Bad Religion

“I have faith, I just don’t believe in organized religion…”  Wasn’t sure what to think when I heard this for the first time.  A close friend of mine made this statement after listening to a long and lively classroom discussion on religion.  This wouldn’t be the last time I would hear something like this.  Another friend later said, “I go to church, but I’m not a member anywhere… Christianity is about a personal relationship with Jesus, not an affiliation with a specific church…”  Each person had a very different approach to their faith, but they were equally disillusioned toward organized religion by past religious experiences.  For them, organized religion was at best unnecessary and at worst a real hindrance to real religion.

These cases certainly aren’t isolated instances.  Many people today herald their own spiritual exercises as not a religion, but a relationship.  What this really means is sometimes unclear, but often the idea includes the sentiment that Christianity can and perhaps should be practiced outside of organized religion, outside of any religious institution, and outside of a church.  For some this theology is evident in the lack of any official affiliation with a home congregation.  Others, though, go so far as to stop attending church assemblies entirely. 

Can true Christianity really be achieved without the structure of organized religion?  Is organized religion bad religion?  The Bible provides some interesting answers.

Organized Religion in the Bible

From the beginning of Christianity and the conversion of the very first disciples after Christ’s ascension, the Church had a kind of organization that was much more deliberate than the loose fellowship we sometimes see today.  After Peter’s sermon on the Day of Pentecost, the writer of Acts records, “Then those who gladly received his word were baptized; and that day about three thousand souls were added to them.  And they continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in prayers” (Acts 2:41-42).  Later in the same chapter Luke wrote, “Now all who believed were together, and had all things in common, 45 and sold their possessions and goods, and divided them among all, as anyone had need. 46 So continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they ate their food with gladness and simplicity of heart,47 praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to the church daily those who were being saved” (Acts 2:44-47).  From the beginning, Christianity was so much more than a personal experience; it was a collective effort.  Congregations like this one in Jerusalem assembled with each others often, sometimes even daily.

This first example of a congregation sets a standard that would be carried through the rest of Acts and on into the entire New Testament.  During Paul’s missionary journeys he organized his converts into congregations and later wrote letters of encouragement and discipline to many of these groups.  He addresses the believers collectively, as purposefully organized churches.  Like he wrote to Corinthians, “Paul, called to be an apostle of Jesus Christ through the will of God, and Sosthenes our brother, to the church of God which is at Corinth…” (1 Corinthians 1:1-2)  Even in Revelation, the Lord addresses the disciples in the context of local congregations (Revelation 2-3). 

What’s the reason for the rhetoric?  After their conversion, Christians in the New Testament weren’t left to pursue their own religious experiences; they participated in deliberately designed, carefully organized local churches.  Carrying on the authoritative traditions and teachings of the Apostles, first century Christians prayed together, sang together, studied together, worshipped together, and worked together as members of the Church universally, but organized locally into congregations (Acts 2:41-47, Colossians 3:16, Ephesians 4:16).  In the biblical model of the Church, organized religion is a powerful force uniting and edifying the Lord’s people.  Paul explains, “[Through Christ] the whole body, joined and knit together by what every joint supplies, according to the effective working by which every part does its share, causes growth of the body for the edifying of itself in love.   

How Organized?

The Church of the New Testament clearly has a purposeful organization, but sometimes the real nature of this institution becomes overshadow by human traditions.  Today, many churches have a complicated government structure, a church headquarters, church councils, church colleges, creeds, missionary societies, and a host of other manmade components foreign to the Scriptures.  What’s the big deal?  The Church described in the Bible is very different from many churches today.  The biblical Church has no headquarters but heaven, no creed but the Bible, and no government structure more complex than the simple model found in the inspired Word of God.  The organization of the Church in the Bible is simple and straightforward.

Making this distinction between human customs and God-inspired traditions is critical.  Choosing a church that is free from the human customs is equally crucially.  Supplanting or supplementing the biblical organization of the Church is no small error.  Jesus condemned the Pharisees for their manmade rituals.  He said, “These people draw near to Me with their mouth, And honor Me with their lips, But their heart is far from Me.  And in vain they worship Me, Teaching as doctrines the commandments of men” (Matthew 15:8-9, Isaiah 29:13).  How important is it not to complicate the simple pattern of organization and worship described in the Bible?  For the Pharisees it may have been the difference between heaven and hell.  For this same reason, Titus was told to rebuke the Cretans, commanding them to be “sound in the faith, not giving heed to Jewish fables and commandments of men…” (Titus 1:13-14).

Good Religion Gone Bad

Foreseeing the coming troubles of the Church, both Paul and the Lord emphasized the real danger of heeding human traditions as though they came from God.  They called these misguided religious exercises “commandments of men”. Both knew that the vital organization of the Church would soon be abused and used as a platform for propelling a perverted form of religion. 

Some of these commandments of men are addressed in the Bible.  The initial issues in the early Church were largely with Judaizing teachers and others that would have had the Church revert to the ordinances of the Mosaic Law (Galatians 5:1-4, Colossians 2:16-17).  Unfortunately, the dissention went further.  Paul spoke of those that encouraged the “worship of angels” (Colossians 2:18) and explained that some would come “forbidding to marry, and commanding to abstain from foods” (1 Timothy 4:3).  In the face of these false doctrines, many Christians and many congregations stumbled never to rise again.

Other commandments of men would soon follow.  In 120 AD the doctrine of Holy Water was introduced.  In 140 AD Lent and the rituals related to it were implemented.  By 150 AD many people forsook biblical teachings on baptism and practiced infant baptism.  And around 200 AD elders were replaced by priests.  None of these doctrines can be supported by the Bible, but all have been encouraged as a part of a religious system that God never endorsed.  Like sometimes happens, something good – organized religion – was turned into something that the Lord never meant for it to be.  It wasn’t long before most churches weren’t the Church at all.

Itching Ears

Seeing the harm that could be done through organized religion, my two friends gave up on church completely and pursued their own personal form of Christianity.  Interestingly, many people in the religious community have responded quite differently.  Rather than resisting the heresy of most mainline religious systems, many church-goers give themselves over to the organization, unconditionally embracing their church.  The Lord said this would be so.  He said, “For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine, but according to their own desires, because they have itching ears, they will heap up for themselves teachers; 4 and they will turn their ears away from the truth, and be turned aside to fables.” (1 Timothy 4:3-4).  From the beginning, the Scriptures prophesies that it wouldn’t be long before the real Church and real religion would be forsaken by most for a kind of religion that doesn’t come from God at all.

Not all religion is good religion and not all good religion is good enough.  If you’re not part of a local congregation, find one.  If you can’t find one that looks like the church in the Bible, start one.  Never settle for mediocrity and never try to serve the Lord alone.

avatar About Tad
I am a member of the Riverside Road Church of Christ in Ozark, MO, where I share the responsibility of teaching and preaching with several other men. In my secular work, I am a professor at Cox College in Springfield, MO, in the department of radiologic sciences and imaging.

9 thoughts on “Bad Religion”

  1. Thank you everyone for your thoughts!

    Richard, good point about the mutual encouragement we receive through the structure of the Church. Outside of this institution we would be severely lacking in several areas of the Christian walk. Edification, leadership, and even discipline are all basics aspects of the Church not easily achieved outside of an affiliation with a local congregation.

    Joshua, that’s a good scripture to clarifiy an important point. Paul says in Galatians 6 that we are to “bear one another’s burdens”, but in the same breath says “each one shall bear his own load.” In short, we all work together towards a common goal, but still stand alone in the judgment. For this reason we should work out our own salvation, not seeming to live vicariously through the works of others in our congregation.

    Louis, thank you. The Church in many ways is a suppliment to each one’s own faith in the Lord. The structure of the Church makes her members stronger, and the members make the collective Church stronger.

  2. Ha! Just got around to reading this. . . Good thoughts, Tad. Your statement; “The biblical Church has no headquarters but heaven. . ” points to the matter of faith. We can’t see the King and High Priest, but the Father wants us to trust that King and High Priest. This removes the kind of certainty our weakness craves; men who know all the answers. It puts every believer in the position to learn from the King through His revelation, and to learn from one another “by that which every joint supplies.”

  3. I see no biblical assurances for salvation outside of the church. It might be possible but I cannot make that judgement. Only God can do that. As a preacher of the word I can only follow the scriptures. I see no assurances outside of the church. Every letter and gospel in the new testament is written to the church or to church members. There is no guidance offered to non-members except that they need to join. When Peter went to Cornielius he saw no other option but to offer them baptism which adds us to the church.

  4. Excellent thoughts Tad. I wondered if you would comment on Philippians 2:12, where Paul tells the brethren to work out their own salvation with fear and trembling.

  5. I submit that it isn’t possible to be a Christian without the church. God did not institute the local congregation because he thought it would be fun. We have the local congregation because we need each other.

    Romans 15:1-6 (ESV) “We who are strong have an obligation to bear with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves. Let each of us please his neighbor for his good, to build him up. For Christ did not please himself, but as it is written, “The reproaches of those who reproached you fell on me. For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope. May the God of endurance and encouragement grant you to live in such harmony with one another, in accord with Christ Jesus, that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

    The scriptures are very clear. We need each other. We are to help one another, we are to edify (build up) one another. It is a wonderful thing to be under the loving care of a local eldership. Knowing that they are watching out for your soul. On a personal note, I was able to attend a meeting at Section Kansas over the weekend, and I was spiritually energized by the faith exhibited. It was a real encouragement. As Rick expressed I could go on and on concerning this subject. Tad you covered this one well, good work!

  6. Thanks for your comments, Rick. I especially appriciated your thought about the ark being the only vehicle in which the people could be saved from the flood. There are no alternatives to God’s plan. No element can be replaced according to our judgment. There is salvation in no other name but Christ’s, and no security outside of the Church. To resist the organization of the Church, including on the congregational level, is to resist God’s own design for his people and his Church.

  7. Part 3 Sorry but my mind is racing along. Tad, I believe that this is a subject that we cannot speak enough about, especially to our children. It is always safer to pick Gods path and not follow our own. The Church is Gods way. Anything else is another path and full of danger. I thank you for covering this subject so well.

  8. Part 2 I said I could go for days on this subject. One of the many examples of the church found in the Old Testament is the Ark. Do you want to be inside the Ark or outside when the rain comes? I pick inside. There was only one Ark, all the things that God wanted to save were inside. Noah did not build separate Arks for each species. Everyone rode out the flood in one vehicle. Everyone who was outside perished. Being outside of the Church is unwise. Noah saved his family, those on the outside perished. Doesn’t it make sense to be inside the family and even be the bride? I think so.

  9. It’s a good thing I read this on my cell phone because I can talk about this subject for days. I have a friend who is a pastor of a local church. He spends hours.and hours seeking members then tells them from the pulpit that they only have to be in a personal relationship with Christ. Talk about wasting your time! He is sabotaging his own cause.
    God has presented himself as the Father, Christ as the Son, and the Church as the Bride of Christ. Is it possible to have a closer more
    intimate relationship with anyone other than your bride? I hope not! How then can someone claim a personal relationship with Christ and not be his bride and out side of the family? Would you die for your bride? It is honorable in every society to die for your bride. Christ died for the Church which is his Bride.

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