Some establishments tout that they are “member owned and operated”. A quick search suggests that these sorts of places include credit unions, agricultural cooperatives, and other groups where people have decided to work together for the common good. They may have chosen to do so to remain free from the expectations of external shareholders, or for other reasons, and (in the case of cooperatives) often share profits among those who are participating1.
The idea of working in a member owned and operated business can be attractive. It’s appealing to have a say in how things are run, and to own a piece of the pie. We enjoy some authority, even if it is shared with others, and ideally the other people (members) who are in business with us share our ideals and our goals.
So, is the church one of these “member-owned and member-operated” structures? Many congregations band together out of a shared faith and often shared traditions. Ministries are often run by a large number of members who work voluntarily. As a result, I think that we can agree that God set up the church as a body where all members contribute and serve, and therefore it seems to be “member operated” (although God still helps out a lot!).
However, some groups (fortunately not all) vote on how to run things in a way that simply makes them the most comfortable, while other congregations contain a lot of people who attend only to receive benefits (although for those seeking salvation, that is what Jesus offers, so there is no stigma there!).
Despite these counter-examples (which I hope are more caricature than commonplace), the body of Christ is clearly not member-owned, though. Not only does God have a sovereign right to specify how things should operate in the universe that He created, but Jesus’s gift of salvation redeemed back the members of the church from the penalty of their sins.
The following verse may be well-known to those who have heard enough sermons, but let’s take a closer look:
The seed that fell on good soil represents those who truly hear and understand God’s word and produce a harvest of thirty, sixty, or even a hundred times as much as had been planted!”
Matthew 13:23 NLT
What is the purpose of the good soil that receives God’s word? It is not to take in the seed and just rest, content to have known the Word of God. Instead, the good soil (followers of Jesus whose hearts are receptive) is expected to produce results, multiplying the message so that more people can hear the news.
Jesus is the Head of the church; it is not an organization that is driven by paid staff, nor one that exists for the sole profit of its members. All individuals in the church (those who have traded their sins for the abundant life that Jesus offers) are expected to be the primary “operators” of the faith, but we are not owners. We don’t get to “vote” on what the body of Christ should be doing. We don’t own anything. We don’t participate in the church merely to get something. Instead, we serve. We serve the Sovereign Lord of all creation. We serve the One who redeemed us from death. We serve like He served. Even those who have been placed by God as leaders in the church are merely called to administer and shepherd those entrusted to their care. Congregations who vote on important matters (or whose elders do the same) should do so with the goal of affirming the Holy Spirit’s direction, and not for the preferences of individual members.
Admittedly, just as the early church had evangelists, teachers, and elders, there is a structure to a healthy body, and differentiation of roles. However, the church is not a club that exists for the entertainment or sole benefit of its members. Instead, its members are the “employees” of the Head of the church, and its workers who serve do so to achieve the purposes of Jesus Christ.
Like the good soil in the parable, let us be the ground that multiplies God’s word to those around us today, and be members of the church who enjoy the blessings of God, but care most about serving others and the Head of the church, Jesus Christ.
Scripture quotations marked (NLT) are taken from the Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright ©1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, a Division of Tyndale House Ministries, Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.
- I’m not against other business models. I own shares in stock and mutual funds, and have worked for publicly-traded companies. On the other hand, I have also had some positive interactions with member-owned and/or member-operated organizations, too. ↩