Organised Religion – do we need it?
The answer is a definite “yes” on so many levels!
For instance our world view is largely socially shaped. Our beliefs are reinforced by bouncing off other like-minded people, by enacting rituals together and so forth.
The person who can stand out against peer pressure is rare even in our “individualistic” West, in the East they have been virtually eradicated: they even have a saying “the nail which stands above the others gets hammered down”.
You may have heard sermon illustrations like: “what happens if you pull one glowing coal out of the bed of coals? It turns from red to black and goes out! What happens if you put it back among the other coals? It starts to glow red again. Just like that we need fellowship with other Christians!”
However some have suggested that small Christian fellowships can adequately fulfil this role, that we do not need anything like the large denominational organisations we are familiar with. (Of course others say we need to go the other way merge all these organisations into one – I'll deal with that later.)
A couple of decades ago I was studying up on sociology, particularly the sociology of religion. It was at a time when “house churches” were all the rage. Some sincere advocates believed that this was going back to our New Testament roots. It also echoed the social flavour of the time of attacking all forms of authority and every institution. This was a much less laudable but more probable cause of the movement's popularity!
It has stuck in my mind all these years how the books I was studying were unanimous in their verdict that thinking one could have any religion which passed from generation to generation and influenced whole cultures, without having an “institution” was sociologically naive. The crunch was that whatever its faults, large religious organisations were simply a necessity given human nature and the way this world is.
Given these empirical observations, to what extent are they borne out in scripture?
Take the Israelites after God had rescued them from slavery in Egypt. There was established a secular administration: Moses as leader (not always unopposed or appreciated!) and senior judge, then the loosely bound tribal league, with each of the twelve tribes having its officials and deputy judges for trying straightforward law cases.
Moses also had a unique religious role as a prophet and mediator between the people and God.
Then God added a religious institution based on Aaron and his (male) descendants as priests, with rituals and vestments ordained down to the last detail. There were also instituted (three) annual festivals where the whole tribal league gathered to celebrate together and reinforce their common faith.
To this God added mobile worship centre (as befitted nomadic herdsmen). Again it was ordained down to the last detail, with the tribe of Levi appointed to run it.
Further the Law was written down and preserved for teaching successive generations with the Levites playing a special role as teachers.
Nevertheless, the cultic activities God instituted differed sharply from those of the peoples around them. God specifically forbade: Idols or images, Human sacrifices, ritual prostitution, and worshipping other gods. All of these were part and parcel of the religious practices of the peoples surrounding the Israelites once they entered the promised land.
I think it is safe to conclude that God recognised and endorsed the human need for “organised religion” together with festivals and certain rituals. And a means of preserving, transmitting and teaching the faith. But, God certainly did not endorse corrupt rituals and ones which obscured his essential moral character, goodness and uniqueness.
By now you may be thinking: “and look how that all went wrong starting with Aaron's “golden calf” idol!" True, and I want to look at the failures next post, but for now I am just looking at the necessity of religious institutions.
What about Jesus? Did he set up a “New Covenant” organisation? Maybe not, but then he was initially calling the nation of Israel (Matt.15:24). It already had religious organisations: one based on the Pharisees and the Synagogue the other the temple worship led by the priests. This would become obsolete once Jesus died and rose again, removing the point of animal sacrifices (Heb. 10). Historically it then became physically impossible after the Romans demolished the temple. Perhaps there was for some time at least the possibility that the nation would belatedly recognise Jesus as God's Messiah and these organisations would be reformed and revitalised.
Historically that did not happen and the early “followers of the Way” were ejected from Judaism (Acts 8:1).
Organisation certainly can be seen in the Christian Church from soon after the New Testament period. I think it can also be seen developing earlier from the record of scripture.
The Apostles were clearly preservers and publishers of the record of Jesus' life and teaching. They also appear as “leaders” of the large and growing community of believers. Fir instance we see the Hellenists coming to them with the complaint that their widows are being neglected in the daily distribution, and (after prayer) the Apostles appoint people to oversee this work (Acts 6). The incident of conversion among the Samaritans, and their receiving the Holy Spirit after the Apostles go to them and lay their hands on them could be interpreted various ways. But I think all ways contain a germ of God endorsing the Apostles leading role (Acts 8:14-17).
The Jerusalem Council (Acts 15) gives a picture of dealing with disagreement over fundamental issues of faith in that early community. That they came together in council indicated some degree of organisation and unity. That James after summing up the issue ans says “...it is my judgement ...” (Acts 15:19) and achieved agreement all round speaks to acknowledged leadership.
Paul in his letters leaves us in no doubt that the Christian organisation was bigger than the individual congregation. (eg hinted at in 1Cor.11:16, implicit in 1 Tim.1:3 and Titus 1:5,)
[Special Note: As anyone can easily verify by a word search of EKKLESIA, generally translated as “church” in Paul's letters he has in mind people who meet together not an organisation far less a building! - but that is a story for another day.] (but consider Gal.1:22) and Revelation 1:4 ff)
Paul leaves no room for doubt in his letters that he is apostle with responsibility for and authority over at least the churches spread that he or his associates had founded.
His relationship to Peter and the Jerusalem church is interesting. He sends Jerusalem famine relief, he goes to Jerusalem for a ruling from the leading Apostles in his dispute with the “circumcision party” who have been undermining his work (Acts 15). Yet he stresses that “his Gospel” came as a revelation from God – he did not learn it from any human”(Galatians 1:11 ff). On the other hand, he says that years later he recited it to the leading Apostles and reports that they agreed it was the same as what they taught (Galatians 2:1ff). His dressing down of Peter over fellowship with Gentile Christians demonstrates the truth of the Gospel trumps any deference to organisational hierarchy (Galatians 2:11ff).
I think that we do see the beginnings of a supra-congregational organisation. This organisation has two interesting features: First, as Jesus taught (eg Mark 9:35) and Paul used as a yardstick (eg Acts 20:18ff), leadership is by servant-hood. Second, loyalty to Jesus and the truth of his Gospel is more important than “unity” in the organisation or loyalty to any human leader (eg Galatians 1:8, 2:11ff).
Next we shall look at how it all went wrong (again and again and again!)