Wednesday, April 2, 2008


Christians are wonderful. Churches are wonderful. It's amazing to watch the Spirit of God work in and through his people to work out the miracles of Christ's kingdom. However, it has been my experience that though the Spirit works through human nature and even redeems human nature, he seldomly suspends human nature. Therefore, Christians who organize in churches can, at times, earn the negative baggage embedded in the phrase "organized religion." When churches organize into networks, the same is still true. Sure the mission of God as advanced through the church can find great expression this way, and fund worthy projects such as international missions, church planting and ministerial training. However, the darker side of such organizing also finds greater expression. Aided by bureaucratic buffers, human nature can become more greatly empowered. Consider the effect of Washington's "beltway" system on otherwise idealistic young freshmen congressmen. Christians can fall subject to similar "wraithing" dynamics.

I'm reminded of the memorable line from the Godfather trilogy, "It's not personal. It's business." Such is the refrain that numbs the conscience of otherwise decent folks. In the Godfather trilogy we begin with Vito Corleone played by Marlon Brando who is the patriarch of this family whose ruthlessness is fueled by the notion that they must survive against the world. Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) wants nothing to do with the family business. He intends to stay straight and legit. He even assures his girlfriend that he will never be like his father. However, by the end of the first film he has not only entered into the "family business," but taken over for the sake of his father and his family. By the time Michael is taking over a Las Vegas hotel and casino in film 2, he's already comfortably fluent with inherited phrases like, "I'm going to make him an offer he can't refuse."

Michaels decent into the darkness of taking the mantle of "Godfather," though mythological, is instructive for the Church. Organizations, all of them, religious or otherwise, hold the potential to created systems that pit policy against people, shield decision from consequence and substitute freedom for the "family business." Interpreters of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings believe such bureaucratic numbing was what Tolkien had in mind when he created the Ring Wraiths in his novel. Bureaucratic networks and cubicle mentalities can greatly contribute to the "wraithing process." I have experienced, first hand, how church denominations can fall prey to this. Except, since it involves matters of faith, to say "It's not personal. It's business." would be inaccurate. It's business AND it becomes personal in a hurry.

Not that Christian denominations are as ruthless and evil as the Corleone family, but those that enter into them had better be mindful of the line delivered by Robert De Niro when playing a younger Vito Corleone in part 2. "You do me this favor," he assures a new contact, "and I won't forget it. You ask round here. People will tell you that I know how to return a favor." Other times in the trilogy find similar exchanges. "I've done you this favor. Now maybe, someday, you can return a favor for me." Better to live with honor, treat everyone with respect, but to avoid alliances from which there is no pulling out. That category is restricted to the Lord Jesus Christ.

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