Divorcing Jesus from religion

Divorcing Jesus from Religion

Newhaircut, Flickr

Like all divorces this one is going to be messy.

You’re the judge, so try sorting this out: The complainant files papers saying she’s trapped in a loveless marriage. There’s neglect and even some abuse. The complainant wants full custody of the kid and certain rights and privileges to the house and the bank accounts — none of which would exist if the plaintiff hadn’t built them in the first place. This is roughly where we sit as people try to divorce Jesus from religion.

The complainant is the solitary Christian, burned out and disenchanted with religion, which the Christian accuses of abandonment. This Christian wants total custody of Jesus, no strings attached, and rights to handle marital assets like doctrine, Scripture, and the sacraments any way desired.

But this is where it gets messy. Divorcing Jesus from religion is harder than it looks.

Jesus established (or depending on your perspective, reformed) religion. It’s hard to see him as an enemy of (or even disinterested in) religion when he taught doctrines, interpreted Scripture, instructed his disciples to pray, appointed leaders within his movement, instituted ritual sacraments like communion and baptism, allowed his followers to call him rabbi (“teacher”), and said things his followers wrote down and revered as Scripture. Sounds pretty religious to me.

Alright, what if we only go that far? What if we allow that Jesus embodied and taught something we might begrudgingly call religion. Shouldn’t we be able to separate that from “institutional” religion? Maybe we need to amend the complaint and divorce Jesus from the church.

I’m afraid that’s just as messy.

After Jesus’s death and resurrection, his apostles assumed control of . . . what? The New Testament writings assume an institutional church. The apostles clearly exercise authority. Look the courtroom-like setting of the story of Ananias and Sapphira. Or look at Jesus’ own brother, James. James was appointed bishop over Jerusalem by the apostles and exercised authority with and over a body of believers. They gathered and passed binding resolutions. The Orthodox church, by the way, still considers the ruling of the Acts 15 council authoritative and binding.

Paul and Peter and the other apostles carried this very model wherever they established the church — appointing bishops, empowering elders (presbyters), writing that Christians in their community should submit themselves to their authority: “Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. . . . Obey your leaders and submit to them; for they are keeping watch over your souls” (Heb 13.7, 17). We get some pictures of this in action: If the body at Corinth had no institutional authority, for one example, Paul’s direction to excommunicate one of its members (and later direction to restore him) would make no sense.

You cannot divorce Jesus from the church and keep the New Testament because the New Testament becomes a mess of self-contradcition if it doesn’t pertain to a religion that has an institutional expression.

None of this is to say that religion cannot be distorted or that its leaders cannot abuse adherents. In the face of distorted and abusive expressions of religion, it’s tempting to think that we can divorce Jesus from that mess and have him alone. But it doesn’t and in fact cannot work that way.

Christ is the incarnate Word, God made man. The church reflects this same incarnational reality. It’s divine and human. Unlike Christ, its humanity is not perfect; we are all being trained in obedience, growing in holiness and sanctity as we become more like Jesus, the primary occupation of the believer. But the reality of our sinfulness doesn’t preclude obedience and submission as we grow; it’s part of our growth.

We’re all imperfect and submit imperfectly. Welcome to the human race. But Jesus and the church require it regardless. To divorce one from the other is to tear the whole thing apart. No one will walk out of the courtroom the winner.

Question for reflection: If we realize that divorce is not an option for Jesus and religion — Jesus and the institutional church — is there a better, more fruitful way to approach the problems the church faces?

About Joel J. Miller

I'm the author of Lifted by Angels, a look at angels through the eyes of the early church. Click here for more about me or subscribe to my RSS here.

  • Deacon Jim Stagg

    When we refuse to submit to authority, we make ourselves the “authority”. How many of us have the 2,000 years of direct “supervisory” experience, plus the innumerable preceding years of Hebrew history on which to form and live our lives according to the laws of the one true G-d?

    Experience counts. Eventually, even this complainant will realize his ignorance of history and purpose, and his dearth of philosophical and theological practicum. In his invincible ignorance of the moment, there can be no argument which will change his slant on Faith, and the structure which under-girds it. All we can do is show him his error(s), pray for his conversion, and allow the Holy Spirit to enlighten his mind.

    Let us pray for him……………

    • http://joeljmiller.com Joel J. Miller

      Amen to that. The experience of oversight is important. The authority of tradition isn’t something that you sample; it’s something to which you surrender, and you do it because it goes back to the lips of the apostles.

  • Deacon Jim Stagg

    When we refuse to submit to authority, we make ourselves the “authority”. How many of us have the 2,000 years of direct “supervisory” experience, plus the innumerable preceding years of Hebrew history on which to form and live our lives according to the laws of the one true G-d?

    Experience counts. Eventually, even this complainant will realize his ignorance of history and purpose, and his dearth of philosophical and theological practicum. In his invincible ignorance of the moment, there can be no argument which will change his slant on Faith, and the structure which under-girds it. All we can do is show him his error(s), pray for his conversion, and allow the Holy Spirit to enlighten his mind.

    Let us pray for him……………

    • http://joeljmiller.com Joel J. Miller

      Amen to that. The experience of oversight is important. The authority of tradition isn’t something that you sample; it’s something to which you surrender, and you do it because it goes back to the lips of the apostles.

  • Rick

    Joel,

    Once again, I think you are right on in your assessment. Thanks for the post. Obviously, there has to be a better way to approach the problems of the church. Part of the problem, at least in my experience, is that the church in America has largely turned toward an inward focus and created a club-like mentality where we offer programs and events for church people, then we invite outsiders to those, rather than engaging people outside of the comfortable confines of what we consider safe. Not that these things are necessarily bad, but when there is a focal imbalance in activities/programs/opportunities/discipleship toward building up and engaging church-goers or those who speak ‘Christianese’ rather than in equipping them to go out and engage their neighbors, co-workers, etc. who are not believers, then problems begin to appear and we create a christian culture that does know how to engage people outside of itself, or even talk to non-believers without awkwardly trying to make converts instead of building relationship and allowing God to do the work.

    At least this has been my experience growing up in church, being one of those people for a time, and then having God bring me to a different place. I guess that’s just one thought, among many that could be said.

    Again, thanks for the post, always thought provoking for me.
    Rick

    • http://joeljmiller.com Joel J. Miller

      Rick, thanks for reading. I think you’re describing something very common. Our art and subculture reflects that.

  • Rick

    Joel,

    Once again, I think you are right on in your assessment. Thanks for the post. Obviously, there has to be a better way to approach the problems of the church. Part of the problem, at least in my experience, is that the church in America has largely turned toward an inward focus and created a club-like mentality where we offer programs and events for church people, then we invite outsiders to those, rather than engaging people outside of the comfortable confines of what we consider safe. Not that these things are necessarily bad, but when there is a focal imbalance in activities/programs/opportunities/discipleship toward building up and engaging church-goers or those who speak ‘Christianese’ rather than in equipping them to go out and engage their neighbors, co-workers, etc. who are not believers, then problems begin to appear and we create a christian culture that does know how to engage people outside of itself, or even talk to non-believers without awkwardly trying to make converts instead of building relationship and allowing God to do the work.

    At least this has been my experience growing up in church, being one of those people for a time, and then having God bring me to a different place. I guess that’s just one thought, among many that could be said.

    Again, thanks for the post, always thought provoking for me.
    Rick

    • http://joeljmiller.com Joel J. Miller

      Rick, thanks for reading. I think you’re describing something very common. Our art and subculture reflects that.

  • http://hallowedbethishouse.wordpress.com Cassie Hansen

    To be able to survive any problems of a church, we have to remember one thing- the sins committed by those around us are sins AGAINST the church, not OF the church. The Church is perfect, we are not. While it may be considered ideal to think that we Christians somehow don’t screw up and hurt others, it’s a foolish belief.

    So if someone decides to fight against the institution of the Christian Church because of petty arguments, hurtful words, or bad leadership, he/she is giving way too much power to satan and his ability to destroy. Full disclosure: I, personally, have left one Orthodox Church for another because of “issues,” but I was young, immature, and pregnant- and worried about the effect the emotional stress would have on my baby. But then really the choices were about finding the community, the home, that fit our entire family.

    • http://joeljmiller.com Joel J. Miller

      Cassie, that’s a really insightful point: The abuse or mismanagement of church leaders is a sin against the church, not actions of the church. From the pews to the pulpit, the laity to the bishop, we’re all part of the body, so the sins of those we perceive as representing the institutional church are wrongs against the institution itself, wrongs against the body of which they’re part. It’s a sloppy analogy, but maybe this captures part of it: Do you (depending on your politics) blame the presidency for Richard Nixon or Bil Clinton or George W. Bush? Power can be abused, but the abuser is to blame for his own misdeeds.

  • http://hallowedbethishouse.wordpress.com Cassie Hansen

    To be able to survive any problems of a church, we have to remember one thing- the sins committed by those around us are sins AGAINST the church, not OF the church. The Church is perfect, we are not. While it may be considered ideal to think that we Christians somehow don’t screw up and hurt others, it’s a foolish belief.

    So if someone decides to fight against the institution of the Christian Church because of petty arguments, hurtful words, or bad leadership, he/she is giving way too much power to satan and his ability to destroy. Full disclosure: I, personally, have left one Orthodox Church for another because of “issues,” but I was young, immature, and pregnant- and worried about the effect the emotional stress would have on my baby. But then really the choices were about finding the community, the home, that fit our entire family.

    • http://joeljmiller.com Joel J. Miller

      Cassie, that’s a really insightful point: The abuse or mismanagement of church leaders is a sin against the church, not actions of the church. From the pews to the pulpit, the laity to the bishop, we’re all part of the body, so the sins of those we perceive as representing the institutional church are wrongs against the institution itself, wrongs against the body of which they’re part. It’s a sloppy analogy, but maybe this captures part of it: Do you (depending on your politics) blame the presidency for Richard Nixon or Bil Clinton or George W. Bush? Power can be abused, but the abuser is to blame for his own misdeeds.

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