We’ve all heard it and probably said it at one point: “Christianity is not a religion but a relationship with Christ.” I have heard this repeated countless time in many settings and for many reasons.
I first heard it regularly when in my late teens I started attending an Assemblies of God church. It was here I regularly heard “religion” used as a pejorative, and as a description of what all those “dead” churches out there did as opposed to the allegedly Spirit-filled services we practiced.
But I soon learned that many traditions used the same claim, especially the various Baptist churches all around me in western Arkansas—Southern Baptist, Free-Will Baptist, Missionary Baptist. Then I heard it among the “General Baptist” churches near my folks back in southern Indiana.
I soon heard it elsewhere, including among my old childhood churches, Missouri Synod Lutherans. Later, among Methodists, and later, Presbyterians (PCA, OPC, and even PCUSA, and more).
I could go on. I had been meaning to write this post for some time, but had been sitting on it, until yesterday I witnessed a popular homeschool speaker post this on his Facebook wall: “The Ethiopian eunuch found in Jesus what he didn’t find in Jerusalem. #Religion vs. #Relationship.”1
I knew it was time to say something. Our Christian culture today is saturated with this idea, or at least with the quip, “relationship not religion.”
Unfortunately, the quip is wrong. In fact, it is so misleading it needs correction before we can start undoing much of the damage it has done. And boy has it done some damage. A large percentage of the failure of modern evangelicalism (and other parts of the church) can be blamed on the fallout of this mentality.
Here’s the bottom line, and then I’ll explain: “Religion vs. Relationship” is a false choice, and is always necessarily a false choice. By erecting this false dichotomy, people display that they understand neither what religion is nor what a relationship is. As a result, they denigrate both.
For starters, “religion” can’t always necessarily be a bad thing, because Scripture speaks of “true religion” as opposed to vain religion (James 1:26–27). This, in itself, should end this discussion. Where Scripture speaks, man’s mouth ought to stop.
Of course, some objection can be made that the word “religion” here is not the best translation from the Greek threskeia. Such an objection would, however, have to face an army of professional translators, for there is not a single one of the major English translations that does not use “religion” in this place (I have twelve open before me). Add to this the Latin Vulgate, Spanish, and French translations.
A huge part of the problem is that for many Christians, the term “religion” has been defined by pulpiteers booming against “works” as opposed to “faith” for people to “get saved.” While there is a critical modicum of truth in that program, it is blinkered.
A simple etymological study of the word “religion” will help. It comes from the Latin word religare which means “to bind” or “to tie.” The root of the word is lig-, from which we get our words “ligament” and “ligature.”
Now that is a theological concept worth considering! “Religion” is that by which everything is held together—in general. More specifically, this is the fundamental language of covenant.
While one can imagine, of course, negative aspects of the concept “to bind” in terms of the Christian life or faith, there are nevertheless fundamental and crucial—indispensable and necessary—aspects that are positive.
Certainly, Christianity is a relationship with Christ. Of course it is! But there is no relationship with Christ outside of His covenant. And a covenant is by definition a relationship establishing certain bonds—that is, a religion.
This is why Christ spoke of a “yoke” for those who would follow Him. Sure, His yoke is light and easy compared to others, but it is a yoke nonetheless (Matt. 11:28–30). He was talking about leaving the Old Covenant and entering the New—but it was a covenant nonetheless.
It is for this reason that Paul could speak of being a servant to Jesus Christ (Rom. 1:1). He was not free, but a doulos—a bonded servant. Nor are we free of that same bond service: You are not your own; you are bought with a price (1 Cor. 6:19–20).
It is for this same reason that Paul characterizes the church as a parallel of the most well-known covenant-bond-relationship in all of creation: marriage. And what is marriage? They do not call it “tying the knot” for nothing. The do not call it “the bonds of matrimony” for nothing. They do not call it a “binding oath” for nothing. The reason is that marriage is a covenant relationship which establishes a bond by an oath.
“Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church (Eph. 5:31–32).
Read the whole of Ephesians 5:22–32 to get the fuller picture. Elsewhere, the church is called the bride of Christ—this is no secret. The lesser-known fact is what this says about the nature of Christianity: it is a covenantal-judicial religion (using the true meaning of the word) just as much as it is a “relationship.” In fact, the two things are inseparable. You can’t have a true relationship without true religion, and you can’t have a true religion without this proper relationship.
Look at the Ten Commandments. Of course we’re not saved by keeping them, but we are certainly saved to keep them. And what are they? They are a covenant between a body of believers and God Himself. The first table outlines the obligations of love toward God, and the second table outlines the obligations of the bonds of love between people. Our relationships are established by religion, and without such at the root, relationships are perverted.
This is why James can speak of true religion. And what do you know? It just happens to be an exact rehash of Old Testament law—what James elsewhere calls “the royal law” (2:8), and “the law of liberty” (1:25; 2:12). What does he say? “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” (Jam. 1:27).
This is why I say that those who so readily use the quip “not religion but relationship” understand neither. They do not understand what religion truly is, and therefore do not understand why Christianity—all of the Bible—is at its core religion. It is covenant, and covenant is religion. God’s covenant with the elect in Christ Jesus is the only true religion—but it is religion inescapably.
And since this concept of covenant/religion is denigrated, the concept of “relationship,” which is dependent upon it, is also diminished. “Relationship” with Christ becomes established on emotional or pseudo-liturgical terms, instead of judicial-covenantal terms as Scripture teaches.
(And just for the record, the word “relationship” nowhere appears in Scripture—at all.)2
And here is where the damage has been done. All that has been accomplished by the “relationship not religion” propaganda has been to remove the church further from its true nature as a covenantal-judicial community of believers. This may have been the subconscious goal, in fact, of Christian leaders trying to avoid the hard-sell of God’s Law in all areas of society, and instead to appeal to the masses through emotional means.
When one generation of fads dies out, another arises to condemn the last as “religion” and vaunt itself as dancing in the streets with the Spirit, or “God loves you and wants you to be happy,” or just simply a watered-down version of forgiveness with no strings attached (again, covenantal “binding” language—only in reverse).
What we get as a result is generation after generation of Christians (many in name only) who think they are better than those “dead” Christians over there because “we have a relationship,” not “religion,” and especially not that other religious beast, “tradition.” When in reality, all these emotion-mongers do is erect one tradition in place of another every generation or so.
What is really happening today in most circumstances when people are taught and trained in the mantra “relationship not religion” is that they are being deceived with an emotional-type of faith in place of the full judicial-oriented faith that applies to every area of life. Those that really embrace the mantra and then begin to wear it as a badge of distinction, or even superiority, are practicing a very shallow form of self-righteousness. To the extent that they are bound by this belief and practice, they are not free from religion, but only bound to a false one.
There is no such thing as “no religion.” There is no neutrality in covenants. What you have is either true religion or false religion. Choose ye.
If you have a relationship with Christ, you have it only by virtue of the fact that you are in a judicial covenant with Him. And if you are in covenant with Him, that relationship will of necessity drive you to perform the works of true religion, which James make unequivocally clear are social—taking care of the orphans and widows—along with personal holiness.
What we’ve got instead are generations of Christians who have ignored the social goals, and left them to the pagan state—all the while they are self-assured in their “relationship” with Christ, and often self-righteously criticizing anyone who would dare speak of religious obligations based on our faith. We have soap-opera Christianity—effeminized, vain, emotional drivel void of any substance, but big on the drama of “relationship.” This is probably why church attendance is disproportionately female, or perhaps the phenomenon works the other way around. Perhaps an effeminate message has been produced to meet demand.
But it’s a sad day when even our homeschool leaders are leveraging this old canard. Granted, there is an influx of general evangelical moms into the homeschool movement due to Common Core, and granted, there is a growing repudiation of hyper-patriarchy afoot, but we need not return to the old emotionalism in order to accommodate these things—and especially not the feminist baggage that comes along sometimes—or react in knee-jerk fashion, or sell-out fashion.
What we need more than ever is a focus upon that which has so seldom been focused upon: a covenant bond-relationship with Jesus Christ of a judicial nature that addresses all areas of life. It begins with the heart, but is not just about the heart. It is based on love, but a love that binds all together and rules all of society. What we need, to summarize it, is a relationship that is a true religion, not bashing a straw-man of religion and running from it. That religion-relationship is found in Scripture, and it is the only one that is. As well, this bond is the only place true freedom is found.
Now, let us all stand and sing, “Blessed Be the Tie that Binds.”
- While this seems astute on the surface, consider the rest of the story. The Ethiopian eunuch had with him a scroll of Isaiah—an extremely expensive object at the time, probably purchased on this journey for his queen. And where do you think he got it? Jerusalem. And what was he reading? Isaiah 53—about the sacrifice of Christ. This is a profoundly ceremonial, sacrificial—i.e. covenantal and religious—passage. In short, not religion, no relationship for even this eunuch in this story. [↩]
- The NASB does insert it in Matthew 19:10, but this is inexplicable on linguistic grounds and is not supported by any other translation. [↩]