the oil and vinegar of business and relationships

I’ve been talking with friends again about the hurtful things many have experienced at traditional business-like church organizations. There’s many common themes to it, but perhaps most of them can be categorized as “violation of relationship.” By that I mean that people do things to one another that violate the way relationships are to operate among followers of Jesus. This causes hurt, sometimes deeply, depending on the nature of the violation.

But here’s what I’ve come to believe: it all makes sense when we realize that there’s much more going on in the traditional business-like church organization than being followers of Jesus. I’ve come to see these traditional churches as essentially religious businesses that try to promote the Kingdom of God among it’s members and the community it considers it’s domain. And indeed, there are many wonderful things happening at these places, and there would be a huge void if suddenly they did not exist. I spent over two decades of my life laboring with others to start and expand these religious businesses, and quite successfully in terms of the common measures used. Yet I’ve also walked away in tears from more than one, confused about how/why the relationship violations occurred with me ending up with the short end of the stick. And I’m pretty sure I was on the “relationship violator” end of things more times than I know.

As much as we fantasize otherwise, I believe most religious businesses are businesses first, and doers of God-stuff second, because “Job 1 is to remain a viable business.” There’s government requirements for 501(c)3 “not-for-profit” business (huh? of COURSE they’re making a profit! But that’s a different conversation…), such as roles of president, vp, secretary, treasurer, by-laws, board meetings, blah blah. There’s people depending on their financial livelihood at this business. There’s mortages and utilities to pay, sound equipment and sunday school supplies to purchase. But all this stuff is earthly domain, man’s business, and has nothing to do with being the church that follows Jesus. Most participants probably don’t think of it this way, and rather think of it as “Job 1 is to remain a viable presence of the church.” It was true for me, because like many, the religious business model is what I believed WAS the church that Jesus intended. I didn’t know any better. And within that business model, there are also people’s career identities at stake. Now those are some strong forces.

Clearly there is massive blindness about this, and most people at these religious businesses have good intentions, and have no idea that what they are doing is not what Jesus intended for his church. It was true of me as well. Wearing unintended blinders, we don’t even see the plain spoken truths about this in the bible. But for many in our day the blinders are coming off.

My main point in this post is to say that, as heartless as it may sound, I believe that its pointless to complain about these violations of relationships that happen at these religious businesses. There HAS to be a hiearchical leadership, that HAS to establish direction and boundaries for the business, and that HAS to exert authority over the “members.” This is how business works. Business is man’s domain; and man must lead it or it will fall apart. It’s the same with any business. If an employee does things that threaten the vision/plans/success of their employer’s business, no one is surprised when such a person is reprimanded, or even fired, right? It wouldn’t matter that they had friends who worked there. At the end of the day, the leadership has to do what’s right for the business or its viability will be threatened. And the kicker is, I believe that’s how God intended business (not his church) to work. God put it in us to work (Genesis – Adam, the garden) and better our lives if we can (1Cor 7:21) and to enjoy the rewards of our labors (Eccl 5:18-20).

Mixing Kingdom-of-God intentions into earthly business is where it gets all messed up, especially if people start believing that God is the leader of it instead of man. Nope, God doesn’t take charge of our businesses. He gave Adam and Eve the charge of taking care of the garden, the earthly domain.

But when it comes to being the church that follows Jesus – now THAT’s where God is in charge, whether man acknowledges it or not, and where relationships are to operate much differently than they do at an earthly business. For example, Lording over is “illegal” in the church that follows Jesus (Matt 20:25-26), and calling people by special names that put them above others, like “father” or “pastor” or “reverend,” is against Jesus’ commands (Matt 23:8-10).

I’ve come to believe that if we are experiencing the common relationship violations that happen in religious businesses, we really have no one to blame but ourselves. Man’s vision and scope for a business will always be very small compared to God’s vision and scope for his church. So there will always be times when people have grown into as much of God’s kingdom as a particular religious business can support, and to get beyond that the people will be drawn into things outside the scope of where the leadership is comfortable, or able to lead. If the leadership feel that the business or their authority (which again, the business needs) is at risk by the actions of certain people, they will have to do things to resolve this conflict, and proper human relating as God intended among his followers will suffer, because that is not the priority in the business context. We should not expect otherwise.

For those who find themselves in that situation, the good news is that God is taking many into a new journey of being and finding the church that wants to follow Jesus alone, and that wants no part of mixing it with the business aspirations of man.

I love this verse from Hosea 6:3:
“So let us know, let us press on to know the LORD.
His going forth is as certain as the dawn;
And He will come to us like the rain,
Like the spring rain watering the earth.”

4 Replies to “the oil and vinegar of business and relationships”

  1. Hey Page,
    Really good insightful stuff here! And, I think you’ve hit on a primary reason that the business of religion will never work (i.e. never get one to know Father).

    You said it well here, “So there will always be times when people have grown into as much of God’s kingdom as a particular religious business can support, and to get beyond that the people will be drawn into things outside the scope of where the leadership is comfortable, or able to lead.”

    That is the cold hard truth. There’s only so much of knowing God that any religion as a business can support. Unfortunately, it’s not much of (knowing) Him that can be supported there. I think to satisfy one’s deep hunger for God necessarily will take them out of that setting, if only for a season.

    I’m not sure that I fully followed you on this point: “At the end of the day, the leadership has to do what’s right for the business or its viability will be threatened. And the kicker is, I believe that’s how God intended it. God put it in us to work (Genesis – Adam, the garden) and better our lives if we can (1Cor 7:21) and to enjoy the rewards of our labors (Eccl 5:18-20).” Maybe I just didn’t understand what you were saying.

    Very good observations here about how a religious business necessarily must run itself.

  2. Thanks for your comments, Free. My point in the words you referenced is to say that I believe earthly leadership exercising good, prudent decisions and actions for the success of an earthly business is consistent with the way God designed earthly work to happen. I see the whole idea of humans working for earthly reward as God’s idea (scripture mentioned). But it was never intended that humans take his role of being in charge of his heavenly church. That’s when things get all messed up, because that’s heavenly “business” per se, not earthly business. And it’s his business, not ours. Glad to know if my point is still not clear.

  3. the business of religion had a propensity to do harm to those I loved and had hope for the very best. “violation of relationship” wasn’t always involved (i.e., typical relationship wasn’t often much between a sheep and the organization) though damage was done; people uprooted, blocked, tricked, starved, blocked or diverted needlessly. Such a reliable suppression against the Spirit of Christ, eventually came to “Lot leaving Sodom” for me.
    Kingdom intentions can also be the label on a big box full of masks. When professionals live under a system long enough, ideals can suffering a hollowing-out until they’re little more than facade. Things are still happening and the spiritual machinery is still somewhat running, but a true place for the living Christ can not be found.

  4. Thanks for your comments, Marshall. I’m sure many relate to the painful events you describe. Not to get hung up on symantics, but as I see it, the Lord calls us to gather, which speaks of “do this together, not alone” and gave us pretty specific instrustions about how it does/does not look like when he’s the head over the gathering. I do see the “wrongs” you mention – blocking, tricking, starving, trying to suppress the promptings of the Spirit, the idea of “professionals” vs. working class christians – as violations ultimately of the commands of Jesus, specifically in how he has designed relationships among the saints. The ultimate guide he gave us is love. Among those we gather with regularly, he gave us this view of things from the beginning, and we’re so blessed to have long left those kinds of violations.

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