There are many cliches in the Church today--catchy sayings that are popular and that people like to throw out because they sound good and appealing--on the surface. One of these cliches is "Christianity isn't about religion; it's about a relationship with Christ". Some people will even distance themselves from the word "Christian", and instead call themselves "followers of Christ". This I can somewhat understand because of the fact that so many people who classify themselves as Christians don't really follow Christ. However, many people who are followers of Christ but don't want to call themselves Christians have this aversion because they don't want to be affiliated with a "religion".
However, is being a part of a religion--or being a "religious" person--a bad thing? With the negative connotation that the words "religion" and "religious" have been assigned by many in the Church today, you would think so! But let's take a look at what the Bible actually says on the matter.
"Religion" in and of itself is not condemned in the Bible, only how it is practiced. No one has yet been able to show me verses to the contrary. I don't typically like to use multiple different Bible translations, but I have done that here because some use the word "religion" or "religious" where others don't.
Let's start with the KJV:
Acts 13:43 says, "Now when the congregation was broken up, many of the Jews and religious proselytes followed Paul and Barnabas: who, speaking to them, persuaded them to continue in the grace of God."
The word "religious" seems to have a positive meaning in that verse.
James 1:26-27 says, "If any man among you seem to be religious, and bridleth not his tongue, but deceiveth his own heart, this man’s religion is vain. Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world."
These verses indicate that religion is a good thing, but that you are deceiving yourself by thinking you are religious if you don't do the things listed here.
Colossians 2:23 (ESV) says, "These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh."
While it seems negative in regard to "religion", it is really only critical of "self-made" religion.
1 Timothy 5:4 (Holman) says, "But if any widow has children or grandchildren, they should learn to practice their religion toward their own family first and to repay their parents, for this pleases God."
This verse actually says religion *should* be practiced.
2 Timothy 3:1-5 (Holman) says, "1 But know this: difficult times will come in the last days. 2 For people will be lovers of self, lovers of money, boastful, proud, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, ungrateful, unholy, 3 unloving, irreconcilable, slanderers, without self-control, brutal, without love for what is good, 4 traitors, reckless, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, 5 holding to the form of religion but denying its power. Avoid these people!"
Having religion wasn't the sin; denying its power was. Also, when Paul told the men of Athens he could see that they were very religious, was he insulting them?
It seems that where "religion" or "religious" is mentioned in the Bible, it is either positive or neutral. The only time it has a negative connotation is in reference to "bad" religion. I haven't seen any place where religion itself is condemned.
Whether or not one wants to admit it, based on what we read in Scripture Christianity IS a religion, but it is a religion based on a relationship--a relationship with Jesus Christ.
Finally, let's look at one more reference, this time not from the Bible, but from a source that is respected by most conservative Christians, Noah Webster's 1828 American Dictionary of the English Language:
RELIGION, n. relij'on. [L. religio, from religo, to bind anew; re and ligo, to bind. This word seems originally to have signified an oath or vow to the gods, or the obligation of such an oath or vow, which was held very sacred by the Romans.]
1. Religion, in its most comprehensive sense, includes a belief in the being and perfections of God, in the revelation of his will to man, in man's obligation to obey his commands, in a state of reward and punishment, and in man's accountableness to God; and also true godliness or piety of life, with the practice of all moral duties. It therefore comprehends theology, as a system of doctrines or principles, as well as practical piety; for the practice of moral duties without a belief in a divine lawgiver, and without reference to his will or commands, is not religion.
2. Religion, as distinct from theology, is godliness or real piety in practice, consisting in the performance of all known duties to God and our fellow men, in obedience to divine command, or from love to God and his law. James 1.
3. Religion, as distinct from virtue, or morality, consists in the performance of the duties we owe directly to God, from a principle of obedience to his will. Hence we often speak of religion and virtue, as different branches of one system, or the duties of the first and second tables of the law.
Let us with caution indulge the supposition, that morality can be maintained without religion.
4. Any system of faith and worship. In this sense, religion comprehends the belief and worship of pagans and Mohammedans, as well as of christians; any religion consisting in the belief of a superior power or powers governing the world, and in the worship of such power or powers. Thus we speak of the religion of the Turks, of the Hindoos, of the Indians, &c. as well as of the christian religion. We speak of false religion, as well as of true religion.
5. The rites of religion; in the plural.
So, it would appear that "religion" does not deserve the bad rap it has been getting, and being "religious" is not necessarily a bad thing!
Here is Voddie Baucham's take on the same issue: