In the first of a new series on this Blog, I want to take a look at words that have negative baggage associated with them, even though they are actually really good things. These are words people hear – and their noses immediately scrunch up as though a bad smell has suddenly entered the area. Some of them are words Christians use that the world hates, but some of them, like this first one, are words Christians turn up their noses at, without realizing what it is they’re actually rejecting.
Without further ado, the first “dirty” word up for dissection is religion.
You don’t have to look very far into the comments section of any article on Christianity to find someone proudly pontificating about how Christ is cool, but Christians are the worst. It’s a common criticism that requires very little thought or explanation, and is typically attributed (falsely) to Gandhi, who supposedly said, “I like your Christ; I do not like your Christians.”
But you don’t have to look far beyond that to hear a Christian saying essentially the same thing in a different way: “Jesus is great; it’s all that religion stuff that’s bad.” Or, put more simply, I’ve heard it said by Christians that Jesus hates religion. It’s basically a Christian’s way of saying “I’m not like all those other Christians who are all ceremony and no heart.”
So what’s the deal with this way of thinking? Is religion actually bad? And if so, what’s the difference between being a Christian (the person) and being a part of Christianity (the religion)?
To begin with, people who criticize religion are trying to differentiate between stuff that is God-instituted and stuff that is man-made, which kind of makes sense – to an extent. Unfortunately, the line gets a bit confusing. They’ll say, for example, that a church should be about people and ministry, not politics and money. And it’s true! Except that people are political – and ministry costs money…
So they point to Jesus’ condemnations in the Gospels of the Pharisees and their legalistic religion. “You hypocrites!” Jesus said, “Well did Isaiah prophesy of you, when he said: ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.'”
But people who criticize religion wrongly equate Jesus’ criticism of the Pharisees with their own dislike for the rituals and traditions they don’t like or understand. The difference is that Jesus knew what was in the Pharisees’ hearts – and that it didn’t match what was coming out of their mouths. We, on the other hand, are not Jesus. We don’t know a person’s heart – and so we need to be careful when we condemn them for what we think or feel about them. When we claim to know a person’s heart and condemn them for it, then we fall under Jesus’ condemnation of the Pharisees:
“Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye (Matthew 7:4-5).”
But religion does not imply empty ritual, no matter how much people want it to. Religion is simply this: it is everything we think, feel and do in community, according to what we believe. The key is that we’re in this together, which helps protect us from becoming too wrapped up in ourselves, and from being swept away by an overemphasis on the spirituality of me, myself and I.
This is why it is so important to join a church and go regularly: not so that we can be controlled or be a part of a mindless mob, but for the support, accountability and reinforcement that a like-minded community of sinners can provide.
Is the church perfect? Absolutely not! People don’t go to church because they have it all figured out, they go to church precisely because they don’t! It’s not a country club for saints, it’s a hospital for sinners. But in church, we are reminded that we are forgiven – and because of that, we have the opportunity to start again and be better today than we were yesterday; better tomorrow than we are today.
So do you really think Jesus hated religion? He attended services in the Temple regularly, he prayed with others, and oh, by the way, He started the Church! Jesus criticized the Pharisees because they spent all their time self-righteously pointing out everyone else’s errors, and their outward shows of faith did not reflect the true state of what they believed – which Jesus, as the Son of God, knew.
We are not Jesus – we cannot see into peoples’ hearts. So we need to be very careful when we criticize particular styles of religious practice as being empty, meaningless, dead, shameless performance, outdated or dangerous. Are the people there worshiping the one true God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit? If so, then perhaps the truth is that we just don’t understand or like the way they do it, and the problem is with us, and not them.
Criticizing religion sounds enlightened, but it’s actually arrogant and silly – and sinful. You may think you’re spiritual and not religious, but if you’re not engaging your faith in relationship with others in ways that hold you accountable to more than just yourself (the definition of religion), what – or whom – is your faith actually in?
So, if you haven’t already, find a community of believers. Get plugged in, and become a part of the family of God. Be there, every week – because you need God’s Word, and we need each other.
Church isn’t an obligation, it’s a gift – and a commitment.
Religion isn’t about thought control, or mindless obedience, or emotionless ritual; it is faith lived out in community; and it’s how we’re called to live, as Christians.
Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.
Religion isn’t a dirty word, it’s living out your faith in community. You are forgiven, you are loved, and you are part of His family. So come to the reunion – we’re in this together.