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Should the Church Repent of Religion?

Posted: August 2, 2009 - 20:31 CT

I recently read an article on a Christian news site about a well-known pastor speaking at a national conference back in June.  The purpose of the conference was to offer suggestions on how to "revitalize" local churches.  According to the report, this particular speaker painted religion as a culprit that might be choking the growth of the Gospel and Christianity in America, and said that "until Christians repent of religion, no program, energy or strategy will help them to grow".  Finally, he urged the pastors in the audience to repent… not of sin, but of religion.  This appears to have become a popular theme as of late, along with the "Love Jesus, but Reject the Church" movement, which favors  meetings  at the "Church at Starbucks" or the "Church of the Eighteenth Green" over organized traditional churches.  This will have to be addressed in a future article, but here we consider the question of religion.

So, is religion really choking the Gospel, and should we repent of our religious activities?  I know members of a few local religious groups who recently returned from mission trips to India, Russia, Peru and Israel.  Our church regularly takes up a benevolent offering for those who have lost their jobs.  I have other friends that work with those feeding and ministering to the homeless and shut-ins.  Others are engaged in prayer, VBS and other ministries.  Still others are faithfully involved in church positions such as parking attendants, greeters, and administrators which only indirectly aid in spreading the Gospel.  Should these Christians repent of these religious activities?

This illustrates that our original questions cannot be answered without first defining what is meant by the term "religion".  We should be cautious in making universal statements  without carefully defining our terms, particularly when using terms that can have multiple meaning.  I’ve heard many arguments that could have been easily resolved (or avoided altogether) with a proper understanding of a term’s intended meaning.

In defining "religion", the word can have vastly different meanings, many of which are commonly used.  Over the past couple of centuries, there have been numerous attempts at a definition, mostly favoring the positions of the defining institution, and limited to their particular beliefs in God.  Attempts at comprehensive definitions can include several aspects of religion such as knowledge and beliefs, formal practices, group or denomination affiliation, relation to society, moral and ethical requirements, etc.  To complicate matters, there are both true and false religions (some religions, such as Buddhism, do not even require a belief in a god), as well as objective and subjective aspects of the expression.  Perhaps the most commonly used definition of religion today is that of a "man-originated system of beliefs, attitudes and practices".  Religion is thus subjectively understood as a summation of man’s experiences and his conception of God

In contrast, the classic Protestant definition of religion is understood to mean the correct way to worship God, which includes a love for God, a proper knowledge of God, a fear of God, and a respectful honor of God.  Instead of being based upon man’s experience, or abstract idea in which the object of worship or service is not of major concern, we rely on an objective source, the infallible revelation of the only true God.  Thus we have a religious system prescribed by God and based upon his will and nature, in which He takes the first step and it’s our duty to respond.  This religion demands that we be holy, separated from the profane.  In On True Religion, Augustine derives the word "religion" from a verb meaning "to fasten, to bind back, or to reattach", relating it to a reattachment of fallen humanity back to God.  George Whitefield, one of the most notable pastors of America’s Great Awakening, spoke of religion in his sermon The Method of Grace"I take it for granted you believe religion to be an inward thing; you believe it to be a work in the heart, a work wrought in the soul by the power of the Spirit of God.  If you do not believe this, you do not believe your Bibles.  If you do not believe this, though you have got your Bibles in your hand, you hate the Lord Jesus Christ in your heart; for religion is everywhere represented in Scripture as the work of God in the heart."  We should also point out that, even though the classic definition is primarily objective, it also has a subjective aspect, that is the positive effect that the abovementioned knowledge, fear, reverence, and love for God has on the life of each individual.

I have not obtained an audio or a transcript of the speaker's entire message, so I’m relying on the reports by others, but I think we can conclude from the occasion and the context of his speech that he clearly has the subjective, man-centered meaning of "religion" in mind.  First, he was speaking to a group of pastors and religious leaders who would undoubtedly understand his purpose.  Next, he adds such statements as religion reducing God to a set of duties, lacking a passion for God, and people elevating religious ritual over love for others.

In this context, we can generally agree with his statements.  Christians should avoid an excessive preoccupation with mere religious activities.  Even inherently good activities such as attending worship, studying the Bible and singing hymns can deter us from a closer relationship with God if approached with an external focus only.  For example, if we’re only studying Scripture to gain religious knowledge for its own sake rather than to become more like Christ by being obedient to His Word, we gain nothing of spiritual value.  We should also avoid the danger of superficially relying on religious activities in our past such as attending Sunday School or being baptized as a child.  These activities, while intrinsically good, do not stimulate our growth as a Christian if done for the wrong reasons.

Before returning to our comments on the lecture, we should be clear that when to we refer to religious activity as having "spiritual value",  we mean this in the sense of our sanctification, or spiritual growth in becoming more like Christ.  Religious activities have no value in obtaining our salvation (justification), which is by the grace of God through faith alone (Rom 3:23-24, Gal 2:21, Titus 3:5-7).

Even though the pastor’s rationale appears to be correct (based on our assumption of his intended meaning), making a broad statement using a very narrow connotation of the word "religion" without defining your usage can cause some unintentional issues.  We've already mentioned that interpretation of the term can vary depending on the audience.  In addition, his statement tends to reinforce the negative stereotypes that unbelievers possess concerning religion and religious people.  In today’s society, religion is increasing seen by many to be a problem rather than a solution, a viewpoint that is leading to judicial rulings restricting our religious freedoms.  Sadly, many Christians also share this outlook.  Most of us have probably heard the familiar statement that "Religion is man’s attempt to reach God, while Christianity is God reaching out to man".  While this statement is true in a certain subjective sense, we’ve seen in an objective sense that religion begins with God, and Christianity involves man responding to God’s calling.

In conclusion, we should be cautious in making universal statements without considering that our current audience may not be the only ones that will hear or read about our statements.  This is easier said than done.  It is not my intention to single out this pastor as the only person who has ever been guilty of this.  As much as I try to be clear to as diverse an audience as possible, I’ve committed this same error many times, and probably will again in the future.  I’m merely attempting to raise our consciousness on this issue.

So, we’ve seen that religious activities in themselves are not the culprit.  Instead, it is our attitude and motivation in approaching these intrinsically good activities that determines their spiritual value.  There is nothing derogatory about the word "religion" being associated with Christianity.  The Bible clearly states that we are to avoid reducing our religion to traditions or rituals, but we must not become so afraid of being accused of legalism that we shut down crucial religious activities.  It is becoming increasingly popular to avoid all religious activities altogether in favor of "relationships only", but the Scriptures command us to be involved in the good works that God has prepared for us (Rom 8:10).  These activities however, are to be an outpouring of, rather than a substitute for, our worship and relationship with God and our love for others.

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