"Whose Church Is It?" by Rev. Dr. C. Welton Gaddy
Acts 2:42, 44-47; 1 Corinthians 1:4-13a
One of the best teaching experiences in my life was at Simmons University--an African American school in Louisville, Kentucky--where, while working on my Ph.D., I served as the schools’ Dean and Professor of Religion. Most of my students, who lived amid grinding poverty during the late 60’s and 70’s, were individuals who, late in their lives, felt a call to ministry and wanted an education sufficient to do ministry. These would-be seminarians were ravenously hungry for learning in order to be better thinkers and ministers. I have never forgotten an occasion when a young man who was blind and taking notes in brail spontaneously blurted out loud in response to a point I had made saying, “Oh, I needed that!”
One day in class during a discussion on church—biblically, theologically, administratively, and programmatically. I noticed that an older gentleman in the class seemed to be having trouble with what I was saying about leadership and authority in a church. Finally, like a time-bomb, he exploded, emphatically saying, “I run my church!”
“What do you mean?” I asked with a smile.
“I mean just what I said,” he responded with his voice getting a little louder, “Why, just last week, one of my deacons messed up carrying out his assignment in worship and, from the pulpit, I told him, ‘Just sit down.’ I run my church.”
Somewhat teasingly, I asked, “If you don’t mind telling me, who gave the church to you?”
Somewhat teasingly, I asked, “If you don’t mind telling me, who gave the church to you?”
“What do you mean?” he came back at me defensively.
“My question is clear, I think,” I responded, “Who gave you the church?”
The student sat in stunned silence that I finally broke saying, “I raise this important question with you because I always have believed that the church belongs to God and that we are servants in it and stewards of it. The model for the church was provided in the nature of Jesus’ ministry. That is what I have thought the Bible teaches us. Did I get that all wrong?”
The good-natured exchange of words between the student and me ended with the older man mumbling, “Oh, you know what I mean.”
Yes, I did know what he meant; his claim lacked neither clarity nor precedent. In the mind of this student, the church of which he was pastor was his church.
Now, it’s one thing to say with pride “That’s my church,” speaking proudly, of a place and body of people devoted to worship and ministry. But that is very different from someone making that statement possessively: “That is my church.”
Sadly, sometimes only a few people try to keep a congregation going because most attendees do not want to shoulder any responsibility in the church. Frankly, that is as sad as a few people in a church who assume they own the church and singularly will shoulder all of the responsibility for running the church as if no one else is needed. As you would expect, without significant change in both of those situations a congregation may sustain a social organization mistaken about its authentic identity as a church.
I wish I could tell you that the minister in my class was an exception, rather than a norm. However, the student’s attitude is redundant in far too many places.
A story from a few decades back has remained lodged in my brain. Several decades ago, I heard that one Sunday morning a New York cab driver picked up a man wanting to be transported to Christ Church in the city. Immediately, the cab driver wanted to be sure he was headed to the right address. “Do you mean Dr. Fosdick’s church out on Riverside Drive?” he asked his passenger. “No, no,” the rider said. “Oh, then, you must mean Dr. Buttrick’s church--Madison Avenue Presbyterian.” Again a “no” rang out from the back seat. “Surely, then, you are looking for Marble Collegiate Church, Dr. Peal’s church.” When the man in the back seat trying to get to Christ Church responded negatively once more, in obvious frustration, the cab driver said, “Sir, honestly, I do not think Christ has a church in this city.”
These anecdotes lodged in my mind to an extent that in most of the churches I have pastored through the years I have posed the question that is the title of my sermon for today, “Whose Church Is It?” Sometimes I pose the query more professionally: “To whom does this church belong?” After pondering the two passages of scripture read today in chronological order, I have always seen the need for a warning.
The writing of 1 Corinthians is usually dated 59 AD. In the opening words of that letter, the writer reports division and quarreling in the church—arguments about who owned the church and should lead it. Some said Paul, others said Apollos, others Cephas, and still others Christ. The author of 1 Corinthians made clear that the church in Corinth was troubled, divided, because different groups of people in the church claimed to be owners of the church and were dividing the church and Christ.
Five years or so later, around 62 AD when the book of Acts was written, the author of that literature described a church that was following the apostle’s teachings and nurturing a strong fellowship. Individuals in that church took care of each other physically and spiritually “having favor for each other” with a “generous heart” as the scripture says. One of the most beautiful verses in the Bible is Acts 4:34 which reads “there was not a needy person among them.”
What happened in Corinth is easily understood when the translation of 1 Corinthians is read in the original language of the text—koine Greek. When read in Greek, the translation reveals a redundant emphasis on the pronoun I. The first-person singular pronoun appears three times in each statement of the would-be leaders. “I, indeed, I, I am of Paul.” “I, indeed, I, I, am of Apollos.” “I, indeed, I, I am of Cephas.” Who was in charge?
Well, there you have it. The I’s have it. Unbridled selfishness—ego centric people in Corinth—divided the church and provided us with the source of my question. Whose church was it in Corinth? See how different that church is from the church in Acts. There were problems in Corinth and there are problems everywhere else when the answer to my question--Whose church is it?--begins with I.
In the second line of 1 Corinthians the correct answer to the question “Whose church is it?” appears—“God,” “the church of God.” The church belongs to God. Jesus gave us a model for how people are to live individually and corporately in a church. Through scriptures inspired by God we are provided specific character traits of a church, which if missing in an institution, is a dead give-away that the institution is not a church. Not even constructing an attractive and highly visible sign out in front of a building that has the word “church” on it can make an institution a church if that institution does not clearly exhibit a commitment to the way of Jesus and the traits of a church as envisioned by God.
Every aspect of the corporate life of a church should be shaped by the life and teachings of Jesus—both of which can be detected by how the congregation displays what Paul called the gifts of the spirit. God’s church is filled with love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
God’s church needs to be a church!
One of the worst things that ever happened to churches was the popular idea that corporations are good analogies for churches. All too often I have heard, “Our church should be run like a good business.” Every time I hear those words, I say, “God forbid!”
Please understand that nothing in that analogy is meant as a critique of businesses. I respect well-run businesses that take care of their employees, deal fairly with their customers, and pay their taxes. My point is that a business is a poor model for a church. God’s church should function as a church.
A business focuses on a strong institution; a church focuses on a strong mission. A business seeks monetary profits as a sign of success; a church seeks contributions to its budget only in order to devote that money to specific ministries. Business nurtures leaders who are good supervisors and managers; a church nurtures servants the quality of whose leadership is directly proportionate to their compassionate involvement in support for others. A business looks at a balance sheet; a church looks at its compliance with the beatitudes. A church does not need a board of directors and a business plan; a church needs a community of ministers guided by the directives of compassion, a spirit of generosity, and a maximizing of ministries. Remember when Jesus said that God’s church lives by dying, benefits from giving. Does that sound like what a church should be?
Rather early in my ministry I served a large church in Texas. The by-laws of that congregation named the Senior Minister as the CEO of the church who reported to 72 deacons who envisioned themselves as the board of directors. My responsibility was to supervise 11 ministers and about 20 other staff members as well as annually preparing and monitoring the church’s budget. One year, when the congregation was not meeting its budget, I was told I should cut the budget and report the changes that I made. A week or two later, I reported back to the Deacons. Among my decisions I announced that we would no longer have air conditioning for worship and all other meetings in the buildings. I removed funding for cleaning in the budget and explained that Sunday School classes could take care of all housekeeping. Well, I won’t go on naming my budget cuts but not only did my report terminate my tenure as CEO as I hoped it would and I also helped the deacons to see the priorities of a church are not the same as those of corporations.
“It’s a church!” I told them. The most important matters of the church are to provide hope, love, care, share good news, provide forgiveness, comfort, and offer grace not just talk about it. The money of the church needed to be used in ministries not for ourselves. The church belongs to God as does the church’s responsibilities.
No one person should or can be responsible for a church. Northminster is not a pastor’s church, not one officer’s church, not any group’s church. In any church, nobody in the church should be powerful enough to over-ride all others. A church is a community, a body. Thank God, from day one, Northminster Church has stressed the reality that here “everybody is a minister.” God’s church has much more for us to do than any one person or group of people in the church can do. Maybe sometimes we get it wrong, but, even then, we know what is right—This is God’s church and everyone in it is called to be a minister.
Tonight, in our church’s business meeting, we will be selecting five people to serve on a committee that ultimately will recommend a new pastor or pastors for the church to approve. We will not be calling a pastor or pastors because we want them to take over the church and tell everybody what the right thing to do is. The pastoral ministry we need involves helping us understand the Bible, how to listen, developing a sound theology that helps shape the entirety of the church’s methodology maximizing grace and generosity, encouraging us in our ministries, and enabling us to see how we can do God’s work with individuals and the community.
Personally, (these are my words as a pastor for more than 50 years and they are not in the Bible) I have always thought truth-telling is my most primary ministry and must come first of all or the other ministries will be weakened. For me, standing in this pulpit is the holiest place in which I have ever stood or stand now. Yes, a church needs a pastor who can be a priest, a prophet, a worship leader, a teacher, a comforter, and a caregiver. However, I have always seen my highest priority as telling the truth regardless of how easy or difficult that is. Sometimes that is difficult.
A long time ago, when I began my ministry, I resolved that a church may fire me, but a church will never be able to hire me. Popularity, affirmation, and raises are not for sale. I was called by God to be honest in and about God’s church. Without that attitude I would never have been much use as a minister of God.
Now I want to repeat one sentence that I just voiced and add three words to it. A church needs a pastor who can be a priest, a prophet, a worship leader, a teacher, a comforter, and a caregiver but not alone. No pastor or pastors alone can make a church. Pastoral ministry must be supported by the church for there to be a church. People in the earliest churches were responsible for teaching, visiting, distributing money, hospitality, outreach, music, and various talents. Regardless of who comes here as a pastor or pastors, you, members of this church, will be needed. I hope you know you will need to be partners in doing church.
The best definition of church leadership is servanthood. Church leaders are servers. A church is “others-oriented,” not self-serving. Mutual trust and shared ministries are mandatory. The opinions and actions that matter most in any decision-making is a congregation’s discernment of what is most consistent with God’s will.
Whose church is this? Look at the church in Corinth. Look at the church in Acts. To whom does Northminster Church belong? If the instinctive answer to that question names the identity of any one but God, change must happen here immediately. However, as long as the answer to that question--“Who runs Northminster Church?” is “God—this is God’s church”—and all of us are trying to do church God’s way, we will not only have a future but also great potential and promise. This is God’s church!