“It’s not a religion, it’s a relationship!”
Ever heard that one before? Not only have I heard that one, I’ve said it—many times! I think I had the right motives whenever I used this phrase to passionately defend Christianity’s mischaracterization, but I’m not sure this cliche is entirely accurate.
First off, where did this phrase originate?
Honestly, I’m not sure. I suspect it had something to do with the western world’s rugged individualism coupled with an increasingly experiential Christian faith. The combination of these two lead pretty easily to a religious expression that is a little “me centered.” In that environment, God’s unique relationship with me becomes the most important thing and that whole idea smacks against “religion” which seems so impersonal. Somewhere along the way, religion got thrown under the bus.
So what does the Bible say about “religion?” Well, the word appears in three contexts. Let’s look at them all.
The first was when a dude named Festus was trying to sort out why the Jews and Paul were at odds with each other. His description of the events was
Rather they had certain points of dispute with him about their own religion and about a certain Jesus, who was dead, but whom Paul asserted to be alive.
So what was “religion” in Festus’ eyes? He lumped Judaism and Christianity in together and called their belief systems “a religion.” At this point, it’s a rather neutral term (neither positive nor negative).
A chapter later, Paul himself uses the word when defending himself in the matter:
My manner of life from my youth, spent from the beginning among my own nation and in Jerusalem, is known by all the Jews. They have known for a long time, if they are willing to testify, that according to the strictest party of our religion I have lived as a Pharisee.
So, here, Paul identifies as someone who is (or was) part of the religion of Judaism. Again, the term is neutral. In Colossians, Paul uses the word again contrasting Christianity with a type of religion:
If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations— “Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch” (referring to things that all perish as they are used)—according to human precepts and teachings? These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh.
OK, so here we see that there is a “self-made” religion, which means that there is likely a religion that is not self-made, rather, it is a religion that comes presumably from God.
In James, we come across our last use of the word religion and this one lays out both a positive and negative religion:
If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.
So it is bad religion to be mouthy and to lie to yourself about how you are living your life but it is good religion to obey God, take care of the poorest of poors, and live the kind of life that makes you stand out from those around you.
What we see in these passages is “religion” is a neutral term and while there is a kind of religion that is negative, there is another kind of religion that is pleasing to God.
So why do people say “It’s not a religion, it’s a relationship?”
This has become a popular phrase because of a crucial distinction between Christianity and all the other religions in the world. Most religions are like a ladder with each human step we take bringing us one step closer to God. Christianity is the opposite.
Biblical Christianity declares that there is no ladder (in a sense, you could say, “no religion”). There is nothing we can do to climb to God. And that is precisely why Jesus came to us instead.
For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God…
And when Jesus saves us, he does a remarkable thing. He enters into a relationship with us. We become his adopted siblings (with a Heavenly Father) and he even goes so far to call us friends. Sure sounds like a relationship.