In the 1992 movie, Sneakers, Martin Bishop (the protagonist, played by Robert Redford) is talking with an old – and formerly incarcerated – friend named Cosmo (played by Ben Kingsley). Here’s a part of their conversation:
Cosmo: There I was in prison. And one day I helped a couple of nice older gentlemen make some free telephone calls. They turned out to be, let us say, good family men.
Martin Bishop: Organized crime?
Cosmo: Hah. Don’t kid yourself. It’s not that organized.
I think of this sometimes when I hear the phrase, “Organized Religion”. As we consider the millions of diverse people who are genuinely following Jesus around the world (with their variety of of languages, traditions, capabilities, and needs) it seems strange that it would be called “organized”. Sometimes it looks more like the chaos after a storm blows through a neighborhood, where everyone is trying to help their neighbor but there isn’t yet any central coordination of the relief efforts.
In my mind, this is a testimony to the ultimate structure and hierarchy in the Body of Christ. In a corporation, it would be considered a pretty flat organizational structure: Jesus is the head of the church, and we are members of His body. This works because of God’s divine ability to walk with and guide each of us, while omnisciently and lovingly achieving His purposes.
As a result, any earthly roles or organizational structures in the church must serve – not fight against – this design.
However, I think that there is definitely a place for the body of Christ to be organized, based on what the Bible says. That might not look like what is normally called “organized religion”, but let’s start with how the Bible defines religion in the first place:
Pure and genuine religion in the sight of God the Father means caring for orphans and widows in their distress and refusing to let the world corrupt you.
James 1:27 NLT
Religion is not defined here as a fancy building, or formal rituals. Both of those can help people gather together and establish healthy disciplines, but they aren’t “religion” (at least, not as this verse describes it). And, wherever they don’t serve their purpose of drawing people to Jesus – including His salvation, His example, and His teachings – they are extraneous and may need to be dropped.
Instead, the religion defined in this verse includes taking care of others and being holy. Here, there are definitely opportunities for organization. The latter (remaining free from the world’s corruption) is a subject for another article, but the first part (taking care of those in need) is really practical.
If we presented this problem – how to take care of people in need – to a project manager, we would expect a basic set of steps to resolve it: Individuals’ needs would have to be identified and categorized. Resources to fill those needs would need to be acquired (possibly in two steps: receiving money from those who can give, and purchasing the required items). A distribution mechanism would need to be put in place, so that the right provisions were allocated to the right people at the right time. (After all, It doesn’t do any good to get fresh produce if it won’t be distributed for a month.)
In fact, the early church was very tactical and practical in this area. Those who had extra wealth shared it with those who lacked basic resources. Hungry members of the body of Christ were fed. People in need did not always qualify to receive help from the church if they had access to other means of support.
Furthermore, the activities of the early church were divided up among multiple groups, based on roles and functions within the larger body.
So the Twelve called a meeting of all the believers. They said, “We apostles should spend our time teaching the word of God, not running a food program. And so, brothers, select seven men who are well respected and are full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will give them this responsibility. Then we apostles can spend our time in prayer and teaching the word.”
Acts of the Apostles 6:2-4 NLT
This definitely sounds like organization to me! It wasn’t a complex hierarchy of managers, plans, or denominations. Instead, it was a practical solution to share God-given blessings with those in need, and to show the love of Jesus (who was known for providing both food and drink!) in a tangible way.
So, we do not have to shy away from the social stigma of “organized religion”; instead, let’s practice it like the early church. Although there are times when God calls upon us to react to special situations, we can also establish ways to effectively provide for those in need within the church. That matches the organization (and the religion) of what I believe we are still called to participate in, today.
See also The Business of the Church
Scripture quotations marked (NLT) are taken from the Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright ©1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, a Division of Tyndale House Ministries, Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.