Every human being is existentially alone. Your reality is unique to you. You may experience the same things your neighbor does, but in different ways. For one person, a divorce is a devastating tragedy from which they never fully recover. For another, a divorce may be a glorious release from a lifetime of oppression. One person loves Brussels sprouts, another views them as foul-tasting mini-cabbages that are not fit for human consumption. Some see the universe as the product of blind naturalism. Others view it as the result of intelligent design.
Part of our reality is the phenomenon of religion. Religion is a particular system of faith and worship. The world is full of religions and many people are full of religion. Some believe that murdering people of other faiths, and sometimes even their own, somehow serves God (cf. John 16:2). A few writers like Sam Harris see religion as the bane of mankind. Writes Harris, “A glance at history, or at the pages of any newspaper, reveals that ideas which divide one group of human beings from another, only to unite them in slaughter, generally have their roots in religion,” The End of Faith, p. 12.
Continues Harris, “…the central tenet of every religious tradition is that all others are mere repositories of error or, at best, dangerously incomplete. Intolerance is thus intrinsic to every creed,” (ibid. p. 13). Harris concludes that “…religious beliefs are simply beyond the scope of rational discourse, (ibid). He’s got a point. Have you ever tried to argue a doctrinal point with someone who is locked in to a particular denominational dogma? Why is it often said, “There are three things one should not discuss in polite company: sex, politics and religion,”?
More than three decades ago, I served as secretary for a doctrinal committee in the Worldwide Church of God. At the same time, I managed the Editorial Services Department that produced all of the doctrinal literature of the Church. I knew intimately the contents of that body of literature. The more I delved into those materials, and participated in doctrinal committee meetings, the more I realized that significant doctrinal reform was needed but impossible. The “true believers” in the group were intransigent. They believed that the particular set of doctrines and dogmas around which they had circled their wagons was “the Gospel truth” and not to be meddled with. Those of us who sought reform were viewed as “liberals,” heretics and anathema. Battle lines were drawn and the so-called liberals cast out one by one.
Perhaps unwittingly, the founder of that denomination, Herbert W. Armstrong, appointed to succeed him, a man more liberal than any of us – Joseph Tkach. Once in power, he began scuttling the teachings of his predecessor and replacing them with standard Evangelical doctrine.
The whole thing was a tempest in a relatively tiny teapot. Today, what was once a small cult of personality-type religion has fragmented into hundreds of even more minor pieces. Consequently, the fragments have little or no impact on the larger world. Perhaps that is as it should be. From my perspective, none of these church groups ever captured the essence of the “faith once for all delivered” (Jude 3). The truth, in my opinion, does not lie in post-New Testament Catholicism, Greek Orthodoxy or Protestantism. Nor is it to be found in the fringe cults of personality built around the unique “revelations” of one man or woman.
Returning to Home Base
To find the authentic meaning of what Jesus built, we must move back in history, behind Protestantism, Catholicism and the formation of the gentile Church. We must return to the time of the New Testament – to the original Jewish apostles of Jesus.
As Dr. Roy Blizzard says, “The Church has become a grotesque monster.” I agree. We have drifted far from the original paradigm of the Body of Christ. We have devolved into an assortment of paganized, politicized, commercialized organizations and cults of human personality. Jesus did not come to engender hundreds of warring denominations. He did not come to create the theological mess that collectively calls itself “The Church.”
As I said at the beginning, the world is full of religions – some of them Christian. Depending on which culture we were born into, they are all part of our reality. We have to learn to cope with them. If any one of them were allowed to become dominant, it could impose its will on the hapless culture in which it arose and, if history is any indicator, people would suffer and die. Every major religion has done its share of torturing, maiming, forced conversions, heresy hunting and killing – all in the name of God.
Am I saying that religion has produced no good in the world? Not at all. It’s a mixed bag. Books have been written about the great accomplishments of the Christian faith in the West. At many levels, it has been a civilizing force. But there is no denying its apostasy from original, apostolic truth. Today’s Church, in all of its varied manifestations, is a far cry the faith of the first Christians. The first believers, “…devoted themselves to the apostle’s teaching, and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer,” (Acts 2:42). Here we see four primary elements, all conducted in a group setting: 1). Apostolic teaching 2) Fellowship 3) Breaking of bread and 4) Prayer. (Many believe that “breaking of bread” is a reference to keeping the Lord’s Supper, since the other three elements listed are all spiritual in nature.) Since all of the believers at this time were Jews, it is quite possible that this was done in a synagogue setting on the Sabbath (which is not Sunday, but the seventh day).
The churches today have, in many cases, moved well away from apostolic teaching. The departure began early – during the lifetimes of many of the original believers. We see indications of it in many of the New Testament writings.
No Expectation of a Neo-Reformation
The point is we’re not going to see the kind of reformation that is needed at a denominational level. We may see parts of it in zealous individuals who seek to understand the early church in its original Jewish setting prior to the time of the establishment of the apostate gentile church. It is even possible for whole congregations of courageous, studious, believers to return to authentic apostolic faith – but it is unlikely that it will happen. It takes a special kind of intellectual courage and a hunger for the truth that sets us free (John 8:32), to pursue that truth no matter where it leads. Studying church history is analogous to turning over and endless series of rocks and discovering the ugly bugs that hide beneath. Yet, as Dr. Roy Blizzard often says, “We know what happened, when it happened, why it happened, and who did it.” The record is there for all to read if they are willing. The leaders of churches, like the rest of us, have always been free to exercise freedom of choice. They have often done so to the detriment of the Body.
Meanwhile, we followers of Yeshua the Anointed One must learn to cope with the massive distortion that is organized Christianity. We cannot allow its abuses to disillusion us or destroy our faith. Personally, I am no longer interested in church organizations, denominations and cults of personality. I want God, Yeshua, the Holy Spirit, and the authentic apostolic teachings of Scripture in their original Jewish setting. I want the true faith that was once for all delivered. That means enjoying my own mini-Reformation. As Sally Fields says, “I’ve got this one life,” and I don’t want to spend it barking up the wrong spiritual tree. I wonder how many readers feel the same.