It’s increasingly common these days to hear scholars and intellectuals acknowledge the benefits and even the necessity of the values of Christianity for our culture—people like Tom Holland, Louise Perry and Jordan Peterson. But it’s interesting how these kinds of commentators still resist the claims of Christianity itself for their own lives. And quite often, what they say they’re rejecting is ‘organized religion’.
Have you had friends say something like that to you? “Look I’m not against spirituality, and I think Jesus was a really impressive man, but of course I don’t want anything to do with organized religion.”
What is it about ‘organized religion’ that is so odious to people? And would they be happier with religion if it was disorganized?
That’s our topic for this week. Hope you find it useful.
But first, two questions about pastoring and oversight
Our discussion about the titles and functions of Christian leadership (link) sparked a lot of questions. We answered a few of them in this week’s edition. Here’s a summary of two of those answers.
TP: Phillip, among the various questions we’ve received about elders, overseers and pastoring, one has come up more than once. What are the implications of what we were saying for polity and church governance? Were we implicitly defending the Anglican version of that? Or should we have a plurality of elders elected by the congregation, as in Reformed Baptist polity? What are the implications of the Bible’s approach to church leadership and oversight for the structures and titles of our governance?
PJ: Well, it's never been my intention in thinking through these issues to be defending any polity. That has been the problem down the centuries: people defending what they have, or what they think is the right way for their tribe. And so I flatly refuse to defend the Anglican version. I'm seeking to find out what the Scripture says. If the Scripture did say what the Anglican Version says, well, then so be it. But I don't think it does—any more than I think the Bible teaches any other particular version. I don't think the structure or organization of our polity is a particularly key aspect of a biblical understanding of ministry. The important issue within the New Testament is that we are called to be loving, and to be faithful to the gospel that we represent in our lives and teaching. These are the critical points that the Scripture addresses when it teaches on the subject. The particulars of whether we call this office bearer by this title or that title seems not to be what the Scripture is talking about.
TP: In my experience of it, the kind of structure that you bring to Scripture very often tends to conform to the kind of structure you read out of Scripture. The assumptions of our traditions lead us to read the evidence in a certain way. But really, there just isn’t enough evidence to establish with any certainty exactly what kind of polity is the ‘biblical’ one. However, there is lots of evidence for the kind of things we were talking about last week—that is, the nature of what overseer-elders do, and how it fits with the overall purposes and functions of the congregation as a whole. But trying to figure out exactly who should be elected or appointed, and how, and what titles they should have—these things are very difficult to determine, given the paucity of what the New Testament actually says about them.
PJ: Exactly. Mind you, there are some things you can rule out. So the idea that the minister or ordained person (or whatever we're going to call them) of the New Testament is the same as the Levitical priests of the Old Testament is wrong. And so to establish a priesthood in the New Testament along the lines of temple worship is a failure to understand the great high priesthood of the Lord Jesus Christ.
So we need to be able to say that certain structures are wrong. But there are many other structures which are not wrong. They're not taught as a necessity. They are not inconsistent with the Scriptures, but they're not the direct teaching of Scripture either.
TP: I think people sometimes miss that distinction. There are a number of legitimate and reasonable ways of organizing ourselves to fulfill the purposes and functions of ministry. Those structures should be formed (and reformed) so as to most helpfully fulfill those biblical purposes and functions in our context—but the important thing is to keep asking whether we are losing our grip on those key functions and responsibilities, not whether we have managed to find the One Biblical Pattern of Polity.
Phillip, the other question that more than one friend wrote in to ask was this: What does all this mean for women who are involved in different levels of ministry and leadership? Does it change what we should call them, or the way we think about that issue?
PJ: It follows on from the previous question. When we think about ministry leadership more in terms of structure and organization, then we start asking questions about titles and appointments.
In terms of women and their activity in Christian ministry, I am very much more engaged and concerned that our sisters are actively promoting the Lord Jesus Christ and teaching his word than working out what title to give them. Because I'm also not really interested in what title we give to men. We can easily think like the world and focus on organizational power structures as the essence of Christian ministry, rather than faithfulness to the Word of God and love for the people we’re serving. The more people aspire to an office instead of aspiring to a task, the more they've missed the point of being a servant like the Lord Jesus.
TP: It’s so true. We so easily flip to the institutional and structural, and worry about whether I'm gaining the rights I deserve, or I'm suppressing the rights of others—rather than thinking about the function and purpose of ‘ministry’ (i.e. serving others as Christ’s ambassador).
But onto today’s main topic, which is …
TP: Phillip, we quite often hear people these days speaking in favour of the Christian foundations of our culture, but rejecting ‘organized religion’. Why do people say this?
PJ: It's an interesting conundrum. It’s a way of saying that I’m not one of ‘those people’, while actually agreeing with ‘those people’. So yes, I am spiritual, or I am appreciative of the foundational importance of Christian concepts for our whole culture, but don’t confuse me with someone who is interested in ‘organized religion’.
And so ‘organized religion’ is seen as an obvious evil that no right thinking person would want to be part of.
But I want to ask them what the alternative is to ‘organized religion’. Is it ‘disorganized religion’ or perhaps ‘unorganized religion’?
TP: Well, ‘disorganized religion’ would be religion that once had some order to it, but has now fallen apart. And ‘unorganized religion’ would be religion that never had any organization in the first place. I can think of churches that would satisfy both of those definitions.
PJ: Quite so. But I’m really asking that question to throw dust in the air, and to point out that ‘organized’ is a phony adjective to put in front of ‘religion’.
What the person is really rejecting is ‘religion’—never mind whether it is organized, disorganized or unorganized. What they really want is individualism, a religion for me, without the requirement that it has any organic connection with anybody else. I can just be myself and do my own thing, and have some kind of belief in Something, without it impinging on what I want to do with my life. The more you think about it, the more it looks like what the Bible calls ‘sin’.
Ultimately, it’s a rejection of the God of the Bible, because he is a relational God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, who creates us in his image, and by his Spirit regenerates us so that we call him Father and call each other brothers and sisters. The God of the Bible liberates us from that kind of individualism, and brings us into a family of love.
And so what the rejector of ‘organized religion’ is really saying is that they don't want the religion of the Bible.
TP: Yes, I think that’s part of it. They're saying they don't want any formal structure or body of beliefs or doctrines or truth that they are required to subscribe to, nor any form of organized activity or gathering of people that they might be required to identify with or be part of. If I want any religion or spirituality, it’s one that makes no demands on me in terms of belief or practice, and which I'm then free to interpret and practice in entirely my own way.
PJ: Yes. I also suspect that what they mean is: I don't want to align myself with the religious wars of yesteryear, or with the Spanish Inquisition, or with the fights between the Protestants and Catholics in Ireland, or with the political machinations of the religious right or the religious left.
TP: It can also be connected with their particular experience of religion, in their upbringing and culture. So it could be that they've grown up, for example, in a culture where Russian Orthodox religion is what ‘religion’ is, and all they've ever seen is ritual, formalism, corruption of various kinds, greed, support of the state, or whatever it might be. They don’t want to be associated with that—and I can understand why.
PJ: Yes, in a previous generation, when our Australian society was, in a sense, more pro-religion, we evangelicals were very keen to point out that we weren't religious. There was a famous book published called “How to be Christian without being religious”. And that was a right and proper thing to say, because there were so many people who were religious but actually weren't Christian.
However, in an irreligious society like ours today, that book doesn't help us in the slightest, because people are very happy to be ‘Christian’ without being religious, because that means I can just do my own thing. We’re a long way from the problems of nominal religion. We’re now in the situation where people actually say, “Well, I'm Christian, but I don't have to go to church”; or “I am Christian, but I don’t want to be religious”; or “I am Christian but I don’t want to be associated with the terrible institution of the church”.
Well, I can understand that people have experienced bad things in churches. But we fail to see or recognize the extraordinary communities that ‘organized Christianity’ creates, and all the good those communities have done.
Christian churches have blemishes like any organization made up of people, but your local average Christian church is an extraordinary thing. It’s a gathering of all kinds of different people, who relate to each other with care and concern, and look after each other's welfare. We volunteer for labor with each other. Our membership doesn't require any particular level of fees. You're invited to give as you see fit. Just try to run a taxation system on that basis; or for that matter, try to run a golf club that way, or any club. “You don’t have to pay to belong here; just be generous.” Try that in any other ‘organization’ and see how long it lasts.
Christian churches are extraordinarily integrated racially and ethnically. I’ve mentioned before the research of Professor Putnam of Harvard, who has shown that in the general course of events, if you put people of different races together in the same community, they not only don’t trust each other, but trust diminishes even among people of the same race (who are in those mixed communities). This was a uniform finding across the US, and a great disappointment to the researchers, who hoped to demonstrate that putting people together in communities led to greater trust. However, they noticed one exception—large evangelical churches. They were the one group who were very ethnically and culturally diverse, and yet who experienced a heightened level of trust.
TP: So perhaps we’re not in favour of organized religion so much as organized evangelical religion?
PJ: Well, yes. It’s interesting—there are hardly any organizations that have been set up to help the poor that haven't got Christian foundations, and very often evangelical foundations. The Red Cross, Barnadoes Homes, the YMCA, the YWCA, the Benevolent Society. Most of them disavow or downplay their Christian roots these days, but they were all started by Christians, with Christian motives. It’s organized Christianity that has time and again sought to relieve the sufferings and miseries of the world's populations. Not to mention the founding of hospitals and schools.
But more and more of the public intellectuals (like Louise Perry and Tom Holland and Konstantin Kisin), who are speaking openly and clearly about the beneficial effects of Christianity on society, are embarrassed about the fact that it comes from Christianity. Tom Holland, for example, is very strong in seeing the value system of suffering and of looking after other people etc., and he knows that it comes from Christianity. It will never come from Frederick Nietzsche, or from atheism—it comes out of Christianity. So they want the fruit without the root. It's not just the content of the Christian value system; it's the motivation to get people to produce that fruit that comes out of true religion. But true religion, if it's not relational, is not true. And if it is relational, is it better to be organized or disorganized or unorganized? The adjective is a nonsense. What they're saying is that they want to do their own thing while pretending to have God.
TP: Phillip, if someone used this kind of line in conversation with you—”I think Christianity is important for society but I oppose organized religion”—what would you say to that person? How would you respond?
PJ: Well, I can think of a few. One way I've tried in the past is to say, “Look, you're right, the church is full of hypocrites… But well, it's not really full of hypocrites. Actually there's a few seats available—why don’t you come and join us?”
Because we're the only organization I know where to be a member, you've got to admit that you're immoral. You’ve got to admit that you're a sinner. One of the first things you do when you come in is you confess that you are sinful. To join a golf club, you’ve got to be a person of good character. Even to be a lawyer you’ve got to get people professing that they are a moral upright person. But a Christian? No, you have to admit that you actually are sinful, and that you're dealing with reality, with the truth of your life. So when people say, “Well, you know, I like God, but I'm not sure about joining a church.” You would say “Well, why? What's wrong with a church full of hypocrites? No, it's not full. We've got room for you. You come and join us.”
TP: That’s the kind of response that humorously gets under people's skin. What other kinds of responses could we try?
PJ: Well, you could ask them, “What is it that has happened in your life that makes you negative about organized religion or church?” Because you're right, Tony—sometimes people were in church or their father was in church, and the parish council member or the Sunday school teacher ripped them off in a financial deal, and things like that. And so you need to be able to draw people out to tell you what the problem is. And then to say, “Yes, that was bad”—it’s right to sympathize with them. But you can also point out that just because one person has done a bad thing, that does not make the organization bad. And the fact that on a wider scale, there are terrific benefits in being in church, and and that your experience is very different. So we can invite them and say, “Why don't you come to my church, and I'll make sure this kind of thing is not going to happen again to you.”
TP: Yes, I think many people are shocked when they first come to a healthy gospel-based church, because they have never actually experienced what a Christian church really was. They may have experienced some kind of formal or quasi-Christian experience sometime in their youth. But to come along to a congregation where the Word is opened, and we come before God to listen to him and respond, where there are warm relationships and real love and care, and where there are people whose hearts have been changed to live for others and not for themselves—this is a shock for many people. They've never experienced it. And in that sense, the beauty of organized Christianity—organized gospel Christianity—is a great commendation for the gospel. It’s not the reason we want people to join church—in order to get the great benefits!—but it does demonstrate and declare how great God is and that he changes people's lives.
PJ: In every church I know, Tony, there's a meal roster for people who have got difficulties. You know, a new baby is born in the family and suddenly all kinds of families are providing meals for this family in the first few weeks when they're struggling with adjusting to having the baby at home. And I've met non-Christian, wider families who have been absolutely gobsmacked, completely astonished, that there are so many people who are willing to stack up food in their family's refrigerator. And yet, when you talk to Christians about it, well, that's just what we do. That's just another thing, it's not a huge deal. But it's not done in the wider community, except for one or two people; whereas in the Christian community we're talking about thirty people being involved in doing this. It's just a normality of our life.
TP: That’s perhaps a great point for us to conclude as well. And that is on a note of thankfulness. We as Christians often get sucked into the narratives of the world that the church is a terrible place, that organized religion is a con, and corrupt. And we sometimes forget to give thanks for all those things we take for granted in the wonderful relationships and care and community that are found in churches based on the gospel of Jesus.
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