It was Christmastime, and that typically means at least one trip to the mall. Tamara and I were on our way to a family party, and we were picking up rice and beans from Miguel’s Junior–basically the most important component of any festive meal.
But since it was the Christmas season, finding a parking spot was close to impossible.. So I dropped Tamara off at the front so that I could drive in circles around the parking lot until she came back.
As I was circling the parking lot, I was behind another car that was doing the same. After a few minutes, out of sheer boredom, I began to study the back of this vehicle.
From one bumper sticker, I learned that the driver of this car had a child who was an honor student, multiple times over (or maybe just multiple kids). From another bumper sticker, I learned that they were a Christian. The refrain was boldly printed in large letters next to a cross:
“You have a religion. I have a relationship!”
Having grown up in the Church, this is a phrase I’ve heard often. Among many Evangelicals, this slogan has become something of a popular retort against the stuffy, old, rote traditions that we’ve moved away from. And I think the sentiment is a good one. True Christians have a personal relationship with Jesus.
But is that all there is to it? Can I shed the baggage of religion entirely? Is my faith only about me and Jesus, my coffee, and my morning devotional? Or is faith in Jesus fundamentally something more?
Here are a few reasons why I don’t think religion is a dirty word.
No Christian is an island.
I want to share a bit of wisdom that, on the face of it, may seem a bit controversial. But hang with me as I share the thoughts of a respected theologian from the church’s early history. Saint Cyprian of Carthage was a leader in the Church during the third century. Many would refer to him as a Church Father. And I’ll spare you the Latin, but this statement has long been attributed to him:
“Outside the Church, there is no salvation.”
It’s easy to misconstrue Cyprian’s words. But he did not intend to say that a person is only a Christian if they attend a certain number of Sunday morning worship services. He does, however, point out that there is no such thing as a privatized Christian faith.
When we come to faith in Jesus, we are described as being in Christ. We are united with him, and his Spirit indwells us. And Jesus only has one Spirit. So if we are true believers, we are inextricably connected with other believers who also have Jesus’ Spirit.
In the early Church, there were certain people who decided that Church wasn’t their thing. They said, “I follow Christ” rather than any Church leader. But what they really meant was that they followed themselves. And I say that because they had no desire to come under the spiritual guidance of the Church and its leadership. They wanted to be Christians apart from the Church.
And while that may sound spiritual, it’s actually immature.
We tend to fall prey to the same misunderstanding. But we can’t say that we accept Jesus and reject the Church. Jesus’ Spirit is in the Church. So a Christian without the Church is a contradiction in terms.
Salvation is a communal experience. It’s something that Jesus has given not only to persons but to a people. We are a holy nation that Jesus has called together (1 Peter 2:9). That’s something that is fundamentally religious. It’s a shared spiritual heritage every Christian has.
Faith is personal, but it isn’t private.
Jesus has knit the Church together by His Spirit, and he has also given us tangible symbols of our unity. Some people call them sacraments. Others call them ordinances. Whatever you call them, Jesus gave us two of them.
He instituted communion on the night he was betrayed. The bread represents his body, broken for us. The wine represents the blood of the new covenant that Jesus has made for us–the promise of God’s grace to us, bought by Jesus’ own blood. As often as we take these elements, until Jesus comes back, we do these in remembrance of him. This has been called the Lord’s Supper. It’s a meal. And integral to a meal is community.
Likewise, before Jesus ascended to heaven, he told his followers to make new disciples, whom they would baptize. By its very nature, baptism is a public declaration of faith. It’s a tangible symbol for the community of believers that a person has crossed the line of faith and is now in Christ. It also shows that they are part of the Church.
These ordinances are integral parts of Christian worship. Worship is a communal experience. And it’s undeniably religious. We engage with the living God as persons, but also as a people–with one voice.
Real faith starts movements for good.
Even more than being a communal experience, faith in Jesus is meant to be a visible movement of his goodness in the world. Faith isn’t only about what Jesus has saved us from. It’s even more about what Jesus has saved us for. And Jesus has saved us for his kingdom.
And the thing about Jesus’ kingdom is that it is breaking forth into the world today. By the power of his Spirit, the Church becomes a movement for good. A movement that’s far bigger than the reach of any one person.
Our great purpose is borne out of a great tradition that Jesus gave us. And that tradition is religious in nature.
It’s a movement that brings the good news of Jesus and then demonstrates that good news through tangible acts of goodness. Here is what James, the brother of Jesus, has to say about religion.
“But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves…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 from the world.” (James 1:22, 27)
So religion isn’t a dirty word…as long as it is a religion that is true and good.
Ritual and tradition aren’t the enemy. Insincerity is.
Jesus once said to the religious leaders of his time, “You make void the word of God by your tradition” (Mark 7:13). Those are pretty strong words.
But Jesus didn’t say that traditions themselves were inherently wrong or evil. He only hated that these religious leaders wielded them like weapons to keep people (including themselves) from actually encountering God.
Traditions and rituals aren’t actually the enemy. Insincerity is. Creating an artificial rulebook of what “holy people” do is the issue here.
And we don’t even need steeples, hymns, robes, or pews to be guilty of that. Anytime we think we are better than other people on account of our cultural preferences, we’re guilty of making void the word of God by our traditions.
On the other hand, certain traditions can be incredibly powerful and encouraging to our faith. Singing certain songs together, engaging in certain spiritual disciplines together, reading and reciting important bible passages together, and other things like this can have a compound effect on our soul across the years. They shape us as followers of Jesus in important ways. Especially when we do them in community.
We just can’t fall into the temptation of worshiping these practices rather than worshiping Jesus. That would be bad religion. But that doesn’t mean that there is no such thing as good religion.
While Christianity will never be anything less than an authentic relationship between me and Jesus, it is far more. My relationship with Jesus is part of a greater movement, a tradition, a community–a religion.
So, one person may have a religion. Another might have a relationship. I’d like to have both.