Probably the most glaring fault of Western Christian religion is the toxic disunity among Christians. This disunity is an unbalanced reaction to the monolithic oppression that the majority of mainstream Christian church leaders have maintained for the last 2,000 years. What is the driving force behind this oppression? It stems from the obsession that many people have with manipulating others into agreeing with them. Sometimes the manipulation is done merely to solidify power or prestige. More frequently though, it is done by individuals that sincerely believe that they understand God more accurately than everyone else does. The conviction that they are correct becomes unshakeable (always seen as a virtue), and they feel an intense urge to enlighten all of the other benighted souls. They truly believe that they have discovered the formula for salvation, and they must convince everyone else to believe exactly as they do so they don’t go to hell.
Here’s a quick historical overview that will be useful in understanding the problem. Immediately after Jesus’ resurrection, thought control began seeping into the body by way of some of the more prominent Christian leaders. For instance, the apostle Paul wrote of those who were trying to coerce Gentiles to begin following Jewish religious customs. And John wrote of Diotrephes who set himself up as an authority figure over his local assembly, slandered the apostles, refused to receive believers from outside his local fellowship, and kicked fellow believers out of the fellowship if they didn’t agree with him.
This tendency grew worse over the next two centuries as “Church Fathers” began awarding themselves titles and, sometimes by committee, sometimes unilaterally, deciding matters of doctrine and publishing their decrees as prescriptive for the rest of the community of believers. When Constantine leveraged the social momentum of the followers of Jesus in the fourth century, the church fathers gleefully forged an unholy union with secular government to solidify their own power. This quest for domination stifled fellowship among believers and inhibited any semblance of spiritual growth. It continued unabated for the next thousand years as Roman Catholic leaders strove to maintain the stranglehold they held over Europe by brutally suppressing freedom of thought. The Protestant Reformation offered a brief glimmer of hope as courageous reformers spoke out against the patently absurd practices and atrocities committed in the name of God.
The hope didn’t last long. Many of the reformers fell into the same trap as the Catholics; and in their certainty that they had at last arrived at The Truth, began partnering with secular governments to enforce compliance with their views and brutally crush dissent through torture and murder. Every so often, a new reformer would raise the BS flag and inject some sanity into the latest Protestant thought control movement. They would gather a following and proclaim themselves keepers of The Truth. The trend of coercing people to mind-meld with the prevailing group went unchecked for the next five-hundred years.
Which brings us to the state of American Christianity in the twenty-first century. The Christian community in America is more divided than ever with literally hundreds of denominations and sub-denominations—each claiming to be the most authentic or to have the best understanding of the Bible. A recent trend in America is the rise of the “non-denominational” church. Non-denominational churches began like the Protestant denominations—as a reaction against the corruption of the established denominations. These non-denominational churches make a pretext of being inclusive but wind up like all the others: inclusive as long as you agree with their doctrines and rules.
Each denomination has its own set of criteria for salvation, its own set of criteria for membership, and its own set of criteria for who may participate in “ministry.” Each denomination, or each congregation in some cases, adheres to its preferred creed(s) and its own statement of faith. One would think it would be obvious that when hundreds of groups purport to be the authentic expression of Christianity, probably none of them are.
Inter-denominational rivalries run the gamut from veiled contempt to full-blown, overt animosity. On the genteel end, other denominations are characterized as “unbiblical” or “deceived.” On the uncouth end, they are characterized as heretics, deceivers, or cults. Each denomination castigates the others for teaching false doctrine or leading people astray, and then turns around and follows similar religious practices and rigidly enforces group think.
Independent, congregational churches preach liberty and pride themselves on not being beholden to a denomination. They are free to elect their own clergy and build their own statement of faith. But that’s where the freedom ends. They require adherence to institutional dogma as a condition for membership and service which is normal for virtually all institutions. While this is lauded as praiseworthy by congregationalists, the divisiveness and suppression of alternate viewpoints is more detrimental to the body of believers than the inclusion of those who hold erroneous views.
I do believe that the vast majority of Christians are well-intentioned. Because institutional religion is all they’ve known, they think that they are doing the right thing. But no matter how noble the intentions, institutional religion has always been a man-made construct, designed as a mechanism to control the masses and has always become a barrier to relationships. If one were to briefly view the community of believers through the lens of an outsider, it would be readily apparent that this disunity is ridiculous and unproductive.
The common objections are, “If we don’t set strict criteria for membership and service, then…
“How do we determine who the true believers are?”
“How can we ensure that only true believers are part of the church?”
“How do we ensure that sound doctrine is taught?”
I will try to flesh out the answers to some of these questions in future posts, as they deserve careful consideration. But the important first step is that we realize that we absolutely must give up our obsessive need for control over others. Once that is done, the need for a hierarchy and all the religious stuff evaporates. Fellowship will take place, and believers will begin to grow spiritually—unhindered by the suffocating shroud of religion.
Is there a better way to seek a relationship with God than through the hollow, carbon-copy versions of Christian religion that we see today? Yes there is. It begins with following the teaching and example of Jesus. Religion is a tool of oppressors. Jesus offered freedom. He offered healing to a broken world and sent us on a mission to contribute to that healing.
Make no mistake: I am not advocating the formation of a new Christian sect that purports to be better than all the rest, with the goal of forging a new clique of sycophants. I simply desire for people to be free to follow their own journey of discovery, to learn at their own pace, to help each other and those in their communities, and to grow in their relationship with God as He intended all along.
Or maybe I’m completely wrong and the New Evangelical Faith United Independent Reformed Two-Seed-in-the-Spirit Predestinarian Free Will Full Gospel Assembly of God in Christ Church of the Nazarene is what we should follow in order to find the truth.