Can a Business Form Be a Ministry?

On January 11, 2012, the Supreme Court handed down a decision in a case anchored in the First Amendment: Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School versus Equal Employment Opportunity Commission et al. Barack Obama’s administration and a lot of Christians had waited impatiently for this decision, but in the mainstream of American life, it passed almost unnoticed. Nevertheless, the fundamental issue raised by this case continues to occupy the nation. The court did not answer all the questions that need to be answered as long as religious liberty continues to be under assault. This case spoke to one issue: does a church have a right to declare who its ministers are and to hire them and fire them at will? The answer was: Yes.

This case was decided just about the time the president announced that no conscience exemption would be allowed for the employer mandate in the Affordable Care Act. The two situations are related by the fact that they both represent different facets of the question: Can a business be a ministry? The question in the title of this post uses the term “business form,” because so much writing on this subject also uses that term. Conversationally, people say “business” where lawyers say “business form.”

The problem is tightly interwoven with the question of the nature of religion. President Barack Obama thinks religion is a completely private matter, something a person would keep to himself. This definition of religion decrees that when a person opens his doors to engage in commerce, he is not engaging in religious activity.

This concept, however, flies in the face of biblical teachings such as “As you therefore have received Christ Jesus the Lord, continue to live your lives in him,” (Colossians 2:6-7) or “As you are going into all the world, make disciples of all nations.” (Matthew 28:19-20) Christians don’t think of their religion as something that is confined to things that happen inside a church building or in a prayer closet. They believe and teach that God is concerned with honest weights and integrity in business dealings. Christians teach that every Christian is a minister, all day, wherever he or she may be busy in the activities of daily living.

This notion actually has more in common with Buddhism than with the secular view that prevails in government. Buddhism has been among the most popular “religions” in recent years, because it claims to be “a way of life.” For various reasons, people don’t see Christianity that way. One thing that stands in the way of that understanding is institutional Christianity. This is the force behind church buildings and cathedrals, monasteries and cemeteries, universities and seminaries. These subsets of the institutional church define and enforce church dogma. Though dogma is anathema in the contemporary world,  and despite a cultural trend toward “spiritual but not religious” in rebellion against the institutional church, it is this institutional Christianity that is protected by the decision in Hosanna-Tabor. That decision declares that a church may define what its ministers are, and may hire and fire ministers according to its own rules. It sounds like freedom if you agree that Christianity is contained within the institutional church. It does not sound like either the First Amendment or the Bible.

The Bible, the guide and authority for Christian faith and life, does not actually address the institutional church. Jesus attended the local institutions in ancient Galilee, the synagogues and the prime institution in Jerusalem, the Temple. He did not establish any institutions whatsoever. He spoke of groups in fellowship, and the terms he used are used for the church, but the institution did not exist during Jesus’ lifetime, and he did not give orders for it to be established later. He died, rose again and went up to heaven without establishing an institution.

The institutional church grew out of the teachings of Christ, but it does not limit those teachings. The “church” is the people who trust Christ and live according to his teachings. This means that the “church” is busy in stores, factories, households, hospitals, campgrounds and brothels. The “church” is the kingdom of priests who go about their daily lives carrying the good news that the sacrifice that saves us all has been made already. This means that housewives and teachers and seamstresses and chief executives are all priests and ministers of the kingdom of God. This means that businessmen are priests and ministers of the kingdom, a truth exemplified by the enterprise Motif, a business established for the specific purpose of being a Christian ministry.

In this context, the question of whether a business can be a ministry looks ridiculous. Anything can be a ministry. Every believer is obligated to live according to the principles of the faith all day every day wherever he or she is during the day. Believers do not stop living by faith when they open the door of their private enterprise. They are ministers there as certainly as at the door of the building that houses the institutional church.

Christians face a lot of challenges in days to come. This question will continue to dog their tracks: Can a business be a ministry? It will be difficult to explain to people who think a church is something that happens in a dedicated building. Christians need to do one thing and do it very well: be little Jesuses wherever they go. Maybe if people around us see more of Christ, they will quit worrying about some label for what we do. When have you been challenged about an act of faith performed in an a-Christian setting?