Christians are religious. No they’re not. Or…

by Jim on 14 October 2007

Are Christians religious?

Stained glass window

I have a feeling that question brings out some passionate responses in a lot of people.  For some, it’s an emotionally loaded issue.

It could be argued that it’s really a question of semantics.  Both the words "Christian" and "religious" are widely open to interpretation.  Christian probably started out as a derogatory term (in what is now Antakya, Turkey), and is now often used in a pretty general way based on heritage.  Religious – well, we’re getting to that.

But if you’re a follower of Jesus, are you religious?  If your answer is yes, should you admit it?

I’m going to offend just about everyone by saying that, no, Christians are not religious.  AND… yes, they are.

It’s been fairly fashionable for most of my lifetime to say that Christians are not religious.  I know, people are pulling this out now like it’s a new idea, but really it’s not.

Some of the arguments went like this:

  • Christianity is not a set of outward rituals, but a heart-change
  • Christianity is not things you must do, but a relationship with God
  • Christianity is not about organs, pews and dressing up on Sunday, it’s an inward change
  • Christianity is not "just another religion" but something different
  • Religion is man’s effort to reach God, Christianity is God reaching out to man (who came up with this one?  Just curious.)

There’s a lot of truth here (if a tad simplistic!).  I appreciate the effort to distance Christianity from …. well, trying to find salvation in a bunch of rules and rituals.  It is all about inward change, and a relationship.  This theme is repeated over and over in the Bible – following laws won’t save or transform you, it takes a work of God on the inside (see Gal 3:23-25 and Rom 3:10-27).

What does the Bible say about religion?  Religion isn’t a word commonly used of Christianity.  In Col 2:16-3:17 Paul contrasts human religion with the reality in Christ.  Human religion is a bunch of self imposed rules and false humility.  Christianity is a new life in Christ, in which we obey His commands.

James talks about religion as well, in a rather ironic way.  While assuming Christianity is a "religion", he actually talks about it as a kind of anti-religion.  Not so much concerned with ritual, pure religion to James is controlling your tongue, visiting orphans and widows, and keeping unstained from the world (Jam 1:26-27).  The Bible, it would seem, is rather suspicious of the term religion.

Religious?

On the other hand, look at it from the perspective of Joe I-don’t-believe-anything, or Sam I-ain’t-a-Christian.  Should you, a "Christian", say you’re not religious?

On the pro side, you’re distancing yourself from organs and pews, not eating ice cream on Sunday and whatever other rules you can think of.  You’re distancing yourself from "organized religion", which many people have had a bad experience with.  You’re focusing on something more relational, vital, real.

But then, lo and behold – you’re a member of a group with a common set of beliefs (Rom 6:17).  You get together with this group and perform rituals – like baptisms (Mat 28:19) and communion (1Cor 11:23-26).  You have a life focused around God and what you believe He wants you to do (Rom 12:1-2).

Boy, that sure sounds like a religion to me!  And … er … doesn’t following a religion make you religious?

If I were Joe I-don’t-believe-anything or Sam I-ain’t-a-Christian, I think I’d feel a little condescended upon, or, worse, manipulated, if I were told someone like this wasn’t religious.

  • Wikipedia: A religion is a set of common beliefs and practices generally held by a group of people, often codified as prayer, ritual, and religious law.
  • Mirrian-Webster: religious – relating to or manifesting faithful devotion to an acknowledged ultimate reality or deity
  • Oxford: religious – of, concerned with, or believing in a religion.
  • Oxford: religion – a particular system of faith and worship. or the belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power, especially a personal God or gods.

Sounds like Christians are religious to me.

By almost any normal definition of the word, Christians are religious, and Christianity is a religion.  But we have to admit Christianity is different.  It is focused on God reaching us, not us reaching for God.  We aren’t Christians because we follow rules and rituals – it’s all about God’s grace toward us.  Pews and organs and abstaining from this or that – these aren’t defining factors of our faith, and people need to realize that.

So in the end, how would you answer?  Would it depend on who was asking?  In what context?  If you’re not a Christian, do you consider yourself religious?  Why or why not?

Are you religious?

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Michelle in Mx October 16, 2007 at 10:47 pm

Hmmm . . some good points.
But I would still have to lean on the “not religious” side, although to my in-laws that are not christian I am known to be “into God” . . .LOL
Anyway.
Good points.

Carol October 17, 2007 at 4:50 pm

If I were going by man’s definitions, I’d say, okay Christians are religious. If I go by a biblical view, I’d say no, I don’t guess we are. The bible doesn’t have a lot of good things to say about religious folks, especially in the NT.

Matt Beach October 17, 2007 at 8:51 pm

Hey Jimbo, Wow some pretty cool points unloaded here. I sure wish that we were back at Fair Glen camp sitting on top of chairs on top of the dining tables eating ice cream late at night so we could disuss this in more detail.

Let’s say I’m religiously devoted to being non-religious 🙂

Really though I believe that our main goal is to be more and more like Jesus every day and working that out in our personal lives and in community with other believers. I think we’ve been on the anti-religion thing because if you look at the example of Christ the people that he rebuked the most were the religious leaders of his time.

It’s almost like we need to create another word to replace what we mean when we are talking about the “bad” religion. Religion only becomes harmful when we start to rely on the systems or things instead of God who may decide to work in a way that we don’t expect.

I would simply try point a non-believer towards Jesus and focus more on Him instead of religious or not religious.

Great topic! Hope you guys are well.

Matt Beach

Jim October 18, 2007 at 9:18 am

It’s great to hear some discussion on this one! Thanks for responding.

Carol, you made an interesting point – man’s definition vs God’s. Now by the dictionary definition, believers are clearly religious. After that, I think it depends on the context – some people would consider believers religious, others wouldn’t.

But what is “God’s definition”? As I mentioned above, it’s a little ambiguous, but it seems that “religion” isn’t really a popular term for believers in Scripture. It’s used more in an ironic way. The “men of Athens” were ignorantly religious (Acts 17:22-23), and in James we’re told religion isn’t ritual but a practical outworking of faith.

There’s a lot of talk about the “religious leaders” that Jesus told off in their day. But was He upset with them because they were “religious”? I’ll suggest two reasons why He opposed them:
1) They were hypocrites – they didn’t walk the talk (actually, Jesus told people not to do as they did, but still to obey what they said to do!) (Mat 23:1-3, and the rest of the chapter). Also, their hearts were far from God, in spite of all their showing off.
2) They added their own laws to God’s, making them a heavy burden (Mat 23:4). Worse, their complex laws ended up contradicting God’s laws (Mat 15:1-9).
3) They ignored the most important of God’s laws (Luke 11:42), such as justice and the love of God.

Jesus never rebuked them for keeping the law (as it was meant to be kept). In fact, all that ritual was affirmed by Jesus. Take that last passage – Luke 11:42. It sounds like Jesus is suggesting they keep to the smaller points of the law, while at the same time following justice and love.

So in one sense, they were not rebuked for being “religious”, but for their type of religion.

I think Matt Beach hits the nail on the head – it’s almost like we need a new word.

“Religion” in people’s minds is never just the dictionary definition anyway. It comes with a lot of baggage (like the organs and pews, perhaps abuse and ignorance). I certainly wouldn’t suggest a believer promote themselves as “religious”.

However, maybe outright denying that we’re religious may not be the best approach. I still think it may come across as manipulative. Better to find out what the individual means by “religious”.

Matt said above,”I would simply try point a non-believer towards Jesus and focus more on Him instead of religious or not religious.”

I think that’s a great point. In the end, we need to get back to Jesus, and our relationship with Him and each other (the more important parts of the law!). Religion or not, it’s not about a system but about a Person.

More thoughts? Disagreements? 🙂

Loreli October 28, 2007 at 3:02 pm

I have to agree with you and Matt. We need a new word.

Our pastor back home often says that everyone is religious – even athiests – as our beliefs control our conduct and we relate to a wider group of people who share the same worldview. If that’s the case, James is telling us that by what we do, we are demonstrating our religion. If we are Christians, we will care for the widows and orphans…

People assume I am “religious” when I call myself a Christian or say the things I believe. I decided to agree that I am, but challenge them on what they think that means. Make them do the explaining! 🙂

Jim October 28, 2007 at 8:27 pm

Maybe we should call it Religion v.2.0 🙂

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