How do people feel about religion? My experience is that people are quick to dismiss “organized religion.” They don’t mind faith in God or even spirituality but they hate organized religion. There are all kinds of problems with this attitude, common as it is. What is the God that one has faith in and how do you know it is the true God? What do you mean by spirituality? Spirituality is one of those vague terms that can mean almost anything. Recently there have been books that have been written on atheist spirituality. Whatever that is. And of course, what is meant by organized religion? How organized is too organized? Where does one move from disorganized religion to organized religion? And why is organization bad? I am not trying to mock this attitude. Christians instinctively know that there are differences in being religious. What happens when people bring up the crusades or the inquisition as examples of the evils of Christianity? We respond by stating that those people were not real Christians. How do we know? They were likely baptized, received communion and attended church regularly. Yet when a person, even with those outward signs, does evil acts we know that there is something different between them and a William Booth or a Mother Teresa. This is important for us to be thinking about. We are going see religious people doing all sorts of things, good and bad. We are going to see non-religious people making accusations and judgments based on those actions. And we are going to be left knowing that there is something real to Christianity, even if we cannot explain why some people do what they do. Thankfully, Paul reflects on these same things and he can guide us through this maze.
So we know that there are bad examples of religion. What does that look like? Paul demonstrates this with the example of some Jewish Christians. We must be clear that this is not Christian anti-semitism. Paul was a Jewish Christian himself and so when he is critical, he is speaking of people with the exact same background. Briefly, what was the problem with these Jewish Christians? It begins with pride. It was something that they bragged about and expected a certain response from other people. These particular people were also hypocritical. They spent their time teaching and preaching, lifting a high standard for others to keep. They expected much from their listeners and were prepared to condemn failure, but had no intention of following the standards themselves. We are also told that they were causing people to look down on God. Their actions were making people think less of the God they were claiming to follow. The final thing that we are told is that they heavily relied on the sign of circumcision. Circumcision was meant to be a sign that they belonged to the covenant. They felt that having that sign was their insurance that they would always be right with God. No matter what they did or refused to do, they could always remember their circumcision as the reason that God was obligated to accept them. We could be tempted to see this as a Jewish problem. We see this kind of behavior among the Pharisees whom Jesus condemns and now among the Jewish Christians criticized by Paul. We know that this is not a Jewish problem for two reasons. The first reason is that there are many examples of faithful and sincere Jewish Christians. The entire church began with Jewish Christians. If it was not for those Jewish Christians, there would have been no Christian church. The other reason is that all of the things Paul has listed continue to plague the church, at least in some form, now that the church is 99.9% Gentile. Pride is a problem. Not pride in being a Christian, but pride as a sense of superiority in one’s tradition or church or special group. It is a pride that is based not in knowledge of truth possessed but in confidence of other’s inferiority. Hypocrisy? If you talk to people outside the church, one of their main criticisms of Christians is hypocrisy. They would tell us to practice what we preach, to walk the walk rather than just talk the talk. They would see Christians as more than eager to point fingers at others but much less willing to put faith into action ourselves. I do believe that accusations of hypocrisy are overblown. At the same time, there is a reason this has become an issue. I remember as a new Christian seeing some flagrant examples of hypocrisy in the church and having to make a conscious decision to follow Jesus even if everyone in the church was a hypocrite. Unfortunately Christians have sometimes made a bad name for the one we worship. It was Gandhi who said “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.” For many, it is impossible to separate judgment between the Christian and the Christ. Some people will reject Christ because they reject Christians. Finally, Christians also rely on outward rituals. For us, circumcision is not the defining sign. Our comparative ritual is baptism. But what is important here is that Christians can just as much rely on outward symbols. Don’t criticize me for my lifestyle or my lack of devotion. I was baptized, I receive communion, I hold membership in a local church, or sit on this committee. Reliance on such things is dangerous.
I do not want to get into differences between Christianity and religion. Some see them as completely separate, I see them as having significant overlap. What I want to do is distinguish between the bad and the good. We have seen that there is a way to have bad religion, a religion that turns people off God and makes people want to avoid Christianity. We do not want that sort of religious life. How do we get the good life? A good place to start is to do the opposite of what we have seen. Instead of beginning with pride in self, begin with a proper humility. The Bible is filled with warnings against the proud and commands to be humble. You may feel that your tradition or way of doing things are the closest to God’s real truth. That is fine, but hold that with great humility. Do not shut the door to learning from people much different than you, and do not be afraid to change as your understanding of Scripture changes. “True Christianity is never rooted in feelings of superiority, but in true humility and mutual vulnerability, following the example of Christ.” – Danut Manastireanu. But how do we avoid hypocrisy? Two ways. First we must begin with a commitment to living out our faith. This is a challenge in that we rely on God’s grace and we are sensitive to accusations of legalism and attempts to earn our own salvation. But it is hard to get around the fact that Jesus actually expected us to follow him. We need to get away from questions of salvation and simply look at how God wants us to live. When it comes to our words and our teaching on moral issues, we must do this with great care. Be honest with where we struggle and do not teach as people who have made it but as fellow pilgrims on the journey. Our goal should be for people to look at us and not reject God but to glorify God. We represent not just ourselves but God as well. What about those outward symbols? Baptism and communion and everything else we do is very important. But they should be outward signs of inward truths. We do not rely on the water of baptism and the words of a pastor, we rely on the inward cleansing of sin that comes through Christ. We do not rely on a piece of bread and a little cup of juice. We rely on the real sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. Spirituality is used too frequently and too loosely these days. But Christianity is a spiritual faith, one based on a relationship with God and a following of Jesus and a walking with the Spirit. The signs and rituals are pointers that should deepen our spiritual faith.
There is bad religion and there is good Christianity. I will be honest and tell you that bad religion is much easier. But it is so empty and so destructive. It is the thing that people reject as organized religion. What we are looking for is not disorganized religion but rather a faith with integrity. Integrity is something that is the same all the way through. It is not about surface dressing hiding something corrupt. Good Christianity should be humble, should bring glory to God’s name, should be something walked and talked, and should be an inner faith supplemented by outward rituals and not relying upon them. That is the faith we should be seeking.