What if religion is a relationship? To make the claim, that Christianity is a religion – and not just a relationship with Christ, is very countercultural in today’s world. Subversive even. Everywhere we look we are confronted with slogans which assert that, “Christianity isn’t a religion – it’s a relationship with God.” We are told that, “Religion kills, but Jesus saves.”
And from the pulpit, no less, we are assured that, “Jesus didn’t come to start a new religion.” that, “Jesus hates religion…but He loves you.” Some will even wonder whether religion isn’t a trick of the devil to lead people away from God.
This topic has been coming up with some frequency in my conversations with others lately, so I thought I’d take a swing at it here.
What is Religion?
Perhaps we should begin by defining our terms. Merriam-Webster defines religion as “The service and worship of God or the supernatural: commitment or devotion to religious faith or observance” and secondarily, “a personal set or institutionalized system of religious attitudes, beliefs, and practices.”
At first blush, there seems to be very little in this definition that would unduly trouble Christians. And yet remember that virtually all of the anti-religion statements and memes circulating on the internet today are not from atheists or secularists, but rather from people of faith. People who refuse to call themselves religious, are hesitant to even label themselves as Christians, but nonetheless love Jesus.
Religion as an Institution
If I had to guess, I would presume that most Christians don’t take issue per se with religion as a personal set of beliefs and practices. It’s the “institutionalized system” part that gets them. But allow me to suggest something which you may find rather shocking.
God created religion.
Specifically, the Judeo-Christian faith as an institution, a “religion” as it were, is created by God.
I know, I know, religion is a bad word, a bad thing, something which kills the life of faith rather than sustaining it. It’s a list of rules, and traditions, and various drudgeries, and should be avoided at all costs.
I know. I get it. Religion isn’t cool.
…But don’t change the channel just yet. Let’s review the tape first.
In the Old Testament we find that it is God who calls Aaron to be high priest and the Levites to priestly service, even providing incredibly detailed instructions for priestly vestments.1 It is God who commands sacrifice and oblation,2 God who commands an altar, anointing oil, and incense,3 and God who gives the instructions for the construction of His Temple and it’s implements:
Then David gave his son Solomon the plan of the vestibule of the temple, and of its houses, its treasuries, its upper rooms, and its inner chambers, and of the room for the mercy seat; and the plan of all that he had in mind: for the courts of the house of the Lord, all the surrounding chambers, the treasuries of the house of God, and the treasuries for dedicated gifts; for the divisions of the priests and of the Levites, and all the work of the service in the house of the Lord; for all the vessels for the service in the house of the Lord, the weight of gold for all golden vessels for each service, the weight of silver vessels for each service, the weight of the golden lampstands and their lamps, the weight of gold for each lampstand and its lamps, the weight of silver for a lampstand and its lamps, according to the use of each in the service, the weight of gold for each table for the rows of bread, the silver for the silver tables, and pure gold for the forks, the basins, and the cups; for the golden bowls and the weight of each; for the silver bowls and the weight of each; for the altar of incense made of refined gold, and its weight; also his plan for the golden chariot of the cherubim that spread their wings and covered the ark of the covenant of the Lord. “All this, in writing at the Lord’s direction, he made clear to me—the plan of all the works.”4
It is also God who sets forth both the moral law and the ceremonial law for His people, the nation of Israel.
I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but God created religion. It was His idea. His plan. His way of accomplishing His purpose.
But, many Christians will object saying, “Surely this isn’t the case in the New Testament? Surely Christ condemns religion and only desires a relationship with us?” Well…let’s take a look.
Jesus – Good Friend or God?
In the New Testament, Christ is incredibly clear that He has not come to abolish the law and the prophets but to fulfill them.5 He establishes a Church – a religious institution. It is both visible and hierarchical. It is built upon St. Peter (similar to Aaron’s role),6 and secondarily upon the apostles (similar to the role of the Levites).7 It is authoritative, given the power to bind and loose on earth AND in heaven.8 It has juridical authority in the life of the believer – “If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the Church;” – including the power of excommunication.9 It requires our submission as believers, “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls and will give an account.”10 It is the religious institution of the Church which is the “pillar and foundation of truth.”11 In creating a Church, He creates a religion. He authoritatively reinterprets the Old Testament moral law, calling New Testament believers to a higher standard of conduct!12
With all this in mind, Christ Himself never speaks out against religion. How could He? It has been established by God, and He is God.
What He does do (frequently) is speak out against religious hypocrisy in the life of individuals – especially (although not exclusively) in the lives of religious leaders.
But, and pay attention here, He does this while simultaneously affirming their God given authority! “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach.”13
In other words, according to Jesus, (and I’m paraphrasing here): Religion ain’t the problem. Not living according to your faith is. [Tweet This]
Hook-Up Culture Christianity
There’s one final aspect that we should consider when it comes to the utter disdain for “religion” found amongst those who nevertheless live what can only be described as objectively religious lives (service and worship of God, devotion to faith, etc.) and claim to have a “saving faith” and “relationship” with Christ.
When we look to Scripture, how does the bible describe this “relationship” which Christ has with His Church? I put the word relationship in quotes simply because it is a word that is entirely absent from the language of Scripture despite it’s popularity today. Nonetheless when we look for the type of “relationship” which Christ has with His Church we see this: “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church.14 In Scripture, the “relationship” that Christ enjoys with His Church is that of a marriage. You want intimacy with Christ? It doesn’t get much more intimate than a one flesh union. I’ve written a bit more on this topic in another article which you can find here: An Intimate Union
All too often we tend to turn the metaphor on it’s head. We think that somehow it is Christ and His Church who are supposed to reflect, or mirror, the intimate union of our marriage relationships. In reality, St. Paul tells us that exactly the opposite is true. Namely that human marriage – even from the very beginning – is but a dim mirror that is to reflect the reality of Christ’s relationship with His Church. Human marriage, when at it’s best, images the intimacy which Christ shares with His Church.
With that in mind, let me ask you something. How do you think my wife would feel if I were to say to her, “Listen honey, I’m not really into all the rules and traditions that go along with marriage. I want a relationship with you, but I don’t want to put a label on it, I’m just not comfortable with that. After all, it’s not about a ceremony, it’s about love. It’s not about vows it’s about freedom. I don’t want a marriage, I just want a hook-up buddy.”
The Ugly Truth
Are you ready for the ugly truth? Often we don’t want to admit to others that we are religious because it obligates us to a certain way of life, to certain practices and beliefs. The type of relationship that reflects Christ’s relationship with His Church is a marriage. It is covenantal. Sacramental. It makes promises and takes vows. We’d rather say, “I’m not religious I just love Jesus.” because it lets us off the hook when we’d rather not go to church on Sunday. Or when we’d rather not set aside actual time for prayer. We can be “spiritual” by just going on a hike and then get in a quick prayer during our morning commute. Saying that we aren’t religious gives us that latitude.
But Jesus said, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life? For the Son of Man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay everyone for what has been done.”15
And He also said, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.”16
And again He said,“But the one who endures to the end will be saved.”17
In point of fact, Jesus said a great many things about how to properly live life as one within the kingdom of God,18 which He came to initiate among us. In point of fact, Jesus wants a commitment from His bride. In point of fact, it is within this commitment, this marriage with Christ, that a one flesh union can take place. And it is through this one flesh union that we can become the very body of Christ.
And that is religion. The practice of our faith with and in and through Christ, as we follow and obey Him. Religion, as created by God, provides the context for our relationship with Him.
While it is necessary for us as Christians to speak out forcefully against religious hypocrisy (and guard against it in our own lives as well) I would be hard pressed to assign “religion” to the work of the devil. The devil doesn’t create. Rather, the devil does what he always does, he takes that which is created good and perfect by God and he twists and deforms it until it is almost unrecognizable.
If we are uncomfortable admitting that we are religious, it is likely due to the fact that we aren’t serving and worshipping God correctly.
True religion doesn’t offend, it attracts.
We need to, as St. James exhorts us, return to “pure and undefiled religion”19 – not simply abandon it to the machinations of the devil. It is far too easy to blame an “institution” while letting ourselves off the hook for our own religious hypocrisy and pretenses.
Finally we should acknowledge that Christianity is meant to be communal – our faith is meant to be lived out together. It was never intended to be just me, my bible, and Jesus. And religion is what binds us together.
Spirituality is whatever I want it to be. Religion is the faith handed on once and for all.
“There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.”20
It’s no good pointing our finger at “the church.” WE are the Church. The problem at the institutional level of the Church stems from a problem at the individual level. Namely, we are all sinners.
I am religious and I am a hypocrite. God have mercy on me a sinner.
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Exodus 28-29:9 ↩
Exodus 29:10-46 ↩
Exodus 30 ↩
1 Chronicles 28:11-19 ↩
Matthew 5:17-18 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. ↩
And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. Matthew 16:18 ↩
built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. Ephesians 2:20 ↩
I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. Matthew 16:19 and 18:18 ↩
Matthew 18:15-17 …If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. ↩
Hebrews 13:17 ↩
1 Timothy 3:15 ↩
Matthew 5:21-38 You have heard it said, but I say to you… ↩
Matthew 23:2-3 ↩
Ephesians 5:31-32 ↩
Matthew 16:24b-27 ↩
John 14:15 ↩
Matthew 24:13 ↩
Matthew 5-7 ↩
James 1:27 ↩
Ephesians 4:4-6 ↩