‘Religion’ is Not a Dirty Word

It’s popular today for Christian public speakers and authors to consistently assign a negative connotation to the words ‘religion’ and ‘religious.’ However, the historical and biblical meaning of these words do not accord with this popular notion.

The Historical Definition

Historically, the meaning of the word ‘religion’ is the same as ‘faith’ or ‘belief system.’ According to the Simple English Wikipedia, “A religion is a set of beliefs that is held by a group of people…  Other words that are used for ‘religion’ are ‘faith’ and ‘belief system.'” One’s religion or belief system might be Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Agnostic or Atheist.

The Biblical Definitions

The Friberg Analytical Lexicon gives the following information about these two words found in the Judeo-Christian Bible. Religion (noun): 1.  deisidaimoni, from dei (fear) and dai (divinity); (1) in a good sense reverence toward the gods, pious attitude toward divinities; (2) in a bad sense superstition; (3) in a neutral sense, a system of beliefs, religion (AC 25.19); 2. theskei, religion, religious service or worship (CO 2.18); especially as expressed in a system of external observances (AC 26.5). Religious (adjective): thrsko, of one preoccupied with religious observances religious, God-fearing, pious (JA 1.26).

Why the Confusion? 

The Bible describes various forms of religion and religious observance: true forms and false forms or expressions. Yet for some reason, at this moment in time, and for many, the words “religion” and “religious” have taken on the connotation of only those false forms of religion. For many, ‘religion’ has become a dirty word, so to speak, so that all references to religion are negative.

I recognize that connotations of words can change over time, but the Bible describes both true and false forms or expressions of religion. For example, the Apostle James contrasted the two in back to back verses in chapter one of his epistle. In verse 26 he referred to a false form of religion, “If you claim to be religious but don’t control your tongue, you are fooling yourself, and your religion is worthless” [italics added for emphasis]. That is to say, a person who doesn’t control his tongue is not practicing the true Christian religion. Rather, he is practicing a false form of religion.

Second,  James describes the practice of pure and genuine or true religion in verse 27, “Pure and genuine religion in the sight of God the Father means caring for orphans and widows in their distress and refusing to let the world corrupt you” [italics added for emphasis]. In other words, a person who helps orphans and widows in distress and resists dishonest or fraudulent conduct is practicing a true form of the Christian religion.

The apostle Paul referred to a false form of religion – though he does not use the word “religion” – when he wrote, “For men will be lovers of self, lovers of money, boastful, arrogant…holding to a form of godliness, although they have denied its power” (2Ti 3:2-5 ) [italics added for emphasis].

Commentator Matthew Henry, perhaps, helps us understand the difference between true and false forms of religion when he writes in his commentary on this verse, “…people…make it [religion] a vain thing if they have only a form of godliness, and not the power.” Henry seems to be saying that even though the Christian religion in itself is true, people make their religion vain, or false, by practicing it in a manner that is contrary to what the Bible teaches they should believe and do.

Legalism and License

Such false or vain religion often takes one of two forms: 1) legalism; or 2) license (sometimes called antinomianism [anti – against, nomianism – law]. Note the following definitions of each. Legalism, in Christian theology, is a sometimes-pejorative term referring to an over-emphasis on discipline of conduct, or legal ideas, usually implying an allegation of misguided rigor, pride, superficiality, the neglect of mercy, and ignorance of the grace of God or emphasizing the letter of law over the spirit. In other words, more strict than the Scriptures require. License, licentiousness (or antinomianism), on the other hand, is lacking legal or moral restraints; especially disregarding sexual restraints; or, marked by disregard for strict rules of correctness. In other words, more lax than the Scriptures require.

True Religion versus Legalism and License

True religion is faith in God’s grace as the pre-eminent principle of redemption. Legalism is any view that obedience to law, not faith in God’s grace, is the pre-eminent principle of redemption. Its opposite is license, antinomianism, or licentiousness, which is the view that believing in Jesus Christ is the only requirement for receiving eternal life. Legalism says that my good works alone are the means to salvation. License says that faith alone is the means to salvation, but that good works do not necessarily follow faith. True religion says that one is saved by faith in the work of Christ alone, AND that good works necessarily follow and are evident in the life of the believer.

Alternatives: using Qualifying Words and Synonyms 

 I suggest two alternatives to consistently assigning negative connotations to the words “religion” and “religious.” The first alternative is to use qualifying words to accompany them. That’s what we find in Scripture. For example, pure and genuine religion, worthless religion, or simply false religion,  or true religion.  The second alternative is to use synonyms for false forms of religion such as, legalism, license, a form of godliness but denying its power, ceremonialism, formalism, inconsistency, superstitionfalse profession, Pharasaism, outward showtraditionalism, religious display, duplicitysanctimoniousness, self-righteousness, self-justification, or what seems to be a favorite of the biblical writers, hypocrisy. They often used the various forms of the word hypocrite, hypocrites, and hypocrisy to describe various forms of false religion or religious expression or activity. (Job 8:13, 13:16, 15:34, 17:8, 20:5, 27:8, 34:30, 36:13, Ps. 26:4; Prov. 11:9, Isa. 9:17, 33:14, Jer. 42:20; Matt. 6:2, 5, 16; 7:5; 15:7; 16:3; 22:18; 23:13-15, 23, 25, 27, 29; 24:51; Mk. 7:6; Lk. 6:42; 11:44; 12:56; 13:15; Gal. 2:13; Matt. 23:28; Mk. 12:15; Lk. 12:1; Rom. 12:9; Gal. 2:13; 1 Tim. 4:2, Jas. 3:17; 1 Pet. 2:1).

Using one of these examples, let’s see how Paul represented false and true religion in Gal. 2:13-14, “And the rest of the Jews also played the hypocrite with him, so that even Barnabas was carried away with their hypocrisy. But when I saw that they were not straightforward about the truth of the gospel, I said to Peter before them all, “If you, being a Jew, live in the manner of Gentiles and not as the Jews, why do you compel Gentiles to live as Jews?  (NKJ) Paul uses synonyms for what is false (hypocrisy) and what what is true (truth) in their current practice of the Christian religion (the gospel).

Religion versus Relationship?

Some say that Christianity is not a religion, rather, it’s a relationship – with God, with Jesus Christ, with the Holy Spirit, and with other Christians. My view is that it’s both a true religion – a system of biblical faith and practice – and that it is based on a right relationship with God made possible by the life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ and made manifest in the lives of Christians through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. Why not wed the two biblical concepts instead of divorcing them from one another?


It is my sincere desire that Christian public speakers and authors would once again adhere to the historic and biblical connotations for the words ‘religion’ and ‘religious’ and refrain from consistently assigning to them negative connotations. And that they would instead qualify the form of religion or religious expression to which they are referring – whether true or false according to the Bible – in one way or another. Otherwise, readers and listeners will become more and more confused about the true meaning of these two very biblical words.

by Daniel L. Sonnenberg, Wilmington, NC

Categories: Articles

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