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Christianity: It's Not a Religion, It's a Relationship

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.

We really should avoid the catchy “relationship not religion” phrase 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.” (

It doesn’t matter what you chose to call your faith. You can say “evangelical Christian”, “Jesus follower”, or even just “spiritual, but following the Bible”. I think I’ve gone through all those self-identifications in the past five years. Regardless of where you fall on the spiritual spectrum or what you choose to call yourself, chances are good that your faith does involve “beliefs about the universe”, “devotional observances”, and a “moral code”. And that’s a good thing. But unless we’re playing semantic games, that also makes it a “religion”.

So we are left with two choices. Either hold onto our “relationship not religion” phrase and abandon tithing, the Ten Commandments, tax-exempt status, church softball teams, the ordination of pastors, church structure, political action groups, Christmas, Easter, communion, baptism, eschatology, theology, commentaries, the Romans Road, the 5 Spiritual Laws, Bible studies, Creation studies, worldviews, evangelism, and Christian schools. Or, admit that the reality of Christianity is complicated and messy, and not easily summed up into memorable phrases.

Jesus said that His purpose was not to destroy the Law and the Prophets, the religion of his day, but to fulfill it (Matt. 5:17). You see, He’s about redemption. He doesn’t only warn against false religion, but he sets an example for “true religion”. Love God, love others. Or as Jesus’ brother James wrote, “Pure and faultless religion in the eyes of the Father is to care for the widows and orphans and to keep yourself unpolluted by the world.” (James 1:27) This is redeemed religion. It resonates with the truth of Jesus’ mission. He was all about taking the things that are broken and marred by sin and the Fall and making them clean and pure and beautiful again. Religion included.

Next time I’m tempted to say “Christianity is not a religion, it’s a relationship,” I’m going to stop and think about what I’m really trying to say. Then hopefully the words that come out of my mouth will be something like this:

“Christianity is a religion, but it’s not like any other religion. Because it starts with a relationship with Jesus. We don’t have to hold to a set of rules or rituals and hope that they will appease the anger of a distant god. Rather, we can have a mysterious spiritual union with a personal God who loved us so much that He somehow crammed all His deity into a fragile human body and walked the earth among us, and then when he was killed he resurrected himself and flew up to heaven again. Trying to love Jesus and follow Him makes sense of a lot of things in life, and motivates me to try to be like Jesus and love other people. But it also raises a lot of questions, questions that I don’t have yet answers for. And sometimes people, myself included, forget that Christianity is about following Jesus and make it about ourselves. That’s when we do things that make the religion of Christianity look really bad. But that’s not what it’s really about. It’s about faith and hope and love. And all that is found in the religion of Christianity, which is centered around a relationship with Jesus.”

But that doesn’t really fit on a billboard.

published March 27, 2012

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