The evangelical church is fond of bashing "religion." And the myriad of pithy phrases used to do so will typically emphasize a relationship with God at the expense of religious practice. It fits into a nice little alliteration as we pit relationship against religion.
And on the surface of things, that sounds fine. Far too many people perceive religious practice as a legitimate way to reach God even though God makes it clear in the Bible that the only way to reach Him is through simply knowing and following Jesus. Jesus said, "I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me" (John 14:6). And the Apostle Paul also went to great lengths in many of his New Testament letters to debunk the idea that following some religious code would get a person closer to God. Paul wrote, "For by works of the law no human being will be justified in His sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin" (Romans 3:20).
That being said, I simply do not believe the Bible defines Christianity as an abandonment of religion for the sake of a relationship with God.
By "religion," I mean the outward expression of one's commitment and devotion to God -- such as good works and spiritual practices. And according to the Bible, such religion comes in two forms, one being good and one being bad. (This categorization is based on two of only five passages in the entire Bible that use the words "religion" or "religious," the other three passages using those words in a neutral sense.)
Colossians 2:23 speaks of "self-made religion," and offers strong warnings against those who rely on such a thing to help them to grow mature as a Christian. Notice this is not a warning against "religion," but against "self-made religion." It's a warning against a human-centered approach to God in which we as people think we can define the parameters of our interaction with God. And this is worth speaking against as many people lead others away from God by emphasizing personal spiritual practices and experiences more than God's work of grace on the cross.
But there's another kind of "religion" spoken of in the Bible, and it's not only spoken of as something positive, but as something essential. James 1:27 says, "Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained by this world." It is because of this verse (and parallel passages like Matthew 25:31-46) that I wince every time I hear some pithy remark about religion being bad. If we want to make such remarks, then let's be mindful of the few verses in the Bible that offer explicit instruction on this topic. If we're going to dis "religion," then let's be clear that we're dissing "self-made religion," because Scripture is pretty clear that "religion" in the correct sense is important to God.
Of course, it is important that the cart not be placed before the horse. Yes, God most certainly expects us to value the religious acts of helping the poor and of practicing moral purity. But God also expects us to trust in Jesus for the resolve needed to practice such religious deeds and for the forgiveness needed from Him when we fail. Or, one could say that a relationship with Jesus is how we're saved from the consequences of sin in our lives, but religious acts are how we're truly meant to express the salvation we've experienced.
So there's no need to bad-mouth the "pure and undefiled" "religion" that God wants a relationship with us to help us to practice!
© 2009 by Ken Peters