“Christianity is not a religion, its a relationship,” is a mantra I occasionally hear. The more I hear it, the more I am taken aback, wondering what exactly people mean. Whatever they specifically intend, the implication is that “religion” is something negative which we would not want to be in any way associated with. However, when I look up the word “religion” in the dictionary, this is what I get:
1) the belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power, esp. a personal God or gods
2) details of belief as taught or discussed
3) a particular system of faith and worship
I am honestly at a loss to discern which of these three definitions cannot be applied to Christianity? Is it not belief in and worship of a personal God, with beliefs and a system of faith? What is wrong with these things? Is Christianity just a “relationship” without reference to “details of belief” or a “system of faith?” Interestingly enough, the church in Corinth were enriched in all the gifts of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 1:5), had exuberant and passionate worship services (1 Cor. 14) and were extremely “spiritual” (1 Cor. 3:1; 14:12). However, Paul understood that if they did not believe in the resurrection (i.e., “details of belief”) their faith was useless. Furthermore, he asserted that there needed to be “order” in their worship services. In Paul’s mind, it was not enough for the Corinthians to “have a relationship with Jesus,” they also needed what the dictionary defines as “religion.”
When Christians use the term “religion” pejoratively is such a manner, they generally do not mean any of the definitions used in the dictionary. This means they are using a standard word in a non-standard or technical manner. Religion has become for them a jargon word meaning everything (or something) they dislike about how the last generation (or last sixty generations, or some other group) has practiced Christianity. It often has different meanings for different people. For some it means traditional styles of music or traditional religious language (“thee,” “thou,” etc.). For others it refers to structured patterns of liturgy and worship in which the people say and do certain things at certain specified times. For others, it means fixed and rigid rules for behavior. Still others speak of it as referring to a system of “earning your salvation,” and by this meaning doing enough good works to get into heaven. In none of these cases does it actually mean fundamentally what “religion” means. It only refers to someone else’s religion that the speaker doesn’t like. Everyone has a religion whether they think so or not. One’s religion may be atheism, but that is still their belief about God. Everyone has systems of belief or practice whether they use a historic liturgy to shape worship or think everything in worship is spontaneous (even though the “spontaneity” routinely uses the same limited set of elements).
My heart and motivation here is three fold.
First, rather simply, using the term “religion” as a “bad word” is offensive to a lot of people in the Body of Christ who value and treasure their religion (i.e. their faith in God, their beliefs and practices). For many people, using the term “religion” negatively is entirely outside their frame of reference. Its use is thus not helpful in fostering love and unity between various streams within the Church. My hope is that a growing love for the whole Church and a hunger for its visible unity will lead to tempered speech and ultimately an affectionate engagement with one another.
Second, it is not the most helpful way of communicating, and can lead to confusion amongst growing believers. Since the meaning generally depends upon the speaker, and the word is being used in a non-standard manner, it could have a whole range of meanings which are generally unclear to the hearer.
Third, I am concerned about a growing trend in Western Christianity, in which neo-romantic, existentialist and post-modern ideas are being confused as Christianity. Some of these ideas are not necessarily anti-Christian (some are), but they should not be confused as being one and the same. Namely, I am referring to an ideal of self-determination and self-expression without any external restrictions, structure or authority. I am free to be who I am with no restraints. This can sound and look Christian, but should ultimately been seen for what it is – the spirit of the age (idolatry), a conglomeration of various nineteenth and twentieth century philosophies (for more on this click here).
Remarkably, the Bible itself speaks very positively about “religion” (as defined in the dictionary). Here are just a few examples:
1) God is the kind of person who establishes systems, forms, patterns, procedures, places and regulations for worship and gives extensive guidelines for behavior (Heb. 9:1-4). Check Exodus, Leviticus and Deuteronomy for this one. Even if we pull a “we’re in the New Testament now, not in the Old,” besides the fact that I don’t have clue what that possibly means, God is the same god yesterday, today and forever. He didn’t try “religion” for a while and then give up on it and become a free-spirited neo-romantic existentialist, giving everyone freedom in the New Testament.
2) Daniel had set times for prayer each day (Daniel 6:10), as did the Psalmist (Psalm 119:164)
3) Jesus, in order to teach his disciples how to pray, gave them a standardized written form of prayer. While often understood as merely “a list of topics,” Jesus was simply doing what many other Rabbis during that period of time had done – taught his disciples a specific prayer they could memorize and pray.
4) Jesus participated in the liturgical synagogue worship (Luke 4:18ff). Rabbinic literature from about a century or two later explains that the person who read the “haftorah” portion of Scripture (i.e., the prophets), would also to some extent preside over the liturgy and prayers. If this tradition was in effect at the time of Jesus, he may have fulfilled this capacity. Additionally, the fact that he was known and trusted by the leaders in the synagogue to read the Scripture and give the subsequent address very likely means he participated in the services and possibly in this role quite regularly.
5) The early apostles participated in the liturgical worship life of temple/synagogue (Luke 24:53; Acts 2:42 (the prayers); 3:1; 16:6. Notably, this continues after the resurrection and ascension of Jesus and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. Of note is that in Acts 2:42, in the description of the life of the early apostolic community, it says they committed themselves to “the prayers.” Not every translation includes the definite article, but it is surely there in the Greek text. This means the apostolic community did not simply value something called “prayer,” but they joined themselves to “the prayers,” namely, the liturgical prayer services of the temple and synagogue.
6) The early church established rituals (baptism and the Lord’s Supper) – cf. 1 Cor. 11 – the Lord’s Supper was not just a meal they shared, it was a distinct ritual by the time Paul wrote 1 Corinthians. This is seen in that Paul makes a distinction between the “meal” and the “Lord’s Supper.” There was something specific about the Lord’s Supper that was above and beyond simply sharing a meal together. If the evidence we have from the early and mid second century is anything reflective of the practices of the early church (I’m going to put my money on that they were closer to the apostles than we are 19 centuries later), this was specific and structured ritual which was central to Christian worship.
7) Paul thought the Law (i.e., the contents of the regulations for behavior and worship) was holy, just and good (Rom. 7:12) as well as spiritual (7:14)
8 ) Paul and James use the term “religion” in a clearly positive sense:
1Tim. 3:16 Without any doubt, the mystery of our religion is great: He was revealed in flesh, vindicated in spirit, seen by angels, proclaimed among Gentiles, believed in throughout the world, taken up in glory.
James 1:26 If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless. 27 Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.
9) Paul has creedal-like statements that systematize belief. These beliefs were requisite on all (cf. 1 Cor. 15:3-8; 1 Tim. 3:16)
All in all, I am proposing the following:
-We cannot continue using the term “religion” in the jargonistic negative fashion described above. We are using it to describe what the word itself does not mean in normal usage, so one needs to understand each person’s usage in order to understand them. It is a useless word if it doesn’t communicate. Let’s just say what we mean in each instance.
-We must stop categorically judging other religious traditions and streams within Christianity, especially with a catch-all label of “religious.” To some people it is a given that “the traditional church” is completely dead and all of their “forms of religion” need to go out the window. This is an example of pride to the hilt. I appreciate that you may have ways you wish to personally express your faith and work it out in community. Please, however, do not imagine you possess the right, duty or ability to single handedly judge 1800 years of church history and tradition, as well as the majority of Christians worldwide (and incidentally the majority of charismatic/Pentecostal believers worldwide) who are Roman Catholic. Until you can worship alongside them, love them and pray for them, please refrain from critiquing them. For others, any type of spirituality that doesn’t give them complete and total freedom of expression to do whatever whenever is “religion.” Actually, you are manifesting a massive problem with authority that needs to be named and owned. Please repent.
-Let’s find alternate ways of talking about what we actually mean when we use the term “religion.” Here I have four proposed terms to at least begin discussion:
-religiosity – the suffix at the end of the word “religion” now gives it the meaning “excessively religious, often for its own sake.” Religiousness will not really do because that simply means someone is religious. According to our definitions above, this cannot in itself be a bad thing.
-legalistic – here’s where the excessive and unbalanced emphasis on laws comes in, particularly if one thinks they need to get “good enough” for God through them.
-formalism – when certain modes of worship are used for their own sake, not because they lead one to God. This one can get tricky, because to use your standards of worship to judge another’s can lead to great misunderstanding and sinful judgment.
-will-worship – I first saw this term used by Richard Foster in Celebration of Discipline. It means essentially, to worship your will power – to believe that strenuous effort will in itself produce spiritual growth. It gives priority to my exertion over trust in God.
I would appreciate any further contribution to this discussion, along with suggestions on how we can accurately discuss problems we identify, without falling headlong into name-calling and unrighteous judgment.