The Problem with Organized Religion
By Andy Sochor | Kentucky, USA
Many people today disparage “organized religion.” Instead, they simply desire a “personal relationship” with the Lord. However, this is not an “either-or” proposition. In our service to God, we have personal and corporate responsibilities. Notice what Paul wrote to the church in Ephesus:
“And He gave some as apostles, and some as prophets, and some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ…from whom the whole body, being fitted and held together by what every joint supplies, according to the proper working of each individual part, causes the growth of the body for the building up of itself in love” (Ephesians 4:11-12, 16).
“That, in reference to your former manner of life, you lay aside the old self, which is being corrupted in accordance with the lusts of deceit, and that you be renewed in the spirit of your mind, and put on the new self, which in the likeness of God has been created in righteousness and holiness of the truth” (Ephesians 4:22-24).
In the same chapter, Paul spoke of personal responsibilities (laying aside the old self and putting on the new self) and corporate responsibilities (being a functioning part of a self-edifying body). Clearly, both are involved in the life of a Christian. In this article, we will discuss these responsibilities and notice what the real problem is with “organized religion.”
Religion Must Be Personal
Simply being recognized as a member of a congregation does not mean we are saved. Jesus described the kingdom of heaven as a field in which tares would grow among the wheat (Matthew 13:24-30). They would be left together until the harvest, then the tares would be gathered up and destroyed. The point we should learn from the parable is that not all who are recognized by men as being in the Lord’s kingdom will be saved in the end – some will be lost. The church in Sardis had “a few” who were “worthy” to walk with the Lord, even though the church as a whole was “dead” (Revelation 3:1-4). They had a reputation for faithfulness, yet many of them – despite being members of that local church – were spiritually dead.
We are individually accountable before the Lord. Paul wrote, “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may be recompensed for his deeds in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad” (2 Corinthians 5:10). Therefore, we must honestly examine our lives (2 Corinthians 13:5) and discipline our bodies to keep from becoming disqualified from the reward of heaven (1 Corinthians 9:27).
We need to be sure that we, as individuals, are doing what the Lord wants us to do. Jesus said, “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven will enter. Many will say to Me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness’” (Matthew 7:21-23). On the day of judgment, there will be those who believed they were serving the Lord when in reality they were not doing what was lawful in His sight. They had failed to build on the rock; therefore, all of their efforts would be for naught in the end (Matthew 7:24-27).
Regardless of what others do or fail to do, we must do what we should. James wrote, “Pure and undefiled religion in the sight of our God and Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world” (James 1:27). The principle behind James’ instruction is that we must do good to others and avoid sin. This is our personal responsibility.
Religion Must Have a Corporate Element
Corporate means “of, relating to, or formed into a unified body of individuals” (Merriam-Webster). As it pertains to the New Testament, this means that our religion must include being part of a local congregation.
While it is true that we are individually accountable, that does not mean that we are to be isolated. We have a responsibility to be part of a local body of Christians. This is why Saul tried “to join himself to the disciples” when he came to Jerusalem (Acts 9:26, KJV). Being part of a local church is for our mutual benefit as we can “encourage one another” and “stimulate one another to love and good deeds” (Hebrews 3:12-13; 10:24-25). In the local church, we are able to build up one another (Ephesians 4:16).
There are also certain things we must do together as a local church:
- Worship – Luke wrote that the church in Troas “gathered together to break bread” and hear a message from Paul (Acts 20:7). Paul told the brethren in Colossae to teach one another in song (Colossians 3:16). Togetherness is essential for these activities.
- Giving – Regarding the collection, Paul wrote, “On the first day of every week each one of you is to put aside and save, as he may prosper” (1 Corinthians 16:2). Why was this done on the first day of the week? That was when the church assembled (cf. 1 Corinthians 11:33; Acts 20:7).
- Teaching – Within the church, there are “evangelists…pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints” (Ephesians 4:11-12). This equipping would primarily be done through teaching – a work that all of these would share in common. Paul told Timothy, “The things which you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses, entrust these to faithful men who will be able to teach others also” (2 Timothy 2:2). Equipping and training is done within the church, not in a seminary.
- Encouraging – The Hebrew writer said, “And let us consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds, not forsaking our own assembling together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another; and all the more as you see the day drawing near” (Hebrews 10:24-25). Giving and receiving encouragement necessarily requires togetherness.
- Discipline – When Paul addressed the situation in Corinth in which one was unrepentant of his immorality, he wrote, “In the name of our Lord Jesus, when you are assembled…deliver such a one to Satan for the destruction of his flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus” (1 Corinthians 5:4-5). For this type of discipline to be effective, it must be carried out by the group.
These things cannot properly be accomplished when one is not part of a local body of Christians. Therefore, we must be part of a group that has “organized” as a congregation of the Lord’s people.
What Is the Problem?
The problem is not with “organized religion” itself. When people attack this, they are attacking the wrong problem. So what is the problem?
- False religion – Often when people attack “organized religion,” it is not the Lord’s church that they are targeting. Jesus built one church (Matthew 16:18), but there are many churches of men that have been created. The world does not make a distinction between them. To many, all churches are the same. Therefore, the problems that exist in man-made churches are projected onto the Lord’s church. To combat this, we need to be able to show the difference between the Lord’s church and all others.
- Wrong expectations – There are many things that people have come to expect from churches today – social activities, political advocacy, general charity, secular education, and so on. Because of this, they judge churches based upon those man-made expectations. However, these types of things are not what the Lord wants His church to do. The church is “the pillar and support of the truth” (1 Timothy 3:15) and needs to be proclaiming, teaching, and defending the truth. Claiming to do things in the name of the Lord is meaningless if those things are not authorized by the Lord (Matthew 7:22-23).
- Imperfect people – Christians are to be different from the world (Romans 12:2), but no one is perfectly sinless. John wrote, “If we say that we have no sin, we are deceiving ourselves and the truth is not in us” (1 John 1:8). Sometimes people attack the church because of the people within the church. We need to strive to give “no cause for offense in anything, so that the ministry will not be discredited” (2 Corinthians 6:3). Peter wrote, “Abstain from fleshly lusts which wage war against the soul. Keep your behavior excellent among the Gentiles, so that in the thing in which they slander you as evildoers, they may because of your good deeds, as they observe them, glorify God in the day of visitation” (1 Peter 2:11-12). However, while we must strive to keep from sin and be the example to others that we ought to be, we also need to make it clear that the church is for those who are imperfect. Jesus said, “I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners” (Matthew 9:13). Even those who were guilty of crucifying Jesus could be part of His church if they would believe, repent, and obey the gospel (Acts 2:38, 41, 47).
The solution to these problems is not to abandon any sense of “organized religion.” This only creates a new problem. The solution is to dedicate ourselves – individually and within our local churches – to carefully following what the Lord has instructed.
As we have noticed in this article, we have certain responsibilities as individuals in our service to the Lord. We also have responsibilities collectively within our local churches. Organized religion is good when it is the organization the Lord established – His church (Matthew 16:18) – functioning according to His will (Ephesians 5:23-24). Rather than attacking “organized religion,” we need to be attacking false or man-made religion and then serve the Lord faithfully as a member of His church.