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    On Religion

    December 1, 2011 by Brandy Vencel

    I originally wrote this during Advent last year. This version has a completely different ending. During my first writing, I had someone tell me that celebrating Advent was “empty religion” {among some other strangely similar happenings} and so the initial article became my way of struggling through that and finding truth. If you have ever struggled with Advent, you may prefer the first ending, which can be found in the initial post.

    This time around I was pondering the danger of not only deciding that Christianity is not a religion, but actually ignoring the dictionary and the history of the word and  touting that the word religion means a relationship with God which is bad, false, heretical, or worse. There are people who really do think that the millions of Christians around the globe who kicked off Advent on Sunday are in sin {or, did I mention, worse?}.

    As Richard Weaver famously wrote, Ideas Have Consequences. Defining the word religion apart from thousands of years of human history and tradition will have consequences, and like all consequences we cannot always predict what they will be. Generally speaking, though, a break with history must automatically be assumed unethical. This is something I have learned from the CiRCE Institute over the years: history does not have to defend herself; those who break with her do.

    Over the years, I have become a student of Latin, and lesson one is that we cannot redefine Latin terms—it is a dead language, no longer evolving. Latin is convenient that way. Religion is not really an English word; it is a Latin word. It has a literal, objective meaning. What I am arguing for here is nothing less than being honest about our own language, while simultaneously ensuring that we remain connected to our own people—the Church.


    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.

    Danger: Ignoring Religion’s Objective Meaning

    Ultimately, Mr. Webster defined words according to their objective meaning, and at the time of his writing, it was almost universally acknowledged that religion is theology in action. True religion is 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 word “religion” has been used by Christians to describe their faith and practice for two thousand years. If we teach our people a false definition of this word, we isolate them from this rich history, robbing from them their birthright of standing on the shoulders of the giants of the faith who have gone before us. For how can we admire the religion of Athanasius, of Luther, of Edwards, of Spurgeon—or of our own Founding Fathers, who tell us our Constitution is only fit to govern a “religious people”—if we have been taught that religion is “bad.”

    We mustn’t allow Satan to steal our words, to redefine our terms. He is not the victor in this great battle, and we do not have to give him a single inch. In the words of Eugene Peterson:

    Our capacity for language is the most distinctive thing about us as humans. Words are that by which we articulate who we are. Nothing about us is more significant than the way we use words. If words are used badly, our lives are debased. The way we understand and become ourselves through the use of words has a corollary in how we understand God and his coming among us. The most distinctive feature of the Christian faith is its respect for the word: God’s word first of all and secondarily our words of prayer, confession, and witness. The most-to-be feared attacks on the Christian faith go for the jugular of the word: twisting the word, denying the word, doubting the word. It is impressive how frequently the Psalmists denounced and cried out for help against lying lips and flattering tongues. Far more than they feared murderers, adulterers, usurers, and Egyptians, they feared liars. God made himself known to them by word, and it was by words that they shaped their response to him. When words are ruined, we are damaged at the core of our being.

    The subtlest and most common attack in the satanic assault on God’s ways among us is a subversion of the word.

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  • Reply Brandy @ Afterthoughts December 7, 2011 at 4:38 pm

    Amy! I am glad to finally know your name! 🙂

  • Reply ...they call me mommy... December 7, 2011 at 11:34 am

    Very interesting!!! Thank you! 🙂

    Btw, my name is Amy! 🙂

  • Reply Brandy @ Afterthoughts December 6, 2011 at 3:21 am


    So funny! I will have to watch some of his YouTube clips one of these days. The one extended talk I’ve seen with him is when Doug Wilson interviewed him in regard to spiritual gifting.


    Thanks! 🙂

  • Reply Amanda December 6, 2011 at 12:52 am

    Brilliant, Brandy. Thanks for always making me think a little harder. 🙂

  • Reply sara December 5, 2011 at 11:33 am

    I giggle a little at myself – I thought this post addressed so pointedly some of the things Driscoll says so frequently, that I was sure you had him somewhere in the back of your mind when you wrote it. I appreciate his heart and where he’s coming from too, but he does make some overly broad strokes sometimes.

    Anyway, well done.

  • Reply Brandy @ Afterthoughts December 5, 2011 at 3:40 am


    Thanks! And, while I have you here, thank you so much for lending me Against the Protestant Gnostics. I am reading it slowly and I see connections everywhere around me. What an amazing book!




    Keep praying for my Christmas Spirit book because…it is still MIA! I am so disappointed, but I am also convinced it didn’t leave home, so some day I suppose I will get to read it! I hope you found your Messiah CDs! I want to follow Cindy’s (Ordo Amoris) Messiah plan next year for Advent…


    My first thought was, Why? So then I googled. Oh my. Without actually watching any clips on YouTube, I have to say that I agree with him that religion does not save. But it *can* (and *is*) a means of working out or salvation and obeying our Lord. So to say that we *hate* religion is to hate something God Himself instituted…which is a dangerous road to get on.

    I appreciate the heart of these new Reformed guys, but I think they too quickly dispense with history and therefore separate themselves…from the Reformed faith! (Ironically enough.)


    Yes! Religiosity! A man used this word in our Romans class a few weeks ago, and I looked it up and lo and behold! That is the word we are all looking for when we want to compare *true* religion with the external-only behaviors of the Pharisees. I think you are completely correct. And, by the way, you are as good as a dictionary, because if my recall i correct, “affected piety” is one of the exact phrases on the list! 🙂

  • Reply amy in peru December 5, 2011 at 3:33 am

    …this isn’t at all what I expected when I clicked over here! it is so interesting that I was just thinking this in church today…

    I hold the same point of view. One thing I was thinking along these lines is the term “religiosity” is perhaps helpful in this discussion? I don’t know the exact definition (so maybe not helpful!) but the use I tend to hear would be something to the effect of, “lending appearance to the practice of religion, while in fact empty; an affected piety“. Maybe this definition is close to what many have in mind when they erroneously tout some of the examples you gave in your post. But then again, in our postmodern day, many seem to want to buck any “system” that implies or remotely suggests limits, guidelines or restraint in any way, shape or form.

    Anyway, I think you said it very well. 🙂

  • Reply sara December 4, 2011 at 10:57 pm

    I’ve been reading and re-reading this since you wrote it. Are you going to send it to Mark Driscoll?

  • Reply Sarah December 1, 2011 at 11:54 pm

    Oh my, Brandy. I’m going to have to print this out and go over it carefully, with a cuppa tea, in my room, minus all the hubbub about me right now.

    Based on your mention of it, I purchased an inexpensive copy of Christmas Spirit, which I received yesterday. Just casually flipping through it and having skimmed this post, I think I’ve noted some connections. I’m looking forward to reading both items with focused attention.

    By the way, my CD of Handel’s Messiah disappeared today, right before Morning Time. I’ve been praying for your copy of Christmas Spirit to show up, as well as my CD.

  • Reply Blossom December 1, 2011 at 6:38 pm

    This is very well written. I’m going to read it again.

  • Reply GretchenJoanna December 1, 2011 at 6:36 pm

    A wonderful post! Thanks for working through the presuppositions and their implications, and reminding us of our responsibility to history and to the Bible itself — and of what a large and deep faith we hold, and are held by.

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