As I understand it, ‘the church’ of the New Testament describes the body of believers, not an organization. It seems to me that Jesus and His Apostles placed much greater value on individuals than institutions. I believe this primacy of human value is what separates the Judeo-Christian worldview from most other systems of belief.
Yet how do we hear of church leaders choosing the good of their organization over the good of individual parishioners? How often are sins covered up for the “good of the church”? The abuse of children by Catholic priests is the perfect example (though an extreme one) of this kind of behavior. There are other examples: Hiding a pastor’s pornography use because of the potential damage to the church organization; silencing voices of opposition to create an image of perfect harmony; preferential treatment of members who tithe significantly more than others…the list goes on.
The church should not function this way; it is flatly un-biblical. Rather, this is the way ‘the world’ works: Cover up a CEO’s affair because of the potential effect on stock price; Remove board members who aren’t ‘drinking the Kool-Aid’; Special treatment of top customers and clients. I understand why the world works this way, but the church is not supposed to operate like ‘the world’. The body of believers, the real church, is supposed to be holy and set apart.
But what can we do to solve this problem? Churches are legal entities: Like any company they have employees, bills, and budgets. Churches have customers, mission statements, and debt obligations. The fundamental problem with defining ‘the church’ as an organization is that the ideas and values which went into forming the organization need to be protected; they are very static and resist change vehemently. Once any idea forms and an organization is built up around it, the people involved with the organization tend to value the organization over and above the idea behind it. In our case, the church as an organization becomes more important than the ‘Who’ that inspired the idea behind the church.
I would also argue that the church as an organization is counter-biblical in that it places a person’s self-interest in a ‘thing’ (the organization) rather than a ‘who’ (other people and God). Pastors are self- interested humans who have bills to pay and mouths to feed. From a worldly perspective pastors must choose a church organization over individuals to protect their livelihood.
The church needs a ‘safe word’ we can use when a church organization is protected at the expense of an individual. We need a way to bring this argument up in a non-threatening way during conflict to relieve the tension inherent in this kind of situation. A direct challenge to a church organization will never be received well by church leadership, but perhaps if we create a ‘safe word’ we can facilitate healthier conversations about the self-interested nature of our church organizations.