Religion and church seem so intertwined that many of us consider those terms pretty much interchangeable. The New Testament, among other things, has a lot to say about the church. The Greek for church, ekklesia, occurs 115 times (including three as “assembly”).
Wouldn’t it stand to reason that it would also have a lot to say about religion? That word, threshkeia, appears only four times, once as “worshiping.” “Religious,” threshkos, appears once.
Religion in modern discourse
“What religion are you?” I have been asked that more than once, and when I have said, “Christian,” the person asking has always been disappointed. “Christian” is assumed. They have wanted to know the denomination of my church.
That’s apparently what it meant when the framers of the Bill of Rights forbade religious tests for holding public office and “establishment of religion.” The latter term, as too many lawyers have either forgotten or want the public not to notice, specifically means declaring one institution the state religion and directly supporting it with tax money.
In fact, several states had their own established religion when the nation was young, but they did not all establish the same one. The Bill of Rights merely forbade the federal government from choosing one of its own.
But people nowadays who equate freedom of religion with freedom from religion don’t care about the institutional church. They simply want to infringe on everyone’s constitutional right to speak freely on behalf anything remotely concerned with Christianity outside the walls of a church building.
Religion in the Bible
According to such standard reference works as Vine’s Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words and the Greek dictionary in Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible, those two Greek words translated as “religion” or “religious” refer to the external, ceremonial aspect of church.
To bring that concept into modern terms, the following questions are religious:
- Should church services follow a formal liturgy? If so, which one?
- Is it proper to baptize infants or not?
- Should baptism be done by sprinkling water, pouring it, or total immersion in it?
- How should good church people dress?
- What should good church people do or not do for entertainment?
- Or to put the matter as generally as possible, how should church people act out their profession of the Christian faith when they gather together and when they’re out in the world?
In other words, religion has nothing to do with inward matters of faith, doctrine, or grace. It has everything to do with ceremonies, outward behaviors, and appearances.
Religion, thus understood, ought to be how people live out their faith. Too often, however, it becomes an end in itself. New Testament writers had little interest in ceremony. Since the words “religion” and “religious” occur so little in Scripture, it is possible to look at each instance.
Colossians 2:18, 23
“Let no one cheat you of your reward, taking delight in false humility and worship of angels, intruding into those things which he has not seen, vainly puffed up by his fleshly mind” (Colossians 2:18).
Threshkeia here is “worship,” specifically worship of something less than God. It appears that some false teachers attempted to persuade church members that their worship wasn’t good enough. But although ceremonies for angelic beings might well be delightful, they actually dishonored God.
Later on (v 23), Paul uses threshkeia in a compound word to hammer the point home: “These things indeed have an appearance of wisdom in self-imposed religion, false humility, and neglect of the body, but are of no value against the indulgence of the flesh.”
Subsequent church history has times of self-flagellation, of fasting to the point of starvation, and all manner of ways that seem to be a rejection of worldly pleasures. But that still leaves plenty of ways to indulge flesh, in terms of its being limited to sense knowledge and unenlightened by any genuine connection with the Spirit of God.
In modern times, “don’t drink or cuss or chew, or go with those that do” is certainly religious, but it also fosters an unholy judgmentalism and self-satisfaction. Paul considers these attitudes every bit as fleshly as any sensual indulgence.
In his defense before King Agrippa, Paul testified, “They knew me from the first, if they were willing to testify, that according to the strictest sect of our religion I lived a Pharisee.”
Modern Christians know the Pharisees as the sect that maintained the highest purity of keeping the law. But Jesus condemned no one more vigorously than he condemned the icy pride that kept them from seeing God himself in their midst.
Paul testified in Philippians 3:4-8 what it was like being a Pharisee and declared that every benefit was mere rubbish in comparison to knowing Christ. It is not too much of a stretch, then, to see that it was the strictness of his former religion that he discarded in order to gain Christ.
“If anyone among you thinks he is religious, and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his own heart, this one’s religion is useless. Pure and undefiled religion before God and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their trouble, and to keep oneself unspotted from the world.”
Perhaps no passage in the New Testament has been more abused from misunderstanding a single word than these two verses. “Religion” and “religious” specifically mean the outward.
Visiting orphans and widows is not pure and undefiled Christianity. And yet plenty of preachers and authors wrongly equate religion and Christianity here. They are the same bunch who have abandoned historical Christianity because they reject anything supernatural. But if Jesus was nothing more than a great moral teacher, there’s not much left to church than “good works.”
I said earlier that the kind of churchmanship based on a list of prohibitions fosters an unholy judgmentalism and self-satisfaction. So does feeling good over accumulating mission trips and service projects.
The Pharisees in their religious zeal badmouthed Jesus to his face. He pointed out plenty of other hypocrisy in their speech and behavior. And James says that a religious person who cannot keep from badmouthing God or other believers deceives himself.
Living out pure and undefiled religion requires inner faith and a personal relationship with the Savior, which alone can keep a person unspotted from the world.
It is surely impossible to have an inner spiritual life that doesn’t appear in outward behavior. Faith without works is dead. But religion becomes the enemy of God when the externals become idols or ends in themselves instead of by-products of loving Jesus.