Ever since my conversion back to the Church I have been observing a movement among young Christians who claim to love Jesus but reject “religion.”
I don’t think this movement is all bad.
Many millennial Christians who reject “religion” argue that the slight differences between Christian denominations really don’t matter in the end. And they are right; there is very little real difference among many of the Christian denominations that have cropped up over time since the Reformation. When I am in my home state of Oklahoma, I find it bordering on absurd how many different churches claim to be going back to Christianity’s roots.
The endless splintering of Christian denominations from one another is a scandal to the unity to which Christ calls us (Jn 17:21). Perhaps the rejection of these religious differences among young Christians could be the beginnings of an ecumenical movement toward unity in the Body of Christ. So, in this sense, yes, let’s reject “religions” that are based on superficial differences and rooted in division and sin.
But as a former atheist, I have to say that there are also some serious red flags in this movement to reject “religion.” On a recent Sunday afternoon, the hashtag #ImNotGoingToChurchBecause was trending on Twitter. Much to my surprise, many of the tweets were from Christians who proudly proclaimed that they don’t “need” religion, they just need Jesus. It seems that the mentality beneath the rejection of the sacraments among some Christians has naturally evolved into a rejection of something as basic as celebrating weekly the Lord’s meal.
Besides the obvious fact that this flies in the face of a couple millennia of Christian tradition, there is also the valid concern that this form of “Christianity,” based in nothing but sentiment, will, within a generation or two, become atheism.
So, how did this new form of “Christianity” evolve? Many people who are into this movement argue that stripping Christianity of “religion” helps us return to the real roots of Christianity, to the original intentions of Jesus.
But Scripture and the writings of the early Church Fathers reveal very little to back up that claim.
Here are some things that are clear from Scripture and early Church history:
1. Christians assemble together to worship: God gave us clear guidance and the Scriptures make clear that the early Christians gathered for a Eucharistic meal every Sunday. Sunday gatherings have never been an optional practice for Christians. If we believe that Jesus died for us, the very least we can do is worship him for an hour every Sunday.
Take heed, then, often to come together to give thanks to God, and show forth His praise. For when you assemble frequently in the same place, the powers of Satan are destroyed, and the destruction at which he aims is prevented by the unity of your faith. – Ignatius of Antioch, Epistle to the Ephesians
On the first day of the week, when we were gathered together to break bread. – Acts 20:7
2. Religion is what binds us to God: There is a lot of disdain for outward practices of piety these days. And certainly, it is true that outward practices do not always lead to charity and holiness. But this is no reason to leave them behind. We are body and soul. Relationship with God is nourished by outward practices; they bind us to God and we are bound to him through our religion.
We are fastened and bound (religati) to God by this bond of piety. It is from this that religion takes its name. – Lactantius, The Divine Institutions
For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead. – James 2:26
3. Christianity is community: Our faith is not just about an individual relationship with Jesus. Christianity involves relationship with God (who Himself is a community of persons) and relationship with others in his Church. It’s painful and difficult to be in relationship with other sinners. But our faith calls us to be in relationship not just with God but with other people.
We are a body knit together as such by a common religious profession, by unity of discipline, and by the bond of a common hope. We meet together as an assembly and congregation…We assemble to read our sacred writings…One in mind and soul, we do not hesitate to share our earthly goods with one another. – Tertullian, Apology
For as in one body we have many members, and all the members do not have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another. – Romans 12:4-5
4. Christianity has apostolic succession: The Scriptures make clear that Paul appointed bishops, Timothy and Titus, and asked them to appoint presbyters (2 Tim 2:2). When people reject hierarchy and legitimate authority in favor of individualism, they reject Jesus and the Church he founded.
[W]hen we refer them to that tradition which originates from the apostles, [and] which is preserved by means of the succession of presbyters in the Churches, they object to tradition, saying that they themselves are wiser not merely than the presbyters, but even than the apostles, because they have discovered the unadulterated truth. – Irenaeus, Against All Heresies
Do not neglect the gift you have, which was conferred on you through the prophetic word with the imposition of hands of the presbyterate. – 1 Timothy 4:14
Christianity is a religion. It always has been. And the movement to remove “religion” from our faith is a movement that ultimately could undermine the passing on of the faith for generations to come.
So, these are just a few things you can point out the next time a person tells you that he or she believes in Jesus but doesn’t think it’s necessary to practice religion.