Barbed-Wire Religion

In the book “Dune” by Frank Herbert, there is a restraint netting called “shigawire”.  The reason I bring up shigawire is its key property.  If a person is wrapped in shigawire netting, it tightens around the person when they move in any direction. Struggle a lot and you risk being squished to death. Religion can be shigawire. The Pharisees' addiction to the rigid following of rules for the sake of the rules rather than for the love of God is barbed-wire religion for those trapped within its form rather than its substance. For me, the clear risk  is that I might become a modern-day Pharisee, focusing on the rules and laws but missing God’s intent for my soul. Religion can be shigawire. Is organized religion a good thing or a bad thing? I am not sure. 

It’s a complex question seeking a simple answer. 

H.L. Mencken wrote, “All complex questions have a simple answer that is short, logical and wrong."

Religion often seems to be an organized set of beliefs and rules combined to define members of a group of like minded people. Religion then seems to separate one group from another as the rules and beliefs become actions and behaviors possibly different than or in conflict with each other. I am a Christ-follower. Is that a religion? It doesn’t feel like it. I feel like it is a statement of a choice of faith. I was raised Roman Catholic. Later in life, I was baptized in a different church that is scripture based and declares a belief set. Does that make my new church an organized religion? If I subscribe to that belief set am I now in a religion that separates me from other people of Christian faith? Aaaarrrggghhh! 

I know that understanding of religion is woefully incomplete. I turned to the true source of definitions for terms like this; the internet. More specifically, Wikipedia. This is how the term is defined there:

Religion may be defined as a cultural system of designated behaviors and practices, moralsworldviewstextssanctified placespropheciesethics, or organizations, that relates humanity to supernaturaltranscendental, or spiritual elements. However, there is no scholarly consensus over what precisely constitutes a religion.

What a cop-out! No scholarly consensus!I looked it up for a scholarly consensus an there isn’t one. The smart kids haven’t figured it out either? Thank you Wikipedia for being somewhat helpful.

Many people that I know, including some pastors, do not like organized religion. The stigma and often past pains from organized religion are huge obstacles for embracing faith in Jesus Christ and the Good News of salvation. Religion is a heavy yoke compared to Jesus’ promise that “My yoke is easy and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:30)

Jesus was a teacher, (look in the gospels and you will find a number references when the disciples refer to Jesus as “rabbi”) A yoke in the terms of that period, when it related to a rabbi, was the interpretation of the Torah, the Law. That interpretation was very often prescriptive and rules driven. Pharisees were very proud of their knowledge of and adherence to all of the rules they considered to be the following of God’s will. Their rabbinical interpretation of observance by those following a rabbi's teaching was called a "yoke." Fast forward to Jesus. His answer was that their religion without understanding God’s love and purpose was hypocrisy. (Matthew 23 - all of it).

Now comes the real sledge-hammer. I’m jewish! I didn’t know I was jewish. Neither did my parents, I asked. Jesus was jewish and preached within the context of the jewish law, (Matthew 5:17-20). When I read that scripture, I concluded that I am basically jewish in faith because Christ declared that nothing from the Law will be removed or changed. More confusion for me- trying to sort out faith from religion considering how much judaism is an organized religion. Jesus simplifies much of this for me as it relates to faith and religion when he answers a Pharisee’s question:

“Teacher, what is the greatest commandment in the Law?” Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and all your mind.’This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hand on these two commandments."  (Matthew 22:34-40)

This provides me direction in understanding Jesus’ teachings. It is a true-north against which other declarations of organized religion and dictated behavior can be measured. Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross brings us salvation as he is the Christ, (Matthew 16:16). With the acceptance of Jesus as the Christ, the acceptance of the great commission (Acts1:18) and the understanding of the two most important commandments I am pretty certain that I have moved myself to a scriptural guide for my faith. <sigh> That leaves me with faith, Jesus’ declaration of adherence to the Law and modern organized religion. In Matthew 22:17, Jesus tells us that he has come to fulfill the Law. If it has been fulfilled, then I am back to understanding my faith.  No wonder there is no scholarly consensus, it is really confusing. 

I like my church. I worship in community. I learn from the study of scripture as well as what sermons teach me about faith. My church does not say, “do this” or “don’t do that.” The church I attend addresses most questions of sin in context of-

  • What does scripture explain?

  • What has the Holy Spirit shown you in response to your prayers?

  • In the context of loving Jesus Christ, how is your life bringing you closer to him and God?

For me, behavior is dictated by faith, not organized religion. My relationship with God is focused by faith, not by organized religion. A church is a great place to bring a community together so that people of faith can praise God together, learn together and live out life together. It becomes barbed-wire religion when it defines faith within the context of its own acceptable behaviors.

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