It very common for me to hear people say that Christianity is not about religion, it’s about a personal relationship with God. In essence this is true, but too often religion is erroneously considered to be an evil word. Sometimes we’re left scratching our heads wondering what it’s all about.
Check out the following definition of religion from dictionary.com: “a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe, esp. 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.”
That sounds a lot like Christianity to me! So what’s the deal?
The New Testament word translated as religion can be used in either a good or a bad sense, usually connoting a motivation of worship. In other words, there is nothing inherently wrong with practicing Christianity as a religion.
“Pure and undefiled religion before God the Father is this: to care for orphans and widows in their misfortune and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” James 1:27 (NET)
Essentially James was saying that caring for the helpless and needy is at the very heart of the religion we call Christianity. But the Apostle Paul seems to have made up his own word to describe a religion much less desirable.
“If you have died with Christ to the elementary principles of the world, why, as if you were living in the world, do you submit yourself to decrees, such as, ‘Do not handle, do not taste, do not touch!’ (which all refer to things destined to perish with use)—in accordance with the commandments and teachings of men? These are matters which have, to be sure, the appearance of wisdom in self-made religion and self-abasement and severe treatment of the body, but are of no value against fleshly indulgence.” Col. 2:20-23 (NASB)
Ah, this is what the religion-bashers are actually condemning! What Paul calls “self-made religion” is actually a religious code of worship rooted in humanistic self-effort. It’s all about us trying to do more, work harder, sacrifice more—all in the name of appeasing what we see as a distant, judgmental God whose interaction with humanity is characterized by expectation.
But this isn’t the Christianity of the Bible! Through faith in Christ our relationship with God is defined not by expectation, but by acceptance. When we enter into the New Covenant through Christ, we stand secure in our heavenly Father’s unconditional love, free from the never-ending burden of judgment. Through this process the Holy Spirit produces in us the genuine love for others leading to the “pure and undefiled religion” called for by James.
Religion characterized by love and acceptance leads to wholeness and fullness of life. Religion characterized by expectation and self-effort will breed either arrogance or a constant sense of frustration and inadequacy.
What’s wrong with religion? Nothing, if it stems from pure and undefiled worship of our Creator!