Religion/Ritual bad, Relationship good? [False ideas Christians believe about…God’s desires for Christians. Part 2]

26 Mar

Is religion automatically bad?  Some Christians are very anti-religion because they feel it goes against the concept of relationship.  But does it? 

Read James 1:26-27, and you’ll see James suggest that religion is not only a viable way to view our connection with God, but that God approves of religion that has a heart for social justice and righteousness. 

Before we study this further, it could be helpful to define the term that James uses. What is religion? The word “religion” is defined as:  appropriate beliefs and devout practice of obligations relating to supernatural persons and powers.”[1] That definition is somewhat different from what we normally think of when we view religion negatively. We think of a ritualistic approach to worshiping God, an approach that is called “dead” or “rote” or “empty.”

Have people ever said to you, “you are very religious”?  In our society, the people who say that usually don’t mean “you are practicing empty rituals”.  They usually mean that you are pious, and maybe even that you have a close relationship with God, or that they wish they could live that way, and that is a good thing.

When we hear someone say to us, “you are very religious,” we might inwardly (or also outwardly) bristle at this suggestion because we evangelicals have made such a big deal of emphasizing that Christianity is not a religion but a relationship.  We can react quickly back, “I do not have a religion, I have a relationship!”  But I would suggest that we hold our tongue.  The people we are talking to might have very little idea of what we are taking about: a religion vs. relationship.  They almost certainly didn’t mean to suggest that we are practicing an empty, dead ritualistic approach to God. 

Instead they probably observed our relationship with God, assumed that it is religion because that is how they conceive of Christianity, and thus they were actually complementing us.  So a proper response on our part, when someone says, “you are very religious” would be to say, “Thank you.”  That kind of gracious response is much more likely to open the door to a conversation about faith in Christ, than if we were to respond curtly, “UH…NO!  I do not have a religion.  I have a relationship.” 

Instead, allow yourself to live with their viewpoint, and take their words as a complement, say “Thank you,” and pursue a line of discussion that is gracious and generous and kind, talking about how Jesus has been so meaningful and life-changing and that you have a real friendship with him. 

The other side of the coin is that a ritualistic approach to Christianity is not necessarily wrong.  That is what James is referring to back in James 1.  As Christians we actually do have a religion.  A religion is simply a word that refers to the set of practices that we engage in.  Think about what you do when you gather for worship with your church family. You sit in a room, practicing gathered corporate worship together.  Jesus even commissioned his disciples to regularly practice rituals like gathering for prayer, teaching, communion and baptism.

Many people in protestant evangelical churches might respond, “But we are not at all like the liturgical churches and all their rituals.” 

That is the impression that we have of ourselves.  That we are completely different, and we are right, and they are wrong.  I totally disagree.  Let me explain.  Yes, our liturgy is different than their liturgy. 

I remember when I was on sabbatical and went to the Orthodox church, and it felt like I was a on a different Christian planet. Nearly every surfaced is covered with religious art called icons, and their worship service could be described as highly ritualistic.  But you know what?  Every church that I visited on sabbatical had their own liturgy.  We do too. 

Liturgy is a term that pops up in the Bible here and there, and it simply means “the work or service of the people.”  This is why we call our gatherings “services”.  Used in relation to worship services, “liturgy” carries the idea of what Christian people do, the work we do, of worshiping God.  When it comes to liturgy, there is no one right way.  High liturgy, which features lots of rituals, can minister deeply to people, enhancing their relationship to God.  No doubt, Faith Church is much more on the side of what is called low church, involving less ritual.  But we still have plenty of ritual too.  We don’t print it in a bulletin, but when I preached this sermon, I asked everyone present to describe the order of service we typically use, and they were able to list it out. That order describes our liturgy, our ritual.

But here’s the important thing to remember about our ritual, our liturgy: it is designed to enhance relationship with God!  So both are true, Christianity is a religion, and a relationship. 


[1] Johannes P. Louw and Eugene Albert Nida, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament: Based on Semantic Domains (New York: United Bible Societies, 1996), 530.

2 Responses to “Religion/Ritual bad, Relationship good? [False ideas Christians believe about…God’s desires for Christians. Part 2]”

  1. The found daughter! March 28, 2019 at 6:58 pm #

    I don´t like to be seen as a religious person but I have to agree with you. Great text!

    • joelkime March 29, 2019 at 6:25 am #

      Thanks! As I have gotten older, I have grown to appreciate healthy religious ritual. But it certainly has to be balanced with a genuine heart for God. I think about all the places in the Hebrew Bible, especially in the prophets, where God expresses his displeasure with empty, self-serving ritual: “these people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.”

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