By Harris Franklin Rall
Like every other mode of life, religion has need of forms and institutions in which to express itself and maintain its being. What was Jesus' attitude toward those that were present in the religion of his own day: temple, synagogue, Sabbath-keeping, almsgiving, fasting, and the rest? And what of his relation to Christian forms and institutions? We have our sacred day, the first day of the week, our sacred forms such as baptism and the Lord's Supper, and the organized Christian Church itself. Did he plan for these and found them? And what place do they have in his conception of religion?
A Religion Of The Spirit
The Inner Spirit Supreme with Jesus.—The religion of Jesus was a pure religion of the spirit. Love was the one word in which he summed up this spirit. This love was not a vague sentiment; it meant a whole-hearted trust and obedience toward God, and a spirit of good will toward all men that went out in loving service. But it still remains that it was an inner spirit that counted. The pure in heart are to see God, not those that tithe and wash. The test that he sets up for final judgment is the loving service of men, not the keeping of Sabbath rules or the holding of opinions (Matthew 25. 31-46).
His Indifference to Forms.—As regards the forms and institutions of his own day Jesus was relatively indifferent. The rabbis spent most of their time discussing the rules about washing and fasting and tithing and Sabbath-keeping. Jesus spent his time in kindling in men the hunger for God, in turning them from their fears and hatreds, in calling forth the spirit of trust and love. Sometimes, indeed, he definitely violated these forms. That was when they got in the way of these higher matters, in which he was interested. If there was a man to be healed, he disregarded Sabbath rules. If there were sinners to be won, he paid no attention to the rules of ceremonial purity. He was quite ready to touch the poor leper and to have the woman with the issue of blood touch him, or to sit at table with men like Zacchaeus and Levi.
The Danger from Forms.—Sometimes this indifference gave way to severest criticism. That was when Jesus saw the devotion to forms stand in the way of devotion to God and of the service of men. All great teachers of religion have seen this danger. The form is a good means but a bad end; and it is always leaving its place as means and asserting itself as end. Men come to keep the form for its own sake instead of as a helpful means. As a result, men lose the heart of religion, which is love and obedience toward God, righteousness and love in relation to men. In place of this come empty formalism, self-content and pride, and often hypocrisy. In such case, the forms of religion become the enemies of religion. The prophets had seen this long before and had denounced sacrifices and songs, Sabbath-keeping and new moon, and all the other forms of Israel's worship, while they pleaded for simple righteousness of heart and life (Isaiah 1. 1017).
Criticism of the Forms of Jewish Piety.—In Matthew 6. 1-18 Jesus takes up the three chief forms in which the individual Jew expressed his religion: almsgiving, prayer, and fasting. Much of the Jewish practice was a good illustration of the wrong use of form. Alms were given not so much for the sake of the poor, as to be seen of men and to gain merit with God. Prayer had lost its meaning as simple worship and fellowship with God. There were many words, but little trust in God; there was much ostentation, but little humility in the sight of the Most High. So it was with fasting; there was little thought of the bowed soul, and much of what men might see. It was an ostentatious performance. Here again Jesus stands for simplicity and sincerity, for the use of forms only so far as they express the life of the soul.
The Denunciation of Scribes and Pharisees.—All this formalism and traditionalism was summed up in the powerful party of the Pharisees and in their professional teachers, the scribes. Jesus had violated their rules, his teaching had contradicted their whole position. The time came at last when he had to come out definitely and denounce the whole system for which they stood. It was their idea that the chief business of religion was to observe the forms laid down in the law. In doing this they had built up an endless system of rules, "the traditions of the elders," and the keeping of these rules had become the great task of men. All this Jesus denounces because it stands in the way of real religion (Mark 7. 1-23). What is in the heart is the thing that counts.
Jesus' Attitude Toward Jewish Institutions
Synagogue and Temple.—And yet Jesus leaves a place for form and institution in religion. That may best be shown by his relation to synagogue and temple, the two great institutions of the Jewish religion in his time. Jesus was accustomed to attend the synagogue and kept up that custom when he began his ministry, using the opportunity to teach which the synagogue afforded, just as Paul did later on (Luke 4. 16-21). But the synagogue was not necessary for him any more than it was for Paul, and when they cast him forth he went on with his work outside of it. The temple was the pride and glory of every faithful Jew. We know what feelings it stirred in Jesus as a boy (Luke 2. 49). He did not lose that feeling as a man. He thought of it as a "house of prayer for all the nations," and was stirred with indignation at its desecration (Mark 11. 15-18). He used its courts to teach in. And yet the temple was not final or necessary; in a short time, he declared, not one stone of that wonderful structure was to remain upon another (Mark 13. 1, 2).
Two Important Sayings Concerning Forms.—Two significant passages give lis the principles that underlie this practice of Jesus. One is connected with the dispute about the Sabbath day. The Jews had made its observance an end in itself; Jesus declares, "The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath." In other words, the forms and institutions of religion are not ends in themselves, but are means and must always be held as such (Mark 2. 23-28). The other word was spoken in connection with a dispute about fasting. Jesus shows that religious forms must spring from religious life. Fasting may be all right in its place, but this is no time to fast. There is a new life here and it must shape its own forms. The new wine must have new wine-skins, the old ones must be laid aside (Mark 2. 18-22).
Two Principles.—These are revolutionary words. The priests and the Pharisees saw the logic of this teaching, and felt that it meant death for this teacher or the end of their rule. The Christian Church has not always remembered or understood these words, and we must bear them in mind as we study the relation of Jesus to forms and institutions in the Christian Church. Let us sum them up again: (1) Form and institution are not sacred in themselves; they are means and not ends. (2) The life must make the forms, and when these no longer serve the life they may need to be laid aside. The wine is never to be sacrificed to the wine-skins.
Christian Institutions And Forms
No Rules and Directions.—If this be the teaching of Jesus, then we need not be surprised to learn that the words of Jesus give us no full and definite instructions concerning our Christian institutions, such as church, sacraments, Lord's Day, and Scriptures. It was the life about which Jesus was concerned, and not the form. He gave the new life, and through these years that life has been shaping the forms in which to express itself. The only difficulty that has arisen has come because men looked for a new law in the New Testament, and expected to find rules concerning these matters. One other point must be remembered, though we cannot speak with certainty about it. If Jesus expected a speedy personal return and with it the coming of a new age and a new world, then there was added reason why he should not concern himself about matters which would have to do with so very brief a period.
No Formal Institution of the Church.—The first and most important question is that of the church. Nowhere do the Gospels show that Jesus either organized a church or gave directions concerning its organization. There are only two passages in the Gospels that refer to the church, both in the same Gospel (Matthew 16. 18; 18. 17). "Thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church." "And if he refuse to hear them, tell it unto the church." By many scholars these references to the church are held to come from a later period; but in any case there is here no direction about the founding and organization of the church. Nor are such directions given elsewhere in the New Testament.
Yet It Is Christ's Church.—And yet the Christian Church is Christ's church, not as a legal organization but as the work of his spirit. It was he himself who began this by gathering his disciples together, and those who are led by the spirit of Christ will inevitably come together in some such association. That spirit means fellowship. It brings men together for common worship and service. The New Testament gives us no laws for the forming of a church, but the Christian life gives such a law, not outer but inner, the law of the spirit of Christ. Paul's converts gathered together in little companies wherever he went, and so it has been throughout Christian history. Such groups continue to be formed to-day.
Concerning the Christian Sunday.—The same situation appears in the case of our Christian Sunday, or Lord's Day. We have seen Jesus' attitude toward the Jewish Sabbath (Mark 2. 23 to 3. 6). The Sabbath was good so far as it served men. Here, as elsewhere, he simply leaves the old forms alone. As with sacrifices and circumcision and other ceremonial laws, Jesus neither affirms nor abolishes the Jewish Sabbath, nor does he appoint another day. Religion for him was this inner spirit, a spirit of freedom and life that would find its own forms like the new wine-skins for the new wine. Paul led the early church to see this, and pointed out that the Christians were free from the law of the Sabbath as from washings and circumcision and the rest (Colossians 2. 16, 17). Nowhere is there a suggestion in the New Testament of the simple transference of the Jewish Sabbath from one day of the week to another. The new Christian day of rest and worship springs directly out of the spirit of Christ. The need of worship, the need of fellowship, the demand of rest for body and for the building up of the soul, all these required a stated day. The grateful love of his disciples made it a Lord's Day, and the joyous memory of his rising celebrated each week fixed the first day of the week.
Christian Baptism.—Even when we come to the sacraments, we do not find any definite institution of these as rites or directions as to their celebration. In both cases, however, we do have traditions which connect them with the example and deed of Jesus. In the case of baptism this is not so clear. John's Gospel reports that the disciples (though not Jesus) baptized the newly won followers (John 4. 1, 2). Of this there is no trace in the other Gospels, so that it must have been limited to the beginnings. Matthew 28. 19 is the only reference in the other Gospels. But even there we have no directions with regard to the manner of its administration. In any case the service of baptism is a fitting expression in symbol of the Christian spirit and Christian truth. On the one hand, it is the ceremony marking the entrance into the church, on the other it symbolizes with the water the gift of the Spirit of God coming to men through Christ and cleansing men from sin. Fittingly too we use it for little children, for they too belong to the Kingdom and to the church, and with them also God's Spirit is present in the Christian nurture of home and church.
The Origin of the Lord's Supper.—The Lord's Supper seems to have grown from a very simple act of Jesus. On that last evening as they sat together at table, Jesus handed his friends the broken bread and told them that in this way his body was to be broken; and then he gave them some wine to drink and told them that thus his blood was to be shed, that his death was to seal a new covenant and was to be for the saving of men. Did he expect them to repeat this rite? So Paul and Luke suggest this in the words which they alone give: "This do in remembrance of me." In the early church the observance seems to have occurred at first in connection with an ordinary meal, at which the congregation was gathered together. Later it became a special ceremony.
These two sacraments we must regard as we do other forms in Christianity. They are divine in so far as they express the spirit of Christ, and further the life of his disciples. When his followers make them a matter of strife, and even of warfare, as has been done in the past, or when they insist upon this form or that phrase as the vital element, then they are no longer of Christ. The church has erred much here.
Jesus and the Scriptures.—Jesus' attitude toward the Scriptures again shows his religion as a religion of the Spirit. His relation to them we have already considered.1 He knew them well and used them constantly, and yet he did not follow the letter; he took the spiritual message and left the rest behind. If we turn to the New Testament, we find that Jesus made no provision for writings any more than he gave directions about the organization of the church. The Gospels and the rest of the New Testament are, indeed, his product, but not through any direction of his. It was his spirit, working in his disciples and in the early church, that brought them forth.
Directions For Study
Read Mark 7. 1-23; Luke 4. 16-21; 2. 49; Mark 11. 15-18; 13. 1, 2; 2. 18-28; Matthew 6. 1-18.
Review our past study and sum up your idea of what religion was according to Jesus.
Recall his relation to the forms and institutions of religion. What was his criticism of the forms of Jewish piety? Recall how indifferent he was to formal observances and how he had to criticize the scribes and Pharisees for their formalism.
Note that Jesus did have regard for Jewish forms and institutions. What, then, is the Christian position concerning the value and use of religious forms?
Consider in turn the different Christian institutions, and answer for yourself the question how they originated, and how they should be used.
1) Chapter I.