Feb 07 2011

“Properity gospel” for Christian institutions?

Much is made of the centrality of sacrifice in the Christian life, and justifiably so. Christ’s own life on earth was one of individual sacrifice and service, and not only on the cross, though that is the preeminent example. Simply being incarnated was a sacrifice (Philippians 2:5-9), and his very manner of living was sacrificial, in that he never married and had a family but instead lived for others, took risks of many kinds at various times for the sake of doing his Father’s will and speaking the truth, and so on.

As individuals, we are all called to sacrifice in one way or another for the sake of Christ and the gospel, though it’s a mistake to assume that everyone should live sacrificially in the same ways. One may choose to live simply and have greater financial freedom to give more (though all should give some), another may choose to give greatly of time and service (though all should do this some), and another may choose a lifestyle of great self-denial of one kind or another (though all of us must deny ourselves in some ways), all for the sake of doing God’s will. Few are called to sacrifice all. What seems fairly clear is that a person who has sacrificed nothing, not time, not finances, not manner of living, is likely to be a person who is not listening to God’s whispers, and probably a person who has not closely read the scriptures.

Yet some churches and para-church organizations seem to operate as if it is God’s will for them never to suffer or risk suffering, and never to choose a path that is hard and uncertain, or one that is likely to earn some degree of disapproval from the world, especially the secular world. Some para-church organizations operate as if their leadership believes in a sort of “prosperity gospel” for their organization (even when they deny that as a proper perspective for individuals), assuming that their role is to manage their organization with the same professional risk management as they would apply for any secular organization. And this risk management is fine, up to a point.

The “prosperity gospel” approach to a church or para-church organization is that somehow it can just get bigger and bigger, more and more popular, and it will all be because of God’s blessing. This may work for a time. And God may indeed be blessing certain efforts of the institution, while at the same time some of the institution’s apparent success may be coming from “playing it safe,” maintaining “good public relations,” even innovative business practices and good luck with market demographics or placement. Unfortunately, it can be difficult for people in an organization, including its leadership, to really know what measure of an organization’s apparent success is due to God’s blessing of its efforts, and what proportion is due to good business practices, smooth marketing, or just plain good luck. The temptation, of course, is to ascribe all success to God’s blessing, especially in public pronouncements.

Of course, it doesn’t always work that way. The assumption that God will increase the institutional strength and vigor of any organization that is doing His will is itself evidence of “prosperity gospel” thinking, not scripturally sound thinking about the nature of sacrifice for Christians, and Christian organizations. Even a cursory reading of the New Testament and church history reveals many instances of people and groups (institutions) who appear to be following God’s commands, but who suffer in various ways, sometimes almost in a “no good deed goes unpunished” sort of way… which is of course, the intention of Satan. The point is that apparent prosperity in the world is not proof of God’s blessing. Indeed, it is a sort of heresy to assume so.

I will develop this line of thinking further in future posts.

The next post in this series is here.

4 Responses to ““Properity gospel” for Christian institutions?”

  1. Joe Merrill says:

    Could you clarify what qualifies as “sacrifice” for an institution? Is it marketing for a lower demographic? Is it donating half of your profits? Is it doing something that make institutions fail, like going into debt to donate money? What are we talking about, specifically?

  2. tonedeaf says:

    Joe, I would propose that “sacrifice” for a Christian institution would include standing so firmly on one’s Biblical principles that government funds for building projects and even ‘gasp’ student aid might be withheld. That solid Biblical doctrine would be so ingrained in the fabric of the institution that board members would be selected based on their spiritual integrity and Godly wisdom rather than on their high financial and name recognition profile. That students attending the institution who are blatantly unsaved would feel quite uncomfortable – to the point of repentance or retirement.

  3. harmonicminer says:

    Joe, what I have in mind will get clearer as I post more in this line of thinking. But in general: the fear of taking clear public stands on moral issues (and their reflection in public policy formation) that animates all too many Christian organizations is pretty indicting of their commitment to truth, as opposed to their commitment to institutional survival.

    Fleshing this out requires some discussion of the nature of institutions, and developing a concept about just what an institution is, as an entity. Institutions probably cannot be “Christian” in the same sense as individuals. But to the extent that they can, the same standards should apply.

    I’m not saying institutions should deliberately undercut themselves in ways your question suggests… those strike me as similar to medieval monks flogging themselves or something, to say they have suffered for Christ. I’m talking about natural consequences of taking moral stands and doing moral acts, not seeking punishment to say you have suffered.

  4. Joe Merrill says:

    I look forward to seeing how you flesh out the idea. We need to see what an institution is (and how is that different then a government on the one hand and a loose organization of individuals on the other?) Is it possible that Institutions have a different ethic then individuals.

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