Science in Christian Perspective



Some thoughts on the nature of persons and the purpose of the Christian church
1 + 1 = Organization

Graduate School of Psychology
Fuller Theological Seminary
Pasadena, California 91101

From: JASA 30 (March 1978): 32-36.

In the black folk drama Green Pastures God says, "I'm lonely, I think I'll make me a man". And so the first organization was horn. By organization we mean two or more persons deliberately brought together for a specific purpose. God and his man Adam were the first organization. They were brought together to work toward a specific goal, i.e., to reduce the loneliness of God.

The second organization, Eve and Adam, Inc., was not unlike the first. It too was designed to assuage loneliness. Note Genesis 2:18: "And the Lord God said, 'It is not good that man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him'" (RSV). This organization was also designed for work:

And God blessed them, and God said to them, "Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth." (Genesis 1:28, Rev)

Fellowship and dominion: these were the goals of the second organization.

My thesis is: What was true of the first persons is true for all. Persons were made for organizations. It is their nature to be a part of organizations. They realize their personhood through participation in organizations. In fact, it could be said, "Nobody is anybody unless he/ she is a part of an organization." In organizational relationships were persons created and so shall they remain to the end of time. They are the organizational roles they play, no more, no less.

Implications of the Organizational Hypothesis

This organizational hypothesis clearly locates human nature in relationships with other persons rather than inside individuals. Gordon Allport (1937), in discussing the history of the study of personality, noted that the word persona in ancient Greece referred either to the masks worn by the actor in the play or to the actor himself offstage. A person could play many parts and wear many masks. On the other hand, the person was the mask he wore and, since he wore no mask offstage, he was at that point, by definition, no person. The thesis that persons were made for organizations strongly affirms this latter position, i.e., that persons are the roles they play. Adam was not Adam apart from his role in God's loneliness organization or his role with Eve in fellowship and dominion.

Thus individualism is illusory, if not epiphenomenal. The real essence of personhood is in relationships with other persons. John Donne put it far too mildly in his understatement, "No man is an island." Rousseau's fictional child Emile would have been no one at all, instead of the ideal man Rousseau envisioned, had Emile been reared in the forests away from persons and from Paris. There is no human nature deep within us waiting to be released from the oppression of society, culture and organizations. Who we are is who we have become in relationships. We are the roles we play. We are the organizations of which we have been members. It is our destiny and our essence to be related. Even Nietzsche's superman was inextricably bound to play a counterdependent role with his fellow man. This was also true of Kierkegaard, who preposterously deigned to call himself "that individual," There was and is no such person!

Charles Cooley (1902) suggested the term "looking glass self" for his proposal that we do not know who we are until we see ourselves reflected in the perceptions of other persons. He said, "Each to each a looking glass reflects the other that doth pass." Therefore basic identity is not personal as much as it is reflective. "Tell me who I am" is an appropriate question. It implies that who I am for you is the basis of my own self-understanding.

Harry Stack Sullivan (1953) suggested that personality exists between us rather than in us. It is "interpersonal" in contrast to "individual." By this he meant that character is a specific style of relating to other persons. It is expressed and observed in interpersonal interaction. It does not exist at all when a person is not relating. Further, when it does appear, personality is out there between us, never within us. It exists in the space between persons and should never be thought of as residing inside them. Personality is social.

Eriek Erickson (1950) characterized the ego crisis of the adolescent period as one of finding identity versus remaining in role diffusion and confusion. Finding identity implies finding a role to play. The role should fit in with the opportunities offered by one's culture at the same time that it should incorporate the inner dynamics of one's personal history. At its narrowest, this means that youth may choose only those vocations open to them. They cannot be Indian chiefs, medicine men or canoe builders if they do not live where these are options. At its broadest, it means that if youth desires new vocations they must find persons to affirm those roles, or they will not survive. This is vividly illustrated in Erikson's psychohistory of Martin Luther (1958) in which he grounds Luther's creative attempt at reformation in the efforts of the German princes to assert themselves.

Thus Cooley's "looking glass self" theory of basic identity, Sullivan's interpersonal theory of personality and Erikson's theory of the cultural foundation for role identity, all lend support to the view that the nature of persons is social. It is but a small step from these views to the present hypothesis, that human nature is organizational.
One final implication is noteworthy. Since the time of Plato cognition or reason has characteristically been preferred to feelings or volitions. Philosophers in Plato's Republic were to be the rulers because they could reason from principles and would not be susceptible to the passions of soldiers or the emotions of the slaves. The implicit assumption underlying this tripartite division of human faculties was that the emotions and the will could be easily swayed by crowd influence.

These ideas have pervaded most western thinking. Mentally ill persons were defined as those who became irrational, i.e. who would not listen to reason. Those thought to be most human were those who could resist crowd pressure and reason on their own. To be abnormal meant to give in to social pressure and irrationalism, whether in the form of authority or emotion.

Social groups became suspect. People lost their reason when too many of them got together. Gustav Le Bon, in writing the first book on social psychology, The Crowd (1895), clearly affirmed this position. He noted that persons in groups behave irrationally. They must be controlled by wise leaders who themselves are controlled by the ability to reason on the basis of principles.

The relation between persons in groups and a negative evaluation of all that was not rational led to the name of one of American psychology's first journals, The Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology.

The organizational thesis of this paper finds the connection between groups and abnormality to be a spurious one. It is gratifying to note that the American Psychological Association corrected this hangover from Plato in 1951 by separating abnormal from social psychology. There are now two journals; The Journal of Abnormal Psychology and The Journal of Personality.

The Christian church is the organization par excellence. It alone offers persons their nature in a way that assures them they will never have to go seeking it again.

and Social Psychology. No longer is it thought that there is a necessary relationship between social events and abnormal behavior. The title Personality and Social Psychology attests to the now acknowledged relationship between the nature of persons (i.e. their personality) and their experiences with others (i.e. theft social groups).
Of course, the presumption that human nature is organizational goes one step further. Whereas much psychology would opt for an interactionist position (i.e. the view that human nature is a function of both individuality and social experience), the organizational thesis takes the viewpoint that personality is entirely social and that individualism is only a reflective epiphenomenon. In point of sequence therefore, human nature is a function first of feelings and strivings resuiting from group relationships. It comes, after a time, to have a rational component. The central value of group experience in determining true personhnod is affirmed.

How Do Organizations Fulfil Human Nature?

Sigmund Freud said that the ideal person (genital character) was characterized by having someone to love and something to do (lieben und arbeiten). Contemporary reality therapy bases its whole approach on an updating of these two themes. These therapists explicitly assist persons in finding jobs and other persons for whom they can care. Joseph Addison added a third ingredient; "something to hope for". So it might be said that human beings are those who love and who work and who hope. This is what it means to be a person.

What have organizations to do with these three? Plenty, they are those social groups who throughout history have intentionally pursued these ends. If persons have found love, work and hope outside organizations, they have done so only rarely, incidentally and to a small degree.

Earlier I said that organizations were groups of persons deliberately brought together to achieve a goal. What are the goals of organizations? Behind each organizational goal lies a human need. So the goal of any organization is to meet human needs. God had a need; to reduce his loneliness. So he created an organization. Persons need to get from one place to another; so a bus company is formed. Persons need to know what others are thinking; so a teletype company is organized. Persons need to keep warm; so a heating company arises. People need to see at night; so an electric utility company is formed. All organizations are directed toward meeting human needs. If they cease to meet needs or to make a contribution, they go out of business.

Implicitly, organizations have always attempted to meet two kinds of human needs, i.e. general and personal. General needs are needs for clothing, transportation, education, communication, etc. Personal needs are the need for love, work, and hope. These last are the needs to realize one's human nature, to find identity and status.
I said implicitly, because explicitly organizations have often attended to general needs and forgotten the personal ones. This has led many thinkers, Karl Marx being one of the first, to criticize organizations because they treated persons as things, i.e. they dehumanized people. Ideally, organizations have not forgotten the personal needs of individuals. They have sought to meet everybody's need for love, work, and hope. At the least, this makes for happy employees. At best, personal fulfillment is seen as equal in importance to producing a product.

As has been said, all organizations do, in fact, implicitly function to meet both general and personal needs. Some organizations are explicit about it. Take for example these two statements of company policy:

1. The company aims to he a successful business which lives out its concern for the dignity and worth of its members as it pursues profits. To accomplish this, the company will attempt to operate in such a way as to:
accept people as they are, expect responsible behavior, support individuals and personal growth, assist individuals to develop their competencies, enlarge the opportunity for impact of each individual in the company in every practical way, bend every effort to resolve conflicts through discussions and fair judgment, minimizing arbitrary rules and the use of authority.
We have two basic aims: One is to make products which are genuinely new and useful to the public, products of the highest quality and at reasonable cost. In this way we assure the financial success of the company and each of us has the satisfaction of helping to make a creative contribution to the society. The other is to give everyone working for the company a personal opportunity within the company for full exercise of his talents: to express his opinions, to share in the progress of the company as far as his capacities permit, to earn enough money so that the need for earning more will not always be the first thing on his mind-opportunity, in short, to make his work here a fully rewarding and important part of his life.2.
(Beekhard, 1969, p. 119)

Organizations can function to fulfil persons at same time that they produce efficiently. Profits persons can go together.

This is what organizations have to do with the nature of persons. Organizations do for persons what they in no way can do for themselves. They give them roles to play and a set of futures in which to put their trust. This is true whether the organization is marriage, Rotary International, the local plant, a chess club, the national government, Bell Telephone Company, or the Christian church. Persons join organizations because it is their nature to seek love, work and hope. These are things they cannot provide for themselves.

As has been said (Lawrence and Lorsch, 1969), "organizations are the central facts of modem life, They serve as crucial mediators between the individual and the entire society" (p. 99). They are, and always have been, the primary channels or means through which persons realize their natures and discover their identities. Some might criticize this idea because it emphasizes what persons do rather than what they are. Let it be remembered that the position taken here is that persons are what they do. They are ruin-persons apart from their roles in the organizations to which they belong. Who am I apart from my roles as father, citizen, teacher, psychologist, mountain climber, Christian, swimmer, and scientist? No one! And all these are roles I have achieved through participation in organizations. So the answer is yes, the organizational hypothesis does emphasize what people do as opposed to what they are. People are what they have achieved in life, not what they are in themselves.

The Christian Church: Organization par Excellence In regard to the distinction between what people are and what they do, Sarbin (1970) compared achieved with ascribed status. Understanding this difference clarifies why the Christian church does for persons what no other organization can. The organizational hypothesis proposed here asserts that persons are what they do or have achieved. However, there are roles which are given to persons, or ascribed to them, apart from anything they did to deserve or obtain them. By birth one becomes a son or daughter, black or white, citizen of the USA or Mexico, a neighbor in one community or another. Do these not give identity (i.e. meet the need for love, work and hope) just because they are ascribed or unearned? Are these roles not as important as any that can be achieved, particularly if that ascribed identity is that of a child of God? (Galatians 3:16) The answer is yes. Yes, in spite of the fact that much love, work and hope come from those roles we achieve. Yes, in spite of the fact that what most organizations offer is a chance to work for identity. Yes, in spite of the fact that the status that comes from ascribed roles is given without any effort at all. All one has to do is accept ascribed roles and believe that they are true.

But perhaps the most crucial reasons ascribed roles are important is that achieved roles have a way of fading and passing away. Etzioni (1964) says that the one of the chief characteristics of organizations is that and in them persons are expendable. This means that when a worker doesn't do the job as well as he/she once did, that person can and will be replaced. If one gets sick or grows old, the organization will put somebody else in charge of doing the job. What then happens to the love, the work and the hope one has achieved? Where does this achieved status go when one is fired or retired? Achieved identity is no more stable than the present moment.

One can look at the crises in roles in terms of different kinds of threats. Just as the two types of roles are ascribed and achieved, so threats to these roles come in two kinds, i.e. developmental and accidental threats.

Developmental threats are those events one expects to happen if one lives long enough. They are part of the. natural developmental process. For example, one expects to retire at age 65; one expects for children to grow up and marry; one expects to not play football  when he turns 50 years old. These are developmental times. These words to the church at Ephesus are threats to both ascribed and achieved roles.

Accidental threats are the unexpected, tragic, premature, unplanned for events one hopes to avoid or bypass. For example, the death of a baby child; an automobile accident that cripples one; being fired from a job; or a divorce. These are accidental threats to both ascribed and achieved roles.

Suffice it to say, the essence of personhood, i.e. the roles we play in organizations, can be taken away. What happens to persons then? Do they lose their human nature? Yes, if we take as an absolute the thesis with which this paper began, that there are no persons apart from their roles. But no, if there is a role that cannot be lost, no matter what. Yes, if all a person has is the love, work, and hope that comes from roles that can be easily filled by others. No, if there is an identity which stems from an organization made up entirely of ascribed roles. Yes, if one is only what one does. No, if there is a status that comes entirely from acceptance or faith.

This is where the Christian church comes in. It offers an identity that cannot be lost and it is an organization made up entirely by ascription. Nobody earns his or her role in it. It is the organization par excellence. A person simply joins and accepts a role as child in the family of God. I began by talking about the first two organizations in history, i.e. 1) God and Adam, and 2) Adam and Eve. The third and the fourth organizations were likewise dependent on God's initiation. It was He who established the children of Israel and the church of our Lord Jesus Christ. The goals were much the same as before: fellowship and dominion. In each case He offered membership that was not based in any way on achievement. It was and is an ascribed, not an achieved, role.

Concerning Israel, note the words of the Deuteronomic Covenant proclaimed to the Hebrews shortly after they had conquered Jericho and settled in Caanan:

For you are a people holy to the Lord your God; the Lord you God has chosen you to be a people for his own possession, out of all the peoples that are on the face of the earth. It was not because you were more in number than any other people that the Lord set his love upon you and chose you, for you were the fewest of all peoples; but it is because the Lord loves you, and is keeping the oath which he swore to your fathers, that the Lord has brought you out with a mighty hand, and redeemed you from the house of bondage, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt. Know therefore that the Lord your God is God, the faithful God who keeps covenant and steadfast love with those who love him and keep his commandments, to a thousand generations, . . . (Deuteronomy 7:6-9, asv) Concerning the church, note again the words of Jesus immediately after Peter had confessed, "thou art the Christ, son of the living God": And Jesus answered him, "Blessed are you, Simon BarJona! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it, (Matthew 16:17-18, asv)

Paul explained the meaning of Jesus' promise many times.

But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), and raised us up with him, and made us sit with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God-not because of works, lest any man should boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them. (Ephesians 2:4-10, RSV)

The role in both the community of the children of Israel and its successor the community of the New Covenant, the Christian church, is ascribed (given freely) without cost. Persons don't have to work for or achieve this identity. It is freely offered to them simply for the asking and the receiving. As Paul Tillich said, "You are accepted; accept your acceptance" (1948).

Remember Jesus said to Peter, ". . . the powers of death shall not prevail against it". This means that all threats to the status given by faith will not be successful. A person may get sick and lose his or her job at the plant. Children may grow up, leave home, and leave a mother not knowing what to do with herself. Retirement may be forced upon a person. These events may threaten and overwhelm other roles. But not so the identity given persons through the church. It does not change. It remains the same. The Old Testament speaks of the mercy of God which is steadfast and lasts forever. The New Testament tells of an event on a cross which is finished, over, done once and for all. We have been loved by God.

See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are. The reason why the world does not know us is that it did not know him. Beloved, we are God's children now; it does not yet appear what we shall be, but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. (1 John 3:1-2, RSV)

So the Christian church is the organization par excellence. Like all other organizations, it is a group of people deliberately brought together to meet human needs. Like other organizations, it is a channel or means through which persons realize their human natures. Like other organizations, the church provides a medium for persons to find love, work and hope.

But unlike other organizations, in it one does not have to achieve status. One is given a role just by accepting it, Trusting God, having faith in Him, gives persons a part to play that can never be taken away. No threat is great enough to be any danger at all to the truth that persons are children of God.

To be sure, persons can achieve love, work and hope by working in the church. They can use their gifts in the body of Christ (I Corinthians 12:27-31). They can be witnesses, teachers, officers, givers, servants, activists, missionaries, even preachers. But when the years pass, strength ebbs, motivation falters, accidents happen, and these roles pass away and are but memories, a person's basic status remains the same. Their status is based on grace (God's love), not on works (the roles they achieved).

Hear these words:

For by grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God-not because of work, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them (Ephesians 2:8-9, RSV)

So of all the organizations of the world, the Christian church is the organization par excellence. It alone offers persons an identity that will never change. The love, the work, and the hope which all persons seek can be found once for all in the church. Theft human nature will never be in danger again.


Let me end where I began: Human nature is social. Persons are what they become in interaction with others. Organizations are those intentional social creations in which persons find themselves. Persons seek someone to love, something to do, and something to hope for. This is their nature. This nature comes to life via the roles they play in organizations. These roles can be ascribed (given) or achieved (earned). Roles are always being threatened by developmental (expected) or accidental (unexpected) changes. Time passes. Tragedy occurs. So human nature is always being threatened because roles change.

But not so in the Christian church, that organization which traces its heritage back through the election of the Jewish people, the Garden of Eden, to the creation of Adam. It offers persons the role of "child of God" which can never be taken away, although years pass and accidents occur. It is based on the unchanging love and grace of God.

So the Christian church is the organization par excellence. It alone offers persons their nature in a way that assures them they will never have to go seeking it again. By being in the Christian church persons do, in fact, play a role that gives them some one to love, something to do and a future in which to trust.

As one statement about the church suggests, "Dearly beloved, the church is of God and will be preserved
to the end of time . . . All, of every age and station, stand in need of the means of grace which it alone supplies."' So may it be.


1Taken from The Book of Worship for Church and Home, The Methodist Publishing House, p. 141.


Aliport, G. W. Personality: A Psychological Interpretation. New York: Holt and Co., 1937.
Beckhard, R. Organization Development: Strategies and Models. Reading, Massachusetts: Addison-Wesley, 1969.
The Book of Worship for Church and Home. Nashville, Tennessee: United Methodist Publishing House, 1965.
Cooley, C. H. Human Nature and the Social Order. New York: Scribners, 1902.
Erikson,E. H. Childhood and Society. New York: W. W. Norton and Co., 1950.
Erikson, E. H. Young Man Luther, a Study in Psychoanalysis and History. New York: W. W. Norton and Co., 1958.
Etzioni, A. Modern Organizations. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1964.
The Holy Bible: Revised Standard Version. Nashville, Tennessee: Thomas Nelson, Inc., 1971.
Lawrence, P. R. and Lorsch, J. W. Developing Organizations: Diagnosis and Action. Reading, Massachusetts: AddisonWesley, 1969.
Le Bon, G. The Crowd. London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1896.
Sarbin, T. R. "A Role Theory Perspective for Community Psychology: The Structure of Social Identity." In D. Adelson and B. L. Kalis (Eds.) Community Psycholoyy and Mental Health: Perspectives and Challenges. Scranton, Pennsylvania: Chandler Publishing Co., 1970.
Sullivan, H. S. Conceptions of Modern Psychiatry. New York: W. W. Norton and Co., 1953,
Tillich, P. "You are Accepted." In The Shaking of the Foundations. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1948.