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December 1999

Jon Zens
Box 548
St. Croix Falls, WI  54024


organized religion is a sham
has organized religion gone bad?
the Constantinian change
increasing institutionalization
is organized religion a crutch?
real Christian community

Why Jesse May Be Right
Excerpt from the eZine, Antithesis

"A recent Playboy interview with Minnesota’s popular governor angered many church-goers who felt that they were the target of a vicious attack. But then, often the truth hurts. Particularly when it hits this close to home.   This article is based on a letter written to the governor in the wake of the post-interview media “firestorm.” The author, Jon Zens, is the editor of Searching Together. For many years Jon has inspired serious-minded Christians to think better, live better, and understand better. His contribution to the discussion of New Testament 'Church life' has been profound (and controversial)."


The Honorable Jesse Ventura
State Capitol
St Paul, MN  55103


Dear Governor Ventura,

Organized religion is a sham and a crutch for weak-minded people who need strength in numbers.”

These words created quite a stir! Not a few religious leaders rebuked you, tried to defend today's religious organizations, and encouraged you to find out more about faith-based groups. I'd like to share with you my perspectives on your remarks, which probably come at things quite differently than what you've heard from other religious sources. I have wished to write you in hopes of inviting you to consider what the gospel of Jesus Christ is really about, minus the accretions and aberrations of what you called “organized religion.”

So that you can better understand the context out of which I speak, a few words about myself. I’m 54 years old, work full-time at a cable manufacturer in western Wisconsin, edit a quarterly Christian periodical, and co-pastor a small assembly that currently meets in homes. I have had a wonderful wife of 31 years, three grown children and three grandchildren. I graduated from college in 1969, from seminary in 1972, and completed a doctorate in 1983. In 1977, after reading Howard Snyder’s The Problem of Wineskins , I began to question many aspects of "organized religion."

Even though I’m not a constituent of Minnesota, I hope you can still find time to ruminate over what follows. I know you try to shoot straight with your words. As I also seek to mince no words, I believe you are likely to be the kind of person that is open to listen to a radical viewpoint, one that attempts to isolate several root issues.

Organized religion is a sham.” You are absolutely right on this point. What passes as the visible institution belonging to Jesus Christ is, in fact, far removed in key matters from anything the Head of the church revealed to be his will. Organized religion is a sham for the simple reason that it has— for various historical and cultural reasons— abandoned the clear teaching of Christ in the New Testament regarding the very nature of the body of Christ. The organized religion you reject, Governor Ventura, is not the genuine article. Where has it gone wrong?

Three extraordinary characteristics of the early church cover most of the territory. In each of these points what Jesus inaugurated stood in stark contrast to the surrounding pagan religions.

1.  An utterly unique feature of the early church was the absence of a priestly caste. Christian assemblies had no witchdoctor, no holy man, no clergy to lead the pack. In post-apostolic history the organized church became just like other religions and elevated a clergy class above the laity. Lutheran George W. Forell summarizes this tragedy:

Ethical guidance for people recently converted to Christianity . . . was offered at first by a polyform ministry of grace, reflected in the New Testament. But as time went by moral authority was increasingly focused on an ordered ministry of bishops and deacons.  (History of Christian Ethics, Vol. 1, Augsburg, 1979, p.39)

The early church practiced a polyform ministry which involved the whole body; the post-apostolic church retrogressed to a clergy-centered ministry.

2.  Another striking element of early Christianity was the total absence of special buildings to meet in. Israel had her Temple. All of the Gentile religions had their sacred structures. But, as Craig S. Keener notes:

Believers met in homes rather than church buildings for the first three centuries of the church (e.g. Romans 16:5). [The IVP Bible Background Commentary -- New Testament, 1993, p.356]

The first Christians met from house-to-house throughout such diverse cities as Jerusalem, Rome and Corinth. By the fourth century, however, the institutional church became like pagan religions and multiplied sacred buildings.

3.  Until modern times the reality was that each nation had one religion that was enforced by the governing powers. Religion and state were meshed. But the new community Jesus created by His death, burial and resurrection was not dependent upon state backing or defined by national boundaries. It spread all over the known world without the endorsement of or enforcement by any governmental powers. In time, of course, civil authorities persecuted the believers with vehemence.

But all of this changed with the advent of Constantine around 325 AD. He made institutional Christianity the state religion of the Roman Empire, and, among other things, used state funds to erect church buildings and to support the clergy. Thus from 325 to roughly 1700 organized religion — both Catholic and Protestant — employed the sword to maintain and propagate itself.

Once again, the visible church forsook the way of Christ and became like the heathen religions that relied on raw power to keep souls under their dominion. Eric Hoffer in The True Believer highlights the church’s terrible compromise:

There is hardly an example of a mass movement achieving vast proportions and a durable organization solely by persuasion. Professor K.S. Latourette, a very Christian historian, has to admit that “However incompatible the spirit of Jesus and armed force may be, and however unpleasant it may be to acknowledge the fact, as a matter of plain history [armed force] has often made it possible for [the church] to survive"... Where Christianity failed to gain or retain the backing of state power, it achieved neither a wide nor a permanent hold ... It also seems that, where a mass movement can either persuade or coerce, it usually chooses the latter. Persuasion is clumsy and its results uncertain (Mentor, 1964, pp. 100-101).

During the time frame of 325-1700 AD what did the average person think of as characteristics of the organized church? Jumping into the minds of many people would be: (1) a clergyman who runs the church; (2) an ecclesiastical building; and (3) a religious system that holds people in its grips by the use of guilt, fear, intimidation and coercion.   Tragically, none of these elements have anything to do with what Christ’s body is all about. They are contrary to the way of Christ, and rather indicate conformity to pagan religions. These three key areas where the church has conformed to worldly patterns help us to understand why organized religion became a sham.

Isn’t it quite striking that the early church had its greatest period of growth without clergy, without special buildings, and without any help from the civil powers?   Is it any wonder, then, that with the emergence of the clergy, cathedrals and state backing, the visible church set in motion many traditions and practices that are at odds with the Head of the church?

It is worth noting that church historians of all stripes are in consensus that the church shifted from simplicity, spontaneity and body ministry to complexity, institutional calcification and clergy dominance. James D.G. Dunn reflects this consensus when he says:

Increasing institutionalism is the clearest mark of early Catholicism -- when church becomes increasingly identified with institution, when authority becomes increasingly coterminous with office, when a basic distinction between clergy and laity becomes increasingly self-evident, when grace becomes increasingly narrowed to well-defined ritual acts. We saw above that such features were absent from first generation Christianity, though in the second generation the picture was beginning to change.  (Unity & Diversity in the New Testament, Westminster, 1977, p.351).

If one scans what is known of the Lord’s work in the rest of the world, it will be discovered that assemblies are flourishing, often with severe persecution, yet without the accoutrements of organized religion — no church properties, no clergy and no state sanction.

House-church movements are strong in many places — China, Latin America, Australia, to name a few. Even in America, there is a significant awakening among many believers to the chasm between assembly life as practiced in Paul’s time and the oganized religion of the day. Many are seeking to implement ways of “doing church” that reflect the “one another” emphasis in the New Testament. Home gatherings of commited believers are springing up all across our country, even in Minnesota!

I hope, Governor Ventura, that these observations help you to understand the world of difference between organized religion and the new community that Jesus purchased with His own blood. For whatever reasons, you have concluded that organized religion is a sham. But keep in mind that there is a true body of Christ that is real — albeit imperfect, to be sure. Jesus is building assemblies of believers all over the world, and the gates of hell cannot stop him from accomplishing his way.

Organized Religion . . . Is A Crutch For Weak-Minded People Who Need Strength In Numbers.”

The truth is that the gospel comes to people who realize that they are very sinful and cannot pull up their own bootstraps. The Holy Spirit brings them to see that they need Jesus Christ as the one who can deliver them from ungodliness. A believer is one who is brought to look by faith for a righteousness outside of himself, even the perfect righteousness of Jesus Christ.

Self-sufficient people reject the gospel. Paul, as a Jew, was such a person. He was secure in his religious heritage and prided himself as a keeper of Israel’s law. But after his conversion to Christ, he looked back on all that fed his pride and viewed it as a pile of dung.  He was then used by Christ to preach the gospel to Jews and Gentiles, but he repeatedly admits to his weakness:

But I will not boast about myself, except about my weakness . . . . [The Lord] said to me, "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness." Therefore, I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest upon me . . . . For when I am weak, then I am strong. (2 Cor.12:5, 9-10)

This is the example of Christ: "He was crucified in weakness, but he lives by God’s power." ( 2 Cor.13:4). The cross appeared to be a moment of defeat in weakness, but was in fact God’s way of overcoming evil and giving life to many. Jesus was killed in weakness, but resurrected in power.

Jesus’ people need each other, but great numbers are irrelevant, for where two or three are gathered in Christ's name, he is in their midst. In the Book of Acts and in the Epistles the community of believers manifested a mutual care for one another. It is a sign of spiritual strength to confess that one needs the support of others in tackling life’s struggles. As Barbara Steisand sung in a secular context, “People who need people are the luckiest people in the world.”

The lifestyle demanded by Jesus of his disciples is difficult. The Sermon on the Mount requires the love of enemies, the turning of the cheek, and not returning evil for evil, among other things. Stanley Hauerwas notes that Jesus’ commands actually highlight our need for help from the body of Christ in our pilgrimage:

To live in the manner described in the Sermon requires learning to trust in others to help me so live. In other words, the object of the Sermon on the Mount is to create dependence; it is to force us to need one another . . . . All the so-called hard sayings of the Sermon are designed to remind us that we cannot live without depending on the support and trust of others . . . . All of these [hard sayings] are surely impossible for isolated individuals. (Unleashing the Scripture : Freeing the Bible from Captivity to America, Abington Press, 1993, pp.64,69,70)

In light of the three points which established the visible church's departure from Christ’s will, you can see how organized religion, for the most part, could not be very helpful in encouraging people in a lifestyle shaped by the 58 “one another” imperatives in the New Testament. Ministry in the early church was “polyform,” carried out by that which part of Christ’s body supplied. Ministry in the church by 300 AD was uniform, carried out by the ordained clergy who ruled over the laity.

Thank you, Governor Ventura, for bearing with me in my response to your remarks which generated such a furor from the religious community. I have tried to unfold solid reasons why organized religion long ago departed from the simplicity that is in Christ. Please understand that much more needs to be said concerning each of these points. I have just set forth the realities that cannot be denied by church historians and New Testament scholars.


Jon Zens, Editor, Searching Together