Religion is defined as “a cultural system of designated behaviours and practices, world views, texts, sanctified places, prophecies, ethics, or organisations, that relates humanity to supernatural, transcendental, or spiritual elements.“
Yet, there is no actual consensus among scholars as to what precisely constitutes a religion.
Nearly 85% of the world’s population identifies as being religious, claiming affiliation with one of the five largest religions; Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism or forms of folk religion. These different religions all have distinct rules, regulations and beliefs that form part of that particular religion.
Christianity is the world’s largest religion, with over 2.4 billion followers. Growing out of Judaism – its earliest converts were Jews who were followers of Jesus Christ in the first century – it quickly spread from Judea into Asia Minor and then further abroad. By the fourth century, Christianity had become the official state religion of the Roman Empire. Christianity has, in fact, played a major role in the shaping of western civilisation.
What Is Religion?
When the Latin word religio found its way into the English language as religion, around the 1200s, it took the meaning of “life bound by monastic vows” or monastic orders. It eventually came to distinguish the domain of the church and the domain of civil authorities.
Yet the ancient and medieval world understood the word religio quite differently. For the ancients, it carried a meaning of individual virtue of worship, never as doctrine, practice, or actual source of knowledge. In Hebrew, the language of the Old Testament, there is no precise equivalent of the English word religion. The Greek word threskeia, used in the New Testament, is sometimes translated as religion, however, the term was more correctly understood as ‘worship’, well into the medieval period.
In the Quran, the Arabic word din is often translated as religion in modern translations, but up until the mid-1600s, translators expressed din as law.
Religion, in itself, is a modern, western concept and it was understood in quite a different way by those who lived in the ancient world. Today, religion would perhaps be explained as a system of rules or practices governed by certain beliefs. The ancient world would have viewed this concept as law and saw religion quite differently; as the idea of worship or reverence of God or the gods, careful pondering of divine things and piety, or diligence.
Religion Has A Bad Reputation
Discussion about religion is often long, complex, divisive and inconclusive. It doesn’t come as any surprise that the IPSOS Global Poll released in 2017 shows that a majority of Australians (63%) believe that religion does more harm than good. Only one in four Australians say religion defines them as a person.
Religion has been much maligned – and perhaps with good reason. Unfortunately, when men and women get their hands on religion, it is often for the purpose of control and manipulation of others. Many terrible acts have been committed ‘in the name of religion’ and supposedly with a divine blessing – yet God is often furthest from the minds of those perpetrating such acts. In reality, God is often the last priority; intolerance is the driving force behind many actions that claim permission on religious grounds.
“Christianity itself has a long history of such intolerance, including persecution of Jews, crusades against Muslims, and the Thirty Years’ War, in which religious and nationalist rivalries combined to devastate Central Europe.” | The New York Times
What Is True Religion?
The aim of this article is not to impress on any reader the ‘rightness’ of our particular beliefs or doctrines. Whether a man or woman chooses to be religious, or not, should be a deeply personal consideration, without manipulation or coercion from others.
Rather, it is intended to be an honest examination of what ‘true religion’ should be for any committed Christian, professing belief in Jesus’ saving work and God’s divine plan for the world.
If we have accepted Jesus as our saviour, our beliefs and our practices must line up and work together in harmony. We must profess and practice true religion, not merely an inadequate form, which hasn’t touched our hearts. Timothy warns against a form of godliness, which appears righteous from the outside but in reality denies the power that godliness has to radically transform us (2 Timothy 3:2-5).
The word religion is only used a few times in the Bible. But the concept of religion, as it was originally understood, actually permeates the entire Bible. True religion, at its core, is about the relationship between God and ourselves and how this transforms us from the inside out.
This understanding began early on in the book of Genesis, where men began to call on the name of God (Genesis 4).
“Now men began to worship God, not only in their closets and families, but in public and solemn assemblies. The worshippers of God began to distinguish themselves: so the margin reads it. ‘Then began men to be called by the name of the Lord’ — or, to call themselves by it. Now Cain and those that had deserted religion had built a city, and begun to declare for irreligion, and called themselves the sons of men. Those that adhered to God began to declare for Him and His worship, and called themselves the sons of God.” | Benson Commentary
Another commentary has this to say:
“The name of God signifies in general ‘the whole nature of God, by which He attests His personal presence in the relation into which He has entered with man, the divine self-manifestation, or the whole of that revealed side of the divine nature, which is turned towards man’. In Genesis 4, we have an account of the commencement of that worship of God which consists in prayer, praise, and thanksgiving, or in the acknowledgment and celebration of the mercy and help of God. Those of the family of Seth began, by united invocation of the name of God of grace, to found and to erect the kingdom of God.” – Keil and Delitzsch Biblical Commentary on the Old Testament
True religion – pure religion – is the acknowledgment of our need for God’s mercy, our worship of Him and what He has done for us and the application of His character in our lives, because of our thankfulness.
True religion is the seamless unity of believing and doing and it’s demonstrated throughout the Bible by countless examples of faithful men and women. (Hebrews 11:1-40). It’s an active faith, shown by both word and deed and not just empty talk.
“Anyone who sets himself up as “religious” by talking a good game is self deceived. This kind of religion is hot air and only hot air. Real religion, the kind that passes muster before God the Father, is this: Reach out to the homeless and loveless (‘the fatherless and the widow’) in their plight, and guard against corruption from the godless world.” – James 1: 26-27, MSG
Jesus put it in another way:
“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.” Matthew 22:37-39, NIV
And again, in Hosea:
“For I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.” – Hosea 6:6, BSB
What True Religion Isn’t
True religion isn’t rules-based or rituals-based but is instead firmly rooted in faith. Faith, in response to God’s action in our lives, alters everything about us; our daily relationships, our perspective on life, our interactions with family, neighbours, friends and community. When God is present and completely sovereign in our lives, when we adhere to God and declare for Him and His worship, God calls us His children and part of His family. This is religion in its purest and most true form.
God’s gift of freedom is easily perverted and often squandered by men or women placing religious burdens and rituals on their fellow man. Jesus condemned the religious leaders of his day for exactly this, commenting that “they tie up heavy, burdensome loads and lay them on men’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them…” (Matthew 23:4).
God is not an impersonal force to be used to make people behave in certain prescribed ways. He is a deeply real and loving Father who invites us into a personal relationship with Him. It is always an invitation, never coercion or guilt-driven; we are given space and freedom to answer His invitation. Through Jesus, we have been set free and are invited to participate in God’s saving work with humanity.
How important it is for any sincere and genuine Christian to constantly promote this extraordinary message of God’s grace and ensure we don’t unwittingly return to a life of rule-keeping, which God finds no pleasure in.
What people need to see and experience from us is true religion – active, transformative and inspiring. The kind of religion that Jesus demonstrated every day.
“Is it not clear to you that to go back to that old rule-keeping, peer-pleasing religion would be an abandonment of everything personal and free in my relationship with God? I refuse to do that, to repudiate God’s grace. If a living relationship with God could come by rule-keeping, then Christ died unnecessarily.” | Galatians 2:21, MSG