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!