Body and Corporation, Part II

15 December 2020

The body is the church. The corporation is an asset of the church, a possession. It not the church, it is something the church owns. Once we understand that, we know what to do with the corporation. Use it, just like we would use any other asset of the church: a building or a van or a sound board. It does not exist as an end in itself; its job is to serve the needs of the body.

We would find it odd if the whole church directed its energy toward the upkeep of the church van. Can you imagine? The whole church turns out on a Saturday morning to wash the van. The VBS sponsors a bake sale to get a new turbocharger. We don’t let the youth group use the van, because they always leave Cheeto crumbs under the seats.

When something like that happens, we realize that the van has become an idol. Likewise, when all our energy is being misdirected into the corporation to keep it running like a good business, things have gone awry.

And it is really easy for things to go awry in exactly that way. It turns out that the corporation can survive quite handily without indulging in the messy and inconvenient business of bringing its people into real relationships that provide fellowship and accountability. As long as the people keep attending, keep giving, and keep volunteering, the corporation hums along like a well-oiled machine. The metrics look great.

And–in our present cultural milieu, at least–many of the people have no interest in getting mired in such challenging relationships anyway. They want to be consumers of religious services, and the corporation that can provide the programs they’re shopping for will get their dollars and volunteer hours.

And so the vast majority of churches have established and well-understood patterns for taking care of the corporation’s needs, a clear understanding of who is responsible, and meaningful accountability to ensure that the job gets done. These same churches often have no established pattern for moving people into deep relationships that strengthen and feed them, do not understand the process, and hold no one accountable for doing it.

For example, I once worked for a church under the title “Pastor of Discipleship and Logistics.” During the two years I held that job, I had regular accountability and support around items like getting the bulletin done on time or ordering up on copy paper. Never once did anyone in my chain of command initiate a conversation about discipleship, check to see who I was discipling, how it was going, or if I needed support.

Not once.

In two years.

I wish I could say that’s an extreme example. In fact, it’s very common.


Flipping the Language

8 December 2020

In the previous post, we looked at how the interests of the body and the corporation diverge. In this post, we’re going to look at a very common failure to understand what the Bible says about life in the Body.

New Testament churches didn’t have a corporation. The New Testament doesn’t contemplate the needs of the corporation, or give commands regarding its upkeep.

As a result, there aren’t easily preachable biblical commands about taking care of the corporation, which presents a problem. How do we inspire the faithful to make sure the needs of the corporation get met? Well, there are a bunch of biblical commands about the individual believer’s relationship to the body. It is convenient for the corporation to re-interpret those commands (loving one another, accountability, fellowship, etc.) as though those commands were speaking of things that benefit the corporation.

And so commands to fellowship, for example, are taken as though they are simply commanding regular church attendance. Commands to be generous with the poor are taken as commands to give to the coffers of the corporation.

In order to shove the new corporation-serving meaning in, the old body-oriented meaning frequently gets shoved out. A person who regularly attends church is understood to have fulfilled the command–even if he gets no actual fellowship, as he frequently does not. A person who gives to the capital campaign is counted generous, no matter how he ignores his poor and needy neighbors. And so on.

The person who attends such a church often feels as if something is missing. He’s frequently isolated, lacks deep relationships, living a shallow spirituality. But the very commands that would guide him into a more godly and fulfilling life have been emptied of their life-giving meaning. Even when he’s looking right at the passage, he doesn’t see it.

He is likely to remain blind until someone shows him the real thing.


Body and Corporation

1 December 2020

Regardless of what our doctrinal statements say about the church really being the people, the American local church manifests itself as a corporation with property to maintain, payroll to meet, bills to pay. It’s important to remember that the body and the corporation really are two different things — witness the fact that over the past two thousand years, most local churches have managed to exist without drawing up corporate papers. Imagine trying to explain the church structure we take for granted to, say, the first-century church that met in Philemon’s house. “Corporate papers?” they would ask. “Isn’t that something you do for a business?”

Conversely, it’s entirely possible to be a service organization with corporate papers and not a church at all. The American Red Cross, the World Wildlife Fund, and the Boy Scouts of America have been managing it for decades.

But more often than not, in North America, we try to do both at the same time. The juggling act can be challenging. The corporation theoretically exists in order to serve the needs of the body. But the body is a familial structure and the corporation is a business structure. Families and businesses are different sorts of entities, and they operate on fundamentally different principles. What’s good for one is not always good for the other, and so the interests of the body and the interests of the corporation are often not well aligned.

Over time, the interests of the corporation almost always come to dominate. The needs of the corporation are immediately pressing and measurable. It’s easy to tell if you have enough money to cover this month’s mortgage and payroll, or enough volunteers for the fall program. You can give an employee a mark to hit, and everyone will know if he hit it. You can hire a slick, upwardly mobile manager of ecclesiastical affairs who will make sure he hits all the marks. As with any other such managerial position, you’ll work to find a good one, but if you’re willing to pay a competitive salary, you’ll get what you need. Thus far the needs of the corporation.

The body needs real, personal connection and relationships. These things provide no short-term benefit to the corporation, and they come with a huge opportunity cost: they’re messy, labor-intensive, and high-risk. The energy invested in doing them well could be going into something else, something that does the corporation measurable good: a glitzier children’s program, a slicker bulletin, the next capital campaign. Trying to find a capable manager for the corporation who will put the needs of the body first is…challenging, to say the least.


On Being Misunderstood

24 November 2020

Paul required that elders be of good reputation among those outside the faith (1 Tim. 3:7)–and this in a culture that sometimes accused Christians of atheism and cannibalism, that crucified us, threw us to the lions, burned us alive. Paul himself had quite the criminal history as a Christian, as did that escaped jailbird Peter and many others, all following the condemned and executed Jesus. Plainly Paul did not mean that you can’t serve in church leadership if anybody has bad things to say about you. He cannot mean that you’re only qualified if your godly conduct has never been misunderstood by the world. 

Yet we are surrounded by Christians who think that’s exactly what having a good Christian testimony means. These credulous folks have been lulled by four centuries of unprecedented prosperity and freedom, during which the culture took it for granted that being a Christian was a good thing. (Perhaps a little too wholesome and not much fun, but a good thing nonetheless.) But it has not always been that way, and–have a look around–it is not really that way now. 

We are going to be misunderstood. Sometimes it will be an honest misunderstanding brought about by simple confusion. The devil excels at manufacturing that sort of thing. Sometimes it will be a tactical misunderstanding, and the wounded party will be flopping about like a French soccer player, even though nobody was within 3 yards of him. There’s a great deal of the latter, actually, and our National Evangelical Leadership (all rise!) has been steered by the flopping soccer players of the secular world for some time now. Steered straight into severe compromise, and all in the name of empathy for the player with the allegedly injured leg. 


Why Prepare When You Could Practice?

13 November 2020

When Jesus called Matthew, He didn’t put him in a classroom. He took him on a three-year adventure. They cast out demons, healed the sick, baptized converts, preached the Kingdom of God. They did the work together, and along the way, Matthew absorbed Jesus’ teaching so well that he eventually wrote a book about it—the Gospel According to Matthew. Matthew organized his gospel around big teaching sections, a series of lectures Jesus gave, you might say: the Sermon on the Mount, the sending of the Twelve, the Kingdom Parables, and so on. But those lectures are interspersed throughout a historical narrative that covers Jesus’ ministry. It’s not that Jesus didn’t give lectures. It’s that Jesus gave them in a context of ministry. He didn’t spend a year preparing the disciples for the work; He took them with Him into the work right away, and trained them as they went.

In the modern church, we have succumbed to an ethic of over-preparation. We’ll yank you out of your context for three years of schooling–during which we’ll keep you entirely too busy reading fat books to really try applying much of what you’re learning–and only then turn you loose to really do it. By then, you’re on your own. If you’re lucky, you have some good people to debrief with, but sometimes you won’t. And all too often, your first few years of ministry will be filled with “Welp, they didn’t teach me that in seminary!”

What were they teaching you? Wasn’t the whole point to prepare you for the work?

Jesus had a better way. His way was to practice, right out the gate. If you were at your job, minding your own business, and Jesus called you: “Hey, you! Come follow Me!”–you didn’t go into a classroom to prepare. You went with Jesus to practice ministry with Him. You would preach, pray, heal the sick, cast out demons, go to a wedding, do whatever He was doing that day. You were in it all the way, right away. And it worked! The people Jesus trained that way turned the world upside down.

So what about you? Do you want to go prepare, or do you want to practice?


Dodging the Ditch

6 October 2020

I was recently having a conversation with a friend about generosity. She was sorting through the tension between our finitude and God’s call to do things that are frequently beyond us, and had run into conflict with another believer about how to approach such things. It’s an interesting conversation in its own right, but we’ll save that for another day. Today I want to go a level up and look at a general trend in arguments about philosophy of ministry.

In anything we do, there’s more than one way to screw it up. In generosity ministry, there’s such a thing as stinginess on the one hand, and toxic charity on the other. (Sometimes our service to others is more about how it makes us feel than it is about actually helping the others in question.) There’s a ditch on both sides of the road.

Very often, our conflicts in philosophy of ministry happen thus:

  • Person A has already been in the ditch on the left side of the road, and he’s never gonna let that happen again.
  • Person B has already been in the ditch on the right side of the road, and is determined never to repeat his mistake.

Put them together, and hey, whaddaya know — a fight breaks out.

It’s easy enough for each to damn the other for steering toward a ditch, and then go their separate ways. That’s tragic, because their stickiest difference is actually the reason God put them together to start with. God means for them to honor each other and listen to each other, so they will balance each other out. If they can do that, they stay on the (narrow) road between the ditches.

As a pastor’s kid and lifelong minister, I’ve seen this play out many times over many different issues. Partnerships regularly fall apart over exactly the issues where they could benefit each other most…and then the resulting ‘independent’ ministries fall apart for lack of balance.

This to say: the unity of the Body actually matters. We are impoverished — and as a result, the world around us is impoverished — when we won’t live up to it.


One Mind?

22 September 2020

Therefore if there is any consolation in Christ, if any comfort of love, if any fellowship of the Spirit, if any affection and mercy, fulfill my joy by being like-minded, having the same love, being of one accord, of one mind. (Phil. 2:1-2)

What does God’s idea of “one mind” actually look like? In an age of ideology, we look for the wrong thing. We look for someone to parrot the party line, to have no “unapproved” thoughts, no unexpected questions. If we’re impatient, we punish anyone who deviates from expectations with whatever label our community uses to mark out Something You Can’t Say (i.e., blasphemy): “heretical,” “problematic,” or the ever-popular “racist” or “sexist.”

But God is not an ideologue, and we are not Unitarians. We are trinitarian, and that means we expect to hear the truth in multiple complementary voices. Our proverbs have two lines. We don’t all sing the same note; we believe in harmony. We even believe in discord: Jesus died on a tree. That was a hell of a note, but it’s not the end of the song.

On a walk recently, the Lady Wife and I were talking about the relationships where we have one-mindedness, and what characterizes those relationships. There’s certainly a lot of agreement, but that’s not the thing. We disagree too, and not just temporarily. I often find myself “holding hands across the fence” with someone who on paper holds a view on the other side of the ideological bright line, but has the same heart I do, and we are nearer to one another than we are to other people who *on paper* are on “our” respective sides.

Where we disagree, we find — Kimberly’s words here — “a place of peace where we’re not sinning” against each other, we’re not mad about it, and the work God’s called us to can go forward. We’re not all singing the same note, but there’s harmony. Even discord doesn’t in itself mean we’ve lost one-mindedness; it just means we’re doing jazz — if you keep playing, it wasn’t a mistake, and it will come to resolution in time.

Of course, as our more ideological brothers will be quick to point out, there is such a thing as intractable discord, and that really does create problems. Part of maintaining unity is discernment and discipline.

But the ideologues are good at discipline and no good at discernment, and as a result, they have conformity, but not unity. They don’t know what they’re missing.


Is There An Interpretation?

15 September 2020

In 1 Corinthians 14, Paul gives instructions for the use of tongues in public worship. It profits on one, Paul says, for someone to blather on in a tongue if nobody understands it. The tongues-speaker is welcome to speak to himself and to God in private, but in public worship, Paul says, tongues must be interpreted.

Makes sense, right? Seems simple enough.

Here’s the problem, though: how do you know if there’s an interpretation?

Think it through like a scene in a movie. Someone feels moved by the Spirit to stand up and speak in a tongue, but he’s not supposed to do it unless someone can interpret it. Does he have to find an interpreter in advance? How does that work? (“Hey, buddy — I’m gonna speak in tongues. Do you have the interpretation?”) Does he just speak, and trust that the Spirit will give someone the interpretation? How long do we let him go on before we decide there’s no interpreter, and have him sit down?

See, Paul sets them up for a “try it and see” model here. To even have a hope of following Paul’s instructions, they’ll have to rely on the Spirit, and discern His will together.

And so should we all.


The Tail, and Not the Head

17 April 2020

In matters pertaining to human growth and healing, the Church has grown notably weak. How can I say that? By comparing where we’re weak and where we’re strong.

What Strength Looks Like

We are strong in basic education. We have always had a substantial number of educated people in our ranks, from earliest days:

  • Nicodemus was a member of the Sanhedrin (John 3:1)
  • Many of the priests were early converts (Acts 6:7)
  • Many of the Ephesian magicians burned their magic books (Acts 19:19)
  • A number of Athenian academics were receptive to Paul (Acts 17:34)

In our the first few centuries after Christ, we rapidly emerged as a cultural leader in education. Today, secular education operates at a higher level than it ever has in human history, and the Church remains a major force to be reckoned with. In many places over the globe, the church/mission school is the only school. In many more, the staff of the government schools are largely Christian, because we’re the ones with a personal sense of mission to the downtrodden and less fortunate, and education is a time-tested vehicle for helping people raise themselves up. We’re such a leader in literacy education, for example, that the (rampantly secular) Rosetta Project used the first few chapters of Genesis as its key text across 1500 languages, because that is the most widely translated text in the entire world. For many languages, they literally didn’t have a choice — nothing but Bible had ever been translated into the language.

Even in the U.S. today, where education is everywhere, Christian schools are a strong presence, and not just for Christians. In many communities, the Christian school is by far the best-quality school in the area. And so in many Christian schools, there is a subset of students that don’t come from Christian families; their parents will cheerfully tell you that their kids are enrolled for the good-quality education. Moreover, our people have been on the cutting edge of training teachers for centuries, from the early monasteries to Laubach literacy training.

This, my friends, is what strength looks like. The world comes to us for the primary product, and for education in producing it, because they need to. Because we’re better at it than they are.

What Weakness Looks Like

Now contrast our track record on education to our track record on human growth and healing. Think about the many needs people have: emotional distress, chronic conditions, acute injuries needing emergency care, long-term debilities that require skilled care, and so on. Where do people go for that? Think about the people who work in health and healing: doctors, nurses, counselors, chiropractors, physical therapists, acupuncturists, massage therapists, and the countless techs — CNAs, phlebotomists, and so on. Where do those people get their education?

Now it’s true that historically, the Church started the  modern healthcare system. We created the hospitals, and the ethic that drives them. Even to this day, many hospitals have a Christian affiliation, even in a notably secular city like Denver. As I write this, the hospital a block from where I’m sitting was started by Lutherans. There’s an Adventist hospital less than two miles away, and another Lutheran hospital further north.

But while some of the institutions are still at least nominally Christian, where do you go to get your education in caring for your fellow humans? Some Christian programs exist, but an overwhelming number of Christians in these fields go to schools run by pagans. Even the Christians who are overtly committed to the Church being the primary agent of healing in society do this. From me (got my bodywork and trauma education from unbelievers) to my sister (counseling degree from Northwestern) on up the ladder to folks like David Field (psychodymanic and person-centered psychotherapy training) and Ed Welch (University of Utah) and (quiet as it’s kept) Jay Adams (Mowrer), the majority of our healing practitioners get their knowledge, and often their credentials, outside the faith. Even more telling, do unbelievers come to the Christian programs because it’s the best education available? They do not.

That is what weakness looks like: we go to them to get certified; they don’t come to us.

What If?

What if we lived in a world where everybody knows that if you really want to heal, you need to go see the Christians? That world once existed, but it no longer does. What has happened, and how shall we remedy it?

What has happened is two things, calling for two different remedies.

First, there’s a sense in which we are victims of our own success. We have shamed the pagans into conforming to our ethic. You don’t have to be a Christian to start a hospital anymore; anybody can see that it’s a good thing to do. That was not obvious to anyone in the ancient world. Back in the day, when the plague came, Galen (the famous Roman doctor) ran for the hills. Christians stayed and cared for the sick, even at risk of their own lives. Doctors move toward the sick today because we taught them to. We did such a good job that now, nobody thinks of doing anything else. Part of what we need to do about this is reclaim credit where it is due. Today’s secular charity is parasitic on two thousand years of Christian values, and we need to point that out. We need to know our own history, and talk about it.

Second, we have gotten lazy. Because we won, because there’s so much cultural momentum behind healing that the church doesn’t have to push it alone anymore, we don’t. But there are frontiers that we should be pushing. Where is the existing system failing?

  • Indigent patients who can’t get access to care except at the emergency room, and therefore don’t get any care at all until it becomes an emergency.
  • People with mental health needs who can’t afford care or access to necessary medications.
  • Long-term care for people with debilitating chronic conditions where there are no successful medical interventions.
  • What else? Who are the people around you that are falling through the cracks?

At a Friend’s House, On Thursday

22 March 2020

When I proposed giving up church for Lent, I had no idea that it would end up happening so literally, but here we are. In a world of virtual church services, the question of the Lord’s Table comes up. When we’re gathered around a laptop live-streaming a service in the living room, do we take communion, or don’t we?

In the Eastern and Roman communions, of course, the answer is an unequivocal “No!” The Table has to be administered by a priest, and that’s that. In Anglican praxis, the elements have to be consecrated by a priest, but can be delivered by someone else, which presents interesting logistical challenges.

But since that kind of priesthood doesn’t actually exist in the New Covenant anyway, I’m mostly interested in what everybody else should do. For many groups, it’s a tricky question. We’ve worked hard to preserve the specialness of the Table. We don’t want people to treat it casually. And so for many churches, the answer will be no. The Lord’s Table is for when we gather together, they will say; let’s wait until we can gather again.

I propose a different take. I think this is the litmus test for what we really believe constitutes the church. When we’re telling people that they will have to live-stream the service because we’re not allowed to gather in groups of more than 10, we have been very quick to tell them that the church building is just the building; the people are the church. We have been quick to say that we are just as much the church when we are assembled in praise in our respective living rooms. So my question is: do we really believe that, or don’t we? If we withhold communion, we don’t. We’re saying, “You’re the church…but not really.” We’re affirming the the whole property-owning, weekly production-manufacturing, corporate structure as the real church — and you gathered in your living room with a few friends and neighbors as something less than that.

If it’s a few believers gathered in the spare room of a private house, is it still the church? Yes! Should the church come to the Table? Well…duh. Is it okay that it’s not in a church building on a Sunday? Well…WWJD? He celebrated the Lord’s Table with a few friends in a private home, on a Thursday! Oh, the scandal!

So yes, we should do this. And also yes, we ought to train people not to take it lightly. This is serious business. We could do worse than simply follow Paul’s directions, thus:

Leader: On the night He was betrayed, Jesus took the bread after supper, and when He had given thanks, broke it, saying, “This is My body, broken for you. Do this in remembrance of Me. [prays] Lord God, thank you for the broken body of Your Son our Savior, who was  crucified for us. 

Leader breaks the bread, distributes it. All eat.

Leader: In the same way He took the cup after supper, saying “This is the new covenant in My blood. Do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of Me.” [prays] Father, thank You for the shed blood of Jesus Christ, who raises us into new life.

Leader distributes the cup (however you’re doing it)*, and all drink.

Leader: As often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes.

*There are many details that this order of service does not address. Wine or grape juice? What if you can’t get either? What if you’re out of bread? Do you use a common cup? Do you pass hand to hand around the Table, or does everyone receive directly from the leader?

You know what? We can have many lively debates about what would be best. I’ve hosted some such debates right here (and here) on this blog. But the bottom line is that it is better to obey imperfectly than to disobey because we’re paralyzed by perfectionism.

We’ve all done this before; let’s approximate the communion service we’re familiar with as best we can with the materials we have available. We can fill out the details later; today, let’s just obey, confident that our Father, while perfect, is not a perfectionist. We are already fully accepted in Christ; let’s be confident of that acceptance and draw near to God by the means that He has ordained for us.