The Curse of Religious Institutions

Historical Lessons We Should Learn


When Thomas Jefferson wrote, "We are well aware...that the impious presumption of legislature and ruler, civil as well as ecclesiastical, hath established and maintained false religions over the greatest part of the world through all time;" I believe that this view of the religious world of his day fairly represents the religious world of our day. He knew that religious institutions of his day were man-made and always had been. He knew religious "officials" were no less prone to despotism than civil "officials.'' He knew that religious organizations, institutions, corporations, governments or entities are created in the same way that civil, business, educational, or any other legal organization is created. People create them. They are all created to bind together, to unite, to effectively concentrate the will, the effort, the resources of the people in the organization to be directed towards (supposed) commonly held objectives. This is the most basic characteristic of organizational behavior. The organization's effectiveness depends upon the ability of its leadership to maintain the support of its members in pursuing agreed upon objectives. How organizational leadership maintains the support of the "people" is the subject of many books, but when organizational leaders lose the confidence and support of the "people" change or trouble follows.

Jefferson said that civil governments are created among men for the purpose of securing, protecting, and advancing the rights of all those governed by it, and that all governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed. He said that whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute a new government, laying its foundation on such principles, and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness. Such a government would be the servant of its people; the people were never intended to be servants of their government. And such a government was created following the American Revolution. And it was created at a time when the "Divine Right of Kings" still determined who sat upon the majestic thrones of Europe. It was the Roman Catholic Pope who conferred the "divine right" of kings to sit upon their thrones. When Charles VIII, King of France, conquered and took possession of the kingdom of Naples, the Pope, Alexander VI, refused to invest Charles with the conquered realm. Charles was never King of Naples. When Napoleon was being crowned "Emperor of the French" he physically took the crown from the hands of the Pope and placed the crown on his own head. His intent was to demonstrate to the world that his power did not flow from or through a religious institution; his power was rooted in the people whose common will he represented. At least they thought he represented their will, and for a time he probably did, but in the end it was his own ambitions, his personal interests being served rather than the well-being of his subjects.

What does any of this have to do with us today? It is that we are the children of our fathers. Our American roots still lie buried deep in the cultural soil of Europe. Many of us have been led to believe that the "restoration movement" is uniquely American. Perhaps the form it has taken in the Church of Christ church is American, but efforts to abandon old forms of church government and create new ones more representative of our thinking is not American in origin. And I believe that is what was done.

The Reformation Movement, brought on by Roman Catholic Church corruption and venality, was at first an attempt to reform the existing church government from within. Unsuccessful, reformers such as Martin Luther, Ulrich Zwingli, John Huss, John Calvin, John Wycliffe, and many others apparently came to see that the Roman Catholic Church in no way represented God's will; that church government could not be reformed in such a way as to conform to their understanding of God's will. So, they set about to formulate a system of faith, including church government, that did conform to their understanding of God's will. The movement became the Protestant Revolt. Protestant denominations were created, with long-term religious wars between Catholic countries and Protestant countries. The new protestant church governments did not abandon all the practices of the Catholic church. The Catholic Church government has many levers of power to use to enforce its will upon its subjects. The new protestant church governments were no different in that respect. Those who designed the power structure of the new churches included the means by which its "officers" could compel conformity within its subjects, and they did. Thousands of Anabaptists were put to death because they would not conform to the dictates of a man-made church government. Among other things, they believed in voluntary church membership, separation of church and state, baptism for those of a mature faith only, and generally 'religious liberty.' Were Church members allowed to work out their own salvation with fear and trembling? Not on your life. So, religious persecution of nonconformists became characteristic of the protestant denominations just as it was of the Catholic Church.

Little wonder that the "New World" beckoned with such power in its prospect of freedom and liberty. Such hope triggered a flood of immigrants to America. Every country in Europe had its mass of pent-up frustration in people who had struggled for centuries against a system of civil and religious governments offering only repression and persecution. The invitation on Liberty Island was there long before the words were penned:

Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the hopeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!

And the promise was real. The hope was realized. For the first time a government was created for the purpose of securing, protecting, and advancing the rights of all those governed by it. Our constitution guarantees the use of the full power of our federal government in protecting our religious freedom, one among many rights guaranteed by law.

But basic human weaknesses go anywhere men go. We remember that time and opportunity changed those who professed Christianity from a persecuted sect to a persecutor of "unbelievers." How long was it after the "church" was institutionalized by Constantine that its first "heretic" was put to death.

Those seekers of religious freedom who came to America brought with them the seeds of division and strife. Their first churches were institutionalized and invested with power over their members, and religious persecution was not long in making its appearance. The colonists brought with them the same basic concept of Christianity from which they had fled. That is, Christianity must be practiced within a "church," whatever that "church" may be. And a "church" is an institutionalized legal organization administered by men who are invested with authority through church "offices."

A voluntary association of believers in Christ worshipping and working together without any formalized governmental machinery designed to control the faith and practice of those associating seems to have been advocated by very few at any time. This seems to be clearly what Christians in the first century did. And provision was made for dealing with people who wanted to worship and work with Christians of their community, but whose behavior scandalized the association of believers; believers refused to associate with them, Christians withdrew their fellowship from those who walked disorderly. But this sort of arrangement leaves only teaching, admonishing, encouraging, loving, caring, and the influence of personal experience and wisdom as a means of effecting change in fellow believers. I believe that some arrangement of this sort is how first century Christians lived. They most certainly had no union of church and state, no civil government using its police or military power to enforce the decisions of "church officials." And they most certainly had no church government police powers; that came much later.

We know what the institutionalized church did through its "Inquisition." Countless thousands of "heretics" were put to death in the most barbaric ways. And protestant churches did the same thing in Europe. And religious intolerance came to the New World colonies. In a six month period of 1692 in Massachusetts nineteen people were hanged and many others imprisoned for "witchcraft."

What's the point of all this? It is that all institutional church governments have the same flaw: they are all invested with the means of enforcing basically uniform faith and practice upon the members.

Why are there so many and varied religious institutions? I believe that it is for the same reason that we have so many and varied forms of civil institutions. Men create all of them. God did instruct His children to submit to "the powers that be." But He did not specify or endorse any particular form of civil government; we are to submit to the civil government under which we live, whatever its form. But He did not instruct Christians to submit to ANY institutional church government. Men believe that some form of regulatory authority is required to produce basically uniform faith and practice among members of "the church." Since God did not set up any form of institutional church government, men conclude that we Christians are responsible for designing an institutional church government. And that's what we have done, organized hundreds of religious institutions each having its unique form of government. Of course, we say that the Church of Christ Church reflects the pattern of church government found in the New Testament. Really? I don't know anyone who would seriously contend that Christians described in the New Testament formed themselves into corporate bodies (legal corporations) registered, recognized, and protected by the civil government under which they operated, owning massive quantities of wealth in all forms, owning and operating educational, social, business, policial institutions, all designed to promote the interests of the governing board. But that's what we have. And the Church of Christ Church is no different than the rest of them. [Neither is the Independent Christian Church- Editor]

Thomas Jefferson saw this development as inevitable when religious organizations are endorsed and supported by civil government. He wrote:

We are "well aware...that the impious presumption of legislature and ruler, civil as well as ecclesiastical hath established and maintained false religions over the greatest part of the world through all time;
"That to compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves and abhors, is sinful and tyrannical;
"That even forcing him to support this or that teacher of his own religious persuasion is depriving him...of liberty.
"That proscribing any citizen...unless he profess or renounce this or that religious opinion, is depriving him of a natural right.
"That bribing with a monopoly of worldly honours and emoluments those who will externally profess and conform to it...tends to corrupt the principles of that very religion it means to encourage.
"Therefore, We the General Assembly of Virginia do enact that no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever...but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matter of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities"

What magnificent principles to be governed by! And most of those principles were included in our constitution. Both federal and state governments are forbidden to support or restrain the exercise of religious freedom by any citizen. And, for the most part, institutional religious organizations in the United States, with a few well known exceptions, have not attempted to invade the public treasury for their fiscal support. Most believe firmly in the constitutional provision requiring a separation of church and state. At least that's what they say they believe. Support for religious liberty, spoken support for the idea anyway, is stronger in the United States than anywhere else in the world. Few disagree with these principles, but they are only principles. When it comes to practice, that's another matter. Religious organizations in our country are all supported by both federal and state governments. And none of them is excluded, including the Church of Christ Church. There's a lot more to be said on that subject, but I will leave that for the next presentation. -- Editor's note: I hope that each reader will study the above article carefully. It explains from a historical perspective the cause of our greatest pitfall in trying to serve God, the institutional Church .

The author is highly qualified to discuss these matters. He is a professor of History in one of the largest universities in the nation, a Ph.D. He was "reared" in the Church of Christ Church, his father was a preacher, and he has seen some of the inner workings of that institution. He is a good Bible teacher, a dedicated Christian, and loves the people of God.