Sunday, January 16, 2011

Is Christianity A Religion?

"It's not a religion, it's a relationship."  - Anon

"Pure and undefiled religion in the sight of God our Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world." - James 1:27

I received a comment by a new reader named Angie who asks a great question about the content of an email she received.  "I just want to know why Christianity is NOT a religion."  Please read the comment.  Well, I've certainly heard and seen the top quote above numerous times.  It's on bumper stickers, it's in church advertising.  Is Christianity, true Christianity, not a religion?  This sentiment has troubled me for quite some time, and I always wonder what the motive and reasoning are behind such beliefs.  In the second quote above, the bible itself gives a definition of what pure religion actually is.

I think the sentiment that true Christianity is not a religion but a relationship probably comes from an over reaction to very ritualized versions of religion.  Some Protestants may use this sentiment to portray Roman Catholicism as simply meaningless rote and ritual without regard for the essence of Christ.  This can be applied to other world religions, or to ritualized forms of Protestantism as well.  I think I've also detected that for some people, any structure whatsoever in a religion should be shunned, and a "pure" relationship w/ Jesus - as if he were our boyfriend or something - is what God desires for us.  It may also be that this idea is a poorly worded explanation for the concept that dead works mean nothing while a living faith being in Christ is the ideal.

Well, I consulted a bible search website, BibleGateway, and Webster's dictionary for the following lists of the bible's use of the words "religion" and "religious," as well as a dictionary definition of the word "religion."  The uses in the bible of the word "religion" can be found here (New American Standard version), while the uses of the word "religious" can be found here.  And Webster's definition of religion clearly shows in definition 1B that the service and worship of God is a legitimate one, as is a commitment to faith and observance.  In the bible's own uses of the word "religion" there are a few references to the Jewish religion of Saul, a reference to man-made religion, a comment about religion in general that implies that if somebody can bridle their tongue then their religion can be true, and finally James gives an example of true religion in the way God himself sees it.

I believe that Christianity is a religion for the reasons shown in the bible's use and dictionary definition.  I have no problem with that at all.  I think we should shy away from the idea that it isn't a religion, but rather call attention to the differences between forms of true religion and false. Including bumper sticker religion.


  1. Amen, Scott! May I translate your post into German and post it on my German blog? Rarely have I come across a better reaction to the "Christianity is not a religion" claim.

    People basically are here defining religion to mean "dead religion" or "manmade religion" and denying the legitimacy of any other definition.

    Mostly the same people also do this with other terms, such as liturgy.


  2. Wolf,

    Yes, you may cut, paste and post far and wide if you please.


  3. "Mostly the same people also do this with other terms, such as liturgy."

    Wolf, I smell another blog post coming soon. :-)

  4. Hello again! Thanks SO much for your response. That was actually the 1st time I've heard about Christianity not being a religion or people saying and believing that it isn't.

    The young lady also put Catholics in a class of not being Christians at all. Of course I was stunned to hear this because I was brought up to believe Catholicism was one of the many "Christian" denominations. So now I'm starting to suspect that her "earthly" father may be responsible for putting that belief in her head. This is a very sweet and gracious young lady. I'm just shocked there are Christians who would of the oldest denominations.

    What do you think of "home-churching"? I'm gradually learning more about it. As long as Christ is the main focus...I guess I have no issues with it. I'm almost 40 and just realizing how being a Christian can get SO complicated. Who knew...?

  5. I think that it's unfortunate that many church leaders over the last 20 years have rejected the term. I think that saying things like "We're not religious" actually turns off seekers or confuses them because they're looking for "religion."

  6. According to Webster’s dictionary of course, Christianity is a religion. Religion=a specific fundamental set of beliefs and practices generally agreed upon by a number of persons or sects.

    Religion has come to mean many things in this society and most often the word promotes a misunderstanding of what true believers have in Christ. The Pharisees were the religious of their day and that is what most people think of with the word……an outward keeping of the cup clean with no thought to the inward reality of a new heart in Christ. So when someone asks me if I’m religious or what is my religion I simply say…………I don’t have religion I have Christ even though I have a specific set of beliefs. I see by the responses here that I won’t be understood in that regard but I’ve found that it is far more telling to speak of Christ than it is to soothe a conscience with the word religion.

  7. I just stumbled across your blog doing some research on Churches in Raleigh, and I am glad to see this post. I am an Orthodox Christian priest in Raleigh working on establishing an Orthodox Church in Greenville, NC and also here in Raleigh. I encounter this attitude from time to time, and sometimes I am at a loss as to what to say in response.

    I see this "it's a religion, not a relationship" as akin to a bait and switch...if someone does come in the door because he is interested in the idea of just having a "relationship" with Jesus, what happens when he realizes the regardless of the label, a relationship requires work, and that is a lot like...a religion?

    I get tired of what I see as the "either/or" dichotomy VERSUS works, ritual OR spirit-filled, Bible OR Tradition(s) (usually understood as "of man" in a pejorative sense).

    So anyway, thanks for this post.

    In Christ,
    Fr. Anastasios Hudson

  8. Fr. Anastasios,

    Thank you for the comment. I think at the heart of it might be a Protestant reaction to what is perceived as excess Catholic "religion." (i.e. robes, formalities, etc.) This reaction, noted enough, is then turned into a sentiment.