Saturday, February 9, 2013

Ecclesiology and Capitalism

I’ve struggled with how exactly I wanted to put these ideas into words this week; but here goes nothing. The church is not a business. Here's why that is important.

Throughout the church’s history, Christians have gotten very attached to various organizational models, to the point of believing that one or another is divinely mandated, to the point of going to war over opposing models. Now, in the U.S. we don’t tend to get dogmatic about church government; but we can get vehemently pragmatic about it. We can assume that the model we’re used to, the one we’ve seen all around us, is the only one that will work; that we need it. But that’s not true.

I think that it should be unsurprising that a capitalist entrepreneurial society such as America should produce a church that runs itself on the basic template of a business. In the Nazarene church, our council of elders is called a board, and the lead pastor is the chairman. We have accountants (sometimes accounting departments) that keep track of our budgets. We tailor our church’s atmosphere and image to appeal to target demographics. We have advertisements, billboards and commercials to try to sell our religious wares to potential customers. In the medieval church, though, in a society of patriarchy and feudalism, the church operated as a kingdom. In other types of societies the church takes other forms and that’s ok.

I think, though, that this pattern should awaken us to a potential problem. The monarchical pattern that the medieval church followed was a natural fit considering its geo-temporal context; but it also had significant problems. And because its members were surrounded by this monarchical, patriarchal model of social organization throughout their lives, it was difficult for them to see those problems before they became so destructive that they ruptured the church. They forgot that, although the church is a Kingdom, it is not a Kingdom of this world, but a Kingdom breaking into this world. I believe that we are in danger of swallowing the capitalistic business model of social organization because it is what we see all around us; we assume that it is necessary, but we aren’t sufficiently removed from ourselves to readily see its weaknesses. We forget that, although the church may benefit from business like practices, the church is not a business.

Two really aspects of the business world that can be abhorrently destructive in the church are competition and profit. In business, competition is healthy because it restricts market prices and ensures the quality of goods and services. In the church, however, competition between churches can lead to ugly, ugly relationships between congregations. I have actually seen advertisements in which a particular congregation was actively trying to lure Christians away from other churches, touting their own strengths and disparaging the weaknesses of other congregations. The church is not a business; it is a body; and while it is healthy to ruthlessly compete in the world of business, it is not at all healthy for a body to war upon itself.

In business, you must have capital to survive. Businesses exist to make money, and they cannot operate without a healthy flow of cash, both incoming and outgoing, to keep the economic gears whirring. The church, however, is not a business. It does not exist to make money, it does not produce a saleable product, and it does not, therefore, need any kind of steady income to keep its spiritual gears working. The church needs the Spirit of Christ. We must have compassion, generosity, commitment, holiness, faith, hope, and above all, love. These don’t cost a dime.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that we shouldn’t invest in buildings, projectors, lights, heating and a/c, books, pamphlets, media, production etc. Money is a resource, and I believe that God wants us to be good stewards of the resources He gives us; but, we must remember that money is only a resource among others, and if the flow of money suddenly dried up tomorrow, the church would go on. Unlike businesses, churches can thrive in a state of poverty.

We need to remember who we are; and we need to remember what it is that really makes us the church. I think it would even be healthy to investigate new models of church government and organization; models that might serve to uncover the weaknesses of the capitalistic church; models that may be able to coexist with, partner with, and alleviate the weaknesses of the capitalistic church.

Next week, I intend to talk more about what makes the church the church. In the meantime, do you have any ideas for organizational models for the American church? What might be some alternatives to running the church like a business?


  1. A different model would be that every one in the church had to support themselves with outside jobs. Kind of like missionaries that aren't supported by the church and have to rely on jobs to fulfil their mission.
    Decisions would be made by elders and the elders would have to be nominated and approved of by the whole body of Christ. An elder could only serve for a finite period of time say, say three to five years. New elders would rotate in every year and some would leave to provide continuity.

    Of course in the Methodist church there is the model of itineracy.

    In the last few years I have been in Pentecostal churches, Christian churches, Non-Denominational churches, Luthern, Methodist, Anglican, and other Nazarene churches. Wasn't looking for a different church, just playing all kinds of different music. Kind of seemed like an itinerant musician. End result, I learned a lot about the way other churches operate and how they use music to lead Worship. What a blessing that has been. In the end it really isn't about music, but love and compassion and the best model that supports those two things.
    R Kelsey

    1. Mormon churches do that; no paid ministers at the local level; not sure if the higher ups are paid or not.

      BTW we miss your drums Rick; Joey can keep a beat but he's not you, and since he's on drums I'm on the bass now I'm certainly no Joey.