While my oldest daughter was in Bible School I would receive almost weekly pleas to come replace her professor of this or that (which I must admit, makes ole Dad feel good).
This morning her prof started off a unit on Soteriology by proclaiming that Christianity is a relationship not a religion. My daughter, of course, groaned…as we all should at that inaccurate platitude. But it got me to thinking about why we hear this so commonly in Christian culture.
Religion is the form of one’s relationship with a deity. All relationships have form. Marriage, for example, is the form of the relationship with one’s spouse. We would laugh at someone who said, “I have a relationship with my wife, not a marriage.” So why don’t we laugh when someone says, in equally ridiculous fashion, “Christianity is a relationship not a religion”?
It comes down to two things, I think. First, we forget that religion is a relationship, so the over-correction doesn’t strike us as odd, like it should. Second, we’re misdefining religion as “an attempt to obtain righteousness via works.” But that’s a definition of false religion, not of religion. Granted, “false religion” applies to any religion but Christianity, so it’s an easy misstep to make.
Why is this distinction so important? Well, what’s happening with marriage as we increasingly ignore the requirements of its form(s) should give us a clue. The form of a relationship is what gives that relationship its permanence. It is the practice of a relationship’s forms that distinguish it from different relationships, marks it out as sacred, and enables it to endure. Any relationship without form is fleeting, transient, and limited in its ability to shape or impact us.
The very word religion tells us this. The word comes from ligare, the Latin word from which we get “ligament” and it means to bind; just as ligaments bind muscle to bone, so religion binds us to God. So the next time you hear someone say that Christianity is a relationship not a religion, beg to differ, and explain to them that religion is the very nature of our relationship to God, and without being a religion our relationship to God would falter and wither.