It’s a Religion Not a Relationship
I’ve heard it about as long as I can remember. It seems now to appear on Facebook every few days. It is self-evidently true to a huge number of evangelical Christians, as it once was to me. It goes like this: “I don’t have a religion; I have a relationship.” Or: “Christianity is not a religion; it’s a relationship.”
The point seems to be that Christian faith is a living, personal “relationship” with Jesus Christ. It is not a formal, presumably lifeless, religion. Relationship is good; religion is bad. Relationship is experiential; religion is “merely” profession. Relationship saves; religion deceives. Catholics have religion; Protestants have a relationship (though Anglican and Lutheran Protestants, along with some brands of the Reformed, are suspect).
I believe it is true that many evangelicals, including Reformed ones, have some kind of relationship with Jesus and very little religion. But I do not believe that Christianity is fundamentally a relationship, not a religion. I don’t want to ride a hobby horse (though we all do,) but relationship is “new side” while religion is “old side;” relationship is “new life” while religion is “old life.”
This whole idea of relationship rather than religion ought to give pause to Calvinists. Calvin did not write A Guide to a Personal Relationship with Jesus but The Institutes of the Christian Religion. The Westminster Confession says that “such as profess the true Reformed religion should not marry with infidels, papists, or other idolaters” (XXIV: 3). In the PCA parents vow at baptism to teach their children “the doctrines of our holy religion.”
To my observation experiential “relationship oriented” Christianity is as prone to produce self-deceived Christians as is formal “religion oriented” Christianity. Be that as it may, I think there is more at work with this emphasis relationship than a concern about nominalism, dead orthodoxy, and false professors. I think it lies in the fact that a relationship is free (voluntary, negotiable, flexible) while a religion is binding (religare – "to bind").
Religion does not ask you what worship you find meaningful and satisfying. It imposes a ritual, a liturgy on you and says, “Worship in this way.”
Religion does not ask you what beliefs mean most to you or warm your heart. It gives you a body, a system, of doctrine and says, "Believe it.”
Religion does not ask you what in your heart you believe is right or how you think Jesus wants you to live. It gives you a set morality, and says, "Live this way – no less, but no more either.”
Religion does not tell you that you are your own priest who can approach God in whatever way turns you on. Religion announces Jesus is your Priest who gives you access God in a prescribed way through means of grace, which he has entrusted to the (institutional) church, by clergy he has appointed to administer them, and says, "This is how to find and experience God.”
“Gimme that that old time – confessional, liturgical, ecclesiastical, mediated – religion!” It was good for Paul and Silas. Luther and Calvin, too. And, it’s good enough for me. You, too.