An interesting thing has happened to religion in recent years, or at least the word “religion”. The very idea of religion has been vilified by those who would have once been considered its adherents. If you want to get an American church-goer squirming, call Christianity the Christian Religion.
Ask an evangelical today “Are you religious?” and nine out of ten times you will hear, “I’m not religious; I just love Jesus”, or something of a similar thread. Some, like the Christian pop-culture youtube sensation Jefferson Bethke, will even take it so far as to say they “hate religion”.
While I am guilty of using this cliche in the past and certainly agree with the point they are making by it, it is a cliche. One of the trademarks of a cliche, especially Christian cliches, tends to be thoughtless perpetuation. As Christians we need to be very careful about what ideas we advance and what words we choose. So why all the contempt for religion?
Definitions are Important
A lot of misunderstanding comes when two people disagree on something that is not clearly defined. If I say I love to eat hot dogs and you strongly disagree with me because you think I’m talking about a high temperature, four-legged house pet, then the issue is not with the idea but with our differing definitions of what a hot dog is. I would also be upset if someone ate canines. Now, if I clearly define the object of discussion as “a frankfurter, especially one served hot in a long, soft roll and topped with various condiments”, you can now logically take issue with my eating habits if you so choose and address the issue based on our common definition.
A similar issue has arose with religion. Before we make any claims about religion we must first clearly define it:
re·li·gion \ri-ˈli-jən\ : the belief in a god or in a group of gods (Merriam-Webster)
religion : a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe, especially when considered as the creation of a superhuman agency or agencies, usually involving devotional and ritual observances, and often containing a moral code governing the conduct of human affairs. (Dictionary.com)
Although these definitions take into consideration the broader ,worldly context and idea of religion, I still wouldn’t take issue with being called “religious” by these standards. To get an even clearer idea of the purest definition, look at the etymology:
(a) The derivation from religāre, ‘to bind back’ (man to God), is negatived by the authority of Cicero and of the best modern etymologists; by the difficulty, on this hypothesis, of explaining such forms as religio, religens; and by the necessity, in that case, of presupposing a fuller knowledge of sin and redemption than was common to the ancient world.
(b) The more correct derivation is from relegĕre, “to go over again,” “carefully to ponder.” Its original meaning is therefore “reverent observance” (of duties due to the gods).
Strong, A. H. (1907). Systematic theology (pp. 19–20). Philadelphia: American Baptist Publication Society.
The original latin word carried the meaning of observing reverently.
According to all proposed definitions thus far, every faithful Christian I know is religious. The burden lies on those who object to being labeled “religious” to put forth a logical redefinition of the word. I agree with John Frame who said:
“I do not follow theologians…who use religion to refer to self-righteousness, man’s attempt to justify himself before God by his works. Dictionaries never define it that way. More commonly, dictionaries equate the term with faith, belief, or creed…Religion is a perfectly good word, and there is no justification for redefining it in order to make a theological or rhetorical point.”¹
This may simply be a matter of semantics for some, and if so, Frame would encourage them to criticize formalism, traditionalism, church bureaucracy and the like, rather than religion. There is no biblical basis for injecting the negative connotation into the word by Christians. The other issue with religion goes beyond the argument over definitions and into the realm of theology. Is there a theological reason to consider ourselves religious?
In the New Testament (NT) book of James, we see this exhortation from the pastor of the Church in Jerusalem:
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.
The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2001). (Jas 1:27). Wheaton: Standard Bible Society.
In keeping with the previously established definition, we can see that a reverent heart before God is evidenced by a love for the “unlovable”. Those whom God commissions have a high calling; a calling of love and holiness. He commands us to go into the world and care for the orphans and widows, while keeping our hearts consecrated unto him and separated from the world. To be religious is to love as God loves and hate what God hates. The theological question which is often raised is whether these things God speaks are just strong suggestions or if they are requirements.
Our modern Christianity, plagued by antinomianism (a disregard for God’s Law), is deathly allergic to the word “required”. The fundamental issue is found in Romans 1, where we are told that the human heart exchanges truth for a lie, and would rather serve the idols of their hands than the God who made them. The truth is that we are all slaves either to sin or to God. Obeying God is not your ticket out of servitude, it is a change of the ownership of your soul, from sin to God. Becoming a slave of Christ Jesus is the only sure way to true freedom and fulfillment. And as slaves of God, there is much required of us.
It is important to note, however, that the things God requires are not required because He lacks anything. Conversely, it is because He lacks no power and no holiness, that He can require of us, whatever it is He wills. If we walk blamelessly, it adds nothing to God (Job 22:3), and God is not served by our human hands, as if He needed anything (Acts 17:25). The fact still remains, though, that God requires obedience of us. God requires that we serve him with all of our heart, soul, mind and strength (Deut 10:12). He requires that we do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with Him (Mic 6:80).
The nature of truth does not change, and part of that truth is what God demands of human beings. Jesus is the Truth (Jn 14:6) and He does not change (Heb 13:8). We are not justified through keeping God’s Law but we are progressively sanctified when we acquiesce to the requirements found in God’s holy word. The fact that God still has requirements is also demonstrable in the NT.
All Consuming Fire
Now Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, each took his censer and put fire in it and laid incense on it and offered unauthorized fire before the LORD, which he had not commanded them. 2 And fire came out from before the LORD and consumed them, and they died before the LORD. 3 Then Moses said to Aaron, “This is what the LORD has said: ‘Among those who are near me I will be sanctified, and before all the people I will be glorified.’ ” And Aaron held his peace.
The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2001). (Le 10:1–3). Wheaton: Standard Bible Society.
Aaron’s sons attempted to worship God in a way He had not permitted and God consumed them with fire. In scripture we see God described as an all consuming fire, almost always in the context of judgment and wrath, specifically toward irreverent worship. God is a God who desires to be worshipped on His terms. What God permits is permitted and what He forbids is forbidden. What we see in Moses’ words to Aaron is that God desires to be glorified through our sanctification. By worshipping the way God commands, and not the way the world suggests, we glorify God and mark ourselves as holy, set apart unto God.
23 Take care, lest you forget the covenant of the LORD your God, which he made with you, and make a carved image, the form of anything that the LORD your God has forbidden you. 24 For the LORD your God is a consuming fire, a jealous God.
The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2001). (Dt 4:23–24). Wheaton: Standard Bible Society.
Again we see God’s judgment on unacceptable worship. This applies to the worship of the NT church as well.
Jesus says that those who worship God, must worship in Spirit and truth (Jn 4:24). Phillipians 3:3 says that we worship by the Spirit and put no confidence in the flesh, glorying in Jesus Christ. We also see in Romans 12:1 that we offer a holy and acceptable sacrifice to God when we offer our living bodies to Him. The same themes of holiness and glory are present because God still desires worship to be done the way He commands and, when it is, He is glorified.
See how the book of Hebrews makes this point:
Now even the first covenant had regulations for worship and an earthly place of holiness.
The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2001). (Heb 9:1). Wheaton: Standard Bible Society.
“Now even” implies the continuation of regulations. The New covenant has regulations for worship even as the Old did.
Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, 29 for our God is a consuming fire.
The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2001). (Heb 12:28–29). Wheaton: Standard Bible Society.
We reverently observe (the definition of religion) God’s desires for worship, in order to offer acceptable worship. Why? Because our God is still an all consuming fire. We see His judgment on false and irreverent worship in at least two cases in the NT. Ananias and Saphira were killed by God for lying about their offering. The other is seen in Paul’s instructions for the Lord’s supper:
27 Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty concerning the body and blood of the Lord. 28 Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. 29 For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself. 30 That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died.
The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2001). (1 Co 11:27–30). Wheaton: Standard Bible Society.
Church members who partake of the Lord’s supper in an unworthy manner, eat and drink judgment upon themselves. God requires reverent observance of His ordinances concerning communion. A neglect of God’s commands results in judgment, even sickness and death.
The Scriptures are very clear on this point: justification is by faith, apart from the works of the law (Rom 3:20-25). Worshipping God in the way He commands will not earn you salvation; in fact, it is impossible to do so without first being saved. (cf. Heb 11:6, 1 Co 2:14-16). A holy response proceeds from grace that is received by God. Without the initial giving of grace by God we would be unable to do any good work with which He would be pleased. As children of grace, however, we walk into the works which God has prepared for us to do (Eph 2:8-10).
Christ is made unto us wisdom (1 Co 1:24) and wisdom is justified by her deeds (Matt 11:19). If we claim to possess the wisdom of God, our deeds will show that it is truly a wisdom imparted by God. A supposed faith that does not produce the fruit of righteousness in our lives is a dead faith (Jas 2:14).
Obedience to God is not an act of legalism any more than honoring your biological parents is an attempt to earn their DNA. We serve from a heart of gratitude and love, serving God as Jesus Christ came to earth to serve us. A regenerate heart is fertile ground for the tree of life, producing the fruit of the Spirit. A life devoid of the fruit of the Spirit, is a life not submitted to the power and Lordship of Christ.
Saying we “hate” religion is nothing more than a simple marketing trick to persuade the unbelievers to submit to Christ, whilst hiding from them the requirements of a Christian life. Jesus tells us to count the cost of following him, lest we find ourselves unprepared down the road and fall away (Luke 14:28). We, as believers, are doing no-one a favor by promising them gain and keeping from them the potential costs.
Let us first love God enough that we desire to learn more about Him and the ways He desires to be worshipped. Let us secondly love our brothers and sisters in Christ enough to lovingly rebuke them for unhelpful catchphrases and grow together with them in our passion to serve the Lord wholeheartedly. And Lastly, let us love the unbelievers enough to take our masks off, unashamedly proclaim the gospel and its costs. When we do, we sacrifice our pride on the altar of humility, facing rejection and persecution. But loving someone in this way is the epitome of pure religion; and the example that Christ set for us on the cross.
¹Frame, J. M. (2015). A history of Western philosophy and theologyory of Western philosophy and theology (p. 5). Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing.