Stop saying Christianity isn’t a religion

By Jackson Posey | Reporter

“It’s a relationship, not a religion.”

Or at least, so say the Christians of Generation Z, who are attempting to paint their faith in a less legalistic light than their predecessors. From Justin Bieber’s “All She Wrote” to TikTok videos with millions of views, bestselling author Rick Warren’s assertion that “Christianity is not a religion or a philosophy, but a relationship and a lifestyle” has become common parlance among college-aged Christians.

But it’s also wrong and misleading.

Christianity is absolutely centered on a relationship — the most important relationship one can ever have. Jesus promises just that in John 15:13-15.

“Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends,” Jesus said during the last supper, just before he put that “greater love” into practice. “You are my friends if you do what I command you. No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you.”

That promise of friendship with the Son of God is a balm for our souls. God does not see us as servants, but as friends. He didn’t die for the sins of the world begrudgingly, but “for the joy that was set before him” (Hebrews 12:2). Failing to recognize the value of a personal relationship with Jesus would be a fatal doctrinal flaw.

That isn’t a concession; proponents of what I’ll call “relationship theology” are completely correct that the core of Christianity is relationship. Their decrials of legalism are often sharp and necessary. But presenting relationships as antithetical to religion itself is a false dichotomy, and its imprecise use of language is completely foreign to historic Christianity.

Put simply, Christianity is a religion. The biblical author James says, “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.” St. Augustine wrote on “that which is called the Christian religion.” John Calvin’s wildly influential “Institutes of the Christian Religion” literally put it in the title, and 20th-century American author J. Gresham Machen did the same.

Both biblically and historically, then, we can recognize that claiming Christianity as a sort of uniquely nonreligious worldview is untenable. Virtually all of Christianity’s historic proponents, from the authors of scripture up through the 20th century, agreed on this fact: It’s a religion. How, then, does the countervailing proposal of relationship theology arise?

Though there is no single coiner of the phrase, a major part of its rise to prominence came through the work of John Stott — a late Anglican theologian who was once named among Time Magazine’s top 100 most influential people in the world. In his book titled “The Gospel: A Life-Changing Message,” Stott suggests that “Christianity is not a religion, let alone one religion among many. It is God’s good news for the world.”

As brilliant as Stott was, he would make a poor patron saint for relationship theology. Earlier in the book, he opens his introduction to historical and contemporary Christianity by plainly stating, “We begin by reaffirming that Christianity is a historical religion.”

Taylor seminary professor Randal Rauser suggests that the reason for this difference in views boils down to a difference in definitions. He writes that thinkers of this ilk are “clearly not adhering to a conventional dictionary definition of religion” but instead using the term rhetorically.

Rauser defines this usage of “religion” as “those beliefs one holds and actions one undertakes to address the human problem and relate rightly to ultimate reality that are inconsistent with the revealed beliefs and practices commended by God and which seek to redress that human problem primarily through human effort.” In other words, to the relationalist, the word “religion” is inextricably tied to both beliefs and actions.

These changing definitions are not only misleading; they’re also unhelpful to the very audience they seek to appeal to. In an increasingly secular America, “religion” is losing favor — but it’s also undeniably linked with Christianity. In its 2023 National Public Opinion Reference Survey, Pew Research found that 60% of U.S. adults identify as either Protestant or Catholic, while 28% are religiously unaffiliated. All other religions combined make up just 9%.

In America, “religion” is Christianity, particularly in the South. That’s further evidenced at Baylor, where all students have mandatory Chapel requirements and much of the “religion” department could be fairly characterized as “Christian studies.”

Pretending to be a nonreligious Christian is disingenuous and oxymoronic. If anything, attempts to divorce Christianity and religion may be perceived as joining the postmodern culture of “new tolerance,” which values all truths as equal and renders Jesus’ claims of exclusivity a thing of the past.

This is the opposite of orthodoxy and the opposite of the message relationalists are attempting to convey. But when a Christian tells a religiously unaffiliated person not to be religious, that’s a get-out-of-jail-free card. The message “don’t be religious” may be delivered with the best of intentions, but too often what is heard is “I don’t have to be a Christian.”

Christianity is a relationship. Jesus calls the heavy-hearted to come to Him with their burdens (Matthew 11:28-30). He calls us friends (John 15:14-17) and children of God (Matthew 5:43-45). The heart of Christianity is our adoption into the family of God “by the immeasurable riches of (God’s) grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus” (Ephesians 2).

But Christianity is also a religion. Sticking with Oxford’s definition — “the belief in and worship of a superhuman power or powers, especially a god or gods” — makes that pretty clear. Christians are not called to contort the dictionary to make a point. There’s already a word for what relationalists are attempting to criticize: legalism. Condemn that in all its forms; the scriptures do the same.

But don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. Using imprecise, misleading language to make a point that rarely lands doesn’t help anyone. Christians shouldn’t be in the business of throwing Molotov cocktails at religion and trying to escape out the back door. We should be the ones building the house.

When Christians actually follow Jesus within their communities, the result isn’t the concept of religion looking bad. It’s the opposite. A flourishing Christianity, one that sacrificially loves its neighbor and cares for the least of these, will in fact make religion — true religion — look more appealing. To return to James’ prescient exhortation for our day: “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.”