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The Unnatural Nature of Religion

religion1What is normal Christian Body (i.e. church) life like apart from religion? I submit to you that it is not found simply by moving the church from one venue (e.g. the religious building) to another (e.g. the home). Yet, I would say that the religious building sets the stage for religious thinking and practice.

We must know that religion can be seen lurking around in any meeting of God’s people. So, the issue is not so much with where the church meets as much as it is with whether or not the destructive practice of religion is found there. Obviously, the home is the most natural place to gather in familial community.

The best way I have been able to describe the difference in the religious and the non-religious… and the difference between what God is doing in a biblical ‘house church’ versus the institutional ‘religious church’ and her buildings… would be by pointing to the natural vs. the unnatural.

Religious activities are unnatural. Religion can be seen in man’s devising of an unnatural means to approach God in worship and to do the work of God in practice. Religion can only function by the unnatural ritualistic order invented by man. This order is accompanied by the religious hierarchal order of leadership (i.e. clergy, priesthood).

Outwardly, things appear to be running smoothly in religious activity. The tithes and offerings are plentiful, the religious building projects are in full bloom, thousands have repeated the ‘sinner’s prayer’ at the crusade, and one more staff member was added this month. Surely this is beneficial to the Kingdom of God… the church has a new billboard, my preacher was on Larry King Live, and our attendance has now reached into the thousands!

In religion… a person can measure their work and make a human decision about whether or not they have been successful. After accomplishing a ‘ministerial’ task of some kind or attending a religious gathering of outward expressions of the flesh… they can step back with a feeling of worth and accomplishment.

Man’s religion can be measured. The undercover work of the Kingdom is not visible with man’s eyes. It is something Christ measures. He has not given man the ability to measure it. Man has the promises of God on which to rely, not a measuring stick by which to judge his work. The promise ought to be enough. Specifically, “I (Jesus) will build my church… and the gates of hell will not prevail against it.” (Matt. 16:18 )

Christ’s work was primarily done in the dark corners of the Empire. If Jesus were to walk the earth today… I’m sure the religious leaders of the day would have plenty to suggest in order for him to have a successful ministry. I can hear them now. They might say, “For starters… you have to write a book, Jesus. The title should contain the words ‘purpose’ or ‘better life.’ Also… you need a large building.

We can put your face on books, magazines, and the Internet. We are emerging, Jesus. Question everything, but offer little answers. And of course, the larger your audience… the greater your influence, Jesus. You must travel all over the world and sell your books and preach crusades. Don’t concern yourself with investing in twelve men. Go to the masses! What do you think, Jesus?”

I believe Christ’s response would be similar to the words he spoke to Peter and his disciples for suggesting that he choose a different path other than Jerusalem. Jesus rebuked them saying, “Don’t you understand… not only must I walk this road, but you too must take up your cross and follow me. You too. Not just me… you too.” (Matt. 16:24 paraphrased)

Religion is not satisfied with the simple foolish message of the cross. (1 Cor. 1:18 ) It reaches for worldly power and influence. Dying on a cross is fine for Jesus, but participators of religion seek other means to win the hearts of the people. And they will use any excuse not to follow the primitive ways of Jesus.

These religious people have forgotten that the means by which we attain the end (i.e. Thy Kingdom come!) is important to the Lord. He purposely chose his method in order to communicate the divine message. When the method is tampered with… the message is lost.

I must say that the crowd did eventually gather round… but it didn’t take long and the Lord turned to his closest followers to say, “Will you now leave me too?” Only those who have surrendered to the upside-down ways of the King shall see his Kingdom. Only they will want to see it… the rest will leave.

Religion is rooted in the pride of man finding worth in himself. The purpose of this religious Christianity then becomes about doing things for Christ instead of being Christ to all we come in contact with. The pursuit is no longer Christ alone… it is about what I can do for Christ. Religious Christianity is about doing the work of Christ instead of knowing the person and work of Christ.

Today, the most virtuous things are those things which are measurable (e.g. religious activities, services, programs, etc). Yet, Christ’s work largely went unnoticed and misunderstood. He never wanted to draw attention to his work alone, but his person… who he was (and is). The signs and wonders did not bring salvation… he did. His work was only to serve as evidence that he was the Messiah promised by the prophets. Should our work not be done in the same manner: working only that we might introduce others to the person of Jesus Christ?

The religious men of Jesus’ day did not approve of his methods or of his ministry. In the same way, many will disapprove of the upside-down ways of the ‘house church.’ To the worldly minded person, it would appear that it does not do much for the Kingdom. Where is the outward visible evidence of its influence?

Religion is not satisfied with undercover ways of the Kingdom of God. It must have results. It must maintain the unnatural. It must keep the machine oiled. Therefore, when times get rough, a religious person can rest in a false peace of knowing that everything has been done that can be done. How does the religious person know this? They have their religious work by which to measure the depth of their faith and commitment.

For example, it is simply unnatural to set a time aside to have a “quiet time.” Do you tell your family and loved ones you will only give them certain times in your day to meet with them? Of course not! They would be offended and be left to feel like your love is given out of obligation instead of free loving will.

Is it not the same with God? Yet, a religious “quiet time” can be measured. I am right with God today because I had a quiet time. Is this not how man thinks? What really proves that this kind of “quiet time” is simply religion… is when a person asks you to keep them accountable to doing it regularly. Are you kidding? Now we need someone to ask us if we are loving the one who saved us? Do we really need someone to encourage us to set time aside to talk with the Lord? Religion is unnatural to say the least… and it shows.

Would it not be natural to have the freedom to meet with the Lord at anytime of the day instead of chaining yourself to the bed until you have met with the Lord? Please understand that I am not discouraging quiet moments with the Lord. But I am accusing the religious habits as being contrary to the freedom we’ve been given in Christ.

This unnatural religious activity is only giving us a false confidence before God. It causes us to view the privileges of meeting with the Lord and his people as being a burdensome thing. When we have to be coaxed into spending time with the Lord and his people… there is evidence that we are living unnatural religion instead of the natural faith of Christ. It is not just this way with the little things. All things religious will follow this same pattern.

Is it any wonder why you constantly hear the institutional pastors pleading with their people to get involved and do something… just do something for the Lord, please! Reason: religious people need to be coaxed into loving the Lord and doing the right things.

The worse part of this religious Christianity… most of its leaders wouldn’t even care about the motives and reasoning behind why the congregation is having their “quiet times” or why they signed up for VBS. The important thing to the religious leader is that they do it… regardless of the reasons why. The machine must continue to run. The success of the ministry depends on it. See anything wrong with this picture?

Christianity should be a natural expression of personal relationships intertwined into community. As family gathers for a reunion or a weekly meal… the church gathers around Jesus Christ to share him with everyone in the fellowship. Everyone brings something to the table of fellowship (1 Cor. 14:26 ). A bulletin would be unnatural, therefore, religious. Who hands out an order of service and activities at their earthly family gatherings? When you are with people you love… there is no particular order. Yet, there is order.

There is order… still there is freedom. Freedom to naturally express yourself… be yourself… and enjoy the company of the family. How much more ought the church to be expressing herself naturally? Religion chains the bride up. It bounds her by needless rules and destructive rituals that cage up the free moving Spirit of Christ. Religion is unnatural. Wherever religion is found… you will find bondage therein.

I am reminded of what the Chinese missionary said to his people upon returning from the United States. They asked him, “What impressed you most about the church in America?” His reply… “What the church in America can do without the power of the Holy Spirit.” The machine has been oiled and it runs fine… even without the assistance of the Holy Spirit.

This is the way it is in religion. You can observe the religious by human wisdom and logic. You can organize and publicize and deputize others into doing your religious bidding. It would appear that a great deal is happening in institutional church work… yet the statistics reveal something very different. The great machine is running… but the product is counterfeit!

Religion stinks. Christ is everything!

D.D. Flowers, 2008.

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Pagan Christianity? Exploring the Roots of Our Church Practices (Book Review)

Pagan Christianity? Exploring the Roots of Our Church Practices

Spiritual Revolution Instead of Religious Reformation

A Book Review of: “Pagan Christianity? Exploring the Roots of Our Church Practices” by Frank Viola and George Barna

 

“Pagan Christianity? Exploring the Roots of Our Church Practices,” may very well be the most important book written on the Christian church in the last two millennia.  Frank Viola and George Barna team up to give their readers a critical examination of the last 1700 years of church history.

 

Does the institutional church have any biblical and historical right to exist?  “Are the practices of the institutional church (the clergy/laity system, salaried pastors, sacred buildings, the order of worship, etc.) God-approved developments to the church that the New Testament envisions? Or are they an unhealthy departure from it?”

The first edition of this book entitled, “Pagan Christianity: The Origins of Our Modern Church Practices” by Frank Viola… is the third book written in a set of five books on church restoration and organic church life.  Viola and George Barna, Christian pollster and author of the book “Revolution,” have co-authored the newly revised and updated “Pagan Christianity?: Exploring the Roots of Our Church Practices.”

Barna brings to the book a fresh look and a polished language that improves on the delivery of Viola’s original work.  Barna, who has caused no small stink upon his recent confessions regarding the church, makes his decision to leave the institutional church complete with the publication of this book.  If it wasn’t clear in his book “Revolution”… it is certainly clear now.

I enjoyed the new format of this book.  At the end of each chapter, the authors give the reader a “Delving Deeper” section which lists common questions with answers in return.  I felt that this helped to clarify what the authors were truly saying in order that fact might be separated from fiction.  I also enjoyed the updated references and the plethora of footnotes listed at the bottom of each page.  These references may be in a smaller font, but they are the entire foundation of historicity which resulted in the penning of this book.

Therefore, the serious reader will not want to overlook the footnotes.  The reader will also find the “Summary of Origins” and “Key Figures in Church History” in the back of the book a great help as well.  The book may look like a long read… yet, you will find that your interest is peaked beyond that of any other historical book you have ever read.  You will read until you are done… or until you have thrown it out the window.

The serious questions raised in this book will give the Christian reader more than enough to wrestle over.  Viola traces the pagan origins of almost every church practice that institutional Christianity holds dear and holds it to the light of the New Testament.  I remember first reading the original “Pagan Christianity” over a year ago.  I had spent 6 years of my life in “vocational ministry” within the institutional (Southern Baptist) church and I had a degree in Religion/Biblical Studies from a Baptist University.  I had just resigned from my position as Minister to Students/Education because the church’s leaders were opposed to fundamental teachings of Jesus.  My wife and I saw that we could no longer serve among them.

It was during this time that I began to read and study like never before.  I was seeking to be a senior pastor in a church somewhere in the United States.  I studied church history, ecclesiology, Christology, etc. I was seeking the Lord’s will for his church. I compiled a list of what the New Testament described the church looked like in fellowship and among the world. With the help of Viola’s book, I quickly realized that my list did not reflect the church I knew and that that church could not be seen in the model of the traditional church. I had to rethink my understanding of it all.

I know how hard this read will be for many people, especially clergy members. “Pagan Christianity?” will, no doubt, be a most uncomfortable read for all those who believe the Body of Christ is an institution.  For the clergy member, the read will almost be impossible.  At every turn of the page… the flesh will flare up in a horrible display of arrogance and pride.  Many will scoff at its claims and discourage others from reading it before an honest examination can be made.  If the reader is not prepared to reexamine his faith and practice for a paradigm shift… he or she might as well leave this book well alone.

If the reader is not yet at the end of their rope in frustration against the church practices and shallow conception of Christ that is believed and taught within the institutional church… this book will only breed anger and confusion.  But, if you were like me a year ago… you are tired and want answers… and, most importantly, you want more of Christ… then please read this book and allow yourself to be moved by it.  I encourage you to have an honest conversation with the Lord as you read.  And listen to his still small voice.

To the rabid opponents of this book, I strongly recommend you speak to no one before you have done truthful research concerning these matters AND have had an honest conversation with Jesus first.  Many will argue that this book only proposes another “form” or method of church.  This book is not about forms, but about principles.  To argue forms… is to miss the point of this book.

Many will make preposterous claims that this book seeks to tear down the church of Jesus Christ, when in all reality… this book exalts Jesus Christ of Nazareth and submits that we return to simple community gathered around his headship free from the human inventions of man and religion that hinders the Body from every-member functioning.

This book does not propose we mimic the model of first-century Christianity, but that we mimic our Lord.  Out of our Lord’s commands and the principles of his person and work (i.e. life and teachings) will come normal Christian church life!

Why has this book been written?  The authors write, “we have written this book for one reason: to make room for the absolute centrality, supremacy, and headship of Christ in His church.” (p.250)  This statement alone should be enough for any true follower of Christ to pick up and read.  But unfortunately, many people, for whatever reason, will choose to accept slander about the authors (even from trusted pastors) as enough reason to discredit and discount them as credible voices of truth in mainline Christianity.

This is an incredible action considering that many institutional churches in the last decade have built their entire plan of attack off the statistical findings of pollster George Barna.  On top of that… both of these men boldly proclaim Christ in a way that is undeniably and unmistakably from a spirit of love and edification.  The premature responses of the majority prove how mankind is driven by mere human emotions and tradition… instead of biblical truth discovered through a consistent and verifiable method of biblical interpretation that seeks to exalt Christ above all things.

This reviewer and ex-clergy member challenges you to consider the message of these men.  Compare the claims of this book with the Christ and the church of the New Testament before you decide who and what are truly following and being a reflection of pagan Christianity.

All of us must choose between spiritual revolution (i.e. return to Christ) or religious reformation (i.e. tweaking the old pagan systems).  One of these will release the church from her chains and free her from the bondage of man’s religion to experience the natural faith of Christ.  The other will only prolong God’s people from beholding Christ in majesty and splendor to the world.  There is only one life to live.  Choose wisely.


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