A couple of weeks ago I was in a discussion with a couple of guys about the word ‘religion’. It’s not a word that shows up often in the Bible, only five times by my count. It’s a word that has fallen on hard times. As Christians we often say things like “Christianity isn’t a religion, its’ a relationship”. We’ve come to associate religion with things people do to earn God’s favor, the external trappings of faith. The word didn’t always have such connotations. Edwards wrote in his treatise Religious Affections that “true religion consists so much in the affections, that there can be no true religion without them”. Calvin’s life work was titled The Institutes of the Christian Religion, Octavius Winslow’s Personal Declension and Revival of Religion in the Soul, and Matthew Henry wrote of the Pleasantness of the Religious Life. People prayed for a and talked about a revival in religion and it was a good thing. It included the internal realities of a relationship with God AND the externals that accompany these realities.
For this reason, I think we need to bring back the word ‘religion’ in its older (biblical) sense. The focus on relationship over religion may have been a healthy corrective to dead and stale orthodoxy without affections. However, the pendulum has swung to far the other way.
One of the points well argued by David Wells in The Courage to be Protestant is that the emphasis on spirituality, an emphasis than many churches are trying to tap into, is contrary to a biblical understanding of spirituality. This ‘new spirituality’ is all about accessing God from within, finding purpose and meaning within. This is all done without the trappings of organized religion. Spirituality is a private matter whereas religion is a publicly practiced matter. Christianity is increasingly feeling the affects of this new spirituality. All things external to self are deemed unnecessary to the relationship with God. These external things can include the church, the sacraments, revelation (the Word), fellowship with other believers, doctrine, etc. These are seen as the trappings of organized religion, not the ingredients of an internalized relationship.
But is that how the Bible views these things? Of course not. These ‘external trappings’ are a vital part of God’s mission, his purposes, his communication of grace in our lives and his working for our eternal good. If the church embraces this new spirituality and ditches these ‘external’ aspects of religion, it will be her death. Here Wells may be guilty of some extra drama, but his point is good,
“Sometimes it [the new spirituality] is dressed up in sophisticated psychological language. More commonly we hear it in the everyday self-talk of our therapeutic culture. It is there in the television chatter, in the magazines near the checkout counter at the supermarket, and it is mentioned between neighbors. This understanding of being spiritual sounds plausible, compelling, innocent, and even commendable, but , let us make no mistake about it, it is lethal to biblical Christianity. That is why the biggest enigma we face today is the fact that it’s chief enablers are evangelical churches, especially those who are seeker-sensitive and emergent who, for different reasons, are selling spirituality disconnected from biblical truth” (178).
Again, he might be overstating things to sell a book, but it’s a good point. Many of us and our churches are trying to tap into our cultures heightened sense of spirituality but are doing so uncritically. The new spirituality is antithetical to biblical Christianity in that it minimizes the importance of the God who stands outside of self and reaches down to us. God, in the new spirituality, is accessed by reaching up to him in all our human potential, on our terms and without accountability. As we tap into the spirituality of those who are not believers, and we should (see Acts 17) we must confront these wrong assumptions and correct them in light of biblical truth (see Acts 17).
It’s not that Christianity isn’t about relationship (gotta love double negatives). It is. But this relationship comes to us as God who is above us reaches down to us, mediates his grace to us, calls us to believe and live his word and holds us to account. We cannot loose this.