Friday, October 2, 2009

Is Christianity a Religion?

Non-Christian: Man, I hate religion. All it does is shut off minds and create hypocrites.

Christian: Oh, you hate religion? As a Christian, I hate religion too!

Non-Christian: Um, what? But isn’t Christianity a religion?

Christian: No, Christianity is a relationship—not a religion!

Non-Christian: I don’t get it.

Christian: Religion is all about what man can do to reach up to God, but Christianity is all about what God did to reach down to man! Jesus wants to have a personal relationship with you because He died for you.

Non-Christian: Still sounds like a religion to me.

Does the above conversation sound familiar to you? The statement “Christianity is not a religion—it’s a relationship” is a popular one among contemporary evangelicals. In this saying, religion is defined as something negative—that is, it’s a legalistic/hypocritical attitude. But notice that the Christian and the non-Christian appear to be speaking two different languages. The Christian is speaking “Christianese,” and the non-Christian is talking like normal people talk.

It’s important to properly understand that Christianese is not limited to just phrases like “turn or burn” or “you need to get saved”—it can also refer to sayings such as “Christianity is not a religion” or “Jesus wants to have a real relationship with you and be a part of your life.” (For an example of a Christian video which thinks it’s critiquing Christianese but is actually being complicit in it, see here.) In other words, when we say things that only make sense to our own insulated evangelical cultural bubble (notice that I didn’t say such sayings reflect the Bible), we fail miserably at communicating what the Bible is actually trying to say.

(Here is another video which tries to set up a contrast between “real” and “religion.” Here’s a question: Is the “real” character in this video truly real?)

The fact is, here are two passages that demonstrate that the Bible itself sets up no such contrast between Christianity and religion:

“Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world” (James 1:27 ESV).

“But if a widow has no children or grandchildren, these should learn first of all to put their religion into practice by caring for their own family and so repaying their parents and grandparents, for this is pleasing to God” (1 Timothy 5:4 NIV). Some versions, such as the NASB, translate the Greek word ευσεβειν (eusebein) as “practice piety,” since the word carries the connotation of performing religious duties toward one’s household.

So this is why I think it's unhelpful to set up a false dichotomy between "Christianity" and "religion." If our language doesn't carefully reflect the Bible, are we really presenting the Bible to our culture?

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