Might Makes Right in today’s Church Empires

Tarkin_DSI 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.

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?

Your Turn

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?

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Comments

  1. says

    I am not sure it is a size issue or a “might makes right” situation. We have been drinking from the well of leadership so long, the church’s modus operandi has become expediency and short-term quantitate result orientation. Instead of following and living into our call, we are leading and looking for results with little regard to the means or long term.

  2. Nathans says

    Jeremy, I agree with your points completely. My question for you, as a lifelong United Methodist who is feeling fatigued by the current tensions resulting from the size of our large organization (and all the different opinions it contains), is this: what does this type of ministry (a non-empire) look like on a national or international scale?

    Couldn’t you make the same argument that international organizations like the UMC are a problem, and that perhaps the current turmoil we’re experiencing is God pruning us down to size?

    Is there a place for large, bureaucratic denominations in the church of the future?

    • says

      BTW, when I said, “as a lifelong United Methodist who is fatigued…” I was referring to myself. I just realized that might have been confusing…

  3. Zzyzx says

    This strikes, sadly, close to my experiences a while back in a more charismatic setting. It was basically the same mentality: Get them in the door, get them to hear the “message” somehow, anyhow and then watch God work. And it often took the forms of manipulation or other problematic methods. “Win a playstation!” You just have to come, sit through worship and a message and an altar call and all this other stuff and then we see who’s left and gets the playstation. Or strategically leaving out certain bits of information. For example, repeating stories you heard from someone else as if you were really there and had witnessed it. Just little bits and pieces of dishonesty, overexaggeration (and towards the end of my time in this ministry outright emotional manipulation and abuse, but that’s another story…)

    Andrew above touched on the problem of leadership above, and I think he’s got a good point. In far too many churches (especially the larger ones, but also smaller ones) the focus seems to be overweighted on the leadership. They’re less participatory and more of a show. More something that one goes to and passively experiences, rather than something that one actively participates in. Like I said, this is a problem that affects churches of all sizes. An expectation that the leadership will simply do everything and the rest just passively enjoy whatever they choose to enjoy from what the leadership offers. In other words, far too many people (even myself in the past) have surrendered some of our voice and our freedom in the running of the Church. We’ve been more than happy to delegate decision-making to others for various reasons. But the Church isn’t something that a select few put on for the rest of us. The Church also isn’t something we do, it’s some we ARE.

    • says

      Like I said in my above comment, I grew up in the UMC and I have been working at a UMC for the past several years, and the thing that frustrates our staff more than anything else is this:

      “They’re less participatory and more of a show. More something that one goes to and passively experiences, rather than something that one actively participates in.”

      The majority of our members come to church for an experience, and then go about their week, and the staff struggles to offer a great experience that will hopefully motivate them to become more engaged. It’s when that hopeful motivation turns into desperate motivation that churches begin operating as if the ends justify the means.

      I find the older I get, the more fatigued I am by organized religion (and all the battles over homosexuality, Biblical literalism, theological interpretation, etc), and I know I’m not alone. There are several large studies (and many more online stories analyzing those studies) about Millennials leaving the church, etc, so I won’t talk about that here.

      For hundreds of years, people have worshipped and practiced their faith within the safety of an organized religious organization. It gave them a sense of identity and served as a system of protection from false teaching. It also was a great way to pool resources to help the less fortunate in ways that were beyond mere individuals.

      But why shouldn’t Christians move on? What if it’s time for the Church to leave the safety of its institutional cocoon, to spread its wings and fly upwards to the next stage of its life? Why aren’t Christians celebrating and exploring this change, rather than trying to stop it?

      In John 15: 1-2 (MSG), Jesus says:

      “I am the Real Vine and my Father is the Farmer. He cuts off every branch of me that doesn’t bear grapes. And every branch that is grape-bearing he prunes back so it will bear even more”

      Yes, the church produces good fruit. But what if God is pruning us back now, so we will bear even more?

      I for one am very excited about the future of the Church, yet I am frustrated by a seemingly lack of enthusiasm from church leaders who seem to be focusing their energy on trying to get people to come back to the church (sometimes resorting to ends-justify-the-means strategies). I also am tired of asking this question and getting only blank stares from church leaders who are so invested in the trees that they can no longer see the forrest.

      • Zzyzx says

        “But why shouldn’t Christians move on? What if it’s time for the Church to leave the safety of its institutional cocoon, to spread its wings and fly upwards to the next stage of its life? Why aren’t Christians celebrating and exploring this change, rather than trying to stop it?”

        Almost exactly my thoughts too. Especially with your later sentence here:

        “I am frustrated by a seemingly lack of enthusiasm from church leaders who seem to be focusing their energy on trying to get people to come back to the church (sometimes resorting to ends-justify-the-means strategies). I also am tired of asking this question and getting only blank stares from church leaders who are so invested in the trees that they can no longer see the forrest.”

        Right now the prevailing attitude among pastors and lay folks in the UMC in my district seems to be that classic: “Get em in the doors, get em saved, get in the membership, and then we have their financial support and we can survive for X long.” I’m just no longer sure that the “classic” method of looking at Church and membership and our own ideas of the future are at all relevant. I just don’t think we can “do” Church this way any longer. We count our numbers and our membership, and I can’t help but feel that such practices have become extremely disconnected from reality.

        So, yeah, your assessment rings pretty true for me.

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