These days, it’s not very cool for Christians to be religious.
“Oh, you’re religious? Yikes. So sorry to hear that. I’ll keep you in my prayers.”
People assume that if you’re religious, you don’t have a “personal” relationship with Jesus. They feel sorry for you because you’re caught up in the old, dead, calcified traditions of your parents. They invite you to their “contemporary” church which has rockin’ worship, a dynamic preacher who references Quentin Tarantino movies, and a children’s ministry called “Raze the Praze.”
After all, Jesus is greater than religion, right? If you have a choice between religious vs spiritual, you should take spiritual every time.
Not so much…
Rich Rites and Rituals
Christianity is religion in its truest, richest, most vibrant sense. Yes, Jesus is greater than dead religion and false religion, but he is certainly NOT opposed to religion.
Throughout his life, Jesus embraced and observed every rite and ritual of the Mosaic Law. Circumcised on the eighth day, observing the Sabbath, telling those he healed to offer sacrifices to the priests, there was no part of the law he neglected.
As he prepared to die, he and his disciples observed the Passover, and Jesus instituted one of the richest, greatest rituals that we observe:
Now as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and after blessing it broke it and gave it to the disciples, and said, “Take, eat; this is my body.” And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, saying, “Drink of it, all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” (Matthew 26:26-28)
Every Sunday, I partake in the Lord’s Supper with my fellow believers.
Yes, it’s a ritual, but it’s a glorious one.
I’m reminded that my life, my forgiveness, my peace, my atonement, my hope come from Christ and Christ alone. I’m reminded that nothing in my hands I bring, simply to his cross I cling.
I desperately need this ritual of grace.
And communion doesn’t stand alone.
Every time I see a new believer plunged under the water, I’m starkly reminded that I have been plunged into Christ, baptized in his death and raised to new life with him. I am not the same person I once was. The old me is dead, gone, buried, crushed. I am new in Christ.
The rite of baptism is certainly NOT dead. It is overflowing with spiritual life.
I recite the Apostles Creed to remind myself that I believe in the triune God who devised, achieved and effects salvation.
We often close Sunday services by singing the doxology as a reminder that all blessings originate with and flow from God.
Scripture never forces us to choose in the spiritual vs religious debate. Rather, it fills our rituals with deep spiritual meaning.
Guided, Not Ruled
Throughout history, the church has used rites and rituals as guidance. Lent leads Christians through a season of repentance and sacrifice before the joy of Easter.
Advent allows us to remember that light has dawned in dark places.
The Creeds help us rehearse and reaffirm the truths that are so precious and so unique to Christianity.
Yes, they’ve been abused and lost meaning at times. Yes, there have been times when additional, unbiblical rites have been added. Yes, dead observance of rites and rituals can lead to Pharisaism.
But when done rightly, these things should guide, lead and restrain us.
We know that we are prone to wander. Prone to forget. Prone to embrace falsehood. Biblical creeds, calendars and symbols serve as regular reminders of who we are in Christ.
In his book Desiring The Kingdom, James K.A. Smith says:
We are what we love, and our love is shaped, primed and aimed by liturgical practices that take hold of our gut and aim our heart to certain ends.
In other words, our rituals, routines and regular practices shape who we are as people. The question is not will we be shaped, but HOW will we be shaped?
Will we be molded by and to the world? Will we be conformed to the practices and doctrines of culture? Will we embrace and love whatever is current, in, trendy and hot? Will the liturgy of post-modernism inform who we are?
Or will we allow ourselves to be shaped by God and his word?
This is why, in the spiritual vs religious debate, I think it’s crucial to be both.
The consistent traditions and rites and rituals of the church allow us to be shaped and honed and pruned and trimmed by God’s word rather than the world.
Refusing to Pick a Side
If you choose a side in the spiritual vs religious debate, you’ll end up killing yourself. Those who are only religious are left with dead religion. Those who are only spiritual end up with a vague, vacuous, mushy, usually unbiblical view of God.
Jesus refused to choose sides. He was passionately religious and deeply spiritual.
Maybe we’d be wise to follow his lead.