A friend of mine commented recently, “I don’t believe in religion.” I agreed with him, responding, “Religion is man-made.” But part of me flinched a little bit at my own comment.
Religion is what I left when I left the Catholic Church, but religion is what I studied in college. A World Religion class led me forward on a journey that ended in my commitment to Jesus as the Savior and Lord of my life, terminology I realize that smacks of religion.
That commitment made in a particular place and time began a life-long journey of faith, of attempting to know, understand and follow a living God. Not religion, but relationship with God, the creator of heaven and earth Who “knit me together” in my mother’s womb, Who can number the hairs on my head, Who knows the thoughts and intents of my heart.
I bristle at the word, religion, but I realize my friends probably consider me religious. Ironic isn’t it.
These thoughts are triggered by reading Colossians 2:8:
“See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ.”
I realize this may seem like so much religious mumbo jumbo. All the more reason to unpack it if I can.
First of all, the article I read in which this verse was the basis for discussion focused on the Christian anti-intellectualism that is mistakenly supported by this verse. “See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy….” If you stop there and emphasis the word, philosophy, without understanding the context, you might be tempted to agree that philosophy (all philosophy) is bad. Stay away!
But, that is an incorrect understanding of the verse. The issue isn’t philosophy, but the wrong kind of philosophy, the kind that is “according to human tradition” and “the elemental spirits of the world”, philosophy that is “not according to Christ”.
Clear as mud, right? So, let’s dig a little deeper.
The phrase “human traditions,” gives us a clue when we consider that the phrase “human traditions” appears only in one other place in the Bible: Mark 7:8, where Jesus condemns the Pharisees as those who reject “the commands of God and hold to human traditions”. Paul, who wrote the letter to the Colossians also wrote the letter to the Galatians in which he recounts how he was once “extremely zealous … for the traditions of my fathers”. (Gal. 1:14)
The phrase, therefore, seems to be much more descriptive of what we consider to be religion than philosophy. As with philosophy, it’s worth pointing out that it “religion”, generally, ins’t the issue, perhaps, but the wrong kind of religion. Maybe this is why I chaffed at my own bristling that religion is man-made (as in all religion).
James describes a kind of religion that isn’t “worthless” (quoting James) and should be embraced:
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 1:27)
Digging even deeper, Paul uses the term “elemental spirits of the world” in describing the kind of philosophy that is suspect (referring back to Colossians 2 again). Paul uses a similar phrase, “elementary principles of the world”, in Galatians where he distinguishes the legalism of religion that enslaves people (Gal. 4:3 & 9) from the gospel that frees people to become children of God. Again, it isn’t “philosophy”, as we think of the term, that Paul is talking about, but “religion”.
Continuing the theme, though, it isn’t religion, per se, that is the issue, but man-made religion, religion that is entrenched in the traditions of men, religion that is like the white-washed tombs of the Pharisees, having an outward appearance of goodness, but being dead and empty inside. (See Matthew 23:27) Religion that has a “form of godliness, but denies its power” to change and transform a person is empty and worthless.
I don’t believe in this kind of religion either. And neither did the Apostle Paul:
“If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations ‘Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch’ (referring to things that all perish as they are used) — according to human precepts and teachings? These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh.” (Colossians 2:20-23)
The religion that is worth something isn’t the kind of that relies upon rules and regulations. The kind of religion that has value is devotion to a God who was willing to leave His station and privilege behind to become one of us and to lead us, personally, out of the futility of our proud lives. The same God who knows us intimately, says, “Come follow Me”, and I will give you life!
We don’t live for precepts and dogmas and observances and show; we live for the Person of God demonstrated to us through the loving sacrifice of Jesus who invites us to follow, leaving behind the elemental things of this world that are wholly dependent on our own abilities, and embracing what God has to offer.
What God offers is freely given and must be freely and whole-heartedly received. We have to let go of the human constructs and our own understanding and ability to achieve, and we must embrace what God has wrought for us – if, indeed, we want it.
To those who don’t believe in religion, I say that I don’t believe in it either. I believe in Jesus Christ, who is “the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being”. (Hebrews 1:3) I don’t want to practice religion; I want to follow Jesus who visits orphans and widows in their affliction and cleanses me from the stain of the world. There is life in Jesus who is one with the Father and the way to the Father. There is only emptiness in the cold, white-washed tomb of religion.
Therefore, to those who don’t believe in religion, I say, “Good!” You won’t be taken captive by its false promises. There is something much better than the human construct of religion – God our creator who came to us at our own level in the form of the man, Jesus, and invites us to follow Him. I left religion a long time ago and have been a follower ever since.