I remember sitting in seminary and I heard a classmate say “Christianity’s foundation began to crack when we took Constantine’s bribe.” His reference was to the Emperor Constantine who in the early 300s CE embraced Christianity as the Roman Religion and replaced the imperial cult with it.
My friend’s point was that by becoming one with the empire, we started to act like the Empire (Crusades? Inquisition? Anyone?) in ways that cracked our foundation in Jesus who opposed the Empire in its entirety.
“Might Makes Right” Churches
These cracks in the foundation continue to today as Christianity struggles with being in positions of power. From two of the country’s most talked-about churches these days, we see the cracks are forming with regard to how these powerful churches use their power.
- At Elevation Church in North Carolina, Steve Furtick was in the news for using behavior manipulation techniques in his “spontaneous” baptismal services. While these same techniques were arguably used by Billy Graham, Furtick is unable to justify such actions without relying on championing manipulation points.
- At Mars Hill in Seattle, Mark Driscoll used a marketing company to falsify sales of his book so that he would land on the Best-sellers list, which lead to an initial claim of using “any opportunity that helps us to get that message out.” Might makes right.
- Both at Elevation Church and at Mars Hill, pastors and executive employees are forced to sign Non-Disclosure Agreements so that they cannot speak about their employment at MH if they are terminated or quit.
In all the above situations, an “ends justify the means” mentality pervades the way how the Church is choosing to relate to itself and others. By manipulating sales or people, they are bringing more people to Christ. So what if the methods are questionable–the results are terrific!
Evangelism Through Strength
During biblical times, the Roman Empire operated in a “Peace Through Strength” mentality that their goal of having a peaceful Empire justify their means to achieve it–namely using their military might as a deterrent and overwhelming response to unrest. And it was exactly this mentality that Jesus defeated not by being more powerful than the other, but by embracing a form of powerlessness that was unbeatable. Consider what a reader of Andrew Sullivan wrote back in 2009:
Jesus did not preach that this kingdom manifested itself in the manner to which the world subscribed: the use of power by might and social status. Rather, the exemplar for life in this kingdom was Jesus on the cross: self-sacrificial love for others that looks foolish to the world. Thus Paul writes, “we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles” (1 Corinthians 1:23). Unlike those who grasped for might as power, Jesus “did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself (in the Greek this phrase literally means “divested himself of status”), taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death– even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:5-8).
If these churches were really “terrified of God” (as Steve Furtick claims) they wouldn’t have to rely on manipulation through feats of strength to do Church. Instead, they would be kenotic “self-emptying” churches that don’t use the power of their people, money, or influence to better themselves on Best Seller lists or baptismal charts.
But perhaps it isn’t about their theology. Perhaps it is just what Seth Godin deems as entropy working against a larger-than-life organization in a perfect parallel to the above situation.
As an organization succeeds, it gets bigger. As it gets bigger, the average amount of passion and initiative of the organization goes down (more people gets you closer to averge, which is another word for mediocre).
Larger still means more bureaucracy, more people who manage and push for comformity, as opposed to do something new. Success brings with it the fear of blowing it. With more to lose, there’s more pressure not to lose it.
Mix all these things together and you discover that going forward, each decision pushes the organization toward do-ability, reliability, risk-proofing and safety.
Perhaps then the problem isn’t with these particular churches or theologies. Perhaps the problem is when churches reach a certain size, they are unable to have their means be in sync with their ends because of the overwhelming temptation to use their people, broadcast, and influence power.
In a country where our larger churches get bigger and our smaller churches get smaller, isn’t that scary?
Thoughts? How else have you seen the “might makes right” or “the ends justify the means” in today’s churches when it comes to using questionable methods to spread the Gospel?