|Orthodox Outlet for Dogmatic Enquiries||Essays about Orthodoxy|
There are many who say that Christianity is “just another religion”; others claim that it is “the best among all religions”, while yet others say it is “the only religion”. None of these claims is accurate. Christianity is not just a religion – it is a religion, but only in one of its aspects.
Nowhere in the Scriptures is Christianity referred to as a religion; It is however frequently referred to with a variety of other names, while the term “religion” is also repeatedly used, but with a different meaning altogether. But what did this word mean, during the time of the Apostles? Well, both during classical antiquity as well as the Hellenistic era in which the Lord and His Apostles lived, the term “religion” denoted the per se sacramental act; even when referring to an individual religion, the plural of the word (i.e., “religions”) was used to denote the series of sacramental acts of that religion. The New Testament refers to the Judean religion with its Mosaic Law as its “religion” (Acts 26:5) - as it does the unorthodox worship of angels by certain heretics (Cl.2:18). It does mention “religion” once within Christianity also, but it does not have an inference there to “Christianity” exactly. Specifically, James says that pure and unadulterated Religion according to God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their sorrow; to maintain oneself untainted by this world (James 1:27). In other words, James here calls the act of worship “religion”, which he in fact implies in an entirely logical-spiritual sense, as he determines it as an act of charity and chastity. Naturally, these two elements are neither the entirety of Christianity, nor even the half of it.
All faiths (including the pre-Christ true belief of the Hebrews) are called “religions”, with the exception of Christianity. The reason for this is that the essence of all other religions was the praxis of worship: their members could be obscene, unjust, or even murderers and still act religious, without being checked by their religion. It was only in the Israelite religion that – apart from worship – God had also imposed monotheism and abstinence from injustice and fornication; thus, that religion had included something else that was beyond religion.
Christianity is not just a religion. Then what is it? Numerous definitions and names are required in order to express what Christianity is, so let us search the Scriptures and see in there how those who founded it and first preached it had named it.
It is a kingdom.
When Christ began His preaching, the first thing that He preached was “the kingdom of heaven is near” (Matth.4:17); He taught His disciples to pray thus: “Our Father, Who are in heaven…..Thy kingdom come….” (Matth.6:10). In the presence of Pilate, the supreme lord of Palestine, He had declared that He was King, also adding that “My kingdom is not of this world…” (John 18:36). Paul calls Christianity “the kingdom of Christ” (Ephes.5:5). The title of “Christians” is denotative of a political portion of a population, as we would say for example in today’s terms “right-wing” or “liberal” party – the difference being that in our case, it is a spiritual polity and a spiritual “party” and not a secular one. Christianity therefore is a kingship, a kingdom, a spiritual domain – a domain with Jesus Christ as its King.
An excellent expression of this kingdom is the Church – the other name for Christianity. There is no need to mention how many times the founder-Christ and His heralds refer to it as “ecclesia” (church). What is more important however is to clarify what the term “ecclesia” signified when it was first used as a name for Christianity. “Ecclesia” was the name used for the general congregations of the people (ecclesia = Greek, the summoned ones), during which it was made evident that they were the supreme authority of the state and that they made use of their authority by conducting elections or whichever other political act. Again, we notice here the concept of a state. The church is an organism and a unity, where each and every faithful has his place and his role, just like the members of a human body do. Christ came to earth, not to create good people and Christians, but in order to found His Church, His own particular Body.
Christianity is a host; that is to say, a military organization and venture. At times, Paul speaks of the “weapons of our warfare” (2 Cor.10:4) and elsewhere, he instructs Timothy to “serve his enlistment well” (1 Tim.1:18). The “church” thus expresses the political facet of the kingdom and its pacifist activities, while the “enlistment” represents the military facet and the martial activities and life of Christianity. The one facet involves the exercising of authority and decision-making, while the other involves struggles and a conquering tendency. Together, they are expressed by the name “conscripted church”.
Its first preachers named Christianity “the path” – that is, the “way” that one should live and act. Among the idolaters – says Luke – there was quite a commotion regarding the path; that is, regarding Christianity (Acts 19:23 and 9:2, 18:5, 19:9 and 22:4). The “way of life” pertained to all of its facets – political, family, moral, scientific and financial and any other. The “way” is not a rubric for worship; it is not simply a religion.
Christianity is also referred to as “life”, given that it engulfs all of life’s content. “Go forth and pause to preach in the sanctum to the people the words of this life” (Acts 5:20), the angel had said to the Apostles. The “life” referred to is Christianity, which elsewhere is also called “eternal life”. “Set yourself about the eternal life, to which you have been summoned” (1 Tim.6:12)
Christianity is a school and a science. And even though these exact words are not used in the Scripture as its names, its leader Jesus is, however, mentioned as “teacher” and His first followers “disciples”; the Apostle Paul as “teacher of nations” (1 Tim. 2:7) and all Christians “disciples” (Acts 6:1 and 9:26); the content of Christianity is called “teaching” and the transmission of this teaching is “tradition” in the contemporary, educational sense (Rom.6:17). The lesson of this education is the content of the faith, while the object of this science’s research is the eternal and salvatory truth.
Christianity is also called “testament” – a pact between God and people signed with Christ’s own blood and bearing His Resurrection as its seal. Instead of today’s pointless expressions such as “the first, Mosaic religion” and “the second, Christian religion”, the Apostles used to say “the first testament” and “the second testament”; the “old testament” and the “new testament” (2 Cor.3:6, Hebr.9:15, 12:24). (With these terms, they were obviously not referring to the later, homonymous two books of the Holy Bible!)
Christianity is called hope. Paul instructs Christians, saying “we possess the confession of unswerving hope” (Hebr.10:23); in other words, Christianity’s “creed”. Peter had said “forever be prepared for an apology towards everyone who should ask you for a word regarding the hope within you” (1 Pet.3:15).
Finally, it is also called faith. When the Christians saw Paul as a neophyte, they remarked: “The one who once persecuted us is now evangelizing the faith that he used to besiege” (Gal.1:23). Judas wrote to the Christians: “I beg you to work hard for the faith that was once-delivered to the saints” (Jud.4) and “You, brethren, edify yourselves in our most holy faith“. (Jud.20) “Faith” was the term used at the time to denote the word of honor between two persons; the trust that the one showed to the other and the credibility that one possessed, or a written or verbally confessed agreement or treaty. Given that this mutual trust in the case of Christianity existed between people and the invisible God, to the people, “faith” became “the substance of things hoped for and the control over things unseen” (Hebr.11:1). The condition underlying one’s faith in Christ (as guarantor) is that God has us as sons and heirs to His domain (where immortality and unabated bliss are found) and that we believe in Him and keep His commandments. The guarantor of this faith and mediator is – on behalf of God – His Son, Who appeared before us and gave us the credentials of His godhood, while on behalf of mankind it is likewise the incarnated Son, Who gave us obedience and His Blood as guarantees. Partakers of this faith, this treaty, are we, the Christians. Just as one refers to a NATO treaty or the Warsaw pact or the member-states of this or that agreement, in the exact corresponding spiritual sense one can refer to Christ’s treaty, Christ’s faith, the in-Christ faith, the Christian faith.
So, Christianity is not simply a “religion”, since it was never referred to as such by its Founder and its first builders; instead, it is “life” and “way of life”, “enlistment”, “school” and “science” and “teaching”, “treaty” and “hope”, “kingdom”, “Church”, “faith”. That is what Christ and the Apostles called it. Its more prevalent names were the three last: “Kingdom of Christ”, “Church of Christ” and “Christian Faith”.
The difference between the common meaning of the terms “kingdom” and “religion” is made evident in the works of the citizen of the kingdom and the merely religiose person. The one who acquires “citizenship” in the kingdom of Christ is one who has repentance. This is why the entire message regarding the coming of the Kingdom says “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near”. One changes his way of life; he adjusts his life according to the will of the Lord. He places everything – including his life – at the disposal of Christ the king. On the contrary, the simply religiose individual will give Christ whatever Christ does not need, but will not give Him his life, or the deeper secrets of his existence. Thus, we observe people who live depraved lives, but who will cross themselves piously whenever they pass by the tiniest of churches. They have an icon of the Holy Mother stuck to the console of their car, which however is merely a “talisman” that their lover has given them as a gift. They readily blaspheme all things holy, but the highways (in Greece) are dotted with memorial icon-stands with which they audaciously mark the location of a collision or some other traffic accident after being miraculously saved from certain death therein; and yet, they do not shed a single tear of repentance before those icons, nor does the remembrance of the event spark a life-altering decision inside their hearts.
The notion that Christianity replaces pre-existing faiths is incorrect, because it does not replace only them; the Christian faith was contracted, for the purpose of replacing everything in the world – nations, scientific and philosophical schools, other faiths, artistic movements, military classes, every aspect of people’s private and social lives and every belief regarding the world and life. This faith was contracted - this kingdom was founded – in order to place everything under its control; to place its finger upon every possible area of human life and activity.
Christians however, having perhaps succumbed to some indiscernible weakness, were deceived when they allied with secular nations and especially with “Byzantium”. The Byzantine phenomenon, founded through a coalition with Christians, had eventually substituted Christianity as a faith and a Church and a kingdom and a life and school, and had confined it to the area of religion-religiosity. This was the first stage of sabotage that Byzantium had imposed, to the detriment of Christ’s kingdom, within the space of one century: between 313 and 407; that is, between the Mediolanum decree regarding religious tolerance, up to the death of a great personage of the Christian kingdom. During the second, lengthier period - between the 5th and the 15th centuries - it conducted yet another act of sabotage, even worse than the first. It gradually and imperceptibly transformed the spiritual religion – that is, the aspect to which it had confined Christianity – to a religion of a popular and secular kind. Thus, whereas “religion” within Christianity meant chaste living and charity in every form (which had been grafted into people’s former unjust and flesh-worshipping lives), Byzantium had not only undermined these spiritual aspects of religion, it had in their stead manufactured a clerical corpus, celebrative programs and rubrics, official vestments, architectural styles, fine arts, administrative justice, local and popular customs, festivals, literature, and whatever else lacks the power of the faith and the values of chastity and charity. It is understood that other nations had become derailed far more than Byzantium. The Coptic and Syrian nations, the pope’s Latinized Europe, and the tsars’ “holy Russia” extended the destructive work on Christ’s kingdom even further, reaching the point of a centuries-long illicit symbiosis with Christianity. However, it was Byzantium that played the role of first “seducer”. This of course did not signify the undoing of the Church, whom “the gates of Hades shall not prevail over”, according to the words of the Lord (Matth.16:18). As there was in the past, thus in the present, there will continue to be a small portion of mankind – the small fold – that will preserve Christianity as a faith and a kingdom, and maintain Christ’s orthodox Church unchanged.
In view of this reality, there are two expressed concepts of Christianity nowadays, both of them fallacious: the Pharisaic kind, and the Sadducean kind. Pharisees and Sadducees are in agreement, only up to the point that Christianity is just a religion - and in fact not even in the spiritual sense that is found in James, but only in the popular sense. They naturally accord it the scepter of “first” or “only” religion, but they still want it to be a religion - the Pharisees defining as contents of this religion whatever Byzantium had manufactured (“the traditions and the guidelines of the elders”, as the Lord Jesus had said); that is, we need priests to baptize, marry and bury us and to “read benedictions over our cows and our new-born babies” or for “litanies to drive away crop infestations and drought”; we should ensure that the “4 Gospels are placed on the iconostasis”; that the Lord’s burial canopy be decorated with flowers; that we eat eggs painted red for Easter and anoint ourselves with oil from Saint so-and-so’s lamp wherever we happen to feel any pain. The Sadducees on the other hand, who albeit believe in nothing, still persist in living off the Church like lice off an unclean scalp, have the following theory: Man’s soul consists of many sectors; according to some, four; according to others, six, or even more: mental, economic, social, erotic, religious, artistic, etc…. For a person to be fulfilled and “normal”, he must complete and satisfy all sectors: the scientific sector with his scientific performances, the political sector with his political struggles, the erotic sector with his carnal pleasures, and the religious sector with his participation in religious customs and frivolities. In other words, in the same way that a house consists of a recreation area, a dining area and a latrine, so must a “fulfilled” person have his “dirty business”, his artistic hobby (theatre, cinema, etc.) and receive Holy Communion on Holy Thursday of Easter as well….
Woe to you, Pharisees and Sadducees, because you are greatly deceived! Christianity is a spiritual kingdom; it fills every niche of human existence, and it demands to govern throughout. It is in fact a totalitarian system. The only difference is that it does not impose itself forcefully, but is embraced only absolutely voluntarily; but even so, it is only on the condition that it will take over everything and will govern our entire being. It is what will either complete or curb or deaden or refine every sector, every area and every tendency of the human soul - place everything under its control. That is why the Church declares “…ourselves and each other and our entire life let us appose unto Christ our God…”.
Woe to the misled Pharisees, for they have confined Christianity to the tightest possible boundaries of religion, where there is no room for man!
Woe also to the Sadducees, for, in feeling constricted by the tight boundaries of the Pharisaic religion, they have deviated even further and have filled the other areas of their existence with excrement.
Do not also wonder at how the godless Sadducees sprang from within the pietist Pharisees, for that is the stereotyped, historical way that all religions come into being. Christianity alone is above every historical “evolution” because it is not a religion, but a kingdom, faith and life - as provided for pre-eternally by God and founded and preserved by His Son.
Article published in English on: 30-9-2008.
Last update: 30-9-2008.