Many people have the wrong idea about Christianity. People speak of Christianity as if it is a religion similar to Islam or Catholicism. However, true Christianity is much different than any religion. The foundation of Christianity sets it apart from other religions. This article is an overview of the difference between Christianity and religion. Unfortunately, many, even those who regularly attend church services, do not know the difference between Christianity and religion. Many people subscribe to religion, thinking they are Christians merely because they follow their religious practices, rituals, and dogma.
Matthew 7:13–14 (NKJV) — “Enter by the narrow gate; for wide is the gate and broad is the way that leads to destruction, and there are many who go in by it. Because narrow is the gate and difficult is the way which leads to life, and there are few who find it.
I believe many are on the broad road that leads to destruction, and a few are on the narrow road that leads to life. The difference between Christianity and religion lies in that revelation, namely the road you travel. Either it leads to life or not.
First, let me define the word religion in the context of this article. It means the following.
- A belief in and reverence for a supernatural power or powers regarded as creator and governor of the universe
- A personal or institutionalized system grounded in such belief and worship as the above.
- A set of beliefs, values, and practices based on the teachings of a spiritual leader
So, religion is, therefore, founded upon man-made doctrines and the like. For example, a person might be considered a Christian because they go to church and have recited a sinners prayer.
A vital attribute of religion is that it is based on your works. You must follow an established set of rules, rituals, and dogma. An important thing to remember about religion is it is based on works or righteous acts.
In my experience, I have found that people are told how to be a “Christian” in their respective church services. They are told how to live, what a good Christian should do, and any number of other rules to follow. They are essentially told how to earn salvation, blessings, favor, etc., from God. That, unfortunately, is far from what Christianity really is.
Even more troubling are the many teachings that hinder us from a personal and intimate relationship with God. Teachings of prosperity, miracles, faith, believe you receive, and more. I am not suggesting that those things are bad, but rather that they tend to be the focus. Furthermore, those teachings typically incorporate something you must do to get God to move on your behalf. For example, people are told that if they give 10% of their income to their church that God will bless them abundantly, i.e., the tithe teaching.
Religion, therefore, is a system of beliefs that bind people to a particular system of beliefs (doctrines, dogma, teachings, lifestyle) that they must continue to work to remain in it. Religion is a system of works.
The word Christianity is usually defined as being Christ-like. What does it mean to be Christ-like?
Here is how the Holman Bible Dictionary defines Christian.
CHRISTIAN (khrihs’ tyan) The Greek Christianos originally applied to the slaves belonging to a great household. It came to denote the adherents of an individual or party. A Christian is an adherent of Christ; one committed to Christ; a follower of Christ. The word is used three times in the New Testament. 1. Believers “were called Christians first in Antioch” because their behavior, activity, and speech were like Christ (Acts 11:26). A Christian is one who becomes an adherent of Christ (bound to the way of Christ), whose daily life and behavior facing adversity is like Christ.
The Eastman’s Bible Dictionary defines Christianity as follows.
The name was given by the Greeks or Romans, probably in reproach, to the followers of Jesus. It was first used at Antioch. The names by which the disciples were known among themselves were “brethren,” “the faithful,” “elect,” “saints,” “believers.” But as distinguishing them from the multitude without, the name “Christian” came into use, and was universally accepted. This name occurs but three times in the New Testament (Acts 11:26; 26:28; 1 Pet. 4:16).
Christianity is a way of life, not adherence to a set of church rules, rites, and rituals. Here is where the confusion with religion happens. Christianity is based on a relationship with the Father. Religion is not. If Christianity is to be Christ-like, then what was Christ like? He was one with the Father. He did what the Father told him to do, and He said what the Father said. Jesus was in communion with the Father.
Interestingly, he was judged by religious people because he did not follow their rules, rites, rituals, and general dogma. He deviated from the religious program many times and took heat for it, so to speak.
Are you following Christ or abiding by a religious system? Do you interact with the Father as a person, or do you strive to do what religion expects you to do?
An important aspect of Christianity is that Christians have put their faith in Jesus Christ for salvation. They are born again and have been reconciled to God by the Holy Spirit that abides inside of them. It doesn’t matter how many good deeds you do. You cannot be a Christian without first being born again.
Examining the life of Jesus Christ and the religious leaders reveals the distinction between religion and Christianity. Religion is based on works, and Christianity is based on a relationship with the Father. Religion says, “Do this or that, and God will love and bless you.” Christianity says, “God has blessed you and loves you, so do this or that.”
Christianity is based on what Jesus did for us so that we could be reconciled to God. Religion is based on what we must do to earn favor or an audience with God. Religion is about you, and Christianity is about Christ. A religious person strives to follow the rules of their religion/church, whereas a Christian strives to be more like Christ.
Unfortunately, striving to be more like Christ in a religious community probably will put you at odds with those around you. In many cases, those seeking more of Christ are persecuted by religion, just like Jesus was. A Christian in a religious environment will be the oddball, the fish swimming upstream, etc.
You must constantly perform in religion, whereas Christianity does not require your performance because Jesus met the requirement of God’s law for us, i.e., He satisfied what God required to be in right relationship with Him.
Christians understand that they cannot earn and do not deserve God’s salvation provided through Jesus Christ.
Ephesians 2:8–9 (NKJV) — For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast.
So the primary differences between religion and Christianity are as follows.
- Religion is based on what you do; Christianity is based on what Jesus did
- Religions require you to follow the rules; Christianity causes you to pursue God increasingly
- Religion is about performing for the Father; Christianity is about relationship with the Father
- Religion hinders you from a relationship with God. Christianity drives you closer to the Father
- Religion binds you; Christianity liberates you
The Place of Religion
I am not suggesting in this article that there is no place for religion. For example, I am not implying that you should not follow certain rites or rituals of a particular religion. The point is that your relationship with God is not based on those activities. Let me illustrate what I mean.
Religion is like a married couple who do things for each other and relate to them by practicing what they learn about marriage. They follow the guidelines of what the husband and wife should do for each other, how the household should be managed, how the children should be realized, etc. Their relationship is functional instead of intimate. Christianity is like a couple getting to know each other personally and intimately and then learning things that they can do to express their love for and commitment to each other.
You see, doing the nice things have their place. They don’t define the relationship, but they are part of it. Therefore, specific rituals, services, worship methods, etc., may have special meanings to you. You might enjoy some religious practices. You realize you are not impressing or otherwise earning anything from the Lord by doing those things.
Religious practices can also help you establish a routine to do something meaningful to your relationship with the Father. Perhaps your church promotes praying every day at 3:00 pm. Following that guideline helps you to make time in your schedule to pray (as long as you are praying from the heart and not merely going through the motions).
Consider what the Bible says about true and acceptable religion.
James 1:27 (NKJV) — Pure and undefiled religion before God and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their trouble, and to keep oneself unspotted from the world.
The word “religion” in the above passage comes from a Greek word that means a ritual act of devotion for a divine being. It refers to works done as a show of commitment to God in this context. It also means acts of worship that display one’s commitment to God.
Therefore, religion is not necessarily a bad thing. The many practices can be used to worship God if that worship is genuine and from the heart (not merely going through the motions).
The difference between Christianity and religion is evident by examining one’s relationship with the Father. If your efforts are to follow the rules and abide by dogma at the expense of building a personal and intimate relationship with God, then you are following a religion. If you have put your faith in Jesus Christ for salvation, you are a Christian.
Christians do good because of the Spirit inside of them, whom they received from the Father. Religious adherents do good things to attempt to earn God’s love or provision.
I hope that you now understand that merely following the rules or abiding by church dogma does not make you a Christian. A Christian has put their faith in Jesus Christ for salvation, and therefore, realizes they do not need to earn or try to deserve it through religious acts.
Based on what Jesus Christ has already done: died for our sins and rose from the dead defeating death.
The focus is on Jesus
The objective is a relationship with the Father
Faith in Jesus for salvation is fundamental
Salvation is a gift from God that we cannot earn and do not deserve
Based on what we have to
The focus is on self
The objective is to appease a deity or people by works
Performance is fundamental
Salvation is something that we have to earn