No Really! It is a Religion!
We’ve all heard it countless times. “I’m not religious. I’m spiritual.” “I don’t practice religion, I have a relationship with God.”
Well I have news for the world. Christianity is a religion, and God not only approves, He defines it that way. A few years ago a young man named Jefferson Bethke made a video about this topic. He made some good points but he missed it in the bigger picture. Check out what he had to say…
Why the Desire to Juxtapose Religion with Relationship?
As with almost any opinion piece, most of what I will say here will be mostly subjective. It is quite hard to offer an objective view on something that is rather fluid. As most of you know I have a rather dim view of what I euphemistically refer to as Western Christian Culture. Ironically, in many ways WCC is the organized practice of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism(MTD). MTD is to WCC what a manual on policy and procedure is to a corporation. Most WCC adherents are ok as long as they meet the external standards laid out by MTD.
Consequently, this dynamic has given rise to the idea of Christianity being about relationship to the exclusion of religion. MTD thought has made man the pinnacle of God’s plan and teaches that God longs for relationship with His creation. Therefore, instead of rout religious practice, God wants us to relate to Him in deeply intimate ways. This means that each person comes to God in varied and uniquely personal way.
This thought process caters to the cavernous mindset of anti-intellectualism so commonplace in the Church today. Knowing God on a personal level is far more important than knowing about God through doctrine. When we replace the depth of wisdom that comes with knowing doctrine with apparent depth of feeling, we circumvent heart penetrating truths. Consequently, people can avoid conviction and “connection” with God on His terms. Instead, they come to God in ways that best suit them. This is what makes the relationship motif so palatable and exceedingly dangerous.
Subsequently, the relationship is the end-all-be-all-of the entire plot line. In this approach, religion stands as a roadblock to truly knowing God in an intimate and personal way.
Pharisaical Anti- “Phariseeism”
One of the easiest groups to dislike in the Bible are the Pharisees. Let’s be honest, these men were the very embodiment of what it means to take religion to a dangerous place. In some accounts, Jesus spends most of His time rebuking the Pharisees. Who wouldn’t?
Keep in mind that Jesus told His disciples that they needed to surpass the righteousness of the Pharisees to see heaven. That or have the righteousness of another. Today, we look at the Pharisees and their brand of religion with disdain. Look at how quickly people will toss out the accusation, “You sound like the Pharisees!”
Lest we forget, the Pharisees were known for looking down their noses at others as well. Remember the parable of the pharisee and publican in the temple? The relationship over religion crowd of today sounds quite a bit like the Pharisee in that parable. Just substitute “Lord I thank you that I am not like the publican.” With, “I am so glad I am not like those religious types.”
This Pharisaical anti-phariseeism is the earmark of the anti- religion crowd. There is a self-absorbed, self-congratulatory air about them. They pride themselves on the deep interpersonal connectedness they have with God on their terms. Hence, the very thing that they despise in the Pharisees, they have taken on themselves.
The anti-religion fervor that has possessed WCC has contributed to a form of new religious liturgy. This Neo-liturgy has done away with convention and two thousand years of Church order in favor of innovation. Each person approaches the practice of their relationship in a way that suits them. This has led to the expansion of “churches” in ways that were previously unheard of. Each new congregation establishes its own standard for what makes them better than the other.
A Relationship on Every Corner
The old saw that there is a church on every corner rings hollow today. Now there is a “church” in every movie theater and coffee shop and school auditorium. One could say with confidence, “There is a different relationship on every corner.” This isn’t meant to be humorous. Conversely, the design is to get us to think about just how bad the problem has become.
Jesus declared Himself to be the cornerstone of the Church. He promised that the gates of hell would not prevail against Her. Then, after all of that, at the end of His earthly ministry, He left the disciples with a command. He told them that they were to preach the Gospel to all creatures making new disciples. However, He didn’t stop there. He commanded them to teach those disciples everything that He had commanded the first disciples.
This is the very core of what makes Christianity a religion. As much as the relationship over religion crowd hates the idea, Jesus prescribed standards. From that point on, the Apostles and their protégé would go on to lay down the liturgy of the Early Church. James emphasizes this in his epistle to the Church in Jerusalem. “This is good and true religion…”
Why the need to argue that Christianity isn’t a religion? Could it be that we are laboring to escape something?
Yes! We all Have a Relationship with God
I meant what I said in the title. We all have a relationship with God. Being the consummate (that is tongue-in-cheek) Presuppositional Apologist that I am, I believe that all people know there is a God. I take it a step further and insist that all people are in a relationship with Him as well.
I use this analogy often. Every person you meet has a relationship with the cops. Some of us have good relationships with them. Still others have tepid relationships with cops. And still others have hostile relationships with cops.
That is the same with humanity and God. You are either in a good standing with God or bad standing with Him. There is no in-between. The key to understanding this is to look at it from an objective standard. For the Christian that standard must be Scripture. This forces us to subjugate ourselves to the guidelines that God has put in place. Let’s look at what James had to say in chapter 1:
“26 If anyone thinks himself to be religious, and yet does not bridle his tongue but deceives his own heart, this man’s religion is worthless. 27 Pure and undefiled religion in the sight of our God and Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.”
Is James saying that everyone who visits widows and orphans is practicing pure and undefiled religion? Is there maybe something else going there? My contention is that James is not arguing that the whole of the Christian religion is simply wrapped up in visiting widows and orphans and not being liked the world.
Moreover, James is not arguing for a relationship over religion motif. James is commending pure religion and he is defending it with a standard.
What is James Argument for Pure Religion?
In the verses immediately preceding 26 and 27, James spoke about the law of liberty. This is reference to the sacred Scriptures and what God was concerned with. James is arguing that a truly devout follower of Christ, will be concerned with others. There is an outward, towards others focus that comes with being Christ-like. Moreover, keeping oneself unstained with the things of the world is to focus on the purity of Christ.
Christ was not merely an example for us. He was truly a sacrifice for sin. However, He also lived an exemplary life. One cannot simply claim that they have a relationship with God and call it good. There are standards and requirements that come with that. The pursuit of holiness and righteousness without which no one will see God is a must.
James will go on later to state clearly, that faith that doesn’t produce good works is a dead faith. It is a dead religion just like the dead religion of the pharisees. We demonstrate what we believe about God by how we live in light of His Word. Often, we display our pure religion to others by the works we do according to prescriptions of our Lord and Savior. And the greatest of those works for all Christians is to be a Gospel preaching peace maker!
A Brief Note:
My dear friend Brian from The Passing Currents podcast recently interviewed Andy Cass of Echo Church from Rochester. In that interview Andy and Brian speak about relationship and religion. I wrote this essay on October 24th well before I was aware of the interview. First, I want everyone to know that this was not meant to intersect with that interview or with comments made by Andy or Brian. Second, having listened to the interview I stand by what I said here. Not to be stubborn but because I am convinced it is accurate.
I also want to commend Brian and Eric for the gracious way they responded in their follow up episode. Further, I have recorded my own response to the interview and will be sharing it via my YouTube channel in the very near future. I am thankful for the thought provoking interaction between Brian and Andy. It made me dig in deep and consider some things on a personal level.
We Can’t Have It Both Ways
It is impossible to conclude anything other than this. Christianity isn’t merely having a relationship with God. It is truly a religion. God has prescribed for us doctrines and practices and boundaries for life. He has told us to look to His Son. The Son has said, “If you love me you will keep my commandments.”
The relationship over religion crowd wants to call anyone who insists that there are rules and guidelines to follow, legalists. Yet, they want the benefits of the religion that Christ completed by being the fulfillment of Old Testament Judaism. In short, they want the reward of Christ’s inheritance without the behavior that comes with being adopted children.
This is dangerous and doctrinally deadly. If this is the way you present Christianity to the lost and dying world there is no way you can preach the Gospel. As I stated in a previous article, persecution comes with pursuing Christ’s righteousness. This means that you follow the teaching of Christ. You put yourself out there and stand-out as different. If all you have is some undefinable amorphous relationship you won’t look different than the world. You won’t go through life unstained by it.
Without the guideposts of the narrow gate and straight road of the Christian religion you will only be living in a hostile relationship with God. Sure, you will be self-deceived thinking you have it all figured out. But you will remain in enmity with God. That is a bad place to find yourself relationally. I am writing this to you so that you will not be found in such a state. Examine yourself and see where you are.
Soli Deo Gloria!