Thank you for your great question! This is something I have spent some time thinking about. I once wondered what the purpose of the church was if we each have a personal relationship with Christ.
Before talking about that, you have touched on a pet peeve of mine, Lol. It bugs me when people use “religion” as, basically, a swear word. It is popular in some of the circles I am in to say, “I hate religion,” “Jesus didn’t teach religion,” “Relationship over religion.”
The truth is, in examining the word’s Latin roots, “religion” means “a strong bond between two entities”, or, in a word, covenant. So when I hear people say the above phrases, I hear them say, “I hate covenant,” “Jesus didn’t teach covenant,” Relationship over covenant.”
I understand what people are trying to get at. That people use position and authority, afforded to them by a congregation, to take advantage of that congregation. This is not religion, it is an affront to it. People also mean by this sentiment, the teaching of salvation by works. This again, is the antithesis of what Christ taught, and represents an Old, rather than a New, covenant (religion).
I very much dislike the use of catchall words people use without 1) understanding what the words mean 2) not knowing what they themselves mean by using that word. Anything a person doesn’t like about church they throw under the term “religion” and once it’s labeled it is dismissed.
I have seen people label and dismiss under the banner of “religion” any sort of theological education, any emphasis for good hermeneutics, accountability, and the creeds.
To give an example, take the insistence that scripture has to be dealt with delicately and effort needs to be made to understand the context and intention behind the words is important. Therefore, you cannot interpret them any way you like. There are rules for good interpretation with which we must deal with Scripture. This was labeled as “religious” and dismissed. The argument goes that anyone can understand the Scriptures, Jesus made it plain so that everyone can understand. (This is despite the fact that we find the disciples constantly confused by Jesus’ teaching.)
I do want to point out that I am not accusing you of any of the above. You just hit a button for me. Haha! Soapbox speech over.
This does lead me to what I believe the church is for, however. It is meant to be a community, ultimately. An example of the world to come. A place where we build each other up, teach one another, spread the Gospel to others, have accountability, fellowship, praise and worship together, pray for one another, etc. We are to do this, not just with our friends and our “circle,” but with others outside of our “known world” as well. To do otherwise would turn church into a clique.
One of the most beautiful things about the early church is the leveling affect it had on social classes. All were welcome, all would come, all would sit next to each other. There were no “upperclass and lower-class” within the walls of the church. You got to meet people and interact with people you normally would not get a chance to otherwise.
Church is meant to educate us. There are those with giftings in those church of which we partake. When we try to go it alone we try to claim a five-fold ministry to ourselves and throw off all accountability. This does not resonate with the life of a Christian.
Church is there to be an encouragement when we are doing well, a helping hand when we are in need of it, a shoulder when we need to weep, and, yes, a rod when we need correction (a figurative rod of course).
Additionally, part of the imago Dei that we carry as believers is relational. As the body of Christ we, collectively, contribute to the image of God which we bear.
To speak on another one of your points, a study of history would not support the below statement:
Absolutley, abuses have been committed in the name of the church. Anyone killed or abused in the name of Christ is an abhorrent abomination. Not justification sought or required. But, something cannot be judged by the way that it is abused. This is an abuse of the church, not what the church is or is meant to be.
I will agree that the politicization of the church is a terrible thing. What Constantine did, initially, was quite nice and credit can be given to him for the church surviving as well as it has. But, the church was given quite a bit of political power which lead to people seeking the offices of the church for political gain rather than the edification fo the body of Christ. But, do I, as a member of the church and the body of Christ, receive blame for someone else seeking the role of Bishop for his own advantage? I would condemn his actions along with the rest of the world, perhaps more so.
I would like to point out, that if you read the history of Christianity, you will find there were no more vociferous critics of the church than the church itself! Absolutley, there were atrocities committed and abuses made, and these make the headlines. But, there were always a majority of voices condemning the works of these few.
I hope this was helpful!
These are just some initial thoughts. I am sure others will have lots of value to add.