Since the video I posted last went viral, there is been quite a deal of discussion on the blogosphere about faith and religion – for example here – mostly concerned that making quite so big a division between faith and religion is not so helpful.
In response, it’s worth making a few points.
First of all, there is good religion and bad religion. There is a word for religion in the Greek New Testament, which twice occurs negatively – Acts 26:5 and Col 2:18 – and twice positively – James 1:26 and 1:27. (The NIV also uses the word religion in 1 Tim 5:4 but it’s not there in the Greek). If there is a positive use of the word religion in the Bible, so it is argued, we ought not to be so negative about it today. To which, I would respond that words change their meaning over time. For example the word “silly” once meant “blessed”. That’s an extreme example, but it makes the point that once a word gets a negative overtone, then it’s hard to shake it off. If it’s not helpful to talk to folk about religion, then don’t use the term.
Quite understandably there is concern that by separating faith from religion, we are saying it’s OK to believe without joining in fellowship. But we need to understand properly what faith entails. To accept Jesus as Lord and Saviour is to be in Christ. And if you are in Christ then you are in His body, the church. We may cut short our gospel talks by ending on an appeal to accept Jesus as Lord. But if we do not also talk about the need to belong, then we are selling the good news short. Believing and belonging go together. That’s why – although they’re not perfect – I like use to images like being transferred from one team to another, or being adopted into a family. We have to make sure our talk about faith does not pander to the current mood of individualism.
There’s also another really important point to make about faith. The Greek word for faith also means “faithfulness”. In other words, faith in Christ also implies faithfulness to Jesus, not just in the privacy of your own home, or your own church, but being faithful to Christ and bearing witness to Him twenty-four seven. In this respect it’s worth noting that instead of asking believers to adopt a religion the letter writers of the New Testament so often ask them to follow a way of life (e.g. 1 Cor 4:17, Jam 3:13, Heb 13:7, 1 Pet 1:15), learnt by example from leaders and lived out as proof of the change Jesus has wrought in their hearts.
Of course words are difficult, but it is noteworthy that the early believers were called followers of the Way (Acts 9:2). It’s probably too late to rescue this term, but it would be helpful in making clear what the Christian faith is really all about!