Is Christianity a religion?
Not surprisingly, my answer here is going to depend almost entirely by what we mean by the term religion, for its dictionary definition and its meaning in popular usage are often at odds with one another. My trusty American Heritage dictionary offers the following relevant meanings: “1a. belief in and reverence for a supernatural power or powers regarded as creator and governor of the universe…. 3. a set of beliefs, values, and practices based on the teachings of a spiritual leader.” I suspect that most of the controversy here centers on the word practices: in what sense are certain practices essential to being a Christian?
People have always looked to rituals, rites, and ceremonies as a way to gain favor with God, and not wholly without reason: the Bible itself gives us chapter after chapter (and even entire books, like Leviticus) that detail the proper procedures for sacrifices and feasts days and the like. It simply cannot be asserted, by anyone who takes the Bible seriously, that the Christian God is opposed in principle to rituals. God clearly institutes a religion, in every sense of the word, in the Old Testament.
And yet it is also the case that we, as people, have a tendency to misunderstand the proper use of religion in this sense. We are tempted to think that, if we do a ritual properly, we can somehow manipulate God into looking on us with favor. For this reason, we find God regularly rebuking his people, even in the Old Testament when such sacrifices were still demanded. For instance, God says this in Psalm 50:
I will not accept a bull from your house
or goats from your folds.
For every beast of the forest is mine,
the cattle on a thousand hills.
I know all the birds of the hills,
and all that moves in the field is mine.
If I were hungry, I would not tell you,
for the world and its fullness are mine.
God’s point is clear: none of our religious ceremonies are intrinsically valuable, because the God of the Bible has no needs. There is nothing that we can do that bring us the favor of God; this precisely Paul’s point when he insists that if God’s favor “is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace” (Romans 11:6).
This is still true in the New Testament age in which we live: the religious acts which Jesus ordained (baptism and the Table) don’t work magically, as though if by doing them correctly, we obtain right standing with God. Salvation is not by works, even religious works.
This is half of my answer. Next week, I intend to argue that spirituality apart from biblical religion is also inadequate.