Gleanings – The Limits of Religion

Colossians 2:8-23

“These have indeed the appearance of wisdom . . . but are of no value in checking the indulgences of the flesh.”

Religious activity, things like observing holy days and seasons, fasting, self-denial, and even observing the Sabbath are good things when held in proper perspective. One, the limits of religious activity must be readily acknowledged. And two, religious activities can never be made a law, that is imposed upon the Church or Christians.

One, there are limits. Going to church does not make one a Christian any more than sitting in a library makes you a book or sitting in McDonald’s makes you a hamburger. Christianity is always a matter of the heart and lots of people practice religion without ever experiencing a change of heart. We take communion because we are in communion with God not because taking communion will create communion that otherwise does not exist. And no amount of religious activity will “check” our sinful desires and indulgences of the flesh. Going to church weekly does not prevent one from abusing his spouse or children every Sunday afternoon. In fact the abuse may be as religiously observed as attending worship.

This is not to say religious activity is never good. It is often good, very good. But its power and witness are always diminished when it does not reflect a transformation already going on within us. The church promotes an appearance of unity when it does things together when in reality its relationships are filled with strife. The onlooker sneers and says “No surprise. Exactly what I expected.”

Two, religious activities can never be made law. Paul asks, “Why do you submit to regulations, “Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch?” Ours is a faith of obedience but not to religious activity or even church rules. Our obedience is to Jesus, who said “love your neighbor as yourself” but never said “abstain from meat on Friday.” Electing to abstain is one thing. Having to abstain is another. I fasted often as a missionary in Bolivia because I wanted to grapple with the deprivation people endured. I did not fast in concert with other religious people because the church said I must. Personal devotions of my own choosing are within my freedom for obedience. Devotions as a rule not so much!

So does our religious activity reflect real change within us or are we just going through the motions and/or following the rules? Do we understand the lack of power within the activity to produce what it purports to represent? Finally do we stand firm when the church imposes upon us law when it was freedom for obedience we were granted by Christ? If not, how will people ever understand Grace and Gospel?

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