Dealing with “biblical” Claims

Continuing a series on the Bible, ordination, and the upcoming General Conference in San Antonio.

Both the Bible and the lessons of Adventist history (see the previous blogs in this series) demonstrate that circumstances alter cases. But what does all that have to do with the ordination of women? Is Women’s Ordination also an issue where circumstances alter cases? Before I get into recent events and the upcoming General Conference session, let me share an important distinction in biblical interpretation. When we say that a particular teaching is “biblical,” the evidence for such an assertion comes at two different levels. I draw a distinction between teachings that are exegetically compelling and teachings that are exegetically defensible. Some biblical doctrines are exegetically compelling. In other words, the Bible raises the very question we are concerned with and answers it with compelling clarity. Everyone sees clearly what the Bible is saying and either follows it or chooses not to.

On the other hand, many so-called “biblical” teachings are defensible from the Bible, but not totally compelling on the basis of the Bible alone. Such teachings do not contradict the Bible but require reasoning, tradition, experience, history, science or other sources in order to be convincing. For example, the Bible itself never addresses the issue of smoking. And no text in the Bible tells us that spinach is good for us and tobacco is bad. So while Christians may ban smoking on the basis of biblical principles, it requires non-biblical (mostly scientific and experiential) evidence to make the case.

When it comes to women’s ordination, there is no text that raises the question or addresses the issue directly. All biblical arguments are derived from texts addressing other issues. So any argument from the Bible on women’s ordination needs to be exegetically defensible (not contradict the Bible), but can never be exegetically compelling in the sense that all will be compelled to understand and accept the conclusion from the Bible alone.

The interesting thing about the observations in the previous blogs is that even exegetically compelling texts may not always apply in a new situation. The practice of circumcision in the church was based on clear, compelling texts. The rules on meat slaughter for Israelites in the desert were based on a clear, compelling passage. The ruling in Acts 15 was direct and clear, so was Paul’s counsel regarding civil authorities in Romans 13. But even when the texts are compelling and clear, circumstances can alter cases. How much more should the principle apply when neither side’s exegesis compels the other?

Now I don’t want to be misunderstood or misquoted on this point. I am NOT saying that anything goes. I am not advocating situational ethics, I am not advocating that all values and principles can be altered at will. But I AM pointing out that within Scripture, there are clear examples of circumstances altering cases. We cannot take the most straightforward reading and assume that it applies universally in all circumstances. As Paul notes in 1 Corinthians 10:15, when it comes to matters of church policy, we need to consider time and place and use common sense.

To be continued. . .

Some Illustrations from Adventist History

Continuing a series on the Bible, ordination, and the upcoming General Conference in San Antonio.

In the early 1800s William Miller’s attention was drawn to Revelation 10. Coming toward the close of the seven trumpets, this chapter had something to say about the period of earth’s history just before the Second Coming. That meant to Miller that Revelation 10 must be speaking specifically to the time in which he lived. Miller rightly saw that Revelation 10 built on Daniel 12 (Rev 10:5-6, cf. Dan 12:7). A sealed book (Dan 12:4) was now open (Rev 10:1-2). What was sealed in Daniel were particularly the prophetic time periods, the 2300-day prophecy (Dan 8:13-14, 26) and the 1260-day prophecy (Dan 12:7, 9). Since those time periods, in his calculation, ended in 1798 and 1843-44 respectively, Miller came to believe that Revelation 10 was talking about the very time period in which he was living, the last 45 years before Jesus’ return (1798-1843). If the cleansing of the sanctuary (Dan 8:14) was Jesus’ Second Coming, the world was about to come to an end. The message was electrifying, the biblical arguments were compelling, and a great movement arose, seeking to prepare the world for the soon return of Jesus.

Everything was in place except the coming of Jesus itself. But it never happened. When Jesus did not come on October 22, 1844, people began to notice that the open scroll in the prophecy would be sweet in the mouth but bitter in the belly (Rev 10:8-10). In other words, there were clear indications in the text that God knew about The Great Disappointment before it happened, but they had completely missed that part of the prophecy. The purpose of Revelation 10 was not to provide the date of the Second Coming, but to galvanize the final proclamation of the gospel to the world (Rev 10:11; 14:6-7). Adventist understanding of Revelation 10 had been perfectly clear and compelling before 1844. But after October 22, 1844, the Adventist pioneers were forced to re-read and re-think what the Bible had to say about their era. Circumstances alter cases.

The same thing can happen with the writings of Ellen White. According to records at the 1919 Bible Conference, the General Conference president was holding some meetings in the city we know as Oslo. Attendees had come from all over Scandinavia. One of the attendees was an extremely thin and pale colporteur based in Hammerfest, at the time the northernmost city in the world. Hammerfest back then rarely received any canned goods, and fruits and vegetables were extremely expensive when they arrived at all. A man on a missionary salary could not afford either. So when A. G. Daniells (the GC President at the time) asked the unhealthy-looking man what he ate back home the man replied, “Mostly the north wind.”

The primary food options in Hammerfest at the time were reindeer meat, fish, potatoes and starchy foods like corn meal mush. The colporteur was an ardent follower of Ellen White’s writings, so he refused to eat any animal products. But the result of his “faithfulness” was the opposite of good health. Daniells advised the man to center his diet on reindeer meat when he got back home. But on the long boat ride back to the United States, the GC President began to feel a bit guilty about his advice and how that might play around the world. So when he returned to the United States he made the long trek across the continent to visit Elmshaven and get Ellen White’s reaction.

According to Daniells, Ellen White’s response was, “Why don’t people use common sense? Don’t they know that we are to be governed by the places we are located?” After further conversation, she was concerned enough to wonder if her Testimonies should not be recalled and “fixed up,” in other words, written in a way that principles given to particular people in particular circumstances could not be absolutized in an unhealthy way. Circumstances alter cases.

To be continued. . .

Circumstances and the Bible, Part 3

Continuing a series on the Bible, ordination, and the upcoming General Conference in San Antonio.

Moving to the New Testament, we have another example of how circumstances alter cases. The council of Acts 15 reached a decision that Gentiles should not be troubled by practices like circumcision (Acts 15:19) but should refrain from eating food that had been “ceremonially polluted” (alisgêma) in relation to idols (15:20). This was one of several regulations that would allow Gentiles and Jews to more comfortably fellowship together. In disseminating the decision of the council, the leaders clarified their meaning with a different word; Gentiles should not eat food “sacrificed” or offered (eidôlothutos) to idols (Acts 15:29).

Paul addresses the same issue in 1 Corinthians 8-10, but does so in greater depth (he mentions food offered to idols [eidôlothutos] six times: 8:1, 4, 7, 10; 10:19, 28). He asserts that “no idol in the world really exists” (1 Cor 8:4, NRSV), “an idol is nothing” (KJV), therefore offering or sacrificing food to idols does not in any way change the food or affect our relation to it (1 Cor 8:8). So eating such food is not an issue for intelligent Christians, in spite of the decree of the council in Acts 15. But not all Christians have this knowledge (8:7), so one must be sensitive to the impact one’s own practice will have on the faith experience of another (8:9-13).

In addition, while idols have no real existence, temple practices should generally be avoided by Christians as they may involve the presence of demons, which would make the temple a dangerous place to go (10:16-21). On the other hand, if an unbeliever invites you to dinner (10:27) or you are shopping in the marketplace (10:25), don’t worry about whether the food was offered to idols or not, go ahead and eat without asking questions. But if someone, likely a fellow believer, objects that the food was offered to an idol, then don’t eat it (10:28), not because an idol is anything but because of the conscience of the one who said it (10:29-33). You don’t want to damage that person’s conscience or walk with God (8:10-13). In matters like this, council or no council, it is important to use common sense (10:15). Paul was not opposed to the earlier action of the council, but was using common sense to clarify the council’s intention in various situations. In a different place, the policy should be applied differently. Circumstances alter cases.

In Romans (written in the 50s AD) Paul speaks very positively about the role of civil government. Christians should be subject to civil authority because such authorities have been instituted by God (Rom 13:1). To resist such authorities is to resist the same God who appointed them (13:2). In fact the civil authorities act as servants (diakonos or “deacons”) of God to keep order in society (13:3-4, 6). Christians should treat civil authorities with honor and respect, for the sake of conscience (13:5, 7).

But forty years later, the situation seems to have changed. In the book of Revelation (probably written in the 90s AD), civil authorities enmeshed with false religion can be described as vicious, persecuting beasts (Rev 13:1-2, 11) who are hurting and will hurt God’s people (Rev 13:7, 10, 15-17). They also blaspheme God Himself (13:1, 6). Since Romans was probably written from Corinth, in the same general region of the Empire as Asia Minor, we see a very different attitude toward civil authority in the same region, but at a different time (forty years later). Different times and different places call for a fresh application of biblical principles. Circumstances alter cases.

To be continued. . .

Circumstances and the Bible, Part 2

Continuing a series on the Bible, ordination, and the upcoming General Conference in San Antonio.

In Daniel 2 and 7 we see God Himself making the kind of adjustment Israelites and the Church had to make in the previous blog. In both chapters a human being sees a vision of the future that involves four kingdoms followed by the kingdom of God. But to the pagan king Nebuchadnezzar this vision comes in the form of an idol (tselêm– Dan 2:31-33; 3:1-6). This is startling for God to do, but it makes perfect sense for communication. After all, for Nebuchadnezzar the great kingdoms of the world were beautiful, shining examples of the gods they worshiped. But when God gives essentially the same vision to Daniel, the Hebrew prophet, He shapes the vision as a replay of the story of creation. There is a stormy sea (Dan 7:2), then animals appear (7:3-8), then comes a son of man who is given dominion over the animals (7:13-14). Just as Adam had dominion over the animals at creation (Gen 1:26-28; 2:20), God’s second Adam, the son of man, would have dominion over the kingdoms that were hurting Daniel’s people. Circumstances alter cases. What is unique here is that God himself is the one doing the contextualizing. You can’t blame the change on the human author of the text.

These passages call to mind parallel principles to that expressed in the proverb “circumstances alter cases.” One of these is “God meets people where they are” and the other is “there is more than one right way to think.” When you think of the four gospels, it would be foolish to ask the question, “Which gospel writer was right, Matthew, Mark, Luke or John?” They were all inspired and they were all right. Yet each gives a unique and different picture of Jesus. There is more than one right way to think. Is Jesus divine or is He human? Wrong question! There is more than one right way to think about Jesus. That doesn’t mean that all ways of thinking are right. But truth must not be limited to one form of expression. Circumstances do not alter all cases, but absolutizing revelation in many circumstances undermines the very principle that is driving the text.

To be continued. . .

Circumstances and the Bible

Continuing a series on the Bible, ordination, and the upcoming General Conference in San Antonio.

Let me share some examples of how the principle of “circumstances alter cases” can be seen in the Bible. In Genesis 17 God offers Abraham an “everlasting covenant” (Gen 17:7). That sounds pretty permanent. This everlasting covenant would be for “you and your offspring after you throughout their generations” (Gen 17:9, ESV). That’s sounds pretty permanent too. And the sign of that everlasting covenant was the circumcision of all males among the descendants of Abraham.

It is not surprising, therefore, that the early church adopted circumcision as a mandatory rule for all followers of Jesus. In fact, some of the most passionate believers among them confidently asserted, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.” (Acts 15:1, ESV) But at the council described in Acts 15 church leaders discovered that the Holy Spirit was calling uncircumcised Gentiles like Cornelius. What to do? They re-thought Genesis 17 and drew the conclusion that circumcision was specifically for the physical descendants of Abraham, but was not required for the Gentiles (Acts 15:19). Later on, when Timothy accepted Jesus, Paul required him to be circumcised because the Jews in that area knew his father was a Greek, but he had a Jewish mother (Acts 16:3). The full Gentile Titus, on the other hand, was not circumcised (Gal 2:3). Circumstances alter cases.

The book of Leviticus offered rules and regulations for Israel’s experience of wandering in the desert and living in tents around the tabernacle. Leviticus 17 addressed the issue of private slaughtering of animals for food and sometimes even as sacrifices. Some of this slaughtering was happening around people’s tents, others did it outside the camp. Leviticus asserts that under no circumstances was such slaughtering to occur without bringing the meat to the door of the tabernacle to be inspected by a priest (Lev 17:4). Even better would be to let the priests handle the whole process there (17:5-6). A crucial factor in this regulation was the proper draining of blood so it would not be eaten (17:10-11). This was to be “a statute forever for them throughout their generations” (17:7). This is a reasonably clear text. And it sounds pretty universal and permanent.

A generation later, however, the circumstances were about to change. Moses created a “second law” (Deuteronomy) which would apply to Israel’s settled existence in the promised land (Deut 12:1). In Deuteronomy 12 he instructs them to continue bringing animals for sacrifice to designated locations such as the sanctuary (Deut 12:13-14). But the slaughter of meat for food was no longer part of the regulation. They could freely do that slaughtering where they lived as long as they did it the right way, respecting the blood regulations (12:15-16). You see, with sacrifices at the sanctuary, the animals could be transported live, so the distance between home and sanctuary is not critical. But with meat slaughter, freshness begins to decline the moment you do it and having to transport meat as much as 50 miles back home before people could eat it made no sense. Circumstances alter cases.

To be continued. . .

Thoughts on Ordination and San Antonio (GC Session)

“Circumstances alter cases.”

The phrase was often used by Ellen White. A positive example can be found in Testimonies for the Church, Volume Six (339:2), “While we present methods of work we cannot lay out an undeviating line in which everyone shall move, for circumstances alter cases. God will impress those whose hearts are open to truth and who are longing for guidance.” In the second volume of Manuscript Releases (100.2) is the following: “Circumstances alter cases. I would not advise that anyone should make a practice of gathering up tithe money. But for years there have now and then been persons who have lost confidence in the appropriation of the tithe, who have placed their tithe in my hands, and said that if I did not take it they would themselves appropriate it to the families of the most needy ministers they could find. I have taken the money, given a receipt for it, and told them how it was appropriated.” She also cautions people not to use the phrase as an excuse to ignore God’s Word and follow their own selfish motives and purposes (RH, September 14, 1905).

I did a little research and learned that Ellen White did not make the phrase up, it is actually an old English proverb, probably going back to the Seventeenth Century. I looked it up in the Oxford Dictionary of Phrase and Fable and found the following definition: “A general principle may be modified in light of particular circumstances.” According to the Dictionary of Idiomatic English Phrases: “It is necessary to modify one’s conduct by the particular circumstances or conditions of each case.”

As time permits I plan to explore some significant instances in which the Bible appeared perfectly clear on a topic, but circumstances caused people to see things in the Bible that they had missed before. I think there are powerful implications in these Scriptures for the way we should handle issues like the ordination of women. This July delegates from around the world will attend the quinquennial session of the General Conference in San Antonio, Texas. A major question on the floor will be whether or not world divisions of the church can differ in the way they handle policies like ordination. My mission in this series of blogs will be to seek an answer to the question, “Is there any word from the Lord?” on this issue? I do not expect all to agree on what the Bible says about ordination, but there IS something in the Bible on this topic that we can all agree on. Stay tuned. . .

How the Organized Church Changes, Part 5 (Conclusion)

In the previous blogs Dave Thomas showed how religious entities shift from movements to institutions. One of the key elements of that shift is the move from persuasive power to coercive power. That shift is not planned, but tends to happen because coercive power is more efficient and gets things done. But when managerial power is applied to matters of faith and belief, it tends to produce compliance and duplicity rather than genuine faith. In this concluding blog, Thomas offers some implications of his study for the Seventh-day Adventist Church. (Jon Paulien)

Any essentially voluntary organization that makes the shift from invitation to mandate in matters of faith brings about a subtle but substantial change in its own nature. It moves, without careful consideration, away from the idea of church as a community of believers toward a hierarchical concept of church as a sanctified organization where centralized power is seen to be essential. In a community of believers, a “problem” is an occasion for fellowship and exhortation and discussion and invitation, for messy interactions. In an organization, it is time to find a policy by way of which compliance or non-compliance can be measured and action taken. And once that kind of shift takes place in a religious movement, it is not very long before “orthodoxy” and “heresy” get defined and life becomes very difficult for those who dissent. In so many cases, this is the very dynamic that, in the course of Christian history, brought death to those who dissented at the hands of those who persuaded themselves that by destroying the dissenters, they were only doing the work of God.

While researching this topic some time ago, I happened upon mention of a fascinating study, Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity, written by Walter Bauer back in 1934. According to Alistair McGrath, who cites this study, the conclusion Bauer came to is that, at least in the early Christian Church Abasic unity did not seem to be located at the level of doctrines, but at the level of relationship with the same Lord. Christian unity lay in the worship of the same Lord, rather than in the formal statement of doctrine (which is how ‘orthodox’ tends to be divined).” (Alistair McGrath, Christian Theology: An Introduction, 5th ed. (Chichester, UK: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011), 113) Bauer goes on to claim that, Aa variety of views which were tolerated in the early church gradually began to be regarded with suspicion by the later church. An orthodox consensus began to emerge, in which opinions that had once been tolerated were discarded as inadequate.@

The operative question immediately becomes one of how this orthodox consensus developed. Bauer=s answer is quite striking, that A>orthodoxy= was the result of the growing power of Rome, which increasingly came to impose its own views upon others, using the term >heresy= to refer to views it rejected.@ In other words, as the Bishop of Rome=s infrastructure-driven power increased, he was able to transition from invitation to mandate. He was able to take more and more initiative to himself and his office and he was able to apply greater and more substantial penalties to those who dissented. This is what brought Bauer to his conclusion, that Athe difference between orthodoxy and heresy often seems arbitrary.@ It appears to be more a derivation of the opinions of those in power than anything else. It is by this process that the Church of Rome grew to such prominence.

Clearly, the rise and role of infrastructure, how it functions and what power it grants to a few, is something that needs very careful thought in believing communities. While necessary, infrastructure in church cannot be left to function like infrastructure in for-profit companies. Is infrastructure using up too many resources? Is it limiting growth by being too fixed? Is it in harmony with an appropriate ecclesiology? Is it giving too much power to too few people? And is the power produced by infrastructure being used for management issues or is it broadly being called upon to also settle matters of belief and commitment? More pertinent to our setting, where is the Seventh-day Adventist Church in all of this? How far along in the Organizational Life-cycle are we? And what kind of language are we using to describe ourselves? How is managerial power being used? And how do we perceive organizational structure, as some kind of missional necessity, or as something quasi-sacred in and of itself? All of these things warrant careful thought and reflection. They warrant our best and collective attentions lest we thoughtlessly transition away from being a mission-driven “community of believers” to something else that probably ought not even to be named among the faithful.

How the Organized Church Changes, Part 4

In the previous blog Dave Thomas explores how an entity like a church changes from a movement to an institution with a large infrastructure. The infrastructure is created for the sake of efficiency in pursuit of the mission. But over time the infrastructure itself can become a mechanism that changes the mission. How the mission changes is explored in the following by Dave Thomas. (Jon Paulien).

The establishment of organizational infrastructure has three effects. First, it sets itself up in competition for resources that would otherwise have gone to frontline mission. Secondly, it places employees in among the volunteers who then tend to dilute their volunteerism because there are now paid people to do the work. And, thirdly, and most importantly to this paper, the appearance and growth of infrastructure produces and makes available managerial or administrative power to those who have charge of the infrastructure. These three things– competition for resources, the appearance of paid personnel, and the rise of managerial/administrative power– become the elements that affect or determine the future of an organization. While the first two items are important and quite interesting, this paper is going to look only at the third one, the rise of administrative power, for it bears most directly on the subject of unconsidered ecclesiological change.

Probably the best way to delve into this is to observe that, in the early stages of an organization, the leaders who originally articulate the vision have no administrative power. The have only the power of persuasion, exhortation, encouragement, prayer, personal appeal and personal example all of which depend on the voluntary compliance of adherents to achieve their desired ends. Early leaders have to win the goodwill of the people. They have to bring followers to the point of willing consent. But the appearance of infrastructure brings with it a very different dynamic for it introduces and very quickly brings to bear, a new kind of power that is of a different sort. Administrative power is very efficient, it is immediately available to leaders and leaders only, and it operates by something other than persuasion. Administrative power does not necessarily have to concern itself with the voluntary commitments of those who come under its jurisdiction. It has the power of policy and is able to use the prospect of penalty as motivation.

This difference between persuasion power and coercive power is very important to explore. When a charismatic leader encounters a problem, it is time for visitation, persuasion, exhortation, appeal, invitation, prayer, even tears. Early leaders have to rely on this kind of power even though it is not very efficient and may require time and muddling along to achieve its purposes. Its primary strength is that it elicits the willing compliance of adherents. But the emergence of managerial power makes for a very different scenario. Rather than having to expend time and effort trying to persuade, a manager may go directly to policy by way of which compliance or non-compliance can then be determined. After that, decision-making can be rather straightforward, willing compliance or not.

The temptation to use administrative power can be considerable because it offers the prospect of very quick resolution, it is “fair” in that it applies “across the board,” and it usually requires relatively little deliberation so can be applied quickly which means the “problem” is resolved and the organization can get on to other things. When a religious organization is careful to limit the use of managerial power to issues of infrastructure, life can be very good. But when it allows for a generous expansion of the use of managerial power to include also matters that pertain to belief and faith, it likely enters a whole new arena. History shows that the temptation to broaden managerial power expansively is a temptation that is very difficult to resist. In far too many cases, leaders have succumbed quite readily to the temptation to use managerial power to deal with ideological and belief issues. Discrepancies over doctrine and belief and commitment can be very challenging and messy and prolonged in resolution, so administratively powerful leaders face the great temptation of looking at belief issues as management issues that could be settled not by argumentation, discussion, or persuasion but by appealing to policy after which compliance and non-compliance can be measured. After that, the path to resolution can be very short.

When a religious movement accepts or allows this shift to take place broadly, when it allows for matters of faith and belief to be treated as matters of policy and management, at its heart it transitions away from invitation to coercion replacing the power of persuasion with that of requirement. Instead of calling for assent, it calls for compliance and in so doing, overlays voluntary commitment, which is the essence of religion, with an involuntary mandate, something that is inimical to faith. Administrative power does not work by persuasion and invitation but by coercion. It does not work on the inside but from the outside. It works by mandate, able to administer a penalty of some kind for non-compliance. It is the power of state-craft and so is inappropriate at the level of belief. While administrative power is important and useful, it should not, indeed cannot, effectively be used to manage religious commitments and ideas. Being elected to a position of power does not make a person right. It only makes them powerful. Efforts to enforce compliance easily lead to duplicity rather than genuine faith.

How the Organized Church Changes, Part 3

We here continue Dave Thomas’s guest blog on the impact of business language on the nature of the church. Very significant stuff (Jon Paulien).

The second primary factor in organizational change has to do with what we call infrastructure. The kinds of infrastructure a church organization develops as it ages become major factors in determining what the future for an organization will be. It is not hard to figure out why and how infrastructure develops. As a movement catches on in the mind of the public, it grows. Early growth is often quite rapid with volunteers and informal conversation being the primary purveyors of mission. We downplay the power of informal communication far too much. It is one of the most effective means of communication available to humans. What we hear informally almost always trumps official word. This is one reason conspiracies and urban legends become so prevalent and powerful and resilient.

At some point, the movement becomes too large for the early, charismatic leaders to manage by themselves and the need to create some kind of structure becomes obvious and urgent. Those who are acquainted with Adventist history no doubt know of the great struggles the Adventist pioneers went through on this issue. Many strident speeches were made to the effect that any kind of organization would constitute “Babylon.” But something as simple as the ownership of property made resistance futile. The path to organization is easy to trace – the prosecution of mission requires vision which is broken down into strategy which is reduced to plans that get embedded in policy which then creates organizational structure and practice. And organizational practice pursued over time creates organizational culture and identity. By this process, organizations stabilize themselves, become predictable and efficient, and gain the real prospect of a successful future.

In the midst of all the exciting growth that makes the creation of structure necessary, something happens that goes largely unnoticed. Just as surely as the creation of infrastructure brings stability, it also initiates what theorists call “organizational entropy,” the technical name for the process that brings on the aging, disordering and sometimes death of a movement or organization. Speaking of infrastructure, theorist Jeffrey Saltzman says, “The purpose of these rules is to allow the organization to make decisions using standard operating procedures as a guideline and hence remove from the organization the need to think about the decisions being made.” (http://jeffreysaltzman.wordpress. com/2009/11/19/organization-entropy-2/) But, “removing the need to think about some decisions (this is what infrastructure does) carries with it an inherent risk, the risk of mediocrity or worse, the risk of extinction.” What is being alluded to here is that the early stages of organization are usually very beneficial to mission, producing benefits out of proportion to the resources invested. But in later stages of organizational life, infrastructure itself becomes problematic.

To be continued. . .

How the Organized Church Changes, Part 2

We here continue Dave Thomas’s guest blog on the impact of business language on the nature of the church. Very significant stuff (Jon Paulien).

Since the church is an organization, it is helpful to know that unconsidered organizational change is embedded within the nature of organizational structure itself. One of the best ways to understand this is to look through the eyes of organizational theorists, people “out there” who are fascinated with and study organizations, how they are born, grow, function, and finally die. One of the better-known conclusions of organizational theorists is the existence of a prevailing and all but inevitable “Organizational Life-cycle” – which all organizations pass through. Depending on which school of organizational theory you read, this life-cycle is said to have four or five stages. These begin with a Start-up or Entrepreneurial Stage, moving on through a Growth Stage that is often broken into two sub-stages – Early Growth which is often quite rapid, and Middle Growth where growth slows. The early stages are followed by a Mature Stagem where growth becomes very slow or stops altogether. The Mature Stage is followed by a Decline Stage which leads to the most critical stage, the Crisis Stage. The Crisis Stage may be followed by either renewal, or demise (see http://www.legacee.com/FastGrowth/OrgLifeCycle.html for more detail).

Organizations in the Mature Stage have a number of typical features. 1) Infrastructure is of enormous size to the point there is “a policy for everything.” 2) There are many employees whose entire focus is on tending infrastructure rather than front-line mission. 3) The treatment of employees is highly standardized with more interest in “fairness” than in “merit.” 4) Operations become regulated by policies more than by opportunities. 5) New hires are evaluated more on loyalty than on entrepreneurial spirit. 6) Employees gain more control over mission than volunteers. 7) A large proportion of resources are allocated to infrastructure in the place of mission. 8) There is little, if any, money devoted to new initiatives. Growth slows, then stops. By this time in the life cycle, all the infrastructure will have created such a great amount of inertia, it will be almost impossible for it to change, which sets things up for a likely crisis if change does indeed come to the marketplace.

In this life-cycle there are two critical elements that play a very big role in determining the direction of the organization. The first and most obvious one is the Crisis Stage where the way leaders approach and handle crises can lead to either organizational renewal or organizational decline and death. Organizations that have leaders who foresee crises and manage them well may renew themselves while those that have leaders who do not foresee or handle crises well go much more quickly toward demise.

Points of crisis are significant in the Organizational Life Cycle because, since they threaten organizational well-being or existence, they become the only times when any real prospect of significant change exists. It is simply the case that the more complex the infrastructure becomes, and the more success that can be looked back upon, the more difficult it is for an organization to adjust and change. This is because the stabilization brought about by the creation of infrastructure creates organizational inertia. And complex organizations develop so much inertia that the kind of change necessary to deal with an unanticipated future is simply too great.

In the business world, there are two elements that affect how crisis is dealt with, 1) shareholders who may take precipitous action if they become unhappy, and 2) the existence of outside predators looking for the chance to take over. Pressure from these two entities makes the prospect of change quite high. By contrast, in church organizations, these two elements are missing. There are no predatory outsiders looking to take over and the average member is too remote from organizational power to force change. In consequence, change in churches can only be brought about by those who are in leadership positions. The prospect of such people making significant change is very small indeed because organizations tend to promote those who are most loyal to the organization, and churches easily sanctify their structures if they have been successful. Those in power tend to be the ones who benefit most from the status quo. For these reasons, churches are more likely to fade away than agree to change.

To be continued. . .