Of the many shocking and revolutionary things the Lord said, perhaps nothing was more shocking and revolutionary than His words to the Samaritan woman at the well. The conversation had become a little too close for her comfort (“you have had five husbands, and he whom you have now is not your husband”), and she was only too happy to change the topic to religion. When she saw from Jesus’ words that He had prophetic knowledge, she broached the main subject separating Jews and Samaritans—the subject of worship. The Jews inherited the religious tradition of David and Solomon, and worshipped in the rebuilt Temple in Jerusalem. The Samaritans followed a rival tradition that rejected David and his kingdom’s subsequent history, and insisted that sacrifice could only be authentically offered to God from atop Mount Gerizim. In response, Jesus said, “the hour is coming when neither on this mountain [of Gerizim] nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father…God is spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in the Spirit and in the truth” (John 4:21f). That is, a day was about to dawn when God was no longer interested in temples and sacrifices—in other words, in religion. Religion would no longer be the way to worship God or draw near to Him. That access would now be found in the Spirit (compare Ephesians 2:18). Or, if the words “not interested in religion” seem a bit too extreme, perhaps one could quote the words of the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews: religion (such as Judaism) had now become “obsolete” and “ready to vanish away” (Hebrews 8:13).
What is “religion”? Religion is best defined as a system of practices whereby one seeks divine favour, something that by its performance binds one to the transcendent for blessing. It has many components. Religions commonly have sacrifices, which involve killing and burning the flesh of animals. They have altars on which those animals are sacrificed, and personnel (priests) to do the sacrificing. They have a list of foods which may not be eaten, but are considered to be unclean. They assert that certain things make one ritually impure and ineligible to sacrifice, such as having a physical discharge or touching one who is impure. Religions have certain days which are considered to be holy, and certain places which are considered holy, places where rituals and sacrifices are performed. They have common rituals of feasting. They assert that certain types of clothing must be worn when performing rituals.
Judaism was such a religion—it had its own calendar of holy days, its own times of feasting, its own holy place (Jerusalem) with a Temple and an altar there, served by its priests, who had to wear certain kinds of clothing when offering sacrifice. It asserted that certain foods were unclean, and that certain things rendered one ritually impure. In His words to the Samaritan woman, Christ claimed that God was about to sweep it all away, so that it would soon be obsolete and ready to vanish. God was no longer interested in religion. One wonders if she really could understand all that He meant. It was certainly a lot for any ancient to take in.
Obviously Christianity is not a religion, though this was more obvious before Constantine than it is now. This was the point of much of what Paul wrote, and why he was so upset when his Galatian converts considered accepting Jewish circumcision as if Christianity were a religion like any other. For Paul Christianity was not a religion, but a new creation (Galatians 6:15). Religion belonged the man’s infancy, and now in Christ man was finally coming of age. Judaism was never meant to be the final goal of God’s working with His people. Jewish religion was simply one step along the way to spiritual manhood, a maturity now available to all the world. The end and goal of it all was not religion, but Christ (Romans 10:4). In Christ we transcend this age and all its religions and its religious categories. In Christ we participate in the powers of the age to come (Hebrews 6:5). To vary the Pauline metaphor, for us to become religious would be like slipping back into infancy, and putting on diapers. Diapers are fine for babies, but in Christ we have come to maturity.
It is easy for some to regard Christianity as a religion like the other religions of the world. It is true that there are similarities. Religions often have a holy text—the Hindus have the Upanishads, the Muslims have the Qur’an, the Jews have the Torah and we have the New Testament. Religions have priests and functionaries set apart: Muslims have imams, Jews have Rabbis and we have bishops and presbyters. Religions use special buildings: Muslims worship in mosques, Jews worship in synagogues, and Christians worship in churches. With this and other similarities, how can one imagine that Christianity is not a religion? By this understanding, Jesus is simply the Founder of yet another religion, the Christian one.
But in fact these outward similarities hide profounder differences. Let’s take them one at a time.
- Unlike all religions, Christianity knows no holy places, no locales which are holy in themselves. Churches are not holy in themselves, nor is a church building an actual temple. Rather, church buildings are simply places where Christians meet to worship—it is they who constitute the actual temple, a temple made up of living stones (Ephesians 2:20-22, 1 Peter 2:4-5). Christians can meet anywhere for worship. They can meet in a forest, or a cave, or a private dwelling, or even in a beautifully adorned building built for that purpose. But even when such a building is built and blessed, it is still not holy in itself, but only because of what happens there. Its holiness is real, but referential. It is the Christians meeting in assembly who are the real temple, and the holiness of Christ in their midst which conveys holiness to the place where they meet.
- Unlike all religions, Christianity does not have sacrifices, or priests. Or, to be more accurate, it has but one sacrifice and one priest—Jesus Christ. He is the only true priest, the One who has offered the sacrifice of Himself on the Cross and who now pleads that sacrifice before the Father in heaven (Hebrews 9:11f). And because the Church is His body, the Church also partakes of His priesthood, so that all Christians are part of His royal priesthood, corporately offering His once-for-all sacrifice through anamnesis or memorial (1 Peter 2:5, Revelation 1:6). Since the earliest days, the members of the Church who rule it and offer its prayers (the bishops and presbyters) were called priests, since they were the ones who voiced the Church’s anamnesis whereby Christ’s sacrifice was present in its midst. But like the rest of the Church, those clerical priests are only priestly by virtue of their participation in Christ, the only real priest. In religion, priests offer sacrifices whereby worshippers are joined to God. They are true mediators. For us there is only one mediator, one priest, one man who joins us to God—the Man Jesus Christ (1 Timothy 2:5). All priesthood in the Church flows from Him.
- Unlike all religions, Christianity has no food laws, no list of certain foods which it declares unclean and not to be eaten. Paul is clear that no food is unclean in itself, and he denounces such a teaching in the church as a doctrine of demons (Romans 14:14, 1 Timothy 4:1-5). Mark even asserted that such a freedom from food laws could be legitimately read into Christ’s teaching that no food going into a man could defile him, since food does not enter into the heart (Mark 7:18-19). Christians may occasionally fast from certain foods for the ascetic value of self-control and abstinence, but all food is considered to be clean—even the foods from which we sometimes fast.
- Unlike all religions, Christianity does not assert that certain days are holy in themselves. Judaism asserted that Sabbaths and other days such as new moons were holy in themselves, but Christianity esteems all days alike and considers the concept of a holy calendar as a mere shadow (Romans 14:5, Colossians 2:16-17). What we sometimes call “holy days” (such for example as the Feast of the Transfiguration) are not holy in themselves, but only because of what we do and remember on that day. We could have equally well chosen another day for the celebration and remembering. And our use of two calendars, the Old Calendar and the New Calendar, is proof that (for example) August 6 is not holy in itself, for some Christians remember the Transfiguration thirteen days later on August 19. Once again the holiness resides not in day itself (as in religion), but only in what Christians do on that day. Our feasts are movable; the holiness of days, according to religion, is not.
Christianity then is not a religion, and Christ did not found yet another religion, but used the Jewish religion as the vehicle for His own saving work, fulfilling it and transcending it. We still come to special buildings where clergy lead our prayers, dressed in special robes. (We note in passing, however, that as late as St. John Chrysostom’s day, clergy did not wear special robes when leading worship.) We take our part in offering the Eucharistic Sacrifice and receiving Holy Communion. And we come to church on certain special days to remember and celebrate certain special events and special people. But none of this means that Christianity is a religion. Christianity is simply how Christ’s Body experiences here and now the saving realities of the age to come. God is not interested in religion, and we shouldn’t be either. Instead, we are interested in Christ.