Responding to “Spiritual but Not Religious” Christians

July 21, 2014 | 12 comments

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 It’s an ideology that says religious institutions are outdated and unnecessary.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. If you or someone you know is “spiritual but not religious,” please consider reading what we have to offer.


Jon Sorensen is the Director of External Activities for Catholic Answers. After earning his bachelor’s degree in 3D Animation and Visual Communications, he worked in the automotive industry producing television commercials, corporate videos, and print advertising campaigns. Jon has been with Catholic...

Comments by Members

#1  Gabrielle LeBlanc - Herndon, Virginia

The people who claim to be "spiritual but not religious" are usually NOT Christians, but some amorphous kind of deists or new-agers. A Bible-only Christian will surely self-identify as a "Christian" or a "believer" even -or rather, especially- if he puts no store in denominations. So refuting the tenets of Protestantism is a poor response to those who claim to be "spiritual but not religious" - and tacking on the word "Christians" at the end doesn't make it less so.

July 21, 2014 at 7:29 pm PST
#2  James Davis - Ottsville, Pennsylvania

The title of this article works well for the non-denominational church I came from (Calvary Chapel), where the 'church' is an invisibly united grouping of autonomous congregations. Being 'religious' is considered an insult, and is synonymous with 'external action' to please God. The Bible is all you need. You could give it to someone stranded on an island and it would be "easy" to understand and lead them to salvation. At the extreme end, there are denominations that believe God is calling us out of all churches, and solely into private worship through reading the Bible.

July 22, 2014 at 5:00 am PST
#3  Henry Martinez - Fresh Meadows, New York

Great read, thanks! I was once "spiritual but not religious" and completely agree with the examples given here, it makes perfect sense. My personal feeling from experience is that it is easy to say "spiritual but not religious" as it can be an easy copout. Our ego can make us resistant to giving oneself completely to God and many fear giving oneself up completely. We feel the need to be in control and what better way to have that than to decide that we can interpet the Bible ourselves?

July 22, 2014 at 5:01 am PST
#4  David Biddulph - Fredericksburg, Virginia

I find the "spiritual but not religious" crowd not to be well versed in the Bible. More like, God loves everyone, Judge not lest you be judged, and I'm a good person so I'm going to heaven.

Spiritually and intellectually lazy but presumptuous would be more accurate.

July 22, 2014 at 6:37 am PST
#5  Jon Sorensen - El Cajon, California - Catholic Answers Blogger

@ Gabrielle LeBlanc; If my post were intended for those "spiritual but not religious" folks who do not claim to be Christians, then you would be correct that mine is a poor response. I added "Christian" to the end of the title because I am speaking to a specific (and growing) crowd. If you are not convinced of their existence, I would offer Jefferson Bethke's "Why I love Jesus but Hate Religion" video as a prime example. Last I checked, it had millions of views on Youtube, and hundreds of thousands of "likes." That's significant, in my opinion.

The reason I attacked the pillars of Protestantism in the post is because the "spiritual but not religious" Christians appear to me to be a somewhat logical extension of doctrines like "sola scriptura." Granted, most Protestants / Evangelicals don't take it that far, but enough do to warrant a response.

July 22, 2014 at 7:52 am PST
#6  Harry Ehmann - Bedford, Texas

My personal experience with "spiritual but not religious" is exactly as Mr. Sorensen describes. Not tree hugging, rock kissing pan-deists but self-described Christians who generally hold to the "me and Jesus" bent. Not soley Protestants either but apostate Catholics as well. But then Sola Scriptura and private interpretation render Church history irrelevant anyway. "Spiritual but not religious" is but a symptom and not the cause.

July 22, 2014 at 9:48 am PST
#7  Debbie Douglas - Fraser, Michigan

Good article Jon....and right on comment Harry Ehmann. As a recent convert (only in my heart, as I've not gone through RCIA yet) who lived the last 10 years or so as a Protestant and never felt "saved", much to my (2nd) husband's annoyance, I can totally relate. I think due to my infant Catholic baptism (with non-practicing parents), I could never bash the CC as most all our Bible study friends did. I had questions early on, such as who's interpretation was correct...and what about Peter? I thought he was The Rock....but now their answers do not satisfy me and I know why.

It's such a relief to finally know the truth about God and His Word AND His Church.

July 22, 2014 at 1:28 pm PST
#8  Jon Sorensen - El Cajon, California - Catholic Answers Blogger

That's great, Debbie! If you have any questions, be sure to contact us here at Catholic Answers. God bless you!

July 22, 2014 at 1:44 pm PST
#9  Bryan Metcalf - Napa, California

Thank you Jon!

My best friend since high school loves to call himself "spiritual but not religious." I've been trying to get through to him for years.

When I try to appeal to him using Tradition, he pulls out the sola scriptura card. When I try to use Scripture, he goes with "that's still only what man says about God."

He knows there is a God. When he got in a motorcycle accident recently, he called me and asked me to pray for him. But he also called his friends who practice more new age spirituality.

It's nice to have a post that may help me get through.

July 22, 2014 at 8:42 pm PST
#10  Jon Sorensen - El Cajon, California - Catholic Answers Blogger

Happy to be of service, Bryan!

July 23, 2014 at 12:27 pm PST
#11  Usulor Kenneth - Lagos, Lagos

In fact this idea of "spiritual but not religious" is nothing but a fantasy, a mere delusion with which many wrap themselves and grovel in illusion. But not only has it gained much ground among protestants (as one of their blows on catholics) it is also gradually growing among catholics, lay people and priests alike. I have seen a priest who spent part of his sermon time preaching that to be religious is different from and inferrior to being spiritual. And not less frequently do we here mostly from the penticostals, "Christianity is not a religion, it is all about you and your relationship with Jesus". "Religion" is now seen as a taboo and allien to christianity and is explained to mean hypocrisy.The words "religion" together with its derivatives (religious, religiousness, religiously) appeared 23 times in the English version of the Sacred Scriptures (using Douay Rheims Bible because it is the most accurate English translation of the Sacred Scriptures). What then is their fear since the word is scriptural? Even in the protestant King James Bible the word can be seen retaining one of its catholic meanings of the word.
Now to those who maintain that those who are "religious" are not pleasing to God and who even go so far as to say the "religious" ones cannot make heaven, my question is: why does the Church, following the Sacred Scriptures, simply calls and designate those men and women who completely consecrates themselves to the glory and worship of God, "religious". The Church uses this word without further qualification with respect to these men and women. In fact this misconception is due to erroneous 20th century fundamentalists' use of the word "religion". Anyone who wishes to know the true and Catholic meaning of the word "religion" should check the Catholic Encyclopaedia either in this site or in New Advent.

July 26, 2014 at 2:01 am PST
#12  Michael Rogala - Chicago, Illinois

We, Jon, the simple fact of the matter is that the word "church" is not in the original Greek. The word used is "ekklesia" which is more in the line of a "community called out". It has more the larger context in the Gospels of an invisible kingdom, I think.

As to whether or not one can be "spiritual without being religious", I have no definitive idea, but I do say there is always the Grace of God that is pervasive in some people without them being "religious". For myself, I need to have a faith community to sustain my spirituality/connectedness when I'm unable to do so myself.

Who let that nutter Debbie Douglas in here. Don't enourage her Jon.

August 11, 2014 at 4:57 pm PST

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