Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Religion

“Traitor is such a strong word!”

“Let your religion be less of a theory and more of a love affair.”

~G.K. Chesterton

When I was young, I'm not sure exactly what age; I remember the pastor of my church preached a sermon. “I hate religion” he said. “Religion is just rules and regulations.” since then I've heard this so many times. I saw a guy with a shirt that said “I'm not religious, I just love God.” To this day I see the same concept in all sorts of books and sermons. The leaders and pastors of probably every church I've ever been in have said things like this. It seems that everywhere you look these days the churches of America have pretty much disowned the word religion.

“Christianity is all about relationship” is the expression you are most prone to hear when you have a discussion about religion with a Christian these days. I have one question for the many Christians who enjoy ranting against religion so much. Why is it that we are so eager to stop using a Biblical word? The word appears a few times in the New Testament and is mentioned in a positive context in the book of James.

I've brought this question up with a few fellow Christians in the past few weeks and they usually go on to explain how the word doesn't carry the meaning that it used to. That's fair enough, but what is it that has caused the meaning of religion to change so drastically? In the book of James, the word for religion comes from the same word as worship, and it basically means to follow a ritual or tradition. Today, on the other hand, if you mention religion to the vast majority of Christians who know their basic church lingo, they will go on to talk about how destructive legalism is.

Again I ask, what's the deal? Why has religion changed from its biblical meaning? When I started thinking about this, one of my first ideas was that the world had redefined it, but after I thought about it, I realized that a lot of friends of mine that aren't Christians have asked me if I'm religious. The thing about it, however, was that there was nothing in the way they said it that asked; “hey, are you a legalistic jerk?” All they were really asking was “Hey, do you believe in God and go to church.” Because of this, my usual response tended to be: “Yes, I am religious.”

I know, I'm a horrible rotten sinner because of this. I've shamed the church by promoting legalism. I'm such a heretic. Let ask you something though, if the world changed the meaning of religion, which it seems that they didn't, then why should that matter to us? If they didn't change the meaning, and they simply look at religion as a set of beliefs, then who changed the definition?

I believe that we changed it, and I'll tell you why. What was it that James was talking about when he mentioned religion? In James 1:26-27, James says this: “If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person's religion is worthless. 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.”

What do we see in this verse? We see that religion definitely has something to do with works. We also know, if we have much training in the idea of grace, that our works are the outworking of grace. So the biblical definition of religion, at least according to this verse, is the outworking of God's grace in our lives. What I believe happened to us in today's church is that we have, at many points, stopped living by the grace of God. Perhaps this is what has given our “religion” a bad name. Because of our pride and dependence on human strength, we have turned our religion into legalism.

This problem may seem obvious to many people reading, but the area I want to call into question is our response to it. Our response, as I mentioned, is to make the word “religion” into a taboo. We've come up with catchy phrases like; Christianity isn't a religion, it's a relationship.” or: “I'm not religious, I just love God!” Some people reading this may think I'm getting overly caught up in a simple issue of semantics, but I beg to differ.

This kind of thing has happened in other ways. We have often times defined the word “worship” to simply mean “music” when we know it means far more. We have often defined the word “missions” to simply mean “overseas work” when we know that every single Christian is called to be a missionary in some way. How have we responded in these situations? Usually we do our best to get people thinking in the terms of the proper definition through a sermon or a book or whatever. Why is it that we haven't done this with religion? As I mentioned before, I believe that it's because of our constant tendency to revert back to self reliance rather than God reliance.

We are so reluctant to put our trust in the grace of God that legalism is an outcome that has become inevitable. I believe that this will be an issue we will always have to deal with and it is something God must work out in the life of every Christian, but I also believe that it's time we stopped playing word games as a result. It seems to me that when we ditch the word “religion,” that it is, quite frankly, a cop-out. We are unable or unwilling to live out the true meaning of the words that the Bible puts forward.

The problem isn't with the word “religion,” the problem is with us. If we decide to discard a word in the Bible because we can't live by its proper definition then what's to stop us from doing it in other areas of the Bible? Things like “I don't worship, I just like to live a life that is pleasing to God” or: “I don't pray, I just like to have conversations with God.” Okay, maybe that’s a long way off, but I don't see any difference in the concept of what we've been doing. We say we're not religious and that we just love God, but what's to stop us from calling into question what it means to “just love God.”? This cycle could go on forever without ever simply letting God's word do a work in our hearts without complicating the obvious meanings of those words.

We fail to let religion simply be what the Bible says it is, and we throw away the word “religion” and talk about our faith in what we think is the proper way. We hope that it will change our behavior, but what we need to realize is that we need to start getting it right the first time so that the word games don't become a vicious circle. We can either let our sinful hearts continue to force us to change words, or we can let God's Word finally change our hearts.

When I put myself in the shoes of someone outside of the church, I can only imagine that our word games are flat out confusing. When I hear a pastor or even myself say “Hey it's not religion, it's relationship” I can't help but cringe at the fact that it sounds like a cheap sales pitch.

Perhaps I have misread the heart of the world when I started thinking of this. Perhaps the word “religion” is beyond repair. It's hard for me to say, but I think it's time we held ourselves to the true definitions of what the Bible says so that God's word can continue to be what it was intended to be: “Sufficient.”

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