Two popular sayings are being bandied about concerning religion these days that are quoted so often, people don’t take the time to really examine if they’re true or not. The first saying is, “Religion, or organized religion, is evil.” And this saying is usually followed closely by the statement that all religion does is cause wars. The second saying is, “Christianity isn’t a religion, it’s a relationship.”
Is organized religion really evil? Many, like Jeff Bethke the YouTube sensation, claim that Jesus came to overturn and get rid of religion. But this thinking is, in my opinion, based on a misunderstanding of what the word religion means. Religion is a system of beliefs and/or a form of worship of a god that governs one’s life. That means it’s a neutral concept that can be used for good or for bad. If Jesus came here to kill off religion, then he would not have been so adamant when he gave his reason for clearing the money changers out of the temple in Jerusalem. “My house is the house of prayer: but ye have made it a den of thieves,” Luke 19:46. Prayer is a religious practice. Jesus’ statement shows that he is making a contrast between right and wrong regarding religion. The temple was built to be a house of prayer to God, which is good religion. The money changers made the temple a den of thieves by making the temple a marketplace to enrich themselves, which is bad religion.
Jesus made many such statements throughout his ministry. When the Pharisees asked Jesus in Mark 7 why his disciples did not perform the handwashing religious rituals they performed before a meal, Jesus said, “This people honoureth me with their lips, but their heart is far from me. Howbeit in vain do they worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men.” The bad religion was that Pharisees did man-made religious rituals without a heart for obeying God. He contrasted that in following verses with the good religion of worshiping God by obeying his commandments with heartfelt sincerity stemming from love.
When Jesus fulfilled his earthly ministry and went back to heaven, he left his disciples behind to take over organizing his church. This is why the Holy Spirit led them to replace Judas Iscariot [Acts 1] and why the church appointed seven deacons in Acts 6 to organize the ministry of caring for widows. Furthermore, Paul said in Ephesians 4 that God gave the church apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers “[f]or the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ.” Paul was also inspired by the Holy Spirit to give criteria for church leaders in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1. God ordained organization for the Christian church because where there is no organization, there is confusion and God is not the author of confusion.
James, the brother of Jesus, even tells us there is good religion and bad religion–”If any man among you seem to be religious, and bridleth not his tongue, but deceiveth his own heart, this man’s religion is vain. Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world,” James 1:26-27. Since James tells us Father God considers certain practices from a genuine God-loving heart as pure religion and undefiled, we know that Christianity is not just a relationship, as the popular saying goes, but Christianity also prompts good religion like caring for the poor and less fortunate when they need help. It also prompts us to the good religion of guarding, or keeping, ourselves from the sinful, evil, tainted views and practices of the world system.
What has turned people against organized religion is people like Diotrephes in 3 John:
9 I wrote unto the church: but Diotrephes, who loveth to have the preeminence among them, receiveth us not.
10 Wherefore, if I come, I will remember his deeds which he doeth, prating against us with malicious words: and not content therewith, neither doth he himself receive the brethren, and forbiddeth them that would, and casteth them out of the church.
Diotrephes displayed bad organized religion in that he lorded over the congregation, rejected God’s word that came through the apostles, spoke evil of God’s word that came via the apostles, rejected those who believed in what the apostles said, and excommunicated anyone who stood true to what the apostles wrote. That is what has caused wars through the centuries and what happens today when organized religion questions, manipulates, or rejects the Bible in favor of sin and self-exaltation. But that doesn’t make all organized religion evil, it just makes certain organizers of certain organized religions evil and that is the distinction that needs to be made.
Harry A. Gaylord