I once had a friend who was very interested in spirituality but not in organized religion. His wife attended church, but not he. Instead, he would invite me over to his house from time to time, cook a wonderful dinner, then pepper me with questions for the rest of the evening. I did my best to answer them before he brought out dessert.
There are probably a passel of people like my friend. They like Jesus, but not the church. They are interested in what he says about ethics and whatnot, but they are uninterested in what the church does on any given Sunday.
Interestingly, they have the Bible on their side, at least to a certain extent. Consider what we read in Proverbs 21:3:
To do what is right and just
is more acceptable to the Lord than sacrifice.
Indeed, unless you do what is right and just, God does not accept your sacrifice.
The Lord detests the sacrifice of the wicked,
but the prayer of the upright pleases him (15:8).
The sacrifice of the wicked is detestable —
how much more so when brought with evil intent! (21:27)
How you behave also affects whether your prayers are answered.
The Lord is far from the wicked
but he hears the prayer of the righteous (15:29).
If anyone turns a deaf ear to the law,
even his prayers are detestable (28:9).
In each of these five verses, ethics is more important than religious practices. If your heart is right, and if you speak and act in an ethical manner, then your religious practices are pleasing to God. If not, then not.
But at the end of the day, I don’t think the Bible is forcing us to choose between ethics and organized religion. If God were so antipathetic to organized religion, why did he reveal so many laws regarding animal sacrifice and tithes and priests and prayers? The point of these verses is not that we get to make the choice between ethics and organized religion, only that the former is more important than the latter.
Or rather, perhaps what we should say is that the organized religion is supposed to be a means to ethical living. Why did God give us the law? To show us how he wants us to live. Why did he give us priests and sacrifices in the Old Testament and Jesus Christ in the New Testament? To show us that we don’t live the way he wants us to, the sin must be punished, but that forgiveness is also offered to the repentant. Why do we attend worship services on a regular basis and support the local church? Because the natural tendency of humanity is to forget God, his law, and the gospel unless we are constantly reminded of their reality. That’s what church – organized religion at its most obvious – is all about.
Who God wants us to be is more important than how we become it, just as the end is always more important than the means. But that doesn’t mean that the means are unimportant.
So, don’t forget to go to church this weekend!