How to Be a Christian Without Being Religious
If 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.