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Christianity is a religion, not a relationship

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The other day, I read a tweet which quoted John Stott as saying, "Christianity is not a religion, let alone one religion among many. It is God's good news for the world."

It’s a common refrain among some Christians. Christianity is not a religion, it’s a relationship. But is that true? 

Okay, let’s pause for a moment. The concept of religion is not an easy one. It appears to be an essentially contested concept (i.e. a concept for which there is fundamental and irresolvable disagreement as to its application) or it is a fuzzy concept (i.e. a concept the application of which has unclear boundaries). 

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Suffice to say, there is always disagreement as to the precise application of the term. Can humanism or communism be a religion? Does Confucianism qualify? What about juche, the “self-reliance philosophy” of North Korea? Is that a religion? Truth is, it depends on whom you ask. And there may be no single right answer.

That said, there certainly are paradigm cases of religion. Included in that list we find Judaism, Islam, Jainism, Buddhism, and … (wait for it!) … Christianity.

So what’s going on here?

The speaker, in this case, is clearly not adhering to a conventional dictionary definition of “religion”. Instead, she is invoking a rhetorical use of the word, one popular among some Christians. It seems to me that it can be defined roughly like this:

religion. n. Those beliefs one holds and actions one undertakes to address the human problem and relate rightly to ultimate reality which are inconsistent with the revealed beliefs and practices commended by God and which seek to redress that human problem primarily through human effort.

This usage was famously invoked by Karl Barth in his much-lauded theological reflection on the book of Romans in which he “translated” Paul’s reference to the Law as “religion”. Thus, in Barth’s calculus, the law/religion are what we do to relate rightly to God while Jesus Christ is what God does to relate rightly to us.

Personally, I think the reality of how God works through the various religions of the world is far more complicated than that simple binary would suggest. Nonetheless, the main problem, as I see it, is that this usage is guilty of equivocation since it uses the term “religion” in a specialized (and frankly, tendentious) specialized sense and the entire gravitas of the statement depends on that equivocation.

So I would prefer if we simply dropped the claim that Christianity is not a religion. To me, such rhetorical indulgences are more trouble than they’re worth.

And while we’re at it, Christianity isn’t a relationship, not literally. That would appear to be an instance of metonymy, the practice of substituting one thing (in this case, the Christian religion) for another thing with which it is closely related (God). So, to be clear, the relationship is not the Christian religion itself. Rather, the relationship is that which obtains between persons (as individuals and groups) and God, and which is uniquely mapped out within the Christian religion.

Just to be clear, metonymy is a perfectly legitimate figure of speech just so long as folks recognize that it is a figure of speech. Sadly, I fear that in many cases there is a deep confusion as to what one is, in fact, doing with the use of such language.

So one more time and for emphasis, Christianity is not a relationship. It’s a religion.

Dr. Randal Rauser is Professor of Historical Theology at Taylor Seminary in Edmonton, Alberta, where he has taught since 2003. He blogs at and lectures widely on issues of theology, Christian worldview, and apologetics. Randal is the author of many books including his latest, What's So Confusing About Grace?

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