Stop Using “Religion” to Mean Bad Religion

Risen from the ashes of his Mars Hill Church career and now nesting in greater Phoenix, “Young, Restless and Reformed” pastor and author Mark Driscoll tweeted the following this past weekend:

This idea that religion is about “rules” is not unique to Driscoll, of course, nor to his followers, who seem to love this usage. One of them, Jefferson Bethke, characteristically quipped a few years back (and has since built a career on) such lines as these:

Now back to the topic, one thing I think is vital to mention,
How Jesus and religion are on opposite spectrums,
One is the work of God one is a man made invention,
One is the cure and one is the infection.
Because Religion says do, Jesus says done.
Religion says slave, Jesus says son.

But it’s not just Driscollites. Christianity as “relationship” and not “religion” is a frequent trope in many sectors of revivalist and revivalist-influenced Protestantism. It’s everywhere. True Christians don’t have “religion” but “relationship.” Religion is shorthand for everything modern revivalists think is wrong with Christian expressions they see as cold, institutional, ritualistic, dead, rigorist, Pharisaical, hypocritical, pursuing a works-salvation, etc. Religion is “man-made” and therefore bad, but “relationship” is what Jesus Christ offers in salvation.

This idea that religion is all these bad things finds voice even within the Orthodox Church. Fr. John Romanides skewered the “neurobiological sickness of religion,” and Fr. Alexander Schmemann in his For the Life of the World referred to Christianity as “in a profound sense the end of all religion.” His take on this question is to define Christianity’s relation to “religion” in terms of fulfillment:

The historical reality of Christ was of course the undisputed ground of the early Christians’ faith: yet they did not so much remember Him as know He was with them. And in Him was the end of “religion,” because He himself was the Answer to all religion, to all human hunger for God, because in Him the life that was lost by man — and which could only be symbolized, signified, asked for in religion — was restored to man (p. 5).

I think those scare quotes there are actually pretty useful, because I don’t get the sense from Schmemann that he intends by this term what people like Driscoll do, though from other passages his notion certainly has some similarities.

Redefining “Religion”

All that said, I think there is still a big problem with using religion like this, especially without actually explaining how this usage differs from what just about everyone else in the English-speaking world means by it, which is ably if prosaically summed up by dictionary definitions like this one:

religion, noun. A set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe, especially when considered as the creation of a superhuman agency or agencies, usually involving devotional and ritual observances, and often containing a moral code governing the conduct of human affairs.

This is what most people mean by the term. Religion is beliefs and practices relating to these things. (We Orthodox can argue that we do not believe in the “supernatural” as opposed to the natural, of course, but rather the created and uncreated, but that is too rarefied a distinction for most folks living in a “disenchanted” universe to comprehend immediately.) To say that Christianity is not a religion in this sense is just nonsense to most people. Despite the protestations of most low-church Protestants, even a Quaker has devotional and ritual observances.

What most Protestants mean when they critique “ritual” (especially “dead ritual”) is just that they don’t want to practice those other rituals. They still have rituals, though. They’re fine with their choirs or worship teams or hand-raising or baby dedications or baptisms, etc.

And one has to appreciate the irony of Driscoll’s tweet including hashtag #PrayLikeJesus. Alongside the moments of Jesus praying alone to His Father that we see in the Gospels, we also see Him praying corporately in the synagogue and Temple, getting baptized, and even celebrating feast days, which all looks like classic religiosity by nearly anyone’s definition.

People like Driscoll and others from the revivalist tradition can argue that this dictionary definition isn’t what real “religion” actually is, and even from outside that tradition others can argue with more precision that Christianity is unlike previous and subsequent religion in certain ways. But trying to redefine religion to mean something other than what most people mean by it is a tough sell.

I would understand if they’re really just in the business of redefinition to make a point. I myself am sometimes in that business. It is helpful at times to argue against the common understanding of a word in order to make a particular point. For instance, I like to point out that religion‘s etymology of re + ligio literally means “reconnect.” But that is actually not what Driscoll and the other religion-vs-relationship people are doing.

Rather, they are changing the definition of religion, but they’re not telling you that that’s what they’re doing. And then they’re using their critiques of the meaning they intend to give the impression that what they’re promoting (“relationship”) is in fact radically different from everything that most people would consider to be “religion.” In other words, they’ve got something that “religion” does not, which is “relationship.”

And that’s nonsense.

Pagans Have “Relationship,” Too

Even the most paganized pagan (no doubt the classic “religious” person) thought of himself as having in some sense a relationship with his gods. He saw his rituals as connecting him with the gods, even if only in a transactional sense—I make this sacrifice, and the god gives me a good harvest, victory in war, etc. The whole point of all that organized ritual was relationship. And ancient religion is rife with mysticism, too, all designed to give adherents a personal experience of their gods.

But what about all the Christians who are “religious” according to the religion-vs-relationship crowd? Do Orthodox Christians, Roman Catholics and Anglicans (likely the most suspect of “religious” Christians) understand what they do in their faith as not being how they establish and nurture a relationship with Jesus Christ? In all three traditions (though especially Orthodoxy) there is even the doctrine of union with God Himself (theosis). Talk about “relationship”! It doesn’t get more relatable than God becoming man so that man might become divine.

Yes, certainly, you can find people in these traditions who aren’t in it for the relationship with God. But you can also find people in the most religion-vs-relationship churches who aren’t really that engaged on a personal level, either. I know, because I’ve met them, and I was one of them for a while.

And some of them, when they awaken from that disengagement and become engaged, also change churches in the process. And then they may give others the impression that they were good members of their former tradition even while disengaged on a personal level (whether through personal failing or through bad teaching and modeling), and that their new engagement in their new tradition means that the old tradition itself was to blame. Their old religious tradition was “religion,” while their new one is “relationship.”

The problem isn’t so much that some Christians want to talk about what is, frankly, just bad religion—a religion without real engagement within the heart. That’s a perennial topic in Christian preaching—nominalism, hypocrisy, Pharisaism, rigorism, etc. James 1:26-27 famously defines “pure and undefiled religion,” for instance, in terms of loving and moral behavior, contrasting it with “useless” religion. (And, just to stave off any translation objections, “religion” is how almost every translation of the Bible in English translates θρησκεία here.)

The problem is when some Christians pretend as if those things aren’t a problem of abuse in their own tradition and that that’s what other religious traditions are all about.

Let’s Be Straightforward

This is what’s happening when people like Mark Driscoll make tweets like the one above. He’s invoking all his critiques of other religious traditions (which he doesn’t consider to be about “relationship,” never mind what their adherents may believe) by defining his own as not being religion at all. But by any regular definition of religion, he’s definitely a religious leader in a religious group doing religious things.

If you’re going to critique other religious expressions, don’t be misleading about it. If you want to redefine religion as meaning a certain kind of religion, fine, but at least be up front about what you’re doing. Good luck, though, trying to redefine a word that has a pretty solidly accepted meaning.

Better would be to explain how your brand of Christianity establishes and nurtures a relationship with Jesus Christ better than or in a different way from all others. Better still (and far more interesting) would be to explain why the language of “relationship” is itself the proper way to talk about what Christians are supposed to be doing toward God—this is a modern way of talking about it, actually, something that even early revivalists didn’t do.

I’m okay with “relationship” language, but I have never seen a definition of it from the genre that includes people like Driscoll which by definition excludes the self-understanding of serious people from other religious traditions. He and his ilk can say that they’ve got “relationship” while everyone else has “religion” all they like, but what do you do when even the Pope of Rome is talking about having a “relationship with the Lord,” even a “personal relationship”?

Religion is about a lot of things, including a relationship with the one worshiped. Some might say that that’s the whole point.


  1. Very well,spoken, Father. Something I’ve been thinking about for a while. Even when I was Protestant. Thank you.

  2. Wonderful Father Damick. I have been reading, & re-reading nightly your “Orthodoxy & Heterodoxy” ever since we had a discussion on it at St. George’s here! The Tradition of Orthodoxy makes it the True Christian religion I believe.

  3. Thank you Father for an very well thought out post. In my post-Baptist, low-church Anglican days I went to an Acts 29 Bootcamp led my Mark Driscoll. He went on describing how the launch of the network had failed “church planting” pastors and they were addressing the issue by making a “pastor to the pastors.” The entire description was of the role of a bishop. When I, in my still novice journey (as I still continue) asked if he meant a role like a Bishop, he responded with, “No, we don’t mean a Bishop! We will never have Bishops.” Which rightfully so they cannot have Bishops that they self appoint but his issue was not with a notion of historical episcopacy but with the word “Bishop” that smacked of the same saltiness as “Religion.” The “You can’t tell me!” attitude continuously contradicts the “I am telling You” ideals of the Nuevo-Reformed generation. Thanks for a great piece of writing. The only thing I would point out, maybe for a larger audience, is in the Schmemman part, where you bring his idea to understanding of “fulfillment”, Which has a different idea in different camps. That fulfillment is not a dispensational finish of one thing, but it is a culmination of things.. a “filled-full-ment” (Sorry for my post-Baptist sermon illustration) I believe Schmemman to be saying that all of man’s religions were fulfilled (as in culminated) in the Incarnation, as God became flesh. Not as that the practice of Religion was finished but redirected to God more intimately revealed. Just a thought. Thanks again for a well written piece.

  4. Very nice, Father. Also worth noting that others in the Orthodox tradition, including some elders, have shied away from calling Christianity a “religion.” Elder Thaddeus of Vitovnica says:

    “One cannot say that Christianity is a religion. Christianity is a revelation of eternity and life. The angels rejoice greatly because God has revealed Himself mystically to His creature, man. Our human nature has become part of the mystery of the Holy Trinity, and that is a great gift.” (“Our Thoughts Determine Our Lives,” 148).

    And elsewhere in “For the Life of the World,” Schmemman explain a bit more what he’s trying to get it:

    “Nowhere in the New Testament, in fact, is Christianity presented as a cult or as a religion. Religion is needed where there is a wall of separation between God and man. But (on to page 20) Christ who is both God and man has broken down the wall between man and God. He has inaugurated a new life, not a new religion.” (19-20)

    “A deep desire of man [is] for a legalistic religion that would fulfill his need for both the ‘sacred’ – a divine sanction and guarantee – and the ‘profane,’ i.e., a natural and secular life protected, as it were, from the constant challenge and absolute demands of God.” (130)

    “[Legalistic religion] assures – by means of orderly transactions with the ‘sacred’ – security and clean conscience in this life, as well as reasonable rights to the ‘other world,’ a religion which Christ denounced by every word of His teaching, and which ultimately crucified Him. It is indeed much easier to live and to breathe within neat distinctions between the sacred and profane, the natural and supernatural, the pure and the impure… It is much more difficult to realize that such a religion not only does not constitute any threat to ‘secularism,’ but on the contrary, is its paradoxical ally.” (130-131)

  5. While I understand people’s frustration, I would point out two qualifications:

    (1) There are a number of words that have a particular feature. We use them alternately to designate a well-defined category, and to use them to indicate bad or wrong examples of that category.

    One example is “harm”. Suppose that someone studies hard and wrecks the curve in a class. Most people would say that it one sense he has harmed his classmates and in another sense he has not harmed them. He has harmed them in the sense of “made them worse off than they would be otherwise”, but not harmed them in the sense of “wrongfully made them worse than they would be otherwise”.

    (2) Some of the history books and historical that I read seem to point to a number of clergy who genuinely wanted to reduce religion to empty rituals — or perhaps empty rituals with a dash of moralism. For example, I am reading Middlemarch, and it contains characters who are hostile to any kind of “enthusiasm”. I believe that I have read similar denunciations from some 17-18th century philosophers.

    I once know someone who was hostile to Catholicism because he tried to inquire into his wife’s Catholic faith, with the possiblity of converting. He was brushed off by the priest.

    No doubt some people are imagining this, making excuses for themselves, etc. Still, it is worth considering the possibility that this has happened in the past, and still happens in some quarters.

    1. It definitely happens, but that’s an abuse rather than by design of a whole religion.

      And even those who officially want to eliminate “enthusiasm” don’t have in mind a heartless ritualism but rather want to allay emotional excess.

      1. Father,

        I would tentatively agree that no religion as a whole would get off the ground if it just encouraged dead ritual.

        I am not so sure, though, about your point about enthusiasm. That may be what the people in question formally said. However, a lot depends on how expansive we get with this term “emotional excess”. If that is defined in the right way, it could mean treating any strong feeling or even caring about doctrine as suspect.

        On this point, I am particularly thinking about the state that some of the national Protestant churches got into by the 19th century. Sometimes, it seems as if the government were deliberately trying to encourage an institutional structure that would keep away that disruptions that can happen when people start to take Christian doctrine or morals seriously.

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