Different Conceptions Of Religion

Sometimes we ask stupid questions, not because everyone doesn't know the answer already, but rather because not everyone is ready to apply the answer. Accepting and applying are very different actions. Here's a stupid question – "Is everyone alike?" Of course not, we all accept that, but are we ready to apply what we accept? Let me illustrate by asking another question: "Do you ever get mad, irritated, and frustrated because others do not think like you?" Have you ever wondered, "Why can't people think more like me?" Well, duh! Not everyone is alike! If you are married this is a daily test!

And again, sometimes we ask stupid questions because not everyone has thought through the answer adequately. In others words, people give short answers that sound good, but are not always totally accurate. Let's ask another question to help demonstrate – "What is the purpose of a vehicle?" Did you say, "To get from point A to point B?" If there is only one purpose for a vehicle, then why are there so many different types?

I drive a truck – a big truck. The purpose is not just to get from point A to point B. It is also to haul, pull, and make me feel like a man when I haul, pull, and ride with manly dignity! (GRUNT!)
I also ride a motorcycle. Is the purpose to get from point A to point B? Not usually. The purpose is to have fun, or to relax, and to surprise people who think preachers don't ride motorcycles. I love doing that!
I also have a minivan. I do not drive it because it makes me feel like a man. I do not drive it because it is fun. I drive it to get from point A to point B…but because it is big enough for the entire family it is mainly designed to get many people from one point to another.

In others words, yes vehicles are meant to get us from point A to point B, but our vehicles say a lot about us on our journey.

Could we say the same is true about religion? Christianity is designed to get us from point A (i.e., earth) to point B (i.e., heaven). But our conception of Christianity says a lot about us on our journey.

Don't misunderstand. I am not saying there is more than one road to heaven – Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life ( Jn.14:6). There isn't any other road (Acts 4:12). Neither am I saying there are different truths for different people. I am saying that we travel that one road sometimes differently…for different reasons. Stay with me….

Understanding that we are not all alike, and don't have all the same goals, helps us to learn how to get along with others spiritually. If we can remember that God made us differently, and that God made us with different goals, talents, mentalities, then we will not automatically get defensive when disagreeing. We won't bristle that their way is against our way, or their view is against our view. Both ways and both views can be scriptural if they are both found in the word of God. Both views and goals might be complementary instead of contradictory.

In William Barclay's introduction to Hebrews, he describes four distinct, yet proper biblical conceptions of religion:

"An Inward Fellowship with God" – "It is a union with Christ so close and so intimate that the Christian can be said to live in Christ and Christ to live in him. That was Paul's conception of religion. To him it was something which mystically united him with God."
"A Standard for Life and a Power to Reach that Standard" – On the whole that is what religion was to James and to Peter. It was something which showed them what life ought to be and which enabled them to attain it."
"The Highest Satisfaction of their Minds" – "Their minds seek and seek until they find that they can rest in God. It was Plato who said that 'the unexamined life is the life not worth living.' There are some men who must understand or perish. On the whole that is what religion was to John. The first chapter of his gospel is one of the greatest attempts in the world to state religion in a way that really satisfies the mind."
"Access to God" – It is that which removes the barriers and opens the door to his living presence. That is what religion was to the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews. With that idea his mind was dominated. He found in Christ the one person who could take him into the very presence of God. His whole idea of religion is summed up in the great passage in Hebrews 10:19-23….If the writer to the Hebrews had one text it was: 'Let us draw near.'" (Barclay, Hebrews, pp.1-2)

Maybe a practical way to describe these four purposes is:
Spiritually Personal
Spiritually Practical
Spiritually Intellectual
Spiritually Approachable

When we look at ourselves and others, we can see that different Christians, preachers, elders, teachers, emphasize different approaches. Each approach is good. Understanding each approach is better. Learning to emphasize all four within our own lives is best.

What about the brother who often speaks of his walk with God and having a close association with Jesus? The first approach is most likely his conception of religion. To him, the emphasis is not on the fear of God (although he believes in it), but the love of God. His emphasis is God coming to him through Jesus Christ to share in a relationship. He might show this in a more casual prayer language or even in his dress. Jesus is his friend.

And then there is the brother or sister who wants simple, down to earth, practical teaching. Which category would you put them in? How about the second description above. Give him a list of things that are right or wrong. Show him how to live, but not with any highfalutin hypothesis, but rather some simple sermons. James is a great example of this, having been dubbed "the Proverbs of the N.T." The Bible is his guidebook.

The third group listed describes the brother who is fascinated by the deep things of God and His teaching. His intellectual curiosity can cause aggravation for some. He wants to dig and dig, to question, and then to question the answer, to be intellectually illuminated so that he can be spiritually illuminated. He is genuinely excited when he inwardly says, "Aha! Now I understand!" Is that scriptural? Well, yes, just study the writings of John. And then restudy the writings of John again and again. The Holy Spirit is his teacher.

Let's say there is a brother who doesn't often mention grace or love, but instead emphasizes the fear of God. If a brother often talks about fearing God, which approach do you think he takes? It could be the last one – he understands that God's holiness is transcendent and his sin separates him from God. He understands God's righteousness is far above his own and has a holy fear about God. He appreciates his own sinfulness and has a healthy fear of doing wrong. God is his judge.

Each of these four approaches is right. Each one has its merits. So the next time we just don't seem to connect with someone, let ask a smart question – "What can I learn from people who are different than me?"

By Perry D. Hall

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