Recently, I have spent time thinking on the argument some have used to get me to join a traditional church. The argument goes that if I do not meet in an established church, that I do not come under the protective authority of leadership. As such, the chances I will wonder astray or fall into heresy increase significantly.
Certainly, we have no shortage of lost sheep. And these warnings above have verses reminding us of the dangers of living a false Christian life.
Mat 7.21 “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.22 On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ 23 And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’
Mat 13.18 “Hear then the parable of the sower: 19 When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what has been sown in his heart. This is what was sown along the path. 20 As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy, 21 yet he has no root in himself, but endures for a while, and when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately he falls away.[b]22 As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches choke the word, and it proves unfruitful. 23 As for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it. He indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.”
These, and many more, remind us that we must carefully consider our faith on a regular basis. Obviously, like sheep, we can go astray when we follow the wrong voice. As proponents of organized religion point out, those people who study on their own, and follow their own conscious, are more likely to do that. They maintain that only with a strong, objective voice (i.e. a pastor of a church) providing clear teaching, can we have a strong direction that is not easily led astray.
Modern Christianity double down on this notion by constantly reinforcing the idea that our faith (and the quality of it) hinges on proper, nuanced doctrine. Because few people have actually thought through the deeper theological questions of the faith, they feel pressured to submit themselves to a pastor/teacher who has clear training in these matters. The pastor then spoon feeds them what they need to know to grow.
This post, I shall tackle that first issue… the idea that submitting yourself to an organization helps you to find and stay growing in the true faith. On my next post, I will discuss the idea that the quality of our faith hinges on constant training in nuanced doctrine.
To begin, I want to clarify that I support, and even encourage, gathering together with brothers and sisters of the faith. The Bible regularly describes our faith in the context of a family setting. Just like fathers, mothers, sons, daughters and grandparents support each other in a loving family, we should work together with our siblings in faith to do the same in a like manner. They protect each other from harm. They lift each other up. They love one another. Jesus said, “This is how they will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” So, while I make an argument below supporting small groups or individual reasoning, I maintain that we are called to be with other brothers and sisters in some manner.
With that said, in my opinion, organized religion looks more like a university or classroom than a typical family. Complete with a top down power structure, significant distance between the leadership and the customers/clergy, and regularly scheduled classes, I find that typical organized religion does not mirror what I read in the Bible. To bring the focus back to the topic at hand, we ask, do these organizations protect the follower from heresy, bad faith, etc? Or, at least, does it provide more protection than working with a small, informal group, or even flying solo?
To cut to the chase, we all know of plenty of examples of large, religious based organizations leading their followers astray from what the Bible teaches. Some even teach unholy acts. Joel Olsteen twists the scripture to teach that God wants you to have the best life here on earth. Mormon theology teaches you can eventually ascend to godhood. Not too long ago, we saw the collapse of Mars Hill, one of the largest, multi campus churches in the nation, after their past left. This clearly demonstrated that they followed (or hinged) upon a man, and not God.
Of course, one can find examples of organizations that seem to do a good job of glorifying God, or, at least, avoid some of the pitfalls mentioned above. However, in order to know which church to go to, one would have to do quite a bit of research. Since some of these churches start out good, and go down hill, an attendee must pay close, constant attention to what is taught, and how the leadership leads the people, to ensure that it lines up with God’s Word.
This requires a LOT of research, Bible Study, maturity and prayer. I submit, that the challenge of doing this might even exceed the challenge of living one’s faith alone, or in a small group lacking the doctrinal oversight of a large organization. Regardless, simple logic shows us that the typical argument of needing to submit to a ‘church authority’ to give us a better idea of God’s ways leaves much to be desired.
Again, I do not say that churches or organizations cannot glorify God. Nor do I argue that we should not attend and/or support any. I, myself, support three. However, I argue against the notion that those who do not attend and/or submit to a traditional church find themselves at significantly higher risk for heretical beliefs or actions any more than the typical church person who does not put in the same, or not more, study required to truly understand their faith outside of that same context.
I do not hinge this argument simply on logic. Going back to scripture, whether or not we enter heaven hinges solely on whether or not we have been born again. Once we are, the Bible says we will, as a natural result, show the fruits of the spirit that lead to holiness. God will credit our faith in Him as righteousness, not our perfect theology and understanding of, say, the eternalness of hell or the makeup of the Trinity. None of this requires submission to an organization. An organization may certainly help you get there, and it may help you grow in your faith…but it is just as likely to lead you astray if you do not read your Bible and search God out first and foremost… just like the person who does not attend a traditional church.
We need to keep these basic logic thoughts and Bible teaching in mind before we try to argue and pressure our unchurched brethren to sign up and ‘submit’ to a local, established, traditional church.
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