Over the last several years I have encountered a fair number of Christians who claim they are “spiritual but not religious.” In other words, they do not identify with a particular Christian denomination, using the Bible alone to guide their faith. It’s an ideology that says religious institutions are outdated and unnecessary.
People may reach this conclusion for a multitude of reasons. Some are disillusioned by what they perceive to be corruption and hypocrisy in religious institutions. Others may feel like they are not being “fed.” Others yet may feel that these institutions teach something contrary to their beliefs regarding political and social issues.
Whatever their reasons, we must reach out to these people and take their concerns seriously.
Jesus started a religion
Most dictionaries define religion as “the belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power, especially a personal God or gods.” It is abundantly obvious from Scripture that Christians are called to worship the one true God (cf. Matthew 4:9, Mark 5:6, Luke 4:8, John 4:23). I’m sure most “spiritual but not religious” Christians would agree with this.
The issue is whether or not one can do this privately, reading only Scripture and coming to one's own conclusions on theological matters, or whether one must submit to some authority outside of oneself.
Jesus started a Church
In Matthew 16:18, Jesus says to the apostle Peter, “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church.” Catholics believe that in this verse Jesus is bestowing on Peter a position of authority from which the office of the pope is derived. But even if the “spiritual” Christian has problems with this belief, there is no escaping the fact that Christ intended his Church to be both visible and authoritative.
In Matthew 18, Jesus says to his disciples: "If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector." (15-17)
If Jesus did not intend his Church to be authoritative and visible, then what Church is he talking about in this verse? It’s clear in the text that this Church is communal.
It is also evident from Scripture that Jesus intended this community to gather regularly for worship. St. Paul exhorted the early Christians: "Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching." (Heb. 10:25)
This verse indicates that, even in the first century, there were Christians who did not think it was necessary to gather for worship. This runs contrary to the idea that one can be a church unto himself as long as he has accepted Jesus as his personal Lord and Savior. The Lord intended his Church to be a community.
Is the Bible all you need?
On his way from Jerusalem to Gaza, Phillip the Evangelist encounters a eunuch reading the Book of Isaiah:
So Philip ran to him, and heard him reading Isaiah the prophet, and asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?” And he said, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” And he invited Philip to come up and sit with him (Acts 8:27-31).
The point of this passage is that the clear meaning of Scripture is not always evident. This is reinforced in 2 Peter 1:20: "First of all you must understand this, that no prophecy of scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation."
And yet again in 2 Peter 3:15-16: "So also our beloved brother Paul wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, speaking of this as he does in all his letters. There are some things in them hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other scriptures."
Clearly, simply picking up the Bible and interpreting it for yourself is not recommended. A teacher is necessary, preferably an authoritative one.
What about scandals in the Church?
As my colleague Tim Staples is fond of saying, “You don’t leave Peter because of Judas.” From a Catholic perspective this means you don’t leave the Church because someone didn’t live up to its teaching.
I came into the Church during the height of the priest abuse scandal. I was certainly concerned about it (as most Catholic laypeople were), but ultimately the number of people out in the world doing good work far outweighs the number of people who have abused their positions. For more on this I recommend reading our special report, A Crisis of Saints.
Many “spiritual but not religious” Christians have also expressed concerns about events in history. It’s true that Christians throughout time have acted contrary to the Faith, but, as with the abuse scandal, it should be remembered that history is filled with good and holy missionaries.
It’s also worth pointing out that many of the events in history have been blown way out of proportion in the popular imagination. Catholic Answers has dozens of great articles about this available at this link.
Get back to where you belong
It’s clear from the Bible that Jesus did not intend Christians to live out their spiritual lives in a vacuum. He founded a Church, gave it authority in the areas of faith and morals, and guards it from teaching error (Matt. 18:17-18).
At Catholic Answers, we have a mountain of great resources making the case that the Church Jesus founded is the Catholic Church.