Is Church a Business?

13 The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. 14 In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables. 15 Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. 16 He told those who were selling the doves, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” 17 His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for your house will consume me.” 18 The Jews then said to him, “What sign can you show us for doing this?” 19 Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” 20 The Jews then said, “This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?” 21 But he was speaking of the temple of his body. 22 After he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken. – John 2:13-22

I have the privilege of helping to facilitate a First Priority group in a local middle school. First Priority is an organization that forms Christian discussion groups in public schools that aim to help students share the good news of Jesus with their friends. At one meeting, a student had a question about a decision his church had made. The congregation had recently outgrown their building (which was fairly new itself) and decided to build a new sanctuary while turning the “old” building into a gym and fitness area. Was it right, the student wondered aloud, to use church property and resources for a purpose that wasn’t directly involved in congregational worship or teaching? The larger group came to a consensus that it really depended on what kind of programs and activities went on in the repurposed space. If it was used as a true outreach tool to connect the community to Christ, then surely it was a worthwhile use of resources; if it was church-insider-focused or a simple source of revenue, then it probably wouldn’t be a very good example of godly stewardship.

In today’s familiar reading from the Gospel of John, Jesus encounters people who have turned people’s seeking after God into a thriving business. While the corrupt nature of the Temple tradesmen and money-changers certainly played a role in Jesus’ outrage, his words as he turns over tables and scatters animals strike a broader, more haunting tone: “Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” It’s clear that Jesus saw something fundamentally wrong with people using places of worship for their own private gain.

I often encounter well-meaning Christians who say something like, “Well, churches are businesses after all.” While churches certainly do have money coming in and going out as businesses do, it is extremely important to remember what should separate a church from a business: churches are not bottom-line institutions. We are no corporation solely focused on pleasing owners or share-holders; we are the body of Christ called to put aside profits and earthly treasure in order to seek the growth of God’s Kingdom here on the earth. Stewardship is essential in a healthy church, but so is pouring ourselves out for “the least of these” in a way that no investor or CEO in their right mind would support in their business. In an age where congregations can easily succumb to the temptation to build the most glamorous facilities that money can buy, may we stay strong in our prophetic commitment to simplicity and Christ’s call to die to self and live for God and others!