Most people would consider Evangelicals ("born-again Christians") to be very "religious". Indeed, the conservative political "arm" of Evangelicalism is commonly called the Religious Right. Yet, ironically, Evangelicals themselves often deny that they practice a "religion"!
You see, they define religion as "a burdensome yoke of man-made rules and dead rituals; a futile attempt to please God and save oneself by good works". So they insist that Christianity is not a "religion" but a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. This "religion -vs- relationship" dichotomy is quite common in Evangelical circles, but is it legitimate? Is Christianity a religion or a relationship?
Why Are Evangelicals Anti-Religion?
This aversion to "religion" is unique to Evangelicalism. Neither Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, nor traditional mainstream Protestantism ever claimed that Christianity is "not a religion". The Protestant "reformers" (sic) did not object to the the term religion either; in fact, they all used it to refer to the Christian Faith! So why do modern Evangelicals find this term so repugnant?
It may, in part, be the result of past attempts to share the Gospel with people who dislike "organized religion". Such folk would naturally be hesitant and perhaps even hostile toward any discussion about Jesus or "becoming a Christian". So perhaps Evangelicals started to tell them, "Hey, I hate religion as much as you do; I would never try to push that on you. I just want to tell you the Good News that Jesus loves you and wants a personal relationship with you. I'm not talking religion, but a relationship."
(I often wonder how many people buy this line, and how many simply say to themselves, "Well, this guy believes in a Deity, follows the Bible with all its 'do's and don'ts' and goes to church every Sunday - sounds like organized religion to me!")
Yet we should not see this "Christianity is not a religion" argument as merely a deceptive ploy to get converts. Many Evangelicals honestly do have a tremendous personal aversion to "religion"! The word evokes in their mind images of oppressive religious authorities, empty, showy rituals, and, most of all, self-righteous hypocrisy. It all seems completely removed from the deep love they have for God and the joy they feel in living the Christian life.
In fact, when they talk about "religion", they seem to equate it with "religiosity", the mere external observance of rules and rites, without a heart open to God. If this is what they are really condemning, then they are certainly correct. Jesus Himself condemned religiosity in the strongest terms (Matthew 23), and God laments in the Book of Isaiah "These people come near to me with their mouth and honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me" (Isaiah 29:13). That is a very good description of "religiosity".
What Does Scripture Say?
Yet it would be wrong to completely equate religion with religiosity, and thus conclude that all religion is bad. For the Bible itself does not condemn all religion! In fact, James indicates that there is a true expression of religion, which he defines as follows:
"Pure and undefiled religion before God and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their trouble, and to keep oneself unspotted from the world" (James 1:27)There you have it; Scripture clearly teaches that Christianity is a religion! When confronted with this verse, no one who truly wishes to be faithful to Scripture could fail to acknowledge that.
Does that mean that Christianity is only a religion, and not a personal relationship with Jesus? Of course not; it's both!!! And there's no reason why it can't be both, since the two are not really in conflict, despite what some Evangelicals think. True religion involves a relationship with God, and it's utterly wrong to try to have one without the other!
An honest reading of Scripture will show that God is not opposed to religion or to its "rules and rituals". After all, He established just such a religion in ancient Israel! The Torah (first five books of the Old Testament) is full of all sorts of commands (six hundred and thirteen, to be exact!) and detailed rituals involving sacrifice, purification, etc. Yes, God gave the Israelites a rather complex religion, complete with ceremonies, clergy, heirarchy and plenty of "do's and dont's". But He never intended it to be a substitute for a relationship with Him. Rather, the ancient Israelite religion was meant to be an expression of their covenant relationship with God.
Nor was Jesus opposed to "religion", for the Gospels tell us that Our Lord Himself observed the Judaism of His time. He kept all the Commandments contained in the Law of Moses (Galatians 4:4) and worshipped God every Sabbath in the synagogue liturgy: "And he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up; and he went to the synagogue, as his custom was, on the sabbath day. And he stood up to read" (Luke 4:16; also Mark 1:21; 6:2; Luke 6:6; John 6:59).
Jesus also made the pilgrimage to Jerusalem for major festivals (Luke 2:41-42; John 2:13; 5:1; 7:2-10; 10:22-23) and celebrated the Passover Seder (Luke 22:7-15), a ritual meal complete with written prayers and hymns. No, Christ was not opposed to organized religion and rituals. Nor did such religious observances interfere with His personal relationship with God the Father; rather, they were seamlessly integrated into it.
(When Jesus rebuked the scribes and Pharisees, He was only condemning the empty religiosity which He perceived in some of them. He was neither condemning the Jewish religion itself nor religion in general! Notice that He prefaces His strongest words against the religious leaders by telling the crowds to observe the teachings of the scribes and Pharisees because they "sit on Moses' seat" [Mt 23:2]. That means they have religious authority over the people!)
After He ascended into heaven, His disciples followed His example. They went to the Temple daily to worship God until they were kicked out (Luke 24:52-53; Acts 3:1), and met daily in each others houses then later in the catacombs. Scripture records the following about the earliest believers, right after Pentecost:
"So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls. And they devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers....And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they partook of food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people" (Acts 2:41-47).So the infant Church had doctrine (the apostle's teachings), rituals (Baptism and "breaking of bread"), communal prayer and temple worship. Don't those sound like the elements of a religion? Yet it was a joyful religion, not a cold, empty religiosity; for it was part of their vital relationship with the Risen Lord. "The breaking of bread and the prayers" refers to the beginning of the Eucharistic Liturgy, the very heart of every Catholic's relationship with Jesus Christ!
If God ordained the ancient Israelite religion, if Jesus observed it, and if the early Christians had religious rituals, then religion cannot be bad or opposed to a relationship with God. The whole "religion -vs- relationship" dicotomy is a human platitude invented by certain American Evangelicals. Christianity is not "either a religion or a relationship", it's "both a religion and a relationship"!
If true religion is not offensive to God, then we must reject the Evangelical definition of "religion" given at the top of this page. True religion would best be defined as A belief in the One True God which causes us to worship Him (both alone and as a community), obey His righteous commands and love our neighbor out of love and reverence for Him. We could also best define "relationship with God" using the following phrase from the Penny Catechism: "God made me to know Him, love Him and serve Him in this world, and be happy with Him forever in the next" (q. 2).
Notice how these two concepts perfectly mesh. Religion is belief in God, relationship involves knowledge of God; surely Christians must both believe in and know the Lord! Religion involves worshipping God; relationship involves loving Him; should not all our worship be suffused with love? Finally, religion involves obedience and love of neighbor; relationship involves serving God in this life. The harmony here is just beautiful! There is no contradition between true religion and a relationship with God.
Beyond Religion and Relationship
But Christianity is even more than that; it's a family. Having a "relationship with Jesus" is a good and necessary thing, but in isolation this can translate into a self-centered, "just-Jesus-and-Me" Christianity, which is not God's plan for His children. We are not alone, but part of a great family, spanning Heaven, Earth and Purgatory. God is our Father, while Mary and the Church are our Mother. Jesus is our elder Brother in whom we are all brothers and sisters. The Holy Spirit is the great, personal Bond of Love in this family.
Christianity is most certainly a relationship, not just with Jesus, but also with the Father and the Holy Spirit. In addition to our relationship with each Person of the Holy Trinity, we must have a relationship with our Mother Mary, with the angels, the saints, fellow Christians on earth and the holy souls in Purgatory. That's what it means to be part of a family; you have a relationsip with all of your relatives, not just one!
But Christianity is even more than that; it is also a sharing in the very life of God! We discuss this at length in the article Grace and the Divinization of Humanity. To be a Christian is to be a partaker in the Divine Nature (2 Peter 1:4)! In fact, that is the very basis of our relationship with God. We can have a relationship with the Father, Son and Holy Spirit only because we are in Christ, we share in His very life! This is also what makes us a family; we are all brothers and sisters in Jesus Christ because we are all joined to His Sacred Humanity and all share in His Divine Nature (in a limited way, as creatures, of course. We never become God by very nature. Please read the article to understand what I mean by that).
So yes, Christianity is a religion. It makes demands of us: Care for the unfortunate, Keep yourself unstained by the world, Bridle your tongue (James 1:26), Gather in Church every Sunday (Hebrews 10:25), Hear God's word (Joshua 1:8), Obey Christ's commandments (John 14:15, 21, 23-24), Be baptized (Acts 2:38), Receive Communion (John 6:53), Confess you sins (James 5:16) etc. These are not "dead works"; they are actually God's work of grace within and through us: "For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God has prepared beforehand that we should walk in them" (Eph 2:10).
But Christianity goes beyond that; it is a family relationship and a sharing in the life of God. The "do's and don'ts", the "smells and bells" are just a part of a glorious whole. May God give us the grace to see how it all fits together in His wonderful plan for Holy Mother Church.
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