(This was published as a guest editorial in Christian Courier, Jan. 28, 2013 issue, p.4.)
As a young Christian, I grew up with the ever popular mantra that Christianity is not a religion but rather a personal relationship with God. But I am now strongly opposed to this dichotomy. Why?
It’s a False Dichotomy. To say that Christianity is only a relationship and not a religion is like saying marriage is only a relationship and not an institution! It’s simply false. Yes, I understand the desire to get back to the authentic love for God rather than simply religious ritualism. But a marriage based only on a loving relationship without the rings, legalities or blessings of families and friends that mark it a social institution would be called “living in sin”! At least, we used to call it that. It was God’s idea in the Old Testament to set up the priesthood with its offerings and sacrifices, as well as the covenant laws and the ritual of circumcision as more formal (yes, religious) ways of expressing His relationship with Israel. In the New Testament, Jesus came not to abolish these OT Laws or the Prophets but to more deeply fulfill them. (Matt. 5:17) And Jesus also gave us at least two rituals – the Lord’s Supper and Baptism. And the apostle James did not throw out religion but defined what true religion is all about: “to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.” (James 1:27)
It’s a False Definition of Religion. The reason why this false dichotomy sounds so appealing is because it is based on a false definition of religion. For instance, religion is often defined as using “rules to force our steps, guilt to keep us in line, and rituals to remind us of our failure to live up to those rules.” (Bruxy Cavey, The End of Religion, p. 14) Religion here is defined so negatively that it is simply a straw man to be knocked over. It’s a biased, polemical definition, like the famous Marxist mantra of religion as the opiate of the masses. It is defining something negatively so it can be attacked. This is not a truthful method but one that belittles truth in favour of expediency. A more descriptive way of defining religion is as “a particular system of beliefs, practices, and (for want of a better term) passions …” (John G. Stackhouse, Jr, Humble Apologetics: Defending the Faith Today, Oxford UP 2002, p. 99) In this way, Christianity is also a religion and Jesus, far from abolishing religion, came to establish one. Jesus taught beliefs that his disciples need to adhere to (e.g. that he is the Son of God). Jesus also established practices that his followers are to keep (e.g. the Lord’s Supper). And, finally, he very much encouraged certain passions or affections among his disciples (e.g. love your neighbour, love God).
It Confuses Non-Christians. I have met many non-Christians of various stripes who are simply confused by this mantra of Christianity as a relationship rather than a religion. Being confused is one thing, but what’s bad is that it turns some of these seekers away from Christianity! One mainland Chinese scholar once told me, “After years of being in atheistic China, I am looking for religion! And if Christianity is not a religion, why should I bother with it?” The relationship not religion tag line only really works for those seekers who are disillusioned with religion. But for those seekers who are not religiously disillusioned but seeking a better religion, this is confusion, or worse, a turn off.
It’s Ultimately Damaging to Christianity. If we keep telling our youth that organized religion is bad and only a personal relationship with Jesus is all that matters, should we be surprised that they are leaving the institutional church in droves? Should we be surprised that they are increasingly spiritual (love Jesus) but not religious (hate church)? Even for those who believe in this mantra, what happens when they grow older and wiser and notice the hypocrisy? For instance, aren’t we being hypocritical if we hold onto governmental tax privileges for religions and yet claim that we are not a religion? Furthermore, as Larry Osborne observed: “Just look at our models of spiritual formation. Almost all our books, seminars, workshops, and programs are heavily weighted toward religious practice and self-discipline. They show us how to do religion in hopes that it will produce relationship.” (A Contrarian’s Guide to Knowing God: Spirituality for the Rest of Us, Multnomah Books 2007, p. 27) We are not being malicious or intentionally hypocritical about this. As I’ve said earlier, it’s inevitable that there’s an organized religious institutional side to our relationship to God. But when you claim you’re not a religion and still end up offering religious practices, then, sooner or later, young people are going to sniff out the hypocrisy and leave. Many already have.
Let me suggest a better way. Instead of pitting relationship with Jesus against religion, why not be more accurate and pit living religion against fossilized religion? Also, we should not forget the classic Reformed mantra that “all of life is religious”! We should redefine “religion” biblically rather than acquiesce to faulty definitions. There are so many other more accurate, productive and less polarizing, ways of rallying Christians to the core of their faith than simplistic false dichotomies.
Related Post: Why Jesus Loves Relationships AND Religion Too