Is Christianity not a religion? I’m always puzzled when my fellow Christians say that Christianity isn’t a religion. Not a religion? What do they mean by that?
The current edition (the 11th) of the Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary offers the following definition for the noun religion:
The service and worship of God or the supernatural; commitment or devotion to religious faith or observance; a personal set or institutionalized system of religious attitudes, beliefs, and practices.
The editors of the Merriam-Webster dictionary wrote these definitions in a broad way so that the wide variety of religions on earth would be included in the definition. This definition should cover pretty much any religion you care to name, whether it’s a monotheistic religion or a polytheistic one. In fact, for all I know, you could make a case that this definition would cover non-theistic belief systems such as Wicca and the existence of aliens.
Christianity is a monotheistic system of belief involving faith and worship, so it would seem to qualify as a religion according to the dictionary definition. So why would someone persist in claiming that Christianity isn’t a religion?
It all comes down to how some Christians choose to define the word religion. You see, in some parts of the large Christian community across the English-speaking world, religion has become something of a bad word. To these Christians, the word “religion” refers to trying to earn your own salvation. For them the word “religion” conjures up ideas such as “works-based salvation” and “legalism.” What these Christians are trying to say is that Christianity isn’t based on earning God’s love or keeping a spiritual checklist of virtues.
I’m completely in favor of explaining what the gospel is and what it isn’t. But I don’t think we need to redefine the standard English word religion in order for us to talk about sin, grace, forgiveness, Jesus, eternal life, and all the other important Christian stuff. Besides, if Christians start playing fast and loose with the word religion, then won’t people start wondering what other words we might be secretly redefining? Talk about deflating our credibility in any conversation or debate.
Religion has a long, honorable history as an English word, and for centuries nobody complained when someone stated that Christianity was a religion. For example, let’s look at a very influential and widely respected dictionary from the 19th century, the American Dictionary of the English Language published by Noah Webster in 1828. This dictionary is almost 200 years old now, and yet it is still widely used by conservative Christians and other conservative Americans because they think that this dictionary accurately defines what words used to mean before the definitions were were all tainted and twisted by modern, liberal intellectuals. Yikes! Watch out for those liberal intellectuals who are changing the meanings of all the words!
So let’s have a look. How did Webster define religion in 1828? Did he define religion in such a way that Christianity wasn’t considered a religion?
According to Webster almost 200 years ago, Christianity is absolutely a religion. He even refers to a Bible verse in the definition (see under sense 2). Take a look for yourself:
RELIGION, n. relij’on. [L. religio, from religo, to bind anew; re and ligo, to bind. This word seems originally to have signified an oath or vow to the gods, or the obligation of such an oath or vow, which was held very sacred by the Romans.]
1. Religion, in its most comprehensive sense, includes a belief in the being and perfections of God, in the revelation of his will to man, in man’s obligation to obey his commands, in a state of reward and punishment, and in man’s accountableness to God; and also true godliness or piety of life, with the practice of all moral duties. It therefore comprehends theology, as a system of doctrines or principles, as well as practical piety; for the practice of moral duties without a belief in a divine lawgiver, and without reference to his will or commands, is not religion.
2. Religion, as distinct from theology, is godliness or real piety in practice, consisting in the performance of all known duties to God and our fellow men, in obedience to divine command, or from love to God and his law. James 1.
Excerpted from Noah Webster’s American Dictionary of the English Language (1828).
So what meaning of religion do we have to have in order for “Christianity is a relationship not a religion” to make sense? The definition being used by the “relationship not religion” people looks something like this:
religion. A set of rules that a person has to follow in order to obtain God’s love; a set of rules that a person can use to obtain God’s blessing. This usage of the word “religion” is typically used by some Christians in the Christianese expressions “Christianity is a relationship not a religion” and “Christianity isn’t a religion; it’s a relationship.”
The problem is that you won’t find that definition in any standard dictionary of English for the word religion. What’s the point of talking to non-Christians about Jesus if we utilize custom definitions for our words? The answer: very little point indeed.
Ultimately, the Christianese expression “relationship not religion” gives us a good example of how people can misunderstand each other because they have different definitions for the same word. If you’re butting heads with someone over an issue that seems simple to you, then perhaps the two of you are assigning different definitions to the same word. Take the time to check in periodically with the people you’re talking or arguing with so that you can make sure you’re at least using the same definitions for common words.
You won’t agree with everyone on every topic, but at least we can try to be speaking the same language!
What other common English words do Christians sometimes assign strange or nonstandard meanings to?