Tag Archives: church

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?

A Political Party is not a Church

The big news last week was that the Republican Party is “rebranding” itself. After a little time to digest this announcement, some evangelical commentators concluded that the GOP may be distancing itself from the evangelical community, a group which has been strong in the base of the party for many years. When Sean Spicer, communications director for the party was asked about this issue, he denied that any such effort was under way and then he said, “A political party is not a church and its function is not to promulgate and support a religious doctrine.” (Read more at http://tinyurl.com/cnhwtjj)

Church members, pastors, and Christians of all stripes across the country need to read this statement and take it to heart. Here is it for your re-reading and consideration:

“A political party is not a church and its function is not to promulgate and support a religious doctrine.”

The next time I hear a Christian or a church leader complain about either party’s godless agenda, I want to shout this statement loud and clear. For much too long, far too many churches and church members have been confused about this fact. When citizens who are Christians engage in politics, they express their views, they advocate for their causes and they vote their consciences. This is exactly what God wants them to do. After the election dust settles, the elected officials sometimes keep their promises, and sometimes they don’t. They sometimes do what Christians think is right, and sometimes they doing. Every citizen has the right to expect that an official will keep his word, act with integrity, comply with constitutional and legal boundaries, and lead with humility and wisdom. Every citizen has a right to call elected officials to account on all these points. But when Christians speak and act and vote and follow up in their duty as citizens, they need to remember at all times that “a political party is not a church and its function is not to promulgate and support a religious doctrine.”

Here are some of the reasons churches ought to remember this fact:

  • Churches that send their representative clergy to Washington to advocate for social programs and grants to faith-based organizations often express immense frustration when the programs and grants are administered politically. They feel they have been led to expect one thing but they get another. They discover that the money must not be spent to support prayer or evangelism, or they discover that they must place adoptees under the parental control of homosexuals. This ought not to be shocking. If they remembered that the Church, not government, is God’s chosen agent to bring his kingdom to earth, they would not have such inappropriate expectations, and they would not waste their time trying to make the government into a church program. They would do their fund-raising among the people who want to support the mission of the Church. The strings government attaches to its money and its programs would not get in the way of the ministries of the church. Everybody would be a lot happier. (Then they could also advocate for lower taxes, given that they would thereby have reduced the application for funds. Everyone knows that not-for-profit organizations are much more accountable and transparent in the administration of their money, too, which means that less money will accomplish more good things – but that is another subject for another day.)
  • Individuals that advocate for social change in the culture and try to speed up the process by demanding the government enforce the change legally would not be so angry about the way the laws get written and administered or ignored. Christians want a lot of things to change in the culture. When they try to achieve those changes through political activism, they are denying the one power that can truly transform a culture: the power of the Holy Spirit. When immersed in political activism, it is easy for Christians to forget themselves and become aggressive and unforgiving, characteristics not on the list of gifts of the Holy Spirit in a believer’s life. Remember this: every citizen, Christians included, has the civic obligation to participate in the political process, but Christians should never expect that the outcome of political activism will be the arrival of the kingdom of God on earth. That is not government’s role.
  • It is well known that politics is the art of compromise. A compromise never pleases either side. Both sides always know that the compromise is only a temporary truce. There is no peace. The issue is not settled. They simply have agreed to take a breath and step back. When the two sides step back, however, it is always to regroup and charge forward to clash again on different ground. Spiritual objectives do not allow for compromise. God’s truth cannot be compromised. If a Christian wants God’s work to be accomplished, he needs to commit the work to the power of the Holy Spirit. This does not mean that he abandons his civic role and responsibility as a citizen, but it does mean that he tempers his expectations of the political process. He does not put his trust in that process. He does his work to speak and live for Christ in the public arena, but he entrusts the conflict to the timing and progress that fits God’s perfect, sovereign will.

There are many other reasons for Christians to remember the important truth that no political group is ever the true servant of the mission of Christ’s Church.

There is real reason for churches as institutions to steer clear of politics, too. This is because the individual is the one with the vote. Churches ought to speak out as churches to provide the moral and ethical views that only churches can provide, but they should be clear that they are speaking about God’s ultimate and infinite purposes, not the current political agenda. When a church, speaking as a church, attempts to force some item in a political agenda, it pollutes the ability of that church to serve its real mission. Christ did not establish his Church on earth in order to achieve legislative and social agendas.

For example:

Bishop Mark Hanson, the Bishop of the national ELCA synod, recently issued a statement on gun control. He is for it. Had he issued it as an individual voter speaking for himself, it would have made sense for him to do that. However, on behalf of the Church, he ought to speak only with regard to the mission of the Church. Christ’s Church actually could not care less who owns a gun or who does not own a gun. Christ’s Church, the agent of Christ in the world of time and space to bring the kingdom of God near to each human being, cares about evil in the hearts of men. Christ knows that the possession of a gun is not what stirs up evil, any more than possession of a wire whisk stirs up a soufflé. Christ’s Church is engaged in a battle with Satan for the hearts of men. The Church deplores the things in our culture which deprave and destroy people’s self-respect and love for one another. It is appropriate for the Church to offer Christ as the message of hope for a dark world, and it is appropriate for the Church to ask what we can do as a culture to rear children up in a faith that gives them the gift of love as a byproduct of the work of the Holy Spirit. It is right for the Church to publicly deplore those things in the culture which promote evil and destroy the lives of individuals. When evil triumphs, a gun is only one possible weapon in the battle. It is completely inappropriate, and a confusion of the roles of church and government for the Bishop to declare that he believes a certain gun control law should be passed as a response to the triumph of evil. The role of the Church is to defeat evil, not to orchestrate support for legislation. Even if limiting gun ownership by law could be shown to reduce gun violence, the legislation would inevitably include elements association with which would sully the reputation and reduce the credibility of the Church when engaged in its real mission – to make disciples for Christ and lead many to experience the transforming power of the Holy Spirit.

It well behooves every Christian and every Christian leader to remember:

A political party is not a church and its function is not to promulgate and support a religious doctrine.” (Sean Spicer)

Spirited Singing

Spirited Singing

 

I see a lot of comments on church websites and in newsletters about the experience of community in churches. Often those statements are set in the context of concerns that not enough people are visiting, and too many visitors do not feel welcomed.

A traveling lifestyle has made me a frequent visitor in churches. Sometimes they are not only not my home church, but they are also not my home denomination. Nevertheless, most of them are more welcoming than their members think. I can only think of two churches I ever visited that made me feel like a stranger in a strange land.

Welcome is expressed in many different ways. Some are orchestrated to both welcome visitors and to assure that members are aware of the visitors. In one church, we were given pin in the form of a wooden lighthouse to wear. Every member knew that those pins were for visitors, and they made a point of approaching and introducing themselves to us because we wore those pins. Other welcoming experiences are due to the nature of a church. There are worship elements that help me feel welcome and at home, even when I am in a strange church far from home.

Hymns always make me feel welcome. It is always delightful to sit down in church and discover that a hymn for the day is one of my favorites. Anne Lamott speaks of singing hymns in her church in a blog post. She says, “The hymns are bigger than any mistakes; you fumble around with the hymnal and sing the wrong words — you’re on the wrong verse — but the hymn expands to make room for all these voices, even yours.”

The words ring true to my own experience in most churches. When we visited churches in the Bahamas, for example. Those churches are small (the congregations, not the buildings). Most struggle and would not even survive without a lot of outside help. Sometimes we had hymnals, sometimes not. Sometimes we could figure out what hymn was being sung, sometimes not. Sometimes the tune was familiar, sometimes not. It didn’t matter. The hymns expanded to include us just as the congregation opened its arms to us.

This experience is not about us, however, or Anne. It is about God with us. The welcome and grace we experience as we sing and when we visit is the evidence that the Holy Spirit is present and active in the lives of the people we meet. The beauty of this experience lies in its ever-fresh reminder that God is with us.

This promise is so important that one of the names of Christ is Emmanuel, God with us. When we think of Christ by that name, we can be strong, because we are never alone. Christ, also known as the Great Physician, is with us always, and his presence is healing.

Most of us think of church visitors as good friends we haven’t met yet. Still, it is worthwhile to remember that they don’t go to the trouble of locating and visiting a church in order to remain alone. They may be motivated largely by the desire to sustain their relationship with God, but they expect, whether or not they would verbalize this feeling, to meet and be accepted by members.

Every time worship takes place in a church, visitors are welcome and should feel welcome, because worship is happening. By simply being present, they become part of it. They belong. However, members can enrich and enhance this experience by simply expressing a welcome. It need not be elaborate. Every member can greet visitors and make them welcome by simply saying, “We are glad you are here.” God says that to each of us as we enter a place of worship: “I’m glad you are here. God be with you.”