Steve Bremner

Author, Podcaster & Writing Coach

Thoughts on Why We Crave Religious Institutions & Systems

Thoughts on Why We Crave Religious Systems

The other day I read a post by Rob Wilkerson, who is fast becoming a blogger-friend of mine in the realm of the subject of “the dones” and “organic church” or whatever term you want to use.

He posted an article he titled Why We Crave Religious Systems … And Why I’m Not Leading Churches for a While Longer, but his most recent blog post was one he posted after hearing the latest episode of the Fire On Your Head Podcast in which I interviewed Dan Dailey, in which he titled it The Gordian Knot of the Institutional Church

I’m glad I came across the latter blog post as it gives words to some thoughts I’ve had about this account of Moses when he led the people of Israel out of Egypt. Not only that, but my post today will kill two birds with one stone: the house church movement AND hyper/radical grace. 


It’s interesting to me that while I was working on it, I was editing the most recent episode of the podcast with Dan and we discussed his journey out of the religious system/institutional church. While editing that and getting ready to post it online, I noticed in the last ten minutes of that conversation or so, I brought up the very things I’m about to unravel here in this post.

And no, you don’t need to listen to all one hour and 40 minutes of that podcast in order to enjoy today’s read.

Before we do that, I need to apologize because this post has more links than a Polish sausage factory.

First let’s talk about rules and commandments in the context of institution.

I had started working on a blog post of my own about God’s glory, and how the people of Israel wanted to put a veil on Moses’ face after he had been in the presence of God on Mount Sinai when he received the covenant that God would start with His people. God’s goodness scared the Israelites, and they needed to cover it. But chronologically that comes second.

No Moses, YOU Talk to Him and Tell Us What He Says!

First, let’s look at some of Rob’s insights to this incident:

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“Moses was used of God to lead a nation of probably two million slaves out of one hostile country, across a piece of ocean, into another hostile country. After every one of them survived the crossing of that ocean on dry ground, guided by a fiery cloud at night and a cloud pillar in the day, they came to Mt. Sinai where God wanted to reveal Himself to them. This was the birth of the nation of Israel as a formal, national people. Prior, God had revealed Himself in an intimate relationship and friendship with Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, and later to Moses. At Sinai He revealed Himself to the people of Israel in a cloud, a mountain, and a promise.

His promise to them is found in Exodus 19:3-6. It involved the truth that the people would “be my treasured possession among all peoples” (v. 5). If ever there was a group one would want to belong to, it would be this one. The one led by the God who said, “all the earth is mine.” The God who led them out of 450 years of slavery through the most miraculous national rescue and delivery in history to date. God promised that they would “be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (v. 6).

But how did the people respond to God’s promise? The promise seemed to be conditional, based on obeying God’s voice and keeping His covenant. But His covenant had not been given…yet. And here’s the most interesting feature of this passage to me personally. Without a covenant, and without laws which they were to obey, and without even hearing what God would say yet, their knee-jerk response was, “All that the Lord has spoken we will do” (v. 8). They were relating to God out of fear, I think. And who can blame them, right? A culture of fear through slavery in Egypt had dominated them nationally for 450 years, to the point where every single one of them, except for about three (Moses, Joshua, and Caleb) lived and breathed in fear. And out of fear, they respond to this God in a way that seems opposite of the friendship we see in Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph with God.

This shows me that fear drives this inward compulsion to conform. You are afraid of not belonging any longer. So you behave the way you need to in order to stay with the group. When this translates into churchianity, you come to believe that staying with your local church is tantamount to staying with God. And to not conform to the church is to be marginalized or expelled by both church and God.”

Rob goes on to conclude in that section,

We give in to the old nature belief, driven by sin and our separation from God, that the best way to relate to God is to live up to His expectations. We come to believe that the only way to be loved by God is to perform. We live like the only way to belong to God is to conform to a particular group who professes to represent Him. Disastrous. 

Read the rest of Rob’s larger post at Why We Crave Religious Systems…and Why I’m Not Leading Churches for a While Longer | robwilkerson.net

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I’m in total agreement with Rob here about the idea that, on the one hand you can’t really fault Israel completely for being afraid of God or reacting out of fear, because, God did show up as a ball of fire on a mountain, after all! In a previous post of mine on how the Lord is an all-consuming fire, I mentioned how this was the first time God had publicly shown Himself through the midst of fire (not counting the burning bush in which Moses was the only witness), a motif He would repeat many times in Scripture — on Mount Carmel with Elijah and the Baal worshipers, the tongues of fire on the believers in upper room on the day of Pentecost, to name a few examples.

To quote from that previous article of mine,

Of all the characteristics and symbols that accurately represent the Lord in the Scriptures, if a cleansing was what He was going to do, then He could have shown up as a huge torrent of rain with bars of soap. He showed up in one of the most terrifying and destructive elements of our physical world. Out of all the plagues the Lord brought upon Egypt, culminating in parting the Red Sea that His chosen people might walk through it, He had yet to set a mountain on fire.

And,

Yahweh wanted to have a people to inhabit, but they wouldn’t have any of it and reacted the wrong way in the trembling presence of the Lord–instead of fearing him, they were afraid of Him. In this new better covenant the writer of Hebrews mentions, that fire the appeared on the mountain top that day has come to live inside our regenerated ‘born again’ spirits.

Ponder that for a moment. God does not dwell in a temple made by hands, nor does He float on a mountaintop the resembles and burns like fire.

I will not go much further into that today since there’s no shortage of podcast episodes and articles on this site tackling the fire of God.

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91edgwtbv9lLater, in what was to be Moses’ third journey up the mountain, and it’s easy to see the purpose behind it by comparing to the first two visits he’d made so far.

The first time, which Rob touched on above, God seems to simply have wanted to tel Moses to warn the Israelites not to come up while the covenant is being made, where we got the Ten Commandments. The second time Moses ascended the mountain was for a period of 40 days and during this time he was given instructions for building the Tabernacle and Moses carved out the words of the covenant.

On this occasion, when Moses asks God to show him His glory, the Lord answered “I Myself will make all my goodness pass before you.” (See Exodus 33:19a) God wasn’t changing the subject but was answering Moses’ question: God’s glory is His goodness.

In his book, What on Earth is Glory?: A Practical Approach to a Glory-Filled Life, Paul Manwaring states

“The first matter of business on this, the third trip, however, was the Lord’s fulfillment of His promise in response to Moses’ great request. To do this, He first hid Moses in the cleft of a rock and covered him with His hand. This tells us that while Moses had previously been in extremely close proximity to God in the cloud and the consuming fire, God was about to expose him to a new, far more powerful dynamic of His nature. God had called it His goodness.”

It’s worth noting that here what the Lord told Moses,

“The Lord descended in the cloud and stood with him there, and proclaimed the name of the Lord. The Lord passed before him and proclaimed, “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.” (Exodus 34:5-7)

Manwaring goes on to say,

Before I really studied this whole progression of events, I had a vague idea that Moses’ face had shone because he had been in the fire, had been so close to God that he got a kind of supernatural sunburn. I hadn’t really worked out the three separate trips and their differences, and I hadn’t seen that Moses’ face had shone after only one of these trips. I was reading this early one morning when I saw it all clearly for the first time. I saw that though Moses had been in the fire, it was not on this occasion that God showed him His glory—God had made a point of covering him. It wasn’t the fire or the cloud that caused Moses’ face to shine; that created the glory Paul spoke of in Second Corinthians. Certainly the proximity of God was a part of the equation, but the main difference on this occasion was the declaration of the goodness of God. Previously, 40 days and nights in God’s presence had not had this effect; yet here, hidden behind the hand of God in the cleft of a rock, hearing of the goodness of God, Moses’ face shone.”

Let that sink in.

We don’t usually think of Moses with “goodness” and grace. Yet, Paul compared this as inferior to the glory we get to know in the face of Christ under a new covenant!

But what happened?

“Aaron and all the people of Israel saw Moses, and behold, the skin of his face shone, and they were afraid to come near him.” (Ex 34:30)

Not only were they afraid, but Moses had to wear a veil over his face whenever he was not speaking with God (vv 33-35)

This is one thing we see in humankind over and over again. Like the first time Moses ascended the mountain, the very people God wanted to come inhabit and have relationship with wanted to keep God at arm’s length and obey rules and a command without yet knowing what they would be.

Moses, YOU go up and hear from God for us and we’ll do what you say He says!

And then later, when they caught a glimpse of His goodness, it freaked them out. They couldn’t look at it. They didn’t even want to look at God’s face, but they couldn’t look at the face of a mere man whose face glowed after having seen God’s goodness. michelangelo-71282_1280

Both of these human reactions continue to this day.

We would much rather pay a preacher and a worship team to put on the show for us, while we sit back, listen to the rules and pay our tithes and go our merry way, all the while missing out on the profundity of relationship God wants to have with His people.

We fear hearing about His grace or His goodness, so we add qualifiers to it like ‘radical’ and ‘hyper’ and try scaring people. We erect electric fences and make rules and say things like “no, it’s a sin to watch this movie, drink this drink, or listen to this music — stay put and don’t go near or you’ll get a shock” than it is to spend time in face to face relationship with God Himself, and let Him speak to us directly over whether any of those things are permissible or sinful.

man_in_front_of_tvIt’s much easier to set up the rules and the institution than it is to have an organic flowing life force where each member does their part. 

In closing, I invite you to check out a post once wrote about how God wants face to face interaction with His people, but instead we find all sorts of ways to set up barriers and mediators.

May 18th, 2016 Update: I’ve turned these thoughts into an episode of the podcast. If you would rather listen to this while doing something else as opposed to reading this entire post, check it out here:

About Steve Bremner

Steve the coffee drinker is a Canadian missionary to Peru, who is called to raise up disciples who flow in the power of the Holy Spirit within a missional community named Oikos. If you like Steve's blog, you'll also like his Kindle books. Note: this post may have contained affiliate links of which the author receives a small commission if you purchase something recommended in the post.