To introduce my subject, I begin by saying I don’t pretend to have all the answers to some of the challenges faced by Jesus’ Church on the earth in our times. In fact, I have far more questions than answers. All I know is that I see many challenges for Jesus’ worldwide Church, but Jesus is preparing his Church for his return, and nothing will thwart his ultimate purposes for his Church.
I wrote “Church on the earth” in the above paragraph because the entire Church of Jesus is far greater than merely the Church on earth. Here is how I define the Church: The Church consists of all people everywhere and everywhen in whom the Living Jesus dwells in his unbodied form of Holy Spirit. For purposes of this teaching I am writing only about the Church on earth, not the Church elsewhere and elsewhen.
More and more I see well-intentioned but misguided people placing greater and greater religious restrictions upon God’s people in Jesus’ Church on earth. The Church just doesn’t seem to be functioning and “working” the way Jesus intended it should; it just doesn’t seem to have a lot of lasting impact for good upon our society and culture. Often, more people leave local churches than join them. Some churches even have what is called “back door ministries” in an attempt to stop people from leaving.
There just seem to be more and more “dead,” meaningless, manmade teachings and doctrines creeping into Jesus’ Church almost by the day. God’s people seem more and more bound up and restricted by “dead” religion instead of having a deep, “live,” personal relationship with the living Jesus. And, there are so many people who have been wounded, hurt, and—sometimes—even traumatized by various religious leaders. The people that make up Jesus’ Church are commanded to love one another, but instead there seems to be incessant fighting and bickering over foolish manmade teachings, rituals, and traditions.
In his own day when Jesus was here the first time, much of his time had to be spent dealing with the religious leaders of his day who had reduced a vital relationship with the Living God into a set of restrictive, manmade teachings and religious practices. It seems that every time Jesus turned around, religious leaders wanted to trip him up and argue with Him about meaningless, “dead” restrictions they had placed on themselves and upon God’s people of that day.
Later, in the ministry of the apostle Paul as God was using him to help give birth to and plant new local churches in the eastern part of the Roman Empire, he was constantly hounded and harassed by religious leaders who followed him around the Empire almost everywhere he went. He called those people “thorns in the flesh” because they just kept picking away at him, attempting to undo all that God was doing through him in the infant Church.
My hope and desire is that this teaching will help you sort out in your own mind and spirit the differences between organized religion and Jesus’ Church which is really an organism. If you can successfully make that distinction, then you can have an empowered ministry, and worship and serve in, to, and through the organism in spite of the organization.
Having said all that by way of introduction, now let’s go clear back even before the very beginning and see how the Church of Jesus has become the way we generally see it now in our western society and culture.
Jesus Predicts His Church’s Birth
Even before He was murdered, buried, brought back to life by the power of God, and returned to heaven, Jesus talked with a few of his followers about the Church He would establish to be his Living Presence on the earth after he returned to heaven (Matthew 16: 18). Later, in Paul’s writings we learn that the Church was a living Body and living Temple composed of living “cells” or “building blocks” of people, with Jesus being the Head of his Body and Master Builder of the Temple.
Some points about Jesus’ statement in Matthew 16 bear noting. First Jesus said it is MY Church. The Church belongs to Jesus, not to any human beings. Next, He said HE will build his Church; yes, it’s true He is building it with and through humans, but He is the Master Builder of his Church, not any humans. He alone is the Architect, the Designer, the Builder, and the “Grower” of his Church; we must never lose sight of that. He’s the Head; He’s in charge. It’s his Church! Humans are not, must not be, and should not attempt to make themselves in charge of Jesus’ Church–whether it’s a local church, a network of churches, or a worldwide church!
Finally, He said the gates of hell (“Hades” in the original Greek language) would not prevail against his Church. Hades is defined very simply as the place where people go when they die; that is, to the grave—buried in the ground. What does that statement mean? For a long time, many Bible teachers believed and taught this scenario: the gates of Hades were on the offensive against the Church and the Church was defensively battling and struggling mightily not to retreat in the face of that offensive.
The actual meaning of that statement is quite the contrary. The Church is on the offensive and the gates of Hades will not be able to defensively withstand the mighty onslaught of the Church. The Church will batter down the gates of Hades and free everyone it holds prisoner in the grave. Jesus has defeated (potentially) death, and will defeat it in reality when He returns to earth to establish his Kingdom.
I have oversimplified the truths of that scenario, but that’s the gist of it. It is about Jesus ultimately and permanently triumphant over death—both the first death and the second death (Revelation 20 and 21)—through the Church.
Jesus’ Church Is Born
Not long after Jesus spoke to his disciples about the Church to which He would later give birth, after his resurrection the birth actually occurred one evening in a locked room where his disciples were hiding for fear of persecution. The resurrected, Living Jesus miraculously entered the locked room and breathed Holy Spirit into his disciples. At that instant, they received Holy Spirit en masse and the Church was born. (John 20: 22) He breathed his own life into them just as He had breathed life into Adam when he was created by God.
Not many days later, on the day when the Jewish people celebrated in Jerusalem the ancient, annual Festival of Pentecost, Jesus began to add people to his newborn Church, beginning with 3,000 people on that special day. The Church was not born on the Day of Pentecost (as many mistakenly teach); on that day, Jesus simply began to add to his newborn Church people who were being saved (Acts 2: 47), and He has sovereignly continued to add more people to his Church ever since the Day of Pentecost. He adds people to the Church when He draws them inexorably to Himself as iron filings are drawn to a magnet (John 6: 44 and 12: 32).
On the Day of Pentecost, Jesus empowered the newly born Church with Holy Spirit (who is Jesus in his unbodied Spirit form) to be his witnesses and to continue the miraculous work He had begun during the prior 33 years He had lived among people as God incarnate, Jesus the God-Man, Jesus the Messiah, the Anointed One. Jesus gave the Church Holy Spirit to abide within everyone so that the Church on earth could continue to reproduce itself in every human generation through all the ages of time.
Earlier, before his death and resurrection Jesus told his disciples that they would continue to do the works He did—and even greater (John 14: 12). 2,000 years of history readily discloses to the open-minded observer that Holy Spirit-empowered Church has done just that. For 2000 years the empowered worldwide Church on earth has continued to do what Jesus began to do and teach (Acts 1: 1), performing greater works than Jesus did and reproducing itself in every generation. Indeed, the Church has been the sole Living Presence of Jesus on the earth ever since He returned to heaven. The only difference on the earth since Jesus was here the first time is the presence of the Church!
Growth of Jesus’ Church
For 2,000 years the gates of death/Hades have not been able to hold out against the Church’s onslaught. The Church has grown and multiplied worldwide since the very first believers were added to the Church on the day of Pentecost. Statistically, by the end of the first century, there was one believer for every 35 persons in the known world. Today, 2,000 years later, 1 person in 7 on this planet claims to be a follower of Jesus. That is amazing growth! Oh, I know, some dispute that claim, questioning whether or not everyone who claims to be a follower of Jesus really is. My response to that is: “Who am I to question another’s person’s relationship with Jesus.”
If a person claims to be a follower of Jesus, I accept their claim at face value. Whether anyone is or is not an authentic follower is up to God, not to me. Who am I to judge a person’s relationship with God? Oh, another person may not look like me, or talk like me, or carry the same version of the Bible I carry, or speak the same religious jargon I do, but only God knows the hearts of humans, and I simply leave it up to Him to sort out who is and who isn’t an authentic follower of Jesus and “living member” of the worldwide Church Jesus is building.
Since the birth of the Church, Jesus has drawn to Himself people from every tribe, every people group, every language group, and every nation on the face of this planet (Revelation 5: 9). And the time will come—at the end of the ages of time—when every human will voluntarily fall to their knees and proclaim Jesus as Lord and King to the glory of God the Father (Philippians 2: 9 – 11). Moreover, there will come a time when God the Son turns over his Kingdom to God the Father, and Almighty God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—will be All in all, Everything to everyone! (First Corinthians 15: 28)
The Main “Job” of Every Believer in Jesus’ Church
I am going to reproduce Matthew 28: 18 – 20 and Mark 16: 15 – 18, immediately below, sort of blending them together and putting them in modern English. These are the words of Jesus Himself, not only to the ones He was speaking to in person, but to all believers—including you!—everywhere and everywhen:
“All power and authority throughout the universe and on earth has been given to me by my Father. Wherever you go with that inner power in you (in the Person of Holy Spirit living in you), proclaim the Good News about Me to everyone. Make disciples of them, baptizing them in the Name of the God the Father, and of God the Son, and of God the Spirit. Teach the people who choose to follow Jesus to obey everything I have commanded you. These miraculous signs will follow those who have chosen to follow me: in my Name, they will cast out demons, they will speak with new tongues, they will take up serpents, and if they drink anything deadly, it will not hurt them. They will lay hands on the sick and the sick will be healed. And I will be with you to the very end of the ages of time.”
What you have just read is Jesus’ COMMAND to you; it is NOT a suggestion for you to do if you feel like it, or if you have time, or if you don’t have anything more important to do. It is a command to every follower of Jesus, not merely to a few hired, paid religious professionals. That’s the main job of every follower of Jesus in his Church: proclaim the Good News about Jesus and then make disciples of those people who come to believe in Him as a result of your proclaiming Him. Any manmade doctrine or teaching that hinders you from doing your job, or blocks you from doing that, or displaces that, or teaches you that’s the job of a “professional” follower of Jesus—is manmade and not of God.
To make a disciple of someone simply means that you pour out and transmit the LIFE of God within you into another person, helping them learn to obey Jesus. The best way for someone you are discipling to learn to obey Jesus is to see you obey Him. Jesus’ command to you doesn’t necessarily mean you are to journey to some other place on earth, but to proclaim the Good News and make disciples of other people in your own day-to-day “world” wherever you happen to live or travel.
How do we obey Jesus’ command? When we become a follower of Jesus, Holy Spirit comes to take up permanent residence inside us in our spirits; He is then “ignited” within us and subsequently we are energized and empowered—”fired up”—to be his witnesses to other people in our world. Thus, Jesus grows his Church in every generation, making living building blocks out of them, adding them to his Church. Then they tell someone else, and they tell someone else, and they tell someone else, and thus the Church continues to be “built” by Jesus.
Jesus’ Church Is An Organism
As I’ve already written, the Church is a living organism (not an organization—more about that later) to which Jesus adds people as He sees fit. He grows his Church; we don’t. He’s been adding to and growing his Church for 2,000 years to the point where his Church has now spread virtually around the world. Remember, the Church is people—”living building materials”—not an organization, not buildings!
When I use the term organism, I mean the Church is a living, sensate entity created by God just as He first created humans by breathing into Adam the breath of life. In that upper room when Jesus created his Church, He did so by breathing his “breath of Life,” (Holy Spirit) into his disciples just as God had breathed his life into Adam. The “cells” of that organism are people! Yes, people are the living “building” blocks with whom Jesus is building his Church. 1 Peter 2: 5 uses the term “living stones” being fitted into the organic, spiritual Building/Temple Jesus is growing and constructing.
Paul often used the word “Body” when describing the Church with Jesus as its Head. We must clearly understand the Church is an organism, not an organization. And Jesus—not any human being—is in total and complete charge and control of his Church, his Body!
Speaking of buildings, God has made it very clear for thousands of years that He does not necessarily inhabit special “church buildings” constructed by humans. From the very first temple that was built by King Solomon in which to worship God, Solomon made it very clear that no building made by humans can house God (see 2 Chronicles 2: 5 and 6 and Acts 7: 48 – 51).
You may be thinking right now “Yes, but . . . “ There are no “yes, buts.” From the very beginning God has made it very clear that He never intended to inhabit special buildings set aside in which people should worship Him. No simple thatched huts for people to worship God. No grand cathedrals. No huge mega-church buildings. No “little brown church in the vale.” Nope, no special buildings to “house” God. His intentions all along have been to inhabit people, not buildings! As a matter of fact, for the first 300 years or so that Jesus’ Church was on earth, followers of Jesus did not worship God in special church buildings built and set aside for the purpose of worshipping God. More about that later.
If you are going to understand and learn from this teaching about God and Religion, you must understand that simple fact about Jesus’ Church. It is a living Body with Jesus as the Head. The Church is not a building. It is not an organization. It is a living organism! Period!
The Old Testament Sets The Stage
Now let’s look at some facts from the Old Testament which will set the stage for understanding Jesus’ Church in the New Testament. I will begin by first teaching you a little about God and human kings in the Old Testament in order to “set the stage” for teaching about God and Religion.
I hope you will remember from your Old Testament studies that God sovereignly chose Israel to be his special people among all the other nations of the world. His original intent was to be their sole King, ruling over them in the form of a theocracy with no human intermediaries. Oh, He did ask the Israelites to select some elders and judges to sort of guide them, counsel them, and help “keep them in line.” But essentially, it was God’s original intent and purpose to be sole King over his people, Israel, ruling them directly with no human intermediaries. That’s called a theocracy.
However, God, Who knows what is inside all human hearts, knew that a time would come when the Israelites would clamor for a human king to rule over them so they could be like the other nations having kings. It was not God’s intention for the Israelites to have human kings, but He knew ahead of time that’s what they would eventually want. You can read background material about what I’ve just written in Deuteronomy 17 and 1 Samuel 8.
God knew that when the Israelites finally got a human king to rule over them, many things would change for the Israelites—mostly for the bad. But, God accommodated Himself to their request for a king and allowed them to have human kings, beginning with King Saul. In a sense, having kings was the beginning of the downfall for ancient Israel; things began to “go downhill” from their very first human king until Israel was taken into captivity centuries later, and never again was there an Israelite kingdom with human kings.
One lesson to be learned from the Old Testament kings is that God often accommodates Himself to what his people want, knowing full well what they want isn’t in their best interests. God never compromises Himself, but He will, on occasion, accommodate Himself to the requests of his sons and daughters knowing full well that what they want is not in their best interests at the time. God’s accommodations to us are always filtered through his love for us and are always on the basis of the fact that “God is always altogether good and everything He does is good” (Psalm 119: 68). He always uses everything to work out everything for our ultimate good.
So . . . when God accommodated Himself to the ancient Israelites and allowed them to have human kings, He knew it was not in their best interests, but behind the scenes He would still work out everything for their ultimate good—which He has done historically, is still doing today, and will do in the future. In desiring a human king to rule over them instead of God, in 1 Samuel 8: 7 and 10: 19, God made it very clear that they were actually rejecting Him. That’s pretty serious, friends: to reject God. So . . . another lesson to be learned is this general biblical principle: in essence, whenever we accept human “kings” to rule over us—as in accepting human, manmade doctrines, teachings, and leaders—that is tantamount to rejecting God!
What does all this about kings have to do with God and religion in our day? Much more than you might think. As noted in earlier paragraphs, Jesus spoke about his Church in Matthew 16. He gave birth to the Church in John 20: 22. He added to the Church throughout the Book of Acts, beginning with 3,000 people on the Day of Pentecost. The Church is Jesus’ Body, his Living Presence on the earth today with Him as its sole Head. He had some original intentions for his Church which have changed greatly, but to which Jesus has accommodated Himself through the 2,000 years since the Church was born. Just as God had original intentions for Israel, but accommodated Himself to them by letting them have a king, knowing full well they were rejecting Him when they clamored to have a king.
How has Jesus accommodated Himself? The Church was originally intended by Jesus to be only a living organism, a Body, the Living Body of Jesus on the earth, not an organization. Sadly, in many respects the Church has devolved into an organization, rather than remain a living organism. Or, let me put it this way: the Church remains a living organism, but people have superimposed an organizational grid or schemata upon the organism. Jesus has accommodated Himself to that change from an organism to an organization—but that was not his original intent for the Church—and in his own good timing, He will some day restore the Church on earth to a living organism without any organizational schemata superimposed upon it. Yes, God’s intentions all along have been for his true temple to be humans whom He will inhabit for all the ages of time and for eternity! (See 1 Corinthians 6: 19 and 20, for example, and 2 Corinthians 6: 16)
The New Testament Church “Model”
I will be merely summarizing what the New Testament teaches about the Church model, because there’s a book written by a Chinese Jesus believer named Watchman Nee which in my estimation is perhaps the best book ever written on the subject of the Church as an organism and how it is supposed to “work” and function. His book is entitled The Normal Christian Church Life. It can be purchased at CBD.com, amazon.com, or, sometimes, on E-Bay. Or, simply type in Watchman Nee on your computer search engine and a number of web sites will come up which are devoted to keeping Watchman Nee’s teachings alive; you can purchase many of his writings right at those web sites. Watchman Nee died in 1972 after languishing for 20 years in a prison in China because of his faith in Jesus.
According to the New Testament, here’s what the Church was originally intended to be. The Church was intended to be the Living Body of Jesus (an organism) on the earth with Jesus being the sole Head of his Church. It was to be the continuing Living Presence of Jesus on the earth, permanently “inhabited” and empowered by Holy Spirit.
The organism was to consist of living “building blocks” (people), with some of those people appointed by Jesus as elders and deacons chosen to handle the day-to-day affairs of the local church. Some of the elders were to fill the role of spiritual servants and guides of the Church, some of them becoming pastors (shepherds) and teachers. Deacons were to sort of take care of the day-to-day material needs of the Church; they were to be servants, not leaders. The Church would also consist of prophets (people manifesting the supernatural gift of prophecy) and evangelists. (This is taught in Ephesians chapter 4)
If anyone in the local church was ordered by the sole Head of the Church, Jesus, to go elsewhere and assist Jesus in giving birth to other churches, they were called “apostles” while they were “on the road” helping birth new churches. If someone in the church were to go elsewhere and lead people to faith in Jesus, they were called “evangelists.” They were called apostles and evangelists only when they were away from their local church; when they returned, they were simply equal members of the local Body of Jesus. There are no full-time, paid apostles and evangelists taught in the New Testament.
Followers of Jesus in a given locale would simply meet from house to house to celebrate the feast called the Lord’s Supper or Communion, to have fellowship with one another, to pray together, to worship together, to serve God, to baptize new followers, and to learn together the Scriptures. Occasionally, they would rent a larger hall or auditorium to bring more local followers together in one place to fellowship and worship. Or, they would sometimes rent a larger facility if a traveling apostle was coming to their locale to share and to teach the scriptures. For the first 300 years or so of the Church’s life, followers did not worship in special church buildings, only in homes and—sometimes—in rented larger buildings for special occasions.
The First Big Mistake
As somewhat of a “sidebar,” even before the time of the Roman Emperor Constantine—when the new Church was still in its infancy (more about that later)—there was already a move afoot by some Christians to “lord it over” other believers. Please read Revelation 2: 6, and 15. There was a move by some people in the infant Church who held and promoted the teachings of a faction called the Nicolaitans. Nicolaitans is a compound word in the Greek language which in its essence means “conquering the laity.”
There were some who wanted to make a division between followers of Jesus: they wanted to divide his followers into two groups, clergy and laity. The clergy would “conquer,” dominate, or lord it over the “common folk,” the laity, who were not as “spiritual” or as “godly” as the clergy. The Nicolaitans taught that some believers were “better” or more spiritual than other followers who needed to be led and controlled rather than served. So . . . right away in the infant Church, manmade teachings and divisions had already begun to creep in; some wanted to superimpose an organizational schemata or grid over the organism just as the Emperor Constantine would do by royal edict a couple of hundred years later.
I have vastly oversimplified and generalized about the Church being an organism, not an organization, but I feel I’ve been accurate based upon what the New Testament teaches about Jesus’ Church. Again, God’s original intentions for the Church were for it to be a living organism, a Body, with Jesus being sole Head of his Church, appointing some apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, teachers, elders, and deacons to serve the Church (not lead or dominate the Church). If they led at all, they were to lead by serving; they were to be servant-leaders.
But God has accommodated Himself (without compromising his character and nature) to all the manmade changes that humans have made which are not in line with his original intentions. He is always working behind the scenes in spite of the manmade changes, always filtering everything through his great love for his Church, always working everything out for the good of the Church. We read in Revelation 21 and 22 the ultimate end result of how God has used the Church through the centuries in spite of all the changes humans have made to his original plans and purposes.
Note: I need to be truthful with you about something at this point in my teaching. Some honest Bible scholars admit that the above New Testament model for the Church I have described is accurate, BUT they go on to say that model isn’t necessarily what God had in mind for the Church for all time; they feel that was simply a model for the early Church, but not necessarily for the Church for all time. They say that the way the Church is today is how God intended it to become—how He intended for the Church to change and evolve through the centuries to meet the changing needs of changing societies and cultures. They say the New Testament model was God’s will for those times, but He meant it to change and develop through the centuries. Such Bible scholars are well-intended, but I feel they’re wrong. You decide for yourself.
How It All Changed
When did the Church begin to move away from Jesus’ original intentions for it? For approximately the first 300 years of the Church it remained pretty true to God’s original purposes for it. It remained pretty much a living organism, a Body, with Jesus as the sole Head with no human intermediaries or leaders. Each community had a local expression of the Church, with non-paid, non-professional, volunteer apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, teachers, elders, and deacons pretty much serving in the servant roles God intended for them. They pretty much maintained the organism “model” God had in mind for them. Oh, each local “cell” of the Church didn’t follow that model perfectly, but for the most part that’s what the Church was like for the first 300 years or so of its existence on planet earth. Of course there were exceptions, but, for the most, part the Church remained a living organism, the Living Presence of Jesus on the earth with Him as its sole Head.
NOTE: Some Jesus-believers did begin to use the title “Bishop” in place of “Elders,” but they both meant the same thing—”Overseer” or “servant-Leader.” Bishops were not high-placed, authoritative leaders of churches as they have devolved today! Everything began to change when the Roman Emperor, Constantine, became a follower of Jesus. He reigned as emperor from approximately 274 A.D. to 337 A.D. He was so excited about having become a follower of Jesus that he wanted everyone in the Empire to become followers of Jesus, too. That’s certainly understandable. But in wanting everyone to become a follower of Jesus, he made some fatal errors that began the Church’s move away from being an organism to being an organization.
Constantine simply proclaimed by royal edict or fiat that everyone in the Empire would become followers of Jesus—whether they wanted to or not! In those days Emperors could do that sort of thing, just as some dictators in our times can exercise almost absolute control over the people they control. Yes, the whole organized, manmade Christian “religion” as we know it today began with the Roman Emperor Constantine. After he became a follower of Jesus, he also thought it would be a good thing to build great houses of worship and cathedrals in which to worship God “better”; he built such “religious” buildings all over the Empire, and followers of Jesus who previously had been meeting from house to house in local areas now were compelled to fill the new worship buildings and grand cathedrals.
Such buildings needed people to be “in charge” of them so Constantine began to appoint religious “leaders” to be in charge of all the new “Christians” who came to the new religious buildings. He appointed some of those leaders as bishops (supervisors) over local churches and over some larger geographical areas. At first, most of those bishops were already local elders, but as time passed more and more of them became sort of “political” appointees regardless of their relationship with Jesus—or lack thereof. In fact, as noted above the word “bishop” simply means “elder.”
As time passed the bishop of the local churches in the Roman Empire’s capitol city of Rome became sort of a “chief among equals” with authority yielded to him over many of the other bishops in that area. Bishops later wielded political power as well as spiritual authority. Later, the bishop of Rome came to be considered the “Father” (Pope or “Papa”) over all the other bishops in the western European church. Later, the Pope began to appoint “helpers” for his growing religious and administrative responsibilities, and these helpers came to be known as the “College of Cardinals,” who wore bright red clothing like the Cardinal birds.
It was approximately at that time the eastern European churches sort of went their own way and became the Eastern Orthodox churches. More about that major schism later…
I hope you understand I’m condensing centuries of religious history into only a few paragraphs, but what I’m sharing with you is pretty much true history regardless of what you may have been taught otherwise. I’ve done much research into these matters and one of my Masters Degrees is in church history and religious tradition. I’m being honest with you; that’s pretty much how it all began. Later, the bishops began to appoint trained, full-time priests as pastors to lead and rule local churches and congregations. Thus began the ages-long contrast and divisions between the “clergy” and the “laity” that had been first introduced by the Nicolaitans a couple of centuries earlier before the time of Constantine.
The Eastern Orthodox churches did pretty much the same thing as the western churches, except they did not have a Pope—and still don’t. Instead, they have “archbishops” and “Metropolitans” (instead of Popes) who wield a great deal of both political and religious clout in many instances, just as the Pope does in the western church.
As the clergy (who were not necessarily even followers of Jesus) grew in both spiritual authority and political power, some of the Popes even began to wield power over some of the Emperors. The lowly Christian “house churches” where Jesus’ followers met for simple worship, praise, teaching, communion, and fellowship became pretty much a thing of the past except for pockets of them from time to time to be found in various parts of the declining Roman Empire.
Later, Many of those followers of Jesus who continued to meet in simple “house churches” were considered dissidents and heretics, and thousands of such simple followers of Jesus were hunted down, tortured, and killed by the religious authorities of their day. But that’s another story altogether . . . . As just one example of what I’m writing about, some day when you have time look up “Waldensians” on your internet search engine.
From the time of Constantine until now, the church “model” I have described above has been pretty much what we have had for 1,700 years! Jesus has been replaced as sole Head of his Church. The organism has become an organization.
I hope you understand I have again vastly oversimplified and generalized over 2,000 years of Church history. But, “in a nutshell,” that’s really what happened to change the Church from an organism to an organization 1,700 years ago. Of course, there were exceptions to what I have described; of course, that’s not the entire story, but I have done my best to honestly share with you in summary form what really happened beginning with Constantine.
Just like the ancient Israelites wanted a human king to rule over them instead of God, approximately 1700 years ago the early Church replaced Jesus as the sole Head of his Church, instead appointing paid, human leadership—Christian “kings”—in his place. The early Church had no human leadership, no fulltime, paid church employees as pastors, no organization. It remained an organism with Jesus as its sole Leader and Head.
Needless to say, since the time of Constantine, the Church of Jesus on the earth has been vastly different from what God originally intended it to be. But, again, God has graciously accommodated Himself to the changes and obviously still works behind the scenes in and through his Church in spite of all the manmade changes which have been made. There will come a time, however, at the end of the ages of time, when God will present to Himself his Bride, the Church—the living organism—as she was originally intended to be!
Meanwhile, in spite of the changes men have made from an organism to an organization, let us who are followers of Jesus continue to serve in the Church as it is today, knowing God will bless and honor our efforts in spite of the changes. The Living Church, the Bride of Jesus worldwide, is alive and well, serving God and humanity until Jesus returns!
As a sidebar, during the time of Constantine is when baptism by sprinkling came into vogue; prior to then, if one became a follower of Jesus, that person was baptized by full immersion in water (a pond, a river, a lake—whatever was available) which is what the word “baptism” means in the Greek language: “full immersion.” Well, because of Constantine’s decree that everyone would become followers of Jesus by royal fiat, the local believers had so many people to “initiate” into the churches all at once, that they began sprinkling people with water to keep up with the incoming crowds of new followers of Jesus.
They simply didn’t have the time to take those “new followers of Jesus” to nearby lakes or rivers and immerse them, as the word “baptize” really means in the Greek language. Sprinkling simply caught on and many churches have been disobediently doing it (instead of full immersion) ever since without even questioning what they’re doing.
Here’s another sidebar about religious ritual and tradition. No one thinks much about why priests, pastors, and ministers wear so-called “clerical collars” these days to set them apart (and above?) ordinary lay persons; it’s a long story. I’ll make it as short as I can. In Renaissance Europe, male fashions came and went as emerging middle class males were able to dress more and more fashionably—like the upper class and royalty had been doing for years. For a few years back in those times, it was fashionable to wear collars that we now call “clerical collars.”
The clergymen of those days attempted to be fashionable, too, so they wore such collars when they were in fashion. When such collars went out of fashion, the clergy—who were generally poorer than the middle class—could not always afford to change fashions as readily as the fashions changed every few years. So clergy persons simply continued to wear such collars—even though they had gone out of fashion—and they came to be a sign that the person was a clergy person. Honestly, that’s how we came to have clerical collars; they have absolutely no religious significance whatsoever.
One more sidebar and then I won’t bore you with them any more. Let’s think about the wearing of robes today by such persons as pastors, priests, bishops, cardinals, and the like. During the Renaissance era and later, students and professors wore robes in colleges and universities in order to keep warm in drafty and cold sleeping quarters and classrooms. As time went on, such robes, often black, came to be a sign of professors and students—as well as clergy persons who attended and graduated from universities and colleges.
The habit persisted, and many clergy persons—bishops, minister, pastors, etc., still wear robes of various colors, including black, especially in the preaching pulpit. And you thought those robes had some sort of important religious significance, didn’t you? C’mon now, admit it. And . . . speaking of pulpits, I’ll bet you mistakenly believe pulpits are a sort of “holy” lecturn from which to preach. They aren’t!
Just today while driving past a large church building while on an errand, I saw a small group of people standing outside the building, apparently visiting after a church service. One of them caught my attention because he was dressed like a bride—only it was a long, ankle-length black dress and he was wearing a clerical collar! What’s up with that? I have no bone to pick (anyone can wear what they want to), but I would be willing to bet you that he and the people with him—if asked—felt he was wearing some sort of “spiritual garb” that was supposed to set him apart (and possibly above!) from the people he was with. Okay, no more sidebars . . . for now.
The Church Of Europe And North America
Before you read and study the remainder of this teaching, I must make a very important point. When I write of the devolving church since the time of Constantine, I am writing specifically about the western Church in Europe and, by extension, the Church in North America, Australia, New Zealand, and such places. The Church in Europe—including the British Isles—is, of course, many centuries old. Although the Church in North America is only 300-400 years old, for the most part it is patterned after the European Church model, having brought that organizational model to our shores as early as the landing of the Pilgrims at Plymouth Rock.
By stark contrast, the Church in Africa, Asia, and South America is, in some respects, still in its infancy stage and is much like the early Church from the Day of Pentecost until the time of Constantine. It has not devolved to the same extent the Church in Europe and North America has. One must never see the Church of Europe and North America as an authentic example or portrayal of the worldwide Church of Jesus. The Church of Asia, Africa, and South America is much more pristine and pure at this point in time, much more like the New Testament model.
Once, while an intern at the world’s largest Church in Seoul, South Korea (700,000+ members!), the Pastor, David Yongghi Cho, told me that the Church in the rest of the world views the Church in Europe and North America as its “ailing elder brother.” That pretty well sums up what I’m attempting to write right now.
In fact, are you aware of the following interesting phenomenon? Until approximately the mid-1980’s most of the overseas Jesus-believing missionaries in the world were from Europe (specifically England) and North America. Since the 1980’s, however, there has been a radical shift in that model. Now, most of the overseas missionaries come from South America, Asia, and South America—to carry the Gospel to the “modern pagans and heathens” in Europe and North America!
As usual, I have to write that I am generalizing again, and there are many exceptions to what I have written in the 5 paragraphs immediately above.
Note: The following sections of this teaching are not intended in any way, shape, or form, to be an indictment against ALL manmade religious leadership, against ALL manmade teachings, against ALL manmade religious practices. Those friends who know me personally know that’s just not the type of person I am. I love Jesus’ worldwide Church! If you believe it is my intent to indict, castigate, or vilify other brothers and sisters in Jesus’ Church, you couldn’t be more wrong! And, once again, I hasten to point out that I am writing primarily about the European and North American Church in the following sections of this teaching.
What Is “Religion”?
The word religion comes historically from what is termed “Late Ecclesiastical Latin,” and originally meant to bind together or to bind up. It meant to “bind together” all the Bible’s teachings into a systematic whole; it meant to put the Bible’s teachings into a meaningful system of thought, doctrine, and teachings. Unfortunately, for the most part religion has come to mean something completely opposite of its original meaning. It has come to mean that people are “bound up” (instead of set free!) by manmade religious systems that often have nothing to do with God and his plans and purposes for his redeemed children.
The Errors Of Organized Religion
Now, let’s begin to take a look at many of the errors of religion that have crept into the Church (of Europe and North America) since the time of Constantine and see how such errors still hurt the Church and retard its growth in the world. Keep in mind while reading everything I write in this teaching hereafter, Jesus is still sole Head of his Church and is always working behind the scenes to purify and “grow” his Church in spite of our sins, our shortcomings, and all the manmade errors that have been brought into the Church. Remember—in its simplest form humans superimposed an organizational schemata upon an organism 1,700 years ago, which has never “worked” as God originally intended it to work.
The Church on earth today has many “spots and wrinkles” (Ephesians 5), but there will come a day when it will again be a glorious Church without spot or wrinkle which Jesus will unveil to the entire universe as his chosen Bride!
As previously noted when I discussed the Nicolaitans, the very first change that occurred was that the Church was arbitrarily divided into two classes: clergy and laity. The local church began to have paid, fulltime leaders “in charge” instead of volunteer, unpaid elders and deacons appointed by Jesus, the Head of his Church. The clergy were “elevated” above the common laypersons and often began to need special education in order to be clergy persons. Clergy persons were often considered to be “holier” and more pure than laypersons, closer to God, more able to be God’s spokespersons to and for the Church. They became “professional” followers of Jesus expected to do most of the work of the church which paid them their salaries.
Under them were placed or voted Church “boards” which also began to “rule over” the common followers of Jesus. All of these types of changes meant that typical follower of Jesus–“lay persons”–began to slow down in their growth, development, and service as followers of Jesus and began to hand over most of the work of the Church to the paid leaders. Lay persons began to be less “spiritual,” leaving that sort of thing up to the paid leaders.
Again, please, PLEASE understand I am vastly oversimplifying and generalizing this entire scenario about the history of the Church. All throughout the worldwide Church there have been—and still are—innumerable exceptions to what I am describing. Well, as you can imagine, a Church hierarchy began to build up and leaders began to think more and more in terms of perpetuating their “ministry,” advancing for more pay and better positions in the hierarchy. Various church leaders began to teach they were the only true expressions of Jesus’ Church, seeking to elevate their status and retain their members by that type of teaching. Generally, people like to feel they are special, different, better than other people—that their group is better than other groups; that’s just human nature, and various Church leaders have capitalized on that aspect of human nature.
Will The True Church Please Stand Up!
For example, the many differing Eastern Orthodox churches feel they are the only true churches, with the “western” Roman Catholic Church and Protestant denominations considered by the Eastern Orthodox churches as the “whore of Babylon and her daughters.” (an expression from the Book of Revelation) How do I know that about the Eastern Orthodox churches? One of their Bishops who is attempting to start a new eastern Orthodox Church in our community told me that in person just a few days ago! Of about 150 local churches in our community and its environs, that bishop believes his eastern orthodox church is the only true church in our community! He believes that I—being a Protestant follower of Jesus—will die and go to hell and burn forever unless I join his eastern orthodox church! With a totally straight face, he told me that to my face!
Of course, on the other hand those people who comprise one of the western churches have been taught that their church is the only true church founded by Jesus upon Peter, the “rock.” They feel all other denominations—and the eastern Orthodox churches—are false. Then, to make matters worse, many other Protestant denominations (and interdenominational denominations and non-denominational denominations and independent non-denominational denominations, ad nauseum!) feel they are the true churches, with the other western churches and the Eastern Orthodox churches being false.
In general (and I really mean “in general”) the Eastern Orthodox churches and the major western church have devolved into a religious system where their hierarchies exercise control over their lay-constituents from the “top down,” so to speak. Contrarily, most (not all) the other western churches exercise control from the “bottom up,” where the so-called laity can readily hire and fire its pastors and ministers. Most ecclesiastical leadership within such groups would not use the word “control,” but friends that’s what it really amounts to: control and domination either from the top down or from the bottom up.
For example, in the hierarchical churches, a “lay person” can be readily excommunicated for some real or imagined infraction of the “rules.” In the so-called non-hierarchical churches, let’s say a Baptist church, for example, a local Board of Deacons can readily fire the church’s pastor without much recourse, and other lay persons can be shunned and their memberships removed because of some unorthodox “doctrinal,” heretical, or behavioral transgression. Who is to judge what unorthodox really means? What are we to make of such seemingly vast, spiteful, and intransigent differences in beliefs and religious systems?
God Will Purify And Cleanse His Church
First, I think it can be safely said that such harmful differences are not part of the purposes of God for Jesus’ church because Jesus, God the Son, prayed that all his followers would be one (John 17). I hasten to say that I believe Jesus’ prayer will begin to be answered at the time Jesus returns to earth, establishes his worldwide Kingdom reign, and begins to consolidate all his followers into “one” during his initial 1,000 year Millennial reign before we move into the freshly restored heavens and earth at the end of time as we know it. Do I really believe Jesus’ prayer will be answered before his return to earth? Yes and No!
In fact, I feel that before He returns to earth, in a general way church divisions and the many Christian religions will grow even more intransigent and divisive. Yes, someday Jesus will present Himself with a pure, spotless bride without spot or wrinkle—his Church (as taught in Ephesians 5)—but it will only become that pure Bride without spot or wrinkle by being purged and cleansed by God. Spots come out by the use of a strong cleanser, and wrinkles come out by intense heat. He who has ears to hear, let him hear . . . .
Results Of Manmade Leadership
Previously, I’ve used the term, “religious “control” which I feel is generally quite accurate, although most church leaders would argue that is not so. Where do we find such religious control and domination taught or modeled in the New Testament—control that causes people to be “bound”? We don’t. It’s simply not there in the New Testament Church.
There are no religious hierarchies as we find them today taught in the New Testament, nor does it teach that churches are to seek, call, and hire people from outside the local church to come and be their Bible school or seminary-trained “minister” or pastor. Nor does the New Testament teach that the religious hierarchy was to appoint trained pastors from somewhere geographically outside the local church.
Yes, the New Testament teaches there are to prophets, apostles, and evangelists—as well as pastors and teachers. Such people were to be “raised up” and come from within the local church, not from the outside. (See Ephesians 4: 11 and related biblical references on this subject) Oh, early on during the Church’s infancy, occasionally an apostle would appoint someone to come from outside a local church to sort of help new believers get started, but they didn’t remain there once the new church got well grounded and was strong enough to function on its own—with its own elders and deacons raised up within the local church.
You do understand, don’t you that the word “apostle” simply means “one who is sent.” It is not a high and lofty position of someone who has an “apostolic ministry.” I’ve pointed this out before, but here’s an example to think about: Let’s say John or Jane Doe are members of a local congregation and God calls, commissions, and empowers John and Jane to go to a city 100 miles away and share the Gospel in that city for a time—perhaps even to establish or help give birth to a new church there.
During the time John and Jane are gone on that “mission” they could rightfully be called apostles; when they return home to their local congregation, they remain simply equal members of that local church. They could be male or female; in fact, the New Testament mentions at least one female apostle and more than merely Jesus’ 12 male apostles. The closest thing to an apostle in our times is someone who is a missionary. The same concept applies to evangelists; when they’re home they’re simply equal members of their local church—just John or Jane Doe; when John and Jane are away “evangelizing,” they are evangelists; when they return home they’re not. Friends, it’s really that simple. In brief, that is the New Testament concept of church, apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, elders, teachers, and deacons.
Incidentally, there is no such thing as “ordination” taught in the New Testament other than Jesus’ ordaining (commissioning) his children to go and bear fruit. (John 15: 5 and 6) Yes, on occasion, people in a local congregation would lay hands on someone and send them out to do some special work, but the concept of “official” or “legal” ordination as it’s practiced in the Church now simply isn’t taught in the New Testament. Yes, there are some New Testament exceptions to the situations I’ve mentioned above, but most of them were exceptions in order to give birth to and form the first “generation” of local churches.
And, no, I am not on a one-man “crusade” to wrench the worldwide church of Jesus back to its early form and functions. That would be absolutely foolish and futile of me! I’m simply pointing out how far we’ve devolved in 2,000 years from the pristine and primitive form of the early churches. God can and will sort it all out in his own good time.
Let’s get back now to our main subject: God and Religion. Essentially, religion is all the attempts people make to try and reach up to God and to please and placate Him, or to try and “impress” Him with their religious works, their buildings, and their methods of worship. It’s more than that, but that’s a good, workable definition of religion in addition to how we defined it earlier in this teaching. Pure, pristine Christianity—in stark contrast—is God reaching down to people and establishing a personal relationship with them through the redeeming work of God the Son, Jesus. Religion is people reaching up in attempt to “connect” with God. True Christianity is God reaching down to establish an ages-long and eternal relationship with people.
We’ve seen in brief how manmade, organizational Christianity got started and devolved from the pure, pristine worship and faith of the early believers who simply met from house to house to worship and serve God. We’ve condensed hundreds of years of both secular and church history into just a few paragraphs. Where are we at today—now—in respect to God and religion? How does God view the manmade religions and religious practices of today that have devolved from the early Christian church as we find it, for example, in the biblical book of Acts?
Christianity And Religion
Here we have this manmade, organizational entity named the Christian religion—as contrasted with authentic Christianity which is God-made. The manmade religion has special buildings called “houses of worship” and churches. It has a hierarchical religious structure of leadership and authority. Some of its leaders wear strange, outdated costumes. It has lots of rules, creeds, “articles of worship,” commandments, “orders of worship,” liturgies, rituals and such that serve to “bind up” or keep its adherents bound up.
What do we do about all this? Not much, I suppose. At least, I’m not about to do anything to change it or correct it. As stated earlier, I’m not on a one-man crusade to undo centuries of history and manmade tradition, commandments, and teachings. Anyone attempting to do that would be foolish, indeed.
In fact, one man tried that a few hundred years ago; his name was Martin Luther. Yes, he instituted a few reforms for his day, but his reforms very quickly devolved back into more man-made traditions. In fact, the “new” church he started is as “bound up” today by its tradition as the church was that he tried to reform in the first place. Manmade attempts at reform and “revival” simply don’t work. We need to simply leave such attempts up to God, and work as much as we are able to individually within all the tradition and manmade “stuff.” God will eventually sort it all out in his own good timing.
God is the only One who can bring genuine and authentic revival to his Church. In the United States South there is a custom practiced by many churches to schedule “revivals” once or twice a year. It’s just another manmade custom; humans cannot plan, schedule, or initiate genuine revivals. Only God can do that!
Again, what do we do now? Where do we go from here? First, recognize that within all this manmade stuff, God is still at work drawing people to Himself, saving them from sin and death, placing within them his own eternal LIFE, and transforming their lives more and more into the image of Jesus. Jesus began building his Church (Matthew 16) from the moment He breathed Holy Spirit into his disciples in John 20: 20, and He will continue building his church daily until the very day He returns to earth. For example, in China today Jesus is adding approximately 40,000 new believers every day (!) to his church in that great nation! Jesus continually grows his Church in every passing generation.
Manmade tradition, commandments, doctrines, hierarchy, and structures don’t slow down Jesus one tiny bit. He just keeps working and building his church worldwide every day—in spite of all we have done to “bind up” his people with manmade religion. Oh, perhaps some of our manmade “stuff” might serve to impede his Church’s growth a little, but God is certainly capable of overruling and overriding all the mistakes we humans make.
I hope I’ve sort of made a point that the manmade church as most of us know it today was never intended by God to be like it is. In fact, one of the reasons God came to earth as Jesus of Nazareth was to free his people, the Jews, of all the manmade stuff they had imposed upon God’s original model of faith and worship He established with them. Jesus came to free people from a regimented religion where peoples’ lives are bound up and threatened if they don’t obey rules and rituals invented and contrived by the leaders.
Jesus gave his church apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, deacons, and teachers to support and serve the Church, not as rulers over it. They were to serve the church and provide help, guidance, teaching, and comfort for the other followers of Jesus in the church. Jesus certainly didn’t envision “bosses” in the church like there are in the secular world. His servant-leaders were to guide and serve, not to dictate and legislate like bosses in the world. Unfortunately, just like the Scribes and Pharisees (the religious leaders) of Jesus’ day, most church leaders of church history—down to our very day—have patterned themselves after leaders in the businesses and governments of the world.
Ephesians 4: 11 makes it unmistakably clear that apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers were given to the Church to equip other followers of Jesus, so that they (the other followers) would be the real, unpaid, volunteer ministers of the Church. We’ve turned it upside down and backwards to where we insist the prophets, apostles, evangelists, pastors, and teachers are the ones equipped to be the ministers of the Church!
Results Of Manmade Teachings, Beliefs, And Practices
In patterning the Church after governments and businesses, humans have made manmade Christian religion into religious “observances” which are legalistic and superficial. Their endless rules and rituals become the focus of their faith-practices rather than God-inspired love and concern for one another in the church and toward others outside the church. These manmade customs, practices, and religions end up replacing true service to God and worship of Him. They become obstacles and hindrances to real Christian growth and maturity.
In a general way, Jesus addressed the matter of manmade systems, organizations, and religious teachings in a very scathing denunciation of such matters. In Matthew 15: 6, for example and Luke 7: 13, He told the religious leaders of his day that the Word of God is rendered null and void—totally ineffective—by manmade doctrines and teachings. Jesus said that, not me! Any time manmade religion is superimposed upon the organism of the Church, the Word of God is rendered totally ineffective. In fact, one rendering of those two references says that manmade doctrines, teachings, and traditions causes “aimless wanderings of the mind and pointless philosophical and religious confusion.”
Only the grace of God “overrides” such practices and works to save people and transform them by the Word of God—in spite of the manmade teachings, doctrines, and practices. The Bible, the Word of God, was given to transform people, not merely to inform them! We have simply made it sort of a guidebook for living instead of using it as the LIFE-giving, power-full, life-transforming book God intended it to be. The Bible is the Sword of the Spirit, not a pretty table knife to be passingly referred to at religious functions! We have rendered the Bible null and void by our manmade tradition and caused people to aimlessly wander about in confusion—just as the religious leaders of Jesus’ day did.
When people elevate religious leaders and consider them spiritual authorities, they become “bound up” in their thinking and attitudes and lax in their personal Bible study, feeling they can just ask the clergy about any spiritual matters. As adults, many who have grown up in a church setting continue to cling to their religious beliefs and practices they learned in their childhood, and if any of their church’s practices and customs begin to change (heaven forbid!), first of all, they panic, and, next, will seek to oust the leaders who are making the changes or flee as refugees to another church which is more comfortable to them and more to their liking. When practices and customs or rituals change, such people feel that those things were actually what their faith was all about—instead of having placed their faith directly in God through Jesus.
For example, on one occasion when I was teaching in a Church, I was referring to the so-called Apostles Creed. In that creed, the people are supposed to affirm that they believe in the “holy catholic church.” I made a simple suggestion that the word “catholic” in the Creed simply means “universal.” For that simple suggestion, I was almost tarred and feathered and run out of town on a rail, as the old sayings go. You would have thought that I had suggested a vile and evil heresy simply because I made mention of that obvious fact. That’s how riled, angry, or panicky some folks get if it seems their manmade traditions are being challenged or “tampered” with.
When such changes occur, most personal growth, if any, stops because, to them, change means the loss of their faith. It frightens them to be left alone and “naked” without their previous customs and teachings—naked before God! They often become closed to the inner workings of Holy Spirit because the changes have gone beyond what the priest or pastor allows and the church as a whole, and individuals within the church, become stunted in their spiritual growth and development.
Jesus Loves And Cares For His Church—In Spite Of Our Mistakes And Failures
We common, ordinary followers of Jesus who have Holy Spirit living within us, need to see beyond all the limitations of manmade doctrines, teachings, creeds, liturgies, and practices, and break out of the sterile religious forms that have bound us up. However, know this: if we do break out of such sterile boundaries—break “out of the box,” so to speak—we will be persecuted by religious leaders who want to keep our faith and practice “in the box,” so we can be controlled. I don’t fault religious leaders, per se; most of them are well-intended and feel they are truly following the Bible in attempting to control matters. They simply don’t want ordinary laypersons to think for themselves for fear they will lose control over them.
You must know—if you’ve read and studied the New Testament for yourself even a little bit—that Jesus never intended his Church to do the damage to it’s own “members” that it has for centuries. Historically, it’s horrible how many religious leaders have persecuted, had people tortured, and even killed, for simply wanting to pursue the simplicity of their faith and practice in their relationship with Jesus.
Over the centuries of Church history, hundreds of thousands—perhaps millions—of ordinary followers of Jesus in the worldwide Body of Jesus have been put to death by Church leaders simply because they wanted to read and study the Bible for themselves! God-appointed religious servants (apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers) are supposed to be there for people, teach them the simple truths of daily faith and practice, and set an example of loving servanthood. They are supposed to help draw people to God and deepen their own faith by the examples of their own personal lives. They are not to intimidate people into sterile religious worship and daily living. That is not the Church Jesus founded.
True, simple faith in Jesus comes from within in our spirits and should foster a deep relationship with God the Father by means of the inner empowerment and guidance of God the Holy Spirit Who lives within each follower of Jesus. Religious leaders should be instilling peace, love, and joy in their fellow followers of Jesus (Romans 14), not fear and guilt and mean-spiritedness. As to church worship and praise, it only has meaning when people are free to worship God “in spirit and in truth.” (John 4: 23 and 24)
You must know that God certainly cannot honor worship that is rendered to Him out of fear and guilt. Nor is God honored in any way by subservient obedience to religious laws and customs devoid of love. That sort of worship is counterfeit and sterile and serves only to further bind up people.
It’s really very simple. Jesus loves and cares for people, followers of Jesus and pre-followers alike. Religious leaders must not run a parish or a congregation as a business and lord it over the people of the congregation or parish. When Jesus said He would build his church until He returns (and beyond?) He was not founding a business or an organization; He founded an organism—a living Body being built with “living building materials”; He is building an organic family, not an organization with leadership from the top down. He is the Head of the living Body He is building, but He is also at the “bottom” of his body as a Servant washing the feet of his followers.
Many churches have simply become organizational structures superimposed on an organism—and that just doesn’t work! In such cases, people really don’t feel they are part of a living, growing organism, but simply fill some sort of role to support the organization. Church leaders should be gentle guides and servants of their flock, not CEO’s dictating what an organization is to do and accomplish. Spiritual leaders (apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers who have grown up from within a local congregation, often as elders and deacons) are simply there to pray with people in the church, teach them, give advice and counsel, and serve them.
Instead, church leaders sort of get stuck on their own authority and become very nervous when they see their congregants spiritually growing, developing, and maturing in Christ with freedom to minister to and share with others “on their own,” so to speak. The leaders come to feel in such cases that they are losing the “righteous control” God has invested in them—when in fact God has done no such thing. Their only leadership comes from serving the needs of the people and helping them grow and develop into their own ministries and “callings.” They don’t want their people to think “outside the box” or grow out of the box. Everything within the box is neat and orderly—and controllable; anything outside the box could get messy if not controlled.
Individual followers of Jesus must break free of the religious fog we find ourselves stumbling around in. Galatians 5: 1 encourages each individual follower of Jesus in a local congregation to “Stand firm in the liberty by which Christ has made [you] free, and do not be entangled again with a yoke of [religious] bondage.” If you want the “real deal,” if you want the life and freedom that Jesus offers, then stand firm and break free from the religious bondage being more and more placed upon the individual follower.
If your particular local church doesn’t bring you freedom and the very life of God, it is not an authentic local Christian congregation. If it doesn’t serve to restore the image of God in you and help you grow, develop, and mature until Jesus is fully formed in you, it is not an authentic church.
Result: Harm To The Body Of Jesus
In some liturgical churches with a rigid background and practice of Christian living, people often tolerate the control by their religious leaders for fear of incurring their displeasure. In some “freer” churches it is just the opposite. The religious leaders in those churches face too much control by the congregants or parishioners so they often become afraid to preach all the truth contained in the Bible, thus compromising their ministry in order to keep their jobs. God’s truth gets watered down so no one feels uncomfortable. In both instances, it is simply because spiritual leaders have come to feel they are the “heads” of their churches instead of Jesus being the Head. And they do what they need in order to retain their supposed “headship” and assumed control.
Jesus’ prime concern for his church is people, not religious structures, arbitrary codes, loveless creeds, teachings and doctrines of men to control people, and forced leadership from the top down or from the bottom up. All Jesus wants his people to do is love Him and love one another. (John 13: 34 and 35, for example) How far we have come from that simplicity! Jesus came (and still comes!) to set people free to love Him and one another. Structured, manmade religion all too often strips people of the opportunity to do that.
Manmade religious authority and leadership tears people apart, with each leader building his own little “kingdom.” It leads to bickering and jealousy. It forces people to be loyal to their particular religious institution rather than to Jesus. Manmade doctrines, teaching, and leadership render null and void (Matthew 15:6) the simple teachings of Jesus and the freedom He originally envisioned for his people in his Church down through the ages of time.
Yes, God often overrules and overrides the mess we have gotten ourselves into when it comes to “church,” but sometimes He simply allows us to flounder in the messes of our own making by getting away from the simplicity of the Gospel and religious faith and practice. The great sin of manmade religion is that it makes null and void the teachings of Jesus and the remainder of the Scriptures by forcing allegiance to their own manmade traditions and doctrines.
Here is what some people have done to the Body of Jesus. Many church leaders so often miss the whole point of it all, and by their teaching religious doctrines, customs, traditions, formularies, etc., they often teach a God who is merciless and calculating and vindictive, which ends up filling people with unbearable guilt; so, the people go to the religious leader to find some way of mitigating or assuaging their guilt, and then the religious leaders end up teaching more manmade doctrines that heap up even more guilt on the person. It becomes a vicious cycle. That’s why so many followers of Jesus in our manmade churches never feel they receive complete and total forgiveness from what they are feeling guilty about. This is not what Jesus intended for his Church.
That is the way many (not all, of course!) church leaders have taught for centuries, and there’s no question it is hard to break from that binding tradition. Somehow, some church leaders, especially some of those in the major western church tradition, have even gone so far as to assume the role of Jesus’ “stand-in,” (as a vicar, for example) but they pick and choose from the New Testament and their own tradition only that which appeals to their need for power to reinforce their role as a stand-in for Jesus. It renders ordinary followers of Jesus almost powerless to even think for themselves, much less read, study, obey, and apply the transforming Bible to their lives. They remain baby or infant followers of Jesus their entire lives, always needing spiritual “milk” instead of “meat.” (see the end of Hebrews 5 and the first verses of Hebrews 6)
Yes, the church is the extension of Jesus’ life in the world in every generation, but it is only effective if it is modeled on Jesus’ life and teachings, not upon manmade tradition. For example, look how many followers of Jesus today are afraid of God. When God was here as Jesus, God the Son, no one was afraid of Him—except the religious leaders of his day. People followed Jesus everywhere because they knew He understood who they were and what their lives were like. They knew Jesus loved them as they were, were comforted in Jesus’ presence, and in his presence their lives were changed irrevocably and forever.
That’s the way it ought to be today: as we spend time in Jesus’ presence through our reading, studying, and obeying the Bible, through prayer, through acknowledgment of Jesus living in us in his unbodied form of Holy Spirit, through koinonea (fellowship) with other followers, we are loved and comforted and our lives are changed and forever transformed.
Many people don’t feel comfortable with the organizational Church because it’s leaders have chosen to model themselves and the church they represent on a legalistic, judgmental Jesus. This frightens people and they come to know instinctively this is not what Jesus is really like; they instinctively know that’s just not the way Jesus’ Church is supposed to function and work. It drives people away and the sheep are scattered because a hireling has scattered them.
Some shepherds strip God’s sheep of their freedom in Jesus and return them to the status of slaves. Some shepherds are even so taken with their own training and authority that they resent lay persons even talking to others about Jesus (being witnesses) or teaching them about God without their permission. They don’t care for the welfare of the sheep; they bind up people’s lives in the shackles of religious authority and fear of punishment by God for not obeying spiritual authority.
They should be loving their people and serving them, not lording it over them. They feel that lay persons who seek to share the LIFE of Jesus with others need controlled so they do not teach anything outside the church’s authority or teach heresy or unorthodoxy. The feel that such lay persons undermine their authority and do harm to God’s people.
The “Business” Of Organized Religion
The church was intended to be the medium—the living portrayal of God’s message of love for all; instead, it has become the message, and the living Lord Jesus has been lost somewhere, covered over by manmade religions, false images, false teachers, false leaders: hirelings. The Christian religion today is simply not what Jesus intended it to be, and religious leaders today are not much different than they were in Jesus’ time. He never intended for religion to be what it is today. Leaders should be humble men and women who serve their people rather than exercising authority over God’s people. They end up making religious laws and rules that burden people’s lives, and then decree if those rules and laws are not obeyed, the people are sinning and liable to punishment by God and excommunication from the church. Instead, religious leaders are to “rule” by serving their people.
Far too many clergy persons are preoccupied with the “business” of religion and all its irrelevant legalities. They feel they are called to run the Kingdom of God on earth as they would run a business: with board meetings, clerical and board edicts, attention to the parish’s finances, etc. They should be concerned about God and the welfare of his people, not the business of religion.
Jesus is not interested in the business of religion that his church has become. Religion has devolved into the passing on of finely honed doctrines and codes of behavior. Each church has its own “code of conduct” and rules of behavior that if transgressed can cause punishment and, in some cases, excommunication or shunning.
The church exists to be the Living Presence of Jesus on earth—to show people the love of God. Instead, many religious leaders have spent inordinate amounts of time in setting up structures to imitate secular businesses and governments. They have tried to legislate observances and the behavior of the people. All too often this has simply heaped up more guilt and misery on people and has caused them to perceive of God as severe and critical of his people. All too many Church officials are overly concerned about keeping order among their people, to keep them doctrinally sound. They simply need to be as knowledgeable about God’s Word, his works, his will, and his ways as they are about the worldly business of the church.
People don’t need to be restrained by religious dogma. The sheep will always flee when the shepherds try to lord it over them, instead of serving them. That is why so many of our “liberal” churches in the western world are in rapid decline; the shepherds keep trying to rein in the people and control them instead of serving them in love. Many religious leaders see criticism of traditions and dogma as attacks on their authority. They often teach lifeless dogmas and religious laws demanding obedience under penalties if not observed.
The church is supposed to be the LIVING presence of Jesus on earth, but all too often both “insiders” and “outsiders” see only the aloofness and arrogance of ill-tempered shepherds who have little feeling for people when they are hurting or when they have fallen. The saying is true that the church all too often “shoots its wounded.” The Church is supposed to be Jesus’ LIVING Presence throughout all of history until He returns . . . and beyond. It should show the gentleness and humility of Jesus. Instead it all too often exercises legalistic and judgmental power in an attempt to keep people in line. When that happens, the sheep flee those types of hireling shepherds. Dear reader, the sheep can tell a hireling!
Religion attempts to reduce the “wildness” and chaos of day-to-day living by constructing a system of promises and rewards, sort of a “contract” between you and God, religion being the intermediary that will obligate God to grant us an exception from the wildness and chaos. It really doesn’t matter what the particular religious group offers—adherence to doctrine, “pure” living, or some sort of exclusive spiritual experience—the promise held out is the same: we “contract” with God in order to tame the wildness of life, which cannot be done without the manmade religious leader as the intermediary.
If the system doesn’t work, it means we’re not doing it just right, not following the proper teachings, not adhering to the “correct” doctrines. It’s our fault, not the fault of the manmade religion. The religious leaders, in such cases, always tell their “flock” that we must work more to “get it right.” If we can only get it right, there is the offer of true abundant living. There are plenty of religious leaders out there to show you how to draw up the “correct” contract—with lots of built-in rules and commandments. Each such religion offers a sense of greater meaning beyond ourselves, or some sort of exclusive spiritual experience they have “found” by the “correct” interpretation of the Bible, or they offer a connectedness that they say can’t be found in other religious groups, denominations, or non-denominations.
Many religious leaders are much more preoccupied with building buildings than building men and women of God. More churches measure their success by the amount of money they collect for their accounts than the amount of people they “collect” for the Kingdom of God. Far too many church leaders—no matter the denomination or non-denomination—are merely seeking to perpetuate their own agenda in order to finally “move up the hierarchy” and become a bishop or archbishop, superintendent or general superintendent, which often gives them a hearty boost in their salaries and a solid retirement package.
Healthy church leadership is not about titles, or positions, or power, or size, or success (as defined by the world). It’s about keeping Jesus foremost, living from the inside out and leading others in the ways of God. Often when someone comes to organized Christian leaders looking for relief from the heavy load he or she is carrying, manmade religion lays a pallet of bricks on their backs.
Maintaining their “first love” (Revelation 2: 3 – 5) needs to be the foremost activity in the lives of those providing leadership in Jesus’ church. Without knowing God’s Word, his works, his will, his ways, his voice, his character, how is it possible to be a leader in and to the Body of Christ? True church leadership ought to simply be an overflow of the LIFE and love of God in the leader. Their desire should be for the Church to be led in the ways of God, not the ways of humans. The basic ministry of a church leader should be to produce disciples—the replication of the Person and ministry of Jesus in the life of another believer.
God’s original intentions for the Old Testament believers was to reign over them directly, with no human kings. But . . . as we pointed out earlier in this teaching, God often accommodates Himself to his fallen, sinful human sons and daughters, but does not compromise Himself in accommodating to them. Hence, religious “kings” and the organizational model we have come up with. While “stooping” to accommodate Himself to our sins and shortcomings, He will always be at work behind the scenes working things out for our higher good in spite of our settling for the good instead of the best. The good is always the enemy of the best!
Fortunately, as much as people have been harmed by manmade, organized religion they’re still often interested in the great questions of life religions deal with. To many thousands of people—followers of and pre-followers alike—religion seems so irrelevant, so dry, so distant, so out of touch with reality. But, the Great Reality exists and reaches down to seeking, questioning people, although the so-called reality of organized religion is often a far cry from genuine Reality. So many people have just given upon on the Church because it simply doesn’t seem relevant to meeting the great needs of humans or answer the great questions of modern life.
How terrible do some manmade doctrines and teachings misrepresent God’s character. They represent Him as sort of an absentee and terrible King on a huge throne somewhere afar off, constantly thinking how grand He is and making it the sole business of his being to wield the thunderbolts of Jupiter against anyone who does not obey their doctrines and teachings.
I will summarize everything so far in this entire teaching in 3 short sentences. The organized “business” of manmade religion offers 316 rules, 248 commands, and 365 prohibitions. And it explains all these with 1,521 explanations and commentaries! For many people in today’s world, to join themselves to manmade, organized religion appears to them that—after they join—everything in their “religious life” will either be required or forbidden.
‘Tis A Glorious Church Without Spot or Wrinkle!
Those who are authentic followers of Jesus are being fitted and built into God’s new “temple” in the earth, the habitation where God’s Spirit has come to live permanently. God is gathering people from around the world—from every tribe, people, language, and nation—and using them as living building materials, forming them into his Living Body, the Church. When this Temple/Body is complete, Jesus will return and begin his Kingdom reign on earth. The Church will continue to be his Living Presence on earth during his Kingdom reign—and beyond into the freshly restored universe and earth when the Church will then become his lovely, flawless, completed Bride, the New Jerusalem (Revelation 21 and 22).
Nothing can say it better than the Bible itself about the glorious future of the his Body, Jesus’ Beautiful Bride, the New Jerusalem, which will be established after the 1,000-year Kingdom Reign of King Jesus. Let’s let the Bible speak for itself in Revelation 21 and 22:
“Then I saw a freshly restored universe and earth. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven like a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. I heard a loud shout from the throne, saying, ‘Look, God’s permanent home is now in his people! He will live with [and in] them in their eternal state, and they will always be his people. Yes, God himself will permanently live in them. He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there will be no more death or sorrow or crying or pain. All these things are gone forever.” And God on his throne said ‘Look, I am completely restoring everything in the universe and on the earth!’ And then God said to me, ‘Write this down, for what I tell you is trustworthy and true.’ And he also said, “It is finished! I am the Beginning and the End. To all who are thirsty I will give freely from the springs of the water of life. All who are victorious will inherit all these blessings, and I will be their God, and they will be my children, but the cowardly, unbelievers, abominable, murderers, sexually immoral, those addicted to drugs, those who worship idols, and all liars will be cast into the lake burning with fire and sulphur; this is called the second death.’
Then one of the seven angels who held the seven bowls containing the seven last plagues came and said to me, ‘Come with me! I will show you the bride, the wife of the Lamb.’ So he took me in the Spirit to a great, high mountain, and he showed me the holy city, Jerusalem, descending out of heaven from God. It shone with the glory of God and sparkled like a precious stone—like jasper as clear as crystal. The city wall was broad and high, with twelve gates guarded by twelve angels. And the names of the twelve tribes of Israel were written on the gates. There were three gates on each side—east, north, south, and west. The wall of the city had twelve foundation stones, and on them were written the names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb.
The angel who talked to me held in his hand a gold measuring stick to measure the city, its gates, and its wall. When he measured it, he found it was a square, as wide as it was long. In fact, its length and width and height were each 1400 miles. Then he measured the walls and found them to be 216 feet thick (according to the human standard used by the angel). The wall was made of jasper, and the city was pure gold, as clear as glass. The wall of the city was built on foundation stones inlaid with twelve precious stones: the first was jasper, the second sapphire, the third agate, the fourth emerald, the fifth onyx, the sixth carnelian, the seventh chrysolite, the eighth beryl, the ninth topaz, the tenth chrysoprase, the eleventh jacinth, the twelfth amethyst. The twelve gates were made of pearls—each gate from a single pearl! And the main street was pure gold, as clear as glass.
I saw no temple in the city, for the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple. And the city has no need of sun or moon, for the glory of God illuminates the city, and the Lamb is its light. The nations will walk in its light, and the kings of the world will enter the city in all their glory. Its gates will never be closed at the end of day because there is no night there. And all the nations will bring their glory and honor into the city. Nothing evil will be allowed to enter, nor anyone who worships idols or who is a pathological liar—but only those whose names are written in the Lamb’s Book of Life.
Then the angel showed me a river with the pure water of life, clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb. It flowed down the center of the main street. On each side of the river grew a tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, with a fresh crop each month. The leaves were used for medicine to heal people in all nations. No longer will there be a curse upon anything. For the throne of God and of the Lamb will be there, and his servants will worship him. And they will see his face, and his name will be written on their foreheads. And there will be no night there, no need for lamps or sun, for the Lord God will shine on them. And they will reign for all the ages of time and eternity.
Then the angel said to me, ‘Everything you have heard and seen is trustworthy and true. The Lord God, who inspires his prophets, has sent his angel to tell his servants what will happen soon.’ [The Jesus said], ‘Pay attention! I am coming quickly! How blessed is any person who obeys the words of the prophecy of this book.’
I, John, am the one who heard and saw all these things. And when I heard and saw them, I fell down to worship at the feet of the angel who showed them to me. But he said, ‘Don’t worship me. I am a servant of God just like you and your brothers the prophets, as well as all who obey what is written in this book. Worship only G0d!’ Then he instructed me, ‘Do not seal up the prophetic words in this book, for the time is near. Let the one who is doing harm continue to do harm; let the one who is vile continue to be vile; let the one who is righteous continue to live righteously; let the one who is holy continue to be holy.’
[Then Jesus exclaimed], ‘Look, I am coming soon, bringing my reward with me to repay all people according to their deeds. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End.’ Blessed are those who obey God’s commandments. They will be permitted to enter through the gates of the city and eat the fruit from the tree of life. Outside the city are the scavengers, the sorcerers, the sexually immoral, the murderers, the idol worshipers, and all who love to live a lie.
I, Jesus, have sent my angel to give you this message for the churches. I am both the Ancestor of David and the heir to his throne. I am the Bright Morning star. The Spirit and the bride say, ‘Come.’ Let anyone who hears this say, ‘Come.’ Let anyone who is thirsty come. Let anyone who desires drink freely from the water of life. And I solemnly declare to everyone who hears the words of prophecy written in this book: If anyone adds anything to what is written here, God will add to that person the plagues described in this book. And if anyone removes any of the words from this book of prophecy, God will remove that person’s share in the tree of life and in the holy city that are described in this book. He who is the faithful witness to all these things says, ‘Yes, I am coming soon!’ Amen! Come quickly, Lord Jesus! May the grace of the Lord Jesus be with all of you. Amen!”
(Note: I have edited and paraphrased some of chapters 21 and 22 of Revelation quoted above—to make the chapters more readable. I have not added to or taken away anything from the chapters!)
Okay, here’s my bottom-line summary: Jesus has been building his Living Body, the Church for 2,000 years, using living building materials—you, me—and He will continue building his Church for all the ages of time to come. Yes, humans have wrongly imposed an organizational schemata upon an organism. Don’t let the organization make you leave the organism. Work within the organization-organism to share the Good News about Jesus with others, to introduce them to Him, to disciple, them, to train them, to teach them. In the end,
Someday, God will wrap it all up and emerge victorious over all the organizational, manmade stuff humans have imposed upon the organism. Don’t go on a one-person crusade to sort it all out and set people straight. Just serve God and others where you are, and let Him work everything out according to his behind-the-scenes purposes for you and others. Jesus loves his Church now, for all the ages of time, and in eternity! Jesus is building his Church . . . .
Revised and Updated February 2023