Is Being Christian the Same as Being Religious?

August 15, 2016 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

Man with Bible.jpg

Last week, as I was going for my morning run, listening to music, a song with this lyric started playing on my Pandora station:

I still hate religion. Why you think I’m a Christian?

I’ve heard this distinction between religion and Christianity used before used by pastors, pew sitters, and Christian artists alike.  This Christian artist explained the distinction between religion and Christianity as he continued:

The peace between God’s been broke for my sinning.
Religion is man using his good deeds tryin’ to close the distance.
But we could never reach Him,
Only Jesus came to get His men.

Religion, according to this artist’s definition, is people trying to reach God by their works.  Christianity, on the other hand, is God reaching people in Christ.

Now, it is most certainly true that trying to reach God by means of your own works – regardless of your religious affiliation – is a futile effort.  And it is true that the hallmark of the Christian faith is that rather than waiting for us to reach up to Him, God has reached down to us in the person and work of Jesus Christ.  Still, exegetically, this kind of distinction between religion and Christianity troubles me because religion is not so widely panned in the Bible like it is in this song.  If you ask the brother of Jesus what he thinks of religion, he will tell you:

Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world. (James 1:27)

If you ask the apostle Paul about the importance of religion, he will explain:

If a widow has 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)

In both instances, religion is cast in a positive light.  Religion, at least according to Scripture, is not always bad.

But my concern with the distinction often drawn between religion and Christianity is not only exegetical.  It is also missional.

If a non-believer asks a Christian whether or not he is religious and he responds by saying something like, “No, I’m not religious; I’m a Christian,” he is really doing little more than pulling a bait and switch in his witness.  Here’s why.

For most people, the word “religion” carries with it particular connotations.  People who attend worship services are religious.  People who read holy books are religious.  People who pray regularly are religious.  And Christians do – or at least should be doing – all these things.  So for a Christian to claim that he is not religious sounds like little more than a verbal sleight of hand to an unbeliever.  To say that you are not religious because you are a Christian probably sounds to someone who is not a Christian like a distinction without much of a difference.

Rather than quibbling over whether or not Christianity is a religion, perhaps it’s time for us to explain to people who are not religious why we are religious in the way that we are.  After all, Christianity, even as a religion, is utterly unique.  Most other religions are generally concerned with making people better by means of their own efforts.  Christianity, by distinction, is concerned with making people righteous by the merits of Christ’s death and resurrection.  The difference in Christianity is not found in whether or not it can be classified as a religion.  The difference in Christianity is found in what it confesses about God and His Son, Jesus Christ.  This is what we ought to be emphasizing.

Allow me to offer one additional thought on the uniqueness of Christianity.  Jesus was clear that people would know who His followers were not because of some semantic game that distinguishes Christianity from religion, but because of their love (John 13:35).  Unfortunately, whether they are called “religious” or “Christian,” people who claim to follow Jesus are not always known for their love.  They’re known for their self-righteousness.  They’re known for their hypocrisy.  They’re known for their raging fury at our secularized culture.  If this is what believers in Christ are known for, it matters little whether people think we are “religious” or “Christian.”  People’s opinion of us, no matter which word is used, will remain negative.

In some instances, a person’s opinion of Christianity may be negative simply because he doesn’t like Christ and His teaching.  Jesus Himself taught us to expect hatred from others when He said to His disciples, “If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated Me first” (John 15:18).  Sometimes, we are hated through no fault of our own.  But let’s do everything we can to ensure that a person’s opinion of Christianity is negative because of Christ and not because we are acting foolishly, selfishly, arrogantly, and sinfully.  Let’s do everything we can to instead be known for our love.  Because then, whether people think of us as “religious” or “Christian,” they will ultimately move past us altogether and look to Christ Himself.  And that’s the goal.  He’s the goal.

The goal is not a game with words.  The goal is to point people to the Word.

Entry filed under: Devotional Thoughts. Tags: , , , , .

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