It is quite common to hear people, especially young people, talk about how Christianity is not a religion. I remember going to a college Christian fellowship meeting where we debated that topic. We concluded back then depending on how you defined religion then it was one. In The Christian Religion I discuss how notoriously difficult the word “religion” is to define even among experts. Furthermore the ancient and modern understandings of religion greatly differ. Instead of the modern perception of religion being a separate private activity in the ancient world it was integral to public life. It is definitely true that Jesus did not come to start a religion, not at least in the modern sense of the word, but he and the early Christians were all practicing Jews. Second Temple Judaism definitely had what we would call religious elements with various rules and rituals. Then by our own definition Jesus and his early followers were religious people, yet somehow we want to shake off the label.
I guess the modern problem is with labels. The R-word is associated with horrible fanatical atrocities which understandably most Christians want to distance themselves from. Also in the Protestant traditions it is associated with trying to earn salvation by our own moral bootstraps, an error the Jewish people and Rome made, but we are saved by the grace of Luther. Modern New Testament scholarship shows the debates of 16th century Europe were not the concerns of 1st century Palestine under Roman rule. That means there is a quite a bit of Protestant thinking and theology that needs to be reformed.
The other R-word that is just as unpopular, even blasphemous in Charismatic circles, is “ritual.” We don’t want religion or ritual in our Christianity. We want it to be spontaneous, spunky, exciting. We don’t want old rickety ritual to bore us to death and kill “the move of the Spirit.” Sometimes “the leading of the spirit” ends up being caricatured as a euphemism for happy accidents or just outright bizarre behaviour. When you are a young Christian “on fire for the Lord” you relish such oddities. You see the strange things that say the prophets did in the Bible and you want to mirror their quirky mysterious behaviour. However, what made them stand out so much is that they weren’t odd all the time, especially not for the sake of it. If the abnormal is what happens all the time then it is simply normal and insignificant. Now if for a special reason you do something out of the ordinary, you subvert normal expectations and you invite people to pay attention to the message you are trying to put across. That is why God would have his prophets behave cryptically, to challenge ideas and assumptions, not just because it looks kind of cool being a countercultural rebel without a cause.
Being a member of the species I understand the human need for novelty and excitement. If we are the children of God, we are in a relationship with the most interesting being ever, so it can’t be a bland monotonous experience. The idea that religion and ritual stifles our freedom in Christ or the work of the Spirit is not true. In fact it is rather the opposite.
Religion in and of itself is not a bad thing. Paul, the darling boy of grace over works, called the law a good thing, something holy and just. The Law of Moses, which mind you was the Law of God, had religious elements. Now if the New Testament does not outright dismiss religion the problem is not the universal fact of religion but what type of religion we should have. The Bible severely criticises man-made religion but the covenantal religion found in the Torah was good. As Paul argued good things need to be used properly if they are going to be beneficial. The problem was certainly not God’s law but the law of God did expose that the problem was really with human nature. It is human nature that creates false religions and also messes up good God-given religion.
Jesus as a man firmly embedded in his people’s culture and tradition did not come to destroy every single trace of religion. This is of course does not mean he did not boldly challenge the society regarding some of their traditions if they were contrary to God’s agenda for his people. Jesus did not have any problem with tradition as long you did not set aside the word of God to fulfil it. The early followers of the Messiah continued in this outlook. Does this mean Christianity is only a religion? Certainly not. I happily agree with Charismatics who say Christianity is more than a religion but it is certainly not less than one.
Now a lot of people read the New Testament and do not see much evidence of explicitly religious practices. The problem is compounded when they read Paul where he seems to be getting rid of any hint of the old religion. Some in the house church movement in the United States even deny having church buildings claiming the early Christians never had them until the world started to corrupt them. As we have already mentioned with Paul that is not the case. As for the claims of the house church they are not only unsupported but there is archaeological evidence that contradicts it. However, the New Testament goes nowhere near the amount of detail about ritual that say a book like Leviticus goes into. There is evidence of ritual practices but the reason why the New Testament does not dwell on it much is because of the very nature of ritual itself.
Ritual, like any ingrained habit, is something you just do. As I mentioned in Liturgy in the New Testament the early Christian’s had their own form of liturgy based on Jewish temple and synagogue practices. By the time of the earliest New Testament epistles we have, which are the Pauline epistles, Christianity had already existed for about two decades. Their traditions had already take a distinctive and definitive form so they were just a part of what it meant to be a Christian. This does not mean there weren’t reasons behind their traditions. Liturgy, rituals, traditions are all examples of symbolic praxis in a worldview. They are the things we do which we suffuse with meaning that represents our understanding of the world and our identity as a people within that ideological framework. They are a way of being in the world.
For example the Christian rite of baptism is a symbolic praxis which represents renewal and restoration, drawing upon the Old Testament imagery of a new Exodus. However, it is a Jesus-shaped practice because in him we are released from slavery to sin and the judgment that it results in through his death on the cross. Being baptized was a membership rite that identified you with the community of believers. Everybody got baptised because they were Christians. They didn’t get baptized to become Christians.
The idea behind a ritual is a particular set of actions you repeat consistently in a particular way. Many times when we here ritual we think of a boring chore that we just have to get done and over with quickly. Rituals are like the habits we form and they become our identity markers. When you don’t do what you usually do, something feels quite off. A Christianity where they did not do certain things would look suspicious. The early Christians saw themselves as a new kind of people, an entirely new nation. As such they needed cultural identity markers to distinguish themselves from every other group. The rituals they had defined them as a people. Liturgy, that is the way we do Church, helped define who they were as the Messiah’s people. Evidence from both within and outside the New Testament tells us Christians did certain things that were characteristic of them alone. Liturgical elements like the Lord’s Supper and singing hymns of worship to Jesus were all unique to early believers. There was continuity with Jewish practices but there were important modifications that set them apart, all centred on the person of Jesus the Messiah.
The way I have discussed it so far, someone might think the Christians sort of invented their own rituals from scratch. There were innovations and there was quite a bit of latitude as to how individual Christian communities practiced certain things.We even see that to this day. However, there were set traditions which did have precedence in the inspired word of God found in the Bible. Even in a setting of Charismatic worship like the one Paul described in 1 Corinthians 12 and 14, he said God was not the author of confusion. Order always require a certain amount of structure. Even the most anti-establishment churches you can find have their own kinds of rituals in the various forms of liturgy they have.
An effective Christian life requires consistency so we cannot sacrifice order for spontaneity. Especially within Charismatic circles we need to reconsider our stance regarding ritual and liturgy at the corporate and even private levels. If we cannot immediately see the point in it, instead of quickly dismissing them, we need to try and figure out why other traditions do things in the way they do. We also need to rediscover the core religious rites and practices found in the New Testament. This is so we can better understand and affirm our identity as the new people of God. This very relevant for today where questions of who we are and what we should do in the world abound. We need to show the world what sort of people God wants us to be.