Dear fellow Christians,
I think it’s time we had a talk about the infamous “r” word. What word am I talking about? Religion. You see, apparently in Christian circles, this word is considered bad. So why do we think that?
Let’s go ahead and define the word religion. I think a good way to understand the idea of religion would be a set of metaphysical beliefs and the set of outward practices which embodies those beliefs.
This mindset that Christianity isn’t a religion—generally because it’s a relationship—has a few troubling presuppositions.
The first is that somehow, Jesus is opposed to religion. Now, a simple Bible reading will show that God related to His people religiously throughout the Old Testament (The book of Leviticus more than proves my point). Now, some people insist on only ever focusing on the New Testament at the expense of the Old because Jesus somehow caused a massive paradigm shift that changed the way God relates to us. While that is partially true, Jesus words in Matthew 5:17 (NASB) ring true: “Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill.” So, at least the precepts of the Law still remain. That doesn’t mean some things never change. Even the Israelite religious traditions weren’t always static, especially when you factor in their thoughts about open revelation (the idea that it was up to those in spiritual authority to contextualize the Law of Moses to their historical settings). However, the principles behind the Law that was given to Moses stayed the same. Christ wasn’t about changing that. In fact, He even warns people against this mindset later on in the Matthew passage: “Whoever then annuls one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever keeps and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.”
A second myth that is perpetuated among Christians is that our outward actions don’t matter. Now, please note that I’m not arguing that our actions are what save us. Unfortunately, the Christian community often overlooks the idea that is advocated in the book of St. James—our faith and our actions are inseparable. No doubt, this comes from the segmentation brought about by the way our society thinks. However, we must remember: “faith, if it has no works, is dead, being by itself” (James 2:17). We don’t do our actions because we are desperately striving to get God to love us. We love God, therefore we do actions which are pleasing to Him. Sometimes, I think it is possible that doing the outward actions can help awaken our inward faith. Some days, you might not feel like you love your spouse but doing things for them and really serving them can help revive and catalyze that love that objevtively exists in the context of your covenant relationship. We should always remember, both in our internal thoughts and our external actions, that the God of the universe who created us is present at all times and when we ignore Him through our actions, we are functionally rejecting Him.
The third presupposition that gets spread in Christian circles is that we should only have a “personal relationship” with God. Now I don’t think that we shouldn’t emphasize the personal aspects of Christianity. God is obviously a God who has a deep love for all people and there’s no doubt in my mind that the crucified Christ signifies a God who is desperately chasing humanity that has gone astray. On that level, the Gospel is very personal. However, sometimes our emphasis on the personal trades off with reverential interactions with the divine. It’s a shame when the Creator of the universe doesn’t get the same respect we might give to a professor or a politician.
The last mindset that gets pushed against the idea of religion is that the Pharisees embody religion. After all, Jesus said, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hyporites! For you are like whitewashed tombs which on the outside appear beautiful, but inside they are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness” (Matt 23:27). Of course, this is an attitude that can even be found in the Old Testament. Isaiah 1:11, 13-15 says:
“What are your multiplied sacrifices to Me?” says the Lord. “I have had enough of burn offerings of rams and the fat of fed cattle; And I take no pleasure in the blood of bulls, lambs or goats. Bring your worthless offerings no longer, incense is an abomination to Me. New moon and Sabbath, the calling of assemblies—I cannot endure iniquity and the solemn assembly. I hate your new moon festivals and your appointed feasts, they have become a burden to Me; I am weary of bearing them. So when you spread out your hands in prayer, I will hide My eyes from you; yes, even though you multiply prayers, I will not listen. Your hands are covered with blood.”
I think the point is that both of these passages reflect God’s judgment against outward religious practice when the inward heart of the people were off. If the people in Isaiah’s time or Jesus’ time had the right hearts, they would have worshipped in a very liturgical, very religious system because our outward should match our inward.
Let’s stop treating the word “religion” like it’s a curse word. It’s not a bad thing! It can be used just like everything else—positively or negatively. It’s all about the heart but that doesn’t mean is should stay inside because it’s important to externalize those things.