Christianity, Religion or Relationship?

Among many Christians there is a saying that “Christianity is a relationship, not a religion.” Perhaps, more than anything else, this statement sums up the Evangelical belief in the necessity of a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. I do not deny the necessity of this relationship, but I highly doubt that any true Christian would deny this, though perhaps such belief is not carried to the extent of current evangelicals. However, the saying denies a large part of the Christian faith. Christianity is not just a relationship but rather is its both relationship and religion, there cannot be one without the other.

What is religion? This is the fundamental question of statements proclaiming that Christianity is not religion. Evangelicals generally mean this to mean that since salvation is not of works, but of faith alone, there is no more need for works (which are associated with the word religion)[1]. This is found in such statements as “Religion is man’s attempt to reach God/Christianity is God’s attempt to reach man/Therefore, Christianity is not a religion” where the implication is that religion is founded on works and forms detriment to the faith of a Christian. In a sense I will not deny this interpretation of the word religion [2]. Yes religion is works, in a sense, but that does not make it inherently bad or evil.

I see the Christian life as having two parts: one private, the other public. The relationship forms the private part (a part so surely expounded upon in the visceral writings found in Psalms) and religion forms the public. This meaning that there is but one faith in found in the duality of the relationship and religion, and while in duality are united. This is why Christianity is both religion and relationship.

The relationship, the personal part, is the foundation of the faith. So while I say that Christianity is in the two parts of religion and relationship, the relationship is what precedes the religion. For, as Paul writes, “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast” [3]. It is this faith that allows the Christian to petition the Father through Christ, the one mediator between God and man. Additionally, as in any relationship, the Christian should truly love and desire to be like Christ, allowing the Holy Spirit to change what was once imperfect and impure to the likeness of perfection found in Christ. This is the importance of the relationship, for without it the Christian him or herself cannot exist and cannot become more like Christ.

The religion, the public part, is the expression of faith. Christianity would not be Christianity without the visible church, which is, in the words of the Westminster Larger Catechism is “a society made up of all such as in all ages and places of the world do profess the true religion.” One of the arguments against Christianity being religion is the etymological argument of “religo” which is a Latin verb meaning “to bind.” Putting aside the fact that etymological arguments tend to be fallacious (see author’s note 2), I have no problem with Christ coming “to bind” [4]. He has indeed bound the Church into one invisible body, “the whole number of the elect, that have been, are, or shall be gathered into one under Christ the head” [5]. And we are indeed bound into the body if we are a member of the elect [6]. What then does this binding entail? It entails works, the same works that those that deny Christianity as a religion want to get away from. No, these works do not save. It is our faith that saves; I do not dispute that. Rather, the very next verse in Ephesians 2 reads “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” [7]. What are these works? These works include serving the community [8], partaking in the ordinances of Christ (baptism and the Eucharist) [9], and coming together in fellowship [10]. This religion, these works, are an essential part of being a Christian.

So these two parts, the personal and public must be united in both thought and deed in order to live a full Christian life. There cannot just be a relationship, for a relationship is private, and between two parties only. Christianity must not only affect self but seek to build the city of God on this earth and in so doing affect the world around the Church. Therefore, what good is a relationship by itself without religion? Faith without works is dead [11]. Similarly, what good is works without faith, for it is faith that saves. The relationship brings each of us into communion under the one invisible church, while religion is what allows us to bind to each other in fellowship, and reach out to the world in love proclaiming the truth of the Gospel. There is no dichotomy, relationship and religion, are by necessity, two sides of the same coin, the coin that is Christianity.

Author’s Notes

[1] Some may (perhaps rightfully) call me on producing a strawman argument. However, this was also what I believed before I contemplated this statement and revised my belief.

[2] I will concede to nonbelievers that Christianity is a religion according to the normal accepted definition of the word as the belief in gods or an organized system of belief. It is not my intention to argue against religion as such. Christians that use this parochial (in both senses of the word) definition of religion is much like (uninformed) Christians and scientists arguing over the word ‘theory’ as a refutation of evolution. Two different dictionaries for the same word lead to misunderstanding. The word has many more meanings than are normally used by Christians or that are denoted by its etymology.

[3] Ephesians 2:8-9, ESV

[4] I realize this is some sort of equivocation, going from an etymological argument which I somewhat refuted in note 2 but I wanted to use it to lead into my next point in the same sense of the etymology.

[5] Westminster Larger Catechism — do read the Westminster confession of faith sometime; it is a wonderful exposition of what many protestants believe replete with the scriptural support for it.

[6] John 10:28

[7] Ephesians 2:20

[8] James 1:27

[9] Matthew 28:19, I Corinthians 11:22-23

[10] 1 Corinthians 12:27

[11] James 2:17

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