an “imperfect” body of Christ, or the bitter fruit of a corrupt system that above all else needs to feed and protect itself?

This is, in fact, the essential difference between the two kinds of “bodies”. One (the body of Christ) lives to extend and give to others, the other (the corporation) lives off of others in order to keep itself alive. At its deepest level, the body of Christ embodies Jesus in this world, and continues the ministry and message that Jesus gave when he was on earth—the mission is everything. At its deepest level, the corporation exists to add value to its investors through the success and expansion of the organization—the mission (or “mission statement”) is a means to that end.

The body of Christ cares about all kinds of people and makes sacrifices to express God’s love and grace to others. The church corporation cares about bottom line, budget, expansion, reputation, growth and will use or misuse people as necessary to achieve those objectives. The body of Christ has a heart; the church corporation does not, although for public relations’ sake it pretends to.

Make no mistake; these are two conflicting entities, and they are constantly at war in local churches. In some cases, the body of Christ is holding the corporation at bay; in others the corporation has already taken over, and the life and freedom of the body of Christ has been minimized and even rendered ineffective.

In the best of corporate churches, the leaders recognize this tension and do their best to keep the corporate side of things contained, and they hope that the relational side outweighs the corporate side. They may even have the presence of mind to be aware that money-giving “investors” may use their giving as a tool of control in the church. But still, too many church leaders fall prey to the lure of financial support or status in the community and thus give away their spiritual birthright, in exchange for a tasty bowl of soup.

Is there a simple solution to this? I don’t think so. Without the clear leadership of Jesus himself in our gatherings, and the bold determination to submit to one another and follow Him alone, we will still try to find a “Saul” to lead us. We still crave the “security” that comes from a familiar church environment, even if we see corruption in it. In our present economic upheaval, we still desperately hope that a strong, well-led organization and leadership will make things right for us. Truth be told, we also still love to be part of the winning team, the one that’s growing in strength and numbers. And so “investors” and “leaders” become very attractive to us, and by taking the bait, we fall into corporate Christianity.

Maybe the most important thing is to simply for now be aware of this and to refocus on Jesus himself rather than the particular drama and politics of our church bodies. Maybe we just need to be aware that the “body” and the “corporation” are indeed at war with one another--and in many cases, the corporation is winning. But maybe, with that awareness, we as followers of Christ can see more clearly where “the body” ends and “the corporation” begins. Maybe that will help us see why things are happening the way they are and give us the boldness to speak up when it’s needed.

11 comments:

  1. As Jesus said, you cannot serve both God and mammon.

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  2. One of my criticisms of organized religion is that it seems many Pastors, preachers, elders, deacons and church board members do not seem to actually believe in the gospel message at their church. This article explains a great deal of the problem because many ministry leaders seem to disregard the gospel and replace it with the party-line of the Church Corporation.

    For most of us you have summarized the answer in your last paragraph. Being aware of the truth of the conflict, understanding the difference between the body of Christ and a Christian Corporation is the first step. IMO the next step is to make wise decisions of where to invest our spiritual time and money. Do we stick with a traditional church? Start an independent meetup? Or work toward something else entirely? I doubt there is a one-size fits all answer for everyone.

    Thanks for the great article.

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  3. I think I'm probably on a similar page with you, Mike. I'm a former pastor myself, though in the category of those who "voluntarily" left formal ministry for all the reasons you described and more. I wrote a blog post or two about this a few years ago. If you click on my name and then go to the blog entitled "A Fool's Wisdom" you can read what I said. I don't call many people's attention to that blog anymore because, as you observed, many people don't know the difference between the corporation and the church, and so it just comes across as though I'm bad-mouthing the church, and that's not my intention. But I sense you'll understand where I was coming from. Anyway, you gave a good analysis of the situation. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

    Your reference to "Pagan Christianity" leads me to believe you've probably read a lot of the same books as me in recent years. I found "So You Don't Want To Go To Church Anymore" by Wayne Jacobsen to be good food for thought, if you haven't read that one. He seems to think we should dispense with church meetings altogether. Don't know if I can go that far, but he did make some good points. But it seems to me the problem is the same no matter the size of the church. I attended a tiny alternative home church for several years, and eventually it began to display many of the characteristics you've described here. It seems inevitable whenever Christians try to function together communally. Anyway, good thoughts.

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  4. The problem lies in the fact that many of us were raised on a diet of guilt and condemnation and if we say of do anything against the church we are made to feel guilty or condemned. Great Article.

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  5. In the 1960's I was for 8 years treasurer of an Anglican parish in the UK. By 1970 I had become disillusioned by what I saw as the lack of 'radical' Christianity. I have been outside the walls of traditional Christianity for some 40 years. In 1978 I became a member of the Worldwide Church of God - led by Herbert Armstrong - a church that not unreasonably has been described as either a cult or a sect. I lived through the transformation of that church after 1995. I remember the church being warned not to throw out the baby with the bathwater but I began to feel that was what was happening.

    It was in 2003 that I found "So you don't want to go to church anymore" when Wayne Jacobsen and Dave Coleman had only written the first three chapters.

    It was only in 2008 that I discovered that I had lived with Aspergers Syndrome all my life - that was an exciting discovery. It tends to explain something of an unusual view of life.

    I have never been in a leadership position but I have been close to church leaders and business leaders who have on occasions used me as a sounding board.

    As a result of being in the wilderness for some 40 years I do have a few unorthodox views - let's just say that for me there is an enormous difference between the Christian RELIGION and the Christian FAITH.

    I've recently finished rewriting my blog as an introduction to the story of my own journey. I've often wondered how I might be able to support and encourage a few former leaders as they struggle with the transition away from traditional church environments.

    After looking at something of my journey maybe you would like to share a few thoughts!

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  6. Government should remove the 501c3 status on Churches that do not perform philanthropic community events(biblical teaching is not philanthropic) for whatever % is mandated. Not unlike the system in England. That would make churches suck a bit less. Just a thought.

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  7. Mike, it's simply an honor to know you.

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  8. Ironically the term "corporate" means "united in one body," based on the Latin root for body.

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  9. I have come to agree with your post. It feels like a "shaking to the tree is going on". We are not supposed to "Forsake the gathering of ourselves together" as Jesus recommended but I don't feel that we are "together" under the circumstances you described. I sense in the days ahead it will be important to find a group indepentant of the corporate. I will be praying about this. Jesus meant us to be together I'm sure of it but in this day and age it needs to be different than what is currently going on.
    Beth Willis

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  10. This was true since Jesus himself walked the earth...and will not change. That is why it is for each person to seek his own salvation and follow the Holy Spirit in each decision we make. Just make sure your not the one full of dead mans bones when looking so white and pure on the outside.

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  11. Thanks for your article. I am interested in the B part of sermons. "Bring the tithes and PROVE ME. Seek ye first and "I will add all THINGS" Does Job serve God for nought" Why are we so poor and pray so much, our children fill the prison, We are still on the plantation working for massa because we do not get support when we start businesses. Something does not add up that we have to wait until we get to Heaven to get our shoes and robes while they have everything here. I know and love the Lord, but most churches are another form of slavery they are given free labor and free money

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