What is religion really about?

Religion.  The word generates lots of different emotional reactions.  They run the whole spectrum from extreme love to extreme hate.  But given all those emotions, what is religion really about?  Do we even know?  We know what it means to us, as individuals.  But we each have our own view of what religion means.  So I’m asking, do we even have a sense of the dictionary or even the generally accepted meaning of this emotionally charged word – religion?

What is our view of religion?

Pray - is this What is religion really about?

The figure praying is nice and generic. Obviously, praying. But not at all obvious, praying to who? What religion is this figure? We have no clue. Our minds will probably fill in the details. Gender. Clothing. Artifacts of the religion that comes to mind.

Some of us will choose to think about our own religion. That might bring us towards the emotion of love.

Others will think of a religion not their own. Depending on the experiences leading to that choice, the emotions could be desire – as in desiring to be part of it. Or, it could be hatred, as in hating what people of that religion have done.

However, it’s very possible that both people in my examples are thinking of the same religion. How can that be? How can Religion X make someone think of love, while at the same time making someone else feel hatred?

Could it be there’s a problem with the way we think of the word religion? Maybe it comes with too much emotional baggage? Furthermore, that the baggage can be quite different from person to person? But then, is it the religion itself leading to those emotions? Or is it our perception of that religion? Maybe a misuse of the religion, either intentionally or by honest misunderstanding?

Ultimately, what does that say about our word religion? And what impact does all this have on our ability to even understand a religion, if the general perception is so skewed that it’s unrecognizable? We’ll look at that, and more, in what follows. It’s important. Our very souls depend on getting this right.

What is religion really about? The dictionary answer.

This is a dictionary definition, so don’t hold your breath waiting for it to be all that useful. However, it is a starting point. Maybe. Anyway, here’s dictionary.com’s definition of religion.

  1. a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe, especially when considered as the creation of a superhuman agency or agencies, usually involving devotional and ritual observances, and often containing a moral code governing the conduct of human affairs.

  2. a specific fundamental set of beliefs and practices generally agreed upon by a number of persons or sects:
    the Christian religion; the Buddhist religion.

  3. the body of persons adhering to a particular set of beliefs and practices:
    a world council of religions.

  4. the life or state of a monk, nun, etc.:
    to enter religion.

  5. the practice of religious beliefs; ritual observance of faith.

  6. something one believes in and follows devotedly; a point or matter of ethics or conscience:to make a religion of fighting prejudice.

  7. religions, Archaic religious rites:
    painted priests performing religions deep into the night.

  8. Archaic. strict faithfulness; devotion:
    a religion to one’s vow.

As I said, not all that useful. It’s way too broad to really get a sense of what our topic will be – Christianity. However, in light of what’s here and our topic, definition #2 is enlightening. We’ll see why in a moment.

It’s also interesting to note that the word “religion” only originated between 1150 and 1200 – what dictionary.com defined as ” Middle English”. That means at least two things significant to what we’re looking at.

  1. Christianity was already over 1,000 years old before the word religion came into usage.
  2. The word “religion” has been around for over 800 years now.

Put those two things together. add in the emotional charges that come with the word today, and there’s a very good chance that even the original intent of the word religion wasn’t a tight fit with Christianity in the middle ages – and is even less so today!

By the way, it also means that for thousands of years that God set aside His chosen people, the Israelite/Hebrew/Jewish people, the word religion didn’t even exist! Not just because religion is an English word – but because the Hebrew word we translate as religion today has a very different meaning back then. More on that is coming as well.

What is religion really about? A Christian answer.

Notice here that I said “A” Christian answer, not “The” Christian answer. That’s because I don’t have a single answer as to how Christians define “religion”.

One Christian definition of religion

Here’s one example of how a Christian dictionary defines “religion”.

RELIGION — belief in and reverence for God or some supernatural power that is recognized as the creator and ruler of the universe; an organized system of doctrine with an approved pattern of behavior and a proper form of worship. The classic New Testament passage on religion is James 2:17. Faith divorced from deeds, says James, is as lifeless as a corpse.  1Youngblood, R. F., Bruce, F. F., & Harrison, R. K., Thomas Nelson Publishers (Eds.). (1995). In Nelson’s new illustrated Bible dictionary. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, Inc.

To be sure, this is more specific than the dictionary.com definition.

However, I still have an issue with this. One that’s not necessarily obvious. Unless you take the time to hover on the link and actually read James 2:17! You” notice – the word religion isn’t there. It’s sort of there if you read the entire passage. Sort of. But it’s nothing like a definition. And the topic is more about a detail, albeit a very important detail, of Christian faith. Not a religion, per se. To make that clear, here’s the passage containing the referenced verse.

Faith and Deeds

Jas 2:14 What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him? 15 Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. 16 If one of you says to him, “Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it? 17 In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.

Jas 2:18 But someone will say, “You have faith; I have deeds.”
Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do. 19 You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder.

Jas 2:20 You foolish man, do you want evidence that faith without deeds is useless ? 21 Was not our ancestor Abraham considered righteous for what he did when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? 22 You see that his faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did. 23 And the scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness,” and he was called God’s friend. 24 You see that a person is justified by what he does and not by faith alone.

Jas 2:25 In the same way, was not even Rahab the prostitute considered righteous for what she did when she gave lodging to the spies and sent them off in a different direction? 26 As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead.

The word “faith” occurs 11 times in the verses above. As the title says, the passage is about faith. Now, if we go back to the dictionary definitions of the word religion, we see the word “faith” twice:

5. the practice of religious beliefs; ritual observance of faith.

8. Archaic. strict faithfulness; devotion:
a religion to one’s vow.

Now – here’s the catch. Actually, catches.

In #5, Christianity is not, I repeat not, a ritual observance of faith. Jesus made this quite clear during His three year ministry. Yes, Catholics have a number of rituals. There are things to meditotate on during each of them, and they do have a purpose outside of just going through the motions, so to speak. However, I can’t say how many Catholics are either aware of the meditations or, if they are aware, actually do them. There is a danger of rituals being reduced to nothing more than going through the motions.

As one who actually liked the rituals and didn’t always do the meditations, I can say I found them comforting. But now, as a former Catholic who has come to actually feel the “peace beyond all understanding” the Bible promises us, I also came to realize that what I thought was comfort was more about repetition and familiarity than comfort as described in Philippians 4:7. The entire passage is below:

Exhortations

Phil 4:2 I plead with Euodia and I plead with Syntyche to agree with each other in the Lord. 3 Yes, and I ask you, loyal yokefellow, help these women who have contended at my side in the cause of the gospel, along with Clement and the rest of my fellow workers, whose names are in the book of life.

Phil 4:4 Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! 5 Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. 6 Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. 7 And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Phil 4:8 Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. 9 Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.

As you can see, mere repetition of the motions involved in a ritual cannot lead us to feel that kind of peace.  Neither can just saying the words.  It really does require living life as described there.  As taught by Jesus.

In #8, the definition is archaic, meaning no longer in current use. I have no idea what a religion to one’s vow means. But, strict faithfulness and devotion do describe the wayto cu Christians are taught to try to live our lives. Not that we will always succeed, but that we should try. More on that thought in a moment.

Ultimately, the closest this definition from a Bible Dictionary comes to the current usage of the word religion is the archaic one! That means lots of people, I dare say including many Christians, don’t really know just how far Christianity is from the common usage of the word religion. To put it another way, Christian Religion almost doesn’t make sense, when looked at in this light!

Another Christian definition of religion

I’m splitting the second definition into two parts. The second portion sums up what I’m trying to say here, so it must wait.

RELIGION. The word ‘religion’ came into Eng. from the Vulg., where religio is in a 13th-century paraphrase of Jas. 1:26f. In Acts 26:5 it denotes Judaism (cf. Gal. 1:13f.). Here and in the Apocrypha, thrēskeia refers to the outward expression of belief, not the content, as when we contrast the Christian religion with Buddhism. RSV uses the word, however, in something approaching this sense in 1 Tim. 3:16, to translate Gk. eusebeia (AV ‘godliness’), and in 2 Tim. 3:5, where again our instinct would be to use the word ‘Christianity’. Because of the association of thrēskeia with Judaism, James’ use is probably ironical. The things which he calls the elements of ’thrēskeia that is pure and undefiled’ would not in the view of his opponents, who restricted it to ritual, have counted as thrēskeia at all.   2Job, J. B. (1996). Religion. In D. R. W. Wood, I. H. Marshall, A. R. Millard, J. I. Packer, & D. J. Wiseman (Eds.), New Bible dictionary (3rd ed., p. 1007). Leicester, England; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

Here are some things to notice.

  • A different verse from Jame is used here.
  • There’s a reference to the Book of Acts.
  • There are references to 1st and 2nd Timothy.

Let’s look at each of those references, along with the Greek words pointed out.

A different verse from James is used here.

Let’s take a look at the passage that contains James 1:26.

Listening and Doing

Jas 1:19 My dear brothers, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, 20 for man’s anger does not bring about the righteous life that God desires. 21 Therefore, get rid of all moral filth and the evil that is so prevalent and humbly accept the word planted in you, which can save you.

Jas 1:22 Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. 23 Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like a man who looks at his face in a mirror 24 and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. 25 But the man who looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues to do this, not forgetting what he has heard, but doing it—he will be blessed in what he does.

Jas 1:26 If anyone considers himself religious and yet does not keep a tight rein on his tongue, he deceives himself and his religion is worthless. 27 Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.

As with the previous verse from James, this one is more a description of something within Christianity than it is a definition of religion.

Some will wonder, is this a pattern developing? Is it because verses are cherry-picked to make a definition impossible? Or is there a reason behind this apparent inability to define religion from the contents of the Bible? If that’s you, hang on. The answer is coming.

We see again in this passage that there’s a difference between just going through some motions, following rituals, and doing what we should do.

But verse 26 takes it even further. No matter what we try to tell ourselves, failure to actually follow Jesus’ teachings means we’re our religion is worthless. At least that’s what it seems to say. However – it’s not that at all! It’s not about Christianity. Remember:

Because of the association of thrēskeia with Judaism, James’ use is probably ironical. The things which he calls the elements of ’thrēskeia that is pure and undefiled’ would not in the view of his opponents, who restricted it to ritual, have counted as thrēskeia at all.

James is talking about Judaism.  About how the Jewish leaders turned the Mosaic Law into a mass of legalistic requirements, pretty much forgetting about what the original concept was.  Things turned very much into a system of sacrifices.  Do something wrong.  Make the required sacrifice.  Get good with God again.  Rinse and repeat.  And repeat.

But the goal wasn’t to have more sacrifices.  The goal was to have less sin!  That’s why Jesus said what He did in the passage below.

 

The Calling of Matthew – Matthew

9:9-13 pp — Mk 2:14-17; Lk 5:27-32

Mt 9:9 As Jesus went on from there, he saw a man named Matthew sitting at the tax collector’s booth. “Follow me,” he told him, and Matthew got up and followed him.

Mt 9:10 While Jesus was having dinner at Matthew’s house, many tax collectors and “sinners” came and ate with him and his disciples. 11 When the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and ‘sinners’?”

Mt 9:12 On hearing this, Jesus said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. 13 But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”

Yes – I desire mercy, not sacrifice. And that’s a reference to something from the Old Testament. So the concept isn’t new. Just missed.

And just in case you haven’t thought about it yet, mercy cannot be shown by performing rituals. Or by going down a checklist of items. Rather, showing mercy is a way of life. A way of living that shows God’s love to all.

Paul’s use of the word “religion” in Acts

Notice, I put “religion” in quotes, because, of course, Paul didn’t literally say religion. But the Greek word mentioned above does get translated as religion. The entire passage containing the verse is quite long and reading all of it won’t help us with today’s topic. So here’s just the one paragraph it’s in.

Ac 26:4 “The Jews all know the way I have lived ever since I was a child, from the beginning of my life in my own country, and also in Jerusalem. 5 They have known me for a long time and can testify, if they are willing, that according to the strictest sect of our religion, I lived as a Pharisee. 6 And now it is because of my hope in what God has promised our fathers that I am on trial today. 7 This is the promise our twelve tribes are hoping to see fulfilled as they earnestly serve God day and night. O king, it is because of this hope that the Jews are accusing me. 8 Why should any of you consider it incredible that God raises the dead?

This is Paul, talking about his time as a Pharisee. Clearly, this reference is to him being Jewish.

The 2 Timothy verses

We’ll look at entire passages, so we can get a more complete idea of what Paul is saying.

In Overseers and Deacons, we see once more that being a Christian, this time a leader, isn’t anything like being able to check off some boxes as we go through life. It is, even more than we saw before, a way of life. In verse 16, we see it referred to as godliness. Not a religion, as we think of it today, but a way of life where we try to use the power of The Holy Spirit to live a life patterned after Jesus.

Overseers and Deacons

1Ti 3:1 Here is a trustworthy saying: If anyone sets his heart on being an overseer, he desires a noble task. 2 Now the overseer must be above reproach, the husband of but one wife, temperate, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, 3 not given to drunkenness, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. 4 He must manage his own family well and see that his children obey him with proper respect. 5 (If anyone does not know how to manage his own family, how can he take care of God’s church?) 6 He must not be a recent convert, or he may become conceited and fall under the same judgment as the devil. 7 He must also have a good reputation with outsiders, so that he will not fall into disgrace and into the devil’s trap.

1Ti 3:8 Deacons, likewise, are to be men worthy of respect, sincere, not indulging in much wine, and not pursuing dishonest gain. 9 They must keep hold of the deep truths of the faith with a clear conscience. 10 They must first be tested; and then if there is nothing against them, let them serve as deacons.

1Ti 3:11 In the same way, their wives are to be women worthy of respect, not malicious talkers but temperate and trustworthy in everything.

1Ti 3:12 A deacon must be the husband of but one wife and must manage his children and his household well. 13 Those who have served well gain an excellent standing and great assurance in their faith in Christ Jesus.

1Ti 3:14 Although I hope to come to you soon, I am writing you these instructions so that, 15 if I am delayed, you will know how people ought to conduct themselves in God’s household, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and foundation of the truth. 16 Beyond all question, the mystery of godliness is great:
He appeared in a body,
was vindicated by the Spirit,
was seen by angels,
was preached among the nations,
was believed on in the world,
was taken up in glory.

Before commenting, let’s look at the second passage – Godlessness in the last days.

Godlessness in the Last Days

2Ti 3:1 But mark this: There will be terrible times in the last days. 2 People will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, 3 without love, unforgiving, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not lovers of the good, 4 treacherous, rash, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God— 5 having a form of godliness but denying its power. Have nothing to do with them.

2Ti 3:6 They are the kind who worm their way into homes and gain control over weak-willed women, who are loaded down with sins and are swayed by all kinds of evil desires, 7 always learning but never able to acknowledge the truth. 8 Just as Jannes and Jambres opposed Moses, so also these men oppose the truth—men of depraved minds, who, as far as the faith is concerned, are rejected. 9 But they will not get very far because, as in the case of those men, their folly will be clear to everyone.

In this passage, Paul shows the opposite side of what we read in the previous one. This time it’s people who do not have the characteristics that should be part of a Christian life. We see that even those negative traits are part of a pattern of life. They are not going through rituals or checking off some boxes – then pretending to be a good Christian person on Sunday mornings. Between the two Timothy passages, we get a good contrast.

What is Christianity all about?

After all that, what can we say about Christianity?

Well, we can say Christianity is about faith. Faith in God who created everything. Faith in Jesus, the Son of God who died for our salvation – but also showed us over His three-year ministry how to live like Him. And Faith in the Holy Spirit who will help us in this life. Faith in God – the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, is what enables us to try to live as Jesus taught. Not that we’ll always succeed. We won’t. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t keep trying. This differentiates Christianity from every other religion.

One thing to point out here – even when we fail, as true followers of Jesus, we are forgiven. As pointed out though, even in the few passages we looked at, there are those people who think they’re Christian, but aren’t. This also differentiates Christianity from most, if not all, other religions.

And, as pointed out in the passages, Christianity isn’t a list of things to do. Not a bunch of rituals to perform. It is a way of life. These things differentiate Christianity from many other religions.

What the above things mean though, is that one cannot truly learn what Christianity is by watching Christians. First, one has to know who’s truly trying to follow Jesus and who isn’t. Just looking at everyone who claims to be a Christian will give a wrong impression of what our faith is about. None of us succeed 100% of the time. But some try and others don’t. Based on what Jesus said in the Bible, the number of true Christians could be as low as 5% of the entire population of the earth, across all time. But here, we must remember, the Bible tells us (via the angels who appeared to the shepherds at Jesus’ birth) that Jesus coming to earth was good news for all. However, towards the end of His life, Jesus said He came to save many. Certainly not all. Not even most. Many. I firmly believe the difference between all and many has largely to do with the number of us who won’t even try to follow Him. And the rest are those who half-heartedly follow, consider themselves Christians, but really aren’t.

Conclusion – What is religion really about?

Earlier, I promised the rest of the second Christian dictionary definition of religion. Here it is:

Hesitance today in using the word ‘religion’ either of the content of the Christian faith or of its expression in worship and service, is due to the conviction that Christianity is not simply one among many religions, but differs from all others in that its content is divinely revealed and its outward expression by believers is not an attempt to secure salvation but a thank-offering for it.  3Job, J. B. (1996). Religion. In D. R. W. Wood, I. H. Marshall, A. R. Millard, J. I. Packer, & D. J. Wiseman (Eds.), New Bible dictionary (3rd ed., p. 1007). Leicester, England; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

Honestly, I’ve never heard anything of this hesitancy to use the word religion along with “Christian faith”.  Never even thought about it before this.  But I like it. 

I came across this definition early in my research.  Very surprising.  And so, I was looking forward to seeing whether or not what I found would bear out that statement.  I believe it does.    Going back to the secular definitions of religion, only two of them have the concept of faith.  One of the two, #5, is a ritualistic faith.  That’s not at all descriptive of Christianity.  The other is considered archaic.  It also mentions strict faithfulness.  While the goal is strict faithfulness, Christianity does make it clear that we will fail.  Jesus pointed this out, even to Peter.  And then Jesus prayed that after Peter turned back to his faith, that he would strengthen his brothers.  That’s something we still believe in and try to practice today.  It is, in fact, one of the big reasons I write about my faith.

Lk 22:31 “Simon, Simon, Satan has asked to sift you as wheat. 32 But I have prayed for you, Simon, that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned back, strengthen your brothers.”

By now, I hope I have shown you some of the issues with the word religion. Why it’s a word, not only with a lot of emotional baggage, but one that doesn’t adequately describe many of the “religions” we think we know today. I think I’ve also shown that this is especially true with Christianity. The Christian faith – to use a better word.

Why do I care? Well, because as a Christian, I believe it truly is the way, with possibly some incredibly rare exceptions – the only way – to have an eternity in Heaven with God. The Bible says God loves all of us. It also says Christians should love everyone. That doesn’t really leave me any choice but to care, does it? But the weird part is, as I spend more and more time studying, writing, trying to live out my faith, I find that I really do care. It turns out, when we truly try to follow Jesus, the caring about others just comes as part of that way of life.

And so I pray that if you are Christian, this may spur you on to wanting a deeper feeling of life with God.
And if you’re not Christian, that you’ll want to know more about Christianity. Not necessarily as you see it played out around you, but in the way Jesus taught it. The way it’s meant to be.


Image by Peggy und Marco Lachmann-Anke from Pixabay


  • 1
    Youngblood, R. F., Bruce, F. F., & Harrison, R. K., Thomas Nelson Publishers (Eds.). (1995). In Nelson’s new illustrated Bible dictionary. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, Inc.
  • 2
    Job, J. B. (1996). Religion. In D. R. W. Wood, I. H. Marshall, A. R. Millard, J. I. Packer, & D. J. Wiseman (Eds.), New Bible dictionary (3rd ed., p. 1007). Leicester, England; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
  • 3
    Job, J. B. (1996). Religion. In D. R. W. Wood, I. H. Marshall, A. R. Millard, J. I. Packer, & D. J. Wiseman (Eds.), New Bible dictionary (3rd ed., p. 1007). Leicester, England; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

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