Church, as we know it today, is a manmade institution.
Don't get me wrong â I happen to be a huge fan of church â and the Western cultural flavour that influences my particular style of church. However, it seems to be our human nature to try and fit the God of the universe into our own cultural expression.
Honestly speaking, I wonder if the 'church', in which the average Westerner participates, is the community gathering that Jesus had in mind when he first gathered his disciples together? On a Sunday morning, we come in, we sit down, we stand up, we sing songs, we sit down, we listen to announcements, we tithe, we sing again, we listen to a sermon, we sing again and then we go home. Rinse and repeat the following week â give or take communion.
Come to think of it, I wonder what he'd think about the state of the greater 'Christian religion' thousands of years after its establishment. If we consider how revolutionary Jesus was amongst the religious culture of his day â a religious culture that had been crafted and tinkered by man for thousands of years, it stands to reason that he would probably have a fair bit to say about our religious culture today.
This is usually the part where the writer goes on a long rant about his negative church experiences, and settles on the fact that attending church is not essential to having faith in Christ, and that the established religious tradition has too many inaccuracies to make it worth his/her while and thus needs to be completely revolutionized. But that's not where I'm headed today. I believe that if we take a quick look back to see how Jesus treated the religious culture and institution of his day, the solution to any sense of anti-religious sentiment will soon come to light.
Jesus and religion
Jesus came into a Jewish world under Roman persecution. Ever since he was a child, he respected and participated in almost all of the Jewish festivals and traditions that were established in his culture. However, his teaching to his followers was not simply to participate in the traditional religious culture. On the flipside, he wasn't even telling his disciples to remove themselves from the obviously flawed and inaccurate religious tradition. He taught his disciples that he â Jesus Christ, the Son of God â was not only the reason for these traditions, but was the fulfilment of those religious festivals, traditions and practices.
God is fully aware of our human tendency to fit things too great for our understanding into boxes that we can control â or at least make some sense out of. This is how we end up with various Christian religious expressions and traditions. But similar to the message that Jesus preached amongst his Jewish culture, religion is for nothing unless it directs us straight back to Jesus, back to the cross, back to the grace that first saved us. That is the beauty of Jesus' example and teaching â observe.
Preaching was a common Jewish practice in the synagogues on the Sabbath, but only Jewish men could be inside and listen to the teachings about God. After Jesus had a brief run in with synagogue preaching (Luke chapter 4, verses 16-30), He completed the notion of public teaching by preaching outside on mountain sides for all (Jew, Gentile, man and woman) to hear. Jesus didn't denounce tithing (unless he noticed the Pharisees using tithing as a poor compromise for their neglect of heavier issues â Matthew chapter 23, verse 23), and he admired honest generosity (Luke chapter 21, verses 1-4). He literally established communion with his own words (Luke chapter 22, verses 19-20), and he even sang songs with his disciples (Matthew chapter 26, verse 30).
Jesus and God's Word
Probably the most interesting tradition upon which Jesus had a profound impact was the use of God's Word. By the time of Jesus' arrival, God's Word (mostly consisting of the Old Testament history, law and prophetic messages) was well overused. It had been deconstructed, evaluated, and there were religious leaders whose full-time occupation was to go around and make sure every little rule was being followed.
God's Word had become dry, and had seemingly little relevance to the common man and his struggles. Sound familiar? Then in steps Jesus saying that it's not that God's Word was wrong or irrelevant, it's that it was incomplete without him (Matthew chapter 5, verse 17). When Jesus taught about God's Laws, he didn't abolish them, but pointed their readers' focus back to God â and God's desires for humankind. During the entire 'sermon on the mount' Jesus skilfully uses the law â with which most people were familiar â and completed the law by focusing on two main things: our relationship with God, and our relationships with others.
Jesus and today's Church
Ultimately, I believe that if Christ came into our churches today â he wouldn't turn the established Church upside down and completely revolutionise the way we express our worship to God. He would, however, bring the focus back to glorifying the Father and building our relationships with God and others. I believe that while the Church's focus is forever anchored on these principles, the cultural expression of church can and should vary. But without Jesus as the end and fulfilment of our religious tradition and expression, we are missing the point entirely and are prone to making blind and damaging mistakes. And that is the religious order that Jesus condemned (Matthew chapter 23), and that subsequently condemned Jesus to death.
Blaine Packer is a graduate of Worldview Centre for Intercultural Studies who is passionate about media and mission. Currently residing in Launceston, Tasmania, Blaine is involved in both media and local ministry work at Door of Hope Christian Church.
Blaine Packer's previous articles may be viewed at www.pressserviceinternational.org/blaine-packer.html