How the Church Can Make You Worse Than You Were Before
by Eugene Gerasimov | 9 December 2018 |
There is a widely quoted statement by Karl Marx that “Religion is the opiate of the people.” We who love our faith will disagree that religion has a narcotic effect. But you should know that religion can be very dangerous. Serious faith is risky, like having a dangerous job—a soldier, say, or a policeman, or a pilot—or like an extreme sport, parachuting or ski jumping. It can bring you a great deal of joy and satisfaction, but it can also expose you to dangers that will lead to a bad outcome.
A problem we rarely stop to consider is that any religion (including Christianity) and any denomination (including our own Seventh-day Adventist Church) can make people worse than they were before.
Do you doubt that? Then consider Jesus’ disciple Judas Iscariot. What would have been better for him: to stay at home and work at whatever occupation he had before becoming a disciple? or (as happened) his becoming a follower of Jesus, which led him to be Christ’s betrayer, and ultimately to commit suicide? Religion wasn’t good for Judas.
Let me suggest three ways our community of faith can turn us in the wrong direction. All these we find illustrated in the gospels, especially in the crucifixion story. And we see them illustrated, too, in our church life.
Good Excuses for Bad Deeds
When the high priests, Pharisees, Sadducees, and other religious people brought Jesus to the Roman officials, they had many accusations against him. They said he intended to destroy the temple, and that he blasphemed by saying he was God. These were very pious, very religious accusations. The accusations sounded earnest and sincere, and were backed up in some cases by scripture.
But many who were looking on, including pagan Pilate, “knew that they had handed Him over because of envy” (Mt. 27:18 NKJV).
It’s quite possible to redefine things so as to make ourselves think that they are good. This pattern goes far back in the Christian church. The early church gave pagan feasts new names and called them Christian holidays. They took secular philosophies and shoehorned them into Christian doctrine. They subsumed Christian freedom under the power of the state and persecuted those who disagreed with them.
Similarly, there are quite a number of sins for which your faith community is ready to provide excellent camouflage. All you need is to give them new Christian names. For example, our irritation against others we can rename “righteous indignation.” We collect and distribute gossip under the heading of “prayer requests.” We manipulate and pressure other people under the guise of claiming to want to save them for eternity. We baptize sinful actions, and voila! they look like virtues!
Take the situation where one Adventist criticizes another for her beautiful dress or his nice car. It’s not modest! they say. Not self-denying! It doesn’t represent Christ and his church properly! Is the comment motivated by a jealousy for God, or simply by jealousy of someone else’s beauty or success? Perhaps the critic is hiding behind religious concerns to express envy of someone more lovely, smart or prosperous.
Christianity can make you a better person—if you bring your bad habits and sins to Jesus for cleansing. But the church can also provide you with some excellent ways to disguise your own spiritual decay—even from yourself. Not infrequently others see Christian hypocrisy more clearly than do Christians themselves.
The goal of Christianity is to free us from our sins. But when we use church language to disguise our sins we may become worse people than we were before.
Mediators and Authorities
When Pilate understood that the priests wouldn’t negotiate with him, he sought understanding from the crowd. If even he, a pagan, could see that Jesus wasn’t guilty, how much better those of the community of faith, thought Pilate, would hear the voice of God in their consciences!
But the crowd neither wished to hear from God about Jesus, nor attend to their own consciences. The people obeyed what their authorities, the priests and rabbis, told them, and didn’t bother to ask God what was right.
Here is another example of the church making someone worse than they were before. When a person comes to church, she or he can surely come to know God better, and develop a personal direct intimate relationship with Him so they can hear His voice and follow His directions. But the church will also provide you with handy mediators, real live authorities close to you, who will gladly tell you what you should believe and do. If you listen to us, they say, you won’t need to do the hard work of figuring out what God’s desire is for you. We will tell you! Nor will you need to take responsibility for the results: just trust us.
Why do we Adventists have so many official church statements, working policies and manuals? The reason may be that when you face a hard question you can open a book and have the answers. These may be answers from important people who got together and voted answers, or answers passed down from the church pioneers. In any case, it is easier to look through a book with all the solutions laid out for you than to seek the will of God for yourself. These books aren’t bad—unless they take the place of a relationship with God, personal study, and listening the Spirit’s voice in your conscience.
This is another example of where, like Judas, you may actually have been a better person before you came to the church. Perhaps, like Pilate, you heard the Holy Spirit speaking in your conscience and tried to follow it. But when you came to the church that voice was drowned out by church authorities, who will gladly give you their answers, and to which you will surrender with relief.
Why was everyone gathered around the the cross so angry? Jesus’ sentence had been passed. They were attending his execution, where he would in a few hours die in torment. There was no need to damn him anymore. But we see that everyone—leaders, the crowd and even the thieves on the adjoining crosses cursing him!
The reason is that thieves, crowd and priests had something in common: Jesus had a different religion from theirs, which made him the enemy of all. They held to the official Judaism. But Jesus was different. He said contradictory things, pictured God in odd ways, and acted differently.
You will read in the Bible that we, the people of the earth, all are brothers and sisters, children of one Father, and have to help each other. But in practice, religion sets you up to have enemies: people who believe different from you, who you don’t understand, don’t like, and may even hate. Instead of brothers and sisters, you look out on a whole world of enemies: pagans, Roman Catholics, fallen Protestants, bad Adventists, coffee drinkers, smokers, LGBTQ people, liberals, conservatives—you can add to that list.
In the region where I grew up there were no Roman Catholic churches closer than 200 miles from me. But when I was converted in 1991 and read our books and listened to our sermons, I learned that there was a group of people out there who hated me. Many of our books told me of this other religious organization whose people love tradition but not the Bible, who persecuted faithful Christians to death in the past, and they would do it again, this time to me.
My conversion blessed me with a whole world of new enemies I never knew I had!
Of course, these enemies were all in my mind. To this day I have not encountered any Roman Catholics who have bad intentions toward me or toward my church. They usually don’t know about us at all, and definitely don’t think about us as much, nor in such hostile ways, as we do them.
Christianity should help us see that all people are neighbors, friends and relatives. And the church should teach us to love even our enemies. Often, though, it nurtures instead a spirit of superiority, making you think that you are better than other people who are not of the “remnant,” until all the non-believers and wrong-believers end up on your personal enemies list.
What to do?
Again, please understand that religion and church should make you a better person. But it is a delusion to suppose that going to church will automatically make one more kind, merciful and patient. Just as the church can help you develop virtues, it can also transform you into a beast if received and understood wrongly!
Jesus warned about evil spirits moving into an empty house. We should take his words seriously. Religion is not a righteousness pill. It can also do damage. We must take care that our faith shapes us in the right way.
Eugene Gerasimov, D.Min. is the pastor of the First Vitebsk Seventh-day Adventist congregation in Belarus. He is married to Dr. Olga Gerasimova, an ophthalmologist. They have a cat and a dog named Frodo and Gandalf.