Religion

Preaching and Worship Resources about Religion

Religion refers to a set of organized beliefs and practices around the basic meaning of life and existence. Christianity is one its many expressions. Some have tried to separate Christianity from religion, claiming it is a personal relationship with God through Jesus Christ. While Christianity embraces this personal aspect of faith, it still has all the institutional and practical qualities of a religion.

In Scripture

The Old Testament is replete with descriptions of religious beliefs and practices.

From the beginning, people like Cain and Abel, Noah, Abraham, and Jacob related to God through religious practices. For example, all of them related to God through altars of sacrifice, a practice that clearly came from the religious practices of the surrounding culture (Gen. 4:3-5, 8:20ff, 12:8, 28:18).

In the covenant at Sinai, God gave Israel the blueprints of a religion. It had everything that marks a religion: a temple, an altar, priests, and a long list of practices. These, of course, did not eradicate the personal aspects of their relationship with Yahweh, as expressed especially in the psalms. Rather, the religious aspects such as the temple served as potent symbols and vehicles for the Israelites' personal relationship with God (Ps. 84).

Anti-Religious Strain There is also a strong anti-religious strain in the Old Testament. The prophets especially criticized empty religion without the devotion of faith and obedience. Jeremiah, for example, exposed the emptiness of the temple as a talisman of protection, rather than as a place for true worship (Jer. 7, see also Isa. 1). Several psalms also attack religious practices that fail to change the heart (Ps. 50-51).

Religious Institutions and Practices Still, no one suggests that religious institutions and practices be thrown out and replaced by purely private faith. The criticisms were directed more at reforming these religious institutions than eradicating them.

In the New Testament, a radical shift in religious expression occurs, but not the elimination of religious aspects of faith in Christ.

Jesus, as the heir of the prophets, continues their criticism of empty religious practices without eliminating the practices themselves. For example, he calls the temple "my Father's house," and forcibly removes the desecrating hawkers. But he also prophesies the demise of the temple and the building of a new one — his own body (John 2:12-22).

The gospels clearly display and criticize the corruption of the religious institutions of their day: the Scribes and Pharisees, the chief priests and elders. In the end, Jewish religious institutions failed to recognize the Messiah and ultimately conspired to crucify him.

With the establishment of the church, many Jewish religious institutions and practices gradually fell away or were transformed. For example, the central practice of kosher eating was done away with by a revelation to Peter (Acts 10), temple worship waned, and new practices like the Lord's Supper (replacing Passover) and baptism (replacing proselyte baptism) were introduced. The practices of early Christian worship were based largely on the patterns of the Jewish synagogue.

Religion in the Bible In one of the few uses of the Greek term for "religion" in the Bible, James writes, "Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world" (James 1:27). The care of orphans and widows is for James a religious practice, but his point seems to be that while it is not the whole of religion, without it, religion fails the test of authenticity.

Points to Ponder

Religion is not the enemy of true faith in God, but at its best it embodies the practices and institutions that nurture and empower faith.

Prone to Corruption and Meaninglessness Religion and religious practices are prone to corruption and meaninglessness, and must be constantly criticized and renewed.

In the crisis of Nazi Germany, Dietrich Bonhoeffer famously wrote late in his life about "religionless Christianity." "We are moving towards a completely religionless time; people as they are now simply cannot be religious anymore. Even those who honestly describe themselves as 'religious' do not in the least act up to it, and so they presumably mean something quite different by 'religious'. . . . And if therefore man becomes radically religionless — and I think that is already more or less the case (else, how is it, for example, that this war, in contrast to all previous ones, is not calling forth any 'religious' reaction?) — what does that mean for 'Christianity'?"

In the crisis of Nazi Germany, Dietrich Bonhoeffer famously wrote late in his life about "religionless Christianity." "It will be a new language, perhaps quite non-religious, but liberating and redeeming — as was Jesus' language; it will shock people and yet overcome them by its power; it will be the language of a new righteousness and truth, proclaiming God's peace with men and the coming of his kingdom. . . . Till then the Christian cause will be a silent and hidden affair, but there will be those who pray and do right and wait for God's own time."


Scripture quotations are from New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.