I’ve offered my thoughts on this before, but I’m happy to see I’m not alone. From William Boekestein:
“Christianity isn’t a religion it’s a _______________.” If you need help filling in the blank, the missing word has twelve letters, starts with “r,” and has become modern policy speak for describing the New Testament faith. And, yes, Christianity is about relationship. But it’s the contemporary church’s reluctance to call it a religion that ought to be disconcerting.
This kind of thinking is ubiquitous today. Darrel Evans’ popular worship song “Field of Grace” speaks longingly of heaven as the place “where religion finally dies.” Jefferson Bethke’s 2012 viral video called “Why I Hate Religion but Love Jesus,” declares that “Jesus and religion are on opposite spectrums. See, one is the work of God, one is a manmade invention. One is the cure, the other the infection…Religion is like spraying perfume on a casket…Jesus hated religion.” With less colloquialism but similar confidence, in his excellent series “Gospel in Life,” Tim Keller identifies “religion” as self-righteous moralism.
Perhaps Christians have eschewed religion in favor of relationship in response to strong atheistic condemnation of religion. And surely people have been hurt by misapplications of Christianity. Yet, perhaps counter-intuitively, “Religion vs. Relationship” might be one of the worst messages we could communicate today. Perhaps most obviously, it suggests that we must settle either for a religion-less relationship with Christ, or a Christ-less relationship with religion.
In an effort to reevaluate the issue, here are four propositions (with a little help from sixteenth century reformer Ulrich Zwingli).
1. Religion Can be Good or Bad
Religion is a neutral term for an “institutionalized system of religious attitudes, beliefs, and practices.” Beyond reasonable doubt Christianity is a system, the ideals of which are institutionalized by the standard of Scripture and by the organization of the church.
In his letter to pilgrim believers, James reflects on two faiths, from which incurably religious people (Acts 17:22) must choose (1:26-27). “Useless” religion flounders from a desperately deceived heart. “Pure and undefiled” religion flourishes through rituals of kindness, and in a rigorous pursuit of holiness.
Zwingli argued (in his 1525 Commentary on True and False Religion) that religious disagreement is between those who think “it not worth while to have God in their knowledge (Rom. 1:28), and…those who do.” True religion is a heart-relationship with God which pervasively affects Christian piety; “faith, life, laws, worship, [and] sacraments.” By contrast man-made religion ought “more properly to be dubbed ‘hypocrisy, impiety, and superstition.’”
Sadly, moralism sometimes masquerades as true religion. Zwingli compares teaching a man-centered religion with “setting un-cracked nuts before little children.” “Being unable to reach the meat they lick the shell till finally in disgust” they throw it all away. Is it possible that those today who feel fed up with religion have never known a robust Christianity that connects every human experience to the cross? If hirelings are setting un-cracked nuts of moralism before God’s children, the solution is not to dispense with religion but to promote one that is rooted in the gospel.
2. The Bible Combines Religion and Relationship
If religion outlines duties, and relationship is about love, the Bible actually joins the two in strong and simple terms. When Jesus said, “If you love me keep my commandments” (John 14:15), he’s calling those in relationship with him to join him in being religious! As Kevin DeYoung has pointed out, “If religion is characterized by doctrine, commands, rituals, and structure, then Jesus is not your go-to guy for hating religion.”
Zwingli was convinced that “religion took its rise when God called runaway man” back to his good grace. Religion begins with the God who has revealed himself to man as creator (Rom. 1:19), and to believers as heavenly Father. Our great hope is to know and be known by God and to rest in his perfect providence. Says Zwingli, God has “this one thing in view, that He may belong to those things which were made by Him.” To know God religiously, as the self-created one who gives being to everything else (Heb. 11:6), is to structure our lives around him.
3. Relationships Need a Religious Structure