It’s been very popular in many hip churches to proclaim that ‘Christianity is not a religion, it’s a relationship with Jesus Christ.’ Religion is characterized as ’empty rituals’ or ‘what you have left when the Holy Spirit leaves.’ Religion is ‘man-created’ and ‘full of hypocrites.’ Being a Christian is not about being religious – it’s about you and Jesus, brother! This is a refrain that I’ve heard even from many pastors.
This is because claiming to be a non-religion offers certain tangible benefits. Much of the rhetoric against faith in today’s culture is labelled ‘anti-religious.’ People have bad experiences with ‘religion’ or ‘organized religion.’ Therefore, if you brand your church as ‘non-religious’ you get to escape all that criticism, right? Unfortunately, this is wrong.
Why all Christians are Religious
‘Religion’ comes etymologically from the word ‘religio’ in Latin, a word that means to bind or devote oneself to worship. To be religiosus was to be marked or dedicated to God or the gods. Hopefully Christians today are both devoted to worship and dedicated to God! Further, in today’s culture, religion is an umbrella term meant to encompass various world belief systems – including Christianity. It does not automatically assume the presence of certain rites or rituals – or hypocrites. Nor does it preclude a genuine, heartfelt relationship with that God – in fact, the first definition that pops up on Google is ‘the belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power, especially a personal God or gods.’ (Emphasis added.) So regardless of what you say, and no matter how many times you try to correct non-Christians (believe me, I know) they will use the global definition of religion and call a spade a spade: any Christian, even one who claims to be anti-religious, is religious by virtue of being a Christian. This debate over semantics does not help us to evangelize non-Christians, but adds an extra difficult step.
Not only that, but opposing ‘religion’ is actually unbiblical. Early Christians were identified as belonging to religion by sympathizers like Festus. (Acts 25:19) Paul writes in I Timothy that ‘the mystery of our religion is great.’ (I Timothy 3:16) And the author of James exhorts us to practice ‘religion that is pure and undefiled.’ (James 1:27) Anyone taking the Bible seriously has to see that God meant religion to follow from his teaching – not the straw man religion that evangelicals rightly critique, but a true and living religion.
Why ‘Not a Religion’ Hurts
Surely it’s harmless, right? People mean well? After all, it is true that we are to have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ and without that all the religious trappings of Christianity are not very useful. It is very true that other religions are not the same as Christianity. If these were the only ideas to result from, ‘this is not a religion, it’s a relationship’, that would be just peachy. But this idea really fosters an inauthentic sense of what Christians believe and what others believe.
This message increases the division between Christians, impairing Christian unity. A well meaning pastor recently delivered a great sermon on Christian unity. However, he included snide comments about churches that were about ’empty rituals’ and people ‘just showing up and receiving’, without being involved. The subtext of this sermon – which was meant to be a tool to draw people together – was hypocritical. Instead of transcending differences he was caricaturing ‘high’ churches. In a ‘high church’ setting, rituals and traditions are very important – but not meaningless or meant to be uninvolving. Many well-meaning ‘non religious Christians’ – including pastors of ‘non religious’ churches like this example – assume that any church that makes more extensive use of religious trappings than their own is inauthentic and hypocritical. This is the logical conclusion of a ‘not a religion’ stance but this is not the outlook that one ought to foster on brothers and sisters in Christ!
‘No religion, just relationship’ also makes discipleship hard. If my church is ‘not a religion,’ I only attend if I personally feel like it because having any obligation to attend would be religious. I resent any moral code not strictly grounded in cultural norms – because that belongs to religion. I become confused. If religion is about ’empty rituals’ and the impression is given that all rituals are empty, why do we have baptism, communion, profession of faith/baby dedications? If we’re about a relationship not ‘religion’ then why can’t I teach Sunday School if I don’t believe all of the Bible is God’s Word? Creeds and theology belong to religion, don’t they? This impairs the ability of churches to disciple their own congregation. The logical end of such a message is religious anarchy and an extremely individual vision of faith that does not cohere to the vision of the Bible.
This message also leads to an inability to understand the Old Testament. Properly speaking, the Old Testament is the Word of God, not to be discarded. Christians have understood the Old Testament to be fulfilled in Christ; and therefore we are not bound by everything that it commands. But in some areas this has been expanded to repudiating even implicit Old Testament beliefs, despite the fact that Jesus explicitly denies that he wishes to abolish the Old Testament! (Matt. 5:17)
For example, I had a discussion with a friend about ‘sacred space’ which he asserted was a pagan idea. Yet this idea runs implicitly throughout the whole Old Testament. When Moses approaches the burning bush, he is told to take off his sandals because he is standing on holy ground! When God descended on Mount Sinai, the people purified themselves before facing God – despite the fact that God was everywhere. The ‘Most Holy Place’ in the temple was treated with a special reverence, as was the ark of the covenant. This is not something the Old Testament teaches explicitly, but something it simply assumes to be true! God makes sacred use of space! The same sort of exegesis could be applied to rituals, church discipline, ‘rules’, ‘dogma’… The ‘not a religion’ movement encourages people to simply respond to any Old Testament evidence that runs counter to their idea of what ‘relationship’ entails with, ‘Well, Jesus changed things.’ The result? Nobody really cares what the Old Testament says anymore about anything unless it can be found explicitly in the New Testament or coheres with their personal ‘non religious’ beliefs.
My Private Unsubstantiated Hypothesis: Why This Is Popular
Short term, this message works beautifully. It taps into the exodus of people from the church in Western cultures. Notice that the ‘anti religion’ message is only really comprehensible to someone who is already self identifying as a Christian or follower of Jesus. But this is largely cannibalistic. This is eating the fruit of other churches. It only works so long as society at large has a Christian background – because young people leaving their home church, ex-Christians or Christians with bad church experiences are the ones that will buy into this critique. It does not (by and large) draw from actual non-Christians.
Long term, the results are disastrous. The ‘market’ for an anti-religious pro-Jesus message is drying up. Christians as a percentage of the whole in Western countries are declining. Right now, for a variety of reasons, many people are leaving certain churches. But that will only last for so long; once mainline churches finish flat-lining and the break between culture and Christian morality is complete, by and large the people in church will be the ones that don’t mind the stigma of ‘religion.’ There will be no large audience of churched but dissatisfied people to draw from. As ‘anti religion’ churches raise a second generation, some of their children will conflict with their ‘meaningless’ rituals and rules and move on to found new movements or exit Christian faith entirely. The message doesn’t seem to have staying power if the history of similar movements is anything to go by.
The potential theological implications are even more devastating. The members of ‘anti religion’ churches seem to be disconnected from anything Old Testament except Sunday-School lessons and Creationism. They harbor a deep misunderstanding of ‘high church’ traditions and other growing religions. Jesus becomes a Saviour, a best friend, a confidant (all good things) – but not truly our High Priest, Lord of the Sabbath or head of the Church.
So what should we teach about religion?
Short answer: What the Bible says.
Without any doubt, the mystery of our religion is great: He was revealed in flesh, vindicated in spirit, seen by angels, proclaimed among the Gentiles, believed in throughout the world, taken up in glory. (I Timothy 3:16)
If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless. 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. (James 1:26-27)