It’s a very common complaint today, and with good reason. The large church institutions of the past have a mixed track record in how they’ve used their power. Sometimes that record is blown out of proportion. Like the claim that all the wars have been started by religion. The Encyclopedia of Wars claims that less than 7% of the world’s wars have been fought over religion. But one war caused by a large church institution is one war too many. Christians agree that the churches have a chequered past and much to apologise for. The same can be said for the instances of abuse, and even worse – cover-up, among churches. There is and never will be any excuse for such behaviour. What is it essentially that we hate about organised religion? It is the hypocrisy.
If you hate the hypocrisy of organised religion then you’re in good company. So did Jesus. In fact he saves his most stinging criticisms for the religious leaders of his day. Check out some of the things he said:
Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples: 2 “The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. 3 So you must obey them and do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach. 4 They tie up heavy loads and put them on men’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them. 5 “Everything they do is done for men to see: They make their phylacteries wide and the tassels on their garments long; 6 they love the place of honor at banquets and the most important seats in the synagogues; 7 they love to be greeted in the marketplaces and to have men call them ‘Rabbi.’ 8 “But you are not to be called ‘Rabbi,’ for you have only one Master and you are all brothers. 9 And do not call anyone on earth ‘father,’ for you have one Father, and he is in heaven. 10 Nor are you to be called ‘teacher,’ for you have one Teacher, the Christ. 11 The greatest among you will be your servant. 12 For whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted. 13 “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the kingdom of heaven in men’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to. 14 15 “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when he becomes one, you make him twice as much a son of hell as you are… 25 “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. 26 Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean. 27 “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of dead men’s bones and everything unclean. 28 In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness. (Matthew 23:1-15,25-28)
Jesus hates the way that they look good on the outside, but on the inside they’re just as bad, if not worse than those they condemn. Many of us have seen churches just like that: in the history books, in the media or we’ve had personal experience ourselves. But does that mean that Jesus isn’t into church? Is the answer to follow Jesus and avoid church? Not at all. Notice what Jesus also says earlier in Matthew’s Gospel:
When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” 14 They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” 15 “But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?” 16 Simon Peter answered, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” 17 Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by man, but by my Father in heaven. 18 And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. (Matthew 16:13-18)
Church is Jesus’ idea. He’s not talking here about massive human institutions, but the heavenly gathering around himself. Just as Jesus’ kingdom is a heavenly kingdom, so also Jesus started a heavenly church. It’s his heavenly church that meets locally in your town – the local church. If you’re into Jesus then you’ll be into your local church. So if you’re going to follow Jesus you’ll steer clear of organised religion, with all the associated hypocrisy, but you’ll be deeply into your local church. After all, it was Jesus’ idea in the first place.
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