Whenever I'm enjoying a great conversation with someone I just met and they ask what I do for a living, I'm occasionally tempted to lie. On a recent flight, I sat by a business guy named Steve whose demeanor instantly changed when he discovered that I'm a pastor. Defensively, he exclaimed, "Well, I'm not religious!" I nodded and said, "No problem," and tried to return to our discussion of our favorite apps.
However, my response must not have been convincing because he repeated himself and fired an extra warning shot in case I'd missed the first: "I'm not religious, and I can't stand religious people." I looked at him for a moment and said, "We've got a lot in common then. I'm not religious and I can't stand religious people either!"
Christianity was not intended to be a religion but rather a relationship with God. Yet from the time Jesus walked on earth, people have tried to add rules to the relationship. In fact, the Apostle Paul battled a group known as the Judiazers who said a male must not just believe in Jesus, but he must also be circumcised to be right with God. Paul said, "Evidently some people are throwing you into confusion and are trying to pervert the gospel of Christ" (Gal. 1:6-7). The Greek word translated as pervert is mestastrepho and means to corrupt, to distort or to poison. Even with right motives, people take the purity of the gospel and pollute it with religion.
Any time you stumble into toxic religion, you'll likely see two poisonous problems. First, religion leads you to focus on the external rather than the internal. Religion requires a behavior-oriented path toward pleasing God. Religious people, often well-intentioned, focus on an outward expression rather than an inward transformation. Religion is our effort to close the gap between sinful humans and a holy God. Sadly, it reduces the beauty of the Gospel to a checklist of do's and don'ts. Rules try to regulate religion. Not only does religion focus on the externals rather than the internals, but this external emphasis produces an internal pride. Rule-following religious people believe their behavior and beliefs are right and everyone else is wrong. It's like a piece of food that spoils--not only is it nasty and ruined, but it omits a noxious smell as well.
No wonder then that many non-Christians can't stand Christians. For starters, our spiritual pride often makes it impossible for us to get along with each other. Why should we be any better with anyone else? Some religious Christians are so convinced that their way of doing church is the only way, they discount and denounce every other style or philosophy. In doing so, they unknowingly become sour, self-righteous people. Why in the world would someone without Christ want to join a joyless, cynical, hypercritical and judgmental group of religious people?
Toxic religion tries to add rules, regulations, and requisites to the free gift that God offers us through relationship with his Son. Religion is Christ plus anything. In Galatia, some thought it was Christ plus circumcision. In our world, it might be Christ plus church membership. Or Christ plus tithing. Or Christ plus "the right" doctrine or theology. But the gospel is Christ plus nothing. The final work of Christ on the cross is everything we need.
Thankfully, Jesus didn't come to make us religious. He brought us the good news of his eternal life, a relationship with the living God. Religion is about me. Relationship is about Jesus. Religion is about what I do. Relationship is about what Jesus has done. Religion says, "If I obey God, He will love me." Relationship says, "Because God loves me, I can obey." Religion believes we have to do good things to get God's approval. Relationship says we get to do good things because God already approves us through Christ!
There's nothing more we need to do. Nothing.