Rethinking Church #8: Ecclesiastical Malpractice

In the previous essay I argued that “bearing witness to the love, glory, goodness, and greatness of God demonstrated in Jesus Christ is the essential work of the church.” While the essential features of the nature and work of the church are fresh on our minds I want to entertain the sad possibility that the church may dilute, be diverted from, or abandon its essential work.

The Way of the World

Human beings are social animals. We are born into families and form extra-familial associations of all kinds, from friendships to states. The family is given by nature. Friendships are forged by mutual interests. Most associations beyond friendships are deliberately constituted to serve a purpose, to achieve an end. Some goals can better be accomplished by the cooperation of many individuals. A thousand people can by pooling their resources accomplish what 1,000 individuals working separately cannot.

It seems to me that people usually form associations to deal with a single challenge and achieve single goal. Athletic clubs promote their sport. Guilds and unions are designed to promote the economic interests of their professions. Founders establish schools and colleges to facilitate education. Learned societies promote their subject.

It is well known that associations tend to stray from their founding purposes. Energy, influence, and money originally directed to one purpose are diverted to another. This change can happen in several ways. (1) The original founders of institutions and associations are usually very clear about the end they wish to serve and devote themselves wholehearted to that cause. However, second, third, and fourth generation leaders often do not share that original vision and devotion. They become bureaucrats that devote themselves to perpetuating the institutional machinery of the association. Their work becomes a job rather than a mission. (2) Every association, especially large ones, must have officers who discharge responsibilities on behalf of the association. These officers are tempted to place their own self-interests alongside or even in place of the original mission, diverting energy away from the founding goal of the association. Embezzlement or insider trading are just two obvious examples of this abuse.

(3) Associations, especially large ones, possess power and influence. This power was given to them to achieve the end for which they were created. But an association’s officers are greatly tempted to redirect that power and influence toward their own ends unrelated to the original purpose of the institution. And often those unrelated ends are political. This abuse is the most insidious and pervasive of ways associations can be hijacked. It is common, even expected, for associations that are ostensibly devoted to education, a sport, a profession, or a particular subject to make resolutions and public proclamations on divisive political and social issues completely unrelated to their reason for existence. Not all mutinies occur on ships. Not all pirates sail the seas.

The Visible Church

The church exists not only in heaven but also on earth. It lives “in Christ” but appears in space and time. It is the body of Christ but it looks like a collection of human bodies. When the church becomes visible in the world it takes form as a human association. To the world’s eyes that is all it is. In analogy to other associations, the church coordinates the resources of its members to achieve its objectives. It will have some organizational structure. And here is the great temptation: the church has always been tempted—and often gives in—to follow the path of other associations. (1) Later generations may not feel the passion for the mission that the founding generation felt. They may begin to preserve the traditions and institutions of earlier days simply to ensure their positions in a bureaucracy. (2) Leaders may begin to enjoy the power, honor, and money that their positions can bring rather than viewing themselves as means to the end of witness to the glory and goodness of God.

(3) Church leaders may begin to view the church as a means to social and political ends. The church assimilates to the model of service organizations, non-profit groups, or even political lobbies. Like educational, professional, and learned society leaders, the church’s leaders may wish to leverage the influence of the church to weigh in on the political and social issues of the day to the detriment of its mission of witness to Jesus Christ. Not all wolves work on Wall Street. Not all barbarians live outside the gates.

Next Time: We will begin discussing the question of the means the church uses to accomplish its work. Are any practices and means essential?

2 thoughts on “Rethinking Church #8: Ecclesiastical Malpractice

  1. Dr Jonne Smalhouse

    Hello Ron.
    You cannot expel such refulgent brilliance and not expect me to contribute;
    In group psychology there is something called ‘the dark triad’ ( you pl. can investigate this for yourselves), but suffice it to say, figures show that 25-30% of the most manipulative hardened criminals in custody are diagnosed with this trait. Now before you ask why and what makes them ( ending up in custody)? You need to know that, of the world’s leaders, politicians, CEO’s and powerful individuals, around 30% of them are also diagnosed with this exact same trait! Why should churches be any different? They have people.
    Now following up on Ron’s previous essay quoting around Eph 3:10. That paragraph is known to be a ‘hard’ bit of NT discussion. Translations, tenses, subject and objects vary, but i don’t want to pick at him today. It’s that term “rulers and authorities” we need to look at, because it can be translated as ” ancient archangels {powers}, and freedom {liberty} takers”. Could Paul be asking us to think about proving the church towards evil in all realms, at all times, and by all beings?
    Lastly, regarding our humanity, and being properly in/with/by/from/of Jesus Christ our Lord, Paul really does say something to the Phillipians that we, particularly in churches, need to pay great attention to ( though clearly Ron is sadly right- for we do not), and it’s Phillipians 2: 3-4. NRSV quoting
    “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others”. This is hard to do, and we do need the indwelling of the HS, and walk in the love ( and friendship) of Christ to do it. The rest of this chapter is quite good too…
    Could i ask if anyone out there has researched the phrase ” evil people deserve evil leaders” ? I have no idea where it comes from?
    Thank you.


  2. Charles A Hanson

    In the previous essay I argued that “bearing witness to the love, glory, goodness, and greatness of God demonstrated in Jesus Christ is the essential work of the church.

    God demonstrates love, glory, goodness etc.. by the gift the Holy Spirit who lives in believers.
    Gal 5:22  But the fruit of the SPIRIT is: love, joy, peace, long-suffering, kindness, goodness, faith, meekness, self-control; against such things there is no law. 
    Love is only demonstrated in the Anointing of the Holy Spirit which is received when a person is baptized in the name of Jesus and receives the Anointed gift the Holy Spirit.
    In the New Covenant the name Jesus is mentioned 346 times. The title “christos” the anointed One is mentioned 611 times. Spirit is mentioned 309 times.
    The New Covenant is all about the “christos” Anointed One which is Jesus in the Holy Spirit….
    The so called church today does not teach the importance of the Holy Spirit. Jesus is in heaven He left we the believers the comforter the Holy Spirit. Without the HOLY SPIRIT there would be no church. You and I would not be studying the bible.
    The essential work of the church is to teach the importance of what Jesus left us and that is the Anointed One which is the gift the Holy Spirit. Did you mention the Holy Spirit in this transcript?
    Amen and God bless. charles



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