Faith Through CompassionThere is nothing wrong with organizations, traditions, and institutions, but they are never held out by Jesus to be the way to God.
When I read through the New Testament I am reminded that Jesus and His earliest followers never saw themselves as establishing a new religion—at least, not if we think of religion as any system of rituals, routines, and traditions that must be followed in order to get access to God. The word "religion" in this context just seems to fall short when trying to describe the radical, world-changing nature of the Gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ.
Faith refers to a connection of trust that someone has with a person …
These days, when someone asks me if I am religious, they probably want to know if I am involved in a church or some other organized expression of faith. I am happy to be a part of a local church (I better be—I'm the pastor!), but my church membership is not the core of my faith. Jesus is. And He teaches me that my faith is best expressed through active compassion, not just the rituals and routines of religion.
Jesus (and later, the Apostle Paul) emphasized faith—a relational word meaning trust or trustworthiness. Faith refers to a connection of trust that someone has with a person, not an allegiance to a system of belief and behaviour or to any one institution that represents the system. Don't get me wrong, there is nothing wrong with organizations, traditions, and institutions. But they are never held out by Jesus to be the way to God. Instead, Jesus talks and acts as though He came to replace religion with Himself as the Way.
Yet, there is one passage in the New Testament that on first read seems to have something positive to say about religion. The focus of the passage is the kind of lifestyle that should characterize people who follow Jesus. James, the brother of Jesus, writes an entire letter to the early Christian community to remind them of what their religion should be like. "Pure and lasting religion in the sight of God our Father means that we must care for orphans and widows in their troubles, and refuse to let the world corrupt us" (James 1:26-27, NLT).
This is the only clearly positive use of the word religion in the Bible. James does not place the emphasis on ritual and tradition, but rather on practical, other-centred behaviour.
The only "religion" that God accepts is a holistic lifestyle of compassion for others. For people who want to follow Jesus, the priority of rituals is replaced with other-centred relationship. And that's it. That's all. That's good religion in a nutshell.
In one of his letters to a first-generation community of Christ-followers, the Apostle Paul wrestles with the same issue of following the way of relationship or religion. His conclusion? "The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love" (Galatians 5:6, TNIV). Faith—that intimate, trusting relationship with God—being converted into love—that guiding force of other-centred care, compassion, and service.
So what role can organizations and churches play in our lives? As long as we are not turning to structures and institutions to be our conduit to God, they can and do play a crucial role in our spiritual development, helping to make our spiritual growth a community experience rather than an individual journey.
Churches and other Christian organizations exist to help guide us toward loving action in practical ways. Volunteering your time on a regular basis, for instance, is not just a gift you can give a charitable organization. It is a gift the organization can give you. When we serve others in a structured, committed way, that commitment helps shape and guide our growth by weaving other-centredness into the regularity of our lifestyle. Commitments like this can act as training wheels for our faith.
I take special inspiration from the 18th-century evangelist John Wesley, who wrote: "What religion do I preach? The religion of love." I consider myself a man of faith, rather than religion. But if I had to choose a religion—an organized expression of my faith in Christ—it would be the religion of love.
Bruxy Cavey is the teaching pastor of The Meeting House which is a multiple-site church in the Greater Toronto Area. He is also the author of The End of Reigion.
Originally published in Childview, Spring 2007.
Used with permission. Copyright © 2007 Christianity.ca.