“Christianity is not a religion, but a relationship.” Words like this have been spoken often in the churches I have attended throughout my life.
I don’t know where this slogan first came from, but it seems to me that it became more popular through Scott Wesley Brown’s song “I’m Not Religious, I Just Love the Lord.” That song was certainly heard often in our home when I was growing up, in addition to being on my parents’ radio station.
Respected pastors (such as Ed Young) continue to teach that “What separates Christianity from other religions is the fact that it’s actually not a religion. Jesus was the most anti-religion person that ever lived. Religion is a set of man-made do’s and don’ts in order to appease God.”
A recent Washington Post article examining the faith of Senator Ted Cruz (the first Republican presidential candidate for 2016) noted that Cruz was echoing “common evangelical lingo” when he emphasized “relationship” instead of “religion.” (It seems that this question of relationship-versus-religion may become a topic of discussion during the coming campaign.)
But what does the Bible teach about “religion”?
While some scriptures do condemn certain religious practices in some situations (more on that later), the Bible also teaches pure religion:
Pure and undefiled religion before God and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their trouble, and to keep oneself unspotted from the world. (James 1:27)
The root of the Greek word which is translated as “religion” means “fearing or worshipping God” (see Strong’s Concordance #2357).
Does the Bible teach us to “fear God”? Even though the “fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge” (Proverbs 1:7), such words don’t seem to penetrate the hearts of modern Christians, who seem to be conditioned to reject any Old Testament quote at whim. But fearing God was also central to the teachings of Jesus (Matthew 10:28) and Paul (2 Corinthians 5:11), along with every other New Testament writer.
It seems to me that the words of Jesus in Matthew 7:23 should put to death the question of relationship-versus-religion once and for all:
“And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness!’”
Certainly an intimate relationship with Jesus is necessary for salvation, as we can see from His words “I never knew you.” But what is it that characterizes those He “never knew”? It is that they “practice lawlessness”! The choice of relationship-versus-religion is a false choice: Jesus taught us to do both (Matthew 23:23).
Many people who attend modern Christian churches seem to be proud of their “lawlessness,” boasting of their confidence in God’s forgiveness even as they plot heinous crimes. We see this every week as women (and men) enter the abortion chamber boasting of their “relationship” with God, and condemning us for “judging” them. (Although such people often tell us that they are following their pastor’s teachings, sometimes even giving us CDs from their pastors, I would like to believe that they are twisting their pastor’s words. Sadly, however, I must confess that I have witnessed this firsthand from some pastors.)
Tragically, I have also experienced this in my own extended family, when a family member (who was also my spiritual mentor) boasted of being “closer to the Lord than ever before” while in the midst of a sordid adulterous affair (I can’t help but wonder if “I’m Not Religious, I Just Love the Lord” was playing in the background).
A pastor I highly respect taught effectively against “religion” by explaining that the root of this word is the Latin word “religare,” which means “to tie, to bind” (the very different Strong’s Concordance Greek definition I referenced above is not Latin but is the actual language in which the New Testament was originally written, and even the pastor’s Latin definition may be based upon a misunderstanding). This pastor then used scriptures like Galatians 5:1 to emphasize that Christ has set us free from the “bondage” of “religion.” But what would we think of a man who boasted of having a “relationship” with his wife while insisting that he is not “bound” to her? Even if we define “religion” as “bondage,” can we deny that Christians are called to be “slaves of Christ” (Ephesians 6:6)?
I have already witnessed this teaching of relationship over religion kill babies and marriages, but I’m afraid that we will soon witness this teaching kill churches, as embracing “relationship” instead of “religion” will undoubtedly lead many to embrace behaviors such as homosexuality which are expressly condemned in the New Testament (and Old Testament).
It is true, without a doubt, that “religion” is not always good. For example, when God’s people practice “religion” without loving the vulnerable little ones who are our neighbors (Matthew 18:10-14), our religion repulses God:
“When you spread out your hands,
I will hide My eyes from you;
Even though you make many prayers,
I will not hear.
Your hands are full of blood.”
Of course, God is eager to provide the remedy for such religious sin: as we “reason together” through a relationship with Him, He promises to cleanse our bloodstained hands (Isaiah 1:18). But our remedy is not complete without our own actions:
“Wash yourselves, make yourselves clean;
Put away the evil of your doings from before My eyes.
Cease to do evil,
Learn to do good;
Rebuke the oppressor;
Defend the fatherless,
Plead for the widow.”
Does that sound “religious”? (It certainly reminds me of the “pure religion” of James 1:27.)
I’m sure that many (such as Ted Cruz) have every good intention when they emphasize having a “relationship” instead of “religion.” I’m sure that many pastors who teach against “religion” (such as the pastor who referenced the Latin definition) actually exercise the “pure religion” of James 1:27, and teach their congregations to do so.
Even the lyrics of “I’m Not Religious, I Just Love the Lord” (if you read all of them) show that Scott Wesley Brown was not trying to justify his audience’s sins; on the contrary, he was calling them to a higher commitment to Christ.
Unfortunately, our human minds and hearts tend to remember just the chorus, and to latch on to catchphrases such as “Christianity is not a religion but a relationship” even though a pastor’s full sermon may have clarified such common misconceptions.
But if Jesus said that we are going to give an account for “every idle word” (Matthew 12:36), shouldn’t we avoid offering a false choice between “religion” or “relationship”? Shouldn’t we be more careful (and more scripturally accurate) the next time we condemn “religion?”