For those of us who find ourselves within the religious structures of Christianity and yet are awakening to just how disparate our religion has become from the message of Jesus, there is no other path. Jesus himself spoke of a day when the central institution of his religion – the temple – would be destroyed:
Then, as some spoke of the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and donations, He said, “These things which you see – the days will come in which not one stone shall be left upon another that shall not be thrown down.” (Luke 21:5-6 NKJV)
Jesus was speaking both literally and metaphorically about what was to come of the temple. It’s generally accepted that he was predicting the day that came in AD 79 when the temple was, in fact, destroyed by the Roman Empire. But in the context of his teachings, it’s also safe to assume he was speaking of a day when the structures and powers that had co-opted the temple – both the empire and a class of religious leaders who exploited their own people – would be dismantled in exchange for something better. When speaking to the Samaritan women in John 4, Jesus phrases his prophecy quite differently:
“Woman,” Jesus replied, “believe me, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews. Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth.” (John 4:21-24 NIV)
In the preceding verses, Jesus is conversing with this woman about what mountain it is proper to worship God on – a debate about which religious institution had divine authority and actually represented the will of God. If Jesus was interested in preserving the institution, he would have clearly and simply argued that the temple in Jerusalem was the correct temple and contained the very presence of God. But he doesn’t do that because he doesn’t seem to believe that. Instead he says, “A time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem,” reiterating the prophecy that the temple will soon be destroyed. But instead of lamenting this reality, he says, “True worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father sees.” In other words, the people who are actually acceptable to God are not those who are participating in the institution, but those outside of it, led by the Spirit and committed to the truth.
This interpretation of Jesus’ works is later confirmed by the apostle Stephen as he is speaking to the Jewish Sanhedrin about the temple in Acts 7:48: “The Most High does not live in houses made by human hands.” Here is Stephen, speaking to the highest authorities within the Jewish institution, declaring that God did not dwell in their temple, which, if true, fundamentally undermined their authority and claims of holiness. He’s suggesting that, at very least, Jesus reveals that no one ever needed an intermediary between themselves and God, that the Spirit of God is a wild wind that blows wherever and to whomever it wishes. Openness to that Spirit and a hunger for truth is all that God seeks to commune with anyone.
If this was true then, how much truer is it today? Our institutions that have amassed billions of dollars, that have created never-ending hierarchies of “holiness” and power, that have spiritual and political control over billions of people around the world, all stand on the foundational claim that they represent and are ordained by God. Yet Jesus literally told us the opposite. The Most High doesn’t live in temples, denominational offices, meetinghouses, or monasteries. More often than not, these institutions are the single biggest barriers standing in the way of people accessing the Divine. These institutions often reflect the power that comes from privilege, exploitation, and domination, not the power that is granted by God through self-sacrificial love for the good of another. That power cannot be contained or restrained. That power doesn’t require a stamp of approval from a bishop. That power moves through the Spirit as it reveals Truth.
Which brings us back to the topic of Christian privilege and supremacy. Over the past two thousand years, the Christian religion has worked hard to take over the world by force. Despite the valiant narratives of missionaries sharing the gospel to desperate souls, the truth is that the reason Christianity has arrived at the position of privilege and power it currently enjoys is because it has slaughtered millions of people, and “converted” most of the others by force. Christianity, the religion, has been a toll of colonization by the empire, and in a very real sense has continued the oppressive legacy of the Roman Empire throughout the ages since the actual empire fell in AD 476.
This is one of the reasons why Christinaity has endured – it has enjoyed the backing and support of imperial forces in just about every country that it has colonized. In every country where Christinaity was granted political power, persecution of religious “minorities” (usually those who resisted conversion to Christinaity) became the norm. Emperor Constantine’s son Constantius II issued a decree in AD 341 that forbade pagan sacrifices – in countries where paganism had been the primary religion for thousands of years. Very quickly, it became a great benefit to be aligned with Christianity and a danger to the well-being of you and your family, if you did not.
From “Filled to Be Emptied: The Path to Liberation for Privileged People” by Brandan Robertson – Westminster John Knox Press