It’s a really harsh title, especially coming from a pastor. It’s a crude title, but it’s completely biblical. Sadly, biblical or not, it resonates with people. For me, this is what validates the Bible: that thing you hate about religion, Jesus probably condemns it. That thing you don’t like about God, the Bible probably doesn’t even present God in that light. Saint Paul said religion was ‘crap’- I’ll show you in a minute. James went so far as to redefine religion as something that could pretty much only happen outside of a church building. Jesus was basically crucified for His attitude about the religious system of His own day. Let’s explore.
Straight From The Bible
Let’s talk Greek. Skybalon was the ancient greek word Paul chose to use to classify all the many things he had done up to that point that would have deeply impressed most religious leaders of his day (Philippians 3:8). Skybalon was a word that people used to talk about excrement, trash on the side of the road, the rotten fish floating on the edge of the pond, nasty food under the lunch table- anything repulsive. It was a harsh word, a word that made you cringe, not only because of the category of material, but also because it was a coarse word in the culture. We have a modern day equivalent: “crap”. Right? That stuff under the table, the stuff the garbage man left on the front lawn that fell out of the truck, the stuff that didn’t get flushed- it’s all “crap”. It’s the word that shouldn’t be said from the stage on Sunday. We don’t like to hear our kids say it, even though we say it. You get the point…
Now, to the Bible: In Philippians 3, Paul spends a few sentences talking about his religious success in the eyes of his culture. Let’s simplify everything: In verse 6, in the midst of some specifics that would have spoken volumes of implications in the first century, Paul simply says that in all kinds of “legalistic righteousness” he was absolutely “faultless”. This meant that Paul had more rules memorized than the rabbis, had spent more time in church than the pews, he had given more money, he had out-argued more critics, he had dotted every “i” and crossed every “t”. In a Jewish system that was based on about 600 rules and regulations, Paul was as perfect as you could be. Paul was a religious superstar. Then, having summed all of that up in verse 6, Paul drops the bomb. Paul goes nuclear. “I consider all that ‘skybalon’.” This. Was. Scandalous!
Jesus or Religion? The Choice Is Yours…
Digest that last paragraph. It’s not controversial in interpretation. I’m taking no liberties. This is the essence of what Paul said about a righteousness that had come from following rules and being religious: he said he considered all that stuff crap.
HOWEVER… he gives us the alternative. This is important, not only for our spiritual health, but also to help us make the VERY important distinction between Jesus and religion. It’s super-important that everybody realize that Jesus and His lifestyle are one pursuit, while religion is a completely separate pursuit. (Which are you pursuing? Which is your church or past church pursuing?)
“I consider them rubbish (skybalon), that I may gain Christ… I want to know Christ and the power of His resurrection.”
“Them”, in that thought, refers back to Paul’s religious accomplishments.
So, according to Paul, there is religion and there is a separate spiritual pursuit: knowing Jesus. Religion is crap. Knowing Jesus is life-giving. Paul associates knowing Jesus with power, joy, fulfillment, peace, and all sorts of other states-of-being that we all aspire to. Religion is something you do to feel like you have done enough to be OK with God. Knowing Jesus is about having a genuine friendship with Someone who leads you toward a fulfilling life. Jesus offers peace and confidence with God. Jesus’ lifestyle leads us to make a difference in the world.
There’s A Baby In The Bathwater!
I still do a lot of things associated with religion. I read my Bible to learn about Jesus’ way of life, which leads me down paths of fulfillment and peace in life. I go to church because I love the people at Polaris and I love to be a part of the community/tribe that God’s been building throughout biblical history. I pray because I’m talking with Somone I know. I try to eliminate impure thoughts from my life; not to avoid being punished by an angry God, but because it seems like purity produces a more peaceful state of mind and a better world to live in. Jesus moves you forward. Religion keeps you stuck, or worse, pulls you backwards.
James redifenes religion altogether, calling it the actions of caring for the underdogs in life. Pure religion, James says, is about caring for orphans and widows. It’s that simple. It has nothing to do with rituals or kneeling or chanting stuff. In the Old Testament, God says all He requires is for us to live justly, be merciful, and walk with Him relationally in humility.
It’s OK To Move Past Religion
If your experience of church is following a bunch of rules and doing a bunch of things and listening to endless droning on- but you realize you don’t know Jesus, really- let’s call what you’ve been exposed to what it really is: “crap”. I would encourage you to make the important distinction Paul made: there’s religion and then there’s knowing Jesus. He clearly labeled all pursuits that may seem religious but don’t ultimately help you really know Jesus “skybalon“… it happens.
I would encourage you to abandon the things and environments that, up until now, have not led you to friendship with Jesus. Find places and pursuits that will help you know Him and His incredible approach to life. You might start with the gospels themselves, Matthew, Mark, Luke & John an online Bible will put you in the right place. Type “Matthew 1” in the search box. To the right, I suggest using the New International Version or the New Living Traslation. There are churches out there that can help you know Jesus, love people, and make a difference in the world. Find one and join that community- you’ll just know, it will feel different.
Some of you will struggle with the phrase, “Religion is crap.” I realize that’s shocking and sounds blasphemous. Trust me, that’s the word Paul used in his language. Philippians could be accurately translated using that word, it was that shocking and Paul was intentionally condemning rituals that didn’t bring people toward friendship with Jesus. I realize that if you’ve only been exposed to religion and never really connected with Jesus personally, this all may seem weird or cultish. The Word of God defines two separate pursuits: religion and Jesus. I’d rather face God knowing Jesus personally than being religious! It seems there are two kinds of Christians: There are religious Christians. They generally believe the right things but have nothing real to face life’s struggles. Then there are Christians who know Jesus personally. They have substance and depth to walk through life’s storms. I’d rather know Jesus than be religious.
I hope you’ll spend the rest of your life rejecting any spiritual pursuit that doesn’t lead you toward friendship with Jesus or that doesn’t somehow end up as an outward expression of love for people. I’ve decided what I want to do with my life is to be a good husband, good Dad, and to help people move toward knowing Jesus like they would a real person. I fundamentally and wholeheartedly reject religion as it’s commonly known. I have found all I need for a peaceful and fulfilling life. It’s friendship with Jesus, living out His lifestyle of love, and enjoying the community He came to build! I hope you’ll join me!