I am often told or asked about the question: can I be a Christian in spirituality and not be religious? This is a variation (or maybe hybrid) of the common view in the popular culture of not being religious, yet still being spiritual. The question centers first around the definition of terms. What is spirituality? What is religion?
I am not going to get into etymology and usage over time, but just give a common definition of these two terms, religion and spirituality. Religion refers to a devotional practice associated with an institution. In Christianity that is church membership and use of the elements of worship. Spirituality has two meanings, general and specific. Spirituality in general is used by most in society to describe eastern internal meditative speculative mystical religions. The basic assumption of these is that the world is one being with ultimate reality. If I am one with the universe, then there is no need for religion, I simply am a sprit living in a material world. If I want to I can meditate, but all I really need to do is be aware of the universes oneness, and, if I may, seek the universe for guidance. In the more specific sense spirituality refers in the Christian religion to the human intellect in communion with God through the Holy Spirit. This is a basic created reality, as man is in the image of God, he has a sense of the Divine, the internal personal non-physical component of men and women in the image of God have a capacity t commune with him. We also believe that this capacity for communion was perverted by the sin of Adam.
Terminology aside, the basic answer to the main question is no. No, because Jesus founded a church where his Spirit dwells. This means that one can be “spiritual but not religious” if one is not a Christian, but not if one is a Christian. Assuming one is honest with the text of scripture – which defines Christianity – and those who seek to redefine it need mental help. Seriously, if one thinks, “I am a Christian, but I don’t act like those Christian, and am not part of the church Jesus founded” that is a symptom of being unwittingly influenced by the larger popular culture’s view of spirituality. So much for being “self-aware.”)
What does Christian spirituality look like? It looks like church. It looks like religion. The reason is not that the elements of worship are the things worshipped. For example, apostolic Christianity does not kiss Bibles or pray to the Apostles. We listen to the writing of the Apostles, and read and have the bible preached to us as a means to the end of knowing God. That’s the key. We don’t worship the Bible; we worship the God of the Bible. That is, the Father, Son, and Spirit who speaks through the Bible, speaks through the preaching, are taught by the living preacher who raises his hands in blessing, physically breaks bread with us, and reminds us that by the Holy Spirit, Jesus is present with us as we eat in communion with Him. In short, the word, sacrament and prayer are means to the end of knowing God in the human Spirit. In the Old Testament the saints new the Lord through the means of temple worship. See Psalm 118:27, “The Lord has given us light…” What light? “Bind the festal sacrifice to the horns of the altar.” In the New Testament Apostolic church there was Bible reading, preaching, sacraments, prayers, offerings and blessings as means for the worship of God, same as the OT but without the bloddy sacrifices which are now obsolete. The way of worship may have changed in terms of the relatively simple worship of the NT church, but the principle is the same. We worship God through the means he gives us.
Another thing to know about Christian spirituality is it really is spiritual. The Bible teaches that humans have a created soul/spirit that is the non-physical rational and moral capacity within man. It also teaches us that the Holy Spirit, the third person of the Triune God, has the function of being the Spirit of God who’s function it is to know God the Father and the Son and to cause us to know Him (1 Cor 2:10-13). The Spirit of Knowledge is thus said to testify to our Spirit (of course through scripture being assured to us) that we are children of God, and that Jesus is our Lord, and that we are at peace with God. Thus, the spirituality of the Bible is where the Divine Spirit of God acts upon the human spirit to know God, commune with him, and be assured of His love, peace, holiness and glory.
How does the Holy Spirit do that though? Through means! That is through the means of religious practice, the elements of worship and private actions of devotion. This brings to the third component of Christian Spirituality, the Holy Spirit dwells in the local Church. It is a popular and fun belief that our bodies are the temple of the Holy Spirit, however when the Apostle Paul used the language of the temple the Holy Spirit, he did so in the context of the local church of Corinth. He used the 2nd person plural in the Greek. “You [church in Corinth local and complete] are the temple of the Holy Spirit.” (1 Cor 3:15-16). This means that the place of communion in our spirits with The Spirit is the local church. That does not mean that the individual Christian does not have personal knowledge of God the Father, Son and Spirit all day every day, but that is unlikely to happen if one ignores that local church. Jesus founded a church. That is a phrase I say to people almost every day, probably because I live in a culture where Christianity is so democratized, to personalized, it has nothing to do with Jesus or His church, or the Bible for that matter.
Let me conclude with an example. The sacrament of communion is an example of Christian Spirituality. I was raised in a Baptist church, and thus was taught that the sacrament was a bare memorial. It is not. The Bible teaches us a theology of the Sacraments, and the church in general, that the Holy Spirit causes us to know Christ, commune with him, and be in His presence through the Holy Spirit’s indwelling of the local church. Jesus is in heaven, not bodily on earth, so true Christian religion is communion with him in the Holy Spirit. He communes with us as we eat and drink the bread and wine of the supper. We have a personal spiritual relationship to the Triune God because of Christ, by the presence of the Spirit, and thus we can cry out, “Our Father” as really our Father whom we know.
Bumper stickers often say, “It is not a religion, it’s a relationship.” Actually, it is a relationship mediated by a religion. Can I be a spiritual Christian yet not have the religion of the church? The answer is no because Jesus founded a church, the Holy Spirit dwells in the local church, and he assures us through the elements of worship in the local church through the Spirit filled ministry.