Corporate Personalities

Fifth in a series. Edited for electronic publication.

Years ago, a pastor went to a new congregation, he went knowing the congregation had a terrible reputation for grinding up members and preachers alike.  It was a small congregation, and he visited every home in it in about a month.  Then he said to himself, “I like every person in this church—it is the corporate personality that I don’t like. It stinks.”  Churches, businesses, schools, and nations all have a “corporate personality,” culture or climate. The U.S. Marine Corps boast of its Esprit de Corps, literally, its “corporate spirit.”

The Bible recognizes several important “corporate personalities.” In Genesis 32, when Jacob, the son of Isaac, the son of Abraham, wrestled all night at the brook Jabbok with the angel of the LORD, he said, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” And the angel of the LORD said, “Your name is no longer Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed.” In the Hebrew Bible, Israel was a man, but Israel the man stood for a people and his sons for Israel’s tribes. Obviously, God cared about Israel. God sent Moses to lead the people out of the slavery of Egypt. He gave the people his law through Moses at Sinai.  And he led the people to the borders of the promised land, though he himself did not go in. In Hosea 11:1 God speaks through his prophet and says of his people, “When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son.”  In Matthew 2:15 the evangelist applies this same text to Jesus! The Messiah stands for God’s people because he is the head!

In New Testament, St. Paul says that all humanity is bound together in two individuals. In 1st Corinthians 15, he says that the first Adam is from the earth, a man of dust. He says that all human beings bear the image of the man of dust. It is from dust that we have come, and to dust that we will return. In the same chapter Paul says that the “second” and “last” Adam is Jesus Christ, the man of heaven. Paul says that “If we have borne the image of the man of dust, so we shall also bear the image of the man of heaven.” And in Romans 6, Paul says that “if we have been united (by baptism) with (Jesus) in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.”

According to 1st Corinthians 12:13, when we are baptized, we are baptized by one Spirit into one body, the church, a corporate personality. Christ is the head of his body, the church, and we are all members of it.  We are his eyes and ears, and hands, and feet, and heart in the world. Oswald Chambers said, “Without him, we cannot; without us, he will not.”  My mother used to say, “The only Christ the world will see is the Christ it sees in you and me.”  We are Christ’s body, visible. What do people see?

In John 17, Jesus prayed that we might all be “one” that the world might believe God sent him. Today, maintaining oneness is increasingly difficult. It is difficult politically, and religiously. Few people are still unconvinced, for few people keep an open mind.

Consider politics. In his book, “21 Lessons for the 21st Century,” Yuval Noah Harari, says that people don’t vote with their intellect, they vote with their feelings. If it feels right to us, we vote for it, often to our own harm. We ought to remember the word of the prophet Jeremiah when he warns, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately corrupt.” (Jeremiah 17:9) Meaning?  Much of what we “feel” we “feel” in error.

The same thing is true in religion. Today, when most Christians speak to one another about the issues that divide us, we don’t really dialogue about or debate the issue, we simply drop a load on our opponents and call for a vote. Few people are still convinced by the debate, for few people keep an open mind. How sad, Krister Stendhal, a great New Testament scholar once said, “We are not ready to share our truth until we are ready to be converted to the truth of another.”

I was a delegate to the 2009 Synod and had a chance to lead the synod in Worship. I told the delegates that the most distinctive feature of our Moravian Church since the experience of August 13, 1727, is the way we have been united, not in doctrine, but in a person, Jesus Christ. I suggested that as long as this is true, we will continue to have a unique witness within the church universal. When it is no longer true, we will simply be another of the 50,000 protestant denominations fighting about doctrine, looking for our piece of the pie.

The Bible is big on “corporate personalities,” and it treats evil as “a corporate personality,” too. Satan is the “one” who ties all evil together. Ephesians 2:2 calls Satan “the prince of the power of the air, the spirit now at work in the sons and daughters of disobedience.” Where evil is at work, Satan is at work. If Satan is intelligent and cunning, it is because his servants are intelligent and cunning. If Satan is omnipresent, it is because his minions are everywhere.  If Satan is powerful, it is because those who serve him have accrued great power.  If Satan causes confusion, it is because his servants are confused. The servants of evil are in competition with one another. Nonetheless, they are always and ever against God and God’s people.

Today, we are likely to speak of evil as having a side that we cannot see and understand. Thus C.S. Lewis says, “To believe in the devil is to believe that evil is greater than the sum total of its parts.”  And Emil Brunner says, “To believe in the devil is to believe that the possibilities of evil are not exhausted by purely human evil.”

The New Testament often describes Satan and his minions using graphic, in-your-face language. Peter says, “He prowls about like a roaring lion seeking someone to devour.” Paul says, “He disguises himself as an angel of light,” meaning he promises us good but delivers evil. Revelation describes him as, “that ancient serpent,” a clear reference to Genesis 3. Jesus himself took Satan seriously—but he eschewed the simile and the metaphor. In John 8:44, Jesus calls Satan “a murderer from the beginning,” and says that he is “a liar and the father of lies.”

I think it is interesting Jesus sees Satan as a liar and a murder. Lies kill and examples of this abound. We lie to ourselves and cost ourselves health and life. Today, when people post false information about the danger of the Covid-19 vaccine on Facebook and Twitter, they set up a chain of events that leads to the death of many others. Tens of thousands of people have died because they believed a lie and refused the vaccine. In the early 1970s When Ford ignored the problem of exploding gas tanks in the Pinto, it was tantamount to a lie, and more than 900 people died because of it.

Two weeks ago, several people came up to me after my sermon on the powers and asked why I did not include R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company in my initial explanation of the powers.  Like me, at least half of them had been employed by R.J.R.  So, for the sake of honesty, and for the sake of my continuing credibility, I must say something. As I do, please remember that R.J.R. Tobacco Co. gave employment to me, my wife, and to many members of our families.  I am not preaching at you; I am speaking from my own experience.  This is my truth.

Let me begin with a story. The late _______________was an officer of R.J. Reynolds Tobacco, Co. in its hey-day, the 1950s, and 1960s, and he was a member here at Fries Memorial back in the 1970s and 1980s. He told me that when he and the other senior officers at R.J.R. Tobacco Co. came home from the 2nd World War they just wanted to do something great for Winston-Salem. He said, “At the time, we did not know about the dangers of smoking.” Then he took me into the kitchen of his house where he pulled a TV dinner out of his freezer and read me the ingredients. He said, “You may not believe it, now, but someday you will learn that this stuff is as bad as—or worse than, tobacco.” As one who has heart disease, I now believe that to be true.

Now let me confess that, unlike this old gentleman, when I went to work for R.J.R. Tobacco Co, I knew about the dangers of smoking. I justified my employment in several ways.  I told myself that people chose to smoke. I told myself that smoking in moderation was no more dangerous than anything else in moderation. I made ‘em, and, from time to time, I smoked ‘em.* I told myself if it was as dangerous as some thought, the government would stop it altogether. I also needed the money. The wages I earned at Reynolds paid for my degree from Carolina and bought me my first new car, a 1970 VW beetle. When I went to seminary, my wife worked for Reynolds in Lexington, Kentucky.  She helped support us and pay for my seminary education. Though I was uneasy about the product, I often boasted to my friends about what a great company Reynolds was. I told them how the company integrated it lunchrooms in the mid-1950s, making race relations in Winston-Salem better than they were in Raleigh, or in Greensboro. I told them how Reynolds had no unions, but it paid its workers so much that it set the standard for the union shops. I told them about the company’s community spirit, and how it brought Wake Forest to Winston-Salem and funded many of the city’s cultural attractions. I told them about how the company made summer jobs for young people in Winston-Salem so that we could afford to pay for college or trade school. I told them how kind the company was to my wife when she was pregnant with our son, allowing her to fly on the company plane to Winston-Salem to see her mother. Later, I would point out how Reynolds Profit Sharing made millionaires out of a lot of hourly workers.

Certainly, R.J.R. Tobacco Company benefited the Moravian Church. I still remember my first Moravian Minister’s Conferences at Laurel Ridge.  In a ‘roundabout way, the company even paid for those conferences—through their well-placed employees, and when we preachers arrived, we were always greeted by a table overflowing with packs of free cigarettes, Winstons, Salems, and Camels, etc.  Preachers who never smoked at any other time smoked at Minister’s Conference. I remember the comment of one of our speakers—I can still call his name. He said, “I was just at your Northern Province retreat. They served beer, which you would never do; but they would never do this.” Then he paraphrased Jesus and said, “It is hard to be a prophet in your own hometown.” Today, like most of you, I know that tobacco giveth and tobacco taketh away. That does not keep me from yearning for the good old days of innocence when one could smoke a cigarette without even thinking about it. Nor does it make me less likely to identify with the prophet Isaiah who said two things that have always grabbed my attention.  First, Isaiah identified with the people he served saying, “Woe is me, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips.” Lungs, lips, what’s the difference?  (Isaiah 6:5) Secondly, I remember how Isaiah was told by God to speak of a better tomorrow. In Isaiah 40:2 the God speaks to his prophet saying:

Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that her warfare is ended, that her iniquity is pardoned, that she has received from the LORD’s hand double for all her sins.

All of us who made ‘em and smoked ‘em want to claim Isaiah’s word to Jerusalem for ourselves. We would especially like to think that there are no more penalties to be paid in this life regarding our tobacco use. That may or may not be so. Life is not over. Quitting tobacco now improves anyone’s chances for longer life. And the longer we have been quit, the better off we are. More importantly, I am convinced that Isaiah’s word to Jerusalem is true for us, for in Colossians 2 we read:

 13 And you, who were dead in trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, 14 having canceled the bond which stood against us with its legal demands; this he set aside, nailing it to the cross. 15 He disarmed the principalities and powers and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in him.


The Pastor

*I was never a big-time smoker, just a chipper, smoking several cigarettes a day. I never wanted to admit that I was a smoker. I lied to myself.  Many have.  Today we know that every cigarette, cigar, pinch, or chew does us harm.

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