In this blog post, I wish to talk about a catch phrase that has become enormously popular in modern Christendom. This one is so important because it has become a catch-all phrase we use when nonbelievers don’t like Christianity. We automatically assume its because the person doesn’t like organized religion (and it has also made Christians not like organized religion either). “It’s not a religion, it’s a relationship.” “It’s not a religion, it’s a relationship.” “It’s not a religion, it’s a relationship.” “It’s not a religion, it’s a relationship.” “It’s not a religion, it’s a relationship.” I’ve heard this little slogan so many times; it’s coming out my ears! I also think it’s the inspiration behind Skillet’s song “My Religion” on their newest album “Rise”.
I want to examine this common bumper sticker phrase from a biblical perspective. But first, let’s take a look at the word “religion” from a modern dictionary. This is a secular definition of religion given to us by Merriam-Webster.
- The service and worship of God or the supernatural
- Commitment or devotion to religious faith or observance
- a personal set or institutionalized system of religious attitudes, beliefs, and practices
- a cause, principle, or system of beliefs held to with ardor and faith
That doesn’t sound bad at all. Christians have beliefs, faith, worship, practices, etc. In all reality, we do have a religion and there’s not much we can do about it. Religion in itself is not a bad thing. It’s empty religion we actually mean to speak against. This is also why non-Christians ridicule us when we use this slogan on them. To say that Christianity isn’t a religion is like saying that apples aren’t a fruit, or that biology isn’t a science!
To most Christians, I think, the word “religion” refers to trying to earn your own salvation. For them the word “religion” conjures up thoughts such as “works-based salvation” and “legalism.” What these Christians are trying to say is that Christianity isn’t based on earning God’s love or going through a bunch of rituals in an attempt to please Him and keep Him loving you.
The motivation behind using this phrase is right, I think. We definitely need to explain what the gospel is and what it is not. But that does not mean we need to redefine the standard English word religion in order for us to talk about sin, grace, forgiveness, Jesus, eternal life, etc. Contrary to popular opinion, the word “religion” is not a synonym for “legalism”.
Now lets see what the bible has to say about religion.
“Those who consider themselves religious and yet do not keep a tight rein on their tongues deceive themselves, and their religion is worthless. Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.” – James 1:26-27
What is James saying? James says that if you keep a tight rein on your tongue, and if you “to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world” What are you doing? What are you doing? Wait for it…….///You’re correctly practicing your religion/// You’re correctly practicing your religion. By doing these things, you’re not being hypocritical. You’re adhering to your religion the way you’re supposed to. Now the question is…what is that religion? Islam? Well, that can’t be. Islam didn’t exist until the 6th century. Buddhism? Taoism? What group of people is James writing to? Christians. So by keeping a tight rein on your tongue, and if you “to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world” one is correctly adhering to one’s religion. Who is James writing to? Christians. So, is Christianity a religion? Do Christians have religion? If not, what is the point of writing to a bunch of Christians and telling them how to correctly adhere to a religion if they in fact have no religion? Doesn’t make much sense, does it?
James is essentially saying “If you claim to be religious and don’t do X, Y and Z. Your religion is worthless. If you want to correctly adhere to your religion, you need to do these things.”
1 Timothy 5:4 (NIV version) says, “But if a widow has children or grandchildren, these should learn first of all to put their religion into practice by caring for their own family and so repaying their parents and grandparents, for this is pleasing to God.”
To people who argue that Christianity isn’t a religion: Who is Paul writing to? Timothy. To do what? His purpose is to tell those in the church how to put their **religion** into practice. It’d be odd to tell Christians how to correctly adhere to their religion if they in fact have no religion. Putting our religion into practice is pleasing to God.
Christianity: Religion or Relationship? To quote a famous meme girl “Why not both?”
I used the above scriptures to argue this point before and a Christian told me I was taking these passages out of their context. But I honestly can’t see how that can be. The book of James is addressing people who have reduced Christianity to a creed. They believe that Christianity is true, but they haven’t put it into practice. James is very candid that mere intellectual assent to the truth of Christianity isn’t enough if it doesn’t result in a changed life and if people just go along and live like they had always lived. This is why he said that even the demons believe that God exists (James 2:19). Verse 19 to the 27th verse of James 1 is all about people who merely listen to the word of God but don’t put it into practice.
“ My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires. Therefore, get rid of all moral filth and the evil that is so prevalent and humbly accept the word planted in you, which can save you. Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like someone who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. But whoever looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues in it—not forgetting what they have heard, but doing it—they will be blessed in what they do.
Those who consider themselves religious and yet do not keep a tight rein on their tongues deceive themselves, and their religion is worthless. Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.” – James 1:19-27
In the next chapter, James continues chastising this morally lazy church. He warns them that if someone comes to their house needing any food, water or clothing and they were to say “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, it does them no good (James 2:14). He then goes on in this same chapter to explain that a truly saved person will produce good works. Not that good works produces salvation, but that salvation will produce good works. Just as a tree produces fruit rather than fruit produces a tree, so genuinely saved people will demonstrate to the outside world their faith by what they do (cf. Matthew 5:14-16)
So, is Christianity a religion or is it a relationship? My conclusion: It’s both.