What’s So Bad About Religion? – by Greg Albrecht
Some of our readers and listeners can’t bring themselves to believe that religion is as bad as we say it is. They say things like, “you spend too much time talking about the negative things and too little about the good things.” One person said, “What’s so bad about religion? If you had more grace you wouldn’t harp on religion so much.”
If you have ever visited a prison, you walk away realizing it’s a horrible thing to be incarcerated. When you are locked up, you are a slave, you have no freedom. If you know anything about institutionalized incarceration you will also know that inmates learn to depend on and work the system. The system gives them security, it gives them a rhythm to their lives. They know exactly what they can do and not do. Their meals are given to them, the time for exercise is set and their work routines are assigned.
When and if they are released, many ex-convicts have trouble with freedom—they don’t know what to do with it. Remember the nation of Israel, held as slaves in Egypt? God gave them their freedom, but many of them wanted to go back. They liked the security of someone giving them three square meals a day, even if it meant being in slavery.
Jesus came to set spiritual prisoners free. He came to make us free in Christ. He sets us free from religious bondage. Perhaps you have been spared from the experience of doing time in a dark spiritual dungeon. Perhaps the only face you have seen of corporate, institutionalized religion is bake sales, soup kitchens and church picnics on lazy, idyllic, long summer days. Maybe you have never been exposed to mind-numbing tirades about the burning coals of hell fire. Maybe you have not experienced religious authorities who prod and push you to give and give and give and do and do and do.
Maybe you haven’t seen your life go up in smoke as you attempted to meet the rigorous demands of religious taskmasters who insisted on your endless, unceasing involvement in church activities, outreach projects, service “opportunities” and work parties until you had no time for your own family. Maybe you haven’t experienced in your personal life, or that of your family or friends, the end result of religious legalism—people who are stuck in spiritual cages, without the Bread of Life, so that they slowly wither and die, spiritually.
If you haven’t seen the harsh reality of religion, then you might think I am overstating the case. However, I assure you that religion is alive and well, and in some cases operating in the name of God, dishing up authoritarian oppression, deceiving via its propaganda, and making lives a living hell. In the midst of, and in spite of, bad news religion, here’s the unbelievable good news! Here are 12 aspects of God’s amazing grace:
1) God’s grace flows to us from him, as an expression of who he is.
2) God is love—that is, love defines him. He doesn’t just have love as an attribute—he is love.
3) Jesus, he and he alone, is all we need. The cross of Christ is sufficient for our needs.
4) God’s mercy, tenderness and compassion, particularly as revealed to us in the ministry of Jesus, reflects his absolute commitment to us.
5) The unity of God, as Father, Son and Holy Spirit may dwell in us—his love is the anchor and foundation of the unity we have in him.
6) We are given a new commandment and a new covenant by the blood of Christ. We are not under any old covenant regulations. Even the ten commandments are not the basis of our relationship with God, though they may be emphasized by some Christians. The basis of our relationship with God, and his toward us, is love. Love is the key, it is the sign by which we are known as Jesus followers.
7) God’s relationship with us, as produced in our lives, can be summarized as: Faith alone, grace alone and Christ alone.
8) God’s love for us is in-spite-of love, as contrasted with conditional human love, which is because-of love.
9) Because of Jesus, we rest in him. We give him our burdens. He bears our guilt and shame. We have peace, we enjoy God’s presence, by and through Jesus.
10) Jesus has done for us what we can never do for ourselves—he paid a debt he did not owe because we owed a debt we could not pay.
11) Our relationship with God is not based on our merit. God is not, nor will he ever be, obligated to us because of our behavior. It is impossible for us to do something so good, so pure and holy to cause God to be compelled or required to pay us back. God is not, nor can he ever be, in debt to us.
12) God’s grace is the act of receiving something we do not deserve, whereas his mercy is the spiritual reality that we fail to receive something we do deserve.
These twelve themes are simply ways in which we might explain and further understand God’s amazing grace. God’s grace is the reason the gospel is the gospel—good news.
On the other hand, the fact that there is good news means that the flip side exists—there is such a thing as spiritual bad news. We need the good news because bad news exists. We are given freedom in Christ because of the reality of religious slavery and bondage. Therefore, there are also themes or aspects that characterize and define bad news religion—here are seven:
1) Bad News Religion is the title of my first book, and a phrase I often use to summarize the bankruptcy of human religious efforts and institutions.
2) The word “religion” itself needs to be examined and defined. I define religion as any attempt on the part of human beings to improve or enhance their relationship with God on the basis of what they do and produce—their religious performance. “Bad news religion” is the enemy of God’s grace. Religion, thus defined, is aligned against authentic Christianity.
3) Legalism is a virus that lurks within all of us, to some extent, and it flourishes in religious settings. Religious settings provide a rich environment and fertile breeding ground for the growth and propagation of legalism. Like staph diseases in hospitals, legalism can be found in churches—this doesn’t make hospitals or churches bad places—but it doesn’t mean that either place, physically or spiritually, is the only way (or sometimes even the best way) to be healed.
4) The book of James speaks of pure religion. That very reference demonstrates that there is a need to modify religion, for if there is such a thing as pure religion then surely impure religion exists. Impure religion is the flip side of God’s grace and love. Impure religion is legalistic religion, the antithesis of freedom in Christ.
5) I often use a number of adjectives to help modify and define bad news religion—among them, oppressive religion, authoritarian religion, legalistic religion, corporate religion, institutionalized religion, rules-based religion, toxic religion, performance-based religion, Christ-less religion and unhealthy religion. Thus it is necessary to proclaim Christianity without the religion, religion-less Christianity.
6) Here are two catch phrases I use to further define the tactics and methodologies of bad news religion—among them, a) the pills, potions and prescriptions of religion, and b) religious regimentations, rituals, restrictions and regulations.
7) Bad news religion condemns, manipulates, threatens and deceives. By contrast, “there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1).