If there’s a term that’s never used in a positive way, it’s ‘organized religion’. Religion is fine, as long as you’re willing to treat it like your underwear and not talk about it in polite company or show it to anyone on the bus. Organized religion, though…That’s bad. Corrupt. At least, that’s what I’m told.
I hear the refrain over and over. Organized religion is just bad people trying to hold power over a group by invoking the name of the divine. Just look at all the examples. The mega-church pastors with their own private jets. The ‘reverends’ that use that title to launch their political careers and talk shows on cable news. The hate groups. The crusades. Show me an organized religion, and I’ll show you someone who used and abused it for power.
This is where Christians think we’re supposed to say, “No! That’s not true! Our religion is pure. Maybe it’s been abused, but that’s the rare exception.” Except, our history is just this: sinners inside the church all scrambling for power. As our gospel story reaches a climax, that’s all we see. The Pharisees, religious men, seeking to control Jesus. Judas working a back alley deal to betray his Lord for cash. The disciples arguing over who the greatest is like a running joke gone on way past being funny anymore. The crowds following Jesus looking for an earthly king. Christians have been after power all along.
It’s spilled forward through time, and not just to a select group of other, different people who are clearly wrong and not Christian at all because of it. It’s us too. We have the same quest for power, the same argument that we’re the greatest, the same way of selectively quoting scripture until we have someone else to look down on. We find the same satisfaction in betraying our neighbor’s reputation. We confess their sins for them seeking a dark, twisted absolution in the idea that them looking worse makes us look a little better. We spend our days imagining what we’d do if we could punish everyone we know deserves it. Sit through an ugly voters meeting. Stand at the edge of the crowd gathered for the after-meeting in the parking lot afterward. Tell me organized religion isn’t always used for power all you want, but the truth is that sinners like power. The church is full of sinners. Sinners abusing religion for power isn’t the fringe, it’s sadly been the mainstream as long as more than one person has believed the same thing.
Do you really think God didn’t know this? Do you think Jesus didn’t hear the disciples arguing about power every single day? Do you think He didn’t know about Judas’ betrayal to the Pharisees who wanted them dead? Do you think any bit of it was a curve ball to Him who watched Adam and Eve try to make themselves gods through a piece of fruit, their children murder each other over a church rite, and every other power struggle in our bloody history? He saw it all.
This same Jesus would stand before Peter and say, “I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” Jesus started this organized religion. Even knowing what He did, He wanted it that way. He wasn’t gathering an activist group, starting a pyramid scheme, or an earthly kingdom. He was gathering His beloved to deliver to them the greatest gifts He had to offer. His forgiveness, His life, His salvation. He was saving them from hell. It wasn’t because they deserved it. It was because they needed it.
In doing so, He shows us what real power looks like. This is a power made perfect in weakness. It’s a God who dies for us sinners upon a cross, then gathers us together to pour out that forgiveness upon us. Christianity isn’t about us being pure enough to deserve to be called a religion. It’s about Christ being pure for us. For Judas, for the Pharisees, for Peter and John and the rest of the disciples, and for you.
True religion is power, but power used in service. It’s what makes it so wretched and painful. It starts as a Christ who had power and used to to bear a cross for sinners who only use it for themselves. It wasn’t just to give us the example of how we ought to love one another. He died to name us forgiven and loved by God. He died to overwhelm our quest for power, drive that sin into the ground at the foot of the cross, and then rise again from the dead. That’s love. That’s a love that goes beyond just thinking nice thoughts in your own head and calling it religion. That’s a love that reaches down from heaven and gathers a sinful people in need, and then even works good among them.
I will never call the abuses of power in church good, or even OK. They’re sinful. They’re also forgiven. That forgiveness isn’t just a nice thought in our heads. It’s a real power. Despite countless sins of Christians, the church has always been an outpost for mercy. It has always been organized around that love that cannot be broken.
Organized religion isn’t all we make it out to be. It isn’t a group of holy people doing good in the world. It’s a broken people God gathers and makes holy. It won’t always be pretty. That won’t stop God though. He loves you too much to do anything but call, gather, enlighten, sanctify, and keep you. He will daily and richly forgive all your sins, and on the last day raise you up to live before Him in righteousness and purity forever.