On Easter day (Sunday, March 27, 2016) I felt led to help people who want to understand how the Bible portrays the differences between religion and true Christianity (Matthew 16:24; Mark 8:34; Luke 9:23). So on that day I started writing this post. I hope that what I’ve written helps you who want to understand what God has told us about Religion and Christianity.
To many people (atheist, agnostic, claimed Christian, or otherwise), religion and Christianity are indistinguishable terms meaning the same thing. Yet reading the Bible we find that the terms religion and Christianity are considered by God as mutually exclusive. Per the Bible, religion is following the rules as opposed to Christianity which is a relationship with God through His only Begotten Son, Christ Jesus.
What is Religion?
A big part of the difficulty in understanding religion is that of its definition. We don’t exactly know what we mean by the word, religion. Dictionaries give multiple statements about the definition of religion. We don’t know how to use the word or what constitutes a misuse of the word religion. It would be convenient for us to assume that by “religion,” we mean the fetishisms, animisms, polytheisms, and monotheisms of the known historic religions. It would also be convenient to assume that all the religions were like branches of a large tree, with a visible trunk. If we looked hard enough at the tree trunk we could discover a common structure of meaning that would lead to an accurate, comprehensive, and convincing definition of religion.
An examination of writings on theories of religion shows that most definitions of religion are achieved not by exhaustive empirical study but rather by singling out one or another attractive or compelling feature of religious practice, and then elevating that feature normatively as a criterion of meaning. For example, Wikipedia states that religion is a cultural system of behaviors and practices, world views, ethics, and social organization that relate humanity to an order of existence.
Religion (Back Then in Bible Days)
The Old Testament prophets such as Isaiah, Micah and Amos decried religious ritual that was without true righteousness, humility and love for neighbor (Is. 1:10-17; 58; Amos 5:21-24; Mic. 6:8). The line of prophets arose starting in the 8th century B.C. primarily because Israel had a tendency to focus more on adhering to the temple ritual worship of the Levitical system than the ethical lifestyle required by the Law of Moses as found in the Ten Commandments. For this, the prophets pronounced judgment upon the nation, and God dispersed the people and, on two occasions, let enemies destroy their temple per their being caught up into religious rituals.
In New Testament times the two main parties within the Jewish religion were the Sadducees and the Pharisees. The Pharisees were one of the two main parties within Judaism in New Testament times, the other being the Sadducees. The origins of the two parties go back to the second century BC, when Greek influence in Jewish affairs created divisions among the Jewish people.
Most of the Pharisees came from the working classes and tried to preserve traditional Jewish practices from the corruption of foreign ideas and political ambition. The Sadducees came mainly from the wealthy upper classes. Their chief concern was not with following tradition, but with using the religious and social structures of Jewish society to gain controlling power for themselves.
Once the Sadducees had gained priestly power, they furthered their own interests by emphasizing the need to keep the temple rituals. The Pharisees, by contrast, emphasized the responsibility to keep the law in all aspects of life, not just in temple rituals.
The Pharisees scribes expanded the law of Moses into a system that consisted of countless laws dealing with such matters as Sabbath-keeping (Mat 12:1-2; Mar 3:1-6; Luk 13:10-14), ritual cleanliness (Mat 23:25; Mar 7:1-9), fasting (Luk 18:11-12), tithing (Mat 23:23) and the taking of oaths (Mat 23:16-22) and more.
The Pharisees criticized Jesus for not keeping their laws (Mat 12:10-14; 15:1-2; Joh 9:16), but Jesus condemned the Pharisees for not keeping God’s law. They were more concerned with maintaining their traditions than with producing the kind of character and behavior that God’s law aimed at (Mat 5:20; 15:1-10; 23:23-26). They were concerned with outward show more than with correct attitudes of heart. They wanted to impress people more than please God (Mat 23:2,5,27-28).
Jesus’ criticism of the Pharisees caused them to hate him. They even cooperated with the Sadducees (the priests) to get rid of him (Joh 11:47-53; 18:3). Although the Sadducees had the chief positions in the Sanhedrin (the Jewish Council that condemned Jesus), many Pharisees were Sanhedrin members. At least one of the Pharisees, Nicodemus, became a believer in Jesus (Joh 3:1; 7:45-52; 19:38-40).
While the Pharisees followed strictly the traditions handed down from their forefathers, the Sadducees had little interest in the traditions. They were concerned only with the commandments actually written in the law of Moses. Also, they did not believe in the continued existence of the soul after death, the bodily resurrection of the dead, the directing will of God in the events of life, or the existence of angelic beings. These were all important beliefs for the Pharisees (Mat 22:23; Act 4:1-2; 23:7-8).
In spite of their dislike for the Pharisees, the Sadducees readily joined with them to oppose Jesus (Mat 16:1-4; 22:15,23,34). Jesus condemned the Sadducees, along with the Pharisees, for their hypocrisy; teaching religion rather than teaching the good news (Gospel) of salvation (Mat 16:6,12).
The Sadducees were particularly hostile to the early Christians. This was chiefly for two reasons. Firstly, the apostles’ accusation of injustice on the part of the Sanhedrin was really an accusation against the ruling Sadducees (Act 4:5-10; 5:27-28). Secondly, the church’s rapid growth was based on the truth of the resurrection, which the Sadducees denied (Act 4:1-2,10,17). The Sadducees had little following among the common people, and in fact were afraid of violence from them if they treated the Christians too harshly (Act 4:2,17,21; 5:17,26). Only when the Pharisees turned against the Christians were the Sadducees able to use the full power of the Sanhedrin against the Christians (Act 6:12-15; 7:58; 8:1; cf. Phi 3:5-6).
In many of today’s churches irrespective of the denomination or expression of the body of Christ, the same issues that occurred during the Old and New Testament times occur with many people focused on religion (self-power and praise, entitlements, legalistic rituals, traditions, practices, prosperity and wealth, meaningless repetition of tasks and chants, emphasis on outward holiness related to attire, makeup, the cutting of hair, jewelry and other regulations and legalistic topics, etc.) rather than God’s offer of salvation through His only Begotten Son, Christ Jesus. Many charismatic and evangelical churches today have these issues. Not only that, but all Christian leaders and teachers (including me) have to constantly grapple with some or all of the issues internally to make sure we are never sucked into a false system of religion and that we don’t teach any religious system. These religious systems are what have caused and continue to cause many people to walk away from Christianity and claim to be an atheist.
Note that I didn’t say walk away from their faith? The people who walk away never had a relationship with Christ Jesus nor faith in Christ Jesus fulfilling the debt He fully paid for their sins and providing a narrow path to Heaven to be forever with Him, they were merely participating in religion. I talk daily with people (atheists) who have walked away from church and clearly claim to me that they were very religious when they were going to church. None of these people claim to have had an actual relationship with Christ Jesus, yet all have admitted that they participated in various religious practices of varying degree; and many of them to a great degree.
Jesus told the Samaritan woman that she worshipped what she did not know (John 4), which means that people (like the atheists who claim they were Christian) can worship in ignorance and/or without a true experience and relationship with God. It greatly hurts me that these people were never in an actual relationship with Christ Jesus and that they got caught up into some religious system which became a stumbling block for them keeping them from having a relationship with Christ Jesus.
Wikipedia states that religion is a cultural system of behaviors and practices, world views, ethics, and social organization that relate humanity to an order of existence. Examples of religion in a sentence given on Merriam-Webster’s website dictionary are:
- Many people turn to religion for comfort in a time of crisis.
- There are many religions, such as Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, and Judaism.
- Shinto is a religion that is unique to Japan.
- Hockey is a religion in Canada.
- Politics are a religion to him.
- Where I live, high school football is religion.
- Food is religion in this house.
The Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary includes that religion is a cause, principle, or system of beliefs held to with ardor and faith.
Note that the definitions of religion given by Wikipedia and dictionaries are inclusive of most everything; including Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Atheism, football, hockey, politics, etc. Most everyone knows at least one person who is obsessed with sports, politics, something they are beholden to with ardor and faith such as a serious cause, principle, or system of beliefs. Just as many of the atheists I talk with are obsessed with putting down everyone they can who claims to be a Christian.
By these dictionary definitions of religion many atheists would certainly be categorized as religious, particularly the so-called “New Atheists” like Richard Dawkins and Bill Maher. It would be better to consider them anti-theists (“against God”) or misotheists (“haters of God”). These men and others like them spend much of their time railing against the Creator they say doesn’t even exist. Strangely enough, these misotheists seem to be more obsessed with God than most Christians. Richard Dawkins and Bill Maher most certainly hold to their cause and beliefs with ardor and faith and flaunt their beliefs publicly.
What does God think of Religion?
As already you may have noticed from above, God doesn’t like religion at all. We see Jesus Himself throughout Matthew chapter 23 personally and directly denounced religious hypocrites and their following and teaching religion.
God is against onerous rules and regulations; i.e., legalism (Mat 23:1-3).
God is against church leaders serving to receive prestige, honor and glory from men (Mat 5-7).
God is against church leaders craving titles and moving up the ranks of hierarchical religious systems (Mat 8-11).
God is against church leaders having an entitlement mentality (Mat 11-12).
God is against church leaders (and all Christians) becoming a stumbling block to others seeking the kingdom of God (Mat 13-15).
God is against church leaders (and all Christians) valuing and love money and wealth more than anything else (Mat 16-17).
God is against rituals and religion being valued more than people turning to Him and gaining inner transformation and turning away from sin (Mat 25-28).
Clearly God is against religion in a major way. In fact the only pure and undefiled religion before our God and Father is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself unstained by the world (James 1:27).
What does Religion Do?
People who are captivated by a religious system are not humble and will rarely truly listen to people speaking for and about God to them. Many will go to great lengths to put down, demean, belittle and reject anyone telling them that God loves them. Others go even farther and actually put down, demean, belittle, and outright reject God. Sound familiar? The Pharisees and Sadducees rejected Jesus (John 7:14-18) when Jesus was right there with them. They called Jesus names, a liar and wanted to kill Him (John 7). Today just over two thousand years from when Jesus walked on earth and died and rose from death to pay the debt for you and me sinning (Romans 6:23), there are religious people who like the Pharisees and Sadducees reject anyone telling them about Jesus and call them a liar as they demean, belittle and sometimes tell them to go kill themselves. This kind of thing coming from many of the atheists I talk with happens to me almost on a daily basis.
When a person is captivated by their religious system (no matter which religious system it is) they become blind to the pure Word of the Lord God. There are some of these people however who do become humble and open their ears to hear (as Nicodemus in John 3) and will recognize and receive the people God sends to them, irrespective of their religious system. Many of these people will repent (confess and turn from sinning) and come to accept Christ Jesus as their Savior.
Religion vs Christianity; there is a Difference
Per God there is certainly a difference between religion and true Christianity (Matthew 16:24; Mark 8:34; Luke 9:23). Per God, Christians should only be religious when it comes to taking care of widows and orphans. We’ve seen that per God, Christians should be focused on loving Him and loving other people (Matthew 22:34-40).
So unless it is caring for widows and orphans, per God religion and religious practice is meaningless and worthless. Religion doesn’t save anyone from anything. Religion and the rules one must follow to practice religion doesn’t bring someone closer to God. God has made it clear that He is against religious rules and practices and the guilt one has when not followed said religious practices.
Jesus Himself said; “Come to Me, all of you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. All of you, take up My yoke and learn from Me, because I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for yourselves. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-30).
Jesus willingly came as fully human to this world to give us life. Jesus willingly took the consequences of your and my sin upon Himself. He was severely beaten, was hung on a cross, and died on that cross because of your and my sin. He rose from death giving us a means to rise from death and be seen by God through Him as being worthy to be in Heaven!
The beauty of God’s love is that we are not forced to believe nor accept it. No religious practices or rituals required. Only an honest confession to God of being guilty and not always honest in your ways and a acceptance that Christ Jesus died and rose from death to save you is needed.
To those who believe, Jesus sets us free. Free from our sin and from our guilt. Free to be forever in Heaven with Him.
Jesus infused God’s love into those of us who believe. God’s love is a powerful love which brings people who have it to want others to have it too. God’s love is life giving.
You must chose to embrace God’s love in your life. It doesn’t matter what if any religious system you grew up in, you must make the choice to accept and embrace what God offers to you. No one else can ever do it for you.
Not accepting God’s offer you have placed yourself in a prison. You have the key to your prison door. It’s locked from the inside by you. Only you can make the choice to open your prison door with the key that only you have being the only one which can unlock it.
God offers you freedom. It’s your choice. No one other than yourself is keeping you from the freedom God offers to you.
“For it is written: As I live, says the Lord, every knee will bow to Me, and every tongue will give praise to God. So then, each of us will give an account of himself to God” (Romans 14:11-12).
I suggest that you bow before the Lord God today and account for yourself rather than wait until tomorrow for waiting until tomorrow may be too late. “How do you know what your life will be like tomorrow? Your life is like the morning fog–it’s here a little while, then it’s gone” (James 4:14)
Bridgeway Bible Dictionary, Bridgeway Publications; ISBN 0 947342 66 4