Thursday, October 22, 2009

"Religion" can be dangerous to spiritual growth

A very recent discussion with someone who told me they were not very religious made me think again of how I dislike the label "religious". I actually think the bible speaks against "religion" in the way most people mean it today. Here’s an extended dictionary definition given for religion:

Religion - is the adherence to codified beliefs and rituals that (generally) involve a faith in a spiritual nature and a study of inherited ancestral traditions, knowledge and wisdom related to understanding human life. The term "religion" refers to both the personal practices related to faith as well as to the larger shared systems of belief.

This definition includes following certain rituals because of what one believes. Concepts like “codified beliefs”, “rituals”, “inherited traditions”, “system of belief”, are all used to describe religion. While it may be true that Christianity is categorized as a religion, I don’t think it’s a precise categorization when you consider what Christianity actually is. I would define Christianity this way:

Christianity is based on the life and teachings of Jesus Christ as revealed by the Bible. In summary, Jesus taught that union with Him is the only way to have salvation from sin, a peaceful relationship with God, and eternal life. This is based on His living a sinless life, dying an atoning death, and rising again on our behalf. Union with Christ comes by faith (trust) in Him.

Religion can be practiced by anyone- even people who have no relationship with God can be “religious” as religion primarily involves the outward actions.

Christianity, in the biblical sense of the concept, can only be practiced or experienced through a personal relationship with Christ.

Religion, understood the way most understand it today, is dangerous to our spiritual growth as it places undue emphasis on outward rituals and rites and not enough emphasis, if any, on our heart’s devotion to Christ. I am not saying there is no place for outward rituals and rites, on the contrary, the bible commands some (baptism and the Lord's Supper as examples) but rather they are not the substance of our religion but expressions and encouragers of it.

I am taken back to what Paul warns the Colossians (and us) concerning the matter of outward religion and practice.

Colossians 2:16-23 Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ. Let no one disqualify you, insisting on asceticism and worship of angels, going on in detail about visions, puffed up without reason by his sensuous mind, and not holding fast to the Head, from whom the whole body, nourished and knit together through its joints and ligaments, grows with a growth that is from God. If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations— "Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch" (referring to things that all perish as they are used)—according to human precepts and teachings? These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh.


Rick Calohan said...

I cringe when people say that Christianity is a religion. The reason being when Biblical Christianity is fully understood, it is not a list of dos and don’ts like man-made religion but it is summed up in one word DONE, as in the perfect sufficient sacrifice by Christ alone was done on the cross. I have by His Grace known that Biblical Christianity is a Faith and not a religion. It is by Grace Alone, through Faith Alone, in Christ Alone, that defines Biblical Christianity. However, certain groups and individuals have taken Christianity and made it into a religion and not by Faith alone in Christ alone.

The late Dr. D. James Kennedy I think explained it well when he said,
“Essentially there are only two religions in the whole world, one of them is "I"—"I" live a good life, "I" keep the commandments, "I" pray, "I" go to church, "I" follow the golden rule, "I" love my neighbor, "I" do the best "I" can, "I" don't do this bad thing, "I" don't do the other. That's called "autosoterism," or "self-salvation," where "I" become my own savior—glory be to me! I am in competition with Jesus Christ who claims to be the savior of the world. The only other religion is the "cross." There are over 30,000 religions in the world, but when you take off the ribbon and the wrapping and open the box, you'll either find the "I" or the "cross," essentially. Every one is going to either be saving himself, and be his own savior, or he is going to trust in Christ, and in Christ alone.
I would say to anyone that wants to know the free salvation of God, to get out of the savior business, declare spiritual bankruptcy, turn to Christ, and trust in Him alone for your salvation, and He will freely give you the gift of everlasting life. He will come into your heart and enable you to trust Him and to repent of your sins and change your life and give you new meaning and new direction and new power to live a godly life, and He will take you to be with Him in paradise for ever and ever.”

Woody Woodward said...

I am with you 100% on this. When I hear someone say, “O’ they are religious!” I cringe! What does that ambiguous condescending term scream out? Those who would make such a comment, I would almost guarantee, they couldn’t tell you the difference between Jesus and a Giraffe! After all Satan is religious, evolutionists are religious, atheists are religious, religious people are religious, New Agers are religious, Muslims are religious, the list goes on and on. In dealing with my West Coast lumber suppliers, they all know where I stand. And when I hear one of the say, “Sorry, Woody, I shouldn’t have cussed like that because I know you are extremely religious!” My comment, “No, please believe me, I am not religious, for I am not bound by religion, I have been set free in Christ!” You know, being “dead to Law and alive unto Christ, having been set free from the laws and penalties of sin and death”, cuss words never offend me, (unless they include the Lord’s Name blasphemed) but I am offended when I am called and thought of as “religious.” I am a sinner saved by His mighty grace.

Zach said...


I love ya, brother, but this argument that Christianity-is-not-a-religion has always struck me as a trite and annoying one--more worthy of mega-church evangelicalism than those who value historical Christianity.

I mean, St. James goes to the trouble of defining "pure and undefiled religion" for the New Testament Christians (Jas 1:27), and I don't need to remind you that your homeboy Calvin's magnum opus is entitled Institutes of the Christian Religion.

Even D. James Kennedy (in the very quote advanced by Rick to supposedly buttress the Christianity-is-not-a-religion argument) explicitly identifies Christianity as a religion: "The only other religion is the 'cross.'"

I understand and share your frustration with what some people mean by the term "religion", but there's no need to throw out the baby with the bathwater. Religion is a useful and holy word that, for the last two thousand years, has been employed by Christians to salutary effect--let's reclaim it.

Reepicheep said...

Zach, I have no problem with "religion" defined biblically. I am addressing the way it is used popularly today, that's all.

Rick Calohan said...


The reason I believe that Dr. Kennedy referred to Christianity as a religion of "the cross" is that Christianity has been classified as a religion by those who know nothing about the faith and because when legalist make Christianity a list of do's and dont's as oppose to by Grace Alone, through Faith Alone, in Christ Alone, its no wonder those outside of the faith believe it to be a man made religion such as Anti- Theist Christopher Hitchens.

Woody Woodward said...

Great thoughts Brother Zach, but Tony got ya on this one.

Brother Titus said...

Put it this way: Religion as a means to God is like going home to the wife for dinner, to the movies and out, shopping (grocery), and that's about it; but, then going over to the girlfriend's house and "making hay," because the girlfriend is the real love interest. I think I need a shower.

Zach said...


Fair enough, but your post seems to be skirting along the edge of what we've all heard "free church" folks say over the years: Christianity is not a religion.

In fact, the other commenters on this thread seem to hold that view--and think that in so doing, they are agreeing with you.

Reepicheep said...

Christianity can be labeled a religion, I'm not throwing the term out all together- afterall, part of the vows asked of parents at baptism include teaching our children the doctrines of our "holy religion". I simply mean to say that modern notions about religion make the term less helpful. We need to be careful to explain how we mean Christianity is a religion if we are using such a term.