Whenever I hear someone make this very common claim, I feel a need for an extended conversation in order to figure out exactly what he intends to communicate. Unfortunately, the phrase is often intended as a conversation stopper, rather than a starter, which seems primarily to say “It’s none of your business”. I can understand that sentiment: I too reject the onslaught of doctrinaire eager-beavers with their carefully proof-texted checklists. But I recognize that that response does not address the need for sympathetic mutual understanding.
So, although I realize that such a speaker does not usually draw his definitions from this source, I have chosen to approach the issue by examining the New Testament uses of both words, each of which carries both positive and negative implications, depending on the context. As we saw in studies #52 and 53 on the word “spirit”, (which should form a significant part of the present investigation), the latitude of the meaning of “spiritual” is wide: ranging all the way from “things pertaining to or administered by the Holy Spirit” through “the innermost thoughts and purposes of a human being” to “the nefarious operation of evil spirits.” So it is entirely appropriate to inquire of those who claim “spirituality”, to “what kind” they are referring!
The adjective pneumatikos, with its related adverb pneumatikOs (replacing the omicron with omega), is the only source for the translation “spiritual, spiritually”. They appear respectively 25x and 2x in the New Testament writings.
Trench has a helpful essay on the classical distinctions between sarkikos, psuchikos, and pneumatikos: the former referring to “the flesh” (see #85) – one’s bodily human functions and existence, the second to his (somewhat higher) faculties of reasoning: the mind or intellect (#28), all quite distinct from the Platonic idea of “soul” which has been co-opted and distorted by some purveyors of “doctrine”; and the latter, very rare in classical literature, pertaining to connectedness with the divine. Paul appears to make a similar distinction in I Cor.2:13-15 and 3:1.
L/S, on the other hand, simply lists “anything moved by air or breath, an immaterial being, a school of physicians that referred all questions of health to pneumatic experiences.” All of these make a clear distinction between the physical, mental, and “spiritual”, unlike those who attribute “spiritual” achievements to various sorts of physical and/or mental exercises or contortions.
Bauer lists five different aspects of “spiritual” in New Testament usage. (The list is his, the associated references are mine:
1. It may intend simply the “inner life” of a human being, in contrast to somatikos or psuchikos (I Cor. 15:44,46. ) Note that here Paul specifically and intentionally excludes the pagan idea of a pre-existent “spiritual” state.
2. It may refer to events directly caused, or individuals led, gifted, or influenced by the Holy Spirit (Rom.1:11, I Cor.2:15, 3:1, 12:1, 14:1, 37; Gal.6:1, Eph.1:3, 5:19; Col.1:19, 3:16).
3. It may describe a supernatural state of being, such as resurrection (I Cor.15:46), or
4. things or matters that are in contrast to those of merely earthly origin (Rom.15:27, I Cor.12:13,14; 9:11).
5. It may refer to impersonal things that nevertheless serve more-than-ordinary purposes (Rom.7:14, I Cor.10:3,4; I Pet.2:5).
In addition to Bauer’s list, there are also references to overtly evil beings or influence (Eph.6:12, Rv.11:8).
The supernatural or paranormal may include genuinely healthy “spirituality”, but may just as readily have less beneficent provenance. The serious need for careful discernment concerning spirits or spiritual influences is explored in the earlier studies mentioned above.
Although it is represented by more discrete words (3), “religion” is mentioned much more rarely in the New Testament.
Threskeia (L/S: religious cult, worship or ritual; religious formalism, service of a god, superstition) refers primarily to ceremonies and rituals. It appears only 4x, three of which (Ac.26:5, Jas.1:26, Col.2:18) have a distinctly negative flavor. The adjective threskos (used only in Jas.1:26) is rather ambiguous, but then James uses the very same word (1:27) when he describes “pure religion”, which consists of merciful care for widows and orphans, and exemplary living. With this single exception, however, one could hardly be blamed for disassociating himself from threskeia.
Eusebes / eusebos, on the other hand, (L/S: loyalty, respect, reverence; living or acting piously toward one’s parents, gods, or members of one’s household) is hard to criticize. Usually translated “devout” or “godly”, its 6 appearances are all commendations (Ac.10:2, 10:7, 22:12; II Tim. 3:12, Tit.2:12, II Pet.2:9). The eu- prefix (“well” or “good”) simply adds weight to the stem derived from the verb
sebomai for which L/S lists “to revere or worship, pay honor or respect”; Bauer notes that “it was applied to pagans who accepted the monotheism of Judaism, and attended the synagogue, but did not obligate themselves to the whole Jewish Law.” It appears 5x translated “worship” (Mt.15:9, Ac.16:14, 18:7, 18:13, 19:27), 3x translated “devout” (Ac.13;50, 17:4, 17:7), and only once “religious” (Ac.13:43).
That is the sum total of New Testament references to “religion/religious”! One could even make a case that it is not a very “religious” book at all!
So where does this leave us? With the familiar caveat, “It depends entirely upon what you mean by what you say!”
If by “spiritual” you intend a constant effort to be led by the Holy Spirit to understand, participate, and share in the life of Jesus’ Kingdom, you are my brother / sister, and we have much to share.
If, on the other hand, you intend by contrived physical or mental gymnastics trying to tap into some other type of “spiritual” knowledge or activity, thanks, but no thanks. John’s advice in I Jn.4:1-6 is sound.
If your avoidance of being “religious” involves recoiling from the trappings of (often empty) ceremony, the cut-and-dried “doctrines” upon which the guardians of self-aggrandizing institutions insist, and (often-abusive) hierarchies (which Jesus himself rejected), you join a millennia- long parade of earnest, loyal Christ-followers who have done likewise. Welcome to their ranks!
But do not forget that a vitally necessary component of genuine following (see #101) is identification with a Body of fellow-followers. Neither Jesus nor his disciples ever advocated the lonely, self-centered, mystical isolationism that has attracted sincere but misguided “seekers” periodically through the ages.
James’ definition of “true religion” is far more practical than either ceremonial or contemplative. It is clearly focused upon the needs of others, after the pattern set by the Lord Jesus himself, and completely different from either institutional or individualistic prescriptions.
It should therefor be incumbent upon anyone using this vocabulary, whether with positive or negative intent, both to clarify his own assumptions, and to proceed with caution before evaluating someone else’s choices!
As always, please remember that I welcome serious dialogue on this or any other subject.