It’s a common refrain among some Christians to deny that Christianity is a religion.

You may have heard the phrase, “It’s not a Religion. It’s a Relationship.” Some well-meaning Christians assert, “You don’t need to learn about religion, you need to learn about Jesus Christ.” Messages to this effect are even printed on Christian t-shirts.

Those who affirm this idea generally place religion – which they define as a system of dogmas, rules, practices and regulations to be believed and followed – on one side, and a relationship with Jesus Christ on the other.

But these sentiments, though well-intended, belie a fundamental misunderstanding of what Christianity is.

Does true Christian faith involve a relationship with Jesus Christ? Absolutely.

God so loved the world that he sent His Son, Jesus Christ, to die as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. It is this Christ whom we are called to accept, know, love and obey.

But does true Christian faith also involve religion – various doctrines, practices and moral teachings that must be obeyed? Absolutely. We’ll examine this aspect below.

Who is Jesus Christ?

Christians say we “know and believe in” Jesus Christ. This is very good. But as soon as you ask, “Who is Jesus Christ?” you need religion.

For the past 2,000 years, Christians have carefully articulated important doctrines (i.e., Christ’s divinity, that He is “begotten” and “consubstantial [the same substance, one in being] with the Father,” and the hypostatic union – that Christ has both a human and divine nature, in one person) that explain to us who Christ is.

One of the premier examples of this is found in the Nicene Creed, a Christian ecumenical creed (statement of faith) that is accepted by all orthodox Christians, including Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Anglicans and major Protestant churches.

The Creed was formulated at the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD in response to the Arian controversy. Arius, a Christian presbyter (elder or priest), had formulated the heretical Christian doctrine that Christ is not truly divine, but is actually a created being. The council was called to resolve this controversy.

As a result, the majority of the Nicene Creed is focused on explaining who Jesus Christ is, and what He has done for humankind.

The Nicene Creed states:

I believe in one Lord Jesus Christ,
the Only Begotten Son of God,
born of the Father before all ages.
God from God, Light from Light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made, consubstantial with the Father;
through him all things were made.

For us men and for our salvation
he came down from heaven,
and by the Holy Spirit was incarnate of the Virgin Mary,
and became man.

For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate,
he suffered death and was buried,
and rose again on the third day
in accordance with the Scriptures.

He ascended into heaven
and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
He will come again in glory
to judge the living and the dead
and his kingdom will have no end.

This statement contains and reveals important Christian doctrines – it must be believed by orthodox Christians. It separates the orthodox from the heterodox.

To be able to answer the question, “Who is Jesus Christ?” and therefore, to be able to know and love Him correctly, we need religion. Through religion, we can know Jesus Christ.

What Morals and Ethics Should Christians Live By?

How do we love Christ? How do we know that we have a relationship with Him? Is it merely by “accepting Him as our Lord and Savior?” Or is there another standard Christians are called to?

Jesus Christ said,

If you love me, you will keep my commandments. … Whoever has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me. And he who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and manifest myself to him” (John 14:15, 21, ESV).

We love Jesus Christ by keeping His commandments. The Apostle Paul taught the same thing, “For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified” (Romans 2:13, ESV).

And these commandments are taught to us through religion.

Christians believe in the reality of sin – that we all have “missed the mark” in some way.

C.S. Lewis wrote in Mere Christianity, “There were two odd things about the human race. First, that they were haunted by the idea of a sort of behavior they ought to practice, what you might call fair play, or decency, or morality, or the Law of Nature. Second, that they did not in fact do so.”

Down through the centuries, Christians – under the authority of Scripture, through prayer and study, and guided by the Holy Spirt – have clearly taught that some actions are sinful: greed, lying, stealing, lust, adultery, murder, abortion, pride and the like.

The sinfulness of the actions is revealed in the Ten Commandments, Scripture, and through the person and teachings of Jesus Christ. In other words, we know all these things are sinful through religion.

It is not up to individuals to develop their own sense of morality through their own “personal” relationship with Christ; it is up to us to receive the teachings on Christian morality from Christians who have gone before us, who have clearly explicated important doctrines and convictions.

Now, as fallen creatures who are so easily drawn towards what is evil, this does not mean that Christians obey Christ’s commandments perfectly. None of us do. The Apostle John wrote, “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us” (1 John 1:8, ESV).

But it does mean that obeying Christ’s commandments is the standard which Christians are called to live by. And when we fail, when we sin, we confess our sins and ask God for His mercy, when He so richly provides. “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9, ESV).

So, is Christianity a relationship? Most certainly.

But is Christianity also a religion? Absolutely.

The two are not opposed to each other. In fact, they work together to help us to know Christ and His teachings – and then to help us obey Him, and in doing so, love Him.

To speak with a family help specialist or request resources, please call us at 1-800-A-FAMILY (232-6459).

Related articles and resources:

In Defense of That ‘Old Time Religion’

Mere Christianity

Focus on the Family: Faith

Photo from Shutterstock.