Organized religion has its problems
By Brian Knowles
MONROVIA, Calif.--Over and over again these days I hear people speaking against "organized religion" as if it were a plague on mankind. When you look at the global religious scene, it's easy to see it that way. Religion lies at the heart of much of the suffering that goes on. 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 have our 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 Christians and Muslims; the cruel Crusades; the Inquisition; witch-hunts; burnings of people and books; the Muslim conquests; genocides, slave-taking; gang rapes; tortures; murders; confiscation of property; political intrigue in the name of God; forced tithing; 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 irretrievably lost confidence in the kind of leaders who would create such chaos. Church politics has a draining, withering affect on the psyche. It is destabilizing, unsettling, profoundly disturbing.
My father's experience
Many years ago my late father was a member of a mainline Christian church in Edmonton, Alta., Canada. He was quite musically talented, having considerable expertise as a pianist and singer. He had a big, rich, wonderful 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. All kinds of kissing up and apple polishing were going on. The politics of the church choir so disturbed 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, including one of his favorites, "My Task."
The politics of church choirs is a microcosm of the larger world of church politics. Every organized effort has its politics. Back in 1997, when Garner 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" (1 Peter 2:19).
We are no longer concerned with displeasing an ecclesiastical hierarchy that seeks to control our doctrine, behaviors and finances (Acts 5:29). We have learned to directly report to God through Christ (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 they're 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 no human instruments are perfect. We all 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 judge each preacher, teacher or scholar and each teaching individually. After examination, we gladly partake of the wheat and feel free to reject the chaff.
Though our means are limited, we support to the degree that we can the ministries and scholars 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.
Called to God
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 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 as 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 not. The Body of Christ transcends church organizations, denominations, even congregations. It comprises those through whom Jesus Christ, by the power of the Holy Spirit working in people, advances the cause of the Kingdom of God in the world.
It matters not how highly placed one is in a 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, no fear is associated with it (1 John 4:18). God's way is not "fear religion." It shows love (Galatians 5:13), teaching (2 Timothy 2:24), setting an example (1 Peter 5:3) and meeting people at their points of need (Acts 20:17, 35).
The great thing about all this is that you can do it with or without the benefit of a denomination.
Great power resides in a small group of Christians truly animated by the Spirit of God. Such groups can do much in the world. They can labor in intercessory prayer; visit the sick, widows, orphans and imprisoned. They can study together and encourage each other. They can help each other overcome the world, flesh and devil.
It doesn't take a towering ecclesiastical figure inflated to bursting with self-importance to drive people into right behaviors.
Competent teachers and more-mature leaders can come 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 miniature tyrants, wresting control of the group.
Is organized religion a bad thing?
Lord Acton's axiom about the corrupting power of power is a truism that predicts what all too often happens in church organizations. Power goes to people's heads; they lose their grip on reality; they begin to think they are much more than they are.
Once people become dependent on a denominational paycheck, they easily compromise. Fear of losing that check can drive them to unchristian behavior.
Those who control paychecks know they can control those who receive them; this is why hierarchical types are so intent on centralizing operations, especially moneys and ministry. Giving power to a congregation can be fatal to a large, tithe-dependent organization.
The net result of the preferred centralized ecclesiastical Big Brother approach can be intellectual dishonesty, abandonment and betrayal of friends, divorce, destructive third-party reporting, character assassination, an us-them mentality and the alienation of Christian from Christian.
None of this can properly be ascribed to the influence of the Spirit of God. It is a form of bondage.
All these things have happened within the Churches of God Pod.
Why won't it work?
If Christians could organize themselves without creating a toxic political climate, organizations would be fine. But the creation of authoritarian groups led by minityrants with authoritarian mentalities is not Christ's way.
A few Christian organizations exist in which the lust for money and the craving for power are less of a factor. But too many Christian organizations devolve into mere money-raising machines. Those who fail to contribute are dropped from the list after a usually predetermined 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 the supposed disloyal members are rejected as heretics, rebels or liberals. The sign on the ecclesiastical tyrant's door might 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.
© The Journal: News of the Churches of God