Religion Vs. Relationship?

“Christianity is a relationship, not a religion,” is one of the church’s most popular phrases. But is it true? Are relationship and religion really polar opposites?

I can remember standing in a church, smiling and sweating from worship, when the pastor would come up and greet the congregation and loudly state, “Thank God Christianity is a relationship, not a religion, hey?!” Back then I happily shouted back in agreement. The non-believers who think I am part of a religion are all wrong. I’m not religious, I’m in a relationship with Jesus Christ! This was me about five years ago.

One of the most popular Christian videos on youtube (reaching over 30 million views), created by Jefferson Bethke, sums it up like this:

This is the fundamental belief of mainstream Christianity today. Although Bethke has a lot of good points, the argument they’ve circled around ultimately fails to define exactly what religion is apart from a “behaviour modification.”

To identify what religion is, all we need to do is take a simple look at its etymology. Religion comes from the Greek word religare, which is a combination of re (to return to or repeat) and ligare (to bind or to tie). In ancient times, this would be known as a covenant. Religion is not evil or something to oppose, rather it is the very core of a relationship with Christ.

This belief that religion is something to be opposed holds some dangerous conclusions, the most dangerous being the possibility of idolatry. If we take Jesus out of the covenantal bond, there is nothing to stop us from viewing Him as whoever we desire Him to be. Jesus is no longer an objective person, but merely an image of us whom we shape to fit our desires and preferences. The video ends with this phrase: “dangling on the cross, he was thinking of you.” Although it may sound inspirational, if we view all of Christ’s actions as a personal Valentine gift, we lose all understanding of who He is. It’s just one of the reasons there is so much disconnect in the church.

Something I find quite interesting is that whenever this phrase is spoken, the phrase, “Jesus didn’t come to create a religion, but to open the door to a personal relationship with us,” soon follows. Jesus certainly did establish the grounds for a relationship (again, only through His covenant), but nowhere in Scripture does it say He came to “abolish religion,” as Bethke hypothetically puts it.

To support this the Pharisees are often brought up, but this also misses the point, as Christ wasn’t condemning their religion, but rather their legalistic hypocrisy. It would make little sense to condemn the religion Christ was a part of. Jesus condemned those who used the law for their own selfish gain, either to create the appearance of purity or to feel dominance over the lower class. Christ didn’t come to abolish the Jewish faith but the hypocrisy that abused it. Contrary to what Bethke claims, nowhere does Jesus say that he hates the religious or religion.

The distaste for religion today stems from legalistic beliefs which claim that in order to be worthy of God’s affection, one has to work for it. I’ve seen this taken out of context both ways.

On one side it’s held that one who fails to perform the law is not worthy of God’s love, but this fails to take into account what Jesus came to establish in the New Covenant (remember all the times Christ said, “You have heard it said, but I say unto you“?). The extremists believed that every ritualistic practice was a necessity to enter into the covenant. However, Jesus, as the broker of the New Covenant, made OT ritualistic laws of no necessity to gain admittance.

On the other hand, extremists of grace have taken this out of context in their own way. To work for righteousness and holiness is seen as taboo because Jesus’ death was enough. As Bethke says in the vid, “Religion says do, Jesus says done.” While this is true, it misunderstands the definition of a relationship with God. To understand, we need to look at how the ancients viewed it.

I won’t go too much into detail here as that would derail the subject of the post, but relationship how the ancients understood it (and how we need to as well) is an ancient form of patronage. We are the clients and God is the patron. In a time where our happiness seems to be God’s most important ideal, we’ve come a long way from how the ancients saw it. In the ancient social world us, as clients, would ask or beg of God what we needed (i.e. our daily bread), and God, as patron, would command us to obey His laws and seek His face (i.e. in our sample of the true religion spoken of by James, “to visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction and to keep himself unspotted from the world“). As Scripture says, faith without works is dead. Mere belief in Christ’s covering isn’t enough, it requires an effort to change and to live the way He demands of us, and that comes from gratitude. It’s why Jesus said, “Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven.” The Christian faith is based on loyalty and trust, not belief.

What is most worrying is that, when Bethke’s idea is taken as true, it forms a dangerous antagonism towards the church. We’ve not only become separate from ritualistic religion, but we have also separated ourselves from the judicial-covenant of Christ, and have thus left behind the necessity to carry out the works of the true religion. If our faith is real, it needs to be shown.

I completely understand where Bethke is coming from (as I said, I once agreed), but folks like him have adopted a misunderstanding of religion and are attacking a straw-man. Unfortunately, it has caused more bondage than freedom.