It’s Not a Relationship, It’s a Religion

We were driving down I-29 and Erin was explaining to me why she didn’t consider herself a Christian anymore.

“It’s the whole ‘it’s not a religion, it’s a relationship’ thing.” she said. “I just couldn’t take it anymore.”

Some background about Erin. She was one of those youth group girls. Youth pastors love them—they’re a sign that they’re doing something right. She went on mission trips. Led Bible Studies. Summer camp counselor. Christian fish tattoo. You know the type. Maybe you are the type. Anyhow.

I was confused. “The relationship bit is a pretty big selling point for Christianity,” and I couldn’t have put that worse.

“That’s just the point!” she shouted, slamming the dashboard with her palms. “It’s a slogan! It’s no different then ‘Have it Your Way!’”

“Except it’s true,” I said.

“Maybe,” she conceded. “But nobody lived that way at church. You come for the relationship, and then everyone starts telling you what to do. They all talk like every other religion was all rules except for their own, but when you look at it, it’s all rules too. And I was sick of it.”

And so we drove across the Midwest, Erin and I. And I thought about this poor girl, who’d fallen prey to a slogan that is well-intentioned but, perhaps, conveys something we know isn’t quite true.

I feel the slogan is something we’ve cooked up help ease down the medicine of faith. We use it to excuse ourselves from the conversation of world religion—it’s not enough for Christianity to be more true than other religions, it must also be beyond comparison. We use it to convince the skeptics that there’s really nothing to it—there’s no mystery here, no difficulties or complexities. Just a relationship. And we’ve insisted on it so earnestly an outsider might wonder if we weren’t protesting a bit much. 

Christianity is a relationship. But. It is also a fiery baptism. It is also a taking up a cross and following, selling it all for the pearl of great price. It is a lavish banquet, to which the whore and the leper may well get a grander invitation than your own. And, all of these aspects spin together to describe the fumbling give-and-take between us and the Creator. “Religion” might be the best word to describe it after all. The Bible itself is not shy about referring to it as such. A few times, actually, but notably in James 1:27 (NIV).

“Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.”

That last phrase is one I find interesting: polluted by the world. It may not be a stretch to say that the whole “it’s not a religion” phrase has, in places, mutated into just that: worldly pollution. In our desperate and wholesome desire to love the world, we may have borrowed a few of its less attractive practices.

Among them, fine print.

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29 Comments

  1. That’s really interesting. I’ve never thought about it as a slogan but can totally see the danger there. Definitely has me thinking. Love that last line as well.

    Also, can you email me your mailing address? I know it’s just changed again but I wanted to get in quick before you move again!

    PS: I noticed a “then” instead of “than” when she mentions about the slogan bit.

    Reply
  2. At first glance, your avatar looks like you’re shooting a sweet hook shot.

    Reply
  3. Nicole Blom

     /  June 10, 2013

    Interesting, thought-provoking topic. Thanks for sharing.

    Reply
  4. Jessica Rupp

     /  June 10, 2013

    Love this, Tyler. You made some really great point. Thanks for sharing.

    Reply
  5. Couldn’t it be argued, though, that authentic (and worthwhile) relationships are by their very nature really, really hard? (Because they require that whole grain-of-wheat model: death to self for the good of the other?) In which case, the real problem with the slogan you describe is that we don’t understand relationship. That, and “relationship” between creature and Creator is, as you say, automatically religion… Whew, this comment is already a lot longer than I meant. Final takeaway: if you can wear it on a wristband, it probably doesn’t do an effective job of describing Christianity. 😉

    Reply
    • It could definitely be argued, and you may well be more right than I am. I think my big problem with the “relationship not a religion” idea is that it implies no mystery. God certainly is a Friend, but He’s one in whom there is so much we don’t know and can’t know. At least, for the time being. That, to me, implies something more than a relationship.

      However, you are correct in saying the problem may be more a flawed understanding of just how big a relationship can be. I had not thought of it that way.

      Reply
  6. “Except it’s true,” you said.

    That’s the problem. Except it’s true says the Christian. Except it’s true says the Muslim. Except it’s true says the Jew. And everyone else? They’re wrong. Because we’re right.

    Because it’s “true”.

    “It’s not a religion, it’s a relationship” is worse than just a cheap slogan. It’s a lie. It’s not odd that people get disillusioned with stuff like that over time. What is the definition of religion?

    Religion: Noun
    The belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power, esp. a personal God or gods.

    Was a dictionary out of reach during that slogan meeting? Christianity is a religion. A relationship implies interaction. You might as well say that you have a relationship with a brick wall, except that in the case of the brick wall you can easily show other people that it exists.

    No true skeptic is going to be impressed by your slogans and parroting. You people tattoo yourselves despite Biblical prohibition. Almost none of you have read the whole Bible and even fewer have read the whole Bible before becoming Christians. You treat your Bible like an end user license agreement. “I have read the terms and conditions and I agree.” Too many words, skip to the end, click accept. Beyond ridiculous and too pathetic for words.

    It’s 2013. Christianity enjoyed centuries of power, wealth and influence and despite all this failed in every respect. Now people like Erin have gotten a bit smarter and have started to smell the foul reality buried under years of propaganda and brainwashing. Christianity is dying. Wake up already and smell the reality.

    Reply
    • I respect your opinions and even agree with most of them (I do not believe Christianity failed in every respect, but I know what you mean by that and I do agree that its dwindling cultural affluence is an overall positive development for both society and religion.) I only ask that you not refer to me as pathetic or ridiculous, because that sort of ad hominem argument is childish and dumb and has derailed too many conversations between secularists and religion. However, your assessment of how many Christians are actually well-versed in their Bible is dead-on and very sad. If Christians were to take their Bibles seriously, it would certainly shake up the nature of Christianity in America, though in what way it’s hard to say.

      Reply
      • I’m sorry I didn’t mean to refer to you personally as ridiculous or pathetic, I think I phrased myself badly. When I said “you” I meant “you” as in Christians in general. What I meant to say was the practice of making a decision of extreme loyalty and faith based on a book that is often worshipped but hardly ever studied is a ridiculous and pathetic way of doing things(Also dangerous). I would know after all, I spent ten years of my life as a Christian and during that time I accepted a lot of things, both religious and otherwise that I just thought I was supposed to accept as true. It ended badly for me.

        What would happen if more Christians tackled the Bible like I did? For me it ended up in deconversion. I think everyone should read all of the Bible. No more pastors preaching or youth group Bible studies. I never learned anything from the Bible during those times. They skipped over anything objectionable. Any chapter or verse that would have rocked the boat was never talked about or ignored.

      • I think we’re entirely in agreement. I was speaking with a Christian musician recently whose music has been banned in many Christian retailers. The reasons they gave for not putting his albums on the shelves was because some of the lyrics they found offensive, words like “whore” and “damned.” Of course, these lyrics were pulled directly from the Bible, copies of which stockpile their shelves by the thousands. But when it was pulled out of the Bible and put into the context of a song, it suddenly sounded offensive and crass to them. They didn’t know these were Bible verses. They just thought a Christian singer had decided to suddenly go rogue. That’s very telling and very sad.

  7. I tend to consider religion, as Harvey Cox puts it, ’empty rules and meaningless rituals’, humanity’s attempt to work towards God- an attempt that often falls short or gets in the way of what’s really important. Let’s not forget, Jesus’ harshest words were directed toward the religious leaders of his day. Would you consider Jesus to be religious? I wouldn’t. It was religion that resisted him and murdered him. Through history we see people doing incredibly un-Christian things out of a sense of ‘Christian’ religious duty or devotion. We certainly aren’t encouraged anywhere in the teaching of Jesus to slaughter pagans and convert them with the sword. Unfortunately, whenever Christians get together, religion tends to seep in–where rules and outside behaviors seem paramount. That’s something we need to fight against. It grieves God when we suggest that people need to meet some kind of holiness standard to be accepted in the church, that we need to clean ourselves up before he’ll accept us. I think God is calling us back to the way things were in Eden–there were no religious hoops to jump through, it was simply a life of knowing and loving God, obeying him out of a sense of loving gratitude and worship. Religion simply didn’t exist, there was only relationship. I highly recommend the book ‘The End of Religion’ by Bruxy Cavey for an indepth look at the topic. He nails it.

    Reply
    • Ben, I see your point, but I think that’s what I’m trying to steer away from. Religion, as the Bible defines it, is a beautiful and vital thing. The fact that it has been misused and abused by Christians does not change the definition of “religion,” anymore than the fact that relationships have been misused and abused changes the definition of “relationship.” The word “religion” needn’t imply a list of empty rituals or hypocritical judgements—and certainly not an ethical standard for acceptance. All the word itself refers to is how we interact with the Divine and, in that sense, I think Jesus was very religious. He went on pilgrimages, followed rabbinic law, and observed rigid Jewish feasts and dietary restrictions. His harsh teachings on the religious leaders wasn’t because they were religious. It was because they were hypocrites. I would like to see Christians right to redeem the word “religion” from the negative connotations that they themselves have helped burden it with and, in so doing, learn a bit about the weight of its glory, so to speak.

      Reply
    • Do not think that I came to bring peace on Earth; I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I came to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and a man’s enemies will be the members of his household. He who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me; and he who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me. And he who does not take his cross and follow Me is not worthy of Me. He who has found his life will lose it, and he who has lost his life for My sake will find it. -Jesus (Matthew 10:34–39)

      That’s a call to war if I ever heard one.

      Reply
  8. Kirk Conger

     /  June 10, 2013

    Great, challenging thoughts, Tyler. Thank you.

    Reply
  9. Gabe Gauthier

     /  June 11, 2013

    This was well written. Even as a person with separate views, I think I agree with this post, by and large.

    I’m also 99.9% sure you are my friend Emily’s brother.

    Anywho. I have a thought, if you don’t mind input from the non-target audience. As an atheistic secular humanist… and even as an ex-Evangelical… I’ve always had trouble buying the aforementioned slogan.

    To me, the line always seemed like a cop out. It’s like saying, “My cat, Snuffkin, isn’t a pet… she’s a member of the family.”
    This assertion sounds unusual for a reason. All though she may indeed be a member of the family, she is also, by every common or standard definition, a house pet.

    In my experience, a lot of Christians who utilize this “slogan” seem to do so because they dislike the connotations that come attached to the word “religion.” This never made sense to me. I say, if you’re going to define yourself by a set of religious beliefs or dogmas, don’t be afraid to call yourself religious or dogmatic.
    If you’re going to be a person of faith, take passion in your faith and act upon your convictions. I’m not sure if it’s totally applicable (the last time I brushed up on the Bible was a year or so ago), but it reminds me of those lukewarm Christians that John of Patmos talks about in Revelations.

    Thoughts?

    Reply
    • I have a sister named Emily, so your speculation is looking pretty good. She is a delight and anyone who gets to be friends with her is lucky, in my book.

      I agree entirely with your assertion. I would say that the misguided actions of past Christians have given the words “dogma” and “religion” a bad name and, now, Christians are eager to abandon those words instead of owning up to their own mishandling of them. (Your Snuffkin analogy is perfect and I wish I’d thought of it.)

      You might be right in saying that this is a case of Christians being “lukewarm,” but I do think it’s largely well-intentioned. “Religion” makes people think of judgmental and hypocritical doomsayers, and many Christians today are eager to shake free of those labels. I suppose I’d rather we take responsibility for those labels and seek to make amends instead of just trying to wipe the slate clean and pretend we were never associated with religion in the first place.

      Reply
      • Gabe Gauthier

         /  June 11, 2013

        She is absolutely a delight. She and I helped each other through some tough times. I’m lucky to know her. (She speaks highly of you and says we would “hit it off”.)

        Thank you! You absolutely have my permission to use it.
        As far as the phrase itself… If I were to edit it, it would read “It’s not just a religion, it’s a relationship.”

        Absolutely. As far as the negative implications go, sweeping its connotations under the rug is the wrong decision. Owning the history of the faith is definitely the way to go. An unfortunate fact of religion is that it *has* caused so many injustices in the world. If I were a religious person concerned with the image of my belief system, I would make it known that [fill in an atrocity] was the result of going about religion in a faulty way, rather than just saying “religion” is faulty and my “special relationship” was exempt. I would say to my faithless or alternatively-faithed friends “all these problems are true… and we now aim to make it a way of the past.” I don’t think religion needs a re-branding so much as it needs to be restructured.

        Yeah, labels do that in general. :/ It’s why some people see Christians as narrowminded regressionists, Muslims as terrorists, Atheists as moral-less theist-haters, and Buddhists as fat, bald guys. The only way to change perception is to change the movement. I feel like the best way to go about transforming the Christian religion is by being Christ-like and by questioning the institutionalization of truth.

  10. Jonny

     /  June 11, 2013

    It’s important to study Paul’s response to the Philippians as some elders began to encourage the church to practice worldly law. Philippians 3 is great because it’s a subjective look on the relationship with God from Paul’s perspective. ‘If anyone has any earthly claim, I have more.’ He was the ideal rule follower, tradition keeper, highly esteemed amongst his religious culture. Yet he counts it all for nothing compared to the act of grace from Jesus. All earthly practices, rules, and worldly gains that the Philippians are encouraged to do are rendered nothing compared to knowing God, and, as such, Paul’s motivation, his own super-objective, is to know Jesus more and to grasp hold of the truth of His atonement more and more.

    As Christians we declare our grasp of the truth of Jesus’ sacrifice and resurrection to give us new life. Therefore we have to often declare that what happened 2000 years ago is absolute truth even today, and I think the pursuit of believing and understanding the full truth of propitiation and atonement is significant to knowing God and His motivation to save the world. Often I have found I can unconsciously lose a grasp on believing the gospel to be true through earthly circumstances, and as such my motivation as a Christian is to either live to impress those around me or to live to be appreciated by those around me. Jesus’ sacrifice rendered us free from the yoke of the law that was in place, and as such Jesus’ commandments were simple: ‘Love God with your heart and love your neighbour.’ I pray that I can always look upon others with the eyes of God, with that heart of His that seeks the lost, heals the sick, frees the captives, that is able to look upon sinful men and women and rather than pass judgment, offers love and healing. In order to do that my nature needs to coincide with God’s nature. That’s what Paul seeks to do in Philippians 3 when he states his motivation is to know Jesus more. I think to avoid the worldly, slogan, even business-like nature we can often conform to, we need to understand the workings of God and His heavenly plan for the lost rather than esteem ourselves with earthly concepts of merit or gain.

    Reply
  11. There seems to be something of the double miracle at work here. The ‘relationship with God’ is a genuine relationship with a supernatural being, and if that were not enough, it is supernaturally transformed into looking exactly like being an adherent of any other religion (which obviously could not be described as a relationship because other religions are false).

    Similarly, Roman Catholicism maintains the double miracle of an actual change of material in the Eucharist on the one hand and the outward elements remaining the same on the other. Elsewhere, Christians are not only new creations, but their behaviour is miraculously altered back so that it is no better than that of other people in comparison.

    This is to be expected in a religion where many claims are made for divine intervention (e.g. recovery from illness) and the overall result is the same as could be expected for those of no faith who make no intercession to any kind of deity.

    Of course, it could also be the case that ‘Christianity is a relationship with God’ is a meaningless phrase, along with ‘God is love’ and just about any sentence containing the words ‘will pour out his blessings’.

    Reply
  12. `Christianity is a relationship. But. It is also a fiery baptism. It is also a taking up a cross and following, selling it all for the pearl of great price. It is a lavish banquet, to which the whore and the leper may well get a grander invitation than your own.´- wonderful! Definitely food for thought.

    Reply
  13. You express wonderfully what I always try to communicate to people about the fallacy of this catchphrase. I shared this post on Facebook a week ago and tonight I also shared Gabe’s wonderful analogy above.

    I implore people to read the Oxford English Dictionary etymology and definitions of the word “religion” sometime, and then ask if Christians should either discard the word as ruined by connotations of hypocrisy and legalism, or redeem it and reinvigorate its roots–religion binds us to God in belief, in practice, and in name.

    Because we worship an Incarnate God in the Person of Christ, we can be bound to God by religion in a relationship. That is what sets Christianity apart from all other religions. It is not an absence of a religious demand for good works, but the presence of “God with us” who calls us to those works.

    Thank you for so thoughtfully starting this important conversation.

    Reply
  14. Tyler, I used this on my site and credited you. I would love to talk with your friend because she seems like someone who actually “gets it.”

    Reply
  15. My spouse and I stumbled over here from a different web address and thought I might
    check things out. I like what I see so now i am following you.
    Look forward to going over your web page again.

    Reply

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