Religious Studies vs. Theology

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In this Article:

The Difference Between Theology and Religious Studies

Understanding that the differences between theology and religious studies starts with checking our presuppositions. Students may assume that they already have some knowledge of what these terms mean, which can limit their understanding and miss theology and religious studies distinctions. So, getting a sense of what each term means, rather than making assumptions, is the best way to alleviate confusion.

What Is Theology?

Virtually all religions contain theology. Etymologically, theology is the study of God. However, it's usually understood more broadly, particularly in terms of interpretation of key beliefs, teachings, writings, practices, and so on.

Theology is a more specific discipline than religious studies in the sense that it focuses on important core values, especially doctrines or teachings within particular faiths. There are different kinds of theology, such as biblical, systematic, constructive, philosophical, and practical. The common denominator is that all these types of theology are trying to get us to learn how religious believers (for example, Christians) ought to understand and live out those beliefs and teachings.

What Are Religious Studies?

Some students might think that religious studies must mean studying about a specific religion, such as Christianity, or studying religions in general. However, “religion” is an all-encompassing term. Many things can make up religion (singular), and religions (plural) are extremely diverse. Religious studies focuses on important concepts like beliefs, rituals, and experiences, involving both individual and corporate-level contexts, gathered around a general sense of the divine (God, for example) or other ultimate reality.

Religious studies programs may include specialized areas of emphasis, commitments, doctrines, and so on. Grand Canyon University (GCU) and the College of Theology specifically focus on Christian studies, based on the fact that we are a missional, Christ-centered university. However, this doesn't mean that we discuss Christianity exclusively; we also consider and assess other religions as part of our curriculum (e.g., INT-244 World Religions).

Religious Studies or Theology: Which Degree Should I Earn?

If you sense a calling and want to serve the Lord in some type of specific ministry setting, you probably will want to go into that area of focus. For example, if you are called into music or the arts, you would become a Bachelor of Arts in Worship Arts major. If you’re sensing a more general call into broader kingdom service or Christian ministry, you could start out with a Bachelor of Arts in Christian Studies. By your second semester, you'll be getting a feel for your deeper interests and then may choose to add an emphasis, such as philosophy or Christian worldview studies. (There are also other areas emphasis in biblical studies, youth ministry, urban ministries, and more.) Although the variety is broad and different, there is some subject-matter overlap via certain courses.

At the graduate level, there are theology and religion-based degree programs, such as a Master of Arts in Christian Ministry or Christian Leadership or Urban Ministry, which provide knowledge of both theology and religion-related beliefs, concepts, and practices. The pastorally-oriented “gold-standard” is the Master of Divinity degree, primarily geared toward more fully equipping ministers for servant-leadership in the local church.

How Can a Degree in Religious Studies or Theology Benefit Me?

God's will and calling for you likely converge wherever your gifts, skills, and desires meet a significant need in the world — that's a nice combination! When earning a degree in theology or religion, you may recognize first how it is includes developing you as a person, as a Christ-follower. Equally important is learning what are, and how to utilize, your gifts and skills in your calling — including strengths and weaknesses — in a career setting.

Spiritually and Personally

One of the most fulfilling advantages that a degree in theology or religion can provide you is increased confidence and humility; I call it “confident humility.” Normally, this develops as students gain greater understand and deeper practice of their faith. Confident humility also enables you interact more as you ought to (like Jesus) with God and others.

Your character is demonstrated in your context, wherever that is — and whatever your calling is — and through your studies, you’ll gain a better sense of your mission. Your spiritual and personal growth at GCU will enable you to understand the broader mission of God — God at work in the world and our onboarding wherever there's a need for our gifts and skills.


Theology and religion undergraduate degrees in Christian studies, ministry, or worship arts are not merely steppingstones to further advanced studies; they can be utilized in all sorts of ways. Opportunities exist in organizations outside of your local church, such as Habitat for Humanity, International Justice Mission, and other “parachurch” organizations that serve our world and are involved in transforming local communities. These organizations are crucial to positively affecting communities and providing you the opportunity to use your skills and gifts to make a transformational impact.

Many GCU students have gone on to what we might call “secular work” or “secular jobs” because they have a bachelor's degree. They might also have taken a minor that adds to the quality of their overall studies. A hiring manager might think, “Wow, it very appealing that they have these diverse interests.” Such graduates are offered positions not only because they have attained the basics of a bachelor's degree, but because of the content of their theology or religious studies minor program; they are seen as potentially making a major impact in their work, having learned and developed valuable and complementary knowledge and skills.

Don't limit yourself to thinking that these degrees can only be used to become a pastor or to work in a local congregation. Nursing, mental health, as well as basic and Christian counseling and communication are some areas that can find these degrees very useful.

Follow Your Calling With a Theology and Religion Degree From GCU

When looking at religious studies or theology and which degree is best for you, follow your sense of calling and consider enrolling in a degree program at GCU. The College of Theology offers a wide variety of degree options and support for you throughout your academic journey. Fill out the form at the top of your page to take the first step in pursuing your calling at GCU. 


Approved by full-time faculty for the College of Theology on March 13, 2023.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Grand Canyon University. Any sources cited were accurate as of the publish date.