“Christianity is not a religion.”

“Christianity is not a religion.” If I’ve heard it once, I’ve heard it a thousand times. It breaks my heart every time.

Only someone who doesn’t understand what religion is could even consider making a statement like this. Religion is the form of a relationship with a deity. All relationships have form, and we ignore the form to the peril of the relationship.

A marriage, for example, is unmistakably a relationship, but it’s very existence depends upon the form, or the “rules” that comprise and preserve the relationship. Imagine saying, “Honey, I love you, but I just don’t understand why you want me to sleep at home all the time. I can’t handle all these rules, I just want a relationship with you.” Or how about this, “Honey, I know we’re married, and I love you so much, but I want to go out to eat with other women at least twice a week.” How long do you think that relationship is going to last?

What so many who proclaim this platitude actually mean is that Christianity is not an exercise of “legalism.” True enough; emphatically so. As Dallas Willard was fond of saying, however, “Grace is opposed to earning, not to effort.”

The existence of your relationship with God depended entirely upon His effort, but the maintenance of that relationship in healthy fashion very much involves you coming into alignment with God’s views on reality and the reshaping of your beliefs and behavior with what He defines as good, beautiful and true. This process of transformation involves intangible realities like “relationship,” but all intangibles are displayed, evaluated, and nurtured via the tangible.

The internal (relationship) and the external (religion) are never supposed to be divorced. Instead, God designed them to be concomitant. The word “religion” comes from the same Latin root from which we get our word “ligament.” Ligare means “to bind,” just as a ligament binds muscle to bone.

…all intangibles are displayed, evaluated, and nurtured via the tangible.

Imagine beginning a relationship without an external (tangible) form. It’s impossible. Whether it begins with a question (speech act), “Will you be my girlfriend?” or a commitment of time together, it is impossible for the relationship to begin or persist without the exercise or avoidance of external acts.

Want to nurture that fledgling relationship? You bind the other to you via externals like writing letters, making phone calls, going places together, and also by externals you carefully avoid: writing letters to different girls, spending time with other girls, etc.

All relationships have and require form. We call the external display/exercise of relationship with a deity: religion. The conduct of a religion simultaneously displays and deepens our allegiance (bond) to that deity. Christianity is very much a religion; in fact, it is the only true religion. It is a religion we delight in because of the existence of our relationship with God, which He provided by grace through faith, so that, we might walk in the good works He prepared beforehand for us to do (Eph 2:8-10).

Final note: in a contemporary culture that suffers from a glut of denominations who first hollowed out their external structures from any internal significance and then crumbled all together so that only the shell of a former profound worship exists, it is easy to disdain the externals and proclaim the exclusive necessity of the internal realities. This is precisely what North American evangelicalism has done. The problem is that hollow, legalistic externals and incoherent, unsupported internal emphases are both equally destructive. We are presently reaping the whirlwind of both errors.

Is it not most irrational to accuse religion because of the scandalous ways of some individuals, while simultaneously completely slighting and overlooking the holy and heavenly walk of many others? Are all who profess godliness loose and careless in their lives? No, some are an ornament to their faith and the glory of Christ. Why must the innocent be condemned with the guilty? Would you condemn the eleven disciples on the actions of one Judas?

John Flavel (d. 1691), ed. Jason Roth. Keeping the Heart: In Modern English (p. 11).

Defining Pornography

  • lurid or sensational material; often used in combination.
  • a description of or treatise on prostitutes or prostitution; hence, obscene writing
  • licentious painting or literature; especially, the painting anciently employed to decorate the walls of rooms devoted to bacchanalian orgies.
  • the depiction of acts in a sensational manner so as to arouse a quick intense emotional reaction
  • sexually explicit writing, images, video, or other material whose primary purpose is to cause sexual arousal

I have been reluctant to address this issue because it is so distasteful, but given that it has now become the ‘coin of the realm’, so to speak (meaning that it is not just available, but part of the normative content of our culture), I think it has become imperative to speak in order that we might share a common definition, reject all that tears down rather than builds up, and pursue the ideal that God established.

Here’s a bit of the history that led me to this commentary. Of all things, my 72-year-old mother sent me an article by Dr. Michael Brown addressing a hit song/video by Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion. Now I’m aware that Cardi B exists, but have ignored her as eminently distasteful. I’ve never heard of the other lady.

So I googled up the lyrics to see what all the fuss was about. I do not recommend this, and would caution anyone reading that these lyrics will provoke an emotional reaction similar to what Phinehas must have felt before he drove the spear through the couple cavorting in front of the Tabernacle (Numbers 25:1-9).

Incensed, depressed, and seeking to galvanize the faithful, I posted on my FB page:

“Let us be honest, forthright, and clear. There ought to be no fuzziness here. The hit song WAP by Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion is pornography.

The lyrics are pornographic; the video is pornographic. That this is not just tolerated in our society but trumpeted and celebrated, is simultaneously a terrible indictment of our culture’s present disease, and will be an inestimably destructive force on the mental, emotional, and spiritual well-being of our culture: men and women.”

And here’s where the real turn happens…

A dear friend of mine, a former roommate from Bible School, commented, “…It was definitely erotic with a lot of imagery. Can’t say it reaches the level of pornography….”

Yesterday I was depressed; now I am roused to battle.

So let’s talk pornography… what is it, how ought we to define it, and what is its opposite?

This song (WAP) is pornography by very definition. The first use of the word in English that we know of is traced to 1842, but it comes to us from the Ancient Greek, πορνογράφος (pornographos), where it referred to writings about prostitution. It’s a compound word comprised of πόρνη (pornē), “prostitute” and γράφω (graphō), “I write.”

This song begins, “There’s some whores in this house,” repeated four times. This is literally writing about prostitutes.

If we turn to the Scriptures we find that πορνεία (porneia) referred first to prostitution: sex for sale, but quickly came to refer to any illicit sexuality: that is, sex used for purposes or in a manner twisted from God’s intent, marital intimacy and procreation. So, sex used as an exchange, used to procure desired ends, used to covenant with anyone other than a spouse, or in the service of a deity, was all abhorrent: pornographic. The song describes exclusively pornographic exercise of sexuality for anti-biblical, ungodly purposes, and in lurid, sensational, exchange-oriented, control-focused manner. (pornography: lurid or sensational material, often used in combination. The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, 5th Edition.)

The next evolution of the word, was in the Roman period where it came to describe “licentious painting or literature; especially, the painting anciently employed to decorate the walls of room devoted to bacchanalian orgies.” (Collaborative International Dictionary of English). Think, the walls of Pompeii, which I cannot even use here in exemplary manner. Here we find the genesis of pornography being associated with images.

Each of the three women highlighted in this video (Cardi B, Megan Thee Stallion, and Kylie Jenner) are dressed like prostitutes, and engaged in lurid, sensational, enticing, and obscene (“abhorrent to morality or virtue; specifically, designed to incite to lust or depravity) behavior. The fact that the visual aspect of this song/video doesn’t rise to the extremes of what we now commonly call pornography reveals the depths to which our society has descended, not an inaccuracy of definition. And that is precisely part of what moves me so profoundly to something bordering on despair. As a father, I am filled with slow burning, deep running rage at the devastating harm this pornographic putrescence wreaks upon our children.

We ought now to speak of the “pornographic” nature of non-sexual things. Violence is the other porn of our culture. Here’s the thing: porn is the lurid display of natural but unrestrained passions. We’re all familiar with the term “blood-lust,” but have you considered that in the devolution of mores, culture, of humanity, the perversion of sex comes first and is followed by an even deeper twisting where violence becomes entertainment. Christians, myself included, we have been taken unawares: caught by a more profound perversion while protesting the one that was first waved in our faces.

Revenge-story? Not for Christians. “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, saith the Lord.” John Wick-fan? That’s pornography. Here’s a thought: in ancient Israel, when coming back from war the men had to remain outside the village in order that they not bring the impurity of violence and bloodshed into the home environment. What do we do? We pay for it to be streamed into our living room. Christians ought to abhor the pornographic display of any passion used in a restraint-exceeding manner.

That sounds so tame, so antiseptic, so non-threatening, but our reaction ought to be like that of St. James, “And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by hell” (James 3:1-12).

And if the tongue, how much more so the hand raised in violent intent or the genitals lifted in ungodly pursuit of wicked design? If the tongue is a forest fire, the raging hand is a conflagration, and the rebellious genitalia an inferno.

Prescriptive Foundations for the People of God

We must first establish the underlying, persistent authority of the Old Testament and only then ask whether that authority has specific prescriptive application to ourselves. Let us make it clear in no uncertain terms that the enduring authority of the Old Testament is a fundamental requirement for canonicity, for interpretation, and for application (2 Timothy 3:16). In every circumstance we are beholden to the foundational nature of the Torah for our initial guidance. In our individual lives and in history, humans learn what is good and proper by observation first.

The law of God, wherever it appears in Scripture (from Genesis to Revelation), always displays the character of God applied to human affairs. This is as true of Genesis 9 as of Exodus 20, and of Leviticus 23 as of Matthew 5-7.

While a specific case law instantiates a particular enduring ethical principle, the transitory specificity of the case does not obviate the enduring application of the moral law. So, for example, while we no longer use flat roofs for hosting social gatherings, I remain constrained by Deuteronomy 22:8 to salt my sidewalks when icy and to put a fence around my swimming pool, and if it should become the case that roofs once again become a common gathering place, I will once again be commanded to build a parapet around my roof.

Furthermore, this case law has civil import. We are instructed in the proper extent of civil government by Deuteronomy 22:8, which has no penalty for failing to build a parapet, unless someone dies as a consequence of not having done so, in which case the negligent offender is guilty of manslaughter. While it is accurate to recognize that we are no longer commanded that each contemporary government should make it a law that roofs have parapets, each government is commanded to punish those who fail to love their neighbor in such a way that the neighbor is harmed.

Furthermore, that same government is constrained from interfering until such harm occurs: the civil government is given the sword: “an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer.” (Rom 13:4).

It is essential we recognize that the Apostolic Scriptures introduce no innovation, rather they reveal what has always been but was not recognized. They amplify what has been previously declared, revealing what has always been the intent. Nothing is overturned by the Apostolic writers, rather the deeper and the broader is revealed, hidden as it were, among the already declared. We see above how Romans 13:1-8 amplifies the content contained in Deuteronomy 22:8.

Jesus’ walk with his two disciples on the road to Emmaus is the quintessential display of the New Testament’s function. At first sight, the two disciples do not recognize Jesus in front of their eyes, but, “beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself” (Lk 24:27).

There is a primary and essential continuity between the Hebrew and the Apostolic scriptures, and there is no division between law and grace except in function. The law on its own multiplies sin and condemns the sinner, but the law when paired with grace is no longer “the law of sin and death” but “the law of the Spirit of life. (Romans 8:2). It is, indeed, the same law, but transformed in function; it no longer condemns but now guides the redeemed and regenerate man, and to the Spirit-enlivened eyes it now illumines the way of Christ. So could David exclaim, “Oh how I love your law,” and “In the way of your testimonies I delight as much as in all riches” (Psalm 119:97,14). “I will run in the way of your commandments when you set my heart free!” (Psalm 119:32).

No sooner have I penned these words then I hear the forthcoming chorus of “buts.” “But Acts 10.” “But Romans 14:14.” Yes, and but Colossians 2:16-17, but Romans 10:4, and Galatians 3:13. And I might reply “but Matthew 5:17 and Romans 7:12.” BUT, the solution is not in pitting these passages against each other, but in finding the simplest and most contiguous reading that allows these passages to faithfully complement one another. In obedience to the laws of hermeneutics and of logic (that we might not multiply complexity beyond necessity), we ought to read these passages, so far as possible, through the eyes of their initial recipients, never permitting our interpretation to cause contradiction among them, and never allowing our interpretive understanding to undermine corollary principles, e.g., the rules of canonicity, or credulity.

Why the Festivals of the Lord?

The common view is that the Tabernacle/Temple system used to function but now has passed away. The reality is that the Tabernacle system was always a shadow of the real that is in heaven. The functions of the Mosaic system always taught us about the universal reality of who God is and what He is doing across history, and in shadow-form displayed for us what occurs in heaven (the high priestly function of Christ).

In similar fashion, the feasts of the Lord from Leviticus 23 teach and remind us of the historic, present, and future events which comprise what we might call redemptive history. Their didactic, formative, enlightening, celebratory, and anticipatory function has no more passed away than has God’s intent to save the elect. These festivals predict, enflesh, describe, and memorialize the redemptive acts of God in history. How could we possibly ignore them?

Too often these festivals are pitted against Christmas and Easter, as if one must pick between the two sets of observances. Horrors. If you, as I, can’t imagine ignoring the Incarnation or the Resurrection, why would you ignore the Atonement, the Ingathering, or the Wedding Feast of the Lamb?

One of the graces of serving a timeless God is that what He determined in the beginning is as certainly accomplished as what we have already witnessed. Whether we celebrate those acts of God that have already occurred because they make us who we are, or we anticipate those acts of God that comprise our hope, we have been given the great gift of holy days to memorialize the saving purpose of God in history: then backwards and then forwards, as now.

If anyone—before or after Christ’s first advent—looked to the keeping of the festivals as an aspect of justification they will stand condemned at the judgement seat. The same thing was true and remains true of the sacrifices. They functioned temporally to make physical access to the earthly Tabernacle permissible, but have never and will never take away sin (Hebrews 10:4).

Just as being an American is in no way dependent upon celebrating July 4th, but no American can imagine foregoing the memorial of our nation’s birthday, the festivals of the Lord have nothing to do with making us God’s people, but everything to do with the lived experience of being God’s people.

Some History of Anglicanism

from the Preface to the Book of Common Prayer, 2019

Christianity—the fullness of the good news about Jesus Christ—came very early to what would eventually be called Anglia (England) through the witness of soldiers, sailors, merchants, and missionaries. Legend holds that the biblical tomb-giver, Joseph of Arimathea, was among the first of those scattered evangelists.

The early Christian mission in the British Isles was an encounter with pagan tribes and societies. Converts banded together, and in this context communities of common prayer, learning, and Christ-like service emerged, living under agreed rules. Thus “monasteries” became centers of the evangelization of this remote region of the Roman world, and ever more so as the empire disintegrated. Early heroes and heroines leading such communities bore names that are still remembered and celebrated, names like Patrick, Brigid, David, Columba, Cuthbert, and Hilda. Haphazardly, and without a centralized hierarchy or authority, what emerged in Britain, by God’s grace, was a Church that saw herself, in each of her local manifestations, as part of the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church: culturally attuned and missionary adaptive, but ever committed to and always propagating “the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 1:3).

Reform came in various waves, based more in the Roman systems of Diocese and parish. At the end of the sixth century, Augustine, a Benedictine monk and first Archbishop of Canterbury, was sent out from Rome by Pope Gregory the Grea with instructions that encouraged preservation of local customers when they did not conflict with universal practice. Dunstant, 25th Archbishop of Canterbury, great reformer of common worship, and Anselm, 36th Archbishop, early scholastic theologian, were among notable monastic successors of this far more hierarchical Roman mission. Closer connection to the continent and distance from the Patristic era also meant that from the seventh century onward, British faith and order were increasingly shaped by efforts to create a universal western patriarchate at Rome. The Norman Conquest of the 11th century also played a role in diminishing the distinguishing peculiarities of Ecclesia Anglicana. Liturgy also became increasingly complicated and clericalized.

All across Europe, the sixteenth century was marked by reform of the received tradition. So great was this period of reevaluation, especially concerning the primacy of the Holy Scriptures, that the whole era is still known to us as the Reformation.

Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, 69th Archbishop of Canterbury, who was martyred at Oxford in 1556, led the English phase of this reform of Church life and Church worship. Undoubtedly Cranmer’s most enduring achievement was his replacement of the numerous books of the Latin liturgy with a carefully compiled Book of Common Prayer. This was a Prayer Book in the vernacular, one which brilliantly maintained the traditional patterns of worship, yet which sought to purge away from worship all that was “contrary to Holy Scripture or to the ordering of the Primitive Church.” The Book of Common Prayer, from the first edition of 1549, became the hallmark of a Christian way of worship and believing that was both catholic and reformed, continuous yet always renewing. According to this pattern, communities of prayers—congregations and families rather than the monasteries of the earliest centuries—would be the centers of formation and of Christ-like service to the world.

For a century, the Church of England matured and broadened as a tradition separated from the Church of Rome. Its pastoral, musical, and ascetical life flourished: Jeremy Tayler, Lancelot Andrewes, Thomas Tallis, William Byrd, and George Herbert are but a few of the names associated with this flowering. Also begun were three centuries of colonial expansion that exported the Book of Common Prayer to countless cultures and people-groups the world over.

The English Civil War of the seventeenth century drove the Church of England and her liturgy underground. Nevertheless, with the Restoration of the Monarchy, the Book of Common Prayer, authorized by Parliament and Church in 1662, became Anglicanism’s sine qua non. Great Awakenings and the Methodist movement of the 18th century, as well as adaptations necessary for the first Anglicans independent of the British Crown, challenged and re-shaped Prayer Book worship, as would the East African revival, charismatic renewal, and the dissolution of Empire in the 20th century. Similarly, the evangelical and anglo-catholic movements of the 19th century profoundly affected Anglican self-understanding and worship in different, often seemingly contradictory, ways; yet the Book of Common Prayer (1662) was common to every period of this development. For nearly five centuries, Cranmer’s Prayer Book idea had endured to shape what emerged as a global Anglican Church that is missional and adaptive as in its earliest centuries; authoritatively Scriptural and creedal as in its greatest season of reform; an evangelical, catholic, and charismatic in its apology and its worship as now globally manifest.