So I did a post a couple days ago called “Religion Stinks“. The post was a little commentary + teaser for the sermon I recently did on Galatians 1, which I’ll often do following a sermon. I was going to title my blog post “Let Jesus Tell You Who Jesus Is”, which was the title of my sermon, but at the last minute, I decided to change the title to “Religion Stinks” because I thought that title might make a non-Christian interested in reading something a pastor wrote, and since what I wrote was intended for people who are not Christians, I went with that title.
My main point from first blog post, as well as my 1/8/12 sermon: (quoting my blog post) My point is simple: People should not look to religious people/leaders for their example of Christianity, they should look to Jesus.
I get this from Galatians 1:11-12 I (Paul) want you to know, brothers, that the gospel I preached is not something that man made up. I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it; rather, I received it by revelation from Jesus Christ.
Paul is saying: do not follow a gospel/a “Jesus” that someone made up, follow the true Jesus, and I know who this true Jesus is because I met him in person! He is telling us: Let Jesus be what defines Christianity to you, not any man (or group). I see the opposite of this happening all the time, where people see big haired televangelists, or legalistic churches they grew up in, or another pastor or priest molesting children or having an affair, or they point to the Crusades and the Inquisitions “done in the name of Jesus” where tons of people were slaughtered, or whatever it may be, and they point the finger at Jesus and they say “You stink” (or some paraphrase of that). Actual real people who are not Christians say these types of things to me very often, and it saddens me, and it’s what is happening in Galatians 1, and Jesus is awesome, and really isn’t responsible for the mess we have made “in his name”, yet he gets blamed for it by non-Christians, so I did a sermon on what’s in the Bible about this and I wrote a blog on it.
I also included a video of a guy doing spoken word poetry, talking about a similar subject.
Now the controversy begins.
What I’ve realized in reading several good-hearted rebuttals is that we are defining the word “religion” differently. Please pause to understand me on this.
I am purposefully not using the standard definition of the word religion, and neither is the guy in the video. What I’m surprised by is that even though this other definition is fairly well-explained in the video (and in my first blog), people are glossing over that explanation and are sticking with the standard definition of the word. Here’s what I mean:
In the video, he says right up front that the definition of “religion” he is using is: “following some rules” and “self-righteousness”. So for those of you that are upset by the video, I’d encourage you to re-watch it and whenever he says the word “religion”, swap it out for the phrase “following some rules” or the word “legalism”. I assure you if you do this you’ll have a different take on the video. I did something similar in my blog post, as I pointed out that the “type” (definition) of religion Jesus was so angry about is the hypocritical religion that is simply following a bunch of rules and being self-righteous about it (thinking that following these rules will earn God’s approval / salvation).
(side note: I don’t endorse/agree with every single thing in the entire video. That’s not the point. I don’t think you need to agree with every single point in a Christian book, video, sermon, etc. for it to have value / be helpful / challenge you / make you think / be celebrated at face value without having to bring up & dissect every point you disagree with)
What Christians need to understand is that when we use a word, like “religion”, we may have one definition in our heads, but non-Christians are using a very different definition of the same word. The same thing happens with the word “Evangelical”. I was talking to a man on an airplane once and he was against all Evangelicals because of something someone in the Republican party said about a political issue. When he hears “Evangelical”, he doesn’t think of what most Christians think of or identity with, he thinks of a political view regarding an issue that had nothing to do with Evangelicalism. So I’m careful to label myself an Evangelical, because of the baggage of this word. Am I Evangelical in the standard definition of the word? Yes. Would I use different words to describe this because the word “Evangelical” means something very different to non-Christians? Yes.
We have to speak the language of our culture to reach our culture, otherwise we are wondering why Spanish speaking people aren’t receiving the message we are delivering in French. I read parts of the Kevin DeYoung article that several people sent me, which was his critique of the spoken word poetry video. Again, I think if Kevin subbed in the words “following some rules” or the word “legalism” for when the video said “religion”, he wouldn’t have had the issues with it that he wrote so extensively about.
I think we’d all admit that self-righteousness, legalism, and following empty rules is not the true Gospel of Jesus. That it stinks. Well, this is what non-Christians see when they think of religion, which is why I’m using this word in that context. And so we’d point these people to the true Jesus, to grace, to the Jesus that Paul is writing so passionately about in Galatians. A Jesus that is not a Jesus of following the religious rules (and you can’t argue against that… Jesus did not come to get us to merely follow a list of rules, that IS what he came to abolish, because that IS what the religious leaders where teaching and it IS what got so furious about, e.g. the Matthew 23 quotes from my previous post), but a Jesus who is all about the loving surrender of our heart to him, within a loving relationship made possible through his forgiveness.
On its own, all religion is a hollow shell of religious behavior. You can be a religious Buddhist, a religious Hindu, a religious Muslim, a religious Jew, a religious Pharisee, a religious Catholic, a religious Protestant, and the list goes on. Religion is an empty shell that can have any number of things poured inside of it, good or bad. The problem is if Jesus’ transformational grace isn’t what’s inside of it, you are left with either empty rituals of going through the motions or a genuine passionate effort to try to appease God and/or earn God’s favor. God rails on these very things in Isaiah 1:11-17, which if you paraphrase the Old Testament religious practices to modern day Church practices (e.g. Sunday services, meetings, preaching, singing, etc.), it’s pretty convicting/scary!
Is. 1:11 “The multitude of your sacrifices—
what are they to me?” says the LORD.
“I have more than enough of burnt offerings,
of rams and the fat of fattened animals; I have no pleasure
in the blood of bulls and lambs and goats.
Is. 1:12 When you come to appear before me,
who has asked this of you,
this trampling of my courts?
Is. 1:13 Stop bringing meaningless offerings!
Your incense is detestable to me. New Moons, Sabbaths and convocations—
I cannot bear your evil assemblies.
Is. 1:14 Your New Moon festivals and your appointed feasts
my soul hates. They have become a burden to me;
I am weary of bearing them.
Is. 1:15 When you spread out your hands in prayer,
I will hide my eyes from you;
even if you offer many prayers,
I will not listen. Your hands are full of blood;
Is. 1:16 wash and make yourselves clean.
Take your evil deeds
out of my sight! Stop doing wrong,
Is. 1:17 learn to do right! Seek justice,
encourage the oppressed. Defend the cause of the fatherless,
plead the case of the widow.
Hopefully the point being made here is pretty simple: God doesn’t care about our religious practices if our hearts are far from him, he isn’t impressed. Jon Foreman, from the band Switchfoot, has a song called “Instead of a Show” which in many ways paraphrases Isaiah 1:11-17, and similar passages, in an attempt to get us to stop and ask if we have our religious priorities in the right place, or if we are merely “doing religion”. Isaiah 1 begs the question, what does God really care about? and the answer is pretty obvious that it is not religious rituals or “following some rules”:
Now is loving the poor, keeping a tight reign on your tongue, loving others, and daily living for Christ, also considered “religion”? Yes of course, as James 1:26-27 clearly tell us: James 1:26 If anyone considers himself religious and yet does not keep a tight rein on his tongue, he deceives himself and his religion is worthless.
James 1:27 Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.
But even in this passage itself, James is warning against hypocritical religion (what our culture simply calls “religion” now) and he is clearly pointing out that there is such a thing as bad religion.
In conclusion, I’m trying to show to Christians that the word “religion” has incredible baggage in our culture, that the Bible warns over and over against religious that is void of Jesus’ grace, and that sadly our culture has come to define religion as this very thing = legalistic, self-righteous, rule following. While I suppose it’s ok to defend the original definition of religion, I’ve given up on that and simply stopped using the word to describe myself. If someone says I am religious, rather than talk about the shell that is my “religious behaviors”, which is difficult for people to know the motivation behind, I’d much rather talk about the content of why I do anything and everything, and that is the resurrected Jesus Christ, who loves me, has forgiven me of my sins, and is the King of my life. In whom I do nothing out of religious obligation but everything out of relational love and connection. And to me, that is much more compelling.
Maybe I shouldn’t have used “Religion Stinks” as a blanket statement, but I did it to get people reading and to get people thinking. And once you see the definition for religion that I’m using, I hope you’ll agree.
So, because I think it got lost a little bit last time, I’ll say it again: People should not look to religious people/leaders for their example of Christianity, they should look to Jesus.
Christians, yes the Bible calls us (2 Cor. 5:20) Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us., and it says (Heb. 13:7) Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith. and Paul says (1Cor. 11:1) Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ. And (as I said in my sermon, which is attached to my previous post) we do need to abide by these commands and take them as a huge challenge to us, especially those of us in leadership, but we would be as wrong as can be if we think we are the 100% correct portrayal of Jesus, and if the world sees us they see they’ve seen a pure example of Jesus to base their entire faith off of. While we should try to be the example of Christianity, I am not going to tell a non-Christian, “Look at my life and you’ll see exactly who Jesus is”, no I will open the Bible and show them the true Jesus in the Scriptures, as I know I will fail epically in being able to do this my the example of my life alone. While it’s our goal to live Christ-like and hopefully we are someone people can follow after, we should all confess our sins and shortcomings and point people to the true Jesus, which is exactly what Paul does in Galatians 1:11-12 and 2:16.
So if you’ve ever wondered who Jesus really is, let Jesus tell you who Jesus is, it’s only fair. Curious? Read his biography, the book of John.