“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.
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.
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.
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.