Religion is one of those words that has undergone a decisive transformation in recent years. Religion used to be a generic category or even a positive synonym for the Christian faith, but now many Christians speak of religion as something harmful and destructive of true Christianity. For many evangelicals, religion is about trying to earn God’s favor. Or, more broadly, religion is about a stultifying system of rituals, dogmas, and structures.
In short, religion is bad, the gospel is good, and following Christ is positively not a religion.
Obviously, if the choice is between the gospel and religion, I’ll take the gospel. But what if by relentlessly denigrating “religion,” we are creating as many problems as we are trying to solve?
If I can be so bold, I’d like to put in a good word for religion — if not three cheers, then at least two. Toward this end, consider the following observations:
1. Castigating “religion” is a relatively new way for Christians to speak. John Calvin wrote “The Institutes of the Christian Religion.” Jonathan Edwards wrote on “Religious Affections.” Pastors and theologians, especially in the age of awakening, often wrote about “revealed religion” or “true religion” or “real religion.”
What if by relentlessly denigrating “religion,” we are creating as many problems as we are trying to solve?
Our forefathers were well aware of religious hypocrisy, but they did not equate “religion” with works-righteousness. If we teach our people that religion is be avoided, they will have a hard time understanding why most Christians throughout most of history did not use “religion” in such a negative sense.
2. The word “religion” occurs five times in the Bible (ESV) and is, by itself, a neutral word. Religion can refer to Judaism (Acts 26:5) or the Jewish-Christian faith (Acts 25:19). Religion can be bad when it is self-made (Colossians 2:23) or fails to tame the tongue (James 1:26). But can be good when it cares for widows and orphans and practices moral purity (James 1:27). There is no biblical ground for making religion a uniformly negative phenomenon.
3. In undermining “religion,” we may be undermining more than we realize. People tend to equate commands, doctrines, structures, and rituals with religion. That’s why people want to be “spiritual but not religious.” And yet, Christianity is a religion that believes in commands, doctrines, structures, and rituals. As a Jew, so did Jesus. Jesus did not hate religion.
On the contrary, Jesus went to services at the synagogue and operated within the Jewish system of ritual purity (Mark 1:21, 40-45). He founded the church (Matthew 16:18) and established church discipline (Matthew 18:15-20). He instituted a ritual meal and called for its perpetual observance (Matthew 26:26-28). He told his disciples to baptize people and teach them to obey everything he commanded (Matthew 28:19-20). He insisted that people believe in him and believe certain things about him (John 3:16-18; 8:24). If Jesus never affirmed being “spiritual but not religious,” neither should we.
I understand why we might want to distance ourselves from religion, but it would be better to redeploy the word than to reject it. We risk giving people the wrong impression about Jesus and affirm unbiblical instincts about true spirituality when we dismiss “religion” as antithetical to the gospel.
Kevin DeYoung is senior pastor at Christ Covenant Church in Matthews, North Carolina, and an assistant professor of systematic theology at Reformed Theological Seminary in Charlotte. He is also the author of dozens of books, including “Just Do Something,” “The Biggest Story,” and “Crazy Busy.”