On Religion

It seems to be a current Christian trend to deny ‘religion’ and cling to ‘relationship’. I once had a t-shirt that said “Not a religion, just a relationship’. When we think of religion we think of Catholicism’s traditions, self righteousness, or fake Christians who go to church just to go. These ideas aren’t appealing. Shouldn’t we redefine what Christianity is today? ‘Religion’ is the basis of the crusades, the inquisition, a jihad, right? We want to separate those from us because those are dirty things done by fake Christians. Check out this video about ‘religion’ and see how much you agree with him.

And yet, despite the current trend, Christianity is religion. The word ‘religion’ has received a bad reputation over the years, so we’ve become repulsed by it. We don’t want to be labeled as “religious”. I read this article where Beiber says “A lot of people who are religious, I think they get lost. They go to church just to go to church” (read the article here).
Yikes, but isn’t religion what he describes in the video? Isn’t ‘religion’ a worldly term used to put Christ in a box? Isn’t it only about our relationship?
While he does make good claims in the video, they aren’t against ‘religion’ as much as they are against dead religion. Dead Christianity is just rules and acts, devoid of relationship and meaning. The true religion of Christianity is alive and far more full and rich than words and deeds.

Let’s begin with the Bible. The word ‘religion’ is used 5 times in the ESV. The word ‘religious’ is used twice. Let’s look at the uses.

Acts 25:19
19 Rather they had certain points of dispute with him about their own religion and about a certain Jesus, who was dead, but whom Paul asserted to be alive.
ESV

This passage is found when Agrippa is being briefed on the accusations the Jews have against Paul. Religion is not used positively or negatively, but rather is a word being used to mean a set of beliefs.

Acts 26:5
5 They have known for a long time, if they are willing to testify, that according to the strictest party of our religion I have lived as a Pharisee.
ESV

This passage is Paul’s defense. He strictly followed the religion of the Jews. While it could be viewed as a negative use of religion, it isn’t. Paul is just saying he strictly followed the law, their religion.

Col 2:23
23 These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh.
ESV

Here Paul is talking about following rules and regulations such as “don’t touch that, don’t eat that.” This seems to be a negative view of religion, but looking carefully we’ll notice that it is “self-made religion”. This is a rule book religion that people have made up for themselves.

Before I go to the last uses of “religion”, let’s look at one use of “religious”.

Acts 17:22

22 So Paul, standing in the midst of the Areopagus, said: “Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious
ESV

This is when Paul goes to Athens and inspects the alter to the unknown God. ‘Religious’ here means they strictly adhere to their religion. Keep in mind that they are following their religion properly, even if it is the wrong religion.

James 1:26-27

26 If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless. 27 Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.

ESV

Here’s the big verse on religion. True religion means helping orphans and widows and keeping oneself unstained by the world. Jesus did not come to abolish this, but came to make this possible. Without Christ true religion is impossible, for how can we keep ourselves clean from the world without him?

But let’s go further, what is the core of this religion? If people define religion by rules, what is the core rule of this religion of Christianity? Let’s see what Jesus says.

Matt 22:36-40
36 “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” 37 And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. 38 This is the great and first commandment. 39 And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. 40 On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.”
ESV

Mark 12:29-31
29 Jesus answered, “The most important is, ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. 30 And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ 31 The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”
ESV

These are the two greatest commandments, and the center of the religion of Christianity. If people are following the “religion” of Christianity but aren’t loving God nor following these commands, then they aren’t following the religion. The core of the Christian religion is relationship with God and others. I think we have it backwards today where we think the most ‘religious’ people are the Sunday Christians and the ‘true Christians’ are the ones who are ‘normal-ish’. No, to really follow Christianity, to be truly religious, you must love the Lord with all of your being. That’s the religion I follow.

Now this doesn’t just come from some young college student who wants to be controversial, nor some Bible major who thinks he knows everything. On the contrary, I am backed by the Bible (God’s Word) and the Church (God’s people). Look at Grace EV Free. They wrote a song called True Religion where they bring the verse in James to song.

You can read the lyrics and hear the song here.

Now, why am I so flustered about this? Because some of the things the guy says in the video are not true. He’s really talking about ‘Sunday Christians”, as Jonathan Fitzgerald puts it. Jonathan writes about how the poetry is lame and the theology poor. While I can’t say much about the former claim, I do agree with the latter. The poor theology is mostly about religion (which I already showed is a good thing), but there’s other things I disagree upon (which will come in future posts).You can read his review here.

The reason I want to save the word ‘religion’ is because of its value to us. Today many Christians only read popular Christian authors that come out today. When we think of an old book we think of C.S. Lewis or somebody this century. Some people may even venture to go back to Calvin or Luther, authors who started Protestantism. But watch out for those ‘religious’ folks! God forbid we go further back to people like the saints! Athanasius, Augustine, Gregory, Irenaeus, Cyril, Ignatius, Polycarp, all of them have great wisdom for us. We need the term ‘religion’ to remind us that we as the church are more than the people alive today. Our history goes back more than 100 years. We have 2000 years of Christian thought and we can go even further back with the Bible and texts related to it. Now, I’m not saying these other books are as important as the Bible, but they are valuable to us as the Church, the United Bride of Christ. Francis Chan and all the others are good, but so are our ancestors. Make sure you value them as well.

Another reason to value religion as a word is because it helps remind us that our relationship with God is more than reading and praying. We are part of the Church, not just a local body. Christ calls us to take part in things like communion, baptism, helping the widow, and more. But these sound like rules, right? That’s because they are, they’re commands from God and “Whoever has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me. And he who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and manifest myself to him.” (John 14:21). We obey these commandments out of the core of the religion, our love for God. This is true religion.

For another good post, check out Matt Timms post 3 Reasons Evangelicals Need ‘Religion'”.

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