Is Religion Bad?

Among the many trends in the New Calvinism (or the Young Restless and Reformed movement) is the prominent dislike of the word “religion.”  I’ve heard a lot of people speak and write about religion as being a moral straitjacket, rigid, and not Christian.  They say religion is one thing, the gospel is another thing.  Essentially they think of religion as being legalistic or a method for earning salvation.  So today we hear many Christian preachers say religion is a bad thing.

I disagree with this rhetoric; I think it is fine and even biblical to speak of religion in a positive way – i.e. “true religion” or “the Christian religion.”  For example, the title to Calvin’s magnum opus isn’t just “The Institutes,” it’s “The Institutes of the Christian Religion.”  Well before Calvin, Augustine write a piece called “On True Religion.”  There are many examples like this.  For an example from Scripture, James uses the term positively:

“If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless.  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 1:26-27, emphasis mine).

In other words, there is true, good, and biblical religion.  This is the way the Reformers talked about religion, this is why many Reformed theologies and writings speak so much about religion in a good sense.  Religion definitely wasn’t a naughty word for our forefathers in the faith.  At the same time, there is false religion, religion that is untrue and which God hates (i.e. Col. 2:23).  That is the religion we should speak against.

Here’s how Richard Muller defines religion based on the Reformed scholastics’ use of the term:

“True religion is most simply defined by the Protestant scholastics as the right way of knowing and honoring God, involving knowledge of God, love of God, and fear of God, leading to an honoring or veneration of God.  …The orthodox further distinguish true from false religion….  True religion …can be distinguished into objective religion and subjective religion.  Objective religion is religion objectively considered as man’s knowledge of God as revealed in Scripture, in the law, and in the gospel.  Subjective religion… is the effect of this knowledge of God in the life of man, the individual and corporate love, fear, and worship of God” (Dictionary, p. 261-2).

Yes, there is false religion.  We should warn against that.  But we shouldn’t shy away from the word “religion;” this opens up confusion for interpreting texts like James 1:26-27 and for reading the older Christian writings.  It may be shocking, trendy, and it may grab attention, but in the end stomping on the word “religion” isn’t overly helpful.

To borrow Francis Turretin’s method, we ask, “Is religion bad?”  Answer: we distinguish.

shane lems

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9 comments on “Is Religion Bad?

  1. Nevada says:

    Hi Shane,
    Do you think the current critique of “religion” is a Barthian thing that has seeped into pop Christian culture? I seem to recall Barth using “religion” as a pejorative.

    • Great question, Nevada. That is worth looking into but I don’t know for sure. It probably has to do with rhetoric and lack of historical studies. I think the motives are probably right, but I don’t agree with them that religion is necessarily bad. shane

  2. davidbrainerd2 says:

    New Calvinism is nothing but pure antinomian Gnosticism. They barely even bother to hide this anymore.

    • Please don’t put massive accusations like that here on our blog. You may do whatever you want on your blog, but we do our best to stay above the belt, so to speak, here on our blog. Tact, love, and humility are always nice. shane

      • davidbrainerd2 says:

        This is why cults like New Calvinism spread unchecked, because of the nice police. Paul was lucky he didn’t have to deal with the nice police in the first century. I can only imagine what the Bible would look like if he had.

  3. cb says:

    Thank you Shane.

  4. Lon says:

    Actually the “religion is bad” thing is not new. This was a consistent theme in my young years as (former) Pentecostal. I sympathize with the spirit of what people want to accomplish in saying religion is bad, but re-defining the word isn’t helpful.

    As for me, my religion has a name. It’s called: Christianity, after the title of its prophet, priest, king, redeemer, savior and God, Jesus Christ.

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  6. Monty Ledford says:

    In our Baptist churches, we were told that the important thing was not religion, but relationship, i.e., with the Savior. That has stuck with me, and I have a real appreciation for the distinction that was aimed at. In older Protestant writing, certainly, “religion” was simply a synonym for faith or the fear of God and was thus defined by the Scriptures; today it is a generic term, unspecific as “spirituality”. It is easy to see how a term that requires constant clarification and redefinition might be avoided by writers and speakers who want more immediate understanding.

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