Contrary to the popular saying, “I’m spiritual but not religious,” Scripture teaches us that man—even secular man—is inherently religious.
How can this be, when many today have no clear doctrine? How can it be when they do not practice any religious rituals?
It is simple: religion does not find its existence in these things. Doctrine and ritual are expressions of religion—not definitions of it. In the modern age, where individualism is the name of the game, paganism may have no considered theology or coherent philosophy at all, nor involve any traditionally religious activities or services. Yet it is still religion.
This is because religion does not inhere in doctrine or practice, but in man himself.
Doctrine and practice are expressions of particular religions, not definitions of them. Religion starts in the heart, where God has placed eternity (Ecc 3:11). Regardless of whether or not it overflows into the development of orthodoxy or orthopraxy, man remains in every way very religious, because God made him for a religious purpose: to serve his creator.
This means that there is a clear and crucial distinction between being irreligious and being unreligious. Religion has to do with worship, and we have come to associate worship with certain kinds of beliefs and rituals. Irreligious people eschew these hallmarks. But the Bible does not have such a narrow view of worship. It does not confine it to doctrine and ritual.
Rather, it defines worship primarily in terms of service.
This is because service is what man was created for—to do that which God requires of him. This extends far beyond performing rituals in certain times and places. This is why the stock phraseology throughout Deuteronomy establishes and presupposes a parallel between serving and worshiping (Dt 8:19; 11:16; 17:3; 29:26; 30:17), just as the wording of, e.g., Exodus 32:8 parallels sacrificing and worshiping. Similarly, passages like 1 Kings 11:33 and 2 Chronicles 7:19 put worship in parallel with walking in God’s ways and obeying his statutes.
It is through our service that we are supposed to glorify and enjoy God forever (cf. Ps 29:2; 99:5; Rom 12:1; Jas 1:27). This is built into us; we can’t not do it, just as a star can’t not shine. If we reject God, we don’t stop doing what we were made to do; we simply do it wrong. It’s like a clock: you can make it tell the wrong time, but you can’t make it tell no time at all. Even in our fallen state, we are unwittingly groping for God (Acts 17:22, 26). So if we refuse to glorify and serve and enjoy him, we automatically will be glorifying and serving and enjoying something else.
This is all worship.
To put it in the simplest terms, the Bible doesn’t just treat worship as something done on your face. It is also—indeed, first and foremost—something done on your feet. This is why Paul instructs the Colossians:
Whatsoever ye do, work heartily, as unto the Lord, and not unto men; knowing that from the Lord ye shall receive the recompense of the inheritance: ye serve the Lord Christ. Colossians 3:23–24; cf. Ephesians 6:7
And this is also why Paul tells the Colossians that covetousness is idolatry (Col. 3:5). Doug Wilson comments rightly on this passage in Preparing for the Savage Gods:
It is a rare occurrence when such an idolater lights votive candles in front of his bank book, or leaves baskets of fruit in front of his investment portfolio. But service is still rendered, and that service is still idolatry. The idolater’s life is lived in the service of that god, and he does what that god demands of him.
Doing obeisance is merely a physical image of one’s larger spiritual service to one’s god. For Christians, this looks like Colossians 3:23, Ephesians 6:7, Romans 12:1, James 1:27. The corollary is that, for non-Christians, it looks like whatever they do instead (cf. Matt 25:31–46).
So although it’s easy to think that people who don’t engage in religious ritual are not worshiping, this isn’t how religion and worship works according to the Bible. Paul tells us only a little earlier in Colossians that greed is idolatry (Col 3:5)—and we know that idolatry is worship. Do you know any people who never engage in overtly religious rituals—yet spend eight hours a day in a cubicle just to make money for the weekend, coveting some new purchase or some new experience? What are they serving? What are they glorifying? What are they enjoying? Answer those questions, and you will also discover what (and how) they are worshiping.
This article was adapted and expanded from our paper, Androgyny is literally paganism, where we connect worship and the blurring of gender distinctions.