It Actually Is About Religion

It pains me that I even have to say it.

A growing trend for a number of years within the Christian church espouses that true Christianity is not a religion, but rather a relationship with Jesus Christ. It has become the language of believers of many different faith backgrounds, from Pentecostals to Presbyterians. The explanation behind this trend focuses on two ideas. First, modern-day religion is mired in empty rituals and dead traditions that have little to do with authentic spirituality. Second, as the word “religion” itself becomes more of a pariah in western society, the Christian community seeks to distance itself from the word to remain more culturally relevant in their eyes.

The problem with this trend is that, like all trends, it is largely reactionary instead of responsive. By that, I mean that Christians react to something they see that they don’t like without thinking it through. They find the first reaction that makes sense and run with it. “Empty rituals? How did we end up with those? Let’s forget all that stuffy nonsense of how many times we should take communion or whether or not being re-baptized is a necessary thing, and get back to sharing Jesus’ love.”

But did it ever occur to anyone to ask where those “empty rituals” came from or why they still exist for so many? One person’s stuffy nonsense ends up being another’s meaningful act of worship. Two of my sons have been baptized three times. Their baptism occurred when they were little boys who could articulate having one’s sins washed and being identified in Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection, even if their understanding of it was limited. They found more meaning and renewal in their later baptism experiences. In other words, their relationship with the living Christ deepened by going through a religious ritual three different times.

Beyond the idea of what rituals mean to us, the larger point I want to make is that our pursuit of Christ and our desire to emulate his life and ministry is what religion is all about. The word “religion,” which comes from the Greek word threskeia, means “expression of devotion to transcendent beings,” similar in vein to the word “worship.” So, if we’re to do away with religion as the trend suggests, do we stop worshipping? No more devotion to God?

James 1:27 reads:

“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.”

In other words, it commands us to love others (by caring for them and taking care of their needs), and to live rightly, which is how we love God (1 John 5:3). That’s religion. Your Bible wants you to practice pure and undefiled religion.

So, before we say anything further, can we all please stop bashing the word “religion?”

Maybe what we mean to say is that we wish to abandon religiosity. One dictionary defines it as “excessive devotion to religion.” In other words, there is a negative quality to religiosity that goes beyond what well-adjusted religion looks like. It’s about being religious for religious’ sake. It’s about the outward act more than the inward motive. It’s about appearance more than attitude. That’s the empty practice we want to do away with, isn’t it?

Let’s be honest: virtually every action we employ in the name of genuine devotion runs the risk of becoming an empty ritual. In fact, even confessing, “It’s not about religion, it’s about relationship,” (as though it were some modern-day creed) can itself become the empty ritual its champions sought to avoid. Those who sing contemporary, upbeat songs in church, complete with hand waving and clapping practice a ritual. The old-fashioned church that deploys hymn books to its parishioners to sing the songs of old with an organ in the background practice a ritual. What do they have in common? They’re both engaged in practicing religion. Both rituals can have meaning. Both rituals can be empty. As already defined, religion is the expression of one’s devotion of God. The key is our devotion; our hearts determines if our religion is alive or dead.

So, don’t do away with religion. Reclaim it; keep it pure and undefiled. Let your expression of devotion remain full of life and purpose.

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