In Defense Of Religion

One frequently sees the sentiment “I am not religious, I am a Christian” or something like this. This notion manifests itself in a variety of ways. For example, over the last several years we have seen the gradual abandonment of traditional Christian church names (Trinity, Hope, Grace, Christ, St John’s etc). One local congregation name that has caught my eye is Infusion. It is interesting because it is an RCA congregation. The name has a generic quality. It could be a nightclub or a fitness center. Another local congregation calls itself “The Foundry.” It is an interesting metaphor but is it superior to traditional Christian designations for congregations?

We see a certain antipathy to traditional Christian vocabulary in the self-identity published on social media accounts. Christians now describe themselves as a “disciple of Jesus” or a “Jesus follower” rather than Christian. Of course, in a few years, we shall have to find substitutes for “follower” and “disciple” since all such claims must eventually be defined and defended or abandoned.

This brings me back to the poor, beleaguered noun religion. Is there any more abused and despised little word in the Christian vocabulary today? I should think that were someone to say to a devout evangelical, “I see that you are very religious” an evangelical should feel compelled to deny it categorically: “How dare you sir! I am a Christian. I am not religious.” How did the noun (and its family members) come to have such a terrible reputation? When did it become a sin to be religious?

I suspect the source of the current suspicion of religion may be found in the desire among evangelicals to distinguish themselves from mainline, liberal Christians and from those perceived to belong to “high church” traditions. They, the thinking went, were observing outward rituals but the evangelicals (from the Pietist tradition) had a heart religion, not a merely outward religion.

Here’s one great difficulty with such an understanding of religion: everyone has one. There is a centuries-old debate about the etymology of the word religion but its basic sense in historic Christian usage, including the confessional Protestants, is relatively clear. It simply refers to the practice of the Christian religion. If you are a regular reader of this space you will doubtless know that the HB is devoted to recovering the confessional Reformed theology, piety, and practice (“We’re talking about practice”). If we observe the way the older Christian writers (i.e., before the 1950s) used the word religion it referred to the outward expression of the inward piety. If we substituted the noun religion for the noun practice, we have captured its basic sense. The HB is devoted to the recovery of the Reformed theology, piety, and religion. The Synod of Dort (art. 61) unashamedly restricted holy communion in Reformed congregations to those who profess the “Reformed religion”

After all, it is not as if it is possible to avoid religion. It is  like belly buttons and confessions: everyone has one. The only question is whether one recognizes that he has one. Just as it is a confession to say, “No creed but Christ” so anyone who gathers for worship, no matter how informal the service, no matter whether it is a service where one is allowed to carry a cup of coffee into the auditorium or not, whether one wears Hawaiian shirts or a suit and tie, whatever transpires from the time the minister calls the congregation to order and pronounces the benediction is religion. Those who attend to public worship services every Lord’s Day are unavoidably religious even if only outwardly.

Certainly it is possible to go through the motions, to participate in a worship service without true repentance and true faith but, again, that is true whether one sits quietly while the minister conducts the service or whether one is rolling on the floor. There are false professors of the Christian religion who have demonstrated what some consider the highest expression of “heart religion.” The truth is there is nothing we can do to prevent formalism. It comes in every shape, size, color, and meter. The hypocrites you shall always have with you.

The pretense that one can be a Christian without being religious is simply playing with words. It is an attempt to define out of existence a necessary reality. Everyone Christian (whether merely professing the faith or also actually believing int) practices the faith outwardly if not inwardly. The internal must come to external, corporate expression: “not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near” (Heb 10:25). Religion is like liturgy. Again, everyone has one. It may or may not be biblical. It may be high or low but there is no congregation, not even the most informal Pietist conventicle—think about your small group. Do not people tend to pray in roughly the same order even when the instruction is: “pray as you feel led”?—has a sort of liturgy, an order in which things are done.

This is yet another reason why sola scriptura is so important. Religion is inescapable. Either it will be done according to God’s Word as the alone magisterial (ruling) authority or it will be done according to human opinion. Better to get our cards and our religion out of the table and to be sure that we are adhering to the rule of worship and to the charter of Christian liberty rather than to bind consciences under the pretense that we have no religion.

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  1. The problem seems to be that the person without the system usually ends in heterodoxy if not outright heresy. But, at least that way everyone gets to have their own little Jesus cult, and if it happens to infuse with a local foundry, so much the better.

  2. In Denver we have The Doubters Church and Scum of the Earth church. I kid you not. Look them up.

  3. In the RSV (forgive me for using it), it says, “Great is the mystery of our religion…” in I Tim. 3:16.

  4. In a Charlotte, NC suburb we have “Venture” church. It is of course Baptistic in it’s theology but being honest about that up front is not very “attractive”. It is about to purchase and build its’ first facility. The facility will be a hotel and conference center that the congregation will own and meet in. This is the new normal among broad evangelical churches that are entrepreneurial and seem to be flourishing…at least numerically they are.

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