Chalcedon Position Paper No. 50, May 1984
One of history’s most important doctrines is today widely subject to abuse, neglect, and attack. This is the concept of the corporation. In any truly strict definition of the term, no corporation existed outside of the Biblical revelation nor apart from Scripture’s doctrine of a people created by God’s covenant. Some Roman developments had a resemblance to the corporation but cannot be identified with it.
The word corporation tells us much. It is from the Latin, and is related to the term common in medieval faith, “De corpore et sanguine Domini,” “the body and blood of the Lord.” In its original sense, the corporation, which means a body which does not die with the death of its members, has reference to the body of Christ, His church. This corporation, Christ’s body, has as its origin covenant Israel; the calling of twelve disciples to replace the twelve patriarchs of Israel had as its purpose to set forth the continuity of the corporate covenant community. The church is the new Israel of God; it used that term, “Israel of God” (Gal. 6:16), to distinguish itself from the Israel of blood.
The church thus, as the original and true corporation, has an earthly as well as a supernatural life. It is here in history, but it is also “the heavenly Jerusalem”; it is “an innumerable company of angels,” and the “general assembly and church of the firstborn” (Heb. 12:22–23). Paul says that Christians are “one body in Christ” (Rom. 12:5), i.e., a corporate entity in and of Him. We are all “baptized into one body” (1 Cor. 12:12–20), wherein there are “many members, yet one body.” The texts which stress this fact are too many to cite in so small a compass as this. The church saw itself from the beginning as a “corporation,” a body whose life and continuity did not depend on the life of its members.
It is amazing that there is so little to be found on the significance to society of the doctrine of the church as Christ’s corporation. It is one of history’s most revolutionary doctrines, and it has influenced many areas of life and thought. A key sphere of influence has been, for better or worse, the state. One of the problems of the non-Christian world was long the lack of any concept of continuity. The office or person of a king might be sacred, but rule was personal, i.e., noninstitutional. Subordinate rulers swore loyalty, not to a civil government, but to a man, a ruler. The death of that ruler dissolved the ties, and his successor had to regain loyalties through demonstrable power to compel it. The result was that civil authority was purely personal in most cases, and very erratic as a result. This was a problem Rome tried to solve, but not very successfully. With the rise of Christendom, this problem lingered. The Holy Roman Empire continued in the old pattern, and, as a result, alternated between great power and virtual nonexistence as an effective force.
Not surprisingly, the doctrine of the church as Christ’s corporation began to influence society. It should be added that the church was not the only corporation set forth in Scripture: the family is another. When a man dies, the Bible tells us he is “gathered unto his people” or his fathers (Gen. 49:33), or, with some analogous term, stresses the family’s corporate unity. Naboth’s refusal to sell the vineyard to Ahab was due to this corporate fact: it was the property of his father before him (1 Kings 21:3), and of his descendents after him. This strong sense of the family as a corporate religious entity has been the reason for the survival of the Jews; with the rise of humanism, the Jewish family is now disintegrating. Within Christendom, many of the problems created by men in their false sense of dominion, and women with their feminist rights movements, have been due to a failure to recognize the corporate nature of the family in Biblical law. That corporate nature, and its relationship to the doctrine of the church, is very forcefully set forth in Ephesians 5:21–33.
Ernst H. Kantorowicz, in The King’s Two Bodies (1957), set forth the statist use of this concept and its many perversions, in the medieval and early modern developments of the doctrine. The Crown became a corporation; hence, it could be said, when a king died, “The king is dead; long live the king,” because the monarchy did not die with the death of one monarch. The state indeed went so far as to see itself as the mystical body of Christ and as the true and central Christian corporation. The consequences of this and other perversions are very much with us, and in well developed forms. The fact that, since Hegel, a pantheistic theology undergirds the doctrine of the state does not alter the fact that the modern state sees itself as the true church or kingdom under whom all things subsist. The state sees itself as god walking on earth and as the great corporation of which all men are members.
The Bible tells us that there are two great bodies or corporations, with all other bodies as aspects of the one or the other. These two are the humanity, body, or corporation of the old or first Adam, and that of the new or last Adam, Jesus Christ (1 Cor. 15:45–50). The modern state sees itself as the supercorporation, embracing both. St. Augustine saw the two humanities as the Kingdom or City of God, in Christ, or the City of Man, in the fallen Adam. The state without Christ is in the City of Man and is no different in character than a band of robbers; it is an evil, criminal agency oppressing man. Augustine did not counsel revolt, because he knew that the key to change is regeneration in Christ, not revolution.
The influence of the concept or doctrine of incorporation or the corporation went beyond the state into the world of commerce. The business corporation echoes, whether or not it knows it, the Biblical doctrine of the church.
Two things may be said at this point. First, it goes without question that the doctrine of the corporation has, in humanistic hands, been greatly abused and misused. However, this should not lead us into overlooking a second fact, namely, that the concept of the corporation has given continuity to man’s activities in one sphere after another. Medieval and modern institutions have a continuity and history unlike anything in the non-Christian world.
What the corporation doctrine has enabled men to do is to transcend the limitations of their time and life span. Men can create and develop a business, a school, or an agency whose functions live beyond themselves. This has been a very revolutionary and Biblical fact. The Bible tells us that man is earthbound, and, because of his sin, will return to earth, “for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return” (Gen. 3:19). However, this is not the whole story. We are also told, “Blessed are the dead which die in the Lord from henceforth: Yea, saith the Spirit, that they may rest from their labours; and their works do follow them” (Rev. 14:13). That a man’s works can survive him on earth is obvious; we are told that they follow him beyond the grave. Such a faith gives a great confidence in both time and eternity. Men can work knowing that their “labour is not in vain in the Lord” (1 Cor. 15:58).
Granted that corporations are not necessarily good (nor necessarily bad), it still remains true that the concept of the corporation has been important in history by giving continuity to the works of men. Among other things, the original corporation, the church, has given a new meaning to time. Time is now time in terms of Christ, b.c., Before Christ, or a.d., Anno Domini, the year of our Lord, in Christ. Previously, time was commonly dated in terms of the accession of the current ruler, i.e., in the first year of Mithradates, or the eighth year of Antiochus, and so on. There was no continuity, only an endless beginning and ending. Now all time is in Christ, and His body is the great corporation. That pattern gives continuity to all of life, so that human activities now have a life span beyond that of their founders. Moreover, all that the ungodly accumulate shall flow into God’s Kingdom, so that its continuity will prosper His people (Isa. 54:3; 61:6, etc.). The continuity serves Christ, and us in Him.
The development of corporations in Western history has been very important. Many Christian corporations were established during the medieval era to carry on specific Biblical duties and to organize people for common action to meet a specific Christian need or function. Attempts at statist control were also common. In the reign of James I of England, that monarch held that corporations could only be created by the fiat of the state. This meant that neither a Christian calling nor vocation could create a corporation but only the Crown.
In the United States, virtually total freedom existed for generations for all kinds of corporations. The incorporation of a church or Christian agency of any kind was simply a legal formality notifying the state of the existence of such a body and its immunity from statist controls. In recent years, the statists have turned that notification into a form of licensure and control. The matter can be compared to filing a birth certificate. When the birth of Sarah Jones is recorded by her parents and doctor, permission for Sarah Jones to exist is definitely not requested; rather, a fact is legally recorded. Similarly, in American law, religious trusts, foundations, or trusts did not apply for the right to exist but recorded their certificate of birth, their incorporation. The current Internal Revenue Service doctrine is that the filing is a petition for the right to exist. This turns the historic position, and the First Amendment, upside down. It asserts for the federal government the “right” to establish religion and to control the exercise thereof. As a result, a major conflict of church and state is under way.
At the same time, many abuses of the concept of a church corporation prevail. Some organizations sell “ordinations” as pastors and priests to enable men in the evasion of income taxes. This kind of abuse does not invalidate the integrity of a true church, nor is it a legitimate reason for the entrance of the state into the life of valid churches.
Then too, because of the intrusion of the federal and state governments into the sphere of church incorporation, some are advocating disincorporation by churches. Given the vulnerability of the church as an incorporated legal entity to statist controls, we should not forget the total vulnerability with disincorporation. In some court cases, the results are proving to be especially disastrous. If our weapons against an enemy prove to be somewhat defective, does it make sense to throw away those weapons and to disarm ourselves?
Not only should the church fight for the freedom of incorporated existence, but Christians need to establish a wide variety of Christian foundations to meet their wide-flung responsibilities in Christ. Educational foundations to further the promotion of Biblical faith and knowledge are needed. Christian charitable trusts to minister to the needs of the poor, prisoners, the sick, delinquents, and more are urgently needed. Hospitals are a product of Christian corporate activity to minister to human need; they were once all Christian. There is a need to reclaim this ministry which, in humanistic hands, has become increasingly a problem.
Christian corporations or foundations were once the ministries in the spheres of health, education, and welfare, and there is a growing return to responsibilities in these areas. These agencies use God’s tax, the tithe, to exercise government in key spheres of life in the name of Christ. They are outside the sphere of statist taxation and control, because they are areas of Christ’s Kingdom and government.
We have a weak doctrine of corporation today because we have a weak doctrine of the body of our Lord, and of communion. If we limit the doctrine of corporation to the institutional church, we limit the scope of Christ’s work in the world. To incorporate means to give body to something; we need to incorporate our faith into the total context of our world and to minister and govern in our various spheres in Christ’s name and power.