Religion has become a bad word, and I don’t get it.
People knock religion because of the worst examples of its practice. Namely, Christian leaders vilify religion in an attempt to attract people to Jesus. Moreover, it is a “personal relationship with Jesus” that supposedly distinguishes Christians from the Big Bad Religion Wolf. This teaching has come into fashion in the last decade or two. People gobble it up like their favorite ice cream. I think it resonates because we’re a cynical society who trusts no one except ourselves.
This good-looking kid talked about hating religion for four minutes and scored 26 million hits on YouTube. I’m about to tell you why the Christian religion trumps just having a personal relationship with Christ and I’m worried I’m going to have a personal relationship with about 1900 less Facebook friends when I’m done.
Jesus Started Christianity
My beef isn’t with the video per se. The kid obviously loves Jesus, and I do too. And he has a nice jacket. In the last minute he spits the Gospel–Jesus came, died, rose again, and ascended into heaven. What’s ironic is that this is the foundation of the Christian religion. This is what Paul says is of “first importance” in 1 Corinthians 15. You cannot hate Christianity and love Jesus. Jesus is the founder of the faith we ascribe to.
Religion is not Bad
People have done bad things in the name of Christianity. But let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater. If in our “personal relationship with Jesus Christ” we cling to the promise that we can individually be forgiven of wrongdoing, can our global community not cling to the same promise? If you won’t go that far with me, can you at least agree that some people are just false teachers and heretics? That doesn’t make our whole religion bad, does it?
How can religion be bad? A religion, in general, is a set or rules–a way of living. The Christian religion, in particular, is based on the life of Jesus and the truth of our Scriptures. It’s individuals that have inspired our religion’s biggest failures, not the religion itself.
There is Nothing You Can Do to Earn Salvation!
I get it, we want to resist the same legalistic tendencies that Jesus denounces in the Gospels. But practicing what you preach doesn’t make you a legalist. It makes you obedient. Jesus himself said, “If you love me, you’ll obey my commandments.” (John 14:15)
Us obeying God isn’t the same as being a Pharisee. Jesus didn’t spend half his time screaming at the Pharisees because they were obeying the Law of Moses. Rather, he was infuriated because they didn’t understand the spirit of those laws and recognize that they pointed to him.
I understand there are risks in thinking that there’s anything we can do to get right with God. At the same time, most of us have done something to get in the relationship. Unless you are a full-fledged five point Calvinist, you would point to a moment or moments in time where you took a step toward Jesus. That did take some effort. Granted, it’s an opportunity only afforded by the grace and mercy of Jesus, but you did turn to Him. You believed and confessed and repented and prayed and got baptized and changed your ways. The grace of Jesus saved us. The grace of Jesus saves us still.
Do we deserve it? No. Are we completely passive in the process? Not so much.
It’s About a Personal Relationship
It is worth noting that no one said this for about the first 2,000 years of church history. Religion, according to sociologist Emile Durkheim, differs from private believe in that it is “something eminently social.” The Christian religion is no exception. In Acts 4, we see the early church living in community with one another. For centuries, the church expressed itself corporately, not individually. Most of us find the monks who hid out in a cave or on a pole to be really odd ducks, not someone we would want to emulate.
All the hipsters who bash religion and claim that personal relationship is where it’s at actually think these dudes were crazy. And most of them study the Bible with their buddies or talk about faith over coffee on a pretty regular basis. So until you live on a forty-foot pole for thirty years, spare me. You don’t really think it’s just about a personal relationship.
I sincerely don’t mean to be harsh. I know what people mean when they say “It’s not about religion, it’s about relationship.” They are trying to pull the pendulum over from the centuries of state-sponsored religion that dug the hole Europe currently sits in. America, despite its best efforts to avoid the same fate, is not far behind. This saddens them. They want to focus on Jesus.
Can I suggest that the pendulum has successfully swung that direction and is now speeding uncontrollably in the opposite-yet-equally-dangerous direction? When a government and a religion is inextricably linked, we have a problem. On that we can agree.
But when Christianity is reduced to an individual, private pursuit we have a more catastrophic situation on our hands. Us alone is bad news. Without someone in the car to stop us we text and drive and listen to Katy Perry songs. I can’t keep my beard properly trimmed without someone around to slap a can of shaving cream in my hands every once in a while. There’s no way I’m going to get my faith right by myself.
All I’m saying is let’s not get carried away. We have a 2,000 year old religion that for about 1,950 of the years was lived out in intentional, communal, disciplined practice. If all you want is a personal relationship, get a spouse. Or a pen pal. Or an athletic trainer or a puppy or something.
If you want to be a Christian then get over yourself, link arms with some other jacked-up people, and let’s follow Jesus together.