In evangelical circles we have this tired cliché that feels like leftovers from some 1960’s personal evangelism program. We say “Christianity isn’t a religion, it’s a relationship.”
It’s a well meaning saying, and I appreciate its sentiments. But if I can be frank, I believe it’s intellectually shallow, smacks of pseudo-spirituality, and is a dangerous half-truth.
Yes, Christianity in its essence is about the relationship between God and humanity. It’s a relationship that’s not only cosmic in scope, but individually focused. God loves the world, Jesus died for the sins of that world, and that world includes not only you, but me.
There’s ultimately a very individualistic “I and thou” type component to God’s cosmic love. God loves ME. It’s intensely relational. We do in fact have a personal relationship with God. He’s not just some far off cosmic deity who we approach through empty rituals that we habitually perform in some emotionally detached way. We can draw near to God, and walk in intimate fellowship with Him. Our God is ultimately one who shares His heart with us, and calls upon us to do the same.
But that’s not the end of everything.
While you and your personal relationship with Jesus Christ is super important, that relationship doesn’t happen on an island, nor exist in a vacuum. It’s not just you and Jesus for all eternity. Jesus is also in relationship with others outside of you.
And because of that, if we are to be intellectually honest, we must say that Christianity is also a religion.
By “religion” I mean Christianity has a set of beliefs and practices that are shared together in the context of a community, centered around the worship of God. Your personal relationship with Jesus is essential to our faith, but, it’s a shared relationship. And as a result, you don’t get to define that relationship all by yourself, detached from everything outside of your personal relationship with Jesus.
Of course we can be allergic to such a concept. We are Americans who have this atomized highly individualistic sense of self and faith. I think this notion that our faith is just about our personal relationship with Jesus comes from our sense of rugged individualism that exists in our culture.
The faith you and I share in Jesus doesn’t belong to you, or I. It didn’t originate with me and doesn’t end me. We have a faith that was “once and for all handed down to the saints.” (Jude 1:3) This faith is a shared thing that belongs to a living community of people who are called to steward and share that faith with others.
The faith you and I have belongs to others. It’s not something created out of thin air. And as a result, it’s not some play thing that we can possess and tinker with freely on our own.
Our faith is one with thousands of years of history behind it. It belongs to a broader community of those who have received it from those that came before us, and then are given the responsibility of safeguarding it and passing it along to others.
And the willingness people have to freely hijack this faith so they can make it their own personal thing has long been most bothersome to me.
This has taken many forms throughout the years. Whether it was through the early Gnostics who felt the need to add a neo platonic twists to the faith; Roman Catholics who thought they needed to add more bells and smells to the faith; German pietists and other separatists and holiness groups who strived to make personal devotions and ascetic type practices the most important thing; Charismatics who lean heavily on mystical and prophetic type experiences; or even progressives and deconstructionist types who think they can mix their faith with modern secular humanist values, devoid of any connection to that which came before it or any sense of connection to a greater historical movement.
That’s not to say everything that everyone said or did before us was correct and good. But before us were many fathers of faith who started out on a journey of whose path we now follow. And such must be recognized that we stand in continuity with them.
For the second we start to forget that which came before us, and thinking everything is just about me and my personal relationship with Jesus, we open ourselves to taking an off ramp from the road we are on.
While the mercies of God are fresh every morning, our religion is an ancient one. And this must be seen not as a bad thing, or something we need to mask through a tired cliché, but it should be see as a good thing. Christianity is a relationship, but it’s also a religion, and that is something we should openly celebrate. For our personal relationship with Jesus ultimately involves a religion that’s bigger than ourselves.