Christianity isn’t a religion; it’s a relationship.

The first time I heard that line was my freshman year in college. Along with several friends from my Bible study, I was attending a presentation by a survivor of 9/11. In the course of his talk, the man used this statement to aid his gospel message. For the first and last time, it seemed fresh and inventive.

Five years later, I’ve heard this line over and over again. It’s become something of a cliché. So is it true? Is it wrong to call Christianity a religion? How do we approach this issue with discernment?

Before we can analyze this statement, we first need to hold a little background discussion on language. My seminary instructors are fond of saying that the biblical languages communicate on the level of sentences, paragraphs, and discourses. The same is true for the English language as well. While individual words don’t mean whatever we want (“dog” never means “cat”), they do have a semantic range—a single word can have a range of meanings. For example, the word range that I just used has a huge variety of meanings, ranging from “the area of variation between upper and lower limits on a particular scale” to “the distance within which a person can see or hear” to “a line or series of mountains or hills” to “a large area of open land for grazing or hunting” and so forth. How do we know what it means in a sentence? The answer, of course, is context. I’m sure you had no doubt what I meant when I used it above. That’s because the paragraph with which I surrounded the word revealed which meaning I was using (namely, “the area or extent covered by or included in something”). So when we see the statement, “Christianity isn’t a religion; it’s a relationship,” we need to have some context to know what the words mean. This is because religion and relationship can have a whole host of possible meanings and implications.

If by religion we mean a system of external rules, regulations, and traditions that distract us from following God with all of our hearts, then of course, Christianity is not a religion in that sense. As Pastor Whipple has pointed out in his last two sermons, we have to do more than “cleanse the outside of the cup and the dish” (Luke 11:39). We need to address the issues of the heart.

If by relationship we mean friendship and communion with God, then of course, Christianity requires relationship. Jesus called his disciples his “friends” (John 15:15).

However, the devil loves to take a phrase that is true in a limited context and then twist it and distort it so that it leads people astray. Our desire for a bumper sticker slogan to describe our faith is a dangerous lust. We may extend this line to applications where it’s not true.

Let’s just face it: Christianity is a religion, broadly defined. It is “the belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power, esp. a personal God or gods”; it is “a particular system of faith and worship.” The Bible refers to biblical religion as “pure and undefiled” in James 1:27.

In addition, it is not merely Christians who have a relationship (broadly defined) with God. Unbelievers do, too—they are His enemies. Romans 5:10 brings out this contrast: “For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life.” We used to be enemies before we were reconciled to God. Now, we are His friends. Both are relationships.

In addition, there are some dangers to this cliché. Summarizing Christianity as simply a relationship might lead us to neglect important perspectives on our faith. Christianity is also a worldview; if all we see is a relationship, then we may simply hold to our old, unhealthy patterns of thinking, sprinkle them with a few new beliefs, and add God as the cherry on top. Christianity is a lifestyle; it demands a changed life. Christianity is a community; we cannot be “Lone Ranger Christians.” Christianity requires us to take part in sacraments—baptism and the Lord’s Supper—that we would associate more with the word religion than the word relationship. Yet these are commanded by Christ. Most people my age don’t care much for these sacraments—they show, by their failure to keep them, that they don’t see these practices as important. The sacraments don’t fit into their limited perspective of the Christian faith. So I believe that the word relationship does not require enough of us; Christianity is an all-consuming quest to glorify the God of the Bible.

So what are your thoughts? Am I making a mountain out of a molehill? Am I not going far enough? Am I an idiot?

On second thought, don’t answer that last one.

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