I don’t want to offend anyone with my preferences about music, but I have to admit: I try to avoid the song, “Old Time Religion“. Of course, I appreciate the principles of getting back to the basics of righteousness and Christianity, and there are some simple traditions that I remember from my younger days that had a positive impact on me. My challenge is that I too easily associate its words with past conversations (fights?) where one group accuses another of tainting or corrupting the message of Jesus. When Jesus’ message is actually corrupted, we should fight fiercely to expose falsehoods and get back to the truth. However, when claims like this are just a smokescreen for someone who doesn’t personally like others’ habits in service to Jesus (service that is perfectly Biblical, but is just perceived as “too modern” or just plain “different”), then I am troubled.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m all for doctrine that is firmly-grounded in the Word of God, and a message that revolves about Jesus (not just His teachings, but Jesus Himself). However, when we judge others without considering whether or not their methods of presenting the message of Jesus are firmly grounded on the same spiritual foundation, we risk prioritizing tradition over truth.
(Still, if you like the song, don’t let my preferences stand in your way. There are some good lessons in its lyrics, and personally, I like the tune!)
Regardless of our point of view on a single hymn, though, the idea of “religion” has really taken a hit these days. Many claim to reject “organized religion” (although anyone who has been to a church potluck knows better than to call it “organized”!). Others say the word with a sneer, trying to marginalize adherents (who they see as inferior). A few decades ago, if someone turned their life around – from bad to good – it was said that he had “got religion” (sometimes out of respect, but other times expressed like it was a disease that could be caught).
I appreciate that God spoke to us pretty clearly on this subject, though:
If you claim to be religious but don’t control your tongue, you are fooling yourself, and your religion is worthless. Pure and genuine religion in the sight of God the Father means caring for orphans and widows in their distress and refusing to let the world corrupt you.
James 1:26-27 NLT
Did you see that? Religion isn’t about checking a bunch of boxes, or practicing rituals, in order to obtain favor from some deity. It is especially not about sounding pious when our words prove otherwise. In fact, religion doesn’t even have to be organized! The religion described here has only 2 elements to it:
- Taking care of those in need. God has made it clear throughout history that He cares for those who can’t provide for themselves, and He expects us to do the same. Who, except for perhaps the most selfish of us (or perhaps more of us, in our most selfish of moments), would think that this is a bad idea? Rarely do those who criticize the general idea of religion seem to argue about the good that is done by those they perceive as being simultaneously religious and genuinely committed to serving people in need. If religion was about others, and not ourselves, would there be anything to criticize? If those who were considered to be religious didn’t project superiority, but instead they exuded humility, what would the outside perception of “religious people” be? Would it be enough for others to ask questions about why “religious people” served others, providing a chance to talk about Jesus’ life of service, as His example was being followed?
- Avoiding the corruption of the world. Unlike the idea of “getting religion” being a harmful condition (like the flu), it is actually defined here as keeping yourself from getting infected with the virus of sin. Unlike a ritual that must be practiced to “make God like us better”, it is remaining in His righteousness, and within His guidance. We can help achieve this by avoiding specific things – habits, practices, places, and sometimes even people – that will sicken us and sap our strength away from doing better things with our lives. However, we can’t just run away from what can harm us (although that’s often a great start); we must also fill up on good things. With our physical bodies, if we fill up on good food and take care of our health, we can endure the occasional brush with someone who is sniffling and sneezing. With our spiritual practices of religion (as defined here), it’s a good idea to fill up with God’s Word, time spent with God’s people, and listening to the Holy Spirit. Then, we can live in a fallen world without succumbing to its paralyzing sickness of the soul.
There’s another song that I like to listen to, called “Light from the Lighthouse“. In the arrangement that I have in my collection, the vocalist says, “I know I got religion, and I ain’t ashamed.” In a world where an incorrect understanding of “religion” has caused some to want to disassociate themselves from that term, wouldn’t it be great if followers of Jesus everywhere could live out religion like James described in these verses? Then, I think that each of us could honestly say, “I ain’t ashamed” to be accused of practicing religion!