Is “religion” a bad thing? And what is it anyway?

Last week I asked the question “Is too much religion a bad thing?” My goal was to follow the line of apologetic reasoning spelled out by Tim Keller in Reason for God and illustrated by Martin Luther King in “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” My main argument was that while religious zeal based on moralism can be a force for evil in the world, a true understanding of, and devotion to, the gospel is a force for peace, justice, and reconciliation.

In my post I used the term “religion” ambiguously and it was the use of this word that several of my readers reacted to.


The word “religion” means different things to different people. But, among many in evangelical circles, it has become a negative and derogatory term. Tim Keller himself uses it this way when he contrasts “religion” with “gospel” as one of two ways to respond to God. For Keller, religion means trying to please God through living a moral life. The gospel, by contrast, says that we cannot please God through “following the law” but through receiving by faith God’s gift of salvation. In Keller’s scheme, “religion” and “gospel” are opposed. Gospel is good. Religion is bad.

This same use of the word has also been popularized by Jefferson Bethke’s YouTube video “Why I Hate Religion, but Love Jesus.” Again, Bethke essentially uses the word “religion” to mean “works based salvation” or, perhaps, “legalism.” I have also heard the term “religion” contrasted with the term “relationship,” as in, “we don’t have a religion [rules based system] but a relationship [with God].”

I understand why Keller and Bethke use the word “religion” in the way they do, and I think it has something to do with their evangelistic ministries. They want to show the contrast of the gospel (grace based) with the kind of moralism (law based) that is often construed as Christianity.

I am sympathetic to using the word “religion” in this way, but I am not enthusiastic about it either.

I don’t prefer to use “religion” in this derogatory way for one main reason: Because “religion” is such a broad term, when I say I don’t like religion, unless I am narrowly defining the term (as Keller does) I end up saying I don’t like a lot of things I actually do like. There are two biggies that tend to get lumped in with the word “religion”: Institution and Religious practice.


When some people say they don’t like religion they mean they don’t like “institutional” religion. They don’t like the Church. Or, more specifically, they don’t like church. Institutions are wooden, authoritarian, and restrictive. This is probably true in a lot of instances but, overall, I think institutions are both Biblical and good.

I am thankful for the various institutional structures that exist at my local church – for its constitution and bylaws, for its leadership structure of elders and deacons, for its stable programming, for its mechanism of raising finances, for its process of spending money. These institutional markers make it possible and easy for us to gather together for worship, to regularly hear the Word of God, to come together in prayer, to reach out to the community, and to keep each other on track for the sake of the gospel.

The “institutional church” is not the heart of Christianity. If it becomes an end in itself, that’s when you fall away from the gospel. But, the “institutional church” does contribute to the spiritual development of both individuals and communities of Jesus followers.

“Religious Behavior”

Some want to put a wedge between “love” and “obedience.” Judah Smith, in Jesus Is, tells us not to take our sin too seriously because it’s covered by grace. Many of us have, as Kevin DeYoung puts it, a Hole in our Holiness. In an effort to combat legalism (a worthy cause) sin is deemphasized and obedience is seen as something we shouldn’t really worry about. After all, Christianity isn’t about religion (rules, religious behavior) but about a relationship with God.

Again, I agree that religious behavior is not the heart of Christianity. When we make this a means of trying to win salvation, we are moving away from the gospel. But, obedience to God’s law is still a part of what it means to be a Christian. Jesus says in John 14 “Anyone who loves me will obey might teaching.” Love and obedience go together.

Additionally, we are encouraged in Scripture to participate in several distinctly religious activities such as baptism, the Lord’s supper, worship, tithing, Scripture reading, prayer, and giving to the poor. These are all components of true religion, though they do not earn us salvation.


I prefer to use several alternatives to the term “religion” when I am speaking about a systems of works-based-righteousness. Here are my favorites:

#1: False religion: By this I mean religious practices that is disconnected from the heart. It is characterized religious behavior but that behavior only serves as a mask to cover a heart of stone.

#2: Legalism: By this I mean the religious theory that we can earn our salvation through good works.

#3: Moralism: By this I mean the belief that Christianity (or other religions) are primarily about “being good.”

Each of these terms, in my mind anyway, is far more precise than the word “religion” which means different things to different people.

What do you think? Is the term “religion” used in too negative a way? Or, do you prefer the terminology of Bethke and Keller?


2 thoughts on “Is “religion” a bad thing? And what is it anyway?

  1. Bert DeVries

    I think you’re right on the money here, Steve. My only addition is that the term “religion” is a paradigm issues, IMHO. The first paradigm is from the inside of the Jesus community looking out. The second is from the outside (the world) looking in at us. I think that how the term “religion” is defined largely depends on the paradigm. We, Jesus followers, can define it any way we like, but that’s not necessarily the definition that the other paradigm will use.
    From the perspective of evangelism I think there is some merit to using the world’s paradigm of the term religion, which is broadly general and mostly negative. In a way it’s like corporate branding. Branding isn’t what the company does to define it’s organization, but rather what the public thinks of it. I am concerned that what the world (the public) thinks of religion – regardless of how we define it – is largely negative. The Jesus community has a public relations problem.
    Just my 2 cents and I welcome more debate/discussion.

    1. stevenkopp Post author

      I think that’s a great addition. I think that’s why Keller uses it the way he does, because of his evangelistic ministry and the culture in which he is a part of. Also, he’s careful to define it.
      There’s a lot of “sloppy” uses of it out there, too, and in the wrong context. I think maybe that’s what I’m most concerned about.
      This is in the realm of “preference” for me. Generally, I prefer we use more precise terminology.

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