The Religious Establishment vs. the Gospel
by Daniel A. Mora | 3 August 2021 |
In the prologue to John’s Gospel we find this statement: “He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him” (John 1:11 NIV). On reading that, we first think of the people of Israel—that it was the Jewish people who did not receive him. Although this is partially true, let us note that it wasn’t generally the common people who rejected him, but the religious leaders. Jesus’ gospel was opposed by the religious system—to the point that it led them to want to exterminate him.
The coming Messiah was a subject well-known to the Jewish religious system. Their forefathers had prophesied it and it was enshrined in the Hebrew canon. When Herod asked about this Messiah, the priests and scholars answered by quoting prophecies of Isaiah and Micah (Matthew 2:5-6).
So why did the religious leaders become enraged with Jesus when he claimed that he was the Messiah? It was because they cherished the false expectation that the Messiah was a king who would destroy Israel’s enemies. That was a distortion of the messianic expectation. Jesus did not teach the supremacy of Israel over the Gentiles. He did not say “We alone are the only true people,” or even “We are the remnant.” Neither did he announce the destruction of the Romans or the other Gentiles. Just the opposite: he offered salvation and liberation to all humankind.
So Jesus challenged what might today be popularly called “the establishment,” the group that held religious power and codified religious teachings. For centuries this group was intellectually inbred: they only replaced themselves from among themselves. They created institutional codes that dominated the people, including the Talmud and the Mishnah, legal texts that told how the life of a Jew should be lived from birth to death. Jesus saw that the rabbinical laws overshadowed the gospel and distorted the scriptures (Matthew 12:1-8,14; 15:1-9).
The Pharisees would begin their questions by appealing to the power of these establishment policies: “Look! Your disciples are doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath,” and “Is it permitted to heal on the Sabbath?” There was nothing in the Torah that prohibited benevolent acts on the Sabbath; the religious establishment had created those policies.
Who says what is forbidden or permitted on the Sabbath? The religious system thought it could: that its dominion was absolute, even over the scriptures. Yet even if its guidelines were absurd, as long as they represented the paradigm of the establishment, they were the official voice. Anyone who reasoned from a different paradigm, like Jesus, was out of order. It was not a question of reason, but of power. Jesus did not belong to the inner circle of power, so he was by definition wrong.
Adventist inner circles
The same thing happens in the Adventist system. Here, too, it is not a question of reason, but of ecclesiastical power. I remember a seminary professor saying to his students in pastoral practice class, “As long as you keep the president of the field happy, you’ll do fine.” Another, a dean, told a theology student: “Some leaders don’t like it when you speak up. Not because you have a bad vocabulary, but because you don’t say what they want to hear.”
What was the fear of the Jewish religious leaders? It wasn’t just intellectual freedom: Jesus could think what he wanted to. What they did fear was freedom of expression. Jesus was communicating the good news to ordinary people. He was teaching them to think, to use reason, to trust their own judgment. In this way, many came to accept Jesus’ gospel.
It is not easy to communicate by criteria different from those of a hostile religious system. Often Jesus asked inductive questions, so that his listeners would think for themselves. He taught them to reason and draw their own conclusion: “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” he would ask. “…. Who do you say I am? (Matthew 16:13-16). By communicating in this way, Jesus succeeded in turning his followers into communicators.
This is the opposite of the religious establishment. Religions prefer silent conformity, because this is the best platform on which to act with impunity. But Christians must be free to communicate. This is a basic principle of human dignity. And clear, compelling communication of the good news is the best weapon to destabilize a religious establishment, for the gospel defeats any religious institution.
In the face of this methodology, the Jewish religious leadership felt exposed and fearful. Note that the only thing they asked of the first Christians was silence: “Then they called them in again and commanded them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus” (Acts 4:18).
When the disciples heard this they understood that the religious establishment is weakened when believers are true to their conviction and have their own judgment: “Which is right in God’s eyes: to listen to you, or to him? You be the judges!” (Acts 4:19).
Jesus did not seek to destroy the religious system of Israel. He attended the annual feasts, observed the customs of his people, presented his sacrifice in the temple, and preached in the synagogue. But, he wanted the religious system to be impregnated with the good news, and to discard all the human forms that prevented the salvation of the human. In short, Jesus wanted to save the religious system from itself.
But how difficult it is to save a group that believes itself to hold the exclusive means of salvation! The Jewish religious leaders were scandalized because Jesus brought his message and his ministry of healing directly to sinners and publicans, bypassing them and their religious system. Jesus told them, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners” (Mark 2:17).
Something that characterizes religious institutions is that they don’t like to admit to making mistakes. Even if they commit crimes, they would prefer to cover them up. Those who break the silence are stigmatized by the establishment.
The Jewish leaders thought themselves so perfect that they could not accept criticism from anyone, least of all from one, like Jesus, not in the power group. When the man born blind was being questioned by the Sanhedrin after being healed by Jesus, they did not accept the testimony of the newly sighted man. They were enraged at the profound lesson given to them by this beggar. They told him, “‘You were steeped in sin at birth; how dare you lecture us!’ And they threw him out” (John 9:34).
This notion of the infallibility of the religious establishment is driven by comfort. The religious leaders were afraid that the people would join Jesus in challenging the system they created, and they would lose their privileges as the ruling caste. The decades—centuries—they had dominated had shown them that everything is better when it is left as it is.
This is why religious establishments do not talk about problems, but about challenges; they do not talk about mistakes, but about greatness. If the religious establishment were to admit its mistakes, it would be obligated to change. This means leaving their comfort zone. It translates into a loss of privilege, and this is why they recoil at the idea of change.
Jesus challenged the comfort of the religious system. He saw that their teachings were so obviously flawed as to be ridiculous. And when power is ridiculed, it loses its capacity to coerce, and therefore its power.
Jesus refuted their arguments by making them look ridiculous before the people. The disciples asked Jesus,
“Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? They don’t wash their hands before they eat!”
Jesus replied, “And why do you break the command of God for the sake of your tradition? For God said, ‘Honor your father and mother’ and ‘Anyone who curses their father or mother is to be put to death.’ But you say that if anyone declares that what might have been used to help their father or mother is ‘devoted to God,’ they are not to ‘honor their father or mother’ with it. Thus you nullify the word of God for the sake of your tradition” (Matthew 15:2-6).
The end and the means
The religious establishment distorts the gospel to seek its own benefit. It believes that what matters is the survival of the establishment and, as Niccolò Machiavelli is credited with saying, “The end justifies the means.”
Jesus did not believe that the end justifies the means. He understood the inconsistencies of the Pharisees, and refuted their flawed reasoning. Only people with strength of conscience can use their reason and respectfully expose the flaws they observe. The difference between silence and communication lies in loyalty to conscience versus loyalty to privilege.
Power only admits “positive criticism”—that is, applause and praise. Jesus’ discourse tormented them because they felt convicted. He neither flattered nor applauded them, but he told them of their faults and errors in a public way:
You hypocrites! Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you: “These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are merely human rules” (Matthew 15:7-9).
Rather than attend to Jesus’ wisdom, religious leaders sought ways to eliminate this bothersome criticism (Matthew 12:14).
The Pharisees and the Jewish priests started down the path to eliminate Jesus, and they began with the method of stigmatization. The religious establishment labeled Jesus. They did not say it to him in person, but murmured. When they went to him, it was only to look for arguments with which to condemn him. But often, instead, they were ridiculed. Behind his back they treated him in every evil way imaginable, cursed him and sought his death. They did this because they felt they were losing their power over the people: “‘By what authority are you doing these things?’ they asked. ‘And who gave you this authority?’” (Matthew 21:23).
Today the Seventh-day Adventist Church has its own establishment. The leaders of this establishment, like those in all organizations, have their own personal interests, and try to maintain their power over the members. They believe that the survival of the institution justifies less-than-good means. Heaven only knows how many sincere believers have suffered or continue to suffer stigmatization and discrimination within Adventism.
Jesus showed us that no religious system is above the gospel. The mission of Christians is to freely communicate the Gospel and to condemn any kind of religious establishment that tries to impose absurd traditions, outward forms, or tests of discipleship that are not contained in the Scriptures.
- This is in line with the philosophy of power of Michael Foucault: “Foucault’s analytical construct made it possible to discover the profound relationship between power and knowledge, subtracting from knowledge its presupposition of neutrality. Knowledge requires a framework of power for its concretion and vice versa, knowledge being in turn a product of power.” ↑
Daniel A. Mora writes from Panama.