I am a worshipper of Jesus, but I’m ambivalent about categorizing myself as religious. The following is an edited excerpt from my first book, Heaven’s Muscle. It’s from Chapter One: Bad Religion.
I remember as a college student encountering the idea that Jesus was an enemy of religion. Some writers were fond of saying that Jesus came to destroy religion, to free people from religious obligations. I didn’t understand this concept at first, but now I see that it’s essentially true.
A typical definition of religion goes like this:
Religion is a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe, especially when considered as the creation of a superhuman agency or agencies, usually involving devotional and ritual observances, and often containing a moral code governing the conduct of human affairs (from Dictionary.com).
That’s a very broad definition, unlikely to garner much disagreement. It’s got philosophy, worship, and ethics. What could be wrong with that?
But the idea of Jesus being against religion snapped into sharper focus after I read Frank Viola and George Barna’s Pagan Christianity. Viola and Barna considered “religion” from a historical perspective and identified three key attributes that define “religion” in the traditional sense. Religion, Viola and Barna say, is a system that depends on (1) priests, (2), temples, and (3) sacrifices. This is what all pre-Christian religions had in common.
First, every religion had priests, meaning a caste of individuals distinct from the common folk who have more direct access to God. Priests serve as mediators between the people and their deity or deities.
Second, every religion has temples—holy places that are set aside for worshiping the deities. Priests and temples are tied together in that both were generally supported financially by the people.
Third, ancient religions depended on sacrifices. The oldest creation myths taught that the gods created humans because they got lazy. Mankind was created to grow crops and livestock to feed to the gods through the act of sacrifice. Ancient peoples also used sacrifices as a way of garnering benefits from the gods.
Here is how these three prongs of “religion” would interact. At the temple, priests would seek favors from the gods, and try to manipulate the gods by offering sacrifices. In this way, people felt like they had gained a level of control over the world. Communities could avert disaster, they believed, if they pleased the gods. To please the gods they offered sacrifices and tried to obey the decrees handed down by the priests who spoke for the gods. It was a system of manipulation, not love. The structure emphasizes the distance, not the closeness, between the common person and the divine. Religion divided the world into sacred and profane people, sacred and profane places, sacred and profane times, and sacred and profane objects.
If we define religion through this lens, we can see, as Viola and Barna point out, that the Gospel of Christ and his apostles undermined this sort of system. Christianity, in its original form, reimagined the priesthood. All followers of Christ are priests, the New Testament teaches (1 Pet. 2:4-9), and Jesus is the one and only high priest (Heb. 7:26-28). In Christ the earthly high priest (that continued to exist in Judaism) had been replaced by a heavenly one (Heb. 8:1). But Jesus didn’t eliminate the priesthood. He eliminated the “laity” and elevated all his followers to the status of sacred priests. The world of pagan nonbelievers, then, constitutes the laity to whom all Christians minister. In this way, Christ fulfilled the ancient teaching of Moses that God’s people were to be a “kingdom of priests” to the pagan world. (Ex. 19:6 NIV).
The Christian movement as depicted in the New Testament also dissociated itself from physical temples. Even Judaism remained reliant on the tabernacle and then the temple. But in the teachings of Christ’s apostles, the people of God are now the one true temple. The temple is a spiritual one. We who are one with Christ are the “living stones” that make up the walls of this great edifice (1 Pet. 2:5). Wherever Christians are, the temple is there (1 Cor. 3:16). Every place a Christian sets foot becomes a holy place because every Christian’s physical body is itself a temple in miniature (1 Cor. 6:19). Early Christians worshiped anywhere—in homes, in catacombs, in schools—because in Christ everyone and everywhere is holy (see Jn. 4:21-24).
Christianity also spiritualized the concept of sacrifice. God does not need anything, the Bible teaches. And he is already willing to say yes to everything his children ask (2 Cor. 1:19-20; Jn. 14:13-14). There’s no need to bribe or manipulate God. Jesus demonstrated the futility of the Jewish sacrificial system (Heb. 10:1-14). The best sacrifice we can give God is simply to praise him and to show compassion to the poor (Heb. 13:15-16).
On a slightly different level, the New Testament also teaches that the Christian herself is the sacrifice. The only sacrifice I need to offer to God is my whole self:
I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect (Rom. 12:1-2).
God is not interested in dead sacrifices, but living ones. In ourselves. Thus, in two ways the message of Jesus subverts the traditional concept of sacrifice. First, all that ancient sacrificial violence has been sublimated into Christ. To the extent that God may have ever wanted blood sacrifices from people, the death of Christ rendered this system obsolete. Second, the key sacrifice we need to make today is the sacrifice of our living bodies—we give ourselves wholly to God. We don’t offer ourselves to placate or manipulate God. God is doing just fine, and he’s already on our side. We offer our full being to the Lord so we can to become our best, fullest, most useful selves. It’s an act of aligning my will with the will of the one who designed me.
In my own personal meditation time, I sometimes imaginatively act out this passage from Romans 12, “Present your body as a living sacrifice.” With these words in mind, I lie backward and offer myself to God. I envision my body on an altar. In my mind’s eye I lie there with my throat exposed, willing to have my body sliced open—just like the millions of animals that were sacrificed throughout the ancient world before Christ came and conquered religion. Maybe you’ll want to try this exercise, too. This attitude of self-abnegation, as Paul says in Romans 12, is the heart of “spiritual worship.” The result of this ego death is a recreated mind that thinks differently from how the normals think. Once the mind is freed from the world’s values and paradigms, Paul suggests, the mind becomes capable of grasping God’s good and perfect will.
This type of spiritual self-sacrifice is captured well in a prayer/poem by Charles de Foucauld:
My Father, I abandon myself to you. Do with me as you will.
Whatever you may do with me, I thank you.
I am prepared for anything, I accept everything.
Provided your will is fulfilled in me and in all
creatures I ask nothing more my God.
I place my soul in your hands.
I give it to you, my God,
with all the love of my heart
because I love you.
And for me it is a necessity of love,
this gift of myself,
this placing of myself in your hands
in boundless confidence
because you are my Father.
So, having said all that, can you see how Christ was against religion? A person can follow Jesus without being overtly religious, at least in the sense I just described. The Christian is a self-contained temple, priest, and sacrifice. While Christians certainly harbor metaphysical beliefs, tell supernatural stories, and follow a moral code, they ought not be religious in the sense of relying on a human priesthood, a physical temple, or any sacrifice besides the sacrifice of one’s own will to the service of God.
This is not to suggest that I should live my religion in isolation. Each of us is just a single cell in a larger organism. God’s design is that we worship and rejoice and serve together in groups. But every day I meet people who feel wounded and betrayed by their churches. There are reasons why this happens so often.
Religion in the classical sense depends on hierarchies and boundaries. It’s unavoidable. Leaders will emerge in any group. People who are trying to get things done will adopt systems and procedures and structures for making things happen. You have to draw lines once you’ve decided that some things are true and others are false. When a group develops a clear sense of right and wrong, there are some behaviors they can not tolerate.
So it’s natural for hierarchies and boundaries to emerge in any group of like-minded people. These hierarchies and boundaries are sources of social power. Our problem is that the Devil is highly skilled at corrupting sources of power. He can take a hierarchy or a boundary and twist it into a tool for oppressing and dividing people.
For example, leaders can be tempted into abusing their positions. And people who become invested in religion can become zealous about policing the boundaries. The Devil often tempts believers into drawing lines (around moral or doctrinal questions) where God through scripture has not drawn them. One species of this line-drawing is legalism. Legalism essentially means treating the New Testament as a rule-book. Legalists are so afraid of doing or thinking something wrong that they make new rules to shield people from breaking what they perceive to be the rules of the Bible. When a church gets carried away with legalism or an over-emphasis on authority structures, it can transmit a distorted image of God. When people are exposed to legalistic or authoritarian sermons, Bible classes, Christian schools, and sometimes family members is an image of God looming over us in the sky, shaking his finger at us and saying “No, no, no!”
Of course, the Bible’s message for people outside of Christ is “repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand.” (Matthew 4:17). I would never neglect the necessity of repentance. Repentance means choosing to re-form your mind and recalibrate your behavior as you turn from Satan to God. Repudiating the sins in our lives is a crucial step toward becoming what God calls us to become.
But once we are in Christ, the message from God is “yes,” not no (2 Cor. 1:19-20). “Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom” (2 Cor. 3:17). The assembly of believers is the temple of the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of freedom. So church people should be people of freedom, people of liberation, people of “yes.”
Consider the biblical passage that Jesus read to the people of his hometown at the beginning of his ministry:
The Spirit of the Lord is on Me,
because He has anointed Me
to preach good news to the poor.
He has sent Me
to proclaim freedom to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to set free the oppressed,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.
(Lk. 4:18-19, quoting Is. 61:1-2 NIV).
This is Christ’s own manifesto. This is what he says he’s all about. The message of Christ to God’s children is good news and freedom. He is a liberator, not a bringer of “thou-shalt-nots.” If you are poor, captive, blind, or oppressed, Christ’s message for you is not a new kind of oppression, but a celebration of liberation.
Now let’s go a little deeper and a little weirder. The corruption, legalism, and spiritual oppression that infects so many religious communities results from an infestation of the spirit of religion.
The word “spirit” probably means one of two things to you in this context. “Spirit” can be the emotional or intellectual disposition of a person or of a group of people. This is the kind of “spirit” cheerleaders scream about when they wave their pom-poms. Or, a spirit can be an invisible personal being. I believe in the power of both types of “spirit,” and that the line between the two can be fuzzy.
In the worldview of the biblical writers, the earth is haunted by malevolent spirits who specialize in emotional, physical, and spiritual bondage. I’ll address this topic in detail later on. I’ve come to think that one of the most pernicious of these spirits is the spirit of religion. Again, think of it as a disposition if it’s more comfortable for you at this point. But the spirit of religion can infiltrate a vibrant Spirit-filled Christian community and turn it into a system of religious oppression.
Once the spirit of religion settles in, a church, or aspects thereof, can degenerate into an agent for constraining and demoralizing people. Yes, lots of good stuff can still happen in religious churches, but they’re never on fire like they could be. In religious churches, the teachers and leaders may manipulate people with negative emotions like fear, guilt, shame, and obligation. Religious churches become legalistic, often in subtle ways. They make conformity a test for fellowship—“believe just like me in all points or we can’t worship together.” These infected churches may enforce behavioral conformity, doctrinal conformity, or both. Religious churches expect people to act certain ways that go beyond what God requires in scripture. Religious churches may also discourage inquisitiveness and creativity, demanding instead that everything always be uniform and everyone always think the same thing. Again, these churches will contain many good people and will often do good things, but the religiosity in their atmosphere is putrefacient.
It reminds me of a story from my past that I’m really ashamed of.
In the summer of 1996, I was a volunteer youth ministry intern with a church in northern Virginia. We had a summer door-knocking campaign. One of the people who allowed me to do my home Bible study (with the worksheets, remember) was an elderly lady living in an apartment building. After I finished my first worksheet, the woman started telling me about her illnesses, her loneliness, her constant pain. She asked me to pray for her. I started to do it. She stopped me and asked me to put my hand on her head while I prayed.
I refused. I couldn’t bring myself to do it. I don’t think I’d ever seen anybody at my church put their hand on someone to pray for them. We were strictly hands-off. As much as I cared about this dear old lady, I couldn’t bring myself to simply give her the gift of human touch. To lay my hands on her felt too much like something people in other churches would do—something foreign and weird and possibly unorthodox. I prayed for her. But I simply stood behind and kept my hands to myself. I could sense her disappointment. But I had to listen to my conscience.
It was so very, very wrong for me to refuse to touch that woman. Now, I put my hands on people and pray for them all the time. It’s normal and natural and loving. But there had been such rigidity in my old religion, I was scared to death to do anything differently from how I’d seen it done. Lord, forgive me! I was in captivity to the spirit of religion, and had not yet been set free by God’s Spirit of freedom.
Using obligation, shame, and guilt in an attempt to modify people’s behavior is not what freedom looks like. That is not the recipe for joy. It’s not biblical. It’s not the sort of environment where the Spirit of God can do its best work. Behavioral constraints based on negative emotions come not from God, but from the Devil. And Jesus very specifically wants to free you from them. In fact, he has called me to help free his people from the spirit of religion so they can know the Spirit of the Lord, and that “where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom” (2 Cor. 3:17).
God’s children should not be beaten into submission with guilt, shame, and obligation. Instead, God’s children make the choice to mold their characters to the character of Christ for positive reasons—because they love him and enjoy making him happy.
My wife and I love to serve each other. But I don’t do it because I’m afraid of what will happen if my wife is displeased. I am invested in her happiness because I feel such gratitude and honor that she chose me. It’s the same way with my service to God.
Here is a short, non-exhaustive list of features that differentiate good religion from bad religion. Jesus said people and churches will be judged by their fruits, meaning the effects they have on the world (Matt. 7:19-21; Jn, 15:1-2; Rev. 2:1-5; see also Lk. 3:7-14). The first crucial fruit is that the followers of Jesus are known by their love. (Jn. 13:35). So a good church is one that loves like Jesus—with compassion and self-sacrifice. Love is not sentimentality. Love seeks the best in others and cares about integrity and truth (Jn 14:15). In following Jesus’ example, the church will be especially loving toward outsiders and the poor an.d disadvantaged.
It makes me think of what James the Lord’s brother said—that God’s definition of religion is “to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world” (Jas. 1:27). And it reminds me of Christ’s parable of the sheep and the goats from Matthew 25, where the thing that separates the saved from the lost on the day of judgment is whether people fed the hungry, clothed the naked, and visited sick people and prisoners.
Second, good religion produces people with integrity and high moral character. That’s because every Christian is someone who’s in the process of repentance. The biblical word for repentance—metanoia—contains the Greek word for the intellect coupled with a word that signals an alternative pathway. Repentance means adopting an alternative frame of reference from the world around us. It means buying into a new worldview. This alternative worldview in turn affects our values, which affects our behavior (see Acts 2:19-20). Repentance thus comes from the inside out. Because Christians, as citizens of a spiritual kingdom, think differently from people living in Satan’s kingdom, they necessarily act differently. Their ethics are unimpeachable.
Third, there are also doctrinal teachings that are crucial to the health of a church. The letter of 1 John, for example, teaches that denying that Jesus was fully human or that Jesus was the Jewish Messiah is fatal to a person’s faith (1 Jn. 2:22; 4:1-3). A good church has good biblical teaching. Putting these first three points together, we can say that a good church displays biblical truth and sacrificial love in a way that brings people to repentance (1 Cor. 14:24-26).
Another way of approaching this list is to note that good churches (whether they meet in homes, strip malls, or church buildings) will center their worship on the triune God and expend their energy in healing the world God loves so much. Christians delight in praising their Father, in following the teaching and example of Jesus, and experiences the comforting and empowering presence of the Spirit. Good churches do not revolve around the church leadership. The church itself does not take center stage in the place of Christ. Good churches don’t try to control people through obligation, guilt, shame, or threats. They admit their sins. They are safe places where abuse is never tolerated.
The thing that most attracts me to a church is a palpable sense that the Spirit is present among the people and is actively leading them. When I get in a group like that, the Spirit becomes contagious. Lives get radically changed on a regular basis. People pray for each other at the drop of the hat. When churches like that worship, the people reek of joy and get carried away in the pleasure of praise.
It’s the presence of the Holy Spirit that enables me to be heaven’s muscle on earth. When I allow my mind to be synchronized with the mind of Christ, I become empowered to do things I could not otherwise imagine.
Knowing Christ and resting in his love is greater than all the religion in the world.