Formalism

When talking about (or decrying) things like “religious formalism”, it is important to define what we mean by the phrase. A good place to start is by considering what we do not mean, or what we cannot mean. First, let us look at “religion”. In this essay, the words “religion” and “Christianity” are synonymous. Formalism is a little more work, and again let’s start with what it cannot mean. “Christian” or “religious” formalism cannot be decried or discussed from a negative perspective once we admit that all religion, whether we are talking about services or worship or anything else have, to a greater or lesser degree, some sort of “form”. For instance, all worship services are held on a specific day, and at a certain time. Hymns are sung from a hymnal (or from an overhead). They are not spontaneous. Even in churches where the minister does not wear a robe, some sort of liturgical garb (suit, tie, or other) is expected. We could go on but it’s clear formalism is an essential element of religion, and as such is acceptable (even desirable). Still, is there a kind of “religious formalism” that is undesirable? No doubt, there is. The kind Paul warns of when he speaks of those that have “a form of Godliness, but deny its power”. These men (or women) profess Christ (by going to church, praying, etc.) but in one way or another, by their deeds, actually oppose Him. The specific passage in mind is 2 Timothy 3.5 and if you read through the pastoral epistles you will find other passages that parallel it, and so we may surmise it was a common, and deadly, problem. Is there a cure? There is indeed but it’s one that those engaged in the kind of bad formalism mentioned above may find hard to swallow for it’s a cure that goes right to the heart of true religion. Bad religion is bad because it never goes far enough. In other words, it never gets past Sunday morning. It never becomes incarnational. It never walks and talks like Jesus, and so it is at once idolatrous and defiled. God hates bad religion; on this Scripture is clear. So what kind of religious formalism does He love? He loves the kind that comes from a Spirit filled heart, the kind that James calls “pure and undefiled”; the kind of religion that loves widows and orphans as much as it loves theology and the liturgy.

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