Driscoll. Tchividjian. Harris. Falwell Jr. Zacharias. Just a few of the famous and now disgraced names within the larger Christian universe. As more cases keep popping up, it might do us well to examine what might be contributing to the number of high-profile failures without simply indicting the figures themselves. A good starting point: the rise of Corporate Christianity.
There has always been a constellation of groups and endeavors that have accompanied the ordinary work of the church. These have included cooperative efforts at helping the poor, propagating the Gospel at home and abroad, and providing education to youth. This constellation has often been of great use in the Lord’s saving providence. It has occasionally remedied deficiencies in the ordinary ministry of the church as well as harmonized and catalyzed the work of the ordinary church to have greater impact and influence.
There have also always been drawbacks to these para-church organizations and movements. During the revivalist era of America, there was a fear that such work was done in competition with the local church, rather than in partnership. Those fears were often founded. During the late 19th/early 20th century, there was a fear that unified endeavors between denominations promoted the social gospel rather than the true Gospel. Again, those fears were often founded.
In the middle of the 20th century, the balance of power between the church and the surrounding constellation shifted dramatically. On the evangelistic front, Billy Graham—“America’s Pastor”—was a member of the Southern Baptist Convention, but he wasn’t bound to the SBC. In God’s grace, the Reverend Graham’s ministry was used to bring millions around the globe to the Lord. Yet his power and influence made him too big to fail—something true of many Christian figures and organizations since the middle of the century.
Let’s call the modern variation of the para-church constellation “Corporate Christianity.” This isn’t meant to be pejorative. Rather, we are merely noting that with the influx of money, the accumulation of national and international followings, media access, and cultural and political influence, these organizations can stand alone apart from the church. While there are thousands of organizations and endeavors that could be lumped together under this label, let’s survey three types of organizations that capture the gist of Corporate Christianity.
- The evangelistic organizations. In the middle of the century, a number of evangelistic organizations popped up—Youth for Christ, Young Life, Intervarsity, Campus Crusade for Christ, etc.—that largely focused on youth and young adults. The impact of these organizations is inestimable. As a generation of students was radically breaking away from the nominal Christianity of their parents, these organizations drew countless thousands to the cross, and often, to the church.
- The cultural organizations. Perhaps no organization better encapsulates this category than Focus on the Family with Dr. James Dobson. Per the title, this organization has nurtured a generation of Christian families and given parents the tools to disciple their children. A host of similar organization exist to help Christians with various facets of their lives—marriage, finances, etc.
- The political organizations. In the 1980s, with the rise of the Religious Right and Moral Majority, a number of politically-oriented Christian organizations rose to the fore. The Christian Coalition was perhaps the most notable, but the role of Jerry Falwell and Liberty University plays prominently here, and the Family Research Council has maintained a more enduring influence. These organizations were at their strongest when they alerted Christians to the plight of the unborn and threats to religious liberty.
One final category to add here is that of the Christian celebrity. With the rise of televangelism in the 1980s, we gained a whole category of media-saturated Christian pastors with national followings. A class of super-pastors emerged, often with a prosperity gospel hue, that were deemed to be of greater consequence because of the size of their churches or national following.
The Risks of Corporate Christianity
What happens when these organizations drift from biblical truth, compromise their motives or goals, have leaders that engage in blatant immorality or hostility, or exercise fiscal irresponsibility? Can the church—with its many different denominations—hold such organizations accountable? What will keep the Gospel central? Who will keep leaders from sexual sin?
These questions are especially pertinent considering the media attention these organizations and figures receive. Only two Christian denominations receive much of any attention in the public eye—Roman Catholicism and the Southern Baptist Convention. Beyond these two bodies, whenever anyone thinks of Christian leaders in our country, they think of the organizations and figureheads in Corporate Christianity.
So here is the crux of the issue: Corporate Christianity—for all of the good that is has done—has a virtual monopoly on publicity, exceptional vulnerability, and, apart from the influence of donors and pious friends, almost no accountability. In other words, it is too big to fail. It does not stand under the discipline of the church, but instead is subject to the predations of a devouring Adversary and a hostile culture. It can only be brought low by clearly manifested sin. And when it is brought low—due to its representation of the church at large—Christianity is brought low as well.
The Fall of Corporate Christianity
Of course, this isn’t merely hypothetical. While there were plenty of public scandals involving televangelists in the ‘80s, and Christian politicians in ‘90s, there has been a virtual deluge of scandals in just the past couple of years.
Yet it’s not just dramatic scandals that have done incredible damage to Christ’s church. Recently, famed Christian fiscal expert Dave Ramsey was shown to engage in uncharitable and hypocritical business practices and issued a blistering, ugly email to a Christian reporter trying to follow up on the issue. Franklin Graham, son of Billy Graham, took to social media to label the ten Republicans who voted for impeachment as modern-day Judas’s and wanted to know how many pieces of silver they were offered for their betrayal. His father never would have spoken in those incendiary and theologically perverse terms, nor do I think Franklin himself would have done so ten years ago.
For years, it seemed like most public scandals involving religious figures occurred almost exclusively within the Roman Catholic church, but it would be naive for Christians across the denominational spectrum to think that their particular tribe is immune. And if you survey a number of these scandals and ugly encounters, you will notice that the trend lines have nothing to do with theology. While sin is always the baseline characteristic (and applies to all of us), you will notice that the other common factors include power, prestige, a national following, media attention, and a lack of church accountability. In other words, it is especially prevalent in Corporate Christianity. Many of these figures were long faithful and well-intentioned, but they were vulnerable and unaccountable. They were too big to fail for too long.
The Fall Out from Corporate Christianity
Sure, all of the sins and temptations we have described occur at all levels of the church. But the fact that we are not familiar with most of these cases is the point. Most Christians are not under the microscope of the broader church and culture and their individual struggles are met with fellowship, accountability, and if needed, discipline at the local level.
We should not point our finger at those who have fallen. We propped them up with our financial support and elevated them to thrones and left them little room to occupy the pew next to us. This is a systematic problem that indicts all of us who have longed to reach more people and transform more of the culture without considering the unintentional consequences of our methods.
The consequences are proving to be quite destructive, but not irreparable. The slew of scandals has led to a greater sense of betrayal amongst Christians and a greater sense of disillusionment and disgust amongst the general culture. None of us are ultimately too big to fail. This is a key reason for why the Lord saves us as a people—we cannot withstand the chill winds of this broken world alone. We must have broken and contrite hearts today rather than welcome dire failures in days to come.
But let’s not be too gloomy about this. There are opportunities here to reform Corporate Christianity and preserve the witness of the church. For one, we can make sure that key figures in this movement are accountable to their respective churches and denominations. What if Driscoll had counterweights among his fellow pastors who could hold him accountable? What if the Christian Missionary Alliance had a committee of pastors who would meet with Zacharias regularly to hold his feet to the fire?
We can also devote the first fruits of our time and resources to the local church. By prioritizing the local church and community in this fashion, we also have further incentive to invest in relationships rather than causes. Such shifts at the ground level would force segments of Corporate Christianity to reevaluate their own priorities and would bring them into a healthier alignment with the church.
A final note of encouragement: For all of the power and might that Corporate Christianity displays at its height and all of the destruction that is caused by its fall, every human heart is still fundamentally reckoning with King Jesus—not men or institutions. He is the sword that pierces every man’s heart, and by Him alone, we rise or fall. This is why we want Corporate Christianity drawn into closer relationship with the Savior that it professes, and find hope in that same Savior when the mighty are brought low.