Facebook posts by Christians about Christianity being “a relationship and not a religion,” because “religion is man-made,” result in a torrent of “Likes” and “Amens.” But me, I would “Unlike” those posts if Facebook has such an option, and not just once.
“Religion” is such a bad word among evangelicals that it has become an anathema. Jefferson Bethke “hates religion, but loves Jesus,” so he has become one of the most popular guys among evangelicals. But why would I like this anathema called religion?
Because Jesus likes it. He didn’t come to “abolish religion.” In fact, Jesus likes the law of his religion so much that he obeyed this whole law—the Old Testament law—perfectly and completely (Matt 5:17-18). If he was here today, he would show his righteous wrath on many Marcionite evangelicals, because he loved the whole Old Testament, which revealed him in types and shadows to our forefathers (Luke 24:27, 44).
I like religion because James likes it too—the Christian religion, that is:
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 (Jas 1:26-27, emphasis added).
Even the 16th century Protestant Reformers loved religion. John Calvin wrote the Institutes of the Christian Religion; John Knox, History of the Reformation of Religion in Scotland; and Huldrych Zwingli, Commentary on True and False Religion.
There are two Greek words that are translated “religion” (or its other forms). Five come from one word: the Jewish religion (Acts 26:5); “the religion of angels” (Col 2:18); and three from James above. The other word is found in Acts 17:22 (the “religious” Athenians); and Acts 25:19, either the Jewish or Christian religion. Some of the uses are good, some are negative. But definitely, James views the Christian religion in a most positive light: The Christian religion is priceless, “pure and undefiled.”
When evangelicals are asked to define Christianity, the most popular catchphrase is, “Christianity is not a religion.” Others would say something like “Christianity is following Jesus” or “following the teachings of Jesus.” And others would add that they’re not merely Jesus-followers because they have a “personal relationship with Jesus.”
I have a couple of big problems with this “personal relationship” Christianity, the first being the word “relationship.” I have personal relationships with many people: my wife, children, friends, even co-workers and classmates. Among all of these relationships, the only approximation of a Christian’s relationship with Christ is my relationship with my wife (Eph 5:25-31).
No wonder that evangelicals are head over heels in their personal relationship with Jesus, romantically singing love songs to Jesus: “Falling in love with Jesus, in His arms I feel protected, there’s no place I’d rather rather be.” If not romantic, the relationship is sentimental as Jesus “walks with me, and talks with me, and He tells me I am his own.”
I don’t know who popularized this romanticized Jesus, but my prime suspect is the “love generation” of the late 1960s, with its Jesus People, Jesus Freaks, and other Chuck Smith-inspired movements. In time, these people started their own feminized churches, which were filled with women singing love songs to Jesus. It blows my mind how men in churches can sing these romantic songs together with their babes.
One other thing with this Christianity-is-a-relationship smoke and mirrors. It is light-years short of the Christian’s union with Christ, “one flesh,” as it were. Paul tells us that a Christian is united (“baptized into”) to Christ in his life, death and resurrection (Rom 6:1-11). According to Louis Berkhof, this union is ”That intimate, vital, and spiritual union between Christ and his people, in virtue of which he is the source of their life and strength, of their blessedness and salvation.”
However, even including the analogy to the one-flesh husband-wife relationship, this union is mystical because, “It so far transcends all the analogies of earthly relationships, in the intimacy of its communion, in the transforming power of its influence, and in the excellence of its consequences” (A. A. Hodge, emphasis added). Q&A 32 of the Heidelberg Catechism succinctly defines a Christian as “a member of Christ and thus a partaker of His anointing.” In this status of being united to Christ and in Christ—who is our Prophet, Priest and King—the Christian is also a prophet, priest and king
in order that [he] also may confess His Name [prophet], may present [himself] a living sacrifice of thankfulness to Him [priest], and with a free conscience may fight against sin and the devil in this life, and hereafter in eternity reign with Him over all creatures [king].
Christianity is not a relationship with Jesus, but a union with Christ and being in Christ.
Secondly, I have a big problem with Christianity being a personal relationship. This is the evangelical notion of “me and my Jesus” and “me and my Bible.” Though each Christian is united to Christ, the whole church is united to Christ as his Bride, Body, Branches, etc. All of God’s covenants with man involved not only one person, but always included the covenant head and his descendants. With Abraham, God said:
And I will establish my covenant between me and you and your offspring after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you (Gen 17:7, emphasis added).
The nation Israel was covenanted by God to be “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exod 19:5-6). The LORD swore in his covenant with King David, “I will establish your offspring forever, and build your throne for all generations” (Psa 89:3-4). In the new covenant with his people, God declared, “I will be their God, and they shall be my people” (Jer 31:33). Peter inaugurated this new covenant on Pentecost Sunday, preaching to all who would believe that “the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself” (Acts 2:39). This fulfilled the LORD’s prophecy that in the last days, “I will pour my Spirit upon your offspring, and my blessing on your descendants” (Isa 44:3).
This is clearly why Paul’s analogy in Ephesians 5:25-31 is between the husband-and-wife union and the mystical union between Christ and the church:
Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor … This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church” (Eph 5:25-27, 32; emphasis added).
I love religion. Why? Because no religion means no Christianity and thus no hope.
“Christianity is a personal relationship, not a religion.” One of those cliches—old, false, and without introspection. The result? An extremely low view of the church, doctrines, and church history.