Christianity Ceased Being A Religion... When Exactly?

We've all heard it before, probably hundreds of times:

"Christianity isn't a religion, it's a relationship!"

OK, honest confession time: that phrase bugs the snot out of me, and I cringe every time I hear it.

Now give me a minute before you chew me out or write me off! Surely many of us have said this ourselves, and you may feel there's an important truth behind those words. So let me say right off that there is. I get that. And I agree with it.

What many Christians are trying to say when they make that statement is that the Gospel of Jesus is not a man-made attempt to earn God's favor by being sufficiently good. And they're saying that when we try to be good enough for God, what we end up with is cold and lifeless legalism, which is not Christianity. And they're right. (image source)

But I don't think substituting "relationship" for "religion" is the right way to communicate that truth. Here's why.

Welcome to Me-World
We're living in the Postmodern era. You know, that worldview that insists that no one has access to truth as it really is, but instead all we have is our own perspective. Since no one can know real truth, all I can know is "truth for me," or what seems to be true from my perspective.

So to many people nowadays, life is a highly individual, customized journey of discovering what will be true and meaningful to them, and them alone. It is a way of seeing life that begins and ends in one place: me.

Relationships in Me-World
And what happens to relationships when life is seen this way? They exist for, well... me! We want the freedom to enter and exit relationships as we see fit. We want to move from relationship to relationship as freely as we move from job to job. That's why increasingly we're just skipping that whole get married thing altogether. After all, what's the point? We'll be with him or her as long as we both choose to be together.

Relationships in Me-World make fewer and fewer demands on us. For example, I once worked with a never-married 40-something lady who had been living with her boyfriend (she referred to him as her "partner") for several years, and insisted that they were quite happy together. I innocently asked her if they had any plans to get married. Ooops. Wrong question. She snorted (literally) with disdain at the thought of marriage and replied, "Why would we? I don't want the state to be able to tell me what to do." She felt the relationship might become less satisfying at some future point. And if it did she wanted to have the freedom to just grab her stuff and move out without having to go through all the legal hassles of a divorce. (image source)

And The Gospel?
Such is the reality of relationships in our beloved Me-World. So what happens when an innocent, well-meaning Christian, who has been involved in church and studying the Bible for years, proudly and emphatically claims that Christianity is really just a relationship? Mr. Christian is probably trying to say that it's not a legalistic, works-driven way to earn favor with God.

But is that what the citizens of Me-World actually hear? Or do they hear an entirely different message? "Christianity isn't a religion..." Well, to Mr. Me-World "religion" usually means someone like God (or in reality the church) telling me what to do and how to live my life. Me-World is allergic to anyone telling us what to do!

But "relationship"? Ah, we know what relationships are! They're those voluntary associations we enter into with others for mutual benefit and pleasure, but over which we still exert final control. And Mr. Christian is telling me that Christianity really just a "relationship" with Jesus? Fantastic! I'll go to church or whatever and Jesus will love me? Sounds great. But let's not have any of this talk of theology, sin, atonement, hell, election, sovereignty, wrath, or anything else that makes it sound like God actually rules the roost here. That's not a relationship.

God Most High
Well, it's not according to Mr. Me-World. But Christianity is exactly that according to the Bible. God is the Lord of Hosts, the Maker of heaven and earth before whom mountains tremble, and in who's presence the prophet Isaiah fell down as one dead and cried out "Woe is me, for I am a man of unclean lips!" (Isaiah 6:5) He is the Ancient of Days, the Lion of Judah who calls all men to repent and demands from his people that we be holy for he is holy.

We are not in a relationship with this God because we chose to enter into a non-binding contract for mutual benefit. We know God only because he broke into human history and revealed himself to us, and has summoned us to be his people by his means, on his terms, and for his glory. The God who by his supremacy and authority commands all men everywhere to repent is the God who loves his people fiercely as a husband. (image source)

Mixed Messages
Do you now see why I cringe? This is Biblical Christianity! But none of this comes across to the ears of Me-World when we use the term "relationship." And when we reject the term "religion" we think we're rejecting dead legalism, but Mr. Me-World probably hears us rejecting any notion of God as One who is above, supreme, over us, and who places legitimate demands on our lives.

So my plea to my fellow believers is, stop distancing the Christian faith from the idea of "religion." If the Bible doesn't (James 1:26-27) then neither should we. If we continue to do so, we'll likely distance Christianity from the very sovereignty and transcendence of God, and his claims to define what is true and authoritative for us.

A New Label?
Now, when I said all this at a recent staff meeting one of my colleagues rightly pointed out that the word "religion" is a loaded term for so many both inside the church and outside, that we shouldn't try to rehabilitate it. I actually agree with her, and I'm not suggesting we use the word "religion." Just that we stop disparaging it.

Perhaps we need a new term. One that adequately captures and honors the "other-ness" of God, that communicates his status as the High King of Heaven, and the one to whom all glory is due. I do not know what this term should be, and I'm accepting suggestions. I'm advertising for a new label! Suggestions are welcome in the comment section. :)

But please, brothers and sisters, let us be sure that the Messiah we are putting before the citizens of Me-World is the Messiah of the Bible: the one sent from the God of the universe, who commands our allegiance, our lives, and our destiny. (image source)

The one who came to earth to die for us, motivated by his unstoppable love, and who now sets the terms by which we rebels must surrender and devote ourselves utterly, completely, and irrevocably to his glorious self.

Lead me to the cross where Your blood poured out,
Bring me to my knees, Lord I lay me down
Rid me of myself, I belong to You,
Lead me, lead me to the cross.


I'm captured by Your holy calling
Set me apart, I know You're drawing me to Yourself
Lead me Lord I pray

Take me, mold me, use me, fill me
I give my life to the Potter's hand
Hold me, guide me, lead me, walk beside me
I give my life to the Potter's hand


Judith Guerino said...

While I have no clever new term for religion, especially one that could adequately express your idea of "'other-ness' of God," I do want to say that I find much comfort in your words this morning, particularly: "We know God only because he broke into human history and revealed himself to us, and has summoned us to be his people by his means, on his terms, and for his glory."

The problem with my own Me-World lies deep within, well, me. To dethrone the self, to allow a reset of the default from my own Gollum-like self treasure is to be set free, initially in rebirth and thereafter in a life-long need of refining. But oh how the world of Me will stupidly fight thinking it prefers the empty worship at the feet of that unholy trinity of Me, Myself, and I.

My comment may be a little (or a lot!) off point from your main purpose in writing today but wanted you to know I found your thoughts helpful.

Matt Guerino said...

No, it's actually right on point! And insightful, exposing the reality of the human condition that we all experience. The "dethroning" of self has been THE central issue for all of humanity ever since Genesis chapter 3 and the Fall.

And you're exactly on point in noting that our Gollum-like desire to hold onto ourselves affects our relationship with Christ in deep ways.

I think the only antidote to that - the only way to actually see self dethroned - is to enthrone Christ. To realize that while he loves me deeply, he is also my God and King.

judith Guerino said...

Amen and amen.

Amy Guerino said...

I personally like "Christianity is a worldview." That often has to be defined and you have done it very well before. It is how we see the world, and for a Christian; we need to see the world as God sees it. He is "out there and beyond" the Me centered way.

I'm wondering if I'm sending mixed messages in my latest blog post. I am going on a Solitary Retreat to enjoy my relationship with God but it is because He has broken into time to reach down and save me. Out of gratitude I want to enjoy and worship Him! This isn't about me but about Him. He is changing some very hard things in my life....perspectives and attitudes that need shifting. I'm in need of his transcendent help. I'm off my heart's throne and He needs to be at the center, otherwise, the changes will NOT take place. I'm incapable of them and am seeking His presence to rely on His strength.

I love you!

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