Written by Paul J. Bucknell on February, 27, 2020
Is Christianity a Religion?
The Question on Religion
Is Christianity a religion?
The question seeking to know whether Christianity is a religion might seem simple, at first. The answer mainly centers on one’s definition of religion. There is, however, usually another question behind this one. After all, we know that Christianity is listed as one of the world’s religions, right? That is not the real question—for most, anyway.
A more pressing issue has to do with those who affirm that the Christian faith is not a religion but a personal relationship with Jesus.
A Definition of Religion
There are many shades of meaning for the English word ‘religion.’ I only select the ones regarding the faith.
• A modern definition of religion in this context from dictionary.com goes (5):
The practice of religious beliefs; ritual observance of faith.
• I favor Webster’s Dictionary from 1828 (4):
Any system of faith and worship. In this sense, religion comprehends the belief and worship of pagans and Mohammedans, as well as of christians; any religion consisting in the belief of a superior power or powers governing the world, and in the worship of such power or powers. Thus we speak of the religion of the Turks, of the Hindoos, of the Indians, etc., as well as of the christian religion. We speak of false religion as well as of true religion.
So, in the broadest understanding, Christianity is a religion since it includes both faith and worship.
The Bible Verses on Religion
Do we gain any further insight from the Bible’s use of the word “religion”? Let’s look at the four usages of the word “religion” (all from the New Testament).
1. Religion is used by outside observers to describe the Christian’s viewpoint.
“But they simply had some points of disagreement with him about their own religion and about a dead man, Jesus, whom Paul asserted to be alive.” (Acts 25:19 NASB used unless otherwise noted.)
deisidaimonia (δεισιδαιμονία ) “It is a broad term for religion.”
2. Religion is used to describe one’s brand of Judaism. In this case, Phariseean is described as a strict sect of Judaism.
“Since they have known about me for a long time, if they are willing to testify, that I lived as a Pharisee according to the strictest sect of our religion.” (Acts 26:5)
thréskeia (θρησκεία) “reverence or worship of the gods), worship as expressed in ritual acts, religion.”
3. Religion, here, is less an accepted system of faith and thought and more of a person’s own set of thinking.
“These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh.” (Colossians 2:23 ESV)
ethelothrēskeía (εθελοθρησκια: from"desire” and"religion”) – “properly, self-willed religion, defined by the desires of the human will.”
4. Religious, in James 1:26-27, differs from above by describing one’s performance, moral or otherwise good.
“If anyone thinks himself to be religious, and yet does not bridle his tongue but deceives his own heart, this man’s religion is worthless. 27 Pure and undefiled religion in the sight of our God and Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” (James 1:26-27)
Webster’s Dictionary again helps us consider religion in this context (Religion-#2):
“Religion as distinct from theology, is godliness or real piety in practice, consisting in the performance of all known duties to God and our fellow men, in obedience to divine command, or from love to God and his law. James 1:26.”
Is our Christian faith the same as Christianity?
Most of the questions surrounding this discussion on religion and Christianity derive from the Christian’s problem of equating their faith with religion. The argument goes, religion is man-made, whereas the true heart of Judaism and Christianity are God-made. God has inscribed His judgment and revealed His Word so that we can search and know Him. Buddha sought life’s meaning and wisdom, but Jesus was the “the Way, the Life, and Truth” (John 14:6). Typically, then, religion describes man’s way of dealing with human problems, while Christianity is God’s solution revealed to humankind.
The term ‘Christianity,’ in its broad usage, broadly applies to all churches, even those professors who have denied Christ as the Son of God. In these cases, Christianity is just another man-made religion. Man-made, in a sense, that though their proponents have titles, their thoughts differ from God’s revealed truth. From the outside, the world cannot discern the difference and include cults like Mormons and Jehovah Witnesses under the broad term of Christianity.
But those who have a relationship with the living Lord Jesus, have a hard time seeing them as the same thing. They are not! Those who know Christ as their personal Lord and Savior can discern the all-important difference between the two. (1) Christianity, as a religion, describes true believers who know God through Christ. (2)Christianity, however, is also used for those reckless attempts to twist the Scriptures that end up deceiving mankind—just another ineffective religion.
The world, including those in the broad Christian church, will define Christianity as a religion. We cannot change that. They cannot see the difference.
Discerning the Difference
True Christians, however, find their faith distinctive and have come up with other terms to set apart the genuine believer from those brought up in Christianity who have no saving faith in Christ. Some terms include: “born-again Christian,” or “evangelical,” or “reformed,” or “disciple of Jesus.” There are other descriptions, but no matter how many labels we use, they quickly become unreliable, for Satan creates a false version of it.
Christ has called His genuine people His bride, a people who respond to Him because they know and believe Him. They have adopted Christ’s life as a standard for themselves, having gained life through their personal faith in Jesus who died and lives for them.
In summary, we must agree that Christianity is one of the world’s religions. But, we also must importantly add that this word mischaracterizes the core of Christian life, which is found only in the personal relationship with Jesus. Christians know and grow in their knowledge of Christ (2 Pet 3:18). True Christian faith and identity do not come from being acquainted with an institution affiliated with Christianity, such as a church, but in knowing Christ.
An Example of Religion in My Heart
Let me highlight these two differences from my life. My mother brought me up in a liberal Congregational church north of Boston. She told me to attend Sunday School and forced me to sing in the youth choir. I did all of this, including attending youth group, because of my mother. I can still vividly remember being bored out of my mind sitting through worship services.
If people would look at the church attendees, they would all be considered Christians—even myself. But it wasn’t until about 12 years-old that I actually became a Christian. I wasn’t Hindu or Buddhist but associated with Christians. This is how the outsiders look at the Christian religion.
Fortunately, this marvelous work on my soul, that I have in other places described, took place just before my confirmation. I wasn’t baptized as an infant either. So, on confirmation day, the pastor both sprinkled me (i.e., baptized) and confirmed me as a member.
People would count me as a Christian all the time I was attending, but it was only when about 12 that I really became ‘born again.’ I knew God, through my faith in Christ, had forgiven me and set me in the path of Eternal life—despite my sinful life. Only the genuine work of God in our hearts leads to eternal life (cf. John 3).
But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To Him be the glory, both now and to the day of eternity. Amen. (2 Peter 3:18)
Discussion Questions on Christianity as Religion
1. Look up religion in a dictionary and write down several definitions.
2. Name some of the world’s religions.
3. What is the meaning of a man-made and God-made religion?
4. What groups of professing Christians are generally included under the broad umbrella of Christianity?
5. Why should the broad inclusion of those who belong to any kind of church dissatisfy the Christian believer?
6. Why do believers sometimes use phrases like ‘born-again’ to describe themselves?
7. Do you use any phrase to distinguish your true faith in Christ? If so, what?
8. Do you know people that consider themselves Christians, but from all appearance do not know Christ?
9. Would you characterize yourself as a Christian because you belong to some Christian church or because of your faith in Christ? Please explain.