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The Church as an Organization

by Dr. Lothar Schwabe

October, 2009


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Dr. Lothar Schwabe

I grieve about what is happening in my church denomination. I loved and respected my church when I was ordained as a pastor of the United Lutheran Church in America which later became the LCA, and then the ELCIC. I was proud of my church and was even guilty of thinking that, because of our Lutheran theology, my church was so much better than other churches. I was a “company man” in promoting the wellbeing of my church as an organization. I sought to strengthen the organization of my church by teaching pastors the ministry of management. As a consultant I helped congregations, synods, and our national church to have mission statements and clear goals and directions.

Now, that I have been humbled and greatly disturbed by recent actions at church conventions both in Canada and the USA , I am taking another look at my church denomination as an organization

My church is not just the “church”. My church is also an organization that has all the faults that go with being a human institution. My church is just as concerned about money and numbers as any business or organization. My church depends upon the quality of its leadership and human resources just as much as any corporate structure. My church employs political manipulation as much as any other organization that is concerned about its survival. My church is influenced by cultural trends and changes as much as any political party or institution.

I began my ministry in a Lutheran denomination that had presidents elected for a term as the leaders of our synods and national church. Then I had bishops who were elected for a term after which they were known again as pastors. Now I have bishops that are elected and then ordained to be bishops for life. I worry that there is a trend away from the power of our church residing in our congregations to a church that wields hierarchical authority. I worry about symbols of earthly power creeping into our church that are rooted in the Roman Empire rather than in Scriptures. I worry about pomp and circumstance distracting from the authority of the inspired Word of God. I am terrified by the trend to have conventions decide on what parts of Scripture we are to accept as authoritative. My church has changed in its approach to Holy Scriptures. That is the most troublesome part for me.

A theology that does not respect “the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments as the inspired Word of God, through which God still speaks and as the only source of the Church’s doctrine and authoritative standard for the faith and life of the Church” deteriorates into religious propaganda that serves those who pay the bill.

To say that my church is not the same any more is an understatement. I am therefore compelled to rethink the nature of the church.

Reformers like Luther and Calvin distinguished between the “visible church” and the “invisible church”. I find that a helpful distinction. The visible church is the human organization. The invisible church consists of all believers who confess Jesus as Lord and Saviour. The visible church contains the invisible church but does not represent the invisible church in all its functions. The visible church is subject to all the weaknesses of a human organization. Nor can the invisible church, consisting of true and faithful believers, be contained in any one denomination. I agree with those theologians, including Karl Barth, who state that a true invisible church as an organization that is pure and free from human weakness is not attainable.

No church organization is perfect. All reform movements, including the Reformation, the Haugian movement or German pietism were fading after one generation and began to show the weaknesses of any human organization. Yet, such reform movements were necessary cycles of renewals.

My denomination is not an end in itself but rather a means to an end. The “end” is the holy catholic church, the communion of saints that follows Jesus in many denominations. We need the church organizations, human as they are, to accomplish some things together that we could not accomplish by ourselves. But we also have to remember what is needed for our salvation as stated by Paul in Romans 10:9, “if you confess with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord”, and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” The insistence of any church that salvation depends upon church membership in a particular denomination has more to do with promoting brand loyalty than with theology.

Churches have always been at their best when they were more of a movement than an organization. The early Christian church, as documented in the book of Acts, had little formal organization. Followers of Jesus met to pray, share God’s Word and to break bread. There was much “saltiness” (Matthew 5:13) among followers of Jesus in the time before Christianity became the official religion prior to Constantine in 315 A.D.

Jesus defined the basic church as, “For where two or three come together in my name, there I am with them” (Matthew 18:20). The true “church” exists wherever people follow Jesus. The church can be found in house churches in China and among faithful members in any Christian denomination. It exists among faithful Roman Catholics, Baptists, Lutherans, Pentecostals, and wherever committed Christians gather in the name of Jesus. The Holy Spirit is still like the wind that blows wherever it pleases (John 3:8) and cannot be contained in any one organization.

It does not make any sense to have any number of competing denominations make the claim to be the true church of Jesus more than other denominations. It would be more helpful to label them as “church organizations”. Thinking of a church as an organization makes it easier to accept the human and sinful aspects of any denomination. There are true Christians in any denomination, and there are even true Christians, who do not belong to any formal denomination as in Siberia, Africa, China , and even in North America.

It is understandable that any denomination or church organization would like their followers to believe that they are the only true church or at least the better church. But the truth is that they represent the true church only when the true word of God is proclaimed and the sacraments are rightly administered. Organized churches do not represent the true church in many activities that are motivated by very human and sinful desires.

To see how much church organizations are preoccupied with maintaining their own organization rather than being engaged in mission one only has to look at where a congregation or denomination spends their money. Very few even spend 10% of their budgets on mission work that does not benefit their own organization.

In any church organizations are those who speak out against the wrong committed by their church. These voices of conscience are most valuable to any church. In some cases the wrong committed by a church organization causes people or congregations to leave their church organization. They are not leaving the invisible church, the holy catholic church. They do not harm the unity of the invisible church. They struggle to find another church organization in which they can grow in faith and serve the Lord with gladness. Where charity reigns, a church organization can understand the concerns and struggles of those who are leaving. Blessing rather than condemning those whose conscience leads them to separate would add credibility to their claim that they are motivated by Christ’s love. Likewise, those leaving their church organization for another church organization must do so in a spirit of humility, continuing to pray for their former denomination.

The true church cannot be split because she has no boundaries. Church organizations can be split such as when the Eastern Orthodox church split from The Roman church in 1054 or when the Lutheran church was established apart from the Roman Catholic church.

Calling a church denomination a “church organization” rather than “the church” would be more helpful and save us the embarrassment of having our Lord Jesus blamed for some of the wrongs done in His name by a church organization.

Our denomination enters a difficult period of time. How much effort will be spent on damage control to minimize the losses of membership? The current battle seems to be focusing on the “undecided”. We will increasingly hear pleads for the “unity of the church”. It seems to me that the whole concern about not splitting the church has more to do with shrinking offerings than with a concern for the spiritual welfare of souls. Church administrators are voicing concerns about a decreasing financial support.

Church officials may be banking on many members staying with their denomination because of the social ties that keeps them in their congregations. If so, they will likely be correct. Many, especially the older members, will quietly suffer the change in direction that their denomination is taking. They feel that they are simply too old to start all over again and they do not want to be separated from their friends.

My invisible church is a church without borders. It consists of saints who are also sinners and are saved by grace through faith in Jesus Christ. I am also a member of a church organization. I became a Christian outside a church organization some years before I joined a denomination. I wonder, where I will end up?

The church of Jesus Christ will survive and thrive. I have never seen as much interest in theology among our lay people as I have seen in recent years. It appears to me that the Holy Spirit is leading us into another Reformation. Thanks be to God!