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.