The modern American church exists in many various forms of purpose, service, ideals, mission, and theological levels that seek to satiate the appetite of an even larger variety of theological seekers. To the untrained eye and eager-to-please patron, corporate religion appears to serve as Biblical scripture’s appointed doppelgänger. Prior to my previously mentioned spiritual pivot, I had never sensed a need to differentiate the two. After all, the church is supposed to reflect Christ. She is called the Bride of Christ- aren’t these exact words expressed (or at least alluded to) in scripture? In this sense, Christ and the Church shall be regarded as one. Where the context becomes cloudy rests in how you define “Church;” a collected people of religious likeness, or, a genre of people committed to the teachings of Jesus Christ… and therefore God’s own heart, plan, and purpose for those who choose to render their life in service to Him. Believe it or not, while some crossover may exist, they become separated at the crux of where each hangs their moral regard. Without a public backhand from my childhood church community (see Eternally Provoked), I may have never considered differentiating the importance of this critical point of separation until I focused my awareness to recognize and grasp the distinction.
Much of what is taught in corporate religious settings can be found, and is often derived from Holy Scripture. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” Luke 6:31; “Judge not, that you be not judged” Matthew 7:1; “….first remove the beam from your own eye: and then you can see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye” Matthew 7:5; practically any verifiable scripture will fit here. A major difference that separates religion from faith resides in how and to what extent these directives are applied in personal and social contexts.
The Problem with Organized Religion
1. Prescribed deeds practiced to achieve an end goal. In the book of Matthew, Jesus purports, “The teachers of religious law… are the official interpreters of the law of Moses. So practice and obey whatever they tell you, but don’t follow their example. For they don’t practice what they teach. They crush people with unbearable religious demands and never lift a finger to ease the burden.” vv.2-4NLT “….and they love to sit at the head table at banquets and in the seats of honor in the synagogues (buildings for religious worship and instruction). They love to receive respectful greetings as they walk in the marketplaces, and to be called ‘Rabbi’ (teacher, pastor).” vv.6-7
“What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law. Hypocrites! ….
- For you shut the door of the Kingdom of Heaven in people’s faces. You won’t go in yourselves, and you don’t let others enter either.” vv.13b-14
- For you cross land and sea to make one convert, and then you turn that person into twice the child of hell you yourselves are! Blind guides! What sorrow awaits you!” v.15b
- For you are careful to tithe even the tiniest income from your herb gardens but you ignore the more important aspects of the law- justice, mercy, and faith.” v.23b
- For you are so careful to clean the outside of the cup and the dish, but inside you are filthy- full of greed and self-indulgence! First wash the inside of the cup and the dish and then the outside will become clean, too.” vv. 25b-26
- “For you are like whitewashed tombs- beautiful on the outside but filled on the inside with dead people’s bones and all sorts of impurity. Outwardly you look like righteous people, but inwardly your hearts are filled with hypocrisy and lawlessness.” vv. 27b-28
I should imagine Jesus’ tone here as impassioned and determined to deliver a direct reprimand to those who regard the law, but dismiss the meaning behind it. Was Jesus’ message “full of hate?” In regard to the sinner, no- but when it comes to sin….without a doubt. Jesus was and is Eternally Provoked.
2. Religion offers a nutrition-less, fast-food substitution to a direct and unremitting relationship with the Holy Spirit. This is not to infer that religious organizations exclude the Holy Spirit altogether. As I stated before, religion frequently crosses over with faith in some capacity.
Reference to the Holy Spirit occurs often in many religious Christian circles. The gift of speaking in tongues has even been sited by at least one Christian denomination as the initial physical evidence of being filled (baptized) with the Holy Spirit. Parishioners are encouraged to spend time with God at the altar seeking this gift. I recall one drawn-out Sunday evening service in my teen years where all in attendance were encouraged to move to the front altar and seek the Gift of Tongues. The Executive Pastor’s wife took it upon herself to pray with me. In prayer and interceding, she repeatedly “beseeched” the Holy Spirit to fill me. She apparently become frustrated with my mute response since she then directed me to simply, “ Just start talking like a baby and let the Holy Spirit do the rest.” Again, not an immoral practice, but it communicates a couple of key faults. Primarily, it alludes to the notion that we are in control of our spirituality despite timing and personal relationship with God. Secondarily, an altar time reserved for seeking physical evidence of the Holy Spirit sets the stage for peer performance and indicates that time must be cut out and preserved for communication with the Holy Spirit to take place.
Its no wonder attendance in the American church is rapidly declining. Spiritual matters should not be managed separately from the rest of the elements of daily living. It should be infused. Attend church? Yes. Spend time in God’s Word? Yes. Not for the sake of tending to your “spiritual life” and getting noticed for your impeccable pew attendance- but for the sake of allowing the Holy Spirit to confirm, direct, or provoke the pattern He customizes through your ongoing concerns and incessant relationship with Him. No need to make room- He cares and speaks through your conscious thought in every aspect of your life. Hard to believe? Not once we fully understand that, “…even the hairs of (each head) are all numbered” Luke 12:7. A God that knows us to that level can certainly attend to our practical concerns.
3. For what purpose would God find a need to transfer His law from text to the Holy Spirit? Perhaps it is because the religious leaders of the time were making an idol of His very commands while largely disregarding the Entity behind those commands. By idolizing the works endorsed by the law, religious leaders could also make an idol of themselves to be placed in a hierarchical vetting within the church community. Not unlike many modern religious denominations. In Jesus’ words, “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life. I do not receive glory from people. But I know that you do not have the love of God within you. I have come in my Father’s name, and you do not receive me. If another comes in his own name, you will receive him. How can you believe, when you receive glory from one another and do not seek the glory that comes from the only God?” John 5:39-44
It is interesting to note that the term, denomination, may be defined and attributed to the “face value” of something. While transparent in its honest regard, I personally do not want to be associated with an institution that boasts the basic orthodox of, “What you see is what you get.” Jesus states in Matthew 6, “Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven. And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward” vv 1, 5. Face value. That’s it. Eternal reward traded for earthly glory in the form of peer recognition and warm fuzzies.
4. The religious notion that we are in control of our spirituality forces us to own the failures we encounter. Bankrupt? “You probably weren’t prioritizing enough of your money to the church.” Husband cheated on you? “You probably weren’t satisfying him the way a good wife should.” Miscarriage? “God is likely disciplining you for all the premarital sex you had.” The list of things I’ve actually heard people say can go longer and cut deeper. Sounds a bit like karma- right? So why have so many within religious Christian organizations adopted the atonement of Buddhism, Jainism, and Hinduism? Most will tell you that they haven’t. And yet, denial doesn’t change the deed.
Please note, karma is not a negative model. It encourages the desire for balance- who doesn’t want more of that in their life? It actually can feel pretty good in some circumstances. I had the opportunity to witness a case of instant karma when picking my daughter up from her bus stop one day after school. The bus dropped her off on the side of the street that had a field and no shoulder. She had to walk across the crosswalk to get to where I could park. As always, the bus remained with the side-panel stop sign displayed until all students could cross the street safely. This day would fare different as an impatient car decided to punch the accelerator rather than wait for my daughter to finish crossing the street. My heart lodged in my throat and adrenaline coursed through my veins as he nearly missed hitting her. No sooner had she reached the sidewalk, a police officer who witnessed the whole thing chased down the aggressor and delivered a ticket of violation. This officer even waved me down and asked if I would like to say anything additional before he sent him on his way. I believe my face said it all, because my words would have warranted their own due karma. An eye for an eye feels good, when it works the way it should- but is rarely the case from my experience.
Here we go again with the limitations of religious law. Jesus personally lassos this mentality in an address to a crowd. “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for and eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.” Matthew 5:38-39 ESV
Transending Quid Pro Quo
Interesting that of all the social standards left unaddressed, Jesus makes no apologies for deconstructing the corporate standard of Christianized karma. God is not preparing us for a quid pro quo life. There is no character in this pursuit. Rather, God challenges us to rise above pre-school level aspirations of social justice for the sake of something bigger. And since we are essentially preparing for eternity, an eye for and eye simply isn’t going to cut it. We must rise to the level of peace when surrounded by uncertainty, patience without the guarantee of reward, joy in understanding that we are enough, kindness to share with those who are undeserving, goodness in reflection of the holy spirit, faithfulness to a higher standard, gentleness when a firmer approach wins the battle at the demise of losing a war- and ultimately, unconditional love.