Friday, September 18, 2009

Why Christianity is a Religion

Have you ever heard someone preach, teach, or say the following cliche: "Christianity isn't a religion, but a relationship"? (see here and here and here and here... just to show a couple quick google results). "Religion," I hear people continue, "is man's attempt to get to God, but Christianity is about God reaching out to you."

But is this really true? You probably guessed that I disagree from my blog title, but I think it is important that we stop saying this for several reasons.

1) It is inaccurate.

Merriam Webster:
1 (1) : the service and worship of God or the supernatural (2) : commitment or devotion to religious faith or observance
2 : a personal set or institutionalized system of religious attitudes, beliefs, and practices
3 archaic : scrupulous conformity : conscientiousness
4 : a cause, principle, or system of beliefs held to with ardor and faith

Hmmm... so in what way is Christianity not a religion? Is it not the service and worship of God? I think most Christians who say it's not a religion would be quick to agree that it is. Is it not a personal (or institutional) set of religious attitudes, beliefs, and practices? They would be quick to say that Christianity is not an "institutionalized system", but without arguing the point, it is at least a "personal set", is it not? If Christianity conforms to the first two definitions, then I think, by any standard of definition, Christianity is a religion.

It may not fit YOUR definition of religion, but who are you to make up your own definition of religion? Unless we descend into extreme hyper-individualism and give in to Neo-Existentialism resulting in utter chaos without the possibility for any sort of communication, we can't all have our own personal definitions of words that make us feel better. If you don't like thinking of Christianity as a religion, I'm sorry, you're wrong - it is one.

2. This statement undermines the importance of a vital aspect of being a Christian: the Church

Unfortunately, I have not only heard this phrase from the "uneducated laity" but from preachers, church leaders, and from campus pastors at an educational institution that will remain nameless. Even worse, I remember saying it on several occasions about 5-6 years ago before someone pulled out a dictionary on me and made me look like an idiot (thanks Ryan if you ever read this). Why did I say it? I said it because I had heard it several times before from people I respected and it resonated with me. I suspect that this is why most people who say it say it. So my polemic is not aimed at the laity, but at the educated and the clergy. They are the ones who disseminate good and bad thinking to their congregations and they are the ones who need to stop. But back to the point, why did it resonate with me? It resonated with me because I was sick and tired of the institutional church and I wanted a way to distinguish my faith from it. I said it because I wanted a way to historically separate "True Christianity" from Christendom. I said it because I wanted a way to put my faith in a completely different category, separate from false religions. All noble reasons I suppose but there is an anti-institutionalism here that can be very dangerous.

What is dangerous about the anti-institutionalism of this statement? It individualizes faith and implies that your faith is just between you and God. But isn't it? NO it is not. You cannot be a Christian apart from the body of Christ. Your faith is NOT just between you and God. Christian faith is lived in community. Christianity is not just about A relationship, although it certainly includes that, but about RELATIONSHIPS. You cannot separate yourself from your brothers and sisters and still be good with the Father. Sorry, it doesn't work that way. Living in community and worshiping with others is very often very difficult, but it is a vital part of being a Christian. Sorry!

3) This statement implies that theology isn't important or that you can believe whatever you want.

It implies, whether intentionally or no, that there are no standards of belief. How does it do that? By refusing to call Christianity a religion and you are reducing it to one aspect of the Christian faith and by extension minimizing or eliminating altogether all other aspects of the Christian faith. I'm sorry, but you can't be a Christian unless you believe and hold to certain fundamental doctrines. If you like to quote this mantra, how do you reply to heretics when they say that God himself has lead them to certain heretical positions? How do you distinguish yourself from them? How can you associate yourself with true doctrine? If it is all about a relationship, just between you and God, then everything else is unnecessary. This is not what most people who say this want to communicate, but it is what it often communicates.

4) This statement flatly contradicts the Bible

James 1:27 says:
Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world. (ESV)

God wants us to be religious, but to practice our faith/religion purely. See the problem is not religion, but defiled and impure religion. When Jesus confronted the Pharisees, he was not attacking religion, but defiled and impure religion. Jesus doesn't hate religion, he calls you to a religion. If you want to be a Christian, you must adhere to a set of beliefs, you must be a part of his body, you must do religious acts (helping the helpless, loving the unloved, etc), you must be devoted to God and to others, you must worship God, and, I'm sorry, you must be religious.

How to say what you want to say without being inaccurate or threatening the core of your faith

If you want to communicate that true Christianity is different than people often perceive it, which is probably what you are trying to do in the first place here are some suggestions for a replacement to your current cliche

"True Christianity is different from other religions in that while most other religions are about earning salvation, true Christianity recognizes that we could never be good enough to please God." etc...

"True Christianity isn't about following a list of rules but about following the example of Christ, the perfect image of God. Christianity isn't about being enslaved to rituals but about the freedom we have in Christ from the bondage of sin."

"True Christianity isn't about rituals and going to church Sunday morning. True Christianity is about having a relationship with God and following the example of Jesus. The church isn't a building, but the community of Christians as we use our gifts and abilities to help each other to follow Christ and worship God together."

If none of these are succinct or quotable enough for you, you are welcome to work out your own. Just be careful... cliches are rarely as good as they sound.

@Bri and Brenda: Baptist post next...


Anonymous said...

i really like reason number 2 mainly because i have a friend who has been so turned off by the church that she doesn't feel like she needs to go to church but that her relationship with God is all that matters. you and nate are writing really good posts right now. well, they are always good. they just happen to be really applicable to some situations at present. thanks for putting me to sleep..just kidding!

Sabrina said...

Well put.

I complained about this very thing about six months ago, when one of the more popular, "seeker friendly", larger churches in the area was doing a series about relationship v religion (of course pushing the "it's not religion; it's a relationship"), using Galatians. Everything about it was horrible.

theone withabeard said...

Hmmm...I think people are trying to get at the fact that there is a much deeper and more personal relationship with God involved in Christianity than in other major religions, and they perform a switch where they should do a permutation.

It brings much chagrin to realize that identifying with our religion means having to explain the mistakes of history that are not at the essence of true faith. But you're right on: setting one's individual self apart as a true Christian, not a part of the religion, is self-righteous.

My problem here is that if I took any of your replacements and put them on a bumper sticker, we would need to make red lights longer for people to read the whole thing without crashing.

faithbornfromdoubt said...

@riga: at least it'd be accurate. who cares about safety? I haven't seen too many christian bumper stickers I like. most of them make me want to ram the car in front of me... so neither is really THAT safe.

About Me

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Tacoma, Washington, United States
"It is not as a child that I believe and confess Jesus Christ. My hosanna is born of a furnace of doubt." Fyodor Dostoevsky. I'm a Northwest Baptist Seminary graduate (MDiv) and current student (ThM). I plan on someday going to Africa and teach Bible and Theology at a Bible College or Seminary level. I hope to continue my studies and earn a PhD, either after I go to overseas for a few years or before. I'm a theological conservative, but I like to think outside of the box and challenge conventional thinking and consider myself a free thinker. I am currently serving in my fourth year as a Youth Pastor at Prairie Baptist Fellowship in Yelm Washington. My blogs will reflect my thoughts on both seminary and ministry life, though not (of course) exclusively. I enjoy literature and occasionally try my hand at writing stories and poems. "For I am not ashamed of the gospel for it is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes..." Paul