Editorial: Is any organization Christian?
The writer attends the Houston South congregation of the United Church of God, an International Association. He writes and edits for The Sabbath Sentinel, published by the Bible Sabbath Association, and is a member of its board of directors. Mr. Mitchell is married to the former Susie Pinder. They plan to celebrate their 24th anniversary next March. The Mitchells have four children and five grandchildren. Write Mr. Mitchell at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By Royce Mitchell Jr.
MANVEL, Texas--Over time I have noticed some of the terms that have been used interchangeably within the Body of Christ. Those terms include the word church, and it is often associated with an organization.
But does Scripture support that usage? I attend the United Church of God. Can I find support for its being the church? Is it really right to call it a church? What exactly is its nature?
I think all will find the answers as interesting as I found doing the research.
For the purpose of pointing out some problems, I do not wish to differentiate the United Church of God from any other organization. That is not the thrust of this article. The points made here could be made about nearly every other organization that has claimed to preach the gospel.
In fact, they can be made about nearly any organization, whether it is religious in nature or not. I just happen to attend services in United and therefore am more familiar with its founding and nature.
So what exactly is the United Church of God, an International Association? On the UCG-AIA's Web site (www.ucg.org), one finds it is a nonprofit corporation. It was formed under the laws of the United States of America and a state, California.
Perhaps papers also were filed in Ohio (the current location of its home office) in respect to its corporate nature.
Elders came together and created a constitution and a set of bylaws and other rules that govern the daily working of this entity. It is the same thing you or I could do.
But does that make it a church?
Anyone can acquire a set of incorporation papers, submit them to the government, be assigned a number and set up to do business.
The purpose of a corporation is to limit liability. There is no tax advantage to incorporation. With a corporation we can build a business but limit its liability to corporate assets.
The nature of incorporation
The corporation is a separate legal entity and can do most of the things a real person does; that is, it can own property, bring lawsuits, hire and fire.
A nonprofit corporation is the same thing except that it is tax-exempt, provided it stays within certain government standards.
Those standards are not important for the purposes of this article. What is important is that we realize exactly what the nature of a corporation is.
In the case of the United Church of God, the corporation has a constitution and a set of bylaws. You can read them on the Web site. In it the "church" position on doctrines and other policies is spelled out.
Why is that? It is because a corporation has to spell out its beliefs on paper because, unlike you and me, it cannot speak. It can employ those who speak for it, but it cannot speak of its own volition.
How is this different from the church as described in the Word of God? When you read the United Web site, you see the term church used regularly. What is being discussed there? Is the use proper? To understand we first have to understand who or what the church is.
The first occurrence of the word church in the New King James Version occurs in Matthew 16:18. There we find Christ addressing Peter. It says there: "And I also say to you that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build My church; and the gates of Hades shall not overpower it."
Whatever the church is, it is something Christ built. It is not built by the hands of men.
I could quit there because, as we have seen, the United Church of God is an entity built by the hands of men. Let us continue, however.
Church, in Matthew 16:18, is the Greek word ekklesia, which means "a calling out" or a "religious meeting." Essentially Christ was saying that He would build His group of called-out ones.
What would be a way we could know who the called-out ones are?
One way was given by Christ Himself in John 13:35. Christ says in that passage: "By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another."
This is yet another way we can see the difference between an organization, such as United, and the church. United cannot love. The church must love. If the church does not love, it cannot be the church!
United, which refers to itself repeatedly as a church in its constitution and bylaws, cannot be a church as defined by God through His Word.
Again, all organized entities fall into this category. The Baptist Church cannot be a church either. It is a corporation. The same goes for all other corporately organized entities that purport to be churches.
This is no condemnation at all. It is just a fact that not all have realized.
The church is composed of people, just like a corporation can be. So it can be easy to be confused on the issue. Just as many call the building in which they meet a church, so some call United a church. But is it a church? Who does Christ have in His church? Who belongs there? Is it not those who are called? Did God call a corporate entity? Does God ever call a corporate entity?
The latter question is easily answered. We find the answer in Romans 8:9: "You are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God dwells in you. But if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Him."
The first point that jumps out at us is that anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ doesn't belong to Christ. In other words, such a person is not a Christian.
What is required to have the Spirit of Christ? Peter gives us the answer to that question in Acts 2:38: "Repent, and let each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit."
Repentance and baptism are required before we can receive the free gift of the Spirit, through His grace. A corporation cannot repent. It cannot even sin. Its officeholders can do all manner of unspeakable things to men, but the corporation of its own volition cannot.
Another point that jumps out from Romans 8:9 is that a Christian is no longer in the flesh, but in the Spirit. A corporation has never been in the flesh. It is a paper entity created by men. It is men who are flesh, and the ones who can receive the Spirit must be flesh. So the church must be composed of flesh-and-blood men (and ladies!) who can repent, be baptized and receive the Spirit of God.
The church was created by the hand of Christ. The church is known by its love for each other.
Any legal entity, such as a corporation, which purports to be a church has appropriated the word church for its own use in conducting business. As we have seen, a corporation cannot repent. It cannot be baptized. Because of that, it cannot receive the Holy Spirit. The corporation, being an inanimate thing, cannot love. It cannot keep God's Sabbaths, although people within it can keep them.
A corporation, then, cannot be the church! By the very definition of the church, any nonprofit corporate organization is therefore Spirit-exempt as well as tax-exempt.
Why is this distinction important? In the past I for one confused loyalty to God's church with loyalty to the corporation that Herbert W. Armstrong set up. It was not hard to do, because the terms church and Worldwide Church of God were used interchangeably.
We learned to be loyal to God's church, and were pointed to WCG headquarters in Pasadena. Meanwhile, if I had realized it, the church was sitting right next to me.
When you read the United Church of God's Web pages, you see the same mistakes being made. The writers there freely use the word church to describe United. Certainly many wonderful Christians attend services in United, but United, by the very definition of the church revealed to us in Scripture, cannot be the church. Neither can any other corporate entity. Such are man-made. God's church is Christ-made.
If we do not understand this important distinction, it will be possible for us to hearken to the voice of a man, as I did under Worldwide. It will be possible for abuses to come because we don't want to raise our hand to stop them. After all, we don't want to be put out of God's church, do we? Without this understanding, we can allow systems of government to be set up that insert themselves between us and God.
Now, that is not to say that a corporation cannot be a wonderful tool that can be used by the church. But is it necessary to form a corporation for the business of the church? If that were so, several things should be clearer to us.
First, if incorporation is necessary, why didn't Christ point out our need to use corporations in His Word? Second, since a corporation is a relatively new creation of man, what did our departed brethren do before corporations existed?
A problem exists when we use the corporate structure to "run" the church. By its nature it is set up as the final arbiter of the actions of its members. All corporations are formed in such a manner. Men in power make decisions affecting all of a corporation's members. Often one man can make decisions that affect thousands of people. That is the nature of corporations. How do we see the Church of God set up?
First, it must be noted that God did not intend men to rule men. This much is clear from Scripture. This often-overlooked point is shown in 1 Samuel 8:7: "Listen to the voice of the people in regard to all that they say to you, for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected Me from being king over them."
The Lord is our King! The chain of command is God, Jesus Christ, then us! We must stand before God to give account! We will not be able to say in that day that "the minister whom you gave me told me to do it, and I did do it."
Corporate entities by their nature tend to insert themselves as rulers. They are founded on rules to control the actions of their members. By its nature a corporation tends to try to set itself between us and God. That is why it is so important to recognize the dangers of incorporation and its rules.
Fellowship in peace
We who have the Spirit of God must recognize that a corporation is nothing more than a tool. It has no power save the power men give to it through its constitution and bylaws.
It is made by men for the uses described in its founding documents. Those uses can be, and have been, abused. The corporation is not the church or a church. There is no need for loyalty to it or to men who break God's laws in the use of corporate rules.
Has any corporation broken God's laws? No, but some men have perhaps unwittingly done so through the use of corporate rules. Corporate rules ought instead to be interpreted in light of the law of God, and where they are found lacking those rules should be repealed.
The corporation is not of itself evil. But it can be used for evil.
As children of the Most High God, we must be aware of these potentials for abuse. If they come, we must remember that the corporation is not the church. We need not accept abuse when we can fellowship with the Body in peace.
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