Over and over again these days, I hear people speaking against “organized religion” as if it were some sort of plague on mankind. When you look at the global religious scene, it’s easy to see it that way. Religion is at the heart of much of the suffering that is going on in the world today. All too often, religion seems to do more harm than good. However, one can also find “whole books” documenting the good that Christianity has done in the world. It’s a two-sided coin.
For most of us, the issue of “organized religion” is personal. Each of us has had some experience with this phenomenon and many of us are jaded, disillusioned, and fed up. Within the Churches of God Pod, we all have horror stories to tell about our experiences with churches, or church leaders.
On the mega level, we have only to examine religious history to see the multitude of evils committed by organized religion: forced conversions by both Christians and Muslims; cruel Crusades; Inquisitions; witch hunts; burnings of both people and books; the brutal Muslim conquests; genocides, slave-taking; gang rapes; tortures; murders; confiscation of property; forced tithing; political intrigue in the name of God; etc. etc. The list of religious abuses is endless.
At the micro level, many of us have been part of, or victimized by, church politics. We may be among those who have seen the denomination in which many of us “grew up” divided, fragmented, and split into more than 400 parts. Many of us have lost all confidence in the kind of leadership that would create such chaos. Church politics has a draining, withering affect on the psyche. It is destabilizing, unsettling, and profoundly disturbing.
My father’s experience
Many years ago, my late father was a member of a mainline Christian church in Edmonton, Alberta. He was quite musically talented, having considerable expertise as a pianist and in singing. He had a wonderful, big, rich tenor voice. As a member of the choir in that Church, my father had his first, and only, experience with church politics. People in the choir were competing for soloist positions, for instrumental opportunities and other advantages. There was all kinds of “kissing up” and apple polishing. The politics of the church choir was so disturbing to my father that it eventually drove him out of the church. He never again darkened the door of any church, except for weddings and funerals. He came to have “no use for organized religion.” Yet, at home, he still sang hymns. (One of his favorites was “My Task.”)
The politics of church choirs is a microcosm of the larger world of church politics. Every organized human effort has its politics. Back in 1997, when Ted Armstrong was going through one of his rough patches, I wrote him what I had hoped would be an encouraging letter. As it turned out, he appreciated it and wrote me back. In his return letter he said, among other things, “Looks like power struggles and takeover attempts are never going to cease…As for me, I am happier than I have ever been in over 20 years; more productive, more fulfilled; more content. It is nice to be unfettered by church politics; to be completely bereft of a business manager, superintendent of ministers, ministerial council, etc. etc. and to be out from under church politics.”
I can identify with Ted’s sentiments. For some 25 years, my wife and I have been out from under the tyranny of church politics. It’s a wonderful freedom for which we are grateful to God. After all, didn’t Jesus say,“You shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free?” If something brings you into bondage, it doesn’t represent truth. It ought to be viewed as a warning sign that something is wrong.
Though we are free from the oppression of authoritarian church politics and ecclesiastical thought police, we feel more accountable than ever to Christ, who is the only true head of the Church, which collectively is his body. We are free, yet obligated, to live “in conscience toward God” (I Peter 2:19). We are no longer concerned with displeasing an ecclesiastical hierarchy that seeks to control our doctrine, our behaviors, and our finances (Acts 5:29). We have become “direct reports” to God through Christ (cf. 1 Timothy 2:5).
Respecting human instruments
At the same time, at the human level, we accept the authority of the Holy Spirit as it works through God’s human instruments. I have teachers and scholars with whom I check my own thinking and writing to make sure it’s on track. My wife and I also believe that there are legitimate prophets in the Church who are genuinely authorized by God to speak on his behalf (Ephesians 4:11; Acts 13:1). Yet there are no perfect human instruments. All of us have our flaws, blind spots, prejudices and foibles. From time to time, we all sin. Many who claim to be prophets are charlatans, phonies, and deceivers. One has to exercise discernment of spirits to determine who’s who.
We no longer accept denominational “package deals.” We view each preacher, each teacher or scholar, and each teaching, individually and on its own merits. After examination, we gladly receive the wheat and feel free to reject the chaff. Though our means are limited, we support to the degree that we can those ministries and scholars that we believe are doing some good in the world. We have no time for self-serving, tithe-hungry, empire-building, leaders of cults of personality.
God didn’t call us to denominations, he called us to himself. He called us to be good, and to do good in the world. The apostle James, Jesus’ half-brother, summed it up when he wrote, “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress [doing good] and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world [being good]” (James 1:27).
If religious people are not doing good in the world, their religion is in vain. We will not be judged on how “religious” we were, or by what we believed, or by what denomination we associated ourselves with, but by how we behaved – how we treated our fellows with whom we share the image of God – and by whether or not we did any good in the world (Matthew 25:35-40).
Time for a shift
It’s time the churches of God experienced a paradigm shift: from mere religiosity to clean living and good works, sans church politics. Organization is fine, so long as it fosters those things and not an ecclesiastical version of the “politics of personal destruction.” Christians in organizations must implement the standard of godly behavior in all situations. The Church is not a military machine, designed to enforce compliant behaviors and fill war chests.
As I’ve said many times in this column, organizations are mere tools; they are not “The Church.” The Church is the Body of Christ – that is, the human instrumentation through which he can freely work in the world. Tools are either of good quality, or they are not. The Body of Christ transcends church organizations, denominations, and even congregations. It comprises all those through whom Jesus Christ, by the power of the Holy Spirit working in people, advances the cause of the Kingdom of God in this world. It matters not how highly placed one is in a human hierarchy. What matters is the free flow of the Spirit in one’s life. Money, power and ecclesiastical status are no guarantee of spirituality – in fact they often work against it.
When the kind of love Jesus practiced and taught is manifest in the Church, there is no fear associated with it. As John wrote, “There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear” (I John 4:18). God’s way is not “fear religion.” It is not “winning by intimidation.” It is not threatening people into compliance. It is showing love for them (Galatians 5:13), teaching them (II Timothy 2:24), setting an example for them (I Peter 5:3), and meeting them at their points of real need (Acts 20:17, 35). We must support each other both by prayer and by deed.
The great thing about all this is that you can do it with or without the benefit of a denomination. There is great power in a small group of Christians that is truly animated by the Spirit of God. Such groups can do much good in the world. They can labor in intercessory prayer; visit the sick, the widows, the orphans and those who are imprisoned. They can study together, encourage each other and meet each other’s needs. They can help each other overcome the world, the flesh and the devil. They can be accountable to, and for, each other. And it doesn’t take some towering ecclesiastical figure inflated to bursting with self-importance to drive people into right behaviors.
Competent teachers and more mature leaders can be brought into such groups from time to time to help them over humps in understanding or growth impasses. But such people don’t need to come in as mini-tyrants, “taking control” of the group. Rather they can be teachers, facilitators and examples for the group.
Is Organized Religion a bad thing?
Lord Acton’s axiom is well known: power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. This, sadly, is what all too often happens within Church organizations. Power goes to people’s heads and they loose their grip on reality. They begin to think that they are much more than they are.
Once people become dependant upon a denominational paycheck, they are easily compromised. Fear of losing that paycheck can drive them to unchristian behaviors. Those who control paychecks know that they can control those who receive them; this is why hierarchical types are so intent in centralizing operations — especially monies and ministry. Giving power to a congregation can be fatal to a large, tithe-dependent, organization. The net result of this ecclesiastical Big Brother approach can be intellectual dishonesty, abandonment or betrayal of friends, divorce, destructive third party reporting, character assassination; the creation of an “us/them” mentality, and the alienation of Christians from Christians. None of this can be ascribed to the influence of the Spirit of God. All of it is a form of confining bondage. All these things have happened within the Churches of God Pod.
If Christians could organize themselves without creating a toxic political climate, then organizations would be fine; but the creation of authoritarian groups led by mini-tyrants with authoritarian mentalities, is not Christ’s way. There are a few Christian organizations in which the lust for money and the craving for power are less of a factor. But all too many Christian organizations devolve into mere fund-raising machines. Those who fail to contribute are “dropped from the list” after a limited period. That which is offered as “free” isn’t really free.
Either that or someone has to play the big shot. A struggle for power and control ensues, and those who are “disloyal” are rejected as heretics, liberals, or rebels. The sign on the ecclesiastical tyrant’s door may as well read: “Sycophants Only.”
Today, house churches seem to be the choice of many. They too have their problems, but for those who are fed up with the politics of “organized religion,” they may be the best way to go.