From the unbelieving world’s perspective, all religions are the same. I tend to agree. Religious people work in varying degrees to make God happy with them. Some may deny it, but they are afraid they may not be good enough for God to accept them, and they hope they can do something to appease him. From that situation, do most religious activities arise—burning incense, fasting, religious wars, and religious oppression. Sadly, Christians do or have done all those things.
Christianity, as a word, encompasses many things, many of them religious. Those who know Jesus Christ, however, come into that relationship without the need for religious exercises, since they do not work. A true believer, knowing his or her sinfulness, understands that no set of activities or pious exercises are sufficient to compensate for this, that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). Their hope, sure and certain, is not in themselves or the things they may strive to do but in Jesus. They believe Paul, who wrote, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do” (Ephesians 2:8-10).
Some struggle with God’s offer; they want to “save” themselves. Pride, this need for self-sufficiency is the very root of sin, so it cannot be an acceptable offering to God. Nothing demonstrates this better than the popularity of the Frank Sinatra song, “I Did It My Way.” This is also the source of conflict among Christian sects whose members seek to be the right ones, while all the rest are wrong. God hates these self-serving attitudes that divide his people, based solely on the arrogant need for people to prove their superiority over their brothers and sisters who see things differently. Is the “fruit of the vine,” nonalcoholic grape juice or fermented wine, the real blood of Jesus or merely a symbol of it? Mass, Holy Communion, or the Lord’s Supper—does this practice help to save ourselves or merely remind us of what Jesus did to save us? Is baptism needed for salvation, is it symbolic of spiritual cleansing, is it merely an act of obedience, and does it matter whether the sinner is fully immersed? Since the word, trinity, isn’t in the Bible, can a person be saved without being sure about the Trinity? Dual nature of Christ, virgin birth, literal 24-hour days of creation–does salvation rest on having the right answers for these and for all the other areas of doctrine and practice that divide believers? No, our salvation rests solely on Jesus. Does obedience help to save us? Nope. Is having truth all worked out necessary for salvation? Since salvation rests only on genuine faith in Jesus, no; only grace, God’s gift resting on Jesus’ sacrifice at Calvary, can save us. It’s not about religion, correct doctrine except at the most basic truths, or religious practices; it’s only about God’ gift for which we must do nothing but believe and accept it
A refugee from the Iranian revolution remarked, recently, that she was not religious, and I thought, “I’m not religious either.” She meant, I think, that she did observe or practice any religion. For me, the lack of religion is the distinction between the “good news of Christ” and all others that I regard as religion. At that moment, it occurred to me that in the current war with radical Islam, Christians need especially to stop being religious. We may be holy, as God is holy; we may worship the true and the living God. To honor God, not to appease him, we may strive to be obedient, to seek moral purity, to do good for others. We may not use self-affirming truth claims to disparage other believers to make ourselves look superior. We may not ignore God’s greatest commandment to love our neighbor, our fellow believers, or even our enemies with a religious expression of practicing the better version of our faith. All of the God-given, gracious actions portray Christ and his people as a community of true freedom, according to Jesus’ words, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples; you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” As much as the peoples of the world may benefit from political freedom, they will gain far more through the spiritual freedom in Christ. That is what we must show the world.
While I was in seminary, one of my friends was working with a home mission group on a near-by college campus. As he got to know some of the students there, he discovered a resistance rooted in the earlier visits by other “campus missionaries.” These earlier visitors had challenged their smoking and beer drinking. They led with religion and judgment and never had a chance to present the gospel of grace. Later visitors had one more barrier to overcome in their attempt to introduce them to Jesus.
In many Islamic communities, a similar problem exists. Missionaries who presented Christianity as the superior religion left behind bitterness and an antipathy to the very words, Christian and church. Wiser missionaries now avoid those words, seek to build on common convictions, and present gently the person and work of Jesus with as little religious jargon or condemnation as possible. Not only must a “Christian religion” be avoided, but the love of Jesus needs to be the focus, clearly uncorrupted by religious condemnation. To succeed, a believer may need to pray ardently for humility. I’ve observed Christians who feel they must “act” righteous, as if their goodness is the key to being heard. Frankly, few Christians can outdo a devoted Muslim for religious commitment, while no one of any religion will be able to outdo believers who love as Jesus loves (John 13:34-35). That is the key to reaching out to others such as Muslims. It is definitely not religious superiority!
I suspect that the same problem may explain the loss of Christian influence in the United States today. Christian piety and many church “services” seem dull and uninteresting, not just to the lost but also to many of the presumably saved. Between the highly critical and competitive attitudes and the works-based religiosity, too little of the freedom in Christ is in evidence. Many complain of churches for not being friendly, suggesting a deeper lack of the love of Christ. With respect to genuineness of Christlike love, I wonder how much, or how little, contemporary churches are like the early churches. I know there are some wonderful exceptions, but friendliness is only the barest surface of love; genuine charity, hospitality, and compassion are far too rare among us.
I also suspect the return to political activity by conservative Christians has created a strong reaction to believers. On the one hand, it would be easy to conclude that this is the devil’s work, simple unbelief morphing into overt attacks on the faithful; undoubtedly, that is part of the explanation. On the other hand, Jesus commanded us to be “shrewd as snakes and gentle as doves,” even as we deal with hatred. Once our culture abandoned its Christian foundation, I’m not sure our job became to restore it through political action; I doubt it is possible to win the nation without first winning the hearts of its people. Trying to do so seems to have raised the specter of “theocracy.” The hostile nature of political processes does not provide a forum for grace, certainly not in 30 or 60 second sound bites. I’m reminded of “Deadly Detours: Seven Noble Causes That Keep Christians from Changing the World” by Bob Briner, who suggests that hostile engagement in seemingly good endeavors keeps us from loving those with whom we disagree.
In the nearly 40 years since the Supreme Court gave us abortion on demand, for example, an enormous amount of time, energy, and money have gone into trying to reverse Roe v. Wade; yet, in that time, over 52 million babies have been killed. What if comparable resources had instead been invested in simply reaching out to unbelievers with the message of grace, not at abortion clinics where the atmosphere is hostile or defensive, at the least, and not only at the moment when a woman in crisis is facing the most difficult decision of her life. What if we simply got back to the basic business of sharing the gospel, wisely, sensitively, and prayerfully? Instead, the Church has created a plethora of organizations and agencies to lead the pro-life movement, do evangelism, carry on the Church’s social actions, and take the gospel to other lands, continuing the illusion that the work of Christ is not for the everyday folks. Instead the man and woman in the pew do their religious activities, lose the sense of a vital connection to Christ, and sustain the impression that this churchy, religious stuff is what we’re all about.
Jesus never said, “By this shall all people know that you are my disciples, because you have the right doctrine or support the right cause.” Neither did he say, “The greatest commandment is being right, and the second is like it, be a better keeper of the law than your neighbor.” It is even less clear what he would have us do politically, since he taught, during the reign of imperial Rome, a message of survival under persecution; he did not teach a path to political victory. The insidious sin of pride is evident in all this. Truth will set us free, so knowing the truth is invaluable. Ours is surely the traditional morality of family values, but we’re not commanded to proclaim the superiority of those values. No sane person wants to relate to God incorrectly which should motivate each of us to do our homework. Furthermore, our history of compassion truly changed a world that had accepted death and thus saw life as having little value, but few of us are engaged in such world-changing activities today. Sadly, we who are the Church have ceded leadership to the secular culture and the government that leads it. Many of us scorn intellectual achievement, the very foundation of engagement with the world’s ideas, accepting mockery as a substitute for thoughtful dialog. Many of us are not even sure our ideas are superior, so weak has our faith become, so little do we understand God’s amazing grace.
However, as important as engagement and winning the battle of ideas may be, sharing the gospel of grace isn’t about such dialog or debate, because only love has the ability to win people to Christ. The cults know this and offer an empty substitute for love, a sense of belonging; even street gangs do this. So why do churches offer religiosity? I fear it is because most of us feel inadequate even to try to talk about grace; by comparison, religious activity is easy. As the culture has fallen into relativism, rejected truth, embraced self-centeredness, and justified faithlessness, many in the Church have slipped onto the same path. Selfish, narcissistic people find it difficult to get along each other, however much they want relationships and intimacy; relationship-ending conflict has become the norm, inside and outside the Church. Into this vacuum of family and friendship among believers, we substitute religion. It is a sorry substitute.
I’m a older bachelor, and I no longer anticipate marriage. I spend much of my life among young people as a teacher and tutor, old enough now to be their grandfather, but of course I’m not. Making strong friendships has never been easy for me, and I find myself without many close friends nearby, at this stage of my life. I’ve always managed to occupy my time, mostly with books and a few other things. I’ve been a church-goer, all my life, but little of the “services” meet my needs or challenge me. The music has slowly moved away from what most stirs my heart, and even what I would consider to be good or even great preaching doesn’t seem to motivate people very much. Some years ago, one woman told me she just wanted the catharsis of “fire and brimstone” preaching on sin. That’s where religion finally ends up, an emotional thrill with little connection to anything…or anyone…or Anyone! What I, and I suspect what most of us, really want is a community of people where we are accepted, welcomed, missed when we’re absent, loved, enjoyed companionably, and cared for, especially when life takes us to places of significant need. Religion does none of that.
So this is my appeal. Don’t be religious; it’s a waste of time. Don’t be part of a community that presses religion onto others, and where you can, work to move your congregation away from religious activity. Replace it with the real thing—grace, love, compassion, hospitality, serving one another, 70 times 7 forgiveness, generosity and kindness without judgment, freedom for each person to find and exercise his or her gifts, and a place of creativity instead of stifling religious conformity. We can stop bringing in the hot button issues of the secular culture, for we will find that God has already provided far better answers than the unbelieving world offers in its rejection of God and truth. Instead, we can bring in the lost, who are looking for the real thing but won’t find it in our religious substitutes, and together we will discover what it means to “love one another” such that “the world will know we are Christians by our love.”