13 January 2014

Defending Religion

DSC_0296I’ve been busy writing and taking a holiday (two important activities) and the blog has been quiet. But, I’m taking up my keyboard again to defend religion. It’s not the first time. The blanket attack on religion seems to be a well-established evangelical meme – I come across it with alarming regularity. It’s dangerous and I want to resist it.

The meme usually goes something like this:

  • religion is about doing good works so that we get saved
  • Christianity is not about doing good works so that we get saved
  • ergo Christianity is not a religion
  • ergo religion is evil

There are several fundamental problems with this. The definition of religion is wrong for a start – wrong definitions usual spell disaster. But, far more significantly, one serious objection to this meme comes straight from the pen of one of the apostles:

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. James 1:27

The apostle James knows that religion (that’s θρησκεία in Greek)  is important. And he knows that Christians are ‘doing’ religion. The outward rituals of inward faith are important. Living a holy life, whether in caring for the afflicted or avoiding sinful behaviour, really matters. That’s James whole point throughout his letter. Religion is not just about believing, it is about doing. To be even clearer: Christianity is not just about believing, it’s about doing. Christianity is a religion. The Church has always rightly understood itself as an entity practising a religion. In my own tradition, Christianity-as-religion is the language of the Westminster Standards. For example:

What is the visible church? The visible church is a society made up of all such as in all ages and places of the world do profess the true religion, and of their children. Longer Catechism 62

The apostle James’s concern is whether people’s religion is true or false (1:26,27). He’s not writing about people of other religions, but about people who profess to be Christians. People who profess to be Christians, but who can’t control their tongues, for example (1:26), have a worthless religion.  People who care for others and seek holiness (a different set of values from God’s word, not from the world around), have a religion that is pure and good (1:27). The irony is that James is actually stressing the importance of good works. True religion involves good works as well as faith. Of course, it’s true that Christianity is not about doing good works so that we get saved. But, we won’t be saved without good works, because faith without works is dead (2:17). If you say you’re a Christian, but your life does not display the good works that come from following Jesus, then is your faith real? This particular evangelical meme illustrates a larger problem: an incorrect separation of works and faith.

We can’t be put right before God on the basis of the good things we do, or try to do. That’s the only part of the four-part meme that’s actually correct! We are put right with God, entering into a new relationship with our Creator, through faith in Jesus Christ – thank God for that! But that faith is not merely mental assent. It entails an all-embracing change of priorities called repentance, and that leads to a very different way of life. It’s not fundamentally fired by our desire for self-improvement. It is fundamentally fired by our desire to love Jesus Christ in obedience, which in turn is fired by Jesus’ own presence with us through the Holy Spirit.

Christianity is a religion. A religion with Jesus the Messiah at the centre. Christianity is about doing good works. Good works for Jesus the Messiah. And the meme begins to unravel…