If you’re an Evangelical like me, you have probably heard someone claim that Christianity is a relationship and not a religion. Maybe you have even heard that Jesus came to abolish religion. This view of Christianity is unbiblical and harmful.
Saying that Christianity is a relationship and not a religion paints a false dichotomy. One does not have to choose between being religious or being in relationship with Jesus. Rather, religion is the primary means God uses to form a better personal relationship with us.
Yes, God humbled himself and became man so that a personal relationship and eternal life with God would be possible for us, but that is not the whole picture.
The Christian Religion
Without a relationship, Christianity becomes a set of impersonal rituals that simply act as a cultural or national identity. However, without religion, Christianity simply becomes a relationship based on emotions and turns into a mentality of “Jesus, me, and my Bible.”
God gifts us with religion through the Bible, the Lord’s Supper, baptism, the Sabbath, and the Ten Commandments so that we can improve our relationship with Him. This is why God primarily reveals His will through the reading and preaching of Scripture. In church, we do not just sit around by ourselves and pray to God. Rather, Christians gather corporally to worship through music, listen to the proclamation of the Word, and participate in the ordained means of grace.
When these “religious rituals” are done in faith, we are spiritually nourished and grow in our personal relationship with Christ. We also grow as a community, and the church forms a closer bond with our Lord.
In a highly individualistic culture, everything is focused around individuals. Religion, economics, education, and happiness are centered on self. Individualism is a focus on personal desires and independence over the health of a community. It views the individual, rather than communities, as the fundamental unit of society. It leads many into isolation and loneliness. As a result, social institutions and churches are compromised, making the need for a community-based conservatism more necessary. Churches should aim to be the foundation for this new change by taking the initiative to serve the community by providing spiritual needs.
The language and values found in Scripture reject this egocentrism. 1 Corinthians 12:13 says that all Christians “are baptized into one body” by the Holy Spirit, and that all Christians “have been made to drink into one Spirit.” Here, the Apostle Paul tells us that Christian living is done communally and not just individually. All people, regardless of previous background, are united through the Holy Spirit.
This covenant language is used throughout Scripture. God not only dies for the sins of the world, but particularly for those of his covenant people. God dispenses this covenant by the preaching of the Word and by administering baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Thus, these “religious rituals” bind Christians to one another, advancing God’s greater kingdom.
This collective mindset of advancing the kingdom forces individuals into humility. As a result, Christianity becomes more than just an individual personal relationship. It becomes a selfless fellowship with other believers, commitment to help non-believers build their own personal relationships with God, and a collective pursuit of making disciples of all nations.
Another example of this rejection of rugged individualism is in the Lord’s Prayer. In it, Jesus teaches us to pray by saying “Our Father,” and by asking Him to “give us…our daily bread,” and to “deliver us from evil.” In this example, prayer, another religious ritual, is used as a means to communicate with God not only for personal benefit. By using plural pronouns, Jesus emphasizes that Christianity should be participated as a community and not just as an individual.
Some evangelicals will claim that having a relationship with God distinguishes Christianity from other religions. Although well intentioned, this is misguided. Evangelicals are mostly correct in saying that, since Christianity is a relationship with God rather than simply a system of laws used to please God, Christians cannot earn their way into heaven. They are also correct in saying that this teaching distinguishes them from other religions. This does not mean that the relationship itself is the distinguishing factor. By this logic, Muslims could also say that they have a relationship with God since they pray and worship Allah. So, how is Christianity different from other religions?
It is the very nature of the God with whom the relationship is with and at whom our religion is pointed to that distinguishes Christianity from other religions. Unlike other religions, the Christian God is a personal God who made himself flesh and gave himself up for the sake of his covenant people. But in order for these things to be possible, the Christian God must be a Trinity. Even though there is only one God, the Father sends the Son into the world, the Son willingly dies on the cross, and the Father and Son send the Holy Spirit to indwell in every believer.
This cliche, “Christianity is a relationship, not a religion,” sounds appealing. But it is not in accordance with orthodox Christianity. More importantly, it diminishes God’s creation. Religion is not something that Christians should shy away from. It is a gift created by God that should be embraced. We should thank God that he has given visible objects which remind us and allow us to participate in his supernatural and invisible grace. Through religion, Christians grow in their relationship with God and with others, and the Church can better her relationship with God.