Is Christianity a Religion?

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It’s amazing how videos can go viral! I’m not sure if you’ve seen the YouTube spoken word video from Jefferson Bethke or not. Actually, it’s marvelous and has so many good thoughts! What I love about younger generations is that they have a dissatisfaction with how Christianity is expressed and lived out. We all know that if dissatisfaction is not “holy” then it can quickly degenerate into a cynicism that slowly eats away at people’s souls such that they have a hard time being objective. That said, I think Mr. Bethke has captured the “ethos” of so many young Christians who are longing for something…

So whatever I have to say is not directed solely at Mr. Bethke, who I know from some interaction I’ve read, is a well-meaning, Jesus loving person! I would like to weigh in on how Christianity is both thought of and expressed to others publicly. We have all said this, “Christianity is not a religion, it’s a relationship.” I want to push back on this gently because I have a few concerns. While I understand what people are trying to communicate it’s important for us to get clear in our thinking before we use cliches that sound good but end up doing damage.

First, I do believe Christianity is a religion by definition. It’s always been one of the main religions of the world. In fact, I think it’s clear that historically all religions have as their source either Judaism or Hinduism. Why is this important? Because all religions are after answers to fundamental questions about the world, about ourselves, and about life. Questions like, “What’s really real?”, “What is it to be a good person?” “How do I become a good person?” “What can I know and how can I know it?” “What’s ultimately beautiful?” “Why do I sense the need to hope, to seek approval?” “Does evil really exist and why does it exist?” These are fundamental questions along with probably some others that every religion seeks answers to. To call Christianity a religion is important because it allows us to compare “apples with apples”. How does Buddhism answer these questions compared to Christianity? To take Christianity out of the realm of religion makes it much more difficult to do an honest comparison between the two to see if one is closer to the “way it really is”.

But second, to simply take Christianity out of the realm of religion and say it’s a relationship makes it incredibly individualistic. The irony is that now Christianity becomes an individual project to the same people who lament that the way our faith is expressed is too western! Yes, it’s true that one must be personally connected to Christ. However, it feeds the current individualistic current…. it’s about my personal relationship with Jesus. This cuts against the need for people to be connected to the body of Christ in any meaningful way. One of the marks of religion has always been an interconnectedness between people. It’s only in modern western countries where you see it lived out disconnected from others.

Third, I think we need to consider what Jesus practiced. He was a Jew who lived the Mosaic as laid out. To say that Jesus was not about religion and about relationship is disingenuous. In fact, I would say that His practice of religion (Judaism) in the way He did was absolutely necessary for us to be declared righteous through His shed blood.

What we might be able to say is that while Christianity is a religion, it is a highly relational religion. It’s focus is not on performance but rather another’s performance for us. It’s focus is not on achieving or trying to get the Kingdom of God but recognizing and receiving the Kingdom as Jesus offers it to us.

In the end, what I would like to challenge us to think about is how much we rely on cliches to drive our Christian life. What we want are real, genuine people, not people who are marked by cliches. We want Christians who think clearly about the gospel and then let it soak so deeply into our hearts that it’s lived out in a radical way with others.

4 thoughts on “Is Christianity a Religion?

  1. Sue Baxter

    Jon, I completely agree with you. I really think the problem arises in the definition of terms; in this case “religion.” You’ve clarified the true meaning of Christianity as a religion, enabling the conversation within the arena of other religions. As it should be. Let’s compare!

    In redefining the term “religion” over the last 5-10 years, the true meaning has gotten lost (the meaning of tolerance has taken a similar turn) and has turned into its euphemism. Which is why clarifying and identifying terms these days is SO important, as you well point out.

    I think Mr. DeYoung’s critique was a little off in this regard. I believe Mr. Bethke meant something different than what Mr. DeYoung was addressing. Which is why I appreciate your post in clarifying this term.

    Timothy Keller’s book, Prodigal God, differentiates the heart stance of the older brother (Luke 15) from the type of heart God wants from us. True Christianity. True transformation. The problem that we’re experiencing is that many Christians seem to be elder brothers; in other words, they’re following a “religion,” like following a list of duties – as Mr. Bethke relates. No real heart transformation.

    In this way, it’s frustrating when a seemingly elder brother identifies themselves as being transformed (when they’re only following rules and order), and those that don’t understand will regard their lives as the Christian religion. This is why I believe this generation is saying, “That’s religion, and I don’t want any part of it.”

    We shouldn’t separate, we should clarify. So, thank you for clarifying.

    • jonnitta

      I think that’s right Sue. Those are good thoughts. I wanted to write something on that but the blog was getting too long. He’s using the word in a way that is referring to a particular kind of Christian that is shallow, superficial, and fake. These people might seem spiritual on the outside but in practice they are far from the genuine article. Here are a few thoughts.

      Tim Keller has done a marvelous job of making it clear that Christianity critiques both religion and irreligion. Let’s put aside irreligion for now. I agree with Keller that Christianity does critique religion. But if Christianity is a religion, as I’ve defined, then what specifically does it critique? I think what we’re speaking of is it critiques moralistic Christianity. That is, the kind of Christianity that bases its resources not on the work of Christ on the behalf of a person, but on one’s own moral record. In essence, and Keller is clear, this is self-justification, self-promotion, self-absorption, and self-salvation. Moralistic Christianity is destructive because one is not even aware of the deep motivations that one has in living the Christian life. Maybe it’s more technical to say that Christianity critiques moralistic religion instead.

      So if we are talking about religion being moralistic religion, yes, I’m in agreement. I think what we’re talking about it is sort of the blanket statement that Christianity is not a religion. I want people to think of Christianity as a religion but one that is incredibly relational and has the resources to be able to critique our efforts to turn it into something that depends on record rather than Christ’s. Thanks for sharing your thoughts Sue!

      • Sue Baxter

        “Maybe it’s more technical to say that Christianity critiques moralistic religion instead.” Precisely! Well thought out and well said, Jon!

  2. Sam Rood

    Jon, this was well thought out. I’ve been thinking of writing up a short response to this conversation as well. I am glad this “mini-controversy” has come up because it has caused me to think more critically about some of the cliches we evangelicals use. Sometimes we say things without realizing the implications. Religious revival is just that: the renewing of life in dead religion so that people experience the living God.

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