If I say the word “dog” it may call to my mind a German Shepherd, but within your mind it may conjure up an image of a Poodle or Dachshund. It is exactly the same when I use the word “Christianity.” In countless discussions with people from various faith systems, I have never once met someone who rejected the Christian faith who could actually distinguish it from Institutional Christianity. In other words, the Christian religion is responsible for an immeasurable amount of our world’s atheism or hostility toward religion, and for good cause.
In the West, we have an ideal that separates Church and State but this wasn’t the case at Christianity’s inception. Rome was the greatest military, political, and economic power in ancient history and it persecuted early Christianity until in 323, when Constantine made it the official religion of the Roman Empire. The marriage of Church and State was not entirely the effect of the early Church’s profound evangelism as our Sunday School teachers like to wax. By making Christianity Rome’s bedfellow, Roman imperial control was secured and it institutionalized the church into the most powerful, tribal, propaganda machine in history.
This is quite remarkable because Jesus’ mission was in part to liberate people from institutionalized religion.
This imperial marriage did end Christian persecution and allow for it’s religious status to be ratified and ultimately expanded along with the militaristic and political land grabs of Rome. While there has always been a remnant of those who practice the faith as distinct from institutional control and colonialism, the Church of Rome was far more Rome than it was Church. For the last 1700 years this remnant has lived under the massive shadow of power, control, and propaganda, during which time, an obscure storyline emerged which would use the fear of God, Hell, or banishment to gain compliance with the system of power and justify wars against the ungodly.
By the 1500’s, the remnant who followed Christ’s original teachings and simple system of faith could no longer bear the oppression, control, and propaganda of Institutionalized Christianity. The Reformation emerged as a call to liberation from religious propaganda and overreach where “God’s word” was doled out only by the clergy, unto a collective of people who sought to return to the faith of the founding fathers by putting the bible into the hands of common people.
Institutional power will always try and squash dissent and will persecute (even unto death) those who try and liberate from it’s control and overreach. This is the hallmark signature of every institutional religion in the world. It continues to this day. What happens if you leave your religious tradition? If the answer is something bad, you are under religious control. This system of government was a corruption of the Law given to Israel which Jesus condemned, and now is found within every religion on the planet, most certainly the Roman Catholic Church which emerged from Constantine. Those that were liberated in the reformation were persecuted for years as they tried to regain the faith inspired by Jesus in the first century.
If we fast forward to today and examine the landscape of modern Christianity we see something very interesting. Those seeking to uphold the spirit of the protestant reformation are now just as institutionalized as the Catholic Church from which they dissented. Every denomination of the Christian faith (more than 200 with thousands of varying beliefs) each has become institutionalized. Each new branch emerges from a voice or call toward liberation and ultimately ends in an organized institution which resorts back to institutional power plays of fear, control and overreach.
In the 1820’s, Mormonism was founded by after Joseph Smith was trying to figure out which denomination was the right one. He received a vision and discovered some engraved plates which he translated into the Book of Mormon. After reading through the Book of Mormon, it appears to be a chronology which tries to get back to the original message of Jesus through a modern, American heritage which links back to Israel. What Joseph was trying to pursue, is now extremely institutionalized with doctrines, covenants, temples, hierarchy, and all the accouterments and centrality of the Church of Roman Imperialism.
In the 1840’s came the Seventh Day Adventists, in the 1870’s came the Jehovah’s witnesses, and much like the Mormon tradition, they are trying to break free of institutional power which in their mind was obscuring the “True Faith” and the way to live. Yet, as we’ve seen in every single world religion so far, in order for there to be solidarity between people, each group organizes and seeks uniformity of belief and practice. Once this happens, a line is drawn between “innies” and “outies.” In the 1900’s along came the pentecostal movement which was a following of the “voice” to return to the inauguration of the first church through the power of the spirit. Today, they too are an organized institution with the power to name whose in and whose out.
This is not to say the remnant of true faith isn’t present within any institutionalized religion or tradition, only that the container is often far more valued than the contents. This repeating pattern needs to be identified because it begs the question as to what it is that keeps calling people over and over again out of institutionalized religion?
What is this voice that called Abram out of his kindred, or Paul out of Judaism, or Mohammad back “compete submission”, or Siddhartha under the Bodhi tree, or Constantine and Rome to faith, or Luther to Reformation, or the voice that called to the America’s, or the pentecostal moment, or any of them? What or Who is the voice that is calling so many to leave these institutions is pursuit of freedom? That question must be asked and it’s one that the whole world can understand.
Secondly, from a wide-angle lens, we can see that the entire history of belief for all human history is pointing to a continual voice which is calling people unto a true belief and faith, and a single unifying practice that brings all people together. If organizing and providing government over these beliefs only leads to the voice re-emerging in the call to leave that government or practice, then what exactly does a government-less system of belief look like? Is it possible for such a belief to exist and can it exist within the present institutional powers?
Obviously, I believe the answer is yes. And next week I will reveal what I believe this voice is, what it has been saying all along, and what that means for each of us. No, I’m not starting a new religion, nor a new belief, nor a new practice. I’m deconstructing all the world’s systems of belief and revealing what has been peeking through all along. For some, this will be a surprise. For others, this will be a let down. For still others, it will be a homecoming to a land long promised and cherished.
If my assertions are correct, then every single person will be able to see the truth from within their system of faith, and simultaneously be invited through it into something beyond it.
The question remains, do we really want to know who we are apart from the overreach of our beloved institutions?