Friday, June 03, 2005

religion or relationship?

I’m sure you’ve all heard people say, “Christianity is not a religion; it’s a relationship.” Why do people say that? Well, of course they understand Christianity to involve some sort of relationship. By atoning for our sins, Jesus put us in right relationship to the Father. As Paul put it, “we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 5:1). So Christianity does involve some kind of relationship.

But why deny that Christianity is a religion as if “religion” and “relationship” are mutually exclusive? Couldn’t Christianity be a religion that consists of a relationship? The answers I have heard usually involve a peculiar definition of the word “religion.” They’ll say something like, “Religion involves man-made ceremonies and institutions; Christianity is a personal relationship with the living God.”

As I’ve said before in an earlier blog, words are defined by their use. People do not use the word “religion” to refer strictly to man-made ceremonies and institutions. The word is often used to refer to devotion to a high power or spiritual beings (sometimes dead ancestors). That devotion certainly consists of relationships (or at least supposed relationships). By that understanding of “religion” Christianity is a religion. Prayer, worship, and devotion to God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ make it a religion by the ordinary use of the word.

The Bible also uses the word “religion” in a positive light, which makes it all the more strange that Christians would object to having Christianity called a religion. For example, in James 1:27, it says, “Pure and undefiled religion in the sight of our God and Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” Religion in this context seems to be understood as a practice that exemplifies godly behavior.


Kelly said...

I think people don't like using the word "religion" because it conjers up images of fundementalist religious wackos burning Beatles' CDs and having witch trials.

Or, maybe when they hear "religion" they think "Catholocism" with all the stand up, sit down, kneel, repeat this, repeat that.

I think it's silly and I have no problem with using "religion" to describe my beliefs. However, growing up in a non-denominational church, I heard that "it's-a-relationship-not-a-religion" thing way too much. I think it was just a push to be hip.

ephphatha said...

Well I shudder to think of anybody burning Beatles CD's.

I've always wondered why people have such an objection to calling their faith a "religion." Thanks for the insight.

Mike - said...

Good post. I have this same topic slated to be addressed on my blog.

I actually think that saying it's not religion might be properly characterized as a bait-and-switch tactic. I'm sure it comes across that way to some of the uncoverted.

Your point about religion and relationship not being mutually exclusive is a good one. But I also wonder about the validity of this emphasis on "relationship" when the word itself is not even Biblical. It leaves the hearer a lot of freedom to define the "relationship" any way they want. I think we should go back to using the Biblical words like Lord, God, Master, Father, Savior, Judge, Redeemer, King, Lamb of God, Sacrifice, Friend, "I Am," Brother, and the like. I hit on this idea in spinning the gospel: Rick Warren's Saddleback Church.

daleliop said...

A lot of Christians don't want to use the word religion because it puts Christianity on the same level as all the other world religions like Judaism, Islam, Buddism - and after what they have experienced through Christianity, the word religion (which implies rules, restrictions, don't do this, be good) doesn't do justice in expressing the intimacy they feel. They don't want the unconverted to apply a sweeping generalization of religion upon Christianity because they feel/know that it is more - a true relationship - than what other religions have to offer.