(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.

C Michael Patton
C Michael Patton

C. Michael Patton is the primary contributor to the Parchment and Pen/Credo Blog. He has been in ministry for nearly twenty years as a pastor, author, speaker, and blogger. Find him on Patreon Th.M. Dallas Theological Seminary (2001), president of Credo House Ministries and Credo Courses, author of Now that I'm a Christian (Crossway, 2014) Increase My Faith (Credo House, 2011), and The Theology Program (Reclaiming the Mind Ministries, 2001-2006), host of Theology Unplugged, and primary blogger here at Parchment and Pen. But, most importantly, husband to a beautiful wife and father to four awesome children. Michael is available for speaking engagements. Join his Patreon and support his ministry

    26 replies to "Yes, Christianity is a Religion"

    • Samuel

      Very good post. I posted something similar on my blog regarding the disdain for “religion”. http://www.stonecall.com/?p=303

    • bondChristian

      Amen. Maybe I’m just a rebel, but I’ve pushed back on the whole “relationship, not religion” distinction too. It forces an either/or when it should be a both/and.

      When you use a casual definition of religion, the one most people use, Christianity falls right in the middle of it. To me, it seems like we’re adding more battles to the war by trying to redefine ourselves as something other than a religion. Let’s call it what it is and get on with showing why this one is true and real.

      -Marshall Jones Jr.

    • Alex Guggenheim

      I cannot imagine it not being a religion. The term “religion” concerns some Christians since what they have in mind are non-Christians, whether involved in non-Christian religion or none at all, who may equate religion with a theocratic merit system. I understand the desire to make the distinction from the start by re-categorizing Christianity but as Susan points out, “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”. It is like refusing to call a marriage a marriage but a partnership because marriage lacks the specialness of one’s context. And our specialness is not in a category but in what is offered in our religion, namely the Gospel.

    • Ed Kratz

      ….but as Susan points out, “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”.

      You mean Lisa, right? 😉

    • I agree and disagree. I agree the statement, “relationship not a religion” is dubious at best, but I question whether the word “religion” as it is commonly used in our culture was a useful substantive definition. Is there really anything that Christianity, Confucianism, Buddhism and the rest have in common. I prefer to avoid the word and avoid taking offense at it when it is used.
      See my post at http://mikeerich.blogspot.com/2011/02/what-is-wrong-with-organized-religion.html

    • Alex Guggenheim

      Lisa Robinson says:
      March 5, 2011 at 3:23 pm

      ….but as Susan points out, “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”.

      You mean Lisa, right? 😉

      Uh…yeah that Lisa. LOL. Sorry and feel free to edit, please.

    • Robert L. Wagner

      Good stuff lisa…not to mention James calls Christianity true religion undefiled…smile

    • John James

      Here! Here!

      Even working with non-Christians the definition of ‘a system of beliefs and actions intended to facilitate interaction with a deity’ is understood. And surely, that is what Christianity is, even if that interaction is viewed as a relationship.

    • Brandon E.

      Beliefs, doctrines, practices, causes, principles, morals, ministries, activities, thoughts and attitudes are all things. If by “Christianity” we are referring to a system or abstraction composed of these things, then Christianity is undoubtedly a religion. This is actually how I use the term “Christianity.”

      However, Christ is not a thing or abstraction but a living Person. Also, the Body of Christ is persons, the many members who are joined to Christ and in whom Christ lives.

      I don’t use the phrase “Christianity is not a religion but a relationship” myself, and you brought up good reasons against its use. But I do appreciate the thought behind it: the focus of “Christianity” ought to be Christ Himself. The word “relationship” points us to a Person while the word “religion” points us to things. Christ is not a belief or practice about Himself. I could have many right beliefs/practices about Him but have little or no transactions (a relationship) with Him.

    • John from Down Under

      Great post Susan Lisa. If a non-Christian asked you if you are ‘religious’ would you comfortably answer ‘yes’ then?

    • Ed Kratz

      John, I honestly would answer yes and no and turn the question around to ask what they meant by ‘religious’. I used to repudiate this question, since in my mind, Christianity was not a religion. The problem is from the perspective of the unbeliever, they understand our position to be religious. Instead of going into gyrations of explaining how a religion is not a religion or how we are not religious when to the unbeliever we are, why not then leverage that for an explanation of the gospel and how that deviates from other religions as the one true religion.

    • John from Down Under

      I don’t disagree at all Lisa. I was just curious how you would personally answer the question.

      By and large the term ‘religious’ has unsavory connotations for the average unbeliever and I used to cringe at the use of the word. These days I am not as uncomfortable about it, but (like you) I’d rather take a few minutes to explain myself rather than a straight yes/no answer.

    • gammell

      Religion is one of those words that has a very broad semantic range. I agree that Christianity fits most of that range, but I also think it is important to consider when it doesn’t. I notice that a lot of the people I interact with carry a working definition of religion that is contrary to Christianity. For them a works-based mentality is embedded in their definition and they can only see Christianity as a set of rules for “scoring brownie points with Jesus.” The Gospel vs Religion distinction is a valuable rhetorical tool for subverting their functional definition and so consider the Gospel without their presuppositions. It may not be true to Websters but it meets people where they are.

    • mbaker


      While I agree that Christianity, both past and present, has sometimes exclusively been presented as only a set of rules, when I approach folks who have trouble with the word “religion”, I tell them we are the only religion that actually has a living God with whom we can have an ongoing interactive relationship, strictly because of what Christ did for us. I always ask how they think appealing to an inanimate statue or a rock can atone for their sins and regenerate them by changing their lives. That usually gets their attention.

    • Ed Kratz

      “I was just curious how you would personally answer the question.”

      It would look something like this, subject to on-site editing by the Holy Spirit

      If by religious you mean do I follow a prescribed set of rules to be good for God, then no simply because no amount of good on my part can gain any favor with God because of the breach of sin that has separated man from God. But God in his goodness made a way through his Son and provided the means to be reconciled to Him. So if being religious involves responding to what God has done for something i could not do myself, through His Son, then yes I am religious, extraordinarily and unapologetically so.

      I like mbaker’s response too.

    • Leo Chappelle

      Denying the obvious can make us appear to be too clever by half; we seem pretentious. True, Christianity uniquely involves a particular relationship. However, we need not turn up our noses and dismiss the frankly religious character of our world view. Rom. 1:16.

    • Undergroundpewster

      Good responses Lisa.

      It appears that when someone asks if you are religious, you have an opening to explore their definition of the word and their opinion of “religious people.”

      If they believe that religiousness is following a set of rules, then perhaps opening their hearts to the liberating effect of the apparant paradox of becoming a “slave to Christ” while experiencing the freedom that comes with it might be one way to try to explain things.

    • Gammell

      Mbaker, the issue I’m addressing is not about the presentation of Christianity as works-based (that’s an important but separate issue.) I’m just addressing people who have a very superficial understanding of religion built around baggage. The people I’m thinking of believe:

      1) All religion is about coercing and controlling behaviour.
      2) Christianity is a religion.
      3) Christianity is about coercing and controlling behaviour.

      To get them to see the Gospel clearly, you have to knock out one of the first two claims. If you can readily dismantle the first, then by all means do so. But some people will stubbornly cling to examples where the first assumption was true and religion was about control. Then the more effective means is to grant their first assumption and put the Gospel directly up against it.

      I wouldn’t want to be dogmatic about definitions of “religion” because it is so flexible. Just be clear on the definition in play, and meet people where they are.

    • Ed Kratz

      Tom, I deleted your comment as it was a violation of blog rules (#5) dressed in a prayer. If you wish to interact here, you must do so respectfully. Thanks.

    • Jonathan H

      I happen to be one of those “evangelical” Roman Catholics who is quite comfortable with a both/and understanding of the religion/relationship question. While some evangelicals are beginning to question the overuse of the phrase, we Catholics are just beginning to discover just how appropriate it is. Pope Benedict XVI recently wrote:

      “Consequently, Christian faith is not only a matter of believing that certain things are true, but above all a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. It is an encounter with the Son of God that gives new energy to the whole of our existence. When we enter into a personal relationship with him, Christ reveals our true identity and, in friendship with him, our life grows towards complete fulfilment.” (http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/benedict_xvi/messages/youth/documents/hf_ben-xvi_mes_20100806_youth_en.html)

      As a previous commenter mentioned, the New Testament does refer to religion in a positive way, or at least, that one can have good or bad…

    • Jonathan H

      Oops, it would appear that posting from my mobile phone doesn’t show me when I’ve run out of characters. It should continue:

      … one can have good or bad religion. I favor a both/and interpretation of the relationship/religion question; to me, religion is the public, formal dimension of my relationship with Jesus. In that regard, it is similar to the difference between dating and marriage: the relationship is important enough that I am willing to make a public, formal commitment to it. This is not to the exclusion if relationship; in fact, this sort of commitment creates a situation in which the relationship can grow ever deeper.

    • Shanna

      Thank you! It generally grates on me when I hear people say, “it’s not a religion, it’s a relationship.” I feel like we in modern Christianity have lost our “AWE” of God. It’s the “Jesus is my homeboy” movement in my mind. I don’t know about you, but I am not afraid of the power and position of my best human friends. They don’t even come close to who/what God is and what He can do! The only relationship that comes close in the respect I feel towards another human is my marriage and yet even in my closest human relationship cannot compare to my interaction with God. Afterall, I do not worship my husband and we definitely have a relationship! Thanks again for posting, I really appreciated it!

    • Susan

      Wow! I see that Alex was giving me credit fro something Lisa said 🙂
      Back in the old days of P&P blogging Lisa and I would have been fine with that, but now she’s far advanced in theological study (not that Alex had me in mind, but I couldn’t resist!).

      As I said on Michael’s wall, my son asked me about all of this last night, after having seen the poem recited and then noticing a critical review of it by a youngish blogger. We had a good little discussion about it. I talked to him about this depending on how one defines religion (as you have done), and about Phariseeism. But also said that it might be the first time for many to hear the gospel at all, and perhaps some good can come of that, so I wouldn’t want to be hyper-critical.

    • […] think it is fallacious to say Christianity is not a religion. A while back, I wrote this piece one Parchment and Pen making that case by looking at the definition of religion. Here’s an […]

    • Gordon

      This is entirely unbiblical. The Bible already defines religion:
      True religion, pure and undefiled, is to care for divorcees and the homeless, and to keep oneself clear of politics and unethical industries.
      Evangelical, reformed, and most of sacramental christianity is none of these things in the slightest.

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