Is Christianity a Religion?

I have been asked several times what I think of Jefferson Bethke’s Youtube spoken word sensation Why I Hate Religion, But Love Jesus. Well, I think a lot of things. Too many to write here. A helpful take on the video specifically can be found here. But the idea that “Christianity isn’t a religion, it’s a relationship” isn’t new. And every time I hear it I think to myself, “What do they mean by religion?” The reality is that most evangelicals mean several things by “religion” (If you don’t believe me, see the raging debate going on in the comments of the video – people keep talking past each other because they have different definitions of the words they are using).

Religion As Religious Practice: In many of the ways we talk, when we say “religious” we are talking about external practices. For many evangelicals, the practices of Catholics, the Eastern Orthodox, or even Mainline liturgy, is seen as “religious.” They are seen as rote practices that do not matter to a person’s heart or we think “they” do them to earn God’s favor.

Religion As Ethical Behavior: As Jefferson mentions, oftentimes we use the word “religion” to talk about a list of rules we need to keep in order to make God happy. Interestingly, he notices that the way of Jesus is not about a list of rules but then he also implies that we should be feeding the poor, that this is what would make God happy. This is the inconsistency I want to focus on below.

Religion As Hypocrisy: Interestingly, we often equate religion with hypocrisy. This is partly, if not mostly, because Jesus continually condemned the religious leaders of his day for not living up to their own standards. They were “white-washed tombs,” or as Jefferson says in his video, when he was “religious,” he would party on Saturday and go to church on Sunday. Religion = Hypocrisy

Religion As Belief in God: It is important to recognize that the most common use of the word, as evidenced by the definition we find in the dictionary, is simply to use “religion” as any belief in God. The dictionary defines religion quite broadly when it says that a religious person is one who relates to and manifests faithful devotion to an acknowledged ultimate reality or deity. So then, to say that you believe in God but are not religious, according to this definition, is a contradiction. If you believe in God, you are religious. In this way, every Christian is religious.

All of these definitions should show us why we have to be careful not to make broad statements like “I hate religion” without defining what we mean by the term. I have very few issues with the video, in fact, I think it’s rather good. But much to Jefferson’s chagrin, there will be people who will leave their computers with a feeling of superiority toward those “poor Catholics” because they are “religious” (as defined above).

But I want to talk about a different response. The fact that there will also be those who leave their computers feeling very good about themselves because they would never turn away a divorced single mother from their church but would still turn away a practicing homosexual. I am not saying churches should or should not fully accept a practicing homosexual, I am saying, “How is that different?” In other words, I am simply pointing out that religion is not gone, it has simply gone underground.

Even though the cry of “I Hate Religion!” might be loud and passionate, what I mostly see is a discarding of external religious practice (see, my church isn’t religious: we have a cool band, you can dress however you want, the message is relevant to daily life with no boring candle-lighting or Eucharist ritual) while internal religiosity remains as stringent as ever (in my heart I question whether you really can be a Christian and think that homosexuality isn’t a sin; God is not pleased with your beliefs about Genesis; I am visibly angered by the fact that you just said shit, drank a shot of vodka, and call yourself a Christian).

Religion as rules isn’t gone, we’ve just directed it off of things we are now more comfortable with (for some, this is divorce, women in leadership, allowing for evolution; for others, this might even go as far as drinking and cussing) and put it onto things we are less comfortable with (homosexuality, Genesis as myth, an errant Bible). Go to almost any evangelical church and disclose that you think homosexuality isn’t a sin, that Genesis is myth, and that you question inerrancy, and see if religion does not rear its vitriolic head. We accept you as you are, for a while…but if you don’t change things that we think are central to Christianity, we start to get extremely uncomfortable.

If Jesus was so against religion, as evangelicals claim, then why are our most of our churches still filled with religiosity?

So the reality is that rules are still alive and well. Why? There are probably lots of reasons (including one important one that makes us uneasy: the Bible seems to be filled with them) but one is because we need a standard. We need to know how “well” we are doing when people ask how our “spiritual walk is going,” whether we are being “good Christians” And most importantly: we need to know whether we are “in” or “out.” The sad thing is that in our attempt to be “certain” about our own acceptance by God, we have excluded many spiritually hungry people. This is religious at its best/worst.

So, if you are going to say that Christianity is not a religion, in the sense of a list of rules to gain favor with God, good for you. But you cannot have your cake and eat it to. To get rid of religion is to get rid of our need for certainty. It is to be thrust into the absolute abandonment of a God I do not understand. It is to give up needing to know if I am “in” or “out” and focus simply on inviting people to know him, leaving the rest of their lives up to him. It is to move from a paradigm of “some in/some out” to “does my life introduce people to him.” It is to be a church that does not discriminate between sinner/saint, mature/immature, good/bad, gay/straight or even poor/middle class, but one that affirms that “all are one in Christ Jesus.” A church that finally does what it says it does: give me a space for grace. Not grace for a time. Not conditional grace. But absolute acceptance, trusting that the change that needs to come to a person’s life comes through acceptance, love, and the power of the Spirit of God, not through me making sure they fit inside the box I have created for God.

We are all religious because we all want to know “what must I do to be saved.” This is true for Christians, Buddhists, atheists, and all. To deny it is to succumb to its power. The Christian answer is the one Christians fight the most: “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”

4 responses to “Is Christianity a Religion?

  1. “So then, to say that you believe in God but are not religious, according to this definition, is a contradiction. If you believe in God, you are religious. In this way, every Christian is religious.”

    I agree to some degree. Although by another way of defining religion, where Christianity itself may be the god or idol, not every Christian may Truly believe in God. And what does it mean to Truly believe in God? Is it enough to believe in God’s existence? Or is believing really when we willingly, lovingly and joyfully embrace and following the ways of God’s Love?

    • Yes, but your “although by another way of defining religion” just goes to prove my point. The real question we have to first answer before we get to “Is Christianity a religion?” is “What are we going to say religion means?”

      • That’s why I try to stay away from the word “religion” with a 10-ft pole 😉

        With the understanding that there are many different religions I tend to define religion as the rules that make each religion different. Maybe the Love, Peace and Understanding that tries to transcend so many is not religion, by my definition?

        So I would say yes. Christianity as a whole, is a religion. But at the core of it, it is not religion. Because at the core of it, human understanding (sinful misunderstandings), should not exist. I believe those sinful misunderstandings are what give “religion” the bad name, which should not be associated with the Truth of God. The way I look at it is that religion is debatable. Truth is not. Another can of worms…uh oh 😉

  2. Great thoughts Jared. It’s the focus of religion (or relationship for that matter) that ultimately defines the question. I can be religious, as the pharisees can be religious as you can be religious – and that can mean something completely different in all 3 cases. To see both religion and relationship as opposing forces is naive at best… to see them as the opposite sides of a single coin (like Jesus command to love God and love people) is more holisitc. Thanks for writing this – very helpful.

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