And he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up. And as was his custom, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and he stood up to read. And the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. — Luke 4:16-17
There is a trend among progressive Christianity to decry religion as a general concept, and religious people specifically. In most cases, I’m not convinced that the aim is to promote the abandonment of organized faiths or to condone hedonistic and worldly lifestyles. But on the other hand, disavowing religion (and whatever the hearer might associate with it) makes it a lot easier to talk to people without being seen as “one of those horrible religious nuts.”
After all, when most Progressives think of “religion,” they seem to envision a bunch of people who believe you please God by living perfectly (or claim to, anyway), or following a bunch of rules, or “going to church” – basically all the things people don’t like about Christianity.
The popular, non-religious Jesus
It’s much easier to “sell” Jesus when you can say that Jesus agrees with them: “Those religious people are phonies, and you don’t have to listen to them.” In fact, you don’t really have to do anything – just love and accept the concept of Jesus that they’re describing to you.
Alex Himaya wrote a book about this idea, and his approach was simply to adopt his own definition of religion – one that he could easily show to be wrong. Religion to him, and to others, is the idea of doing things with the aim of pleasing God based not on our faith, but on our merit. It is a breeding ground for hypocrisy, he argues, because it focuses on what we’re doing, and causes us to make judgments based on actions, apart from God’s saving grace.
And maybe that’s the experience that many have seen and been a part of in their own lives. There’s no question that a stream of people file into a house of worship every Sunday and sing songs and listen to prayers and maybe even give money, and not once do they really feel convicted that any of this really means anything. And many of them probably believe (falsely) that by being in the right place on Sunday morning, they have shown themselves to be “good.”
If our political climate has taught us anything, it’s that I can’t observe the worst behavior in a group of people and decide to define that group accordingly. It’s a great way to win an argument, but it’s not so great for teaching people about Jesus and his body, the church (Colossians 1:17).
The Bible doesn’t spend a lot of time trying to define what the word “religious” means, and the reason for that is likely that it really doesn’t matter what term you use. Scripture very clearly tells us what we need to do if we want to please God:
- “Fear God and keep His commandments (Ecclesiastes 12:13).”
- Pursue “a sincere and pure devotion to Christ (2 Corinthians 11:3).”
- “Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness (Matthew 6:33).”
- Be “zealous for good works” having been purified in Christ (Titus 2:14)
- “Be faithful unto death” (Revelation 2:10)
None of those things are actions devoid of faith. None of them are arguments that man can earn salvation because he’s done everything that God requires of him. They are simply the reasonable service that man offers his Creator. And all of them are “religious” in nature.
Jesus displayed “true religion”
By any objective standard, scripture teaches that Jesus was very religious!
- Jesus observed religious feast days (John 2:13, Luke 22:8)
- Jesus attended worship services regularly (Mark 1:21, Luke 4:16)
- Jesus instituted religious sacraments (Matthew 26:26-29, Matthew 28:19)
- Jesus paid the temple tax (Matthew 17:27)
- Jesus stressed obedience to God’s law – even the parts that involved ritual obedience! (Matthew 19:17-19, Mark 1:44)
Going to church? Check.
Observing rituals? Check.
Obeying God’s commandments? Check.
Jesus was our model for what a religious person ought to be in all these things, but also in his everyday life, as he “went about doing good” (Acts 10:38). Jesus lived up to the definition James gives us of what it means to be religious:
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 1:27
Jesus never qualified any of those things with the provision that God really doesn’t care whether you do them or not, and that He really doesn’t like people who think that He appreciates their attempts to please Him by doing all those things He told them to do.
Jesus submitted to the Father in all things, and that included being “religious.” None of that changed based on the hypocrisy in the culture around him. In fact, what did Jesus tell his disciples to do when they were preached to by hypocritical religious leaders?
Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, ‘The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat, so do and observe whatever they tell you, but not the works they do. For they preach, but do not practice. — Mat 23:1-3
Jesus was a religious man. He cared deeply about spiritual things, and submitted to the ordinances and commandments in God’s law not because they earned God’s salvation. He valued them because his Father valued them.
So Jesus said to them, “When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will know that I am he, and that I do nothing on my own authority, but speak just as the Father taught me. And he who sent me is with me. He has not left me alone, for I always do the things that are pleasing to him.” — John 8:28-29
Isn’t that really what being religious is all about?