Can You Be Christian and Non-Religious? 

Cornfield Theology
Cornfield Theology
Can You Be Christian and Non-Religious? 

Family Time At a Christian Concert

I recently attended a Christian concert with my two daughters. We had a great time. There was good music, and I spent quality time with my kiddos. The concert was of the singer-songwriter variety, and four different artists performed. We were there to watch and listen to a family favorite – The Gray Havens. I was unfamiliar with the other three artists, but as a person who cannot sing and clap on the beat at the same time, I enjoyed the new tunes, at least new to me. 

Toward the end of the concert, one of the artists I was unfamiliar with played a song called, Meet Your Maker. And there were several lyrics that I had to talk through with my children on the drive back to the hotel. So I want to diagnose a few of his lyrics with no intention of diagnosing the individual who created and sang the lyrics. 

Is Jesus Anti-Religion? 

Many years ago, I was listening to a worship leader give a monologue on how he does not need a religion. All he just needs Jesus. I was not comfortable with the statement, but I understood the sentiment. Jesus saves, and some religions and denominations create a religious culture in the worst sense. When I hear “I do not need religion,” I interpret that as “Don’t place your unbiblical and overburdensome rules on my life.” And if the rules are unbiblical, then I am tracking. For example, legalism within a church might create rules and expectations out of whole cloth. If you really really love Jesus, you will follow these rules. Oddly enough, it is at this point where some Protestant churches look Catholic in their soteriology and sancification.

So, if we can dismiss this type of Catholicism within some Protestant churches, is it true that we should cut the cord with religion because all we need is Jesus?  

In the song, Meet Your Maker, the artist says he was “wounded by religion.” I have no reason to doubt this might have been the case. A legalistic religion could have wounded him, or religion was exposing a sin. In this case, wounds are self-inflicted. I do not know. 

But later in the song, he sings and repeats several times, “You are the least religious person that I know.” The You is, of course, Jesus. This anti-religious notion is the first claim I want to examine. 

An Unfortunate Observation

First, I want to make an observation. When I heard the artist sing, “You are the least religious person that I know,” an applause came from the crowd. The artist had fans, and this line stirred their affections. Only the artist and individuals in the crowd can explain why this line caused such great affection, but I want to argue that the affection might be misplaced. It might be misplaced because Jesus is the most religious person that I know. If you evaluate the claim on its face, the opposite is true. There has never been a more religious person than Jesus Christ. 

The question is not, is Jesus religious? The question is, what is the nature of his religiosity? Two factors come to mind when a person is said to be religious. First, a person participates in organized religion. Second, within organized religion, a person is assumed to uphold predetermined moral standards. On the first point, Jesus was Jewish. During his lifetime, Jesus did not distance himself from his Jewish identity and practice. What Jesus accomplished during his life, and especially during his earthly ministry, is to correct the hypocrisy of those who organized themselves in the name of Judaism. Jesus preached in the synagogue of his hometown of Nazareth (Luke 4:14-21). He spent time in the Jerusalem temple (Luke 4:41-52). When Jesus cleansed the temple during Holy Week by flipping over tables and chairs, he was not dismantling organized religion but addressing the corruption within Jewish organized religion (Matthew 21:12-17). Jesus says the temple is for communing with God through prayer and not a cattle market to make a buck.

On the second point, Jesus did not deconstruct the moral standards of God’s Law but doubled and tripled down on them. After saying He fulfilled the Law (Matthew 5:17), Jesus takes his listeners to the proverbial woodshed. The Sermon on the Mount is a masterful exposition of the 10 Commandments, and Jesus points the finger at you and me. Further, when Jesus tells the parable of the Good Samaritan, he says at the end, “Go and do likewise.” The implication is that our actions are inherently moral, and our moral actions follow the lead of Christ, the one who perfectly fulfills the Law. 

If I could play the guitar and hold a tune, I would sing a song that says, “Jesus is the most religious person you could ever know.”

Piling On

At this point, I could stop, drop the mic, and move on, knowing that I had made my point. But there are times when it is ok to “pile on.”

The Book of James also speaks about religion in a positive light. We read in James chapter 1, 

If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.

– James 1:26–27 (ESV)

James does not assume that religion is bad. The opposite is true. Pure religion in this context is to care for the two most marginalized groups of people in the Bible, the widow and the orphan. So far, so good. I do not think there are many detractors at this point. But you can not forget, like the parable of the Good Samaritan, taking care of the widow and orphan requires moral actions. You cannot disconnect Jesus from morality. And you cannot cudgel morality out of religion. 

Does Jesus Place Expectation Over His Followers? 

I have already made the case that Jesus is religious, and I snuck into the backdoor one more additional claim. Followers of Jesus Christ are also to be religious. So I want to press on the point a little more because of what Meet Your Maker continues to suggest. He sings, “You put no expectations on me.” Again, the “You” is Jesus. So, does Jesus place expectations on his followers? The answer is an emphatic yes. How about this for expectations? Jesus says in the Gospel of Matthew.

Then Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.

– Matthew 16:24–25 (ESV)

To deny yourself is a ridiculous expectation, and Jesus is the one making the demand. The only way to find your life in Christ is to lose it for Christ. Another ridiculous expectation. The point is this. Jesus makes demands on his followers, and to say otherwise is contrary to Scripture.

Sorry. Not Sorry.

I am not trying to trash the artist. The artist does not know me, and I do not know him. However, several glaring holes in the song need to be exposed because the anti-religious sentiment and the I want to kinda live like Jesus mentality pervades American evangelicalism. The song only reveals a more significant symptom. The moment you state that the gospel makes demands on followers of Jesus Christ, churches begin to empty for smooth-talking antinomian preachers. The moment you say Jesus is religious, alarm bells go off, and the squishy evangelicals begin their Chinese fire drill. However, true followers of Jesus Christ are religious because Jesus is religious. You might not like it, but here we are, needing to worship God on his terms and not ours. 

Back To The Beginning

If I had to do it all over again, I would go to the concert. The teaching moment I had with my kids made it worth it. Besides, as a pastor, I enjoy the moment when I can step into another church without a thousand Sunday to-dos racing through my mind. But going to the concert also showed me, once again, a problem with American Christianity. Following Christ and disregarding religion is often code, for I do not want to be held accountable. It is often code for I will attend church on my own terms. The person who wants Jesus and “reject religion” is at the ala-cart line at Old Country Buffett picking and choosing what aspects of the Christian faith he wants to follow. So, my exhortation to you is to listen carefully to what you hear, whether it is from a song or a sermon. And remember, Jesus is the most religious person this earth has ever known.