"Religion" in many circles is seen as something staid, formal and dead. The picture given is a bunch of moral hypocrites who claim to obey the law and impose harsh demands on others. For some strange reason, the Pharisees are seen as the epitome of what "religion" is all about, and we all *know* that Jesus condemned the Pharisees and instead call for a "heart religion." But is such a picture correct?
The association of "religion" with dead formality has been a recurring motif throughout history. There was always the State or official religion, and then there were the "mystery" religions for the common people. In the Greco-Roman world, the "mystery" religions multiplied since they promised something exotic and liberating from the official status quo. As Christianity penetrated the Greco-Roman world, the phenomenon known as Gnosticism became the "Christianized" version of the pagan mystery religions. After Christendom was established under Constantine's successors, the mystery religious impulse was partially co-opted by the Medieval Catholic Church, and thus Roman Catholicism (the unreformed branch of the Medieval Catholic Church) has been filled with all manner of unbiblical superstition up to this present day.
Closer to modern times, this mystical impulse returned in the Anabaptists, then in the Lutheran Pietists especially in the Moravian Brethren. It then become a key component of Evangelicalism as it was born in the Evangelical awakenings under George Whitefield, Jonathan Edwards and John and Charles Wesley. Whether through Evangelicalism or through Unitarianism and Liberalism, modern society has by and large become infected with the mystical impulse.
The problem with the mystical interpretation of "religion" is that it is at best a caricature. True, "dead orthodoxy" or nominalism is a problem, but it is not a new problem. The old way is to treat nominal believers as the mission field, while, under the mystical impulse, formal religion itself is tarred as being essentially the same as "dead orthodoxy."
It is true that Jesus promoted a heart religion, but that is precisely the point — a "heart" "religion." As James 1:27 says, what God is asking for is a religion that is of the heart. In other words, it is done sincerely out of love ("heart") in a manner that is orderly and with regard to the institutional structure of the church ("religion"). As an aside, the problem with the Pharisees is not that they were religious, but that they had a false religion, a religion that added to God's Word in the multiplication of laws, and subtracted from God's Word through their denial of Jesus Christ.
The contrast therefore should not be between Christianity (as relationship) on the one hand, and "religion" and irreligion on the other hand. While pandering to the prevailing culture's idea of "religion" might help gain sympathy in the short term, what this denigration of "religion" may very well result in is a denial of any formality in Christianity for an amorphous idea of "love," viz mysticism. And as Dr. James White has said, "What you win them with is what you win them to." If you utilize this "contextualized" manner of presenting Christianity to a public that is certainly skeptical of authority and formality, how would you be able to teach them respect for the institutional aspects of the visible church, unless of course you want to become egalitarian in church polity? Church discipline is all but impossible if mysticism becomes the default setting of members in the church. Through all these, God is not honored, and we have not corrected the false teaching concerning the church that was tolerated (or promoted) in the language denigrating "religion" and "irreligion."
"Religion" is treated as a bad word in certain quarters, but it shouldn't be. Perhaps instead of attacking "religion," we should actually be truthful and call it by its true name: "Legalism," or one can call it "Ritualism." Or, since it smacks of the return to the Law principle, we can call its proponents "Judaizers."