Christianity isn’t a religion, it’s a relationship!” We often hear this when someone’s trying to set Christianity apart from “religion.” Is it accurate? Is this the characteristic that makes Christianity unique? And if not, what does? Based on our description of religion from chapter 1, Christianity clearly fits the definition. It is an organized system of belief and practice that answers ultimate questions and guides daily life. But why have we come to think of religion as a negative term in the first place?
Due to historical abuses, we tend to view it as something artificial or without true meaning. However, the New Testament uses the term in James 1:27 with the adjectives pure and undefiled. Religion can become tradition without meaning, yet that isn’t the fault of religion itself—responsibility would belong with those who wrongly practice a given faith.
So believers could say that Christianity is the religious expression of our relationship with Jesus Christ. Our faith uses the Bible to answer ultimate questions about God and life. Because the Christian’s relationship with God through Christ is lived out with other followers of Jesus (what the New Testament calls “the body of Christ”), we worship and engage in other activities as a unified group, and this also is what characterizes religion.
Also, regarding the “religion vs. relationship” debate, we should keep in mind that other religious systems claim a relationship with the god or gods they revere and worship. The Qur’an says, “God is nearer [to a man] than [his] jugular vein” (50:16). The Bhagavad Gita describes an incarnation of the god Krishna who helps a warrior king make significant life decisions. Many animists maintain relationships with ancestral spirits.
If relationship itself is not what makes Christianity unique, what does? Starting with stating the obvious, Jesus of Nazareth is the most compelling religious figure of all time. Historians, scholars, and even leaders of other religions widely acknowledge and admire (although sometimes distort) the unique quality of his life and teachings.
For the Christian, however, it is not Jesus’ teachings or even his earthly life that are most important. We look to Jesus not just as a gifted teacher and moral example but as our Savior. His death and resurrection are the watershed events that stand at the center of our faith. By them, Jesus established the truth of his claim to be God’s unique Son—fully human and fully divine—and provided the means of salvation for humankind, separated from God by sin.
Another way to describe the faith’s uniqueness is with the word grace. Grace means giving someone something they don’t deserve. Because the God of the Bible is a God of grace, he takes the first step to repair our relationship with him after disobedience (sin). Because of grace, God provides the way of salvation in Jesus, who takes our punishment for wrongdoing. Because of grace, God can be both just (punishing sin) and forgiving (removing sin).
All other religious systems believe the main responsibility for solving life’s problems rests upon people. Christianity reveals and demonstrates that we cannot set things right by our own efforts, which makes grace all the more astounding and precious.
Historically, the Christian church is widely regarded to have begun on the day of Pentecost (described in Acts 2). It spread widely and grew quickly over the next several centuries. Early on, even as seen within the pages of the New Testament, it began developing religious forms. Initially, these were heavily influenced by Judaism. The first Christians worshiped in the Jewish temple in Jerusalem and used the Hebrew Scriptures we now call the Old Testament.
But as non-Jews accepted the Christian message (the gospel) and became followers of Jesus, the church began adopting Hellenistic (Greek) forms, especially in how the message of Jesus was explained to others. John’s gospel, for example, describes Jesus as the Logos (Word), a term with significant meaning to those influenced by Greek philosophy.
Indeed, Christianity can flourish in any culture. The New Testament focuses more on principles for living and the type of people we’re supposed to be (i.e., character qualities) than on specific behaviors, so its practices and forms tend to take on the local flavor of surrounding cultures. For example, the apostle Paul commands husbands to love their wives (Ephesians 5:25); the specific ways Christians obey this order look different from culture to culture.
This flexibility, coupled with extensive geographic expansion, political issues (especially after Christianity received favored status from the Roman Empire in the late fourth century), and theological differences of opinion, eventually led to divisions. The Western church, centered in Rome, became what is now the Roman Catholic Church. The Eastern church, based in Constantinople, became the (Eastern) Orthodox Church with its regional fellowships (Greek Orthodox, Russian Orthodox, etc.).
Later, near the end of the fifteenth century, various reformers protested against abuses within the Catholic Church. Martin Luther, John Calvin, and others, largely after being excommunicated, organized new expressions of the Christian faith that came to be known as Protestant churches. While there are smaller branches on the Christian church tree, Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant form the largest or primary three.
From AD 500, and for more than a millennium, the Christian message was largely spread by groups of Catholic monks, reaching eastward as far as Japan and west to the New World. By the eighteenth century, Protestants began what came to be called the modern missionary movement, taking the gospel to every part of the world. Today, Christianity truly is a global faith. While there are still areas and people groups that have not heard the name of Jesus Christ, he has followers in virtually every country.
Morgan, G. R. (2012). Understanding World Religions in 15 Minutes a Day (pp. 21–24). Minneapolis, MN: Bethany House Publishers.