“I’m not religious! I just love the Lord!” It’s one of those sayings I heard repeated with an almost liturgical regularity back in the warm and simple days when I was an evangelical. It went without saying that “religion” was bad. What also went without saying was what, exactly, religion was. So, what do people seem to mean by “religion”? Basically, a cold, artificial thing that blocks us from the direct, unmediated ecstasy of access to God without a clutter of priests, complicated rites, baffling theology understandable only to professionals, and various “magic words” and symbols that mainly function to cut us off from “the simple Gospel of Jesus.”
What does Scripture say about religion? Actually, not much — and all of it good. James, says, “If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this man’s religion is vain. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction and to keep oneself unstained from the world” (James 1:26-27).
In other words, the problem is not religion, but false religion. Real religion is a good thing because it consists precisely of doing those works of charity Jesus exemplifies. Pitting Jesus against religion is like smashing a great violinist’s instrument while demanding purely spiritual “music.”
Paul says that women should adorn themselves with “good deeds, as befits women who profess religion” (1 Timothy 2:10). Once again, religion is a good thing, embodied in good deeds. Paul also tells Timothy, “Great indeed, we confess, is the mystery of our religion: He was manifested in the flesh, vindicated in the Spirit, seen by angels, preached among the nations, believed on in the world, taken up in glory” (1 Timothy 3:16). Here “religion” simply refers to the content of the Gospel, which is Jesus. It is the insistence that Jesus did not remain a disembodied spirit, but became flesh.
Paul further says, “If a widow has children or grandchildren, let them first learn their religious duty to their own family and make some return to their parents; for this is acceptable in the sight of God” (1 Timothy 5:4). In other words, just as Jesus is the Word made flesh, so our faith must likewise be made flesh. A faith that remains a mere spiritual idea or concept but is not lived out in actual, concrete, practical acts of love is dead. And a faith that is practiced enfleshes itself in acts of charity; it is, precisely, a religion, since the word derives from “religio” and means a “respect for what is sacred.” The bonds of love and family are sacred because God is love and the creator of the family. Trying to be “spiritual” while hating your family or your neighbor is nonsense since, as John says, “He who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God, whom he has not seen (1 John 4:20).
This is why Paul warns Timothy, not against religion (which is simply “faith made flesh”), but against false religion (which is “faithlessness made flesh”), saying, “But understand this, that in the last days there will come times of stress. For men will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, inhuman, implacable, slanderers, profligates, fierce, haters of good, treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, holding the form of religion but denying the power of it. Avoid such people” (2 Timothy 3:1-5). Having the form of a religion while denying the power of it (namely the power of the Holy Spirit) is like having a dead body without its spirit. It looks just like the true and living thing, but it’s dead.
Mark Shea blogs at NCRegister.com.