Faith vs. Religion

Sorting out the difference between “faith” and “religion” seems a little too nit-picky in some ways.  Depending on what translation of the Bible you read, the word “religious” may never even show up in it – it’s kind of an old-fashioned word in some ways.  And now our culture has gotten to a point where people can make Youtube videos about how Christianity is “not a religion.”  It has become a catch-phrase for many Christians to say “it’s not a religion, it’s a relationship.”  Yeah, I get the point – the idea is to emphasize the personal aspect of Christianity, and that we share actual communion with our God, and not simply try to appease Him from afar through otherwise empty ritual.  “Our religion is alive,” might be a better way of putting it, because to say that “Christianity is not a religion” is utter nonsense.

But of course, this is assuming that I’m defining “religion” the same way as most people, and I’m not sure if this is the case.  Dictionary definitions can be helpful starting places.  A Christian way of summarizing these definitions might “word and deed” or “faith and works” – whatever one believes and does as part of being a Christian.  I suspect many of the “not a religion” crowd are of a theological disposition that asserts that you don’t have to do anything in order to be a Christian, you just have to be one, namely be in a relationship with Christ.  What you really need is faith!  Faith, then, is defined by confidence or trust or belief in a person or thing, especially in the absence of definite proof.  Hebrews 11 says much the same thing: “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things unseen.”

But can someone have faith and not religion?  Let’s ask Jesus’ brother:

But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works.   You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder! Do you want to be shown, you foolish person, that faith apart from works is useless?

That’s basically how I feel about this “Christianity is not a religion” business.  It’s a short-sighted slogan that corrects a significant misunderstanding by putting forth an even more heretical misunderstanding.  For sure, Christianity is a relationship – John wrote a lot about how we need to be about love.  Christianity is a faith – Paul wrote a lot about justification through faith.  But Christianity is also a religion – the entire Bible exhorts us to obey God’s laws, to worship together in community, and respect those who represent Him in whatever capacity.

Just to expound what I meant in that last sentence, when I speak of “those who represent Him” I don’t just mean a particular demographic like Levites or clergy or whatever.  The catechism in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer has a useful phraseology along these lines.  Lay people, bishops, priests, and deacons, alike, “represent Christ and his Church.”  But the way they do so varies according to their order.  Bishops represent Christ “particularly as apostle, chief priest, and pastor of a diocese;” priests represent Christ “particularly as pastor to the people;” deacons represent Christ “particularly as a servant of those in need;” lay people represent Christ “according to the gifts given them.”  But at the end of the day, “The duty of all Christians is to follow Christ; to come together week by week for corporate worship; and to work, pray, and give for the spread of the kingdom of God.”  If that ain’t religion, I don’t know what is!

If there isn’t too much discussion about this faith vs. religion distinction, I intend to explore some of the implications of this that I’ve been pondering lately.  But I’ll leave that to another post!

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About Fr. Brench

I'm an Anglican Priest and a sci-fi geek. Therefore, I write about liturgy & spiritual formation, theology & biblical studies, and Doctor Who. But I keep those blogs separate so I don't confuse too many people!
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6 Responses to Faith vs. Religion

  1. PC says:

    IMO, faith = personal relationship with God while religion = more collective expression of faith. That being said, I haven’t seen or heard a faithful Christian growing in faith alone. Relationship with God needs other people as well. At the same time, religion without faith is empty as in the case of nominal/cultural Christians.

    Some people may go about on having a relationship with God but neglect the collective part of being in Christ (i.e.: the church and across denominations). Christians in the West ought to know pretty well that whatever happens say in the USA affects Christians and non-Christians in other countries as well. Case in point: The Quran-burning pastor triggered deaths in a nation whose population don’t even know what real Christianity is all about. While Americans were thinking about the safety of American troops, I hardly found anyone concerned about fanatical Muslim backlash on Christians in Muslim countries.

    In short, Christians the world over should be working on how to put personal faith to good use especially in terms of relationship to other Christians be it in church or across denominations and to non-Christians. (Matthew 5:14-16 says it all)

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  3. Stephen says:

    I completely agree that the whole opposition to “religion” in the name of faith/Christianity confuses more than it clarifies. It’s frustrating to have to ask further questions to get people to say what they really mean. I suppose it’s largely a sort of posturing that makes it impossible to disagree with what the speaker is saying, unless one risks being heard saying something like “Sure, I support hypocrisy and don’t love Jesus.”

    But, I think there might be a valid critique of “religion” (which is much more nuanced than saying that “Jesus came to abolish religion,” as the guy in that youtube video did). I think that the kind of critique in Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s “Letters and Papers From Prison” has something to contribute in that Bonhoeffer was concerned that maintaining religious structures could replace concrete discipleship/following Christ in everyday life. In that case, it’s not that the religious things themselves are bad, but rather that they shouldn’t serve as substitutes for doing whatever God is calling one to do. (So, for instance, one might be extremely concerned about promoting organized prayer in public schools but not care about the educational or nutritional needs of actual children in one’s own community–one of which might be a far better object of one’s attention and efforts than the other. That sort of thing happens all the time. Maybe the word “religiousity” is better than “religion” for describing it.)

    • Good call on the religiosity/religion distinction – the idea of taking a good thing to a bad extreme – like the difference between “the fundamentals” and “being fundamentalistic.”

      I’ll keep your distinction (and PC’s, above) in mind when I write a follow-up to this.

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