Ethics and Organized Religion

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!

2 thoughts on “Ethics and Organized Religion

  1. I agree. God forms us in community. As far as the Levetical laws are concerned, though, I was under the impression that these were given to a people who needed to be re-formed after generations of Egyptian enculturation. I’m not sure that God intended for these laws to become an organized religion per se, as much as he intended the law to be a framework for their new relationship with their God. I’m reminded that God’s favorite house wasn’t the Jerusalem Temple, but the tabernacle of the nomadic tribes. I guess the idea of organized religion, especially perhaps in the minds of those outside our communities, is closer to the pomp and circumstance of institutional religion than the living, dynamic relationship we find with God through Christ. Hence the maxim, “I like Jesus but not the Church.” We’re probably talking semantics at this point, but it’s probably worth investigating.

  2. John:

    In my book, any form of religion that involves a centralized location for worship (whether tabernacle or temple), a hierarchy of priests with assigned duties and professional obligations, a mandated financial support system, not to mention detailed instructions about what the priests are supposed to do at the temple — that form of religion is an “organized” religion.

    And while the Levitical laws were certainly designed to “deculturate” the Israelites from their Egyptian slave mentality, they were also designed to “enculturate” the Israelites for their new home in the Promised Land. Or, more broadly, they were designed as a school in which the Israelites could learn who God was, why salvation was necessary, and what a holy lifestyle looked like.

    Recently, while perusing a book catalogue, I came across a book on the evolution of civilizations that argued something like this: Civilizations begin to stagnate and decline when the “instrument” of their growth and dynamism becomes an “institution.” For some reason, that description resonated with me. The law was a means to an end; it was an “instrument.” The proverbist, however, warned about religion that had become an “institution,” an end in and of itself. As long as “organized religion” serves godly purposes, it’s a dynamic, growth-oriented instrument of God’s purposes. When it ceases serving those purposes, however, it becomes an “institution” of spiritual oppression and moral corruption.


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