Defining Religion

So perhaps you’ve seen that Why I Hate Religion, But Love Jesus video rolling around YouTube and Facebook. If not, at least nearly 19 million others have. Check it out really quick:

Those are some powerful words right there. In my opinion what the dude has to say is valid and quite real. Unfortunately, however, I’m not sure “religion” was the right word to use.

Over the past few years, religion has become an incredibly vague word. It’s definition by the current generation seems to be: everything about Christianity that I don’t like or have had a bad experience with. With such a definition, it seems that the entire world has a different idea as to why religion is bad.

  • One person had a bad encounter with theology and doctrine so they accuse it of being “religious” rather than freeing, as it is intended to grow you with God and show you more of who He is.
  • Another person had a bad encounter with spiritual disciplines. Someone got so involved in fasting or prayer, or reading their Bible that they ignored the rest of the world. They accuse them of being “religious” rather than authentic.
  • Someone else attended a church with so much tradition that they stopped paying attention to the point of it all and started to accuse everyone associated with that church as “religious.”

It’s weird, because everyone agrees to accuse religion of being evil while no one ever opens up their mouth to explain what exactly religion is. Now that being said, check out this Catholic priest’s rebuttal to the video you just watched:

What’d you think of what he had to say? Is he right? Wrong?

My personal opinion: both of these guys are saying the exact same thing. Actually, I was waiting for someone to make his exact same comeback, because when “religion” is targeted, typically what people have in mind are the things I mentioned above: theology, spiritual disciplines, and tradition. And who better to make a comeback on all of these things than a Catholic priest as the Catholics do a better job at practicing all of these things today than most of our Protestant churches do.

But if you really pay attention to these videos, I think what you’ll actually find is that they are both mad at hypocrites—not religion. This is because they both have a different understanding as to what religion is.

See, Jesus understood the difference between simply being religious and actually pursuing God. Check out Matthew 6:16-18.

“And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

The hypocrites in Jesus words are the religious ones. They have the right action with the wrong heart. They’re fasting looks as though it’s for God, but in actuality it’s for them. They are looking to gain attention from the people around them so that they’ll be seen as spiritual. You can’t look at these people and not see how physically hungry they are. That’s religious fasting. True fasting—according to Jesus—would be to put some makeup on, take a shower, and walk around with a smile on your face.

I would define actual religion as “a pursuit of God with the wrong heart.” From the outside it looks right, but from the inside it’s not. In fact, it’s not even a pursuit. It’s a false pursuit. And because of my definition nearly anything can become religious.

  • You study so much doctrine and theology for the sake of education and debate that you miss God amidst it all.
  • You fast to get others attention, not God’s.
  • You raise your hands in worship because it makes you look spiritual.
  • You pray because you’re good at putting words together and others can see and hear you.
  • You speak in tongues so others will be in awe of your gift.
  • You practice tradition because you’re going through the motions and not because you’re remembering or learning anything.

But don’t you dare think for a second that these are religious activities in and of themselves. Consider them more as neutral activities. If you pursue God through theology, fasting, worship, prayer, tongues, or tradition, they become avenues of growth and authentic Christianity. But if you do not pursue God through theology, fasting, worship, prayer, tongues, or tradition, they have a pretty good potential of becoming religious.

Jesus offers freedom. Religion offers bondage. This is true, but we need to learn do discern what is religious and what is not. Because there are plenty of religion-hating Christians out there today who wouldn’t realize they could easily accuse Jesus of being religious. Check out Luke 2:41-51.

Now his parents went to Jerusalem every year at the Feast of the Passover. And when he was twelve years old, they went up according to custom. And when the feast was ended, as they were returning, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem. His parents did not know it, but supposing him to be in the group they went a day’s journey, but then they began to search for him among their relatives and acquaintances, and when they did not find him, they returned to Jerusalem, searching for him. After three days they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers. And when his parents saw him, they were astonished. And his mother said to him, “Son, why have you treated us so? Behold,your father and I have been searching for you in great distress.” And he said to them, “Why were you looking for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” And they did not understand the saying that he spoke to them. And he went down with them and came to Nazareth and was submissive to them. And his mother treasured up all these things in her heart.

Now of course Jesus is not being religious here, but He did do some things in this passage that people today would accuse anyone who wasn’t Jesus of being religious for:

  • His family was observing the traditional, religious holiday of Passover and following the customs they were supposed to follow as good Jews. On top of that, Mary didn’t necessarily have to attend this feast but she did anyway. Some would accuse her of being a religious overachiever.
  • This passage mentions Jesus is 12 years old. At this age, Jewish boys would gain the title “son of the law” and undergo a course of instruction, learn to fast, and attend public worship.
  • Jesus probably had amazing theological insight. The fact that the teachers were amazed by His questions means He had some pretty amazing answers for these well-educated men.
  • Jesus got so involved in being at church and carrying on intelligent conversation about God that He just set his family aside for three days while they panicked looking for Him. And when they finally found Him, Jesus replied as though He hadn’t even considered how they felt.

Some would call these things religious, but because it’s Jesus they would never do that.

I actually think this conversation is important. If we don’t learn to clarify what religion is, we will create an environment in which tradition, theology and spiritual disciplines fade all the much more (as though they haven’t done so already in Christianity today).

On another note, I’ve been tagging my posts under the topics of Christianity and Religion because I knew that plenty of authentic Christians would search for what I had to say under the topic of religion. Again, we define and consider this word differently.

Join the conversation and leave a comment. Do you agree with one of the videos above more than the other? Do you think they’re saying the same thing? Do you think they’re totally opposed to each other? I’m interested in your opinion.


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