Is Organized Religion Worth the Effort?

Is organized religion worth the effort?

For me, this question arises at this point in our study of 1 Corinthians because we are about to examine three topics that, for different reasons, may turn off modern readers.

The first topic concerns the physical appearance of Christian men and women as they pray and prophesy during the church service (11:2-16). The second concerns how the Corinthians abused the Lord’s Supper by failing to provide for the physical needs of their poorest members (11:16-33). And the third topic concerns how love requires that people exercise their spiritual gifts in a way that benefits others, not merely themselves (12:1-14:40).

Why might these topics turn off modern readers such as ourselves? The first topic might turn off modern readers because it appears, at first glance, to arrange male-female relationships in a hierarchical rather than egalitarian order. We will see that this is an incorrect interpretation, but first impressions are hard to overcome. The second topic might turn off modern readers because it reinforces the twin notions that organized religion is hypocritical and oppressive. And the third topic might turn off modern readers because it reminds them of the recurring habit of religious people to lapse into forms of speech and action that are simultaneous self-serving and unrelated to the concrete needs of the world.

Old-fashioned, oppressive, out-of-touch. That’s the way organized religion appears to many modern readers.

As a person who has been involved in church all his life, on both sides of the pulpit, I understand why people feel this way about organized religion. I feel the force of their criticisms. I have sometimes felt critical of the church in these ways too.

So, why do I nevertheless consider organized religion worth the effort? Because I believe in love. That may seem like a strange answer, for organized religion so often seems to be about anything but love. But I believe it is a good answer. Let me explain.

These days, we hear a lot of talk about love. “All you need is love,” sang the Beatles (whose recordings are finally available on iTunes). But love has been reduced to a subjective feeling that is ephemeral rather than enduring. What organized religion does is provide an institutional or communal context in which love must be practiced.

Think of it this way. If two “spiritual, but not religious” people disagree vehemently with one another, they are under no compulsion to to reconcile their differences. They never have to see one another–let alone talk to one another–again. If two Christians disagree, however, they have to show up at church together the following Sunday. They have to listen to one another pray and prophesy. They have to take communion together. They have to receive one another’s spiritual gifts.

Church provides an institutional environment in which people must work through their differences toward a loving, just resolution. And that’s why I think organized religion, despite the hassles, is worth it.

Cross-Cultural Servanthood

Duane Elmer, Cross-Cultural Servanthood: Serving the World in Christlike Humility (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2006). $16.00, 216 pages.

In Cross-Cultural Servanthood, Duane Elmer tells the parable of a monkey who sees a fish swimming against the current of a stream (pp. 27-28). Assuming the fish is struggling to survive, the monkey plucks the fish out of the stream and places it on dry ground. At first, the fish flops around–excited to have been saved, the monkey thinks. When the fish stops moving, the monkey feels satisfied, believing the fish is resting contentedly. Of course, the fish is dead.

In cross-cultural exchanges, we intend to serve others, but our efforts may be perceived as exercises of arrogant power. The remedy is Christlike humility. “Humility is mandated,” Elmer writes, “but”–and this exception is crucial–“its expression is culturally defined” (p. 33). We must both intend to be humble, in other words, and act in ways that people from other cultures perceive as humble.

How do we do this? Cross-Cultural Servanthood examines “the process of becoming a cross-cultural servant” (p. 19). Elmer outlines this process with six steps:

  1. Openness: “the ability to welcome people into your presence and make them feel safe” (p. 39, emphasis in original).
  2. Acceptance: “the ability to communicate value, worth and esteem to another person” (p. 58)
  3. Trust: “the ability to build confidence in a relationship so that both parties believe the other will not intentionally hurt them but will act in their best interest” (p. 77).
  4. Learning: “the ability to glean relevant information about, from and with other people” (p. 93).
  5. Understanding: “the ability to see patterns of behavior and values that reveal the integrity of a people” (p. 125).
  6. Serving: “the ability to relate to people in such a way that their dignity as human beings is affirmed and they are more empowered to live God-glorifying lives” (p. 146).

Elmer is G. W. Aldeen Professor of International Studies at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Illinois. His book is clear and simply written, mixing theological and sociological analysis in balanced measure, and using illustrations from his life and career, as well as from the lives and careers of others.

I highly recommend this book to Christian missionaries, pastors, and laypeople who work in cross-cultural or multi-cultural settings. It will help them understand how to better communicate the gospel in word and deed. It will also help them examine their own motives to make sure they are serving rather than patronizing others.


P.S. If you found this book review helpful, please vote “Yes” on my review page.

Proclamation Establishing Thanksgiving Day (October 3, 1863)

The year that is drawing towards its close, has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies.  To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature, that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever watchful providence of Almighty God.  In the midst of a civil war of unequalled magnitude and severity, which has sometimes seemed to foreign States to invite and to provoke their aggression, peace has been preserved with all nations, order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere except in the theatre of military conflict; while that theatre has been greatly contracted by the advancing armies and navies of the Union.  Needful diversions of wealth and of strength from the fields of peaceful industry to the national defence, have not arrested the plough, the shuttle, or the ship; the axe had enlarged the borders of our settlements, and the mines, as well of iron and coal as of the precious metals, have yielded even more abundantly than heretofore.  Population has steadily increased, notwithstanding the waste that has been made in the camp, the siege and the battle-field; and the country, rejoicing in the consciousness of augmented strength and vigor, is permitted to expect continuance of years, with large increase of freedom.

No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things.  They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy.

It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and voice by the whole American people.  I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens.   And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to his tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquillity and Union.

In testimony whereof, I have hereunto set my hand, and caused the seal of the United States to be affixed.

Done at the city of Washington, this third day of October, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, and of the independence of the United States the eighty-eighth.

A. Lincoln

Permissible, But Not Beneficial (1 Corinthians 10:23–11:1)

The Daily Word will begin after the following book review blurb…


Alister McGrath, The Passionate Intellect: Christian Faith and the Discipleship of the Mind (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2010). $22.00, 210 pages.

Recently, so-called “new atheists” have been making loud noises about how stupid and wicked religion is. Richard Dawkins thinks belief in God is a “delusion” to be replaced by scientific thinking. Daniel Dennett views religion as a “spell” that needs to be broken. Sam Harris longs for “the end of faith,” whose absolutism he thinks leads only to violence. And Christopher Hitchens argues that “religion poisons everything.”

Alister McGrath disagrees….

To read my complete review, go here. To receive my book reviews via email, subscribe here and make sure to reply to the confirmation email.


Permissible, But Not Beneficial (1 Corinthians 10:23–11:1)

First Corinthians 10:23–11:1 concludes Paul’s argument about eating food sacrificed to idols. He prohibits eating such food at religious feasts in pagan temples, but he permits eating it at dinner parties in private homes on a case-by-case basis. First Corinthians 10:23–11:1 outlines his reasoning on the latter subject.

First, Paul argues that the responsibility to love others takes precedence over the rights that knowledge confers. Verses 23–24 read:

“Everything is permissible”—but not everything is beneficial. “Everything is permissible”—but not everything is constructive. Nobody should seek his own good, but the good of others.

He then argues that idol-food, in and of itself, raises no moral issues for Christians. Verses 25–26 read:

Eat anything sold in the meat market without raising questions of conscience, for, “The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it” (Psalm 24:1).

But given the first and second points, he argues that believers should not eat idol-food if a person raises an issue about it. Verses 27–30 read:

If some unbeliever invites you to a meal and you want to go, eat whatever is put before you without raising questions of conscience. But if anyone says to you, “This has been offered in sacrifice,” then do not eat it, both for the sake of the man who told you and for conscience’ sake—the other man’s conscience, I mean, not yours. For why should my freedom be judged by another’s conscience? If I take part in the meal with thankfulness, why am I denounced because of something I thank God for?

Finally, he argues that believers should reflect God’s glory in all they do. 1 Corinthians 10:31–11:1 reads:

So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God. Do not cause anyone to stumble, whether Jews, Greeks or the church of God—even as I try to please everybody in every way. For I am not seeking my own good but the good of many, so that they may be saved. Follow my example as I, as I follow the example of Christ.

Two things strike me about 1 Corinthians 10:23–11:1—indeed about the entire argument of 8:1–11:1. The first is the robust knowledge that guides Paul’s thought process. Paul’s argument proceeds out of a deep commitment to truth and a deep rejection of superstition. But the second is that robust love that animates Paul’s commitment to people. He knows idols are nothing, but he loves people who continue to mistakenly believe they are something.

At the outset of my comments on 8:1–11:1, I noted that few modern Christians—at least in the West—deal with the problem of food sacrificed to idols. Our temptation, therefore, is to breeze through or ignore what Paul writes there. But now that we’ve revealed Paul’s thought process, we can see how applicable it is to modern times. Do we relate to others on the basis of the knowledge that confers rights, or do we relate to them on the basis of the Christ-like responsibility to love them?

Knowledge and love. Rights and responsibilities. These are very modern issues, aren’t they?

“The Passionate Intellect” by Alister McGrath

Alister McGrath, The Passionate Intellect: Christian Faith and the Discipleship of the Mind (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2010). $22.00, 210 pages.

Recently, so-called “new atheists” have been making loud noises about how stupid and wicked religion is. Richard Dawkins thinks belief in God is a “delusion” to be replaced by scientific thinking. Daniel Dennett views religion as a “spell” that needs to be broken. Sam Harris longs for “the end of faith,” whose absolutism he thinks leads only to violence. And Christopher Hitchens argues that “religion poisons everything.”

Alister McGrath disagrees. Instead, in The Passionate Intellect, he argues for “the intellectual capaciousness of the Christian faith and its ability to bring about a new and deeply satisfying vision of reality.” Furthermore, he argues that a “theologically informed discipleship of the mind sustains, nourishes and protects the Christian vision of reality, thus enabling the church to retain its saltiness and capacity to illuminate.” Compared to this vision, the “simplistic metanarrative [of the new atheism] can only be sustained by doing violence to the facts of history, the norms of evidence-based argument and the realities of contemporary experience.”

McGrath holds dual doctorates from Oxford in molecular biophysics and historical theology. He is chair of theology, ministry, and education at King’s College, London, as well as head of its Centre for Theology, Religion and Culture. He has written A Scientific Theology, a three-volume systematic theology in conversation with the natural sciences; The Twilight of Atheism; two books in critique of Dawkins: Dawkins’s God and The Dawkins Delusion; and his prestigious Gifford Lectures, A Fine-Tuned Universe.

Knowing McGrath’s background, readers might not crack open The Passionate Intellect, intimidated because they think it an academic tome. Those who do so will discover, instead, a work of popular theology and apologetics self-consciously in the tradition of C. S. Lewis. McGrath writes clearly and gracefully. Those interested in pursuing the subject matter further can peruse the twenty-two pages of footnotes at the end of the book.


If you found my review helpful, please vote “Yes” on my review page.

The Choice of Religion Is a Critical One (1 Corinthians 10:18-22)

In 1 Corinthians 10:14-22, the apostle Paul urges the Corinthian Christians not to eat food sacrificed to idols at pagan feasts in religious temples.

His argument has two components. First, he reminds the Corinthians that those who celebrate the Lord’s Supper participate in the blood and body of Christ (verses 14-17). Then, he argues that those who eat idol-food at pagan temples become “participants with demons” (verses 18-22).

Here’s what he writes:

    Consider the people of Israel: are not those who eat the sacrifices participants in the altar? What do I imply then? That food offered to idols is anything, or that an idol is anything? No, I imply that what pagans sacrifice they offer to demons and not to God. I do not want you to be participants with demons. You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons. You cannot partake of the table of the Lord and the table of demons. Shall we provoke the Lord to jealousy? Are we stronger than he?

At this point, the Corinthians might wonder whether Paul is contradicting himself. Doesn’t he believe that “an idol is nothing at all in the world and that there is no God but one” (8:4, cf. 10:19)? Doesn’t he believe that “food does not bring us near to God” and that “we are no worse if we do not eat and no better if we do” (8:8, cf. 10:25-30). Indeed, doesn’t he allow believers to eat idol-food at dinner parties in private homes on a case-by-case basis (10:25-30)? How, then, can “nothing” become “something” and “it’s sometimes okay” become “it’s never okay”?

The resolution to this apparent contradiction lies first and foremost in context and intentionality. Pagan temples and private homes are very different contexts. Eating idol-food at the former is an inherently religious act. Since the religion does not center on Jesus Christ, eating food in that context is absolutely prohibited. Eating idol-food at a private home may or may not be a religious act, depending on the intentions of the eaters. Since intention–or “conscience,” as Paul puts it–determines the manner in which idol-food is eaten at private homes, it may be consumed, as long as no one has a “weak conscience” about it.

Second, Paul argues that idols–while “nothing” in themselves–implicate the idolater in demonic activity. Paul doesn’t explain why this is so, but here’s my best guess: In the Bible, Jesus Christ is the source of truth and and leads to liberation (John 8;32). By contrast, the demonic starts with deception and ends with oppression (8:44). From a biblical perspective, then, the choice of which religion you practice is critical. Do you side with the truth or a lie? Do you choose liberation or oppression?

What Does Communion Look Like to You? (1 Corinthians 10:14-17)

In 1 Corinthians 10:14–22, Paul argues that Christians cannot participate in the Lord’s Supper and eat idol-food at religious feasts in pagan temples. Why? Because the former is “a participation in the blood [and body] of Christ,” while the latter makes the eaters “participants with demons.” This devotional will focus on the former. The next devotional will focus on the latter.

Regarding the Lord’s Supper, Paul writes:

Therefore, my dear friends, flee from idolatry. I speak to sensible people; judge for yourselves what I say. Is not the cup of thanksgiving for which we give thanks a participation in the blood of Christ? And is not the bread that we break a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one loaf, we, who are many, are one body, for we all partake of the one loaf (1 Corinthians 10:14–22)

What does the Lord’s Supper look like to you? If you have a Roman Catholic background, it looks like going forward to the altar and receiving a wafer and a sip of wine from a priest. If you have an evangelical Protestant or Pentecostal background, it looks like taking a cracker and a small plastic cup of grape juice from an aluminum tray that is being handed down the row. In both cases, the Lord’s Supper involves very little food and is a highly individualized act.

For Paul and the Corinthians, however, the Lord’s Supper is an entire meal shared by people around tables. The first Lord’s Supper was a Passover Jesus shared with his disciples on the eve of his crucifixion (Matthew 26:17–30, Mark 14:12–26, Luke 22:7–23). In 1 Corinthians 11:17–34, Paul chides the wealthy Corinthians for consuming the food before the poor Corinthians arrive at the meal. Their actions constitute “sinning against the body and blood of the Lord.” The Lord’s Supper was one part of the rich common life of the early church

In Greek, the word for this common life is koinonia, which is variously translated as “fellowship” (Acts 2:42), “participation” (1 Corinthians 10:16), and “sharing in” (2 Corinthians 8:4). What is the basis of the Christian common life? Not family ties, for a person is Christian by conversion not birth. Not gender, ethnicity, or social class, for Christians are men and women, Jews and Gentiles, free people and slaves (Galatians 3:28). Not nationality and citizenship, for Christians have fellowship with one another across language and political barriers. Rather, the basis of the Christian common life is Jesus Christ himself. We are united “in the blood of Christ” and “in the body of Christ.” What unites Christians, in other words, is a common experience of salvation through that death of Jesus Christ that manifests itself in a koinonia of faith, crossing all boundary lines that divide people from one another—one in which the wealthy share their resources with the poor so that there may be no need among them.

Today, our practice of communion—the Lord’s Supper—is a pale reflection of the vibrant reality the New Testament church practiced. We eat our little cracker and drink our little grape juice and don’t interact with the needier members of our community, let alone share our resources with them.

Our practice of the Lord’s Supper isn’t a meal. It’s not even an appetizer. It could be so much more.

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