The Brand of Business
One of the most fundamental characteristics of a company is its brand – its very corporate identity. The larger the company, the more important the identity, and the larger the team of lawyers and Public Relations and social media technicians assigned to protecting that brand from all kinds of malfeasance. These folks monitor the brand’s appearance in the news and on social media.
When adverse trends appear, a cadre of company Public Relations experts leap into action, issuing positive press releases, denying responsibility, talking about the good things they do, and so forth. A cadre of lawyers get to work looking for actionable libel, and any justification to require persons or competitors to withdraw adverse claims, by threatening lawsuits, even if fairly groundless. The smaller the opponent, the more pressure is brought to bear.
Meanwhile, the social media managers (often with advice from the lawyers and Public Relations experts) carefully craft opposing viewpoints, avoiding new pitfalls and legal landmines, and attempt to sway the public conversation to more positive conclusions. In many cases, for larger companies, a stealth campaign also begins to craft a counterpoint message that undercuts the negative information that has appeared; this information may be disseminated from “sock puppet” accounts created just for this purpose; in other cases, friendly accounts are paid to share the revised story.
If this sounds underhanded and callous, it probably should. The first line of defense in many cases is usually denial of the narrative; failing this, it’s usually some form of attacking the messenger. Rarely does the process involve directly and clearly taking responsibility for the information or the event. This would be legally dangerous for the company, and would expose it to even greater risk of penalties and sanctions.
The United States legal system fundamentally treats corporations as individuals, rather than a collection of people banded together for a corporate purpose. From this perspective, it would be safe to say that corporations rarely follow the Golden Rule or any other Biblical commandments for how to treat each other. It looks an awful lot like bullying and king-of-the-hill, rather than sacrificial love for others, with nary a hint of repentance (any admission of guilt is universally caged in lawyerly self-protection and self-preservation language). This is hardly surprising, given that a corporation must fight for its survival, in a dog-eat-dog, survival-of-the-fittest business environment where nobody plays nice and where consumers are fickle. Why would they buck the trend, and risk their share price or very survival?
The Brand of the Church
It might surprise many people that many churches are in fact corporations, in the sense that they are legally-incorporated entities with boards and bylaws – most are non-profit 501(3)(c) for the purpose of deductible donations by their membership. But very few of those churches will mount such massive legal and social media and Public Relations offenses – with the exception of the larger megachurches with very powerful branding.
Still, it’s worth discussing this concept of brand management in the context of how we think about Christianity. I would posit that many Christians probably think about our faith as a brand that must be protected, in one form or another.
This brand protection operates, I believe, at three different levels.
The first level is the brand of Christianity as a whole. The orthodox Christian faith competes with Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, agnostics, aethists, and a whole raft of sects and cults like Christian Science, Mormonism, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Scientology, and more. At the core, it’s drilled into Christians that only THEY know the truth and the Truth-giver, and it’s essential to bring others into the Christian community to be saved. So in a sense very similar to the worldly battles for corporate dominance and survival, the same principles of brand protection appear – don’t let the Christian brand or our God be tarnished.
The second level is denominational. Even within Christianity, each denomination perceives itself as being the repository for certain very essential teachings that are disputed by other denominations. In much the same way as fighting for market share with other high-level religions, each denomination teaches that it has things that need to be spread within the Kingdom of God so that more may come to a TRUE knowledge of God, one which is more accurate than in other denominations.
The third level is doctrinal. Within a denomination, within a given church congregation, the belief structures that exist are held very dearly by both the church leadership and by training the members of the congregation. These beliefs must be guarded, protected, or preserved against apostasy and error, so that if someone goes down a mental or spiritual pathway that conflicts with the teachings within that congregation, the other members can be protected from falling into similar error.
So at all three levels, there is a fundamental element of competition at play: protecting Christianity or the denominational understanding and winning new “customers” to that particular instantiation, or protecting the congregation from outside error.
These competitions end up looking remarkably similar to the brand protection battles at the corporate level. Usually it doesn’t involve lawyers, but the public relations battle is just as real and constant. More to the point, since individual Christians view themselves as members of the group, and are taught to protect the brand with vigor and strength “for the sake of the Gospel,” it’s a more widely-spread fight than in corporate America, where the average worker for a large company just does their job and lets the lawyers and Public Relations department handle the brand protection.
As a result, the average Christian feels compelled to jump into the fray, particularly in interpersonal relationships and especially on social media, to “defend the brand” of Christianity and denominational and even congregational integrity.
It’s a culture that is extremely unfriendly to individual pursuit of Truth and of Jesus.
In the corporate world, if someone begins asking hard questions about the culture or practice or even the figureheads, a whistleblower problem rapidly develops.
When someone begins revealing a company’s “dirty laundry,” usually for the sake of bringing positive change to the company they love and want to see healthy, the result is usually an immediate “circle the wagons” response, followed by a hunt for the source of the information, and if the leak is found, usually the individual is summarily fired (unless they successfully sue for whistleblower protection under U.S. law).
It should be fairly obvious that the same exact trend occurs in Christian circles. When somone begins revealing unpleasant facts about practices or doctrines, the church rapidly begins to similarly circle the wagons, and often enough the person asking the hard questions is shunned or disciplined or brought up for public correction – or fired if employed by the church.
In the last couple years, with the upheaval caused by discussions over racism in the church and the culture, and the way that various churches handled COVID, a huge number of pastors were effectively fired by their congregations – either directly, or made so ineffective that they willingly resigned and walked away from the pastoral role in that local body. Countless more lay leaders and congregants simply walked away in the face of determined and very vocal opposition.
Does Truth Matter?
Interestingly, one particular feature of corporate brand protection is that the truth is really somewhat irrelevant to the response that is mounted. The lawyers are looking mainly for actionable missteps by an opponent. The Public Relations team is looking for weakness in the social arguments being made, trying to find countering viewpoints.
And I submit that the Christian response to religious brand protection is fundamentally the same. Truth becomes secondary to protecting the brand from harm. Depending on the context, we tend to respond by defending Christianity itself, or our denomination, or our local congregational teaching, before we stop to carefully evaluate whether the information that is presented is true and actionable.
At the major religion level, I have a very hard time with protecting the brand of religion that we call Christianity. We claim to believe that the Lord God Almighty is omnipotent. We celebrate stories of His dramatic victories over insurmountable odds. Yet we simultaneously believe that our efforts are essential to winning those victories, as if somehow this all-powerful deity we worship cannot maintain His interests without our fighting. As an example, when I think about the Crusades, and consider those excesses and outright attempts at genocide against entire people groups in the name of Christ, it’s downright sickening.
What happened to “be still and know that I am God?” From Psalm 46,
Come, behold the works of the Lord,
Who has inflicted horrific events on the earth.
He makes wars to cease to the end of the earth;
He breaks the bow and cuts the spear in two;
He burns the chariots with fire.
“Stop striving and know that I am God;
I will be exalted among the nations,
I will be exalted on the earth.”
The Lord of armies is with us;
The God of Jacob is our stronghold.
It doesn’t appear from this and similar verses that God needs us to impose His will on the earth for His own glory.
At the denominational level, the infighting and attempts to steal membership betrays our lack of faith in our Bible’s teachings about God’s call for oneness – or more importantly, the Bible’s teachings such as Revelations 7 about “every nation, and people, and tongue” – that the Church, the Body of Christ, will be richly varied. We are so convinced that only OUR particular insight into God’s nature is capable of bringing about God’s victory on earth that we feel compelled to fight each other for market share.
At the congregational level, I can somewhat understand defending the congregational teaching. Hopefully, it’s inspired by the Holy Spirit in the pastor and teachers over that local body. But the attack against serious questions betrays two things: one, that we fear that a careful and patient discussion of the question will not result in the person’s growth and a return to unity; two, that we’re afraid that people will be swayed by these supposed false doctrines and turn from the true faith. If so, how solid is that faith to begin with? Each believer should be mature enough to answer those questions, just as confidently and richly as the pastor or teacher who is teaching them.
Are We Right?
Furthermore, all of these attack responses to protect the brand assume perfect correctness in the brand. It leaves exactly zero room for the possibility that something is amiss. The vast majority of the challenges to Christian practice and doctrine come from those who are observing something just not right about the situation – often based on their actual maturity and Bible study revealing an apparent disconnect.
If there were true orthopraxy – right practice – and orthodoxy – right doctrine – at play, it would be eminently clear to all mature onlookers that the questioner was misguided or misinformed, and a fairly simple, if extended, conversation would restore that one to common union – communion – with their body.
But if there is “heteropraxy” – a difference from the right practice – or heterodoxy – a difference from right doctrine – at play, it is right for the questions to be asked, and it does the church well to carefully consider whether the question comes from a point of validity.
As Christians, we are called to repentance as a way of life. Verse after verse in the Bible calls us to turn from our wicked ways, and seek His face as the only source of Truth. Perhaps we smash down our consciences when challenged, by believing that “wicked” is something that the non-Christians are guilty of, or maybe that those folks in another denomination are missing, or that the one among us asking the hard questions is guilty of wickedness.
But what if “wickedness” is much more subtle?
“Sin” is simply missing the mark. It doesn’t have to be dramatic or 180 degrees from the ideal. It can be just a degree or two away from God’s truth. And repentance, similarly, isn’t only turning away from graven idols or murder; it’s simply turning from missing the mark, even subtly.
As ones who are called to a life of constant repentance, how is that possible unless we begin from a position of constantly asking God, as in Psalm 139:24, “see if there is any offensive way in me”? The word translated “offensive” (“otseb” in Hebrew) means hurtful, idolotrous, painful, or sorrowful. It’s giving Him a constant chance to adjust our perspective, often on a daily or even moment-by-moment basis.
And what better way to facilitate that process than recognizing when God puts someone in our circle with information we didn’t have? God will rarely supernaturally reveal our wicked – or even “otseb” ways; rather, He seems to usually choose other humans to recognize and present that information to us. Too often, we’re blind to our own faults, and we need those others who see them, to help us mature. As long as we respond to the correction of others, we won’t give God any need to step in and do so Himself.
Barriers to Repentance
But when we respond with brand protection, we absolutely and harshly cut off any possibility of repentance taking place in that circumstance.
For one thing, we put up barriers in our own hearts against hearing anything unexpected. By assuming our righteousness is complete, we have no internal margin to hear otherwise.
For another thing, we cut off relationship with the one bringing the information. We not only block them in that instance, we ensure that they’ll avoid doing so in the future. And we also strongly discourage others from doing the same. Effectively, we create a culture that self-reinforces whatever error might exist, and denies the prophetic influence of the Holy Spirit to bring correction TO His people, THROUGH His people.
Blasphemy Against the Holy Spirit
If we are dealing with reasonably mature Christians, well-grounded in the Bible and in orthodoxy, what must we conclude when they come to us with a hard question about practices or doctrine? I think it’s reasonable to assume that the Holy Spirit is speaking to their spirits about something.
At a very real level, this corporate brand-protective response to someone bringing a word to the church, pointing out its error, denies that the Holy Spirit was involved, and I think it’s quite arguable that it accuses the Holy Spirit of being wrong, even if we don’t think that’s what we are doing.
In Matthew 12:31-32, Jesus says “Therefore I say to you, every sin and blasphemy shall be forgiven people, but blasphemy against the Spirit shall not be forgiven. And whoever speaks a word against the Son of Man, it shall be forgiven him; but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit, it shall not be forgiven him, either in this age or in the age to come.”
The word translated “blasphemy” here means “switching right for wrong” or in the language of Romans 1:25, “exchanging the truth of God for a lie.”
I used to believe that this verse about blasphemy involved calling the Holy Spirit a liar in a public situation. I now believe that what I see happening routinely in church circles is exactly what is referred to by Jesus in Matthew 12. Quite simply, it’s rejecting the voice of the Holy Spirit expressed in the heart and then words of a believer, and calling it a lie. Note that the verse above says “speaks against the Holy Spirit.” This is a fairly low bar for blasphemy; it’s not some shocking public event.
It seems to me, therefore, that the church is given a very clear calling to carefully investigate charges made against it, and to be very careful in dismissing honest and thoughtful questions about whether something is orthopraxy or orthodoxy.
So I cannot end this discussion without addressing that latest bad word in Christian society, “deconstruction.”
Ask most people who consider themselves to be in the middle of deconstruction, and you’ll find that they’re often mature Christians who have begun to recognize ways in which their church, their denomination, or even all of Christian common practices, seems heterodox or heteroprax. They sense that something is hypocritical, or seriously out of line with the teachings in Scripture, and they’re interested in repenting of that falsehood that the Lord brought to their attention, and furthermore in seeing their local church or denomination or even the entire Body of Christ repenting too.
But almost universally, their stories then go on to say “but my church rejected me; they shunned me; they refused to answer my questions.”
It’s a brand protection problem, writ large across much of the church, where individuals and congregations engage in social maneuvering and self-defensiveness “for the honor of God and His Kingdom and His people.”
I don’t think God needs that. Rather, I think He is calling us, universally, to repent and turn from our wicked ways, whatever they are, no matter how small.
A Spotless Bride
The Lord testified that He is committed to bringing about a pure and spotless Bride. In Ephesians 5:25-27 Paul writes about what appears to be a fundamentally central theme of all Christianity:
Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself up for her, so that He might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, that He might present to Himself the church in all her glory, having no spot or wrinkle or any such thing; but that she would be holy and blameless.
While every generation believes the end is coming soon, the pace of upheaval seems to be rising suddenly in these years. It should be obvious that the rising chorus of deconstruction is not a passing fad, and it should bear careful considering – why now, and why so much?
Hebrews 12:25-29 says this:
See to it that you do not refuse Him who is speaking. For if those did not escape when they refused him who warned them on earth, much less will we escape who turn away from Him who warns us from heaven. And His voice shook the earth then, but now He has promised, saying, “Yet once more I will shake not only the earth, but also the heaven.” This expression, “Yet once more,” denotes the removing of those things which can be shaken, as of created things, so that those things which cannot be shaken may remain. Therefore, since we receive a kingdom which cannot be shaken, let’s show gratitude, by which we may offer to God an acceptable service with reverence and awe; for our God is a consuming fire.
This should be an incredibly sobering warning.
The only possibility we have as His people of reaching that pure and spotless state, worthy of consummating that relationship with Christ, is listening incredibly carefully to those small, quiet, individual voices asking “but is this right?”
The easy answer would be – and usually is – to assume “this is the kingdom of darkness pushing back against the light” and to carry on assuming the glory and rightness of our cause. But what if that is exactly, totally, completely the problem?
Not all prophets stand on Mount Carmel, call down fire from heaven to burn up the altar, and slay the 450 priests of Baal. Some of them speak softly, oh so softly.
So a better answer would be to say “Lord, show me if there is ANY offensive way in me” and engage them fully, honestly, and humbly.
And for the love of God – truly, for the love of God and His Church – stop labeling deconstruction as apostate and damnable. You risk Jesus’ warning in Matthew 12.