You’ve heard it before. It tops the list of “Stuff Christians Say”. I know I’ve said it.
But it’s not true.
The intention is honorable enough; we want to differentiate Christianity from other belief systems. We’re trying to express the fundamental difference between our faith and other faiths; that is, the unmerited offer of free Salvation offered through Jesus Christ.
Perhaps we’re also trying to separate ourselves from some of the negative associations one may have with “religion” – narrow-mindedness, hypocrisy, historical persecution of “heretics”, etc. However, the “relationship, not religion” phrase doesn’t really work. It either sets up a false expectation for the reality of following Jesus, or it is quickly discounted (for good reason) and we lose credibility.
Yes, Christianity is a relationship. But there is more to it than that. Because no sooner does one begin that relationship than they are encouraged to get baptized, take communion, read their Bible daily, and attend church. These are not elements of any other relationship. They are unique. Yes, they are relational in nature, but there is also an element of tradition, of ritual, of spiritual discipline. If someone is told that Christianity is ONLY a relationship and is not at all a religion, they will find themselves sorely disillusioned when faced with the plethora of religious elements that are a part of expressing that relationship in a community of believers. It’s a bait-n-switch. If you say “It’s a relationship, not a religion”, then you should forfeit the right to use any of these phrases in the future: systematic theology, church attendance, spiritual growth, discipline, devotions, sound doctrine.
The second reason we should avoid the catchy “relationship not religion” phrase is because we aren’t fooling anyone. We may think we are helping look God look good to “nonbelievers” by distancing Him from all the negative connotations of religion. But really, we are lying. In conversation with those around us, we are not allowed to make up new definitions for words. We can’t redefine religion as “trying to earn God’s favor”. Because if we are engaging in a public discourse, the words we use must carry the meanings assigned to them by the public.
And the definition of “religion” is:
“a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe, usually involving devotional and ritual observances, and often containing a moral code governing the conduct of human affairs.” (dictionary.com)I've said the same thing as well, particularly when trying to counsel friends. For the most part, people nod and simply accept it. But I did have a friend who looked at me and almost laughed in my face. He asked me, "why do we separate such things?"
I didn't have an answer. I wondered if it was cultural, or the hip thing to do. It might be. But I wonder if it is our way of individualizing our subculture to bring about credibility. Spiritual, not religious.
Stuff to think about.
For the rest of Micah's post, enjoy it here.