I Love Jesus and I Love Religion

The current mindset of much of the world is one of atheism, or, at best, a sort of apathetic agnosticism. A potential cause for the problem many postmoderns have offered is that “religion” is simply turning people off from the faith. They don’t like the rites, the prayers, the rituals, the commitments. A growing number of those who identify as Christians are taking the same stand. “I love Jesus,” they say, “but I hate religion.” You can buy any number of t-shirts with the now-common phrase “Relationship not Religion”  or even “Relationship > Religion.”

I hear you. I do. I am not a fan of hollow religious observance, either. I firmly believe everything a church does (and thus everything a Christian does for the sake of his/her Lord) should have deeply theological reasons behind it. When I say “everything,” I mean, “everything.” Everything from how much Scripture is read on a Sunday to what gets put out in the clothing program to how we decorate the sanctuary to the architecture of the building itself. On the individual level, how often we attend church, what songs we sing, what media we consume, how we treat our friends and ourselves . . . the list is literally endless. We must be thinking about these things from a Christian perspective. We need to understand why we do what we do, and we must do everything for a reason.

Somehow, we’ve lost sight of that. We’ve turned worship into a consumeristic “get people in the door” enterprise instead of a means of evangelism and discipleship. It’s easy to say we don’t like religion when we don’t understand what happens in the Mass, or hate repeating the same words in a praise chorus over and over again, or when we almost fall asleep listening to the pastor recite the same prayer or same sermon each and every Sunday. It becomes stagnant. It dies. It becomes “religion.” (Air quotes.)

Only . . . that’s not what “religion” means. That’s not what it means at all.

Somewhere along the way, the term got hijacked and cast in a totally negative light by atheists and believers (particularly evangelicals) alike. It’s used as a scapegoat by both groups, and both use “religion” to refer to the reason the world is in such sad shape. Atheists say religion holds us backs and keeps us from using human reason. The spiritual-but-not-religious crowd says religion keep us from truly loving Jesus and thus making a difference in the world. Frankly, I think they’re both wrong. I think deeply religious people are the ones who truly change the world. It’s hard to want to aid the inbreaking of the kingdom of God if you don’t think it exists. And as for the latter group, well, if you didn’t have “religion,” you wouldn’t have Jesus.

Let me explain.

A religion, in broadest possible terms, is a system of beliefs about what I’m going to call ultimates. It can be about a deity such as God, a pantheon of minor gods, the idea that everything contains divinity, or even that a particular way to think is the end-all-be-all which will unlock the secrets of the universe (as in scientism). However you believe you encounter ultimate truth about the universe, that’s your religion. Atheism is a religion in this way of thinking, too, because its belief about a deity is that there isn’t one; instead the universe claims the throne of the ultimate (as does science for many). Christianity is a religion, Islam is a religion, Buddhism and Sikhism and Baha’i and Zoroastrianism and paganism and . . . They’re all systems of beliefs about ultimates. About divinity and deity and the true nature of things.

Jesus was a deeply religious man.

All the rituals and rites and observances you don’t want to keep? Jesus celebrated his own version of them in his own time. He observed Passover and other Jewish festivals. He was concerned about personal holiness. He submitted himself to baptism. He attended and taught in the synagogues and the temple. He taught people how to encounter God in all things. He even instituted a new rite: Holy Communion, a.k.a. the Eucharist, a.k.a. the Lord’s Supper. Look at it this way: Jesus culminated one religion and established a new one right down to the rules needed to be in it and the processes and procedures, the rituals and rites, which adherents would need to follow.

Sounds like a pretty religious guy to me. Not like someone who would shy away from rituals and prayers and feasts and churches. It seems to me he embraced all of these and said, “This is the way you will draw close to me. I give you new things to do, new cycles and patterns of living which will reveal myself to you each time you live into them.”  It’s why we have bread and wine and why we immerse people in water: because God comes to us, reveals Himself to us, in these physical things we do, and in the doing, we proclaim Him to the world. These are the things which deepen and exhibit our relationship to the Risen Savior. These are the things we use to worship.

Do they themselves offer salvation apart from faith? Absolutely not, for salvation requires the grace of God, not the works of human beings. But they’re how we maintain our relationship with Him. I mean, you wouldn’t say you had a relationship with your boyfriend or girlfriend if you never went on a date, right? You wouldn’t have a solid relationship with your friends and family if you never talked to them or hung out with them. You wouldn’t consider yourself an employee of a place for which you never work. Why do we treat the God who wired us for relationship any differently? Why do we believe we can have the fullness of a relationship with God when we do nothing to stay in touch? Do nothing He’s commanded us to do? Never visit His house, never receive the Communion elements, never celebrate the birth and the resurrection and everything in-between?

Again, Christ has commanded us to do these things, and as he himself said, “If you love me, keep my commandments. . . . Anyone who loves me will obey my teaching. My Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them. Anyone who does not love me will not obey my teaching. These words you hear are not my own; they belong to the Father who sent me” (John 14:15,23-24). Just thinking about God, just saying “Yeah, I know he’s there, so I’ll try not to hurt anybody” will never be enough. You can’t be spiritual enough. And your relationship isn’t greater than the religion; the religion is the relationship, and that relationship will never be complete without the “religion” to go with it.

I love Jesus. I value my spirituality, and I treasure my relationship with the Triune God of grace and glory. And that’s precisely why I love religion. I could never come to God on my own terms. I could never do enough on my own; I couldn’t even know what to do. I could never know who He is without His revelation and His commands — without His religion. And for that reason, and because I know I have that personal relationship with a personal savior, I will stand boldly and proclaim myself a Christian, an adherent of Christianity, a member of the Christian religion.

F.A.Q.: The Dirty Half-Dozen (Minus One)

I was recently asked to do a post on what I believed to be the top five misconceptions regarding biblical Christianity (or, phrased another way, the five most popular wrong ways to read the Bible). After giving it much thought, this is my list. Any post like this is inherently dangerous, but I hope to be fair to each of these. By no means am I disparaging those who hold to these beliefs; rather, I think these beliefs themselves are horribly flawed, regardless of their popularity.

1. Gnosticism

Gnosticism is one of the oldest heresies on the books, but it seems it just won’t die. Instead it simply shifts subtly and keeps right on trucking. In its earliest iterations, gnosticism was a special scheme for salvation in which one required secret knowledge (the gnosis) in order to be saved. Gnosis was taught by Christ to the true disciples (which could be any or all of them, depending on who you read), and these disciples taught it to their own true students. In short, what we read in the Bible is totally insufficient for salvation; we still need the gnosis. This has, for the most part, been pushed to the background, but another component of gnosticism is alive and well: the concept that all things physical are inherently evil. Gnosticism is dualistic: the physical is evil and the spiritual is good. (In the Gospel of Judas, for example, Judas is esteemed above all other apostles because he alone took steps to free Jesus from his evil, earthly, physical form — namely, he had him killed — so his good soul could escape its fleshly prison.)

Most of us wouldn’t go to that extreme, but we still see anything on this earth as evil, while things of a spiritual kingdom of God are the true goods in life. To a certain extent, this is true; the three great enemies of the soul are the world, the flesh, and the devil, after all. But this fails to read even the first chapter in the Bible, Genesis 1. When God created the world, He declares it good at every turn. While creation is marred by sin a mere two chapters later, it isn’t destroyed beyond repair. The grace of God continues to work in the world to redeem it, and all of creation groans in eager expectation of its redemption (Romans 8:22-23). The physical isn’t inherently evil; it’s simply sick, disease, sin-stricken, and it needs the salvation of God the same as our souls. After all, we look forward to the resurrection (and perfection) of the body — not casting the physical form aside entirely to dwell as spirit alone in the New Jerusalem. If a physical form were truly beyond the pale, God would never again give us bodies of any sort.

2. Dispensationalism

Dispensationalism has many tenets, and I don’t have space to address them all here. Suffice it to say, however, that it is a system of belief (including a way to read both the Bible and church history) which is incredibly prevalent in the small churches of America today, particularly in the South. This is the doctrine which gives us both the rapture and the sort of “support the nation-state of Israel at all costs) Zionism many of us grew up hearing. (And believing.)

Dispensationalism began in 1830 and owes its existence to one John Nelson Darby. Darby, after hearing a dream from a young girl in which believers simply disappeared at the return of Jesus while others were left behind, conceived of a theology which would allow Christians to leave the world before a period of intense persecution (The Great Tribulation), ending in Christ’s real second coming and the end of the world. At first, no one took him at all seriously, but his views came to gain traction in America. Darby’s theology was picked up by Dwight Moody and Cyrus Scofield, the latter of which popularized it in a study Bible bearing his name. Tellingly dispensationalism experienced its largest periods of growth during America’s darkest times: the Civil War, World War I, and Vietnam. After all, when times get tough, it’s comforting to think you’ll go to heaven before it gets any worse.

The problems with Dispensationalism are manifold. First, it should be noted that the rapture (and militant Zionism) didn’t exist until Darby invented them in 1830. For the first 1800 years of church history, no one read the Bible the way he did, and no church ever made such things official dogma. In short, it’s simply too new to be true (unless, for some inscrutable reason, God hid the truth for almost two millennia and decided to let everyone believe lies). Second, it’s an inherently American phenomenon; Dispensationalism is very much a fringe theology in the rest of the world (if it exists there at all). Since America is not God’s chosen nation to bear in solitude the true Gospel, I think this should worry us. Third, the writings of Paul consistently tell us there are no Jews or Gentiles in the Christian age and in the salvation of Christ. Jesus himself as well as Peter say salvation comes through no other door than the cross of Christ. How, then, can we believe Jews who reject Christ will be saved — and deserve special respect and protection because somehow they remain God’s chosen people? A God who chooses the world through the gift of His Son will not make that gift irrelevant by saying we can be saved by doing exactly what we were doing before he came. Zionism just doesn’t add up.

Then we have to consider the most damning evidence against it: the rapture itself. In this view of the end times (eschatology), Jesus ends up coming back not once, but twice. He returns to take the church with him, the world continues spinning, and then he returns again to usher in the end of the world and final judgment. Some argue this first “Second Coming” happens only in the clouds, but . . . why would Jesus stop halfway to the earth? Since we’re assured everyone will know when Christ comes back, why hide behind blobs of water vapor and leave it to the “left behind” to figure out what happened? That doesn’t sound like coming in glory and power to me (see Mark 13:26 and its parallels). At no point does the Bible even imply Jesus will come back a second and third time. We look forward to the Second Coming wherein all will come to a close — and thus eternity begins. No one ever says we should truly watch for the Third Coming of Christ. (Because there isn’t one.) The word “rapture” doesn’t appear anywhere in Scripture. To be fair, neither does “Trinity,” but at least Trinitarian Christianity has always existed and always been considered implicit in the biblical text.

Dispensationalism may be extremely popular (especially in my own context), but it simply doesn’t add up biblically, theologically, historically, or any other -ically. No one gets left behind, but everyone will face judgment at the Second Coming of Jesus Christ.

3. Newspaper Hermeneutics

This is another popular thing to do. “Hermeneutics” essentially boils down to “interpretation”; a hermeneutic is a system for interpreting the Bible (or other things). “Newspaper hermeneutics,” then, means interpreting the Bible according to the newspaper. We read the newspaper headlines (“War in Syria,” “Russia Rises,” “United Nations Passes Resolution,” “Churches Affirm Gay Marriage,” “Star Wars in Theaters Again”) and instantly jump to our Bibles (typically to Revelation and Daniel) and scour the pages until we find some verse or two we can squint at and find said headline. In this way, we make everything in the Bible prophecy: nothing can be fully historical since we haven’t seen it in the newspaper yet.

There are obvious problems with this. For starters, since the youngest book in the Bible is some 1920 years old, I think it’s safe to say the overwhelming majority of it has already happened. Secondly, this fails to take into consideration things such as genre and original audience. Revelation, for example, is apocalypse intended for the first century Church, and it uses symbolism readily understandable by those early believers. I personally believe almost all of Revelation (and all of Daniel) has already occurred, which definitely excludes the sensationalist journalism I get every day from the various media outlets. Finally, this sort of thing is what we call eisegesis, a “reading into” the Bible what we want to find. If, for example, I want to prove someone is The Antichrist, all I have to do is find specific verses, take them out of context, and make my case. (I mean, I can quote a psalm to prove God doesn’t exist if I want to do things like that.) Instead of reading the Bible, piecing it together, and letting it speak for itself — then accepting it for what it truly says — newspaper hermeneutics force the texts to say what I think they should say — and so I end up with a God and a Bible which very much look like me and which in fact look nothing like the real God or His true revelation.

Don’t get me wrong: Christ gives us multiple commands to watch for the signs of the end times, and we should be watchful and ready when they come. I just don’t believe we need to twist Scripture in order to see them, but, rather, we should use Scripture to help us recognize them when they do appear.

4. “Jesus Is Everything in the Old Testament”

I realize Christ is the fulfillment of the law. I understand the Old Testament ends on a note of eager expectation awaiting the coming Messiah. I do. But by no means does every single verse in the entirety of the OT scream “This is about Jesus!” Certainly specific texts do. There’s an entire type of psalm called messianic psalms, for example, and they clearly speak of the Christ to come. Isaiah’s Servant Song, Malachi’s messenger of a new covenant or a return of Elijah, etc., all are obvious references to the life and person of Jesus. But I find it both intellectually dishonest and simply wrong to make every verse say something about Christ when they obviously don’t (another instance of eisegesis).

For example, I recently made a curriculum to teach the messianic prophecies of the OT. When comparing lists others had compiled, most of them gave somewhere in the 300-400 range. I read them all. And what I found was that most, in my opinion, have nothing to say about Jesus. “A rod will come out of Jesse” means Jesus. “Enoch was translated that he should not see death” does not. That doesn’t mean “Oh, well, this is talking about the resurrection and ascension of Jesus.” It means, “Enoch was translated that he should not see death.” We can’t even apply all of the details of David’s life to Christ, even though he was a Davidic king. After all, nowhere does the New Testament tell us Jesus was handsome, or that he loved someone named Jonathan in a special way, or that he committed adultery and murder, or that he had a terrific singing voice (no matter what Andrew Lloyd Webber or Stephen Schwartz might write.) Were both shepherds and kings? Yes. Both descendants of Jesse? Check. But the comparison stops there. Some verses are simply about David and not Jesus. And so goes the rest of the Old Testament.

5. Scripture Alone

My last grand error of note is the one which will ensure I get my share of hate mail for this post. It will make me sound like . . . well, not a traditional Protestant. So let me just say it:

I don’t think the Bible alone is enough to set the doctrines of the faith.

Don’t misunderstand me. The Bible is sufficient, the sole source of our knowledge as Christians. The problem is that it can’t be read in a vacuum — and no one really reads it that way anyway. We all approach the text with presuppositions, with cultural influences, with biases and prejudices and wants and desires and personality quirks. It’s simply part of being human. But another part of human is to err. We can make mistakes in our own independent readings of the Bible. The way I read a particular text may be totally wrong (like Darby *cough*). So how do I get this corrected instead of propagating false doctrine? By reading it in community. By being in dialog with other Christians, both the living and the dead, I am able to get a much bigger picture of what’s going on. I can see how the Bible has been read by others and how the consensus has been across thousands of years. In this fashion, I can be pretty sure that if I’m the only one to interpret a passage a specific way, a way that contradicts literally everyone else, then I’m wrong. If I read the Bible and end up a unitarian, I’m wrong. If I don’t believe in the resurrection or the virgin birth, I’m wrong. We call this sacred tradition, the tradition of doctrine and interpretation upheld by the church. Ecclesial traditions, namely the traditions of specific congregations and denominations (like worship style, how many hymns, how often to celebrate Holy Communion, etc.) can all be changed as necessary. But sacred tradition, things like the Trinity, the theandric nature of Jesus Christ, etc., can never be changed. If I go against them, I’m wrong.

And so Scripture is the sufficient source for all things, but I can’t trust myself to read it correctly 100% of the time. Thus I must appeal to other readers, to tradition, to make sure I have my Bible right. In short, I can’t just read it and say, “Well, my version of things is true for me, and that’s good enough.” I have to read it with others and come to understand the Absolute Truth. So I just can’t believe the Bible alone is enough (even though it is). This isn’t the Bible’s fault — it’s mine.

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There you have it. These are the top five things Christians can get wrong, in my opinion (or at least the five most prevalent errors I encounter in my own life and ministry). I don’t pretend I know everything or that I have all the answers, and you are welcome to disagree with me (provided, of course, you can provide the requisite theological rationale for doing so). As always, I invite us to reason together, that we may come to the Truth.