How is genuine Christianity best described; as a religion or a relationship? The phrase 'it's not a religion, it's a relationship' is very popular today; often used as a response to the dead religious formalism that is found in many churches, instead placing an emphasis on the personal nature of saving faith in Jesus Christ. Christianity is not simply a matter of religious observance and participation in certain sacraments, but rather it is a living faith which extends beyond these outward acts and affects every aspect of our lives. It can therefore rightly be described as a relationship. Yet on occasions the rejection of the term 'religion' in favour of 'relationship' is used in ways which are not in keeping with God's Word. Is the description of our faith as a religion to be rejected? How also might the term relationship be abused when describing our faith?
The use of the word religion is not wrong, and indeed it is found in the Word of God on several occasions. James 1:27 says that 'pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, to visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world'. There is then a religion which is described as pure and undefiled in the sight of God, a religion which evidences itself in Christian love and holy living. The word translated religion in this verse (threskeia) is also translated as worship in Colossians 2:18, and true religion can well be described as the worship of God; worship that is an attitude of the heart and not simply an outward act. True religion will be a living faith, and the deadness of much religion today does not negate the suitability of describing biblical Christianity as a religion. It is however true that a person can have religion, yet not have Jesus Christ. The outward acts of religion must be the evidence of an inward reality, and not the sole substance of a person's religion.
It is in response to dead religion that many define their faith primarily as a relationship, and the use of this term is not wrong either. It is through the work of the cross that we have received 'the adoption of sons' and are now 'joint heirs with Christ'. Jesus Christ is a personal saviour, and is that 'friend that sticketh closer than a brother'. There are however occasions when the phrase 'it's a relationship, not a religion' is wrongly used. It is sometimes cited by professed Christians in repose to being challenged over how their lifestyle conforms to the Word of God, or when there is any insistence upon certain moral and theological standards. This is increasingly common in today's climate of easy believism and non-confessional Christianity. Renowned theologian Louis Berkhof is quoted as saying 'Religion is concerned with man's relation to God, and man has no right to determine the nature of this relation'. The relationship which we have with Jesus Christ is based solely on the Word of God; as with any human relationship there are rules and constraints which define it. In the relationship between a husband and wife there are expectations one to another; expectations of conduct, faithfulness and obedience. Where these are not adhered to the relationship will be strained, and may break down altogether. The personal relationship between Christ and the believer is not one where the obligations set down in God's Word can be rejected as 'religion' in favour of some self defined notion of relationship. To be in a saving relationship with Jesus Christ there are certain truths which we must believe, and certain moral standards to which we must adhere. 'It's not a religion it's a relationship' is not an acceptable response when challenged on any issue of faith or practice, nor it is suitable grounds for the rejection of creeds and confessions.
Although Jesus Christ is a personal saviour to each of us, the uniqueness of our relationship with Him does not extend to what we are to believe or how we are to conduct ourselves. We do not define the terms of the relationship, but rather God does. What is required of one of God's children is required of all when it concerns what we believe and how we live. In John 14:15 Christ said 'If ye love me, keep my commandments'. It is not legalistic religion, but a true understanding of our relationship with Jesus Christ that causes us to obey his Word. Is true Christianity a religion or a relationship; it is both, a personal, living faith, based on the clear unchangeable truth of God's Word. To attempt to define our faith as a relationship outside the constraints of biblical theology is instead to hold to man-made religion.