“Christianity is not a religion.” If I’ve heard it once, I’ve heard it a thousand times. It breaks my heart every time.
Only someone who doesn’t understand what religion is could even consider making a statement like this. Religion is the form of a relationship with a deity. All relationships have form, and we ignore the form to the peril of the relationship.
A marriage, for example, is unmistakably a relationship, but it’s very existence depends upon the form, or the “rules” that comprise and preserve the relationship. Imagine saying, “Honey, I love you, but I just don’t understand why you want me to sleep at home all the time. I can’t handle all these rules, I just want a relationship with you.” Or how about this, “Honey, I know we’re married, and I love you so much, but I want to go out to eat with other women at least twice a week.” How long do you think that relationship is going to last?
What so many who proclaim this platitude actually mean is that Christianity is not an exercise of “legalism.” True enough; emphatically so. As Dallas Willard was fond of saying, however, “Grace is opposed to earning, not to effort.”
The existence of your relationship with God depended entirely upon His effort, but the maintenance of that relationship in healthy fashion very much involves you coming into alignment with God’s views on reality and the reshaping of your beliefs and behavior with what He defines as good, beautiful and true. This process of transformation involves intangible realities like “relationship,” but all intangibles are displayed, evaluated, and nurtured via the tangible.
The internal (relationship) and the external (religion) are never supposed to be divorced. Instead, God designed them to be concomitant. The word “religion” comes from the same Latin root from which we get our word “ligament.” Ligare means “to bind,” just as a ligament binds muscle to bone.
…all intangibles are displayed, evaluated, and nurtured via the tangible.
Imagine beginning a relationship without an external (tangible) form. It’s impossible. Whether it begins with a question (speech act), “Will you be my girlfriend?” or a commitment of time together, it is impossible for the relationship to begin or persist without the exercise or avoidance of external acts.
Want to nurture that fledgling relationship? You bind the other to you via externals like writing letters, making phone calls, going places together, and also by externals you carefully avoid: writing letters to different girls, spending time with other girls, etc.
All relationships have and require form. We call the external display/exercise of relationship with a deity: religion. The conduct of a religion simultaneously displays and deepens our allegiance (bond) to that deity. Christianity is very much a religion; in fact, it is the only true religion. It is a religion we delight in because of the existence of our relationship with God, which He provided by grace through faith, so that, we might walk in the good works He prepared beforehand for us to do (Eph 2:8-10).
Final note: in a contemporary culture that suffers from a glut of denominations who first hollowed out their external structures from any internal significance and then crumbled all together so that only the shell of a former profound worship exists, it is easy to disdain the externals and proclaim the exclusive necessity of the internal realities. This is precisely what North American evangelicalism has done. The problem is that hollow, legalistic externals and incoherent, unsupported internal emphases are both equally destructive. We are presently reaping the whirlwind of both errors.
Is it not most irrational to accuse religion because of the scandalous ways of some individuals, while simultaneously completely slighting and overlooking the holy and heavenly walk of many others? Are all who profess godliness loose and careless in their lives? No, some are an ornament to their faith and the glory of Christ. Why must the innocent be condemned with the guilty? Would you condemn the eleven disciples on the actions of one Judas?
John Flavel (d. 1691), ed. Jason Roth. Keeping the Heart: In Modern English (p. 11).