Throughout history, we see attempt after attempt by man to overcome the dark side of humanity and placate God, who was thought to be the origin of punishment when man suffered consequences for his poor decisions. The authors of the books of the bible frequently illustrate this. Those who recognize the existence of a creator intuitively know that giving in to the dark side of humanity is not in accordance with the intent of the creator. You see, it doesn’t take much of a logic leap to draw a connection between the dark side of humanity and the detrimental consequences of giving in to the dark side. And while I don’t believe this is correct, it may not be a huge logic leap to attribute the consequences of those actions to the creator who clearly must punish his subjects for their misdeeds. So we develop “religion” as a means to pay for our mistakes. Here’s a somewhat simplified look at the cycle of religion:
- Build a physical image of God so we have a tangible reminder of Him. Pay an ostensibly moral person to act as a priest, or go-between, to plead with God on our behalf. Offer money or something of value to God. When this doesn’t seem to work…
- Build an ornate temple so we have a really grand, tangible reminder of God. Create a hierarchy of priests so that we recognize varying levels of holiness. Sacrifice an animal. Offering food or money doesn’t really show how seriously we take this sin thing. Blood must be shed to show just how serious we are about paying for our sins. Somehow, this doesn’t seem to solve the problem, so we…
- Establish some rituals so that we have continual reminders of God. Kill the bad people who don’t worship God the way we do. God still seems angry and we keep experiencing “His Judgment” in the form of human aggression, oppression, and violence. God must be quite angry. Clearly, we must…
- Set rules of behavior and impose harsh penalties for breaking those rules so that God won’t have a reason to judge us. When it becomes clear that conformance to the established rules does nothing to change the heart of man, we increase the number of rules and the severity of the penalties for breaking them.
Religion of every sort is a futile system of bondage that results in judgment, oppression, and violence. It has always been this way. Old Testament prophets would offer occasional glimpses of God’s true intent. They were never very popular, and many of them were killed. Finally, Jesus came and pointed out to the religious leaders of Israel just how detrimental religion was. So of course, we killed Him, too. Imagine the audacity of telling religious leaders that they aren’t holy! And do away with religion? Think of what the common people would do. There would be pandemonium! No, we must silence the One who denounces religion and claims to offer reconciliation to God with no strings attached. Why, people would likely resort to living by the dictates of their own consciences, and we all know where that will lead. The wrath of God will surely fall upon us a hundred times over!
The early followers of Jesus embraced the forgiveness and the freedom that He freely offered. They struggled through life as we all do, but they shared with each other, encouraged each other, and offered help and hope to those that were hurting. And yet many, including some of the apostles, found it extraordinarily difficult to believe that one didn’t have to actually do anything to receive God’s love. They mostly believed it, but they allowed fear to influence their message and imposed traditional behavioral restrictions on those that joyfully received the good news.After a time, those who had heard the message of life and freedom directly from Jesus, died. A new generation of Christians became fearful that less mature believers might not have as clear of an understanding of God as they themselves did. What if these newbies confused others because of their lack of knowledge? They set themselves up as clergy, giving themselves titles such as “Bishop” and began imposing doctrinal and behavioral restrictions on “the laity.” Where the early believers shared resources and took care of each other, the clergy formed institutions and directed that resources be collected by and redistributed through the institution. The laity were generally happy to relegate this responsibility to others. You can read about the seeds of this practice in Acts chapter 6 and see the detrimental effects it had on the assembly. The clergy gradually built a hierarchy and carefully controlled (as best they could) those who progressed through the hierarchy. As a friend once told me, “Everyone wants to hold the keys to the castle.”
Christianity, which had once been a derogatory term, was now a full-fledged religion. As the message of Jesus spread and grew in popularity, religious leaders and politicians saw a golden opportunity to acquire power through the merger of politics and religion. Churches (houses of God) replaced the simple meeting places of the early believers. Loyalty to the officially sanctioned church was demanded. Violence in the name of religion was preached and carried out. The Protestant Reformation eventually shed light on the unimaginable corruption that had all but snuffed out the light of the message that Jesus had brought. Initially, the call went out for people to rediscover God apart from the bondage of religion. And yet, the reformers couldn’t bear the thought of allowing the common people complete freedom of thought. Some might get it wrong. They might not have the superb understanding of God that the reformers did. So Protestant clerical hierarchies were built. These were completely different from the Catholic clerical hierarchy, you understand. Churches were constructed. Political allies were sought in order to consolidate power and ensure the world (or at least their small part of it) was safe for true religion. Violence was wielded against dissidents. Oppression became the norm for several hundred more years.
When the American colonies were united under one flag, the architects of the governmental system recognized the importance of allowing people to worship God as they chose. They recognized that freedom was given to every man by the Creator, and they wrote a constitution that prohibited religion from being forced upon anyone. Even so, while Christians sometimes behaved with kindness and good will towards all, they sometimes persecuted those of other religious sects or justified evil in the name of religion.
Over the last 240 years, the Christian community in America has shattered itself. The disparate denominations, determined to preserve the truth about God, established their own clerical hierarchies. They built churches and established rules of thought and rules of conduct. They requested (and frequently demanded) that money be given to the church—“giving to God” they called it. The disunity grew. Jesus’ message was lost among all the religious stuff and Christianity’s impact on American society rapidly diminished. So rituals were established. Despite vehement Evangelical statements to the contrary, tradition reigned supreme. Doctrine was established and doctrinal adherence was made a criterion for church membership. Behavior was closely regulated. Somehow, none of these things proved to be effective at bringing God’s message of reconciliation to the world.
Christians triumphantly proclaim that their religion is different from all other religions. While there is some conceptual merit to that argument, in practice, Christianity is nothing more than another failed religion because Christianity is entirely out of sync with the message of Jesus.
No doubt many decent Christians will take offense to that statement. “What about the lives changed by Christ? What about those who give money to charities? What about those who help the homeless?” Certainly many Christians have continued to shine light into this world, to bring the message of Jesus to those who need to hear it, and to offer help to those in need. But these actions are increasingly overshadowed by the massive religious corporations we have created. The vast majority of financial and temporal resources are consumed by the religious corporate infrastructure. And the good news is buried under doctrinal statements, church constitutions, by-laws, carefully controlled membership rosters, and minutes of committee meetings.
We pay lip service to the freedom that Jesus offers, yet we quickly label those that disagree with our particular views on any given doctrine as heretics, rebels, and false teachers. We pay lip service to the concept of “the priesthood of all believers”—as long as the common folks recognize the authority of the Man of God. We acknowledge the work of the Holy Spirit in the lives of all believers, yet we place restrictions on their behavior. We preach the sufficiency of the grace of God to reconcile all men to Himself; yet we expend more efforts on political campaigns to outlaw drug use, homosexual marriage, and abortion than we do on loving unbelievers.
My intent is not to malign church-goers. Nor do I mean to condemn anyone for worshiping as they believe God wants them to. Yet the fact remains that religion has replaced relationship in the lives of most followers of Jesus. They are so entangled by religion that they cannot experience the freedom and growth that God desires for them. There is freedom to be found in Jesus that is stifled by the slavery of religion. There is joy to be found that religion buries under guilt trips. There is boundless growth to be experienced that can never be attained while living in a self-imposed spiritual caste system. Nor will we ever bring hope and healing to the people around us as God desires as long as we are imposing religious restrictions on them.
There is no reason to fear what might happen if we offer true freedom to the world. When we free ourselves from the bondage of religion, we will find the abundant life that Jesus spoke of. The choice is between polar opposites. We can’t experience the spiritual freedom offered by Jesus while we live as slaves under a corrupt, human-contrived religious system.