It strikes me as odd every time I hear a preacher say ‘Christianity is not a religion’ or a friend recount an evangelistic conversation in which he told someone ‘I am not religious’. Even today I read a tweet contrasting religion and the gospel from a preacher and writer whom I esteem. Pity me: I am near-constantly odd-strucken.
Let me try to persuade you that it is indeed odd to criticize religion per se, for three reasons:
First, it contradicts the way the Bible speaks. James writes: ‘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’ (1:27). Call me naïve, but isn’t that enough to stop us disparaging ‘religion’? Surely we need always to add the qualifier: ‘false religion’, and to retain the idea that there is such a thing as good and true religion in God’s sight.
Second, the claim is unnecessarily confusing to our hearers. They may see us go in and out to church each Sunday and host a homegroup with whom we study the Scriptures. They may know we pray for them. They may have been invited to baptisms. They may know something of our support for the vulnerable. They may notice that we seem to keep different rules from their other friends, not swearing or getting drunk and so on. We look to them like the most religious people they have ever met. Why try to convince them otherwise? Why not say instead that all our religion, yes religion, is the outward expression of the most precious thing, our personal knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ? We may sometimes wish to add that the activity on the outside is meaningless without the inner knowledge, but we should never disparage the activity it as if it were simply worthless.
Third, given the pervasive temptation in our culture to a merely individual and private faith, disparaging religion sets up our hearers for great trouble down the track. I take it that the concern to deny ‘religion’ arises from a desire to emphasize that true Christianity is at its heart about a living relationship with God rather than about external religious observances. The problem is that being a Christian does involve external religious observances and acts, many of them: baptism, gathering as a church, hearing the word, prayer, the Lord’s supper, showing mercy to the vulnerable, keeping the commandments. The list can easily be extended. Each of these outward things is in fact vital for the inward well-being of the Christian, but we face cultural pressure against every one of them: professing believers resist being baptized, absenteeism is rife across churches, the Scriptures are undermined, we cannot concentrate to pray, the Lord’s supper is in many churches perfunctory and even dispensable, caring for the vulnerable has been made the state’s job, and some of the commandments are now themselves immoral. Why would those who constantly lament all of the ways in which congregations struggle to engage with these activities keep telling people that ‘Christianity is not a religion’? Have not the refusers of baptism and the absentees simply listened carefully to what they have been told, even back to the evangelistic messages they heard before they were converted? ‘Christianity is not a religion, it is not about rules or rituals’. No wonder they may be unmotivated about keeping God’s laws or participating in the rituals of preaching and the sacraments. ‘Surely my own private faith in Jesus is enough?’ My sense is that there are in this day far more people with such misconceptions than there are falsely religious ritualists. It is as if our epithets were all formed in the heyday of religious practice, not in an era when the world does all it can to draw God’s people away from even God’s own rules and rituals.
The unqualified criticism of religion is unbiblical, confusing, and ultimately it is proving to be pastorally damaging.
[You can find a more sustained reflection on this problem here: https://www.reformation21.org/featured/are-you-religiousdr-garry-j.php]