While I was young, and still attending my mother’s home church, there was a particular phrase that people loved to quote: "We don't have a religion, we have a relationship." That is all I would hear, when a preacher was yelling their lungs out from the pulpit on a Saturday night. I agreed. Religion to me was saying a couple of Hail Marys, praying five times a day, and legalistic practices. I envisioned the pope, or the Dalai Lama when I thought of religion, so I definitely did not want to relate my Christian belief to this word that everyone told me was wrong. Now, here we are, years later, and the vilifying of the word "religion" is complete. You have books like "Jesus > Religion," Godly pastors with campaigns against religion, and thousands of young people who don't label themselves as religious - yet have faith in Christ.
Now the deeper I've thought about this, the more concerned I've become. Why are we so quick and ready to deny religion? Do we even know what it is that we are denying? I looked up the definition of the word religion on both Merriam-Webster, and on Wikipedia - it goes as follows:
Merriam-Webster: a cause, principle, or system of beliefs held to with ardor and faith;
Wiktionary: The belief in and worship of a supernatural controlling power, especially a personal god or gods. A particular system of faith and worship.
Keep repeating these definitions to yourself....do you see the issue here? Christians have been bashing the word religion, when in reality "religion" is a sum of faith and works. Which is really disheartening, since our belief rests on faith in Jesus' work on the cross for us, living a life following His commandments, and doing good works in light of His grace and mercy towards us.
Now you may say, "Ruben, we know what religion really means, we just use that word in order to better communicate and relate to the cultural definition of the word today." But that's the danger! We have antagonized a word, because it doesn't have a good reputation in the World's eyes. If that's the case, what happens when the word "Gospel" goes out of style? What happens to our creeds, rituals, and doctrines if any of those words develop a stigma in the culture? Will we do away with them as well, in order to keep up appearances? I hope not.
I think we need to rescue Religion from the pit we've exiled it to. Why? Because there is only one pure and true religion. As the book of James says:
"Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep one-self unstained from the world." James 1:27
James, the "faith without works is dead" originator, has summed up true religion for us:
1. Love your neighbor
2. Be Holy
Ironically, he was arguing that those who had faith in God, with no works, had a false religion (James 1:26). And here we are, claiming religion is only about works!
Religion is not wrong. In fact, it is an essential part of our new life in Christ. We are called to serve the Lord and others religiously. To devote our hearts to God, and our hands to our neighbors. Our religion is to seek the holiness in which no man can see God without (Hebrews 12:14), all the while demonstrating the grace, mercy, and love Christ had for us to others (1 John 4:7-12). Just because it may have a bitter taste in the mouth of the World, does not mean we must spit out the sweet gift of true religion, that our Lord Jesus calls us to taste.
Having said that, there IS a way of defining the evil and corrupt practices we've tried to peg on true religion - it is False Religion. Any belief, ritual, devotion, sacrament, or doctrine outside of Faith in Christ's redemptive work is a false religion. That can range from Mormonism and Islam, to an obsession with Star Trek or pornography. False religion is what Jesus spoke against in Matthew 23, when He called out the Pharisees - NOT for doing the works, but for the intent and object of worship of their works: their own praise. He even goes on to tell the people to "do as the Pharisees say, but not as they do," due to their self-worshipping religion (Matthew 23:3). False religion is what has led millions away from the Gospel, false religion is root of hypocrisy in Christians. When a believer lacks in grace, it's not that they are too religious - it's that their religion is false. It lacks the essential understanding of God's grace for sinners. When a believer does not bear fruit, and their hands are slow to do good works- they are deeply devoted to a false religion. They want to be hearers of the word and not doers (quoting James), and that reveals the deceitfulness of their faith.
It would be wise of us to repent of our dismembering of the word "religion," and strive to not let culture dictate what words we can and can't use. It will also be wise of us to add the word "false" in front the word "religion," on many of the very good and helpful books out today that speak against false religion, but fail in defining it correctly. My intent for this post is not to bash anyone whom may have preached against religion, since they were teaching against something wrong. But rather, that we define what is true and what is false properly. It can be very detrimental to newer believers who hold fast to a hatred of religion, and then are caught off guard by the religious nature of the Old Testament, or end up confused when reading the book of James. Religion is good, when the object of devotion is Christ, and the fruit of our faith in Him are good works of love and mercy towards His creation.