But why isn’t Christianity defined as someone’s relationship with Christ? First, we have a clear passage in Scripture that tells us that Christianity is a religion! James 1:26-27: “If anyone thinks he is religious yet doesn’t bridle his tongue, he deceives himself, and his religion is worthless. A pure and undefiled religion before God the Father is this: to take care of orphans and widows in their difficulties and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” Scripture calls what we believe and live out as a “religion.” And, yes, “religion” is an accurate translation of the Greek word, threskeia, which James used.
In 1 Timothy 4, Paul used the word eusebeia, which also means “religion,” but usually not translated that way. Eusebeia refers to a system of belief and approach to God, which, in turn, shapes devotion and reverence toward God and how someone lives his life. In other words, “religion”!
The difference between threskeia and eusebeia is that threskeia means “religion,” emphasizing the outward rites and ceremonies associated with a religion. Eusebeia means “religion,” emphasizing the outward conduct that one has based on his religion. We know that the outward rites of a religion, threskeia, do not encompass the meaning of threskeia because James says that what happens in the worship service (the outward rites and ceremonies) is to affect how someone lives his life!
And so we learn that the outward rituals of a religion apart from its doctrine and theology is not threskeia; they are a package deal. Good behavior apart from the Faith and the doctrine of a religion that informs a follower of a religion is not eusebeia; they also are a package deal.
Now, having just said all that, Christianity does include a relationship with Christ. After all, Scripture calls us Jesus’ brothers: “For those whom God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, so that he would be the firstborn among many brothers” (Romans 8:29). That verse points out that because Jesus physically rose from the dead, so will we. That’s the connection the next verse makes when it says that we will “be glorified” (Romans 8:30). And so when the Holy Spirit connects us to Jesus’ death and resurrection through baptism (Romans 6:3-5), we become Jesus’ brothers.
And if you are Jesus’ brother (a woman even becomes a “brother,” which has to do with inheriting what God has for His saints), you’re in a relationship with Him. But one’s relationship with Christ doesn’t contain all who he is, and has, in Christ; it’s a part of the whole. With Christ also comes threskeia, the ceremonies and rituals of being a Christian. With Christ also comes eusebeia, the life that is lived shaped by one’s Faith in Christ.
Instead, you will find Scripture use words like “communion” or “fellowship,” which changes a “me and Jesus” relationship into a “we and Jesus” communion. And if we want Scripture to shape our worldview as Christians, which we should, then “communion” is a more meaning-filled word to use.
Even more, the Bible never uses the closet equivalent word for “relationship” to describe who we are in Christ—the Greek word, syngeneia. It uses syngeneia in three places to describe earthly, family relatives (Luke 1:61; Acts 7:3, 14), not to describe who we are in our communion with Christ. What muddies the water even more is that Bible translations are reluctant to use the word “religion,” even when it may be the closest-natural equivalent English word. This gives you an incomplete understanding of the Faith.
Christianity is being in a covenant with God, through Jesus, in the Holy Spirit. And being in a covenant is being in a religion. And being in a covenant is also being in communion. Matthew 26:27-28: “Then He [Jesus] took a cup, and after giving thanks, he gave it to them, saying: ‘Drink from it, all of you. For this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.’” The Lord’s Supper is the New Covenant, a communion with, and in, Christ. And that New Covenant (Luke 22:20) only takes place in a religion called Christianity.
When people, often unknowingly, deny the truth that Christianity is a religion, they also misunderstand what it means to be in a true “relationship” with Christ. Our communion with Christ (the Bible’s word for our “relationship” with Christ) becomes real in the covenant that God, through Jesus, in the Holy Spirit, makes with us. Just as circumcision brought one into the Old Covenant with God, baptism does that in the New Covenant (see Colossians 2:11-13). And since Jesus makes His Supper for us as the epicenter of the New Covenant, even the New Covenant itself (“This cup is the new covenant,” [Luke 22:20]), one cannot be in a communion, a “relationship,” with God without being brought into the New Covenant, which is the communion that we have with, and in, Christ. And so, without God’s “pure and undefiled religion” for us, we can’t be in a “relationship” with Him.
That reality begins outside you, when God the Holy Spirit working through the Word brings you, not only the gift of faith (Ephesians 2:8), but also Jesus’ forgiveness, life, and salvation (Acts 2:29, 1 Peter 3:21, Matthew 26:28). Jesus then dwells within you (Ephesians 3:17) and you serve others in your life (James 1:27). That’s Christianity. It’s more than a “relationship”; it’s also a religion.