Organized religion behaving badly.
Last post I made the point that churches as social institutions were necessary, and that this seemed to be endorsed by scripture. This time I want to illustrate from scripture that they continually go wrong! It is so like God – but still breathtakingly wonderful - that in response he continually works to reform and revitalise them. As Paul said of God's grace in another context “but where sin abounded grace superabounded” (Romans 5:20)
One way things go wrong was when the ministers (& people) do evil.
The priest Eli was an early example: “ Eli's sons were scoundrels; they had no regard for the Lord. … This sin of the young men (demanding the best part of sacrifices the people came to offer to God) was very great in the Lord's sight because they were treating the Lord's offering with contempt.” 1 Samuel 2:12ff).
In addition their father who should have stopped them did not: “Now Eli who was very old heard about everything his sons were doing to all Israel and how they slept with the women who served at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting”
God's actions leave us in no doubt how he feels about such actions. He sent a prophet who warned Eli what would happen if he did not act against his sons. Eli did nothing. Then God sent a message to Eli through the boy Samuel: “I will carry out against Eli everything I spoke against his family – from beginning to end. For I told him that I would judge his family forever because of the sin he knew about: his sons blasphemed God and he failed to restrain them.” This was fulfilled when both of Eli's sons were killed in battle, and Eli fell from his seat and broke his neck on hearing of this and that the Ark had been captured.
The lesson is that God really hates evil being done by people who are seen to represent him, and the “higher-ups” who fail to do their duty to stop them!
In our day both the paedophile priests and the bishops and church officials who turned a blind eye are exactly in this position! I find it hard to comprehend – assuming they have read this part of the Bible – and the story of Samuel is one of the more well known Bible stories – that they can actually believe God exists and still do what they do. They should be far too terrified – having read this example of how God feels about such actions – of facing God on Judgement Day! For those who are so committed to the institution that they think evil should be swept under the carpet, abuse hushed up and victims silenced, look what God did in this case.
Not only did God punish Eli and his sons as a lesson to us (1 Corinthians 10:11 “these things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us ...” (and when you stop to think about it, death in this world is the least of the problems of someone who incurs God's wrath!) but He dealt severely with an institution that was misrepresenting his character. The Ark of the Covenant was allowed to be captured by the Philistines (who then learned reverence for God), and the sanctuary at Shiloh destroyed (Jeremiah 7:12 “Go now to the place in Shiloh where I first made a dwelling for my Name, and see what I did to it because of the wickedness of my people Israel ...”
There is a warning here to be heeded!
In Jeremiah's lifetime we have the example of the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem and the deportation of the people. God preferred to appear weak by having the Babylonians boast that their gods had given them victory, and to have the Temple dedicated to him destroyed rather than have evil flourish in it. For instance Ezekiel's vision about corrupt worship in the Jerusalem Temple while he was among the exiles in Babylon. Ezekiel 8:16ff “He brought me into the inner court of the House of the Lord, and at the entrance to the Temple, between the portico and the altar, there were about 25 men with their backs to the temple of the Lord and their faces towards the east, they were bowing down to the sun in the east.”
God did these things in the past and had them recorded in his Bible “as a warning to us” therefore he may not necessarily visibly punish “here and now” these days. We have already been warned. On Judgement Day we will have no excuse! Of course God is kind and does not wish anyone to perish but rather that they may repent and live! So he may reinforce the past warnings by executing a little bit of judgement in this world.
Another way things go wrong is “career minded ministers”
I do not mean that people serving God full time and earning their living from it is a problem. Not at all! The Old Testament priesthood and Levites were set up by God this way. In the New Testament the pattern is the same. The Apostles gave up their businesses -Peter, James, Andrew, John their fishing business, Matthew his job with the revenue office and so forth, to work full time with Jesus. In Acts 6:1ff the Apostles stress the importance of them “giving (their) attention to prayer and the ministry of the word” Paul did indeed at times support himself and his team by working but he also defended the right of ministers to be paid with statements like “Who serves in the army at his own expense?” (1 Corinthians 9:7)
I do mean “career ministers” who are people shaped by this world not God.
Such Old Testament ones persecuted the prophets who really were God's agents. Jeremiah was flogged on the orders of the priest Pashhur for warning the people to turn back to God. (Jeremiah 10). Amos is ordered to stop telling the people to turn back to God by Amaziah priest of Bethel (Amos 7:10ff). Here we get, as a side note, Amos' famous words “I was neither a prophet nor the son of a prophet ...” There were plenty of career prophets about (see how Amaziah says to Amos “Go back to Judah, earn your bread there and do your prophesying there!” but none of them were delivering God's message. Amos certainly was not one of them – he was a real messenger sent by God!
Through Ezekiel, God describes ministry by the metaphor of a shepherd. Ezekiel 34 is a dramatic description of the continual failure of human ministers and how eventually God himself will have to step in to set things right. Looking back we know this was in the person of Jesus who called himself “the Good Shepherd”. Ezekiel 34:2ff “woe to you shepherds of Israel who only take care of yourselves! Should not shepherds take care of the flock? You eat the curds, clothe yourselves with the wool and slaughter the choice animals but you do not take care of the flock. You have not strengthened the weak or healed the sick or bound up the injured. You have not brought back the strays or searched for the lost. ...”
In the new testament we see priests like Caiaphas who practice realpolitic rather than justice. “'What are we accomplishing?' They asked. 'Here is this man performing many signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him and then the Romans will come and take away both our temple and our nation.' Then one of them named Caiaphas. Who was high priest that year, spoke up,'You know nothing at all! You do not realise that it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish'” (Caiaphas deserves no credit for the prophetic double entendre: “one man die for the people”) For all their “religion” these priests actually knew God so little that when he came in the flesh they could not even pick the resemblance!
Even in its fledgling state the Christian community fell prey to ministers who were in it for the money or satisfying their own fallen nature.
Paul battles them in Corinth: 2 Corinthians 11:13ff “For such people are false apostles, deceitful workers, masquerading as apostles of Christ ...”
Peter had some blistering things to say: 2 Peter 2 “But there were also false prophets among the people (of the Old Testament) just as there will be false teachers among you. They will secretly introduce destructive heresies … Many will follow their depraved conduct bringing the way of truth into disrepute … In their greed these teachers will exploit you with fabricated stories. … they will be paid back for the harm they have done. Their idea of pleasure is to carouse I broad daylight. They are blots and blemishes, revelling in their pleasures while they feast with you. With eyes full of adultery they never stop sinning; they seduce the unstable; they are experts I greed – an accursed brood!”
Jude felt compelled to pen a warning: “Dear friends, although I was very eager to write to you about the salvation we share, I felt compelled to write and urge you to contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to God's holy people. For certain individuals … have secretly slipped in among you. They are ungodly people who pervert the grace of God into a licence for immorality and deny Jesus Christ our only Sovereign and Lord. … These people are blemishes on you love feasts, eating with you without the slightest qualm – shepherds who feed only themselves. … they follow their own evil desires; they boast about themselves and flatter others for their own advantage.”
In Revelation 2:18ff the church in Thyatira is warned: “Nevertheless I have this against you; you tolerate that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophet. By her teaching she misleads many of my servants into sexual immorality and the eating of food sacrificed to idols.”
Every gardener knows: as well as feeding and watering your prize plants you have to keep pulling up the weeds! And weeds always seem to grow faster than the good plants.
“Organised religion” seems to be the same, it needs (probably every generation) to be brought back to obedience and trust in God because it has drifted away into unbelief or wrong belief or both. It also needs always to be on guard against evil doers – wolves in sheep's clothing who want to hide among the flock and devour.