Thursday, January 26, 2012

Does God hate religion?

My article from this week's Algona Upper Des Moines on the term "religion":

Q:  Can a person to say they hate religion but love Jesus?  Is Christianity a “religion” or not?  Did Jesus come to abolish religion?

This is a question that has been circulating with increasing frequency since the mid-20th century, especially during the first decade of the present century, and which was brought even further into the forefront in past weeks by a YouTube video that quickly made the rounds on the internet through social networking sites. 

The current questions regarding religion and Jesus or religion and Christianity have arisen primarily from two sources.  The first of these can be seen within Christianity as a reaction against the rigid rule-oriented portrayal of religion that had become prevalent in certain denominational circles.  In response to this portrayal, many preachers have begun to contrast this law-oriented focus, which they would characterize as “religious,” against a gospel-oriented message which focuses on grace and the freedom of the Christian.

The second source from which this question finds its origin is a movement outside of Christianity where people consider themselves “spiritual but not religious.”  Recent demographic studies of religious identity reveal that “none of the above” or “unaffiliated” has become the fastest growing religious identity in the United States.  However, these religiously unaffiliated persons are not primarily atheist or agnostic.  Instead, they have definite spiritual ideas, but do not practice them collectively in a Church or other religious organization or submit to any particular authority or doctrinal system. 

Much of the confusion regarding this question about Jesus and religion can be overcome by nailing down the definition of religion.  Prevailing dictionary definitions of religion describe it as a set of beliefs regarding spiritual things or a devotion to a deity.  When scholars speak of a religion, they use the word to refer to a particular world religion such as Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, or Mormonism, while they use the word denomination to refer to the particular organizations that are divisions within Christianity. 

However, the popular use of the term religion by “spiritual but not religious” proponents outside of Christianity or by Christian preachers who want to distinguish faith-based Christianity from rule-oriented religion has initiated a novel view of religion that causes confusion. 

If one wants to say that Jesus is against rule-oriented religion but in favor of a faith which trusts in Him and embraces the freedom of knowing God’s forgiveness, then one could say that Jesus is against “religion”.  In fact, this is the characteristic that distinguishes Christianity from every other religious system in the world.  Every other world religion emphasizes a system of acts which must be carried out by people in order to make things right with their deity, but Christianity proposes that God Himself, in the person of Jesus, already accomplished everything necessary for our spiritual good, and we receive it through trust in Him. 

However, if one wants to say that Jesus is against any form of formal organization to religious practice, that would be a false claim.  The Bible continually emphasizes both that Christians ought to gather together, both for worship of God, through which He speaks to them by His preached Word and forgives their sins through the Sacraments, and for service to others.  We even see that the New Testament constantly urges Christians to cling to pure doctrine as taught by Jesus and the Apostles and to believe the same things rather than each having his own individual spiritual convictions.  In this sense, Jesus is very much in favor of religion—in fact, He is the true religion. 

Thursday, January 12, 2012

"in vain?"

My article from this week's Algona Upper Des Moines about the use of God's name:

Q:  What does it mean to take God’s name “in vain”?  What are the proper and improper ways to use God’s name in accordance with the Second Commandment?

This is one of those phrases left to us as a legacy from the King James Bible, and which many of us remember from when we memorized the commandments in our youth.  Some translations have made this easier to understand by translating it in simpler terms such as, “You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God.” 

At first glance, we might think that this commandment simply means that we shouldn’t use “God” as a curse word or that we should avoid His proper name, “YHWH” or “Yahweh”.  On the other hand, there are small groups of Christians who insist that it is not appropriate to speak, or even to write the word God or other words which refer to Him, and as a result, they might render such words as “L-rd” or “G-d.”  However, this practice is more in line with the teachings of the Pharisees than of Jesus. 

While this commandment does not forbid all usage of God’s name, it does forbid misuse of God’s name.  So, for example, not only would using the word “God” as a curse word be forbidden, but also the use of other words which refer to God, like Lord, Almighty, Savior, Jesus, Christ, etc.  In fact, even if one were to make up his own name for God not found in any language, then misuse it, that would also be forbidden in this commandment, because it is not the syllables, but the intention that are addressed.

In addition to the way in which one speaks God’s name, this commandment also addresses other ways of misusing God’s name.  For example, if one were to wish evil upon their neighbor and do so in God’s name, or if one were to lie and swear it to be truth in God’s name, these would also be forms of misuse.  Any attempt to manipulate people or events for personal gain using God’s name, is more akin to witchcraft than Christianity and would be another way of misusing His name. 

One misuse of God’s name which might be less obvious, yet just as serious, is the teaching of false doctrine.  This is because to teach anything other than the truth about God is a way of misusing His name.  If a preacher says, “God says…” then follows with something untrue, he has lied about God and misused His name.  Likewise, if he says, “Jesus is this…” or “The Holy Spirit does that…” and his statement is untrue, He is telling a lie about God and therefore misleading people in God’s name.

When Martin Luther explains this commandment in this catechism, he reflects the teaching of several Biblical authors when he says that the way Christians ought to use God’s name is to “Call upon it in every trouble, pray, praise, and give thanks.”

While God takes seriously the way in which we use His name, He does not desire that Christians should avoid using His name or the many titles and descriptions of Him which we find in the Bible.  Instead, He desires that we use His name to explain the truth about Him, express our faith and trust in Him, call upon Him and His promises in times of need, and thank and praise Him for His many blessings.