Christianity is a relationship not a religion

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?

definition of relationship not religionIt 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?

 

relationship not religion An expression used by some Christians to describe how Christianity is essentially different from all the other religions in the world; namely, all other religions are characterized as systems in which the participants are blessed according to how well they follow certain rules of belief and behavior, whereas Christianity is characterized as a system in which the participants are blessed according to God’s gracious love through Jesus.
This expression is often associated with evangelicals (see various citations).
For the expression to be interpreted correctly, the word religion must be understood in a specific way that is markedly different from how dictionaries typically define the word.
Christians who use this expression are using a definition of religion along the lines of this one: “Religion is a set of rules that people must follow in order to obtain God’s blessing” (see citations for 1979, 2004, 2010). Since Christians are saved by grace (and not by works), Christianity would not be a religion according to this definition.
However, for most people, whether Christian or non-Christian, the word religion has the more general definition of “A belief in God or other gods; the worship of God or other gods; an organized or formal system of faith and worship.” Since Christianity requires Christians to believe in God and to worship him, Christianity is indeed a religion according to this standard definition.
Note that the definition of religion required by the Christian expression relationship not religion is actually closer to a definition of legalism, which is typically defined as “An overly strict or literal conformity to a religious code; an emphasis on the importance of rules for governing behavior.”
See also *evangelistic slogans.
1958 Episcopal Church, Diocese of Fond du Lac J. of the Annual Convention 86 : May we go forward remembering that Christianity is not a religion which merely lays upon us weak, human beings the hopeless task of living an impossibly good life helped only by the example of a man who lived a perfect human life 2,000 years ago, but rather that Christianity is a relationship to God whereby He communicates to us His strength and vitality which enables us to live on a higher plane. 1971 Graham The Jesus Generation 148 : [Consider] the novel thought that Christianity was not so much a “religion” as a relationship with a Person. 1973 Crowell Meet My Head Coach 27 : For the first time in my life I realized that the key to Christianity is Jesus Christ. Christianity is a relationship not a religion or code of ethics. 1979 Adams Welcome to the Family of God: Beginning a New Life in Christ 24 : Religion is a set of rules and rituals. Christianity is not a religion, but a relationship. Jesus brings us into a personal relationship with God who loves us. 1985 Swaggart Questions and Answers 265 : Christianity is not a religion. Christianity is a relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ. 1997 The African American Pulpit I. 86 : We hear our preachers say that Christianity is a relationship, not a religion. But the Latin root of the word religion is ligare—the same as the root for ligament, the tendon that holds together, the muscle that joins, the tie that binds. Good religion holds us together. 2002 Solia LXVII. 10 : Evangelical and Pentecostal Protestants have played on this idea and assured people that Christianity is a relationship, not a religion. 2002 Lehmann Beautiful Feet 000 : It is not just a cute cliché to say, “Christianity is not a religion, but a relationship.” 2003 Jones Peculiar Favor: Accidental Thoughts on God’s Grace 61 : In our Evangelical circles we have heard this phrase over and over again, “It’s not a religion, it’s a relationship!” 2004 Wagner Christianity for Dummies 19 : An expression that has become popular over the past 30 years is “Christianity is a relationship, not a religion.” The notion that Christianity is not a religion may seem perplexing or even ridiculous to many…. But Christians who speak this phrase are referring to a popular understanding of religion that means a set of rules that one has to follow to gain approval from God. 2006 Riggs, ed. Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices: Religions and Denominations I. 186 : Evangelicals, however, tend to interpret liturgical patterns as overly ceremonial. A common phrase in American evangelical parlance is that “Christianity is not a religion but a relationship with Jesus.” 2007 Strobel Metamorpha: Jesus as a Way of Life 209 : The idea of journeying and walking with God is one of the classic biblical metaphors for Christian living. Yet phrases like “walking with God” and “Christianity is not a religion, it’s a relationship” have become clichés we take for granted. 2009 Dedmon Unlocking Heaven: Keys to Living Naturally Supernatural 40 : Effective prayer that brings Heaven to earth is about intimacy not performance, resting not striving, faith not formula, relationship not religion. 2010 Brown The Overseer: A Thriller 171 : “I’m a follower of Christ.” … “So, Christianity is your religion?” “Well,” John said seriously, “Christianity isn’t a religion; it’s a relationship…. My belief in God and my practice of faith is the product of my relationship with Christ, not some list of dos and don’ts.” 2012 McBride The Church for the World: A Theology of Public Witness 220 : What many evangelicals imply when they say Christianity “is not a religion but a relationship” is that they are not susceptible to the faults of “religion” as they define them such as compartmentalizing faith or trying to earn one’s way to God.

11 thoughts on “Christianity is a relationship not a religion

  1. Perhaps the issue is the part about “a personal set or institutionalized system of religious attitudes, beliefs, and practices.” The point being made is that a relationship with Christ isn’t a mere set of attitudes, beliefs, and practices.

    Perhaps a look at the M-W definition of “relationship” would clarify:


    : the way in which two or more people, groups, countries, etc., talk to, behave toward, and deal with each other

    : a romantic or sexual friendship between two people

    : the way in which two or more people or things are connected

    Now, I think we can remove the second definition in this case, although “romantic” might remain applicable. The point, though, is that it involves two or more entities. While there are socially acceptable attitudes and practices involved in a relationship, a relationship often goes beyond that. (You can check out http://www.merriam-webster.com for the full definition, including links to related words such as “related.”) A relationship defined by mere attitudes, beliefs, and practices alone is rarely a fruitful relationship.

    So is Christianity a mere set of attitudes, beliefs, and practices, or is it more than that?

    • I think the concern with the expression “Christianity is a relationship not a religion” is not the relationship part but the religion part. I agree with you that Christianity is very much about a relationship. But I think claiming that Christianity is NOT a religion is disingenuous. Maybe we should start saying “Christianity is a religion AND a relationship.”

  2. Having a personal relationship with a non-existent invisible sky zombie is either a religion or a mental disorder – assuming of course there is a difference between the two…

  3. A relationship without “a personal set
    or institutionalized system of religious attitudes, beliefs, and practices.” is not a true relationship. Relationship involves covenant duty between those involved. Relationship between us and G-d is a covenant marraige. It involves a reinforcement of values, religiously practiced. Salvation is not the end-all. You are saved with a purpose. To rely on salvation as a crutch to not perform your duties as a believer means you have no true relationship.

  4. The whole thing appears to simply be an attempt to redefine ‘religion’ so that the neo-Calvinists on the far right can claim special exemption from the Establishment Clause; that it’s also theologically AND semantically unsound just demonstrates that there’s no depths they won’t sink to, to gain power.
    Heaven help actual Christians…

  5. Thank you for this. This is the biggest cliche I get so sick of out of Christians. Just remember the crowd you are speaking to in general “ain’t the sharpest crayons in the box”. They tend to suck at college level critical thinking skills and have no desire for linguistic or intellectual integrity. I have known plenty of smart Christians who don’t say dumb things like “it is a relationship not a religion”, just many of them I felt as though I was talking to a 15 year old in a 30 something year olds body. They tend to say things like “just turn it over to God” when faced with real problems they don’t believe people suffer from who need mental health care professionals. Easy when they are living their comfortable little care free life with their high school sweetheart in white picket fence la la land. Seen it too many times. Not putting them down or denying they have problems like depression, just so many cop outs from people who haven’t seen the world. For them, driving an hour into the city would be like us flying to Japan. This is generally the crowd you are talking to.

Leave a Comment