(by Lisa Robinson)
If you are like me, you have probably heard a wide ranging proclamation that Christianity is not a religion but a relationship. I do understand the motivation behind drawing this distinction, that emphasizes the unique claims that Christianity offers a relationship between God and man, initiated and motivated by God’s movement towards man. It is distinguished from a system that depends on man’s movement or compliance towards deity, which somehow dispels the notion that it is a religion. While I understand and appreciate this motivation, I don’t think it is accurate to say that Christianity is not a religion.
If we look at the Merriam-Webster definition of religion, here are a few descriptions:
- The service and worship of God or the supernatural
- A personal set or institutionalized system of religious attitudes, beliefs and practices
- A cause, principle or system of beliefs held to with ardor and faith
I like this definition especially
A religion is a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe, especially when considered as the creation of a supernatural agency or agencies, usually involving devotional and ritual observances, and often containing a moral code governing the conduct of human affairs.
The first thing to note is that religion is holding to a particular set of beliefs concerning deity. This does define Christianity. There is one God who exists in trinity and created heaven and earth. He created creatures and mankind. After mankind fell into disharmony with God implementing a sinful condition, God took action to reconcile man to himself through His Son. So that those who believe in His Son, who is also God, are granted eternal life with Him. Christianity hinges on this one very important belief.
For God so loved the world that He gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. (John 3:16 NIV)
One objection to Christianity as a religion, based on the definitions above is the “institutionalized system of religious attitudes”. But this define Christianity also. No, I’m not talking about church in an institutionalized sense, although the church is significant in terms of how the body of Christ functions as Christ’s representative. But, I’m referring to the fact that all who believe in Christ are part of the universal body of Christ. The institutionalized system need not be confined to bricks and mortar but to the organization of thoughts and attitudes that define the religious system. There is a body of belief that is specifically meant to promote the attitude we have towards it. It is the revelation of God that ascribed to scripture, i.e. the bible that not only explains who the Christian belief is based on, but also the expectations towards those who claim to hold to the belief. In this way, I think its safe to say that the bible institutionalizes the system of attitudes towards our belief system, both individually and corporately. Moreover, this belief has been preserved and passed down for 2,000 years so that history has also presented an institutionalization of sorts.
Since you have in obedience to the truth purified your souls for a sincere love of the brethern, fervently love one another from the heart, for you have been born again not of seed which is perishable but imperishable, that is, through the living and enduring word of God. ‘For all flesh is as grass, and all its glory like the flower of the grass. The grass withers, and the flower falls off, but the word of the Lord endures forever.’ And this is the word which was preached to you. (1 Peter 2:22-25 NASB)
Another objection to claiming Christianity as a religion might be that religion defines the moral code and is based on man’s ability to comply with that code. Since Christianity is based on God’s movement towards man and saving actions, given man’s inability to comply that negates Christianity as a religion. However, Christianity does not negate the fact that there is a moral code that requires compliance for that moral code absolutely does exist. The difference between Christianity and other systems of belief is man’s inability to meet it. Christ has met this code so that all who accept who he is and trust in what he has accomplished, are imputed with his righteousness. Those who are “in Christ” are now equated with having met the moral code not because they themselves have accomplished this but because they have believed in the one who has. That belief should prompt a response for us who hold to it that aligns practices accordingly.
There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the life-giving Spirit in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and death. For God achieved what the law could not do because it was weakened through the flesh. By sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and concerning sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, so that the righteous requirement of the law may be fulfilled in us, who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. (Romans 8:1-4 NET)
I, therefore, the prisoner for the Lord, urge you to live worthily of the calling with which you have been called. (Ephesians 4:1 NET)
The overarching theme of the definition of religion is that it is a system of belief that promotes worship of deity on which the system hinges. If that is not Christianity, I don’t know what is. We worship God for who he is and what he as done. The bible is replete with direct and indirect proclamations of the sovereignty, majesty, righteousness, love and mercy of God and his actions towards man that ought to affect faith and worship with ardor and passion, such as is defined in the descriptions above.
Ascribe to the Lord, o mighty ones; ascribe to the Lord glory and strength; ascribe to the Lord glory due his name; worship the Lord in the splendor of His holiness. (Psalm 29:1-3 NIV)
The bottom line is that I don’t think it serves the purpose of Christianity to ignore its definition as a religious belief. In fact, I think it does a disservice when we indicate that Christianity is not a religion, especially with an indignant attitude, because it suggests a myopic reality to how things are defined. We need not fear that ascribing Christianity as a religion has now lowered it to be on par with other religious systems. It is not. Nor does identifying it as a religion mean that we are aligning beliefs with the present culture or other religious systems. It does not. In fact, using comparative religious analysis can be quite beneficial for the unique proclamation of Christian belief. Paul himself did this in Acts 17:16-34.