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Religion vs. Relationship?

January 12th, 2012 | Posted by Tim Gallant

There has been a growing trend among evangelicals in recent years to disparage “religion” in favour of “relationship.” Without attempting to parse the motives of all the various folk who are so insistent upon this, I want to give just a little bit of reflection regarding why this approach is unhelpful at best, and inevitably, dangerous.

Many people say that by “religion,” what is really meant is legalism or moralism. And since those things are bad, nobody should object.

But we must object. Not only does this logic exclude the basic meaning of the term religion, it forces us into what ends up being a false dichotomy. Under the religion versus relationship banner, it is not only legalism and moralism that get pushed out. All sorts of other things go with it. If what matters is relationship rather than religion, the inevitable connotation is that God is not interested in human beings serving Him in any sort of structured way. And then we get suspicious toward things like organization and commandments.

A dictionary definition of religion is “the service and worship of God or the supernatural.” Additional definitions include the thought of a set or system of “attitudes, beliefs, and practices.”

In the Bible, the faithful Christian life is referred to by outsiders as a religion (Acts 25.19), and likewise is identified as such from within (James 1.27).

Christianity is identifiable as a religion, and it is precisely as it is identifiable that its “religion-ness” most comes into its own.

When religion is pitted against relationship, what inevitably happens is that the most identifiable aspects of religion are despised or at least shunted to the sidelines as comparatively unimportant.

Being associated with an identifiable group is a fundamentally religious act. Living one’s life publicly as service and worship to God are religious actions. Holding to any sort of recognizable theology is a religious stance.

Forget about the claim that by “religion,” legalism or moralism is meant. The truth is that whether intended or not, in the one-or-the-other dichotomy, these things just mentioned are in fact the things that invariably become identified as legalism and moralism – if not in the mind of the speaker, then the hearer; if not now, then inevitably, soon.

When this happens, what is left for “faith” is an increasingly (read: shrinkingly) “personal,” private, undefined relationship with “Jesus.” (I put “Jesus” in quotation marks, because apart from a believing community with an identifiable theology, the name could refer to virtually anything.)

Make no mistake. This is not the faith of Scripture. The faith of Scripture is nothing if not religious. Yes, it is relational – and it is a relationship that is structured, that is religious through and through.

The faith of Scripture involves integrated relationship with an organized, recognizable community. This community is not merely a casual, voluntary gathering of cool friends; it is taught and disciplined by certain men recognized to be in authority – men to be obeyed and submitted to, because they keep watch for souls and will give an account for them (Hebrews 13.17).

The faith of Scripture involves an initiatory and obligatory public ritual, baptism, that marks one out as set apart as belonging to the body of Christ (Matthew 28.19; Acts 2.38, 41; Galatians 3.27). Baptism “de-privatizes” the Christian faith – just ask any convert in a Muslim country.

The faith of Scripture involves an ongoing liturgy (form of service) that has another ritual, the Lord’s Supper, at its heart. The Church from Pentecost onward had the core liturgy of apostolic teaching, koinonia (in this context, probably referring to offerings for the needy), the breaking of bread, and prayers (Acts 2.42). Other passages likewise show that the Supper was the stated purpose of the weekly gathering of the Church (Acts 20.7; cf 1 Corinthians 11.18, 20).

As with baptism, the Lord’s Supper teaches us that Jesus did not come to do away with outward ritual. The advance between old covenant and new involves somewhat in the way of liturgical simplification, but to make this a simple movement from outward ritual to inward attachment is a severe misreading of Scripture.

The faith of Scripture is characterized as obedience to the call of the gospel, and repentance (turning) from inappropriate behaviours, attitudes, and beliefs (Acts 2.38; Romans 1.5; 16.26 etc). As is the case in the Old Testament, so also in the New, genuine Christian living is one of serving God and others (Luke 1.74; 4.8; Acts 27.23; Romans 7.6). Jesus calls His disciples friends, dramatically emphasizing the nearness of the relationship – and in the same context, He says that we are His friends if we do what He commands us (John 15.14).

Now, all of this is defined by and founded upon the cross and the resurrection of the God-Man, Jesus Christ. He is the new covenant in Person (Isaiah 42.6; 49.8), and far from standing at odds with “religion,” He stands at war with false religion (which in turn is at war with Him) but comes to renew us in true religion.

These outward dimensions we have mentioned are facets of the personalized relationship to Christ that He Himself brings to us:

The faith-community of the new covenant is united to Christ in baptism (which is union with His death and resurrection, Romans 6.3ff) and the commonality that is shared in the Lord’s Supper is a mutual participation in the body and blood of Christ Himself (1 Corinthians 10.16-17).

And so too the practical Christian living to which believers are called is a faith working through love (Galatians 5.6) which is itself a participation in Christ’s faithfulness working through love all the way to giving Himself up to death for us (Galatians 2.20).

While we should always beware of legalism (any notion that I can procure God’s favour by earning it) and moralism (doing good for any reason not motivated by the gospel), we must equally beware the temptation to present the gospel as a subjective, invisible, and ultimately private and weak and sentimental interaction with Jesus.

The gospel of Jesus is the good news of Jesus as resurrected Lord (Master) – the proclamation of His triumph (Romans 10.9). To Him, all authority in heaven and on earth have been given (Matthew 28.18), and there is no news more public.

Allegiance to Him is the ultimate personal, religious, and political fealty.

2 Responses to “Religion vs. Relationship?”

  1. Marc says:

    Thanks Tim. I’ve got some friends that are caught up in this recent video. I posted comments similar to yours, but in much less detail. I’ll direct them to your article as additional explanation.
    Praying you feel better soon, bro.

  2. Tim Bushong says:

    Excellent thoughts, Tim. I, too, have old friends who are very quick to pick up on these particular cultural trends, and usually without much reflection or thought. I’m sharing!

    In Him-

    Tim Bushong

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