A Modest Proposal: Don’t Dump Religion

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I know I’m tilting at windmills here. The die has already been cast. The ship has already sailed. The train has already left the station. Pick your well-worn metaphor.

But I have a modest proposal nonetheless: let’s not write and speak as if “religion” is the thing that good Christians are always against.

You know what I mean. Maybe you’ve spoken this way before. Maybe I have too. Religion is bad. Religion is about rules. Religion is about earning God’s favor. Religion is about trying; Christianity is about trusting. Religion is about reaching up to God; the gospel is about God reaching down to us. I understand the contrast. I agree with all that we want to affirm with such statements.

But is throwing “religion” under the bus the best way to make the point?

Consider the following:

1. This is a relatively new way for Christians to speak. It’s not hard to find examples. Calvin wrote the Institutes of the Christian Religion. Jonathan Edwards wrote on Religious Affections. I can tell you from studying the 18th century in depth that loads of good Christians wrote about “religion” or “true religion” or “real religion.” Our forefathers were well aware of religious hypocrisy and false religious systems, but they didn’t equate “religion” with works-righteousness. One could read, for example, John Witherspoon’s sermon on “The Nature and Extent of Visible Religion” from Matthew 5:16 and see that religion was not used as an antithesis to gospel.

2. The Bible does not use “religion” as an automatically pejorative term. “In anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless. 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 1:26-27). According to Scripture, religion can please God. That’s not how many of us talk.

3. In castigating “religion,” we may be unloading more baggage than we realize. I understand the apologetic reasons for contrasting religion with gospel. People may think Christianity is about a bunch of hypocrites pretending to be good enough so that God will like them. That’s positively not Christianity and not the gospel. So I get the impulse to throw off “religion.” But people also equate commandments and doctrines and institutions and church leaders with religion. That’s why people want to be “spiritual but religious.” And yet, Christianity is a religion in this sense; we do believe in commandments, doctrines, institutions, and church leaders. I fear we can give people the wrong impression, and affirm the unbiblical instincts, when we quickly join them in dismissing religion.

I’m not trying to police every tweetable turn of the phrase or every bit of gospel contextualization. Plenty of people I love and respect have dumped “religion” and dumped on “religion.” I just wonder if speaking of “true religion” or “real religion” (as older writers did) is a better way to go. Why not use the word in a more neutral sense as the Bible does? Why not rail against man-made religion instead of all religion? Why not find another word besides “religion” to be our anti-gospel boogeyman? You never know when we might be glad to have the old word around for a new day.

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