After setting the Israelites free, God kept them in the Sinai wilderness for almost a year before leading them on toward Canaan. The area by Mount Sinai was away from military threats and the temptations of pagan societies. Here the Lord organized His people as a functioning nation with a dramatic system of worship so that they could cooperate with Him and one another in carrying out their mission.
The Lord gave the Israelites a kind of “organized religion.” Many people have rejected such religion:
● “This would be the best of all possible worlds if there were no religion in it” (John Adams, second president of the United States).
● “Religion is the opium of the people” (Karl Marx).
● “Religions? Endless arguments over trivial contradictions in books written by ignorant savages to explain thunder in the dark” (author unknown).
● “A society without religion is like a crazed psychopath without a loaded .45” (author unknown).
● “Organized religion is a sham and a crutch for weak-minded people who need strength in numbers. It tells people to go out and stick their noses in other people’s business” (Jesse Ventura, former governor of Minnesota).
● “Just in terms of allocation of time resources, religion is not very efficient. There’s a lot more I could be doing on a Sunday morning” (Bill Gates).
Unfortunately, those who make such statements can find ample support in thousands of years of religious history. To many, even if they wish to serve God, organization destroys true spirituality and pure devotion to Him. As evidence, they can cite numerous religious groups that are more focused on power and self-righteousness than on piety and service. Such people gain a greater blessing by themselves or with family members or close friends when they worship at home or out in God’s nature than they do attending a stiff, shallow, or boring service or enduring the exclusion and criticism of toxic cliques.
Much of organized “Christianity” has turned from the divine principle of love to the satanic principles of selfishness and hate. Other forms of religion have become baldly pagan and polytheistic or glorified occult.
But does all this mean that organization by itself necessarily destroys religion? Is disorganized or unorganized religion a better alternative? Should we be chaotic Christians? Or is it corruption of religious organization that is the problem?
In the Bible, God’s people enjoyed the fellowship and support of belonging to a group. The Israelites journeyed together. Jesus called a cluster of disciples, not detached hermits. They related to each other as well as to Him. Together we are stronger in our spiritual and practical lives than if we are isolated: “Let us consider one another in order to stir up love and good works, not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as is the manner of some, but exhorting one another, and so much the more as you see the Day approaching” (Heb. 10:24, 25).*
Groups of people are happier and more effective if they do things in an orderly rather than a disorganized way. When Christians come together for mutual encouragement, they profit more by speaking one at a time rather than all at once (1 Cor. 14:26–32). “God is not the author of confusion but of peace” (vs. 33). God values harmony and order, as shown by the order in His heavenly headquarters (Revelation 4; 5) and in His creation on planet Earth (Genesis 1; 2).
To cooperate with God, the members of a group must be willing to work harmoniously with one another. Only when Christ’s followers were unified could they receive the Holy Spirit’s empowerment to take the gospel to the world (Acts 2).
Christ’s commission to make disciples of all nations, baptizing and teaching them (Matt. 28:19, 20) is too big for any of us to do on our own. To fulfill it, we need one another with all the richness of our diversity, just as the parts of a human body require one another in order to accomplish their task of maintaining life. So, the early Christian church organized its members according to the spiritual gifts or talents bestowed upon them by the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 12).
The greater the task and the larger the group carrying it out, the more we need effective organization. The Israelites comprised a large group, and their task of taking Canaan was monumental. Therefore, they needed an effective organization that would keep them pulling in the same direction. As a result, the Lord directed Moses to conduct a military census that counted men of fighting age—at least 20 years old. The purpose was not simply to find out how many Israelites there were, but to organize an army.
The military census did not include the Levites (Num. 1:47–54). The leadership numbered them in a separate census that counted men who were 30 to 50 years of age—the prime of mature life—to serve the various needs of the sanctuary. The Lord’s instructions regarding the duties of the Levites, and which Levites would perform them, were detailed. It was organized religion on a massive scale, and God Himself set it up.
Organization is not inherently bad. It is a neutral instrument that one can use for good or bad. People can assemble to assist victims of a hurricane, tsunami, or drought. Or they can exploit other people. The leaders and goals of an organization, including a religious one, determine its character.
The nature of an organization should fit its purpose. A soccer club can be relatively uncomplicated, with flexible boundaries of membership, a relaxed security system, and a few rules to make sure that everyone is treated fairly. An army or nation is a different matter. It must serve the complex interests of many people and deal with real danger from enemies, who are mostly outside, though some could be internal.
Modern readers of the Book of Numbers tend to find the discipline imposed on the Israelites in their wilderness journey to be severe. But the entire nation became an army on the move. They needed military discipline to accomplish their objectives as safely as possible. Anyone who failed to cooperate could jeopardize the security of the entire group.
Sound familiar? People who travel by air these days must observe strict rules for the safety of everyone. Don’t leave your baggage unattended. Don’t accept packages from strangers. Limit the liquids and gels in your carry-on luggage. Such precautions are practical, not legalistic.
The Lord’s system of organization was even more than that needed for a national army. It was nothing less than the DNA of a new world order. The purpose of the success and prosperity of God’s chosen people, who were governed by wise and just laws in harmony with His loving character, was to attract other peoples (Deut. 4:5–8).
The divinely ordained system of organization, designed to support progress toward radical results, worked with existing social structures as much as possible. While the Lord wanted to transform people into harmony with His character, He did not engage in social engineering or revolution. Similarly, when we take the gospel to people of other cultures, we can work with their societies and ways of doing things to the extent that they do not conflict with divine principles. To evangelize does not mean to Westernize or colonize. The apostle Paul recognized the value of such adaptability: “I have become all things to all men, that I might by all means save some” (1 Cor. 9:22).
Israelite society was tribal, not democratic. Its leaders were chieftains of extended families, rather than elected officials. So, divisions of the army, encampment, and marching order were according to tribes, major tribal subunits, and families within them. Likewise, the encampment and responsibilities of members of the tribe of Levi were according to their relationships as priests belonging to the family of Aaron, or as descendants of Kohath, Gershon, or Merari.
Israelite extended families were to live, work, travel, and fight together in close cooperation. Since members were related, they understood one another and had a powerful vested interest in helping each other’s safety, wellbeing, and success. In our individualistic, highly mobile, post-agricultural modern Western societies, we have largely lost the strong sense of belonging, support, and identity that extended families can provide.
Israel was unified by a representative form of government. Leaders of smaller social units reported to leaders of larger units, who were under the guidance of Moses, the spokesperson for God, the divine king (Num. 23:21). Moses was not elected, and neither was God. Representatives did not function as a parliament or congress to enact laws. Rather, they were responsible for seeing to it that the nation carried out the Lord’s instructions. He was in charge. So the Israelite government was a theocracy, governed by God.
When you visit the capital city of a country, it is usually not difficult to find out who is in charge. The powers that be generally have their headquarters in a central location at an imposing capitol, parliament building, or palace. Abu Simbel in southern Egypt has an ancient picture of an Egyptian war camp, with the large tent of Pharaoh Ramses II (1279–1212 B.C.) in the middle. There was no question who had ultimate authority.
The pharaoh’s tent was structured like the Israelite sanctuary, with a square inner room and an outer room twice that size. The royal cartouche (an oval-shaped “seal” representing the identity of the pharaoh) was in the middle of the inner “holy of holies.” This is precisely equivalent to the location in the Israelite sanctuary, where the Lord was enthroned above and between the cherubim on the ark of the covenant (Ex. 25:22; 1 Sam. 4:4). Egypt claimed to have a theocracy, with pharaohs as god-kings. But the great Ramses II was just a human being, as you can see by observing his shriveled mummy in the museum at Cairo. It was Israel that had the real God-king.
Have you ever wondered what it would be like to have God as the head of state in your country—not a faulty human president, prime minister, monarch, or dictator for life, but the Lord Himself? He would have the wisdom and power to solve all problems and would be totally fair (Ps. 96). God would rule by love, balancing justice and mercy (85:10). Special interests could not buy Him, and He would tolerate no corruption in His government. And He would never take a vacation or even go to sleep, but would constantly protect His people (121:4). Who would not vote for such a leader?
God was the head of state of ancient Israel, and He communicated His will to Moses, His spokesman. “When Moses went into the tabernacle of meeting to speak with Him, he heard the voice of One speaking to him from above the mercy seat that was on the ark of the Testimony, from between the two cherubim; thus He spoke to him” (Num. 7:89). The content of such communication consisted of instructions for the Israelites.
Moses was like God’s prime minister in the sense that he was responsible for ensuring that the Lord’s will was carried out and for arranging its details. But he was not in charge of formulating policy—that was the Lord’s job. Israel’s government was a theocracy, ruled by God.
In later ages, including modern times, many groups belonging to monotheistic religions (for example, the Taliban) have claimed to establish civil governments ruled by deity. But they are not true theocracies because they have lacked the real presence of the Lord dwelling among them and directing them. They have tended to use claims of divine authority to force others to observe their human traditions. Often the results have been oppressive or even atrocious.
God’s true Christian Church on earth lacks both a civil government and the Shekinah presence of the Lord enthroned at the Holy of Holies of an earthly sanctuary or temple. We have only a community of faith. But the head of this community is the divine Christ (Eph. 5:23, 24), and the Holy Spirit continues to teach and to remind of Christ’s teaching (John 16:12–15).
So the true church must be a theocracy. Therefore, as in ancient Israel, the Lord’s representatives are responsible for carrying out His will in His way. They are to apply divine principles, not to alter or replace them according to human reasoning. To do so would be to arrogantly and foolishly usurp the place of God, which would be blasphemy. Of course, they must work out and administer many practical details, but in doing so they should never disregard or compromise God’s “blueprint” of principles that He has revealed through His prophetic spokespersons.
When the true church administers discipline to its members, it does so in harmony with God’s will, as revealed through the Bible and the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Jesus said: “‘Truly I say to you, whatever you shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven’” (Matt. 18:18, NASB). This translation, unlike a number of others, correctly renders the Greek tense, which means that the corporate body of believers makes decisions in harmony with what God has already decided. It does not mean that the church is in charge and heaven follows its will. We must humbly submit to the voice that speaks to us from between the heavenly cherubim.
The article is adapted with permission from Roy Gane, In the Shadow of the Shekinah: God's Journey With Us (Hagerstown, Md.: Review & Herald, 2009).