The American culture is full of idioms- pithy sayings that are supposed to reflect some sort of philosophy or worldview. Often we hear people say these things in response to conversation topics or plastered to the back of their car on bumper stickers. While some of these sayings may have a rhythmic sound or rhyming words, some are couplets, some appear at first to interject what appears to be open-minded philosophy, and some are just simple statements regarding some political stance. Most of these sayings, however, are ridiculous and when examined for their intellectual fortitude, they are often found wanting. One particular saying spreads like wildfire in the culture but dies the same death as all the others once examined. You may have heard someone said it before:
“I don’t believe in organized religion”
What this statement typically intends to communicate is someone’s belief in the spiritual but dislike for the traditional gathering of like-minded peoples in a systematic fashion. Images of Catholic mass fill the mind, with its sitting and standing and incantations in Latin. Or the Mormon service of shirts and ties and speakers void of doctrine but centered on subjective experience. Even the mega-church image with its stadiums of people with outstretched hands, laser lights shows, and would-be rock bands fit into this category for some people. Those who make this statement are trying to convince their audience that it’s not the God-based belief system or the moral nature of religious teaching, but the organized way in which people gather together to share what is common to them. (Granted, all three of the aforementioned church systems worship a very different god but we will get to that later) Where this statement or mindset fails is in it’s inconsistency with the lives of people. As we shall see, it’s not the organized fashion of the worship service, it’s the worship period. What I mean is, people don’t have a problem with organization, what people have a problem with is elevating and honoring a perfect Creator. For in this brand of worship, the person must admit their own depravity, imperfection, and inadequacies in contradiction to a culture that worships people, sexuality, and materialism. The religious nature is not the problem- it’s the nature of the religion. People have no problem worshiping themselves or their things- after all, the term worship comes from the root of where we get our word “worthy” and refers to “that which is worthy of our time and attention.” We spend all sorts of “organized” time on our bodies, our make-up, our sports teams, and our stuff, but when it comes time to honor the Creator of the universe, all of a sudden we have a problem with organization. Here are some things to consider when someone who offers this non-sensical, bumper sticker mentality in conversation or online.
Is that to say that you have a preference for dis-organized religion?
So you must also reject grocery stores, government, law & order, education, families, money and economics, right? What I mean is, culture and society are by their very nature- organized. Even animals- birds, bears, and bees- organize themselves into families, flocks, and flower-finders in order to more effectively navigate a world of trouble in the constant threat of survival. Take education for example, most of us our thrilled to live in a country where from a young age we can be taught the knowledge of the world (we will not be going into the education agenda in this blog- sorry). We sit in classrooms with organized rows of chairs, in rooms organized with whiteboards and computer screens, we follow organized schedules, until we graduate with a sense of how to organize our futures. Granted, education is not perfect- it’s made by man. While we can make changes and improvements no one advocates abolishment. No one says I don’t “believe” in organized education.
What about economics? Do you also not believe in an “organized economy?” After all, our money system is finely tuned in a global system of equivalents, exchange rates, paper and coin, precious metals, investments, income, taxes, profit and loss. Yet we would not want to give up our money would we? Granted, our economic system is not perfect- it’s made by man. While we can suggest different systems of capitalism, socialism, and even communism, no one is honestly suggesting anarchy and chaos. No ones says I don’t believe in an organized society.
So it’s not the organized nature of religion, it’s the nature of the religion itself.
So you must be a huge fan of Jesus, right? See, Around 2,000 years ago, a man names Jesus claimed to be the authentic son of the Creator God and he spend most of his time rebuking the religious leaders of his time. In those days, the “organized” religion of the area was a form of Judaism that heavily emphasized a legalistic philosophy. Contrary to what most people “know” about religion, the pure form of the faith was buried by men called Pharisees who preferred that people follow their own rules and laws rather than live by the philosophy that God gave them. They forced people to live a certain way and Jesus came to “clarify” the teachings of the Torah. He came to “set the captives free” from the bondage placed upon them by religious men. On one occasion, Jesus- a poor carpenter- stood up to these powerful and rich men and in public called them hypocrites because they required the people to live by rules that they themselves would not adhere to (Matt 23:13). Sound familiar? On the contrary, Jesus taught that salvation (or heaven, if you will) is granted only to those who placed their trust in him and rejected the teachings of men (including popes and prophets). He taught that those who trusted in him and what he taught would willingly obey the precept to love God and they to love their fellow man.
This made the Pharisees mad because it undermined their powerful positions. They came to hate Jesus so intensely because of his teaching against religion that they organized themselves to kill him. They not only sought his death, they sought to have him crucified on the cross- a death so gruesome and so torturous that even the most notorious Roman was, by virtue of his Roman citizenship, excused from it’s punishment. It was a death so painful that the cross (or its root, “cruc”) became the word by which we define a pain that leads to unconsciousness- the word excruciating.
Sadly, churches today still have their pharisees. They still have their religious leaders who plague their attendees with rules and traditions outside of what Jesus taught. Some churches still require Papal authority, Cardinals, Gurus, Prophets, Bishops, Stake Presidents, and Sages and sadly none of these men have the authority to act on Gods behalf. They exist in every church and in every country. Every body of believers will have their men who are either too conservative, too liberal, to rigid, too loose, too loud, too quiet, and so forth. There will always be people who don’t think you measure up to their flawed definition of what a believer should be. The issue then is not “organized religion.” It’s about discovering who God is and coming to a personal relationship with him through the person of Jesus. See, God is too big and too perfect for us to relate to. God is like a burning flame and we are a dried up leaf. In coming to know him we would burn up. Jesus came to act as our mediator, to liberate us from the false teachings of men who desire power over the people. Jesus was the ultimate rebel and we can come to know him just like we come to know an author of a book we’ve read. We’ve never met the author but we feel like we’ve come to know them. We do the same with actors, with oppressed peoples from tv commercials and local activism, with politicians, and the like.
The church is not a building, its a body of people who have come to worship Jesus instead of their cars, their sports teams, their girlfriends, or the latest scientific journal, or out-spoken cosmologist. The questions then is not whether or not you prefer organized religion, it’s which organized religion are you attending- a church that honors God through Jesus Christ or a church that honors something else- a prophet, a scientist, a model, an activist, a Guru, or some other false god. We all choose to follow someone. Who is it?
I’m reminded of what Joshua wrote in 24:15
But if serving the LORD seems undesirable to you, then choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your forefathers served beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you are living. But as for me and my household, we will serve the LORD.”