Home > Discipleship > How to Be a Christian Without Being Religious

How to Be a Christian Without Being Religious

Religious dudes doing their religious stuffIf there’s anything that makes me sick, it’s religious people.  I have surprised a lot of people when I’ve made this statement, especially considering I’m a pastor.  But so many of the things that turn off skeptics to Christianity stem from people trying to be religious.  And it’s just garbage.

In 1944, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, “To be a Christian does not mean to be religious in a particular way, to make something of oneself (e.g., a sinner, a penitent, or a saint) on the basis of some method or other, but to be a man—not a type of man, but the man that Christ creates in us.” (Letters and Papers From Prison, p. 190)

Today it is common parlance among evangelists to declare that Christianity is not a religion because religion is “what you do to get to God,” while Christianity is “what God did to get to you.”  And while this is basically true, it is somewhat misleading.  God does require certain things from believers, and though good works will never get you to God, they are an indication that an inward change has taken place, and that God has “gotten to you.”

In fact, the need for some sort of religion is biblical.  James 1.26-27 says, “If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless.  Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.”

The word religion in this passage is the Greek Θρησκεια (threskeia), which BDAG defines as “expression of devotion to transcendent beings, esp. as it expresses itself in cultic rites, worship.” So for James, the proper way to express Θρησκεια towards God, the proper rite or ritual, is not putting on robes, lighting candles. burning incense, or chanting; it is helping the less fortunate and living in purity.  In other words, love God with your whole being and love your neighbor as yourself.

The fact is that Christianity requires a measure of religion, of outward actions.  The very fact that we must function together as a community demands it.  The problem is that our natural inclination is to pull religion away from right living and to put the emphasis on empty ritual or dead theology.

Jesus had all kinds of things to say about it.  Matthew 6.1 is representative, though the entire passage is relevant.  He says, “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.”  The key that makes true religion work is relationship with God.  As soon as you forget God but keep going through the motions, you have become religious in the worst sense.

God help us if we become so comfortable with religion that we no longer need Him as we go through the motions.

  1. BJ Fisher
    November 12, 2009 at 1:51 pm

    Hey Ryan,

    I happened upon your blog recently and I thought I’d tell you I enjoy reading it. I have also been grappling with many things in my Christian faith that I have taken for granted and/or accepted without question. I recently bought a cluster of books having to do with, I believe, healthy skepticism regarding the Christian faith and the practices of the Church. They are not highly in depth, theological books, but after having read many reviews and skimming them I find them to be enlightening. I should say too that I do not subscribe to all of their ideas so far, but many of them seem accurate and efficient enough for me to accept. If you have read any of these, let me know what you think of them.

    I’ll list a few of the ones I plan to read first:

    Crazy For God, by Frank Schaeffer
    (His story is interesting and crazy.)

    Myth of a Christian Nation, by Greg Boyd
    (One of my favorite theologians, writers and bloggers).

    Pagan Christianity?, by Frank Viola & George Barna
    (Not the first book about these ideas, but probably the most carefully put together. It is a book that can reach a large audience).

    I also got a few on the arts.

    Walking On Water, by Madeleine L’Engle

    Imagine, by Steve Turner

    Art and the Bible, by Francis Schaeffer

    Read any of these yet?

    Anyhow, it’s good to see you are still progressing and pressing on in your faith. Speaking of pressing on, I highly recommend listening to Dylan’s “Pressing On” on youtube or whatever audio and/or visual source you might have or wish to use. 🙂 “You gotta keep pushing!”


  2. November 15, 2009 at 10:46 pm

    Hey BJ. Thanks for the comment!

    I haven’t read any of the books you mentioned. I read a few reviews of Franky Schaeffer’s book. I think I read the first few pages on Amazon. Looks very interesting.

    I read a lot of Greg Boyd a while back, but now I’m bored with him.

    Pagan Christianity? looks interesting, but I don’t know much about it. I read the last big Barna book, Revolution. I think the ideas are similar. There was a lot of junk in that book to wade through, but also a lot of good stuff.

    I’ve never read any books on art. Francis Schaeffer loves to talk about art and philosophy in his books, and I’ve read a little of his stuff. I’m reading a book right now on the Aesthetics of faith called The Beauty of the Infinite by David Beneley Hart. It’s a tough read but really stimulating. He assumes you know a little bit about the history of philosophy. And that you are reading with a dictionary next to you.

    What things are you grappling with? Would you like to do a guest post?

  3. Jaynell Hebert
    November 7, 2011 at 11:54 am

    Thank you!

  4. Karissa Elizabeth Ann Lowell
    January 10, 2012 at 4:52 pm

    Thanks for your article. I am trying to express the same thing. I am not get through to some people because of the denomontional beliefs. I am a Christian First and A Catholic Second. I am not religious but I am a Christian. Lu

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