It is becoming common to hear people today  describe themselves as ‘spiritual but not  religious’. When pressed to explain, their idea  of what it is to be ‘spiritual’ is generally confined  to vague notions of higher thinking, a feeling of  self-realization and liberation. God may not have  anything to do with it. When it comes to the ‘not  religious’ part of it they are a lot clearer. They  do not want to be part of an organized church or  religious community. This is so because they are of  the opinion that it is not necessary to be part of an  organized religion to be spiritual or attain a higher  level of thinking. This opinion has spread to such  an extent that even many Christians have come to  regard organized religion of any kind as not only  dispensable, but an evil. What does this mean and  what are the implications for us?

Being spiritual but not religious becomes popular

During the 1930s a Lutheran pastor named Dietrich  Bonhoeffer coined the idea of “religionless  Christianity”. He became disillusioned with  institutional religion and determined to pursue a  Christian life without the trappings and ritual of  formal religion. Bonhoeffer was ultimately executed  by Hitler for his originality. One of the more well  known Bonhoeffer Christians is Australia’s former  prime minister and now foreign minister, Kevin  Rudd. To be free of the mind-numbing, meaningless  ritualism of church structures, seen for example in  Catholicism and Judaism, may have merit if that  is the only result intended. But the idea can end  by ‘throwing out the baby with the bathwater’.  It is popular today to say, “I’m spiritual but not  religious”, supposedly meaning that one can have  a relationship with God (possibly not even the  God of the Bible), without the trappings of an  outdated, rigid and ritualistic ‘church’ framework.  Some experiment with eastern mysticism or other  exotic disciplines in the search for self-realization  and that special feeling of ‘spirituality’. They have  deluded themselves that somehow the mysterious  other confers some esoteric sophistication that will  cause their heart to discover itself (see Prov 18:2).  The sad truth is there is precious little to be said  for the human heart without God (Jer 17:9; Mark  7:21–23). The problem is when people throw out  ‘organized religion’ they are throwing out a lot more  than they realize.

What is the problem with doing away with religion?

When we do away with religion we also throw out  the need to be reconciled to God, a concept that  Brother John Thomas takes great pains to explain  in Elpis Israel. He argues convincingly that man’s  sin separated him from God and since God is the  offended party, He therefore determines the terms  on which man can be reconciled to Him. This is  suggested by some authorities to be the meaning of  ‘religion’. Brother John Thomas writes, “The things  of the Way of Life constitute religion. As a word,  it is derived from the Latin religio, from religare,  which signifies to bind again; hence, religion is the  act of binding again, or that which heals a breach  … between two parties. This traditional idea the  Romans expressed by religio.” This way back to  God was the “way of the tree of life” of Eden and  God’s “way” of Noah’s day (Gen 6:12). It became  known simply as “the way” in apostolic times.  This clearly suggests there is a ‘divine etiquette’  to be observed in binding man back to God, that is  much more than mindless ritual (see Elpis Israel  p156,157).

Religion and humanism. The effect of humanism on  Christianity

The first tenet of humanism is that human nature  is innately good. As this view has gained currency  it has become widely believed that God accepts us  as we are and that we do not need to change. This  falsehood has been embraced by a large number  of Christian churches. Those that still have the  doctrine of man’s intrinsic bias to sin on their  books maintain an embarrassed silence about it,  unless they want to be branded narrow-minded  fundamentalists. In the new post-modern world certainty is the new sin and faith the new hubris.[1]  Enter post-modern Christianity and its champions,  men like pastor Brian McLaren, who epitomizes  the spiritual but not religious. Here’s an example  of his line: speaking of the Bible he says, “It’s not  a road-map to Heaven, it’s a manual for repairing  the world. It’s not about preserving the structures  of the Church but about staying true to the message  of Jesus.” A typical Christian social justice line that  sounds persuasive enough on the surface. However  McLaren, who was rated as one of Time’s top 25  American evangelists, has a clear post-modern  agenda. He was in Australia recently and shared  his vision that ‘everything must change’ for the  ‘emergent Church’ with Rachel Kohn, presenter of  the ABC’s “The Spirit of things”. McLaren, who has  multiple degrees in Arts and a doctorate in divinity,  said he appealed to ‘the spiritual, not religious’  and claimed Jesus never spoke about conversion.  See what I mean? No need for change in man. No  conversion. No ‘re-ligion’.

Christ and conversion

Actually, Jesus used the word “conversion” four times  in the gospels and expressed the idea in other words  many, many times. “From that time Jesus began to  preach, and to say, Repent: for the kingdom of heaven  is at hand” (Matt 4:17). And so did the apostles:  “Repent ye therefore, and be converted, that your sins  may be blotted out, when the times of refreshing shall  come from the presence of the Lord” (Acts 3:19).

Ecumenism now embraces those who in  McLaren’s words are “spiritual but not religious”.  People have forgotten that religion means to “bind  again” to God, from Whom man has been alienated.  McLaren really seriously misrepresents Jesus and  transforms him into a champion of humanism instead  of the manifestation of Yahweh to men. He embraces  the post-modernist position that the ultimate sin is  to be certain. Yet Jesus’ whole message of hope  is the certainty of his return and establishment of  the Kingdom of God and His righteousness as the  solution to the world’s dilemma.

Religion and the word of reconciliation

The religion-free spirit is violently opposed to all  that God’s Word teaches about the principles of  the new covenant, what the Apostle Paul calls “the  word of reconciliation” (2 Cor 5:19). It demands  the death of the “old man”, symbolized by baptism  and the rise of a “new man” in the image of God.  Of course, God hates worship that is inflexible,  mindless and lacking in spontaneity. But there is  a divinely ordained etiquette by which God must  be approached and a divinely ordained body, the  ecclesia, founded to nurture faith. This divinely  established approach, called “His Way” as early as  the time of the flood, was delivered at a great cost  to God, and demands a serious commitment from  man. How could an arrangement involving such  an enormous cost to God, the sacrifice of His own  Son, confer so much benefit to man and yet make  no demands upon him? This question is completely  disregarded by the arrogance of humanism. It  is the pinnacle of conceit to think we can have  a relationship with God without embracing the  “ministry of reconciliation”.

Religion and the privilege of God’s covenant

Psalm 50 is God’s response to such thinking.  Verse 5 introduces the covenant: “Gather my  saints together unto me; those that have made a  covenant with me by sacrifice. And the heavens  shall declare his righteousness: for God is judge  himself.” Consider the whole Psalm in relation to  the privilege of the new covenant, what it costs  and what it requires of us to be re-tied back to God  by a covenant. Does God want ritual sacrifice?  No, the cattle upon a thousand hills are His. Does  the flesh of bulls or the blood of goats move Him?  No, of course not! But never fall into the opposite  conceit and think that God is “altogether such an  one as thyself”; that He can be treated lightly and  that He turns a blind eye to sin. For those God has a  warning: “… consider this, ye that forget God, lest  I tear you in pieces, and there be none to deliver.”  So what does God want of us? He tells the reader  in verse 14: “Offer unto God thanksgiving; and  pay thy vows unto the most High.” Clearly the  covenant God “made … by sacrifice” with His  people enjoins certain obligations upon them, to  “pay (their) vows” declaring his righteousness and  “offer … thanksgiving”. These are the functions of  ‘re-ligion’.

Paul in the letter to the Hebrews is at pains to  emphasize the indispensability of the covenant God  has held out to us in His Son. He quotes from the  prophet Jeremiah: “… this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, saith  the Lord; I will put my laws into their mind and  write them in [upon] their hearts: and I will be to  them a God, and they shall be to me a people … For  I will be merciful to their unrighteousness, and their  sins and their iniquities will I remember no more”  (Heb 8:10–12). Compare what he says in Romans  2:14,15: “For when the Gentiles, which have not the  law, do by nature the things contained in the law,  these, having not the law, are a law unto themselves:  Which shew the work of the law written in their  hearts, their conscience also bearing witness…”  How does something get written on your heart?  When it has an emotional impact: things like the  “strong crying and tears” of Christ are examples of  powerful emotions at work in the struggle between  flesh and spirit (Heb 5:7,8).

‘Re-ligion’ and spirituality. God’s covenant produces  Spirituality

The new covenant involves an intimate relationship  between God and His people based on emotion, a  relationship of the heart. God says He will write it  there. How will He do this? By the emotional impact  of His own Son’s sacrifice. By the emotional impact  of the experiences He allows to occur in our lives.  Hence Paul urges, “despise not thou the chastening  of the Lord” (Heb 12:5). Things written this way  are indelibly stamped not just on our minds but  our hearts. These things will influence our actions  powerfully and spontaneously in a way nothing else  can because they arise from something deep within  our mind, things inextricably associated with who  we are, the springs of our feelings and actions. The  disciples were powerfully moved, shaken to the  core, by the death and resurrection of their Lord  and Master. We too should never underestimate  the power and significance of this event upon our  lives. There can be no transition from darkness to  light, no movement from apathy to action without  emotion. “When the emotions are stirred the will  is energized”, says Dennis Gillett. This in turn will  produce true spirituality, the spiritual-mindedness  which is “life and peace” (Rom 8:6).

What is spirituality?

There are as many versions of ‘spirituality’ among  men as there are days in the year. Recently the  environmentalist John Seed used the expression  “eco-spirituality” in an interview on the ABC. His  version of spirituality saw us all embracing the  “spirit”, which he used interchangeably with the  “soul” of not only animals, but of the rivers and  mountains. The truth is most people have a very  vague notion of what spirituality is and more often  than not, it has little or nothing to do with God.

Throughout the Bible, spirituality is represented  in a variety of ways, but in the end it always relates  to thinking like God and seeing life through His  eyes. Here are some defining Biblical expressions  of spirituality:

to “walk with elohim”

to “see the sun”

to “enter into that within the veil”

to “walk in the light”

to know “the mystery of godliness”

to “be perfect”

to “put on the new man, which after God is  created in righteousness and true holiness” and  “be renewed in the spirit of your mind”

to “be transformed by the renewing of your  mind”.

If we were to look at each of these phrases in  their contexts we would readily see the developing  pattern. They all convey the idea of a relationship  with God in which God’s thoughts influence the  mind of men and women and His character is  expressed in their actions. This is a long way from  the vague notions of the philosophy and vain deceit  of men.

Spirituality or spiritual mindedness is referred  to by Paul in Romans to contrast with carnal  mindedness or the thinking of the flesh. He says  true spiritual mindedness is “life and peace”, the  very things that elude so many seekers for selfrealization.  In fact, Paul goes so far as to say that  they that are “in the flesh” cannot please God (Rom  8:8). True spiritual mindedness is so far removed  from the popular notion of ‘spirituality’ as to be  the opposite. Spirituality is thought to be selfrealization.  The Bible says it is self-abnegation.  This denial of self allows the thinking of God, real  spirituality, to develop. “You, however, are not in  the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God  dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit  of Christ does not belong to him. But if Christ is  in you, although the body is dead because of sin,  the Spirit is life because of righteousness” (Rom  8:9,10 esv). So ‘spirituality’ or spiritual mindedness is thinking like Yahweh, our Creator, and it cannot  be reached without the sublimation of self first. This  involves us assimilating the principles of Christ’s  offering into ourselves. Christ showed in his life  and death that the full manifestation of God is only  achieved through the sacrifice of self. So spirituality  and religion go hand in hand.

It is impossible to be spiritual without being religious

Ultimately the greatest casualty of the ‘spiritual but  not religious’ delusion has to be our appreciation  of the grace of God extended in the giving of His  Son. This may well be the reason Psalm 50 laid  such emphasis on “offering thanksgiving”. To  labour under the illusion that one can somehow  be ‘spiritual’ without embracing God’s way of  reconciliation, is surely to tread under foot the  Son of God, to count the blood of the covenant  an unholy thing and to do despite to the Spirit  of grace (Heb 10:29). In seeking true spiritual  mindedness we must embrace the whole counsel  of God, remembering it is impossible to be truly  spiritual without being religious. “Let us draw near  with a true heart in full assurance of faith, having  our hearts sprinkled from an evil conscience, and  our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast  the profession of our faith without wavering; (for  he is faithful that promised;) And let us consider  one another to provoke unto love and to good  works: Not forsaking the assembling of ourselves  together, as the manner of some is; but exhorting  one another: and so much the more, as ye see the  day approaching” (Heb 10:22–25).


[1] Post-modernism is a refinement of humanism and rejectingobjective truth is its cornerstone. It bases “truth” and reality ona local narrative or “story” that is true for one class or culture. It does not even have to follow reason, as modernism did.