Thursday, August 21, 2008

Christianity is a Religion, Not Just a Relationship

Two weeks ago I took a job as the Associate Pastor at West Lakewood Baptist Church. One of the first things I noticed about our fifty year old church is that, while some of our core beliefs are outlined in our church constitution and in our denominational association's belief statement, we have no actual doctrinal statement. At our first deacon's meeting that I was a part of, I voiced my opinion that we should draft one. The other deacons thought it was a good idea and put me in charge of the task.

Which got me thinking: what's the point of a doctrinal statement? Not in a negative way- just in a, "I don't want to do things at church just because that's what churches do" kind of way. Among my many thoughts on that issue, one of the most prominent was my numerous interactions with the type of people who sharply distinguish between "religion" and "spirituality," preferring the latter. With that in mind, I decided to write an introduction to the doctrinal statement that perhaps that kind of person would come across, especially for our soon-to-be launching website.

I thought it would be a good idea to put that intro here first though, partially because I think you might be interested, and partially because I wouldn't mind some feedback. So pardon the length of this post, but without further delay:

Today’s Western World commonly distinguishes between spirituality and religion, expressing a conscious preference for the former. The term “spirituality” conjures thoughts of desirably mysterious transcendence and generally being in touch with the divine. By contrast, “religion” is thought of as the stifling institutionalization of that transcendence, such that mystery is eliminated and God is made in humanity’s image to suit its arbitrary and sometimes even evil ideas and actions. Perhaps it is because of these stigmas that some well-meaning Christian first coined the phrase, “Christianity is not a religion; it is a relationship.”

We can appreciate the good in this mindset. Most of us can feel intuitively that there is something profoundly wrong with domesticating the divine. Most of us can also feel intuitively that there is something profoundly right about looking outside ourselves for an experience of the transcendent. Further, most of us can see that all too often, heinous evil has been done in the name of God.

Yet while we see this good, we are convinced that, contrary to the religion/relationship distinction, to carry out any legitimate relationship with God, some of the forms of religion are quite necessary. There are two sides to this point. From the divine side, God is so transcendent as to be largely unreachable but for His revealing Himself in real ways in human history. From the human side, mankind’s finitude and sinfulness allows us too limited a knowledge of God to be satisfied with sweeping mystery as expressed in spiritual platitudes. The combination of God’s eternality and humanity’s finitude is spiritually paralyzing- unless God intervenes to make it possible for us to know Him.

We believe that God has done exactly this through direct revelation to humans, both in word and action. The “spiritualist” denies the need (or perhaps the possibility) of this revelation and wallows in the mystery. The Christian is unsatisfied with mystery alone and asks, If God has truly revealed Himself to humans, why should I do anything but pursue it with the most seriousness and vigor I can muster? She sees the need for revelation and joyfully pursues her spirituality within revelation’s self-set bounds, including any religious structures it deems necessary.

We believe that God’s revelation of Himself in particular in the Bible provides such religious structures. Because God has also revealed Himself to be good, wise, and omniscient (among other things), we trust that any religious structures He has revealed to be necessary are not hindrances to our spirituality, but channels of spirituality that benefit our pursuit of Him. Indeed, without those religious structures, no human being would be able to know God meaningfully.

“Religion” as a concept thus should not carry the stigma of being spiritually stifling. By contrast, we embrace religion joyfully, and choose to distinguish between religion and “religiosity” rather than religion and spirituality. God is not only transcendent and incomprehensible; He is knowable. Religiosity gets caught up in the forms such that the whole enterprise goes stagnant. The religious Christian rejoices in the truth that we can have real access to God rather than being stuck in the perpetual vagueness of New Age spirituality.

The following affirmations then lay out some of the major parameters of God’s revelation of Himself that we at West Lakewood Baptist Church believe are central to seeking Him in truly Christian religion. They are taken from our understanding of the Bible, often in line with but not entirely dependent upon the history of Christian religion subsequent to the original writing of the Bible. We find these truths liberating rather than constraining in our continuing pursuit of the transcendent God who has revealed Himself to man. These are the fiber of Christian relational religion.


Jason said...

I think the thing to keep in mind is that the original "Not a religion..." comment refers to the fact that nothing we do can make us more appealing to the Lord. At least that is how I define it. I don't like being called "religious" because to me that implies the need to celebrate the Eucharist for my salvation, say certain prayers faithfully for my salvation, etc.

I think that we need a balance in our approach to this. I completely agree that we need to avoid New Age vagueness in our spirituality. However, I also think we need to keep in mind that "It is not about what we do, but what about Jesus has done," to quote another old evangelical phrase.

Anonymous said...

We have Karl Barth to thank for this nonsense about Christianity not being a "religion" (along with a lot of other mularky).

Mark Baker-Wright said...

Although I have no quarrels with any doctrinal item in that statement, I think it's far, FAR, too long. I think the best doctrinal statements lay out ONLY the essentials (the fundamentals, if you will, in the true sense of the word). It states those things which are indeed essential to the concept of "Christian" while allowing for difference of opinion in regard to non-essentials within the body.

That "introduction" is probably about twice as long as the whole statement should be....

Carrie Allen said...

Throw the rules of doctrinal statements out the door and use this intro. People want short and to the point because they are lazy. This should not be the case...we need to stop catering to people's laziness. I think the intro is great.

Mark Baker-Wright said...

I would have appreciated it if you could disagree with my comment without suggesting that I was "lazy" for making it....

Carrie Allen said...

Oh, sorry BW...I didn't mean to call you lazy. I see your point too, that people won't want to read a looong statement. I would assume that since you read Andrew's whole blog, you would be down to read a long d. I didn't intend to call you lazy. I apologize for coming off as rude; didn't mean to do that.

Mark Baker-Wright said...

I should clarify. My point isn't primarily "that people won't want to read a looong statement" (however true that preference might be). If it was, the "lazy" comment might be appropriate, if harsh.

My primary point is that I believe doctrinal statements of identity should focus on only the most essential items. Often, the temptation is to include everything a church leadership deems "important," but such a tendency has the unintended side-effect to dividing churches and excluding would-be members, as groups of people find themselves aligning along items of doctrine that may well be "important," but not "essential."

To use a cliché, the church isn't for those who are already perfect, but it's for sinners. A church doesn't do the kingdom of God any good if it keeps people out of its doors by overly aggressive doctrinal statements.

On the other hand, I do think that such doctrinal statements are necessary. A body of Christian believers does need to spend some time reflecting on what it is that makes Christians unique. How are we to demonstrate that God has called us to be salt and light to the world?