Thursday, December 23, 2010

No Religion? 

 I recently asked a question on my Facebook page about the unwillingness of many Christians to identify Christianity as a “religion”, or even an unwillingness to identify themselves as Christians, but rather as “Jesus-followers” or something similar.  This trend has bothered me for a while, and I wanted to understand.  The question unfortunately degenerated into a rather foolish and beside-the-point argument.  But nonetheless, through that question and some associated research, I discovered some links to some people who make this argument.  Here is the "Not Religion" web site.  Here's a church saying "Want God, not religion?"  Here is Pastor Mark Driscoll’s Facebook page, which features a link to a video called “Jesus vs. Religion”.  He starts by saying “religion is about me, my works, my efforts.”  Other sites that I found seem to say something similar.  So it seems to be the case that Driscoll is opposed to legalism, opposed to self-absorption, opposed to pride, opposed to self-righteousness.  Certainly I don't have a problem with any of that.  I'm against all those things too.  Except, wait, I use the term religion.  Does that mean my faith is all about me?  Mark Driscoll seems to think so.

Or maybe I'm using the word wrong.  Driscoll is obviously a smart and very successful guy.  So?  What does the dictionary say religion is?

-The worship or service of God or the supernatural.  -A personal set or institutionalized system of religious attitudes, beliefs or practices.  -A cause, principle or system of beliefs held to with ardor or faith.

Huh.  Seems to be plenty of room in there for what Driscoll talks about.  He talks about things he believes.  He talks about practices he engages in, or avoids.  I see just from his FB page that he's against homosexuality, thinks people ought to get involved in church, and ought to treat women good.  He's against the idea that you can work your way to heaven.  That's a belief or principle, and he certainly seems to have ardor and faith.

But language is all about usage.  So how do people actually use the term "religion", beyond what one source says?  Wikipedia says that religion is "a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of life and the universe, especially when considered as the creation of a supernatural agency, or human beings’ relation to that which they regard as holy, sacred, spiritual, or divine."  Wikipedia is a user-edited website, so that's some indication of usage.  Also, I know that on my Facebook page (and a lot of other people's), under "Religion" I put Christian.  And I'm pretty sure my beliefs are at least in the same ballpark as Mark Driscoll.

So what gives?  Now maybe I'm biased since I wrote a book and called it "The Essentials of the Christian Religion".  But it seems like they're putting a meaning into the word "religion" that it doesn't actually have.  How about the Bible?  What does it have to say about religion?  

The word "religion" or "religious" appears seven times in the New Testament, in the New King James.  It translates two different words, deisidaimonia and phreskeia.  Both of those words can have positive and negative connotations.  Neither appears a whole lot in the Bible.  But we're talking about an English word and how we use it.  How did the translators use it?  In at least one place, it definitely has a positive connotation.  
James 1:26-27:
 26 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.
 27 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.

So there's a good religion and a bad religion.  And it depends on sincerity and a willingness to follow through with what one claims.  A religion which does not result in wise and careful speech is a worthless religion.  A religion which results in charity and purity is a good one.  So it all depends on context.

But here's the bigger problem.  People have been calling themselves Christians and using the word religion to describe Christianity for a long time.  When you say "I don't have a religion" or "I'm not a Christian, I'm a Jesus-follower", it kind of feels like you have contempt for all of those other people, and think that your understanding of Jesus is somehow more pure and sincere than theirs.  But the church as a whole is concerned with all the things you're concerned with.  Every sincere Christian, even those who use the word "religion", are concerned with a sincere, true relationship with the Lord.  They call on Jesus' name in times of trouble.  They ask forgiveness of their sins.  They strive to live a holy life in thankfulness to God.  They put their faith in His sacrifice.  They help the widows and orphans.

So what do you gain by this usage?  Seeing Mark Driscoll preach and talk, it's very clear that he's anxious to distance himself from traditional Christianity, even though he would not exist were it not for that Christianity.  Likewise for all of the other sites I found touting themselves as being "not religion"- rock and roll aesthetics, and a lot of time talking about why they're different.  But every one of us stands on the shoulders of giants.  A great many men and women labored, sacrificed and even in many cases died so that Driscoll could have the Christianity that he has today.  He didn't just make it up on his own.  None of us do.  And those many many men and women called themselves Christians, and described themselves as religious.  The Belgic Confession, the French Confession, the Westminster Confession, the London Baptist Confession and many others all use the word a great deal.  John Calvin and Charles Spurgeon both use the word, positively, a great deal.  Who is Mark Driscoll or anyone else that you just get to paint all of those people as shallow legalists?

We don't get to just redefine words.  Words mean what they mean, according to the way large groups of people use them.  And when I say I am "not religious" or distance myself from the word "Christian" then I am cutting myself off from the overwhelming majority of the universal, historic Christian community.  This whole "Not religion" movement or "Jesus vs. Religion" is intellectually dishonest, and comes across really arrogant and divisive.  I will not impugn Driscoll's motives.  He seems to be someone truly trying to spread the gospel, though I haven't studied his teachings exhaustively.  But I think everyone needs to remember, when we do the work of the kingdom, that we're not alone.  We all stand on the shoulders of giants, we're all part of a very large world-wide community and we should be very careful before we dismiss and mock and separate ourselves from all those who have fought and suffered and labored in the kingdom before us and alongside us.  Certainly the historic Christian religion has a lot of flaws and rough spots.  But she is our church.  If we love Jesus, we will love His church, flaws and all, and work to make her better, not to self-righteously condemn and belittle her and all of those that Jesus has bought with His own blood over the last two thousand years.

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