The Message of Jesus transcends religion.
Jesus did not come to start a new religion (or revive an old one). In fact, He opposed religion in all its guises. He confronted it directly and explicitly whenever and wherever it surfaced.
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Jesus did not come to start a new religion. Nor did He come to revive an old one.
It’s no secret, Jesus didn’t like religion.
Even a casual reader of the Gospel accounts is struck by the contrast between Jesus’ compassion for the sinner and unbeliever, and His aversion to the religious establishment, who He accused of both misrepresenting God and bringing people into bondage.
To put it plainly, Jesus opposed religion in all its first-century guises. He confronted it directly and explicitly whenever and wherever it surfaced. He exposed religion’s faulty assumptions, chided religion’s systemic exploitation and reproved religion’s misguided aims. In short, Jesus stripped religion bare, showing its worthlessness and warning of its danger.
Religion was humanity’s desperate attempt to reach God. In bridging the chasm, Jesus ended all need for religion.
Think about it.
Jesus forever ended any need for religion. His life and teachings reveal a new way of living that transcends religion entirely.
So, it begs the question:
Why does the Christian religion exist?
Why did the followers of Jesus establish and propagate a religion in His Name?
What is religion?
The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines religion as “a personal set or institutionalised system of religious attitudes, beliefs, and practices”.
More simply, religion is an “organised set of beliefs” or a “system of belief”.
As such, the term can be merely descriptive and thus, neutral.
Our English translations of the Bible use the word “religion” to translate the Greek terms threskos and its derivative threskeia. Paul used the term negatively once to refer to the “worship of angels” (Colossians 2:18) and once neutrally(-ish); in addressing King Agrippa, he explained that before his encounter with Jesus, he had “according to the strictest sect of our religion (threskeia), lived a Pharisee” (Acts 26:5).
James used the word positively to call his Jewish audience to a practical faith, one concerned with caring for the marginalised of society, one free of prejudice (James 1:27-2:1).
That said, the terms threskos and threskeia are better understood as worship, not religion. In fact, they speak of the acts or expressions of worship, which underlines James’ point that true worship leads to the selfless service of those considered the last and the least of society. In other words, these terms have little in common with the word “religion” as we define it.
The concept of religion we know today, as an abstraction entailing a distinct set of doctrines, was a product of the Catholic/Protestant conflict. It became mainstream from the seventeenth century in the age of exploration and the fierce religious competition that fuelled much of it.
In other words, the reason the Christian religion exists was initially to distinguish between competing warlike, unholy state-churches. Yes, without the Reformation we’d still be stuck in Catholicism but it’s a well-worn story: sadly, each brave, Spirit-led reformation that broke free of religion quickly crystalised into another version of the same problem.
Today, “religion” distinguishes Christendom from other world religions … and serves to distinguish between the 45,000 different variations of the Christian religion—all based on their own distinct interpretations of Scripture.
Yet, there’s nothing in the Scriptures that connects the revelation of God in Jesus with the concept of religion.
Let’s now unmask why religion goes rotten.
As mentioned, religion is one’s “system of belief”. Based on this generic definition, the term can be merely descriptive and neutral.
Religion, however, goes rotten when we focus on the system of belief rather than on the One in whom we believe.
We swap relationship with God for relationship with a system. As we invest ourselves in the system, we then start to defend our vested interests in the system.
Religion then gets odious when we use that system to measure our own worth, resulting in guilt or pride—and often a horrible concoction of both. And it turns toxic and venomous when we use the system to measure the worthiness of others, to condemn and control them.
History proves conclusively that without a life-transforming relationship with God—both a new heart and a resolute commitment to follow Jesus—human beings will always turn religion rotten, odious and toxic. Always.
Rotten, Odious and Toxic
Let’s dig into how the spiral into toxicity happens.
Step 1. The Rotten: Abasing Self-righteousness
Firstly, religion offers a deceptive promise: You can find what you seek through self-effort.
In response, we jump on the hamster wheel of religion and give it a go. The effort required is taxing and burdensome. The payoff is guilt and shame.
I don’t do enough good … shame on me, I need to try harder.
Step 2. The Odious: Smug Self-righteousness
Secondly, religion hardens the heart with pride when we attain a degree of success.
While some never get out of the guilt and shame stage, for most, we swing between seasons of failure and success, guilt and pride.
A smugness develops, however, when we start to master the system, enjoying more pride than guilt.
I do enough good … I’m pretty good, you know.
Step 3. The Toxic: Weaponised Self-righteousness
Finally, religion ultimately morphs into a monster that exploits others through condemnation and control.
Mastering the system deepens our pride and forces it outward in judgement. We take credit for our progress and feel entitled to judge others for their lack. The positions of power offered in a religious system appeal to our enlarged sense of self-importance. When fused with a position of power, this self-righteous superiority becomes a weapon we use to condemn and control others.
I do more than enough good … why the heck don’t you?
Confusing Ourselves with God
Pride is dangerous but few things are more dangerous than religious pride. Blinded by religious certainty, we get our wires crossed and we confuse ourselves with God; that is, if someone questions or challenges us, we assume they’re questioning or challenging God.
Because we think we’ve got it all together, we assume that what we think is precisely what God thinks. Our perspective is exactly in accordance with God’s perspective. Our interpretations are the correct interpretations.
So, when someone attacks what we think about God, we conclude they are attacking God Himself.
It happens more quickly than we’d like to admit.
In Exodus Chapter 17, Moses got his wires crossed.
Therefore the people contended with Moses, and said, ‘Give us water, that we may drink.’ So Moses said to them, ‘Why do you contend with me? Why do you tempt the Lord?’”
(Exodus 17:2, italics added)
The people confronted Moses, demanding water. While there’s no question that the people were starting to grumble, Verse 1 makes it clear that there was no water to drink. In other words, they had a point. Incidentally, when Moses relayed the complaint to God, He simply told Moses to give them some water (vv. 5, 6).
What’s interesting is that when the people question Moses, the leader (who else would they raise a complaint to?), he takes it personally and accuses them of tempting God.
We’re all capable of such a reaction. It’s terribly easy to assume that what we think is what God Himself must think. (Ironically, this is especially true if we’ve spent a lot of time thinking, studying and developing deep convictions about what we think.)
However, humility admits that we get things wrong, and it also acknowledges that we don’t actually know what things we’re wrong about. Humility shares its convictions boldly but maintains an open mind, eager to learn and grow. Above all, humility recognises that even our most revered convictions are derived from our interpretations of Scripture, not Scripture itself.
In contrast, religious pride makes us impatient, defensive, easily offended and prone to agitation and anger. The more we personally have at stake (our position, our status, our paycheque, and so on), the more quickly and deeply we’re triggered. Worse, religion deludes us into thinking that our interpretations of Scripture equate to Scripture itself.
Jesus Exposed Religion
When the Pharisees heard that Jesus had flummoxed their religious rivals, the Sadducees, they were determined to cut His growing popularity short and reassert their dominance in the religious order.
Attempting to test Jesus, they asked, “which is the great commandment in the law?” (Matthew 22:34-36).
In reply, Jesus reached back into the Old Covenant to show them that God always intended something transcendent to religion. Quoting Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18, passages the Pharisees revered, Jesus said,
‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself’.”
Why were these two commandments so telling?
Firstly, loving God requires no human mediator.
Paul made this point brilliantly, highlighting the humanity and divinity of Jesus, “For there is one God and one Mediator between God and men, the Man Christ Jesus” (1 Timothy 2:5). In Jesus, we have the only Mediator required.
In Jesus, every human being is invited into a personal relationship with God and this personal relationship is fleshed out in the context of other humans, who we view as equals, our brothers and sisters.
In contrast, religion requires a human mediator and establishes a priestly class (in various forms) to serve as mediators between God and people. The Pharisees assumed this role as their own.
Secondly, there are no limits to the borders of God’s love.
As we discuss in more detailed in Unbounded Love, Jesus expanded the bounds of family love to include our neighbour, the stranger and even those we deem our enemies. Demonstrating God’s love is the one act Jesus calls us to perfect (Matthew 5:43-48). In Jesus, there is no “us” and “them”, no insiders versus outsiders. There are no conditions on who’s worthy and and limitations on who’s accepted.
Every human being is made in God’s image and thus, we are all equal in value and worth. Yes, we’re not the same. Every human being is unique, and we differ in ability and capacity. However, in Jesus, we’re to use our abilities and capacities to serve others in building a better world for all.
In contrast, religion sets up a membership to judge who’s worthy of entrance and establishes a dogma that legislates how to gain entrance. The Pharisees assumed this responsibility as their right.
In this sense, religion has two core features:
- Religion divides humanity into classes. Firstly, it divides between insiders and outsiders, and secondly, it divides the insiders into the clergy versus the laity. (It doesn’t stop there, however. For example, religion divides reality into secular and sacred, too.)
- Religion uses the weapon of dogma to carve out and enforce these divisions. As this is primarily about power and control, it prioritises behaviour modification over heart transformation. (Since these doctrinal abstractions are based on entrenched, hallowed interpretations of Scripture, it’s nigh impossible to teach old dogma new tricks.)
It goes without saying that this surgical division of people and reality is in stark contrast to the Message and Spirit of Jesus. It’s the complete antithesis of the self-giving nature and unifying love of God.
Jesus, The Way
I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me.”
This pithy statement is profound. Firstly, Jesus highlights His chief purpose: to remind us of God’s nature and to restore us to the Father.
Secondly, Jesus clarifies how He does this: through a transcendent relationship.
Jesus did not say, “I’ll show you the way”. He said, “I am the way”.
He didn’t give us a set of doctrinal abstractions to mentally acknowledge, a list of requirements to observe, a formula to solve, a prayer to pray or a method to apply.
No, Jesus is the Way.
The Incarnate Jesus
The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory…”
Jesus incarnated the truth. He put flesh on the truth. And only then did we see and grasp God’s glory.
The incarnation is terribly underappreciated.
Jesus embodied God’s life-giving truth. He put skin on it. He fleshed it out for us, modelling a new, transcendent way of being, of learning, living and loving.
In shock contrast, the Christian religion is largely based on disembodied abstractions.
Think about this enormous disparity for more than a moment.
In Jesus, the Word became flesh (the Incarnation) … but Christendom has wed a religious dogma of a thousand abstractions.
It’s almost like a bait and switch, a scam that’s fooled us all.
Jesus offers life-giving relationship with the Father, but we get a soul-sapping union with a dogma that’s determined by our denominational traditions.
Yes, we often say things like, “Christianity isn’t a religion, it’s relationship” but we contradict this true statement the moment we make dogma a prerequisite to the relationship.
*Sigh* Perhaps my choice of words is too harsh.
It’s difficult to adequately capture the contrast in a way that provokes the required thought, and maybe I’m trying too hard.
So, let me focus on the beautiful news.
Jesus restored us to the Father and invites us into a life-giving relationship, giving us His own life as a model to imitate. What’s more, Jesus then invests His own Spirit into us to make this all possible.
In contrast to religion, Jesus redeems, restores, reconciles and reunites.
He removes divisions and barriers.
He draws us all into the Father’s loving embrace.
For it pleased the Father that in [Jesus] all the fullness should dwell, and by Him to reconcile all things to Himself, by Him, whether things on earth or things in heaven, having made peace through the blood of His cross.”
(Colossians 1:15-20, emphasis added)
In Jesus, the Father does this all through a life-giving relationship with us, one that lifts us beyond dogmatic abstractions and man-made divisions, and empowers us with self-giving love for others.
How do we pivot away from the religion of Christendom and return to the way of Jesus?
Jesus told a devout religious leader that he needed to start again (John 3:3). From the very beginning.
We too need to start again, again.
It requires earnest self-reflection. It requires examining the way we think, what we depend on, and why we do what we do. It requires hearing Jesus’ words with new ears.
It necessitates trusting Jesus, not tradition. It necessitates questioning old assumptions. It necessitates following His lead.
Jesus said to a group of fishermen,
Follow Me, and I will make you fishers of men.”
Our job is to follow. His job is to make us into all He has planned for us.
When we do His job, we stop doing our job.
How do we return to the way of Jesus?
It requires followers of Jesus to follow Jesus.
Food for Thought
In closing this article, I’m going to simply jot down some bullet-point thoughts on transcending religion.
While it goes without saying that we can only transcend religion with the help of the Holy Spirit, part of the way that He enables us is through the revelation and application of truth. And this process requires prayerful consideration and discussion of the issue at hand.
So, resisting the urge to expound on each point, I offer up the following food for thought:
- Prize relationship with the Father above all, as we follow Jesus and the promptings of the Spirit.
- Prioritise Christlike values, character and behaviour over merely acquiring Biblical knowledge.
- Maintain the simplicity of essential commonality through the Creeds, as a basis of doctrine, and the Great Commandments and Great Commission, as a basis for practise.
- Value relationships over structure—the latter serves and facilitates the former; thus, be intentional in making changes when structure starts to usurp relationships.
- Seek to decentralise leadership, authority and organisation wherever possible, especially in terms of faith community structures.
- Honour the sanctity of the individual and respect the conscience of others.
- Earn the right to speak to others through selfless servanthood and good works.
- (Any other thoughts?)
Each point could be expanded upon but as mentioned, I simply offer them up for discussion.
If you haven’t yet explored the Message of Jesus series, I recommend starting there first, as it provides the platform for all we cover on this website.
Otherwise, I recommend the below articles next.
The Message of Jesus governs how we relate to other believers.
We have far more in common with other believers than what we don’t. And what we have in common has far greater substance than what doesn’t.
The Message of Jesus governs how we relate to all people.
Jesus smashed the bounds of family, communal and national love, modelling a boundless love that includes everyone: our neighbour, the stranger and our enemy.