A non-denominational pastor thunders to his congregation: “My brothers and sisters, I used to live in bondage! I was bogged down under the weight of endless religious rules and precepts I had to painstakingly observe.”
“However, one day I came to the realization that all those things could never save me. The answer to my anguish and anxiety had been staring at me all along. Christ saves, not religion! Therefore, don’t labor in darkness anymore and see the light that only Jesus can bring. Can I get an amen?!”
This sounds a lot like what the average non-denominational Evangelical minister is preaching from the pulpit. Here we can see that familiar and quasi-rallying cry of a great portion of American Protestantism, namely religion doesn’t save, Christ does.
What are we to make of this claim so often bandied about by our Protestant friends? After all, at first blush it appears unassailable and quite pious.
All it takes is a question or two
To respond, I’d like to propose two simple questions that can help us see how the well-known quip doesn’t hold under scrutiny and ultimately becomes self-refuting when properly analyzed.
When considering the elements that constitute a religion, we can distill it down to two, namely: a worship code and a moral code. These correspond to the two following basic questions: are all forms of giving adoration to God valid and are all types of behavior valid and pleasing to God?
Is God pleased by the way I’ve chosen to worship Him?
Let’s consider number one.
The Catholic Church teaches that the Eucharist is the source and summit of the Christian life and consequently, the highest form of worship human beings, empowered by Christ, can offer to God. Such a statement is either true or false.
For the vast majority of Protestants it is categorically false. This shows that for a given person or group of people, not all forms of worship of God are valid, otherwise they would have to include the Catholic Mass. As we can see from this, from the moment a Christian makes a decision as to what one can do or not do in order to offer adoration to God, he is ipso facto practicing a religion.
Let’s consider an additional example. Some groups of charismatic Christians would see a concert with loud music, stage smoke and dazzling lights as a valid way to give adoration to God. Conversely, some other Christians, such as Quakers and some Calvinists, would look at such activity and say that it is in fact a synagogue of Satan.
In the midst of that bombardment of visual stimuli, what God would there be to offer worship to? They are not worshiping God but themselves, these other Christians would say. Here we can see again that both groups have made pronouncements as to how one ought and ought not to worship. In so doing, they are practicing different religions.
Is God pleased by the behaviors I’ve chosen to embrace?
Let’s consider number two now.
We’ll use the issue of homosexual behavior and same-sex unions as our example. Many Christians in the Episcopal tradition, for example, have no qualms about blessing the union of same-sex couples and officiating wedding ceremonies for them in church buildings. They are very clear in declaring that the love these couples have for one another is pleasing in the sight of God and we should not hinder them.
Diametrically opposed to this we find many other Christians in other traditions that strongly condemn such actions and view them as the closest thing to the Devil waltzing about in the household of God. In making judgments as to what constitutes acceptable and unacceptable moral behavior, both groups are practicing different religions.
In summary, in examining the two questions I’ve put forward one can clearly see how the claim in the title of this post becomes a self-refuting proposition, for we have demonstrated that all individuals and groups must make decisions as to how they ought to worship and not worship and how they ought to behave and not behave. These are undoubtedly the elements of a religion.
Hence, whether one likes it or not, as soon as one wants to follow God, one is also choosing a particular religion, with its specific rituals, beliefs, history, and practices.