By Dr. Mel Sensenig
I started watching a TV series this month that featured a rather stock Hollywood character, the crazy preacher threatening judgment on everyone in his small Midwestern town. This particular preacher sometimes even received messages from God through his defective hearing aid. It made me laugh – and it also made me think about how our spirituality is perceived by outsiders.
The caricatures that we see on TV of crazy religious people doing crazy things in the name of God is not just part of Hollywood’s so called war on religion. One can only make a caricature of something that actually exists. Toxic Christianity is a problem that has existed all throughout the church. The Protestant reformer Martin Luther, said, “…how are we to flee the world? Not by donning caps and creeping into a corner or going into the wilderness. You cannot so escape the devil and sin. Satan will as easily find you in the wilderness in a gray cap as he will in the market in a red coat. It is the heart which must flee, and that by keeping itself “unspotted from the world,” as James 1:27 says.” James was responding to a problem in the first century church. In fact, the Greek word for “religious” in James 1:26 refers to any kind of religious activity such as attendance at services, fasting, etc., in any religion. James also says in 1:26 that religion can be empty, or worthless. It’s a strong word, and is the same word used it to describe Israel’s idolatry for which the Lord eventually sent them into exile.
This reminded me again powerfully that there is such a thing as bad religion, and it can even be worse than no religion because it feeds our innate self-righteousness and leads us away from our total dependence upon Christ. In fact, Jonathan Edwards, the well-known Puritan preacher, said, “… the Scripture never uses such emphatical expressions concerning any other signs of hypocrisy, and unsoundness of heart, as concerning an unholy practice [of religion].” It’s astounding to think that there could be such a thing as an “unholy” expression of Christianity! But that is the testimony of Scripture and some of the church’s best teachers throughout the ages.
It makes me long for the pure, spotless religion that James describes and that the world respects: an accurate knowledge of my own spirituality, both its strengths and weaknesses, sincerity, peaceableness, care for the poor and the oppressed, all of which come, James says, from the new creation work of the Lord Jesus Christ. Any other source is just bad religion!