“I’m spiritual but not religious.”
“Christianity is a relationship, not a religion.”
These are statements most of us have probably heard. The question for today is this – are these Christian statements? The gospel offers a different perspective on religion and spirituality that’s worth considering.
What Does it Mean?
When people say “I’m spiritual but not religious” it can mean a host of things. It can mean “I pray and consider myself a Christian, but don’t go to church,” or “I believe in Jesus, but not in Christianity,” or “I believe in a higher power, but think religion only creates unnecessary division.”
While there are endless combinations of “I believe in _____, but ______” the core remains the same: I don’t want any part of organized religion. Whether you think it’s simply unnecessary, or maybe you believe it’s actually evil, the personal result is the same.
The statement in question is more about what you’re against than what you’re for. And “spiritual” can mean pretty much whatever you want it to, so it’s a perfectly nebulous word if you don’t know what you actually believe.
Can Spirituality and Religion Actually be Divorced?
I think about spirituality and religion like driving and a vehicle – one drives the other, but not vice-versa. Wherever there is spirituality, there is some form of religion: Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Atheism, New Age’ism, etc. Spirituality requires religion the same way driving requires a vehicle (car, truck, motorcycle, speedboat, bicycle, etc). It can take many forms, but the ideas behind the spirituality come from somewhere.
Religion, however, can be quite devoid of spirituality. Most of us likely know people who go through the motions of religiosity with very little spiritual belief. Go to church, give your money, refrain from certain foods, etc… but there is no passion in their prayers, not faith in God to provide, and no internal drive towards giving grace towards those who need it. These religious folk are like cars in a junkyard. They’re still cars, but they aren’t going anywhere without significant reconstruction.
Christianity: Spiritual and Religious
Let’s be clear: No one ever has been, and no one ever will be, saved because of their religiosity. The Bible itself has strong words regarding those who are religious but faithless.
“I hate, I despise your feasts,
and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.
Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings,
I will not accept them;
and the peace offerings of your fattened animals,
I will not look upon them.
Take away from me the noise of your songs;
to the melody of your harps I will not listen.
But let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”
“You hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy of you, when he said:
‘This people honors me with their lips,
but their heart is far from me;
in vain do they worship me,
teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’”
Matthew 15:7-9 (Jesus, quoting from Isaiah 29:13)
The gospel proclaims grace to sinners, through faith in Jesus Christ. Romans 7 emphasizes the relationship between religion (“the law”) and faith. God’s Law is good because it shows us our need for God’s grace, which comes through Jesus. He perfectly fulfilled the Law (what theologians call his “active obedience”), and his righteousness is applied to Christians by the Holy Spirit when they confess their sin and profess their faith in who Jesus is and what he has done.
Salvation isn’t a “freedom from religion” in the sense that we become “spiritual but not religious.” Instead, it transforms our understanding of what religion was meant to be all along.
Christians are religious people. But they’re also spiritual. They participate (joyfully!) in organized religion. They happily become members of local churches, give their money as an expression of faith in God to provide, submit themselves to spiritual leaders, and pray for wisdom regarding big and small decisions in life.
Don’t fall into wise-sounding platitudes that actually undermine the ministry of the gospel by breeding suspicion against the church. Christians are not spiritual-but-not-religious. No. The Christian life is a spiritually-religious life.
September 28, 2020 at 5:16 pm
Hi Mike. Good article. I’ve never particularly embraced either term because of the baggage that can be attached to both words, and I’m not sure that I would take it as a compliment if someone said I was one or the other. Your ending sentence sums up the matter nicely.
September 28, 2020 at 8:45 pm
Thank you, Bruce. I agree that I’d also balk at using either term without qualifying it.
September 29, 2020 at 12:41 pm
An excellent article, Mike!
Many of us believing and practicing saints are refusing to call ourselves “Christians” any longer, and for good reasons. Too many people call themselves “Christian” without knowing a single iota about being a disciple of Christ. Then, there are those who “…have a form of godliness, but deny the power thereof.” We choose not to be identified with these people–church goers– because they are not practicing saints, but are merely good people. As you know, there is a huge difference! Maranatha!