There has been an interesting debate that has been building momentum in the last decade. On one side you see people strongly identifying with a relationship oriented “religion free” Christianity. On the other hand, you see people advocating the benefits of Christianity as a “religion”. Both sides are wary of remarks made by the other and have plenty of evidence to reinforce their concern.
Nothing has more starkly highlighted the contrast in recent weeks than the video that blew up on Youtube entitled “Jesus > Religion”. A wonderful rebuttle video was made in the same format by Catholics entitled “Jesus <3 Religion” defending the position and relevancy of “religion”.
Both can be seen here:
A line has been drawn and I personally have been in various discussions on Facebook and Twitter regarding the dichotomy that has been highlighted with razor sharp clarity in positions defined on both sides.
I understand many people will, and already have tried to join these two sides. Many are blatant, or have tried to clean up misunderstandings and differences while trying to make an argument that leans to one side or the other as seen here and also here.
I am no exception to these, but I hope to establish a much more relevant argument to the distinctions at hand. I strongly advocate a relationship with Jesus over identity/association with a “religion” for very marked reasons that I hope can be considered by anyone reading this, Christian or not.
As I was pondering this over the last few days and opening my facebook/twitter to discussion, one friend asked me to define “religion” and “the church” so we can move from there. The wisdom in this proposition is profound to me because much of the dividing line in these views are a misunderstanding of these two things.
So lets clear this up with a very brief definition so we have somewhere to start.
Multiple things are going on here, but lets start with the most blatant to me (as a Christian): The “Church” as Jesus defines it is much different than what our commonly accepted understanding is in our present culture. Why is that?
The first time we see the word used is Matthew 16:18, it is spoken by Jesus to Peter:
“Now I say to you that you are Peter (which means ‘rock’), and upon this rock I will build my church, and all the powers of hell will not conquer it.”
But something very interesting happens in the following verse, the very first time Jesus uses the word “church” he defines it also for the very first time and paints a simple picture of what the church will look like.
“19 And I will give you the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven. Whatever you forbid on earth will be forbidden in heaven, and whatever you permit on earth will be permitted in heaven.”
This is what a real church looks like.
Why is this so difficult for people to comprehend? How come our church doesn’t look like Jesus’ ministry? I believe it boils down to identity. The world’s definition of “religion” and “church” go hand in hand. Church, in the context of religion, provide an identity for someone looking for an identity. Church, in the context of Jesus, doesn’t need an identity. The latter church has an entirely different perspective as it knows who it is before the word “church” ever comes into view. Your identity comes from those who love you, and whom you are able to love. Your inheritance, genetic, physical or otherwise, come from those before you. It can only be given to you, you cannot go to it.
“We love because he first loved us.” - 1 John 4:19
We can only love and operate in the capacities in which we have received. Your view of “religion” or “church” will be based on how you have received Jesus’ identity as the Messiah into your life. Are you operating in greater measure than Jesus? Why not? I would venture to say that people are more pre-occupied with religion than actually knowing and receiving from the one who wants to bring his Kingdom through you.
So if Jesus has set a clear picture for the church, why do we operate out of religion? Someone who has seen Jesus possesses the experience of realizing who he is. So before you can become the church, Jesus must to be revealed to you intimately for who he truly is. Only true identity comes this way, it can only be bestowed, it cannot be learned. Potentially this happens long after you’ve “known” him in your life. So it goes in Matthew, before the word “church” was ever used in the verse right before the ones above:
15 Then he asked them, “But who do you say I am?”
16 Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”
17 Jesus replied, “You are blessed, Simon son of John, because my Father in heaven has revealed this to you. You did not learn this from any human being.
One would not need a church or a religion to define them in any other way. A church would be an outward expression, a by-product of someone who knows Jesus intimately, but not a home.
“Man oh man you’re my best friend,
I scream it to the nothingness,
There ain’t nothing that I need.
Well, hot and heavy, pumpkin pie,
Chocolate candy, Jesus Christ,
Ain’t nothing please me more than you.
Ahh Home. Let me come home
Home is wherever I’m with you.
Ahh Home. Let me go ho-oh-ome.
Home is wherever I’m with you.”
-Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros
Someone who has seen the revealed Messiah without flesh and blood, without doctrine, without theology, without “church” as Google defines it, but only as God has revealed this man to him… That is the beginning of what Jesus meant when he said “Church”.
So my big question is, where does religion fit in? Besides being resentful (as many people are) about religion, where would it fit in to the person who has just been revealed the Messiah? Jesus never used the word. Yet his entire life was a radical display of God’s love through miracles, making new traditions, and hanging out with outcasts. This was his religion. It looks nothing like what we see today when we think of “religion”.
The church cannot be confused with religion, there has to be a distinction. The point has to be made that the church is something Jesus has made clear. The church must be identified with people who know who Jesus is. It cannot be in the format of organized traditional religion. There is absolutely no biblical basis whatsoever for this as it is defined and understood today. But we do have a biblical understanding for the Church, as defined by Jesus. Are you living that reality? Is your church living that reality? Bringing the kingdom wherever it goes?
Why would you associate yourself with something less than what Jesus has already offered to you? My suspicion is simple: The church as defined by Jesus’ life is available now, and has been. All that is required is for people to know this man for who he is and realize our identity, and receive it. Many people know Jesus, but few people have seen him as the Messiah. That is who he is, and that is what he wants you to know about himself.
Yes, he kept the feasts, yes, he went to the Jewish synagogue, but it wasn’t for religious purposes. He enraged religious people as he he redefined what “church” was (often on “church” property), and it wasn’t religion at all. If anything he made a stark contrast between the two. He brought clarity in every situation where religious people tried to corner him. Unfortunately, most could not accept him. Religiosity is blinding. Deafening. And bleeding. This implies a strong warning to me that I shouldn’t be so caught up with religion that I’m cornering the very person I claim to know (the Messiah).
His life was a living demonstration of what the church would look like. This is the precedent Jesus set.
So was Jesus religious? That’s something for you to decide. I don’t think he was. Culturally, he did everything wrong in the eyes of the established religion. He made some new traditions. Some of these traditions are still practiced today, but are stale. Why take the bread of Christ when you don’t know who he is truly? It’s almost comical to me how people miss the point entirely on Sunday morning, week after week. It’s not about the doing, it’s about the knowing.
But, wasn’t Jesus the fulfillment of the law? Yes, he was. It’s not a “both, and” as some arguments suggest. It’s, law = Jesus. So what is Jesus? How is he the fulfillment of the law? The law was never intended to be kept. It was to establish a precedent that pointed to Jesus. Only Jesus could have fulfilled that. The 10 commandments were established to highlight our need for a savior. The problem with religion, is that it sets out to define rules that aren’t actually there. (I could go on about this, but I’ll write a different blog about this another time). Jesus brought freedom as a completion of the law, you know him and he has established this in your heart you or you don’t. Jesus is the fulfillment of rules. This man embodies the rules being kept in past tense for you and me. The pursuit of rule-following is a waste of time. It is a shameful practice for someone who claims to have an identity in Christ. His identity kept the rules for you and then gave you your reward. Are you spending time following the rules, talking about the rules, the stale traditions? Or are you turning the world on it’s head with your generosity, your prayers of healing, your hand of provision? Have you received that reward? Jesus’ entire life was a demo run of what awaits you. The pursuit of bringing God’s kingdom, to every situation, even when it breaks cultural rules, is not a waste of time. (see “Jesus”, in every Gospel).
“seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.” - Matthew 6:33
It doesn’t say seek first to follow the rules, then get around to finding out what his righteousness is for you. It doesn’t say seek first the rules laid before you by your forefathers so that you are found worthy of righteousness. No, concern yourself with what Jesus concerned himself, The Kingdom of God, and his righteousness, and you will do all the things Jesus did and more.
The interesting thing is, the first time “religion” is used in the Bible is in Acts 25:19 in a negative context by people who made the logical case that Jesus was dead.
“…they had certain points of dispute with him about their own religion and about a certain Jesus, who was dead, but whom Paul asserted to be alive.”
How interesting. That’s the exact point that people are making who are obsessed with relationship with Jesus, “religion-free”. These people who defend their religion are even labeled “accusers” in verse 18. I don’t want to be an accuser. I know someone else who is known for that. From a purely biblical standpoint, why would you want to be associated with this?
Again in Colossians we find the word “religion” used in the Bible, but this time, it appears in a context that is painfully relevant to the issue at hand in Colossians chapter 2:
“20 If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world,why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations— 21 “Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch” 22 (referring to things that all perish as they are used)—according to human precepts and teachings? 23 These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh.”
If you claim to be a Christian, and you have received an identity that God gave you, you are dead to the world. So why go through the rules of navigating a treacherous world when it’s already been done for you? This is the point of the “religion-free” folks. You’re heart is magnificent and restored and you are able to do anything. If you don’t believe that, yet call yourself a Christian, you haven’t received an identity that God is offering you.
So is there any point in the Bible that has a positive definition of “religion”? Thankfully yes (I guess God knew this discussion would be relevant one day). It’s defined one time, and one time only, (and very clearly) in James chapter 1:
“27 Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.”
Any other definition of these two words that is derived from culture (especially our present one) is highly suspect to me.
Religion is defined in the Bible for Christians. It has nothing to do with dogma, with theology, or with attending a church building. Rather, it implies that our hearts should be filled with love. Not our minds full of knowledge. It implies we should be a church, not associated with one. It has nothing to do with rules, but has to do with love. It has nothing to do with concerning ourselves with what sin is or isn’t, it has to do with concerning ourselves with his Kingdom. This expression of religion is as clear and simple as it gets, no matter the evolution of it’s definition through the centuries.
Why do I emphasize relationship with Jesus over involvement with established religion? Why do I advocate a new definition of the Church? And most importantly, why do I believe “the Church” doesn’t have an identity (no thanks to religion)? Because Jesus’ life is brutally obvious. His message was obvious. Adding dogma, theology, doctrine, tradition that is stale or any other thing that isn’t based from my revelation of who Christ is, and what he said to me, is vain.
If you don’t know this Jesus in an intimate way, and you haven’t been able to discuss these things with him in real time, I would simply say that you are able to do that. If you don’t feel you can, I would highly recommend you to ask God to reveal this man to you. What do you have to lose? If nothing happens, nothing happens. Otherwise, you may find a home in religion if you aren’t able to articulate a conversation with Jesus where he tells you, “you are the Rock in which I will build my church”.
I don’t care how you’ve prepared or who or what qualified you unless it’s Christ. The anointing of God is the only thing I’m concerned about when you tell me that you’ve got a plan or a vision. Spiritual, financial, physical, business, or otherwise. Anything else is moot to me.
I don’t mean to sound like an isolationist, but this isn’t about me liking you as a person. However, the next snake-oil religious person or “man-with-a-plan” that tries to sell me on an idea, if you don’t have a clear anointing (obvious, unman-made, weird blessing that could only come from something higher than yourself), then don’t waste you’re breath preaching to (or selling) me about what you think in the midst of your civil war between your heart and mind. It doesn’t mean anything.
Just have yourself a beer and try asking another question.
Something has shifted inside of me
Can I say that I know you quite differently
My dreams last night were completely new
Different than the ones I was used to
The people are the same, and my location too
But everything is somehow different with me and you.
Amy raps at night
Amy raps in the daytime
Yes, Amy be loved
It’s very likely that the origin of these writings (and other writings), at some point or another, began at the problem of sorting out an identity problem. It’s not that most of us have an issue of capacity, as in how much to love, or how much to give, or how much reasoning or opinions we may have, but often, it comes down to simply: how do we do it?
Knowing the “why” in a question leaves much less guesswork when sorting out the throttle speed, many of us tend to know the what and where, it’s the “how” that kills us these days. There are too many options that dilute the simple clarity we crave, not only in instruction, but also in format.
Understanding why I love the way I do (or don’t), or why I do it this way as opposed to that way, or why I think this is true rather than that, leaves us quite often with another “why” question. So here’s the big one, why not? Why not keep asking why? How deep, or how far do you want to go? That’s what it’s all about anyway.
The consideration of just one more “why” in a situation created the enlightenment, the industrial revolution, and just about any other revolution or solution there is.
I’m not here to create a revolution, because too many people are already. Not to mention I’m usually extremely skeptical (at best). [Why] Does one revolution make way for more? Anyone who has studied French history should be at least a little concerned at the next young person holding a pitchfork in the air declaring “change” and “revolution”. So, I’ll stick to what we have at hand and be more than willing to ask “why” and see where it takes us.
The heart of my writings is to illuminate a gray issue, or a dark one I suppose. Not for the sake of illuminating it, but more so that the truth of a situation can be exposed. There is a final “why”, and one should never be afraid of asking and looking the answer square in the eye. The journey is interesting, unexpected and surprising. However, nothing is more surprising than the day you realize you’ve found an answer you never thought you would attain.
I’m not here to say that I’ve reached the final “why” on any issue, I wouldn’t assume that. But I want to encourage in any way possible the journey of asking why as we find out identity in the ongoing discovery of why we love, and why we ask questions. Our identity is founded in discovery, if we are unable to discover and feel a sense of wonder then we’re already dead.