In last week’s essay, I gave half of my answer to the question, “Is Christianity a religion?” If the word religion is understood to refer to rites and ceremonies that are supposed to earn us favor with God merely through our participation, I insist that Christianity is not a religion. Scripture is abundantly clear that none of our works, even those done in church, have any hope of bringing us into right standing with God.
That said, there is an error on the other side of the ditch that we must also avoid—and frankly, I’m not sure which ditch is more crowded. While some seek assurance in religion as a ritual, others find religious ceremony and such not only meaningless, but obviously meaningless. For these folks, authentic Christianity is solely a matter of the heart, and their creed is that Christianity is not a religion, but a relationship.
This position is well-intentioned, but I think it fails to take seriously what Jesus himself says about being one of his disciples.
The rites that some churches call sacraments, Baptists typically call ordinances. There are reasons that I prefer the latter designation, but the most relevant one to my point here is that these acts (namely, baptism and the Lord’s Table) are ordained specifically by Jesus. Jesus’s final instruction to his disciples before he ascended is this: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:19–20). Therefore, part of being an authentic follower of Jesus is submitting oneself to baptism. Jesus’s own instructions make this unmistakable.
We have similar instruction from Jesus about the Lord’s Table. Just before his betrayal and death, Jesus observed a Passover feast with his disciples. During the meal, “he took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, ‘This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’” Paul highlights that last statement of Jesus as the basis for the church’s continuing observance of the Lord’s Table (1 Corinthians 11:23–26).
In light of these Scriptures, no one can rightly claim to follow Jesus while remaining separate from the church that he has established, for baptism and the Lord’s Table are functions of the church, the body of Christ.
I understand that many folks today are deeply suspicious of organized religion. Unfortunately, churches have given people sufficient reason for their distrust. And yet, if we take Jesus’s teachings seriously, claiming to follow Jesus while refusing to be baptized or participate at the Table is not authentic Christianity. We must rightly insist that Jesus of Nazareth established something that is more than a religion; but we must also insist that the teachings of Jesus are not less than a religion, as well.