Increasingly people say they want to be ‘Spiritual’ but don’t believe in organised religion. We are not saved by organised religion, but we do need it to help us in our discipleship. In Exodus 18, Moses is given advice on how to organise the people of God.
Do you believe in Organised Religion?
It’s increasingly popular for people to say that they believe there is some kind of Spiritual force, but they don’t believe in organised religion. People don’t want to let go of the idea that there is some kind of force bigger than themselves, but they don’t want to have to be part of something, committed to something or in some way controlled by something outside themselves.
We are increasingly private, individualised people, valuing freedom above all else. Being blessed by some spiritual force is great, allowing your life to be guided by it is increasingly unacceptable. Having a religious experience is fantastic, belonging to a religious community is scary.
Part of this stems from the failures of religious institutions. So often, churches fail to live out the truths of the gospel and the news and social media love to emphasise the church’s failures whilst staying silent about its successes. When the church’s reputation is at such a low ebb, it’s no wonder that people want to avoid it.
But is it really possible to know God and not be a part of his church? Can you really separate spirituality from any form of community and can you have an effective community without it being organised in some way?
God’s Good News is not about an Institution
It has to be said, first of all that God’s good news, that his salvation does not come through any institution. The Bible makes it clear throughout. It is not the church that saves us, but God.
So, in the Old Testament, the Bible makes clear that the people of Israel were not saved from slavery in Egypt by any institution or organisation, but by God acting.
The first 17 chapters of the book of Acts, relate how God heard the people crying out because they were being treated so badly as slaves in Egypt. God sent Moses and God sent 10 plagues on the Egyptians, until finally, Pharaoh, the King of Egypt, agreed to let God’s people go. The people did nothing. Even Moses was just God’s spokesperson to Pharaoh and the people.
When after leaving Egypt, the people were trapped by the Red Sea and pursued by the Egyptian army, it was God who did the impossible and created a crossing on dry land for His people, but drowned the Egyptian army when they tried to follow.
It was God who provided them with water in the wilderness and food to eat, when it looked like they would starve. Again and again in the first 17 chapters of Exodus, it is God’s actions that save the people – not any clever organisation or institution.
All this is summed up in chapter 18, when Moses says to his visiting father-in-law, Jethro:
“Moses told his father-in-law about everything the LORD had done to Pharaoh and the Egyptians for Israel’s sake and about all the hardships they had met along the way and how the LORD had saved them.” (Exodus 18:8)
The New Testament also emphasises that we are saved not by the church or any religious organisation, but we are saved by Jesus. In fact Jesus’s name means, “God saves…” The New Testament makes it clear that we are forgiven and gain eternal life not through anything the church does or we do, but by Jesus’s once and for all sacrificial death on the cross.
So in baptism we ask: “Do you turn to Christ as Saviour?” Not do you come to the church for salvation. Institutional religion does not save, God does. That is indeed, Good News!
God’s Good News calls us to be Disciples
God saves us from our sin, from his judgement for our sin and so from death itself. But he doesn’t just save us from things, he saves us for things.
In the next part of Exodus, in chapters 19-24, the emphasis switches from God’s saving work to God giving a Law for his people. In chapter 20 he gives the 10 commandments, but before that he explains why he wants the people to obey his commands. If you look at 19:5-6:
“Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ “” (Exodus 19:5-6)
Israel were not saved from being slaves in Egypt by following rules and regulations, but they were saved to become a people who lived by God’s laws, to show the rest of the world how good a thing it is when you do that!!
Similarly, Jesus did everything necessary to save us, but he saves us so that we can become his disciples. His last words at the end of Matthew’s gospel are:
“Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (Matthew 28:19-20)
This is reflected in the baptism service: “Fight valiantly as a disciple of Christ…” Disciples are those who are eager to learn how to live to follow Jesus and to put that learning into practice in their lives.
Growing Disciples needs Organised Community
So if Jesus saves us to become his disciples, what has this to do with organised religion? The answer is I think that in practice without organised religion we cannot grow in our discipleship. We cannot become the kind of people God wants us to be.
Exodus 18 sits between Exodus 1-17 and Exodus 19-24. It is a bridge between God’s salvation and God’s law-giving and it is all about organising God’s people to enable their growth as disciples.
At first glance, Exodus 18 is a family re-union. Moses is in the wilderness with the people of Israel and Jethro his father-in-law comes to visit. One the first day, Moses shares all that God has done and they celebrate God’s great salvation.
Then the next day, Moses gets back to work and Jethro watches.
Moses takes a seat and the people come to him one to one, with their disputes and issues wanting to know what God thinks. That in itself was great, they wanted to follow God’s ways and Moses was God’s spokesman, so this seemed like a way to grow in discipleship.
Except there were a lot of people. Moses had to sit there making judgements from noon to dusk and all the people stood around waiting to be seen.
Jethro takes one look at this and says, “What you are doing is not good.” He says you are going to wear yourself out and all the people out. This will just end in disaster!!
But, Jethro was a constructive guy. So, he gives Moses a solution, which has three prongs to it:
- Teach God’s Ways
Firstly, Jethro can see that Moses is God’s spokesperson. That he is the one with the direct access to God, who can bring the people’s problems to God and God’s solutions to the people.
The problem is that Moses is doing that one on one. One person at a time. Rather than respond to each individual issue, he needs to teach the people God’s commands and instructions. In other words, he needs to show the people as a whole the key ideas of how to live for God.
In the next few chapters, we learn what Moses taught the people and it is focussed on the 10 commandments given by God.
But, the same principle extends into the New Testament. Jesus taught his disciples and the people. He did so with memorable and profound sayings and parables. He wanted to ensure we could all understand how we were to live to follow him, how to obey his commands.
These teachings of God are in the Bible and so today, we encourage all Christians to read them for themselves and we teach from the Bible Sunday by Sunday. It is only by reading and hearing from God’s word, that we can grow to be true disciples of Jesus, to become the people God wants us to be.
- Together not Alone
Secondly, Jethro, sees that what Moses is doing is ‘not good’ because he is doing it alone.
The only other time the phrase, ‘not good’ is used in the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible is in Genesis 2, when God says that it is not good that Adam is alone. He needs a helper!
Jethro is kind of saying the same thing to Moses, “You can’t do this alone. It is too much for you and so it is bad for you and for the people! You’re going to get overworked and they’re going to be frustrated that they cannot get the answers they want.
So, Jethro tells Moses he needs to appoint other leaders to deal with the simple cases and so that he only has to deal with the difficult ones. That way he won’t be overburdened and the people will not be frustrated.
One of the things that puts people off organised religion is that very quickly some people who take on official roles within the church can be overburdened, either because they take on too much alone and don’t encourage others to help or because others just leave them to do it without offering to support.
I think this is a particular problem when the church is in a situation of decline. We need to be constantly thinking about how we can overcome this issue. How we can spread the load, so that people are not left to do things alone.
That’s one of the reasons we are having volunteer Sunday today. We have teams in place, but most of the teams could do with a few more people, so that a few are not overwhelmed. If you are a regular at St. Luke’s do go around after the service and talk to people who are representing their teams and see if there is a place where you can serve in a small way and so help make sure that others are not overburdened!
- Appoint God-fearing leaders
But, the people he appoints need to be God-fearing leaders. If they are to be trusted to tell people what God says, then they need to be people who care about what God wants and are eager to do what God wants. They need to be trustworthy, motivated by a fear of God and not a desire to get things for themselves.
The church today may have a bad reputation, but it is not because organised religion is bad, it is usually because the appointed leaders are not the kind of God-fearing people that should have been given the role in the first place.
Let’s pray for God to raise up really God-fearing and trustworthy leaders at every level of leadership in our churches from small group leaders and Sunday School leaders up to Bishops and Archbishops.
We also need to take seriously the need to check and carefully discern who should be given leadership roles within the church.
Do you believe in organised religion?
If you have accepted and grasped the salvation that God has won for you in Jesus Christ, then you will surely want to be serious about growing as a disciple of Jesus.
And if you are serious about growing as a disciple of Jesus, you will want to be part of his organised people. Learning from the Bible, God’s teaching for his people and part of an organised structure that spreads the load and ensures everyone is given the support they need to grow as a Christian.