The Church as a Corporation

Somebody got the bright idea a few years ago that churches should be managed like businesses. So pastors became CEOs, and ministry was put on an assembly line.—J. Lee Grady

I agree with the J. Lee Grady, except on the time frame. Slowly, 17 centuries ago, the idea set in and took over that churches should be managed like businesses.

What happened a few years ago is that we got a lot more blatant about it, and it became acceptable for pastors to forget that shepherding is their primary occupation. “Church growth” was an adequate replacement.

It’s not the first time. Late middle age priests, bishops, cardinals, and the pope himself lost all thought of shepherding God’s people. Those roles were political roles, filled primarily by people who bought their way into them. (Even the RCC admits this.  The Catholic Encyclopedia, under “Simony”: ” … to uproot the evil of simony so prevalent during the Middle Ages”; emphasis added)

The Renaissance raised enough light to bring some reform in the Roman Catholic Church, and then the Reformation brought a strong reminder that the pastor is first and foremost a shepherd.

But since the Reformation did nothing to correct the structure, the “church” remained an organization (not yet called a corporation, but functioning as one), and a return to the struggle for popularity and power was inevitable.

The church is not a corporation; it is a family.

Traits of a Family

Families do employ trusts to manage assets. Some families may even own corporations. God’s family, however, tends to be owned by the corporation, and Biblical commands to submit to leaders are transferred to CEOs, corporations, and boards of directors … though we are careful to rename all of those with biblical names (pastors, chuches, elders or deacons, respectively).

1 Thessalonians 5:12 tells us:

We ask you, brothers, to know those who labor among you, who go before you in the Lord, and who admonish you.

We like to quote Hebrews 13 about submitting to and obeying elders, but 1 Thess. 5 doesn’t address official “elders.” It exhorts us to know the ones who labor, lead, and admonish.

That’s what happens in a family. Everyone knows the “go to” people. They all know who leads, who admonishes, who does all the work to keep the family together.

As a side note, a family also knows who just shows up. Just showing up is not always a problem. Why do we need shepherds if we don’t have sheep? In a family, those who just show up are still expected to contribute in cleanup and being part of the family, but most members of a family are sheep, not shakers, movers, and organizers.

It is to those workers that our allegiance is due. Yes, they seem more official in Hebrews 13:7,17, and 24. They are “those who lead.” They are nonetheless the same people.

Shepherds and Hirelings

The tried men of our elders preside over us, obtaining that honor not by purchase, but by established character. (Tertullian, Apology 39, c. AD 210)

Jesus warned of hirelings and how they could not be trusted as shepherds, yet we nonetheless hire our shepherds just like corporations do. They go to school, they present their credentials in a resume, and they are hired.

We see that this was not done in the early church. Elders earned their position by proven character, living among the people and remaining in the same congregation.

This was such an entrenched practice that the Council of Nicea made it an official rule that deacons, elders, or overseers (bishops) cannot “pass from city to city” (Canon 15).

I am told by other historians that overseers and elders of the pre-Nicene era (before Nicea) were not paid. They were simply supported with room and board like the widows. I have been unable to verify this, and I don’t know where it came from. It seems to contradict 1 Tim. 5:17, “Let the elders who lead well be counted worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in the Word and teaching.” Maybe “honor” there really is just honor, not money, but it seems like money to me because of v. 18. (I’ll let you research that on your own. Compare 1 Timothy 5:18 to 1 Corinthians 9:7-11.)

Either way, the early churches raised up shepherds. They did not hire executives. Our institutions hire executives trained at universities that we call seminaries. We expect our executives to visit the sick and do some other duties of a shepherd, and we certainly expect them to deliver a rousing, Bible-based speech every week.

While these executives have taken over the role and title of pastor, just as their corporations have taken on the role and title of the church, they remain executives and their employing organization remains a corporation.

Changing their titles just hides the fact that our real shepherds are unrecognized and the Lord’s church lies in ruins and has been forgotten.

About paulfpavao

I am a church historian and pastor, but I do occasionally play APBA baseball for fun.
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