I hesitate to use the phrase “religionless Christianity” for a few reasons.
For one, I want to be clear that we, as believers, have an obligation and an absolute need for one another. In no uncertain terms, we need to be a part of a local community that worships Jesus Christ together intentionally. We need to take the Lord’s Supper together. We need to preach and hear the word of God preached. We need to sing together and hear the Scriptures read together. We, as Christians, need to live life with one another.
Secondly, I want to make it absolutely clear that we need no new teaching in the church. In fact, we need to grab hold of old teachings, creeds, confessions and liturgies that our fathers had before us. We need to, as John Piper has said, stand on the shoulders of the giants of our faith. Novelty in the theological world is a bad word. We need old truth that has stood the test of time.
I want to be careful, in light of our present heightened theological watchfulness to only use words that are for the building up of our faith in the God of the bible and the simplicity with which he has revealed himself. As old and weathered as St. Cyprian’s statement is, we should still listen with sobriety. He who does not have the church as his mother does not have God as his Father. In the more recent words of Derek Webb, speaking of Jesus and his church, you cannot care for me with no regard for her; if you love me you will love the church.
And so with a careful eye, I want to use this idiom, “religionless Christianity,” knowing the risk and the reward of employing a powerful phrase.
What is Religiousless Christianity?
Dietrich Bonhoeffer used this phrase “religionless Christianity” toward the end of his life from a Gestapo prison cell. While he awaited his eventual execution, Bonhoeffer was writing letters to his best friend, Eberhard Bethge, and the two were tracing out theological concepts and the role of the church in rebuilding Germany. In the course of this conversation, a thought occurred to him. Bonhoeffer remembered that one of his teachers, the Swiss theologian Karl Barth, spoke of a coming day when the face of the Western world would be very “religiousless.” The church would then have to struggle to find its place and voice in such a world, after having dominated culture for centuries.
Bonhoeffer wondered what the church would look like as it filled its role as the redemptive force of culture in the rebuilding of Europe. How would Jesus’ calls, commands and ways be heard in the midst of a generation who would grow up with no framework for processing ideas such as justification, redemption, wrath, holiness, grace, forgiveness and the like?
There are stark differences between our situation and Bonhoeffer’s when the seed of Barth’s idea began to sprout. We are a largely religionless people in America, and across the Western world today. For those of us who are in pastoral roles, do any of us really doubt that our people have little to no framework for grasping the truth of the Scriptures?
Have we not have become disillusioned by so many leaders in the church who have been living double-lives? We have seen that the ones offering the medicine of the gospel are dying from the very disease they pretend to own a cure for and we have lost faith. My generation is one who would much rather be numbed than cured.
Have we not mainly given up on the possibility of a cure?
In the midst of our situation, however, Christ still speaks to us. He still speaks to us in his church. He still speaks to us in communion. He still speaks to us in the Scriptures. He still speaks to us in the words of our baptism and the promise of new life he guarantees us.
What we mean by religiousless Christianity is that Jesus was right when he promised his church would not fail. In the midst of our time, Christ is here for us. His words have relevance in our lives simply because they are his words. What we are trying to do here is to flesh out his word for us today.
Religionless Christianity is our part to hear the word of God for us in Christ.