Religionless Christianity

“…you and I will never be Christians, or servants of the Lord, in real spiritual life and effectiveness beyond the measure of our inward apprehension of the Lord Jesus.” T. Austin Sparks, The Centrality and Supremacy of the Lord Jesus Christ, 10

Why are we wasting precious time and energy attempting to answer the problems with the church today by tweaking the old paradigms?  We ask the wrong questions within a broken and flawed model of the church that Constantine built.  Our problems grow greater still. We must begin asking the right questions.  We must allow the Lord to exchange our old paradigms for new ones.

This sort of revolution will only come by us truthfully asking the Lord to give us the right questions and reveal to us the true knowledge of his Son Jesus Christ. How do we know which questions are wrong and right?  How is it possible for old paradigms to be crushed underneath the feet of brave revolutionaries?  The Scripture is the key because Christ is the treasure within it.

The written word of God unlocks the living Word of God who is Christ Jesus our Lord. Ultimately, He is the answer we are looking for. He is the pursuit of our hearts whether we recognize it or not. Unfortunately, too often, believers stop short of their purpose for living. They settle for some other passion other than the master. The answer is not found in a method, movement, or post-modern program.  It is not found in 12 steps, purpose-driven products, or some other religious gimmick published by Zondervan. It is Christ; he is the answer to our problems in the church today.

So, in order to see a biblical image of Christ we must ask questions which are biblically sound instead of denominationally or culturally colored with bias and misconception.  We must forsake everything else but Christ. Dietrich Bonhoeffer stated it best when he said, “Besides Jesus nothing has any significance. He alone matters.” The Cost of Discipleship, 59

Question Everything

When we speak of religion… our concern first and foremost must be, “What does the Scripture say about religion?” We can say a lot of nice, fanciful, and deep philosophical things for and against religion and we can seek to answer our problems by continually asking the wrong questions. When we do not ask the right questions we will most certainly get the wrong answers.

We must leave the realm of the familiar in order to ask the right questions. If we do not leave the familiar, we will continue to ask the same kinds of wrong questions that only lead to a reform of dead religion instead of a revolutionizing answer that brings a radical return to Christ. The only way to have a revolution in thought and practice is to leave the familiar and seek answers outside the previously accepted beliefs and practices of the majority. We must question everything believing that there are answers. Some see this as evil, yet I find it is most productive in the honest pursuit of truth.

To not question, is to accept unexamined truth claims.  To accept unexamined truth claims, even truly biblical ones, would be the same as accepting a lie. In other words, you are taking another person’s digested information and making it your own. If you were to do this with food you would see a very disgusting problem. You chew your own food and digest it yourself. It would be unhealthy, to say the least, if you were to make a habit of swallowing every “truth” that came to you from your “leaders” without first chewing on it and digesting it yourself.  When it comes to spiritual things we are referring to discernment, personal study, and personal experience. The healthy spiritual man will not only discern whole pieces of doctrine, but the words we use to describe our faith.

The one who divides the Word of truth correctly is the one who will go outside his preconceived notions to let the Lord speak whatever he so desires.  Even when it means redefining words in our language or to stop using certain words altogether.

The point I am making is this: If truth is to be discovered, the believer must offer everything up and be willing to let the Lord reveal things that previously were hidden and closed; letting go of previously held understandings so that the Lord may bring new understanding as he sees fit.

The Lord must have your preconceived ideas in order to give you his sight in return.  We must surrender everything be willing to let the Lord tell us we were wrong before he can show us the light of his wisdom. If we do not allow the Lord to do this we will continue to ask the wrong questions and keep getting the wrong answers.  We will fall short like so many men in the history of the church.

Defining Religion

Religion is something we hear spoken of in good and in evil ways.  I recently read a book entitled, When Religion Becomes Evil by Charles Kimball. Obviously, the author believes there are benefits to religion when it is not evil.

The author even went so far to claim that Islam worships the same God of Judaism and Christianity. He believes all religion is capable of bringing about peace in the world.  At the same time, he spoke of the exclusive way of salvation through Jesus Christ. See anything wrong here?

He has asked the wrong questions in his book because he does not allow for a redefining of religion.  Among his many problems, he has a preconceived belief that religion is not inherently evil in itself (i.e. religion is not the problem), and that religion is good or evil, true or false. He will inevitably come up with wrong answers because he is not allowing everything to be questioned specifically, his biblical understanding of religion. It is important that we understand there are several different ways of understanding what is meant by religion.

The popular understanding of religion is found on the lips of the majority today. They speak of religion to describe worshippers of a particular deity or devotion to a set of beliefs and ideas. Webster defines religion this way, “belief in a supernatural power… an objective pursued with fervor or continuous devotion.”

Most professing Christians, ignorant of church history, would describe Christianity as a “religion.” They of course would say it is the only “true religion.”

Learning a Religionless Christianity

I do not consider myself religious in any sense of the word and I make a concerted effort to learn of a “religionless Christianity.” I like to go so far as to distinguish the difference between the religious and the faithful; those committed to man’s unnatural rituals and laws vs. those committed to the natural faith of Christ. My heart longs for this distinction not to be cliché and clever “God talk,” but to sincerely be something totally set apart from man’s religion and our modern American “pop-culture” Christianity. I, along with many others in my generation, seek a faith of Christ free from all forms of religion that threaten to contaminate the natural faith of Christ and the communal Body life that is to ensue around it.

We must know that all religion contaminates that natural faith and Body life. Even religion that claims Christ is at the center.What is false religion? In the past, we have been conditioned to respond in the following ways, “Well, it is Islam… it is Buddhism… it is Mormonism… etc.”  Again, this is thinking inside the box. This reflects culture’s definition. We must speak a new language! Claiming that Christianity is the only true religion is unbiblical. You will not find it in the Bible.

So, what does the Bible say? Some may quickly quote James, “If anyone considers himself religious and yet does not keep a tight rein on his tongue, he deceives himself and his religion is worthless.” At first glance, we might think James is condoning some kinds of religious activity. Yet, a second look, I believe, will reveal that James has absolutely nothing good to say about religion.

As a matter of a fact, the way in which he mentions it is to really tell of its true worth. He goes on to say, “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.” (James 1:26-27)

This is the only place in the New Testament where the word thrēskos (“religious”) is used. According to the Expositor’s Bible Commentary, the adjective describes “a person who performs the external acts of religion, such as public worship, fasting, or giving to the needy.” Another source refers to the word as meaning, “the ceremonial service of religion.” It has been used in Greek to speak of the practices of Egyptian priests. The noun form of the word appears but four times in the N.T., two of which are here in James.

The other two times the word can be found in Acts 26:5 and 1 Timothy 5:4. In each case, the word “religion” is not used favorably. It would be accurate to paraphrase James as saying, “Religion is in fact worthless. It is man’s outward display of works done in the flesh (i.e. looking the part, attending services, being seen by the world, etc.). The faith that the Lord approves of is FAITH PROVING ITSELF BY WORKS BORN OF THE SPIRIT OF CHRIST.”

These works born of the Spirit will largely go unnoticed. For example… caring for widows and keeping your mouth shut when you have nothing to say that will edify… this is real faith in action! You will not find these works on a billboard, but you will find them showing up on the radar of God.

Therefore, the normal Christian life springs from an inward spiritual reality that is expressed in love and purity. Religion is only concerned about those things which are external (i.e. the outward appearance).

Furthermore, religion claims it can effect the internal by way of external modifications. This is not the method that Jesus taught. Who were the examples of the religious in James’ day?  You know them as the Pharisees and Sadducees, the Essenes, and the Zealots.

There is little doubt that James was indeed thinking about these kinds of religious people. This was his context. Continue reading James and this will become clear.  It is the faith of Christ (commonly taught as “faith in Christ”) that is true. It produces real spiritual life that is made manifest by not only listening to the Word, but doing what it says (James 1:22). Our faith is the sum of all spiritual things: Christ Jesus our Lord!

Nothing else is needed but a natural out-flowing of that faith in our lives and in our lives joined with other Christians in the church. Religion is concerned with doing, the authentic faith of Christ is concerned with being. If you will look around you today, you will notice there are many Christians attempting to do great things for the Lord, but have little concern for the actual knowing of Christ and being an extenuation of his person.

The Natural Faith of Christ

Religion trains people to think about the doing.  The New Testament speaks about the being. For example, I bet your evangelistic practices have been influenced by religion to a large degree. Instead of simply being Christ naturally by showing love in lifestyle evangelism… many have resorted to a “in your face” non-stop display of religious solicitation. Many Christians learn an outline, similar in style to a salesman, and only regurgitate it for their client. Is this not unnatural?

When the Lord’s people begin with their primary purpose as doing for Christ, they will fail to ever reach the most important aspect of the faith: being Christ! They will devise many forms of unnatural religious practices and they ultimately will not be able to say with Paul, “For me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” (Phil. 1:21) They will continue to resort to scheduled “quiet times” and Avon evangelism.  And this is only the beginning of the nasty fruits produced by religious thinking.  If the faith of Christ is ever to be expressed naturally, religion has to go!

Finally, did Jesus say anything about religion? Well, he never gave a discourse over comparative religion, nor did he attempt to build a case that Christianity is the only true religion. However, he did say many things to those who believe themselves to be religious. From these things we see Jesus’ attitude toward religion. In Matthew 6:5 Jesus refers to these religious men as “hypocrites” and that they like to be “seen by men” on the street corners.

In Matthew 22:23-33, Jesus tells the religious Sadducees, “You are in error because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God.” Remember, Jesus said this to the religious of the religious. He said this to those conservatives and moderates who loved for their presence to be known on the street corners and in the synagogues. These men were highly regarded and respected by the worshippers of God.  And Jesus tells them, “You don’t know the Scriptures.” I believe this reveals the very root of the problem today. Many Christians have relied upon the denominational interpretations of the religious and have rejected the simple plain teachings from those whom the religious have discarded.

Primarily, we have rejected Jesus as being all-sufficient for life and living.  We have failed to discover the endless depths and riches that are found in Christ.  It is much easier to follow the seen instead of the person and the works of the unseen; instead of following the one who asks us to do better than obey some rules, but deny himself that he may live. (Matt. 19:16-24)  Jesus said it will not be on a particular mountain or temple that we will worship (Jn. 4:21-24), not a location or a building, but an attitude of the heart and a place of the Spirit. The Lord rejects the outward display of hypocrites, but says, “Well done!” to the faithful servant who has left all to sit around his feet in natural familial community.

Religious Christianity believes dominance, power, and visible presence is the way by which Christianity wins triumphantly.  Religionless Christianity is in no need of pagan rituals and edifices; no need of political power and the desire to conquer by baptizing the cultural.  Religionless Christianity is relational Christianity.  This faith is simple and its power comes from love and sacrifice.

Are we to say that all religious people are hypocrites? Not exactly. They may be true sincere followers of the Lord only involved in the activities of hypocrites because that’s all they know. They have grown up being taught that religion is a necessary function of ministry in this new and “post-modern” age.

Nicodemus is an example of a religious man, yet a sincere lover of God. He was practicing what he truly believed was the Lord’s will for his people.  Jesus challenged him in his understanding of spiritual things in John 3.

We do not know for certain what happened to Nicodemus after the resurrection, but we do know what happened to another religious Pharisee named Saul. And this man was a Hebrew of the Hebrews, the religious of the religious. Saul of Tarsus left it all to follow Christ into uncharted territory free from religion’s chains! He traded his religion for a faith of Christ that is natural. His aim was no longer serving the letter of the law, but to knowing the “power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow to attain the resurrection from the dead.” (Phil. 3:10-11)

Embracing Religionless Christianity

Therefore, we must say with boldness and confidence, “Religion is rooted in the pride of man finding worth in himself apart from the simple way of knowing and being satisfied with the person of Christ.” It is really an English double negative to say, “false religion” for it can be nothing more or less. All religion is counterfeit life.

Can you imagine how our conversations would change if we would adjust our language and living to this truth? Never again would you tell someone from another religious devotion, “Christianity is the only true religion.”  Doing this would only continue the never-ending cycle of religious talk. You would say nothing new and absolutely nothing that would reveal your true identity: You do not belong to the world! Your faith founded in Christ is out of this world. This is not theoretical talk, but the true language of the alien, stranger, sojourner, and follower of the King whose kingdom is coming!

Religionless Christianity is a return to the simple faith of Christ. It is the only way to communicate who we truly are to a world filled with religion. The world has enough of religion.  It needs true citizens of the eternal kingdom to show it her King. May the Lord keep us from being polluted by the world.  Lord, help us to embrace your person that your life may naturally flow from our spirits.

Note: I have borrowed the phrase “religionless Christianity” from Dietrich Bonhoeffer.  I believe many have misunderstood this phrase.  I’m not sure that Bonhoeffer himself even had a full understanding of what this “religionless Christianity” implies for Christians living in community.  We would do well to ask the Lord to reveal to us its true meaning and begin a much needed dialogue on spiritual revolution instead of religious reformation.

D.D. Flowers, 2008.

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About David D. Flowers

David received a B.A. in Religion from East Texas Baptist University and a M.T.S. in Biblical Studies from Houston Graduate School of Theology. David has over 15 years experience as a pastor and teacher in and outside the church. He currently pastors an Anabaptist congregation in Virginia. View all posts by David D. Flowers

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