“Christianity Isn’t a Religion” Is a Liberal Thing to Say

“Christianity isn’t a religion; it’s a relationship!” How many times have you heard that before? If you’ve moved in many of the same circles that I have, then you’re probably pretty familiar with it. I’ve argued against this line before, pointing out that a religion is simply a set of beliefs in some kind of higher power, and of course Christianity is that (though also far more). But there is another danger of this way of thinking that has come to mind, and I would to point it out briefly.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, there began the rise of German liberal theology. With science exploding, standards of living rising like the tide, and the world all around seeming to swing towards progress, humanity came to think pretty highly of itself. A belief in unaided human reason as the final arbiter of truth and falsehood, combined with a skepticism about the authority of traditions in such an age of novelty, led many people to question the truth of Christianity’s basic claims. Was Jesus real? Was He actually like the Bible says He was? Can we trust the Gospels? Do we really know anything about Jesus?

These problems led certain pastors, theologians, and churches to turn away from traditional beliefs about the truthfulness of Christian doctrine. Instead of a Jesus who really lived, died, and rose, and a real authoritative body of teaching about Him in the Scriptures, the focus became all about the individual experience of faith. Who knew who Jesus really was, what He really did, and whether He is truly God in some way? What mattered was how people felt about Him. Faith was something which happened inside, changing the person and their relationship to the world around them in positive ways, ways which were expressed in religious terms about Jesus. Ultimately, the religious experience of faith was supposed to be the point of Christianity.

Now, all of my evangelical Protestant friends out there who use the slogan “relationship not religion” wouldn’t agree with this. They wouldn’t do like the German liberals and deny Jesus’ deity, the virgin birth, the resurrection, etc. all in favor of a faith experience. But, there is one crucial similarity. The say that Christianity is a relationship instead of a religion betrays the same basic concern: what really matters is the individual experience of faith.

This is a serious problem. The “relationship not religion” attitude often pushes doctrine, the Church, sacrament, and other “religious” things to the side, instead making “experiencing God” in some subjective way the focus. It sounds, and often acts, as though your relationship with Christ doesn’t really need to involve right knowledge of Him, or fellowship and cooperative ministry with His people, or regular, tangible reminders of our union with Him. All it really needs is the right worship music, devotionals, and preaching to make you feel the love of Jesus in your heart. 

Essentially, this is the same goal as theological liberalism. Experience faith and love, which will help make you a better person, too. Good theology, a community of believers, and regular reenactments of what Jesus has done for us in fellowship are all nice things, but what really counts? Faith itself. Believing in something better, something divine, that changes you for the better.

The real danger of all this is taking the focus away from God to self. Instead of focusing on who Jesus is, what He has done for me, and what He is calling me to do in response, the “relationship not religion” line necessarily moves the focus to how I feel about Jesus, how authentic my faith is, and what about my life is being changed by it. These things matter, but not as the focus. My feelings, faith, and transformed life must be the free flowing result of letting Jesus be my all-in-all, not the all-in-all on their own.

Remembering that Christianity is a religion helps guard against this. Christianity as a religion is decidedly not about myself, but about the One whom this religion worships and follows. Being part of a religion with a Church means not doing it alone and for myself, but only as part of a larger community under the same Lord with the same mission. Having religious doctrine says that I can’t just make Jesus into my own image, but instead must allow myself to be corrected by the truth He has revealed. The religious sacraments mean that I am forced as often as I partake to face the reality to which they point, unable to continually put it all on the back burner without condemning myself.

So please, let’s bury the whole “Christianity isn’t a religion” thing. We’re not German liberals, and don’t need to be like them. There is more to Jesus than personal faith. We must recognize the larger picture and live it out.

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6 Thoughts to ““Christianity Isn’t a Religion” Is a Liberal Thing to Say

  1. Don’t forget it was religion that killed Christ. The pharisees knew their doctrine but had no relationship with God. There needs to be a balance of relationship and doctrine not religion. Religion is what denominations pass down to control the masses. Religion is all about power and control not freedom to follow God.

    1. That’s not the definition of the word “religion,” though. Dictionaries say stuff like:
      “the belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power, especially a personal God or gods” or “a particular system of faith and worship.”
      Where does the definition of religion you’re using come from?

      (This is not even to mention that both James and Paul mention religion positively [Jas. 1:27, 1 Tim. 3:16].)

    2. Religion will always be what people make it out to be, since sadly we humans are what defines and interprets even massive things we should have no control over. Religion, at its core the way God intended, isn’t evil (far from it!), it is people who did/are using religion as an excuse to do evil things that corrupts any freedom to follow God.

  2. Karl Barth has a chapter in the Dogmatic about Religion as unbelief. Christianity is a faith in the incarnate, crucified resurrected Son of God. It is to do with revelation. The God who reveals Himself in the Word of God in its threefold form, Written, Preached and Revealed cannot be enclosed in a religion. I simply don’t think you understand the concept, rather you are trying to kick a straw man about.
    Of course your problem is not new. When the Bishop Of Woowich tried to get a grasp of Religion-less Christianity from Bonhoeffer he failed. Christianity is Revelation, it is that which comes from God. Broken fallen humanity will go for a religion. They will try to reach up to God when it is only possible to know God from what he lets drop, that is his Word.

    1. This approach escapes the critique I offer in this post, but still fails as it is a semantic game, just redefining terms to make a clever point. There is nothing in the basic definition of religion which requires it to involve reaching up, instead of pure revelation.

      Ultimately, our disagreement is not at the level of concepts but semantics. The opposition you present to religion only works with an idiosyncratic definition of the word.

  3. Funny but I was having to address this (among other things) yesterday for the Epistle was James 1: 17-27 and we are of course being told what pure religion is.
    What I would argue is that being a Christian means that we have to have a living relationship with the self revealing God – who gives us the faith to do it, but we do things which we share with other religious organisations, we worship, hold ritual meals and the like.
    It is 10 years since I sold off my CD when I retired and I’m only working from a very dodgy memory, but I think that Barth said something like Religion is the concern of sinful man.
    I see where you are coming from in that you are justifiably uneasy about people who seek to strip Christianity of its objective teachings and reduce it to some kind of purely existentialist situation. That is why Christ left behind His Church, the business of which is Dogmatics, and which, again under the revelation by the Holy Spirit, explains in imperfect Human terms the Divine Mystery, revealed in God’s word in its threefold form. Mind you I didn’t put it quite this way to my Congregation in the Highlands of Scotland

So what do you think?