It’s often asserted by well-meaning Christians that Jesus didn’t come to start a religion and that Christianity is not a religion; but this is embarrassingly naïve. Though regarding the first assertion—that Jesus didn’t come to start a religion—there is a sense in which this is true. Obviously Jesus didn’t come to start a religion because he already had a religion. Jesus of Nazareth was a deeply religious Jew, observing a religious calendar, creed, text, diet, and participating in the life of a religious community. Jesus was certainly a religious reformer, but he was not waging an iconoclast war against religion per se. The carte blanche critique of religion as inherently “bad” comes not from Jesus, but from Voltaire and Nietzsche. So, yes, Jesus didn’t come to “start a religion,” but to reform and fulfill the religion that had grown up around the self-revelation of the living God to the Jewish people.
But the assertion that “Christianity is not a religion” strains credulity. If Christianity is not a religion, then what is it? Of course Christianity is a religion! Though Jesus didn’t come to “start a religion,” the Incarnation of the Word of God was so uniquely significant that it was inevitable that a religion would form around Jesus Christ—this is the religion of Christianity. Through its stories, texts, rites, rituals, prayers, songs, confessions, and creeds (the practices of religion), the church preserved and canonized its faith in Jesus. And it’s by the Christian religion that the gospel of Jesus is passed on from generation to generation. So if you have a personal relationship with Jesus, you can thank the Christian religion for making it possible. And if you’re interested in your children and grandchildren also having a personal relationship with Jesus, it’s the presence of the Christian religion in the world that can make such a relationship possible for them.
As a human construct in response to a divine act, the Christian religion is always subject to decay and deformation. Thus the Reformation of Creed of Semper Reformanda. But the point is we seek a reformation of the Christian religion, not a French Revolution-style destruction of religion.
On a related note: If we don’t understand Christianity as a religion developed over time in response to the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, we end up thinking Christianity miraculously appeared independent of human agency. This engenders a strong tendency to view the Bible as a perfect catalog of Ultimate Truth; but this is a mantle the Bible cannot bear. This is the bane of conservative, low church Protestantism. The Bible is an important component in the formation of the Christian religion, perhaps the single most influential component, but the Bible is not equivalent to the Christian religion. If we fail to understand that it is the Christian religion that creates the Christian Bible, and not the other way around, we will be confused about a good many things. Those who confuse the Bible for the Christian religion unwittingly conspire to usurp Christ with the Bible.
Brian Zahnd is the founder and lead pastor of Word of Life Church, a non-denominational Christian congregation in Saint Joseph, Missouri. Brian and his wife, Peri, founded the church in 1981. Brian is also the author of several books, including, Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God, Water to Wine, A Farewell To Mars, Beauty Will Save the World, and Unconditional?: The Call of Jesus to Radical Forgiveness. Brian is also a Guest Lecturer for the Institute for Religion, Peace and Justice in the course, 'Peace and Violence in the New Testament,' and he blogs frequently over at www.brianzahnd.com.