BookTeaching Series

is “religion” good or bad?



Sometimes I hear from someone who says, “I like your book(s), but I disagree with you about religion – I think it’s a good thing.”

Do we really disagree about religion? Or just about the word “religion”? Whatever the disagreement, I’ve seen both sides represented among a variety of Christian heavy hitters who use the word “religion” in apparently opposite ways. Consider…

There was no religion in Eden and there won’t be any in heaven; and in the meantime Jesus has died and risen to persuade us to knock it all off right now.
~ Robert Farrar Capon


Religion is the antithesis of the gospel. Religion says, I obey in order to be accepted. The gospel says, I obey because I am accepted.
~ Timothy Keller


In the secular West, the religious person may be the last rebel. So let me say it deliberately and with a hint of defiance: I’m not just spiritual, I’m religious.
~ Brian Zahnd


When we are in control of picking and choosing our “spirituality” and our definition of truth, we can become a lot of things, but we do not become Christian, that is, we do not become like the Christ we follow. We become Christian by being bound together with a Christian tradition in the form of Christian religion. And I have willingly let myself be bound.
~ Derek Vreeland

And just to make it interesting, words like “religion” and “spirituality” are used differently, not just by Christians, but also by the world around us:

Religion is believing in someone else’s experience.
Spirituality is having your own experience.
~ Deepak Chopra

Now here’s the thing: I agree with every one of these quotes (even Deepak, which doesn’t happen very often). How can this be? It’s quite simple really: people use their words differently. We all know this, but for some reason, when it comes to “religious” conversations, we love to become word legalists. In our zeal for precision, we end up arguing about the words themselves.

Words are labels we slap onto reality to help us think about specific realities and communicate about those realities, but the words are not the realities they describe. “Dog” is not the reality that word describes, but a label for that reality. And sometimes, we use the same labels to mean different things, or we use different labels to mean the same thing. Like “trunk” – is that a large case, the stem of a tree, an elephant’s nose, or, in the plural, a boy’s bathing suit? Just by paying attention to the context and flow of any conversation, we can easily understand how a word is being used by someone. And we usually do this naturally and expertly. Until it comes to religion. Then we love to argue about words.

This has always been a problematic human tendency, and the Bible warns us about it. The apostle Paul says there are some arguments that are really just about the different ways we use word labels rather than about any real substantive disagreement. He writes to young pastor Timothy:

Keep reminding God’s people of these things. Warn them before God against quarreling about words; it is of no value, and only ruins those who listen. (2 Timothy 2:14; also see 1 Timothy 6:4)

This must be an important issue since Paul tells Timothy to keep on reminding his congregation about this very thing. There is a kind of argument that is more of a word wrestling match than an attempt to get at something really worth discussing. And this is always easy to instigate because people use word labels in a far more fluid fashion than word-wranglers want to admit. That is certainly the case with words like “religion” and “spirituality”. But Paul says that kind of debate is a useless waste of time, and worse, can actually do damage to those who hear Christians arguing when we should be blessing.

The positive side to all of this is that, for those of us who are willing to slow down and listen to the meaning behind someone’s chosen word labels, we will likely find ourselves in agreement much more often.

For instance, when I read books and blogs by people like Brian Zahnd or Derek Vreeland, quoted above, I find myself in complete agreement, even though on the surface we might sound like we’re saying opposite things. When they talk about the important value of Christian “religion”, they are talking about the life-giving traditions, practices, and people that bind us together as growing members of a family. They emphasize this in opposition to an individualistic and consumeristic “spirituality” that is life-draining because it resists attaching itself to Jesus and his people in any committed way. And to that I say amen!

So they use the word “religion” to refer to things that I affirm, even though I use a different vocabulary to affirm them. What they call “religion” I might call “discipleship”, “Christian practices”, or “spiritual disciplines.” I then use the word “religion” to refer to legalistic abuses of those same practices, or an idolatrous reliance on those practices to save us. Then I also talk about being “spiritual” in positive terms, to emphasise the inside-out, new heart nature of the new covenant, and to align my language (perhaps legalistically?) with Scripture (see 1 Corinthians 2:15; 3:1; Galatians 6:1; 1 Peter 2:5; where mature Christians are called “spiritual” people).

If we’re really listening, it shouldn’t take us long to hear what people really mean, behind and beneath the word labels they use.

Does James help us? James the brother of Jesus does use the word “religion” (threskeia in Greek) in a positive sense:

Those who consider themselves religious and yet do not keep a tight rein on their tongues deceive themselves, and their religion is worthless. 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)

At first James seems to say be saying that gossip and slander can spoil our religion, which leaves the door open for understanding religion as essentially a good thing, when it is not polluted by hypocrisy. But then James goes on to define the religion that God accepts as pure and faultless – and it isn’t what most people mean when they talk about being “religious”. James is not referring to the spiritual disciplines of structured prayer, fasting, study, and liturgy, or to theological systems of belief. For James, the only “religion” that God cares about is helping the needy and not being influenced by the worst ways of the world around us. That’s it. I can’t help but think that James has just stuck his tongue firmly in his cheek while writing this. He has just redefined “religion” to mean living a life of love like Jesus. And if that’s exclusively how you use the words “religion” and “religious” (which almost no one does), then I’m in!

Jesus, on the other hand, never used the word “religion” to describe what he came to bring, or what it means to become his disciple. He did use a couple of “F” words though: faith and follow.

So the next time someone tells you, “I’m spiritual, not religious”, ask them more about it and enjoy the conversation. They might be saying something positive or negative, such as:

  1. I refuse to be aligned with any one belief system because I like to make it up for myself as I go along.
  2. I’m skeptical about organized religion because I’ve been burned in the past, but I’m still open to the idea of God.
  3. I am a Christian.

And the next time you hear or read someone saying, “I’m not just spiritual, I’m religious”, ask them more about it or keep on reading and enjoy the conversation. They might be saying:

  1. I’m a religious legalist who clings to forms and formulas because I’m afraid of change.
  2. I like the stability and comfort my tradition brings me.
  3. I am a Christian.







PS: for more on this discussion, see my friend Brad’s article here.



Q & EH?

  1. People use the words “spirituality” and “religion” differently. What is a positive and negative meaning of each of those words?
  2. Just before Jesus died on the cross, he cried out, “It is finished!” What was finished?
  3. Through his crucifixion, Jesus became all three elements of the sacrificial religion of his day: the temple, the priest, and the sacrifice. Talk about the ways that Jesus’ followers, the body of Christ, have now become each of these three things together.
  4. In what ways is “grace” a powerfully irreligious concept?



  • Read: 1 Peter 1:22-2:10.
  • Think: What are some of the New Covenant realities described in this passage that might be seen as irreligious?
  • Meditate: I am one of many living stones, making up the temple where God’s Spirit dwells.


THANK YOU for reading and commenting! I appreciate your feedback!


Tags : religionReligiousspiritualspiritualitywords


  1. I think you hit the nail on the head with this because I’ve often accused Christians of saying that religion is bad of simply trying to re-brand Christianity to make it look more appealing. However, as you mention here, if we’re going to use the broader definition of religion, you’re exactly right. Being a Christian isn’t just saying, “I’m going to switch religions” like a person would change their mind about switching favorite hockey teams. Jesus didn’t instruct his disciples to follow on those terms nor he describe anything of the sort. As always Bruxy, well written and you’ve made me rethink some stuff…again.

  2. Hmmm….religion and spirituality….well, I really like where you are headed with referring to Grace and irreligious….although grace can upset the legalistic tradition but that’s circulating argument…
    It’s get to point that I would just say…I believe in Jesus…simple.
    If they asked me why than I’d probably refer to His Person.
    People used to say years ago…oh, I’m not religious (legalistic), I Just have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ…
    Often lately, I’ve found myself going back to that original acceptance of Christ.
    Other than heeding to go back and undo some “even if you don’t feel like it do it anyways” that oddly enough was their “religion”.
    What I have found both in myself and others s that we often exchange one religion for another…religious is independent charismatic code word for “the other guy is religious but I believe in “grace”…not in the way, Bruxy that you are using the word in a nonharmful or disalarming way…but in the “I’m spiritual not religious way”.
    What I have experienced is that normally we want to disassociate ourselves with “The other guys religion” and then we just substitute our own.
    “They were into legalism, but we pride ourselves on “having a right heart attitude”. That’s code for forget what you feel and do what we’re telling you. ??????
    It goes back and forth and that’s ok.
    I like to call it “the fundamentals of universalism”.
    God will be merciful to our “relationship with Him irregardless or our religion (legalism)…and Jesus is more than capable of handling the spirituality of those who aren’t doing whatever it is that we are not actually doing because that would be “religious” that we really are doing because we’re not doing or are doing whatever someone else is or isn’t doing.
    Huh? Right exactly.
    Notice how much of it is foolish comparisons with what the other guy beliefs.
    All in an attempt to answer (well, not really) The question…so what do you believe? ???

  3. Wow! I wanted to say all that but didn’t have a sweet clue how to articulate it. The first word that comes to my mind when I hear the word religion is Pharisee…close seconds arexpires bondage and divisiveness… Bruxy how can one share this in a kind way that provokes acceptance and respect…say with a Muslim friend or a full blown Pharisee that is waiting to pounce…I’m always avoiding one on one conversations like this because I can’t handle confrontation or upsetting ppl?

  4. We have to learn to listen beyond the words, which means we have got to really care what someone means instead of assuming they are wrong or ignorant, and ‘proving’ that we are right or more knowledgeable by the way we use words. The problem begins in our selfish need to distinguish ourselves from ‘others’ as if the others were not also children of God, saved by grace. With regard to ‘religion’ the connotation seemingly has swamped the denotation: in church they tell you religion is not what we’re about. But spirituality also carries connotations of New Age or mysticism or Eastern traditions. So again, I think if we truly want to communicate, we can possibly define what we mean by a word when actually speaking to someone or else in reading, withhold judgment until we have understood the word in context. I would imagine the principle is similar to the discussion in Romans 14, replacing food with words. As in Romans 14:19 Let us pursue the things that make for peace and the things by which we may edify another.
    Also as you pointed out the 2 Timothy passage warns against quarreling about words, in line with, for example, Philippians 2:14 Do all things without complaining and disputing or
    Ephesians 4:1-3, where the emphasis is on the unity of believers as the body of Christ, striving together for the faith (Phil.1:27) not against each other.

  5. Really appreciated this! The way that you used the term “religion” as almost a dirty word (at least so it sounded to me somewhat oversensitive ears) in semons always bothered me, because I was so used to using the word in a positive sense to denote healthy Christian tradition and practice. I heard somewhere that the original meaning of religion meant something like covenant, and that idea had always felt to me rooted in Christ’s establishing a new covenant in His death and resurrection.

    What you called religion (abusive legalism, etc.), I called “bad religion” and when it was all lumped together as just “religion” I was left feeling like the baby was being thrown out with the bathwater. This clears all that up!

    I also appreciated the inclusion of some other synonyms I can use for when my and my conversational partners contexts seem to differ. 🙂

  6. I think the confusion is found in the common reality that when a non-believer says ‘religious’ they tend to simply mean someone who believes in and follows God. It has little to do with legalism or grace, just the affirmation of belief.

    Personally, as the scriptures themselves use this term in a functionally neutral way so too we need consider James’ approach.

  7. Good piece Bruxy! True! Inversely, I find and you maybe as well, that not everyone who says Jesus don’t mean the same Jesus of the Scriptures (akin to Jesus’ sermon admonishment in Matthew 7). Some folks, who say Jesus, are talking about a different Jesus whom Jesus himself never knew. In that lot, many are willfully sharing another gospel. So instead of a reunion with their elegant Eternal One, they have gone on a blind date with the eerie enemy.

  8. I’m a volunteer unpaid spiritual formation guy at my church and fill in preaching sometimes. The next sermon I’ve been asked to preach? “Religion”. I’m borrowing this!!! What would you say are the two three most “anti-religious things Jesus did or said?

    1. That’s terrific Scott! Three irreligious Jesus actions:

      1. He became the last sacrifice, the priest making the sacrifice, and claimed his body was the temple, where the sacrifices were made. Hence, Jesus absorbed the entire Jewish religious system into himself, and brought it to an end.
      2. Jesus took authority over the religious laws of Moses, like diet (Mark 7), divorce and remarriage (Matthew 19), and oaths and other laws (Matthew 5), and he crucified the Law of Moses to the cross along with all our sins.
      3. Jesus redefined “kingdom” as a relational reality rather than a geo-political entity. The kingdom of God is no longer based on holy geography, about a specific holy land and holy nation, but is multi-national and “off the map”.

      See both of my books – The End of Religion and (re)union – for more details.

      All the best to you!

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