What is religion?

by K.W. Leslie, 03 January 2021

Over the past four decades, Christians in the conservative Evangelical movement have come to consider “religion” a bad word. Even an offensive word. In fact we’ll get downright snotty about it: “I don’t have a religion,” we’ll scoff; “I have a relationship.” By which we mean a relationship with Christ Jesus.

To the conservative Evangelical, “religion” means ritual. Namely the rituals of people who lack this relationship with Christ Jesus. And for the most part, they’re thinking of people who aren’t conservative Evangelicals like them. They figure progressive Evangelicals are more focused on social justice and works righteousness. They figure non-Evangelicals are more focused on sacraments, on getting saved because they do the rituals—which is just another form of works righteousness.

If they grew up in such churches, the way they remember them was based on how these churches introduced ’em (or, let’s be fair, didn’t properly introduce them) to Jesus: How they were told they gotta behave themselves, gotta follow the rules, gotta practice the rituals, and so forth. These churches might’ve taught their adults about having a personal relationship with Jesus, but all they ever seem to have taught their kids was, “Goddamnit, behave yourselves.” Consequently they felt like hotbeds of legalism, and the kids had to leave those churches before they could adequately, properly hear the gospel.

Assuming they ever heard the proper gospel—that Jesus is inaugurating God’s kingdom. More often they just figure God forgives all, so regardless of the evil crap they still do, they go to heaven when they die. Good old-fashioned cheap grace. Which is great news for people who don’t care to change their lifestyles at all, and remain the same old a--holes they were before they turned to Jesus. But no, that’s not the gospel. As new citizens of Jesus’s new kingdom, we likewise have to be made new.

Hence, religion.

Conservative Evangelicals insist they have a relationship, not a religion. But here’s the thing: We do have rituals. We do practice various faith-based things on the regular, in order to further our relationship with God. ’Cause when we don’t, our relationship with God is really gonna suck. So we pray. We go to church on a regular basis; maybe not every week, but certainly more than Easter and Christmas. We read, and quote, our bibles. We behave ourselves, more or less; we cut back on the cussing (at least when church people are around), and rein in some of our evil… well, the evil we can’t justify to ourselves any more.

But that’s religion. Might be disciplined; more often it’s extremely undisciplined. Still religion.

And whenever we conservative Evangelicals tell a pagan, “Oh, I’m not religious,” the pagan immediately notices:

  • We name-drop God an awful lot for someone who’s “not religious.”
  • We rail against sin an awful lot for someone who’s “not religious.”
  • We keep up to date with our bibles an awful lot, for someone who’s “not religious.”
  • We pray way more often than any not-religious person would.
  • We use a lot more religion-based vocabulary than any not-religious person would.
  • Wait, we go to church? Voluntarily?

Pagans know we absolutely are so religions. Because they’re not religious. So what other conclusion can they come to?—they think we’re trying to pull a fast one. “You’re ‘not religious’? Oh, what a hypocrite; you are so.” And they’re exactly right.

So, if you’re using the word “religious” wrong, this is why you need to cut it out.

Dead religion.

Now the folks who aren’t conservative Evangelicals: I’ve met, and worked with, many. We have a lot more in common than not, ’cause we have the same Jesus. Including people who are wholly irreligious, who barely follow Jesus at all, who figure they’re going to heaven regardless. And including people who are very religious—who go to church five days a week, participate in every sacrament on the schedule, do tons of good deeds because they think it’s how you get a bigger mansion in heaven, and fit every stereotype we’d like to mock.

You might be in denial about this, but conservative Evangelicals have the very same people in our churches too. And Christianists, those people who have no relationship with Jesus at all, but they like being immersed in Christian culture, and think it’ll profit them to be plugged in. Maybe they can get our money, or our votes.

Now if anybody is indeed going through the motions yet have no real relationship with Jesus, no matter what church they’re in, what they’re doing is correctly called dead religion. If Jesus isn’t in it, if the Holy Spirit doesn’t endorse and empower it, it’s certainly not alive! Anyway, those Evangelicals who bash “religion” are actually bashing that—and rightly so. But they’re confusing all religion with the dead stuff. There is such a thing as the living stuff.

James 1.26-27 KJV
26 If any man among you seem to be religious, and bridleth not his tongue, but deceiveth his own heart, this man’s religion is vain. 27 Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world.

Various Christians will insist this King James Version language needs an update; that when James wrote “religion” he didn’t really mean religion. But you’ll notice nearly all the current translations stuck with that word “religion.” It’s the best translation of θρησκεία/thriskeía, “pious practice.” Christians who are truly pious are gonna act it. Christians who aren’t, don’t. They may try to fake it, but their behavior isn’t gonna produce good fruit because the Holy Spirit’s not in it.

And when we scrutinize the behavior of other churches, fruit’s what we’re supposed to look for! Never assume a religion is dead just because their practices aren’t ours, or we don’t think they’ll work for us. Look at their fruit. Are they acting like followers of Jesus? Do they love others? Do they demonstrate joy and peace and patience and kindness? If so, it’s not dead. Formal maybe, but not dead.

Now let’s turn that lens back on ourselves. How are the people of our churches doing? Look at your fruit. Are the people of our churches acting like legitimate followers and students of Jesus should? Do we love others?—including strangers and pagans and sinners? Do we demonstrate joy and peace and patience and kindness? If not, our informal religion is as dead as they come. It only looks alive because we enjoy it, like a child who prefers to play with dolls instead of other children. But it’s just as lifeless as the dolls.

The Christian religion.

For us Christians, our religion is Christ Jesus. Nothing more.

Yeah, we’ve got rituals. Twenty centuries’ worth of rituals, in every flavor you can think of. Picked up from, and tweaked a bit by, every culture Christianity has passed through. We got some of them from the Pharisees, adapted by Jesus himself; we got a bunch more from various Christians who thought, “This oughta help me follow Jesus better”—and sometimes it didn’t, and sometimes it did.

So why do we do the rituals? To follow Jesus better. To get closer to him. If they don’t bring us closer to Jesus, don’t just keep doing them, and turn ’em into dead religion. Jesus is the goal, not our practices. First figure out whether you’re doing them wrong; it’s usually that. And put more effort into the practices which do get us closer: They’re living religion, and we should definitely do them.

The Holy Spirit points to Jesus, so we absolutely have to follow the Spirit. And irreligious Christians are regularly startled to find he encourages some of this ritual behavior which we too often dismiss as dead religion. Turns out once the Spirit’s involved, it’s no longer dead!

The other trappings of Christendom also encourage good religion:

  • Miracles prove his activity and confirm what he’s telling us, so we keep the miracles.
  • The bible testifies to Jesus, so we keep the bible.
  • Church, done right, encourages us to follow Jesus; we keep the church, and keep participating.
  • Some traditions point us in the right direction, so we keep those. Some don’t, so we drop ’em. (And some traditions may not work for us personally—although they may someday; who knows?—so we keep ’em around, in case we someday find them useful again.

We sort through everything which has attached itself to Christianity for one reason or another. We use the tools which grow the relationship.

That’s how the Christian religion works. Other religions have their own rules. Don’t borrow the wrong religion’s rules, and wind up losing sight of Jesus. Follow Jesus.