The World in the Church 3: Irreligious World, Irreligious Church?

The World in the Church 3: Irreligious World, Irreligious Church?

My first article began with the observation that Satan ambitiously aims to attack the church at the very points that are intended by God for its defence. He seeks to bring the world into the church through its elders, and at the heart of its public worship. Having considered the problems of distractedness and the desire to appear normal, in this article I turn to reflect on how a worldly hostility to religion may have infected the church.

In the West we live in an age when people generally dislike formal religion. There are exceptions of course, but it is a well-established commonplace to observe that many of our contemporaries identify themselves as 'spiritual but not religious'. 

This emphasis on an interior spirituality detached from external religiosity fits well with the turn inward in Western philosophy. Modern and post-modern man alike have turned away from outward structures and authorities toward the self-sufficient self. At the fountainhead of the Enlightenment, René Descartes made the thinking subject the test of truth. Cogito ergo sum: upon my being a thinking creature rests the entirety of my certainty. From that foundation he proved the existence of God by means of the ontological argument, and from there in turn the existence of the exterior world. At the root of it all stands the first person singular cogito. The Romantics did it differently, but with the same inward turn. Henry Thoreau went to live at Walden Pond to leave behind as much as possible, to strip everything away, to get back to the essentials: 'I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms.'[1] G. W. F. Hegel described 'absolute inwardness' as the essence of the Romantic spirit. And post-modern man has been fittingly described by Philip Rieff as 'psychological man'. He is, David Wells says in setting out this reading, 'the person who is stripped of all reference points outside of him or herself'.[2]  He goes on: 'the external God has now disappeared and has been replaced by the internal God. Transcendence has been swallowed up by immanence. God is to be found only within the self'.[3]

We see this aspect of the world in the church. Many Christians are unwilling to commit to services and come only irregularly. Church is low on their list of priorities, easily displaced by other activities. The external means of grace are not taken seriously. Part of the reason is that many Christians believe that fundamentally their Christianity is an interior thing, for which the exterior manifestations of religion are largely dispensable. 

Here is the question I wish to press: do we actually encourage rather than resist this worldly tendency? In Britain one of the first talks often given to explain the gospel has three points that are intended to clear the ground of common misconceptions: 
Christianity is not a religion. 
It is not about rules. 
It is a relationship.

In fact, the speaker may go on, Jesus himself hated religion. He preached vehemently against externals, denouncing the Pharisees for being whitewashed on the outside and unclean inside. Here a pose of empathy is struck: do you find endless church services boring? Don't worry, so do I. In fact, Jesus himself had no time for them either. He was all about a relationship, not religion. 

The talk alliterates well, but is it true? First, as a start, check the concordance. What do we find? James 1:27: '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'. Do we really want to go round telling people categorically that God is not interested in religion when the Bible says this? There is such a thing as worthless religion, as James himself says in the previous verse, but to condemn 'religion' tout court is to fail to make a basic distinction between its true and false forms.

How can we explain that distinction? The Bible is not against externals, it is against externals that have displaced any internal reality. When God asks through Isaiah 'What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices?' (1:11), he does so because the people have rebelled against him and are full of iniquity. The sacrifices and festivals were after all ordained by God himself in the first place. Any critique of religion needs to be careful not to suggest that external religious acts are so inherently wrong that they were wrong even when God first ordained them. 

Nor are such externals just for the old covenant. The new covenant was proclaimed at the heart of an external act, a meal, the last supper. God has attached communion with Christ to that feast: it is koinōnia with him (1 Cor. 10:16). And he has attached death to it too: wrong reception can kill (1 Cor. 11:30). Externals matter in both the old and the new.

Third, it is salutary to recall that where there have been calls for religion-less Christianity they have been made by some of the most notorious liberals. Religion-less Christianity was the dream of John Robinson's Honest to God, and it lives on in the advocacy of men like John Spong. As ever, liberalism is not rational theology but culture-Protestantism.

We need to resist the spirit of the age. We should not pander to it, let alone endorse it. When we preach the gospel are we not calling most people to be more religious than they are, rather than less? Think of the great commission itself: 'Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them...' (Matt. 28:19). There it is: at the very start of the Christian mission, the external, religious rite of baptism, a ceremony. 

As a Christian you may not think you are 'religious', but to most people you are phenomenally religious. You go to church services. You sing to God. You pray to him. You read the Bible. You receive the Lord's supper. To any observer this looks like religion, religion, religion.

In England I suspect that our resistance to the idea of being religious comes from the roots of so much of our evangelical strength in ministry among the privately educated. Many boys from public schools (which, this being England, means private schools) have indeed been exposed to a great deal of external religious activity, and for many of them it has never been matched by any internal reality. Preaching the gospel to someone from this background does require a critique of empty religion, since that is what it may have become for them. But even they ought not to be told simply that religion is a bad thing to be avoided by genuine believers. 

Today, people from that kind of background are a small proportion of society. There are of course ethnic minorities among whom outward religious adherence is strong. But for the secular majority, religion is entirely missing in any form that they consciously embrace. For such people, coming to Christ will involve becoming more, not less religious. How odd then to tell them that Christianity does not involve being religious. 

Do we not shoot ourselves in the foot by being carelessly negative about religion? We rail against it in our evangelism and then complain when those converted through that evangelism attend church only irregularly. We call them to come to Christ telling them that it is all about them and God and their private relationship, and then wonder why they won't come to church with the Lord's people. Why won't they? Because from the outset we have dismissed the outward. We are the ones who have trained them not to come. We should take great care not to sow seeds in our evangelism that will ripen into worldly weeds in the lives of those converted through it.

Dr Garry Williams is Director of the John Owen Centre at London Theological Seminary, and Visiting Professor of Historical Theology at Westminster Theological Seminary (Philadelphia). His new book is His Love Endures For Ever: Reflections on the Love of God (IVP in the UK, and forthcoming with Crossway in the USA), in which he tries to put into practice the idea of theological meditation. These four articles are developed from a talk originally given at a Proclamation Trust conference


[1] Walden, edited by Walter Harding, p. 87

[2] David Wells, God in the Whirlwind, p. 26

[3] Wells, God in the Whirlwind, p. 31