Is Christianity a religion? The “Christianity is not a religion, it’s a relationship” movement would say no. They associate religion with rules and condemnation. As I understand it, the point of the phrase is to emphasize grace through Jesus Christ and connection with God as the main understanding of Christianity. That it’s a lifestyle not like other groups that our culture has used the word religion to describe them. For people who believe Christianity is a relationship, it seems like there’s a hostility that almost rises to the level of how atheists feel about the word “religion”. They pit Christianity vs religion. Faith vs religion.
I think the intent behind this phrase “Christianity is not a religion, it’s a relationship” is noble. You do want people to recognize the importance of grace through Jesus Christ and connecting with God and being forgiven by Christ. I think most Christians, whether they like the phrase or not, would agree about that. But what does the Bible say about if Christianity is a religion? I think a majority of Christians can also agree that’s the most important way to know how to understand Christianity.
The Bible on if Christianity is a religion
Does the Bible say, “Christianity is a religion”? To the best of my researching and knowledge, the answer to that question is no. There is no verse that explicitly describes Christianity in that way. But always remember, just because something isn’t explicitly stated in scripture, doesn’t mean it’s not implied. I’ll expand more on that thought later.
Let’s think about another question. Does the Bible say, “Christianity is a relationship”? or “Christianity is a personal relationship with Jesus Christ”? To the best of my researching and knowledge again, the answer to that question is no. There’s no verse that explicitly describes Christianity in that way.
So with no direct yes or no answer, that would seem to tell us we have to dive deeper to really understand this. First of all, let’s look at all the verses that use the word religion in scripture.
Acts 26:5 “Since they have known about me for a long time, if they are willing to testify, that I lived as a Pharisee according to the strictest sect of our religion.”
Colossians 2:23 “These are matters which have, to be sure, the [a]appearance of wisdom in [b]self-made religion and self-abasement and severe treatment of the body, but are of no value against fleshly indulgence.
Description of Religion
Now based on the translation that I use, there are only five uses of the word religion in Scripture. Acts 25:19, Acts 26:5, Col 2:23, Jam 1:26, and Jam 1:27.
Acts 25:19, Acts 26:5, and Col 2:23 don’t directly describe what religion is, but James 1:26-27 gives us how the Bible defines religion.
Reading it again, James 1:26-27 states, “If anyone thinks himself to be religious, and yet does not bridle his tongue but deceives his own heart, this man’s religion is worthless. 27 Pure and undefiled religion in the sight of our god and Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep onself unstained by the world.”
As we can read here, James warns of religion being worthless if one doesn’t control their tongue. He describes religion in purest form as being helpful to those in need (presumably given he mentioned orphans and widows) and being unstained (irreproachable) by the world.
The suggestion in James 1:26-27 also seems to be that religion itself isn’t bad. The bad is the inauthentic practice of religion by not bridling one’s tongue and not choosing to be unstained by the world while still thinking themselves to be religious according to James 1:26. As much as some preachers love to say the Pharisees are an example of religiosity as a bad thing, in actuality, it was because they were hypocrites outwardly displaying righteousness, but not reflecting it inwardly. That was the bad thing. As Matthew 23:23 states, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and [v]cummin, and have neglected the weightier provisions of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness; but these are the things you should have done without neglecting the others.”
(Sidenote: James 1:27 was the ending of chapter 1, and faith in Jesus Christ is mentioned in the first verse of the very next chapter of James. Prior to chapters and verses, these writings were just one full writing without any separation. Does that perhaps suggest James saw no difference between religion and Christianity, but instead, a connection?)
So we see how religion is described in scripture, but how is defined in Greek? For those who don’t know or remember, Greek is the original language the New Testament was written in. So that’s why it’s helpful to know the Greek word used for religion and what it means. It can provide us a more accurate understanding of these words written that were Holy Spirit inspired.
The Greek word translated to religion which is used the last 4 verses I listed is thrēskia. Just as a sidenote, in the first verse I listed, the word used there is deisidaimonia, which some Biblical translations translate this to the word superstition. But for the word thrēskia, the meaning of this Greek word is fearing or worshipping God. Strong’s Definition also notes it to mean ceremonious in worship.
Seeing the meaning of the Greek word translated to religion gives us a little more understanding, but the Greek word used for worship might help complete the picture for us. The Greek word that the word worship is translated from is proskyneo. Proskyneo means kiss the hand towards one, or kneel and bow towards one out of reverence or supplication (asking for something). Further definitions state kneeling before someone, but also again indicating out of respect.
I think the key word in these definitions of the Greek word translated for worship is respect. And also in that definition for proskyneo, it notes the respect being directed towards God.
Putting two and two together, or at least from what appears to be two and two, religion is essentially reverence (deep respect) towards God. It doesn’t appear to be defined as rules. It’s just showing and living in respect to God.
So if one says Christianity is not a religion, based upon the description in Scripture and the meaning of the Greek translated words, one is saying that Christianity is not respecting God. Of course none of us who are followers of Christ actually do think that, but to discount Christianity as a religion seems to discount Christianity as respecting God.
Verses on relationship with God
While there’s no verse that explicitly mentions the phrase “relationship with God” or personal relationship with Jesus Christ”, there are verses that perhaps signify some form of intimate connection with God. For example, Christians are referred to in the Bible as sons or daughters of God.
Romans 8:14 “For all who are being led by the Spirit of God, these are sons of God.”
2 Corinthians 6:18 – “And I will be a father to you,
And you shall be sons and daughters to Me,”
Says the Lord Almighty.”
Galatians 3:26 “For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus.”
Galatians 4:5 “so that He might redeem those who were under the Law, that we might receive the adoption as sons”
Ephesians 1:5 – He predestined us to adoption as sons through Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the kind intention of His will,
John viewed it as loving that God refers to us as His children. 1 John 3:1 states, “See how great a love the Father has bestowed on us, that we would be called children of God; and such we are. For this reason the world does not know us, because it did not know Him.” The phrase of “children of God” is used in the New Testament, according to my count in the NASB, 11 times. Perhaps enough times to suggest God views those who practice Christianity with affection like that of one in a close relationship with a person.
Does the Bible mention the word “Christianity”?
While the word Christianity is not mentioned in the Bible, the word “Christian” is a found a few times. The Greek word for Christian is Christianos. In the Strong’s definition, it defines the word as a follower of Christ. The Thayer’s Greek Lexicon gives this interesting note.
“The name was first given to the worshippers of Jesus by the Gentiles, but from the second century ((e. g. Apology 1, 4, p. 55 a.; dialog contra Trypho, § 35; cf. ‘ etc. 12, 4 [ET])) onward accepted by them as a title of honor.”
So this term “Christian” was given as a means of identifying those who chose to be worshippers of Jesus. In a way, that connects back to what seems to be the Biblical understanding of religion, which is being worshippers (respecters) of God.
Is Christianity a religion or a relationship?
In my view, the “Christianity is not a religion, it’s a relationship” movement would be better served in just strongly stating yes, I am religious (a respecter of God). Yes, Christianity is religion (respecting God). For one to discredit the word religion, would be to also discredit the sight of God and thus God himself. Because James explains what pure religion is in the sight of God, and if God acknowledges it, it must be acknowledged by Christians as well.
It’s neglectful of God’s word to only tie Christianity to the term “personal relationship with Jesus Christ”. The intent is often to try to soften perception and attract more people to the faith. It would seem if in the end a person is that uncomfortable with the word religion where they aren’t even going to consider Christianity, they likely weren’t going to consider becoming a Christian at all.
But we should acknowledge that a part of what Christianity is involves a loving connection with God. He affectionately views us as children once we receive salvation through Christ. And there’s the example of Jesus referring to His disciples as friends in John 15:15. Ultimately though, perhaps the main phrase that should follow “Christianity is” is not religion or relationship, but following Christ.
As always, any questions, comments, or thoughts for further understanding, feel free to leave a response. Peace to all those who are in Christ.