Sunday, June 2, 2013

Christianity IS a Religion

Recently I read this article, vilifying religion as some sort of insidious harbinger of division and legalism into the church. There was a great many things I found irritating, offensive, or wrong about that article, but I simply cannot touch on all of them in one blog post. Instead, I will touch on the main point of contention I have with the article (and many others just like it), and that is the claim that Christianity is not a religion.

Fact: Christianity IS a religion.

But what do I mean by that, and why does it matter if Christianity is a religion or not?  I will answer those questions post haste. I will divide this post into two sections. The first explaining what religion is and why Christianity is a religion, and the second explaining why it matters that Christians try to say Christianity is not a religion. 

So, what is religion? It is a rather general word that was created to help define the overall tendency of people to search out a spiritual meaning to life. A few definitions to help you understand:
(1) the service and worship of God or the supernatural (2): commitment or devotion to religious faith or observance … a personal set or institutionalized system of religious attitudes, beliefs, and practices… archaic: scrupulous conformity: CONSCIENTIOUSNESS… a cause, principle, or system of beliefs held to with ardor and faith. merriam-webster online 
 Religion is an organized collection of beliefs, cultural systems, and world views that relate humanity to the supernatural, to spirituality and, sometimes, to moral values. wikipedia
Belief in something sacred (for example, gods or other supernatural beings). … a distinction between sacred and profane objects. … Ritual acts focused on sacred objects. … A moral code believed to have a sacred or supernatural basis. … Characteristically religious feelings (awe, sense of mystery, sense of guilt, adoration), which tend to be aroused in the presence of sacred objects and during the practice of ritual. … Prayers and other forms of communication with the supernatural. … A world view, or a general picture of the world as a whole and the place of the individual therein. This picture contains some specification of an over-all purpose or point of the world and an indication of how the individual fits into it. … A more or less total organization of one’s life based on the world view. …A social group bound together by the above. atheism.about
A site with a long list of definitions by people and dictionaries (the definitions by people being mainly personal opinions):
“But enough of those secular definitions,” the Christian who hates religion might say now; “Tell me what the Bible says of religion, for surely the Bible condemns it.”

Au contraire, my ignorant bible-fellow. We are told in James 1:26-27 “If anyone among you thinks he is religious, and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his own heart, this one’s religion is useless. Pure and undefiled religion before God and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their trouble, and to keep oneself unspotted from the world.” (emphasis added)

Also in Acts 25:19, Acts 26:5, and Colossians 2:23.  Really, it is only Colossians 2:23 and James 1:26 that show how religion can turn into something bad. However, those verses are not condemning religion, but condemning the wrong sort of religious behavior as pertains to Judaism/Christianity. 

Of course, the Greek-loving Christian will now say, “Oh but surely those uses of the word ‘religion’ in the Bible were mistranslations.” To which I would sarcastically respond, “You’re really smart. I can tell.”  
To be honest, I am not a Greek scholar. I no more know how to read an original ancient Greek text than an illiterate 5 year old does. However, I’m pretty good at Googling things, and so I put my faith in the veracity of sites that can translate these things for me.

As such, we get deisidaimonia for Acts 25:19, which tells me can be translated as, in a good sense, “reverencing god or the gods, pious, religious,” or, in a bad sense, “superstitious, religious.” Note how religious is in both the bad and good list. So, religious behavior from a Christian can be good or bad.

For Acts 26:5, we get qreskeia, which tells me can be translated as “religious worship, esp. external, that which consists of ceremonies; religious disciple, religion.”

For Colossians 2:23, eqeloqreskeia, which tells me translates as “voluntary, arbitrary worship; worship which one prescribes and devises for himself, contrary to the contents and nature of faith which out to be directed to Christ; said of the misdirected zeal and the practices of ascetics.”

For James 1:26, qreskoƟ, which tells me translates as, “fearing or worshipping God; to tremble; trembling, fearing.”

And finally, for James 1:27, “qreskeia,” which is the same word used in Acts 26:5.

So, my dearest of dear naysayers, religion is in the Bible and it isn’t vilified. We could even say, in James 1:27, it is rather promoted quite sincerely.

This is the end of the definitions of religion. We see that religion is rather a very broad term that basically refers to worship as it pertains to each individual religions' belief systems. We see religion is referenced in the New Testament, and not in a disparaging manner. Christianity falls under the banner of religion, and there is nothing shameful for a Christian to admit this. To look even at the merriam-webster definition, it is fine for a Christian to admit to the "service or worship of God." That is, after all, what Christians should be doing.

Moving now from establishing Christianity as a religion, I will address why I find it troublesome to try to say Christianity is not a religion. The problem is that when a person says Christianity is not a religion, I find they are making the word “religion” synonymous with a few concepts that are not a religion and never claimed to be. Specifically, when they say Christianity is not a religion and that religion is bad, what they seem to be saying is that Christianity is not about legalism, hypocrisy, works-based salvation, laws, self-righteousness. This is evidenced in the article I linked to at the beginning of this post. This is not a good thing, making religion synonymous with those words. The reason being that, by attacking the word “religion,” Christians are actually inaccurately naming the things that really bother them about Christianity. When a person says “religion is bad. Christianity is not a religion,” what do they mean by that? Do they mean legalism is bad? Do they mean works-based salvation is bad? Do they mean self-righteous attention to a false holiness in an attempt to seem better than that person sitting next to you on the church pew is bad?

Certainly, all of these things are bad, but they have actual names, and those names are not religion. If a pastor, or teacher, or blogger, et al, wants to attack a way of acting or thinking or doctrine in the church that is not in line with the word of God, then they should do so specifically and accurately. It helps no one to vilify religion.

In the article I linked at the top, the author conveniently provided a definition of what religion apparently is: 
Religion is a system of beliefs of a code of moral conduct that judges (qualifies or disqualifies) a person based on their adherence and obedience to certain codes, rules, laws, traditions, or the performance of required acts. 

Let’s take a moment, readers, and journey back up to those definitions and ancient Greek words I provided. Let’s read back over them, and let’s journey back down to this definition. It seems about right. Yes, religion is a system of beliefs of a code of moral conduct. Yes a person is qualified or disqualified from specific religions depending on whether they achieve what is necessary to be named part of that religious denomination. Yes a person needs to adhere to and/or obey certain codes, rules, laws, traditions, etc in order for people to be able to classify them as following this, that, or the other religion. So far, I don’t see the issue with religion.

And therein lies the first problem with vilifying the word religion. Christians water down the Gospel of God by trying to imply that we aren’t qualified or disqualified based on whether we adhere to certain doctrinal truths outlined in the Bible. Namely, what is the most important “performance of [a] required act” that Christians must do in order to be Christians? I must confess with my mouth and believe in my heart that Jesus Christ is Lord. I must accept Him as my savior. I am told that the only way to heaven is through Jesus Christ. By believing and adhering to this, am I not “qualifying” myself for Christianity? Why vilify this act of judgement by God? Why vilify God judging whether a person will or will not enter heaven at all? Why vilify the fact that Christians are, in fact, expected to obey certain codes, rules, and laws in order to be deemed holy and obedient by God? What purpose does that serve Christianity to make it seem like God does not expect certain things from us, to make Christians think we aren’t required to live a works-filled life? That harms Christianity. It doesn’t help it. So there we have the first reason vilifying the word “religion” is bad.

Next, we have the incorrect attempt to make synonyms of words that are not synonyms with religion.

Legalism: the adding on to laws ordained by a supernatural being in order to clarify the laws (in an attempt at holiness) or in a self-righteous effort to make yourself seem better than others.

The author of the article we continually refer to commented on legalism, saying:
When Jesus was on the earth, [legalism] was very rampant, as it is today. There was a group of corrupt [legalistic] leaders called the Pharisees who had taken the word of God, passed down from Moses and the prophets (the Torah), and written a commentary on it interpreting what the scriptures said (called the Talmud). Then they wrote another commentary on that commentary called the ‘Mishnah.’ The Mishnah was a list of hundreds of rules to meet in order to insure that you were obeying the word of God. These were created by man and had little basis in the actual scripture.
I’ll avoid an exposition on the intricacies of the importance of the Talmud and Mishnah in Jewish faith, and instead let you focus on the two bracketed words I put in that passage: "legalism" and "legalistic." If you go to the article, you will see the words he actually has there are "religion" and "religious." You see, though, that legalism and legalistic are much more fitting. That is what the Jewish leaders were. They were legalistic. Sure they were religious, but most Jews were. Jesus was religious as well (in the actual, literal sense of the word). Jesus doesn’t condemn religion. He condemns legalism that binds up people and forces them to focus on laws not ordained by God instead of focusing on God.

The thing is, legalism is bad whenever it occurs, but it is not always evil. Sometimes people legalistically add their own laws to God’s laws because they are genuinely trying to be a good Christian. This is sad that they would bind themselves with laws God would not have them bound with, but it is not to be castigated. Instead, when we see a brother or sister in Christ do this, we should gently correct the error of their beliefs and lead them to freedom in Christ. The other sort of legalism, though, is bad. This is the legalism that Jesus often encountered with many of the Pharisees of his time. That legalism where they would force Jews to follow all their man-made laws, and then look down on the Jews would they could not keep the laws, and they would say "I am better than those lowly Jews that can't uphold all these laws we created."

One thing we need to acknowledge, though, is that the legalism in Judaism probably started out as an attempt at remaining holy and adhering to the strictures of God’s law. It was an effort to please God by making laws that would absolutely keep them from accidentally breaking one of the 613 laws passed down from God, through Moses, and to them.

What made it evil and deplorable (instead of a simple misguided effort to please God) was hypocrisy and self-righteousness.

Hypocrite: a person who says one thing and does another. Hypocrisy is condemned by Jesus in passages such as Matthew 6:1-4, Matthew 7:5, Matthew 23:27, and more. I hope we can all agree that Jesus does not approve of hypocrisy. However, Jesus never said religion is hypocrisy and hypocrisy is religion.

Self-righteousness: hypocritically pious or religious.

As the author of the article says,
Jesus hated this! He hated the way the Pharisees used the people’s love for God (or fear of God) to control them, limit their freedom, and empty them of the relationship with God that was intended.
Yes, Jesus hated self-righteousness and hypocrisy. He did not hate religion though. Religion is not self-righteousness and hypocrisy unless you make self-righteousness and hypocrisy your religion. If that is what you worship and revere, then that’s a sad religion indeed. So once again, we have the author making the word Religion synonymous with two things it is not. Why do this? Why not just say self-righteousness and hypocrisy is bad? It is much more beneficial to Christians if you actually name what action is bad, so that the Christian can accurately research it and figure out how to avoid it.

It is not helpful if I say, “religion is bad. Christians should not be religious.” There are so many articles online talking about how Christianity is a religion, how religion is neither bad nor good. And there are so many articles falsely vilifying religion. With these contradicting articles (the latter of such being incorrect), what will happen when a pastor or teacher tells a Christian that religion is bad is that they will become confused when they go to research the issue themselves.

On the other hand, if I tell a Christian “Legalism is not good, hypocrisy is bad, self-righteousness is bad,” then the Christian can research those terms and find ways to avoid this things, how to do the opposite. They will find scriptures talking about these issues, and will be able to improve their walk with Christ.

Next, we have the author talking about how Christianity is not about works-based salvation. I agree that works and being a “good” person cannot save me. We are told in scripture that “there is none good. No not one.” So being good isn’t going to get me into heaven. 

However, religion does not say “being good gets a person into heaven.” False doctrine within the Christian church says “being good gets a person into heaven.” Religion is not a doctrine. Religion is just a word created to help explain all the different spiritual, supernatural, humanitarian beliefs out there, to categorize them. Religion cannot tell me what to do, because religion does not create Christianity. Christianity creates religion, as does Buddhism, Judaism, Taoism, Wiccans, Candomble, etc. All of these different worldviews influenced by spirituality create religion. They dictate what the definition of religion is by saying “here is what we believe in this denomination. Now stick that in your definition of religion.” Buddhism, relatively devoid of gods, makes the definition of religion have to expand to include “spiritual beliefs about life and the afterlife.” Judaism combined with Hinduism make it have to expand to include both “a belief in a god or gods.”

When a person says “What is your religion?” all they are asking is what denomination or brand of faith you adhere to. They aren’t asking if you think religion is about “man reaching up to God” or “God reaching down to man.” Religion can encompass both of those. Some religions can be about man trying to reach God. Some religions can be about God (or gods) reaching down to man.

So, it is not helpful to Christians to confuse false doctrine with religion. Once again, it would be better to use the correct term so that Christians can actually research what false doctrine is, and so they can be warned against it and taught how to avoid it. Namely, be like the Bereans and study what you're taught, and follow 2 Timothy 2:15.

Last we have the excessive focus on relationships, and by relationships I assume it is mainly focusing on that Evangelical TBN love for “I have a one-on-one personal best friend relationship with God” sort of relationship.
When you practice religion, your relationship with God is degraded to a mathematical formula. Do this, then do this, don’t do that, and presto… you are right in the eyes of God. This is TOTALLY missing the point! God wants so much more. He wants to have a real relationship with you. He wants to show his love to you and He wants you to love Him.
First of all, there is nothing wrong with formulas. If a person functions best in relationships by relying on formulas and rules and regulations, then don’t knock it. Every person is made differently.

Second of all, the author misses the point that there is more than one sort of relationship in the world, and most sorts are not equal. While a husband-wife relationship or a friend-friend or  a coworker-coworker relationship is equal, most others are not. Most of our relationships with God are with Him on top and us below: Master-servant, King-subject, Father-child, Owner-slave, Creator-created.

When a person says “God wants us to have a relationship with him and not follow religion,” of what relationship are they referring to? Would it be religious if I focused on the Creator-created relationship, or the Owner-slave? If I were to say “I am going to obey God and show my love for Him through obedience and following this, that, and the other code of behavior?” Is that religion, as per the “religion is bad” definition? If so, sign me up for religion, because my Bible tells me obedience is a good thing. It tells me I am a slave to Christ. It tells me He is my king. It tells me I am His child.

The authors says, 

This is the difference between religion and true Christianity. There is no checklist of rules that you must follow. It is ALL about your relationships, vertical and horizontal. There is no rhetoric or rituals that have to be practiced.
Well, LIES and DOUBLE LIES to begin with. There is a checklist of rules to follow. It’s called the Bible. The New Testament tells me things to do to show the world I am a disciple of Christ. It tells me to clothe the naked, feed the hungry, shelter the homeless. It tells me to take care of widows and the fatherless. Is this religious in the negative sense? Is this following a mathematical equation in order to please God? If you think so, then I ask you if you think children obeying their parents are following a mathematical equation in order to please their parents? Certainly, immature children obey out of fear and to please their parents, but when children get older and more mature they start obeying their parents out of love. Such is the way with Christians. As we mature, we grow in our father-child relationship to such a point where we obey out of love, and not out of a desire to avoid punishment or to win brownie points for doing good. This is how the Christian religion works. There is no difference here "between religion and true Christianity." Mainly because there is no "true Christianity" that is devoid of rules we must follow. All religions that I am aware of have rules that are to be followed. Saying otherwise is false.

Returning to relationships, religion does not determine if there are relationships or not in a specific religious doctrine. Christianity determines that, based on a prudent and accurate interpretation of the Bible. There is no “difference between religion and true Christianity.” Christianity, true and false, falls under the umbrella of religion.

So, ending here, Christianty is a religion. Religion is not evil. Christianity as a relationship with God is more than simply sitting around singing “I love God. I love God. Angels and unicorns. I love God.” Christians should be careful to use the correct words when trying to teach against unholy or detrimental Christian behavior; specifically, instead of saying “religion is bad,” say “hypocrisy, legalism, self-righteous, and false doctrines are bad.”

And that, comrades, is all. I would apologize for the long post, but I’m not particularly sorry. I did try to make it shorter, though.