People like me (a 20-something rookie pastor) have probably noticed a trend making its way through social media, bumper-sticker Christianity, and Christian bookstore T-shirt sections. What I’m noticing is not really a new trend or even an original spin on an old idea. It is a mind-set toward Christianity that, as far as I can tell, has influenced every generation since at least the Reformation. The phrase “Christianity is not a religion” is being touted as a fresh way of looking at the relationship of individual disciples of Christ to the practice of Christianity.

Some readers may be familiar with YouTube sensation Jefferson Bathke. Using poetry to express social commentary, Bathke has released a number of videos online that have reached tens of millions of viewers. One of his latest, released in January, “Why I Hate Religion, But Love Jesus,” has garnered over 20 million views. In the opening, Bathke asks, “What if I told you Jesus came to abolish religion?” Admittedly there has been a great deal of response and assessment of this video in the evangelical blogosphere, but most responses do not address the underlying issue prompting such a statement. Is Christianity a religion or not?

This is not a question being raised solely in liberal denominations and emerging groups. This is a sentiment identified on T-shirts and social media of fundamental Bible college students and of individuals in your church and mine, that is, the next generation of Regular Baptists.

The concept of religionless Christianity is pleasing to the “spiritual but not religious” generation of Oprah and The Shack. People, especially young people, love the idea of Christianity without the rigorous restrictions and expectations of their parents’ and grandparents’ Christianity.

The problem that persists in this formulation of Christianity as a religionless relationship is a fundamental misunderstanding of religion. For many, the word religion conjures images of priests, rites, liturgy, rules, legalism, dogma, and institutions—institutions that, according to secular Western history, are responsible for racial inequalities, wars, bigotry, hatred, and exploitation of the populace through superstition and fear. The word religion is arguably flawed even in its origin, a Latin word meaning to bind or tie up, which Christ didn’t come to do.

Sociologically speaking, religion is the practices of a group of people who have found agreement in their understanding of God, His work, His will, His expectations, and His worship. Religion is the outworking of those understandings. Religion by practice has a social aspect that makes it different from a personal belief system. Religion is the corporate practice of a system of beliefs held by a socially contextualized group of people.

Proponents: Old and new

James Fowler, in his work Christianity Is NOT Religion, asserts, “The need of the hour is to distinguish and differentiate between ‘religion’ and Christianity.” This work’s chapters were originally published separately over a span of about 15 years, but they reflect the sentiment of generations of “Christians.” Many who have advocated the release of religion from Christianity are also proponents of distinctly non-Christian theology. So while the world looks at Christianity broadly, we must assess this issue precisely. Precise theological thinking and articulation have always marked our fellowship, and with this issue precision should not be abandoned. As is the case with any other notion of theological implication, we must take the argument that Christianity is not a religion to its logical end. Doing so exposes the pitfalls of this notion.

Religionless Christianity has been most recently advocated in a broad context by the emerging church and more specifically Brian McLaren in his book A New Kind of Christianity (even though McLaren seems content to see a cohesion of free-thinking, creed-less, doctrine-less, liturgical-less Christianity and old orthodoxy). “Religionless Christianity” was a phrase coined by Dietrich Bonhoeffer in his prison letters, published posthumously. In his letters to his dear friend Eberhard Bethge, Bonhoeffer decries the kind of Christianity in German Lutheranism that refused to confront, and in many ways aided, Nazism in prewar Germany.

Martin Luther was also outspoken against religiosity in Roman Catholicism. He explained, “I have often said that to speak and judge rightly in this matter we must carefully distinguish between a pious (religious) man and a Christian.” To that sentiment we would agree with Luther and with the apostle Paul in Colossians 2:20–23:

Therefore, if you died with Christ from the basic principles of the world, why, as though living in the world, do you subject yourselves to regulations—“Do not touch, do not taste, do not handle,” which all concern things which perish with the using—according to the commandments and doctrines of men? These things indeed have an appearance of wisdom in self-imposed religion, false humility, and neglect of the body, but are of no value against the indulgence of the flesh.

When Luther decried the liturgical, even heretical, practices of the Roman Catholic Church, he did so because he recognized the deficiencies of Christian activity without genuine Christian faith. This was not a new issue. The book of James speaks of the futility of works without faith and the reality of faith being proven by works. It must be recognized that going through the motions without genuine redemptive faith in Christ’s finished work on the cross is of no eternal value.

While few reading this will agree in totality with Fowler, McLaren, Luther, or Bonhoeffer, we must recognize that what they spoke against—even if they were contrasting it with their preferred brand of Christianity—was false religion. I must confess that I believe this to be the sentiment of the vast majority of those who propose the “Christianity is not a religion” mantra today. In assessing this resurging view of our relationship with Christ, it is abundantly clear that words mean something. In the mind of the teen wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with “Christianity is not a religion” is the belief that religion equals stale religious practice. That is not always the case though, and herein lies the danger of failed vocabulary.

True religion vs. false religion

The American Episcopal priest Robert Capon, in his book Between Noon and Three: A Parable of Romance, Law, and the Outrage of Grace, explains the supposed difference between religion and Christianity in this way.

The gospel of grace is the end of religion, the final posting of the CLOSED sign on the sweatshop of the human race’s perpetual struggle to think well of itself. For that . . . is what religion is: man’s well-meant but dim-witted attempt to approve of his unapprovable condition by doing odd jobs he thinks some important Something will thank him for. Religion therefore is a loser, a strictly fallen activity. It has a failed past and a bankrupt future. There was no religion in Eden and there will be no religion in heaven; and in the meantime Jesus has died and risen to persuade us to knock it all off right now.

Capon’s assertion is against all religion, but is lacking in a working definition of religion. As mentioned earlier, sociologically speaking, religion is simply the outworking of a belief system held by more than one person. It would be fair to say that false religion without divine instruction is in fact a “dim-witted attempt to approve of our unapprovable condition.”

In his recent book The Explicit Gospel, Matt Chandler rightly asserts that all of our religious effort, even in an attempt to uphold Biblical mandates, is in vain if it is done without Christ. We are saved, sanctified, and sustained by what Jesus did for us in His death and resurrection. To add to or subtract from the Cross and the Resurrection is to rob God of His glory and Christ of His sufficiency. Christianity though, as Judaism once was, is the one true religion of the one true God. Christ has not come to set us free so that we might be “functional human beings” as James Fowler asserts and many proponents of this trend would argue. We were freed from the bondage of sin so that we might be brought under subjection in Christ. Galatians 5:1 says, “Stand fast therefore in the liberty by which Christ has made us free, and do not be entangled again with a yoke of bondage.” The bondage addressed was not the bondage of religion in general but of sin specifically, which false religion is a part of. We are freed from sin so that we might, by the righteousness of Christ covering our sin, worship and glorify God through the exercise of His prescribed works and service.

Dangers of religionless Christianity

To assert that Jesus came to abolish religion and that His speaking openly against the perversion of Judaism, rampant in His day, is evidence that He hated religion is to misrepresent Christ and Scripture, neither of which is the result of a sound hermeneutic. In fact, Jesus was a religious man. He was circumcised on the eighth day, attended temple feasts, taught in and attended synagogue, communicated godly principles and expectation of behavior, as well as offered commands for His disciples. Jesus, God incarnate, was a religious young man who established the church along with all of its beliefs and practices. What He despised and denounced was a false religion of works as propagated by the Pharisees.

The Stone-Campbell movement, sometimes identified as Restorationism, stands as a warning against this kind of thinking. These movements assumed the names “Christian” and “Disciples of Christ” and were the ideological outworking of three men—Barton Stone, Thomas Campbell, and his son, Alexander Campbell. These men were affected by the socio-political atmosphere of the post–Revolutionary War era. With a resurgence of political, social, and personal freedoms and a weight of oppressive tyranny removed, these men began to seriously contemplate the implication of such personal freedom on their religious activity. The result was an irreligious Christianity. (Many, including Kevin Bauder in his new book Baptist Distinctives and New Testament Church Order [Regular Baptist Press], would argue that the Christian Church [Disciples of Christ] and the Church of Christ are not Christian denominations at all because of their teaching of baptismal regeneration.) This irreligious Christianity claimed unity across divisive lines like creeds, articles of faith, liturgical systems, and denominational labels, which they rejected.

This era of Christian freedom and attempted restoration of New Testament Christianity, without consideration of the benefits of nearly 2,000 years of theological debate and precision, brought into question traditional authorities and exalted the mind of the individual over any other authority. The result was a period of “Christian” history that produced such groups as the Universalists, Millerites, Mormons, and Methodists.

The Stone-Campbell movement vilified religion and religious history. The Stone-Campbell Movement: An International Religious Tradition records Alexander Campbell as writing, “I have endeavored to read the Scriptures as though no one had read them before me, and I am as much on my guard against reading them to-day, through the medium of my own views yesterday, or a week ago, as I am against being influenced by any foreign name, authority, or system whatever.” This approach presented three persuasive arguments. It brought the Word back to the people’s individual interpretation, it dared people to think for themselves and throw off the shackles of “religion,” and it befuddled respectable clergy because no one could argue with “that’s what it means to me.”

I find these arguments still attractive to the mass of nominal Christians all over the world. To claim that Christianity is not a religion, when taken to its logical conclusion, releases a person from the constraints of theological systems and even Biblical mandates. To reduce Christianity to a relationship without constraint is dangerous, but to elevate the relationship above the practices dictated by that relationship is both wise and beneficial. Christianity is a religion unlike any other because of the person and work of its namesake. It is illogical to proclaim, “Christianity is not a religion,” while it is still accurate to say, “Christianity is not JUST a religion.”

Stephen Anderson (MA, Faith Baptist Theological Seminary) is pastor of Faith Baptist Church, Fowler, Colo.