When someone asks me if I am religious, most of the time I answer something like, “Well, you might describe me that way. But I tend to think of myself as more spiritual than religious. Either way, one thing I can tell you is that I’m really into Jesus.”
Let’s break that down.
This way of thinking about ourselves as “spiritual” people (Greek pneumatikos) is in keeping with how the New Testament authors spoke about themselves (e.g., 1 Corinthians 2:15; 3:1; Galatians 6:1; 1 Peter 2:5). So yes, we Christians should consider ourselves to be “spiritual” people. But does that mean we are non-religious? Like many things, it depends on how we use our words.
The word religion stems from the Latin word religare, a combination of re (to return, to repeat) and ligare (to tie, to bind). Our English word ligament also comes from ligare, as ligaments bind various parts of the human body.
So religion can mean a fastening of the self to something important; a kind of anchoring, restraining, or reconnecting. Positively understood, religion is like the string tethering a kite to someone’s guiding hands. Used this way, some people describe their connection to Christ as their “religion.” In a world of detachment and disjointedness, this kind of yoking of the self to the Eternal is good. If that’s how you use the word religion, all I can say to that is “amen.”
Still, while some people use the word religion to refer to an intimate, heartfelt connection with God, Jesus used a different word for that. He called this kind of trusting relationship “faith.” (The New Testament word for “faith” is pistis, which doesn’t mean believing in ideas without evidence, but rather trusting in a person. Faith, or trust, is the foundational element to any healthy relationship.)
Jesus is never recorded as using the word religion. Rather, he called people to an intimate faith connection with God as our Father and other Christ-followers as our brothers and sisters. Jesus is more about relationship than religion.
You see, there is also a negative meaning to this word religion. Remember, the word stems from the Latin religare, a combination of re (to return, to repeat) and ligare (to tie, to bind). Quite literally then, religion can mean “a return to bondage.” And when we look at the track record of many of the world’s religions, past and present, this negative interpretation seems more than accurate. This kind of religion tries to capture ideas like faith, spirituality, holiness, and sacredness within codependent systems of salvation.
The biblical word for “religion” is threskeia, a Greek word that refers to the outer rituals or practices associated with a belief (see James 1:26-27). Like its Latin equivalent, religare, threskeia can be positive or negative, depending on the substance and focus of the belief it expresses. Jesus put the emphasis on “faith” because it works from the inside out, while “religion” tends to reinforce from the outside in. Unfortunately, religion sometimes fails to penetrate the soul but simply remains an empty shell of ritual.
Religion, therefore, can act as a kind of mediator between people and Ultimate Reality; a systematic, structural, or institutional intermediary; a broker of salvation that adds one more layer between us and God. But the only intermediary we need is Jesus himself, who is God becoming one of us.
The apostle Paul wrote, “There is one God and one Mediator who can reconcile God and humanity—the man Christ Jesus” (1 Timothy 2:5 NLT). We are missing the gospel whenever we let any one institution or person substitute for Jesus as our only mediator. Religious people are always in danger of rewriting 1 Timothy 2:5 in their hearts to read “There is one God and one mediator between God and humanity, and that is [the Roman Catholic Church, or the Bible and the Watchtower Tract Society, or The Meeting House, or this teacher, or that preacher, etc., etc.].”
One solid test to see if we are relying on Jesus or on a cheap substitute to be our connection to God is to ask ourselves if we believe people need to be a part of our particular organization, institution, denomination, or spiritual group in order to be right with God. (This is one of my primary protests against the belief system of my Jehovah’s Witness friends, for instance.) As I tell people at The Meeting House, the day I start preaching that people need The Meeting House specifically in order to be right with God is the day I need to lose my job.
That kind of religion is less like the string that helps a kite fly and more like a chain that prevents a kite from ever taking off. In fact, it makes it irrelevant whether the kite owner is holding on to the other end. And that’s just it: religion doesn’t need God at the other end—the system functions fine without him.