Organizational Health, Part 1B

Last week I wrote of a veteran employee who tends to go against the grain in his ministry organization.

He has set up his own little fiefdom where he enjoys successful ministry along with several devotees.

Additionally, it’s not hard to imagine this person as somewhat intimidating to other employees and even management.

So, from the perspective of organizational leadership, better to leave him alone in his domain, right?

Accept the benefits of his success? Allow him to color outside the lines? Allow him to be an exception to all the rules?

* * *

A parishioner of a megachurch in my town once quoted his pastor to me, thusly:

“We don’t reward disfunction.”

Translation: We don’t put tons of time into appeasing or even fixing persistent dissent. Rather, we ask the person to make a change or leave the organization.

Harsh words to the sensitive ears of Americans who love an antihero.

But, in my estimation, wise words nonetheless.

Organizational Health part 1A

I have a mental image of an older ministry specialist who’s been around the block many times.

Could be a pastor, professor or other ministry professional like myself.

Let’s say the person is male.

He has a certain way of doing things that the organization has left behind or never embraced in the first place.

To protect his interests, the specialist carves out his own domain and rules it with an inflexible hand.

By many standards of measure, such as participation from lay people, spiritual growth, conversions, etc., success is evident.

Additionally, the man has a small cult following of loyalists who share his passion, philosophy and methods.

How does the organization (church, seminary, college or parachurch) respond?

Despite the man’s success, in the bigger picture the organization is hindered from moving forward until he leaves or retires.

But that could be another 10-15 years.

Decision time for the organization:  Removing the man would come at great cost. His devotees might lash out in anger and rebellion.

Financial support could be lost.

A major confrontation would be necessary. Could be a messy scene and involve publicity, a review board, appeals . . .

Is it worth it?

I’ll offer an opinion next week.

Is Christianity Trustworthy? Part 5b: Church History

In my last post I asked the question of what sort of god would allow the early church, filled as it was with flawed human beings, to work out its own basic beliefs.

Looking back we rightly ask, Is this process trustworthy?”

Were mistakes made?

Did the early church get the following “big rocks” correct?

  • Doctrine of the Trinity
  • Books of the NT
  • Nature of Christ
  • Justification and sanctification
In my view, here’s the sort of god that would have allowed this process to be so, well, human:

A god who, himself, became human.
His humanity validates ours.
So if it’s “okay” to be human, then maybe human processes are more valued by God than we think. Maybe God works in and through human endeavors.
Maybe God isn’t so interested in doing dramatic miracles like snapping his fingers to instantly create the NT or sending down stone tablets with the doctrine of the Trinity inscribed.*
Maybe he calls us to work on theology with the humility and strength that only he can provide. Maybe such work depends on human character, community, mutual trust, prayer, listening, careful thinking, tough negotiations.
Maybe the early church was in position to do this difficult work, empowered as it was by the God who entered human history. 
In my view, it’s only on this basis that the process is trustworthy.

* I have no problem with God doing miracles of any sort. But when we think of God’s activity as being restricted to the dramatic and sensational, we miss out on many of his main works.

Is Christianity Trustworthy? Part 5a: Church History

As I read about major events in the life of the early church, I’m struck by how human everything is.

Yes, perhaps there is an invisible divine hand at work behind the scenes.

But on the surface,  God seems to have allowed flawed human beings the privilege of figuring out a lot of major stuff.

Quite often it’s not a pretty picture:

Just read about the contentious issues surrounding the selection of letters for inclusion in the NT.

Or which version of the Trinity — or the nature of Christ — would be adopted as the orthodox position.

Or whether clergy who “lapsed” under persecution could subsequently perform valid rites and
sacraments in the church.*

Or whether Greek philosophy should be thought of as a helpful tutor (or hindrance) for theological understanding and defending the faith in the Roman Empire and Middle Ages.

Inside the historic accounts you’ll find flesh-and-blood mortals  — some brave, some heroic, some disgusting — fight, scratch, claw, take sides, condemn, ex-communicate, denounce, and make arguments and counter-arguments about the most foundational issues of all Christendom, for all time.

What this mixed bag of saints and not-so-saints haggled over for 16+ centuries has a direct effect on the thinking and behavior of today’s (and tomorrow’s) Christians — that is, our orthodoxy and “orthopraxy.”

So is it all trustworthy? Were mistakes made? Do we now have it right?  What sort of God would leave these matters to us?

I’ll write about it next week.

* The Donatist controversy

Is Christianity Trustworthy? Part 4b: Christians Behaving Badly

Last week I mentioned my 4-step response to the critic’s charge of “Christians behaving badly”:

  1. Acknowledge harm
  2. Don’t blame the hammer
  3. Reject impostors
  4. Remember the good
See last week’s post for thoughts on 1 and 2 above.

#3, Reject impostors, means that when people who are not true Christians cause harm in the name of Christianity, I take no responsibility. 

To illustrate, let’s say two men in police uniforms knock at your door and ask to come in. Upon entry, they tie you up and rob your house. 

Impostors.

Would you blame the real police for this crime? Hopefully not.

In the same way, non-Christians putting on the uniform of Christianity and bringing injury to others is not the fault of Christians.

The question might arise, How do we know if it was a real Christian or not who did the damage? 

The answer is that we may not know. This lack of knowledge should, minimally, raise a flag of caution to critics.

#4, Remember the good, is what I say to critics who forget all the positive contributions Christians have made to humankind.

Three examples of Christian service and benevolence (we could list thousands):
  • Habitat for Humanity: a Christian organization that has built over 500,000 homes for low-income families.
  • Health care in the west. Do some research on health care practices in the Roman Empire, Middle Ages, and all the way into the 20th century, and you’ll find it dominated by Christians and Christian principles.
  • Education in America: Check out the origins of Harvard, Yale, Princeton. Again, Christians were the main impetus.
* * *

In summary, remember to acknowledge harm caused by true Christians. The church should be good at such confession.

And tell critics, “Don’t blame the hammer.” That is, when a tool (Christianity) is used badly, don’t blame the tool.

Reject impostors and remember the good. 

Those are the four steps. I hope you’ll find them helpful.

For a fuller treatment of the critic’s charge of “Christians behaving badly,” see chapter 8 of my book, Faith is Like Skydiving . . . 

Is Christianity Trustworthy? Part 4a: Christians Behaving Badly

Christians often ask me, “What’s the most common question or objection to Christianity you hear on college campuses?”

Fifteen years ago, I’d have mentioned the problem of suffering and evil, or the challenge of other religions.

These days, it’s probably “Christians behaving badly,” with creation/evolution a close second.

Christians behaving badly might include items such as

  • The crusades, inquisitions, witch hunts
  • Colonialism and slavery
  • Oppression of gays, women and minorities
  • Judgmentalism on the part of church-goers

So, can a religious tradition be “trustworthy” when saddled with so much baggage?

I have a standard four-step reply to this question, which can be summarized thusly:
  1. Acknowledge harm
  2. Don’t blame the hammer
  3. Reject impostors
  4. Remember the good
“Acknowledge harm” means that I take some level of responsibility for true Christians who’ve brought harm to others. We believers should be good at confessing the sins of the church, including sins committed hundreds of years ago.
“Don’t blame the hammer” is an image that reminds us of where to find true fault. If I pound dents in your car with a hammer, you rightly blame me — not the hammer — for damage done. In the same way, we rightly find fault with sinful human beings who misuse religion for their own ends, not religion itself.*
I’ll cover the final two items next week.
*The whole topic of hypocrisy in the church, including the hammer image, is covered more extensively in Faith is Like Skydiving. See sidebar to the right.

Is Christianity Trustworthy? Part 3: Scripture

By modern standards of precision, the New Testament (NT) is messy in places.

For example, the geneologies of Jesus’ ancestry as recorded in Matthew 1 and Luke 3 are difficult to reconcile.

The names of the apostles listed in the four Gospels don’t line up exactly.

The accounts of the empty tomb differ in the details.

I could go on.

According to modern expectations, these deviations nullify the claims of “inerrancy” in the Scriptures, and therefore the credibility of Christianity.

But in fact the early church knew its own texts backward and forward . . . and still chose these four Gospel accounts, and the rest of the NT, to represent its faith.

Trustworthy?

It seems to me that the NT is trustworthy if taken on its own terms.

But if we try to jam it into a set of expectations foreign to its historical and literary context, it may be found wanting.

* * *

In my travels to college campuses around the country, I often ask students this question:

The early church knew about the supposed problem passages in the NT, and ultimately had no problem with them. Why do we?

Is Christianity Trustworthy? Part 2: God Through a Two-Inch Slot

Let’s say Smith wants to make sure he receives all his packages from UPS.

So he cuts a two-inch slot in the front door of his house and instructs the UPS driver to slip all deliveries through the opening.

What do we think of Smith’s method?

Obviously it’s too narrow.

Smith may receive a few of his goods through the tiny aperture, but he’s likely to miss out on most of what’s sent to him.

In the same way, the person who says, “I’m not going to believe in God till he proves himself to me scientifically” has narrowed the range of acceptable revelation to an overly slender slot in the front door of his thinking.

After all, it could easily be the case that God wishes to reveal himself to humanity in a variety of ways outside of science.

God could use beauty, art, history, philosophy, theology, miracles, ethics and personal experience to disclose himself to his creatures.

This list doesn’t negate the validity of science, but it does suggest that science will catch only a few of God’s deliveries to us, while missing out on many more.

* * *

It seems to me that Christianity is “trustworthy” if taken on its own terms, if taken as a wide-spread revelation from God that is sprinkled into all the disciplines, including science.

But it may not be convincing to a skeptical person who restricts God’s
deliveries to the narrow realm of microscopes, test tubes and beakers.