Religion, Ritual and Righteousness
Jesus told him, “Stand up, pick up your mat, and walk!” Instantly, the man was healed! He rolled up his sleeping mat and began walking! But this miracle happened on the Sabbath, so the Jewish leaders objected. They said to the man who was cured, “You can’t work on the Sabbath! The law doesn’t allow you to carry that sleeping mat!” But he replied, “The man who healed me told me, ‘Pick up your mat and walk.’” “Who said such a thing as that?” they demanded. (Jn 5:8-12 NLT)
Jesus greatest earthly crime was how he crashed the religious party of the Jewish leaders. Jesus just couldn’t seem to help getting sideways with the Jews’ practice of their religion. He offended them at every turn as he went about his father’s business. You would think that the business of the Father would necessarily also be the business of the “church.” However, this is the interesting conundrum that not only plagued the Jews but also followed the church down through the centuries. Simply put, the interests of God have not always been the interests of the church.
In John’s account of the lame man at the pool of Bethesda, we encounter the classic conflict between upholding ritual integrity and simply doing what is right. It is the quintessential and age-old contention between religion and righteousness. When the man who was lame answered the Jewish leaders as to why he was “working” on the Sabbath, he said, “The man who healed me told me, ‘Pick up your mat and walk.’” They completely ignored the fact that this man had received a miraculous healing after living crippled for 38 years, choosing instead to focus entirely on their petty legalism. For the Jew, Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy, had been so augmented and overly defined that labor was considered lifting anything that weighed more than two figs. For these Jewish leaders, defending their religious order trumped righteousness.
Religion will always be the antagonist of righteousness. I am not speaking here of religion as that set of fundamental beliefs that differentiate one world faith from another. Rather, I am talking about religion in the pejorative sense where following rules takes precedent over living out one’s new life in Christ under the auspices of the Holy Spirit. It is basically what distinguishes the New Covenant from the Old. Jesus’ life and ministry consistently demonstrated this reality. His disciples didn’t fast. He hung the religious leaders out to dry as classic religious hypocrites. The disciples ostensibly harvested food on the Sabbath. They failed to observe the ceremonial hand washing prior to eating.
Following religion actually is quite easy since all you need to do is learn the rules and follow them. Unfortunately, this can completely negate the relational aspect of true Christianity. God can simply be put on the shelf while one goes about keeping the rules. Jesus was all about delivering people from legalism and teaching them how to live out of righteousness. We are righteous in the eyes of God through Jesus’ efficacious atonement on the cross. We are therefore called to live righteously, doing what is right, by discovering and following the will of God as discerned through our relationship with him. Doing the “right” thing rather than keeping a rule is choosing righteousness over religion.
If we take this concept from the individual believer to the corporate body of Christ, we will find ourselves running into the same spirit Jesus faced. The typical institutional church, regardless of denomination, practices a fairly incommutable liturgy. Most denominational churches pretty much like the idea of creating a replicable atmosphere whereas persons affiliated with them will feel comfortable regardless of where they attend that flavor of church. It is kind of like the fast-food restaurant chains; they want you to know you will be getting the same product and food experience wherever you patronize that particular chain. A church’s liturgy will normally reflect the fundamental beliefs of that particular denomination.
So, what happens when someone offers to introduce a biblically grounded belief or practice outside the denominational parameters? My experience has been that it will meet with severe resistance. As a case in point, I would like to share my observations as a mainline, denominational pastor in the 1970’s when God seemed to be doing something incredibly sovereign across all denominational lines. A spiritual experience, most frequently referred to as the baptism in the Holy Spirit, began to break out of the traditional Pentecostal church movements and spread across all denominational lines including the Roman Catholic Church. Since speaking in other tongues, gifts of the Holy Spirit, the singing of Scripture songs and protracted, enthusiastic worship, among other manifestations, were greatly associated with this experience, this phenomenon wasn’t exactly subtle in its development.
I want to say that as this spiritual awakening progressed, as is often true of any new experience, there were excesses and abuses associated with it. These excesses were primarily the behavior of very immature Christians who lacked proper leadership to help them process spiritually what they were experiencing.
How did the churches respond to this phenomenal outpouring of the Holy Spirit? In my observation and personal experience, the church at large appeared to be very threatened by what was happening. That is to say, their status quo was in peril of being disrupted. Instead of investigating, learning and understanding the scope of what I truly believe was a significant move of God, the mainline churches seemed to treat it as a spiritual anomaly and basically responded by pulling up the drawbridge. This in turn gave rise to parachurch organizations such as the Full Gospel Business Men’s Fellowship International as believers of every persuasion sought acceptance and support for what they were experiencing.
My personal experience as an ordained pastor in a large, mainline denomination was nothing short of turbulent. My denomination stringently resisted this outpouring of the Holy Spirit. As members of our local church began experiencing the baptism in the Holy Spirit with the evidence of speaking in other tongues, we faithfully nurtured them, helping them to understand scripturally what they were encountering. This training took place apart from the standard routine of the church so as to remain faithful to the denomination. Interestingly, those experiencing the Holy Spirit baptism were all relatively new members of the fellowship. However, ultimately a small cadre of “old guard” members convinced the district leadership that we had corrupted the church, that we were turning it into a Pentecostal church. This was my experience in two different parishes, both of which had realized significant growth, and resulted in the decision to separate from the denomination.
I would like to explore one other area of church life where I believe religion mostly trumps righteousness. This would have to do with the church’s liturgy, how it basically functions as it gathers as the body of Christ. For most churches this is usually highly scripted. Many non-denominational and full gospel/charismatic churches tend to be a little more extemporaneous and less formal in their worship services. Most persons attending the typical denominational churches tend to accept that what they are experiencing is what has always been the liturgical pattern for the church through the ages. The average church attender isn’t really historically knowledgeable of church worship through the first three centuries. The truth be told, there is a tremendous problem with biblical illiteracy among Christians today.
Most Christians today see the current practice of gathering and worship as that to which the early church would have aspired. The evolvement of church meetings from the first century to today is seen as spiritual progress.
Today our worship services are basically a one-hour scripted ritual conducted by professional clergy while the laity mostly passively observe. However, from the beginning, every believer was considered a “minister.” Paul very much described early church worship practice in his letter to the church at Corinth:
Well, my brothers and sisters, let’s summarize. When you meet together, one will sing, another will teach, another will tell some special revelation God has given, one will speak in tongues, and another will interpret what is said. But everything that is done must strengthen all of you. (1 Cor 14:26 NLT)
Paul was seeking to accomplish two things in this portion of his letter. One, he wanted to encourage the believers that each one of them had a responsibility to bring something of their relationship with God to the corporate experience of the earthly body of Christ. Secondly, he wanted to dampen run-a-way enthusiasm that brought disorder and spiritual chaos to the meeting. Paul was in no way attempting to establish a religious pattern or set liturgy but rather to release the believers to build one another up in Christ through what was transpiring with God in their respective lives.
Growing up into the full stature of Christ was the goal. Followers of Christ, meeting together in intimate, transparent, caring, serving and sharing relationships was the order of service from the beginning. Those believers recognized for their spiritual maturity were acknowledged as elders and provided leadership that help to keep the fellowship faithful and tracking in the right direction. It wasn’t until sometime in the fourth century that a palpable differentiation was made wherein a class of ministers as distinguished from the laity was recognized. This unbiblical classification served to eventually disenfranchise the body of believers from the ministry essentially creating a spectator class within the church.
Ultimately, many Christians began to withdraw from the institutional church to meet without professional clergy and established liturgy. Today, these kinds of gatherings tend to be looked upon as aberrations of the faith by most denominations. Most recently, we have seen entire congregations of the United Methodist Church withdraw from the denomination. The polity of the UMC now allows such an action to include retaining ownership of the church property. Many other believers are simply meeting in homes, choosing to rediscover and reinstate the biblical guidelines for worship and church life.
The daunting real question and challenge for sincere followers of Christ today is whether they are involved in religion or righteousness. Once the faith has been organized, systematized and formualized, spirituality dies.
Each of us who profess allegiance to Christ will be held accountable for how we conduct ourselves in the faith. If we recognize the failure within institutionalized Christianity, it behooves us to rectify our situation through finding or initiating a gathering with other concerned and committed followers. There are many resources available online and in books which provide helpful guidelines and biblical foundation. I would personally recommend the writings of Frank Viola including his Internet offerings. My book entitled, The Last Church Standing, Becoming the Church Jesus is Coming for, offers biblical, theological and historical insights for recapturing a meaningful church experience.
“The man who healed me told me, ‘Pick up your mat and walk.”
All who profess faith in Christ Jesus have been “healed.” It’s time to pick up our mats and walk!