Like any good Protestant, I was raised to have a healthy suspicion of religious institutions.
Think about it. My entire branch of Christianity started as a reactionary movement against a religious institution — the Roman Catholic church — that had developed practices we felt were deeply harmful and theologically flawed. So we protested what the Catholic church was doing.
Protestants rejected the Pope’s authority, church tradition, and the idea that salvation is earned through our hard work. We declared that people make it to heaven through Christ and Christ’s grace alone. (By Scripture alone. By faith alone. By God’s undeserved forgiveness, not by anything we do to earn heaven. Though we should avoid, of course, the trappings of cheap grace.)
We saw ourselves as passionate reformers. To our Catholic and Orthodox siblings, we probably looked more like emotional, overly-reationary rebels. Rebels who had a lot of valid points, but who ultimately took their reforms too far.
I come from a tradition of protesters and reformers.
Protestants broke away from Catholicism to create an entire new branch of Christianity. One where church and state could be separate. Where political figures had no decision making power in the church. We encouraged every person to develop a “personal relationship” with God — direct access too our creator, no priests, saints, or intercessors needed.
For a quarter century, this has been my primary narrative. And while I still fully agree with the Protestant Reformation, the the more I study about Christian history and theology, the more I realize how much of my church’s reactionary history tended to some extremes.
There is so much good in Christian traditions, in spiritual disciplines, in a commitment to serve the marginalized in society. I don’t think any of these things can get us to heaven — but that’s not a reason to ignore them to the extent many Protestants have.
But no matter how much I learn, and how much my view expands, something deep inside of me is still deeply suspicious of religious institutions. The more power a person gets, the greater their temptation to become corrupt. From what I’ve seen, that’s just how human nature works.
Christians suck … a lot of times.
It’s a problem today, and it’s been a problem throughout history. (Crusades, anyone?) At our worst, we’re judgmental hypocrites who are more concerned with telling everyone else what they’re doing wrong than actually living out our faith or treating people like Jesus did.
To me, it feels like the more power Christians get in society/politics, and the more time we spend being in all-Christian environments — only interacting with people who think and act like us, and not spending time serving and caring for people like Jesus did — the easier it is for Christians to start causing harm.
From what I’ve seen, the bigger a Christian institution gets, and the more power and influence it starts to accumulate, the bigger risk it runs of falling prey to traps of power, greed, and corruption.
I have an issue with large religious institutions.
And not just within Catholicism — whose issues with clergy sexually abusing minors have been widely and publicly circulated in the press — but I have plenty of issues of what goes on within my own branch of Christianity (which has splintered, over the course of our 500 years of existence, into what has been estimated to be about 9000 different groups). Any time Christians get involved in politics, it annoys me to no end. When you choose to follow Christ, you choose to to put God’s way of life above what you want. You choose to follow God’s moral code. But if someone isn’t a Christian, I don’t think it’s my place to force my moral code on them.
Personally, I wouldn’t choose to have an abortion– to pick one of a couple of controversial “lightning rod” faith topics: topics that a lot of people seem to think are lightyears more important than, you know, things like the Beatitudes or seeking to live as “little Christs.” But I don’t think it’s my place to tell anyone else they can’t, especially if they’re not someone who has decided to live a life with Christ at the center. Because spoiler alert: a huge portion of America has not made that choice. And if they have, any decision is between them and God. It’s not my business. I don’t know their story, I don’t see what’s inside their heart.
So many Evangelicals see social issues as black and white, while I view them as much more gray. When confronted with a gray area, my response is to pray, to ask the Holy Spirit for guidance, to act in love, and to try to respond as Jesus did. Not to legislate an Evangelical morality in the name of returning the U.S. to our Christian roots.
Living a life with Christ — and not me — at the center is hard enough. I’d rather focus on that, instead of trying to make everyone else adopt my moral or political worldview.
Then there’s megachurches.
I strongly dislike them. I always have. Too often, Protestant megachurches center around a charismatic (and often controversial) leader — a pastor who often seems more concerned with his own celebrity, and the size of his church than actually preaching the trust of Christ and the gospel.
Megachurches turn Sunday morning into a loud worship concert. They preach a gospel that is watered down and very me-focused. They focus more on self-help coaching than encouraging the tough, raw, self-sacrificial road of living for Jesus. Megachurches make Christianity a consumer experience. Christ taught us to deny ourselves and work to be he his hands and feet in the world. That’s not what I see happening at most megachurches.
Oh, and can we talk about tithing?
As a teenager, I stopped tithing while my church was undergoing the remodel. I sponsored a child overseas. I donated to missionaries. But I didn’t want to give my $30 — or whatever amount from my teenage job at Starbucks I’d set apart to tithe — to support something I thought was motivated more by human desire for material possessions than by a heart to serve God.
Few things make me angrier than being told God wants me to give my money to an institution, especially if the institution’s motives don’t seem fully God-focused. You want to raise money? Great. Don’t play the Jesus card to guilt me into it.
In the years since, I’ve avoided megachurches. The church I’ve attended for the past seven years consists of a sanctuary and two other rooms. It’s small, bare, and not fancy by any human standards. I feel comfortable tithing (now more than $30, since I’ve worked full-time for over six years) because I see my church spending it’s money on efforts and programs that directly impact ministry and helping others, not on making our building look pretty.
But if my church ever does decide to pursue an expensive remodel, I’ll have to deal with that. It wouldn’t be something I’d agree with. But it’s not a reason to stop going to a church. If I really want to put God at the center of my life, then I can make God a priority in my finances. Hopefully, the vast majority of the money will go towards the spread of God’s love, not towards human gain. But if not every penny does, I don’t feel like that’s a valid excuse for keeping all my money for me and not giving to others.
But what is the right response?
Just because I’ve seen religious institutions cause harm, does that mean I should avoid them altogether? Going to a small, no-frills, and very community service-focused Protestant church is a great fit for me. But I probably won’t be there for the rest of my life. If I get married and have a family, we might change churches. And while I’d like to be at a church whose financial decisions I agree with, I place too much value in getting invested and connected in a church community to switch churches every time they make a decision I don’t like.
For now, I’ve been able to overall avoid religious institutions, because I see them doing more harm than good. I hate when people warp Jesus’ message for their own personal gain. But I worry that my current view is too naive to be sustainable long term. At some point, am I going to feel God directing me towards joining a more formalized institution?
Will I have to put up with occasional harmful decisions I don’t agree with, to be part of a structure that is overall doing good, and whose heart and message I agree with? Will I have to be content with working from the inside — to hold those in power accountable for their harmful actions, and to work to reform from within?
Because right now, I know what sort of Christian I am. I work to distance myself from Christians who I see warping or twisting God’s words for their own agendas. (And to make sure people know the difference between what is God’s desire and what is human decisions.)
That’s where I’ve landed for now.
That’s where I’d like to stay forever. But I’m worried it’s too naive. At some point, I may end up deciding it’s better to join and reform from the inside, instead of staying on the outskirts focused on reform. But for now, I’m happy where I am.
I want to be around Christians who work hard to put Jesus at the center of their lives, and who live like he did. Christians who are more concerned with living out God’s will than with amassing wealth, power, or possessions. If I’m missing something, or if my view is incomplete, I’m sure I’ll figure that out eventually.
For now, I’m doing everything I can to put Christ at the center of my life and my decisions. It’s not easy, and I’m not great at it, but I’m trying. I’m working to make a daily effort to pray, read Scripture, participate in spiritual disciplines, and do everything I can to better understand how God is directing my life.
I’m doing what I can to challenge myself and to grow. As long as I keep that as my focus, I trust that I’ll gain more insight on everything else. I’ll keep following God, and I’ll stay open to hear where I feel God’s direction.
Faith is a journey. I’m still fairly close to the beginning, in the grand scheme of things, and I don’t know where the path will take me. But I know it will be challenging, eye-opening, and will push me out of my comfort zone. Because God wants me to grow, and be better equipped to serve people like Christ did, not to stay in the comfort of what is familiar to me.