Last time, I posted on what seems to me to be a common evangelical meme that 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
The apostle James is clear that Christianity is a religion and that good works are important. And so the meme begins to unravel…. Whilst some religions might be about doing good works so that people will be saved, Christianity proclaims that faith in Jesus Christ as Messiah-God brings salvation. And genuine faith in Jesus is intimately linked with the good works that flow from it.
So, if the meme is demonstrably untrue, why does it persist? It’s an evangelical meme, the target of which is often legalistic or ‘nominal’ religion. That is, the problem of a faithless Christianity, or mere churchgoing. Doubtless, ‘nominal’ Christianity is a big problem in Britain in 2014. The ritual of mere churchgoing can empty Christianity of its power. It’s seen just as a cultural expression, or a social activity (as an aside, it’s not as big a problem as non-churchgoing!). Anyway, it’s the use of this meme in attacking the church that is, for me, the most worrying aspect. Last year, in an evangelical church outside Scotland, I heard this meme used in a prelude to describing (from the pulpit) other denominations’ religion as ‘poison’. This kind of attack dishonours the Head of the Church and hands a plateful of reasons to non-Christians for ignoring the church, and to other Christians for leaving the church. It’s an example of what Herman Bavinck wrote about (something I’ve quoted before):
Instead of making a broad and inclusive survey of all churches, carefully distinguishing between true and false, not throwing out the wheat with the chaff, they simply with one fell swoop condemn all churches as false, call all believers to secession and frequently elevate separation itself to an article of faith.… What is the fruit of all this? Not a reformation of churches but an increase in their number and a perpetuation of division. The Catholicity of Christianity and Church
It’s not that I don’t think nominalism is a problem, but nominalism exists in every church, and we need to be careful to distinguish an ignorant nominalism from what the divines called ‘hypocrisy’. ‘Hypocrisy’ is the phenomenon of people who profess faith and who belong to a church where they hear the true and sincere proclamation of the apostolic gospel of Jesus Christ, but who actually do not truly follow Jesus (often exhibited in an extremely selective following of Jesus’s and the apostles’ teachings). This is ‘nominal’ religion despite and in the face of the truth being proclaimed. It’s the kind of ‘nominal’ religion that is criticised by the apostle James. And it’s closer to home than we often want to admit – Herman Bavinck (assuming a James-like mode) also wrote of the hypocrisy of the Protestant emphasis on truth at the expense of any real emphasis on works, calling it an effective belief in ‘justification by good doctrine’.
That kind of thing is very different to ‘nominal religion’ in congregations where the gospel has been neutered by liberal theology, or reduced to a kind of social theory. The regular folk (not the leaders, but those in the pews) who are nominally Christians in these churches are like sheep without a shepherd. How does the anti-religion meme attack benefit them? It’s a bit like a home carer who mechanically undertakes their designated tasks without showing any love for the person they’re caring for. What would you do? Tell them that what they’re doing is worthless, poisonous, evil? Or, teach them the importance of loving the person they’re caring for, so that their tasks take on a new quality and significance and so that their relationship with the cared-for person is transformed? The larger point is that a church where there is hypocrisy or nominalism is still a church – thank the Lord for his mercy to us all! Even where the Christian religion expressed by a church is full of faults and errors, it does not mean de facto that its religion ceases to be Christianity. In such churches, an informed critique ought to be directed at those who in such situations have neglected to teach the orthodoxy of the gospel.
It’s wrong to simply write off the rituals of religion, the ‘habits’ of our faith. What about all those times when we ourselves have been carried by the rituals and duties of the Christian religion through rocky and difficult patches in our lives? Sometimes, during periods of doubt, or struggle (whether with stressful circumstances, depression, or sin) we don’t feel like going to church; we don’t feel like praying; we don’t feel like reading our Bibles. But, our sense of duty – the ‘habit’ of attending the ritual – takes us out of the door to the prayer meeting or the Sunday service. And, often, we are blessed. Is that wrong? No. What about all of those people for whom ritual observance is merely the beginning of the journey to faith? In these rituals, Jesus is present and meets with us. Ritual plays an important role in forming our Christian characters and communities, and in giving stability to lives that are not immune to the trials of living in a fallen world. When we meet for worship, the ritual of singing together expresses our corporate worship of God in Christ and binds us together. The ritual of reading together from God’s Word unites us in a corporate hearing and affirmation of God’s truth. The rituals of baptism and the Lord’s Supper are not mere symbols, but signify deep spiritual truths and carry real spiritual blessings. The rituals and disciplines of gathering for public and family worship, private prayer and Bible reading are at the heart of our faith. These rituals are part of our religion. For other brothers and sisters, the creeds, the Book of Common Prayer – these would be included too. The repeated ‘doing’ of them is important. Our religion and its rituals are important in inviting, nurturing and maintaining faith.