You hear it often: Christianity isn’t a religion, it’s a relationship.
I kind of wonder how often that’s expressed in other languages, since there’s an alliteration thing going on in English that makes the slogan punchy. It may be, like so many evangelical things, more of an American concept, but I could be way off.
The concept is frequently heard from evangelical pulpits. Christians are told to avoid “religion” so they don’t become entangled or dependent on ritual and credal forms.
It’s not the only slap at “religion,” of course. The concept routinely comes under attack from humanists, who believe it’s the root of most if not all evil, and new-agers, who say they’re “spiritual but not religious.”
I’ve always understood what evangelicals were getting at when they protest ritualistic forms of religion: They are trying to say that we shouldn’t rely on religious practices for our salvation, but rather what our relationship with Jesus is. But I think they go too far with their religion-bashing, and I think it actually reveals something about their relationship with Christ.
I like to look at the meaning of words when someone defines themselves against certain words. “Religion” apparently comes from the Latin “religare,” which means “to bind.” So when an evangelical says they don’t want to engage in religion, even if they are (which we’ll address in a minute), they’re saying they don’t want to be bound to something, whether it be a ritual or requirement.
There are a few reasons that I think that approach is off-base.
For one thing, as you can see in the first five books of the Bible, the people of God were involved in religious activities—by the command of God. They sacrificed animals, they fasted, they blew trumpets, they wore special clothing, they prayed specific prayers, they burned incense, they lit lamps, they ate special food in a special way at special times. And what they did was not much different from what surrounding cultures did. The difference, of course, was that they did it (or were supposed to do it) specifically as God had commanded it.
And yet, those ancient Israelites definitely had a relationship with God. A very passionate one, in fact, and a rocky one most of the time. But it’s what the Old Testament is all about. God said, in essence, if you’re going to be My people, you’ve got to do certain things.
The epistle of James doesn’t back away from religion, either. It actually defines what “pure religion” is: “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world” (James 1:27, ESV).
It doesn’t sound from this like James is against “religion.” Like the Jewish prophets, he is explaining to his readers what the best kind of religion is. But note he doesn’t say, “A relationship with Jesus Christ that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this …”
Or does he? Maybe to James, like the ancient Israelites and God, his religion and his relationship with Jesus were one and the same. James is big on writing about how we work out our relationship with Jesus, and I think this is one good example of it.
Can religion overwhelm or detract from one’s relationship with Jesus? Yes, of course. Become more concerned with the rituals and less with their meaning and you’d incur disapproval no less than the ancient Israelites did when they either carried out their religion with no meaning or in the wrong way.
I think the “relationship-not-religion” angst is more fueled by a few factors that have been buried under a few layers of time silt.
- Anti-Catholicism. Even if an evangelical is not aware of being hostile toward Catholicism, this is a result of it. Catholics are only rivaled among Christians in their ritualism by Eastern Orthodox. The anti-religious instinct is an anti-Catholicism that started with the Reformation and has continued to this day. Like most other things evangelical, it’s birthed in rebellion.
- An effort at “purity” that the Bible doesn’t legislate and that becomes an idol, not to mention bad church design. Anybody walking into a typical evangelical church today would think that to be in a true relationship with Christ, one has to worship in as ordinary and boring a building as possible.
- The problem of “tolerance.” Admittedly, talking about religion means putting Christianity on an equal plane with other systems of belief. As a Christian, I disagree with that, obviously, since Jesus is the way, the truth and the life and no man comes to the Father except through Him. So talking about Christianity as a relationship with Christ at least sets us apart from false belief systems.
And then we have the fact that no matter how non-ritual an evangelical thinks he is, he and his church have rituals, too. It can be found in the order of worship used every week, the food and drinks that are put out every week, and even in a simplified communion service.
So religion, with its rituals, is not a bad thing unless, as it did with the Pharisees, it gets in the way of loving God and neighbor.