Why We Can’t Just Be “Spiritual But Not Religious”

Is it even possible for a Christian to be “spiritual but not religious”?

If you lived in a cave and have never heard of this phrase before, please take a brief moment to watch this video that went viral years ago: video.

I was actually suprised to hear a famous pastor on the radio trying to reach Millennials by appealing to the fact that Jesus is about "relationship," and not "religion." You'd think people would learn by now what Millennials really want, but that takes listening skills. Oh well. So it's still a popular idea that keeps floating around years after this video was released. Alright, so now that you’re all caught up with pop culture, let’s get to answering this question.

What Would Jesus Do?

It is clear that Jesus was against religious groups who used their power and authority to bully and oppress others. This is why he had such nasty things to say to (and about) the scribes and Pharisees.

However, by boycotting religious jerks (truthfully, nobody likes a jerk anyway), Jesus was not boycotting religion. He didn’t want us throwing the baby out with the bathwater. If he did, then he wouldn’t have told Peter “on this rock I will build my church” such that not even “the gates of hell will prevail against it” (Matt 16:18). 

It’s not even possible to separate spirituality from some kind of institutional form. Even the anti-establishment people find a unity of anti-establishment together. I always sympathized with my friends in high school who rebelled against "the system" by wearing chains and all black (the Gothic look), but I could never join them in this because they were still purchasing clothing from a popular clothing store (i.e. Hot Topic). 

Is “Religion” a Bad Word?

As soon as we make the “I’m spiritual but not religious” move, we’ve just joined a religion of people who claim they’re not religious—even though they are. It’s silly, but we do this kind of stuff and it's popular. Spirituality is all the rage these days.

James, the brother of Jesus, wrote favorably about religion. He said, “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world” (James 1:27). In this example, it would seem that religion serves as a sort of conduit for spirituality—it gives the opportunity for greater service than a non-religious climate would. 

I don’t think that anyone who is truly spiritual would have any qualms about this sort of mercy ministry, but it’s the sort of religion that we find the gospel message producing. When God reaches down to us in his Son and forgives us of our sins, we want to reach out to others in all kinds of new ways. 

Sometimes I wonder if people just want to use the “I’m spiritual, not religious” slogan to avoid actually doing tangible, helpful acts of compassion for others. It’s easy to avoid any and all confrontation when we have no public faith that can be challenged and our religion is privitized. 

Spiritual and Religious

In a sociological study back in 2013, Nancy Ammerman found that for most people religion and spirituality go hand-in-hand. Check out Sacred Stories, Spiritual Tribes: Finding Religion in Everyday Life. What she found out was that those “most active in organized religion” were the same people who were “most committed to spiritual practices and a spiritual view of the world.” What this means is that an organized church body actually provides the place for people to be spiritual. 

We are, of course, embodied creatures—that means we worship with our hands and legs, not just our heads. So we need a tangible place (let’s call it “religion!”) to exercise true spirituality. It just so happens that Christianity provides us with both: we are able to be both spiritual and religious—without being religious and not spiritual (Like the Pharisees—those jerks!) or spiritual but not religious (Like people who claim to love God but don't really seem to care much about what they believe or do).

At the end of the day, if it were even possible to be spiritual but not religious in the first place, I highly doubt a real Christian could be “spiritual but not religious.” There are just too many religious things that the law of God requires of all Christians (like looking after widows and orphans, for example). It seems to me that anyone who attempts to carry out the popular "I'm spiritual but not religious" motto will inevitably end up with a kind of lifestyle that is neither spiritual nor religious. 

So don't fall into the trap and get sucked into this silly motto, instead, opt for a third and better way. Be both spiritual and religious, as God intended you to live as a creature made in his image with both a body and a soul.

Nicholas Davis

Rev. Nicholas Davis is a minister in the Presbyterian Church in America.

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