Thinking About The Word “Religion”

“Christianity isn’t a religion, it’s a relationship”
“I’m not religious, I’m spiritual”
“Religion ties people down; Jesus makes people free”

Those are three popular catch-phrases demoting the use of the word “religion” in regards to Christianity. Are these phrases correct? Should we call for a moratorium on the word “religion” as it pertains to our faith in Christ?

Allow my brief confession from the beginning – more often than not I hear these kinds of things from folks who are pursuing virtually anything other than their relationship with Christ. These kinds of phrases sometimes sound like good coffee-shop, “I’m a deep thinker” cliches spoken to impress some lesser minded soul of the breadth of one’s spiritual insight. But not always. I have also heard similar sentiments spoken from men and women I respect who have an abiding faith in Jesus Christ.

So what should we make of it?

The most important starting place is the Bible itself; what does Scripture teach us about the concept of religion? There are two words for “religion” in the New Testament and they are transliterated as “threskeia” and “deisidaimonia.” Luke uses the word “religion” in Acts 25:19 when discussing the chief priests and elders as they attempt to make their case against Paul. They were working to find a dispute against Paul “about their own religion…” Luke uses the word a second time to describe Paul’s defense before Agrippa in Luke 26:5. In both of these instances, Luke is using the word in a negative sense, indicating the legalism and traditions of the Jews’ rules-based religion. Paul uses the word in Colossians 2:18 in context of his teaching on our freedom in Christ. Paul contrasts true freedom against the ritualistic, ceremonial law keeping of the Jews’ religion. Again, this is a negative use of the word. Finally, James uses the word twice in his letter. In James 1:26, he describes a “worthless” religion as one that is all talk and no heart. This is in line with Luke’s and Paul’s usage. The only positive use of the word is found in James 1:27 where he emphatically describes a religion that is “pure and undefiled.”

Thus, the little amount the word “religion” is used in Scripture it is typically cast in a negative light. However, James 1:27 demonstrates how religion can take on a certain purity, and that purity is connected with action in Christ (care for orphans and widows). Does this help us with whether or not we should use the word “religion?”

As with many things associated with Christian conversation, we need to dig a little deeper with folks to discern just what they are getting at. If someone says, “Christianity isn’t a religion, it’s a relationship” and means that we have been set free from the bondage of sin and ceremonial rule keeping but are instead saved by grace through faith that leads to good works, then I couldn’t agree more. On the other hand, if “Christianity isn’t a religion, it’s a relationship” means that Christianity is simply about being in love with God and does not require obedience and the pursuit of holiness, then I couldn’t disagree more.

That is what makes the gospel so amazing. The gospel dissolves the errancy of two extreme positions. Christianity is not based on rule keeping, ceremonial laws, or works. It is based solely on the righteousness of Jesus which is ours through faith. And yet, once we are in Christ, Christianity is not devoid of effort, since Paul “worked harder than all of them” and since we “we were created in Christ Jesus for good works…” Yes, they will indeed know us by our fruits.

Only the gospel is able to make both of these things come alive in our hearts. When we reflect on the gospel everyday, we are at a minimum reminded that 1) we could never have done anything to save ourselves; we were ill-deserved to receive any blessing from Christ. This humbles us everyday and fills us with gratitude for the amazing grace of God. Then, 2) we respond to this grace (which gives us power) by believing God’s revelation and pursuing holiness in Christ. That is obedience.

The reason this is dramatically different from the negative uses of “religion” in the Bible is because our obedience is neither the ground nor the security of our salvation. Thus, Christians do not obey to become who we aren’t. Christians obey to become who we already are in Christ. That is the power of the gospel.

So, I don’t mind a bit when someone speaks of the “Christian religion.” Just so long as we both know what they mean. And what the gospel means.