There are things that Christian people say that sound like they might be true, and I think these sorts of things are said rather thoughtlessly. One such example is one I’ve heard a number of times over the years: “God hates religion.” There are other variations such as, “Christianity is a relationship not a religion.” Or, “God doesn’t like religious people.”
That second one on the list is probably the trickiest of the three, because it sounds so nice, like now we’re really getting somewhere. But really, it’s a false dilemma. Since when were religion and relationship at odds, anyhow?
Probably since the time we forgot what religion really was in the first place.
So, let’s begin at the beginning.
In 1828, Mr. Webster listed a couple definitions for religion. But first, he offered a history lesson:
RELIGION, n. relij’on. [L. religio, from religo, to bind anew; re and ligo, to bind. This word seems originally to have signified an oath or vow to the gods, or the obligation of such an oath or vow, which was held very sacred by the Romans.]
Okay, so religion as an idea implies binding to the deity and the attendant obligations of such binding. Is Christianity a religion in this limited sense? I think we have to answer this affirmatively. Even if we think of Christianity as a relationship (and it is indeed that), we know instinctively that all relationships come with certain obligations. We are hard pressed to conceive of a relationship in which there is no obligation.
Marriage is a relationship I have with my husband and because of that relationship, I have certain obligations. Likewise, motherhood is the relationship I have with my children, friendship is the relationship I have with my friends, and both of these come with obligations as well. There are a number of words I might use to name the relationship I have with the Lord–among them are citizen of His kingdom, child in His family, and so on. What is easier to name are the obligations. My relationship with the Lord, like all other relationships, implies duties, and the name we give to duties to a deity is religion.
There is more to Mr. Webster’s definition, however, I won’t include all of it, as it is quite lengthy. Instead, I’ll offer my bullet-point summary.
- Religion includes theology (a set of beliefs about a deity) as well as piety (acting in accordance with what the deity requires).
- Religion is godliness or piety in practice. It is the following of specific commands. In Christianity, this includes both our duties to God as well as to our fellow man.
- Religion is performance of our duties owed directly to God, done in obedience to Him.
- Any system of faith and worship.
My guess is that almost all Christians throughout all of Church history would be (1) shocked by the idea that God was displeased with religion and (2) confused as to why we’d try and separate our religion (our faith in and worship of God) from our relationship with God. This latter point is important. We were brought into right relationship with God that we might believe in Him and worship Him as He commands.
Origins of the Myth
Most folks who say something like “God hates religion” have a broad, nonspecific understanding of Jesus’ interactions with the Pharisees. We know that the Pharisees were zealous for the Jewish law (including the “law” that had been invented by rabbinical tradition and was not part of the canon of Scripture). They engaged in ritualistic hand washing, they prayed on street corners in order to be seen by men, and they believed that their high level of adherence to the law made them superior to others and commended them to God.
The Pharisees were highly religious, and when Jesus rebukes them, the modern mind, which values vague spirituality over the idea of religion (with all its obligations), says, “Aha! See! God doesn’t like religious people!”
Not. So. Fast.
If we are to condemn the Pharisees, we must say what Jesus says about them. For instance, in Matthew 23, we see that:
- They burdened men with rules, but were unwilling to help carry that burden
- All of their noticeable religion (details on their garments, for example) were in order to be praised by men
- They love to sit in the seat of honor (and even seated themselves in the Moses’ chair!)
- They twisted the law, and thus led their followers astray
- They allowed for technicalities to keep men from having to keep their promises
- They tithed every last cent, but neglected the “weightier provisions of the law” such as love, justice, mercy, and faithfulness
- Their religion was entirely external–inside, they were dead men and far from God
John Lord talks about this in his volume Jewish Heroes and Prophets from the Beacon Lights of History series. Around the time of Judas Maccabeus, the Jews realized that their neglect of God’s law had resulted in their repeated punishment. Initially, they turned back to God, but over time their religion became a worship of the Law rather than a worship of God Himself. It wasn’t that the Law was bad, but rather that they looked to the Law to save, rather than to God to save.
As far back as Isaiah this sort of thing was mentioned:
And the Lord said: “Because this people draw near with their mouth
and honor me with their lips,
while their hearts are far from me,
and their fear of me is a commandment taught by men…”
The issue was not their religion. The issue was their hearts.
Do you know how I know?
Because of an oft overlooked statement by Jesus. In Matthew 23, He says,
therefore all that they tell you, do and observe, but do not do according to their deeds; for they say things and do not do them.
All Those Other Religious People
We really can’t isolate the incidents with the Pharisees and conclude that God has a problem with religion (especially when Mr. Webster tells us that religion is essentially living out the obligations implied by our theological beliefs). We need to look at other instances of what might rightly be called religion (even according to the Pharisees), and see what God’s word has to say about those instances.
For instance, in Luke 2, we learn that Jesus’ parents had him circumcised on the appropriate day. They presented Him at the Temple, as was required by religious law, and they made the sacrifice required of the poor–two turtledoves. In addition to this, they traveled to Jerusalem every year in order to celebrate the Passover. Nowhere does God condemn this. If anything, we might deduce that He approves, as Jesus’ parents are (1) obeying His law, and (2) He singled them out as the fit parents for His Messiah.
There is also the odd behavior of John the Baptist. He seems absolutely ascetic as he lives in the wilderness, eats grasshoppers and honey, and wears camel skins for his clothing. He doesn’t just keep to himself, rather, he preaches repentance and baptizes in repentance.
Or let’s take the first Church. We see in Acts that they are highly religious. When they meet, they take communion, a religious ordinance established by Jesus before His death and resurrection. When someone converts, they are baptized, a religious ordinance commanded by our Lord in the Great Commission.
Come to think of it, maybe we could just stop at the phrase “take the Church.” After all, Jesus established a Church, a religious body promoting the true religion.
True Religion, False Religion
This really is the crux of the matter. The Pharisees followed a version of Judaism so twisted that it was far from the heart of the Father. The problem was not that they were religious, but that they followed and promoted a false version of the true religion. When Christ instituted the New Covenant, he didn’t destroy religion, but rather refined and revealed true religion.
Why do I say refined? Well, we have the Old Covenant fulfilled in the New Covenant. We have the ancient rite of circumcision replaced by baptism. We have the old annual feast meal of Passover superseded by the regular meal of the Church, communion. We have the old sacrificial system finalized in the ultimate once-for-all-time sacrifice of Christ’s blood on the Cross.
This is a religion.
There is really no getting around it, and when we start to shy away from the word religion, we might want to ask ourselves why. Would it have anything to do with the way that the world characterizes religion–as backward, antiquated, narrow, restrictive, or just plain not cool?
It is also a relationship, but that is not the focus of this post.
It might be more apt to say that it is a relationship worthy of nothing less than religious devotion in every sense of the phrase.
What is Religion, Anyway?
Ultimately, Mr. Webster defined words according to their objective meaning, and at the time of his writing, it was understood that religion is theology in action. It was God’s Word in action. So we not only observe the ordinances, but we also do our duties to our fellow man and practice personal holiness–this is pure religion.
To say that God “hates religion” or “dislikes religious people” is a failure to understand the nature of religion. It is absurd to think that God hates His people to follow Him as He has commanded them to do so, or hates that they become bound to Him in the way He designed for them to be bound to Him.
The Observation of Days–An Advent Warning
Part of the reason I’ve been thinking about this is due to the season of Advent. This is a religious observance of days that was instituted by men, later in the history of the Church. Galations 4:9-11
But now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how is it that you turn back again to the weak and worthless elemental things, to which you desire to be enslaved all over again? You observe days and months and seasons and years. I fear for you, that perhaps I have labored over you in vain.
Now, obviously, in context this discussion is that Jewish Christians were turning back to the ordinances of the Old Covenant. This is not a total, complete condemnation of observing days or seasons.
But I cannot help but think that there is a temptation of the Pharisees that is common to man–to elevate the days, as if they might commend us to God or men, to take pride in religion and therefore empty it of all its meaning.
What is God’s stance on the observation of days? Romans 14:4-8 tells us:
Who are you to judge the servant of another? To his own master he stands or falls; and he will stand, for the Lord is able to make him stand. One person regards one day above another, another regards every day alike. Each person must be fully convinced in his own mind. He who observes the day, observes it for the Lord, and he who eats, does so for the Lord, for he gives thanks to God; and he who eats not, for the Lord he does not eat, and gives thanks to God. For not one of us lives for himself, and not one dies for himself; for if we live, we live for the Lord, or if we die, we die for the Lord; therefore whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s.
We can learn a few wonderful, peacemaking truths from this passage. First, the observation of days is a personal matter based upon conviction. As long as it is done (or not done) in faith, it is not sin. These things ought not to divide us as believers. Second, if we observe, we must observe for the Lord. If we do not observe, we must not observe for the Lord. We must always keep in mind the temptation of the Pharisees–to do or not do certain things for the purpose of self-promotion, which is ultimately self-deification.
Finally, a warning to those who condemn religion in the name of Christ:
But you, why do you judge your brother? Or you again, why do you regard your brother with contempt? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God.
God specifically commands us in Romans 14 to be tender with the weaker vegetarian brother. He tells us to “be convinced in our own minds” as regards the observation of days. His goal is peace in the Church–the religious body He Himself created and whom He loves as a groom ought to love His Bride. There is a sense in which attacking true religion is attacking the Bride, something which ought to be repented of.
For the rest of us, it bears keeping in mind that Advent is not about doing certain works in order to promote ourselves to God or man. It is a means of worshipping and preparing for worship. I will always have a special place in my heart for Advent, for that is the reason we first began regularly reading the Bible together as a family. It has strengthened our family as a tiny unit of the Body of Christ more than anything else I can think of, and I will forever respect the power of the season. But it must be remembered that we are to worship the God of the days, not the days themselves.
Whether, then, you eat or drink or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.
Properly ordered, our religion is simply the means of doing right by our relationship with God and with His Church.
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