Lately, I have been hearing more and more Christians speaking negatively about the notion of being religious. They say things like “I am spiritual but I am not religious.” Others say, “I am in relationship with God but I am not religious.” Often, I even hear preachers say, “Don’t be religious.” Or, in their sermons, they speak negatively about being religious.
Such negative references to being religious strike me as strange. Why would Christians (who are also called ”People of the Book”), distance themselves from being called religious?
Perhaps, we need to revisit the meaning of the term “religion.” The term comes from Latin and means “to bind one’s self.” Religion, moreover, means to bind or discipline one’s self to moral principles and practices and, furthermore, to express those commitments publicly and unashamedly.
Perhaps, in our increasingly secularized world people are less and less interested in discipline– even Christians. However, at the inception of Christianity, before the followers of Jesus were called Christians, they were called “disciples of Jesus.”
I submit that everyone who claims “relationship with Jesus” or who emphasize “Christian spirituality” must by definition of what it means to be emissaries of Christ also be religious. By this, I mean that it is impossible to have a relationship with Jesus without binding one’s self to Christ’s teachings and moral principles.
Christian spirituality is vibrant as the transcendent Spirit of Christ that dwells in humans who receive Christ. This Spirit of Christ disciplines us to walk and be as Christ in the world. It is, therefore, impossible for Christians to be Spiritual but not religious.
It seems that when people distance themselves from being called “religious,” they really mean something else. The first possibility is that we do not want Christianity to stand alongside other Religions of the world. So, to disassociate Christianity from the language of “religion” is an effort to articulate the unique character of Christianity– we can have a vibrant relationship with a living God through Jesus Christ rather than idols, etc.
The second possibility is that certain brands of Christianity with which we are familiar are distasteful. For example, if one has had interactions with a group of Christians or a particular brand of churches that subscribe to very strict rules about dress, food, worship, behavior and days of worship with which one disagrees, it could leave “a bad taste in my mouth” about God and church. So, when I find a brand of Christianity with which one agrees, that person might say that this is “relationship and not religion”– referring to the past experience as “religion and not relationship.”
The third possibility is that some churches are dry in worship expressions and do little for the vitality of the community. So, when one finds a community that is softer on teachings of “holiness” with little accountability, one feels free. But that freedom is individualistic and disconnected from communal subscription to holistic teachings of holiness. In other words, one is free to live and act at will rather than free to live and act according to teachings and principles that impact Christian wholeness.
It is a poor interpretation of “freedom to do as I feel” to name it “freedom in the Spirit.” Freedom in the Spirit should not be confused with “having my way.” What one really means is “freedom to live as I feel and still be in good standing with my church.” Churches, today, do not emphasize total discipleship (but that is a blog for another day). The question for today is, What does Jesus expect of me– relationship or religion? I submit that Jesus expects us to discipline ourselves to His teachings and the teachings of the New Testament. These teachings address all of life– even the parts of life that we rather not. There is no way to separate holistic discipline from a vibrant relationship with Jesus
In summary, to separate “Christian Spirituality and religion” or “relationship and religion” is a false bifurcation. While some churches might have it wrong pertaining to specific rules of conduct, dress, food, etc, true Christian Spirituality and authentic relationship with God through Jesus Christ has something to say about total human experience including how we behave, how we dress, how we eat, how we live, how we relate to others, etc.
Let’s seek true discipleship with Christ. That involves a relationship that is religious, by the true definition of the term– religious.