When Did “Religion” Become Bad?

When Did “Religion” Become Bad? August 27, 2022

“In the beginning God created…”

Note:  This is the first post I’ve done which is not strictly a reflection on Scripture.  Rather, it’s a reflection on an subject which interests me in regard to Christian faith.  As I had noted in my first post on Patheos, I will probably write posts like this from time to time as subjects interest me.  Let me know what you think!  And if you have topics you’d like me to address, please feel free to pass them on to me.  Thanks!

What is Religion?

Religion (n):

  1. a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe, especially when considered as the creation of a superhuman agency or agencies, usually involving devotional and ritual observances, and often containing a moral code governing the conduct of human affairs
  2. a specific fundamental set of beliefs and practices agreed upon by a number of persons or sects
  3. the body of persons adhering to a particular set of beliefs and practices
  4. the life or state of a monk, nun, etc.
  5. the practice of religious beliefs; ritual observance of faith
  6. something one believes in and follows devotedly; a point or matter of ethics or conscience (www.dictionary.com, “religion”)

“To [the writer of Hebrews], religion is access to God’s presence as friends, with nothing between us and him.”  (William Barclay, The New Daily Study Bible: The Letter to the Hebrews, emphasis added)

If anyone thinks himself to be religious, yet does not bridle his tongue but deceives his own heart, this person’s religion is worthless. 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(James 1:26-27, NASB, emphasis added)

When did “religion” become bad?  I ask that question because I’ve seen or heard people say things like this: “Oh, I’m not religious; I’m a follower of Jesus.”  Or this: “I’m not into religion; I’m into a relationship.”  It’s apparent that people who say such things must be defining the word “religion” differently than I do. At least they’re defining it differently than James does!  To James, a person who said that they weren’t “religious” would be saying that they didn’t want to visit orphans and widows nor to keep themselves unstained by the world.  Is that really what they mean?

I don’t think so. So the question becomes, “What do they think ‘religion’ means?” Another question, which follows the first is this: “Where did they get that idea?”

Our Concept of Religion 

I think this negative understanding of “religion” began as a reaction to the legalism that many of us grew up with in the church of our youth.  (By that, I’m referring to the 1950s – 1970s.)  We were told to follow a bunch of rules that may originally have had some spiritual basis, but no longer seemed to serve that purpose. (As a side note, the explanations of the original purposes were not always available.)   But when we read the Gospels and learned what Jesus did and taught, we responded positively to that! And as a result, we contrasted “Jesus” with what we had experienced, and “religion” came to mean something drastically different than “discipleship.”

As I see it, there are two main problems with rejecting “religion.”  First, the issue is not with the word “religion” (which is a Biblical word) as much as it is with the way that some people practice religion. Second, in our haste to distance ourselves from “religion,” we have lost all that is good about religion in order to correct a problem that could easily be addressed in other ways.

The Biblical Concept of Religion

Consider what James says in the verses I’ve quoted above. First, he contrasts “thinking oneself to be religious” with “pure and undefiled religion in the sight of our God and Father.” This tells us that not everything that people call “religion” is good, nor is it automatically bad. (That’s a lazy way to address problems.  It brings to mind the pigs in Animal Farm which teach the other animals to shout “Four legs good, two legs bad” as a way to end any argument.) The critical question is this: “How does our religion cause us to live?” Any “religion” which does not touch our tongues nor our attitudes is worthless (James’ term, not mine).  Religion that encourages us to live the way that God calls us to live is good.

The Impact of Religion

We thus come to the question: “What does it mean to ‘live the way that God calls us to live’?”  James says that it involves both our personal holiness and our love for others.  Personal holiness means “keeping ourselves unstained by the world.” Love for others includes things like “visiting orphans and widows in their distress.”  Anyone who has read the epistle of James is familiar with his major premise: that “faith without works is dead” (James 2:17).

The fact is that we demonstrate our holiness in relation to both God and other people. This is what it means to love God and love our neighbor as ourselves. Jesus told his disciples, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15, NASB).  I think that’s at the heart of the problem. We don’t like to think about “religion” because it reminds us that we are expected to obey God’s commandments.

But in our desire to avoid “religion,” we have lost the good that religion offers.  For example, C.S. Lewis wrote that those who say they’re not interested in theology don’t have a lack ideas about God; they simply have incorrect and incomplete ideas about Him. If we’re going to think about God, shouldn’t we try to understand Him as best we can?

A Reclaimed Understanding of Religion

That brings us back to “religion,” and specifically the first part of the definition quoted above: a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe, especially when considered as the creation of a superhuman agency or agencies, usually involving devotional and ritual observances, and often containing a moral code governing the conduct of human affairs. Is there any part of that definition which would not fit our understanding of Christian discipleship?

The answer, to put it bluntly, is “no.” We believe that God created the heavens and the earth. We believe that we are created to be in relationship with God.  (In the words of the Westminster Catechism, “the chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.”) As the children of God, we are called to follow devotional and ritual observances, like prayer, worship, and service.  And there is certainly a moral code which governs our conduct as followers of Jesus.

“I’m not into ‘religion’; I’m into a relationship with Jesus.”  Well, that’s great!  Every follower of Jesus is in a relationship with him. But what does that mean?  How does that relationship impact our lives?  How does that relationship make us different from those who don’t have a relationship with Jesus?  There’s only one real answer: it makes us what to be more like Jesus.

So does a rejection of “religion” help us to be more like Jesus?

Not necessarily.  Oh, I know that Jesus battled with the “religious authorities” of his day – but that was because their “religion” was not the “religion” that God calls us to follow!  They were not caring for those who were in distress, as James defines “pure and undefiled religion.”  Instead, Jesus described them this way: “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and love personal greetings in the marketplaces, and chief seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets, who devour widows’ houses, and for appearances’ sake offer long prayers.  These will receive all the more condemnation” (Luke 20:46-47, NASB).  Jesus is probably just as frustrated with people today who ignore his example and focus on what other people think. That’s no reason for us to run away from “religion.”

What this comes down to is our willingness to allow the enemy to take perfectly good things and twist them into something bad. Satan never created anything good; all he can do is twist and pervert good things to try to make us think that they’re bad. Instead of saying, “I’m not religious,” why not say, “I’m doing my best to follow the religion that Jesus modeled, with his help.”  If religion is something one believes in and follows devotedly, wouldn’t that apply to our relationship with Jesus?

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