What makes an organisation Christian?

The following is an excerpt from the new book Keeping Faith: How Christian Organisations Can Stay True to the Way of Jesus by Stephen Judd, John Swinton and Kara Martin. For more about this book, read Eternity’s interview with Stephen Judd.

Working out what we mean when we talk about ‘Christian organisations’ is not as straight forward as we may assume. At one level the answer to the question of whether an organisation can be Christian is a simple ‘No!’ Organisations can certainly be in the service of God, but does that make them Christian?  Perhaps, but we would have to think of the term ‘Christian’ in quite a different way from the norm.

At the individual level, to be a Christian is to become a follower of Jesus, a disciple, who is then given a vocation to participate with the mission of God. So, in Matthew 28:19-20 Jesus’ great commandment is this:

“Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

This is a command to help people become Christians. To be a Christian is a personal and a communal way of being in the world. We commit ourselves to Jesus and, in the Spirit, we become members of Jesus’ body. In becoming Christians, we recognise who Jesus is, realise that we have become distanced from God, repent, discover grace and salvation, and allow the Spirit to carry out the work of sanctification and redemption.

Importantly, once people decide to follow Jesus, their identity is redefined. Now they are who they are in Christ (Galatians 2:20). They become one body: the body of Jesus (1 Corinthians 12:27). Disciples are not defined by what they have done, can do or will be in the future. They are not defined by the efficacy of any organisational structures including the church which is inevitably human and flawed. They are defined as people who live in and live for Christ; a people who live in a community that is quite literally the body of Jesus.

There is clearly a corporate dimension to being Christian. It is, however, very different from the corporate identity that sits at the heart of any organisation including those who claim the moniker ‘Christian’. It is difficult to see how any humanly created organisation could be classified as Christian according to these criteria. So, what do we mean when we call an organisation Christian?

Is an organisation Christian when it has ‘Christian values’?

One response to such a question would be that an organisation is Christian because it insists on the primacy of Christian values for all its business dealings. Here the assumption is that any organisation is formed by a group of people who voluntarily choose to get together to achieve a shared purpose or task. These people will inevitably be diverse in their worldview and moral structures. There is therefore a need for a common core around which a wide range of people can coalesce.

In such an organisation, the common core is a moral framework of Christian values and there is no need for its members to share the same worldview. If they share certain Christian values, it will be possible to ensure that the organisation functions in a way that authentically represents the nature and ministry of Jesus and the values of Scripture.

For example, an organisation might value a basic principle of respect and dignity based on the theological concept of the imago dei – that is, individuals have value because everyone reflects something of God. Or, we might state that the work of an organisation should be incarnational – that is, reflecting the fact that Jesus is the Son of God who became a human being and revealed what God is like (John 1:14, 14:7). In the same way, Christians can reveal what Jesus is like.

In this way, the particularities of the Christian faith are distilled into a set of moral values that everyone can adhere to irrespective of faith, colour, creed or culture. An organisation is therefore deemed to be Christian because everyone within it, to varying degrees, acts according to a set of Christian values.

Do Christian values work to keep an organisation faithful?

There are advantages to a values approach. In fact, it is normal for organisations to have values. For example,

  • Google has ten core values emphasising putting the user first and ‘Great isn’t just good enough.’
  • Apple has a creed that begins: ‘We believe that we’re on the face of the earth to make great products … We’re constantly focusing on innovating. We believe in the simple, not the complex.’
  • British Petroleum emphasises safety and an excellence that results from a systematic and disciplined approach rather than creative and adventurous flair.
  • The Commonwealth Bank of Australia’s stated values include doing what is right, getting things done and being accountable.

For a Christian organisation to say that it is based on Christian values is therefore not exceptional in the marketplace, nor is it out of line with common management theory and practice. The Christian values approach is helpful insofar as it provides a common goal and a shared set of guiding values for the moral guidance of an organisation. It would be recognised as a good thing to encourage people to have values such as respect, dignity and worth. To strive to be Christ-like in values and deeds is clearly a worthy goal and does offer a degree of coherence and direction. There are therefore practical advantages to this way of thinking about what makes an organisation Christian.

However, there is a significant theological problem with such an approach to defining the ‘Christian-ness’ of an organisation. If it were possible to extrapolate values from the Bible and apply them across a broad range of people with varying values and beliefs who can then act Christianly in a way that makes the organisation worthy of the name ‘Christian’, then there is no real need for Jesus.

If Christianity – following Jesus – is said to be primarily a moral framework marked by the enactment of particular values and actions that anyone can successfully engage with, there is no real need for God other than as the author of the rules that guide the moral practices of the organisation.

The danger here is that we end up with a slightly modified version of deism: a belief that God sets the world in motion, lays down the laws of nature (and the moral structures that guide our consciences) and then leaves human beings to do the rest. Within this way of framing the issues, any decent person can adhere to the values and principles of Christianity.

However, Jesus is not a system of moral rules and values. Rather, he is a Person.

Representing and relating to a person is quite different from representing or relating to a principle or a value. Rules and values may ensure that God is to an extent glorified by the overall moral approach of the organisation, but that does not make the organisation in and of itself Christian. Rules and values may be necessary, but they are clearly not sufficient.

What about a signed Statement of Faith?

In his book Bullies and Saints: An Honest Look at the Good and Evil of Christian History, Dr John Dickson, a historian, writer and speaker, offers a series of case studies of the good and evil that Christian believers have done over the centuries. He also contributed the following examples in a personal email:

Many Christian leaders through history have affirmed and preserved orthodox Christian belief and yet behaved or pursued policies that defy the moral logic of Jesus Christ himself:

  • Bishop Ambrose of Milan in the late 4th century was a champion of the Nicene Creed and popular defender of the poor. Yet, he also approved of the Christian destruction of synagogues and refused the emperor’s pleas to reimburse the Jewish community.
  • Peter ‘the Lector’ read the Scriptures each Sunday in the 5th-century Alexandrian church. He also led the riot that murdered Hypatia, the most famous (female) philosopher in the city.
  • Charlemagne sponsored an educational renaissance in the churches and monasteries of 8th-century Europe. He also conquered the Saxons for the cause of Christ, demanding they choose between ‘baptism or the sword’ in what scholars have described as a ‘Christian jihad’.
  • The great 16th-century reformer Martin Luther recovered the Church’s dependence upon God’s pure grace. Yet his 1543 book The Jews and the Lies explicitly called on authorities to ‘set fire to Jewish schools and synagogues’ and ‘confiscate their silver and gold.’

These are just four examples of Christian believers in history behaving in ways that are at odds with the words and deeds of their Saviour.

Fast forward to the last two centuries, and every Christian denomination has witnessed the horrors and shame of members and leaders behaving badly. Some Christian leaders have found to be perpetrators of unspeakable crimes, while others have knowingly covered up the criminal acts of others. Priests, Sunday school teachers and Christian camp directors have gone to jail for paedophilia, and bishops have been stripped of their holy orders.

Soon after his death in 2020, Ravi Zacharias, the founder of a widely respected international evangelical ministry, was found to be not only guilty of many years of serious sexual misconduct but of actively covering them up in a most aggressive way.

In 2021, the Christianity Today podcast series The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill chronicled in excruciating detail the bullying and ungodly behaviours of the leadership of the Seattle-based megachurch Mars Hill, which grew from a home bible study to multiple locations with an average weekly attendance of over 12,000 and then collapsed almost overnight. Podcast host, Mike Cosper, reflected on Mars Hill’s demonstrable culture of anger, intimidation and aggression, its ‘mob-like and cult-like’ following of a narcissistic senior pastor and wondered: ‘What was the ‘Good News’ here? … How did it shape the way the people at the church see Jesus?’

What have Charlemagne, Ravi Zacharias and Mars Hill got to do with our conversation in this book? The answer is that all of these Christian leaders – believers scattered throughout the past two millennia – could fervently assent to the Apostles’ Creed, Nicene Creed and any other orthodox statement of faith. Like so many other Christians, they could say that they believed the truths that are in the creeds. But like us all, their actions and behaviour – exhibited in either one or more episodes, or more systemically – were completely ungodly and at odds with the mind of Christ.

Affirmations of faith are clearly no guarantee of godly character or behaviour, and if we think that the ongoing character of Christian organisations can be protected by board and executive members affirming a Statement of Faith, we either are conceited or deluded. Rather, we have to articulate how these Christian truths find expressions in the outlook, disposition, behaviours and daily practices of the organisation.

Taken from Keeping Faith: How Christian Organisations Can Stay True to the Way of Jesus by Stephen Judd, John Swinton and Kara Martin, 2023. Used by permission of Acorn Press.


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Keeping Faith: How Christian Organisations Can Stay True to the Way of Jesus

Stephen Judd, John Swinton and Kara Martin

Available from Koorong

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