Christianity is a religion. And Christians should not shy away from that monicker.
I've read or heard many times the opinion of Christians who insist that "Christianity is not a religion." Often the addendum, "It's a relationship" is joined to the base claim. However, this is an improper use of the term religion.
For example, the following quotation by Dave Daubenmire of Pass the Salt Ministries is a decent summary of why some Christians are repelled by the label "religion." In a December 9, 2010 article, he wrote:
Jesus hated religion. It was the “religious” folks that He tried to free us from. 'But woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye shut up the kingdom of heaven against men: for ye neither go in yourselves, neither suffer ye them that are entering to go in.'Read Mathew 23 to understand better what He had to say to “religious” leaders. He stated it better than I can.Look. Christianity is not a religion, it is not “going to church”, it is not a set of rules and regulations after which you pattern your life...
He goes on to claim Christianity is living a life in Christ---which is correct. But this sentiment is in error to exclude from Christianity attendance at church, following prescriptions of the Church, and that Jesus hated religion.
Another example from allaboutreligion.org reads:
Christianity is not really a religion; it is a relationship with God. It is trusting in Jesus and what He did on the cross for you (1 Corinthians 15:1-4), not on what you can do for yourself (Ephesians 2:8-9). Christianity is not about ornate buildings, flamboyant preachers, or traditional rituals. Christianity is about truly accepting Jesus as your Lord and Savior.
Those who agree with the above examples make the following apparent deduction:
- As Scripture testifies, many regulations were followed in the religion of Judaism.
- Jesus chastised hypocrites within the Jewish leadership.
- Scripture also says man cannot save himself, but needs God.
- Therefore Jesus hates religion.
You see how the conclusion is fallacious on its face.
Perhaps the simplest way to demonstrate that the term religion is certainly appropriate for Christianity, is that the Bible describes what constitutes "true religion" versus a false religion.
James 1:26-27 If any one thinks he is religious, and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this man's religion is vain. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.In short, this is describing the principle of loving one's neighbor and living a moral life. And the apostle James labels such a life as "pure religion." Therefore, it is not Biblically proper to exclude any sense of the term religion when describing Christianity. And as we will see, ritual and regulations facilitate our walk with Christ.
Next, let's look closer at the beginning of Matthew 23, which is mentioned above:
Matthew 23:1-3 Then said Jesus to the crowds and to his disciples, "The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses' seat; so practice and observe whatever they tell you, but not what they do; for they preach, but do not practice."Even though Jesus proceeds to expose hypocrisy among the Pharisees, He still told the audience to follow what they prescribe, for they were the true leaders, sitting on Moses' seat. This can hardly be classified as the command of someone who hated the regulations of all religion, much less the Jewish faith.
Take another example of Jesus criticizing hypocrites:
Matthew 6:16-18 And when you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by men. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by men but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.We see a number of pertinent truths in this passage. Jesus criticizes the fasting of hypocrites, but does not condemn proper fasting. This is just like James above, who contrasts true religion with false religion. The existence of a false practice does not overtake the legitimacy of a true practice. Further, the very subject at hand was what the above critics would call a "religious" ritual or regulation: fasting. Jesus even prescribes proper rules for fasting, which include maintaining an appearance to disguise one's fast.
Jesus also partook in Jewish ritual, especially at the Jewish Passover feast. In doing so, He did not reject ritual. Rather, He taught through the significance of the ritual. Through the imagery and actions in the feast He communicated divine truths, such as His own fulfillment as Passover lamb or the partaking in the unleavened bread (1 Cor. 5:7) or wine as signposts to His own sacrifice.
Paul continued to participate in the fulfillment of that ritual by partaking in the bread and wine (1 Cor. 10:16) according to Christ's command (e.g. Luke 22:19-20). Scripture also testifies to the faithful following the apostles' teaching to participate in the "breaking of the bread and the prayers" as well as attending the temple daily (Acts 2:42-46). In doing so, were Paul and the other apostles of Christ teaching Christians to participate in what the above critics would disapprovingly call "religious" practices? Yes, they are.
In the Catholic and Orthodox liturgies, the Eucharist, which is the consecrated bread and wine, is offered through the priest. This offering is believed to be the same offering as Christ's sacrifice on Calvary, and thus a true, pure offering (cf. John 6:25-69, Luke 22:19-20, 1 Cor. 10:16-18, 1 Cor. 11:23-29, etc.). This "ritual" is in harmony with the prophet Malachi who speaks of a day when incense and a pure offering (singular in Hebrew) is offered in all places (plural) (Mal. 1:11). The book of Hebrews (9:23) speaks of the OT sacrifices fulfilled in better "sacrifices" (plural in Greek).1 Yet since Christ's sacrifice is one and unique, how can this be? Because it can be seen in the plural via the one sacrifice's continual re-presentation in the Eucharist in all places as the prophet Malachi foretold. Thus, participating in the "ritual" of the liturgy most profoundly fulfills the call of Scripture.
Consider other "religious" regulations or prescriptions encouraged or commanded in the New Testament:
- The gesture of imposing hands confers the Spirit in appointing Church leaders (cf. Acts 6:6, Acts 8:18, Acts 19:6, 1 Tim. 4:14, 2 Tim. 1:6, etc...).
- Elders are to anoint the sick with oil, and sins are to be confessed (Jam. 5:14-15).
- In Paul's time, one of the regulations was the length of a woman's hair and her head covering, and men were not to cover their heads (1 Cor. 11:1-16).
- The very reading of Scripture in Church (Col. 4:16, 1 Thes. 5:27) is a continuation of Jewish practice (Acts 15:21)!
- The book of Revelation is fraught with ritualistic and liturgical imagery such as the use of incense and harps (Rev. 5:8), religious chants (Rev. 4:8), and lamps and robing (Rev. 1:13). These all parallel practices in ancient Judaism, which the modern critics in question claim are the example of "religion" Jesus despised. On this last bullet, a critic may say, "But this is the book of Revelation. These are all just symbols. Using those things for real is empty religion." Yet, where do Jesus or His apostles use condemned activities as symbols for proper form?
These are just a few examples demonstrating that ritual or regulatory norms are in no way contrary to Scripture or a Christian life. Partaking in ritual or religious regulations are not opposed to, but are rather in concert with living a life in Christ. Blanket rejection of "religious" practices is Biblically unfounded. It is when ritual or gestures become empty or false that one strays from their proper purposes. Therefore, true rituals or practices should be embraced by all Christians as God's vehicles to teach or operate as seen above.
1For a deeper treatment of the language in Hebrews 9:23, see Not By Bread Alone by Robert Sungenis, page 81.